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News update: Universal Mardi Gras; free Disney meet and greets

By Robert Niles
Published: September 29, 2016 at 9:23 PM
Let's catch up with the latest news from the Orlando-area theme parks.

Universal Orlando is changing its annual Mardi Gras celebration. In years past, the park has offered bead-chucking parades and speciality food and drink stations in conjunction with more than a dozen concerts that started during the actual Mardi Gras season but then continued well into Lent and often even past Easter. But for 2017, Universal is expanding and contracting the event, at the same time.

Universal Orlando's Mardi Gras will run for 49 consecutive nights, from February 4 through March 24. Universal Studios Florida will offer parades, Cajun food, themed drinks and jazz bands from New Orleans for all 49 nights, with to-be-announced major music acts performing on 12 nights during the celebration. Earlier this year, Universal's Mardi Gras ran for 16 night between February 6 and April 16. (FWIW, the actual Mardi Gras is on February 28 next year.)

Walt Disney World is working on plans for a third parking garage at its Disney Springs shopping and dining district. Disney has built two parking garages, an exit from Interstate 4, pedestrian bridges, and widened Buena Vista Drive to increase capacity at Disney Springs, the former Downtown Disney. The third garage is expected to go in south of Buena Vista Drive across from the Lime garage.

Over at the Magic Kingdom... Check out the new sign at the Carousel of Progress!

Finally, Disney fans in the Orlando area can enjoy a free meet and greet with a Disney Princess every day from October 1 through November 1, at the World of Disney store in Disney Springs. This is a rare opportunity to experience a Disney character meet and greet without having to pay for a theme park ticket.

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Eight new ideas for Disneyland Space Mountain overlays

By Robert Niles
Published: September 29, 2016 at 10:56 AM
Why spend millions of dollars to build one theme park attraction when, with a little bit of extra planning and flexibility, you can build multiple attractions instead?

Theme parks can extend the value of their rides and shows with special overlays. Disney's been doing this for a generation, starting (perhaps?) with a special Christmas show for the Country Bear Jamboree. Over the years, Disney's added seasonal and themed overlays to many more attractions, including It's a Small World, the Haunted Mansion, and World of Color.

The king of overlays these days might be Space Mountain. In addition to the "regular" musical journey to the stars, the Disneyland Resort offers two themed overlays to its popular indoor roller coaster: the Halloween-themed "Ghost Galaxy," which is running now, and the Star Wars-themed "Hyperspace Mountain," which returns November 2.

But why stop there? With Disney able to program and swap the music and animation on the ride with relative ease, it has the capacity to offer other overlays on Space Mountain. Done right, that encourages additional visits from Disneyland's many local annual passholders, as well as giving fans of the featured Disney franchises a fresh reason to visit the park, too.

So which themes and franchises should Disney select for new overlays on Space Mountain? In my Orange County Register column this week, I play Imagineer and make up eight options for new Space Mountain overlays. Maybe this should have been the place where Disney brought the Guardians of the Galaxy to the Disneyland Resort? But if you want to know my favorite idea for a new Space Mountain overlay, I will leave you with this hint...

Rex's Revenge!

Read Robert's column:

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Dubai Parks & Resorts changes its opening dates, moves to phased debut

By Robert Niles
Published: September 29, 2016 at 8:31 AM
Dubai Parks & Resorts today announced a new schedule of opening dates for the resort and its three theme parks. The parks — Motiongate Dubai, Bollywood Parks Dubai, and Legoland Dubai — had been scheduled to open next month, on October 31.

Legoland will make the October 31 opening, but the other two parks will open later this year, instead. Bollywood Parks Dubai will open November 15 and Motiongate Dubai now is slated to open December 16. The resorts Riverland Dubai shopping and dining district will open with Legoland on October 31, though the Legoland Water Park and Lapita Hotel will open with Bollywood Pars Dubai on November 15.

Earlier this month, when Dubai Parks & Resorts announced the ticket prices for the resort, it hinted that Motiongate Dubai would not be fully ready by October 31. The resort announced that it would be selling discounted "Discovery" tickets for that park during its first months of operation, due to ongoing "enhancements of some of the attractions." Now, the resort officially has delayed the opening of the park altogether.

No major multi-park theme park resort has opened multiple parks at the same time, as Dubai Parks & Resorts has planned to do. Of the five major multi-park resorts in the world now, the closest that two parks in the same resort have opened is seven years — for Epcot and the then-Disney-MGM Studios at Walt Disney World. So opening the three Dubai Parks within a couple of months would represent an unprecedented development achievement.

Legoland Dubai will be that chain's seventh theme park, with additional parks in Japan and Korea planned for 2017. Bollywood Parks Dubai will be the world's first park themed to the popular genre of Indian cinema, and Motiongate Dubai will feature lands devoted to franchises from Lionsgate, Sony Pictures Studios, and DreamWorks Animation.

"We are focused on delivering a destination which exceeds international standards on every level – from guest experience to state-of-the-art rides and attractions and the highest of safety standards – and we want to make sure we take the time to get everything just right and launch a destination the UAE and our shareholders can be truly proud of," Raed Kajoor Al Nuaimi, CEO of DXB Entertainments PJSC, the owner of Dubai Parks and Resorts, said in a statement released by the resort.

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Blackpool Pleasure Beach announces Mack launch coaster for 2018

By Robert Niles
Published: September 28, 2016 at 4:43 PM
Blackpool Pleasure Beach has announced its next major attraction — a double-launch Mack roller coaster that will feature a record 15 "interactions" with other rides in the English amusement park.

The £16.25m (US$21.2 million) coaster will open in Spring 2018 and feature 4.3 Gs of acceleration, on a 1.14 km (3,740 foot) course, with an 82-foot maximum drop. The ride will feature several overbanked turns and roll elements as it rush through a forest of track from other rides in the park, including Blackpool Pleasure Beach's biggest coaster, the Big One, as well as Steeplechase, Big Dipper, Pleasure Beach Express and the Grand Prix.

Here's a concept POV video, from the park.

The park says that this will be the first double-launched coaster in the United Kingdom.

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How old should a child be to visit a theme park alone?

By Robert Niles
Published: September 28, 2016 at 12:44 PM
Theme parks provide great destinations for a family vacation. But, in all families, eventually the kids grow up and head out on their own. So when should kids start taking their first steps toward their eventual independence?

One place where that can happen is in a theme park. On a family vacation, the kids might head off by themselves for a bit, leaving their parents behind in another part of the park. And, eventually, kids might visit the park on their own, without their parents' assistance. But when are children old enough to go "free range" and take those steps?

In Episode 2 of our weekly Theme Park Insider video show, my daughter Natalie and I talk about our experiences with being independent in a theme park.

At the Disney theme parks, kids must be seven years or older to ride an attraction on their own, or 14 to enter to the park unaccompanied. (Kids under age seven must be accompanied by someone 14 or older to go on rides.)

But every child is different. While some kids are perfectly capable of navigating a theme park on their own even younger than 14, other kids older than 14 (and, let's face it, some adults!) still need help and shouldn't go it alone.

And let's not forget parents. Even if a child is ready to head out on their own at Disneyland, his or her parents might not yet be ready emotionally to let them go. That's important to consider. As parents work to help build their children's sense of independence, they need to remember to work on developing their acceptance of that independence, as well.

We hope that you will enjoy watching this week's show, and that you will subscribe to our YouTube channel and Facebook page to keep getting access to our shows in the weeks to come.

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Is the theme park industry hostile to mental health concerns?

By Robert Niles
Published: September 28, 2016 at 8:59 AM
This week, the Cedar Fair company closed a virtual reality experience at its theme parks' Halloween events, following accusations that the attraction was insensitive to the mentally ill.

FearVR, originally titled FearVR 5150, depicted a girl in a mental health facility. The title change is significant, as "5150" was a reference to "a section of the California Welfare and Institutions Code, which authorizes a peace officer or clinician to involuntarily confine a person suspected of having a mental disorder that makes them a danger to themselves or others," as the Orange County Register reported. That reference makes clear that mental health was a core device within the attraction, which is something that should trouble anyone who cares about the way society treats mental health.

A disclaimer, first: The person leading the PR campaign against Knott's and Cedar Fair is a publicity hound who has been associated with many hateful causes in the past. So I don't fault anyone who sees his name attached to this story and immediately dismisses his concerns. Heck, that was my first reaction, too. But there is a valid concern here, and people working in the theme park industry would do well by listening to it, instead of glibly dismissing it.

I haven't seen the attraction (and I'll explain more about why I didn't see it in a bit), so I can't comment on it, specifically. But I do want to talk about the broader issue of referencing mental health treatment in entertainment.

The horror genre has a long history of using mental health as a device — the mental hospital as a chamber of horrors and mental patient or caregivers as villains. But that history does not justify the continued, unexamined use of those devices in the future — no more than comedians could justify continuing to use blackface, blonde jokes or other ethnic stereotyping for cheap laughs, just because their predecessors long had done so.

The whole point of the horror genre is to reference and confront our fears. The lazy use of mental health devices within the genre can promote the idea that mental health care is something fearful, and that anyone who gets or gives mental health care is someone to be feared.

Do we really want to be telling people who feel atypical that they should be afraid of reaching out for help? Do we really want to tell people that they should shun their friends, neighbors and family members who get mental health care? But that's what the entertainment industry risks doing when it falls back on mental health devices as horror stereotypes.

Words and images matter. As an industry, we can't crow about the power of narrative storytelling when pitching a new attraction or museum exhibit, then fall back on "it's just a joke - it's just a device - it doesn't really matter" when we are called out on using words and images in ways that hurt people. We can't have it both ways. Either words or images matter, or they don't.

They matter.

Look, atypical mental function drives a countless numbers of characters in entertainment, from Jack Torrance in The Shining to Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory. That's not going to change, nor should it. But in addressing atypical mental function, writers and creators need to be careful about the unspoken messages they send regarding mental health care.

One of the well-established devices in horror is the supernatural — specifically, the way that a person confronted with the supernatural begins to question whether they are mentally atypical. They don't know that it's not "just in their head" — that supernatural forces really are at play. Because the mental health of the protagonist is in question, it's natural that people and places associated with mental health care will figure into these narratives.

In a two-hour movie or on-going television series, writers and creators have plenty of time to deal with mental health responsibly. Look at Stranger Things. Mild spoiler here: Initially, the neighborhood kids dismiss the atypical new kid they meet as "mental" and wonder if she's escape from a local facility. But soon, they get to know her and become her friends and fierce allies. Any question of mental health illness is dismissed and forgotten.

But in a three-to-five minute theme park attraction, no one has the time to develop a complex examination of mental health issues. If something associated with mental health is included in an attraction, it is most likely done as a stereotype — a lazy device that sends that awful message that mental health care is something to be feared.

As you might have inferred, this issue is personal for me. One my first jobs was working in the medical records department of a state mental health hospital, and some people who are very close to me are atypical. I'm not a fan of the horror genre, in part due to its history of demeaning mental health care. (That's why I tend to send other people to cover horror events for Theme Park Insider, which is why I didn't experience Knott's VR attraction.) But the issue of mental health care shouldn't have to be personal for someone to care about it.

Creators needs to stop using mental health as a horror stereotype, just as they stopped using blackface and ethnic jokes as humor stereotypes, homosexuality as a criminal stereotype, and Judaism as a stereotype for cheapness and greed. It's lazy. It's insensitive, and more than than, it's abusive.

And don't give me this political correctness crap. Sensitivity to and consideration for others are not weakness — they are what makes a civilization possible.

Again, I can't speak to whether FearVR 5150 specifically referenced enough mental health stereotypes to be pulled. From what I've heard, it sounds as though it did, and I am disappointed in Matt Ouimet and his team at Cedar Fair for allowing it to be green-lit in the first place.

But I more disappointed in the reaction of a few theme park industry creative professionals to the news. I've seen many social media posts attacking Cedar Fair for pulling the attraction and dismissing concerns that it might have been offensive to those who care about mental health. It's one thing if fans lash out, but industry professionals ought to know better.

The fact that some well-established people in this industry think it's okay to joke about and dismiss concerns over horror's troubling history with mental health care tells me that, yes, the theme park industry does have a problem here.

So let's fix it. Let's start by listening to these concerns about the horror genre... and not dismissing them.

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What are the most anticipated new theme park attractions for 2017?

By Robert Niles
Published: September 27, 2016 at 10:11 PM
So where should theme park fans be planning their 2017 vacations if they want to see the best new rides that will open next year?

To be honest, 2017 does not look to be an especially deep year for great new theme park attractions. There's one huge new project that supposed to debut next year, another major new world-class attraction, a couple of interesting new (or newly themed) rides that will capture the interest of Disney and Universal fans, and then...?

Cedar Fair's been getting roasted by fans for its 2017 line-up. Six Flags' is led by the ongoing roll-out of a (really, really good) ride it first debuted two seasons ago. And SeaWorld seems determined to move away the animal shows upon which it built its brand, leading with a virtual reality overlay for its aging and increasingly rough Kraken B&M Floorless in Orlando.

That leaves Disney and Universal to lead the way on what's shaping up as a top-heavy list of new attractions for 2017. So without further delay, here are the scheduled new attractions we most are looking forward to experiencing in 2017:

Pandora - The World of Avatar
Disney's Animal Kingdom

Walt Disney World's richly detailed, wildly expensive and ridiculously ambitious new land, based on the James Cameron franchise, leads our 2017 must-see list. If the land opens as scheduled in 2017, that is. One of the other things this impressive new design has been is... delayed. Reportedly several months behind schedule several months ago, Disney is racing to get this new land ready in time to help boost its recently sagging attendance. But with multiple interactive elements and engaging bioluminescent design across multiple attractions, we think Pandora will be worth the wait.

Symbolica: Palace of Fantasy
Efteling

Symbolica: Palace of Fantasy

If Avatar doesn't answer the bell, then it's Efteling's largest-ever dark ride project that moves to the top of our 2017 list. Visitors collectively will choose one of three different routes within the palace, each offering unique adventures and interactive elements, in this US$38 million attraction — the Dutch theme park's fourth major dark ride.

Guardians of the Galaxy Mission Breakout
Disney California Adventure

We've earned the scorn of a large section of the Disney theme parks fans base with our enthusiasm for this project — which replaces the Twilight Zone theme for the park's Tower of Terror drop ride with the narrative from the Tokyo DisneySea version, swapping Taneleer Tivan for Harrison Hightower and bringing the popular Marvel franchise to a Disney theme park attraction for the first time. We can't wait to see if we were right in suggesting that the change might actually prove a thematic upgrade for the ride... or if we were horribly, horribly wrong.

Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon
Universal Studios Florida

Universal's gutted the old Twister/Ghostbusters show building and its filling it with a 3D motion base/simulator ride through New York City, featuring the host of corporate sibling NBC's The Tonight Show. Best case, this attraction could blend Fallon's widely appealing humor with Universal Creative's fondness for raucous filmed mayhem. Worst case, it's an awkward commercial for The Tonight Show with jokes that go stale before you're even through the ride. We're betting the first scenario, but won't know for certain until we ride.

Mystic Timbers
Kings Island

This new Great Coaster International wooden coaster looks strong — a 53 mph terrain coaster featuring 16 airtime hills on a 3,265-foot course. But it's the mystery about the ride's final element that has us most intrigued. What is in the shed?

Justice League Battle for Metropolis
Six Flags Magic Mountain

Yes, Six Flags' 3D motion-base interactive ride first opened in 2015 at Six Flags Over Texas (and won our Theme Park Insider Award as the Best New Attraction of the year). But, as a Southern Californian, I'm excited to see the ride come to my hometown Six Flags park.

Volcano Bay
Universal Orlando Resort

We typically don't pay as much attention to water parks as we do to theme parks — mostly because visitors don't either. The world's top water parks attract only about a tenth of the visitors as the top theme parks do. But Universal's new water park promises to blur the line between wet and dry attractions with a richly themed environment that it hopes will appeal to theme park fans. We're willing to give it go... and suspect many of you would like to see it in action, too.

Which new attractions are you most looking forward to in 2017?

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