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October 2006

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Last day to ride Python at Busch Gardens Africa

By Robert Niles
Published: October 31, 2006 at 11:30 AM
The first "upside-down" roller coaster I ever rode is closing for good today.

Busch Gardens Africa, in Tampa, Fla., has declared that Halloween will be the final day of operation for Python, an Arrow corkscrew coaster that long ago deteriorated into an object of derision for TPI's roller coaster fans.

But if you want one more twirl, for old time's sake, you need to get on today. BGA is tearing down the coaster to make room for a planned (but as yet unannounced) African-themed village and animal exhibit, which should open in 2008.

Comments (8) | Archive Link

Weekend updates: Upcoming attractions and soaring airfares

By Robert Niles
Published: October 27, 2006 at 4:15 PM
A couple notes for the weekend:

1. I've cleaned up the What's New or Under Construction at Top Theme Parks wiki. Feel free to add notes on anything I've missed. It's okay to add rumors, but they should be grounded on some inside information, and not just your personal wish list. (Otherwise, we would have extensive sections on a Simpsons theme park and a Harry Potter attraction!)

2. Planning to fly to Orlando sometime soon? Then please comment on our Airfare too high? discussion thread. Beth Kassab at the Sentinel is looking for some feedback from TPI readers.

Have a great weekend!

Comments (3) | Archive Link

Man shot in Universal Orlando parking garage

By Robert Niles
Published: October 27, 2006 at 8:52 AM
A 44-year-old man is in critical condition after a shooting in the parking structure at Universal Orlando early this morning.

Police say that Norman Sierra was shot in the stomach at about 2 a.m. Witnesses reported an argument in the garage between two groups of people and that the argument might have started back in CityWalk.

Police have arrested 28-year-old Eric Audifre, who faces attempted murder charges. Audifre was apprehendend nearby after witnesses reported the license plate number of the car in which he and three friends left the garage.

Comments (12) | Archive Link

Restaurant review: Food's better, but service worse, at Disneyland's Blue Bayou

By Robert Niles
Published: October 25, 2006 at 9:55 PM
As part of its Pirates of the Caribbean revamp this past summer, Disneyland also made changes in its New Orleans Square restaurant line-up. Disney upgraded Cafe Orleans to a table service restaurant and added the Blue Bayou's famed Monte Cristo sandwiches to its menu, giving fans of the fried ham, turkey and cheese sandwich an option in addition to the always-crowded Bayou. And online reports promised changes to the Bayou as well, with managers boasting that the waterside eatery soon would become the best among all Disney's parks.

I decided to give the Blue Bayou a few months before hitting it for a review, as any restaurant needs a little time after opening to work out the kinks. (Plus, the summer just got away from me. If you have kids, you know how that happens.) But today was my birthday, and, coincidentally, the kids had the day off from school, so we hit the road to Anaheim.

First, the good news. The Bayou's food tastes better now than I've had there in years. A spicy (by non-New Orleans standards) cup of gumbo woke up my taste buds and got the meal off to a hopeful start. The Bayou's gumbo didn't skimp on the okra, and offered enough chicken and ham to balance the peppery roux. Most dinner entrees come with a choice of the gumbo or a wedge salad to start the meal. Too bad I overheard diners at all the other tables around me choose the salad, rejecting the staff's recommendation of the gumbo. They missed a great treat by opting instead for an unspectacular hunk of lettuce.

The Cajun-Spiced Salmon delivered smart heat, tempered by a tangy citrus beurre blanc accented with crawfish. The recent spinach scare eliminated that vegetable option, leaving a mix of white asparagus and broccolini, along with the au gratin-like "Blue Bayou" potatoes. The potatoes should please folks who taste buds are tuned to "creamy," "cheesy" and "salty," but they didn't do anything for me. I spent more time with the asparagus, which wasn't among the most flavorful I've ever enjoyed, but I'm always thrilled to find a decent veggie in a theme park.

The rest of the family opted for the Bayou's Five-Pepper Prime Rib. It was, as advertised, peppery, but came out browned, unlike a more traditional, carved-to-order prime rib. Laurie's cut was a perfect medium rare in the middle, however, and far tastier than its appearance suggested. (Keep in mind that these pictures all were taken with a flash. We really couldn't get a good view of our meals until we got home and downloaded the pics. Yep, the Bayou's a very dark restaurant!)

Our waiter had asked the kids how they wanted their cuts prepared, which I found odd since I'd assumed that the "kid-sized" portions would come from the smaller, well-done end of the rib. Sure enough, that's what the kids got. Now, the end's a flavorful, tender cut, and Natalie, at least, enjoyed hers. But I wondered why the waiter would bother asking us to make a choice that we really didn't have.

Which brings me to the bad news. The service at the Bayou, well... falls far short of what any fine dining establishment should consider acceptable. Laurie had made reservations in advance (you can call 714-781-DINE up to 60 days before your visit), and requested a waterside table, as it was to be my birthday dinner. When we arrived, our hostess greeted us with a warm "Happy Birthday," as well as a much-appreciated card and button, but we got a table in the middle of the room. And that was the highlight of the service.

Don't get me wrong. No one ever denied our other requests. And every cast member exuded cheer. But they didn't seem either to understand what was happening in the room, or they just weren't paying attention. Perhaps the crew simply lacks the experience to manage a restaurant this busy. But things that an experienced wait staff would have handled without prompting -- offering bread, refilling drinks, clearing dishes -- didn't get done without our asking first at the Bayou.

The major faux pas? A busboy slammed into the corner of our table, knocking my son's fork from his hand and sliding Laurie's plate to the edge of falling in her lap. Yet the busboy plowed forward without pause, not bothering to apologize or to help us straighten the table. Sorry, but that never happens in a top-quality restaurant. Even in a theme park.

We finished by sharing the Flying Dutchman Cookie Boat, a yummy cookie cake with what looked like a large white chocolate "sail" in the middle but, unfortunately, turned out to be inedible. Still, the cake offered plenty of gooey chocolaty goodness without becoming too cloyingly sweet.

Overall, since the summer's changes, the food at the Blue Bayou is better and the service is worse. Meaning, as usual, the Bayou remains a great choice for its atmosphere, but a disappointing alternative to restaurants in Downtown Disney for an outstanding dining experience.

Comments (3) | Archive Link

Cops bust five in Six Flags hand stamp forgery scheme

By Robert Niles
Published: October 24, 2006 at 9:07 AM
Great article from New Jersey today:

Police arrested five men at Six Flags Great Adventure Sunday, following a tip from park security.

The men were found to have equipment to make and check hand stamps to gain entry into the park, [Sgt. Thomas] Hratko said. Included in the findings were hand stamps, latex gloves, baby powder and an ultraviolet light, Hratko said.

The men face charges of forgery, conspiracy and possession of a forgery device. But, as they say, that's not all....

Seems like the boys enjoyed a little, um, extra entertainment along with faking their way into the park. Cops found pot, cocaine *and* Ecstasy on one of the suspects and all five face various drug charges. Which, of course, makes the reported time of the arrest on Sunday afternoon all the more appropriate... 4:20 p.m.

Comments (8) | Archive Link

Weekend open thread: Who's the best theme park employee ever?

By Robert Niles
Published: October 20, 2006 at 9:50 AM
Since I've spent the better part of the week visiting doctor's offices after last week's, um, annoyances, instead of doing any actual reporting, I'm putting up this topic for Blog Flume discussion:

(Did I mention my allergic reaction to the antibiotics for the strep? Not good times. No, not good times.)

Who is the best employee (okay, cast member, for the Disney fans), you've even had the pleasure to encounter when visiting a theme park? Who has taken that extra step you needed to make a vacation even more special?

Please be as specific as you can about the park and location, date and time of the encounter and the name of the employee, if you remember it. Describe what the employee did that made him or her stand out, and how it helped.

Have a great weekend!

Comments (8) | Archive Link

Six Flags announces 'new' guest conduct policy

By Robert Niles
Published: October 18, 2006 at 1:40 PM
Six Flags today announced a new chain-wide code of conduct for its park visitors.

Here's the press release

It's nothing radically different than anything other theme park companies, or even some Six Flags parks have done in the past. In short:

  • No line-jumping or place holding
  • No "unruly, disruptive or offensive behavior"
  • Gotta wear shirts and "appropriate" shoes.
  • No clothes with "rude, vulgar or offensive language or graphics."
  • Swimsuits in the water park only
  • They'll toss you for any of the above, or for profanity or abusive language or gestures.

    The signal by releasing the policy though should make clear that current Six Flags management really, really, really doesn't want its parks to be the daytime summer home for crowds of A&F-wearing, line-jumping, trash-talking teen-agers anymore.

    Comments (20) | Archive Link

  • Harry Potter and Walt Disney Imagineering, together at last?

    By Scott Seal
    Published: October 17, 2006 at 11:09 AM
    Reviving the rumor. From Mugglenet.com:

    "After months of negotiations, JK Rowling has, according to a new report, signed a letter of intent to the Walt Disney Company allowing them to carry out preliminary construction on a theme park with Harry Potter characters. Although a letter of intent isn't legally-binding, it is "a serious intent to carry out certain business activities." The company is hoping for a definitive response from Jo on the situation by next summer."

    For the record, Mugglenet is probably the biggest and most reliable Potter site on the net.

    There have been rumors and wishful thinking scenarios about this for years, but now, it looks like it's really going down.

    As a Harry Potter nut and a Disney freak, I am ecstatic. BUT...

    Where will this park sit? How in depth will it go? Will it end up as a whole park or just a ride at Disney Studios, Orlando?

    So many questions...so many possibilities.

    Tell me you'll be able to be sorted and stay at Hogwarts in the dormatories. Tell me you'll be able to shop Diagon Alley and Hogsmead. Tell me they'll have Quidditch.

    This is awesome.

    [Editor's note: This has been a persistent rumor in the past, fed even by Universal at one point. See a previous Blog Flume entry for details.]

    Comments (13) | Archive Link

    Disney plans to dump trans fat at U.S. theme parks

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 16, 2006 at 11:55 AM
    The Walt Disney Company announced today that it will eliminate the use of trans fat in food served at its U.S. theme parks by the end of 2007. In addition, it will stop licensing food that contains trans fat by 2008.

    Trans fats, created through the use of partially hydrogentated oils, are perhaps the nastiest thing one can put in one's body. People need some level of fat and sugar in their diet, but no one needs even a smidgen of trans fat. Fast food chains and large-scale food manufacturers started using trans fat in an an effort to replace saturated fats with more shelf-stable options. Plus, at the time it was believed that trans fats might be healthier than saturated fats.

    Now, scientists know that is not the case. Trans fats have been shown to elevate bad cholesterol, lower good cholesterol, and contribute to heart disease. Fast food chain Wendy's recently purged trans fats from its menu, as have many grocery cookie and cracker manufacturers. Yet food industry leaders such as McDonald's have resisted, refusing to substitute healthier frying oils for trans fat-laden ones.

    According to a Disney press release, starting this month, kids meals at Disney theme parks will come with milk, juice or water instead of soda pop, and with applesauce or carrot sticks instead of french fries. Parents who want pop and fries for their kids may substitute them by request. In addition, Disney will implement new nutritional guidelines for all theme park meals. The new guidelines will:

  • Limit fat to a maximum of 30 percent of calories for entrees and side dishes, and 35 percent for snacks.
  • Cap saturated fat at 10 percent of calories for main dishes, side dishes and snacks.
  • Limit sugar to 10 percent of calories for main dishes and side dishes, and 25 percent of calories for snacks.

    I'd love to hear from representatives from other theme parks, especially Universal and Busch, about their use of trans fat and nutritional guidelines for theme park meals. Is Disney's laudable move setting the curve?

    Comments (10) | Archive Link

  • The best family travel tips for theme park vacations

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 13, 2006 at 7:26 PM
    First, allow me to apologize for the lack of posts this week. My excuse: Spending a chunk of last week in the local emergency room with a kidney stone attack. If you've been there before, you know why that can knock one on his rear for a while.

    And if that wasn't enough, just as the kidney stone pain went away... I came down with strep throat!

    Needless to say... it's been a tough week.

    So, I'm turning things over to you, the TPI reader. Here's the assignment: Use the comment feature to submit your single best travel tip that's helped make a recent theme park vacation more enjoyable, unique or a better value. (Don't repeat one that's been submitted already, either.)

    I'll start: If you are traveling by air with small kids, take their shoes off the moment you get them on board the aircraft. Why? There are few more annoying things to endure in air travel that having the back of your seat kicked throughout the flight.

    With the shoes off, your children won't kick that seatback in front of them more than once. In sock feet, kicking hard plastic is a *lot* less fun. (And even if they do do it, the passenger in the seat likely won't feel the impact of a sock foot as much as a shod one.) You won't have to scold the kids to behave, you'll earn good will and karma from folks sitting around you, and the kids will be more comfortable during the flight with their shoes off anyway.

    Okay, your turn!

    Comments (13) | Archive Link

    Universal Hollywood offers first preview of its Halloween Horror Nights

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 4, 2006 at 1:47 PM
    Halloween events are already under way at many theme parks and Universal Studios Hollywood today kicked off the PR blitz for its revived Halloween Horror Nights.

    The conceit was "Zombie School," as USH employees gathered in front of the Bates Motel on the Universal back lot to show off their zombie impersonation skills for a collection of local TV camera crews and assorted webheads (including yours truly.)

    Photo

    But, of course, since this is a theme park (come on, everyone, say it with me!) SOMETHING GOES TERRIBLY WRONG!

    Photo

    "The Director," a horror film auteur that Universal's backstory has as banned from its backlot for his "warped vision," lead a collection of real fake (or is it fake real?) zombies to do in the poseurs. Expect to see The Director's work all over the backlot at USH's HHN, as guests will be allowed to leave the tour trams and wander the scare zones that will be set in the backlot, including ones at the Bates Motel and the War of the Worlds.

    The event opens Friday, October 13. TPI's Universal Hollywood Halloween Horror Nights page is now up and open for updates and comments.

    Comments (2) | Archive Link

    Good-bye Tom Sawyer? Will Disney abandon book lovers for 'Pirates 2.0'?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 3, 2006 at 11:40 AM
    Al Lutz today dropped the bomb that Disney's considering dropping the Tom Sawyer theme from the the Rivers of America island in favor of making the Disneyland playground yet another Pirates of the Caribbean themed attraction.

    First, let me make clear that we're talking about my two favorite attractions here. And not just Disneyland attractions. These are my two favorite attractions on the face of the Earth. (Universal fans, flame away!) I worked both attractions in Florida, studied Twain extensively in college and read my daughter "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" when she was five.

    Not some abridged kiddie version. The real thing. Which she loved, by the way. (We'll back to that in a moment.)

    Lutz lays out the rationale for the switch, which he reports is not yet a done deal. The island's play areas can't compete with more modern playgrounds. The bathrooms are terrible, there's no place to eat, and the fort's in such lousy shape that Disney shuttered it.

    And, most damning, kids today have little idea who Tom Sawyer is.

    Sigh.

    Again, I love Pirates of the Caribbean. The Disneyland version is the greatest dark ride ever built. The movie's a gas. But expanding the "Pirates" theme into every attraction on the Magic Kingdom's west side reminds me of what Disney did to "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" a few years back. That should have taught Disney not to dupe a great thing to the point where everyone grows sick of it.

    But as much as I love Pirates, it is entertainment, not art. In Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain created the most compelling, debated and beloved characters in all of American culture. If today's kids do not know of them, why, that's a pretty damning indictment of the rest of us, as parents, educators and artists. That Disney's failed these characters, and their story, by allowing Tom Sawyer's Island to fall into decay does not speak to an inherent lack of appeal in the characters, but to a lack of foresight by Disney.

    Not every corner of a theme park must be devoted to the hottest flavor from the cineplex. Great theme parks find a place to appeal to the kids, and parents, who find their inspiration from books, not just movies and video games. That's why I, and my kids, adore Seuss Landing at Universal's Islands of Adventure. And the Fairy Tale Brook at Legoland. And Tom Sawyer's Island.

    Yeah, I'm a freak. We don't have cable or satellite TV in our home. And my kids are not allowed to watch any TV or DVDs on a school night. (Looks like that was a good call, BTW.) So my kids read a look of books, and don't much care about the newest characters on Nick or the Disney channel. They love Tom Sawyer. And "Treasure Island." And Heidi. And Dr. Seuss.

    If Disney wants to reinvigorate Disneyland by purging it of literary influences in favor of pop culture, well, that's Disney's right. But I hope someone else in theme park industry remembers that there are families out there who find joy and inspiration in the pages of great books. Even in elementary school. And that they make an effort to build a great new, interactive and imaginative attraction for them.

    Because if Disney closes TSI, this family likely won't be visiting Disneyland as often anymore.

    Comments (13) | Archive Link

    Knott's Scary Farm 2006 Review

    By Jason Lester
    Published: October 2, 2006 at 1:58 PM
    Before I get into the review, let me say how much I encourage everyone to go on a Sunday to Knott's Berry Farm's Halloween Haunt. There were no crowds last night. The longest wait was a 20 minute line for Silver Bullet. Going this early in the month couldn't have hurt much either.

    We reserved the VIP Pre-Scare Dinner and after a so-so buffet, entered the park 30 minutes before the gates opened. This is also something that should be taken advantage of. We promptly headed for Red Moon Massacre on the log ride, which was a large improvement over last year. I got some good scares. Next we decided to hit one of two new mazes. This one happened to be The Grudge 2, which is only going to be at Knott's this year to promote the upcoming film. Well, I don't know how the movie is, but this was in my opinion the maze of the year. The set design was beautiful and the talent were really into their roles. Especially, one girl who kept twisting her body into odd shapes. This is a must see maze this year.

    Next we went to the Dark Realm Laser Range, which is kind of hard to review. You only get 7 minutes and the guns are clunky, but one could have a good time if they liked laser tag. The interactive element is a nice touch. Next was Red Beard's Revenge, which improved on last year's dreaful maze. The staff was more into the theme this time, and I actually got scared a few times. Very nice set design in here. After Red Beard's came Cavern of Lost Souls, the least satisfying attraction at Haunt. If your idea of scary is hanging strings meant to feel like cobwebs and some guy with a shaker can every 3 or 4 minuted, then go ahead and have fun, but the ride is understaffed and pointless. That said, some of the talent did try really hard to make the tough environment work and they deserve props.

    Following that was the next new maze, Lost Vegas in 3-D. Lots of fog? Check! Great sets? Check! A fun score? Check! Too bad it was understaffed. Still, it's a good time, and I hope I just went through on an off night. After Vegas, we went to 13 Ax Murder Manor, which, like last year, is amazing. The music, sets, talent, costumes, everything. It all comes together perfectly, placing 13 second to The Grudge 2 for maze of the year. Hatchet High, a really short maze came next. It basically hasn't changed at all since it came to Haunt, so if you've already seen it and you're running short on time, you could probably skip it.

    Walking backstage, we came upon the "double maze" combo of Feary Tales in 3-D and The Asylum. Feary Tales was a very short maze, but the colors used are disorienting and fantastic. The one problem is that it is somewhat overshadowed by the breathtaking Asylum which follows it. Ah, The Asylum. Bloody cells, straightjackets, and the Bulemic Research Clinic. The scariest maze of the night, yet just behind Grudge and 13 because I had trouble enjoying it due to how hot it was inside.

    The last two mazes were Lore of the Vampire and Terror Vision in 3-D, two mazes which didn't really stand out this year. Both feel short and understaffed, and the talent in Terror Vision seemed to stand around a lot. However, Lore came out on top of the two simpty because we were the only group going through at the time and every monster that decided to do something had only us to scare. Plus, the huge guy at the end is a great way to finish a maze. Terror added nothing new from last year, and was simply mildly entertaining.

    The shows we saw were the 9:30 Hanging, which was funny as usual, the 10:30 Hacks, which I liked more last year, and the 12:00 Putz Prank Party, which was hilarious. The scare zones were top-notch as I expected and since we had so much time, we even rode Xcelerator, Silver Bullet, Supreme Scream, and the Screamin' Swing, although the last one was a waste of money due to its length.

    Overall, another fantastic year at Haunt! Only 12 more months until I return.

    Comments (6) | Archive Link

    High Anxiety at Howl O Scream

    By Erik Yates
    Published: October 1, 2006 at 11:06 PM
    A 16 year old girl was rushed to the hopsital Saturday night from Howl O Scream at Busch Gardens Tampa, where she was treated for anxiety and asthma. How do I know this? The girl was my sister, Sara. This is a perfect example how unknown pre-existing conditions can play a role in theme park safety. She had been in two houses, and Cheetah Chaser when she complained of dizziness and shortness of breath. She sat down for a while, when she got up she took five steps and fainted. Had we known about the condition before hand, we would not have let her go with us, with both my wife and I knowing the nature of the event. My hat is off to the Busch Gardens staff, however, who saw the situation and rushed to make it better. Without their help a bad situation was turned into just an unfortunate one. No doubt in my mind that they should receive outstanding customer service awards, and the two that helped us (the two that stood out amongst all of the great staff) should be commended.

    Comments (7) | Archive Link

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