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Calorie Counts are Coming to Restaurant Menus, but Probably Not at Theme Parks

By Robert Niles
Published: November 25, 2014 at 11:58 AM
The United States Food and Drug Administration today announced its new rules that will require restaurant chains to post the calorie counts of their menu items on the menus themselves. Up until now, many restaurants have gotten around publication requirements by making calorie counts and other nutritional information either available by request on under-the-counter handouts, or by burying them under small links on their websites.

When governments first started requiring calorie count disclosure, some restaurants did publish the numbers on their menus, only to see sales decline as consumers stopped ordering high-calorie gut-busters. So restaurants starting looking for ways to publish the numbers in ways that most customers wouldn't ever see them.

Menu at Gru's
Many restaurant menus will need to start listing calorie counts along with prices. But theme parks might not have to.

The FDA made a point in its announcement today of stating that "(t)he menu labeling rule also includes food facilities in entertainment venue chains such as movie theaters and amusement parks." But it's difficult to envision which theme park restaurant actually will end up having to display calorie counts on their menus, given the other conditions in the new rules. As the FDA press release states:

"The menu labeling final rule applies to restaurants and similar retail food establishments if they are part of a chain of 20 or more locations, doing business under the same name and offering for sale substantially the same menu items."

I can't think of a single theme or amusement park chain in the United States that operates a food service facility that would meet those requirements. Not even Six Flags has 20 of the same restaurant locations across its chain, using the same name and serving the same menu. Even if a park chain did have that many identical restaurants, it simply could change of their names in an effort to get around the new requirements. If the FDA wants to consider entire parks as a "location," again, not even Six Flags has 20 parks across the country. Only if the FDA considered all of a chain's restaurants together could a theme park chain be subject to the 20-location condition, but again, those locations would be operating under different names and with different menus.

Where might theme park visitors see calorie counts on menus in parks, then? Perhaps at counter-service stands branded to outside fast-food chains such as Subway and Panda Express. But one wonders if Disney's Starbucks locations would be subject to the new rules, as they operate in the parks under unique names. Sure, there's a discreet Starbucks sign at the entrance and logos on the cups, but a lawyer could earn a few billable hours making an argument that those different names exempt the locations.

Ultimately, though, if the new FDA rule manages to change consumer behavior, as it is intended to do, theme parks might need to go ahead and start listing calorie counts anyway. If consumers come to expect to see the numbers next to selections outside theme parks, they might start demanding to see the same inside the parks, too. At some point it would be easier just to list the calories (and put out a self-congratulatory press release) than to deal with a persistent queue of complaints at guest relations.

Qualifying restaurants will have one year to start complying with the new requirements.

Do you want to see calorie counts and nutritional information before you make a decision about which food to order? Tell us in the comments.

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Where to Eat: Dinner at The Cowfish at Universal Orlando's CityWalk

By Robert Niles
Published: November 24, 2014 at 6:04 PM
For anyone who ever has been left emotionally paralyzed by the impossible decision between burgers or sushi for dinner, now, at long last, there's a restaurant for you — The Cowfish at Universal Orlando's CityWalk.

The Cowfish

If you think burgers and sushi an odd combination, just think of what The Cowfish offers as a 21st century, bar-friendly surf 'n turf. The Cowfish isn't the type of place where you tuck into a massive steak and lobster tail — it's a loud, casual, fun space where you split plates with friends while the friendly and accommodating staff keeps the drinks flowing.

The Cowfish opened just a couple of weeks ago, as the final piece in CityWalk's year-long refurbishment. Sitting above the equally impressive Vivo Italian Kitchen, The Cowfish offers its patio diners prime space to look over CityWalk in the evenings. It promises to become the "see and be seen" space at CityWalk.

But what about that food?

Calamari appetizer

I followed the recommendations of my server and started with the calamari "T & T" [tubes and tentacles] appetizer ($12). After the meal, my server confided that he usually orders this as an entree, and I understand why — it's easily enough for two, or maybe even four, to share as a first course. The Cowfish fries its calamari in a tempura-style crust, with a dusting of salt and parsley. Served atop a glaze of sweet chili sauce, The Cowfish's calamari avoids the typical flaws that so often doom this appetizer: a thick crust and chewy squid. Instead, this helping offered a light, crispy crust and tender meat that kept me shoveling in one piece after another.

For my entree, I decided not to make that awful decision between burger and sushi and to go instead with both. The Cowfish offers two "Bento boxes" that might be a "greatest hits" review of the extensive menu. The Cowfish Box is $14 and includes a mini-burger with American cheese and a four-piece serving of your choice of one of four rolls: California, Spicy Tuna, Vegetarian or Philly. The Fusion Specialty Box costs $2 more ($16) and allows you to choose from one of three of Cowfish's specialty sushi rolls: Mark's, Firecracker, or The Boss. Since those specialty rolls costs between $15-19 for a full nine-piece roll and the basic rolls cost just $7-8 for nine pieces, I figured going with the Fusion box was the better deal by $1.50 to $4, depending on the roll selection. (Hey, I like math.) Both boxes include a trio of sides: edamame, sweet potato fries, and a Thai cucumber salad.

Fusion Specialty Box, withe Mark's roll

I chose the Mark's roll, with tuna and jalapeño inside, all coated in panko and fried, then topped with "Japanese mayo" and Sriracha on each slice. Yeah, it's fussy. But I suspect that The Cowfish's rolls are created less with the intent of highlighting the flavor of individual fish (get the nigiri or sashimi if you want that), and more to startle awake taste buds that are slowly being lulled to sleep by an ongoing flow of alcohol. The Sriracha provides more heat than the jalapeños, which are deseeded and julienned. But the jalapeños definitely provided more warmth and depth of flavor than the cucumber slices one normally finds in sushi rolls. (I ignored the superfluous ponzu dipping sauce.)

Drinking an iced tea, I wondered if I might have preferred the relative simplicity of a spicy tuna roll. Still, I enjoyed devouring my Mark's roll. The Cowfish offers 12 specialty sushi rolls on its menu, as well as eight classic makimono rolls and five "burgushi" rolls, where beef, bison, or pork take the place of the tuna in the more traditional rolls.

When I saw the relatively tiny mini-cheeseburger in my Bento box, I suspected it would become an afterthought to the sushi. But this burger held its own, and required a full five bites to put away. It might not look like much from the top, but this is a deep, thick burger, with rich, beefy flavor. If you asked me to decide between the burger and sushi now... I still couldn't.

But I can report having made one decision: the sweet potato fries clearly are the best of the three sides I tried. I usually don't order sweet potato fries because I don't like the way that their higher moisture content causes them to come out so much less crispy than traditional potato fries. The Cowfish seems to have found a workaround by slicing their sweet potato fries with a flatter cut than the typical shoestring, creating more surface area on each fry. These fries stayed crispy throughout the meal, and with the calamari demonstrated that, if nothing else, The Cowfish knows how to fry stuff.

The Cowfish might have opened months after Vivo and Antojitos Authentic Mexican Food, the other two new table-service restaurants that serve as the anchors of CityWalk's refurbishment. (The Cowfish is the only one not operated created* [*see comments] by Universal Orlando. It's a three-restaurant chain that started in 2010 in Charlotte, North Carolina.) But an initial visit suggests that The Cowfish will reward Universal fans for their patience.

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Monday Top 10: For Which Theme Park Fans Give Thanks

By Robert Niles
Published: November 24, 2014 at 1:17 PM
With the Thanksgiving holiday this week in the United States, crowds are returning to the theme parks for the start of the annual holiday travel season. We will hit another lull in the crowds next week until the biggest two travel weeks of the year hit, starting the Saturday before Christmas, Dec. 20 this year. But let us avoid the temptation that so many theme parks and retailers succumb to in looking ahead to Christmas and forgetting about Thanksgiving.

Diagon Alley
We're thankful this year for Diagon Alley, among many other things.

So let us devote our Monday Top 10 list this week to the top 10 things for which theme park fans ought to give thanks this year. We would like to invite you to submit a personal Top 10 Thanksgiving list in the comments, but for now we will get the thanksgiving started with our own list.

10. Everything to eat at theme parks

The star of almost any Thanksgiving celebration is the food, and theme parks excel at keeping people well-fed. Where else can you get turkey leg year-'round?

9. Healthier food options

As theme parks have expanded their menus over the years, they haven't gone the "state fair" route of simply frying anything they could fit into a vat of boiling oil. Theme parks have added healthier options to their menus and have devoted more resources to accommodating people with food allergies and special diets. Last week in Orlando, I ate rotisserie chicken, green beans, grilled mahi mahi, sautéed vegetables, sushi, edamame, gluten-free cookies — food far from the old stereotype of pizza, chicken fingers, and burgers. Sure, the trend toward healthier options is inconsistent across the industry, and people continue to buy a lot of the same old stuff. But we're thankful to have the option of eating better than that when we visit our favorite parks.

8. Improved accessibility

Accommodation isn't just a dietary issue. Over the years, theme parks have become more accommodating of people of differing physical abilities. Whether you or travel with a person with disabilities, you should welcome this trend toward accessibility. Accommodation requires creativity, and anything that inspires designers to be more creative is all right in our book. Does anyone really wish for more of those narrow, metal-railed, back-and-forth queues? We didn't think so. People love rides that accommodate their entire family. (Think: Hogwarts Express, which might be the most immersive totally-accessible attraction ever built.)

7. The return of the dark ride

Fans of dark rides know they're having a year to be thankful for when they're getting new dark rides from Cedar Fair and Six Flags. Imagine, a Six Flags dark ride might be the best new attraction next year!

6. Immersive environments

It's not just dark rides putting the theme into theme parks. The past few years have brought fans some of the most immersive themed environments ever built for parks, led by the Wizarding World of Harry Potter lands at Universal Orlando and Universal Studios Japan. Disney's upping its game, too, with Cars Land at Disney California Adventure, the Ratatouille miniland at Walt Disney Studios Paris, and the upcoming World of Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom.

5. J.K. Rowling

Let's be honest: It's highly doubtful that the current boom in the theme park industry, including all these new dark rides and immersive lands, would be happening if not for a certain Scottish author and her boy wizard. J.K. Rowling didn't just create Harry Potter — she's wisely used her influence as Potter's creator to demand that her partners follow an uncompromising set of standards in protecting and expanding her wizarding world. And fans are the better for it, as her vision has led to unprecedented growth at Universal Orlando, which has inspired other parks to invest to try to chase some of that market growth, too.

4. Creative designers

Of course, none of this happens without the work of the themed entertainment industry's creative designers, too. So let us give thanks to the designers, engineers, and other creative professionals who develop new attractions for us at theme parks around the world.

3. Visitors who know what they are doing

Designers can do their best in developing high-capacity attractions that promote smooth guest flow, but it really does help when visitors know what they're doing when visiting the parks. So thank you to all visitors who take the time to do some advance research before visiting a theme park — those who buy their tickets in advance, read about the available attractions, and make decisions about where to visit and what to eat so that they're not gumming up the park by standing around lost and arguing all day. Yes, we are talking about you, dear Theme Park Insider readers. We're thankful for you every single day of the year!

2. Visitors who help other visitors

Knowing your own business is helpful, but people who take time to help other visitors with theirs deserve an extra helping of thanks this holiday season. Whether you stop to give directions, take a photo for someone, allow someone to go ahead or just offer a needed smile to a stressed-out guest, please accept our thanks for doing so much to make theme parks among the most welcoming destinations on Earth.

1. Cast members, Team members, Model citizens and all other in-park employees

But we're the amateurs in making theme parks welcoming destinations. The top spot on our list must go to the pros. Thank you to every front-line theme park employee — the people who run the rides, perform the shows, sell the tickets, drive the trams, prepare and serve the food, and keep everything clean and working throughout the day. Be sure to be extra generous with your tips this holiday season to those who can accept tips, and to be extra-generous with your smiles, thanks you's and compliments to those who cannot. Theme park employees should know that theme park fans love them, appreciate them, and give thanks for the work that they do.

For what are you giving thanks as a theme park fan this holiday season?

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King Kong Construction Update, Plus a First Look at the Blueprints

By Robert Niles
Published: November 23, 2014 at 12:52 PM
ORLANDO — Universal Orlando has topped out the show building for its new King Kong attraction, as we've gotten our first look at the blueprints for the upcoming attraction at Islands of Adventure.

Kong show building
Click for higher res version

The new Kong will occupy the show building under construction between Toon Lagoon and Jurassic Park. You can see the Jurassic Park show building to the left, for scale, in the higher-res version. This show building is almost as large as the Forbidden Journey show building, and we've gotten our first look at the plans for what visitors will find inside.

Now, we haven't seen a complete set of blueprints, as we did for Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. But we've seen enough to learn a couple of very interesting details about the new attraction.

First, this is not going to be a duplicate of the King Kong 360:3D attraction from Universal Studios Hollywood. Nor will it be a recreation of the old Kongfrontation ride from Universal Studios Florida. Obviously, this will be a dark ride (thus, the huge show building), and it will include a mix of screens and practical sets.

The blueprints we've seen call for a show scene with a massive set of screens on either side of the ride track, as found on the Kong encounter on Hollywood's Studio Tour. However, the next scene includes plans for a massive Kong animatronic, as we saw years ago in the old Kong ride and Kong encounter at Universal Studios Florida and Universal Studios Hollywood, respectively. Kong appears on the right side of the ride track as ride vehicles curve around Kong to their right, allowing a long moment with the Big Ape. We will pass along additional details as they are leaked to us.

Disney Legend Bob Gurr designed Universal's original Kong animatronic, which burned in the Hollywood backlot fire that destroyed the original Kong encounter in 2008. Universal chose to replace that encounter with the screen-based King Kong 360:3D attraction, while Universal Studios Florida's Kong ride closed in 2002, to be replaced by Revenge of the Mummy.

Previous Kong coverage:

Across Hollywood Way, site preparation continues on Universal Orlando's fifth hotel, the Loews Sapphire Falls Resort.

Sapphire Falls Resort
Click for higher res version

With a Caribbean beach resort theme, the Sapphire Falls is under construction between the Royal Pacific and Cabana Bay Beach resorts, and is scheduled to open in Summer 2016.

Previous Sapphire Falls coverage:

Finally, Universal's not the only theme park company with a big construction project underway in Central Florida. ;^) We don't have a photo (at least, that we can show you...), but we've heard from sources on the ground that foundation work is well underway for Disney's Avatar land at Animal Kingdom. We've already shown you the plans for the Soarin'-like 3D movie that will be the centerpiece of phase one of the new land, which will be twice the size of Universal Orlando's new Diagon Alley and will feature multiple interactive experiences throughout. Disney's Avatar land will open in 2017.

Previous Avatar coverage:

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Vote of the Week: Do You Play Carnival Games?

By Robert Niles
Published: November 21, 2014 at 11:42 AM
ORLANDO — We've been in Orlando all week for the annual IAAPA Attractions Expo. The show fills the entire North/South building of the Orange County Convention Center, with more than one million square feet of exhibit space. Companies selling carnival games fill a good chunk of that space, as carnival games provide a steady flow of money to operators of amusement parks, fairs, and family entertainment centers.

Our Derek Potter has written a great guide to winning carnival games, for those of you who play. Maybe by using his advice, you might consider playing, or playing more often.

Carnival games at The Simpsons Ride
You'll find carnival games near The Simpsons Ride at Universal theme parks.

So, for our Vote of the Week, we are asking: Do you play carnival games? We're not talking about the recreation of carnival games in a ride like Toy Story Midway Mania. We're talking the real deal here. Now, you won't find these games in some theme parks, notably the Disney Magic Kingdoms. But Disney does have carnival games (well, its version of them) in Disney California Adventure and Tokyo DisneySea. And other theme park chains offer them in abundance.


What's your favorite carnival game? Tell us in the comments. And, as always, thank you for reading and being part of the Theme Park Insider community!

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Master the Midway: The Theme Park Insider Guide to Winning Carnival Games

By Derek Potter
Published: November 21, 2014 at 9:57 AM
We’ve all been there in some way or another. Maybe it’s trying to win a prize for your friend or your kids or showing off. Other times the mood just catches someone right and they want to test their mettle, or they were incited by a skillful carnival barker. Still other times, some just have money burning a hole in their pocket and have to have that 50-cent prize, even if they spend 10 bucks to get it.

From the beginning, they’ve been a staple of the midway, and from the beginning they have been confounding, frustrating, scheming, and angering the masses. Amusement park games combine a lot of science and a little skill with psychology, illusion, and cheap prizes, and have masterfully been parting suckers with their money for over a hundred years. For guests, the name of the game is to grab the prize, have a little fun, and win bragging rights. For the park, the name of the game is to simply get you to play, because the beauty of this operation is that whether the guest wins or loses, the park always wins. In the words of Navin R. Johnson, "It’s a profit deal."

Jerk Carnival

That doesn’t mean that the games or the people are absolutely crooked, per se. There are some shifty operations out there, but most amusement/theme parks aren’t really going to glue hats to mannequins or fasten the milk bottles to the plank, at least not anymore. Are some the games “customized”? Absolutely, they are. As the saying goes, the devil is always in the details. Contrary to myth though, most are absolutely winnable if one truly understands how to play. Also understand that these operators are shrewd businesspeople. That giant prize that someone was carrying around might not have been won at all. Rather it might be a worker whose job is to carry around giant prizes and entice guests to play. Don’t think it’s silly. It’s been done since the beginning of the industry, and it works. Even so, most games are on the up and up, albeit a lot more difficult than they let on.

Adventureland

We at Theme Park Insider strive to give you the best possible information to make your park visit memorable. With that in mind, step right up grasshoppa… and learn how to win the giant-ass panda.

Carnival Barker

Before we get into the specific games, a few points to consider.

Lesson #1: Watch and learn. Sun Tzu once wrote, “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” Most midway gamers are not victorious warriors. Why? Because these mere mortals gain understanding not by watching or observing first, but by forking over money and learning how to play by trial and error during the game. This usually brings frustration, leading them to move on with nothing but lighter pockets. If they do win the prize, their wallets have surely paid dearly. Before throwing down your money, remove all preconceived notions and observe a little. If the game operator is demonstrating, is he using different balls, rings, or darts than the players are using? Is he setting the target up differently? If there are winners, what is working for them? Why are people losing? What are the rules?

Lesson #2: Learn Science. Bummer for you if you don’t or didn’t pay attention in school. Many of these games are based on simple laws of physics that apparently aren’t understood or considered by many, and that’s what the operators rely on. Like a major league pitcher or a pool shark…many of the winning formulas boil down to spin, velocity, arc, or location, or a combination of these. The best players of these games understand in one way or another that science is the foundation that skill and luck stand upon, and the best operators know how to rig the game to simultaneously fool the masses and make it legitimate.

Lesson #3: There is a catch somewhere. Notice how most of them tend to look pretty easy. One of the driving forces behind these games is the illusion that everything is as it seems. It’s not, yet so many think differently, and that’s why many will keep playing. The idea of losing a game that appears so simple doesn’t make sense to them, and they keep throwing down money and defining insanity…the act of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The question is, where is the swerve and how to overcome it? Is it the object you are throwing, the rules, or the target?

Lesson #4: Fun is the name of the game. Yes, money and prizes are involved, and, yes, we all like to win, but the whole point is to have fun. You are paying for the chance to win, but you are also paying for the entertainment of playing. Don’t be that guy who blows his stack and looks like a fool, blaming his lack of skill on rigged games. These methods aren’t guaranteed wins — that’s ultimately up to your skill. If followed though, your odds of winning will increase greatly. If the midway gods aren’t smiling upon you that day, save your money for the Dippin Dots guy or the bar.

Angry gamer pic

And now to the games!

Hi-Striker/Test of Strength
Object of the game: Swing the mallet and make the bell ring at the top
Keys to winning: Location and angle

We’ve all seen these somewhere. Often times they are surrounded by a bunch of dudes attempting to demonstrate their manliness to each other. They are billed as a test of strength. In reality though, it only takes a certain amount of muscle. The real key is accuracy, hitting the center of the pad squarely (not at an angle) with the mallet, which is why the little guy has as good a chance as any to show up the muscleheads and leave with all the chicks. Think of it as chopping a piece of wood or swinging a sledge, the same technique applies here. If you have never done these things, your man card is fake. Turn it in and go play the ring toss with the rest of the girls.

Rope LadderRope Ladder
Object of the game: Climb the impossibly unstable rope ladder to the top and ring the bell
Keys to winning: Balance and mechanics

At first glance, it doesn’t look like much. The ladder isn’t that long, and everyone seems to think they are strong enough to “hold on” when their poor technique inevitably spins the ladder and body slams them to the mat. The laws of physics weren’t on their side, and they won’t be on yours. Creating balance and counter-balance is the key. One, ignore the rungs on the ladder and grab the sides with your hands. Two, when you move, move opposite limbs at the same time (right arm, left leg and the opposite). The natural tendency when climbing is to move both limbs on the same side. For this you have to be four-legged, not two-legged. Three, point out your toes and knees and lean forward, not back. Do these things properly, and you’ll win every time.

Balloon Darts
Object of the game: Bust balloons with darts
Keys to winning: Velocity and accuracy

Not that they are designed this way, but it’s likely that the darts you are using aren’t exactly the sharpest in the drawer. Check them before you throw. It’s also likely that the balloons are underinflated. Playing the game with that in mind makes for better odds for you. This combination can only be overcome by sheer force. Hitting the balloon at a downward 45 degree angle also helps. When you throw, throw hard, but for the sake of the game operator’s hind parts, have a little bit of accuracy.

Ring Toss
Object of the game: Get a ring on the top of a bottle
Keys to winning: Little bit of spin and a lot of luck

Seems simple enough, but there’s a reason why they give you a bunch of rings to throw during each game, because it’s probably not gonna happen. Notice how big and tempting the prizes are, too. That’s because again, it’s probably not gonna happen. The odds of winning this one are indeed slim. In order to increase them, throw the rings low and light and with a level spin… like a Frisbee. In my book, the value of this game is questionable. The odds are stacked. If you lose… you lose. If you win, you’ve defied the odds, but you’ve won the privilege of carrying around a 6-foot stuffed animal all day. So the question is, do you really win?

Basketball Toss
Object of the game: Put the ball in the hole
Key to winning: Nothing but net

These days there are two kinds of basketball at the park. The newest evolution is the three point shootout, using a regulation basketball goal and ball. That one is a game of pure schoolyard shooting skill, not to be confused with our main subject, the game-booth-style basketball. Sure it looks like basketball, but there are all sorts of stumbling blocks to consider here. First, the rims are typically just a bit smaller than normal and sometimes a little oblong, usually nullifying any bounce off the rim. Second, the backboards are composed of different material, making for a harder bounce and rendering the bank shot fairly useless. Third, the balls are typically rubber (not leather or composite) and over-inflated, making them super bouncy and lively. The tip? Always go for the swish and give it the high arc. It’s pretty much the only way you are going to win.

Coin Toss
Object of the game: Land the quarter on the plate
Keys to winning: Soft touch, sticky hand

Again, looks fairly simple right? Just ask the masses how easy it is, as their bar money falls on the booth floor, a quarter at a time. Some will try to flip it on. Others will try to spin it. Oh and those plates…nothing special about those, except that they are cleaned with the slippery stuff that “encourages” the coin to slide. Two things to remember: One, a spinning coin is a dead coin. While most toss games require a little spin, english is the enemy here. Throw it flat with a low arc and no spin. Two, a dirty or wet coin is a good coin. Maybe it’s a good time to try this game while it’s raining (if they are even open), or maybe you have a little cotton candy that happens to get on your hand before you played, or maybe you embrace you inner dirty pitcher by inconspicuously using a little spit. Strike back at the crooked with your own little twist and win the prize.

Milk bottleMilk Bottles
Object of the game: Knock off all the milk bottles
Keys to winning: Location, accuracy, and velocity

This oldie but goodie has been looting pockets for a long long time. Again, it looks so easy, but it’s actually one of the toughest games on the midway because it requires pinpoint accuracy in the right spot, a solid arm, and a little math, along with the recognition that one or more of the bottles might be heavier than the other. If so, the heavy bottle is probably on the bottom. Further still, the stack might be a slightly angled and separated, with the heavier bottle towards the back, making a lightly thrown direct hit a loser. Science 1, Guest 0… you didn’t really think this was all random did you? The attendant might try to convince you it’s easy, by demonstrating with the heavy bottle on the top, and then moving it to the bottom when it’s your turn.

Rule of thumb: 80 percent of the weight is in the bottom of the stack. Most try to hit the stack right in the middle, and lose when only the top one flies off. First, take a good look at the stack and how it stands. Then aim for the space between the bottom two bottles with a stiff fastball. If accurate, any wrinkle that the attendant has thrown in here can typically be eliminated with brute force.

Flukey BallFlukey Ball
Object of the game: Bounce the wiffle ball off the board into the basket
Keys to winning: Touch and frontspin

Another one that looks easy, but if it were, they would be out of business. Lots of math and science to consider here…the angle and height of the board, the distance to throw, and the weight and composition of the ball. All can be manipulated, and at least one probably is. First, check the weight of the ball. The lighter the ball, the lighter you have to throw. Second, choose location. The middle won’t do… that’s the bounciest part. Choose either the top of the board with a straight toss, or the bottom with a high arc and use a little front spin on an underhanded throw. It’s really the only way to get the right angle. The greasiest of operators will put a lip on the bottom of the board that sticks out over some of the basket, deflecting an otherwise good throw away and making the game a lot tougher. Check for that before laying your money down. It might make the game virtually unwinnable.

Shoot The Star
Object of the game: Completely shoot out the star on the paper with the BB gun
Keys to winning: Insane marksmanship, patience, and gentle trigger finger

Shoot The Star

Seriously… what guy doesn’t want to shoot an automatic BB gun and become a gun-toting badass, if only for a minute? Hence the popularity of this disappearing game. This one is probably more about the novelty of the act than actually winning. It’s a good thing too, because to actually do it is nearly impossible. Here are the catches: One is the type of paper that the star is printed on. The heavier the paper, the tougher to win. Second is that none of the guns actually shoot straight and many have ultra sensitive triggers. This may be intentional or not, but a person with a little experience in shooting can overcome this. Third is the size of the star. If it’s bigger than an inch, don’t expect to have a chance. There probably aren’t enough BB’s in the gun and it’s mathematically impossible. The common mistake is shooting at the middle of the star. Yes you might hit it, but inevitably, a piece of the star will still be there and you will have that intentionally designed “oh so close” feeling, leading you to fork over more money. There is one and only one approach. First, dial in your weapon. Do this by firing a few single test rounds to see where they land, and then compensating your aim accordingly. Second, shoot in a circle pattern around the star, using methodical short bursts of fire. Don’t pull the trigger, squeeze it gently. If you are accurate, and I mean deadly accurate (somewhere around 90 percent), you shall be victorious. Resist the completely human temptation to go Rambo and unleash BB hell in 10 seconds. Fun? Absolutely! Winning strategy? Absolutely not.

Rambo

Also, please use safety, responsibility and common sense when handling. That should be self-evident when handling even BB firearms. Sad to say that there’s always someone somewhere who lacks these characteristics.

Skeeball
Object of the game: Put the ball in the hole, score big points
Key to winning: Take it to the bank

Skeeball

This timeless classic has many fans, and with good reason. It’s fun and inexpensive to play… or at least it should be inexpensive to play. The key to getting those big scores and fistfuls of tickets is using the rails. Doing this changes the spin of the ball as it flies towards the hole and sticks the landing, wherever that is. If you are accurate and find the right spot on the rail, you will be rewarded with handsome amounts of stale candy, plastic switchblade combs, neon spiders, fake mustaches, whoopee cushions, or any number of different treasures that you apparently can’t live without.

Switchblade comb

Milk Can Toss
Object of the game: Toss the softball into the 10-gallon milk can.
Key to winning: Overhand the underhand

Another oldie but goodie, the milk can toss has been around for a long time. Seems simple, and actually it kind of is. The rub is that there is usually a piece of steel welded inside the rim. The hole looks a lot bigger than the softball. In reality, that piece of steel renders it just slightly larger than the ball. That doesn’t make it an impossible game, but remember this when you play. The key to victory here is the throw technique. You need some back spin on the throw to keep the ball on the rim. This is achieved by gripping the ball overhand and tossing it in an underhand motion with a flick of the wrist. Throw softly with a low arc and aim for the back of the rim. The idea is to hit the back of the rim and let the ball deflect softly into the hole. Very beatable game with a little practice.

Water Gun Race
Object of the game: Beat your opponents by shooting more water and popping the balloon or advancing the horse or whatever.
Keys to winning: Accuracy and the right gun

We’ve all seen these. The nice thing about it is that there is a guaranteed winner every time. To be sure that is you, do one simple thing: Watch the game for a few rounds and find the best gun. Not all of them are working properly or equally. It’s just not in the park budget to ensure pinpoint equality with every water gun in every booth. In most cases, there’s bound to be a couple of them that work better than the rest. Pick one of those and shoot straighter than the other guy and you are home free.

Basket Toss
Object of the game: Throw the ball into an angled peach basket
Key to winning: Get in front

Basket Toss

This is actually one of the easier games on the midway, if it’s the standard large wiffleball in a peach basket and if it’s not spring loaded. Most people hit the back of the basket. That strategy is doomed to fail most of the time. It’s the height and angle, and sometimes what’s behind the basket that makes for losing money that way. Some will try to sidespin it, which is all well and good if you put just the right amount. The tried and true way is to lean in as far as you can, palm the ball, and gently lob with hi arc and no spin, hitting not the back, but the front bottom part of the inside of the basket. Watch the game a few times and check the basket out before laying down your money.

And that’s it for now. As I said before, it’s unlikely that most major operations would be crooked. They want people to play and have fun, and the operators are making minimum wage with very little stake in the game’s outcome. It’s the private operations on the boardwalks, smaller operations, and at the fair that you have to watch the most. Watch a bit before you play and check for any shenanigans. There are all sorts of little things out there, from slightly unlevel basketball rims to bottles that have too much separation, to underinflated balloons… and on and on. If you notice any, you might as well walk away unless you figure a way to overcome them. Remember they are difficult, but most aren’t rigged for total failure. The sore losers will swear otherwise, but the crooked ones are few and far between. There are some that are though, and if you recognize one, why give the person your money? As Joshua the computer once said… "Strange game, the only way to win is not to play."

Smurf prizes

Good luck to you all. May your arms be full of prizes, may all around you be impressed, and may you all be masters of the midway!

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Looking Ahead to the Next Great Transformation in the Theme Park Industry

By Robert Niles
Published: November 21, 2014 at 9:05 AM
ORLANDO — If the annual IAAPA Legends panel looks back at the transformative moments in the industry's past, the Future Legends panel faces a much more difficult task — to look for emerging moments that will become transformative for the future.

As a result, while the Legends panel evokes laughter and thoughtful reflection, the Future Legends panel is much more provocative, challenging the audience with glimpses of emerging technology and techniques that might prove to be nothing more than passing fads... or might just become the next great disruption in the themed entertainment industry.

So, if after the Legends panel you'll want to queue to be awed by the big names in the attraction design business sitting on a dais above you as they sign a book or expo program, after the Future Legends panel you'll want to rush up to these panelists who'll be standing in the hallway with you to start arguing about and diving into everything they just said.

Future Legends panelists
Christian Lachel, Vice President and Senior Creative Director at BRC Imagination Arts; Clara Rice, Director, Digital Engagement & Media Relations at Jack Rouse Associates; John Paul Geurts, VP/Creative Director at Nickelodeon; Steve Trowbridge, Principal at Rhetroactive, Inc.

A few of the provocative questions raised during the panel yesterday:

Should, or can, parks develop their own IP [intellectual property]?

John Paul Geurts: "Before we got into the licensing business, there wasn't a lot of IP out there, so parks generated their own IP and created these wonderful lovable characters. So the question out there is: is that going to [come back], or is the shift toward IP going to continue? ...Can we exist without it and be generic -- Adventureland? -- or do we need to continue to bring the guests something that they are already familiar with?"

Steve Trowbridge: "If you're going to do it, an IP has to be used authentically. The attraction and the story that you create around it has to be authentic. When licensing and IP go wrong is when you slap SpongeBob on the front of some totally unrelated thing. If I can't tell a story around an IP, then we shouldn't be using it."

Christian Lachel: "I did an article in Attractions Management [PDF, skip to page 76] on this exact issue. I think it's at a crossroads right now. Everyone wants to run out and buy the latest thing, but I do worry about the sense of IP versus originality. I think there's space for both. There are certain IPs that have longevity and have the deep resonance with visitors -- there's an emotional connection. There are sort of those super IPs: the Potters and someone eventually will do Lord of the Rings. I think there's a deep, long, multi-generational affinity [for them]. I think the challenge is with just slapping the IP on, or something that doesn't have the legs or the longevity. ...I would like to see a bit more originality. Each place has a unique story."

John Paul Geurts: "The trend in our office is to take the characters and give them a reason to be there. We're always talking about story and why is this collection of characters with you? They don't always have to stay in their own world: Is SpongeBob really in Bikini Bottom, or is he there on that adventure with you? It's a creative conversation that happens on a daily basis for us. But we like to see our characters now really just come play in the environment. Whether they are at the beach, or playing pirate, or whatever, they do the same things that you or I would do. That allows us not just to create a fun piece of entertainment, but to layer the entertainment. It gives us a lot more freedom with the IP."

Clara Rice: "People think of 'being on mission' as a museum thing, but I think that for theme parks it's just as important to be on mission. We worked with a client where we helped them develop their own characters that go through their own land, that became character plush, that become part of their identity. So for your audience, that can be just as successful as having paid [IP] characters."

Steve Trowbridge: "That approach is ultimately, long-term, much more financially successful."

Clara Rice: "You don't have to pay licensing fees!"

"Have we reached Peak 4D?"

Steve Trowbridge: "Getting beyond 4D is about bringing back real dimension. The fifth dimension is actually the first two or three. ...I think the possibilities are down the road, in the next several years, when we can create physical sets that have image map projection over them. Now we can change entire rooms. So the 4D theater, even if you are in this singular space, can actually morph and push around you to create whole new environments. The one advantage of a 3D theater is that it is relatively compact, versus a dark ride, which needs many, many thousands more square feet of space. We can create entirely new sets and entirely new rooms [using projection mapping]. ...One thing I'd like to see us do better [in 4D] is, the same effects are being used over and over again. I'm taken completely out of the story when I can hear that set cannon fire up, or when I can hear a fan preparing to produce an effect on me. So when we talk about getting beyond 4D and bringing dimensionality back, when you think about your most beloved attractions, even the new ones that use digital media, it's because they have been well integrated. Effects are used to further a story, not just because I wanted to make bubbles come out of the ceiling."

Christian Lachel: "It's really about getting back to a sense of magic."

Steve Trowbridge: "Everyone has a giant screen in their house. Everyone can watch 3D at home. I think when we are working in our space, we need to do things that you cannot see [at home]. These are floating magical lanterns, or these are walls that move, or these are animatronics that speak to me. These are things I can't do at home. That's what is magical about them."

Clara Rice: "I think folks are catching on. When you look at Disney and their three patents for drones, they are catching on that, for their live shows, they need to break out their box."

John Paul Geurts: "What we see are people coming to us looking for ways to augment their 4D experience. Do you marry that with the virtual actor technology, similar to the Hershey experience? We are working on a similar project right now that will be that next version of the virtual actor combing the 4D experience. But, I agree... it's a challenging medium and how do you take it to the next level? Quite honestly, the new ride at Diagon Alley does a fantastic job of giving you a 4D experience on a ride track, which, obviously, is expensive, but at the same time, highly successful in terms of transforming the space using virtual and the real."

We now can quantify people's emotional reactions using facial recognition software. But should we? And to what end?

Check this out:

Christian Lachel: "We've always talked about that hero's journey, or that arc of emotion -- now you can see it. You can track it. ...Obviously the issue that we have is privacy, opting it, but there are some interesting ways to apply this."

Steve Trowbridge: "Well, it kind of freaks me out." [Laughter]

John Paul Geurts: "Where I struggle with the technology is that it is great from a research stand-point. But I don't see how that comes forward and enhances our storytelling or enhances the theatricality of our projects."

Steve Trowbridge: "I think this has more [potential] in a museum or educational experience, where you have a one-on-one and you can tailor or change content. But how do take an entire group of people [as in a theme park attraction]? Maybe if we go the Hershey example, and crowdsource it -- to get a group feeling of the room, maybe that would select a branch [to follow]. ...If you're in a bad mood, and I'm in a great mood, and we're sitting next to each other, we're still watching the same screen, right? I think the more one-on-one, museum-type experiences, have more potential."

Clara Rice: "It's a question of giving people rewards for what they are willing to divulge."

What do you think about these issues? What do you think will be the next great transformational technology or technique in the themed entertainment industry? Let's continue the conversation in the comments.

Previously:

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