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No more 3D on Harry Potter in Hollywood; the Death Star is coming to Epcot

By Robert Niles
Published: December 2, 2016 at 5:51 PM
Changes are coming to a couple of popular theme park destinations, in Orlando and Hollywood.

At Universal Studios Hollywood, the park apparently has abandoned its conversion of Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey into a 3D attraction, switching the screen elements of the ride to 2D projection, as they are shown in the Orlando original. Ever since the attraction first soft-opened in California last winter, it has been shown in 3D, as the other installation of Forbidden Journey, in Japan, is presented. However, some fans complained of queasiness on the ride (which, frankly, is going to happen on a robocoaster-type attraction such as this), and others — including yours truly &38212; didn't feel that the 3D effect "popped" or added anything to the presentation. Universal has confirmed the change via Twitter, but not offered an official explanation for the switch. By not running the show in 3D, Universal saves the expense of cleaning and replacing the ride's 3D glasses. A 2D presentation might require less projection power than the 3D show, too, as 3D imagery often needs to be projected brighter in order to compensate for the darkening effect of viewing through the glasses. So there's saving in changing to 2D and not much downside in this case. So far, I've seen dozens of messages on social media supporting the change and no one complaining about the loss of the 3D.

In Florida, Walt Disney World is switching up the operations at the ABC Commissary at Disney's Hollywood Studios. The traditionally poorly-rated quick service dining facility is switching to a "fast casual" style of service at dinner, similar to what diners now find at Be Our Guest in The Magic Kingdom at lunch. You'll still order at the counter, but you'll be given a pager to carry to your choice of table, where a server will deliver your meal when it is ready. Disney's upgrading the menu, too, adding entrees such as Chimichurri-topped Sirloin Steak ($17.49), Lemon Pepper Salmon ($14.99), and swapping the Angus Bacon Cheeseburger ($11.29) at lunch for a Southwest Burger ($14.49), topped with pepper Jack cheese, guacamole, bacon, lettuce, tomato and cheddar jalapeno poppers. There's a barbecue Chicken and Ribs Combo Platter for $17.19 available at both lunch and dinner, too.

At at Walt Disney World, Epcot is promoting the upcoming premiere of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story by changing the park's Spaceship Earth into the Death Star. It's happening after the park close on Monday. Dec. 5 for a special promotional event, but Disney will live-stream the transformation on its blog at 10:25 pm ET.

There's absolutely no truth to the rumor that Disney will then auction the opportunity to pick the Spaceship Earth/Death Star's first target. Remember, the Empire did nothing wrong.

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What's happening for the holidays at Disney, Universal, SeaWorld and Six Flags?

By Robert Niles
Published: December 2, 2016 at 11:15 AM
With the start of December, Christmas and year-end holiday celebrations are underway at all of the nation's top theme parks. You'll find holiday-themed parades, shows, and special meals and sweets waiting for you at dozens of top parks between now and the start of the New Year. For our weekly video show, Natalie and I visited Disneyland yesterday to sample some of what Disney has to offer, but let's also take a what's on at other major parks and chains, too. You'll find links to our extended coverage of these events throughout the post.

Disneyland is offering its three main attraction overlays again this year: Haunted Mansion Holiday, It's a Small World Holiday, and Jingle Cruise. In addition, the Christmas Fantasy parade plays in the afternoons and the Believe in Holiday Magic fireworks go off each night. At Disney California Adventure, the park is offering a new Festival of the Holidays celebration, with food stands and a new version of World of Color - Season of Light.

At the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, Epcot is hosting a new Holidays Around the World festival, with food booths serving holiday favorites from around the world. Disney's Hollywood Studios is running a new projection and fireworks show, Jingle Bell Jingle BAM!, and Disney Springs has launched the world's first aerial drone show, Starbright Holidays. At the Magic Kingdom, the after-hours Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party continues on select nights.

The Universal theme parks in Orlando and Hollywood are offering Grinchmas once again this year, starting tomorrow. Orlando's Islands of Adventure is showing the "Grinchmas Who-liday Spectacular" while you can see "Martha May and the Who-Dolls" in Hollywood. The Grinch also is available for meet and greets. Also in Orlando, the Macy’s Holiday Parade runs again at Universal Studios Florida and Mannheim Steamroller plays the Music Plaza Stage on Dec. 3, 4, 10, 11, 17 and 18.

SeaWorld's Christmas Celebration this year includes Rudolph’s Christmastown, where you can meet the famous red-nosed reindeer from the Rankin-Bass television special. In Orlando, there'a also as an all-new Santa's Workshop. SeaWorld Orlando continues its line-up of holiday-themed shows, too, including Clyde & Seamore’s Countdown to Christmas, Shamu Christmas Miracles, O Wondrous Night, and the Sea of Trees. An San Diego will again have its 320-foot Christmas Tree of Lights in addition to Clyde & Seamore’s Christmas Special and the last year of Shamu Christmas Miracles in San Diego.

Six Flags' Holiday in the Park is running at several of the chain's parks, including Six Flags Magic Mountain, north of Los Angeles. This year's event includes the Santa's Wild Sleigh Ride Virtual Reality Coaster in Santa's Star-Spangled Plaza, holiday lights in the Gleampunk District, and the holiday acrobatics show Kwerkmas.

Which theme parks' holiday celebrations will you be visiting this year?

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It's time to start planning your 2017 roller coaster vacation

By Robert Niles
Published: December 1, 2016 at 11:06 PM
Is it time to start planning another big cross-country summer roller coaster roadtrip?

For a theme park fan, I suppose the answer to this question is always an emphatic "yes!" But practical matters often seem to get in the way of actually hitting the road for that big month-long trip to ride 30 coasters in half-a-dozen parks that we dream. I've been fortunate enough to have taken my family on several cross-country trips before the kids started college, but many, many coasters remain on my "never ridden" list. Too many.

That point became uncomfortably clear to me when I looked at our Top 10 roller coaster list that we publish along with other Top 10 reader rating lists for our Insiders. I've been on three of our listed coasters.

Three. And I'm supposed to be running this site. What an awful example I'm setting here!

So, clearly, it's going to be time to hit the road next summer. Where should I go? Based upon your collective ratings, my top two destinations ought to be Carowinds and Six Flags Great Adventure, as those are the two parks that have multiple highly-rated coasters I've not yet ridden. But, on an ideal itinerary, I should include stops at Canada's Wonderland, Kings Dominion, Dollywood, and Silver Dollar City, too. (I've visited Carowinds and Dollywood before, but the other four parks would be first visits for me.)

Now if you know anything about me, you might recognize the, uh, slight logistical problem with me roadtripping to these parks. I live in Southern California. Toronto, New Jersey, and North Carolina all are a bit of a haul from LA. But why let that be an excuse? We've driven to Vancouver, Maine, and Orlando on roadtrips before (okay, not all on the same trip), so we're not afraid of putting miles on the car. And with WiFi, or at least a strong cellular data connection, I can work from pretty much anywhere.

So let's plan on doing this. And by "us," I mean you, too! How many great roller coasters that you've been meaning to ride "some day" are still waiting for you? How many could you get to in a reasonable vacation this summer? Two? Five? Ten? More?

If you're going to pull off that summer coaster roadtrip of your dreams, the time to start planning it is now. And the way to start planning it is to think BIG. List all the coasters and parks that you've been wanting to visit at some point, with no thought of how practical it would be for you to get to them next summer. Planning is a process of editing as much as anything else. Start with the big list, then allow the practicalities of travel in your particular circumstances narrow your list to something manageable.

But start with the big list. Even if nothing comes from your effort, you will enjoy the time that you're going to daydream about riding coasters while you draft that big list. Then you can enjoy the time you spend putting this travel puzzle together, trying to envision all the various combinations of visits that would allow you to get to the maximum number of rides and parks in the time you have available next year.

So that you don't skip on the important work of dreaming big, I'm going to ask you to do some homework for me. Post your dream coaster/park vacation line-up here in the comments. Share with the rest of us what you'd love to do on a summer coaster vacation next year. Then read what others are posting, and if you've got any tips or advice (based on your experience) that could help them make that trip happen, share that as well.

It's time to start planning or 2017, theme park fans. So let's plan big.

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Is Small World Holiday the best, or worst, of Disney's holiday overlays?

By Robert Niles
Published: November 30, 2016 at 12:26 PM
Disneyland's It's a Small World Holiday celebrates its 20th anniversary this year... and I get all Grinch on it in my Orange County Register column this week. (Sorry for mixing some corporate IP there....)

If you haven't seen it, the holiday overlay adds the music of "Jingle Bells" and "Deck the Halls" to the ride's "It's a Small World (After All)" theme song. Throw in holiday-themed decorations throughout the ride and you've got a joyful Christmas celebration that breaks up the monotony of listening to the Sherman Brothers' theme song over and over for the ride's 10 minutes.

So why don't I like it?

Well, it's not that I don't enjoy the experience as much as I'm bothered by the juxtaposition of Christmas theming with the message of cultural unity in the original version of Small World. Does the Christmas theming disrespect the non-Christian cultures referenced in Small World? Or does the global celebration of Christmas by nonbelievers neutralize the religious significance of the holiday?

Either way, the overlay gets me thinking about this symbolic conflict, when the whole point of It's a Small World was to create a vision of a world without conflict. ("I came here to feel, not to think"?) Still, the holiday version does help me appreciate the brilliance of the original version even more, but I rank it my least favorite of Disney's holiday overlays for standing attractions, behind Haunted Mansion Holiday, Jingle Cruise, and the (now only in Tokyo) Country Bear Christmas Special.

Take a video ride and decide for yourself:

And while we're at it, here are the full show videos for Haunted Mansion Holiday (last year's version), the Jingle Cruise, and the Tokyo installation of the Country Bear Christmas show. (Update: I'd originally forgotten about the Jingle Cruise, but now have added it.)

How would you rank Disney's holiday overlays?

Read Robert's column:

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How Disney and Intel created a flying palette of light-up drones

By Robert Niles
Published: November 30, 2016 at 11:42 AM
So did Disney get 300 drones to fly into the sky above Disney Springs, then choreograph them to fly together in changing patterns to create Walt Disney World's Starbright Holidays show? Here's the inside story, from Disney:

In the video, Disney Imagineers confirm what many fans had speculated — that the inspiration for the show came from that iconic moment in the Disney animated hit Tangled with the floating lanterns over the kingdom. Disney partnered with Intel, who developed the special "Shooting Star" drones that perform in the show.

And this is a performance. Yes, it's an exercise in computer programming, aeronautics, engineering, and stagecraft, but what part of mass-market entertainment isn't highly technical in its production these days? We've all become so accustomed to seeing incredible imagery on screen in movies, television, and video games, that it's a treat to watch the reaction on Disney guests' faces when they recognize that these floating points of light above the West Side of Disney Springs are real and that they're watching a video effect come to life. To me, that's as much fun as watching the show itself, which, c'mon now, is pretty darned captivating on its own.

How often do you see something truly new and unique in entertainment? Thanks to the teams at WDI and Intel who put this show together, now we can.

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The Great Orlando IP War

By Robert Niles
Published: November 29, 2016 at 2:23 PM
With the impending addition of at least one Nintendo land at the Universal Orlando Resort, Universal will offer its guests three of the most beloved and appealing entertainment intellectual properties in the world: Nintendo, Harry Potter, and Marvel. Universal won't actually own any of these IPs — all will be included in the Universal parks under license from their owners — but no one but theme park geeks like us cares about those legalities. To visitors, Universal soon will be the theme park home of Mario, Hogwarts, and Spider-Man. The Battle for Orlando is on, and it might just end up reshaping the entire entertainment industry.

The addition of Harry Potter disrupted the Orlando theme park market, consigning SeaWorld to third-tier status in the market and providing Universal with the cash flow to take full control of its Orlando resort from its former partner, Blackstone Group. Potter allowed Universal to break the bank and build it at the same time — following its initial Hogsmeade-themed Wizarding World with a faithful reproduction of Diagon Alley, complete with Gringotts Bank, further enriching Universal's bottom line. That's helped launch Universal Orlando as a credible alternative to a Walt Disney World vacation — not just a supplement to a Disney visit — a goal that Universal is pursuing with new on-site hotels, a greatly enhanced theme water park, and plans for a third gate.

Of course, market leader Disney is not just sitting around, content to watch Universal move. Walt Disney World next summer will open its most immersive themed land to date — Pandora: The World of Avatar. And Disney will follow that with its largest-ever themed land, Star Wars Land, at some point in the next few years. Disney continues to offer a stunning collection of its own IP, including all of the Pixar catalogue, Pirates of the Caribbean, existing Star Wars attractions, and Disney's many, many princesses.

Ultimately, Disney and Universal share a common goal of drawing more tourists to visit the Orlando area and to spend more money while they are there. But most families who have the ability to get to Orlando have a finite amount of money and vacation time. At some point, they make choices about their vacations. And the kitchen tables around which those families make those decisions is the front line in the Great Orlando IP War.

For years, Disney has profited from consumers around the world treating "Disney" as a generic term for family entertainment. During the Legends panel at this year's IAAPA Attractions Expo, Walt Disney Imagineering President Bob Weis quoted a Chinese official's words about Disney's brand presence in China: "Of course we know the Disney characters. We love Bugs Bunny. We love Shrek."

Of course, those are not Disney IP. But the conflation of Disney with family entertainment is widespread. When I covered the opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando in 2010, it became a running joke in the press room whenever a publication would post a story about the new Harry Potter land "at Disney World." The fact that some other company could be running a theme park with a wildly popular, family-friendly IP apparently was inconceivable to some reporters and editors, even ones whose freakin' job is to know this stuff!

Disney has poured vast resources into establishing itself as a lifestyle brand, pushing the conflation of "Disney" not just with all family entertainment but with the concept of "family" itself. (Show us your Disney side, everyone!) Establishing that level of brand loyalty among consumers helps stop the Great Orlando IP War before any potential opponent can fire a shot. You want to visit a family theme park on vacation? You've got to go to "Disney."

But Harry Potter allowed Universal to break through. As The Wizarding World of Harry Potter became a "must see" for millions of families around the world, many of them had to recognize for the first time that Universal Orlando actually existed and that Disney wasn't the home to every family-friendly franchise they wished to spend time with on their theme park vacation. (Marvel was not an elite, global IP franchise when Islands of Adventure opened in 1999.)

Universal's strategy in this business war must be to break the public's default association of the Disney brand with all forms of family entertainment. Universal does not need to establish its own brand name the way that Disney has its brand; Universal just has to get people to stop assuming all high-quality family movie and theme park entertainment as "Disney."

Why? Because if "Disney" is no longer a catch-all generic brand for top-quality family entertainment, it simply becomes a brand representing its own collection of unique IP — just like Universal now is.

Of course, Disney's actual IP line-up is formidable. Its IP line-up matches up with or beats just about anyone else's out there. That's why it became the generic in so many consumers' minds. But once "Disney" is just a collection of its own IPs to most consumers, and not something greater than that — the Great Orlando IP War is back on. The battle over which resort to visit then would be fought over which resort offers the most attractive collection of IP and experiences. Disney no longer would have the head start of being the default destination for family vacations because of its brand status.

That's when Universal's triple play of Harry Potter, Marvel, and Nintendo becomes compelling. Potter might be the most powerful IP in the world right now for cross-generational appeal and appeal to both genders. Nintendo is right there, too, earning billions of dollars in revenue from game enthusiasts around the world each year. Marvel traditionally skewed male, but the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has broadened the franchise's appeal among females, helping raise it to — or even maybe beyond — the level of Nintendo and Potter.

What else is left for Disney? Well, what might be the most popular IP franchise in the world, overall — Star Wars. While Star Wars might offer stronger cross-generational appeal than Potter, it (at least up until now) hasn't had as strong an appeal among females as Potter has. (Perhaps Daisy Ridley's Rey can fix this. I'd bet "yes" on that, actually.) Beyond Star Wars, though, each of Disney's IP franchises is somewhat limited in demographic appeal. All those princesses skew heavily toward girls. Pirates skews to boys. Pixar skews young, mostly due to its relatively recent emergence. Parents love watching Pixar films along with their kids, but people over 40 don't show the same level of cosplaying, merchandise-buying fandom toward Pixar than they do toward Potter, Star Wars, Marvel, and Nintendo. (Or that younger consumers do toward Pixar.)

And as far as franchises go, Avatar was a cool movie to watch. Beyond that, no one cares. (At least, not yet.)

Together, Disney's IP has strong cross-demographic appeal. But, speaking as a parent, I would much rather visit a destination that my children will want to enjoy together than one where they each would have something to enjoy that the other child might not. My son might love Pirates and Star Wars, and my daughter might love Disney princesses, but if they both love Harry Potter and Mario, Universal is where we are going, not Disney.

That's the importance of cross-demographic appeal. And that's why even the deepest collection of IP with limited demographic appeal won't beat an acceptable collection of IP with strong cross-demo appeal.

Now let's not forget that Disney has a huge lead over Universal Orlando in the central Florida theme park market, attracting an average of 13.5 million visitors to each of its four Walt Disney World theme parks last year, compared with an average of 9.2 million visitors to each of the two Universal Orlando parks in 2015. Disney welcomed early 138 million people to its theme parks worldwide last year, according to the TEA/AECOM Theme Index report, compared to nearly 45 million visiting the Universal parks. But Universal is killing Disney on growth, with an 11.8% increase in visitors last year, beating Disney's 2.7% growth and the industry's 7.2%.

Yes, Disney is beating Universal on overall visits and income and, having talked with countless industry insiders, I know that it wants to continue beating Universal. Disney will fight to protect its status as a lifestyle brand that people generically associate with family entertainment. And if it can't sustain that, it will fight by offering a compelling collection of IP to its current and potential fans.

But, to borrow an analogy from sports, it's not enough to win with a collection of role players. A championship team needs all-stars. Universal will have three in Orlando: Potter, Nintendo, and Marvel. Disney has one: Star Wars, with a second, Pixar, growing with time into that status. The irony, of course, is that Disney is the licensor of Marvel to the Universal theme parks, thanks to a deal in perpetuity that Universal's former owner signed with Marvel more than a decade before Disney bought it. That deal prevents Disney from ever featuring the Avengers family and other Marvel characters used at IOA in the Walt Disney World theme parks.

Disney can feature non-IOA Marvel characters at WDW, and Disney will try its best to do what it can to feature those Marvel characters in its parks. So perhaps that makes Marvel a half-point to both sides, making the score 2.5 all-stars for Universal Orlando and 1.5 (on its way to 2.5) at Disney World. But Marvel split across the two competitors reduces its value to both, as it limits both sides' ability to market themselves as the home of the brand. While that's to Disney's benefit in neutralizing Universal's advantage in holding the rights to Marvel's top property, the Avengers, it doesn't help Disney fully leverage the power of theme park placement in building the Marvel brand overall.

How much would it be worth to Disney to have Marvel for itself in Orlando? And how much would Universal need to make itself whole in surrendering Marvel to Disney? Given the value of winning the Great Orlando IP War, I can't imagine how large a check that would have to be. A billion dollars? More?

Perhaps allies would need to be enlisted, as is so often the case in conflicts such as this. What if Universal could get the rights to Warner Bros. DC characters from Six Flags, to replace Marvel? A win in the Great Orlando IP War might be worth more than the value of the entire Six Flags chain. What would IP presence in the Orlando parks, which attract many millions of high-spending families every year, mean to the value of the DC franchise? Warner Bros. and Universal have seen what it's done for Potter.

Heck, everyone in the entertainment industry saw that. What other IP are out there that Disney or Universal might try to license, to give them an advantage in Orlando? On the flip side, what other IP holders are looking to entice Disney or Universal to bring their IP into the Orlando market?

What deals might be made, not just for individual IP, but for entire companies, as Disney and Universal chase the billions of dollars available not just directly in Central Florida tourism but also indirectly from brand building among Orlando-area visitors? Disney bought Marvel and Star Wars' Lucasfilm to increase its cross-demo appeal. Universal has been buying, too, having acquired DreamWorks Animation. Could it make a play for Warner Bros.? Could Disney?

The Great Orlando IP War is on. And the stakes are not just who makes the most money on theme park tickets and hotel rooms in Central Florida. This is about brand building. And because of that, ultimately, this is a battle for supremacy across the entire entertainment industry.

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Universal outlines its plans for Nintendo themed park lands

By Robert Niles
Published: November 29, 2016 at 8:28 AM
Universal Parks & Resorts today outlined the new Nintendo-themed lands it will be bringing to three of its theme park resorts in the next few years.

Nintendo lands will be coming to Universal Studios Japan, Universal Orlando, and Universal Studios Hollywood, the company announced today. (That means the tiny Universal Studios Singapore, which lacks expansion space, again will be left out, as it was for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.) In a video posted by the company, Universal Creative President Mark Woodbury and Nintendo's legendary game creator Shigeru Miyamoto talked about the companies' partnership and the process of developing plans for the parks.

Like a video game, you have to experience the video multiple times, not just to see what the two creators are saying, but also to examine the background for details that might make their way into the lands.

Universal's Nintendo lands will be interactive, with multiple attractions, shops, and restaurants, Universal said. "You’ll feel as if you’re playing inside your favorite games – in real life," Universal said in a press release. And, consistent with a good gaming platform, "There will be something for everyone—regardless of their age or gaming experience level."

Universal promises individual announcements from each resort detailing its Nintendo land, coming "soon."

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