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Do theme parks need outside IP to build great rides and shows?

By Robert Niles
Published: January 19, 2017 at 1:09 PM
Why are so many major new theme park attractions based on movies? Can't Disney and other big theme park companies build rides based on original stories anymore? That's the ongoing fan debate that I write about in my Orange County Register column this week.

I think a lot of fans suspect that park's apparent obsession with IP [intellectual property] is something new. But parks have relied on outside media for inspiration ever since Disneyland opened in 1955. Remember, "Disneyland" was a TV show before it was a theme park. Walt himself used his show to introduce fans across the country to many of the supposedly original IP that he would feature in the park, including Pirates of the Caribbean and the Enchanted Tiki Room. And the park's Fantasyland's always has provided a collection of Disney Animation IP.

When movies, TV shows, and theme parks all reference the same franchise — promoting each iteration of the same IP — they help create and reinforce popular demand that allows the studios that produce the franchise to spend many millions of dollars on it than the studio could afford if that work existed in a single medium. Basing a franchise on outside IP gives designers a "head start," allowing them to tap into relationships and emotional states that fans bring to an IP ride or show, and to build on those from there, deepening the experience for visitors. Without that, we'd enter a ride or show cold, waiting for introductions and scene setting that would delay the emotional payoff for everyone.

Of course, this only works for people who know a franchise. That's not much of an obstacle for Harry Potter, Star Wars, or Marvel, with their billions of fans worldwide. But it can be for less popular, not-as-well-established franchises. I saw a lot of people last month walk out of Motiongate Dubai's Hotel Transylvania ride with blank looks. If you didn't know the movie, you had no idea what was happening on that ride, as it didn't get the job done of setting up its story for people who hadn't seen the film.

IP is just another source of inspiration. Ultimately, great IP can't distinguish a mediocre ride. Do all those DC Comics brands slapped on Six Flags' coasters and carnival spinners really make a difference in our enjoyment of them? But a mediocre IP can inspire a wonderful theme park attraction. Universal Studios Hollywood's Waterworld stunt show has entertained far more fans than ever saw the Kevin Coster film that inspired it. And Disney's Splash Mountain is far more beloved that the often cringe-worthy South of the South that Disney has buried in its vault.

Still, popular IP comes with risk to theme parks. A great IP raises the expectation for a theme park attraction, putting the pressure on designers (and the people who control their budget) to deliver. Millions of fans would have booked trips to see The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, no matter what Universal did with that franchise. But if Universal Creative hadn't delivered the amazing immersive experience that it did, the blowback from disappointed fans could have sunk the theme park chain, given its state back when the first land debuted.

Sure, I'd love to see Disney do more with its Society of Explorers and Adventurers, and I can't wait to see Rivers of Light. But I'm looking forward to Avatar, Star Wars, and Nintendo Land, too. I don't care where theme park designers find their inspiration (or their funding). Like many fans, I just want them to create great rides, shows, and environments for us to enjoy. If it takes outside IP to do that these days, then I'm fine with it.

Read Robert's column:

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Lunar New Year is coming to Disneyland and Universal Hollywood

By Robert Niles
Published: January 18, 2017 at 11:53 AM
Southern California's theme parks are preparing for their annual Lunar New Year celebrations, with special entertainment and food.

The festivities kick off this Friday at the Disneyland Resort, where Disney California Adventure will be celebrating for 17 days, through Feb. 5. Mulan and Mushu will appear in a new pre-show to World of Color, called "Hurry Home," which will follow the travels of Little Lantern on its way home to its family for the Lunar New Year. The park also will roll out several Asian-inspired food stands as well as a special Lunar New Year menu at Paradise Garden Grill. Here's the full line-up (prices not yet available):




Paradise Garden Grill

Up the road at Universal Studios Hollywood, the "Year of the Rooster" starts Saturday, Jan. 21, also running through Feb. 5. The event will welcome Kung Fu Panda stars Po and Tigress to the park for the first time, as well as the return of Universal's Mandarin-speaking Megatron, from the Transformers franchise.

The park's Universal Plaza will be decked out for the event, with red Chinese lanterns, a plum blossom arch, and lampposts featuring each of the twelve zodiac animal signs. Asian-inspired treats also will be available for sale.

All events (excluding the food) are included with park admission. We will be at Disneyland tomorrow night for a preview of the Lunar New Year celebrations — and the return of the Main Street Electrical Parade (weather permitting). Then we're heading to Universal Studios Hollywood over the weekend for the start of the Lunar New Year festivities there.

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News update: New Disney breakfasts, Universal return tix, and SeaWorld food fest

By Robert Niles
Published: January 17, 2017 at 11:17 AM
Following Walt Disney World's decision to reopen Main Street USA in the mornings before the Magic Kingdom opens officially, Disney is adding new breakfast options on and near Main Street to accommodate hungry guests while they wait for the rope drop.

Magic Kingdom guests soon will find additional breakfast options at Casey's Corner and the Plaza Ice Cream Parlor on Main Street and at Sleepy Hollow, just off the hub in Liberty Square. Casey's will croissant donuts, bagels, muffins, and a hash brown hot dog. The ice cream parlor will serve Mickey waffles, donuts, and cold cereal from Disney partner Kellogg's. If you want to mash up breakfast with the parlor's typical fare, go for the new donut sundae, which includes a donut topped your choice of ice cream, plus hot fudge, apple topping, peanut butter and chocolate chips, and whipped cream and a cherry. And Sleepy Hollow is adding an egg, ham, and tomato waffle sandwich to its breakfast menu. The new items will be available "in the coming weeks," according to Disney.

Universal Orlando announced last week that its new Race Through New York with Jimmy Fallon ride would offer return time tickets, available at kiosks and through the official Universal Orlando app. Well, it appears that Universal is not waiting until the Fallon ride's debut on April 6 to introduce its new "Virtual Line" service to Universal Studios Florida. A return time ticket option showed up today on Universal's app for Despicable Me Minion Mayhem. Just navigate to that ride's listing on the app, select your party size and return time, and you're booked. As of now, Minion Mayhem is the only Universal Orlando attraction offering the virtual queue.

SeaWorld Orlando today announced details of its all-new Seven Seas Food Festival, which will offer concerts and food stands on 14 consecutive Saturdays from Feb. 11 through May 13. Here is the menu:

Asian Market- Peking Duck Lo Mein with Fresh Oriental Vegetables
Korean Market- Bingsu Salted Vanilla Ice Cream topped with Caramel Popcorn
Mexican Market- Braised Chicken Adobo with Mole Sauce
Caribbean Market- Cinnamon Slow Roasted Pork Belly with Sweet Plantain Mash
Florida Market- Fried Kataifi Orange drizzled with Local Honey
Mediterranean Market- Smoked Cured Salmon topped with Sweet Dill Mustard
North Atlantic Market- Banana & Caramel Cheesecake topped with Whipped Cream & Caramelized Bananas
Brazilian Market- Brazilian Churrasco with Chimichurri & Garbanzo Frito
Pacific Coast Market- Braised Pork Cheeks with Savory Apple Polenta
Polynesian Island Market- "Loco Moco" Grilled Spam, White Rice, Scrambled Egg & Brown Gravy
Gulf Coast Market- Southern Creamy Cheese Grits with a Blackened Shrimp

And here are the concert headliners:

Lynyrd Skynyrd (February 11)
Lee Brice (February 18)
Bill Engvall (Feb 25)
Styx (March 4)
Justin Moore (March 11)
ZZ Top (March 18)
Phillip Phillips (March 25)
TBA (April 1)
Village People (April 8)
Commodores (April 15)
Oscar D’León (April 22)
Olga Tanon (April 29)
Grupo Mania (May 6)
TBA (May 13)

The concerts are included with park admission, but SeaWorld's pass members can buy reserved seating starting Jan. 19. Look for information via email or visit

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The circus is dead. Long live its successors

By Robert Niles
Published: January 15, 2017 at 12:04 PM
Feld Entertainment announced today that it will close the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus this spring, bringing to a close a 146 year run. Circuses were one of the progenitors of the themed entertainment industry, so it's well worth a moment for fans of theme parks to think about what the passing of the most famous circus in America might mean for the industry.

But before we look back at the past, let's consider the present — in which the circus hasn't been relevant to any broad audience in at least a generation. I thought Disney blundered in using this theme for the Storybook Circus section of the recent Fantasyland expansion at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. Yes, Dumbo continues to draw thousands of fans daily at Disney's theme parks, and the company had a great opportunity to expand that ride's capacity by adding a carousel and making it the centerpiece of a new themed area.

But Dumbo's a big draw because it's the chance to ride on a flying elephant, not because of any ongoing popular affinity for the circus setting of the original 1941 Disney animated film. Disney would have done better to give Dumbo the kind of retcon treatment it gave the Song of the South characters and songs when it designed Splash Mountain. Flying elephants are cool. Circuses are not.

So... why not? Why did circuses lose their appeal? This is where we look to the past, to understand the entertainment void that circuses once filled. Circuses starting entertaining fans not just in the days before the Internet, or television, but before anyone could listen to the radio or go to the movies. With their "big top" tents, pulled up by elephants and hauled around the country by rail, circuses could set up and wow people in far-flung towns that weren't a part of the vaudeville circuit.

If you lived in one of these towns, the day the circus showed up was a big deal. Imagine getting the Internet, TV, movies, online gaming, and radio for just one weekend a year, and having to do without any digital entertainment the rest of the times. That weekend would be like what the circus coming to town was more than 100 years ago. It'd be nuts.

Now, I threw all those different entertainment media together not just to make a point about scale. Circuses really were kind of like throwing together movies, video games and concerts altogether. They provided a mash-up of clowns, daredevils, acrobats, and animal acts — the only chance almost all audience members ever would get to see elephants, lions, and other exotic animals in their entire lives.

With the circus on town maybe once a year, it had to provide something for everyone — so it tried. But as the years past and people did start going to the movies, listening to radio, watching TV and going online, circuses such as Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus kept offering that same, stale mix of entertainment from more than a century ago. Once the youngest fans who remembered the days when the circus was entertainment grew old and passed on, the circus' end as a nostalgia act was near. And once the children of those last original fans gave up, well, that end is now here.

Clowns terrify as a horror cliche more than they make any children laugh these days. Daredevils can't complete with Michael Bay's CGI. Zoos and animal parks provide better environments in which to watch exotic animals, where we can learn about their native environments and professional care. And for acrobats? Well, here's where one circus promoter did evolve to compete with modern entertainment. Canada's Cirque du Soleil cut the rest of the circus show, focused on the acrobatics, set it to music and set a new standard for amazing performances that Ringling Bros and the like simply didn't match.

Feld Entertainment, the company that has owned the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus since 1960, will go on producing its many other shows, including Marvel Universe Live and Disney on Ice. So even if its circus did not adapt, its parent company did.

But let's give some respect. Disneyland has wrapped its 61st year. That means it has 85 more years to go just to match the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Circus founder P.T. Barnum is a member of IAAPA's Attractions Hall of Fame. (He was inducted in 2012, 121 years after his death.) Circuses begat traveling carnivals, which begat the theme park industry. And there's no question that the circus provided one of the primary sources of entertainment inspiration for a young Walt Disney. That's why he put Dumbo and the Casey Jr. Circus Train in his park, after all.

The circus might no longer be relevant as modern entertainment, but its history remains crucially relevant to the entire themed entertainment industry today. And part of that circus history is its passing. The circus leaves a final lesson to its successors in themed entertainment: Know your audience and deliver what it wants — not just what your former audience wanted, generations ago. Ignore this lesson, and suffer the circus' fate.

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Let's imagine more entertaining, and useful, official theme park apps

By Robert Niles
Published: January 13, 2017 at 3:22 PM
Are theme parks getting as much as they could be from their official mobile apps?

Most parks' apps provide a lot of useful information for visitors. You can see where you are on an interactive park map, look at current wait times for rides and see the day's schedule for shows and other in-park entertainment. The better apps also work as park tickets and might even allow you to manage any reservations you have in the park.

But theme parks could learn a few things from other app developers, too. What if official theme park apps provided more than an interactive guidemap and maybe a ticket? What if they became virtual tour guides, encouraging visitors' movement around the parks? That's the question I ask in my Orange County Register column this week, How about virtual online prize games while visiting theme parks?

"Gamified" apps might make a visit to a theme park even more entertaining for fans who are used to collecting badges and other virtual rewards from the apps they use. But the potential benefit is even bigger for the parks themselves. As I mention in my column, one of the big reasons why Disney invested so much in building Fastpass+ was to create a system that better distributed guests throughout its theme parks. By encouraging guests to schedule more of their day — instead of just wandering into the nearest queues all day long — parks can use schedule availability to make sure that one part of the park isn't getting overloaded while another stands relatively empty.

But schedules and Fastpass+ return times aren't the only ways to get people to move around in a park. The effective use of rewards and targeted messaging can encourage people to bail from one place and try another in the park, too. And seeing what rewards people choose to pursue — and ignore — gives parks even more information about the individual preferences of their visitors.

Yet parks haven't done much yet to take advantage of these opportunities. Cedar Point introduced an interactive game on its app last summer that encouraged visitors to go to various sites around the park. But that's been about it for major parks in the United States. Walt Disney World has created multiple game experiences within its parks, such as Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, but it hasn't enable gameplay through its app.

As parks continue to look for ways to make more money from their visitors, it seems to me that developing an app that could both steer some people around the park while helping them to better enjoy their visit could be done for a lot less money than building a new ride to achieve the same redistribution and guest satisfaction. So it surprises me a little that we haven't seen parks do more to get this type of value out of their apps.

Yes, parks should keep building new rides and creating fresh shows. Fans want well-themed restaurants and shopping when they visit, too. But if apps can add some additional entertainment for the people who use them — and give the parks another tool for better crowd control — why not?

Read Robert's column:

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The new Epcot International Festival of the Arts opens at Walt Disney World

By Robert Niles
Published: January 13, 2017 at 11:43 AM
Walt Disney World this morning opened the first of six weekends of its new Epcot International Festival of the Arts. Featuring visual, performing and culinary arts, the festival helps fill the gap on the calendar between Epcot's Food and Wine and Flower and Garden festivals. The festival runs Fridays through Mondays from now through Feb. 20.

The highlights? Well, that depends upon what you're into. Want to see Disney's Broadway stars performing some of their favorite songs? Head to the America Gardens Theatre in World Showcase. You'll find performances there at 5:30, 6:45, and 8pm each night of the festival. Mary Poppins' Ashley Brown and Tarzan's Josh Strickland are up this weekend.

Love the visual arts? You'll find visiting artists' work displayed throughout World Showcase. Or head over to the Odyssey Festival Showplace, where you'll find seminars on everything from cel painting to photography to watermelon carving.

That last one blurs the line with the culinary arts, which are represented by food booths throughout the park, serving 75 food and beverage items created by Disney's chefs for the festival. Many have a visual arts theme, including the "Pop’t Art" sugar cookies with chocolate hazelnut filling (i.e. Nutella), which look very much like a wildly decorated Pop-Tart. Or this...

Other food items include more "traditional" festival fare, such as flatbreads, sandwiches, charcuterie, seafood, craft beer, and wines. The festival is included with Epcot admission, though special workshops at the Odyssey and the food and drinks are extra charges.

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Universal Orlando's Jimmy Fallon ride to open April 6

By Robert Niles
Published: January 12, 2017 at 10:18 PM
Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon announced this evening that his eponymous theme park ride, Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon, will open officially on April 6 at Universal Studios Florida.

Universal's first flying theater ride will take visitors past some of New York's famous landmarks, including the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building, while also featuring cameos from Tonight Show announcer Steve Higgins and house band The Roots. But the star will be Fallon himself, who'll also show up as several of his characters from the show. The ride also will feature 4D effects, such as the smell of a New York pizzeria as well as getting wet from a plunge in the East River. Here's Fallon, describing it:

To help promote the ride's debut, Fallon will host The Tonight Show from the Universal Orlando Resort on April 3 through 6.

In addition, Universal Orlando announced tonight that Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon will be the first attraction in the park to feature a "Virtual Line" experience. Visitors will be able to book return times to experience the attraction through the official Universal Orlando app or at kiosks outside the attraction.

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