Walt Disney World: Tips for visiting

If you're heading to Walt Disney World, here are my top tips to make the most of your time there. Let me know yours in the comments!

1. Use FastPass+
It may seem organised thinking about what rides you want to skip the queues on when you're still weeks from your holiday, but the less time you spend queuing, the more fun you get to have! FastPass+ lets you skip a ride's queue - super important if you're going to Walt Disney World at a busy time.

If you're staying at a Disney hotel you can make your choices 60 days in advance; it's 30 days for everyone else. You're allowed three choices per day (though you can only select one park per day), and you're then allowed to make a fourth choice once you've been on those three rides.

To use FastPass+, scan your ticket or MagicBand at the FastPass+ entrance of the ride. Simple! Oh, and you can also change your choices on the day, via the app! Each park post has my suggestions of which rides you should pick. (Magic Kingdom | Epcot | Animal Kingdom | Disney's Hollywood Studios)

2. App and WiFI
Download the My Disney Experience app to keep an eye on live queue times, see and change your FastPass+ selections, view your PhotoPass snaps and more! When you're in the park, you might not have a great signal, or your data might be switched off, so remember to connect to the free WiFi. You can also look up when the parades are, show times, the nearest loos and more!

3. Stay comfortable
Wear trainers - your feet will thank you for it! We walked around 25,000 steps each day, and I can't imagine doing that in Havaianas.

4. Capture the magic
Get snapped around the park and on rides by PhotoPass photographers. You'll need to buy a Memory Maker to be able to download these official snaps, but you can always ask them to take a picture on your camera or phone as well!

5. Stay energised
There are plenty of drinking fountains around the park so make sure you stay hydrated! As for food, it's so easy to forget to eat. We'll have lunch... wait, that ride only has a ten minute queue. Ten or so minutes later... ooh, look, the parade is starting. Before you know it lunch has been and gone. You're going to be spending a very long day in the park - make sure you're at your best to enjoy it!

6. Take advantage of the Extra Magic Hours
If you're staying in one of the Disney hotels, make the most of Extra Magic Hours. These get you into the park early or allow you to stay late, so queues will be short to non-existent. If you're not staying in a Disney hotel, queues tend to be much shorter in the morning - arrive for when the parks open.

7. Plan your day around the weather
If you're visiting in hurricane season (June through to November), it's likely you'll have some stormy weather and rain. Outdoor rides close if there's a storm in the area, so if there are certain rides you REALLY want to go on, tick them off in the morning (storms usually happen later on in the day). If you don't buy a poncho at the park, bring something waterproof (and to wear on the water rides).

WDW: Disney's Blizzard Beach Water Park

There are two water parks at Walt Disney World: Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon. We only had time to visit one, and Olly wanted to tackle a slide he never went on as a child... that slide was Summit Plummet at Blizzard Beach. With a near-vertical drop, it's one of the tallest and fastest slides in the world. I passed!

Summit Plummet, Blizzard Beach
There are less intense slides at Blizzard Beach, as well as a wave pool (Melt-Away Bay) and a lazy river. We spent a lot of time floating around Cross Country Creek and enjoying a slower pace in the sunshine. Look out for the double rings so you can float together!

Chairlift, Blizzard Beach
Like with the theme parks, if there's any sign of a storm, all slides will be closed until it passes. There's that inclement weather again! Tick off the slides you really want to do first thing; if it's going to get stormy, it usually happens in the afternoon.

Blizzard Beach, Walt Disney World
If you've been to both Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon, let me know which your favourite is! x

WDW: Magic Kingdom

When you think of Walt Disney World, you're probably going to think of that iconic pink castle. It's quite something and can, obviously, be found at the Magic Kingdom. With a name like that, you know you're in for a fun time!

The Magic Kingdom celebrated its 45th birthday this month, and it still has an old world feel to it - there are no intense roller coasters here or fancy simulator rides. Space Mountain doesn't even go upside down(!), unlike its counterpart in Discoveryland at Disneyland Paris. It's all about gentle fun.

There's no Discoveryland, by the way - it's called Tomorrowland at Magic Kingdom, and it's where the aforementioned Space Mountain is. See how you fare on Tomorrowland Speedway - I was dreadful behind the wheel(!) - and if you want to have a song stuck in your head, go on Walt Disney's Carousel of Progress. Even today the song from it randomly pops into my head. (Thanks for that, Sherman Brothers!)

At the Magic Kingdom, Cinderella's Castle sits at the foot of Main Street. Isn't it something? (Even when there's a massive crane up next to it because they were doing something.) There's also the addition of Liberty Square. We spent a lot of time here queuing here to meet Jack and Sally at Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party, but we never got round to visiting The Hall of Presidents. There will hopefully be a female president there the next time we head to Walt Disney World.

One thing I *couldn't* miss was The Festival of Fantasy Parade, which stars everyone's favourite classic Disney characters. I'm sad that we never got to see the Main Street Electrical Parade as I have fond memories of that parade, but look at who I did get to see at The Festival of Fantasy Parade. (Again, I barely took any photos, so this post is parade heavy!)

You might want to use a FastPass+ selection on the mountain ride behind the characters, or head to it first thing to reduce your queuing time... if you don't mind getting wet immediately! That's because Splash Mountain is a log flume ride, and it takes you through the Song of the South. I'm not sure I ever saw this, though I did recognise Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah!

Peter Pan's Flight and Seven Dwarfs Mine Train are two other excellent choices for FastPass+, as is Space Mountain. If you download the My Disney Experience app, you can keep an eye on queue times and swap around your FastPass+ choices - maximise your ride time! Oh, and remember to connect to the free WiFi to use it.

As well as Pirates of the Caribbean in Adventureland, make sure you go on Jungle Cruise. OK, it's kind of cheesy with the skipper's commentary (I won't spoil it), but it's cheesy in such a delightful way that it should, hopefully, amuse you. It did me, anyway! (Maybe I'd be less amused if it wasn't my first, and only, time on it.)

Finally, how could I forget Fantasyland? It's where you'll find all those classic favourites - Dumbo the Flying Elephant, It's a Small World, Prince Charming Regal Carousel and Mad Tea Party - as well as Under the Sea, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and Mickey's PhilharMagic Show. Mickey's PhilharMagic Show is super cute, so definitely don't miss that one!

For want of a better word, the Magic Kingdom truly is a *magical* place - whatever your age. If you're visiting, you're going to have a wonderful time, I promise! x

Writer Wednesday: Catherine Hokin

Catherine is a Glasgow-based author whose fascination with the medieval period began during a History degree which included studies into witchcraft, women and the role of political propaganda. This kick-started an interest in hidden female voices which resulted in her debut novel, Blood and Roses. The novel brings a feminist perspective to the story of Margaret of Anjou (1430-1482, wife of Henry VI) and her pivotal role in the Wars of the Roses, exploring the relationship between Margaret and her son and her part in shaping the course of the bloody political rivalry of the fifteenth century.

Catherine also writes short stories - she was 3rd prize winner in the 2015 West Sussex Writers Short Story Competition and a finalist in the Scottish Arts Club 2015 Short Story Competition. She regularly blogs as Heroine Chic. In her spare time she listens to loud music, watches far too many movies and tries to remember to talk to her husband and children. Catherine is represented by Tina Betts of the Andrew Mann Literary Agency.

1.Why did you want to become a writer?
I love stories: I have always been an avid reader and a maker-up of worlds. Since I was a child I’ve been a people-watcher (ie. really nosey) and I would concoct stories in my head around anyone whose appearance/snatched snippets of conversation intrigued me. I still do it now – it’s where my short story ideas come from. I wasn’t a writer as a child, I tended to draw people in their imaginary worlds, but I began experimenting with writing scenarios and character sketches in my early 30s and I got the bug. It just took rather longer than I expected to find the time to find my voice!

2. What's the toughest part of the writing process for you?
Redrafting can be tough. It has to be a brutal process – you must be able to recognise where the draft you have spent months on is under or (in my case) over written and where the plot stupidities and character inconsistencies come and deal with it. Which could mean chucking a lot of work. First you have to be your own most critical reader and then you have to find someone else you can trust (before submission) to read it and not be kind – you simply can’t see all the flaws yourself. And waiting – that’s horrible! Writers do a lot of waiting - my second book is now with my agent and being sent out to new publishers which is nerve-wracking.

3. What's the most enjoyable part of writing? 
To be honest, pretty much all of it! I have to do a lot of research which I love – I am more than happy to spend my day immersed in strange medieval byways finding things I didn’t even know I was looking for. I also love it when a plot idea starts to take off and threads inter-connect and when you get to the point with characters where you start saying ‘but they wouldn’t do that’ which means they have become real. You have to enjoy your own company: you can be as active on social media as you want and go to as many writing groups as you like but, if you really want to write, it’s about you and your desk, for long stretches of time. I don’t mind that but I do worry my social skills will collapse given I spend most of my day talking to dead people!

4. Out of all the amazing books out there, which book do you wish you had written and why?
Such a hard question – I could go for a classic like Jane Eyre or something more modern like Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus and a hundred in between! However, if I had to pick one I would choose One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I am a huge fan of magical realism and this novel is the genre’s pinnacle. It is an insane read – I’ve read it at least three times and taught it and I’m still finding new things. The cast of characters is huge and they all pretty much have the same name, the narrators are profoundly unreliable, time is a completely fluid notion and it is impossible in places to know whether you are in the real world or a magical one. If you haven’t read it, please do – it will be some of the best prose you have ever lost yourself in.

5. If you could only save one of your characters from fictional calamity, which would you pick and why? 
I wouldn’t save any of them! The main character in Blood and Roses, Margaret of Anjou, lived in a very turbulent time and met with some very tough challenges – some of these of her own making. Awful things happen to her but, if I rescued her I would be historically inaccurate (unforgivable) and I would lose the things that make her fascinating. With Margaret’s story I was trying to explain how she got into the situations which led to calamity. In my second novel, also based round a cast of real people, I deliberately put them into calamitous situations to explain some of their actions – like a lot of medieval history, we often know the deeds but we don’t know the reasons. I’m interested in the process of how people get themselves into the positions they do – I’m not there to save them.

6. If you could spend the day with your favourite literary character (not from your books), who would you spend it with and what would you do? 
I love this question! My problem is that a lot of characters in the books I love drive me up the wall. Jane Eyre is a brilliant book but who would want to spend the day with her? Mrs Rochester, on the other hand, might be quite entertaining. I’m going to choose two: the Chance sisters from Angela Carter’s wonderful Wise Children. Dora and Nora are twins who have a long and very dubious theatrical career from movie halls and burlesque to early Hollywood. They are fabulous, unrepentantly naughty and still dressing in sequins in their 70s. I think I would like to go down memory lane with them, starting with a champagne brunch at somewhere glitzy (the Savoy would work) and involving the cinema (Ab Fab would suit them down to the ground) and the theatre (something a bit disreputable so perhaps Dominic Cooper in The Libertine) with a bit of shopping thrown in (I can definitely see them running riot in Alexander McQueen). I sense I would come away with the plots for a dozen novels and a very sparkly hangover – I just hope someone else is paying.

7. What can we expect next from you?
My second novel is completed and with my agent, a sentence both exciting and terrifying as I have no idea at this stage where or when it will be picked up. It is set in the 14 th century and is about the 30 year relationship between John of Gaunt, son of King Edward III and Katherine Swynford. Plague, revolting peasants, a mad monk and an even madder king. I’m really proud of it – everything is crossed.

8. Is there any particular writing advice you wish you'd been given at the start of your writing career? If so, what is it? If not, what advice would you give to someone starting out?
The best bit of advice I got was to take writing very seriously – treat it like a job. In other words it needs time and discipline, you have to give it a lot of space and work hard at learning the craft, at every step. That sounds obvious but it can be hard to do in reality. My first novel took nearly three years to complete as I was fitting it round multiple demands. The second took less time because the youngest is now at university and I have clawed back breathing space! I keep office hours on writing days and I set goals to keep me on track. My advice to anyone starting out would be to get good at social media long before you get published – choose a couple of formats you are happy with, get a website together and make relationships. No matter who you end up being, no one cares more about your book than you so you are its mouthpiece. Just remember to avoid over self-promoting your book: be interesting and people will get there.

9. Tell us what a typical writing day involves for you.
Office hours, I’m usually at my desk by nine and wrap up about 6. I’m still promoting book one so it will be admin for the first couple of hours, then I like to research in the morning and write in the afternoon after I’ve been for a walk to clear my head, I’ve been taking a camera out with me a lot lately. I need the walking time for research ideas to settle and start connecting. I have a reading corner as well as my writing desk which works for me – I can’t read unless I’m curled up. I try to vary what I’m doing – I use Pinterest a lot to pull ideas together for example and have notice boards covered in character and plot maps. And I stare out of the window, a lot.

10. Finally, what are you reading at the moment?
I have just finished The Penny Heart by Martine Bailey – it’s wonderful, Fay Weldon described the style as Culinary Gothic which fits it perfectly. I think it’s my book of the year. I got the chance to interview Martine recently for my website and she is really interesting – go read my interview with her now you’ve read this!


1460 The English Crown – a bloodied, restless prize. 

The one contender strong enough to hold it? A woman. Margaret of Anjou: a French Queen in a hostile country, born to rule but refused the right, shackled to a King lost in a shadow- land. 

When a craving for power becomes a crusade, when two rival dynasties rip the country apart in their desire to rule it and thrones are the spoils of a battlefield, the stakes can only rise. And if the highest stake you have is your son? 

You play it. 

Portraying the dynastic struggles of the Wars of the Roses as a medieval House of Cards, debut novelist Catherine Hokin re-interprets the story of Margaret of Anjou as a feminist re- telling of one of the bloodiest periods of English history. In a powerful revision of a woman frequently imagined only as the shadowy figure demonised by Shakespeare, Blood and Roses examines Margaret as a French Queen in a hostile country, born to rule but refused the right, as a wife trapped in marriage to a man born to be a saint and as a mother whose son meets a terrible fate she has set in motion. As Margaret desperately tries to stave off the judgement of history by writing her own truth—a desire she knows is almost certainly doomed – she unfolds a web of intrigue, shifting alliances and secrets and reveals herself as a woman forced to play the highest stakes to pull a throne from the spoils of the battlefield.

A key issue for historians has been the relationship between Margaret of Anjou and her husband Henry IV (who suffered from what has been described as narcolepsy, resulting in long periods of what are best described as coma) and the paternity of her son, born 8 years into what was a seemingly barren marriage. Blood and Roses offers a solution to the paternity question rooted in Margaret’s political acumen and her relationship with Jacquetta Woodville – a friendship which ended in a betrayal that has never been fully explored.

This is a novel about power: winning it, the sacrifices made for it and its value. It is also a novel about a woman out of her time, playing a game ultimately no one can control.

Follow Catherine on Twitter | Buy Blood and Roses on Amazon |
Like her on Facebook | Visit her website

WDW: Epcot

Another day, another theme park, and today it's a visit to Epcot, which is split into two lands: Future World and World Showcase. The theme park is well known for its geodesic dome - you can't miss it - and inside the dome you'll find Spaceship Earth, a ride which tells the story of how communication has developed over time.

Most of Epcot, you see, has an educational slant. Food that's grown in the "Living with the Land" ride is grown to be used in various restaurants at Walt Disney World. There's a film featuring The Lion King characters called "The Circle of Life", which is about conservation. You get the idea!

Your first Epcot FastPass+ pick has to be for Frozen Ever After, which (probably) *doesn't* have an educational slant. I'm not 100% sure as queue times were always around two hours and we couldn't get a FastPass+ slot. If you can't get a slot, pick to skip the queue at Test Track or Soarin'. I sometimes found I felt a bit queasy on the motion simulator rides - you glide around the world - but Soarin' has a wonderfully sharp screen and I felt fine. Definitely my favourite ride at Epcot!

If you've been to Monsters, Inc Laugh Floor (Magic Kingdom), then you don't want to miss Turtle Talk with Crush! It's a similar format, and super cute! Other Epcot highlights include Mission: SPACE, an intense astronaut experience (if you pick the orange path). It may make you feel queasy, but if space travel ever takes off then it's good practice, surely?

Like with the other parks, you can meet characters at Epcot. They hang out in their appropriate country at World Showcase - Mulan in China and Mary Poppins in England, for example - though you can also meet characters in Future World. We spotted Joy and Sadness from Inside Out, and met Baymax (Big Hero Six) who had no queue. How?!

Whilst we were at Epcot the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival was taking place, which meant we got to sample lots of yummy foods from various stalls dotted around the lake (Olly remembered to take his passport so could try out a local craft beer flight). A lot of sites say that Epcot has the best food out of the four theme parks at Walt Disney World... I can see why!

The lake is also the perfect place to watch IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth, the nightly firework show. Different websites will share contradicting "perfect" spots to watch the fireworks - we stood between Norway and China and had a great view, so that's my recommendation! What do you think to Epcot? x

WDW: Animal Kingdom

Out of the four Walt Disney World theme parks, Animal Kingdom is probably my favourite. It may be the largest in terms of its physical size, but it's the smallest when it comes to the numbers of rides and shows it has. (Though they are currently building Pandora there. Yes, Avatar is coming to Animal Kingdom in 2017 - I'm not sure how I feel about that!)

One of the reasons it's my favourite is because I got this amazing photo with one of the giraffes on the Kilimanjaro Safaris - long-term readers of this blog will know that giraffes are my absolute favourite animal. (And, yes, I did buy new Minnie Mouse giraffe ears at the park. How could I not? Even if they didn't go with my zebra dress!)

Morning is apparently the best time to do the Kilimanjaro Safaris as more animals are awake, so we made sure our FastPass+ selection for the ride was then (the normal queue was around 50 minutes long at that time). We did, however, walk straight back on it in the afternoon.

Some animals we'd seen in the morning were no longer around, but new ones were out grazing and mooching around. Kilimanjaro Safaris was definitely my favourite experience at the park, along with Expedition Everest - Legend of the Forbidden Mountain.

Expedition Everest made up for the Big Thunder Mountain hole in my life (it was closed in the Magic Kingdom, plus it was closed when we were at Disneyland Paris at Easter). It's a similar rollercoaster to BTM in that it doesn't go upside down, though you *do* get chased by a yeti and the ride goes backwards at one point. Such fun!

We skipped Finding Nemo - The Musical so we could go on Kilimanjaro Safaris and Expedition Everest again, though we did watch Festival of The Lion King. (And ended up in the Team Giraffe corner. WIN!) Festival of The Lion King was super colourful and enjoyable, and afterwards we stopped off at Harambe Market for lunch since Expedition Everest was temporarily closed (inclement weather that, thankfully, fizzled out). The food was surprisingly tasty.

As well as the animals you spot on Kilimanjaro Safaris, there are also various animal trails. If you have small children, catch a train to Rafiki's Planet Watch. We didn't head there, but it has a petting zoo so it's perfect for little ones! (Plus you can meet Rafiki.)

The Tree of Life is the main focal point of Animal Kingdom. If you look carefully enough at the tree you can see carvings of animals - there's apparently over 300, so it may take you a while to count them all! Oh, and It's Tough To Be A Bug! takes place underneath the Tree of Life. I'm not a fan of creepy crawlies... except for the A Bug's Life cast, of course.

If you're visiting Animal Kingdom, FastPass+ choices should definitely be used for Kilimanjaro Safaris and Expedition Everest. We did make the mistake of using a FastPass+ choice on the Kali River Rapids, but the only other ride it seemed worth using it on was DINOSAUR (which was closed). Maybe use a spare FastPass+ choice and meet a character? We didn't stop to meet any, but we did spy Flik, Baloo, Dug and Russell.

What do you think to Animal Kingdom? x

WDW: Disney's Hollywood Studios

Disney's Hollywood Studios was the first theme park we visited in Orlando, and I was expecting it to be mostly like the Walt Disney Studios Park in Paris. It is and it isn't. The "dressing" is much more elaborate here, and it's all just a bit better put together... I suspect the blue skies and palm trees help!

Whilst there are some overlaps with rides - Rock 'n' Rollercoaster with Aerosmith (that's us enjoying it below, and the people sat in front of us were certainly having fun!) and The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (nope, still didn't go on that one) - Disney's Hollywood Studios is ramping up for the introduction of Star Wars Land, which is currently being built.

They are also extending Pixar Place, which only has the fantastic Toy Story Midway Mania! ride at the moment. I'd dismissed it as being similar to Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin, so didn't book a FastPass+ slot for it, which was an error! Luckily we hopped on the ride when it had a rare ten minute queue (it's usually 60-90 minutes long), and it was miles better than the Buzz Lightyear ride, even though they both have the same premise of shooting targets. I wish we'd had chance to go on it again as it was definitely my favourite ride in this park.

My recommendations for your FastPass+ selections are TSMM, Star Tours: The Adventure Continues and Rock 'n' Rollercoaster. The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror always seemed to have a short queue time - maybe a lot of people are like me and don't like drop rides? - but you can always tweak your choices on the day using the app. (I'll be sharing more about this in a tips and tricks post but, basically, FastPass+ means you can skip ride and show queues. Oh, and it's free. Perfect!)

There may be the heavy influence of Star Wars (character meets, shows, Jedi Training, plus the Star Tours ride), but the park does have other shows and rides. One you might overlook is Muppet Vision 3D, which is sort of on its own at the back of the park where Star Wars Land is shaping up. It's not amazing, but it's one you can pretty much walk on and it will get you out of the sun for a quick shade break!

Another show is Beauty and the Beast - Live on Stage, which is a highlighted blitz of the film and is as charming as you'd think it would be. And then there's the live Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, which isn't charming and has no singing, but it's action-packed and good fun to watch. Try and get picked as a volunteer!

Funnily enough, we skipped the For the First Time in Forever: A Frozen Sing-Along Celebration and the Disney Junior shows, though we obviously did the Voyage of The Little Mermaid show and The Great Movie Ride. Both, again, had really short queues, and they are worth doing. (LOVED VoTLM, though I now always correct Ariel as Arielle in my head. As does Olly. Ha!)

We met the most characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios as the queues were so short. Around twenty minutes to meet Mickey and Minnie, whilst with Goofy we just had to wait a few minutes for him to come back from checking that Max had done his homework. (Goof Troop reference? I never watched that.) Chewbacca was a five-minute wait, whilst Kylo Ren had no queue... he was superbly in character, and was the only character who didn't give us a big hug. Sobs! Nah, that was OK - he was pretty intimidating!

Food-wise, we had dinner at the 50's Prime-Time Cafe, which has a wonderfully retro decor. We both ordered Mom's Favorite Recipes (below left), which is meatloaf, fried chicken and pot roast with mash and veggies. Some great American classics, though I wasn't keen on the meatloaf. The batter on that fried chicken though? I'm drooling at the thought of it now! Oh, and if you want to drink alcohol with your meal, take your passport. They wouldn't accept our driving licenses as ID so we had to make do with a coke float and a root beer float.

If you're after an afternoon snack, ladies and gentleman, I give you funnel cake (above right). It's sweet, delicious, and can be found by the Indiana Jones show at Oasis Canteen. We also had a tasty lunch at Min and Bill's Dockside Diner, though I completely forgot that chips doesn't mean fries and was a little confused when we were handed crisps as a side. Great hot dogs and pulled pork sliders there though!

Disney's Hollywood Studios is a fun park, and with some careful planning (and going at the right time of year), you could easily get everything ticked off in a day. There are also evening firework shows, which we didn't get to see, but I hear Fantasmic is BRILLIANT. Oh, and I'd definitely recommend taking some time for the Walt Disney: One Man's Dream exhibition to find out more about the man behind the mouse. What do you think to the park? x


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