January 2006Subscribe: in a reader or via e-mail
By Robert NilesI know that there are a great many Aardman fans on the site, so allow me to step away from the theme park news for a moment to note that "Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" is one step closer to fulfilling my prediction of an Academy Award. The stop-motion animated film was named one of three nominees for this year's best animated feature Oscar this morning.
Published: January 31, 2006 at 3:27 PM
Kudos, too, to the Academy for honoring "Tim Burton's Corpse Bride" and Hayao Miyazaki's "Howl's Moving Castle." Yep, that means no nod for Disney's "Chicken Little." W&G and the Burton flick were shoe-ins, but it is heartening to see the Academy pick quality over box office in giving the third nod to "Howl's." Surely, this selection should please new Disney animation guru John Lasseter, who's long been known as Miyazaki's biggest booster in the States.
One more thing worth noting: For this first time, there are no exclusively computer-animated films among the best animated feature nominees.
By Robert NilesTPI's Joe Lane has posted his review of the new Expedition Everest roller coaster at Disney's Animal Kingdom.
Published: January 30, 2006 at 9:42 PM
"Everest's ride is smooth--probably too smooth for avid coaster riders, but the thrill level should be acceptable for all ages....
After so many dupes of existing Disney attractions from other theme parks, it is refreshing to see Walt Disney Imagineering debuting an original work once again. The sharp detail and family-friendliness of the ride combine the latest effort from Disney an apparent winner.
By Robert NilesWho had January 27 in the pool?
Published: January 27, 2006 at 11:02 PM
In a move that should surprise no one who does not count "Boomer Sooner" among his favorite songs, Dan Snyder's Six Flags today announced that it was pulling its headquarters out of Oklahoma City. The company's new brass, including CEO Mark Shapiro, will continue to call New York home. To add to the snub, Six Flags also announced that it will close its Oklahoma theme and water parks, Frontier City and White Water Bay. (Six Flags late last year closed Six Flags Astroworld in Houston.)
The company's press release said:
"These moves mark further efforts in the company's strategy to streamline operations and focus on major market parks which have the most opportunity for growth.
Today's entry will now engage in baseless speculation and blatant rumor-mongering simply for the purpose of your weekend entertainment. So in that spirit let's translate the press statement:
Say, goodbye, Lake George, N.Y.'s Great Escape, Columbus, Ohio's Wyandot Lake, Sacramento's Six Flags Waterworld and Six Flags New Orleans.
You're on thin ice, Springfield, Mass.'s Six Flags New England, Buffalo, N.Y.'s Darien Lake and Louisville, Ky.'s Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom.
With 10 parks out of the way, the company would presumably would be able to better concentrate its capital investment amoungs the 11 remaining U.S. theme park complexes. (Plus Montreal's La Ronde and Six Flags Mexico, assuming that the company wants to remain in these non-U.S. North American major markets.) Or, maybe, even to fund new major-market acquisitions.
After all, wouldn't Six Flags rather be in, oh, say, Cincinnati than Louisville? Toronto than Montreal? San Jose rather than Vallejo? And to pick up a park in Charlotte, N.C.? Gee, I wonder how that could happen....
By Jason JacksonBusch Gardens Williamsburg has filed a request with the James City County (Virginia) planning commission for a height variance in order to build a major new attraction in the France area of the park.
Published: January 27, 2006 at 10:06 AM
County regulations require a variance on structures over 60 feet tall. Larry Giles, Busch Gardens' Vice President of design and engineering filed the variance application, which included his remarks that "this area will now host Busch Gardens' latest expansion, guaranteed to thrill and reward the most challenging park guests."
[Editor's note: Thanks to TPI reader Justin Bates for filing this story, too.]
By Robert NilesWell, it is now official. CBS Corporation is turning its back on the synergy held by its competitors ABC and NBC and is getting out of the theme park business.
Published: January 26, 2006 at 8:56 PM
The recently spun-off former unit of Viacom is looking for a buyer for its theme parks: Paramount Canada's Wonderland, Paramount's Carowinds, Paramount's Great America, Paramount's Kings Dominion and Paramount's Kings Island. The parks drew a collective 12 million visitors in 2005, but the lack of a park in either the Central Florida or the Southern California market has historically undercut the chain's attendance and cross-promotional value.
In a statement, CBS said "numerous parties have already expressed interest in acquiring the operation" and that it expects to complete a deal by the second half of this year.
Within the past 12 months, both the Six Flags and Legoland chains have switched owners. An investment group led by NFL owner Daniel Snyder obtained Six Flags, while Merlin Entertainments Group, with funding from the Blackstone Group, half-owners of the Universal Orlando Resort, took over Legoland.
Great America, by far the weakest of the parks, is in the same market (the San Francisco/San Jose/Oakland Bay Area) as a Six Flags park. And Kings Dominion stands just up the road from Busch Gardens' Williamsburg park. But the other parks do not share their markets with any other competing parks.
Among other theme park companies, neither Disney (owner of the ABC network) nor Universal (owned by NBC) have ever bought a competitor's park. Six Flags is still trying to get its debt-ridden finances in order, though Snyder is known as an aggressive businessman. That leaves Cedar Fair, which obtained Geauga Lake from Six Flags last year, and Busch, which last expanded when it bought the SeaWorld chain from book publisher Harcourt Brace. An investment firm buyout, such as the one that led the Legoland sale, is, of course, also a possibility.
By Robert NilesThe annual passholder preview for Expedition Everest at Disney's Animal Kingdom starts tomorrow, but a few lucky guests have gotten in during the cast member previews.
Published: January 25, 2006 at 4:51 PM
We've got the first reviews from Theme Park Insiders on our Expedition Everest page. (We're still looking for a rider with a gift for detailed description to update the description on the page. If you've ridden Everest, click the link and submit your description.)
By Robert NilesIt's official: Forget a new distribution deal between Disney and Pixar. Disney's bought the digital animation studio instead, for $7.4 billion.
Published: January 24, 2006 at 5:22 PM
It's an all-stock deal that makes Pixar (and Apple Computer) CEO Steve Jobs Disney's largest individual stockholder. In addition, Pixar Executive Vice President John Lasseter will be become Chief Creative Officer of the newly combined Disney and Pixar animation studios.
But the biggest news to theme parks fans is that Lasseter will also become the Principal Creative Adviser at Walt Disney Imagineering, the arm of Disney which designs the company's theme park attractions.
Under Lasseter's creative vision, Pixar's become Hollywood's biggest ATM, spitting out one nine-figure hit after another, while earning widespread critical acclaim, too. WDI has lost significant clout in recent years, as Disney turned to less elaborately themed new attractions during the last years of the Michael Eisner regime.
Will Lasseter's new role at WDI lead to a theme park renaissance? Or is it just another honorific to sweeten a deal?
By Robert NilesCedar Point might not be adding a new coaster for 2006, but Cedar Fair's flagship park is making a strong move to boost attendance.
Published: January 23, 2006 at 4:58 PM
The Sandusky, Ohio park has announced that it will cut its regular adult admission price by five dollars, to $39.95. In addition, the park's everyday price for kids under 48 inches and seniors 62 and over will be just $9.95. Cedar Point also is offering an additional five dollars off adult tickets purchased online.
Cedar Point's aggressive kids' price continues a strategy initiated at Cedar Fair's Knott's Berry Farm, in Buena Park, Calif. Knott's slashed its everyday kids price to $14.95 in an effort to lure families from nearby Disneyland. The move helped boost Knott's attendance, making the park a favorite for school and camp groups throughout Southern California.
Cedar Point's across-the-board price cut follows industry-wide price increases, led by Disney, Universal, Busch and, in a change from previous years, Six Flags, which under the new ownership of Dan Snyder's Red Zone LLC, has upped one-day ticket prices to Disney-levels in some markets.
By Robert NilesJust an update to let you know that we've updated Russell Meyer's top-notch round-up of new roller coasters and attractions for 2006.
Published: January 22, 2006 at 11:02 PM
It's a wiki, so you can update the page with status reports and construction photos. And for our friends in the theme park industry, you can insert your park's new attractions -- officially announced or not -- as well.
(Again, please, let me also take this opportunity to remind all TPI readers that you must not post any images to the site that are not your own, taken with your own camera. Posting images from other sites, or park's publicity shots without permission, is grounds for expulsion from the site. Thanks for your cooperation, and your respect for others' work.)
By Mike MThis initiative expands on current park policy, which states that guests cannot smoke in children's areas, ride lines or waterparks. Designated smoking zones will be set-aside within each park to accommodate the parks' smoking patrons.
Published: January 20, 2006 at 9:36 AM
Mark Shapiro, Six Flags President and CEO, said in a statement, "Making our parks smoke-free will be an enhancement to the quality of the Six Flags experience, and our guests will think so too -- nobody should be forced to dodge clouds of smoke when they're strolling through the park with their children. Designating specific smoking zones will allow for a cleaner, friendlier park atmosphere where families can enjoy spending their day."
Well this is excellent news! No more cigarrette butts on the ground and the parks will gain a better reputation.
In comparison to other companies, Disney, Universal, and Busch Gardens also restrict smoking to a few designated areas in each park.
By Robert NilesCarlsbad, Calif. -- Legoland plans to build another theme park, probably in North America, within the next three to five years, the CEO of Merlin Entertainments Group announced Thursday.
Published: January 19, 2006 at 2:12 PM
Nick Varney said that Legoland is "actively engaged" in seeking partners to develop another park, which would be the company's fifth worldwide. Merlin Entertainments acquired controlling interest in Legoland in 2005, with funding from the private investment firm Blackstone Group. Blackstone holds 50 percent of the Universal Orlando resort, but Varney told Theme Park Insider that Blackstone's involvement would not move Orlando to the head of the list of potential sites for the next Legoland.
"Blackstone is the passive investor in Orlando," Varney said in response to TPI's question. "GE [NBC Universal owner General Electric] makes the decisions there." Varney would not rule out Orlando as a possible site, however.
"We have three parks in Europe. Looking to the future, in the blue sky, I could see three parks in North America, too. With a Legoland here in Southern California, it does not take a genius to see the Midwest and the East Coast as potential new sites," Varney said.
Varney also left open the possibility of working with another theme park company in developing the new park.
"We have a pretty strong track record in working in partnership," Varney said. "We have a SeaLife [aquarium] at Disneyland Paris Resort, and we are the only company to have partnered with Disney on an attraction in that way."
"We don't see it as a trench-defined battle," he continued. "If someone else has a complementary attraction, we'd be open to working with them."
Merlin Entertainments won't rule out cold weather sites, either.
"You can still get the same sort of [attendance] numbers [with seasonal parks]. Legoland Denmark is a case in point. It does the same sort of numbers as Legoland California, even thought it is only open only part of the year."
Varney said that the company's goal is to develop its Legoland parks as "mini Disney Worlds," destination resorts attracting visitors over several days, rather than just destinations for local day-trippers. As a result, Varney suggested that Merlin might build new installations of its SeaLife and Dungeon amusements next to Legolands, as well as working with local governments and developers to encourage more tourist development around the parks.
"With our Blackstone investment, we're taking the attitude that we were not going to be in a cost-cutting mode to improve profitability. We're in an investment mode to improve profitability."
Legoland President and GM John Jakobsen unveils the park's expansion plans as Merlin Entertainments Group CEO Nick Varney looks on.
Varney spoke to TPI and other reporters after a press conference to unveil "Pirate Shores," a $10-million new themed land in Legoland California. The land, to be built between the Flight Squadron attraction and Garden Green restaurant, will be anchored by "Splash Battle," an interactive aquatic shoot-'em-up, where riders cruise through pirate-infested waters, in boats armed with their own water cannons.
The area will also feature "Treasure Falls," a 12-foot-drop mini-flume ride that shows "what pirates do on their vacation," according to Legoland President and General Manager John Jakobsen. Two water play areas will round out the new land. "Squabbies Deck" is aimed at younger visitors, while "Soak-N-Sail" will provide 60 water elements for older kids.
Jakobsen declined to provide a specific opening date for Pirates Shores, announcing only that the land would debut sometime this summer. Construction has not yet begun on the site, as the Carlsbad city planning commission just gave its approval on Wednesday night.
In other news, Jakobsen confirmed that a new "Spellbreaker 4-D" movie will debut in May, alternating with the current Racers 4-D movie. (This corrects the initial report that Spellbreaker would replace Racers.)
By Robert NilesHe helped cleaned up one financial mess. Now theme park fans will see if Jeffrey Speed can clean up another.
Published: January 18, 2006 at 4:20 PM
Six Flags has announced that the former Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of Euro Disney will join the company as its new Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer. While at Disney, Speed oversaw a 1.7-billion euro financial restructuring, including a 20 percent reduction in company debt, according to a Six Flags release. In recent years, Euro Disney, which manages the Disneyland Paris Resort, has added a second gate, the Walt Disney Studios Paris theme park, as well as renovated attractions at Disneyland Paris.
Six Flags has labored under a crushing debt load for the past decade, created when the regional Oklahoma-based amusement park chain Premier Parks borrowed heavily to buy the Six Flags parks and name from Time Warner. A U.S. recession stalled growth, then the company's resulting inability to invest in enough major new attractions compounded attendance problems. Six Flags' stock tanked, leading to the company's recent takeover by Washington, D.C. NFL owner Daniel Snyder, who now has hired Speed to complete his management team.
By Robert NilesLooks like the Blog Flume is headed down the road to Carlsbad on Thursday, when Legoland California will announce its plans for 2006. The plan for five new Pirates-themed attractions, including a mini-flume ride and a shoot-'em-up "water battle" tracked boat ride go before the Carlbad planning commission Wednesday night. The commission staff has recommended approval. (See item four.)
Published: January 17, 2006 at 9:47 PM
Legoland's been the undisputed industry leader over the past three years in introducing first-of-its-kind attractions in the United States. Fun Town Fire Academy two years ago and Knights' Tournament last year offered visitors unique experiences instead of the usual same-ride-with-a-different-setting "new" attractions served up by most other parks.
Now that Legoland's ownership situation is settled, with the family-owned toymaker selling a percentage of the parks to the same investment company which holds half of Universal Orlando, we'll soon find out if Legoland's new plans can help build the park's languishing annual attendance.
By Russell MeyerIt seems that Six Flags is about to make the most insane move in theme park history. While it had started as a rumor, it was discovered that Six Flags New England has added a new policy to its park-specific website that prohibits same-day park re-entry. It has been traditional for theme parks to allow guests to have their hands stamped so that they can re-enter the park that day. However, it appears that the policy has been changed at Six Flags New England, and is rumored to be changing at all of the other Six Flags parks for 2006.
Published: January 13, 2006 at 7:40 PM
Is Dan Snyder nuts? He has been known to nickel-and-dime his customers, but this would be the ultimate insult to theme park patrons. No more leaving the camera in the car, leaving a change of clothes or your lunch in the car, or heaven forbid leaving the parking lot to grab a bite to eat at a slightly more affordable and higher quality restaurant. Those practices may soon be history at Six Flags, and guests will have to bring everything they may potentially need into the park with them and rent a locker to store everything, at an extra charge, of course. Six Flags may have found a way to increase revenue by locking guests into the park with nowhere else to go without having to pay a second admission to get back in the gates of the park, but how many people will just not bother going in if they can't leave to take a rest or change their clothes?
LET THE COMPLAINING BEGIN....
By Robert NilesUniversal Orlando has announced details for its 11th annual Mardi Gras celebration. This year, of course, the celebration of Mardi Gras takes on a defiant poignancy, as New Orleans struggles to overcome the devastation of the flooding following Hurricane Katrina.
Published: January 12, 2006 at 11:04 PM
This year, Universal is bringing in 11 acts from New Orleans area to perform at the Orlando resort. "Celebrate The Music of New Orleans" runs Saturday nights from Feb. 11 to April 22 at Universal Studios Florida. Thousands of New Orleans musicians were left homeless and unemployed following Katrina, and Universal's gesture is one of many made by entertainment and arts organizations around the country to provide gigs for those musicians. (My wife, Laurie, covered another prominent effort when she blogged the Louisiana Philharmonic's performance with the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center last October.)
In addition to "Celebrate the Music of New Orleans," the Mardi Gras Concert Series will run the same nights, featuring pop and rock acts from Bonnie Raitt to Kid Rock. A one-night Mardi Gras "After 5 p.m." ticket will be available again this year for $42.85. Florida residents can get $10 off with a coupon from Wendy's or marked Coke cans from Winn-Dixie. The Mardi Gras passes also include free admission to CityWalk for the evening.
By Robert NilesI've put up a review of the newest attraction at Disney's California Adventure, Monsters, Inc.: Mike and Sulley to the Rescue. Quick blurb: It's a solid, if slow, dark ride that marks California Adventure's first passing grade in offering the type of animatronic storytelling that made the original Disneyland an industry prototype. Check it out, and feel free to cast your vote oince you have the chance to ride.
Published: January 11, 2006 at 10:07 PM
By the way, I'd also like to note that Disney does not yet consider this ride officially "open" since it hasn't held its media event for it yet. This is in spite of the cover art on the park's guide map featuring the ride and Disney running TV commercials in the L.A. market promoting it. How silly. Here's a big raspberry to any news organization that runs a feature or a review of Monsters, Inc. the day of or after the media event. The ride's open now, folks. Go cover it. If you wait for the free food and goodies at the media day to cover anything at the parks, all you are doing is flogging for Disney's publicity machine. That's not journalism.
Finally, allow me to offer a solid cheer for the House of Blues in Anaheim's Downtown Disney. Somehow, I hadn't eaten there before (which I find hard to believe), but having tried it now I rate it among my two favorite places to eat at the Disneyland Resort, along with Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen. Laurie called the cheeseburger she had the best she's eaten in months and among the better ones she has ever had. I'd recommend skipping the food in DCA and heading over to House of Blues instead next time you are at the park.
By Robert NilesI have said it before, and now I will say it again. If you are running a theme park -- or any business -- and you want your employees to show up for work more often, to show up on time more often and to provide a higher level of service than employees for your competition, there is one, sure-fire, astonishingly easy way to do it.
Published: January 10, 2006 at 11:38 AM
Pay them more money.
Because if you pay your employees the prevailing local wage for entry-level service employees you're going to get average, entry-level service-employee quality from them. And if you pay less, as Disneyland does, you're going to have absent, indifferent employees across the front line of your organization.
Al Lutz today reports rumors of a possible strike by attractions employees at Disneyland in March. Such talk is to be expected during contract negotiations. If a union fails to convince management that employees will walk, it is leaving money on the table as management has less incentive to make concessions to avoid that strike.
Lutz reports that the sticking point in this negotiation is Disney management's desire to gut existing rules that allow some employees to draw full-timers' benefits without doing full-time work. Of course, the union is entitled to negotiate any issue it wants. But Disney could solve its problems with high absentee rates and employee turnover without having to negotiate new rules with its unions.
Just jack up its wage scale a couple bucks an hour.
Trust me, if Disney were paying $12 an hour to start, employees wouldn't think about skipping shifts for anything less than debilitating illnesses. And for those who did kiss off their shifts, a long line of dependable applicants would be queued up to take their places.
And if the union was thinking ahead, it would give Disney what it wants, sacrificing its no-show members... but only in exchange for a massive wage increase, across the board, for those hourly workers who remain. (Remember, more money in the paycheck means more money for dues.)
A great service business needs great service. And money buys great service. Period. If Disney and its union want to waste breath talking about control, flexibility and respect -- fine, whatever.
But if Disney wants better employees, and the union wants a better deal for its members, the solution is achingly clear.
Show them the money.
By Robert NilesScreamscape is reporting that the Legoland theme parks will be swapping out the Racers 4D films for new 4D features this year. The German and U.K. parks have revealed that the film will be called Spellbreaker 4D, a witch-and-wizard-themed battle. All relatively gentle and designed for the early-elementary/toddler crowd, of course. Screamscape brings up the obvious-to-Southern-Californians-point that Legoland California just tore down a suspended coaster called Spellbreaker. (It occupied the hill side next to the current site of the Knights Tournament Robocoaster.) Will the same name for a different attraction confuse anyone?
Published: January 9, 2006 at 4:34 PM
And, yes, sources have confirmed to TPI that there will be a new themed land coming to Legoland this year. Look for more details in the next couple weeks.
By Robert NilesAllow me to switch hats for a moment and tell you about something happening at my other job, which is as editor of the Online Journalism Review at the University of Southern California.
Published: January 6, 2006 at 3:02 PM
On March 3, we're holding a free, one-day discussion conference in Los Angeles for independent online journalists and Web publishers. If you have a website -- on theme parks or any other subject -- and would like to get together with other website publishers to talk about building better sites, please consider joining us.
We'll be talking about publishing tools, managing discussion boards, dealing with PR people, earning revenue from websites and other topics of interest to independent Web publishers. You can find more information about "OJR 2006," and the registration form, at http://www.ojr.org/ojr/conference/.
The conference is free, but advance registration is required and the number of spots is limited. So please sign up soon.
By Robert NilesLaurie, the kids and I enjoyed a post-New Year's trip to Disneyland today. So you will find updated listings and photos throughout TPI's Disneyland pages.
Published: January 4, 2006 at 10:32 PM
As I said in a column last year, Disneyland is looking better it has in a decade, with attractive repair work done and smoothly operating attractions around the park. Even when things went wrong, such as a busted throttle cable disabling the Tom Sawyer raft on Tom Sawyer's Island, the attractions operators handled the situation smoothly. It's an impressive lesson for other area parks that take a far more haphazard attitude toward running their parks at full capacity.
Despite a strong crowd, we didn't wait more than 15 minutes for anything all day. Here was our itinerary (times are when we got on the ride):
8:05 - arrive Mickey & Friends parking garage
Twelve attractions in about six hours, hitting all our favorites, with a leisurely lunch and no rushing. Not a bad day. The key, as always, is *get there before the park opens*.
Theme parks are for morning people. Late sleepers wait!
By Robert NilesHouston-area theme park fans will get a chance this weekend to hold on to at least a few parts of the AstroWorld amusement park before it is demolished. Equipment, signs and even some attraction parts from the recently closed Six Flags park will be auctioned off at the park, starting Friday, January 6.
Published: January 3, 2006 at 5:20 PM
The Houston Chronicle reported the details, including quotes from some of your competing bidders. Most of the choice equipment will go to other Six Flags parks. But if you've got your heart set on some old polyester AstroWorld uniforms, hey, Six Flags can hook you up.
Also, over at MiceAge, Kevin Yee opines that Disney's Magic Your Way ticket structure helped drive down Universal Orlando's attendance in 2005, as Disney World's ticket plan heavily discounts additional days, luring many Orlando visitors into staying with Disney for their entire vacation. It's an interesting argument, and I'm willing to buy it, though I don't think anyone would dispute that Universal's failure to match Disney's new rides and shows with anything stronger than the Fear Factor stunt show hurt Universal's attendance, too.
As for 2006, it's hard to envision Sylvester McMonkey McBean's Very Unusual Driving Machines beating out Expedition Everest, either.
(Here's our previous post on the Top 25 parks by attendance in 2005.)
By Robert NilesHow ironic that the first thing one wants after standing in the rain for three hours is... a shower.
Published: January 2, 2006 at 1:19 PM
I've stood on many rain-soaked parade routes in my days as an attractions host at Walt Disney World. But when it rains on the Rose Parade in Pasadena, California, no one cancels the show. So out there I stood, rain soaking every inch of fabric on my body, even though I was wearing a rain poncho, supplemented with a couple of garbage bags.
If you watched the show on TV, you missed the deluge that soaked the five-and-a-half mile parade route soon after the units marched past the cameras at the very start of the route. By 11 a.m. Pasadena time, the rain was coming down sideways.
But I caught some pictures of Disney's Rose Parade float, which ironically won the Craftsman Award. Ironic, because the float couldn't make it to the end of the parade without a tow.
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