Walt Disney World 2016: Social Media Moms, Animal Kingdom at Night, Star Wars Awakens

Disclosure:  I attended the 2016 Disney Social Media Moms Celebration at Walt Disney World. I paid for my and my family’s transportation and conference admission, which included lodging at Disney’s Yacht Club resort, discounted park tickets, some meals and many special events. This post contains affiliate links.

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Last year, I was surprised and delighted to receive an invitation to the Disney Social Media Moms Celebration, Disney’s annual conference for parents who blog. Unlike most other blogger conferences, #DisneySMMC invites bloggers and their families to share in the festivities — it’s a whirlwind of an experience filled with special events, behind-the-scenes peeks and magical Disney experiences. 

In the blogging world, an invitation to #DisneySMMC is just about the most coveted email you can receive, especially if you’re a Disney fanatic! After our 2015 Celebration experience, I told my children, “I hope you keep these memories for a lifetime, because we’ll probably never do Disney quite like that again.”

How wrong I was.

On an otherwise uneventful evening this March, I opened my email and saw:

Dear Jill,
You’re Invited!
The 2016 Disney Social Media Moms Celebration is back at the Walt Disney World® Resort, and we are excited to invite you to attend this year’s Celebration taking place May 5-8, 2016. The Disney Social Media Moms Celebration is an invitation-only professional conference for social media-minded moms and dads…

Two years in a row? I was speechless. I must have had quite an incredible expression on my face, as one of my sons asked “What happened, Mom?” I couldn’t say a word and simply turned my laptop around so he could read the email. 

Then, he also had quite an incredible expression on his face. He ran through the house announcing to the rest of the family, “We’re going to Disney World… again!” 

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It was wonderful and surreal to be back in Walt Disney World nearly a year to the day from our previous trip! 

Last year, when I wrote up my experiences to share with you, I split the posts into Disney Social Media Moms conference-specific news and a full 2015 trip report of the vacation portion of the trip. This year, so much of the conference focused on Disney-specific material, from parks to entertainment to dining and more, so I’m going to intermingle conference info, Disney updates, and vacation fun in this post — nearly every day of the trip had a mix of both!

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Disney’s Animal Kingdom is wild at night!

Tonight, Disney’s Animal Kingdom will celebrate its first public opening as a nighttime park. However, when we visited during the first week of May, the #DisneySMMC bloggers and families got a sneak preview of what guests will be able to experience at night. After the park closed to the general public, the bloggers and families had the run of Animal Kingdom for about five hours.

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I’ve heard that it takes about 50,000 people to make a Disney park start to feel “full” — with 200 bloggers and their families in attendance, the park felt gloriously empty.  I can’t recall how many times we’ve been to the Animal Kingdom, but we spotted so many details and features that we’ve never seen before when the parks are packed with guests. 

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For example, my sons spotted a staircase near a pond. They said “Can we go down here?” (Why not?) The stairs led to a little cave, and we were rewarded with an underwater view of some enormous black fish! 

The entire park features new night-friendly elements that gives it an entirely new look and feel as day turns to night. The Kilimanjaro Safaris are now lit with “sunset” lighting so you can see the animals in an evening setting. 

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I’ve always thought Animal Kingdom is the most beautifully-landscaped of all of the Disney parks. It’s even more grand at night. 

We enjoyed an African-themed dinner in the middle of the park with great food (we recognized several menu items from the last time we dined at Boma: Flavors Of Africa) and as the sun set, we headed over to the Asia area of the park for a dessert party and an incredible surprise… 

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Expedition Everest was open at night… just for us. Now, I am a huge roller coaster enthusiast, and I think Everest is one of the best rides at Walt Disney World. What would it be like at night? 

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There are few things more thrilling than seeing an empty coaster train roll up just for you, your family and friends. We were the first public audience to ride Expedition Everest at night!

As we boarded Everest, I realized this would be another #DisneyFirst for me — riding a roller coaster in a dress. It’s customary for the bloggers in attendance to dress up for the #DisneySMMC events, so I was by no means the only woman dressed semi-formally for a nighttime roller coaster ride. I snapped a quick “Are we really doing this?” selfie before the train headed out to the mountain…

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And ride we did. Over and over and over. Everest is a completely different animal at night! Disney did the right thing in leaving the mountain track largely unlit, which makes the plunges into darkness (in reverse!) incredibly thrilling and surprising. Even if you’ve ridden this beast dozens of times before, the darkness plays tricks on you. Wonderful, maddening, disorienting tricks on you. We did many things over the course of our Disney week, but riding Everest at night was at the top of our lists. 

Among the other new nighttime attractions at Disney’s Animal Kingdom is the Rivers of Light show, which will blend dance, music, light and water in a way unlike anything that’s previously been seen in the parks. Disney’s been working diligently at getting this show exactly right for its grand opening, and while we weren’t able to see it on this trip, they did give the bloggers a preview of some of the technology involved:

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The show will open with hundreds of GPS-controlled water lanterns floating into the lagoon. As the show continues, larger lanterns and water features will enter the scene.

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There are numerous, large, animal-shaped floating lanterns and an enormous lotus flower that is the centerpiece of the show. Video projection technology will project images into curtains and fountains of water. I can’t wait to see it once it’s open.

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The bloggers were also treated to a sneak peek at the costumes that the Rivers of Light performers will wear – incredibly detailed and beautiful.

As our night wound down, we were directed to head toward the Animal Kingdom’s Tree of Life, the centerpiece of the park. During the day, the enormous tree looks like this:

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The tree’s trunk features carvings of numerous animals, reptiles and birds. As I’m an avid reader of the Disney Parks Blog, I knew that the Tree of Life was supposed to “awaken” at night. There is simply no way photographs nor video can do justice to capturing what happens to this tree at night, so I’ll describe it for you. As you exit the park and look at the softly-lit tree, you start to see very subtle movements. Did that tiger just stretch out his paw and yawn? Did that lizard’s tail just swing back and forth? The entire awakening process is done though projection mapping, where high-definition video is projected onto the 3D surface of the tree. 

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(As I said, it’s very hard to capture what’s going on with a camera. It’s dazzling though. Both my boys stood silently with wide eyes, and one said “I’ve never seen anything like this before. This is incredible!”)

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As the tree awakens, more projection-mapping tells the story of several different animals on the tree. Here, the entire tree has morphed into a lion. The entire show is technologically brilliant — it’s the epitome of the term “Disney magic” —  and I think it will be a very popular way for guests to close out their days at the Animal Kingdom.


Disney’s Hollywood Studios: Star Wars Awakens!

It’s amazing how much has changed at the Studios since our visit last year. Construction of the new Toy Story and Star Wars lands is underway, and on one morning of our conference, Disney brought the bloggers over for a preview before the park opened to the public. 

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Getting a sneak peek of the new Star Wars land requires being backstage at Disney’s Hollywood Studios at 6:45am for breakfast and a meeting with Michael Roddy. (Think he’s got a great job? He certainly does. A self-professed lifelong Star Wars fan, he said he’s been ready “his whole life” for this job opportunity.) He was bursting with joy as he told us about all of the new Star Wars attractions coming to the Studios.

We couldn’t wait to take in the new Star Wars Symphony In The Stars: A Galactic Spectacular fireworks show later this evening. By summer, this show, which is choreographed to music and audio clips from the entire Star Wars saga, will feature enormous Star Wars characters on the face of the Studios’  Chinese Theater. I spoke with Michael after his presentation, and he confirmed that this new portion of the show will feature the same projection-mapping technology used on the Animal Kingdom’s Tree of Life. (Knowing that, I can only imagine how realistic and larger-than-life it will look.)

starwarslaunchbay

Next, we headed over to the new Star Wars Launch Bay for a before-hours tour and photo op. This attraction is housed inside the former animation building at the Studios, but there’s very little here that will remind you of its former purpose. If you love Star Wars, this is where the movies will come alive for you — from the moment you set foot in the building:

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The attention to detail in this exhibit is outstanding. You can also meet Chewbacca and Kylo Ren in this exhibit, depending on which side of the Force you’re feeling at the moment…

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(I let the Wookiee win.) 

Want to walk through some of your favorite Star Wars scenes? You can! I won’t spoil all of the fun things in this area of the exhibit, but who could resist posing with a drink in the cantina?

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And oh, the Jawa! We were delighted to see this Jawa roaming around. Just like in the movies, you can trade with him! Unfortunately, I’d brought nothing special to trade. After I didn’t offer anything to him, he examined my conference laminate, turned it over in his hands, then shook his head and walked away.

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Star Wars lovers are going to flip over this attraction — in fact, after looking at my Instagram photos on this morning, my husband raced over to the Studios with my children once the park opened for the day. I spent the rest of this day with Disney on blogger-only events, but the rest of my family spent quite some time playing in the Launch Bay.

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While I’d been unsuccessful in trading, my husband texted me a series of photos to let me know he’d traded our youngest son away to the Jawa:

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The Jawa sized up our son, examined him, then handed my husband a toy plastic green Army man in exchange. I did not think this was a very good trade. 

Our sons thought trading with the Jawa was great fun though. Each day we went to the Studios, they would bring little knicknacks, toys or hotel toiletries to trade with him. My youngest son traded a bar of hotel soap to the Jawa in exchange for a Lego piece, and he also traded an orange Crayola crayon for a plastic comb.  

My oldest son tried to give the Jawa a Starbucks coupon (he’s a guy after my own heart!) but the Jawa apparently had no interest in a discounted cup of joe and refused to trade. 

At night, our family enjoyed the new Star Wars Symphony In The Stars: A Galactic Spectacular fireworks show. Again, photos won’t do it justice, but if you love Star Wars, seeing fireworks synchronized to John Williams’ legendary score will move you. I especially loved the saber-like “duel” in the sky with red fireworks beams during the Imperial March. 

As the show ended, we headed for the main gate of the Studios, and I snapped this photo of our 20-year-old daughter. Yes, she’s crying. It was that good.

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I’ve got so many more photos and stories to share with you that I’m going to carry them over into another post… here’s Part Two: Our 2016 Walt Disney World trip: More Disney days, more fun!

 

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Disclosure:  I attended the 2016 Disney Social Media Moms Celebration at Walt Disney World. I paid for my and my family’s transportation and conference admission, which included lodging at Disney’s Yacht Club resort, discounted park tickets, some meals and many special events. This post contains affiliate links.

Comments

  1. Esti says

    I was also so in awe after receiving this invite again! We are still in that happy place and almost everything we see has a #hiddenmickey:)

  2. Marin says

    Love love love! Can’t wait to read more. We may may MAYBE get to go to Disney this year after almost 10 years away. So many new things. Love reading about all your adventures!

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