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The 10 most unique attractions at Walt Disney World and Disneyland

By Robert Niles
Published: July 22, 2016 at 3:53 PM
You can find roller coasters, drop and flume rides, and carnival spinners at pretty much any theme or amusement park you visit. But Disney's theme parks have distinguished themselves — and surged to lead the industry in attendance — by mixing in unique experiences, as well.

Let's take a look at some of the most "distinctly Disney" attractions offered at its theme parks in the United States. Whether they offer unique ride systems, cutting-edge technology, or different ways of storytelling, these theme park attractions include some unique element within the industry that helps make Disney "Disney."

Frozen Live at the Hyperion

Frozen Live at the Hyperion
Disney California Adventure

Lots of other theme parks do live shows. Heck, getting a summer job in a theme park musical review was a rite of passage for many of my high school show choir classmates back in the Midwest. (Uh... I guess I just admitted I was a show choir geek.) But no one does theme park musicals like Disney. Dollywood comes closest, but even Dolly Parton's theme park can't match the in-theater technology employed in "Frozen," which won our Theme Park Insider Award this year for Best New Show.

Luigi's Rollickin' Roadsters

Luigi's Rollickin' Roadsters
Disney California Adventure

A unique trackless ride system distinguishes Luigi's — a fun little experience where you can ride in dancing Italian roadster, in the style of Pixar's Cars. Disney has employed its next-generation trackless ride system to even more impressive effect in several other attractions outside the United States, led by Hong Kong Disneyland's Mystic Manor.

Radiator Springs Racers

Radiator Springs Racers
Disney California Adventure

Radiator Springs Racers employs the same Disney ride system used on Epcot's Test Track and Tokyo DisneySea's Journey to the Center of the Earth, while showing off the company's strength in animatronic storytelling. The next-generation face-projection animatronics used here paved the way for the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and Frozen Ever After at the Walt Disney World Resort.

Monsters Inc Laugh Floor

Monsters Inc Laugh Floor
Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

Disney demonstrates the power of interactive animation with this Tomorrowland show, where on-screen animated characters tell jokes submitted by the audience and riff off audience members. You can find similar tech employed in Disney's Turtle Talk with Crush and Stitch Encounter attractions, as well as at the end of Monsters Inc ride at Disney California Adventure.

Animation Academy

Animation Academy
Disney California Adventure

Disney was founded on animation. There's no fancy technology here — no animatronics, no ride system, no special effects. It's just a classroom, where a Disney cast member takes you through the steps of drawing one of a seemingly endless supply of Disney characters. But Animation Academy's simplicity is its strength, allowing the visitors to feel the power of animation flow from their own hand. Who knew that a classroom could become an engaging theme park attraction?

The Great Movie Ride

The Great Movie Ride
Disney's Hollywood Studios

Lots of theme parks have dark rides. But no one else puts entire theaters of people through dark rides like Disney. Like Ellen's Energy Adventure, The Great Movie Ride draws upon the energy that being in a crowd provides to help make its dark ride experience even more engaging. If there's a knock here, it's that Disney relies so heavily upon the catalogue of former partner MGM and other film studios rather than revamping the attraction with Disney's own films. But even if we're watching recreations of scenes from The Wizard of Oz and Alien, we're doing it in a way that Disney does best.

The American Adventure

The American Adventure
Epcot

Disney pioneered the animatronic show, but it just goes ahead and drops the mic with The American Adventure. Somehow, the show manages to recap 400 years of American history — including the ugliness of slavery, the Civil War, and the genocide of Native Americans — in half an hour that entertains as it informs. And Robert Moline and Randy Bright's "Golden Dream" might be one of the most goose-bump-inducing songs ever written for a theme park. This is a master class in narrative storytelling — employing film, animation, stagecraft, and music with advanced animatronic management to create a complete attraction experience.

Pirates of the Caribbean

Pirates of the Caribbean
Disneyland, Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

Forget the old amusement park "tunnel of love." Disney reinvented what a dark ride could be with 1967's Pirates of the Caribbean, which built upon the technology used for 1964's It's a Small World to transport guests into a seaport battle between villagers and marauding pirates. Few non-Disney theme parks still operate water dark rides on the scale of Pirates (Efteling's Fata Morgana and Universal Studios Singapore's Madagascar ride being the most notable exceptions), but Pirates' true uniqueness lies in launching a billion-dollar-plus film franchise, reversing the typical lifecycle of films inspiring theme park rides.

Enchanted Tiki Room

Enchanted Tiki Room
Disneyland, Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

Disney's first Audio Animatronic show spawned imitators throughout the industry, but the original retains its uniqueness for the novelty of its installation. Here, you're not watching a show play on some distant stage — it's happening all around you. The walls, windows and center fountain all come to life, as birds sing above. The Enchanted Tiki Room defines what an immersive environment can be, creating a unique experience within the industry.

Tom Sawyer Island

Tom Sawyer Island
Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

Yeah, lots of theme parks have playground. But how many of them are so perfectly incorporated into what looks like a natural environment? And no one makes you ride a free-floating raft to and from the playground, either. Tom Sawyer Island was the theme park industry's first truly immersive themed land, set physically apart from the park around it, establishing a precedent for modern developments such as Universal's Diagon Alley. But TSI remains a unique play experience for the young and young at heart.

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News update: No more turkey legs in DHS; new Hyatt near Disneyland

By Robert Niles
Published: July 22, 2016 at 1:28 PM
Toluca Legs Turkey Company at Disney's Hollywood Studios will be closing next month, according to several published reports. The closure will mean that DHS no longer will have any food stands serving turkey legs. Toluca Legs Turkey Company will be replaced by Sunshine Day Cafe, but the menu for that stand has not yet been revealed, according to reports. As part of the changes at the Sunset Ranch Market on Sunset Boulevard, Fairfax Fare will be adding stuffed baked potatoes to its menu, too.

Looking for a place to stay near Disneyland? A new Hyatt House has opened at the corner of Harbor and Katella, within easy walking distance of the parks. The 262-room hotel is designed for extended stays and offers a mix of studios and one-bedroom suites with kitchens. Rates start at around $300 a night. Even if you're not in the market for that kind of room, it might be worth noting that the new building also features a Starbucks, a Walgreens, and a couple of restaurants.

Dollywood announced that it is adding a few extra days to its operating schedule this year, extending the Smoky Mountain Christmas by adding two Tuesdays to the run: Dec. 6 and 13. In addition, Splash Country will stay open an extra week — operating daily until Aug. 21 then for the next two weekends after that.

Finally, word that Houston's mayor is looking for a theme park to replace the long-closed AstroWorld is worrying officials in San Antonio, home to SeaWorld San Antonio and Six Flags Fiesta Texas. San Antonio's about a three-hour drive from Houston, but hey, it's Texas, so that's nothing. The San Antonio parks have been able to extend their market into Houston easily with no other theme parks in the region, but the fear is that a new park in or near Houston could cut into their business. Neither of the San Antonio parks ranked in North American Top 20 in the most recent TEA/AECOM theme park attendance report.

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Harry Potter, 'Walking Dead' boost attendance at Universal Studios Hollywood

By Robert Niles
Published: July 21, 2016 at 11:21 AM
Attendance soared at Universal Studios Hollywood following April's official opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, according to an analysis of online tracking data. And attendance at Universal's original park jumped again after July 4's opening of The Walking Dead Attraction.

Check-in and background tracking data from Foursquare showed that Universal Studios Hollywood's market share nearly doubled year over year from April 2016, when Potter opened, compared with its market share in April 2015. Foursquare's data suggested that the increase was driven mainly by Millennials, which the company says now make up about half of USH's attendance.

Foursquare's USH attendance data
Chart from Foursquare, via Medium.com

Meanwhile, Universal Studios Hollywood has rolled out yet more changes to its annual pass program. The park has added free parking (before 5pm) to its $289 Gold Annual Pass and added Front of Line access to all attractions (not just the Studio Tour) to its $589 Platinum Annual Pass. The park also offers a $119 Season Pass that's good for 132 weekdays and 42 weekend days between now and Feb. 28, 2017. The Gold AP is good for 337 days a year and the Platinum has no black-out dates, just the same as before.

Across the country at Universal Orlando, the resort has lifted remaining summer blockout days for its Power Pass holders.

BTW, is it too much to ask that Universal Parks & Resorts adopt a common term for the days that certain annual passholders can't use their passes to get admission to the parks? Like all the Disney parks, Universal Orlando uses the term "blockout," while Universal Studios Hollywood uses "Black-out." /ocd

Anyway, all this attendance and pricing news fits with our emerging conclusion that variable pricing at the nation's top theme parks is helping to smooth attendance — pushing it lower on what in past years traditionally have been busy days while pushing it higher on what used to be relatively slow days. At the same time, Universal Studios Hollywood has been enjoying an attendance surge across all days, while attendance has remained steady year over year at the Disneyland Resort and the Orlando theme parks overall are having a soft-than-usual summer.

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News update: Efteling's new dark ride, Disney World's new magic bar

By Robert Niles
Published: July 20, 2016 at 12:00 PM
We're not even halfway through this summer, but I hope you'll forgive us for looking ahead toward some of the really neat new attractions that theme parks are working on for next year. Reader @VrLuuk tweeted us this nifty GIF of the upcoming Symbolica dark ride, now under construction at Efteling in the Netherlands.

The GIF shows the current state of construction, blending into an artist's rendering of what the building will look like when it is complete next summer. Symbolica will be Efteling's largest and most expensive dark ride, and it will include the option for riders to choose one of three different interactive routes through its "Palace of Fantasy."

Following the success of its Trader Sam's themed bars at Disneyland and Walt Disney World, Disney's introducing another theme bar — this time at the Disney's Boardwalk Resort at Walt Disney World. AbracadaBar will open "soon," according to the resort. Disney's calling it a secret magician's lounge that's reopened after a 70-year hiatus. Here's the backstory, from Disney:

After a show, prestidigitators would gather to “conjure” up new cocktails, swap magic tips and tricks, and stay up all night attempting to “out-charm” each other with their extraordinary illusions. According to BoardWalk lore, it was on just such an evening that every single magician in the lounge vanished into thin air, and was never seen again...

Gives a new meaning to "blackout drinking," doesn't it? I'll be here all week. Tip your waitress.

Finally, Six Flags has signed a deal with its development partner Riverside Investment Group for a second theme park in China, this time near Chongqing. Six Flags' first theme park in China is now under construction for a planned 2019 opening in Haiyan, near Shanghai.

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Experiencing Cedar Point's Sunrise Thrills VIP Tour

By James Koehl
Published: July 19, 2016 at 12:12 PM
Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio long has prided itself as being arguably the best thrill park in the country, with more than two dozen coasters and thrill rides among its nearly 80 rides and attractions covering 365 acres between Sandusky Bay and Lake Erie. It has decided to offer thrill seekers another way to enjoy these thrills, a way to see them from the "inside," so I thought to myself, "What better way to take my fellow Theme Park Insiders inside the thrills than to take advantage of a new tour being offered by the park this year, the Sunrise Thrills VIP Tour?" My good friend from the Los Angeles area, Douglas Hindley, was coming to Ohio for his first visit to Cedar Point, and we decided that this would be a great way to show a Knott's Berry Farm guy what the "big boy" roller coasters at Cedar Point are really like.

We arrived at the front gate, underneath the soaring curves of Gatekeeper, at 6:30am and were soon joined by about a dozen other coaster fans, a bit bleary-eyed but curious to see what this new tour would offer us. We met our main tour guide Steve, who was assisted by Brandon and Sydney, and about 6:45am we entered the slowly-awakening park. It was interesting to see cars, trucks, and other small vehicles driving around the park, making deliveries and preparing the park for another busy day. We were led to Valravn, Cedar Point's newest coaster, and were immediately taken to an area where the service elevator was located. It was actually a six-person funicular-type inclined tram that ran on a set of rails up to the top of the first lift hill, parallel to the coaster tracks. The elevator could take only four guests at a time, because we were joined on our trip to the top of Valravn by Karrah Folk, Manager of Ride Operations and W Barrett, Ride Operations Supervisor, who actually ran the elevator and was in charge of our safety during this part of the tour.

Valravn funicular

I was impressed at the safety measures taken while we were at the top of Valravn. We all had safety belts on, and we were never outside of the elevator without being carefully attached to a safety cable. The walkway at the top of Valravn, which makes a 90-degree turn to the right at the top of the lift hill, affords spectacular views of Cedar Point and the surrounding lake and bay, and fortunately the weather was as spectacular as the view. We were 234 feet above the Cedar Point midway, and if we had done nothing else on the tour the price would have been worth it. I think it was especially impressive for my friend Douglas — we had walked the park the night before and had ridden several rides, but seeing just how huge Cedar Point is and observing its unique location in Lake Erie must have been a thrill for him.

Strapped in for the ride

View from the top of Cedar Point

We spent about 10 minutes looking, taking pictures, asking Karrah questions (while W kept a close eye on us, to be sure we didn't walk off the edge of the walkway!), but we needed to come down and let some other tour guests see Cedar Point from Valravn's roost. All too soon we had descended the elevator and were turning in our safety gear. While other guests were at the top, we were taken underneath the loading and maintenance buildings of Valravn, where we saw the various types of tires used (depending on temperature), the undercarriage of the trains, the (empty) water dummies sometimes used to test run it, and even the special harnesses that are available to allow riders who are missing limbs to safely ride Valravn.

Once everyone had seen Cedar Point from the top of the coaster, it was our turn to be on the first ride of the day. Actually, they did run it a few times empty, then with some employee test riders, but soon we were taking our seats, getting secured and heading up the lift hill. I'm sure that everyone on that ride looked at the walkway we had just a short time walked on, then saw that we were heading over the edge for a 90-degree drop — or I should say "dive." Valravn is just as good every time you ride it as it was the first time — exciting, smooth, fast, and those seconds as you hang staring straight down are always memorable.

After the ride was over and we left the station, we were taken someplace I didn't expect to be admitted to — the grassy infield inside some of the loops of Valravn. The coaster was now running with early entry guests, and it was soaring all around us. Our main tour guide, Steve, brought us there so that we could see how the supports of Valravn bent and moved as the trains passed by, explaining that they were designed to do that to avoid excess strain on the huge steel columns that supported the coaster track.

We were led across the Midway to, of all places, the employee cafeteria, where we enjoyed a complimentary breakfast buffet. I was pleasantly surprised at the wide selection and really good quality of the food — they even had a chef preparing omelets. Douglas and I sat at a table with our tour guides, and we had a chance to speak with them about working at Cedar Point, and my impression was that they really did enjoy the experience. Steve proudly showed us pictures on his phone of himself in horror makeup for last season's HalloWeekends when he was a Screamster in their walk-through haunt "Blood on the Bayou."

The next stop on our Sunrise Thrills Tour was Top Thrill Dragster, Cedar Point's fastest and tallest roller coaster. We were taken into the infield area at the base of the tower, where the mechanics of the launch were explained to us, and we had plenty of time to get some photos from locations that most visitors never have the opportunity to see. Standing under the 400-foot-tall tower of TTD and taking photos straight up into it was a unique experience.

Unique view of Top Thrill Dragster

Next was Millennium Force, Cedar Point's extremely popular 310-foot giga-coaster. Instead of taking us back onto the public pathways, our guides took us through several "Authorized Personnel Only" gates and we found ourselves walking along the banks of the lagoons that fill the center of the park, across the bridge and through "Dinosaurs Alive," then through another backstage area that soon led us into the heart of Bonesville, the Wild West town inhabited by skeletons that have entertained riders of the Cedar Point and Lake Erie Railroad for generations. We only had a few minutes to see the town up close and to take photos, since we had to be away from the area before the next train came by — it would not be appropriate to see living people in Bonesville!

We emerged from the backstage area directly across from Millennium Force, and soon found ourselves standing directly under the station. We saw trains arriving to be loaded with riders, the launch sled returning from the lift hill and attaching itself to the train, and the loaded trains being pulled by the launch sled out of the station — all directly above us. Leaving the station "basement" (which was at ground level with the loading station above it), we walked along the huge lift hill of Millennium Force, where we saw the huge reel and generators that powered the cable. It was amazing to see — so often we totally ignore how roller coasters work and focus just on the thrills and excitement, but this opened my eyes to just how complex each ride is, how unique in its demands and designs each coaster is.

The power behind The Force

Another excursion through some backstage areas showed us how some of the larger props used for HalloWeekends were stored throughout the year, some in large sheds while others were shrink-wrapped in heavy plastic to protect them from the harsh Lake Erie winters. Speaking of HalloWeekends, this backstage area became a familiar HalloWeekend Fright Zone — except it was a sunny, hot morning. We walked along a paved trail lined with skeletons, bones and other props used for Cedar Point's enormously popular Halloween event — somehow it was not quite as scary in broad daylight without dozens of Screamsters trying to scare us. Actually, there was a lot of screaming going on, because we were approaching our final stop on the Sunrise Thrills VIP Tour, Maverick — one of Cedar Point's most popular and intense roller coasters.

We climbed a spiral staircase to the loading station, actually on the exit side, and climbed aboard Maverick without having to wait the hour-plus wait that is normal for this extremely popular ride. Maverick never disappoints — it is fast, almost unpredictable in its twists and turns, and after riding it Douglas informed me that it became his favorite coaster at Cedar Point.

We exited Maverick through the gift/photo shop, but before we could leave there our guides handed each of us a one-time Fast Lane and Fast Lane Plus coupon and a one-day FunPix photo pass, the unlimited digital picture program new this year at Cedar Point. Two other benefits not mentioned before, Preferred Parking in the closest parking area to the front gate, and a Single Meal Deal voucher/person, were nice extras that we took advantage of.

You're probably wondering about the price for this. The price for a season pass holder was $199 per person, with a minimum of two tickets per ticket purchase, or $249 for the tour and Cedar Point admission. The tour is usually offered three time a week, on different days depending on the week, and they have the usual disclaimers about minimum height, weather conditions, etc., and tickets must be purchased in advance. I asked when I purchased them if there would be a refund if the tour was cancelled due to weather conditions — standing on top of a 200+ foot tall steel coaster during a lightning storm was not my idea of a good way to start the day — and they informed me that they would either reschedule the tour or refund the price if that could not be arranged.

Was it worth it? I would say absolutely, especially if you are either a major coaster buff or a Cedar Point regular who wants to see some areas of the park that you don't normally get to explore. You don't need to understand the mechanics of a coaster to enjoy this experience. The guides didn't give a seminar on how to strip down and rebuild a coaster's launch system — they gave an informative explanation of the general principles, answered questions when asked, and let us explore places and see sights that most people never think about. It is not a tour that would be especially convenient for people with mobility problems due to the fact that much of the backstage areas are not paved and were either gravel, bumpy, a bit muddy or involved a narrow walkway along the lagoons, and we walked the entire length of the park. I would suspect, though (and this is purely speculation) that Cedar Point could make special arrangements for guests with special needs to enjoy much of this tour. The extra benefits added to the tour (breakfast and lunch, Fast Lane tickets, FunPix, no waiting for Valravn and Maverick, etc.) made this tour a great opportunity and well worth the price and early wake-up call.

As far as I know, this is the first time that Cedar Point has offered tours like this on a regular basis to the general public during the regular season, and I was told that they have been very popular, the feedback has been "spectacular" (their description) and that they are planning more tours like this in the future. I commend Jason Cartell, Marketing Representative for Cedar Point and the developer of this tour, for providing this interesting, informative and really fun experience for Cedar Point visitors. If you are a regular visitor to the park, a "first-timer" who wonders what's behind those fences or a Theme Park Insider with an insatiable appetite for more theme park experiences, go to Cedar Point's website and sign up. It will be a morning experience well worth your time.

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News update: Six Flags building two more Justice League rides

By Robert Niles
Published: July 18, 2016 at 7:16 PM
Reader Kenny Cook passes along copies of public documents from Atlanta and New Jersey that show Six Flags has filed permits to build Justice League Battle for Metropolis rides to open next year at Six Flags Over Georgia and Six Flags Great Adventure, respectively. Six Flags first opened the Theme Park Insider Award-winning ride at its Texas and St. Louis parks in 2015, followed by Mexico and Chicago this year. If the chain keeps with two installations a year, that means our local Six Flags park, Magic Mountain (the chain's most attended park), won't be up for getting Justice League until 2018 at the earliest. (Sigh....) But it's good news for dark ride fans in Georgia and New Jersey!

The Kennedy Space Center, located about an hour east of the Orlando theme parks in Cape Canaveral, is building a new attraction for its visitors center. Heroes and Legends will open this November and tell the stories of America's astronauts. (Falcon's Treehouse is leading the design of the project.) The attraction also will be the home of the new U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame. The KSC recently announced that the attraction will be getting the center's first corporate sponsor, The Boeing Company. Corporate attraction sponsors are nothing new in the theme park industry, but it's something different for government-affiliated facilities. While the space center itself is under government control, the KSC Visitor Center is operated by Delaware North, a global hospitality management company. In addition to the hall of fame, the new attraction will include a 3D theater, augmented reality, and simulated holograms.

Finally, Walt Disney World's confirmed another restaurant signing on to open in Disney Springs. The Polite Pig will be a sister restaurant to Winter Park's The Ravenous Pig, serving smoked and grilled meats. The restaurant is scheduled to open next spring.

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A SoCal guy discovers the thrill parks of Ohio

By Douglas Hindley
Published: July 18, 2016 at 3:49 PM
Last February, I hosted TPI's legendary James Koehl on his first visit to my ancestral homeland of Southern California. This was James' first introduction to our quaint regional theme park known as Disneyland. Well, turnaround is fair game, and James invited me to join him in Ohio for the Fourth of July. On the menu were his realm's famed parks, Kings Island and Cedar Point. Thanks to them, Ohio might well be the roller coaster capital of the world, in both quantity and quality. But how might I respond, as a Disney dork weaned almost exclusively on theming? Would Ohio's metal monstrosities speak to me, a dilettante to thrills, or would they terrify me in a way even "small world" never has?

A SoCal guy discovers the thrill parks of Ohio

First, a shameful admission: In my adult life, my only theme park exposure has been in Southern California. (Walt Disney World once as a child doesn't count.) So I know Six Flags Magic Mountain. But Cedar Point in particular boasts a sterling reputation as the thrill park, the best of its kind worldwide. So with an open mind, and a preternaturally queasy stomach, I set out to experience a type of park well outside of my comfort zone.

We began with Kings Island, sort of a transition between SoCal's Wizarding Worlds and Ohio's Top Thrills. Kings Island has themes. Before its purchase by Cedar Fair, it was a Paramount Parks joint, with "movie-themed" bare-naked roller coasters. Kings Island offers place-making from the entry onward, done at a respectable regional level. International Street is flanked by semi-European storefronts, and dominated by a third-scale Eiffel Tower as the park's icon.

Moving through the park, there are coasters where you pretend to be in an alien UFO, in an undiscovered jungle, or on an LA freeway (made me homesick). Coaster queues offer decaying Irish tombstones and faux-vintage period architecture. But always the overriding sense is that these are roller coasters. Painted steel pylons loom hundreds of feet overhead, and there just isn't any point in immersion when you're hurtling straight down at 70 mph. So for all the scattered thematic décor here and there, it's really the coasters which make the largest impression. Rides such as Diamondback, Banshee, and the immortal Beast impress you with how enjoyable they are simply to ride — smooth movements, overwhelming physical sensations, and a lovely setting to top it all off.

But all this was but an appetizer for Cedar Point. Founded in 1492 as a relaxing getaway resort by early European explorers, Cedar Point is massive, it is vibrant, it is alive. (Okay, it was actually founded in 1870 as a bathing beach.) James was very careful when introducing me to his favorite childhood haunt. Driving from Sandusky out onto a causeway on Lake Erie, you are struck at once by a mile-long beachfront covered by more thrill rides than one can mortally comprehend. Even having conquered (most) of the "big boy rides" at Kings Island (sorry, Invertigo), Cedar Point is intimidating. And it should be. It has 71 rides, the most of any park worldwide, and its 17 roller coasters are second only to Magic Mountain. Oh, and it's over 365 acres large!

Cedar Point really grabs you upon entry. You walk directly under the Gatekeeper wing coaster. Before you is a bustling midway with coasters, spinners, flat rides, skyways, wheels and ravenous seagulls all at once. People talk about kinetics; now this is kinetics! And while my mention of a carnival midway has surely caused many a Disney and Universal fan to just now vomit involuntarily, there's a reason the midway remains to this day a fan favorite setting. It's fun! It's also undeniably not Disneyland, and must be judged by unique criteria. So some truths:

Cedar Point is an amusement park.

It is maybe the best darn amusement park in the world.

Cedar Point is gorgeous!

Cedar Point

Yeah, it ain't "themed," per se. There are smatterings of theme: Frontier Town and Frontier Trail provide that Old West area legally mandated by Congress. Gatekeeper, Raptor and Valravn are all based on birds, perhaps those bloodthirsty seagulls which rule the midway with an iron talon. Millennium Force is themed to...the millennium? I saw a T-Rex while riding it (in Dinosaurs Alive), and yelled crazily mid-ride about the storyline, but James assures me I'm delusional.

So, okay, there's not much theme. But it's pretty! Simply being in Cedar Point is so pleasant already, you don't have to pretend you're in some distant, fantastical paradise. You're already in paradise, on Lake Erie! The best coasters are naturally beautiful like a perfectly-engineered suspension bridge. They are sculptures, works of art, sited carefully, colored brightly, and set in a lovely natural Ohio wilderness. Plus they're a true pleasure to ride. Once my trip was complete, I'd ridden something like 30 roller coasters, many of them multiple times.

I was truly impressed by much of the operations at Cedar Point and Kings Island. The ride operators at both parks are truly at the top of their game. They're professional, they load you properly and efficiently, but they're still engaging and playful. There's an inclusiveness to the "cast members" which one doesn't get with Disney's formality. Ride ops speak directly to guests as equals, and I loved it.

With our unique backstage Sunrise Thrills VIP Tour [James is posting an article about that tomorrow. UPDATE: Here it is], I got to see just how staggeringly complex these modern coasters truly are. It's one thing to ride a lift hill. It's another to see the series of interlocking failsafe systems connecting all aspects of a ride's operation. This complexity, especially on a modern marvel like Top Thrill Dragster, is hidden from guests (unlike a high-fallutin' new animatronic), but it's no less astounding. And to think of the winter maintenance needed to keep these rides safe, comfortable, and thrilling! Wow!

It isn't all great, sadly. Food options inside the parks rise to the level of acceptable, but only barely. (Food outside of the parks was consistently better, and often delicious.) Good to not lose one's foie gras on the gigacoaster, but something beyond fried fare fare would feel fair. And unlike the astounding ride ops, concession workers seemed confused by the very idea of food service. This is in stark contrast to Cedar Fair's Knott's, where food service is king, and the ride operators are the (comparative) slackers.

And while Cedar Point cannot be beat for thrills, it does lack ride variety. Oh, I enjoyed plenty of relaxing, non-thrill attractions. Cedar Downs is awesome. Cadillac Cars is better than Autopia. Bonesville and its incompetent skeletons are so close to my own dreams, it's scary. Camp Snoopy and Planet Snoopy are...also there. These are all good, but Ohio needs more things like them! They add variety, and they appeal to the non-thrill addicts.

Yeah, if you don't like coasters, Cedar Point and Kings Island would probably be decent. Okay one-time things. To a coaster nut, these places are Mecca. By Cedar Fair's self-selected criteria, Cedar Point is exceptional. Just as one doesn't ask an action movie for musical numbers, one would be a fool of the highest caliber to enter Cedar Point expecting Pirates of the Caribbean. (Likewise, Big Thunder sure is no Maverick.) If you're the type who's interested in being launched at 120 mph up 400 feet into the air, Cedar Point is the top thrill.

But I arrived at these parks a coaster amateur, a lover of theming, a wimp. How did I manage? Oh, I did fine! But I realize this is unique for every visitor. There were certain coasters I refused to do, and they aren't the ones you'd expect. Ridiculous terrifying heights barely faze me, but strange little spinning, reversing nightmares like Wicked Twister would absolutely make me lose my perch sandwich. (Knott's Montezuma's Revenge similarly gives my gut Montezuma's revenge.) My host refused to do Kings Island's Firehawk, a flying horror, because it causes him to black out and die. To me, it was the most relaxing coaster of the trip, and I fully expected a massage to follow. We all react differently to physical stimuli. Some addicts forever chase that G-force adrenaline rush. Others – like me, really – find Valravn a nice coaster to visit, but I wouldn't want to live on it.

About that new Valravn? It's good...no, it's great. One of the top five or so coasters of my trip, though I haven't considered them systematically. My absolute fave, hands down, would be Maverick – not the tallest, nor the fastest, nor the anything-elsest, but a wild and smooth and unpredictable burst of brilliance I cannot really explain. Second would be The Beast, Kings Island's mythic woodie. More than any other ride, this one really improves at night, plus you get a full meal of fireflies. Other standouts include Millennium Force, Top Thrill Dragster, and Banshee (> Raptor). A few rides, like Mean Streak, are grim torture devices, but they're the exception.

But the point is not to pre-judge a terrifying roller coaster! If you can handle Big Thunder at Disneyland, you can certainly handle the Cedar Point Mine Ride, and from there move up to Iron Dragon, then Gemini, and onwards as your body allows (with appropriate pauses in between), and soon you'll be so spoiled you'll never want to do the Knott's Berry Farm coasters again.

I've heard Cedar Point compared by others to Disneyland itself, and favorably. These two parks, they say, are the only real two-day parks in the United States. I'm ignorant still, but I'm inclined to believe this. Both are fun, beloved, historical, and jam-packed with exciting stuff. Beyond that, there's no comparison. The world of theme parks, or amusement parks, whatever, it is so much more varied than any single park type. Ludicrous coasters and immersive dark rides both serve their purpose, and the world is richer for them both. As park guests, we do ourselves a personal favor to experience as much of this variety as possible. Not only do you gain an appreciation for parks you otherwise wouldn't know, you'll also see your regional favorites with new eyes.

I am exceedingly grateful to my host James Koehl and his family for letting me into their home, for showing me around, for putting up with my pleading cries of "Save me, Walt!" on the coasters. Thanks also to James Rao and his family, who I didn't even get to mention, but they were there too, showing me up. I had an absolute blast, one I am eager to repeat.

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