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Orlando theme parks to start giving out free insect repellent

By Robert Niles
Published: August 27, 2016 at 11:54 AM
Worried about Zika on your next Florida vacation? Walt Disney World and the rest of the Orlando-area theme parks don't want you to be. Starting tomorrow, the resorts will begin offering free insect repellent to guests, in an effort to calm concern about the mosquito-borne virus.

An outbreak of the virus in South America last year sparked a media frenzy. Typically, a Zika infection results in mild symptoms, at most, potentially including headache, fever, and a rash. But pregnant women can pass the virus to their fetus, potentially resulting severe birth defects, including microcephaly. That risk has led to a global panic over travel to regions where the virus is active... which now includes parts of the Miami area.

The Orlando theme parks are several hours up the road, but with millions of visitors bringing billions of dollars to the area, the parks can't afford to ignore the risk of the virus spreading north. The Orlando Sentinel reports that Disney will make various types of insect repellent available at its theme parks, starting Sunday. Disney also will make bug spray available in its hotel rooms. Universal Orlando will have repellent available at its guest services locations, and SeaWorld also will make repellent available at its parks, including Busch Gardens Tampa.

(And if you don't immediately see exactly where the repellent is available in the parks on your visit, just ask any cast or team member. They should be able to direct you.)

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that "the best way to prevent Zika is to protect yourself from mosquito bites" — thus, the need for effective insect repellent. The CDC also recommends dressing in clothing that covers the arms and legs, especially for children. Covering a stroller with mosquito netting provides protection, as well. Mosquitos carry a wide range of nasty stuff, too, so even if you're not worried about Zika, it's never a bad idea to do what you can to avoid the bugs.

So let's add putting on the bug spray to wearing sunscreen and drinking plenty of water to our list of theme park safety tips, to help ensure that you and your family stay safe and comfortable on your next visit to the parks.

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News update: Watching Disney's Electrical Parade, Dining Deals at Universal

By Robert Niles
Published: August 26, 2016 at 4:21 PM
Walt Disney World is finally getting around to removing more of its long-closed River Country water park. The resort has begun draining and filling in the old Upstream Plunge pool at the park, the Orlando Sentinel reports. Disney doesn't appear to be prepping the site for any other use. It's simply removing what legal types might call an attractive nuisance. The pool is located next to Mickey's Backyard BBQ at Disney's Fort Wilderness Campground, and that proximity makes it a potential liability for the resort, should someone get into the pool, according to a Sentinel source. Disney's been reviewing and making changes on waterfronts all over the resort following the death of a toddler in an alligator attack on a Seven Seas Lagoon beach earlier this summer.

Disney World fans who can't make it for the final performances of the Main Street Electrical Parade (or Disneyland fans who can't wait to see it again) can watch a live stream of the parade on the official Disney Parks Blog this Sunday evening, at 8:55 pm ET. In the meantime, Disney's posted this very neat time lapse of the parade, taken from the top of "To Honor America" grand finale float:

Universal Orlando Resort is celebrating Visit Orlando’s Magical Dining Month with special three-course dinners for $33 at selected restaurants: the new Amatista Cookhouse at Loews Sapphire Falls Resort, Emeril's Tchoup Chop and Islands Dining Room at Loews Royal Pacific Resort, The Kitchen at the Hard Rock Hotel, Bice Ristorante and Mama Della's Ristorante at Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, and Emeril's Orlando at Universal CityWalk. The offer runs August 29 through October 2, and one dollar from each meal will be donated to The Russell Home for Atypical Children.

Across the country in California, Universal Studios Hollywood has announced this year's Halloween Horror Nights Terror Tram:

“Eli Roth Presents Terror Tram” will expose guests to the fabled legacy of serial killer clown “Hollywood Harry,” the story of a former jovial celebrity clown turn depraved murderer, and the minefield of carnage he left behind.

The all-new “Terror Tram” experience will tell the sordid tale of former Angeleno resident Harold Kappowitz whose alter ego “Koodles the Clown” went from cheerful circus performer, to the lovable star of his own children’s network television show…before he was overcome by his genuine “killer instincts.”

By the 1990s, hard knocks took a deadly toll on Kappowitz, and the onetime endearing clown found himself exiled by the very Hollywood entertainment community that once adored him. With an all-consuming anger and hatred, Kappowitz—a now crazed and disheveled recluse—took refuge from society by hiding out at Universal Studios, emerging as notorious serial killer clown, “Hollywood Harry.” Recurring murders began to dominate the studio, as “Hollywood Harry” drew strength from recruiting other outcast former clowns who, together, took revenge on Studio Tour guides and visitors alike, ceremoniously killing them, and leaving behind a deadly trail of terror.

It's like a mashup of Krusty and Sideshow Bob, but if "The Simpsons" were on pay cable instead of broadcast TV. Nice.

Finally, if you needed yet another reminder never to buy theme park tickets on Craigslist or eBay, here it is. I see people getting caught at the gate at Disneyland with bogus tickets all the time. If a deal seems too good to be true, in this case, it is. Stay away, and buy your tickets from the parks' websites or approved retailers.

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New interactive frights are coming to this year's Knott's Scary Farm

By Robert Niles
Published: August 26, 2016 at 10:52 AM
Knott's Berry Farm last night revealed details for its annual Knott's Scary Farm Halloween event. The original theme park after-hours Halloween event, Knott's Scary Farm has been entertaining visitors for 43 years and this year will feature more than a dozen haunted attractions over 24 nights, starting Sept. 22 and running through October 31.

This year's new attractions are:

Black Ops: Infected — An interactive maze where small groups of guests will battle zombies in a video game come to life. Knott's says this will be one of the largest mazes in Scary Farm history and will include "live actors, real time scoring system, kill streak rewards system and interactive targets, including a juggernaut boss zombie."

The Hollow — A six-acre scare zone populated by the Headless Horsemen and his army of the undead.

Red Barn — Hey, a farm's gotta have a barn, right? How about "a blood-soaked barn filled with carnivorous animals seeking to prey on human flesh"? Sounds about right.

Shadow Lands — A maze through a Japanese temple, where you must "fight off demon samurais whose souls are cursed to rot within the depths of purgatory."

Elvira returns this year in a new show, Elvira’s Danse Macabre while other returning attractions include Paranormal Inc., The Dead of Winter: Wendigo’s Revenge, Trick-or-Treat, The Tooth Fairy, Voodoo - Order of the Serpent, The Gunslinger’s Grave: A Blood Moon Rises, The Deadly 7, and, as always, Knott's infamous The Hanging show in Calico Square.

In addition to The Hollow scare zone, Knott's will feature scare zones in Ghost Town, the Boardwalk (CarnEVIL), and Fiesta Village (Fiesta De Los Muertos).

Also, Knott's Scary Farm this year will four standalone "Skeleton Key Rooms," each with its own story and scares. One of the Skeleton Key Rooms, Vision, will use augmented reality to create paranormal activity inside the Green Witch Museum in Ghost Town. Zozo is a demon spirit summoned by a spirit board. Slasher puts visitors inside a 1980's slasher film, and Prey is a classic hay maze with only a faulty lantern to light your way around the waiting mutant beasts. The Skeleton Key, which unlocks one-time access to each room, is included with all Fright Lane passes.

Knott's will again offer a "Boo-fet Dinner" before each night of Knott's Scary Farm, at Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant. That's $27.99 plus tax when purchased online and $32.99 plus tax when bought at the door.

Single night tickets cost $40-52, depending upon the night of your visit. The Knott's Scary Farm Pass gets you in for all 24 nights for $85. (Knott's passholders get a $10 discount on the season pass.) Fast Lane front-of-line access to the park's roller coasters and Fright Lane front-of-line access to the mazes (including the Skeleton Key) also are available for additional charges. Parking is $20 a night, and All Season Long Parking is valid for Knott's Scary Farm. You can buy tickets in advance online (highly recommended — never wait to buy hard-ticket party tickets at the gate) at

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Why do theme parks make so many rides based on movies and books?

By Robert Niles
Published: August 25, 2016 at 10:32 AM
If you're running a theme park and spending anywhere between $20-200 million on a new attraction — and you only build a new one every few years — you cannot afford for that attraction to be anything other than a big hit with fans. That is why so many theme parks these days are looking to established IP [intellectual property] to theme their new attractions.

By building on an existing franchise, parks can appeal to that franchises' fan base while avoid the hard work of introducing and building affinity for a new set of characters. Working with an existing IP gives a theme park a "head start" on making all-important emotional connections with their audience, to help ensure those visitors not only will want to experience a new ride or land, but to come back and experience it again and again.

This isn't unique to theme parks, of course. Movie studios and other entertainment companies have learned this lesson, too, which is why we get so many sequels and reboots across all entertainment media these days. The drive for guaranteed profits makes business risk-averse, leading them to fall back upon proven creatives rather than taking the risk of trying something new... that might fail.

This isn't anything new in the theme park industry, either. Synergy — as the managers who spend more time with spreadsheets than walking the parks like to call it — has been part of this business ever since Walt Disney opened Disneyland in 1955. In my Orange County Register column this week, I look at the long history of cross-overs between movies and theme parks, starting with the opening of Disneyland itself.

Universal's amazing success with The Wizarding World of Harry Potter has brought a lot of media attention back to the connection between movies and theme parks, but that connection's always been there. In fact, I'd argue that it's not just the Harry Potter movies that's driving the success of Universal's Wizarding World lands, it's Universal's ability to tap into the rich detail J.K. Rowling crafted into her books that's helped make those lands so successful, as well.

Theme parks have been mining books for inspiration for decades, too. Think of Universal's Seuss Landing. Or, going way back, Disney's Tom Sawyer Island. Yes, there were movies and TV shows attached to those franchises. But it's from the books that theme park visitors best know these properties, and it's against the standard of those books that they judge these attractions.

In some ways, books provide an even more ideal source of inspiration for theme park attractions than movies. Yes, a few directors craft work that demands the audience remain actively involved while watching, but so much of what comes out of Hollywood can be consumed passively — just watch the screen and soak in the filmmakers' vision. Reading books is different. It typically demands more active participation from the reader, to create a mental image and landscape to support the narrative on the page. That makes the reading experience a perfect complement for the more immersive and interactive attractions that theme parks are working to develop.

With Rowling's mastery of detail and backstory, Harry Potter might be the most theme park-friendly entertainment franchise ever conceived. But plenty of other books would make great theme park franchises, too. (And this is where I pause for thousands of you to say, "Lord of the Rings"....) I'd love to see someone try to create an interactive experience based upon Sherlock Holmes. When I was a kid, I would have held someone hostage for the chance to visit a Richard Scarry land. And, for heaven's sake, what's it going to take to get a Stephen King-themed year at Universal's Halloween Horror Nights?

I guess the lesson is... nothing's really new, and the "trends" we read and hear about in the theme park business are usually just a new spin on something we've been doing forever. But that doesn't mean those new spins around the same block can't be just as wonderful and fun as the first go-around. Which entertainment franchises would you like to see parks take on next?

Read Robert's column:

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What's the perfect way to wait for a theme park parade?

By Robert Niles
Published: August 24, 2016 at 4:38 PM
The summer blockouts are over for all Disneyland annual passholders and crowd levels appear to be rising in the parks this week. With the Diamond Celebration ending Sept. 5, expect the parks to stay busy as local fans head back to see Disneyland Forever for the last time and to see Paint the Night again before it goes on an as-yet-ill-defined hiatus.

With so many people looking to see Disneyland's nighttime parade over the next two weeks, now's the time to pour fuel onto a flame war and bring up the topic of... parade etiquette. Nothing seems to spark conflict between theme park visitors as much as claiming spots to watch a parade. Fans who stake out a space well in advance get upset when others show up at the last minute. But trying to hold space for 10 people for hours with one person and a shopping bag is just asking for pushback from another group that sees that empty space and has all its people there. And everyone gets mad at the family that send its kids at the last second to stand in front of the waiting crowd.

So what's the right way to wait for a parade?

Let's work this one backward. Let's try to envision what a perfect parade crowd would look like, then work backward to figure out how we all can get there. Of course, we should start by noting that the people most likely to screw this up by misbehaving are those types of people because they never listen to or participate in conversations such as this. They just selfishly push ahead, doing whatever they feel like to get the best position for themselves.

So whatever we decide, it really ought to include some sort of defense against clueless, selfish people like that.

In my experience, the best parade crowds are the guests at Tokyo Disneyland. People there sit for the parades, allowing more visitors to see because the view isn't blocked by a few tall people up front. When I visited, I also saw Tokyo Disney cast members instructing people not to start claiming spaces until a designated time before the show — unlike the free-for-all in Anaheim when people start claiming spaces in the morning for highly anticipated parades.

Let's start there, then. The perfect parade crowd will sit. At least in the front. Behind them, shorter children can stand, with grown-ups standing behind them. And really tall grown-ups will defer to the crowd and claim space in the back. They can do that without being played a fool, since they know that no one taller in front of them will stand to block their view. No one, repeat, no one, places a child on his or her shoulders to see, either. And if you want to take pictures, stand in the back. Keep that camera (or phone, or, heaven forbid, tablet) no higher than your head.

Okay, that's the z dimension. Now let's talk about the x and the y. How much space do you really need around you?

The goal here is to allow the maximum number of people to enjoy a clear view of the parade. So that means everyone gets the ground space they need to sit or stand — and not a square inch more. Yeah, it's gonna be tight. But no one should have to shove a neighbor for space, either. There won't be room for your children to dance around while they watch the parade. Want to enjoy a picnic? Keep the food on your lap or in your hands.

To keep the parade crowd from obstructing other guests trying to walk through the park, park employees should prohibit people from claiming spaces until one to two hours before the parade, depending upon the crowd level in the park. Yeah, that's going to lead to an Oklahoma-style land rush, but that has one positive side effect. It will end up requiring groups to have all their members there to claim their spaces when the time comes. One person and shopping bag aren't going to be able to hold 10 feet of sidewalk space in that. Nor should they. The people who actually are willing to wait should be the ones rewarded with the most desirable places to see the parade.

Yeah, a parent might have to take a child to the restroom. The rest of the family likely can hold their claimed space for a few minutes while that happens. But no more sending all but one or two people to go ride rides instead of waiting for the show. With the wait time capped at two hours, though, on the busiest days, that shouldn't become an issue.

And when the parade is over, everyone needs to get up and be ready to go. This is the big reason why so many parks discourage sitting — the fear that seated visitors won't be able to get up in time to avoid being trampled in the rush after the parade. My solution? Run the parade at a slow walking pace, then have the final float be sloped upward, so that the floor at the back of the float rises above standing height. Send operations employees to walk alongside the float, gesturing with their arms for people to get up as the float goes by. With the back of the float elevated, no one loses their view as the people around them stand up. In fact, in order to see the back of the float, you have to get up!

If there's still no way to see the parade, even after all this... well, you missed it. Either try again for the next parade, or come earlier on another day. Not everyone gets to see everything in a park. That's just one of the realities of this business.

How do we get to this ideal situation? Well, the easiest way is to get the parks to agree to it. Cast or team members would have to have a well-defined set of parade space-saving rules to communicate with guests. Parks would need to promote their rules on their website, in blog posts, on guidemaps, and with handouts for park visitors in the first weeks after implementation.

As fans, we're stuck in a Prisoner's Dilemma situation here. There's no way for us to collectively enforce a designated waiting time, or making people sit in front, or keeping families together rather than sending children to cut in front. We can try to act responsibly as individuals and individual families, but given the enormous incentive people have to act selfishly in this situation, thinking of and acting for the greater good here only gets us shuffled to the back of the crowd, without a view. To be a perfect parade crowd, we need help from the parks that host us.

What do you think? How would you like to see the parks and their guests handle parades?

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DreamWorks Animation officially joins the Universal Studios family

By Robert Niles
Published: August 23, 2016 at 1:32 PM
Universal Studios owner Comcast has closed its deal to acquire DreamWorks Animation, officially making Kung Fu Panda, Toothless the dragon, and the Madagascar crew part of the Universal family.

Universal welcomed the DreamWorks Animation characters with a tweet:

First thought? Universal Studios Hollywood has a Toothless character ready to go? We need this meet-and-greet in the parks, right away!

Of course, it might not be that simple. As theme park fans learned when Disney bought Marvel, theme park rights to specific characters don't automatically switch upon a change in ownership. Universal's long owned the theme park rights in all its markets to the Shrek franchise, and Universal devotes an entire land in Universal Studios Singapore to Madagascar. But the park hasn't featured DreamWorks Animation's other big franchises: Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon. The SeaWorld Parks recently held the US theme park rights to the Madagascar characters, but that deal appears to have expired. In the Middle East, the theme park rights belong to the new Motiongate Dubai park, which will include an indoor DreamWorks Animation land when that park opens October 31.

But in the United States, with no other parks currently using Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda, or How to Train Your Dragon, Universal would appear to have a clear path forward to bring these characters into Universal Orlando and Universal Studios Hollywood. DreamWorks Animation will become part of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, along with Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment, Universal's other animation studio, best known for the Minions. Universal is expected to take over the distribution of DreamWorks Animation films, which has been handled by Fox since 2013.

So what should Universal do next in the parks with these DreamWorks franchises? (In addition to setting up that Toothless meet-and-greet, of course.) I love the Madagascar land at Universal Studios Singapore, but industry gossip about troubles with the development of its centerpiece indoor boat ride suggests that Universal won't be in any hurry to clone that ride elsewhere. Plus, How to Train Your Dragon and the The Croods appear to be the hotter franchises at the moment, with sequels under development at the studio. And with Universal committed to a The Secret Life of Pets attraction and a new Nintendo-themed land, one can wonder where DreamWorks Animation franchises fit on Universal Creative's increasingly crowded development schedule.

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Disney celebrates 45 years of the Country Bear Jamboree

By Robert Niles
Published: August 23, 2016 at 10:02 AM
As the Walt Disney World Resort prepares for its 45th birthday this fall, Disney is saluting the attractions that opened with the Magic Kingdom on October 1, 1971.

One of those is one of my former homes at Disney, the Country Bear Jamboree, which Disney is featuring this week. I got a 5/5 on Disney's Country Bear Jamboree trivia quiz, but since I spent a day doing nothing but learning "Bear Band" trivia when I started working at the show, then ended up watching the various versions of it more than 1,000 times during my stint with the company, anything less would have been pretty, well, embearassing.


Anyway, here's some more fun stuff about our favorite singing bears that you won't find on the official Disney blog.

The Country Bear Jamboree debuted at Walt Disney World before being copied at Disneyland, flipping the script for most classic Disney theme parks attractions. But the Country Bear show wasn't originally envisioned for Disney World. The show first was designed for a ski resort that Walt Disney wanted to build in Mineral King, California. After Walt's death, the Disney board of directors decided that it couldn't go ahead with both the Mineral King and Florida projects. So it canceled the ski resort and chose to build the Walt Disney World Resort instead. But the Country Bear concept survived and was added to the plans for the Magic Kingdom.

Working an animatronic show might not seem like the most exciting job at Disney World. But it did offer some interesting challenges in learning how to manage a queue filled with people without making anyone mad. And when animatronic shows such as the Country Bear Jamboree break down, they can do so in absolutely hilarious ways. No one's in danger when the Country Bear show breaks down, of course — the biggest danger the show poses might be when the show doesn't stop, and your poor operator is stuck in the theater watching show after show after show.

(These stories and more appear in my book about working at the Walt Disney World Resort, Stories from a Theme Park Insider. If you're looking for a few laughs — and want to keep me off the streets — go ahead and buy a copy!)

Current Disney World visitors might now know this, but there are three versions of the Country Bear show: the original Jamboree, the summer-themed Vacation Hoedown and the holiday-themed Christmas Special. Disney World no longer shows anything but a slightly-truncated version of the original, but you can see the other two show at Tokyo Disneyland. Or if you can't afford that trip, you can watch our video of the Christmas show in Japan.

Happy (early) birthday, Country Bears!

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