By Robert NilesWhat will Disney's Star Wars Land look like?
Published: August 22, 2014 at 12:08 PM
The latest blue-sky concept for Disneyland's version of the new land have hit the Internet, but Disney's nowhere near hiring contractors and putting shovels in the ground. The idea, as last we've heard, is for Disney to announce Star Wars Land at the D23 Expo in August 2015, though the actual plans for the Disneyland and Walt Disney World versions of the land might not be completed until after that, based on how quickly Imagineers can incorporate elements from the upcoming Star Wars trilogy. (Episode VII hits theaters in December 2015.)
Teasing "Project Orange Harvest" at the 2013 D23 Expo.
Let's recap where we are before looking ahead. Disney green-lit Star Wars Land after acquiring Lucasfilm, and the company even teased the land at the last D23 Expo, in 2013. But concept development stalled as Disney management (wisely) decided to include elements from the upcoming films, rather than creating a Star Wars Land based solely upon the original six movies. When director JJ Abrams took over the script for Episode VII and tightened the veil of secrecy around the production (in an effort to avoid what happened on Star Trek: Into Darkness, when the Khan twist leaked during filming), Imagineering was left waiting even longer. Not that Imagineering doesn't have plenty else to do, with Shanghai Disneyland, Avatar, and Disney Springs taking time and money from the budget.
In the meantime, Universal has been raising visitors' expectations for what a theme park land should be, with the wildly popular Wizarding World of Harry Potter, both the Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley versions. Both lands go beyond appropriately-decorated plazas that house a variety of attractions from the same IP. They faithfully recreate specific immersive locations from the Harry Potter universe, allowing visitors to imagine that they've actually entered that universe.
Of course, Disney can play this game, too, and did — with Cars Land at Disney California Adventure. Instead of simply creating a desert-looking plaza for its Cars-themed attractions, Disney created a physical version of the animated town of Radiator Springs to provide a home for that land. As with most things in the themed attraction business, the Wizarding Worlds and Cars Land built upon projects from the past. Disney brought together multiple attractions from the same IP in a specific themed environment at Tokyo DisneySea with the Jules Verne-themed Mysterious Island and The Little Mermaid-themed Triton's Kingdom. Going further back, the first example of stringing multiple attractions from the same IP in a specific immersive environment might be the original Tom Sawyer Island and Rivers of America at Anaheim's Disneyland.
So if we want to grok the future of Star Wars Land, let's start there — with the idea that SWL must recreate specific immersive locations from the Star Wars universe, rather than simply providing a decorated environment for a variety of individual Star Wars-themed rides, shows, restaurants, and shops. You're not just visiting the world of Star Wars in Star Wars Land, you're visiting a specific place within the Star Wars canon.
Outside Star Tours at Disneyland Paris
But where? This is where we hit the first major development challenge facing Imagineers. Star Wars takes place upon multiple planets, strewn throughout a "galaxy far, far away." The ideal of creating a specific immersive environment falls apart if Imagineers place a Tatooine-set pod-racing ride next to a Coruscant-set Jedi Training Academy show. (Or, heaven forbid, an X-wing spinner ride rotating around a miniature Death Star. Please, no "Chester and Hester"-grade stuff here, okay?) If Star Wars Land is to meet (or exceed) the standard set by the Wizarding World, Cars Land, and Tokyo DisneySea, it must separate attractions and locations from each planet into separate lands, or mini-lands.
So perhaps we should stop thinking about Star Wars Land as a single, homogenous thing, and instead envision it as a collection of planet-themed environments: Tatooine Land, Coruscant Land, Naboo Land, etc. And let's not forget that quite a bit of Star Wars takes place off-planet, too — whether it be on one of the two Death Stars, various Imperial Star Destroyers, the Millennium Falcon, and so forth.
Now let's consider another challenge: What about Star Tours? Disney's already got a Star Wars-themed ride in its parks, and it would seem logical that it should be included in any new Star Wars Land. But how would that happen, thematically?
Star Tours takes us to many of the planets in the Star Wars universe. But where is the Star Tours starport set? If anything, in the original version of the ride, the suggestion was that the starport was set here on Earth, either in Tomorrowland at Disneyland or a Star Wars-themed movie set in Walt Disney World. The new version, Star Tours: The Adventures Continue, fudges things a bit by delivering us to a different destination from where we first blasted away from Darth Vader or the Stormtroopers.
If the goal is to build a specific immersive environment from an individual location in the Star Wars universe, Star Tours presents a huge problem. It simply doesn't fit in that kind of setting. What happens if you set Star Tours within Coruscant Land, but your adventure within the ride delivers you to Naboo? When you exit the ride, you're still going to be in Coruscant Land. That breaks the environment. Universal's Harry Potter lands don't do this sort of thing. Nor does Cars Land. Star Wars Land can't either, if it is to live up to those standards.
Here are the options, then, for Star Tours:
Keeping Star Tours out of Star Wars Land actually opens fresh development options for Disney, as the company's no longer limited to building Star Wars Land in the area immediately adjacent to those rides. (This gives some credibility to the Toontown option for Disneyland.) If Disney takes the Harry Potter-like approach of developing multiple Star Wars lands, each themed to different locations within the Star Wars universe, having a Star Tours ride off by itself won't stick out so much over time, as more Star Wars "planet lands" are opened at each resort.
Image from Wookieepedia
With which planet should Disney start, though? The answer seems obvious — go with the planet that appears the most often the Star Wars films: Tatooine. Anakin's home planet features in five of the six existing Star Wars films, and, given that Episode VII is filming in the desert outside Abu Dhabi, one might presume that Tatooine will appear in the newest film, too. Fans would be thrilled to see "Star Wars Land — Phase One" be Mos Eisley, with a cantina restaurant and a souvenir marketplace. A walk-through Millennium Falcon could be parked in Docking Bay 94. And another Tatooine-set attraction could be built on the edge of Mos Eisley. A pod racing-themed ride seems obvious, but it that's not distinct enough from the experience now available on Star Tours, perhaps Disney's Imagineers could find some inspiration in Jabba's palace? That's a fantastic environment that could house an amazing dark ride experience.
And you'd better believe that visitors' MagicBands will allow them to "use the Force" and trigger special effects inside Star Wars Land, to one-up Universal's interactive wands in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Could elements from Episode VII be included? Sure, and eventually, the presence of the new trilogy must be accommodated within the various Star Wars lands. However, that raises the question of when Star Wars Land will be set, in addition to where?
Even the best immersive theme park environments fudge the issue of timing. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Hogsmeade clearly is set during the events of the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, with the Tri-Wizard tournament going on in the land. Yet Diagon Alley is set on the day that Harry, Ron and Hermoine break into Gringotts Bank in the seventh book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. There's a Hogwarts Express ride that connects the two lands, but we never do see the timeturner that must be at work when we travel across that time, as well as space. ;^)
Cars Land has its own timing issues, with the drive-around Lightning McQueen character sporting a Cars 2 livery, while Doc Hudson, who's deceased by the time of the events of Cars 2, plays a major role in the Radiator Springs Racers ride.
Here's the huge timing challenge for Star Wars Land: Darth Vader. Star Wars' most iconic character exists in his famous, helmeted form only from the end of the third movie to the end of the sixth. Place Star Wars Land outside that time frame, and you can't include Vader without breaking canon — unless JJ Abrams has something wild in store for us in Episode VII. (This provides yet one more reason for keeping Star Tours outside of any planet-themed Star Wars Land.) Perhaps Disney could use Universal's approach with Harry Potter, and have its different planet lands set at different times, allowing Vader to exist in another version of Star Wars Land than the Tatooine one. (Remember that Vader never visits Tatooine again after Anakin wipes out the Sand People following his mother's death, anyway.) Put the Vader meet-and-greet next to "Star Wars Land — Star Tours," and leave him out of "Star Wars Land — Tatooine."
With this approach, Disney could announce a Tatooine-themed Star Wars Land for its parks at D23 next summer, then simultaneously consolidate additional, non-Tatooine-set Star Wars-themed stuff around the Star Tours rides to satisfy fans who want to see stuff that doesn't thematically fit on Tatooine. "Star Wars Land — Star Tours" would complement "Star Wars Land — Tatooine" as Disney develops additional, elaborately-themed Star Wars planet-lands over the years to come, eventually giving all the major Star Wars elements their appropriate theme parks homes, including elements from the new trilogy.
In this way, Star Wars Land isn't a single location — it's a franchise within a franchise that Disney can continue to develop in multiple locations within and across its various resorts indefinitely.
Will Disney take this approach, or will it go cheap and just throw a bunch of Star Wars-themed stuff together and use its PR machine to try to convince the world that fans have fallen in love with it? We should be getting our first clues, if not the answer, to that question in the next 12 months.
By Jacob SundstromNow we know what you have to fear -- now the question is how is the best way to experience your favorite Halloween events. This week I’m going to take a look at the most efficient way to enjoy Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights.
Published: August 21, 2014 at 9:43 AM
The Walking Dead at Universal's Halloween Horror Nights. Promotional image courtesy Universal
First, here is the requisite Horror Nights news from the past week. Tickets for the event are on sale now -- this gives us a look at the ticket pricing as well as the start date for the event. Hollywood has creeped back even earlier in September; opening night is on September 19. That’s nearly a full week earlier than Knott’s Scary Farm’s debut night (September 25), for whatever that’s worth.
Second, a quick perusal of the Horror Nights website reveals a sort-of-surprising omission: no shows. Horror Nights in Hollywood has run the Bill & Ted show for many years and the Hot Rumor was that in spite of last year’s controversy they had every intention to bring it back. Clearly that is not the case, as the show is nowhere to be found on the official website, nor have there been any shows announced to replace it.
If you’ve been reading me for long enough, you’ll know I’m not going to miss the show -- it has long been my least favorite part of the evening. That being said, it seems odd that Universal opted to not replace the show with, well, another show. The additional maze (seven as opposed to six this year) now starts to make a lot more sense, but nothing eats up guests quite like a show does. As someone mostly interested in mazes and scare zones, I’m pleased to get an extra haunted house -- I imagine there are many who feel differently.
Knott’s Scary Farm got a chirp in at Horror Nights’ expense -- boasting their two shows and 11 mazes. For Knott’s it has always been about quantity over quality; though in fairness, it has worked out just fine for them in the past.
So you don’t have to worry about show times for Halloween Horror Nights this year -- but you do have to worry about Terror Tram. The most unique part of the event, where you’re kicked off the studio tour tram to wander the backlot, is back this year with a Walking Dead theme. If there is a must-do for first-timers (or any-timers, for that matter) it’s Terror Tram.
The lines can get quite long, particularly if you go during the middle of the event. If you plan to stay for the entire night, save your Terror Tram experience for the end. The Terror Tram may close as early as midnight on weeknights (Sundays/Thursdays), so be aware of that. For my money, the best place to start is the lower lot -- and particularly the backlot, where there will be three mazes in 2014.
As soon as you walk through the gates head down to the lower lot. The trams to the backlot board near Transformers -- once you’re back there, you can do the three mazes (Walking Dead, Alien vs. Predator and From Dusk Till Dawn) in any order...if you head down there first thing, it shouldn’t make much of a difference. If you’re really lucky, you’ll beat the crowds and have a chance to wander through a maze virtually alone -- like I did in the Silent Hill maze a couple of years back.
Once you’ve wrapped up the backlot, I would finish the Lower Lot starting with An American Werewolf in London. From there, hit the Clowns maze and then head back up top to finish off your night. Assuming the crowds move similarly to the way they did last year, this is where you’ll have to wait in a line or two. Dracula won’t be the draw of the event, but theme park crowds have a tendency to hit the first (non-House of Horrors division) maze they see.
After Dracula and FaceOff are in the books, finish off your night with a ride on the Terror Tram. Assuming the park isn’t bursting at the seams busy, you should have a chance to go back through your favorite mazes again! If you can stand waiting in the lines you missed out on earlier, anyway.
By Robert NilesDisney's Frozen is a big hit in Japan, as well as in the United States, so the Oriental Land Company announced today that it is bringing Anna and Elsa to Tokyo Disneyland in a special park event.
Published: August 21, 2014 at 7:06 AM
"Anna and Elsa's Frozen Fantasy" will run from Jan. 13 through March 20, 2015. It will include a special Frozen-themed section of the park's "Once Upon a Time" castle-projection light show, as well as an Anna and Elsa appearance during the park's parade. In addition, the park will feature Frozen-themed merchandise, meal options and decor. (If a Japanese speaker can provide a better translation of the park's press release, please let us know in the comments!)
Given that Tokyo actually gets snow from time to time during the winter, a Frozen overlay for parts of the park might blend in better there than at any of Disney's U.S. parks, which only see snow in the form of soap bubbles and other special effects. :^)
Walt Disney World's Frozen special event runs through September at Disney's Hollywood Studios, and Anna and Elsa meet-and-greets continue indefinitely at both Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom and Disneyland.
By Jeff ElliottSix Flags Magic Mountain – RIP Colossus.
Published: August 20, 2014 at 11:45 AM
Six Flags Fiesta Texas – It looks like the park is going to get a new roller coaster for the 2015 season. Could it be the S&S 4D Free Spin roller coaster (think wing coaster that the seats rotate freely on) that S&S has said is going to be installed in a North American park? It is the only one that makes sense to me right now.
Six Flags New England – While it still hasn’t been officially confirmed, Rocky Mountain Coasters steel I-box track has shown up at the park. So…I guess this one is really not a rumor anymore.
Six Flags Over Texas – The park is cashing in on the soon-to-be-released movie and will have a Justice League dark ride installed. It seems that someone at the park understands what to do with a franchise. This is pure speculation at this point, but if they are doing a Justice League dark ride at SFoT, and they are closing a dark ride in Six Flags St. Louis, maybe it might be replace with a Justice League dark ride as well. I don’t know about you, but any ride that features Ben Affleck as Batman would scare me half to death.
Six Flags Great Adventure – Another day, another story about Six Flags ticking off a visitor.
California Adventure – While these should be considered rumors, we are starting to see at least some blue-sky spit-balling toward getting a couple new attractions: MuppetVision 2 and Marvel Land, both to be done in California Adventure. Muppets would keep their same building, while Marvel would be built in the parking lot out near Tower of Terror. But these plans will probably change 20 times before with see a single shovel in the ground. What is interesting about all of this is that we thought Disney had decided to backburner any new additions that weren’t already in the construction phase for the near future. Almost like they were saving up their money to really go big against Universal.
Bosque Magico (Mexico) – How very disappointing, the park is going to take a wonderful concept of a Zombie Coaster and then attach it to a slow loading coaster concept like this. Was this a buy one get one free offer that they went in with Busch Gardens for? At least Bosque Magico will be able to manage the slow moving line much better than Busch Gardens will be able to.
ScreamRide – Is it just me or does anyone else find this a little disturbing? I mean it is one thing to do this from time to time…but an entire game built around the concept of destroying roller coasters and their riders? It just seems overly brutal and sacrilegious to me. This will probably get really old about 10 minutes into it. It’s a shame that it is being put out by Frontier who built Roller Coaster Tycoon 3. Although it does appear that someone over at Frontier is either obsessed with roller coasters or insists on reusing old code on every game, since this is their third or fourth time theming a game to the subject matter.
ALS Ice Bucket Challenge - I was called out by a recovering Marine friend of mine (there are no former Marines, once a Marine, always a Marine) and figured I would do this a little more publicly and push on some of the writers here at Theme Park Insider. While it is fine to laugh, I’m sure the people I called out will be looking for good victims to nominate.
Note from Robert: If you're going to do this, it really does help to have a water park at your disposal.... Nice job, Holiday World! Here's the link to donate, which is what this really all ought to be about.
By Robert NilesWalt Disney Imagineering is doing its part to promote Disney Springs with a "behind the scenes" video where Walt Disney Imagineering Executive Creative Director Theron Skees talks about the story behind the new version of Walt Disney World's Downtown Disney shopping and dining area.
Published: August 19, 2014 at 5:04 PM
The TL;DW? Disney Springs is a town in Florida, and now it's gentrified. "What if there were a beautiful natural springs in Florida that a whole town was built on, and, over time, that town was converted into a retail, dining and entertainment venue?" Skees said in the video.
A scale model of Disney Springs, on display at the 2013 D23 Expo
Disney Springs is supposed to thematically unify the three areas of the now-Downtown Disney: The Marketplace, Pleasure Island, and the West Side. But this isn't Disney's first attempt to create a theme for this area.
Who remembers Merriweather Pleasure? Okay, put your hands down — we're all geeks here. Let's rephrase: What percentage of Walt Disney World Resort guests over the past 25 years ever realized that there was a backstory to Pleasure Island and that it involved a guy named Merriweather Pleasure?
If anyone recognized "Pleasure Island" from Disney canon, they likely thought it was that place where Pinocchio and his buddies got turned into donkeys after a night of booze, cigars and fighting. Disney tried to retcon the name with the Merriweather Pleasure stuff, but the negative association with the more well-known Pinocchio reference never helped. Not that many people cared — Pleasure Island lived and died by the quality and selection of its clubs. (And this is where we pour one out for the Adventurers' Club.)
Which is a long way of getting to the point that, ultimately, the backstory of Disney Springs doesn't matter as much as Disney's ability to create a coherent design for the entire area that helps make it a place people want to visit. Downtown Disney suffers from parking and capacity problems exacerbated by its design and placement within the Walt Disney World Resort. Ideally, Disney Springs will transforms this area into a more welcoming public space that can accommodate not just a better variety of shops and restaurants that people want to visit, but also the physical demands of those crowds.
New parking, access roads and other infrastructure improvements provide a foundation for the Disney Springs project. If creating a backstory for the place (as slight as this one appears to be, from the video) allows Disney's Imagineers to designate a specific visual style for the area, that can help in creating a more appealing and welcoming design on top of all that new infrastructure. The idea is to make people more likely to look forward to a visit to Disney Springs than they have to a visit to Downtown Disney — whether they know any of this new backstory or not.
By Robert NilesParents who love theme parks often don't want to wait until their children are tall enough for thrill rides to bring their kids to the parks. That's why some of the most beloved theme park attractions are ones that the entire family can enjoy.
Published: August 18, 2014 at 11:35 AM
This week, we honor the top-rated rides in the United States that do not have a minimum height requirement for all riders, as rated by Theme Park Insider readers. Please note that, although they don't have a minimum height requirement for all riders, some of these rides might require that children under a certain height be accompanied by a responsible adult — so don't plan just to send the kids alone on these attractions. But why would you? Plenty of grown-ups love riding them, too, even without kids.
As always, we present our weekly Top 10 list on one page, and not in one of those annoying slideshows. As the Mickey Mouse Club theme song says, "Why? Because we like you!"
10. Calico Mine Ride
Knott's reopened Bud Hurlbut's classic dark ride earlier this year, following a million-dollar-plus refurbishment by Garner Holt Productions. It's not attracted that many votes from Theme Park Insider readers yet, but we're giving it a spot on the list because, once more fans get the opportunity to experience the new Calico Mine Ride, we're confident it will move even further up this list.
9. Bayside Skyride
"Skybuckets" used to be a staple at all theme parks. But, these days, SeaWorld San Diego is the last major park in Southern California to offer this classic ride. Once an additional charge, this aerial tour across Mission Bay is now included with your SeaWorld general admission.
8. Spaceship Earth
Let's "thank the Phoenicians" for our ability to write easily how much we love this trip through Epcot's iconic geosphere, taking a trip through time to learn about our common history.
7. Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover
Kids adore this tour above the Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland, as it allows them to see above the crowds that so often block their view in the parks. Grown-ups love the ride, too, for its gentle change of pace. Now, if only Disney could see its way to revive the Disneyland original.
6. Toy Story Midway Mania
What's more fun on this wildly popular video game-inspired dark ride — getting the high score in your car on the ride, or watching your child beat you for the high score for the first time? Repeat riders learn to work together cracking the Easter eggs to boost both of your scores, making this one of the great family-bonding experiences in the parks.
5. Kilimanjaro Safaris
Enjoy the thrill of discovery as you and your family look around to find the many animals awaiting you in this Disney's Animal Kingdom habitat. For extra fun, make a bet with your spouse on how long you'll make it through the ride before the kids will grab the iPhone from your hands to take their own wildlife photos.
4. Studio Tour
With nostalgia for the grown-ups and plenty of special effects and humor for everyone, Universal Studios Hollywood's signature Studio Tour appeals to fans across generations. And with an often-changing order and line-up, the tour keeps those fans coming back. Expect this ride to become even more popular next year, as Universal adds a new Fast & Furious 3D experience, as well as a special night-time version of tour.
3. Haunted Mansion
The Disneyland original just celebrated its 45th birthday, but readers give the edge to the slightly longer Magic Kingdom version. Which makes sense, because fans simply can't just enough of the 999 grim, grinning ghosts.
2. Pirates of the Caribbean
A near-perfect blend of music and stagecraft, the Disneyland original launched a multi-billion-dollar entertainment franchise. With many refurbishments over the years, Pirates has retained its appeal and continues to thrill its original fans, their children, and even, now, grandchildren.
1. Hogwarts Express
Sure, it only been open for six weeks, but that hasn't stopped the Hogwarts Express from attracting enough votes to steam to the top of this list. Universal's first Harry Potter-themed ride without a height restriction, the Hogwarts Express allows even the youngest Muggles to enjoy the trip between London and Hogsmeade.
What's your favorite family ride that didn't make this top 10 list? Remember, please rate and review the theme parks you've visited to help us build an even more helpful collection of attraction and restaurant ratings.
By Robert NilesPlanning a theme park visit this week? Here are the operating hours for the week ahead at the most popular theme parks in the United States:
Published: August 17, 2014 at 6:23 PM
No AP blockouts this week.
SoCal passports blocked on Saturday. SoCal Select blocked Saturday and Sunday.
Finding Nemo and Blue Sky Cellar closed all week.
On sale this week:
Where are you visiting this week?
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