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Weekly Top 10: The Best Live Shows in Theme Parks

By Robert Niles
Published: March 30, 2015 at 9:50 AM
We'd bet that most people think first of rides when they think about theme parks. And while we love all the great rides in the parks, we know that top theme parks also provide some wonderful shows for our entertainment. This week, we honor the Top 10 live shows at major theme parks, as determined by the collective rating of Theme Park Insider readers. You can visit our Park Reviews page to start rating the shows, rides, and restaurants you've visited. And if you take a moment to register, you can submit reviews and photos of those locations, as well.

10. Pets Ahoy!
SeaWorld Orlando, SeaWorld San Diego (as Pets Rule!)

Pets Ahoy!

Cats, dogs, birds, and even a pig perform in this gag-filled show. Some of these four-legged stars were rescued from animal shelters, and there's usually a pitch at the end of the show encouraging the audience to adopt rescue animals.

9. Mystery Lodge
Knott's Berry Farm

Mystery Lodge

An elderly storyteller greets you from inside this Native American longhouse, where a fire burns in the middle of the room. As smoke from the fire twists into shapes, the storyteller believes to have seen an owl, a symbol of death. That prompts the man into a reflection upon his life, as he shares stories from his past, which collectively help illustrate the Pacific Northwest Native American experience.

8. Universal Horror Make-up Show
Universal Studios Florida

Universal Horror Make-up Show

Located behind a recreation of the facade of Hollywood's Pantages Theater, Universal's look at the work of special effects make-up artists is one of the few attractions that remains from the park's opening. Sure, there's a bit of gore and the gruesome in this live show, but the overall tone is mostly light, with a heavy dose of Universal's distinctive, sarcastic humor.

7. Festival of the Lion King
Disney's Animal Kingdom, Hong Kong Disneyland

Festival of the Lion King

Dancers, acrobats, singers, and costumed characters celebrate The Lion King in this musical performance in-the-round. No, it’s not the Broadway show, or even an abridged retelling of the movie plot, but more a lovely, rousing concert that tries to get the audience cheering, and often succeeds.

6. Carkitt Market Stage
Universal Studios Florida

Carkitt Market Stage

Gringotts and the Hogwarts Express much of the attention in Universal's Diagon Alley expansion, but don't overlook the live shows playing on this small stage in Carkitt Market. Those who take a few moments to watch Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees in concert or the performance of "Tales from Beedle the Bard" rave about these shows.

5. Fantasy Faire Royal Theatre
Disneyland

Fantasy Faire Royal Theatre

The clever Elizabethan musical storytellers Mr. Smyth and Mr. Jones present their slightly twisted take on some of Disney's fairy tales. Originally rotating shows of "Beauty and the Beast" and "Tangled," it's all "Frozen" these days. But it's a retelling of the story that even parents who've sat through their kids watching the DVD a million times still can enjoy.

4. Celtic Fyre
Busch Gardens Williamsburg

Celtic Fyre

This celebration of Irish music, dance, and culture plays in the Abbey Stone Theatre, featuring an impressive display of singing and tap dancing.

3. Blue Horizons
SeaWorld Orlando, SeaWorld San Diego

Blue Horizons

Blue Horizons tells the story of a girl named Marina (get it?) dreaming about the sea and the wonders within it. And, yes, those dreams do include jumping dolphins.

2. Waterworld
Universal Studios Hollywood, Universal Studios Singapore, Universal Studios Japan

Waterworld

Set in a world where the polar ice caps have melted, covering the continents in sea water, our hero Helen has discovered dry land. But the evil Smokers are after her and the secret of dry land's location. It's up the Mariner to save Helen, and fight off the Smokers. Meanwhile, stunt performers dangle from high above the stage, plunge into the water, and stuff blows up all over the place. And, oh yeah, keep your eyes open for the plane.

1. Aladdin
Disney California Adventure

Aladdin

A 50-minute retelling of Disney's animated classic, California Adventure's "Aladdin" paved the way for Disney's current Broadway hit and continues to entertainment visitors with an ever-refreshed script that allows the Genie to riff on pop culture while the rest of the production dazzles with wonderful songs and staging.

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How to Deal with Food Allergies at a Disney or Universal Theme Park

By Robert Niles
Published: March 29, 2015 at 4:26 PM
Disney and Universal theme parks have been opening new restaurants over the past weeks, but how can you enjoy themed food in a park if you have a food allergy?

The nation's most-attended parks have earned those visitors in part by providing a welcoming environment to people with a wide range of abilities. So it probably should not come as a surprise that these parks have tried to provide accommodation to people with food allergies, as well.

Both Disney and Universal have devoted pages on their websites to help guide people with food allergies. (We'll link to those pages in a moment.) But these parks have trained their food staff about allergy issues, too, so a visitor can find plenty to eat in the parks without the hassle of having to call and plan in advance.

When I was eating at the new Smokejumpers Grill at Disney California Adventure, I asked if they could serve their hamburgers on a gluten-free bun. The cashier immediately summoned a chef to greet me. She asked about food allergies and assured me that any sandwich at a Disney theme park could be made on a gluten-free bun. In addition, the fries that came with the burger would be fried in a separate deep-fryer in which no items containing wheat-flour batter or other ingredients with gluten would be fried. The chef thanked me for my patience, then said that she would make our lunch personally, then bring it out when it was finished.

A few minutes later, she returned, tray in hand, with our burger and fries.

Gluten-free at the Smokejumpers Grill

The policy is the same at all Disney restaurants. If anyone in your party has a food allergy, simply tell that to your server or cashier, and they will summon a chef to speak with you about your options. That chef will tell you what can be prepared at that restaurant to accommodate your allergy. Obviously, with common allergies such as wheat gluten, dairy, or nuts, accommodations are relatively easy. If you have multiple or rare allergies, your choices might become more limited, but Disney's chefs will work with you to help find a solution that works.

So how was that burger? I'll be honest, if there's a tasty gluten-free hamburger bun out there, I have yet to find it. Gluten is a protein that helps define the structure of good bread. (You'll find a helpful description of how gluten affects bread from Serious Eats' J. Kenji López-Alt.) Without that gluten to help things along, many gluten-free buns tend to be dense and chewy instead of light and springy.

If I were to offer a recommendation for eating at one of Disney's burger restaurants, do go ahead and ask for the gluten-free preparation, to reduce the risk of cross-contamination. But I'd either chuck the gluten-free bun and grab some extra lettuce from the toppings bar for a lettuce-wrapped burger, or ask if the chef could just go ahead prepare the sandwich that way. The fries, though, are amazing when prepared freshly this way. Crisp by coming immediately from a fryer that was frying only fries, without stopping for even a moment to wilt under a heat lamp, these were some of the best counter-service French fries I've ever tasted.

I have found the staff at Universal Studios Hollywood also to be helpful in accommodating dietary needs. Universal Studios Hollywood lists on its website which specific dishes at which of its restaurants are either gluten-free already, or that can be modified to be gluten-free.

Chicken dinner
Skip the gravy and the biscuit and you're gluten-free at the Jurassic Cafe.

There's no reason to let a food allergy keep you from experiencing the tastes of a theme park, as you enjoy its sights and other sensations. Just follow the links below for more helpful advice. And please share with us in the comments your experience and tips with allergen-free dining in the parks.

Helpful Links:

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2015 Coaster Vote Final: The Most Anticipated New Coaster of the Year

By Robert Niles
Published: March 29, 2015 at 3:29 PM
A little more than a week ago, we asked you to vote on the new roller coaster you're most looking forward to ride in 2015. We selected five candidates for the poll that we thought would be among the most popular new coasters in the country. However, you told us that five were not enough. Fans of some of the other great new coasters coming this year demand the opportunity to vote for their favorite, so we added a second vote.

Now, in the tradition of the annual Theme Park Insider Tournaments we started back in 2008, we are putting the champions of our two votes last week up against each other for the overall "most anticipated new coaster" crown.

Ultimately, your votes told us that you are really, really looking forward to riding a new Rocky Mountain Construction steel re-tracked wooden coaster this year, because that is what both of our winners will be. Your final candidates are:

Twisted Colossus
Six Flags Magic Mountain

Wicked Cyclone
Six Flags New England


Thank you to our friends at both parks, as well as at all the other parks in this competition, for getting out the vote. Now let's do it again, and let the most anticipated new coaster of 2015 win!

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Trader Sam's Opens and Aunt Polly's Returns at Walt Disney World

By Robert Niles
Published: March 28, 2015 at 3:50 PM
It's been a great weekend for new food and drink experiences at top theme park resorts. We told you yesterday about the new Springfield USA restaurants at Universal Studios Hollywood. Today, the east coast welcomed a popular new establishment as another Trader Sam's tiki bar opened at Disney's Polynesian Village Resort.

Trader Sam's Grog Grotto

Inspired by the original Trader Sam's at the Disneyland Hotel in California (and, just a little bit, by the old Adventurer's Club at Pleasure Island before that), Trader Sam's Grog Grotto seats 50 inside and 82 on the patio, and wait times for a table inside ran up to four hours, according to readers on Twitter this afternoon.

Shrunken Zombie Head at Trader Sam's

Once in, you can order from a wide selection of tropical inspired drinks (mostly alcoholic, but with a few sans the booze). Many popular choices are served in souvenir mugs and glasses, including the Krakatoa Punch and the Shrunken Zombie Head (pictured above - photos courtesy Disney). A selection of appetizers, including sushi, kalua pork tacos, and bahn mi sliders, also is available.

If you're looking for a different flavor of nostalgia — and a much lower price point — Aunt Polly's reopened today on my beloved Tom Sawyer Island, after an absence of many years.

The walk-up quick-service window is serving turkey sandwiches, PB&Js, and lemonade.

That's a step up from the days when I worked the Tom Sawyer Island rafts, and Polly's served only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and soft drinks. "Where's the lemonade?" might have been the second-most popular question guests asked me when I was working on the island back then. ("How do I get off this island?" being the first, of course.) Update: We're told that Polly's will be seasonal-only, through April 11, for the spring break crowds. But if enough people rave about it at City Hall (hint!) and the income numbers look good, here's hoping that Polly's will return for the summer and other high seasons in the future.

Where have you been eating in the parks this weekend? Tell us in the comments.

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Where to Eat? Springfield USA Opens at Universal Studios Hollywood

By Robert Niles
Published: March 27, 2015 at 10:52 PM
Universal Studios Hollywood's new "Simpsons"-themed land, Springfield USA, soft-opened today.

We say "soft-opened" because the park hasn't issued yet any press announcement declaring the new land formally opened. Yet I can't recall another soft-opening that fronted the cover of a park's guidemap. Usually, when something gets to that point, it's official.

Let's just ignore the semantics and take a look around, shall we?

Welcome to Springfield USA

Greetings from Springfield USA, the sign says. Just ignore that wizarding village in the background, okay?

Crowds swarmed the new land on its opening day, though it's nice to see the main pathway through the park opened up again.

Crowds

Lard Lad Donuts is the first of Springfield's many eateries you will encounter as you walk through the land.

Lard Lad

Lard Lad menu

Across the street is Phineas Q. Butterfat's Ice Cream, which was one of four new locations that remained behind barriers and closed to the public while I was at the park today.

Phineas Q. Butterfat's

Next door is Suds McDuff's Hot Dogs.

Suds McDuff's

Beyond that, you will find the entrance to the Duff Brewery beer garden.

Duff Brewery

If you're hungry inside the beer garden after it opens, head over to Bumblebee Man's Tacos, which also remained closed to guests today.

Bumblebee Man's

The Seven Duffs line the entrance to the Duff Brewery. I don't want to know what Sleazy has in mind, though.

Sleazy and Bumblebee Man

Let's try something to eat, shall we? Back across the street, next to the Lard Lad, we'll find the flagship restaurant of the new Springfield land, Krusty Burger.

Krusty Burger

Visitors who have been to Universal Orlando's version of Springfield are in for (yet another) surprise when they enter Hollywood's Krusty Burger.

Inside Krusty Burger

Here, the "Simpsons"-themed restaurants aren't crammed together into one "Fast Food Boulevard" food court. Instead, they each get their own space, with separate ordering and service counters. While that helps each restaurant retain its own thematic identity, it's an extra hassle if one person in your group wants a burger and someone else wants chicken.

After about a five-minute wait, I got through the queue to order The Clogger (bacon double cheeseburger, with waffle fries and cole slaw - $12.99) and a Buzz Cola ($3.69).

The Clogger

The Clogger beat the life out of the chili burger I had at Disney's Smokejumpers Grill earlier this week. Juicy throughout, with the faintest hint of pink in the middle, Universal left some life in these patties, then topped them with wonderfully crispy bacon, "secret sauce," tasty pickles and tomatoes. This might have been the best counter-service burger I've ever had in a theme park, easily surpassing not only California Adventure's offering, but the original Krusty Burger from Orlando, as well.

Another change from Orlando? You'll find most of the dining space upstairs, though there are no windows overlooking the street below.

Upstairs dining

If you want a view, head a few steps into the upstairs dining area, and into Krusty's VIP room.

Krusty's VIP dining room

You'll find mementos from Krusty's long (and entirely made-up) career in here, including the clown's Walk of Fame star.

Walk of Fame star

Cut back across the upstairs dining area, and you'll end up in the second-floor of Cletus' Chicken Shack.

Upstairs at Cletus' Chicken Shack

Cletus serves fried chicken, BBQ grilled chicken sandwiches, and a chicken and waffle sandwich here, at prices similar to the Krusty Burger.

Cletus' menu

Listen for the clucking noises while you stand by the front entrance.

Outside the Chicken Shack

In fact, watch and listen closely throughout Springfield, where the nuclear power plant above you "melts down" every few minutes, belching smoke from its cooling towers while alarms sound. And then look down, to see some of the detail that Universal's embedded in the grates surrounding the trees that line Springfield's sidewalks.

Sidewalk detail

Even though the "actual" new buildings in Springfield are food and beverage locations, Universal's surrounding them with whimsical facades, including Dr. Nick's.

Dr. Nicks's

And at the end of the land, it's Stu's Disco — closed until Disco comes back. Perhaps the wizards about to move in behind you might help with that, Stu.

Stu's Disco

But let's head back to Moe's Tavern, which occupies the first floor between Krusty Burger and Cletus' Chicken Shack.

Moe's

Let's step inside for a drink!

Inside Moe's

Uh, Barney seems to have beaten us to that.

Barney

Never mind, the bartenders here are ready to serve up Duff Beer, Shock Top, or the signature Flaming Moe ($8.99).

Flaming Moe

The Flaming Moe sounds great in theory — a smoking orange beverage that the whole family can enjoy (since it has no alcohol), but at nine bucks, there just wasn't enough flavor here to justify the price, even with the souvenir glass. The Flaming Moe in Florida tasted like an intense orange soda, but this one came across more like a heavily carbonated glass of Tang. (Yes, I am dating myself with that reference.) I won't bother with another one — I'll save my money and the calories for another one of those Cloggers.

All together, Universal Studios Hollywood's version of Springfield takes the concept first developed in Orlando to another level of detail, with an immersive environment that should help make this corner of the park a place where fans will want to linger, instead of just hurrying through to the Studio Tour or the Lower Lot. Great theme parks create a sense of place — a space where visitors want to hang out and be as much as they want to get on to the next ride or show. Springfield finally delivers that for Universal Studios Hollywood.

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Twisted Colossus Construction Tour: March 2015

By Robert Niles
Published: March 27, 2015 at 6:16 PM
Six Flags Magic Mountain invited us back out today for another look at the progress on Twisted Colossus, the Rocky Mountain Construction steel re-top of the park's former Colossus wooden coaster.

The lift chains are in place now.

The lift chains are in place now

And workers are installing the lift motors.

Workers installing the lift motors

There's an envelop testing unit on the track, which workers will use to test the clearance around the coaster train along the track, as it is completed.

Awaiting envelope testing on the track

Much of the track is in place now, but some around the Outward Banked Floater remains to be installed.

Track remaining to be installed

We took a walk around the structure to look at one of Twisted Colossus' signature maneuvers, the High Five.

The High Five feature

Workers are building the one of the coasters' inversions, the Top Gun.

Workers building the Top Gun inversion

Six Flags spokespersons said that they are not ready to announce an opening date for the ride, but that they expect to make an announcement of that date within the new couple weeks. In the meantime, we leave you with a photo of Twisted Colossus' drop, with Goliath and Superman in the background

Twisted Colossus, with Goliath and Superman in the background

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Vote of the Week: After a Year, What's Your Experience with Disney's Fastpass+?

By Robert Niles
Published: March 27, 2015 at 6:18 AM
It's been more than a year since Walt Disney World implemented its new Fastpass+ system for making reservations for its rides and shows in advance of your visit to the resort. Given the experience that many of us have had with the system, let's take this opportunity to vote on how it's working for us.

If you've visited Walt Disney World during the past year, you probably know that Fastpass+ allows you to make three reservations a day for rides and shows at the Disney parks, up to 30 days in advance of your visit. (It's 60 days for guests who've booked a stay at one of Disney's on-site hotels.) To take advantage of the reservation system, you must have purchased a Disney World theme park ticket and associated it with an account on the Walt Disney World website. Once you're logged in with a valid ticket, you can start making reservations within your time window.

Fastpass+ return at the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train

We recommend that you use the system to book a visit on the three attractions you most want to experience in the park you'll be visiting that day. (And you can see our suggestions on our theme park travel tips page.) Don't worry about times at first -- just get the attractions you want. That way, you'll be assured of getting in to see the rides or shows you most want to experience with minimal wait, allowing you a bit of peace of mind for the rest of your day. You don't have to rush around the park early in the day to get your first Fastpass, either. You can lock in three for everyone in your group at your convenience, before you leave home.

Now, if you want to play Fastpass+ at the advanced level, try to time your three reservations for early in the day, as Disney will allow you to pick up additional Fastpass+ reservations, one at a time, inside the park on the day of your visit. You can make or change Fastpass+ reservations in the park by getting help from cast members at designated locations in the park, or by using the My Disney Experience app that you can download for your smartphone.

If the attraction you selected is down, for whatever reason, during your scheduled time, the system will (should?) give you a "golden Fastpass" to use on any other attraction in the park, so you won't lose one of your three Fastpass+ line-skipping opportunities.

Okay, that's all good news. The bad news is that the expansion of Fastpass+ to dozens of attractions that never offered ride reservations under the old paper ticket-based Fastpass system has disrupted guest visitation patterns throughout the parks. High-capacity attractions that rarely had long waits before Fastpass+ now often do, as Disney uses the system to direct more guests to those high-capacity attractions, filling both their Fastpass+ return and stand-by queues. People who'd mastered getting the most for their money at Disney under the old system have had to start over and develop new strategies for getting on as many rides and shows as possible during their day.

And making Fastpass+ reservations at home isn't always the carefree experience that Disney promotes. If you want one of the really hard-to-get Fastpasses, such as the Anna and Elsa meet and greet, you'll need to be up at the crack of dawn exactly 60 days before your visit, logging into your Disney World account in an attempt to get one those just-made-available times before they're all gone.

Of course, not every Walt Disney World Resort visitor uses Fastpass+. As with the Fastpass system before it, many visitors just ignore the opportunity to claim reservation times for selected attractions, and choose instead just to use the standby queues as visitors have been doing at theme parks for decades.

For this Vote of the Week, we'd like to ask about your experience with Fastpass+. Have you visited the Walt Disney World Resort since the system went into widespread use in early 2014? If you have, did you use Fastpass+? Did you like the experience, or not?


In the comments, please tell us the one thing that you think other visitors should do to get the most from using Fastpass+. (Or tell us what you think Disney should do to improve the system — and no, it's not going away.) As always, thank you for being part of the Theme Park Insider community!

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