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Announcing the Winners of the 14th Annual Theme Park Insider Awards

By Robert Niles
Published: July 3, 2015 at 10:45 AM
Every year on or around the Fourth of July holiday, Theme Park Insider honors our readers' favorite theme park hotels, restaurants, and attractions with our Theme Park Insider Awards. Over the past 12 months, we've enjoyed record traffic on, as well as an unprecedented collection of great new attractions opening around the world. That has made this year's honors, our 14th annual, a particular joy to award.

With the addition of hotel restaurants to our listings this year, as well as all of those great new attractions, we've expanded the number of categories in this year's awards to a record 11. The winners are the locations in each category with the highest average reader rating and a minimum number of ratings overall. Attractions that opened officially to the public at major theme parks between July 1, 2014 and June 30, 2015 were eligible in the Best New Attraction categories. Let's get to the honors!

Best Hotel: Universal's Portofino Bay Hotel, Universal Orlando

Universal's Portofino Bay Hotel

This is the third year in a row that the Portofino Bay as won our hotel award, and the fourth time overall.

Best Hotel Restaurant: Victoria and Albert's, Disney's Grand Floridian Resort and Spa, Walt Disney World

Victoria and Albert's

Victoria and Albert's captures our first-award in this new category.

Best Quick-Service Restaurant: The Leaky Cauldron, Universal Studios Florida

The Leaky Cauldron

In its first year of operation, Diagon Alley's signature eatery moved immediately to the head of the field.

Best Full-Service Restaurant: Monsieur Paul, Epcot

Monsieur Paul

This is the first award for Monsieur Paul, although its predecessor, Bistro de Paris, was a three-time winner in this category.

Best Show: Aladdin, Disney California Adventure


This is our second year giving an award in this category, and this is Aladdin's first win.

Best Roller Coaster: El Toro, Six Flags Great Adventure

El Toro

This wooden favorite captures our honor for the second year in a row.

Best New Roller Coaster: Thunderbird, Holiday World


Holiday World's first all-steel coaster is Bolliger & Mabillard's first launched wing coaster and a big hit with our readers.

Best New Family Attraction: Hogwarts Express, Universal Orlando

Hogwarts Express

For the best new attraction with no height restriction, Hogwarts Express already ranks among the top themed rides in the world overall with our readers.

Best New Attraction: Justice League Battle for Metropolis, Six Flags Over Texas and Six Flags St. Louis

Justice League Battle for Metropolis

Six Flags capturers its first win in this category with its ground-breaking, motion-base, 3-D shooter ride.

Best Themed Attraction: Journey to the Center of the Earth, Tokyo DisneySea

Journey to the Center of the Earth

The centerpiece of the park's Mysterious Island wins our award for the second year in a row

Best Theme Park: Tokyo DisneySea

Tokyo DisneySea

Tokyo DisneySea is our choice as the world's best theme park for the third year in a row, and for the fourth time overall.

For those not keeping count, here is the tally by brand:

  • Disney: 5 awards
  • Universal: 3 awards
  • Six Flags: 2 awards
  • Holiday World: 1 award

Congratulations to all our winners, and thank you to everyone who has taken the time to submit ratings, reviews, and photos on over the past year. We are honored to have you as part of our community!

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Ranking Disney's Pixar-themed Attractions

By Robert Niles
Published: July 2, 2015 at 10:45 AM
With Pixar-themed attractions expected to fill a substantial portion of the space that Walt Disney World is clearing in its Disney's Hollywood Studios theme park, let's take a look at other Pixar-themed attractions around the world.

You will find at least one Pixar-themed attraction in every Disney theme park. Disney's Hollywood Studios already hosts Toy Story Midway Mania, which not only will remain in the park, it will expand, as Disney is adding an additional track for the ride in attempt to help reduce its notorious long wait times.

As fans await an announcement on what Disney will bring to DHS, what should they hope to see? What are the best Pixar-themed attractions around the world? Which ones are the worst? Theme Park Insider readers have been rating and reviewing attractions at top parks around the world, so we tallied those votes to rank Disney's Pixar attractions.

1. Cars Land
Disney California Adventure

Cars Land

Disney's best Pixar-themed development anchored the redevelopment of what might be considered DHS's sister park, the formerly-maligned Disney California Adventure in Anaheim. DCA borrowed DHS's Pan Pacific Auditorium-inspired entry gates for its refurbishment, and at one point, DHS was slated to get DCA's Cars Land in return. But those plans were shelved like Wheezy. Will they return?

2. Toy Story Midway Mania
Disney's Hollywood Studios, Disney California Adventure, Tokyo DisneySea

Toy Story Midway Mania

No matter where Disney installs this carnival-themed shooter ride, it draws huge crowds. But it's already in DHS.

3. Ratatouille: The Adventure
Walt Disney Studios Paris

Ratatouille: The Ride

Disneyland Paris's second gate opened this 3D dark ride to good reviews last summer, but attendance continued to drop at the struggling park, bringing into question just how badly people want to spend more time with a rat who cooks. Disneyland Paris is said to have a five-year exclusive on this ride, making it even more unlikely as a DHS expansion candidate.

4. Crush's Coaster
Walt Disney Studios Paris

Crush's Coaster

Fans endure the longest waits at the Disneyland Paris Resort to ride this relatively low-capacity indoor spinning coaster, but those who do ride almost always rave about it.

5. Monsters Inc. Ride and Go Seek
Tokyo Disneyland

Monsters Inc. Ride and Go Seek

The Tokyo Disney Resort is Disney's only resort to feature three Pixar-themed shooter rides, with this game of "flashlight tag" one of the most popular attractions in Tokyo Disneyland.

6. Buzz Lightyear
Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, Disneyland, Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland Paris, Hong Kong Disneyland

Buzz Lightyear

Disney's first Pixar-themed ride is one of the few attractions to be featured at every Disney theme park resort around the world. (Trivia time: Name the others!)

7. Turtle Talk With Crush
Epcot, Disney California Adventure, Tokyo DisneySea

Turtle Talk With Crush

This interactive experience lies somewhere between show and meet and greet, but it doesn't take much space and fans generally give it good marks.

8. Finding Nemo - The Musical
Disney's Animal Kingdom

Finding Nemo - The Musical

Nemo doesn't get the love from theme park fans that Disney's Lion King and Aladdin shows get, but it still routinely fills its Disney's Animal Kingdom theater with enthusiastic crowds.

9. It's Tough to Be a Bug!
Disney's Animal Kingdom, Disney California Adventure

It's Tough to Be a Bug!

A 4D movie with plenty of gross-out moments, this A Bug's Life-themed show has plenty of young fans in Florida, even as it is has been on hiatus in California in favor of Ant Man previews.

10. Monsters, Inc: Mike and Sulley to the Rescue
Disney California Adventure

Monsters, Inc: Mike and Sulley to the Rescue

Some might be surprised to see California's version of a Monsters Inc. dark ride ranked so low, but that might be because in comparison with the ride it replaced — the epically-hated "Superstar Limo" — "Mike and Sulley to the Rescue" seems like the next coming of the Haunted Mansion.

11. Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor
Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor

This animated, yet interactive, comedy show might have gotten its biggest laugh the first time a Disney fan typed its acronym on a fan forum.

12. Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage

Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage

This retheme of Disneyland's submarine ride is actually the largest ride in the park, due to the need to duplicate the show experience for both side of the sub. It's widely tipped for elimination, as Disneyland looks for space to accommodate new Star Wars and Marvel attractions.

13. The Seas with Nemo and Friends

The Seas with Nemo and Friends

Another retheme of an aquatic attraction, but here Nemo and Friends can't measure up to the true stars of The Seas pavilion — the real sea animals within.

14. Cars Race Rally
Walt Disney Studios Paris

Cars Race Rally

If The Onion were to design a stripped-down, low-budget, spoof version of California Adventure's Cars Land, it'd have this.

15. Toy Story Playland
Hong Kong Disneyland, Walt Disney Studios Paris

Toy Story Playland

If Disney claims that these two collections of basic carnival rides with Toy Story-decor are popular, it would only be because they were installed in mostly empty parks where fans were desperate for anything to do. Perhaps that's Disney's strategy with Hollywood Studios? Clear out the park and leave much of it shuttered for so long that fans will be happy when anything new appears.

16. A Bug's Land
Disney California Adventure

Tuck and Roll's Drive 'Em Buggies

Home to our readers' choice as the worst major theme park attraction in the world, Disney's least-loved Pixar-themed land stands next to its most beloved, illustrating the cliche "if at first you don't succeed, try again."

Based on our readers' ratings, if Disney chooses to duplicate an existing Pixar-themed attraction at DHS, it would show its Walt Disney World fans the most love by bringing over Cars Land, or if not that, perhaps Crush's Coaster or Monsters Inc. Ride and Go Seek. Disney would be showing its Florida visitors a big middle Mickey finger, instead, by choosing to build another Cars Race Rally, Toy Story Playland, or A Bug's Land in the park.

What do you think?

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'Honey, I Shrunk the Theme Park': A Look at the State of Disney's Hollywood Studios

By Robert Niles
Published: July 1, 2015 at 10:31 AM
So... is there anything left to close in Disney's Hollywood Studios? We kid, of course, but some fans are feeling that way after Disney this week announced yet another attraction closing at the park, which has seen several other closures within the past year.

To give you a look at what's closed — and soon will be closing, according to insiders — a Theme Park Insider reader put together this map, which shades the closed and soon-to-be-closed locations within the park.

DHS Closures

Here is the breakdown:

Closed or announced to be closed:

  • Magic of Disney Animation
  • Studio Backlot Tour
  • The American Idol Experience*
  • Sounds Dangerous
  • The Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow
  • Sorcerer's Hat

*The Frozen sing-along is playing in the former American Idol theater now, but that's expected to be a (relatively) temporary run that won't preclude the long-term re-development of that theater.

Expected to close:

  • Voyage of the Little Mermaid
  • One Man's Dream (added)
  • Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular
  • MuppetVision 3D
  • Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: Movie Set Adventure
  • Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show

Maybe it is easier to list what's safe in the park and not expected to close:

  • Sunset Boulevard, including Tower of Terror and Rock n' Roller Coaster
  • Toy Story Midway Mania
  • The Great Movie Ride (thanks, TCM!)
  • Star Tours - The Adventures Continue

Star Tours is expected to anchor a new Star Wars land, while Midway Mania is expected to anchor an expanded Pixar-themed land within the park. The lower section of the park, where you'll find the car stunt show now, once was slated for Cars Land, but now could go to Star Wars, or to other Pixar franchises, or maybe something else, given the rate at which ideas seem to be getting spitballed at the wall inside the Walt Disney Imagineering headquarters back in Glendale.

Many fans and insiders expected to hear Disney's long-term plans for Hollywood Studios, including the park's new name, at the D23 Expo in Anaheim next month. But Disney Parks hasn't yet released information about any D23 presentation that would lend itself to that sort of announcement.

So... we wait, make maps, and speculate.

Update: Here's our Twitter debate...

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Ride Review: Efteling's Baron 1898

By Dave Adams
Published: July 1, 2015 at 8:57 AM
Today marks the day that The Efteling's new roller coaster Baron 1898 opened! We were there to celebrate the occasion and report back to Theme Park Insider.

Baron 1898

Arriving at 9:30am we got in 30 minutes before the 10am opening time, using the "Ticket Extra" deal. At this point, only a fraction of the car park was filled. Once in we ran through the park in hopes of getting an early spot. We quickly realised however that they'd gated off the wing of the park containing the Baron ride (we suspect this was just for today). These inner gates only opened at 10am followed by a mass run of squealing Baron fans (us included), reminiscent of scenes from Jurassic World running away from the from the raptors!

In the Baron 1898 queue

After funneling into the lines (single rider or group), which have been well built up since the creation of the promo videos, halfway along you are given the option of either selecting a front row seat with a longer line or 2nd/3rd row seats at half the time (with the initial single-rider line being the fastest of all the options). Being the first part of the day most selected the front row, creating opportunities for people near the entrance of the queues to jump a rail into the 2nd and 3rd row positions.

Once we were in the line it took a good while before the rides officially began operating, sending a number of test rides around the circuit, a couple of these had quarter-filled groups filling the seats. We believe the initial small groups were a mixture of park staff and radio competition winners which was cool.

Rides officially began running consistently at 10:20am, nearly a full hour after we entered. Once they were running they were running at 18 people (three rows of six) approximately every 1 minute and 33 seconds.

The theming really begins once you enter the building, where in the first room you are presented with the story. A mining baron appears in black and white on a projector screen explaining that he's seeking to find fortune and he's sending you, his miners to go and get the gold! The projection is interrupted by some "white women" (i.e. ghosts) who are the guardians of the gold. Articles in the room begin shaking, lights start flickering and the baron encourages you to not to be put off but to push on!


In the next room you meet the baron, an impressive, full-sized animatronic who gives you further instructions. Then the doors open to the ride itself.

The Baron

You hop on the ride, they check your restraints, giving the all clear, the ride moves forward through mist where you encounter the white women once more who tell you (in Dutch only) that you were warned and therefore you shall now face the consequences. Things begin shaking and moving before you move on and up the tower. At the this point comes the climax of the ride where you reach the top of the tower and pause, just before plunging vertically in to a white wall of mist at the entrance of the mine below. This is followed by a rapid series of twists and turns along the rest of the track (outside).

The coaster

The ride itself though reasonably short packs in a lot of thrills and is very smooth. It's a lot more fun than I'd been preparing myself for. We came off buzzing! Can't recommend this ride more!

Once we left the ride we were given a souvenir CD, containing a remixed single of the rides sound track, very cool. We also saw that the line had grown significantly, extending far beyond the ride lines, over two hours in wait! The Efteling has really done itself proud with this one!

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How Disney Parks Spent a Billion Dollars to Undercut its Core Product

By Robert Niles
Published: June 30, 2015 at 11:40 AM
In case you missed it: Part OneHow a Walt Disney World Bar Set a New Standard for Theme Park Attractions

Take a look at any attraction attendance report and you will find the same names near the top: Disney and Universal. Why do those parks draw so many more visitors than their competition?

Is it because they operate year-round? That helps, but other parks, including Knott's Berry Farm, SeaWorld, and Busch Gardens Tampa, are open to guests all year and they still trail Disney and Universal in annual attendance.

Is it because of the popular characters and franchises that the Big Two offer? That also helps, but don't overlook that Six Flags owns the theme park rights to the wildly popular DC Comics and Looney Tunes characters, including Batman, Superman and Bugs Bunny. And Six Flags' top park could double its annual attendance and still not beat any Disney or Universal park in the United States.

So what is it that Disney and Universal consistently offer that trailing parks lack? The year-round operation and attractive IPs help, but it's a third key quality that puts Disney and Universal on top — immersive themed environments.

Tokyo DisneySea
There might be no better collection of themed environments within a single park than at Tokyo DisneySea. Photo by David Weiss

We wrote earlier this week about Disney's old Adventurers Club and how it enveloped visitors in an ever-evolving story that made that destination a must-see for many Disney fans, many of whom continue to mourn its closing, seven years later. Disney's been creating alluring themed environments in its parks ever since the opening of Disneyland in July 1955. It's the "magic" of walking through a princess' castle into a fairytale kingdom that helps distinguish Disney's spinners, carousels and flat rides from those found in so many other parks around the world.

In our earlier post, we wrote about a "ladder of engagement" that allows theme park visitors to step up from simply feeling present in a fully-realized themed environment to participating in that environment through a progression of optional roles. In crafting these environments, park designers must take care to avoid including elements that break the theme and take people out of the atmosphere of the environment by reminding them that they are in the "real world" of a theme park.

Some distractions cannot be avoided, including the illuminated "EXIT" signs that fire codes demand inside buildings and warning signs at the entrance to attractions where people are restricted from riding due to certain health or physical conditions. But the best theme park lands find ways to conceal or theme other common distractions. The employee passageways inside the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride aren't marked with "Employees Only," or "Team Members Only." They say "No Muggles." Disney World's Pirates of the Caribbean eschews the common back-and-forth, chained serpentine waiting area in favor of well-themed fortress passageways for its interior queue. You'll find dozens of other such examples in the Disney and Universal parks.

No Muggles

But sometimes, the best efforts of park designers are undermined by the others "up the chain" in corporate management. We're not just talking restricted budgets — creativity always is restricted by what artists can spend to achieve their vision, no matter the medium. We are talking instead about when a company's efforts contradict one another, and a company introduces products or offerings that weaken its previous efforts. You see that when a park replaces a store's collection of unique, area-themed merchandise with new inventory of generic souvenirs. Or when a company decides to earn extra cash by slapping billboards inside the park, marring the decor of a land.

But today, we are going to focus on one specific case where a theme park company's product has undercut the viability of its parks' themed environments. In case you haven't guessed already — we're talking about Disney's MagicBands.

Using a MagicBand
Using a MagicBand. Photo courtesy Disney

A MagicBand isn't part of any character universe. In a themed environment, it's a foreign object, as are the ubiquitous "Mickey head" stanchions now found outside every Walt Disney World attraction. Tapping a MagicBand actively takes you out of any thematic role within a themed environment and returns you to the role of theme park guest.

Your MagicBand reminds you that you're at Walt Disney World, and not a pirate in a Caribbean fortress or a royal subject in fairytale kingdom. In doing this, the MagicBand effectively substitutes individual themes within the Disney World theme parks for the meta theme of Walt Disney World itself.

The MagicBand, part of Disney's billion-dollar-plus "NextGen" initiative, is the culmination of Disney's promotional efforts to make itself the focus of your vacation experience, rather than any of various characters or franchises found within the Disney parks. You visit Universal to spend time with Harry Potter, the Minions, Spider-Man, Transformers or inside Jurassic Park. You visit Disney World to visit Disney. Your MagicBand is an ever-present reminder of that. It's the difference between "Live the Adventure" and "Show Your Disney Side."

The question facing Disney now is... does that matter? Will theme park fans in the years to come accept the role of being a Disney World visitor over other potential roles that they could play (to whatever level) in a park where the theme takes precedence over the brand, and not the other way around? Or are fans okay with playing two roles at once — as a Disney visitor as well as whatever role they might accept in a specific environment within Disney World?

The pushback that many fans have shown Disney, in person and online, suggests that some fans aren't happy with more than just the logistical snafus surrounding the roll-out of MagicBands and Disney's MyMagic+ reservation system. For some of these fans, the intrusion of MagicBands with Disney's theme environments weakens the magic and takes them out of the roles that they've paid to play. But are those fans the exception... or the rule?

What do you think?

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Baron 1898 Opens at Efteling

By Robert Niles
Published: June 30, 2015 at 9:11 AM
The world's newest Bolliger & Mabillard Dive Coaster, Baron 1898 debuted this morning at Efteling in The Netherlands.

First riders on Baron 1898

Efteling is well known for its superbly themed attractions, and the park has given Baron 1898 what might be the most extensive theming ever on a B&M coaster, with detailed, period-accurate decoration and an in-queue animatronic host.

You can watch a replay of Efteling's livestream of this morning's opening ceremony (in Dutch), which includes views of the building and animatronic as well as POV and reserve POV of the first ride:

And here is the park's official on-ride POV video for Baron 1898:

Rate and Review:

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DisneyQuest to Close at Walt Disney World

By Robert Niles
Published: June 30, 2015 at 8:03 AM
Another day, another attraction closing at the Walt Disney World Resort.

One day after confirming the closure of the Magic of Disney Animation pavilion at Disney's Hollywood Studios, Disney World today confirmed that DisneyQuest in Downtown Disney's West Side will close by next year.


The last of a planned chain of Disney-themed interactive virtual reality arcades, Orlando's DisneyQuest will close to make way for the previously announced NBA Experience restaurant and attraction that will open in the refurbished and rebranded Disney Springs shopping and dining area at the resort. The NBA City restaurant at Universal Orlando's CityWalk will close in August.

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Disney's Hollywood Studios
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