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April 2008

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Reminder: Get nominations in for best dead ride

By Robert Niles
Published: April 30, 2008 at 8:43 PM
Just a reminder that you have until Friday to submit the names of your favorite departed theme park attractions for the King of the Theme Park Graveyard tournament.

Also, if anyone with graphics skills wants to try a logo for the tournament, I think that's be a fun addition.

Here, in alphabetical order, are several top candidate for the tournament. If you want to see these, or other attractions, in the tournament, please submit your picks ASAP.

Adventures through Inner Space (Disneyland)
Back to the Future (Universal Studios Florida and Hollywood)
Body Wars (Epcot)
Cranium Command (Epcot)
Drachen Fire (Busch Gardens Europe)
The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter (Magic Kingdom)
Horizons (Epcot)
Journey into Imagination (Epcot)
Kongfrontation (Universal Studios Florida)
Skyway (Magic Kingdom and Disneyland)
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Magic Kingdom)
Who Wants to be a Millionaire - Play It! (Disney-MGM Studios and California Adventure)
World of Motion (Epcot)

I will need some write-ups and photos of the nominated attractions, too. Thanks!

Comments (19) | Archive Link

Hard Rock Park - Sound Check trip report

By steve lee
Published: April 30, 2008 at 9:20 AM
Let's be honest here. How many chances do you get to be in a park on their first operating day? It's not an opportunity that can be easily passed up (though it can be quite a feat to get this across to your employer).

April 15th, in addition to being Tax Day, was the first day of the Hard Rock Park sound check. This soft opening, lasting from 4pm to 10pm, was a can't-miss event for me.

I'll skip the nonsense about getting to the park, thus saving you some tedious complaints about how the parking plaza wasn't quite ready for the flood of traffic (it appears from subsequent visits that this problem has been mostly corrected). I'll gloss over the issues we had getting our Annual Passes processed (first day system glitches. No biggie). Let's cut right to the meat and potatoes here: what do you get once you pass through the entrance gates?

ALL ACCESS ENTRY PLAZA

Very much in the vein of Main Street USA or Port of Entry, this area of the park slowly immerses you into the overall thematic arc of the park. It's nowhere near as detailed as the aforementioned Disney or IOA interpretations, but it gets the point across. You're entering something different. The shops in this area range from a sweet shop ("I Want Candy") to a coffeehouse ("Amp'd") to a very large merchandise store (the location of which, it must be noted, reinforces how much they aped IOA's design). You pass under an archway to approach the park's central lagoon. As you near the curved rail along the edge of the lagoon, a glance back along the entrance walkway reveals that you've been walking along a large image of a guitar, complete with six bubbling fountains where the pick would strike them. It's a very clever visual that I imagine will be lost on many visitors who don't take the time to fully absorb their surroundings.

At this point, you must choose your course. A clockwise rotation through the park leads you into the Rock & Roll Heaven section, while counterclockwise goes into Cool Country. Since the majority of the crowd was heading straight for the Led Zeppelin coaster, we used contrary logic and took a right into the Cool Country area.

COOL COUNTRY

This area of the park is geared towards the country set as well as aficionados of southern-fried rock. But let's get to the attractions:

Muddin' Monster Race - a huss spinning ride, presumedly geared towards kids. They were trying mightily to have this open, but there was some issues with the restraints not popping open. Still, looks like fun for the youngins'.

Just a-Swingin'

Just a-Swingin' is the park's obligatory wave swinger. Meant to evoke memories of sitting on the swing on your front porch, the first few rotations are relatively mild. Once the cycle really kicks in, however, you're in for a surprisingly fast (and fairly long) ride. The seats, incidentally, are wider than you'll find in most other parks. They've even got some double seats on there.

Eagles - Life in the Fast Lane. I was concerned when the name of this ride changed in March. It seemed like they were in a pinch, and I didn't think that was a good sign. Adding to my concerns was the fact that this was a Vekoma mine train. The only Vekomas I've ever really liked were the Deja Vus, and we all know how well those worked out.

Well, I was thoroughly surprised by this ride. The onboard audio works well, and the ride is terribly fun. There's also a few effects along the way that added a little extra depth. My only real complaint here is that there was no apparent landscaping done, so if you look down along the way all you can see is dirt and footers. A little extra work here can lead to a much more fulfilling ride.

The last attraction in this area is the Ice House Theater. Since the show in there ("Country on the Rocks") seemed pretty twang-heavy, we skipped it this time around.

BORN IN THE USA

This area of the park is all about...well, the USA. There's a lot of attractions in this area, so let's get to them:

Shake, Rattle 'n' Rollercoaster

Shake, Rattle 'n' Rollercoaster is a Vekoma roller skater. Judging by the sign, artwork, and sand they're going for a beach theme here, kinda a throw back to pierside amusement parks. It's a very short ride, however - probably the shortest of its kind I've ever encountered.

Kids Rock State Park is a children's play area with some upcharge attractions (a climbing wall and a sky walk). There's also a large multi-level fort to play in with ladders and slides. Considering the Slippery When Wet coaster goes over the majority of the Kids Rock area, I'm guessing this is going to wind up being a water area when everything is up and running (Slippery When Wet wasn't open yet).

The most questionable attractions in the park are also here - guests at the Sound Check were more than a little surprised to see some previously unannounced carnival rides appear. The Sole Train is a small Zamperla train ride, while the Dune Buggies attraction is a very standard "ride around in circles" ride. Looming in the background was a portable coaster (the name on it was Racing) that looks straight from the fairgrounds. I haven't seen any official word on why these attractions are there, but they stick out like a sore thumb. I understand there's a lot of concern over the total number of attractions in the park, but throwing in carnival rides is hopefully just a band aid while they come up with some new ideas.

As you move further into Born in the USA, you come to the large 10,000 person capacity amphitheater. There's a few food stops and shops along the way, leading to Funky-Town. This is where you'll find the bulk of the park's games. While some of them are unique and clever (Whac-a-Boy-Band replaces the traditional Whac-a-Mole), it doesn't change the fact that they're games. The staff here is aggressive, but not to the point of being annoying. Once you get through that area, you'll come to Garage Jam!

Garage Jam! is a two-level foam play area. You know the drill here: there's lots of foam balls on the floor. You fill a bag up, run upstairs, then use the cannons to shoot the foam balls at the poor souls who are still downstairs trying to fill their bags. By the way, those cannons have pretty good range...

BRITISH INVASION

Certainly my favorite area of the park, British Invasion is a very well done tribute to the UK.

Punk Pit - I'm not sure how they got this one past the insurance lawyers, but bless 'em for pulling it off. Punk Pit is essentially an oversized inflatable bounce house (actually two of them. To the left is the children's side, while the right has the adult version). It's amazingly fun in here - bouncing around, slamming into walls, leaping over obstacles, body-checking an unsuspecting friend. But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't very concerned about this attraction. Adults don't remember how to be kids, and their bodies certainly don't remember how to take a good fall. A bad bounce here could lead to some serious bodily harm, and I don't see how the park would be able to absolve itself of blame. These type of attractions are popular overseas, but us Yanks are a wee bit too sue-happy to be able to have fun stuff like this (two words: lawn darts).

London Cab Ride is up next. This is an amazingly fun twirl-and-hurl attraction. It's a bizarre combination of a scrambler and the tea cups. There's three different spinning forces at work here, and they're all going at it pretty quickly.

Night in White Satin - The Trip is also in this area. From what I can tell, the point of this dark ride is to recreate for the rider what it feels like to be, well...tripping. The 3D effects are hit or miss, but I liked more than I disliked. My personal favorite is a room in which you're moving quite slowly, but the projected imagery ahead of you is moving quite quickly. Disney geeks should immediately be reminded of World of Motion...

All the King's Horses is next on the rotation. This is a pretty basic carousel. I'd have loved to have seen them go with something a little more showy, like a double decker or something. But carousels seem to be a dying breed, so I can understand not wanting to drop the extra money there.

Roadies Stunt Show is also in this area. We saw the first public show and suffice it to say there were some glitches here or there. The majority of the stunts revolve around gymnastics (lots of bouncing and flipping), but there's some good gags in there and a little pyro for good measure (and, in my humble opinion, the girl in it was smoking hot). Once they get the bugs worked out, I think this will be one of the better shows of its type.

>Maximum RPM

Maximum RPM is in this area also. Not much to say about this coaster, as it wasn't open yet. The ferris wheel lift seems like an unnecessary gimmick, but the ride itself looks like it's going to be pretty fun. While Premiere's track record isn't flawless, they've delivered a lot of good rides. No reason not to expect this to be good.

Magic Mushroom Ride - This is a troika decorated with mushrooms and blacklight friendly colors. Some of our friends got stuck here when the restraints wouldn't open. It took about five minutes before they realized that some genius has put a mushroom over the emergency release. First day glitches, folks.

ROCK & ROLL HEAVEN

The final area of the park is Rock & Roll Heaven. With a show, a water play area, and one ride this is by far the area of the park most in need of more. We never saw the Malibu Beach Party show in process, although we saw someone on a motorcycle practicing stunts in the theater. Reggae River Falls is a small water area, with one of those infernal buckets that dump water every five or so minutes. Only one ride left...

>Led Zeppelin - The Ride

Led Zeppelin - The Ride. Let's get this out of the way first. The loading system here is strange. There's a main room where people are lined up, then they're led into a small room with a "preshow" that has some documentary style footage of Led Zeppelin as well as an interesting multimedia presentation where you hear the first few minutes of "Whole Lotta Love." As you near the section that plays onride, the doors open and you go board the train. This feels like time that could be spent on the ride, but as far as I can tell they weren't stacking trains. If you think of this preshow as the last five minutes of waiting in line, you won't get too annoyed. But I can't help but wonder how sick people who do lots of re-riding are going to be of the whole presentation.

Before I get into the ride, I have to say this: this coaster is amazingly silent. I love the B&M roar, so it was a little offputting to not be able to hear that. Of course, they had to do this so riders would be able to hear the onboard audio (it probably makes the neighbors happy, too).

Onto the ride itself: it's a solid B&M coaster. The first two-thirds of the ride are very intense; this is probably the most intense B&M sitdown I've ever ridden. You're hit with five inversions within about 45 seconds. It'd be easy to accuse the ride of having a weak ending (post MCBR, all you get is a helix and one more inversion), but after the kick-butt first half you're still trying to catch your breath anyways.

The onboard audio works really well with the ride, although early on it's difficult to hear it over the screams of other riders. Around midway through the first loop the drums kick back in and you should hear the music for the rest of the course (in my case, there was a glitch and the music died at the MCBR. This glitch has reportedly since been corrected).

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY

Each night at the park will end with the Bohemian Rhapsody fireworks/laser show. This is by far one of the best park fireworks shows that isn't in a park owned by Disney. Due to their proximity to the airport, they're unable to use some of the larger size shells that you'd see in Illuminations, but I think they make so with what they have admirably. There's a bit too much "dancing fountains" for my taste, but still. It's a really fun show.

All told, it took us about three hours to complete the rotation of the park. Crowds for the sound check were pretty light, so I'm sure once they're fully open your results will vary. But let's get down to the nitty-gritty, shall we:

Atmosphere - they've done a really great job, especially in the British Invasion area. There's a lot of visual flourishes throughout the park that attentive guests will thoroughly enjoy. The music in each area works within the theme, and I didn't hear more that 2 or 3 songs that I didn't like. Each area also has smaller stages for bands to perform. We saw groups performing at each one we passed. They also have enthusiastic performers roaming the park. We saw jugglers, go-go girls, and the Rock Bear Family (who, incidentally, are great).

Staff - I didn't encounter a single person with anything less than an enthusiastic attitude. This may change as the season progresses, but I'd honestly rank their staff up there with the big guys.

Value - I've already been twice, so I guess the Annual Pass has almost paid for itself. Once everything is up and running, I think the $50 one-day ticket will be justified. The merchandise all seemed pretty reasonably priced.

The sore spot, however, is the food. In our two visits, we ate in three locations (Taste of Paradise Grill, Carnaby Street Cafe, and Great Meals Diner). Two entrees and two drinks ended up running around $23 (WITH the ten percent annual pass discount). And the food quality was decent for a theme park, but not worth that price tag (the exception is the prime rib sandwich - definitely the best thing we ate). A stop at the Whammy Bar revealed a $7.50 bottle of beer and a $8.50 rum and coke. Those prices are insane. There's a lot of great places to eat in Myrtle Beach. Some of them are less than five minutes away from the park. At these prices, I'm much more inclined to exit the park for a meal.

But if the only real complaint I can offer is that the food is overpriced, then I guess the folks behind Hard Rock Park have done a lot right. They've laid a strong foundation for a successful park, but they need to continue building on that foundation. They cannot afford to rest on their laurels for the next year. At this point, there just aren't enough attractions. I don't know how much room they have for expanding out (if any), but I hope they have Phase Two plans in process. My annual pass is good until May 9th, 2009. Give me a reason to renew it, Hard Rock Park.

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Photo gallery from the new Simpson Ride

By MyFoxOrlando WOFL FOX 35
Published: April 28, 2008 at 1:53 PM
The Simpsons Ride at Universal Orlando is currently having a 'soft' opening...they should be open fully within two weeks...several people were able to take a test ride this past Friday night and gave the ride a 'two thumbs' way up!

http://media.myfoxorlando.com/

[Editor's note: I'm posting this to remind other media outlets know that the Blog Flume is fair game if you've got news that your organization wants to share with the TPI community. Although... embeddable Flash galleries and videos are always preferred to simple links for multimedia.... ;-) ]

Comments (6) | Archive Link

Dolphin killed at SeaWorld in Orlando

By Robert Niles
Published: April 27, 2008 at 9:55 PM
I'm hearing reports about a dolphin being killed at SeaWorld Orlando's Discovery Cove park. Apparently, there was a mid-air collision with another dolphin. No more details at the time. Please post to the comments if you were there, heard details from employees, or saw a local news report.

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Knievel at Kings Island: Part Two

By Robert Niles
Published: April 27, 2008 at 9:33 PM
It's like the 1970s all over again at Kings Island.

First, the park switches The Racer back around.

Now, a Knievel's gonna do a motorcycle jump. (What's next, a Brady Bunch reunion at the park?)

On May 24, at 7 pm, Robbie Knievel, son of the late Evel Knievel, will attempt to jump 24 soft-drink trucks at the Cincinnati-area park. Evel's jump of 14 buses at Kings Island in 1975 set a TV-sports ratings record:

Here's the press release about Robbie upcoming jump, from the park. Admission to the jump is included in the day's park admission. Haven't heard if there will be TV.

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Vote of the week: Have you ever dated someone you met in a theme park?

By Robert Niles
Published: April 25, 2008 at 1:30 PM
This week's question is inspired by reader Derek Potter's observation about "The Line Date," the person you always seem to be passing in queues throughout the day. (The Line Date was one the of many stereotypical theme park tourists TPI readers described in a recent discussion thread.)

Which got me wondering, how many Theme Park Insider readers have picked someone up at a theme park? I'll count employees dating other employees, so long as they met in the park. I'll also count, um, short-term "relationships," too. For the purpose of this question, "dated" can mean a single date.

Share your interesting, though *family-friendly*, personal stories in the comments, please. :-)

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Four Hour Tour Plan: Disneyland

By Robert Niles
Published: April 25, 2008 at 1:12 PM
Disneyland, Disneyland Resort, Anaheim, California [Map]

Theme Park Insider's "Four-Hour Tours" are designed to get you and your family to the very best attractions in the world's top theme parks... before anyone can get tired and cranky. That leaves you free to enjoy the rest of your day... with a swim, a nap, or with pressure-free time to wander the park.

Please visit our Four-Hour Tours page for an explanation of the concept, as well as links to additional Four-Hour Tours. The attractions and restaurants selected for this tour are those at Disneyland most highly rated by Theme Park Insider readers. You may click on the attraction links below to see complete attraction descriptions and reviews.

Sleeping Beauty's Castle at Disneyland


Before you go: Avoid the wait at the park's ticket booths by buying your tickets online at the Disneyland website and printing them out at home. Keep in mind that, unlike with Walt Disney World tickets, there is no option to buy an upgrade that keeps your Disneyland tickets from expiring 14 days after their first use. So do not buy more days than you will use on this trip. If you wish to upgrade your ticket to add additional days once you arrive, you can do so through Disney's Guest Relations desk at City Hall.

Disneyland is much smaller than Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, yet gets almost as many visitors, so this park can get quite crowded. Try to avoid weekends, as well as the week between Christmas and New Year's, to avoid the largest crowds. Also, pick early June over late August for a summer vacation trip, as most Southern California schools start and end their year late.

Part of this tour plan includes lunch at the Blue Bayou restaurant, located within the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. You will want to make reservations several weeks in advance, by calling 1-714-781-3463. Be as sweet as you can, and request a waterside table when you make your reservation, and again when you check in. Hosts have immense latitude on who gets these, so don't be a jerk about it.

When you get there: If you, like most visitors, are driving to Disney via Interstate 5, you'll likely part in the Mickey and Friends parking garage and take the tram to Downtown Disney, where you can make the short walk to Disneyland. Plan on at least 45 minutes (an hour in the summer) to park, take the tram and walk to the park after you leave the highway. You will want to arrive at the park's front gate a few minutes before the park opens. You can check Disneyland's operating hours on the Disneyland website.

1. Once in the park, head down Main Street and turn right into Tomorrowland for your first ride of the day, on the musical indoor roller coaster, Space Mountain.

2. After exiting Space Mountain, head left, back toward Main Street, stopping for a ride on the shoot-'em-up dark ride, Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters.

3. Then it's back across Main Street and into Adventureland, where you will stop to get Fastpasses, Disney's ride reservation tickets for the Indiana Jones Adventure, which you will ride later in the morning.

4. Walk past the treehouse and down around the Rivers of America into Critter Country, for a trip on the flume ride, Splash Mountain.

5. After Splash, you will work your way back toward Indiana Jones, stopping first for a ride on the Haunted Mansion.

6. Next, continue around the river and across New Orleans Square toward the Disneyland classic, the original Pirates of the Caribbean.

7. Now it's time for your ride on the Indiana Jones Adventure.

8. Wrap up your morning by walking back toward and past Pirates, to the entrance for the Blue Bayou Restaurant. If you were not able to get reservations, at the Bayou, you might enjoy a break from the park by dining at one of the many sit-down restaurants in the adjacent Downtown Disney shopping district, located just outside the park's front gate.

Chill out for the remainder of the afternoon, either returning to your hotel for a break or wandering the park without a plan.

In the evening: We recommend returning to Disneyland in the evening, for the park's highly rated Fantasmic! nighttime show. Arrive a couple hours early, though, and catch rides on the Matterhorn Bobsleds and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, two classic Disney coasters that are even better rides at night.

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Introducing the 'King of the Theme Park Graveyard' tournament

By Robert Niles
Published: April 25, 2008 at 9:55 AM
It's time for another tournament!

Following the success of our Best Ride in America Tournament, Theme Park Insider is going to run a tournament to find the best theme park attraction that no longer exists. We're calling it the 'King of the Theme Park Graveyard Tournament.' But we need your nominations to select and seed the entrants.

(Thanks to TPI reader Olivier Sanguy for the idea for this tournament, BTW.)

So I've set up a page through which you may submit your nominations for the tournament. Just submit the names of the attractions you most miss (and the park they were in). I will use the submissions, couple with my own judgment, to select and seed the dead attractions that will be in the tournament.

Then... we'll vote. Same as last time - a single elimination tournament working down to a final match-up. Dates TBA, as I won't know until I see the nominations how many attractions will be in this tournament. But I'd like to get the nominations wrapped up by next Friday, May 2.

Finally, I am looking for photos that I can include on the tournament vote posts, as we won't have attraction listing pages for most of these rides and show. So you've taken some photos of the old, closed rides that you've nominated that you'd like to submit, the nominations page will tell you how to get them to me. I could use a logo for the tournament, as well, if there's anyone with time and graphic design skills that would like to whip up one.

Thanks, and I hope that everyone has a great deal of fun with this one!

Comments (16) | Archive Link

Four Hour Tour Plan: Disney's California Adventure

By Robert Niles
Published: April 24, 2008 at 9:58 PM
Disney's California Adventure, Disneyland Resort, Anaheim, California [Map]

Theme Park Insider's "Four-Hour Tours" are designed to get you and your family to the very best attractions in the world's top theme parks... before anyone can get tired and cranky. That leaves you free to enjoy the rest of your day... with a swim, a nap, or with pressure-free time to wander the park.

Please visit our Four-Hour Tours page for an explanation of the concept, as well as links to additional Four-Hour Tours. The attractions and restaurants selected for this tour are those at Disney's California Adventure most highly rated by Theme Park Insider readers. You may click on the attraction links below to see complete attraction descriptions and reviews.

Disney's California Adventure<

Disney's California Adventure opened in 2001 on the site of Disneyland's former parking lot. The park is beginning a multi-billion dollar make-over, altering the look of much of the park and culminating in the debut of the Pixar film-themed "Cars Land" in 2012.

Before you go: Avoid the wait at the park's ticket booths by buying your tickets online at the Disneyland website and printing them out at home. Most visitors will visit California Adventure as part of a trip to the original Disneyland Park, which stands just steps away, across an esplanade. Keep in mind that, unlike with Walt Disney World tickets, there is no option to buy an upgrade that keeps your Disneyland tickets from expiring 14 days after their first use. So do not buy more days than you will use on this trip. If you wish to upgrade your ticket to add additional days once you arrive, you can do so through Disney's Guest Relations desks at the front of each park. (In addition, FYI, all multi-day tickets sold at the Disneyland Resort are park-hoppers, so you can visit both parks on the same day.)

Disney's legions of local annual passholders often come to California Adventure on Sundays, so avoid that day if you can. Otherwise, California Adventure rarely sees the level of crowds that pack Disneyland.

Finally, Disney will debut the eagerly anticipated Toy Story Midway Mania ride at California Adventure sometime in June. Be aware that crowds are likely to be substantial in the first few weeks that ride is open.

When you get there: If you, like most visitors, are driving to Disney via Interstate 5, you'll likely part in the Mickey and Friends parking garage and take the tram to Downtown Disney, where you can make the short walk to the two parks. Plan on at least 45 minutes (an hour in the summer) to park, take the tram and walk to the park after you leave the highway. You will want to arrive at the park's front gate a few minutes before the park opens. You can check California Adventure's operating hours on the Disneyland website.

1. Once in the park, make a sharp right and get Fastpasses, Disney's ride reservation tickets, for Soarin' Over California, which you will visit later in the morning.

2. Next, moved quickly back to the Paradise Pier section of the park and, if Toy Story Midway Mania is open, get in line for that new Pixar-themed shoot-'em-up dark ride. Otherwise, just skip to the next ride on the itinerary.

3. California Screamin', located next door to Midway Mania, is built to look like an old-fashioned wooden boardwalk roller coaster, but it's really a modern steel design, with a high-speed launch.

4. After riding Screamin', head back across the lagoon to the Golden State section of the park and your ride on Soarin' Over California. (If Midway Mania was not open and you have several minutes before your Soarin' return time, hop on the Grizzly River Run, a white-water raft ride, on your way back to Soarin'.)

5. Make your way back toward and past the entrance plaza and into the Hollywood Pictures Backlot, where you will now pick up Fastpasses for the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror before queueing up for the next showing of the live musical show, Aladdin.

6. After Aladdin, walk next door for your ride on the Tower of Terror, an abbreviated, yet still worthy, version of Walt Disney World's classic indoor dark ride.

And... that's it. For lunch, we suggest walking back to Downtown Disney and selecting one of the sit-down restaurants there, such as Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen or Naples Ristorante e Pizzeria. After lunch, the rest of the day is yours, to enjoy a swim, nap or to wander either Disneyland or California Adventure and discover what else these popular theme parks have to offer.

[Tomorrow: We wrap up this round of 'Four-Hour Tours' with the tour plan for Disneyland.]

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Four Hour Tour Plan: Universal Studios Hollywood

By Robert Niles
Published: April 23, 2008 at 8:47 PM
Universal Studios Hollywood, Los Angeles, California [Map]

Theme Park Insider's "Four-Hour Tours" are designed to get you and your family to the very best attractions in the world's top theme parks... before anyone can get tired and cranky. That leaves you free to enjoy the rest of your day... with a swim, a nap, or with pressure-free time to wander the park.

Please visit our Four-Hour Tours page for an explanation of the concept, as well as links to additional Four-Hour Tours. The attractions and restaurants selected for this tour are those at Universal Studios Hollywood most highly rated by Theme Park Insider readers. You may click on the attraction links below to see complete attraction descriptions and reviews.

Universal Studios Hollywood

Before you go: Avoid the wait at the park's ticket booths by buying your tickets online at Universal Studios Hollywood's website. If you've got the extra money to spend, Universal offers a VIP Tour experience that makes this trip superfluous. But if you're on a normal family's budget, a one-day ticket will suffice. If you are planning to visit other Southern California theme parks in the same week, you might consider one of the Southern California CityPasses.

When you get there: Plan to arrive at the front gate before the park opens, giving yourself about half an hour extra time to park in USH's garages and walk through the CityWalk shopping complex to get to the park. You can check USH's operating hours on the park's website.

Universal Studios Hollywood is built on the top and side of a mountain, so the park is divided into two levels, with a loooong series of escalators connecting them. The park's front gate is located on the Upper Lot, as are most of its attractions.

1. Universal will open its newest attraction, The Simpsons Ride, in June. If you are visiting after then, make that your first stop as soon as the park opens. Head straight into the park across the Upper Lot to The Simpsons Ride building at the back of the Upper Lot.

2. After the Simpsons, walk next door to the Studio Tour. You'll take an escalator down to the loading queue, where you will board for this 45-minute tram tour of Universal's historic movie studio and backlot.

3. After the tour, you'll head back up the escalator to the Upper Lot, then back past The Simpsons Ride to the escalators (Universal calls it the "Star Way") down to the Lower Lot. At the bottom of the escalators, you will see your next stop, Jurassic Park - The Ride, immediately to the left.

4. Then head back up the escalators to the Upper Lot, walking back toward the front gate. If you've got extra time, turn left and to the theater for Terminator 2: 3D. If not, skip to the final stop on the tour.

5. Wrap up your day with the next showing of what many consider Universal's best show, Waterworld. Yes. the show's based on the Kevin Coster bomb, but don't hold that against this show. If the movie had been half as good as this stunt extravaganza, it'd have been a major hit.

6. Head back into CityWalk, stopping to get your hand stamp on the way out, and select from one of the many sit-down restaurants there for a relaxing late lunch.

[Tomorrow: We head down the road to Anaheim, to Disney's California Adventure.]

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D'oh! A ride report for The Simpsons at Universal Orlando

By Gareth H
Published: April 23, 2008 at 4:01 PM
Well I got up this morning and carried on with my normal daily routine, until I got word that a certain new ride at Universal was in "Techincal Rehearsals."

Twenty minutes later I was at the entrance to the all new The Simpsons Ride, staring up at the awesone front of building, eyes lowering to 55 wait time. Not bad.

I entered the queue amid laughter from the other patient wanna be riders. Flat screen TV's filled the lines, showing carefully selected clips from all Simspsons episodes, relevant to theme park culture and of course, the man himself, Krusty the Clown. I won't spoil too much but look out for a great BTTF sketch (All new for the ride).

The line actually moved quicker than expected and 40 minutes later I was ushered into row 2.

The inside, although completely changed, is still easily recognisable for anyone who rode BTTF. But some great features in there and packed with laughs.

The ride itself is a cross between BTTF for screen size, but with much higher quality. You can tell the animation used for the ride is not the same used for the TV show, but still good.

The screen images, as moving fast, come out the same way Jimmy Neutron does, sometimes it is just a blur...

I won't spoil anything else for you as this a great ride and a great laugh, but I will point out one thing. No character rides in the car as was guessed months back!

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Four Hour Tour Plan: Universal's Islands of Adventure

By Robert Niles
Published: April 22, 2008 at 5:33 PM
Universal's Islands of Adventure, Universal Orlando Resort, Orlando, Florida [Map]

Theme Park Insider's "Four-Hour Tours" are designed to get you and your family to the very best attractions in the world's top theme parks... before anyone can get tired and cranky. That leaves you free to enjoy the rest of your day... with a swim, a nap, or with pressure-free time to wander the park.

Please visit our Four-Hour Tours page for an explanation of the concept, as well as links to additional Four-Hour Tours. The attractions and restaurants selected for this tour are those at Universal's Islands of Adventure most highly rated by Theme Park Insider readers. You may click on the attraction links below to see complete attraction descriptions and reviews.

Universal's Islands of Adventure

Before you go: Avoid the wait at the park's ticket booths by buying your tickets online at Universal Orlando's website. If you will be visiting both Islands of Adventure and its sister park, Universal Studios Florida, in the same week, your best value would be with the two-park unlimited ticket. If not, choose the one-park, one-day ticket. Choose the print-at-home option, no matter which ticket you select.

You'll also want to make your lunch reservation before you go. On this tour, we highly recommend lunch at Mythos Restaurant, a five-time winner of the Theme Park Insider Award for world's best theme park restaurant. Call 1-407-224-4012 a week or two in advance for 1pm reservations on the day of your visit.

When you get there: Visitors to both Universal Orlando theme parks park in the same parking garage, then walk through CityWalk on their way into the parks. Give yourself at least half an hour (an hour in the summer) to park and make the walk. Bear left toward Islands of Adventure front gate.

1. When the park opens, turn left at the lagoon and into the queue for the Incredible Hulk Coaster, your first stop of the day.

2. After Hulk, continue into Marvel Super Hero Island to The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, a revolutionary 3-D dark ride that won the "Best Attraction" honors in the Theme Park Insider Awards for several years, and was the runner-up in TPI's initial 'Best Ride in America' tournament.

3. You are making your way clockwise around the park's lagoon, walking next to Toon Lagoon and Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges.

4. After Popeye, it's back across the street for a ride on Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls.

5. If you'd like to continue with the "let's get wet" theme, you can choose next to ride Jurassic Park River Adventure. If you are more a roller coaster fan, or just tired of the water rides, skip through the Jurassic Park section and past the construction site for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter to Dueling Dragons - Fire.

6. If you have time before your lunch reservation and want one more ride on a top roller coaster, queue up for Dueling Dragons - Ice.

7. Now it's time to relax at Mythos Restaurant, located across the path from Dueling Dragons.

After lunch, the rest of the day is yours. Enjoy it by either returning back to your hotel for a swim or a nap, or by remaining the park and wandering around, discovering the rest that Islands of Adventure has to offer. At the very least, linger a bit on your way out in Seuss Landing, counting to see how many Dr. Seuss characters you can find.

[Tomorrow - Universal Studios Hollywood]

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The Four Hour Tour: Universal Studios Florida

By Robert Niles
Published: April 21, 2008 at 9:35 PM
Universal Studios Florida, Universal Orlando Resort, Orlando, Florida [Map]

Theme Park Insider's "Four-Hour Tours" are designed to get you and your family to the very best attractions in the world's top theme parks... before anyone can get tired and cranky. That leaves you free to enjoy the rest of your day... with a swim, a nap, or with pressure-free time to wander the park.

Please visit our Four-Hour Tours page for an explanation of the concept, as well as links to additional Four-Hour Tours. The attractions and restaurants selected for this tour are those at Universal Studios Florida most highly rated by Theme Park Insider readers. You may click on the attraction links below to see complete attraction descriptions and reviews.

Universal Studios Florida

Before you go: Avoid the wait at the park's ticket booths by buying your tickets online at Universal Orlando's website. If you will be visiting both Universal Studios Florida and its sister park, Universal's Islands of Adventure in the same week, your best value would be with the two-park unlimited ticket. If not, choose the one-park, one-day ticket. Choose the print-at-home option, no matter which ticket you select.

You'll also want to make your lunch reservation before you go. On this tour, we are suggesting lunch at Emeril's in CityWalk, located between the Universal Orlando parking garage and the Universal Studios Florida theme park. Call 1-407-224-2424 a week or two in advance for 1pm reservations on the day of your visit.

Please note that The Simpsons Ride opens to the press on May 15, with a public opening expected the next day. If you are visiting before then, you probably not be able to ride that attraction. If you are visiting within one month of the ride's debut, however, we suggest reversing the order of this tour, starting with The Simpsons Ride, then moving to Men in Black and continuing counter-clockwise around the park. That's due to what is expected to be huge crowds for the new ride.

Also, if you stay on-site at one of the three official Universal Orlando hotels, you get free front-of-the-line access to all rides... which means you should be able to blow through this plan in just a couple of hours.

When you get there: Visitors to both Universal Orlando theme parks park in the same parking garage, then walk through CityWalk on their way into the parks. Give yourself at least half an hour (an hour in the summer) to park and make the walk. Bear right toward Universal Studios Florida front gate. On some mornings, the park might be open early to allow early visitors to ride Jimmy Neutron and Shrek 4-D. If you can on and through one of these before the park's scheduled opening time, go ahead.

1. When the park opens, proceed up the street toward the indoor roller coaster/dark ride, Revenge of the Mummy. Make your way quickly through the queue, but do pay attention to the filmed clips. They help set up the attraction, and a first-time visitor shouldn't rush past and miss them.

2. After leaving the Mummy building, bear left and walk toward Disaster!, an updated and renovated version of the park's "Earthquake" attraction.

3. Keep heading to your left, into the village of Amity, where you'll ride Jaws next.

4. After Jaws, head across the bridge toward the shoot-'em-up dark ride, Men in Black: Alien Attack. (If you are visiting alone, or in a small group, this ride features a single-rider line that can cut your wait time on busy days.)

5. Now its time for Universal's newest attraction, The Simpsons Ride, which opens in mid-May, 2008. If you are familiar with the park, The Simpsons Ride sits in the old "Back to the Future" building.

6. Finally, if you have at least 45 minutes remaining before your lunch reservation, check to see if you have time to catch the next showing of Terminator 2: 3-D Battle Across Time.

7. Head out of the park, getting your hand stamped, and back into CityWalk, for lunch at Emeril's.

After lunch, the rest of the day is yours. Enjoy it by either returning back to your hotel for a swim or a nap, or by returning the park and wandering around, discovering the rest that the park has to offer (or just trying to "win the suit" on Men in Black.)

That evening: It's an extra ticket, but if you're up for it, check out Blue Man Group in their own theater at CityWalk. Or, head back into the park for the light- and fireworks show Universal 360 – A Cinesphere Spectacular.

[Tomorrow: Islands of Adventure.]

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More details emerge on SeaWorld's Manta

By Domenik Jost
Published: April 21, 2008 at 4:33 PM
While trying hard to hold back details on its next big coaster, SeaWorld Orlando faces some interesting new leaks today.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, SeaWorld Inc. has filed an application for "Manta" to be trademarked to be used as "entertainment in the nature of an amusement park ride"
The application was filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on March 12.

Today, there was an artist rendering that was leaked out to the public on two theme park fan websites, one of these being IOACentral. The artwork showed a B&M Flying train design in the shape of a manta ray. The vehicles included four riders across laying face down. On the renderings you can see what appears to be a unique splash wave created by the wing touching the water during one of the turns.
If these rumored artist renderings present to be the actual ride, then SeaWorld really has something special.

SeaWorld's vice president of sales and marketing, Joseph Couceiro, said "It's going to have animal components, marine-life components. It will have a very unique, state-of-the-art ride, a roller coaster if you will, that will provide a sensation of gliding" He also said, "The combination of the animals and the ride is what makes it special."

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The Four Hour Tour: SeaWorld Orlando

By Robert Niles
Published: April 19, 2008 at 2:18 PM
SeaWorld Orlando, Orlando, Florida [Map]

Shamu in Believe at SeaWorld Orlando

Theme Park Insider's "Four-Hour Tours" are designed to get you and your family to the very best attractions in the world's top theme parks... before anyone can get tired and cranky. Please visit our Four-Hour Tour page for an explanation of the concept, as well as links to additional Four-Hour Tours. The attractions and restaurants selected for this tour are those at SeaWorld Orlando most highly rated by Theme Park Insider readers.

Before you go: Avoid the wait at the park's ticket booths by buying your tickets online at SeaWorld's website. If you are planning to visit more than one SeaWorld or Busch Gardens parks in next two years, a Platinum Passport includes admission to all nine Busch-owned theme parks, plus parking and dining discounts, for two years.

(The Platinum Passport also comes with "ride again" privileges for Kraken, Journey to Atlantis and Wild Arctic, allowing a passholder to ride those rides a second time without waiting in line again.)

In addition, this tour plan suggests having the "Backstage at Believe" buffet lunch, which includes saved seats at the park's popular Believe show, starring killer whale icon Shamu. SeaWorld recommends advance reservations for the lunch, which can be made by calling 1-800-327-2424 or via the SeaWorld website.

When you get there: Plan to arrive at the SeaWorld front gate before the park opens. You can check daily operating hours at the SeaWorld website. Be sure to give yourself an extra half-hour after arriving to park and walk to the gate.

1. Once inside, bear left and follow your map and the signs to Kraken, SeaWorld's floorless Bolliger & Mabillard roller coaster that will be your first ride of the day.

2. After a spin on Kraken, walk next door to the combo water ride/roller coaster Journey to Atlantis.

3. Next, head back toward the center of the park (where the big Sky Tower is), bearing left at the penguin exhibit, to make your way over to the Clyde and Seamore Take Pirate Island show.

4. Now, make your way toward the Believe stadium, stopping next door to it for Wild Arctic, a flight simulator ride followed by a walk-through a simulated arctic environment.

5. You can spend as long as you like watching the animals in the Wild Arctic walk-though, but keep your watch as not to miss your reservation time for the Believe buffet and show, your final stops on this Four-Hour Tour.

After completing the tour plan, relax and enjoy the rest of your day, either back at the hotel for a swim, nap or spa trip, or wandering the park enjoying the various animal exhibits.

In the evening... You might want to return after dark for SeaWorld's highly recommended Mystify! show. If you do, we suggest making a dinner reservation at Sharks Underwater Grill before the show.

[Next up, on Monday: Universal Studios Florida.]

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Vote of the week: Pronouncing 'Caribbean'?

By Robert Niles
Published: April 18, 2008 at 10:22 AM
My family and I got into a little bit of a fight last week when we visited Disneyland.

Specifically, over how to pronounce the name of the ride Pirates of the Caribbean.

So we decided... to milk it for a vote of the week!

Defend your choice in the comments, or just jabber about whatever your want....

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The Four Hour Tour: Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

By Robert Niles
Published: April 18, 2008 at 10:16 AM
Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom, Lake Buena Vista, Florida. [Map]

Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

Theme Park Insider's "Four-Hour Tours" are designed to get you and your family to the top attractions in the world's top theme parks... before anyone can get tired and cranky. The attractions and restaurants selected for this tour are those most highly rated by Theme Park Insider readers.

When to go: The Magic Kingdom was the first theme park at Walt Disney World, opening in 1971. All Disney World theme parks are open 365 days a year, although opening and closing times for each park varies from day-to-day. If you are traveling without kids, try to visit on a school day to avoid the largest crowds. If you need to visit during a school vacation, try at least to avoid the week between Christmas and New Year's and the Fourth of July.

If you are not staying at a Disney World hotel, avoid visiting the Magic Kingdom on its Extra Magic Hours days, as Disney's hotel guests get into the park early on those days, inflating wait times for visitors who arrive at the Magic Kingdom's normal opening time.

Before you go: Buy your Walt Disney World tickets online at Disney World's website. For advice on picking the right ticket, see our guide to Disney World tickets, keeping in mind that for the Four-Hour Tour, you will *not* need the park-hopper option.

You will also need to call in advance to make lunch and/or dinner reservations. Disney accepts reservations, via 1-407-WDW-DINE, up to 180 90 days in advance. Times do go quickly, so you should call six months to the day before your trip to secure a lunch reservation in the castle. We recommend a 1pm seating at Cinderella's Royal Table for this tour. If you can't get a time near that at Cindy's, ask for the Liberty Tree Tavern instead.

When you get there: Plan to arrive at the Magic Kingdom's front gate before the park opens in the morning. You can check the Magic Kingdom's opening time via Disney World's website.

Keep in mind that to reach the Magic Kingdom, you must park at Disney World's Transportation and Ticket Center parking lot, ride at tram to the TTC, then take a monorail or ferry boat across the Seven Seas Lagoon to the Magic Kingdom. It makes for a dramatic approach, but takes extra time. Give yourself an extra hour in the summer and half-hour during the school year.

1. Proceed to the end of the Main Street, nearest the castle, for the rope drop at park opening. Head left and cross the Adventureland bridge on your way to Splash Mountain, where you will pick up Fastpasses, Disney's ride reservation tickets, for everyone in your group. (Save a couple minutes by cutting through the Adventureland breezeway, opposite the Swiss Family Treehouse, into Frontierland, where you then can make a quick left toward Splash.)

2. Fastpasses in hand, head up the hill and ride Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, your first ride of the day.

3. After riding Thunder, use your Fastpasses to ride Splash Mountain. (If your Fastpass return time has not arrived yet, swap steps 2 and 3 and do Pirates now, followed by Splash.)

4. Head back into Adventureland for a ride on Pirates of the Caribbean.

5. Walk back through Frontierland to Liberty Square, where you next will ride the Haunted Mansion.

6. From there, head through the breezeway into Fantasyland, for the next showing of Mickey's PhilharMagic.

7. Continue around the park and into Tomorrowland. At this point, you have a decision to make.

If you are interested in riding Space Mountain, and a Fastpass return time is available for more than 20 minutes before your lunch reservation time, go ahead and pick up Fastpasses for Space Mountain. Otherwise pick up Fastpasses for Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin instead.

8. Either way, next head to Monsters, Inc. Comedy Club show.

9. After the show, it's on to Buzz Lightyear, followed by your Fastpass return to Space Mountain, if you chose that option.

10. Head back to the castle for lunch at Cinderella's Royal Table, or to Liberty Square for lunch at the Liberty Tree Tavern.

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Magic Mountain drops tunnels from X2

By Robert Niles
Published: April 18, 2008 at 9:58 AM
It looks like that Six Flags Magic Mountain continues to tweak its plans for the refurbished X2 roller coaster, as it approaches its planned opening next month.

Brady MacDonald at latimes.com reports that the Valencia, California park has dropped plans for tunnels on the new ride, though it still will add some special effects and music to the former X roller coaster.

X2 is slated to open May 24.

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The Four Hour Tour: Disney's Animal Kingdom

By Robert Niles
Published: April 17, 2008 at 2:39 PM
Disney's Animal Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Lake Buena Vista, Florida [Map]

Expedition Everest at Disney's Animal Kingdom

Theme Park Insider's "Four-Hour Tours" are designed to get you and your family to the top attractions in the world's top theme parks... before anyone can get tired and cranky. The attractions and restaurants selected for this tour are those most highly rated by Theme Park Insider readers.

When to go: Disney's Animal Kingdom is the newest of the four Walt Disney World theme parks. Like the others, it is open 365 days a year, although opening and closing times vary. If you are traveling without kids, try to visit on a school day to avoid the largest crowds. If you need to visit during a school vacation, try at least to avoid the week between Christmas and New Year's and the Fourth of July.

If you are not staying at a Disney World hotel, avoid visiting Animal Kingdom on its Extra Magic Hours days, as Disney's hotel guests get into those parks early on those days, inflating wait times for visitors who arrive at the park's normal opening time.

Before you go: Buy your Walt Disney World tickets online at Disney World's website. For advice on picking the right ticket, see our guide to Disney World tickets, keeping in mind that for the Four-Hour Tour, you will *not* need the park-hopper option.

When you get there: Plan to arrive at the park's front gate before the park opens in the morning, leaving yourself time to park and either walk or take a tram from the parking lot to the front gate. You can check Animal Kingdom's opening time via Disney World's website.

1. Turn right when you reach the Tree of Life and head into the park's Asia section, where you will start your day with a ride on Expedition Everest.

2. After Everest, head back through Asia and into the Africa section of the park, for a trip on Kilimanjaro Safaris.

3. Head back across the Discovery River into the Camp Minnie-Mickey section of the park and get in line for the next Festival of the Lion King show.

4. After watching Lion King, cut back past the Tree of Life to Dinoland USA. Here, you have decision to make. If you have one hour or less before the next performance of Finding Nemo - The Musical, quickly detour over to Dinosaur to pick up Fastpasses, Disney's rider reservation tickets, for that ride, then go back and wait for Nemo. If the next Nemo performance is more than one hour away, and the wait is less 45 minutes for Dinosaur, ride Dinosaur now.

5. If you saw Nemo first, now use your Fastpass to skip the stand-by line and ride Dinosaur. If you rode Dinosaur already, now is time for Finding Nemo.

6. Lunchtime. Neither of Animal Kingdom's two table service restaurants, Yak & Yeti nor the Rainforest Cafe, have earned an enthusiastic rating from Theme Park Insider readers. Therefore, we recommend that you choose instead to eat at Downtown Disney if you want a sit-down lunch. If folks in your group are hungry right now, though, TPI readers do recommend the counter-service Flame Tree Barbecue.

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The Four Hour Tour: Disney's Hollywood Studios

By Robert Niles
Published: April 16, 2008 at 10:40 AM
Disney's Hollywood Studios, Walt Disney World, Lake Buena Vista, Florida [Map]

Theme Park Insider's "Four-Hour Tours" are designed to get you and your family to the top attractions in the world's top theme parks... before anyone can get tired and cranky. The attractions and restaurants selected for this tour are those in Disney's Hollywood Studios most highly rated by Theme Park Insider readers.

When to go: Up until this year, Disney's Hollywood Studios was known as the Disney-MGM Studio Theme Park. It was the third theme park to open in the Walt Disney World Resort, in 1989. All Disney World theme parks are open 365 days a year, although opening and closing times for each park varies from day-to-day. If you are traveling without kids, try to visit on a school day to avoid the largest crowds. If you need to visit during a school vacation, try at least to avoid the week between Christmas and New Year's and the Fourth of July.

If you are not staying at a Disney World hotel, avoid visiting parks on their Extra Magic Hours days, as Disney's hotel guests get into those parks early on those days, inflating wait times for visitors who arrive at the park's normal opening time.

Before you go: Buy your Walt Disney World tickets online at Disney World's website. For advice on picking the right ticket, see our guide to Disney World tickets, keeping in mind that for the Four-Hour Tour, you will *not* need the park-hopper option.

You will also need to call in advance to make lunch and dinner reservations. Disney accepts reservations, via 1-407-WDW-DINE, up to 180 90 days in advance. Times do go quickly, so call early.

When you get there: Plan to arrive at the park's front gate before the park opens in the morning, leaving yourself time to park and either walk or take a tram to the front gate. You can check the park's opening time via Disney World's website.

1. Disney's Hollywood Studios will open its new Toy Story Mania! ride in May, so if you are visiting after then, head up to Pixar Place and make that your first stop, as it is sure to be highly popular.

2. After riding Toy Story Mania!, if it is open, head back to Sunset Boulevard and get FastPasses (Disney's ride reservation tickets) for The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.

3. Then walk next door to Rock n' Roller Coaster and ride that.

4. Return to Tower of Terror, and if your FastPass return time has arrived, use the FastPasses return queue to skip the stand-by line. If not, go ahead and wait in the stand-by line, then use your FastPasses to ride Tower of Terror a second time, without waiting. Tower of Terror won Theme Park Insider's inaugural Best Ride in America Tournament and features a random drop sequence that makes each ride unique, making this attraction worth a second ride.

5. After Tower of Terror, walk across the park to Star Tours, for your final ride of the morning.

6. Then it's lunchtime! Double back to the Hollywood Brown Derby, in time for your lunch reservations. (We suggest making the reservations for between 12 and 1pm.)

In the evening...

Theme Park Insider readers highly recommend the Studios' night-time show, Fantasmic! You can make dinner reservations at Mama Melrose's Ristorante Italiano that include priority seating for Fantasmic!, which is a nice way to wrap up the day with no waiting. Call the Disney dining number above in advance and ask for the Fantasmic seating at Mama Melrose's, while you are setting your Brown Derby lunch time.

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Opening date for The Simpsons Ride is set at USF

By MC Paddington
Published: April 16, 2008 at 9:16 AM
Orlando Local 6's Website reports that the official opening for The Simpsons Ride at Universal Orlando will be May 15, 2008.
(http://www.local6.com/news/15878320/detail.html)

This is awesome, considering I was at Universal on Sunday and an employee said that they had no clue when the attraction would be open.

[Editor's note: Got a phone call yesterday from Universal Orlando with the media preview dates for the ride, so I can confirm the public opening date will be the 15th. Sorry I didn't get that posted yesterday; between tax day, my teaching day and the first "Four Hour Tour" post, I was swamped. - Robert]

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The Four Hour Tour: Epcot

By Robert Niles
Published: April 15, 2008 at 2:34 PM
[Updated: 4/16 with a change to first get FastPasses for Soarin', instead of for Mission: Space.]

Epcot, Walt Disney World, Lake Buena Vista, Florida. [Map]

Theme Park Insider's "Four-Hour Tours" are designed to get you and your family to the top attractions in the world's top theme parks... before anyone can get tired and cranky. The attractions and restaurants selected for this tour are those in Epcot most highly rated by Theme Park Insider readers.

When to go: Epcot is one of four theme parks in the Walt Disney World Resort, located south of Orlando, Florida. All Disney World theme parks are open 365 days a year, although opening and closing times for each park varies from day-to-day.

In general, if you are traveling without kids, try to visit on a school day to avoid the largest crowds. If you need to visit during a school vacation, try to visit Epcot earlier in the week, as most visitors go to the Magic Kingdom first when visiting Walt Disney World.

If you are not staying at a Disney World hotel, avoid visiting parks on their Extra Magic Hours days, as Disney's hotel guests get into those parks early on those days, inflating wait times for visitors who arrive at the park's normal opening time.

Before you go: Buy your Walt Disney World tickets online at Disney World's website. For advice on picking the right ticket, see our guide to Disney World tickets, keeping in mind that for the Four-Hour Tour, you will *not* need the park-hopper option.

A large part of Epcot's appeal is its many wonderful full-service restaurants. Due to the popularity of Disney's Dining Plan, getting reservations at the more popular Epcot restaurants can be difficult, so we recommend that you call 1-407-WDW-DINE up to 180 90 days before your visit to make your reservations.

When you get there: Epcot is divided into two parks, Future World and World Showcase. So we've divided the tour into two parts, as well. The morning tour will cover Future World and the evening tour covers World Showcase. (This matches the operating hours for the two sections of the park, which tend to be staggered - Future World opens and closes earlier in the day, and World Showcase opens and closes later.)

Because we've split the tour for this park, each part will be shorter than the normal four hours.

The Morning

As with all of our Four-Hour Tours, you must arrive at the front gate before the park opens in the morning, which typically is at 9am. When the gates open, walk to the right of the massive Spaceship Earth geosphere that dominates the park's entrance plaza and proceed toward The Land pavilion and the Soarin' ride.

1. You will be getting FastPasses, which are Disney's ride reservation tickets, for everyone in your group. That will allow you to return to Soarin' later in the morning without having to wait in a longer stand-by queue.

2. Once you have gotten your FastPasses, cut across Future World to your first ride of the day, Test Track.

3. After riding Test Track, walk next door to Mission: Space.

4. Next, head back to the entrance plaza for a ride on Spaceship Earth.

5. Then return to The Land pavilion and your final ride, Soarin'. Go to the FastPass return line, which will allow you to skip what will now be a substantial stand-by line.

6. Lunchtime! We recommend the Coral Reef Restaurant, located in The Seas with Nemo and Friends pavilion, next door to The Land. Since you should be able to complete the morning tour for Epcot in less than four hours, we suggest trying to get reservations for noon, assuming a 9am opening.

After lunch, you're free for the rest of the afternoon. Head back to the hotel for a nap or swim, or wander the park exploring some of the other attractions not on the tour.

The Evening

If you can get away with it, try to use the "International Gateway" entrance to Epcot, located next to the Yacht and Beach Club hotels. That entrance puts you right into the World Showcase section of the park, without having to walk through Future World. If you are staying at a Disney World hotel, you can take a resort bus to the Yacht and Beach clubs, then walk to the International Gateway entrance from there. If you are driving, you can try to park at one of the Epcot area hotels, also including the Dolphin, Swan and Boardwalk hotels, though that's not always possible.

If not, though, no worries, you'll just have a longer walk through Future World from the main Epcot parking lot.

1. Start your evening with dinner reservations at the Le Cellier Restaurant in the Canada pavilion. We suggest a 6pm reservation. (If you can't get that, go a little earlier rather than later, especially if you are visiting during a busy time of year.)

2. After dinner, walk over to the France pavilion for a showing of Impressions de France.

3. Next, it's off to U.S. pavilion for The American Adventure.

4. Finish the day with the nightly performance of Epcot's Illuminations, a laser and fireworks show that takes place over and around the World Showcase lagoon.

And... you're done!

The next tour: Disney's Hollywood Studios, posted on April 16.

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Six Flags scraps plans for Dark Knight coaster in New England

By Robert Niles
Published: April 15, 2008 at 11:29 AM
It looks like Six Flags New England will not be getting a new indoor roller coaster, after all.

Almost two months after local officials ordered construction to stop after a permit snafu, Six Flags has announced that it will not go ahead with the announced "Dark Knight Coaster" project. Work that has been completed on the project will be dismantled.

Six Flags officials in a press release cited an inability to get the coaster finished by its planned Memorial Day opening as a reason for canceling the project.

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Introducing the 'Four Hour' theme park tour plans

By Robert Niles
Published: April 14, 2008 at 9:59 PM
Following my Disneyland trip report from the weekend, I am today introducing a new feature on Theme Park Insider: the four-hour tour plans for top theme parks.

How good a deal is your vacation if no one enjoys it? Starting tomorrow, and for the next 10 days, I'll be posting on the Theme Park Insider home page a new tour plan for a different park. These plans will include instructions on how to see each park's top attractions, before lunch and with minimal wait time for each.

Now, these tips might not be new to veteran TPI readers. But this provides an easy way for new readers and trip-planning rookies to cut through all the conflicting advice from various guidebooks and websites, so that they can relax and actually enjoy their vacations.

I hope that long-time TPI readers, and other park experts will add their favorite tips in the comments section for each plan. (I might also revise the plans themselves based on the comments each receives, as well as if attraction line-ups change.)

Here is the publication schedule:

  • Epcot, April 15
  • Disney's Hollywood Studios, April 16
  • Disney's Animal Kingdom, April 17
  • Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom, April 18
  • SeaWorld Orlando, April 19

  • Universal's Islands of Adventure, April 21
  • Universal Studios Florida, April 22
  • Universal Studios Hollywood, April 23
  • Disney's California Adventure, April 24
  • Disneyland, April 25

As for other parks, I'd love to hear from TPI readers who live near parks such as Cedar Point, Busch Gardens Europe and would like to submit their "four-hour plans" for those parks. Just e-mail me, using the link on the bottom of the page.

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The four-hour theme park time limit (A Disneyland trip report)

By Robert Niles
Published: April 11, 2008 at 8:16 PM
I went with the family to Disneyland today, and wanted to share a few tips.

1. Buy your tickets online and print them at home. You take the ticket print-outs directly to the entrance gate, where the attendant will scan them and hand you regular Disneyland tickets in exchange. These are the tickets that you can use in FastPass machines and for reentry into the park. Knocks off at least 20 minutes in line at the ticket booths, and allows you to decide on the right ticket, at home, with no pressure.

2. Avoid driving on Interstate 5, at all costs. We took the 210 east from Pasadena, to the south 57, then cut over to the park via Ball Road. It's a longer route, in distance, but took only five minutes longer than I-5 route would have taken... had there been no traffic. Which is not something that happens at 8 in the morning on a Friday in L.A. I'm guessing we saved 15-20 minutes by the end run around the 5.

3. Stick to a four-hour time limit. This is my new rule for visiting theme parks. I've been following it subconsciously for years, actually, but haven't bothered to articulate it before now.

Four hours is the time, I've found, that a family can spend together in a theme park before fatigue (physical or emotional) sets in. At the four-hour mark, it's time to get out, go someplace else, and either call it a day, or chill for at least six hours before returning to the park. Staying longer than that puts the group at risk for someone melting down. (With a toddler, knock an hour off the limit.)

Maybe newbies can let their adrenaline carry them through a "Special Forces"-style 12-hour assault on a theme park. I'll pass. I'd rather enjoy every moment of my time in the park, getting my money's worth from each minute, than suffer another family breakdown while tired people argue about what second-tier attraction to kill time with next.

Today, the plan was to do Finding Nemo, Buzz Lightyear, Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean and Splash Mountain. Then mess around taking pictures in front of the castle, go to Downtown Disney for lunch... and go home. We got into the park at quarter 'til nine and were out by 12:45. Five great rides (plus a repeat trip on Buzz, thanks to FastPass, and a trip down Main Street on a horse-drawn trolley) in four hours on a day when the park was open from 8 am to midnight (meaning it was a *crowded* day), with no hassle and no conflicts over what to do.

If we'd gotten out rears on the road earlier, we could have cut our wait time on Nemo and squeezed in a visit to Tom Sawyer Island as well. And if I had made this an overnight visit, we would have returned to the park from a hotel after dinner to hit two more rides (probably Matterhorn and another go on Buzz), then to watch the fireworks or Fantasmic.

Now, you might argue that $66 for an adult ticket for four hours in a theme park ain't a great deal. Well, we bought the SoCal resident 2fer ticket, so our $66 gets us an additional (yep, four-hour) day at California Adventure within the next 30 days. So we'll hit ToT, Monsters Inc., Aladdin, Grizzly River, and, for old times' sake, Jumpin' Jellyfish. We might try the Trattoria for lunch, or head back to Brennan's. And I'll take a slew of construction photos for the site.

With the two park visits, it's a reasonable deal, with no stress and plenty of relaxed enjoyment all around. So that's the key: Find a ticket package or discount that allows you feel comfortable with the four-hour daily time limit, and not frustrated that you're spending too much money for that amount of time in the park.

Here are a few pics from the park:

My final tip? Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen in Downtown Disney. Great food, much better than in the parks themselves, and I've never had a wait to get in. It's not cheap, but the high quality makes it a great value, in my experience.

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Vote of the week: How many parks did you visit?

By Robert Niles
Published: April 10, 2008 at 9:58 PM
One of the issues raised by the recent TPI Best Ride in America Tournament, was the discomfort than some readers felt about voting on match-ups involving rides they hadn't been on.

Which... inspired me to ask this particular question for the vote of the week:

Granted, an Orlando trip allows someone to knock off seven parks in one go (we're not counting water parks here). And keep in mind that we're just asking for the past 12 months here, not how many parks you've visited all time.

Tell us where you've been, in the comments.

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Universal Studios Japan announces new official hotel

By Danny Melillo
Published: April 10, 2008 at 9:34 PM
Universal Studios Japan has signed a deal with Best Western International to build "Best Western Premier Hotel Osaka Bay." It will tower twelve stories high and have 190 rooms. It is expected to open in July 2009.

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Bigwigs always have skipped the lines

By Robert Niles
Published: April 10, 2008 at 12:44 PM
An article in the Orlando Sentinel this morning reveals that Disney World's been handing out all-day FastPasses to government officials, allowing them to skip lines for Disney World attractions at will.

The technology may have changed, but the practice is nothing new. When I worked at Disney World, every week I saw some VIP - including actors, musicians and government officials - being escorted past queues and on to attractions. We used to call it "back-dooring" the ride.

I remember some of the women I worked with at Thunder Mountain playing with a young Alexa Ray Joel on the grassy hill behind the queue while her dad, Billy, and his band rode the coaster. My sister almost gotten taken down by a Secret Service member when she told former President Jimmy Carter (whom she did not recognize) to get behind the ropes when she was clearing the parade route.

My favorite incident? When a confused and embarrassed guest services tour guide approached me at Pirates, asking for help because she's gotten lost in the queue trying to backdoor her VIP into the ride. (It was during the late parade and there was no line to skip.) I followed her through the queue to where she had left her VIP, and there we found, sitting quietly, former mayor of Paris and future French President Jacques Chirac (whom I did immediately recognize. Take that, Sis!)

That was the way folks used to skip the line, under escort of a Disney tour guide. (Walt himself being the original host to do this at Disneyland.) With the FastPasses, now VIPs can blow through the parks without Disney having to pay for the guide to show them around. Which, presumably, could allow Disney to extend the perk to more people.

Is it unfair for government officials, many of whom make decisions about laws and regulations affecting the Mouse, to get preferred treatment in the parks? Sure, but let's get real. Businesses have been handing out freebies, perks and deals to officials for years. Because Disney does not charge for FastPasses, though, these perks have no monetary value and do not have to be declared as gifts. (Unlike, for example, free admission into the park, which Disney also provides VIPs from time to time.)

Of course, the easiest way for Joe Schmo to get the same, no-wait treatment is to arrive at the park at its opening in the morning. Plus, there's the added bonus of no politicians in the park at that hour. It's waaay too early for them. ;-)

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Lessons from the 'Best Ride' tournament

By Robert Niles
Published: April 9, 2008 at 3:27 PM
After taking a day off to recover, here are the lessons I've learned from our first Best Ride in America tournament.

1) Parks really need to invest in interactive technology.

I am convinced that the deciding factor in the final match-up between Tower or Terror and Spider-Man was not a Disney vs. Universal conflict, larger attendance at Disney's Hollywood Studios or fatigue with Spider-Man winning so many honors from this site over the years. It was the fact that Spider-Man offers the same ride every time one goes on it, and Tower of Terror does not. Tower or Terror's random drop sequences make each ride unique, a strong appeal for the video game generation.

Tomorrow's theme park rides must be unpredictable. As on Buzz Lightyear, Men in Black and the upcoming Toy Story Mania rides, readers should be rewarded for riding again and again, with a different experience each time. Tower of Terror achieves its unpredictability in a different way than those shoot-'em-ups, but the ultimate effect is the same. Ride again, and you'll have a different experience than last time. That's part of the appeal of playing a video game in lieu of re-watching a movie. It's also part of the appeal of any live performance (no two SeaWorld shows are exactly alike).

Want to attract kids raised on the unpredictability of video games? Want those kids to keep hauling their families to your theme park? You'd better offer them rides that stay fresh after multiple visits.


2) Leave the children's rides out of the tournament

As I explained in an earlier comment, a "best ride" tournament that includes all types of rides, from roller coasters to flume to dark rides, is going to have some mismatches. Especially in the early rounds. But I could avoided a couple turkeys had I left rides that appeal solely to young children out of the draw.

I'd already decided to exclude shows from the tournament (making it a 'best ride' contest instead of a 'best attraction' one). Some children's ride, such as Dumbo, got into the draw based on their relatively strong reader ratings and large number of reviews. Those ratings were based on parents' assessment of how those rides entertained their young children, as they should have been. But the simplicity and elegance that makes top children's rides so much fun for toddlers and early elementary kids makes them boring and often inappropriate for older kids and grown-ups who are not just riding along with a younger pal.

When we do this tournament again, I will make an additional effort to leave those rides out. Which, will clear the way for...


3) Use discretion to admit more "wild card" candidates

Curse of DarKastle should have been in this tournament. So should have Universal Hollywood's Backlot Tour. A handful of really engaging rides, that had not gotten a minimum number of votes or who got beaten out by higher-rated kiddie rides, did not make the cut for the final 64. Next year, I plan to take a closer look at the rides in the bottom quarter of the draw, and to use my editorial judgment to exclude some of them should I feel another ride is more deserving of inclusion in the tournament.

I'll also reserve the right to reorder to bottom half of the draw to create better first-round match-ups. Remember, top seeded rides deserve to face lower seeded ones, and in the first round, that's going to mean some mismatches. And I'd rather have the mismatches early, rather than create a roller coaster bracket, a flume ride bracket and a dark ride bracket, which simply would postpone the mismatches to the later rounds.

But I could have shifted a few match-ups around to make for more engaging battles in round one. Adding a few overlooked rides into the mix will help me to do that.


4) We need more ratings for parks outside the U.S.

Disneyland Paris' Space Mountain: Mission 2 should have been in this tournament. Its reader rating on the site would have placed in the top half of the draw. But I thought the ride would have been at a huge disadvantage as the only ride outside the U.S. in the tournament. Many readers were not comfortable voting on match-ups where they had not ridden both rides. So to help make the match-ups reasonable for those readers, I decided to limit the initial tournament to U.S. rides.

Ideally, though, I would love for this to be a 'Best Ride in the World' tournament. For that, though, we need to have more ratings and reviews submitted for rides at parks outside the U.S. As a website written in English, we've limited ourselves to non-U.S. parks that attract a substantial English-speaking audience. And that's not likely to change. But we could get more input from folks in Europe, and maybe even Japan, on the Disney, Tussauds and Universal parks there. The more international visitors we get on TPI, the more inclusive our tournaments can be.

And yes, I used the plural there. I am mulling ideas for additional tournaments, as well as additional efforts I can make to get more readers involved in contributing content to the site. Remember, we have a trip report contest this month for anyone visiting the new Hard Rock Park. I'd also like to elicit more thoughtful essays from readers about their park experiences.

The idea for this tournament came from a reader. So I'd like to ask you to suggest whatever you'd like to us do on the site to make this a more fun, engaging and informative place to visit. Thanks again.

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Best Ride in America champion: Twilight Zone Tower of Terror

By Robert Niles
Published: April 7, 2008 at 8:34 PM
Theme Park Insider readers have voted. And their pick for the Best Ride in America is...

Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Walt Disney World.

Twilight Zone Tower of Terror

Tower of Terror upset the tournament's top seed, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man at Universal's Islands of Adventure theme park. Voting was intense all day, with Tower of Terror jumping out to an early lead. In the late afternoon, Spider-Man closed the gap and pulled ahead, but in the end, Tower of Terror elicited enough votes to recapture the lead and win the title.

"We are very excited that the readers of Theme Park Insider share our enthusiasm and enjoyment of The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney's Hollywood Studios," Eric Jacobson, Senior Vice President, Walt Disney Imagineering wrote to TPI in a statement Monday evening. "Disney Imagineers add special effects, change timing sequences and incorporate new story elements in ways that create a new thrill with each experience. This ability, combined with a unique storyline that is equally flexible, enables us to continually reinvent the ride experience and ensures this timeless attraction remains a must-see for many years to come."

That flexibility appears to have been the deciding factor in the tournament's final match-up. Fans cited Tower of Terror's addictive random drop sequences, which reward repeat riders with unique experiences, something that Spider-Man could not match.

Not that readers had anything negative to say about Spider-Man, a four-time winner of the Theme Park Insider Award for world's best attraction. Fans raved about the ride's cutting-edge technology, immersive effects and strong story-telling.

Tower of Terror and Spider-Man were judged the top two rides in the country in a three-week-long tournament, pitting 64 of the country's most popular rides against each other in a series of single-elimination online polls. Rides were selected and seeded based upon their average rating by readers of ThemeParkInsider.com over the past year.

Before the tournament, Theme Park Insider readers were invited to submit their guesses at to what the top four rides would be, as well as their pick as the winner. No one correctly picked the top four, but reader Ryley Hoffman came closest, picking three of the top four, with his fourth pick losing in the quarterfinals. As a result, he is the winner of the $100 prize.

Watch in July for the announcement of the Seventh Annual Theme Park Insider Awards, which will again honor fans' picks for the best theme park, new attraction, theme park restaurant and theme park hotel. In addition, if you've enjoyed voting in the tournament polls, watch Friday for the return of Theme Park Insider's weekly "Vote of the Week."

Thank you to everyone who participated in this year's tournament. We look forward to doing this again next year, with many of this summer's crop of new theme park attractions participating!

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Best Ride in America Tournament Final: Spider-Man vs. Tower of Terror

By Robert Niles
Published: April 6, 2008 at 8:09 PM
Here we are: After three weeks, 62 match-ups and tens of thousands of votes cast, it is time to select the winner of the Best Ride in America Tournament.

Here are your finalists, with complete Theme Park Insider descriptions, ratings and reviews behind the links:

(1) The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man at Universal's Islands of Adventure

The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man at Universal's Islands of Adventure
Photo submitted by daniel hutchinson

(3) Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney's Hollywood Studios

Twilight Zone Tower of Terror
Photo submitted by Mitchell Sentinella

So, let's get it on:

Polls close Monday night. Last chance to sway the undecided, in the comments....

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It's Spider-Man vs. Tower of Terror

By Robert Niles
Published: April 5, 2008 at 10:34 PM
Check back Sunday evening as The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man takes on Twilight Zone Tower of Terror in an all-Orlando match-up to determine the 'Best Ride in America,' according to Theme Park Insider readers.

Those were the two finalist in a 64-ride single-elimination tournament here on the site over the past three weeks. Rides were selected and seeded according to their average reader rating on the site, and the top seed, Universal Orlando's Spider-Man, and number three seed, Disney World's Tower of Terror, advanced to the finals.

Voting is open to anyone, and will run for 24 hours, starting Sunday evening.

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Best Ride in America Tournament: Indy vs. Tower of Terror semifinal

By Robert Niles
Published: April 4, 2008 at 9:04 PM
Let's pick the second finalist in the 'Best Ride in America' tournament:

(2) Indiana Jones Adventure at Disneyland

Indiana Jones Adventure
Photo submitted by Ryan Lanning

From the TPI reader reviews: "Indiana Jones Adventure is a perfect example of movie re-formatting. The detail is excellent and the effects are very intense thus many children easily get scared in the ride. A must-see attraction in Disneyland, go early in the morning or one hour before the park closes." (Adriel Tjokrosaputro)

(3) Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney's Hollywood Studios

Twilight Zone Tower of Terror
Photo submitted by Mitchell Sentinella

From the TPI reader reviews: "A perfect example of what Disney does best: take a standard amusement park idea (in this case, a "freefall" style ride) and turn it into a creative tour de force. Simply the best themed attraction at DisneyWorld and one of the most thrilling and unique rides I have ever had the pleasure to experience." (James Rao)

So, let's get to it:

Have at it in the comments.

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Kings Island turns its Racer around

By Robert Niles
Published: April 4, 2008 at 9:17 AM
I don't know how many of you will find this interesting, but I did. Kings Island has announced that both trains on its wooden racing coaster, The Racer, will run facing forward this year.

Kings Island started running one of the Racers backward in the early 1980s. I was a high school student in Indianapolis at the time, and we thought that the idea of a backward coaster was pretty cool. Everyone thought that it was a temporary thing, though, a stunt to make a "new" attraction out of an old one, so I was surprised to discover that the train's been running backward ever since. (Shows you how much attention I've paid to Kings Island since I got out of the Midwest.)

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Best Ride in America Tournament: Spidey vs. Pirates semifinal

By Robert Niles
Published: April 3, 2008 at 8:51 PM
So it comes to this... after 59 match-ups, and more than 30,000 votes cast, we are down to the top four rides in the 'Best Ride in America' tournament. And much like this year's NCAA men's basketball tournament, the top four seeds are the ones to advance to the final four.

We will have the first semi-final match-up today, followed the the second tomorrow. And on Monday, the finalists will match up as you, Theme Park Insider readers, vote to select the Best Ride in America.

(1) The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man: Universal's Islands of Adventure

The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man at Universal's Islands of Adventure
Photo submitted by daniel hutchinson

From the TPI rating and reviews page: "A four-time winner for Best Attraction in the Theme Park Insider Awards, Spidey takes you on an adventure with the web-slinger as he tries to save the city. You ride in a bucking, spinning SCOOP Vehicle-- 3-D glasses night vision on your face -- through 11 scenes, escaping fireballs, 100-story drops and other mayhem."

(4) Pirates of the Caribbean: Disneyland

Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland
Photo submitted by Todd Shewchuk

From the TPI rating and reviews page: "Pirates of the Caribbean raised the standards for all theme park dark rides when it opened in 1967, and endures today as the world's best family dark ride, as well as the inspiration for a hit movie trilogy. The popularity of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies has motivated the people at Disneyland to change the ride yet again. Instead of having the attacking pirates look for gold, they are now looking for Capt. Jack Sparrow."

Make your case for your favorite in the comments.... (And for those of you who joined us late, here are the previous votes/comments as well as the tournament bracket.)

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Busch Gardens Africa Trip Report and Jungala Preview

By Russell Meyer
Published: April 3, 2008 at 8:49 PM
We had a bit of unlucky timing with this trip, just missing out on the debut of lots of new attractions in Orlando. In fact, Jungala at Busch Gardens Africa is set to make its media debut later this week. We spent Saturday at the Tampa park hoping to catch a glimpse of the new attractions. Unfortunately, because of the tight construction schedule, I was not able to get any more than some photos from the perimeter and the skyride. Despite visiting on a busy Saturday, we were able to get to all of the things we wanted to do.

Our day started with SheiKra, which for me is still a toss-up with Griffon for world's best dive coaster. There are elements of both coasters that I like, and if I could combine them both into one coaster, it would crack a lot of top 10 coaster lists. Don't get me wrong, SheiKra is still a great coaster, and converting to floorless trains adds some great visual elements to guests in the front row. We also rode Kumba, which is an excellent and intense looping coaster.

We made our way over to the Brewmaster’s Club at the Hospitality House where our presenter had noted that August Busch III would be in the park today for a tour. Sure enough, while we were enjoying our beverages, in walked Mr. Busch along with Donnie Mills, former Busch Gardens Europe General Manager, now General Manager of Florida Theme Park Operations. Mr. Busch actually had arrived to the park via helicopter, which we noticed parked near Gwazi. It was obvious Mr. Busch was in the park to check out Jungala before its official debut, and for those who aren't aware, Mr. Busch is actually very involved in the theme parks, and helped to develop the Brewmaster’s Club concept for the parks.

We continued our tour through the park, where I grabbed some pictures of Jungala.

The area will feature a number of animal habitats including Bengal tigers, orangutans, gibbons, and flying foxes. Jungala will also have two rides, one called Jungle Flyers, a zip-line attraction for kids between 6 and 13, and Wild Surge, a family-style launch tower ride.

The area will also feature Tree Tops Trail, a 3-story climbing area with cargo nets, tubes, and bridges for families to explore. Jungala will bring guests two new dining options with The Bengal Bistro, an updated version of the old Vivi restaurant, and Orang Cafe, which will feature seasonal entrees, salads, sandwiches, and an expanded kids menu.

From outside the temporary barriers and from the skyride, I was able to catch a glimpse of some of the animals acclimating to their new habitats.

It looks like Jungala will be a vast improvement over the previous animal habitats that used to be in this area, and the additional attractions and exhibits will more than make up for the loss of Python, which was declining in popularity.

As we continued around the park, we noticed that Irish Thunder, a favorite of ours from Busch Gardens Europe, was playing at the Desert Grill, so we made sure to catch the classic show. It was a little different from the version we were used to, but the Desert Grill was certainly not the best place to stage such a popular show. We managed to also catch a training session with the park's Asian elephants.

Being the music nerds we are, we also took some time out of our day to catch Orleans at the Stanleyville Theater. Orleans is not what I would call a headliner, but their three hits, “Dance with Me,” “Love Takes Time,” and “Still the One” are still decent songs, and their set was worth a mid-day break.

We wanted to do something new on this visit since we had visited the park so recently, so we made reservations for the Sundowner Safari before our arrival. The experience is billed as an up-close and personal tour of the Serengeti for adults 21+, in contrast with the Serengeti Safari, which is for anyone over the age of 5. The $40 price tag may seem a bit high, but after finishing our tour, I thought it was worth every penny. Guests go through an abbreviated version of the Brewmaster’s Club before hopping on a truck. Once on the truck, guests are treated to more beer (2 bottles per person) and an amazing experience with the park's giraffes, bongos, and zebras. The heart of the experience is the giraffe feeding where the animals come into the truck- well, their heads and necks at least- to snack on some lettuce provided to guests by the tour guide. These majestic and gentle animals are simply awe-inspiring. It was surely an experience I will never forget.

We finished our day with a walk through the animal exhibits, some rides on Montu, and a final ride on SheiKra. Despite the park being pretty busy, we were able to see and do a lot. All of the rides were operating at or near peak capacity, and we never waited in a line longer than 30 minutes. I was a little bummed that we had just missed out on the opening of Jungala, but it's not going anywhere, and we will most certainly be back to this park in a few years.

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Best Ride in America Tournament: The quarterfinals, day two

By Robert Niles
Published: April 2, 2008 at 9:50 PM
It's time to set the top four attractions in Theme Park Insider's inaugural 'Best Ride in America' tournament. Yesterday, top seed The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man and four seed Pirates of the Caribbean (the original, Disneyland version) punched their tickets. What other two rides will join them today?

Click the attraction names for full descriptions, as well as TPI readers' ratings and reviews. (And feel free to add your own rating, then come back here to vote.)

(2) Indiana Jones Adventure vs.
(26) Dueling Dragons – Ice

(3) Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (Disney World) vs.
(11) Kraken

Again, here is the tournament bracket [PDF]. Let's go for another good round of comments, too. Thanks, again, for everyone's participation in this year's tournament!

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Sea World Orlando Trip Report

By Russell Meyer
Published: April 2, 2008 at 4:54 PM
Editor's note: Theme Park Insider contributor Russell Meyer headed down to Central Florida last week, and checks in today with a report on his visit to SeaWorld.

During our most recent trip to Orlando last November, we pretty much saw everything we wanted to see, and weren't planning another trip to the area for another few years. Much to our surprise, my wife and I found ourselves in Orlando for a quick weekend. As I had reported earlier, we spent one of our days at Aquatica, but since our trip was so short, and there were no major new attractions at other parks, we took advantage of our Busch Platinum passes and spent an evening at Sea World and a day at Busch Gardens Tampa.

We got into Orlando mid-day on Friday, and walked through Sea World's gates around 4 PM. We walked around the park and made reservations for the Brewmaster's Club, and watched Pets Ahoy. The show doesn't feature any sea creatures, but definitely has universal appeal and supports a worthy cause, with performers straight out of local animal shelters. We then took a few spins on Kraken, which for me is still the best floorless coaster in the world (even better than Griffon or SheiKra). We also went up into the Sky Tower to get a bird's eye view of Aquatica and a construction area in the center of the park that is rumored to be the location of a B&M flying coaster called Manta. While there's not much more than a clear swath of land now, it is likely an announcement will be made in the coming months detailing the anticipated new attraction. [That was quick! - Editor] Everything right now, including the shape and size of the construction area, points to a coaster.


Before coming to Orlando, we had decided to make reservations for some experiences that we had not done before in the parks. The Shamu Rocks Dinner Buffet gives guests an opportunity to sit backstage near one of the killer whale observation pools while enjoying dinner, and then proceed to exclusive seating to one of the shows at Shamu Stadium. The dinner costs $32/person, and includes a wide variety of foods including salad, carved turkey, seafood alfredo, homemade meatballs, beef burgundy, an assortment of desserts, and a selection of beer and soda. The dinner was excellent, and well worth the cost. The backstage views that are advertised are nothing special, but the overall setting does provide an enjoyable experience. Our reserved seats for the Shamu Rocks show were not needed on this particular evening, but would probably be very useful on very busy days. We had never seen this show before, so it was cool to see a killer whale show presented in a very hip and exciting manner. Shamu Rocks is not inspirational like Believe, and not educational like other incarnations of Sea World shows. It choreographs the killer whale behaviors to popular rock tunes with an impressive light display. I actually like it more than Believe, even through the behaviors are not as unique or original.

We grabbed a couple more rides on Kraken, this time at dark, before heading to our Brewmaster's Club reservation. We always go to Orlando in the fall to avoid the crowds, and the park normally has reduced hours during our visits, so it was cool to be able to walk around after dark and we were looking forward to seeing Mistify for the first time. I already knew what to expect from the nighttime spectacular, a Sea World version of Fantasmic, but I ended up leaving a bit disappointed. The show uses projections on water along with fountains and fireworks to tell the story of a boy as he dreams about an underwater adventure. The soundtrack was really good, and the fireworks and fountains were very impressive, but the projections on the mist were not very clear. It was pretty easy to follow the story, but if the visuals had been clearer, the show would have been great. Nonetheless, it's good to see other parks trying to compete with Disney in the nighttime spectacular arena.

Our evening at Sea World was short, but sweet, and since we had just been to the park a few months ago, it was very satisfying.

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Best Ride in America Tournament: The quarterfinals, day one

By Robert Niles
Published: April 1, 2008 at 8:49 PM
We are down to the final eight in the Best Ride in America Tournament, with the first two quarterfinal match-ups today, followed by the remaining two tomorrow.

We'll start with the undercard: top seed Spider-Man facing the tough underdog from Busch Gardens Africa:
(1) The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man vs.
(41) Montu

And, then, to the Disney vs. Disney main event:
(4) Pirates of the Caribbean (Disneyland) vs.
(12) Expedition Everest

As for the prediction contest, no one will pick correctly all four semifinalists in the tournament. However, nine readers remain in the running to get three of the four correct. Ryley Hoffman is the only reader to have all four picks still alive in the tournament, however Ryley picked both Pirates and Everest to reach the final four, and they meet each other in the round of eight today.

The other eight readers still alive in the contest are:

  • Dan Babbitt
  • Joshua Counsil
  • Heath
  • Justin
  • Carl Marks
  • Marc Ricketts
  • Donna Tolliver-Walker
  • Ryan Traylor

    Talk amongst yourselves in the comments....

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  • Aquatica--Sea World's Waterpark

    By Russell Meyer
    Published: April 1, 2008 at 8:52 AM
    [Editor's note: TPI contributor Russell Meyer today files his trip report from Orlando's newest park. Today's tournament votes are below Russell's report on the page.]

    Aquatica is billed as "Sea World’s Waterpark," and there are definitely some touches at Florida’s newest waterpark that you won’t find anywhere else in the world. There are also some attractions that you could find in just about any waterpark in America. The park is situated just across the street from Sea World, and coaster fans will undoubtedly be taunted by Kraken as its trains roar a few hundred yards beyond Aquatica’s boundary.

    My wife and I, along with my new underwater digital camera, spent Sunday in the new park. Our day started just before the 9:00 AM opening time with the realization that perhaps park designers did not expect large crowds, as the small entry plaza was overflowing with people, a fact that was further exacerbated by the slow entry gates. This was a crowded but not capacity attendance day, making the long lines somewhat disconcerting. We made our way into the park, and proceeded to the locker rental area. Lockers at Aquatica can be rented for $8 (small) or $10 (large) on an all-day basis with $3 returned in the form of a park gift card (good at either Aquatica or Sea World) when the locker key is returned. Towels can also be rented for the day for $4, which includes a $2 deposit also returned as a park gift card. Sorry passholders – no discounts on rentals.

    As with most waterparks, it’s important to stake your claim to a beach chair early in the day, and Aquatica is no different. A majority of the chairs are located near the dual wave pools, but there are others scattered around the park that may not have the convenience or sandy beach, but may provide a bit more seclusion. Also, guests can rent a cabana for the day, most of which are located behind the wave pools. Cabana rentals include towels, assorted non-alcoholic beverages, and lockers for $150 per day ($175 from Memorial Day – Labor Day). While that may seem expensive, split between 4 people, it may be a convenient way to ensure some privacy and comfort on busy days. We bypassed the luxury and comfort of the cabanas, and instead chose a pair of beach chairs under a shady palm tree.

    Aquatica has a number of attractions including five waterslide complexes, two wave pools, two river-based attractions, two kids play-plexes, and two animal attractions. The trademark waterslide at Aquatica is Dolphin Plunge, which is an enclosed slide that sends riders through a tube that shoots through a tank filled with Commerson’s Dolphins.


    Even without the plunge through a dolphin tank, the slide is a lot of fun, but the trip past swimming dolphins is so quick that you might not even notice, as evidenced by this video.

    Taumata Racer is a set of 8 racing slides that start off enclosed, but end with an exciting race to the finish.

    Walhalla Wave and HooRoo Run are a pair of large raft-based slides that are both exciting and worth a try. Tassie’s Twisters are a pair of identical slides that I affectionately call "toilet bowl" slides. These slides can be fun, but tend to be really low capacity because it takes almost one minute to reach the bottom. Whanau Way is the final slide complex that consists of a pair of enclosed slides that are both very different but very fun. Of the slides, Whanau Way was my favorite. There are also smaller slides located in Walkabout Waters, a pretty standard play-plex with cargo nets, splashing buckets and water cannons. A series of even smaller slides can be found at Kata’s Kookaburra Cove with a number of attractions designed for the smallest of swimmers. Roa’s Rapids is a not-so-lazy river that is best experienced wearing a life vest (inner tubes are not allowed) with a strong current that carries riders through twists turns, past geysers, and waterfalls, and through "speed zones." Loggerhead Lane is a pretty standard lazy river, but offers exclusive views of the dolphin tank and a tropical aquarium.

    Finally, there are two distinct wave pools, Big Surf Shores and Cutback Cove. The name would suggest that Big Surf Shores would be the more advanced of the two wave pools, but it produces medium-sized, very regular swells, which Cutback Cove has larger, more organic waves that vary depending on where you are in the pool. Both pools were nice, but Cutback Cove was definitely the better of the two.

    Guests also have a number of dining options ranging from snack bars to an all-you-care-to-eat buffet. Since we were spending the entire day at the park, we chose the all-day buffet at the Banana Beach Cookout for $19.95. The buffet can also be purchased for a single meal for $12.95. The buffet includes assorted fruits, pudding, pasta salad, potato salad, cole slaw, corn on the cob, baked beans, macaroni and cheese, hamburgers, hot dogs, BBQ chicken wings, and assorted fountain beverages. The food was all very good and the buffet provided more than enough variety to satisfy our appetites for two meals. For guests not wanting to go the buffet route, there are two other main restaurants, Mango Market with wood-fired pizzas and assorted cold cuts, and Waterstone Grill with hot sandwiches and wraps.

    There are number of great things about Florida’s newest waterpark. The Dolphin Plunge is an experience that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Cutback Cove produces some of the most realistic surf I’ve experienced in a wave pool. The Banana Beach Cookout is a great value for guests planning to eat two meals in the park or who may want to snack throughout the day.

    However, the park is not without its faults. The Dolphin Plunge is very cool, but guests whiz through the dolphin tank so fast, they probably won’t even notice that they’ve slid through a tank of marine mammals. Most of the waterslides are pretty generic in design, and the park does not have any speed slides (like Summit Plummet at Disney’s Blizzard Beach). The park also lacks an entry area large enough to accommodate guests waiting for the park to open. Aquatica could also use some more animal exhibits if it is going to market itself as "Sea World’s Waterpark."

    Despite the negatives, Aquatica is definitely an enjoyable waterpark, and should be competitive with Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon. Its marquee attraction, Dolphin Plunge, will keep guests coming back for more, but some additional unique experiences will be needed in coming years to tackle Disney’s Orlando waterpark supremacy.

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    Stories from a Theme Park Insider

    Stories from a Theme Park Insider

    What's it like to work in a theme park? Stories from a Theme Park Insider takes you inside the famous tunnels and backstage at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom for a look at how theme parks really work, sharing the funny moments and embarrassments that can happen when your job is someone else's vacation.
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