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Will 'Frozen' kill Epcot?

Robert Niles

By Robert Niles
Published: September 16, 2014 at 9:26 PM

Is replacing Maelstrom with a Frozen-themed ride going to kill Epcot? That's the fear expressed on social media by many Disney fans ever since Disney made the switch official last week.

Yes, Disney's crossing a new line in creating a fictional setting for a World Showcase attraction. From Epcot's opening in 1982 until now, the theme of World Showcase has been a celebration of real countries from around the world. Although elements within attractions in those lands might be fictional, the setting of those attractions always have been someplace real.

World Showcase

But let's keep things real by acknowledging that, while this is a new line for Disney to cross, it's not as if Disney hasn't been crossing lines in Epcot like a kindergartner who ate three Twinkies before sitting down to color. While Arendelle might be the first fictional setting to come to World Showcase, Frozen won't be the first Disney cartoon characters to take over a World Showcase attraction. The Three Caballeros did that in the Mexico pavilion's "Gran Fiesta Tour" in 2007.

And that wasn't the first time that Disney revamped an Epcot attraction with its cartoon IP. Earlier that year, Future World's "The Living Seas" became "The Seas with Nemo and Friends," from Pixar's Finding Nemo.

Two years before that, Disney duped "Soarin'" from Disney California Adventure into a new theater in The Land pavilion, the first World Showcase attraction that didn't even nod in the direction of being at least a little bit educational.

Disney long ago established a precedent for swapping an attraction for something more commercial. To keep its General Motors sponsorship, Disney in 1992 gutted the original, whimsical World of Motion pavilion to instead create the glorified car commercial that is Test Track.

For the ultimate in a commercial sell-out, who remembers the Barbie's birthday show in the American Adventure pavilion back in 1994? Sorry, but I'll take Anna and Elsa in Norway over Barbie anywhere in the park.

As envisioned by Disney's Imagineers when the park opened, Epcot offered something unique to theme park fans -- a non-fiction park that provided themed entertainment that celebrates science, technology, history, and culture. Yet Disney doesn't really seem interested anymore in creating theme parks with distinct identities. "Walt Disney World" is the destination now -- not Epcot's "permanent World's Fair" or Hollywood Studios' "working film and television studio" or Animal's Kingdom's "Naht-a-Zu." (Really, that last one happened.) For years now, Disney's been moving toward positioning itself as a lifestyle brand. Its travel product is the Walt Disney World Resort, where you go to spend time with Disney's franchises while enjoying as luxurious a vacation as you can afford. (And yes, that's a whole 'nother column there.)

In the "new" Disney world, the individual theme parks function more as platforms for spending time with the company's franchises than as brands or destinations unto themselves. (Remember that the next time a cast member hands you your purchase in a "Disney Parks"-branded bag.) Disney's adding Frozen to Epcot not to try to extend the park's appeal so much as it is doing so to try to meet the expectations of fans it is attracting to the WDW Resort -- fans who expect to be able to spend time there with their beloved Disney franchises, which now include Frozen. If Disney's theme park attractions can't grown into multimedia franchises, as Pirates most notably exemplifies, they become targets for redevelopment into franchise-driven attractions. Disney must meet the demand that it has created across its many media platforms.

Does that stink for fans who loved the "old" Epcot, and who still long to visit a non-fiction park that celebrates science and culture, instead of schlepping through yet another park filled with cartoon characters and superheroes? Sure. But Epcot's attendance has been rising with the rest of the Walt Disney World Resort's over the years that Disney's been crossing the lines from non-fiction park to a more traditional, IP-driven theme park. People love Disney franchises. And Disney's making a smart business move by using the Walt Disney World Resort to cultivate and strengthen that adoration -- including at Epcot.

Perhaps some other theme park company might step up and create an Epcot-like experience? Maybe, but don't hold your breath. Over the 30+ years since Epcot opened, America changed. The nation not longer rallies around science and scientists. For many Americans, science and foreign cultures are things to be mocked. At this point, there's only one theme park company that's embraced non-fiction as a theme: SeaWorld. And look what goodwill that has brought them. If the old Epcot were a better business bet for Disney, Disney would have kept developing the park in that thematic direction.

So if you want a non-fiction theme park experience, look instead to museums, which have embraced storytelling techniques from themed entertainment over the years that Epcot's moved more toward fictional IP. A while back, our Anthony Murphy visited the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, which offers an Epcot-like experience in telling the story of America's 16th president. Which makes sense, as the museum's exhibits were developed by the same creative team that developed Epcot's "Impressions de France" and the post-show at the old World of Motion pavilion. Even if Disney and other theme park companies resist developing attractions based on science, technology, history and culture, institutions that have long been dedicated to promoting those causes have been embracing the tools and techniques developed by theme parks. The experiences that Epcot's long-time fans crave are still out there -- just in different places than before.

Will Frozen kill Epcot? No, because the Epcot that the park's fans long for is already long dead.

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Busch Gardens Williamsburg opens its 16th edition of Howl-O-Scream

Russell Meyer

By Russell Meyer
Published: September 16, 2014 at 11:07 AM

When you are a seasonal theme park with one of the more popular Halloween events, there’s little need to change to ensure success every year. Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s annual fall event returns for its 16th season with a few tweaks here and there, and the reimagining of a fan-favorite that was sorely missed in 2013. As a Theme Park Insider contributor and Busch Gardens Williamsburg Ambassador Blogger, I was invited to an exclusive blogger preview of the event. While I was provided complimentary access to the park during the event, my comments and opinions presented here are my own.

Scarecrow

Halloween events at theme parks have become big business in recent years, so much so that Walt Disney World held their its Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party this year on Labor Day (September 1). While Busch Gardens Williamsburg doesn’t necessarily hold the largest event, with six haunted mazes, three shows, and five scare zones, it works hard to make just about everything a must-see for guests. The park also features a number of add-ons to enhance the guest experience, with two dinner shows, multiple bars with unique cocktails, and behind-the-scenes tours that give guests a ghoulish makeover along with VIP access to all of the haunted houses and shows.

In 2014, Busch Gardens returns the same six mazes it featured in 2013. 13: Your Number’s Up explores thirteen of the most terrifying phobias back to back through the queue and backstage areas of Europe in the Air. The design of the maze is a bit hamstrung by the corridors and rooms within the simulator attraction, which create a number of log jams, causing guests to bunch and ruin the pace of the maze. I still feel that this maze has one of the best practical effects in a haunted house, but ultimately, the pace of the maze and the park’s inability to create blind corners and switchbacks within the already existing ride keeps this maze from being excellent.

Catacombs, in France within the bowels of the Royal Palace Theater, is a well-constructed maze with sharp turns and shadowy corners where scare actors lurk. The maze also features ceiling portholes where actors can reach down on guests from above. The theme of the maze around the subterranean caverns of Paris works perfectly in the section of the park where it’s located.

Root of All Evil is themed around a haunted greenhouse located in the backstage area behind Curse of DarKastle. This maze features a number of good effects, including a strobe room that makes this maze off limits to guests sensitive to intense flashing lights. This maze could probably be improved with better transitional areas between the greenhouses where guests can see other guests ahead of them, potentially ruining some of the upcoming scares.

Bitten again returns in the former Drachen Fire station behind the Festhaus. The vampire-themed maze has some well-designed corridors and set-pieces that offer great opportunities for maze actors to startle guests. Bitten also features one of the most simplistic effects that some guests might not even realize until it’s too late. A thin layer of fine sand on the floor in the final rooms of the maze provides just enough of a psychological effect on guests to make them feel that they will not be able to escape before being devoured by the bloodthirsty inhabitants of the maze.

Cut Throat Cove returns for its second year in the backstage area behind Roman Rapids, and on opening night was home to one of the most enthusiastic scare actors I encountered in the park. The maze takes guests through a number of tents and outside areas where pirate ghosts roam. As with the other mazes that feature outdoor areas, such as Root of All Evil and Bitten, guests are advised to wait until later in the evening when darkness falls on the park to experience Cut Throat Cove.

The final maze in the 2014 lineup is Deadline, which is inside the Escape from Pompeii show building. The maze is themed to an Italian subway taken over by zombies, and features one of the grossest scenes I’ve ever seen in a haunted attraction. The strength of this maze are the sets with one room that is a near perfect replication of a subway train.

Metro map

For those who don’t like being confined inside walled mazes, scares also can be found in the five scare zones (Terror-tories, as the park calls them). Demon Street in France features red-faced characters chasing passers-by with chain saws throughout the area. Guests also can rock out to a winged demon leading a head-banging rave above a flaming skull.

Demon Street

Speaking of skulls, Ports of Skull in Italy is where pirates have landed to scare some treasure out of unsuspecting guests or just coax them to walk the plank.

Pirates

Ripper Row, located near the park entrance, features Bobbies, inspectors, and other Victorian-era characters in search of the infamous Jack the Ripper.

Ripper Row

Vampire Point in the Germany section of the park is where the undead roam in search of blood. The newest Terror-tory, Wendigo Woods in the New France section of the park, is an Army experiment gone wrong. Being new, the actors in this section were still feeling out how to best work this area, and the centerpiece animatronic was not helping with guests circled around waiting for a startling movement that seemingly never came. While I was disappointed in this new section of Howl-O-Scream, I would expect that opening night kinks and unfamiliarity will be worked out by the peak weekends of the event in mid-October.

Wendigo Woods

The park also features three shows, Fiends in Ireland’s Abbey Stone Theater, Night Beats in the Festhaus, and Monster Stomp on Ripper Row in the Globe Theater. The first two are virtually unchanged from last year’s versions, but the latter brings the returning favorite to a whole new level. Taking advantage of the digital projection technology and upgrades made to the Globe for London Rocks, Monster Stomp on Ripper Row is a can’t-miss show that has singing, dancing, banging, stomping, spinning, drumming, throat-slashing, and is simply amazing. Even with a few awkward musical transitions in the first public performance of the show, the experience was top-notch, and fans of a show that was absent from last year’s Howl-O-Scream lineup couldn’t ask for more.

Show

Howl-O-Scream also features two different dinner-show experiences that give guests entertainment and an all-you-can-eat buffet for $22. Igor’s Fright Feast in Ireland’s Castle O’Sullivan is a spin-off of the popular Fiends show, where Igor gets to take the lead with his naughty nurses and a strangely costumed swamp monster. The buffet is complete with salad, chicken wings, pasta bar, chili, smoked turkey, mashed potatoes with assorted toppings, and delicious desserts.

Igor's Fright Fest

The other dinner show option is Blood Banquet, located in the clock square of Germany near Land of the Dragons. Blood Banquet is returning this season with an increased stage created around the square’s fountain, but still follows a family of vampires running a hotel. I did not have an opportunity to experience the Blood Banquet this year, but last year’s dinner show featured a much more impressive menu than what I experienced at Igor’s Fright Feast. Both dinner shows are the same price, but based on the menus, I would recommend Blood Banquet over Igor’s Fright Feast, unless there is inclement weather, since the Blood Banquet is outside while Igor’s is inside. However, both experiences offer a good value with an all-you-can-eat buffet combined with live entertainment.

Blood Banquet

After 15 successful years, Busch Gardens Williamsburg has a proven formula for a successful Halloween event. This year’s 16th-annual edition offers much of what past guests have grown to enjoy, along with just enough change to keep the event fresh. The return of Monster Stomp with improved effects provided by the Globe’s off-season technological upgrade and the additions of Wendigo Woods and Igor’s Fright Feast give guests something new to see. Also, as with most Halloween events, the quality will steadily increase throughout the season as guests and actors alike get into the spirit, and actors get more familiar with each other, their characters, and surroundings. Even if there was nothing new, and many will criticize the park for minimal additions this year, Howl-O-Scream would still be a must-visit for any Halloween fan.

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Some 'hot' news updates from Disneyland

Robert Niles

By Robert Niles
Published: September 15, 2014 at 10:07 PM

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Monday Top 10: Disney's Best Roller Coasters

Robert Niles

By Robert Niles
Published: September 15, 2014 at 11:32 AM

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The Week Ahead: Disney and Universal schedules for September 15-21, 2014

Robert Niles

By Robert Niles
Published: September 14, 2014 at 5:14 PM

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Insider's Update: Universal's heading in One Direction

Robert Niles

By Robert Niles
Published: September 13, 2014 at 10:14 AM

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Vote of the Week: Apple Pay, MagicBands, cards, or cash?

Robert Niles

By Robert Niles
Published: September 12, 2014 at 5:19 PM

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Disney makes it official: Frozen is taking over Epcot's Norway ride

Robert Niles

By Robert Niles
Published: September 12, 2014 at 10:22 AM

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Disney's newest nighttime parade, Paint the Night, debuts at Hong Kong Disneyland

Robert Niles

By Robert Niles
Published: September 11, 2014 at 8:19 PM

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Halloween News: How Universal is selling Halloween in Singapore

Jacob Sundstrom

By Jacob Sundstrom
Published: September 11, 2014 at 12:16 PM

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Universal Studios Hollywood Halloween Horror Nights preview with Creative Director John Murdy

Robert Niles

By Robert Niles
Published: September 10, 2014 at 8:56 PM

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