By Robert Niles
ORLANDO -- I'm in Central Florida this week, mostly cover the opening of Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin at SeaWorld, but I'll be stopping by Walt Disney World during my visit as well (and maybe Universal Orlando -- see below). I'm taking requests -- if you have something in the Orlando theme parks (including Downtown Disney or CityWalk) you'd love to see full-on reviewed here on Theme Park Insider, please let me know in the comments, and I'll see what I can do for you!
We're on our way to SeaWorld! (Photo by TH Creative)
Taking a moment for much more important news, though, the folks at Holiday World are raising money for the American Red Cross to provide relief for the many people who've lost their homes, and more, in the tornado that struck the Oklahoma City area this week. Holiday World's put up a package with admission tickets, VIP pampering and a trunkload of memorabilia. If you'd like the details, and to bid, visit the Holiday World website. The auction's open until next Tuesday.
Returning to Orlando news, NBC's Today Show will be broadcasting from Universal Orlando this week, on Thursday morning. (Remember that NBCUniversal owns, well, NBC and Universal.) It's a lock that the Today Show crew will be promoting Universal Studios Florida's new Transformers ride during the show -- which leads one to wonder: If Matt Laurer gets to ride this week, can a public soft opening be too far away?
Switching focus to Disney, our resident Jungle Cruise advocate, TH Creative, appears on the Jungle Crews podcast this week to share the love for his favorite attraction.
And if you're in the mood to share the love for your favorite Disney attractions, Disney's now joined the late 20th century and begun accepting reader reviews of its attractions on the Walt Disney World website. (Just like you've been able to do here since 1999!) And, yes, even Disney's own website users rate Stitch's Great Escape with lousy reviews. The feature's in Beta now, so we'll have to wait a bit to see what Disney chooses to do with this much more public customer input.
By Robert Niles
Universal Orlando over the weekend kicked off what promises to be the latest round of Orlando-area theme park ticket price increases. Universal raised its one-day, one-park base ticket price from $89 to $92, before tax.
Universal is betting that its major construction at Universal Orlando will drive demand for Universal theme park tickets, allowing it to raise prices this week. Photo by TH Creative.
A single-day ticket that gets you into both parks -- Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure -- went up four bucks, from $124 to $128. As before, you can find much better per-day ticket prices on multi-day purchases. On its website, Universal is offering to US and Canadian residents a three-day admission ticket for $146.99 for park-to-park and $125.99 for one-park-a-day access. That puts your per-day admission cost under $50.
History shows that whenever one of the Big Three in Orlando -- Disney, Universal and SeaWorld -- raises prices, at least one of the others follows. So if you're on the fence about buying Walt Disney World or SeaWorld Orlando tickets, you might want to hurry up and do it before those parks match Universal's increase.
By Robert Niles
Third in our series of trip-planning posts, for visits to the world's top theme parks
Walt Disney envisioned EPCOT as an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, where people would live, work and play in a new urban community, designed for modern efficiency. But he died before his "Florida project" could be completed. Walt's successors at the Walt Disney Company honored his vision with Epcot Center (now, just "Epcot"), a kind of permanent world's fair, with sections devoted to modern scientific and industrial accomplishments (Future World), as well as to the nations of the world (World Showcase).
The iconic Spaceship Earth at Walt Disney World's Epcot
What to do before you go
Epcot was the second of the four Walt Disney World theme parks. Please see our guide to the Magic Kingdom for advice on booking hotels and buying tickets to the Walt Disney World Resort.
Epcot's most popular attraction might be its restaurants. Each of the nations in World Showcase features at least one restaurant, including many table service restaurants that rank among the better theme park restaurants in the world. Getting for Advance Dining Reservations well before your trip is a must when planning a visit to Epcot. Call +1-407-WDW-DINE or visit Disney World's website to book, up to six months in advance of your visit. The toughest table in Epcot is Canada's Le Cellier Steakhouse, but Theme Park Insider readers also give high marks to Teppan Edo and Tokyo Dining in Japan, the Garden Grill in the Land pavilion, and Monsieur Paul in France, a fine-dining restaurant open only for dinner, where the bill can run higher than at any other in-park Disney restaurant in the world. Visit our Epcot listings page for a complete list of restaurants in the park.
Herb-crusted rack of lamb at Monsieur Paul
Visitors on the Disney Dining Plan (often sold as an ad-on with on-property Disney hotel vacation packages) flock to Epcot's restaurants to use their meal credits, due to the relative high quality of the park's restaurants, so call as early as you can to secure tables at the restaurants you want.
With dining bringing in lots of locals, too, Epcot remains open for the same hours pretty much every day of the year: 9am - 9pm. The park offers Extra Magic Hours to Disney hotel guests in the evenings on some days, but that shouldn't discourage you from visiting on those days. Epcot is huge. At 300 acres, it's
What to do when you get to Epcot
You'll pay $14 to park in Epcot's immense parking lot. You can ride the monorail over from the Magic Kingdom's Transportation and Ticket Center, but plan to park at Epcot instead, to ensure that you're in place at the park's gate before its 9am opening.
Unique among the Disney World theme parks, Epcot has a second entrance -- called the International Gateway -- located between the United Kingdom and France pavilions in World Showcase, and connected by a walking path to the Yacht and Beach Club Resorts. A boat service also connects the International Gateway entrance to the Disney's Hollywood Studios theme park. We don't recommend using the International Gateway entrance first thing in the morning as Epcot doesn't open its World Showcase attractions until 11am, and it's a slow bus ride from that entrance to the Future World attractions at the front of the park.
Epcot has only three attractions that draw any significant wait times during the day -- all in Future World. But the wait times at these three attractions can be massive, so getting them out of the way early is essential.
One of the three, Soarin', is an exact duplicate of Soarin' Over California at Disney California Adventure at the Disneyland Resort. If you've been to California Adventure, or are planning a trip, you're better off seeing Soarin' there, as the California original offers a much shorter wait than you'll find in Epcot. The second of the Big Three at Epcot -- Mission: Space -- is a love-it-or-hate-it high-speed centrifuge ride that simulates a space flight to Mars. You'll experience several moments of weightlessness in a tight-fitting, four-person space "capsule" on this ride. If that sounds exciting to you, don't miss this experience. If that sounds like the most dreadful thing you've ever heard, then, by all means, skip this ride. Mission: Space also offers a "Green" side, without the moving capsules (the "Orange" side is the one with the weightlessness), but what's the point of cramming yourself into a tight space for a fake mission to Mars if you're not going to experience the physical thrill? Maybe if you're really into claustrophobia.
That leaves Test Track, an interactive tour through an automobile design studio, where you help design elements on a car you'll ride through a high-speed test. Disney revamped this attraction in 2012 and it draws lines of several hours in the middle of the day. There is a single-rider line available which can cut your wait to under an hour, or if you hit the line at the right time, perhaps as little as just a few minutes.
If you want to go on just one of these rides, visit it first thing when the park opens at 9. If you want to ride two, grab a Fastpass ride reservation return time for one, then immediately do the other. (We'd suggest getting the Fastpass for Test Track before riding Soarin'.) If you want to ride all three, get a Fastpass for Soarin', then cross Future World to ride Test Track, breaking your party up to use the single rider line if you're visiting on Christmas week or some other very popular day when standby wait times already have exceeded an hour. (If the wait's still under an hour, just keep your group together and go ahead). After riding Test Track, look to see if your return-time window for Soarin' has opened yet. If it has (or is about to), go next door to get Fastpasses for Mission: Space before heading over to Soarin'. If not, and you can't get a Fastpass for Space yet, look to see if you have time to ride it before you have to be back at Soarin'. Worse comes to worst, return to Mission: Space to get a Fastpass for it after riding Soarin'.
Your other must-see attractions in the park are Spaceship Earth (the ride inside the iconic geosphere that looms over Future World), the American Adventure animatronic show in World Showcase, and Impressions de France, the best theme park movie ever made, which plays in the France pavilion. None of these rides attract much more than a 20-minute wait during the day, even during busy periods, so see them at your convenience. Just focus on bagging the Big Three in Future World (or getting Fastpasses to them) before lunch, then plan your way around the park to accommodate your dining reservations. Like we said, it's a big park. You don't want to spend all day criss-crossing it.
If you take advantage of Epcot's abundant shopping, which specialty stores stocking merchandise from each World Showcase country, take advantage of the park's package delivery service if you are staying at Disney hotel, or have Disney hold your packages for pick-up at the park's entrance at the end of the day. Just tell the clerk at the register you'd like to use the package pick-up service. If you want to avoid the hassle of schlepping your souvenirs home altogether, Disney will ship what you buy to your home via UPs or FedEx, for an additional fee.
Where to eat
We covered the table service restaurants above, but if you prefer counter-service meals, Theme Park Insider readers recommend Les Halles Boulangerie and Patisserie in France, Kringla Bakeri Og Kafe in Norway and the Yorkshire County Fish Shop in the United Kingdom. (Click through on those links for fuller descriptions, photos and readers' reviews.)
If you'll be visiting during the spring or fall months, consider skipping the park's restaurants and instead "eating around the world" at the many food stands the park sets up for its Flower & Garden (in the spring) and Food & Wine (in the fall) festivals. You'll find a wide variety of international specialities from the various countries in World Showcase during these weeks-long events. You'll also find many chef's demonstrations and special dinners available during the Food & Wine Festival, which helps make the previously sleepy weeks in the park between September and November alive with foodie Disney fans from around the world.
Foolhardy Epcot visitors might also try to "drink around the world" at World Showcase's abundant bars, pubs and drink stands, but at theme park prices, that's a struggle to see which will pass out first -- you, or your credit card's limit.
Epcot closes its day with IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth, a light and fireworks show that plays on and around the World Showcase Lagoon. Even though you can see the show from just about anywhere in World Showcase, you'll want to stake out a place before showtime to secure the best views. Plop down and grab a space around the World Showcase lagoon where you can see as much of the lagoon and Spaceship Earth as possible. You might need to claim your space up to three hours before show time on busy days, or up to an hour early on "normal" days. Or you can plan to eat at one of the waterside restaurants that offer IllumiNations viewing, which are the Rose and Crown Pub in the United Kingdom and La Hacienda de San Angel in Mexico.
What's next at Epcot?
A new Moroccan restaurant, Spice Road Table, will open waterside later in 2013. That's it.
We will update this entry, based on reader feedback in the comments. If you have a suggestion for this page, please use the comment section below to let us know. Thank you!
Next week: Disney's Animal Kingdom
By Robert Niles
Yesterday's opening of the new Madagascar stage show at Busch Gardens Tampa surprised a few readers who hadn't heard the news that Universal no longer holds the rights to use all the DreamWorks Animation characters in its United States theme parks. Universal and DreamWorks did not renew that licensing deal, though Universal has re-upped for the theme park rights to the Shrek franchise.
From the Shrek land at Universal Studios Singapore: Go home, Gingy, you're drunk.
SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment then signed for the U.S. theme park rights to the Madagascar characters, setting the stage for the new production in Tampa this week. Another production of the same show will debut at sister park SeaWorld San Diego next month. Character meals and meet-and-greets are on the way, too.
These deals apply only in the United States, though. A trip abroad can blow the mind of any American theme park fan who's gotten used to seeing certain characters in certain parks. Merlin Entertainments has had the rights to use the Madagascar characters in its parks in Europe. And Universal retains the rights to these DreamWorks characters for its park in Singapore, where Universal's built entire lands devoted to Shrek and Madagascar. Universal also holds the rights to use the Sesame Street and Peanuts characters in its Asian theme parks, where SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment and Cedar Fair don't have a presence.
The "Madagascar: A Crate Adventure" ride from Universal Studios Singapore
Licensing rights are multi-million-dollar deals for film studios that don't have their own theme parks, and for parks looking to expand beyond their own intellectual property. Market leader Disney's long relied on its in-house collection of animation franchises to populate its parks. And Universal's going all-in with its own Despicable Me franchise, building a new attraction and Super Silly Fun Land area at Universal Studios Hollywood, to complement the existing Despicable Me ride in Florida. But before Gru and the Minions came along, Universal had to rely on licensing deals, including DreamWorks, Nickelodeon, and Jay Ward characters.
But these licensing deals pay off for theme parks only when they move people to visit. Of the top movie animation franchises out there today, which is the one that would most influence you to visit a particular theme park, if it featured those characters? We'll make this our vote of the week. We're looking only at feature film animation franchises not developed by Disney or Universal. For our five selections, I've included four of the top-grossing animated film franchise, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com, along with an up-and-coming franchise that promises to be the next into the top five, based on the success of its first film (of three now planned).
Obviously, the number-one grossing franchise, Shrek, already is in several Universal theme parks. But consider both existing attractions and the potential for future rides and shows when casting your vote. Or, if that's too complicated, let's just make this easier: Which franchise's characters would you most want to take a photo with in a meet-and-greet?
By TH Creative
Busch Gardens Tampa's Stanleyville Theater will be bursting with thermonuclear "tween" energy when the park premieres its newest live stage show Madagascar Live! Operation: Vacation on May 18th. Backed by a live band and a cadre of fresh-faced dancers, the production features characters from the popular DreamWorks Madagascar franchise.
Busch Gardens' Park President Jim Dean poses with his newest star Alex the Lion.
While the park's May 16th media event unveiled the show for the press, Busch Gardens' marketing team wisely packed the theater with a boisterous crowd of elementary school students who were ready to sing and dance with a familiar collection of Madagascar characters. Live on stage to lead the charge were Alex the Lion and Gloria the Hippo, as well as Skipper and his team of penguins – although the loudest squeals were reserved for the Lemur King Julian.
While the show's premise was a bit thin (the vacationing characters must cheer-up Gloria who misses her friends Marty the zebra and Melman the giraffe -- both of whom are absent from the production), the re-designed theater, music, dancers and gorgeous character costumes were more than enough to bring the younger crowd to their feet.
Julian, King of the Lemurs, welcomes his demographic... er, "subjects."
Clearly the jungle setting featured in the film fits nicely with Busch Gardens' theme. Park President Jim Dean expressed enthusiasm about the partnership with the DreamWorks films, noting that the Madagascar films "in particular complement our brand."
Vice President of Entertainment Nancy Hutson reported that the characters presence will extend beyond the Stanleyville Theater. Park meet-and-greets as well as character dining is planned.
While "Madagascar Live! Operation: Vacation" will be most popular with the tweener set that turned the film franchise into a billion-dollar enterprise, Associate Marketing Manager Kelly Heckinger correctly points out that the films' humor and charm "work on many levels with adults as well as kids."
Another production of the show will debut at sister park SeaWorld San Diego in June.
Keep reading: May 2013 Archive
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