Thursday, August 17, 2017

Late Summer Dinners

I get so excited every year in late spring/early summer when the weather gets warm enough that we can eat - and therefore grill - outside. I have a whole list of wonderful, light summer dishes that are perfectly suited to the hot weather. On the other side of that coin, I love all the hearty cold-weather foods like casseroles and crock pot meals that are appropriate for fall and winter months.

But mid-August through mid-September are not quite part of either of those weather patterns. Evenings cool off (well, most of the time), but it's not quite cold enough to justify heating up the kitchen. My appetite is ramping up for heartier - but not yet heavy - meals, but I still don't want to heat up the kitchen all evening. Fortunately, I've found a number of "in between" dishes that make wonderful late summer dinners. Here are a few of my favorite late summer menu items!

Caprese Stuffed Portobellos
Heartier than a simple early-summer caprese salad, but still taking advantage of the fresh tomatoes and basil from your garden, this delicious all-in-one dish makes a great filling but not overly heavy meal.
Garlic butter
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 cloves garlic , crushed
  • 1 tablespoon freshly chopped parsley
  • 5-6 large Portobello Mushrooms, stem removed, washed and dried thoroughly with a paper towel
  • 5-6 fresh mozzarella cheese balls, sliced thinly
  • 1 cup grape (or cherry) tomatoes, sliced thinly
  • fresh basil, shredded
Balsamic Glaze (I use ready-made from Costco, or you can use make your own with this recipe):
  • 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons brown sugar (optional)

  1. Preheat oven to grill/broil settings on high heat. Arrange oven shelf in the middle of your oven.
  2. Combine the garlic butter ingredients together in a small saucepan, and melt until garlic is fragrant. Brush the bottoms of each mushroom and place them, buttered side down, on a baking tray.
  3. Flip and brush any remaining garlic over the insides of each cap. Fill each mushroom with the mozzarella slices and tomatoes, and grill/broil until cheese is melted and golden (about 8 minutes).
  4. Top with basil, drizzle with the balsamic glaze and sprinkle with salt to taste.

For the Balsamic Glaze:
  1. If making from scratch, prepare while mushrooms are in the oven. Combine sugar (if using) and vinegar in a small saucepan over high heat and bring to the boil. Reduce heat to low; allow to simmer for 5-8 minutes or until mixture has thickened and reduced to a glaze. (If not using sugar, allow to reduce for 12-15 minutes on low heat).

Summer Corn Chowder
Another dish that takes advantage of the bounty of fresh late summer vegetables, this rich corn chowder is best made with fresh corn on the cob, but you can use frozen in a pinch.

8 ears fresh sweet yellow corn, husked and silks removed and kernels cut from cob
3 Tbsp butter
5 slices bacon , cut into 1/4 to 1/2-inch pieces
1 medium yellow onion chopped (1 1/2 cups)
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 clove garlic, minced
5 cups water
1 lb Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1 bay leaf
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup half and half
1 Tbsp honey
2 - 3 Tbsp chopped fresh chives
Shredded cheddar cheese, for serving (optional)

Melt butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion and bacon and cook, stirring frequently, until onion has softened and just starting to brown around edges, about 8 - 10 minutes. Add in the flour and garlic and cook 1 1/2 minutes. While whisking, slowly pour in 5 cups water. Bring mixture to a boil, stirring constantly, then stir in corn kernels and potatoes. Add in thyme and bay leaf and season with salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a light boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and allow to simmer, stirring occasionally, until potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes.

Remove bay leave then transfer 2 1/2 cups of the chowder to a blender and blend until smooth. Stir the mixture back into the pot then stir in half and half and honey. Sprinkle each serving with chives and optional cheddar.

Grilled Chicken with Lemon Pasta
Chicken on the grill is always good in my book, and lemon adds a lovely summer freshness, which pairs beautifully with the fresh basil in this recipe. I'll happily eat this dish in the height of summer or in the proverbial bleak midwinter.
4 whole Grilled Chicken Breasts, Sliced
1 pound Penne Pasta, Cooked Until Al Dente
1/2 stick Butter
3 whole Lemons, Juiced
3/4 cups Heavy Cream
1/4 cup Half-and-half
1-1/2 cup Grated Parmesan Cheese (or Romano)
Salt And Freshly Ground Black Pepper, To Taste
20 whole Basil Leaves, Chopped

Cook pasta, reserving 1 cup of hot pasta water when you drain. Set pasta aside in a colander.

In the same pot, melt butter over medium heat. Squeeze in the juice of 3 to 4 lemons. Whisk together. Pour in cream and half-and-heat. Whisk until hot. Dump in cheese and whisk until melted. Add salt and pepper. Check consistency, adding some of the hot pasta water to loosen the sauce if needed.

Pour pasta and sauce into a large serving bowl. Sprinkle remaining basil all over the top, then add sliced chicken breasts. Serve immediately.

Bell Pepper Nacho Boats
This "skinny" variation of stuffed peppers tastes plenty rich and flavorful for me. You can use ground beef instead of ground turkey, but I find the mild flavor of the turkey lets the spices really shine through!
1 pound lean ground turkey (or beef)
1 teaspoons chili powder
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
3/4 cup salsa
1 cup grated cheddar cheese
3 bell peppers
Optional toppings: jalapenos, avocado chunks or guacamole, sour cream, green onions

Remove seeds, core, and membrane from peppers then slice each one into 6 vertical pieces where they dip down. Set aside.

Cook turkey over medium-high heat, breaking up as it cooks. Once cooked through, drain off any fat. Combine with spices and salsa. Evenly distribute mixture into the pepper boats and top with cheese. Bake on a parchment lined baking sheet at 375 for 10 minutes or until cheese is melted and peppers are hot.

NOTE: If you prefer much softer bell peppers, add a few tablespoons water to the bottom of a large casserole dish, add filled nachos, cover tightly with foil and bake 15 minutes.

Serve with additional toppings, if desired.

Honey Mustard Grilled Pork Chops
Pork chops are a hearty fall meal in my house, but throw them on the grill with some fresh summer veggies and they make a great hearty summer meal, too.
4 (6 ounce) pork chops
1/4 cup honey
2 tablespoons dijon mustard
2 tablespoons grainy mustard
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 cloves garlic, chopped

salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients except chops in a large ziplock bag or lidded Tupperware container. Add pork chops, turning to coat, and marinade in the fridge for 30 minutes to overnight. Grill over medium-high heat until lightly golden brown, about 3-5 minutes per side (longer if using thick-cut chops). If you like the chops with extra sauce, either set aside some of the marinade before adding the chops, or bring the leftover marinade to a boil and simmer for a few minutes to thicken while the pork is cooking.

Steak Kebabs
Steak on the grill is my favorite hearty dinner any time of year, but combining it with sweet, fresh bell peppers and onions makes it deliciously summery yet still hearty.
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup soy sauce
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 pounds sirloin steak, cut in 1-inch cubes
1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut in 1-inch pieces
1 orange bell pepper, seeded and cut in 1-inch pieces
1 green bell pepper, seeded and cut in 1-inch pieces
1 red onion, cut in 1-inch pieces

In a medium bowl, whisk together olive oil, soy sauce, garlic and black pepper. Add the cubed sirloin steak to marinade and toss to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and let marinate for 30 minutes to 1 hour.
Once the meat has marinated, thread it onto metal skewers alternating with pieces of bell pepper and red onion.

Grill kebabs over medium heat, turning often, until all sides of the meat is well brown and vegetables are tender (about 12 to 15 minutes). Serve over rice.

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Monday, August 14, 2017

Disney World: Rating the Rides - part 4, Magic Kingdom

I could spend forever writing up this section of my ride reviews, although it would require me to go back to the park a bunch more times (not that I have a problem with that). We actually spent 3 of our 6 days at the Magic Kingdom, by the kids' request (and with zero objections from Mom and Dad). Magic Kingdom is by far the most "active" of the parks, with plenty of exciting rides, lots of interesting non-rides to see (shows at the castle, the tikis that spray water, strolling characters, Casey Jr Splash 'n' Soak Station, the daily flag retiring ceremony, etc.), and simply more stuff overall than the other parks. Plus, it's a great combination of nostalgia for the parents (the Tiki Room! Flying Dumbos! The Haunted Mansion! Space Mountain!) and new and updated rides (The Seven Dwarves Mine Train! Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin! Under the Sea with Ariel!).

Again, take a peek back at part 1 of my series to get our family demographics.

(A map of the park can be found here.)

The Barnstormer (must be 35" tall): The ride is one of the better roller coasters for the small fry. Hop into a biplane and swoop around a barnyard, crashing through a billboard (with a convenient Goofy-shaped hole already in it), and finally landing safely. It's fast but still relatively gentle - much like flying in a plane vs. riding in a car. This is a great ride if you have a roller coaster fan who's not quite tall enough to ride the bigger coasters. It's often busy so consider grabbing a Fast Pass or keep an eye on wait times.

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (must be 40" tall): Another of my favorite Disney coasters, this ride provides not only a great roller coaster experience, but the scenery is really fun, depicting an abandoned mining town with details including a dinosaur skeleton, a donkey and some goats, and an adorable mama possum and her two babies. The ride plunges into and out of darkness as you move through the caverns and mine shafts, and it's a pretty fast ride, so it may be too intense for younger riders, but it's a must-do for coaster fans. Be sure to get a Fast Pass or go early, because the waits are long (although the line winds through a collection of fascinating mining memorabilia). Another great time to go is just as the fireworks show begins - the lines are shorter, the ride is even more fun in the dark, and you get an amazing view of the fireworks display!

Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin: Very similar to Toy Story Mania! at Hollywood Studios, pairs of riders travel through an epic space battle against the evil Commander Zurg, shooting targets using their laser sights in a moving shooting gallery. Cool neon and blacklight effects add to the space theme. At the end, check your score to find your rank! If you have a wannabe Space Ranger in your family, definitely snag a Fast Pass for this ride.

Dumbo the Flying Elephant: This classic ride is always a favorite of the small fry. Pairs of riders perch on elephants that fly in a gentle circle, and the riders control how the elephant moves up and down. There's a single elephant car near the ride for a pre- or post-ride photo op. But the best part is that partway through the waiting line you have the option of taking a break in an air-conditioned indoor playground with a play area for toddlers and lots of climbing structures and slides for bigger kids - and benches for Mom and Dad. Your group is given a pager, and when it goes off you can hop back into line or request to stay longer. Great place to keep in mind for when you need a cool air break or the little ones just need to play and run around. 

The Enchanted Tiki Room (show): Singing animatronic birds, flowers, and tiki statues, all in brilliant tropical colors, put on a show in a circular auditorium. One of the cheesiest shows at Disney, the nostalgia factor is high for me. My husband and I both love the Tiki Room, and our kids got a kick out of it, as well. Constant shows mean there's never a long wait, and sitting in the cool darkness is relaxing and refreshing for overheated and overstimulated little ones. And you know you'll walk out singing (or humming, or whistling), "In the tiki tiki tiki tiki tiki room, in the tiki tiki tiki tiki tiki room, all the birds sing words and the flowers croon, in the tiki tiki tiki tiki tiki room..." Wait, that's just us? Uhhh, never mind...

Frontierland Shootin' Arcade: Another rare animal that requires an extra fee (but at 35 shots for $1, it's not outrageous), this old-fashioned shooting gallery features targets ranging from gravestones to owls to signs to gopher holes, and a bullseye is rewarded with music, falling targets, or a small creature popping up. 

Happily Ever After (show): A full-scale singing and dancing extravaganza featuring Mickey and Minnie, your favorite Disney princesses, and lots of other characters from familiar Disney movies, this show is performed on the stage in front of Cinderella's castle multiple times a day. It includes impressive laser effects and even a final blast of fireworks! Little ones will eat it up.

Haunted Mansion: Another classic ride, the "haunting" is often more silly than spooky, although there are one or two creatures that jump out, and darkness and spooky noises may be too much for very young riders. But generally, this is not a particularly scary ride, despite its name. The waiting line includes funny gravestones and some interactive music displays, and the Disney hosts often play their spooky parts to the hilt.

It's a Small World: I can't possibly visit the Magic Kingdom without going on this ride, and it's still one of Peanut's favorites. Buddy and I enjoy naming each country as we pass by, as well as trying to pronounce the words for "good-bye" in each language as we exit. One fun new addition: the ride now scans your Magic Band and offers a personalized good-bye to you by name! There's always a line, but it moves quickly, and it's a great slow, cool, relatively long ride if you need to sit and relax for a bit. When Peanut was a toddler, we discovered that this ride was a perfect way to coax her into a much-needed afternoon nap. 

Jungle Cruise: Although somewhat less impressive after you've been on the Kilimanjaro Safari at Animal Kingdom full of the live versions of all these jungle animals, the animatronic animals and cheesy humor of the pilots are still a lot of fun. You're seated and the river is cool and shady, and little ones will get a kick out of spotting each animal. And the squirting elephant family is just as adorable as ever. 

Mad Tea Party: Does it get any more Disney than the spinning teacups? Little ones and big ones alike will happily go on this ride over and over again. 

The Magic Carpets of Aladdin: Yet another iteration of the Flying Dumbos, the Magic Carpets add a spitting camel to the general hilarity of the ride. There is a second spitting camel that aims into the crowd outside the ride, so if you need a quick cool-off, look for the damp spot on the ground! 

The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh: A charming story ride that little ones and big ones alike will enjoy. The waiting line is particularly fun, with many interactive games (pull up some veggies, make gophers appear, play music on drums and bells, wipe the "honey" off the screen to reveal the characters, etc.). There are lots of storybook pages that young readers will enjoy reading out loud. A definite must for little ones, but watch for short(ish) lines rather than using a Fast Pass, since the line is half the fun.

Meet the Characters (characters): Although there are character appearances throughout all the Disney parks, Magic Kingdom has by far the highest concentration. Check the Disney website for a listing of regular spots where the characters appear, and use your My Disney Experience app for specific times and appearances of your favorite characters. The pros will take your photo but you're welcome to take your own, as well. And don't forget to bring an autograph book if you want to collect signatures!

Mickey's PhilharMagic (show): This delightful 3D show features Donald Duck getting himself into trouble with a sorcerer's hat in a hilarious dream sequence set against the backdrop of well-known Disney songs, including "Be Our Guest" from Beauty and the Beast, "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" from Lion King, and "A Whole New World" from Aladdin. Little ones will be fascinated at how musical instruments, champagne corks, silverware and plates, and even Donald himself seem to fly right toward them. And the funny ending will charm all ages. Plus, air conditioning and comfortable seats. Win-win.

The Muppets Present...Great Moments in American History (show): If you hear the Town Crier at Liberty Square, hurry over to see Sam the Eagle, Kermit, Fozzie, Gonzo, Miss Piggy, and other Muppet friends sharing their (occasionally confused) take on American history. Parents will love the nostalgia of the Muppets, and kids will love the silly humor. 

Parades: Festival of Fantasy and Move It! Shake It! Dance Party: Nobody does parades like Disney. Stake out a good watching place early or plan to boost little ones on your shoulders for a good view of all their favorite characters. You'll enjoy amazing floats, dancers, stiltwalkers, Disney characters galore, and all your favorite Disney songs in both these parades. If bad weather is predicted, parades may step off as much as half an hour earlier or later than scheduled. 

The Peoplemover: A very relaxed "sit and watch" ride, one of my kids' favorite parts of the Peoplemover is the inclined conveyor belt that carries you from the waiting line up to the cars. This ride takes you through other rides, including Buzz Lightyear and Space Mountain, and past some of the concept models for Epcot. It seems like a boring ride, but my kids loved riding it over and over, and it does give you some lovely views of the park, so it's a great place to take a quick sitting break, especially since the lines move quickly so there's rarely a long wait. 

Peter Pan's Flight: Soar over Victorian London and Neverland in an enchanted flying ship with Peter and his friends, passing colorful scenes of Captain Hook and his band of pirates, the Lost Boys, and Wendy, Michael, and John. Younger ones may be dazzled by the scenery, but Peanut and Buddy were unimpressed, blurting out "It's over? That's all?" in disbelief as we debarked. A fun ride, but not worth blowing a Fast Pass on unless you have really little ones or particular Pan fans.

Pirates of the Caribbean: THIS is worth getting a Fast Pass for if you have pirate fans of any age with you. Somewhat updated from the classic, adding in appearances by Jack Sparrow and Captain Barboza from the movies, it's still Disney nostalgia at its best. (And most importantly, it still includes the scene with the dog taunting the pirates with the key to their cell.)

The Railroad from Main Street to Frontierland and Fantasyland (transportation): At Disney, even the practical ways of getting from place to place (trams, buses, ferries, the monorail, trains) are part of the show. This open car steam train makes a 20-minute loop through three areas of the park, with trains leaving each station every 5-10 minutes. The Main Street station is right near the park entrance, so it's a great way to quickly get to Frontierland or Fantasyland first thing in the morning if you want to take advantage of short lines. 

Seven Dwarves Mine Train (must be 38" tall): FAST PASS FAST PASS FAST PASS. The newest ride at the park as of this writing, this roller coaster has swinging cars that fly to the side when rounding curves, and travels through wonderful inside and outside scenes of the dwarves mining gems and "whistling while they work," even ending with a peep through the window at Snow White dancing with Dopey as Doc and the other dwarves yodel and play instruments. This was my favorite ride at Magic Kingdom, and close to the top of the list for both kids (Dad did not get to ride, unfortunately). Wait times are often up to 3 hours, so grab a Fast Pass or go first thing in the morning. The waiting line does include fun activities, including spinning barrels of gems that project images of the dwarves on the ceiling, so even a 30-45 minute wait isn't so bad. 

Splash Mountain (must be 40" tall): One of the few remnants of the now-politically-incorrect Disney movie "Song of the South", this water ride takes us through the Briar Patch and shows us some of the adventures of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and Brer Bear. One big plunge is likely to get some of the riders wet, but not too wet. There are plenty of fun animatronic details throughout, so it's worth going on more than once if you can get a Fast Pass or go early. 

Stitch's Great Escape (must be 40" tall): This was one of the few rides that got a solid "meh" from the whole family. The first part of the ride is an animatronic presentation you watch while standing up (rarely a good thing for my kids), and the second part is a sit-still-and-watch show that tries but kind of fails to dazzle with Disney magic. I wouldn't waste your time on this one. 

Swiss Family Treehouse: This "explore at your own pace" adventure is especially fun if your kids are familiar with the book (or movie). See the creativity the family used in a building a home out of only what they salvaged from their ship and what they found on the island. The view from the top is well worth the climb.

Tom Sawyer Island: My kids would happily have spent several hours exploring this delightful island! Take a short raft ride over to the island, then let them loose to climb over bridges, explore a fort complete with rifles and cannon and a blacksmith station, wander through caves, climb a mill with a waterwheel, and scramble over various climbing structures. Take advantage of the small but super clean restrooms and the water fountains right at the dock. Take note, however: the island doesn't open until 11:00am.

Tomorrowland Speedway (must be 32" to ride - or drive with a companion over 54" - and 54" to drive alone): Young drivers will love the chance to take the wheel on this rail-guided racetrack built to look like the Indianapolis Speedway. Buddy was a bit frustrated until he got the hang of the steering, but he loved being in control of a "real racecar." If there's a budding Mario Andretti in your family, grab a Fast Pass or keep an eye on the wait times. The track closes during rain, though, so even Fast Passes may be delayed at times. 

Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid: Climb into your clamshell boat and travel across the beach (don't forget to wave to Scuttle), then watch the bubbles as you descend into Ariel's world under the sea! This ride combines animatronics with high resolution projections for an immersive (ahem, so to speak) experience that feels like you're inside the movie. The ride tells the whole story of The Little Mermaid in an abbreviated form using the most popular songs. Definitely get a Fast Pass for this one. It's well worth it. 

Other rides and attractions to check out:

Casey Jr. Splash 'N' Soak Station (rest area): The perfect place to give your kids a cooling-off break on a hot day, this circus train is really a splash park, complete with elephants squirting water. Plan to change into bathing suits or bring some dry clothes to change into, because they'll get SOAKED. Fortunately, there are some steps and benches safely out of the splash zone for family members who prefer to stay dry.

The Dapper Dans: Check the park schedule for performances of this marvelous barbershop quartet, who include tap dancing, playing chimes, and plenty of bad jokes in their act. 

The Electrical Water Pageant and Fireworks Display: It's a late night for little ones, but it's worth trying to work in a nap and getting them to stay up. You may have to stake out a spot early for the best view. 

The Hall of Presidents (show): Closed for refurbishment during this visit, we didn't especially miss it due to its similarity to The American Adventure at Epcot. It's a very well-done walk through American history in the form of introducing every American president. The animatronics are just as impressive today as they were when there were fewer presidents to be depicted!

Liberty Square Riverboat: Closed due to weather during much of our visit, this steam-powered paddleboat is a replica of the boats that ferried travelers on the Mississippi River. The scenic 17-minute ride is narrated by Mark Twain giving a fascinating history of life on the river. 

Main Street Philharmonic (show): Disney's own magnificent marching band performs on Main Street and at Storybook Circus. Check the schedule for showtimes. 

Once Upon a Time (show): Gorgeous nighttime production at the castle, featuring lots of projected movie scenes and beautiful lights. 

Prince Charming Regal Carousel: This classic carousel is always a favorite of little ones. Waiting lines are often relatively short, so check it on your way past and you're likely to catch it at a good time.

Space Mountain (must be 44" tall): A fast roller coaster that's mostly in the dark, we agreed that Buddy would not enjoy it this time around. But it's a fabulous classic, and a must-do for all roller coaster fans. Definitely worth using a Fast Pass. 


If you're thinking of planning a Disney vacation, talk to Stacey Trask, Disney Travel Agent extraordinaire! She'll make sure you have the trip of a lifetime!

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Sunday, August 13, 2017

Disney World: Rating the Rides - part 3, Hollywood Studios

If you're jumping in on part 3, please jump back to part 1 for a minute for a thumbnail sketch of my family and their theme park styles. Then come on back here and read our comments and reviews of the rides and attractions at Disney's Hollywood Studios! (A map of the park is here.)

Beauty and the Beast Live On Stage (show): A shortened version of the movie, this live musical is in an outdoor theatre, but there's still not a bad seat in the house. The voices, dancing, and costumes are all spectacular. If your family has any fans of either the original animated movie or the recent live-action version, they'll love this show.

For the First Time in Forever: Frozen Singalong (show): Just what it says, this show is basically group karaoke of all your favorite songs from Frozen. Hosted by a pair of Arendelle "historians", there are appearances by Anna, Elsa, and Kristoff, as well as an indoor (soap bubble) "snowstorm" between the songs, all against a backdrop of clips from the movie on the huge screen. I was surprised at how few people actually sang along, but our family dove right in and belted out all the songs. If you like to sing, you'll love this show. If not, stick with the Frozen ride back at Epcot.

Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular (show): A typical stunt show, this one has fast cars, explosions, bad guys falling off buildings, an actual plane, and of course (given the name), a guy in a leather jacket and a battered fedora trying to outrun a giant boulder. This particular show included a fair amount of explanation of how stunts are designed, which made it a bit more interesting for the adults but a bit less so for the kids. But it was a visually impressive piece of theatre for all ages. The sounds and heat can be intense, so if you have little ones, you may want to sit a little further back.

March of the First Order (show): Every hour on the hour, an armada of Imperial Stormtroopers led by Captain Phasma marches through the park and performs a short show on a central stage, complete with Jumbrotrons and real-time video. A fun show to catch for a little change of pace. 

Star Tours: Both kids - and Dad - agreed that this was their favorite ride, not just in Hollywood Studios, but in any of the Disney Parks. A great 3D ride that immerses you in one of 50 or so mix-and-match Star Wars adventures. You'll find yourself flying through space with C-3PO and R2-D2, racing across the forests of Endor, and crashing onto the surface of any number of different planets. Put this at the top of your Fast Pass list, and try to ride it multiple times if you can. We caught it first thing when the park opened and rode several times in a row with no wait.

Toy Story Mania: My favorite ride in this park, and a close second for the rest of the family, this ride is an immersive moving shooting gallery. Each of the two riders in the car dons 3D glasses to shoot a cannon worked by pulling a string. Shoot virtual targets throughout the ride to score points. Visuals are full of Toy Story characters, from Buzz and Woody to the Little Green Aliens to Hamm and Slinky Dog. Even the waiting line is fun, checking out familiar toys and games in Andy's giant bedroom (because we're the size of Andy's toys!). This one is also at the top of our family's Fast Pass and try-to-get-there-first-so-we-can-ride-it-twice lists.

Other rides and attractions to check out:

Disney Junior - Live On Stage (show): Our kids are starting to be just a hair too old for Doc McStuffins, Jake and the Neverland Pirates, and Mickey Mouse Clubhouse (and Dad and Mom are a hair too old to sit on the floor for this show), but they ate it up when we saw it a couple of years ago.

Jedi Training (characters): Tweens and younger teens will enjoy learning to use a lightsaber under the tutelage of a "real" Jedi Knight - and then putting their training into action against a foe like Darth Vader. Only a limited number of kids can participate, so get there early. It's fun to watch even if you're not chosen.

Muppet Vision 3D (show): This ride was closed for refurbishment during our visit, but parents who remember the original Muppet Show will love to enter into the Muppet Theater itself for a this immersive 3D tour of Muppet Labs with Beaker and Dr. Bunsen Honeydew.

Rock 'n' Rollercoaster: A rollercoaster race through the streets of LA backed by Aerosmith music, Touted as the best Disney roller coaster in any of the parks, this ride has phenomenally long lines, so be sure to get a Fast Pass if you want to ride.

Twilight Zone Tower of Terror: The icon of the park, this ride puts you in an elevator, lifts you to the top of a haunted hotel, and then drops you. We deemed it just a little two intense for our two little ones. But maybe next time!


If you're planning a Disney vacation, let Stacey Trask make your life easier!

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