Holiday Greetings from American Girl's Samantha

American Girl Samantha holiday card 2014

My annual American Girl holiday card is late -- but better late than never! This year's card features the newest member of our AG family, the adorable Samantha, who made a much-welcome comeback to the historical doll line in 2014. Hope you are all having a wonderful holiday season!!

Check out my American Girl holiday card for 2013
Check out my American Girl holiday card for 2012

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Easy Holiday Stocking Stuffers

Today is Boxing Day, and after all the craziness of Christmas Day, you finally have some time to take a deep breath and do everything you meant to do before December 25, but didn't have the time for!  Here are 3 fun holiday crafts you can do with your kids -- and you can gift the results at your next holiday party!  (where I come from, the holiday parties last all the way till January, so it's totally not too late!).

Wordless Wednesday: Christmas Past

This is our family photo from ten years ago, in 2004.  How time flies!  Hope you are all having a wonderful Christmas Eve!

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Perfect macarons on the very first try!

chocolate macarons

I love macarons, but I've always been too intimidated to try baking them myself.  Every recipe I've found for macarons has a caveat: these delicate little pastries are notoriously temperamental, and it takes a lot of practice.  You'd think that macarons would be easy to make; after all, you only need four ingredients -- almond flour, egg whites, granulated sugar and powdered sugar.  But looking at photo after photo of flat, cracked, raw, misshapen macarons, it's pretty obvious that there's a reason macarons are ridiculously expensive (anywhere from $2.50 - $4.00 per teeny-tiny piece!).

A perfect macaron is small and circular, slightly puffed up, with a firm, smooth, dome on the top of the cookie and crinkly "feet" at the bottom.  It's crunchy on the outside, chewy and moist on the inside.  And it turns out there are a few tips and tricks to help you bake the perfect macaron.  Every recipe seems to have a different set of tips -- but I found the ones that worked for me at, and online learning site where you can sign up for video lessons for as little as 99 cents per lesson.  Thanks to the tips and tricks in's French Macaron Cookies lesson, The Pea and I were able to create these perfect little beauties on our first try!

chocolate macarons

Unlike the usual YouTube video tutorial, features actual teachers, instructors, or experts on a particular subject matter.'s video lessons are segmented into steps, so you can do the lesson right along with the video and easily fast forward to the step you want to view or review. You can ask questions, and the teacher will get back to you. There are assignments you can complete, which the teacher will check and provide feedback on.  Once you purchase a lesson or course (made up of several lessons), you can view it forever.  And that's just about how long I intend to be making these macarons!

Disclosure: I received a credit on so I could sign up for some of their courses and try for myself
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Turkeys, Motorcycles, and Running Shoes: The Mazda Raceway Turkey Trot

The idea of running a race on Thanksgiving has always appealed to me -- do something active and healthy before stuffing your face! -- but I've never actually done it until this year.  Alfie found out that one of his favorite motorcycle racetracks, the Mazda Raceway in Laguna Seca, CA, was hosting their second annual Turkey Trot.  It's the ideal race for us, because it's not actually a race; there's no official start time, no one is timed, and there's no pressure to finish at a certain pace.  All you have to do is show up between 7am and 11am, and you can run, walk, skip, crawl, dance, or hop the 2.238-mile circuit.  Wild horses couldn't drag The Pea to an actual race and force her to run, but since everyone could go at their own pace, she willingly came along.   Alfie was beyond excited at the chance to set foot on the actual track where motorcycle legends like Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner race their bikes.  Even better, the $10 fee (just $10, the cheapest ever!) all went to benefit the Food Bank of Monterey.

Wordless Wednesday: Cake

Minion cake

Today, November 26, is National Cake Day!  To celebrate, I've posted a photo of the adorable Minion cake that The Pea baked and decorated when she was 12, as well as a link to a recipe for one of my favorite kinds of cake, chocolate mousse cake. Enjoy!

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5 Tips for Car Shoppers

Kia Soul

We're proud to announce our latest addition to the family!  Before you order that cute onesie, know that my uterus is closed for business; our new baby is a Kia Soul wagon. Alfie's BMW sedan is nearing its 20-year mark, and we wanted a car to drive around town that didn't use up as much gas as our van.  We decided on the Soul after test driving one for a week (take note, PR companies -- these programs work!!).  We felt that the Soul had all the high end features we wanted, at a great price.  When we saw the tv ads about great Black Friday financing on the Kia Soul, we decided to bite the bullet.  The whole process took 3 days: we saw the ad on Friday, visited one dealer on Saturday, visited another dealer on Sunday, and picked up the car on Monday.  The dealer visits were mainly to check out interior and exterior colors; we did all of the price shopping online and all of the negotiating via text.

It has been 10 years since we bought our last vehicle (the van), and although technology has changed a lot since then, the art of purchasing a car hasn't.  For those of you who haven't been in the car-buying market in a while, there were a few things had to re-learn. I'm glad we did them, because we ended up saving a bundle of money.  Here are my five gems of advice for anyone looking to purchase a car:

Something new and something blue at the American Girl Store

It has been a while since I've dropped by the American Girl Store at the Stanford Shopping Center, and since the holidays are coming up, I thought I'd pay them a visit so I can get a good look at their current offerings and see which items are going to make it into my American Girl Holiday Gift Guide.  As usual, I'd love to get pretty much everything, but there were quite a few new items that caught my eye (note, the full holiday collection is not yet in stores, so I'm going to hold back on my AG gift guide for a couple of weeks!).  Here are my favorite new items at the American Girl Store so far:

Veggie Fresh: Mountain View's undiscovered secret for great vegan food

Do not be fooled by its commonplace appearance. Like so many things, it is not what outside, but what is inside that counts.

The character in the Disney movie Aladdin was talking about Aladdin's magic lamp (and Aladdin himself), but this quote applies equally to restaurants.  Don't dismiss a restaurant just because it looks like a dive!  Almost everyone I know will agree that some of the best food they've eaten can be had places where they spend money on the food, not the decor. 

Our current favorite Chinese restaurant, Veggie Garden, is the perfect example. If you were to drive by this restaurant, you wouldn't give it a second look.  It's right in the middle of a strip mall, sandwiched between a beauty salon and an acupuncturist.  I'm not sure what made me stop that day -- maybe it was the amazing smell -- but I'm so glad I did.  Judging from its outside appearance, Veggie Fresh is just another greasy spoon join, but once you step in, you'll find yourself in an ultra-clean, neat, and bright place to eat.  

Candy, anyone?

We are up to our ears in Halloween candy.  Literally.  Last week our school had a Halloween Candy for Troops donation drive, and guess who coordinated it?  Yup, yours truly.  It seems that not only did everyone's little ghouls and goblins collect far more candy than they were allowed to eat, people also bought far more candy than they could give away.  We received giant bags of candy that hadn't even been opened!  If I had a phone booth, I could fill it from bottom to top with candy.

Nacho Fries Casserole

Nacho Fries Casserole

I wear a multitude of hats in my life these days, so it's always a big win for me when I'm able to multi-task.   Last night's Nacho Fries was a great example.  With that one simple dish, I managed to kill four birds with one stone (okay, that sounded really brutal, but you know what I mean).  First and second, I was able to create content for two different campaigns -- CravOn Fries (one of the ingredients) and Corningware (the casserole I served it in).  Third, I was able to write this blog post.   And fourth, my family was able to enjoy a delicious dinner.

Halloween Costume Watch 2014: Bank Robber

Whew! The Pea's bank robber costume came right down to the wire: I came downstairs today at 7AM and found her furiously making black masks.  I told her there was no way she would be able to make it to school on time without my help at this point, so why didn't she ask for help sooner.  She said she didn't want to stress me out.  Like cutting out felt masks when I'm supposed to be doing a million other things isn't stressful!  Sigh. Kids. I do appreciate her thoughtfulness, though.

The Pea is certainly spreading her wings.  This year, she and her bank robber posse are trick or treating by themselves, without an adult.  The idea freaked me out at first -- four thirteen year-olds, on the craziest night of the year, all by themselves!!  But I consulted my Facebook posse and almost all of them said it would be okay.  And when I think about it, they're right.  The Pea and her friends are good kids, very responsible, not flighty at all.  As long as we set the appropriate boundaries (location and time wise), and ask them to check in every now and then (thank God for mobile phones!), everything will be fine.  I know they'll be fine.  I'm just not sure about me!  But I'm going to be like Elsa and LET IT GO......

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Don't Drink and Fly (or Drive) on Halloween!

Halloween safety

Yesterday I posted about the things you need to take with you when you're trick-or-treating with your kids.  One of the most important items is a flashlight, because when it's dark and you have kids running around looking for candy, the last thing they're thinking about is road safety.  We need flashlights to make sure drivers see us.... but we also need drivers to realize that they need to take even more care than usual.  They have to remember that there will be little kids in dark robes crossing the street, darting in and out between parked cars in their excitement.  The last thing they need is a driver who shouldn't be out on the road... in other words a driver that has been drinking.

Halloween Costume Watch 2014: Minnie Mouse

Minnie Mouse Halloween costume

Minnie Mouse is such an easy and fun character that I don't know why it took me so long to dress up as her for Halloween.  She was an easy choice for this year, because I already had my hands full helping 3Po and Jammy with their costumes, and I've had this costume assembled since April!  I made the skirt and collar at the Disney Social Media Moms fun run, so I was good to go.  I just swapped my running shorts for leggings, my tech tshirt for a sleeved cotton tee, and my Minnie ears cap for a Minnie ears headband. Easy peasy!

How to make an Arabian Nights costume

1001 Arabian Nights / Aladdin costume

Every year the PTA at our elementary school hosts a fancy dress fundraiser. It's always held on the third weekend of October, so parents like to come in a costume that matches the party theme.  This year's theme was 1001 Arabian nights, so we had a lot of Arab sheiks, sultans, genies, and belly dancers.

There's a huge variety of costumes for this theme available for sale.  Most of the women's costumes are pretty skimpy, though; they're totally inappropriate for a school social event, even an adults-only one!  And many of them require more of a $$ investment than I'm willing to make for just one night. I found it cheaper and more fun to put a costume together myself by purchasing individual costume items.

Halloween Costume Watch 2014: Clash of Clans Barbarian King

Clash of Clans Barbarian King costume

Jammy had a lot of trouble figuring out what costume he wanted to wear this Halloween. His brother 3Po already had an awesome Chinese dragon head, and Jammy is extremely competitive by nature, so he wanted something with a significant "Wow" factor.  He and his friends are crazy about the Clash of Clans game, so I suggested dressing up as a member of the clan: the barbarian king.

Must-have items to take with you while Trick-or-Treating

Halloween trick-or-treating

Costumes? Check. Trick or treat bag? Check.  House keys? Check.  Phone? Check.  You may think you're all ready to go out trick or treating, but consider this: you're going out walking, in the dark, with a group of excited kids who are likely to consume large amounts of candy and get even more hyperactive.  Unless you want the evening to dissolve into tears and tantrums (or an early abandonment of your trick-or-treat plans), you'll want to bring a lot more than that.

This is our 14th year of taking a child trick-or-treating on Halloween night, and over the years, I've amassed a must-have list of items to have with me.  Here's my list of items to pack in your Halloween night purse to make trick-or-treating less stressful and more fun:

Halloween Costumewatch 2014: Chinese Dragon

I don't mind spending on Halloween costumes -- it's my favorite holiday, after all -- I try to encourage the kids to alternate between buying a costume one year, and then making or assembling it the next. I've been kind of lax in enforcing it with the boys, so this year I redoubled my efforts to get them to make their own costumes, and save a few bucks in the process.  As it turned out, I think I spent more on raw materials for this year's costumes than if I had just bought costumes from a store.... but we did have a great time making the costumes, and they ended with kickass costumes that will blow those generic store-bought costumes out of the water!

Wordless Wednesday: Nuts

nuts pistachios

Today, October 22, is National Nut Day!  No, not the crazy people kind of nuts, the yummy, nutritious snack kind of nuts.  To celebrate, I'm posting a photo of one of my favorite kinds of nuts -- pistachios -- as well as a link to my recipe for Nutty Howloween Cookies_.  Enjoy!

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Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival

I've just realized that this blog is over 8 years old and has absolutely no mention of the Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival.  This is a serious omission, because the Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival is our favorite festival in the entire region (I did write about why I love the HMB Pumpkin Festival over on Silicon Valley Mamas a couple of years ago).  We've attended the festival every year for almost a decade, and despite the crowds and traffic, we can't wait for the next festival to arrive.

Halloween Boo Bag Printables

We've halfway to Halloween night, but around here the spooky fun begins long before October 31. There are just way too many Halloween crafts and activities and parties to enjoy -- and we put in way too much effort on our Halloween costumes to show them off on just one night -- so we like to celebrate Halloween all month long!

How to make a Chinese Dragon Mask for your American Girl Doll

This year, 3Po decided he wants to be a Chinese Dragon for Halloween.  I put my creative hat on and helped him search for tutorials for make-your-own Chinese Dragon costumes. I found a great YouTube tutorial for a parade dragon and came up with a pattern based on their dragon head. I decided to make a small-scale prototype to see whether it would be feasible for us to make it without all the industrial equipment on the video.  By this time, I had spent so much time on the project, I decided to turn the prototype into an American Girl doll craft!  After all, dolls need Halloween costumes too, right?

Pumpkin Chocolate Cheesecake Bars

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cheesecake Bars

I had some pureed pumpkin left over from last week's Pumpkin Cranberry Cookies, and since those were gobbled up pretty quickly, I decided to make another pumpkin baked treat.  After all, there's no sense in letting perfectly good pumpkin puree go to waste!  I just happened to have another box of spice cake mix (I always buy cake mix in pairs!), so I went back to The Ultimate Cake Mix Cookie Book -- but I couldn't find the combination of ingredients I was hankering for, so I decided to use the cookbook's basic bar cookie recipe as an inspiration to create my own!

For this treat, I wanted a pumpkin bar cookie, with some cheesecake batter swirled in.  I also wanted to add some chocolate chips, because let's face it, chocolate makes everything taste better. Here's what I came up with.  The name -- Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cheesecake Bars -- is quite a mouthful, but then so is the treat.

How to weave an American Girl Doll Rug

Thanks to fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel, most kids know that cotton is spun into thread, and thread is woven into cloth, but most kids these days have never seen a spindle or a loom in action, let alone know how to spin or weave. Most of the looms available in craft stores are the rainbow kind, but if you want to give your child a basic idea of how to weave thread into cloth, all you need is some yarn and a paper plate.

We first tried paper plate weaving at St. Fagan's National History Museum in Wales, and I couldn't believe how it kept all 3 of my kids occupied -- they were 11 and 8 at the time, and they hadn't done yarn crafts for years!  They wanted to stay in the crafts center and continue weaving, allowing Alfie and me the opportunity to enjoy a romantic walk around St. Fagan's Castle (hey, when you have 3 kids, you take romance whenever you can find it!).  The resulting circle is perfect as an American Girl doll rug!

  1. Draw 8 lines through the center of a paper plate, dividing it into 16 equal wedges. Cut about 1" off the edge of the plate.
  2. Wind yarn through the slits formed by the cuts you made, forming spokes of yarn...
  3. ...coming across the back of the paper plate.
  4. Starting at the center, weave yarn in and out of the yarn spokes.
  5. Once your rug is the desired size, slip off the loops of yarn, cut and tie.
  6. Flatten your doll rug. Iron and starch if necessary.

Head over to my latest post on Bedtime Math for more detailed, step-by-step instructions (with photos at each step).  It's a lot of fun, and it will keep kids of any age busy for hours......

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Pumpkin Cranberry Chocolate Chip Cookies

It's almost October, and my fall baking season has begun!  I've already stocked up on Trader Joe's pumpkin bread mix, and I've bought lots of pumpkin puree for those other times when I want to bake from scratch.  My first baked treat of the season is a mixture of both:  you start with a cake mix, but you add flour, eggs, and other ingredients to make it your own.  This one is from The Ultimate Cake Mix Cookie Book, and it's called Whole Wheat Pumpkin Breakfast Cookies.  Since it has whole wheat flour and pureed pumpkin, I guess the author figured it was as least as healthy as the breakfast muffins you buy at your local bakery.  I added chocolate chips, so I'm not even pretending that it's anything but a yummy treat :)  These cookies are soft and cakey and super delicious.  However, they're on the dry side -- so you'll want to have them with a cup of tea or a glass of milk!

Opening a new door: Bedtime Math

This is usually the time of the year when I like to get crafty.  I think the start of the school year and the excitement of October and Halloween gets my creative juices flowing.  Whether it's a Lego  minifigure organizer or Halloween decor or Halloween costume how-tos (for both dolls and humans) or a dessert recipe or school lunch ideas,  my post output always tends to be higher in the fall.

10 Reasons to visit the Disneyland Resort in the fall

The Disneyland Resort is a wonderful place any time of the  year, but if you held a gun to my head, I would have to say that my favorite time to visit is in the Fall.  Yes, you do get all the extended park hours in the summer and you do get all the holiday splendor in the winter and you do get all the excitement during spring break, but autumn at the Disneyland Resort is not to be missed.  Here's why:

Die, Rats, Die!!

This is not a rat.


I don't care if that photo shows a CGI rat or a puppet rat or a guy in a rat costume. That photo sums up everything a rat is:  Scary. Dirty.  Vicious.  Nasty.  Gross.

And they're living in my house!!!

Wordless Wednesday: National Cheeseburger Day

Tomorrow, September 18, is National Cheeseburger Day!  My favorite cheeseburger is In-N-Out, what's yours?

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Our introduction to Scotch Whisky

Scotch whiskey

Going to Scotland without sampling Scotch whisky (note: in most countries it's spelled "whiskey" but in Scotland it's "whisky" without the "e"!) is like going to Napa without sampling wine.  When we decided to go on a road trip to Scotland this summer, we had visions of hopping from distillery to distillery, savoring different kinds of Scotch.  Alas, it was not to be; our whisky tour is going to have to wait till a future visit, but we did get to learn about whisky production and taste a few great whiskies on this trip.

How to make the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge more meaningful to your child

When I first heard of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, my initial reaction was one of distaste.  I'm all for raising awareness for causes you care about, but I didn't like the "hey look at me, I'm so cool" part, and I didn't like the "take the challenge or donate" part.  It seemed like a case of empty actions -- if you don't donate, all you have to do is pour a bucket of ice water over your head, and you feel good about yourself because you think you've done something to help the cause?  Instead of buying a bag of ice, why not donate that money to ALS research?  Here in California, we have another issue -- we're in a severe drought, so it's a waste of water.

First Day of School, and the Beginning of the End

Today is the first day of the schoolyear, and I'm feeling all nostalgic.  See, it's 3Po's and Jammy's first day of 5th grade, and The Pea's first day of 8th grade.  Next year they'll be moving on to middle school and high school.  That means it's our last year at the elementary school that we've been going to since 2006, when The Pea first entered kindergarten.

Things I didn't know about Monsanto

Monsanto is a company that people love to hate.  There are many companies that attract controversy: Nestle, Walmart, McDonald's, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, to name just a few, not to mention just about any oil company, tobacco company or bank.  But none of them, not even Philip Morris or RJ Reynolds, is as universally negatively viewed (reviled, even) as Monsanto.

So why did I agree to spend a day with Monsanto at their research facility in Woodland?  I guess I wanted to hear what they had to say.  Are they really worse than Morris or RJ Reynolds, the companies who marketed tobacco to minors and concealed research proving that smoking is addictive and lethal?  Or can a company that was recently defended by Neil Degrasse Tyson -- the spokesperson for science and logic, every liberal's hero -- be all bad?  

After a day spent walking through fields and tasting all kinds of fruits and vegetables, I think Monsanto succeeded in showing me and a few other bloggers that they're not just about GMOs. We actually had a fascinating day learning about traditional plant breeding techniques, what kinds of characteristics are valued in different markets (For instance, did you know that markets in Brazil and South America generally prefer their watermelons large and seeded?  And that Brazilians and Japanese also like yellow-fleshed watermelons?), and how breeders try to come up with varieties of fruits and vegetables with the traits that match those markets.  The Pea came along with me, and I took the opportunity to show her another career path for people interested in math and science (Many of the breeders have PhD's; they even have a guy with a PhD in taste!).

At the end of the day, I learned 4 important things:

There are only 8 GMO crops approved in the US  Alfalfa, canola, corn, cotton, papaya, soybean, sugar beets, and squash.  Every other crop -- fruit, vegetable, grain, etc.. -- is conventional.

You're probably already consuming GMOs.   In the U.S., GMOs are in as much as 80% of conventional processed food. Cereals, crackers, chips, bread, cookies, canned soup, bottled sauces, condiments, drinks and many more can contain canola, corn, soy, or sugar.  Brands such as Betty Crocker, Duncan Hines, Pepperidge Farms, Kellogg's, Nestle, Nabisco, Heinz, Coca-Cola, and many more use GMO ingredients.  This has been the case for about 15 years now, since the late '90s when GM crops became widespread.

Monsanto is not the only producer of GMO seeds.  Their competitors are Syngenta, Bayer, and BASF, although Monsanto does dominate the market (Monsanto controls 80 percent of the GM corn market, and 93 percent of the GM soy market in the US).

Monsanto also develops conventional seeds. As I mentioned before, there are only 8 GMO crops in the US.  Monsanto offers more than 2,000 seed varieties in 22 different crop families -- broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, melons, watermelons, tomatoes, peppers and more. They develop their seeds using traditional plant breeding techniques, and 98 percent of Monsanto's R&D budget is spend on traditional breeding programs.

So now I'm left wondering whether some portion of the anti-Monsanto sentiment is a result of extremely poor PR.  Of course, Monsanto didn't do themselves any favors by developing saccharine, Agent Orange, or the bovine growth hormone BGH (thankfully they don't do any of those things now). The fact that they sell GMO products and pesticides guarantees that they'll always be controversial.  But surely farmers have a choice -- they can choose to plant GMO seed or choose to plant conventional seed. They can choose to buy pesticides or use alternative, sustainable farming methods, or go organic.

Does this mean I'm now Monsanto's new corporate mouthpiece?  Heck, no! Before everyone starts filling up the comments section with insults, I want to state for the record that while I don't think Monsanto is the devil incarnate, I don't think they're angels, either. Like many/most big businesses nowadays, I don't see any evidence that their mission is to do anything but to make as much money as they can.  I'm always suspicious of companies who enjoy such overwhelming market dominance that they can almost be considered a monopoly.

What bugs me the most about Monsanto is not that they make GMOs: what bugs me is their stance on GMO labeling.  They support voluntary labeling but feel that mandatory labeling sends the wrong message about GMOs since current mandatory labeling laws deal with safety issues.

Sorry Monsanto, I disagree.  Whether or not GMOs are safe (and I can point to studies that support both sides of the issue!), people deserve to know what's in their foods.  It's called informed consent! If poll after poll shows that the majority wants to know whether something contains GMOs, then Monsanto should respect their preferences.  Maybe people might even change their minds about GMOs once they read the labels and see how many of the foods they consume every day already contain GMOs ("Well, nothing has happened to me or my family so far...").   Maybe if they didn't lobby so hard against GMO labeling bills, their image and reputation might improve.   Maybe Monsanto should take a cue from McDonald's and Coca-Cola: they both clearly label their products with calorie count and nutrition information!

In many ways, Monsanto is like McDonald's or Coca-Cola. They both sell some good things, but mostly junk. They both fiercely defend their technology and their trademarks.  But unlike Monsanto, McDonald's and Coca-Cola both seem to have a positive image in the US, and an even more positive image worldwide. I'm at a loss to understand why.

Disclosure: Monsanto provided a transportation stipend and lunch for the Woodland Monsanto blogger tour. No other form of compensation was received. All views and opinions expressed are my own.

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10 Reasons to Attend Mickey's Halloween Party

photo credit: Disneyland News

We're still on summer vacation, but the Disneyland Resort is already preparing for Halloween!  Their Halloween Time season is set for September 12 through October 31, 2014, and tickets for Mickey's Halloween Party are already on sale.

We attended Mickey's Halloween Party for the first time last year, and it was an amazing experience.  Halloween is my favorite time of the year, and my favorite time to visit the Disneyland Resort, so Mickey's Halloween Party was basically the culmination of everything that I enjoy in a great party!  I would definitely recommend it to any family.  I've listed 10 things that make Mickey's Halloween Party an experience like no other.  Here are 10 reasons why I love Mickey's Halloween Party -- and 10 reasons why you should go: