Spring Break deals: Fares up overall, best deals can be found to Florida, Europe

The folks over at Bing Travel have been studying up on 2011 Spring Break airfare, and we hate to break it to you, but they’ve found that the average airfare cost is up more than 10 percent over last year, to $489. But the airfare increase doesn’t have to stop the beach party. If you choose wisely, there are still plenty of Spring Break deals to be had.

Bing’s Spring Break Travel Forecast says that lower fares on flights to Florida (particularly Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, Miami, Orlando and Tampa) can still be found. The average fare for Boston to Jacksonville is $233, and you can fly from San Francisco to Tampa for $300.

And while many overseas airfares have risen since last year, average airfares from several U.S. cities to Paris, Amsterdam and Rome have dropped as much as 13 percent over Spring Break season fares in 2010.

If you are just settling into spring break planning mode, here are some tips from Bing on finding the best spring break deals:

  • Be Flexible. Now we would never suggest skipping a day of classes, but, ahem, you will do better on airfare if you’re not trying to travel on weekend days like your Spring Break brethren. Monday to Monday or Tuesday to Tuesday fares will almost always be better. And if a school schedule isn’t determining when you vacation this spring, you will likely save money by going at the beginning of March or April rather than the middle of either month.
  • Use Online Tools. You can monitor your airfares and get notices when they drop on a certain route from a number of different online services. Bing’s Price Predictor shows you whether airfares on your chosen route and dates are rising or falling, to help you decide when to buy.
  • Be Aware of Hidden Fees. Be sure you know what you will be charged for checked baggage, overweight luggage, aisle or exit row seats before you hit the airport.

Bing is giving away five $100 travel stipends for 2011 spring break travel on Twitter. To enter, tweet @fareologist with where you’d like to go for spring break. Check out the contest’s official rules before entering.

[Image credit: Flickr user Dawn Huczek]

Jack Black visits Atlanta zoo to name ‘Kung Fu Panda’ cub

Actor Jack Black visits with Po, the giant panda cub at Zoo Atlanta.The only giant panda cub born in the United States last year got a name this morning. And his name is Po.

In a bit of cuddly promotional goodness, actor Jack Black, who voices the character Po in the “Kung Fu Panda” movies, was on hand this morning at the little guy’s naming ceremony at Zoo Atlanta.

And the whole thing was sponsored by Dreamworks Animation. Who would have guessed it?

Raymond King, president and CEO of the Atlanta zoo, says Black “has already helped to bring the importance of saving this species to a new generation of conservationists.”

Zoo Atlanta says Dreamworks is partnering with it to help panda conservation programs at the Chengdu Research Base and other panda reserves in China.

No details on Dreamworks’ donation have been released. But the zoo wants you to know that “Kung Fu Panda 2,” also starring Jack Black, opens May 26, 2011, on movie screens around the U.S.

You can get a live look at Po on Zoo Atlanta’s Panda Cam.

Disney vacations: Why we go


Walt Disney World
is the most visited resort in the world. Other Disney resorts and Disney cruises remain huge destinations worldwide. Yet, a Disney vacation is also maligned by many people.

Believe me, I’ve heard all the negatives: It’s overly programmed; it’s pedestrian; it’s gimmicky; it’s hot and miserable (or cold and miserable, as the case may be).

And as a journalist who covers Disney, I have to admit that many of my trips to “The World” feel a whole lot more like work than vacation, even with my family in tow.

After a marathon couple of weeks trying to cover all the holiday happenings at Disney Parks, I spent the first half of January in Disney burn-out. But I was reminded again last week why I – and many other moms – bring our kids on Disney vacations.

While watching the fireworks at the Magic Kingdom, Tinker Bell took off from Cinderella Castle to make her nightly flight. My 7-year-old daughter, who has seen these same fireworks dozens of times, turned to me, eyes sparkling, and squealed, “Mom, Tinkerbell waved at ME!”

I cannot even express the joy I felt in that moment. I can only say it was worth a million not-so-great moments waiting in line, sweating, and dealing with kids’ meltdowns and obnoxious grown-ups on vacation.

It’s a sentiment Walt Disney Company CEO Bob Iger agreed with when I interviewed him last week on board the Disney Dream.

A father and grandfather himself, Iger has a built-in focus group at home, and it keeps him centered on Disney’s core values.

“Watching through my kids’ eyes reinforces the richest and most valuable quality of Disney – the impact we have on kids and families,” Iger said.

Sure, enjoying a Disney vacation requires a little leap, a little suspension of reality. And no, it doesn’t give you a sense of the place you’ve traveled or a look into the real people who live there.

But I still urge you to try it sometime. And when you do, go with a kid.

Because as far as I’m concerned, Tinker Bell really does fly out of Cinderella Castle every night. And she really did pick my daughter out of the crowd last week and wave specifically at her.

And it was magical.

Disneyland’s Splash Mountain to be closed this spring

If you plan to visit Southern Cailfornia this spring, a ride on Splash Mountain won’t be in the cards. Disneyland’s famous water ride is closed for refurbishment until just before Memorial Day.

The 4-month closure is part of a regular refurbishment program at Disneyland. Big rides get spruced up every 5 to 10 years, and it was Splash Mountain’s turn, reports the Orange County Register.

Splash Mountain opened at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, in 1989. It is a 9-minute long log flume ride that winds through scenes from Song of the South, the classic Disney film that tells the stories of Brer Rabbit. At the end, Splash Mountain riders find Brer Rabbit’s laughing place – at the bottom of a five-story drop.

The ride has become one of Disney’s iconic attractions, and versions of Splash Mountain have spread to two other Disney theme parks, Tokyo Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

No major changes to Disneyland’s Splash Mountain are expected during the refurbishment period.

[Image credit: Flickr user lrargerich]

Disney World debuts new castle projection show


Walt Disney World’s marketing push for 2011 is all about making memories, and the theme park behemoth put more than 500 of them on display on its most famous icon, Cinderella Castle, Tuesday night.

A new nighttime show, called “The Magic, The Memories and You” was previewed for media at the Magic Kingdom near Orlando, Florida.

The show features images captured daily by Disney’s PhotoPass photographers – those guys and gals who ask you to stop so they can take your picture – and projected on to Cinderella Castle in a show set to music. At least, that’s what I was expecting. What I saw was way more elaborate than that.

Through the use of animation from 16 different projectors, the castle’s turrets spin, vines wind up its walls, and flames engulf it, all while photos dance across the facade. It’s visually stunning, dramatic, and, well, a bit trippy. One guest at the media preview said the show reminded him of performances of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.”“It’s a heck of a lot more than a slideshow on a castle,” said Alan Bruun, associate creative director for Walt Disney World Entertainment.

The 10-minute show features familiar Disney tunes threaded around a new song named, aptly, “Let the Memories Begin.”

Show producers started by digitally mapping the castle, to ensure a truly 3D projection on its facade. The castle projection show was then storyboarded as if it were a short film, Bruun said. Animators made the story boards come to life, creating slots for 500 photos from that day in the park.

The 500 photos are hand-selected and cropped, but a computer ultimately decides which photo goes into which slot in the show.

“It’s an amazing and complex process,” Bruun said. “But it involves just as much high-touch as it does high-tech, as individuals select those photograhs before the computer populates the castle with them.”

While there are some large projections, many of the photos are used in photo-mosaic images, and are on the small side. So, you may not be able to pick yours out as they move quickly by. And if you’re worried about photo privacy at Disney, you can opt out and keep your photo from being considered for the show.

“The Magic, The Memories and You” will be projected onto Cinderella Castle each night, twice a night when the park stays open late.

A similar projection show will debut at Disneyland in California on Jan. 27. It will be projected onto the facade of the It’s a Small World ride.