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Monday Top 10: Robert Niles' Top 10 Theme Parks

By Robert Niles
Published: December 22, 2014 at 12:24 PM
Last week on the Monday Top 10, we continued our year-end wrap-up with a personal list from your editor of the top 10 theme parks I have not visited but want to, someday. Today, let's celebrate the top parks we have visited, and I'll get the conversation going with my personal list of the world's top 10 theme parks.

Remember, I made this list from the parks I have visited, so no park that appeared on last week's list will appear on this one. To determine the order, I asked myself which park in the world would I most want to revisit, if money and travel hassles weren't issues. That got me my number one. Then I thought of the park I'd most want to visit after that, to pick my number two park, and so on.

Since that's how I picked the 10 parks this week, I thought it would make more sense to present the list in that order, from number 1 to 10, instead of counting down from 10 to 1, as we typically do for this feature.

As you read through my list, I invite you to think about which parks you'd put on your top 10 list, then to share that list with us in the comments.

1. Tokyo DisneySea

Tokyo DisneySea

This was the easiest call on the entire list. Theme Park Insider readers' choice for the "world's best theme park" title is my choice, too. Give me the means to go to any theme park in the world, right now, and I'm heading to DisneySea. Journey to the Center of the Earth. The Shiriki Utundu. Gyoza Dogs. Fortress Explorations. Sindbad's Storybook Voyage. If you love theme parks, a visit to Tokyo DisneySea is a day in heaven on Earth.

2. Tokyo Disneyland

Tokyo Disneyland

So, while I'm in Tokyo... ;^) Tokyo Disneyland offers a "best of" mix from Orlando and Anaheim, combining the best elements of classics such as the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean with delightful originals including Pooh's Hunny Hunt and Monsters Inc. Ride and Go Seek. Plus, the Tokyo Disney Resort offers the best theme park food on Earth. I'm still craving that curry popcorn.

3. Disneyland


This is where I really had to start thinking and making some hard choices for my list. Parks three through six are a bit of a toss-up for me. These are my four favorite theme parks in the United States, but none of them stand completely clear of the others. Still, I came up with an order that appeals to me. The original Disneyland, in Anaheim, California, leads these four thanks to its top-to-bottom depth of attractions and overall quality of its food. "What to eat" is an important factor for me in inspiring my desire to come back and visit again. In a park with great food, I'm always finding something new to try, even if I've experienced all the attractions. Set me up with some Plaza Inn fried chicken and give me a ride on the original Pirates, and I'll be a very happy theme park fan.

4. Universal Studios Florida

Universal Studios Florida

Diagon Alley moves USF into the number four slot, and makes me think hard about moving the park up even higher. If I were compiling a list of best theme park lands, rather than entire theme parks, Diagon Alley would top the list, beating even the best lands from DisneySea. But USF doesn't offer Disneyland's depth, at least not yet, with a kiddie land filled with tired properties and the head-rattling Rip, Ride, Rockit. With more changes coming to this park in the next few years, however, USF might still challenge Disneyland to become my favorite theme park in the U.S.

5. Universal's Islands of Adventure

Universal's Islands of Adventure

Of course, I can't overlook USF's neighbor. The original Wizarding World of Harry Potter and the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man rank among my favorite places in the world of theme parks. I love the whimsy of Seuss Island, the sarcasm of Jurassic Park, and the more I keep typing, the more I'm talking myself into swapping IoA with USF again. But, ultimately, Diagon Alley keeps USF one spot ahead — until I get to ride the new Kong at IoA in two years, of course. Then, well, we'll see if anything changes.

6. Disney California Adventure

Disney California Adventure

I come back to California to round out my U.S. top four. Buena Vista Street, Cars Land, the Aladdin show, and consistently good food selections make California Adventure a wonderful place to hang out for a local and a must-visit destination for theme park fans across the United States. Why wait in long lines for Soarin' and Midway Mania in Orlando when you can enjoy those attractions with shorter waits, and in a better park, in Anaheim?

7. Universal Studios Singapore

Universal Studios Singapore

While I debated with myself the order of parks through six, the parks I would include in my top six were easy selections for me. At the number seven slot, my decisions got quite a bit more difficult to make. I flipped numbers seven and eight about a jillion times before settling on USS in this position. This is Universal's smallest park, but every inch of it charms, with the best version of Revenge of the Mummy anywhere, a delightful Far, Far Away, a neat Sesame Street dark ride, and the original Transformers. Throw in the return of Battlestar Galactica, and I'd be thrilled to spend more time on Sentosa Island at USS.

8. Disneyland Paris

Disneyland Paris

Not that I wouldn't love a return trip to Paris, too. DLP's unique takes on Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion make it another dream visit for theme park fans. The park offers what is (for now, until Shanghai opens) the world's best Disney castle, too. But, outside of Walt's, the food at the Disneyland Paris Resort might be the worst in the Disney theme park chain, which is just nuts for a resort in France. C'mon, this is the home to some of the best food in the world. Ultimately, I'd move Paris over Singapore if I could just get some better stuff to eat here.

9. Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

The Magic Kingdom is the first, and only, Walt Disney World theme park to make my top 10 list. The New Fantasyland, along with the traditionally strong west-side lineup of attractions including the Haunted Mansion and Splash Mountain, make this the top choice among the WDW parks, as well as the world's most popular theme park. Perhaps when Walt Disney World gets done with much-needed improvements and additions to its other three parks, I will feel more enthusiasm for return visits to them. Until then, though, it's "been there, done that."

10. Busch Gardens Williamsburg

Busch Gardens Williamsburg

Speaking of construction projects, when Universal Studios Hollywood completes its Evolution project in a few years, it might crash this list. Or if I could make it to some of the parks on last week's list, some of them might displace the parks here. But, for now, I give Busch Gardens Williamsburg the final spot on my top 10 list, the only non-Disney/non-Universal park to make the cut. Beautifully landscaped, delightfully themed, and offering a strong line-up of tasty food options, BGW long has been one of my favorite theme parks, and another dark ride or two might ensure that it stays safely on my personal top 10 list, despite the competition.

What are your 10 favorite theme parks in the world? Please share your list with the rest of us, in the comments.

Update: I'm in a giving mood this week, so I will send a Theme Park Insider hoodie to a randomly selected registered (and logged in) reader from the United States who replies to this thread with a Top 10 parks list. Merry Christmas, everyone!

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Did Disney Just Slip a Mickey in Your Food?

By Robert Niles
Published: December 21, 2014 at 1:58 PM
Most theme park likely know about the "Hidden Mickeys" in Disney's theme park attractions — those Mickey Mouse profiles that Disney's Imagineers slip into the background of many Disney rides and shows as a treat for keen-eyed park fans. But at the Tokyo Disney Resort, Hidden Mickeys aren't limited to the attractions.

Tokyo Disney this week has been promoting its culinary Hidden Mickeys. Sure, U.S. theme park fans might be familiar with Mickey-shaped butter and Mickey-head waffles and pretzels in Disney's American theme parks, but the Tokyo Disney Resort takes its obsession with Hidden Mickeys to another level. How about the Mickey Mouse shapes on the crusts of the calzones at the Pan Galactic Pizza Port in Tokyo Disneyland?

Calzone crusts

Or how about these balls of tuna, arranged in a Mickey shape in this seafood bowl at the Restaurant Hokusai in Tokyo Disneyland?

Tuna Mickey

We found several food Mickeys on our visit to the resort a few years ago. Hidden Mickey expert Steve Barrett might call these "decorative Mickeys" rather than true Hidden Mickeys (see our interview with him, linked above), because many of them are so obvious to spot. But Tokyo's cleverest use of the familiar Mickey shape might be in its churros, which are shaped like a Mickey head only when you view them from the end.

Even the fine dining restaurants play along. Magellan's in Tokyo DisneySea plated its roasted duck main course on orange sauce pooled in a familiar pattern.


And the waitress at the S.S. Columbia Dining Room brought our change to the table with coins arranged in the Mickey shape.


Our Bryan Wawzenek cited more examples of Tokyo's Mickey-shaped food in his post describing the best snacks at the Tokyo Disney theme parks. What are your favorite food and restaurant Hidden Mickeys, in Tokyo or anywhere else?

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Theme Park Insider is On the Air in Australia

By Robert Niles
Published: December 20, 2014 at 11:56 AM
If any of our Australian readers were listening to the radio early Saturday morning, I hope that you heard me on the air with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's "Overnights" show, talking about theme parks. And if you missed the show, it's available online for you to hear, right now.

Justice League at Warner Bros. Movie World
None of Australia's theme parks ranks among the world's most-visited, but we did give a shout-out to Warner Bros. Movie World for its Justice League ride, a preview of what's coming to the U.S. Six Flags parks next summer.

We talked about what makes theme parks so appealing, the difference (if there is one!) between "theme" and "amusement" parks, and how parks around the world have changed over the years. We took some calls from listeners, too. ABC Radio's got the episode available for download, streaming and as a podcast, so I hope you'll take an hour sometime during this holiday week to give it a listen.

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Vote of the Week: When Do You Start Planning a Vacation?

By Robert Niles
Published: December 19, 2014 at 4:13 PM
When's the right time to start planning a theme park vacation?

I suspect that many Theme Park Insider readers would answer "anytime!" So let's change the question a bit: How far in advance should you start planning your vacation to ensure that you will find the best deal at the place you really want to visit?

Buena Vista Street for the holidays
The view at Disney California Adventure this week. When did you start planning this year's holiday travel?

On our travel tips page, we quote some industry studies that suggest travelers should book their airline tickets 50-60 days before departure to get the best deal on U.S. domestic tickets, and about 150 days (five months!) before departure for the best prices on trips between the U.S. and Europe. But Walt Disney World starts accepting Fastpass+ reservations for its hotel guests 60 days before the start of a trip, and the resort takes dining reservations six months in advance. So if your dream trip includes a meal at hard-to-book WDW restaurants such as Be Our Guest or Cinderella's Royal Table, you'll want to have your plans in place before that six-month window opens, as those restaurants often "sell out" the day that their reservations become available.

But you don't have to plan that far in advance to enjoy a great theme park getaway. Many fans have taken a spur-of-the-moment roadtrip to visit a theme park, with no reservations in hand, and ended up having a wonderful time. When my (then-future) wife and I were in graduate school, we were sitting in the cafeteria on a Friday afternoon with no plans for a rare homework-free weekend. What should we do? Being a couple of former cast members with some leftover free tickets, we answered "Let's go to Disney World!"

Twenty minutes later, we were in my car and on the road from Bloomington, Indiana to Orlando for the 14-hour drive to my parents' house near Walt Disney World. By 8am the next morning, we were riding on the ferryboat from the Transportation and Ticket Center to the Magic Kingdom. Later that day, over at Epcot, we ran into one of Laurie's former sorority sisters from Northwestern, who'd jumped on a last-minute discount airfare (remember those?) from Chicago to visit Disney World on a whim that weekend, too.

Obviously, having some free tickets and a place to stay makes last-minute theme park visits quite a bit more affordable. But with apps helping people book same-day discount hotel rooms, gas prices dropping, and many regional parks offering discounts to fans via their Twitter and Facebook accounts, fans can find ways to make spur-of-the-moment trips possible.

So how do you do it? Even if you're always thinking about your next theme park visit (and for that, we thank you!), how far before the trip do you start "getting serious" and move into more active trip planning?

Thanks for voting! In the comments, we'd love to hear about any unusual paths you've taken to a theme park visit, from last-minute trips to epic group-planning efforts. As always, thank you for joining us here in the Theme Park Insider community and we wish you a very merry Christmas week!

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Disney's Star Wars vs. Universal's Harry Potter, in One Photo

By Robert Niles
Published: December 19, 2014 at 1:30 PM
If you'd like to see the differences between Disney and Universal's treatment of the most popular film franchises in their theme parks, illustrated in one photo, here you go:

Can you imagine a Universal Studios T-shirt depicting Voldemort on the Caro-Seuss-el? Or Minions in wizard robes? It's impossible to imagine J.K. Rowling allowing such trivialization of the Wizarding World and its inhabitants.

But George Lucas long has shown a great acceptance of irreverence toward his Star Wars characters. After all, you can't greenlight the Star Wars Holiday Special if you're taking your characters too seriously. Let's not forget other examples of Lucas and his team poking fun, or at least allowing others to poke fun, at the Star Wars universe: the Stand Up to Cancer spoof, Death Star PR, Spaceballs, and possibly the most irreverent officially-blessed Star Wars take-off ever, Disney's Hyperspace Hoopla. There's some great stuff about Lucas' tolerance, and even enthusiasm, for spoofs in the new book How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, and author Chris Taylor talked in an interview with The New Yorker about how a desire to be more serious in the prequels weighed down the "effervescent giddiness" of the original films.

In contrast, perhaps the closest that J.K. Rowling, with her drier British wit, has come to satirizing her creation was a guest appearance on "The Simpsons" that made fun of her fans more than her works. Sure, there's abundant humor in the Harry Potter world, but even when a gag takes you out of that world (hello, "spell-o-tape," a joke that about 1 in 100 Americans gets), it's never reduces the Wizarding World to tropes like putting Darth Vader in a Space Mountain rocket.

The irony, of course, is that traditionally it's been Universal that's been known for abundant irreverence and sarcasm in its theme park attractions while Disney has properties with much more earnest respect. If there were any doubt that we're living in a moment when franchises dominate the theme park industry, let's consider these examples of Star Wars and Harry Potter — franchises so powerful that they made Disney irreverent and Universal take something seriously.

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Where to Eat: Dinner at Be Our Guest Restaurant in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

By Amanda Jenkins
Published: December 18, 2014 at 9:13 PM
Since its opening in late 2012, Be Our Guest Restaurant in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom still reigns as a most desired dining reservation. This place definitely shows the creative magic that Disney Imagineers can instill in the most unique settings. On our recent trip, we decided to dine here for dinner, just like we did back in December of 2012. I wanted to know if it was still as amazing a dinner experience as it had been that first time.

Holiday decor

When we walked up to the podium, it was deja vu all over again. People were lined up hoping that they could possibly get someone's canceled reservation. It was all for naught. Once we checked in, we were sent over the bridge and as we were walking, our name was called for seating. One of the new aspects (at least new to us) was that along with the castmember, we were given a special individual to guide us to our table. Lumiere was given to my boys to hold along the path to our table. His softly lit flames and smiling face set the mood as we left the foyer and made our way into the ballroom.

With Lumiere

It doesn't matter how many times I enter in here, the ballroom still takes my breath away. It is as if we have stepped out of reality and into one of the loveliest scenes from Beauty and the Beast. The ballroom was decorated with garland, wreaths, and a Christmas Tree. When you examine the decorations, you see stained glassed figures of Lumiere, Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts, and Chip. It wasn't the characters that struck me as unique, it was the fact that they were in the same design as the stained glass window in the restaurant and of course the movie. That attention to detail that is sometimes overlooked and taken for granted adds to the uniqueness of this dining experience during the holidays.

On the tree

For dinner, the boys and I had the grilled strip steak. It came with pommes frites with mayonnaise for dipping and steamed green beans. The steak was cooked perfectly and the pommes frites were just an added bonus.


Chuck decided to branch out away from steak and seafood. He ordered the herb-crusted lamb rack. The lamb has a stone-ground mustard demi-glace and comes with vegetables. Chuck found that his lamb was cooked well and stated that this is something he would recommend.


While eating, the Beast made his appearance in each of the dining areas. He then awaited his guests for pictures in the study. During your meal, it is hard to not notice the carts that the waiters are pushing about filled with desserts. Our cart was soon pushed for us to decide. This is always the difficult part of the visit. I have had their triple chocolate cupcake, the master's cupcake, and the lemon-raspberry cream puff in the past. All of these are excellent. This time, I ordered the Grey Stuff. This is a crisp chocolate cookie with the infamous grey stuff on top. It was good, though in my opinion not to the same level as the cupcakes and cream puffs. The guys ordered the triple chocolate cupcake for their dessert. It is still as rich and delectable as usual.


All in all, Be Our Guest is still an excellent addition to the Magic Kingdom's dining options. Dinner here will not disappoint if one is able to get a reservation. The ambiance itself is well worth a visit during the holidays.


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Say My Name, E.T. Say My Name!

By Robert Niles
Published: December 17, 2014 at 6:59 PM
Fans are reporting that E.T. is once again saying riders' names on the E.T. Adventure at Universal Studios Florida.

Listening to other followers on Twitter, the reaction to this news seems to be split between "Wait a minute, E.T. can say people's names?" and "Wait a minute, there's still an E.T. ride at Universal Studios Florida?" E.T. is the last remaining unchanged original attraction from the 1990 opening of the park, save for the coming and going of the namechecking, of course.

The use in the attraction of "passport" cards to E.T.'s home world, which then allowed E.T. to say each visitor's name at the end of the ride, represented one of the first widespread uses of interactivity in a major theme park attraction. Director Steven Spielberg recorded the preshow for the attraction, which makes a point of emphasizing the passports that visitors would collect as they told a ride attendant their name upon entering the inside queue. Ride attendants at the load area would collect the passport cards, which would be associated with each rider's name and would provide the input that would prompt E.T.'s farewell at the conclusion of the trip.


Of course, much fun was to be had in trying to come up with the most outlandish (and borderline inappropriate) names that you could get the USF team members to input. Over the years, though, the namecheck interaction on the ride became more and more inconsistent, adding to a general feeling among many fans that E.T.'s days in the park might be numbered. Universal Studios Hollywood closed its E.T. ride in 2003 and its show building is now used for that park's version of Revenge of the Mummy. Japan's version closed in 2009 to make way for Space Fantasy: The Ride.

Here's an on-ride video of E.T. Adventure that I recorded in Orlando last month. E.T. did not say my name, or anyone else's.

Have you ridden the E.T. Adventure? Did E.T. say your name?

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