Robert's Tour, Conclusion -- Questions Answered

Robert's answers your questions about his summer theme park tour, including where to go, what not to miss and what parks are doing the best job.

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Published: August 13, 2004 at 8:33 PM

Okay, so what did I learn from my summer theme park tour? For those of you who haven't been following along, I hit five theme parks in five days in Southern California, followed by three Orlando parks the next week and a trip to Cedar Point in Ohio later in the month. Throw in earlier visits to two San Diego parks, and I've visited 11 theme parks this summer and a total of 15 in the past year.

Short story... if you've got questions about theme parks, I've got your answers. So let's get to 'em.

Which theme park should I visit?

If you're visiting Southern California, go to Universal Studios Hollywood, unless you have kids under age 8. In that case, take them to Legoland. Both parks offer top-quality attractions and entertainment -- stunt shows, studio tours and thrill rides at Universal, and play areas and kids' rides at Legoland.

Southern California's most famous park, Disneyland, looks better than it has in eight years, but too much of the park remains under tarps or down for rehab in anticipation of the park's 50th anniversary next year. Wait to visit 'til late 2005, when the new Buzz Lightyear shoot-'em-up ride and a renovated Space Mountain should enliven a now-vacant Tomorrowland.

In Central Florida, do the opposite of everyone else and start with SeaWorld and the Universal Orlando parks. Then mix in a one-day pass to one of the Disney parks, such as Epcot or, if you have little kids, Animal Kingdom. I'd pick Animal Kingdom over the Magic Kingdom based on the outstanding Festival of the Lion King show, as well as the parks' lighter crowds, earlier closing time and set-your-own-pace nature of its animal exhibits.

That's nice, but I'm a roller coaster fan. Where do I go for the best thrills?

C'mon. Give me a tough one. Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio. Only Six Flags Magic Mountain comes close to offering the number of coasters as Cedar Point, but the Ohio park wins for better installations, a far better setting and much cooler summer weather. Plus, the park offers a wider selection of non-coaster attractions to help break up the day, and provide a little recovery time for those of us without iron stomachs.

What are the best attractions at the theme parks you've visited in the past year?

In alphabetical order...

Cedar Point: Top Thrill Dragster, Raptor

Disney's California Adventure: Twilight Zone Tower of Terror

Disneyland: Pirates of the Caribbean, Splash Mountain

Knott's Berry Farm: GhostRider

Legoland California: Miniland, Driving School, Fun Town Fire Academy

SeaWorld Orlando: Kraken, Wild Arctic

SeaWorld San Diego: Cirque de la Mer, Shamu Adventure

Six Flags Magic Mountain: Riddler's Revenge, X (if you can get on it)

Universal's Islands of Adventure: Adventures of Spider-Man

Universal Studios Florida: Revenge of the Mummy, Men in Black: Alien Attack

Universal Studios Hollywood: Studio Tour, Terminator 2:3-D

Walt Disney World Disney's Animal Kingdom: Festival of the Lion King, Kilimanjaro Safaris

Walt Disney World Disney-MGM Studios: Twilight Zone Tower of Terror

Walt Disney World Epcot: Mission: Space and Impressions de France

Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom: Splash Mountain, Buzz Lightyear's Space-Ranger Spin

Which park's employees do the best job of creating theme park "magic"?

Give that honor to the crew at Universal Studios Hollywood. I've never seen a group of employees try harder to sell their shows, communicate with guests and in general work to see that everyone in the park was having a good time. Sure, not every employee excelled. But more did there than at any other park I visited this year.

Which theme park destinations offer the best selection of "other" things to do in the area?

You gotta go with Southern California. Beaches, celebrities, museums, great restaurants and shopping. Visit at the right time of year, and you can surf in the ocean in the morning and ski in the mountains in the evening.

Don't overlook a couple of strong runners-up, though. Visit Busch Gardens Williamsburg and you can take in Colonial Williamsburg, some world-class dining and several Revolutionary War historical sights within a few minutes' drive from the park. And Ohio's Cedar Point lies less than a hour away from the seriously underrated city of Cleveland, with the Blossom Music Center, Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame and a now-thriving downtown.

All this is nice, but theme parks are too expensive. How can I afford to visit?

Don't pay retail! Almost all parks offer discounts, from two-for-one deals with cans of Coke (a Six Flags summer tradition) to discounts for buying tickets online (such as at the Cedar Fair and Busch parks). Even Disney and Universal offer deals, if you keep your ears open. Read our Deals & Discounts page, or visit the "Inside Scoop" sections in my tour articles to find specific deals.

If you do nothing else to find a discount, buy your tickets online before you visit and arrive in the parking lot at least 45 minutes before the park opens. That way, you can get the most for your money by riding several popular attractions before the lines get too long. Buy your film, suntan lotion and breakfast outside the park, too, to save the outrageous theme park mark-up. Keep everyone happy by getting a jump on the day and you can also save by not having to bribe grumpy kids with overpriced snacks and souvenirs later.

Where do wish you'd visited? And where are you going next year?

Busch Gardens Williamsburg tops my travel wish-list for 2005. I fell in love with the park's look and themed thrill rides when I first visited as a teen-ager, and I'm looking forward to seeing some of the park's recent additions, as well as it new mystery attraction, next summer.

I also wish I'd seen Paramount's Kings Island. The park's improved its kids' area over the past few years and seems to be taking steps to upgrade its overall theming as well.

And, of course, at some point, I'd love to travel overseas, and visit parks such as Tokyo DisneySea and Disneyland Paris.

Readers' Opinions

From mark walker on August 14, 2004 at 1:53 AM
Hay Robert I've got a question, how come you haven't put hulk or dueling dragons in the best attractions you've visited. I just can't believe you missed those two amazing attractions out.
From David Allen on August 14, 2004 at 1:04 PM
Robert, I agree with what you said about Cedar Point with one major exception. If you have never experienced the joy of being there on a 90 degree day with 90% humidity, you haven't really experienced hot! I have done a few 100 degree days at SF Magic Mountain and they are not nearly as bad as that nasty humidity that can occur at Cedar Point. Being a native Southern Californian, I didn't believe it until it happened to me!

And, yes, Cleveland is seriously underrated as a city. I have been there twice and have been very favorably impressed! It is no longer the Cleveland with the burning river anymore.

From Robert Niles on August 14, 2004 at 1:12 PM
Hulk and Dragons are great, but to me, a notch below Spidey. That's why I left them off that list. Of course, they knock the snot out of some attractions that are on these lists, but that's because I chose what I thought to be the best attractions in each park. We've already got an overall best attractions list on the site.
From Derek Potter on August 14, 2004 at 7:35 PM
David is right about hot Ohio summer days, I've lived here all of my life, and some days still get to me. The only thing worse than a hot Cedar Point is a hot Kings Island. At least CP has the lakeshore breeze.

I spent some time in Cleveland recently, and I have to say that it has become one of my favorite cities to visit. The area around the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is fabulous.

From Philip Curds on August 15, 2004 at 4:26 AM
I agree with your points of view on the best attractions and listings but parks to visit next year is slightly worrying.

DisneySea in Japan is a park I'd like to visit, but Disneyland Paris, you gotta be kidding. Disney Paris is a poor cousin of Florida and California. Try Europa Park, Rust, Germany if you want to have the same level of theming as DisneySea Tokyo and a far better level of attractions for less money. Plus, if you stay at one of there hotels, your'll be able to experience the true meaning of 'German efficiency'. Seriously, a worthy contender for your next themepark trip.

From mark walker on August 15, 2004 at 10:55 AM
Cheers Robert, I thank you for responding and yes I agree spider-man is better than Hulk and DD but they should have been on your list. Ah well.
From Adrian Walker on August 15, 2004 at 11:04 AM
Robert, I've been meaning to ask you this for sometime but I didn't know where to post it in your tour. So I'am going to put it here. You didn't go to IOA during your tour. Why?
From Robert Niles on August 15, 2004 at 11:19 AM

DLP attracts so many visitors that I feel obiligated to give it a look should I ever make it to Paris. But I appreciate the tip on Europa Park. I've long wanted European parks to have a greater presence on the site, I welcome any chance for TPI'ers to shine some attention on worthy parks that other theme park visitors consistently overlook.

As for IOA, I simply ran out of days to do theme parks during my time in Orlando. My first priority was to visit the three parks that had opened new attractions since my last visit -- USF, Epcot and the MK. But after spending three days at those parks, I didn't have a day left for IOA. (Much of my family lives in Central Florida now, and the primary reason for the trip was to visit them. Alas, not all of them are that hot visit a lot of theme parks....)

Next visit to Orlando, IOA, SeaWorld and Animal Kingdom top my to-do list.

From Ben Mills on August 15, 2004 at 12:22 PM
Come on Philip, let's give the Mouse a break. Yes, you and I both know that Europa Park stands head and shoulders above anything else that Europe has to offer, and that it's a tradgedy that more people don't know how great it is. But that's no reason to dismiss DLP as a waste of time.

In my opinion, the only genuine things that MK or Disneyland have against Paris is that they've got Splash Mountain and Buzz Lightyear - and Disneyland doesn't even have Buzz until 2005, by which point Paris will likely have started construction on their own. Okay, and Disneyland has Indy. But DLP takes almost all the staples of a Magic Kingdom - Thunder, Mansion, Pirates, Small World, Space Mountain and the centrepiece castle - and makes a spectacular attraction out of each one (except Space Mountain, which is ghastly).

Not to mention the improvements made with the layouts of the lands, the most obvious one being the brilliant Thunder Mesa that forms the home of Big Thunder Mountain and Gracey Mansion. Discoveryland (read: Tommorowland) takes a whole different approach to the architecture of the American counterparts, with it's Verne-esque designs. Fantasyland is pretty average, and Adventureland is admittedly a mess of bad ideas. But, ironically, this Main Street USA is probably better than the Floridian counterpart, at least.

And I still think it's great how they managed to stick a huge fairytale castle at the end of a 1940s Americana street and nobody even notices that it really should look out of place.

But don't anybody think I'm criticising Europa Park; I'm not. That place is a stroke of bloody genius...

From Ben Mills on August 15, 2004 at 12:41 PM
And while we're on the subject of "worthy parks that other theme park visitors consistently overlook", I've gotta mention Efteling in Holland. Seriously, the dark rides there beat the hell out of anything that Disney have spewed up, maybe excepting Pirates and Mansion. But it's still pretty darn close. Philip, have you been there? If you love Europa Park as much as me, I'd imagine you'd have similar affection for Efteling.

Also, which Europa hotels have you stayed in? We were going to spend a couple nights in the Castello, but as there didn't seem to be anything else to do except drive over to Rust or go to the park (which surprisingly closes at 6pm, even in the Summer), we decided against it.

From Robert OGrosky on August 15, 2004 at 9:10 PM
A park worth visiting would be Holiday World, one of the few family run parks of its size.
What can be wrong with a park where the employee's are friendly, the park is clean, two world class wooden coasters and they offer free parking/free soda/free tube rentals and free sun tan lotion.
From Andrew Robles on August 16, 2004 at 6:01 AM
Robert, I really enjoyed your reports. Since S. California has pretty nice weather all year round, when you visit the Ohio and Orlando parks again, what time of the year would you prefer to go with family?
Also, how was the security at the various parks? Maybe I have missed a past article, but with possible terrorist threats,or just dumb ass people, has security changed or stayed the same since your last few visits?
From Robert Niles on August 16, 2004 at 10:54 AM
Cleveland's great... between May and September. Ideally, I'd visit the midwest in summer, Virginia in the fall and Orlando in the late winter (before Spring Break).

As for security, Cedar Fair wasn't checking anything. Disney and Knott's was checking bags before the entry turnstiles. And Universal Orlando was checking bags *after* the entry turnstiles, which really backed stuff up.

From Philip Curds on August 16, 2004 at 1:31 PM

Hotel Castillo is a true gem of a themepark hotel, if you can get a reasonable price, which is tricky in the summer. The level of themeing is extraordinary, and the service is very efficient, as I mentioned earlier. None of that Disney, on the cheap hotel package rubbish. Disney Paris is not worth visiting, I stand by that statement, partly due to the high levels of English visitors who spoil the whole experience. The weather is the parks main downfall, unlike Florida or California. If only Disney had built the park in Spain, like that of Universal (Barcelona), Paramount (Costa del Sol) and Six Flags (Madrid). That's my take on Disneyland Paris' financial probs since it was built, wrong place. France is a nice place to visit, but the French don't do the whole American themepark thing, the English, Germans and Spanish do, its just a fact.

Eftling, Holland is good, I agree Ben, but unfortunetly for a well-rounded themepark experience, Eftling fails to deliver what I call a 'big punch' attraction, like Silver Star at Europa Park.

Overall, though Southern California is the best destination for themepark addicts, primarily because it has the most themeparks in an isolated area. Florida is a close second, but if you, like me have experienced Florida far too many times (for me about 13 times), your'll realise why. Perhaps, 2006 for Florida, when the Animal Kingdom and Busch Gardens coasters are completed. The discounts are also larger in Southern California than that of Florida, though Ohio and Virginia are cheaper still.

If you do decide to follow my advice and go to Europa Park, Rust, Germany, fly Ryanair ( Karsruhe-Baden airport from either Rome, Barcelona or London Stansted. You could of course, for all those European visitors just drive, but its a fair old drive from London, England (takes a whole day) equivalent of LA-Vegas.

From Jeffery Beal on August 16, 2004 at 7:19 PM
Holiday World, now there is a park that does not get much attention. Yet in 2003, Holiday World was voted the friendliest and cleanest park in Amusement Today by a wide margin.

Their two wood coasters, Raven and Legend were voted number 1 and 5 respectively in this same poll. Raven, which was built in 1995 by Custom Coasters Inc., cost $2 million dollars to build. That is a rather paltry sum compared to the costs of some rides. It just goes to show you that one does not have to spend tens of millions of dollars to develop a great ride.

From Robert OGrosky on August 16, 2004 at 8:44 PM
I just visited Michigan's Adventure which is a nice/small park. But if someone lovesd wooden coasters you cant beat Shivering Timbers!!!!!!!!!
If you love sirtime this is one roller coaster that cant be beat, it is AWESOME!!!!!!!!!!!
From Matt Smeltzer on August 17, 2004 at 6:08 AM
I'd hold off Holiday World for a few more years. The water park is first class, but other than the two wodden coasters, the rest of the park consists of scaled down theme park rides you'd find at other places, and cemented down carnie rides. The park has only come on the national scene in the last 10 years because of the coasters and water park, but still suffers from being here. In the middle of nowhere...
From Ben Mills on August 17, 2004 at 9:36 AM
Come on, Philip. Ryanair? Wouldn't it be nicer, cleaner and more efficient to go by Landfill Ferry? Okay, it's cheap, I'll give it that, but it's the perfect testemony to the phrase "you get what you pay for." With Ryanair, you pay a very small amount.

Fair point about the wrong place for EuroDisney, though. Although, the Euro Star makes it incredibly easy for any one in Britain to get there. Though, as you point out, that might actually be a bad thing.

What are the breakfasts like at Castillo? That's always been the worst thing at the Disneyland Paris hotels, I've found. Ham and cheese cubes? Per-leeeze! This is supposed to be France, the home of the ultimate gastronomic experience!

And I hardly think the British "do" the American theme park thing. Alton, Thorpe, Chessie or Blackpool? C'mon...

: )

From David Klawe on August 21, 2004 at 5:18 AM
Ge, let's see what Motley Fool said about the current DLR situation...

>>Consider Disney's humbling admission last week that attendance has been lower this summer at its California parks. No, you can't win them all, but mull over the fact that the company is blaming the traffic slump on high gas prices, terrorism fears, and a lack of discounts being offered to local residents. Bad management? You bet. Even a potty-trained toddler firing up his copy of Roller Coaster Tycoon 2 can tell you that if fuel prices and safety concerns are keeping the out-of-towners away, then the last thing you want to do is dissuade the locals.<<


From Jess Wright on May 1, 2005 at 9:44 AM
Hello. I agree Europa Park is good, but personally I don't think it's great. It seems like the theme parks in Europe have kind of boring rides compared to some of those in the states. I was much happier with Six Flags in Belgium as far as rides go. Europa park has a good wide variety though. I suppose the rides would be good for those with children. Myself and the group I went with are all young adults. To get a good price on hotels however, I would recommend staying at one of the near by bed and breakfasts or go into the town to try and find a hotel. The hotels directly connected to the park are extremely expensive. While in the area I would also recomend exploring a bit and learning about some of the history surrounding it. If you are planning to be in Germany specifically for theme parks try Holiday Park also. Really inexpensive and quite amusing.

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