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Get your Disney theme park fix at home

Most of Disney's theme parks remain closed, but there are ways to bring home the sights, sounds -- even smells -- of a Disney vacation.

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Even though Walt Disney World Resort in Florida is closed, essential employees are still on site, including the Disney security team, which continues to raise and lower the American flag each day in Town Square at Magic Kingdom.
Disney

Those big plans to take my family to Disney this year? Yeah, we had to let it go. I know many families are feeling the same disappointment, with most Disney theme parks and resorts closed indefinitely during the coronavirus pandemic. But even if we can't see it in person, there are ways to transport the senses to bring the magic home. 

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This week, Disney will start to test the waters of reopening with Disney Springs, a dining and shopping complex in the Orlando, Florida, area. But that's just a place to grab a bite to eat and buy some Mickey merch without a park ticket. For now, the rest of Walt Disney World Resort in Florida will remain closed. 

What makes Disney parks so special to me is how they incorporate all the senses to fully immerse you into a new world -- be it a visitor to Batuu in the outer rim of a galaxy far, far away, an eco-tourist to the bioluminescent planet of floating mountains and flying banshees or becoming new friends with toys, shrunk down to play inside Andy's backyard

You could say I'm a bit of a Disney nut. I've covered new theme park attractions over the past few years, and I also made countless trips with family growing up in Florida near Disney World. Even though I can't take my son on his first trip this year to meet Mickey yet, or show my daughter Galaxy's Edge and face off against Kylo Ren, these are some of my tips for how I get my parks fix at home.

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Two years ago, my daughter met Rapunzel on her first trip to Disney World. Moments like this you just can't recreate at home. But there are ways to transport yourself back to those memories.

Bridget Carey/CNET

A stream is a wish your heart makes

So much of the good feels of Disney come from the background music played around the parks. The twang of Frontierland, the upbeat retro-futurism feel of Tomorrowland, the chill woodwinds and rhythms of nature from Animal Kingdom -- all of it is great for changing your stuck-at-home vibe. 

Disney has some official playlists of park music that you can find streaming on Apple Music and Spotify, but the library can feel limited to a nerd like me who wants more instrumental, atmospheric tunes and fewer sing-a-longs of pirate shanties. I personally like unofficial fan-made streaming radio stations, like Sorcerer Radio

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The key to a balanced Disney parks breakfast: Mickey Waffles.

Disney

A spoonful of sugar helps the quarantine go down

Bring yourself back to your favorite vacation memories with a taste of your favorite park snacks. Disney has released a bunch of recipes for famous snacks, like Churro Bites, or my favorite, a take on the popular pineapple ice cream treat known as Dole Whip. Some snack-making how-tos are posted on the My Disney Experience app and others are on the Disney Parks blog. There's a whole menu of dishes from resort restaurants here, featured on DisneyMagicMoments.com -- some simple, some more elaborate.

A proper Disney breakfast involves Mickey Waffles, but if you can't get a Mickey waffle maker, try dabbling in another popular breakfast item from the Polynesian Village Resort in Florida: Tonga Toast.

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The pineapple soft-serve treat Dole Whip can be made at home by blending one scoop of vanilla ice cream, four ounces of pineapple juice, and two cups of frozen pineapple.

Disney

When you wish upon a smell

For me, instant happiness is smelling Disney water. It's something to do with how it chemically treats the fountain and ride water that brings back my childhood vacation memories. 

Some folks have tried to capture park smells like ride water in candle form. Over at MagicallyScented.com, you can get Pirate Water, a dark-gray colored candle that's musty and salty, resembling parts of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Or there's Xyrena's Dark Ride cologne, featuring notes of chlorinated water, theatrical fog, pyrotechnics and a hint of atmospheric mildew and damp ozone.

There are plenty of other rides with their own memory-jolting smells: burning embers and smoke puts me in Spaceship Earth at Epcot. Pine-scented mountains, salty oceans and orange groves has me flying over California in Soarin'. And of course cotton candy and kettle corn is very Main Street USA. 

A whole new (virtual) world

Ah, but you want to see the parks? There are creative ways to do that, too. 

There are plenty of point-of-view ride videos, where you can watch the action from the front row. Disney even posted a few of its new and classic rides. You can also get perfect seats to a nighttime fireworks show in front of the castle. 

But if you have a VR headset you can take it up a notch. Search YouTube for 360-degree ride videos for a more immersive* experience. The YouTube channel Virtual Disney World has a bunch to pick from. (*Splash effects not included.)

If you want to run around the park on your own terms, check out a video game called Disneyland Adventures, which is available on Xbox One and as a download on Steam. The game came out in 2018, so before all the Star Wars area additions, but you roam around the park doing random missions and even get some autographs and hugs from your favorite characters. Rides have their own mini challenges. 

Or you could always make your own theme park, like the Twitter user who calls himself Weary Bones, who used Animal Crossing: New Horizons to re-create the Haunted Mansion as his character's home inside the Nintendo game.

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Paint with all the colors of the wind

Discover your inner Disney animator with drawing lessons from the experts themselves. Disney has posted drawing tutorial videos for dozens of popular characters. 

The DisneyMagicMoments.com site and My Disney Experience app both feature various activities and crafts -- a daily little spark of inspiration. And you can try to think like a parks imagineer with Khan Academy's Imagineering in a Box -- a free online course that shows you how artists, designers and engineers work together to create theme parks. 

It may be bittersweet to have remote magic now, but I'm having fun in small ways with crafts, or playing dress up with the kids, and looking forward to the day we can have that big family trip again. Because as they say, there's a great, big beautiful tomorrow.