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What Was Your First Time...

By Robert Niles
Published: July 29, 2015 at 10:54 AM
...On an upside down roller coaster?

Busch Gardens Williamsburg just uploaded an official POV video for its oldest coaster, the Arrow double interlocking-loop classic, Loch Ness Monster.

This coaster stands 130 feet over the park's Grove Creek... as well as very close to my heart. Nessie was the first roller coaster that convinced me to trust my life to the laws of physics. I was visiting Busch Gardens - The Old Country, as the park was known then, with my Boy Scout troop, so I had no parents or little sister there to comfort me had I decided to continue my tradition of only riding coasters where my head stayed about my feet at all times. No, my only companions were a few dozen other teen and pre-teen boys, who wouldn't hesitate to tease any fellow scout who showed the slightest fear of anything.

Loch Ness Monster

Taking a look at Nessie's unique design, I figured that since the loops were over water, should laws of physics fail me, I'd simply drop into the water, where I had a much better chance of surviving than if I'd plopped down onto hard concrete. So I climbed aboard... and enjoyed the best ride of my life. (Cue Homer Simpson: "So far.")

After my ride, I didn't hesitate as I bolted through the exit and ran back around to the entrance for another go.

I didn't visit the park again until a few years ago, when I brought my family to Busch Gardens Williamsburg on one of our cross-country summer roadtrips. And on that day, the Loch Ness Monster became the first upside-down roller coaster that my daughter ever rode, too.

When we finished, she didn't hesitate in grabbing my hand and pulling me toward the entrance to ride again.

What was the first upside-down coaster you ever rode, and what convinced you to put aside any fears and ride?

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Is This America's Last Middle Class Theme Park?

By Robert Niles
Published: July 28, 2015 at 11:25 AM
With ticket prices rising up to and even over the $100 a day mark for the nation's most popular theme parks, middle class families might be wondering if they can how much longer they will be able to afford to visit theme parks.

At first glance, the choice seems stark: Find some sort of package that makes a visit to one of the Disney or Universal resorts an affordable deal, or settle for a shorter trip to a regional amusement park. While going for a less popular park isn't a bad deal for roller coaster fans — heck, most coaster fans would prefer a visit to a great iron park over going to Disney or Universal — families who prefer themed rides to thrill rides probably won't think much of that option.

Where is the middle option for the middle class — a park offering Disney-style dark rides and first-class shows at regional amusement park prices?

Inside Knott's Calico Mine Ride

Fortunately, theme park fans in Southern California are getting that option, as Knott's Berry Farm changes course from the traditional regional park strategy of putting up more coasters and carnival rides in favor of embracing the dark rides and shows that once made it Disney's greatest theme park rival. (Even the Busch Gardens parks seems to be moving more and more to a Six Flags-style model.)

I write about Knott's Berry Farm's appeal to middle class visitors in my Orange County Register column this week. I hope that you'll give it read.

How are you finding value for your money in theme park visits?

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Disney Extends Hours at Epcot's Garden Grill

By Robert Niles
Published: July 28, 2015 at 8:27 AM
Disney World visitors soon will be able to enjoy breakfast and lunch at the popular Garden Grill restaurant in Epcot's Land pavilion.

Garden Grill

Starting today, Disney is taking reservations for all three meals at the Garden Grill, with the breakfast and lunch seatings beginning November 8. Reservations will be available via +1-407-WDW-DINE or Disney's website. From today's press release:

The new Chip ‘n’ Dale’s Breakfast Harvest Feast will have all the fixin’s served in an all-you-care-to-enjoy family style. What’s on the menu? Look for breakfast favorites like biscuits and gravy, scrambled eggs, crispy bacon, Mickey waffles, and their signature item, Chip’s Sticky Bun Bake.

At lunch, look for your all-you-care-to-enjoy favorites from the dinner menu, like “Living with the Land” Harvest-inspired Farmer’s Salad (which utilizes greens from the attraction), char-grilled sliced filet of beef, roasted all-natural sliced turkey breast with freshly-harvested vegetables and scrumptious side dishes.

The change at the Garden Grill represents Disney World's latest move to extend dining hours at more of its popular restaurants. When you think about it, the move is consistent with the recent MyMagic+-inspired changes at the resort. If Disney's original Fastpass was about moving guests out of the queues, Fastpass+ was about moving them back in. Disney recognized that it had significant unused capacity at its Florida parks, and devised MyMagic+ in part as a way to better distribute guests throughout the park, leading them to book reservations at a wider range of attractions and restaurants, while limiting the number of daily reservations in attempt to move "power users" of the old Fastpass system into more standby queues.

Disney defeats this purpose, however, if it leaves dining rooms empty while it tries to fill attraction queues. That's why Be Our Guest has gone to three-meal operation and now Garden Grill has followed. Eventually, one should expect more popular Walt Disney World restaurants to do the same.

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How to Pick the Right Orlando Theme Park for Your Family Vacation

By Paul Danner
Published: July 27, 2015 at 10:32 AM
Kids love going to theme parks. Theme parks love having your kids. (And your money. They really like that too.) It’s a match made in Heaven.

Until it isn’t. Nothing will bring a family vacation to screeching halt faster than Wally World being closed for repairs. Also, if your kids are bored. That’s bad too.

Wait. Kids bored at a theme park? Is that even possible? It can be if you pick the wrong park.

Maybe there’s not much your little Minions can ride in the park due to those two ugly words invented by typically mean tall people: Height Restrictions. Just kidding, not all tall people invent things. Or maybe you’re in a park and your cool teens or preteens feel there’s nothing worth taking their attention away from their beloved smartphone or tablet. If you asked, they’d tell you the park wasn’t cool and possibly neither are you, except that they can’t actually hear you over their Beats Headphones.

With the average ticket price at the major theme parks running more than $100 a head per day, it’s kind of important to go to the right one. Your kids will thank you. And so will your financial advisor. This article will help get you matched up with some good selections based on three specific criteria: your kids’ age, height, and ride quotient.

Ride quotient (or RQ) is an extremely scientific concept — like Avogadro’s number or a flux capacitor — which I researched for a good five minutes or so before I gave up and just created the terminology for this article. There are two opposite ends of the RQ spectrum:

1. Crash Test Dummy: Like the past tenants of Test Track 1.0, your kid wants to ride everything, including minor hurricanes (welcome to Florida!), and will cry if he/she is not tall enough. Some kids might even be more daring than their parents, and if that were the case with me and my 8-year old son (which it’s totally not), I would tell my son, “Sorry, bud, that ride is closed for refurbishment.” You’re welcome.

2. Big Chicken: Your kid will not ride the Disney buses and is fairly concerned that the Carousel of Progress might spin too fast.

See? Much easier than math. That said, your kids can flip-flop faster than Jimmy Buffett from one side to the other or fall somewhere in between.

For example, on our last trip to Universal, my daughter, who might as well be Grade A Certified Chicken, actually willingly rode Jurassic Park River Adventure. So want happened? Of course she freaking loved it and wanted to ride it again!

Jurassic Park on-ride photo

Although from the look on my son’s face (who is usually the Crash Test Dummy) this first family ride on JP has either left him terrified or possibly constipated. Or both.

I’m going to deal primarily with the big two in Florida, aka the theme park capital of the world. Why? Because Florida has the best theme parks. Also oranges. Sorry, California. Together, Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando cover six separate gates. So let’s explore which one(s) may be best for you and your kids…

WALT DISNEY WORLD RESORT

Walt Disney World is huge. Four separate gates = four choices. Even within the House of Mouse, no two theme parks are the same. So without further delay, in order of appearance:

The Magic Kingdom

Soon to be re-named the Frozen Kingdom. Just kidding, that’s actually going to be Epcot. So synonymous with WDW that when most people say “they’re going to Disney World,” this is what they actually mean.

AGE: 0-12. Yes, I know, everyone of all ages loves the Magic Kingdom. I read the brochure. In reality, when kids hit the tween/preteen/teen barrier a lot of things change.

Speaking from experience, my wife and I got the unexpected gut-punch on our last Disney trip when our soon-to-be 12 year old daughter said she was “kinda bored” with Disney as it was “kinda baby-ish.”

Well we did what any other self-respecting Disney-loving parents would do. We immediately disowned her and gave her adequate bus fare home. Just kidding, we would never do that. Uber is a much more convenient option than public transportation.

Seriously though, my wife and I, who have each been to Disney more than 100 times and have never before had a child become a tween, were stunned at this news. However, after asking around we have found many of our friends have experienced something similar.

HEIGHT: You know this place is good for the little ones because out of the 30+ attractions, rides, and shows, a mere seven have Height Restrictions. This is really good news for parents of young kids. Especially my wife, who can barely see over Dopey’s hat.

Barnstormer – 35”
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad – 40”
Seven Dwarfs Mine Train – 38”
Space Mountain – 44”
Splash Mountain – 40”
Tomorrowland Speedway - 32”
Stitch’s Great Escape – 40”

For the most part, these are all great rides. But the only thing more fun than riding Stitch’s Great Escape is pretty much anything else, including having a tooth pulled and waiting in line for the woman’s restroom (only if you are a woman.)

RQ (RIDE QUOTIENT): This park is geared toward Chickens, with very few Crash Test Dummy Rides. In fact, the only ones I would label for CTD would be Space Mountain and Splash Mountain. And possibly Big Thunder and the Mine Train.

Epcot

It’s been debated often enough that I won’t rehash it here, but ladies and gentlemen…. Epcot has changed. (But I will say I miss Horizons.)

AGE: 8 and up. I feel that Epcot skews toward an older crowd. Other than the characters and princesses shoe-horned into the park (and maybe Figment) there’s not a lot here to appeal to the real little ones. At least until the Country Previously Known as Norway re-opens its new ride and the country of Arendelle joins the World Showcase. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

Plus no matter when you visit Epcot lately, there always seems to be some sort of Festival being hosted here that is geared toward the celebration of Food and Flowers and Gardens. And by celebration I mean obnoxiously drunk adults walking around the world with large quantities of beer and wine.

For a more kid-friendly beverage selection, the kiddies love the Club Cool exhibit and the Coca-Cola samples from around the world.

HEIGHT: There aren’t a lot of rides here to begin with and unfortunately the two best ones (I’m not looking at you, Mission: Space) have height restrictions.

Mission: SPACE – 44”
Soarin’ – 40”
Test Track 2.0 – 40”

RQ (RIDE QUOTIENT): Other than obvious CTD Mission: Spew, Epcot is a veritable Chicken coop as well. The only other CTD would be Test Track 2.0, which gets fast but not particularly furious (rim shot!), and Soarin’ is a calmer ride than the Florida Turnpike.

Disney's Hollywood Studios

Hey! Isn’t this park closed? No? Oh. Just most of it.

When you see that sign on I-4 that says “Hollywood Studios - Left,” yeah, they’re not kidding.

In all seriousness, unless you buy a multi-day park hopper, I would skip DHS until they figure out exactly what this park is going to become. And they add some important new features, like you know, some actual rides.

AGE: 4 – 18. DHS is currently a mixed bag. In my opinion it appeals to a little older crowd now due to the big thrill rides, but there is still something for the smaller ones with Playhouse Disney, the Muppets, Voyage of the Little Mermaid, and of course that little ride known as Toy Story Midway Mania. With the exception of Toy Story, any of those other rides could be closed down while you’re on the way to the park.

HEIGHT: I count like eight rides/experiences still here total, and three have height restrictions:

Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster – 48”
Star Tours – 40”
Tower of Terror – 40”

RQ (RIDE QUOTIENT): The only two rides here I feel would appeal to your CTD are Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster and Tower of the Terror.

Disney's Animal Kingdom

According to Disney, Animal Kingdom is “nahtazu.” (Remember those ads? LOL) But it has animals in exhibits for your viewing pleasure. If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck and wears a sailor suit and hat without pants… It might be duck.

And I feel there’s nothing wrong with the zoo element, as it appeals to all ages.

AGE: 2 – 12. I think Animal Kingdom appeals to a younger audience, with the teen set really only having one big thrill ride here – Everest. Unless they love animals.

HEIGHT: Not a lot of restrictions here either, but again that’s because there aren’t a ton of rides either, at least until Avatar opens up to add a couple more.

Dinosaur – 40”
Expedition Everest – 44”
Kali River Rapids – 38”
Primeval Whirl – 48”

RQ (RIDE QUOTIENT): The only ride here I feel would appeal to your CTD is Everest. Although Dinosaur has gotten fairly rough in my opinion, and jounces you around pretty good, almost to the point of being nauseating.

UNIVERSAL ORLANDO RESORT

Overall, I feel that both of the Universal theme parks appeals to older kids and teens (with the obvious exception of the Despicable Me: Minions Mayhem Ride though that does have a height restriction), particularly those that are reading any book that starts with Harry Potter and the….

Universal Studios Florida

AGE: 8 – 18. My kids are turning 9 and 12 and they LOOOVE Universal now. In my daughter’s (12) case, she enjoys it much more than Disney and can’t get enough of the Wizarding World. My son (9) still loves both Disney and Universal.

HEIGHT: Definitely more rides with restrictions than Disney. Luckily, there is no height requirement for Butterbeer!

E.T. Adventure - 34"
Woody Woodpecker's Nuthouse Coaster - 36"
Transformers: The Ride-3D - 40"
The Simpsons Ride - 40"
Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem - 40"
Men in Black: Alien Attack - 42"
Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts - 42"
Revenge of the Mummy - 48"
Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit - 51"

RQ (RIDE QUOTIENT): There are a lot of CTD rides. In fact I’d say that everything on the above list would qualify except Men in Black and ET. And if you have a Muggle Chicken, Gringotts is by far the calmer of the two Harry Potter Rides.

Universal's Islands of Adventure

AGE: 8 – 18.

HEIGHT: By far the most height restrictions of tall he parks we are looking at, with a total of 12! IOA is also the only park with 3 requirements in the 50”+ range.

Flight of the Hippogriff - 36"
The Cat in the Hat - 36"
Pteranodon Flyers -36"
The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man - 40"
Seuss Trolley Train Ride - 40"
Jurassic Park River Adventure - 42"
Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges - 42"
Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls - 44"
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey - 48"
Doctor Doom's Fearfall - 52"
Dragon Challenge - 54"
The Incredible Hulk Coaster - 54"

One cool thing about Universal that we just discovered - at least at the Dragon Challenge - is that despite both our kids barely missing out on the height restriction, they were given these neat scrolls that the cast member then put their names on. So when they are tall enough, they can return and use them like Universal Express on the ride.

Return ride scrolls

RQ (RIDE QUOTIENT): Pretty much all of them are CTD! Exceptions would be Cat in the Hat which has had its spinning elements neutered to the point I wonder why there’s still a restriction at all, The Trolley Train Ride (which is just high up), and Popeye.

On a side note, on our most recent trip I rode Popeye twice (thanks kids!) and I can honestly tell you that I would have been less wet if I had opted to jump into our resort pool fully clothed, during a rainstorm. If you value your valuables, spend the money and put them in a nearby locker.

IN CLOSING: Of course, no matter what anyone says, your family can have a heck of a lot of fun at any theme park, but tailoring your trip to your situation will always improve your odds! And may the odds be ever in your favor…

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DVC FAQ, Part 5: Should You Buy DVC Points New or 'Used'?

By Don Jones
Published: July 26, 2015 at 6:51 PM
One question folks run into a lot when considering a DVC purchase is, "do I buy direct from Disney, or go to the huge resale market where prices are lower?"

In the past, this question had a pretty simple answer: go resale, unless you want your home resort to be one of the newer properties for which only Disney has points.

Nowadays, it's a more complex discussion. Yes, if you want your home resort, and its extra booking window, to be at one of the newer resorts, then the resale market isn't usually an option, and so you'll buy right from Disney. But these days, resale points come with some caveats.

You see, your DVC points can be used to rent more than just rooms at DVC resorts. Disney divides the options into a set of "collections," including the "Concierge Collection," the "Disney Collection," and the "Adventurer Collection." Points bought from someone other than DVC after March 2011, can't be used at any of those collections. Resale points are, primarily, only good at DVC resorts.

Now, whether or not this restriction matters to you depends a bit on what you want from your DVC membership. Many people buy into DVC to go to Walt Disney World and stay in the larger-than-a-hotel-room DVC properties. In that case, go resale - it's cheaper in some cases by 40% or so.

The "Concierge Collection" includes high-end hotels and timeshare properties outside Walt Disney World, and the "Adventurer Collection" includes vacations with Adventures by Disney. If none of that sounds appealing, then not being able to use them isn't a restriction. I'll point out, too, that using your DVC points on those locations doesn't always make good financial sense.

The "Disney Collection" creates the most argument amongst the DVC owners I know. This collection includes the non-DVC hotels at Walt Disney World, Disneyland, as well as the non-US Disneyland parks in Paris, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. I, for example, own contracts at BoardWalk and Old Key West - but I live just four hours from Disneyland. Disneyland's only DVC, at the Grand Californian, is pretty small and hard to book in the window I'm allotted, and so I tend to use my points to stay in normal hotel rooms at Disneyland Hotel or Grand Californian. This happens a lot in years when I can't get to Walt Disney World, giving me a quickie vacation at Disneyland with points I've already paid for. This doesn't mean I'm making a smart financial decision, though.

Disneyland Hotel

The financial value of these collections varies based on what kind of person you are. Take me as an example. Let's say I pay about $2,000 in maintenance fees for my points every year, and that, all told, they'll get me 11 nights at the Disneyland Hotel during the season I want to go. For me, that's a room rate of about $180/night - which isn't bad. I'm not necessarily getting a huge savings, but my goal wasn't all about savings. For me, it's about getting value from my points in years when I'm not using them to go to Walt Disney World, so "spending my maintenance fee" at Disneyland in a more-or-less break-even fashion works out.

Of course, I'm not factoring in the initial purchase cost of my points - but I'm OK with that. I'm also not factoring in the "opportunity cost," meaning the money I could get by renting my DVC points to someone else. In most cases, DVC members can make more renting their points than the value they'd get by using the points to book a hotel room. That is, my points would earn me enough to book my Disneyland hotel room in cash, with money left over. The thing is, I'm not going to rent my points. I find it a hassle that I just don't want to deal with, and it's a sketchy practice (technically not permitted by Disney) with which I just don't want to trouble myself.

But that illustrates the different sides of the "resale or direct" argument. With resale, you lose flexibility - that some would argue you don't need, and others would argue is financially nonsensical. Put next to the 30-40% savings resale offers, and that flexibility starts to look less financially attractive. For what it's worth, I bought resale pre-2011, meaning I got the best of both worlds - cheaper points and no restrictions. That said... I've never done anything with my points other than stay at Disneyland or Walt Disney World, so I barely use the flexibility I've got. We bought with the intent of going to Walt Disney World most years, and for the most part we've done so.

What will work for you?

Previously in the DVC FAQ:

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Disney Reveals More D23 Expo Details for Theme Park Fans

By Robert Niles
Published: July 24, 2015 at 3:10 PM
Disney today released additional information detailing some of the offerings for theme park fans at its D23 Expo next month.

Walt Disney Parks and Resorts will have a pavilion on the show floor as well as hosting several sessions during the three-day event in Anaheim, California. The 12,500-square-foot pavilion will feature artists' illustrations, maquettes, and video clips detailing the process of designing and building the upcoming Shanghai Disneyland park. Disney also will feature models, images, and exhibits detailing the new Avatar land at Disney's Animal Kingdom, also now under construction.

Shanghai Disneyland concept art

Session highlights include a Friday afternoon panel discussion on 60 years of Disneyland, which will include as-yet-unnamed Disney Imagineers and Disney Legends. Leslie Iwerks, granddaughter of Mickey Mouse co-creator Ub Iwerks, will lead the discussion. Before that session, Disney will celebrate 60 years of the Jungle Cruise by inviting several former skipper back to talk about the attraction and share stories.

Disneyland's Jungle Cruise

A Sunday morning panel will present Disney Kingdoms, the joint collaboration between Marvel Comics and Walt Disney Imagineering that has created comics based on Thunder Mountain and Figment. Additional panels will cover theme park merchandise, as well as Disney vacations beyond the parks, including Adventures by Disney, Disney Cruise Line and the Disney Vacation Club.

As of now, though, there are no details available for big Disney Parks and Resorts presentation that scheduled for the arena on Saturday afternoon, August 15.

The 2015 D23 Expo runs August 14-16 at the Anaheim Convention Center, just south of the Disneyland Resort. Tickets are available on the D23 Expo website.

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Orlando Theme Park Construction Update: Wet 'n Wild Hotels, Star Wars Land

By Robert Niles
Published: July 23, 2015 at 3:38 PM
We've gotten a couple of tips on big construction projects coming to the Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando resorts that we are ready to share with you.

First, at Universal Orlando — We are hearing that Universal has decided to proceed with plans to build two hotel towers on the Wet 'n Wild property, which will become available after the world's first water park closes forever after next summer. With the water park and its parking lot across the street taking up about 51 acres, the parcels are far too small to host a third gate for the Universal Orlando Resort. It'd be a tight fit to provide a home for the sprawling types of hotels that Universal Orlando has built on its core property, too. (Take a look at Google Maps and see how much space the Cabana Bay Beach Resort takes, for an example.)

Wet 'n Wild

But two high-rise hotel towers would fit perfectly on the parcels, with room for some nice landscaping buffer around the property, too. Universal management has expressed its desire to have 10,000-15,000 hotel rooms on its property. The addition of the Sapphire Falls Resort next summer will bring the resort up to 5,000 rooms, so Universal has quite a way to go to reach its goal. With land filling quickly at the resort, there's just one way left to go — up — so hotels towers appear to be the solution.

As for replacing Wet 'n Wild, Universal Orlando has announced plans for the new Volcano Bay water park, to be build on land south of the Cabana Bay hotel and scheduled for a 2017 opening.

Next, down the road at the Walt Disney World Resort — We have heard the big news from multiple sources that Disney has selected a contractor to build its planned Star Wars Land, and that the announcement of the new land will be coming very soon. The obvious time and place for the announcement would be the Disney Parks presentation at the D23 Expo in Anaheim on August 15, but Disney has yet to announce any announcement during the Expo for new attractions at its parks.

Star Wars

Still, when a theme park gets to the point of hiring outside construction help, that means that the project is a go and shovels are ready to hit the ground. Fans should expect visible construction work to begin on Star Wars Land in the park not long after the official announcement, unlike with the Avatar project, where designs weren't completed and a contractor wasn't hired for a few years after Disney's initial announcement of the land. (Or, FWIW, any of Universal's projects, where the attractions are darn near well completed before Universal bothers to make a formal announcement.)

As for Star Wars Land at the Disneyland Resort, most of what we are hearing from insiders suggests that project will run slightly behind the Walt Disney World version, so we are expecting an opening date at Disneyland at least a year or more behind Walt Disney World's, though we are not convinced that is a set deal at this point.

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