Friday, November 27, 2015

How To Do Disney Right

My best friend and I have been Disney freaks since we can remember, but I had never been to Disney World. Caroline and I do everything together, from book sharing to beach vacationing, and on the night of my high school graduation, she brought signs for us to hold in pictures. Hers read: "Bethany! You just graduated! What are we gonna do next?!" and mine read: "We're going to Disney World!" And we were.

We planned the trip ourselves, and had four days in the parks to experience all they had to offer. We were determined to do it all, and when we got our minds set to something, there was no stopping us. We went to every park. We met every princess. We rode every ride. We considered buying every item from every store. We had done it: We did Disney in four days.

When I returned almost three years later with the Pridette Danceline to perform at Downtown Disney and march in the Main Street Electrical Parade, my friends stuck closely to me. After overhearing my suggestion, the whole charter bus had downloaded the app, claimed their fast passes, and immediately started making itineraries. "Stick with me, guys," I joked, "I know how to do Disney right!"

That became the joke of the trip. Where did you find that crown? How did you skip the line? What restaurant is the best to use our meal voucher? "Ask Bethany," the answer seemed to be, "She knows how to do Disney right." So if you're going to Disney anytime soon, be sure to not miss out on the suggestions and hidden treasures that help you get the best Disney experience for your limited time.

1) Stay at a Disney Hotel or Resort.
The first time I went, Caroline and I stayed at the Port Orleans Riverside Resort. It was located within the park, only 3 miles from Epcot (a prime feature for anyone with kids who need a daily nap), and we loved having public Disney transportation each morning to each park. We also had Disney transportation to the airport. We were greeted by a letter from Princess Tiana and brushed our teeth with water from Genie's lamp. Having a Disney hotel allowed us to carry the magic home with us (literally!), but also have prime access to all of Disney's opportunities like park hopper passes and extra magic hours. Options for Disney hotels and resorts can be found in the link above, and can be filtered by price range, location, category, or characteristics.

If you are traveling in a group rather than a family, Disney hotels can get pretty pricy. A wonderful alternative for Disney groups is the Holiday Inn just outside of Downtown Disney. There is not transportation to the parks or Disney themed rooms, but the hotel is close enough to not inconvenience you at all. The staff was selfless and helpful with every question we possibly had. Every hotel experience I've had provided a complaint-less trip for me and my group!

2) Explore Packages.
Magic Your Way Vacation Packages can help you plan the perfect trip for your group or family based on size, preferences, and budget. Packages not only help you utilize the "extra magic" features that Disney has designed to make vacations better, but also help you decide what to do, when to do it, and how much you should expect to spend for certain experiences. Also check out Special Offers to ensure you don't miss special opportunities and discounts that might apply to your family and/or situation.

3) Download the App.
If you have a smartphone, make sure you download the My Disney Experience app. Once you create an account, you can personalize your profile, link with friends, upload park admission tickets, view hotel accommodations, make reservations, and modify your vacation plans as you go. It allows you to reserve FastPasses, track characters, view wait times for rides and attractions, and load a map of each park to help you get to your location as quickly as possible.

4) Consider a MagicBand.
This feature is not necessary and certainly not required for guests of certain ages with certain interests, but it can allow you to keep your plans more centralized and travel lighter. These personalized bands can be purchased based on color or character preference starting at $12.95 plus tax, and allow you to unlock the door to your Disney resort, enter all Disney parks, check in at FastPass entrances, connect PhotoPass experiences to your account, and charge purchases to your resort hotel room. You won't need a room key, admission ticket, FastPass lanyards, PhotoPass cards, or even cash on you throughout the day! All you need is your personal bracelet.

5) Get a Park Hopper.
You might think you know exactly what parks you want to spend your days in, but chances are something will happen and you'll wish you hadn't gotten your tickets set in stone. What if the line is closed to meet your daughter's favorite princess and you can't go back another day? That would be disastrous. Park hoppers are a few extra dollars, but they are worth every penny to have the pure flexibility of doing whatever you (or your little hero/princess) wish to do.

6) Stay tuned to Extra Magic Hours
Each day, one of the theme parks is selected to host "Extra Magic Hours" where certain attractions are open longer. Some extra magic hours are hosted before the opening of the park, and some are hosted after general park closing. Check the Disney World website or app to see which parks are hosting extra magic hours on the days you choose to visit. Extra magic hours are only benefits for guests of certain Disney Hotels. Make sure your hotel option grants all the opportunities your family wants to use.

7) Utilize the FastPass.
You may not think this is a useful feature, but trust me: when you're standing in line for two and a half hours to meet Anna and Elsa, you're going to wish you were one of the people skipping the line and waiting five minutes. FastPass is a benefit all park guests can use free of charge, so there's no reason to miss out on it. FastPasses allow guests to reserve access to select rides and attractions, letting them skip the line at their designated FastPass time and march right to the front. You get 3 FastPass opportunities each day, and you can begin reserving your passes up to 30 days before you arrive at the park (60 days before check-in if you have purchased a Disney resort package).

8) Make Reservations.
Reservations aren't critical, especially because you don't want to tie yourself down to so many things that you are unable to fill in the small gaps. But if there's something your kid (or judgement) has been dreaming of doing since they first found out you were going, you probably want to reserve it. Reservations are available for numerous restaurants and entertainment opportunities, specifically the ones that everyone loves to go to, so don't wait. Seats for Be Our Guest Restaurant in Belle's Castle and Cinderella's Royal Table go fast, and VIP tickets for certain shows like Hollywood Studios' Fantasmic! are available in lunch/dinner packages that are definitely worth your money. Our lunch at Mama Melroses Italian was purchased in a package for Fantasmic! VIP Seating and it was easily the best meal we ate the entire time we were there. Caroline still swears by that calamari! Make your reservations on the app listed above, or online at My Disney Experience on the Disney website.

9) Be Willing to Splurge on What's Important.
Disney World is full of all sorts of obscure magic that not many people know about. In Epcot, staff members in each country are of the same ethnicity; there are no Americans working in China, and there aren't any Japanese working in Morocco. Staff members in the Magic Kingdom refer to anyone wearing a crown as "Princess" and "Your Highness," whether they are a princess working in one of the parks, a four year old dressed up in a princess costume, or a 20-year-old reliving her childhood by wearing the crown of her favorite Disney Princess (I know because that was me). If you've always wanted to try food from a certain country, your visit to Epcot is the time (trust me, the $15 lamb and chicken shawarma in Morocco is totally worth it). If your son has always wanted to be a race car driver, take him to meet Lightning McQueen and Mater at Hollywood Studios. So buy your daughter the crown and let her wear it all day, because they will announce her presence following a trumpet on all Disney transportation. Buy your high school graduate the Mickey ears with the graduation cap, because everyone will congratulate them on their success. And if it's your birthday or anniversary, wear that huge pin around. You will get compliments and discounts in certain areas of the parks. The bottom line is, every staff member is dedicated to making each person's trip a happy-ever-after, so make sure you give them that chance.

10) Don't Be Afraid to Ask. 
For help, for suggestions, or even advice. Every employee I've encountered has been more than willing to help. They all have their own opinions on restaurants, nighttime entertainment, rides, and more. They know the park better than anyone, so don't hesitate to drop by a kiosk or stop a janitor to ask for directions. They are more than willing to share their favorite experiences with you, and they've never led me astray! If that isn't enough, it isn't a terrible idea to contact your other Disney obsessed friends for their suggestions, and of course, I'm always up for Disney discussions at Enjoy your trip... To infinity and beyond!

Got your own ideas for a wish-worthy Disney vacation? Email me at to have your ideas featured on the blog! 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

So What's the Big Deal About Winterguard Anyway?

It's hard to imagine how one sport, particularly a sport no one seems to know anything about, could change a person's life. But it can. And don't try to tell me it's not a sport. 

Winterguard is known as the Sport of the Arts, and we know you probably haven't heard of it. Even Blake Lively, whose face was photoshopped onto a performer of the Pride of Cinncinati, called it a "dance troupe." Guard is not a dance troupe. It is a sport where thousands of scholastic and collegiate performers audition every year to spend an absorbent amount of money to acquire bruises, blood blisters, and one-shot performances. It is a season of endlessly long rehearsals, frustrated sectionals, early morning uniform checks, and cramped bus rides.

So we know what you're probably thinking. Why do people do it? 

We do it to be a part of something bigger. If we wanted a regular workout we'd hit the treadmill. If we wanted a regular sport we'd play basketball. If we wanted a regular performance, we would learn to play an instrument, act, or dance. Guard is something completely different. It is a team that devotes itself solely to the final product as a whole. Performers practice to better themselves individually so that they do not hold the group behind. Staff members dish out every bit of instruction they know with the hope of creating a production better than any judge or crowd has seen before. But guard is not just about rehearsing and performing. It's about memories. It's about inside jokes, nicknames, and traveling to new places. It's about decorating charter bus windows, big/little gift exchanges, team member performance bracelets, and so much more. It's about friendship. It's about tradition. It's about loyalty. It's about being a part of something that changes the lives of everyone in it.

We do it because it improves our resume. We are tough, determined, fiercely motivated powerballs who refuse to quit. The word "can't" is not in our vocabulary; if you tell us we can't, we turn around and say "watch me." We don't waste any time because we're used to not having any. We plan down to last detail because it's all we've ever known. We are not afraid to ask for help. We take instruction and criticism with ultimate grace. We are always working to be stronger. We set aside our personal drama for the benefit of the team. We know how important our job is, whether it's in the workforce or on the guard floor. If we give up, we don't just let ourselves down, we let others down, and we are simply unwilling to let that happen. Wouldn't you want a guard girl working for you?

We do it to know what it feels like to shine. Everyone knows what it's like to miserably fail, and hopefully everyone knows what it's like to feel happy. Hopefully everyone knows what it's like to be proud. But a strong performance with the people who helped you pour out your blood, sweat, and tears (literally!) can make you feel invincible. We all know what means to be confident, but a guard girl knows what it's like to shine. We have a drive within us that is unparalleled.

We do it because it makes us better people. On my first day of guard camp in high school, we were told by our technician, "Not everyone is capable of doing guard. It is a special activity designed for special people like you," and he couldn't be more right. Guard is a genuinely impressive, unique, and special activity designed for creative minds and talented athletes. There is a common saying describing guard that couldn't be more accurate: For those who understand, no explanation is needed. For those who don't, no explanation is possible. When you join, guard requires that you give up your individuality for the sake of the team, but when you leave, you emerge knowing more about yourself than you ever did before. It forces us to be organized and work harder than we did previously. It forces us to be mature. It forces us to be selfless. And we become better people because of it.

Missouri State University is home to three independent winterguard programs: 901 Performance Ensemble, National Avenue, and The Pride of Missouri State. "[Guard is important because it] is an opportunity for students to explore and develop skills in a performing art that requires physical strength and mental focus," John Sullivan, head director of the Missouri State winterguard programs says, "Through the activity, you learn life lessons like commitment, dedication, respect, camaraderie, and appreciation while learning technique of rifle, flag, sabre, and dance. Guard can be a means for performers to 'step out of their comfort zone' as they are suddenly meeting new people and trying new things. I have seen shy people suddenly blossom into outgoing individuals, and I have seen performers become more confident as a direct result of their achievements they experienced in guard."

I, personally, was one of those wallflower performers before my time here at Missouri State. The 2015 winterguard season really changed things for me, boosting my confidence as I and 20 other performers "stood in the rain" and gained the confidence to walk out of "foolish games."

Members of these groups compete in numerous competitions throughout the season. Their work and sacrifice is often overlooked by their university and their peers, but they refuse to quit. "Collegiate performers have to make sacrifices to be in guard, especially as they reach the latter years of their degree program," Sullivan says, "As classes advance in their degree program, the demands become more urgent and difficult. I am always thankful for those who make guard work with their academics."

Obviously, academics are the reason these performers are at Missouri State University in the first place. Every member on a Missouri State winterguard is a college student in pursuit of a degree and a career. We aren't just here to spin, though that might be what we often say. But academics aren't the only sacrifices we make to continue in the sport we love.

Like any performing art, winterguard is not cheap. Some performers work up to three jobs to fund the sport they love. Others skip collegiate events and spring break vacations to ensure they have enough money to spin their next season. But unfortunately, this is not always enough.

We are regular college kids in need of financial assistance. Our fees go toward flags, poles, tape, equipment, floor paint, costumes, makeup, hairpieces, etc. Guard is a very expensive activity, and every year we have talented individuals take seasons off because they do not have the money to compete. We don't want to deny any of our members a chance to compete, perform, and make memories with the rest of their team, but sometimes we don't have a choice. That's why we need your help.

We aren't asking for a miracle donation of thousands of dollars. We understand your budget is tight. Believe me, so is ours. All we ask is that you take a moment to consider donating what you can to give us what we want more than anything this season: security in knowing we will be able to afford our favorite activity. We are extremely thankful for any assistance you can give, whether it's $5 or $500, or simple moral support as an audience member. We would love to see you at our next competition.

Find us at various shows on the MCCGA and WGI circuits. Email for more information. 

To help out members of the Pride of Missouri State Winterguard, National Avenue Winterguard, and 901 performance ensemble for their 2017 season, please donate on the Missouri State Crowdfunding Webpage. The staff and performers greatly appreciate any of your help and/or support you can provide.