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June 2008

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Random nit-picks from a week in Orlando

By Robert Niles
Published: June 30, 2008 at 10:46 AM
I enjoyed my trip to Orlando last week, but that didn't keep me from finding these nits to pick:

1. Last week, the Universal Orlando crowd was dominated by three types of tourists:

  • Brazilian teens
  • Overweight Americans
  • Sunburnt Britons

    Seriously, is sun block illegal in the U.K.? Does no one there know how to use it? Do we need to set up a tutorial webpage on this?

    2. Seuss Landing really needs a coat of paint. I failed you in not getting pictures of how badly faded the carousel and other buildings around Seuss Landing have become. (We did Seuss on the last morning we spent at IOA and I'd already packed the camera away.) Fortunately, though, I noticed that the stanchions of the Seuss Landing sign appear to have been painted at the bottom. Color testing? They looked good, and I hope that Universal soon gives the rest of the land a fresh coat.

    3. Too much of Dudley Do-Right just looks awful. I love the theme, gags and pacing of this ride, but too many sections of it look circa-2004-Six Flags bad. Again, fresh paint, or a new scheme that doesn't chip and fade so badly, is needed.

    4. Is there no way to hide those "CineSpheres" during the day at Universal Studios Florida? Man, do they kill the sight lines around the lagoon.

    5. Why would an airport grant a concession contract to Chick-Fil-A? The chain famously does not operate on Sundays, due to its owners' religious beliefs. Now, I respect that, and defend their right to close on the day of their faith's Sabbath, as I would for any other business owner.

    But airports operate seven days a week, and I think that airport authorities have a duty to their customers, the traveling public, to award contracts to businesses that will be open for all of those seven days. (It also ticks me off when concessionaires close hours before the last flights of the evening.)

    The food court in Orlando's airport is already light on its diversity of options, and taking Chick-Fil-A away on Sundays makes it even worse.

    6. Florida needs to adopt California's law prohibiting rental car companies from charging an "extra driver" fee for spouses. What a rip-off.

    7. I kept my checked bags under United's 50-lb. limit. But if I had gone over by a few pounds, I would have been steamed to have had to pay a $100 penalty for the bag, while paying full adult fare for my 60-lb. child. Especially when some 220-lb. passenger with a 49-lb. bag did not. If oil keeps going up, I sense the day coming when airlines start weighing passengers.

    8. I did the math, and figured that it would have cost us $505 for gas to drive for Los Angeles to Orlando and back in our Prius, at $4.50 a gallon. That's about what we paid per ticket in airfare.

    9. There is nothing, repeat, nothing healthy to eat at a Cracker Barrel.

    10. And finally... why do so many places serve bad, from-concentrate orange juice... in Florida?

    Comments (22) | Archive Link

  • SeaWorld Orlando alters ticket prices

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 30, 2008 at 9:45 AM
    The price of visiting SeaWorld Orlando for a day has gone up. Today, the park announced a $2 price increase, to $69.95 for a one-day ticket. (One-day, one-park tickets at Disney World go for $71.)

    At the same time, Busch cut the price for a two-day, two-park ticket by a whopping $20, to $79.95. The second park can be either the Aquatica water park, or Busch Gardens Africa in Tampa.

    But those front-gate prices aren't the deals you want, anyway. Busch's best ticket prices remain online. A basic SeaWorld ticket is available online for $59.95, and includes a free second day at the park.

    Busch also offers online a 14-day unlimited visit pass to SeaWorld Orlando and Aquatica for $84.95, five bucks over the two-day pass at the gate. (It's called the "SeaWorld and Aquatica 'Be a Kid Again"' Length of Stay Ticket.")

    Archive Link

    Rider climbs out of Ferris wheel in mid-air at Hersheypark

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 30, 2008 at 8:46 AM
    One more for the "what were they thinking?" file:

    From The Patriot-News:

    A Ferris wheel rider in Hersheypark on Saturday evening didn't like the conversation he was having with his female companion, so he got off the ride -- while it was moving.

    The man, who was not identified, climbed out of the ride's car and sat crossed-legged on the roof for about 25 minutes as Derry Twp. police and his family tried to talk him down, Hersheypark spokesman Garrett Gallia said.

    Here's the full story.

    Comments (3) | Archive Link

    Teen killed at Batman coaster at Six Flags Over Georgia

    By Ben James
    Published: June 28, 2008 at 4:52 PM
    Story from the Atlanta Journal Constitution:

    A boy was killed Saturday when he was struck by the popular Batman ride at Six Flags Over Georgia.

    Police spokesman Dana Pearce said the victim was not on the ride when he was "struck and killed." Six Flags said in a statement that details of the fatal accident would be released "shortly."

    According to Fox 5 TV, a group of boys with a church group visiting the amusement park jumped a fence around an off-limits area. One of them jumped to grab someone's feet as the Batman ride passed over, and he was decapitated.

    Update: Six Flags' statement:

    A 17-year old park visitor scaled two six-foot fences that secured the Batman roller coaster and was struck and killed by the coaster at approximately 2 p.m. today. We do not know why this person was intent on gaining access to this restricted area, as multiple signs clearly state: Danger Zone/Do Not Enter/Authorized Personnel Only.

    Some witnesses have stated that the individual was trying to retrieve something he had lost. Others reported that he was trying to touch the ride. This is merely speculation at this point, and we are working with park visitors and local police to learn more. No guests on the ride were injured. The visitor’s family was at the park with him, and Six Flags representatives are currently with the family. Our thoughts and prayers are with the family.

    Update 2: This is the second death at the ride involving a victim who was struck and killed while in a restricted area. In 2002, a Six Flags employee was struck and killed.

    Update 3: The 17-year-old South Carolinan was sneaking back into the park after leaving for lunch. The first fence he and a friend scaled was the park perimeter fence. The second was the attraction fence.

    Update 4: Victim ID'd as Asia LeeShawn Ferguson of Springfield, South Carolina. Ferguson was visiting with a group from Oakey Springs Baptist Church in Springfield.

    Comments (13) | Archive Link

    Trip report: Universal Orlando and the Loews Royal Pacific Hotel

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 28, 2008 at 10:03 AM
    ORLANDO - Here's how well our Orlando vacation went this year: No one in my family complained.

    I suspect that my wife and kids are sick of theme parks. That's the blowback from having a professional theme park critic in the family. They would rather sleep in on vacation, instead of roll out of bed at dawn to get in line at parks before they open. They would like to slow down and wander, not power-walk though crowds like a Disney World cast member trying to get to a distant break room and back before his 15 minutes is up. And they would very much like to quit being the guinea pigs for whatever trip itinerary I want to test this week.

    That's why, each year when we start talking about our Orlando trip, my wife clenches her teeth behind a weak smile before asking, "So, what are we going to do this year?"

    "I've booked us into the Royal Pacific Hotel at Universal Orlando for four nights."

    The 'Windward' tower at the Royal Pacific

    "We're staying at a theme park?"

    Her eyebrows arched with intensity that suggested she did not see this as a good thing.

    "Yeah," I replied. "Look, when you stay at one of Universal's three hotels you get free front-of-the-line passes to the parks."

    Silence. Blank stare. Crickets.

    "That means we don't have to wait in line for any rides," I said. "All week."

    Hope flickered in her eyes, then the teeth clenched again.

    "Well, all right," she said. "That could be nice."

    At first, I'd planned to spend two nights at the Hard Rock Hotel, but could get only a room only for a three night stay. Looking at the other two Universal Orlando hotels, I found a discount at the Loews Royal Pacific for a four-night minimum stay - $200 a night.

    Yes, you can get a similar room for $60-$100 a night less, in the Orlando area. But those rooms don't stand within walking distance of two of the world's top theme parks. Nor does staying there allow you to skip the lines in those parks. So I figured I'd pay the higher rate and see if those benefits were worth the extra cost.

    Now I needed theme park tickets. On Universal Orlando's website, I found a seven-day, two-park ticket for $90. (The deal is available only on the website, not at the ticket booths, and must be bought at least two days in advance of the ticket's first use.)

    So I had $1,160 for four nights at a four-start hotel, plus five days at two top theme parks, with no waits at those parks, for a family of four. This could be... good.

    Of course, the trip wasn't perfect. United Airlines blows. A "maintenance problem" with our plane led to a four-hour delay, a change of planes and a bunch of other people who wanted to fly to Baltimore having their flight cancelled. Given that we'd planned a birthday dinner for our son when we arrived in Orlando the first night, the delay left us pretty steamed. Next time, we're sticking with Delta.

    We got to the hotel at midnight, then discovered the only flaw we found with the Royal Pacific during our stay: parking. The valets were gone at that hour, and the self-parking lot filled, leaving me to drive around the back of the hotel to an overflow lot. That wouldn't have been so bad... had there been a sidewalk back to the front lobby. Instead, I had to walk along the same winding road I'd just driven, in the dark. I had to do this the next two nights, too, as we got back to the hotel from my parents' house after 10 each night. For $15 a night for parking, Universal ought to either build a garage or a sidewalk.

    We stayed on the top floor of the "Windward" building, one of three Y-shaped buildings in the Royal Pacific complex. All three meet in a central lobby, overlooking lush grounds and a well-landscaped pool. I found the beds extra comfy, though the room was a tad small for four. Of course, we spent next to no waking time in the room, so that was no big concern.

    The two-queen-beds room at the Royal Pacific

    Why would you want to spend much time in these rooms, with the beautiful pool as well as the Universal Orlando just steps (or a short boat ride) away?

    The pool at the Royal Pacific

    We decided that the walking path provided the quickest way to get to Islands of Adventure and the "water taxi" the best route to Universal Studios Florida. (The water taxis sail from the three hotels to a central dock located in CityWalk, across the from NASCAR restaurant.)

    After our late arrival, we slept in on Tuesday morning, normally a cardinal sin under Robert's Rules of Theme Park Vacations. But with our room keys serving as unlimited Universal Express passes, we sailed over to USF after 11 am, then walked right on to The Simpsons Ride, skipping the already 30-minute wait.

    From there, we hit Men in Black a couple of times, took some pictures with Scooby-Doo and The Simpsons, then walked over to NBA City for lunch. With the front-of-the-line benefit, we had no need to stick to any itinerary. We just went where we wanted, when we wanted to, and never waited more than 10 minutes for anything. My daughter fell in love with the Dudley Do-Right and Popeye rides, which frequently had hour-plus waits during our visit, but she rode them both as often as she wanted, with never more than a five-minute wait.

    Typically the theme park dilemma is this: (A) Take it easy, and spend all day in lines, or (B) Cut it short, and stick to an intense schedule to avoid the lines. We found option (C): Take it easy, cut it short and still see everything you want to see. I don't think we spent more than two hours at a time in any one park during the visit. With all the stress of lines or itineraries taken away, by the second day, my wife and kids were suggesting when they wanted to go back to the parks, talking about the rides they wanted to see with excitement in their voice, not resignation... or dread.

    So, yeah, the extra bucks were worth it. Especially coupled with the online ticket. This might have been the best bargain I've ever gotten on a theme park vacation.

    As we drove away from the Royal Pacific on Friday, the verdict was unanimous: everyone wanted to do this again. I never thought I'd hear my family say that about a theme park trip.

    Comments (11) | Archive Link

    Good-bye Pleasure Island

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 27, 2008 at 6:27 PM
    ORLANDO - Walt Disney World's nightclub district soon will be history.

    Disney announced today that it will close the Pleasure Island nightclubs, including Mannequins, 8Trax, Adventures Club and others, on Sept. 27. The closure will allow redevelopment of the area as part of a revamp of the Downtown Disney shopping and dining district.

    The over-21-oriented Pleasure Island now splits the more family-oriented Marketplace and West Side sections of Downtown Disney, making for awkward guest flow through the area. Of course, the elimination of P.I. will leave a large market for night life up for grabs, since Disney's P.I. killed nightclubs throughout the rest of the Orlando area after it opened in 1989.

    Comments (12) | Archive Link

    Busch Parks Up for Sale

    By Ben James
    Published: June 27, 2008 at 6:26 PM
    It looks as though no matter who wins in the InBev - Anheuser-Busch (AB) Takeover Battle, The Busch Parks are on the chopping block.

    The AB board of directors unanimously agreed to reject Belgian based brewer InBev's offer of 46.3 Billion dollars. However, siting a decision to improve company performance in a presentation to company shareholders this morning; AB announces that the sale of the parks among other options (such as layoffs) would save AB billions.

    So Theme park fans, sound off. What can we do to save the purpose of these parks? Is this the right decision for AB? Who would take over the parks? And, would the mission of animal conservation remain?

    Blog on Insiders!

    Comments (7) | Archive Link

    Restaurant review: Confisco Grille at Islands of Adventure

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 27, 2008 at 11:23 AM
    ORLANDO - Confisco Grille is the "other" table service restaurant in Universal's Islands of Adventure. Neither as ambitious, or as pricey, as Mythos, Confisco Grille nevertheless offers solid value, and welcomed rest, in the middle of a theme park visit.

    The restaurant might be best known for its character breakfast, offered selected mornings (usually Thursday through Sunday) from park opening until 10:30 am. (Call 407-224-4012 for times and reservations.) But we tried it for lunch this week, arriving at 1 pm without a reservation and finding just a 10-minute wait for a table.

    The atmosphere is dim and rustic, not as impressive as Mythos, but certainly comfortable for a mid-afternoon break. The fare here includes sandwiches and salads, with a tendency toward southwest flavors.

    Laurie ordered the Tex Mex chicken wrap:

    And I selected the chicken fajitas:

    Not a huge amount of chicken on my fajitas, indeed, I found it a little heavy on the carmelized onions. But it filled the provided four flour tortillas and didn't leave me feeling over-stuffed, as fajitas often do.

    Laurie enjoyed the wrap, though she felt the flavors a bit muted for something that promised a kick of spice. We both enjoyed the accompanying salsa, which packed impressive roasted tomato flavor.

    Where Confisco really came through was on the children's meals. The kids' hamburger patty was one of the better ones I've found outside an In-N-Out, loosely packed meat that retained beefy flavor, without being greasy. And the kids' cheese pizza delivered a billowy crust with a nice blend between cheese and sauce.

    I've long recommended a sit-down lunch for theme park visitors: It's a cheaper sit-down meal than dinner and it provides you a nice break after hitting the park at opening. (You do do that, right? That's when the lines are shortest.) The trick, of course, is finding a nice place to sit down and be waited upon without feeling overcharged or underserved. Islands of Adventure offers one of the world's best options in Mythos. But if you can't fit that on your agenda, or you are visiting a second day and looking for another option, Confisco Grille provides a fine alternative.

    Comments (3) | Archive Link

    We're number one (in Google Maps)!

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 26, 2008 at 2:03 PM
    Don't know how long this will last, but check out what map is now on the top of "popular maps" on http://maps.google.com/ right now:

    ThemeParkInsider's Google Map of U.S. theme parks.

    Nice.

    (Thanks to reader Mike Pegg for the heads-up.)

    Comments (1) | Archive Link

    What is the world's best theme park?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 26, 2008 at 8:04 AM
    The "big one" in this year's Theme Park Insider Awards is the award for Best Theme Park.

    This award goes to the theme park the site that has the highest cumulative rating for its attractions and restaurants, as well as a minimum number of ratings. The two-time defending champion is Busch Gardens Europe, though the award has been won in the past by Universal's Islands of Adventure and Tokyo DisneySea. Here are the leading candidates for this year's award, in alphabetical order:

  • Busch Gardens Europe
  • Disney's Animal Kingdom
  • Disneyland
  • Dollywood
  • Universal's Islands of Adventure
  • Universal Studios Florida

    If you have been to one of these parks in the past year, please click its link and submit your honest rating and review for the attractions and restaurants you experienced. (Don't vote for places you have not been!) Then, cast your vote in our straw poll:

    Campaign for your favorite, in the comments, please.

    Comments (15) | Archive Link

  • CityWalk's NBA City shoots, scores with pasta entrees

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 25, 2008 at 5:08 PM
    ORLANDO -- We're in Orlando this week, spending some time at Universal as we visit family. (Note to self: Never, ever book at trip on United Airlines again.) The kids enjoyed their first trip on The Simpsons Ride, and my daughter discovered that she's actually quite good at blasting aliens.

    On our way from Universal Studios Florida yesterday to a good soaking at Islands of Adventure, we decided to try lunch somewhere we hadn't eaten before. So that's what brought us into NBA City at CityWalk.

    NBA City

    NBA City sticks to the well-worn theme restaurant game plan. You walk past the gift shop and hoops-themed arcade on your way into the dining room, which stands on a parquet, hardwood floor (of course), ringed with TV sets, from scoreboard-sized to standard hi-def flat screens. The waiter brings you menus, bound in basketball-style pebbled leather as the kids get to work on their paper placemats, matching NBA team names with their cities. ("Ugh, Charlotte is Bobcats now, not Hornets....")

    Much to my dismay, the kids both opted for the "Pistons Pizza," despite their mother's campaigning for the "Denver Nuggets" (best kids' menu entree name ever, BTW) and mine for the "Pacer Pasta."

    Laurie chose the garlic grilled chicken with sauteed spinach and mushrooms served over pasta in a bleu cheese sauce. ("Served at the 2001 NBA All-Star Game!")

    Chicken and pasta in bleu cheese sauce

    And, following our waiter's suggestion, I opted for the grilled salmon with roasted red pepper pesto, served over bowtie pasta in roasted garlic sauce, with diced tomatoes.

    Salmon and pasta in roasted garlic sauce

    A couple bites of Laurie's entree was more than enough for me. I found the bleu cheese overwhelming, but my bleu-cheese-freak wife enjoyed it. The salmon, on the other hand, hit the spot and I polished the plate. It was one of those dishes that I will find myself craving later, leading to a ham-handed attempt to recreate it at home.

    As the for the pizzas, the kids finished them, which is not something they always do with kids' meal pizzas. So consider that a strong endorsement.

    Overall, we found the food at NBA City well worth a special visit -- tasty and satisfying while leaving you feeling well-nourished, instead of weighed down and stuffed. There are plenty of "sports bar" options available, but why opt for the same fried and cheese-laden meals you can find anywhere when better options await you on the menu?

    As good a the food was, my son Brian suggested the real highlight was the bathrooms. ("NBA" for the men; "WNBA" for the ladies.) Who hasn't played "Pop-A-Shot" with the paper towel after washing up? NBA City fulfills that fantasy, with NBA-style rims and nets mounted over the waste-baskets. Nice touch.

    Comments (5) | Archive Link

    Sleeping Beauty walk-through returning to Disneyland?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 24, 2008 at 6:30 PM
    Brady MacDonald at the LA Times is reporting on his blog that Disneyland work crews have started construction to restore the Sleeping Beauty walk-through in the castle at Disneyland.

    The walk-through has been closed for over six years, and, as of now, is there is no timetable for its return.

    Archive Link

    What is the best new attraction of the year?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 23, 2008 at 10:06 PM
    One of the most anticipated honors in this year's Theme Park Insider Awards will be Best New Attraction.

    This award goes to the top-rated ride or show, listed on the site, that debuted between June 1, 2007 and May 31, 2008. In cases where "clones" of the same attraction open at multiple parks, the installation that debuted first is eligible for the award. Here are the leading candidates for this year's award, in alphabetical order:

    Behemoth (Canada's Wonderland)
    The Dark Knight Coaster (Six Flags Great Adventure)
    Eagles Life in the Fast Lane (Hard Rock Park)
    Fahrenheit (Hersheypark)
    Led Zeppelin - The Ride (Hard Rock Park)
    Lost Kingdom Adventure (Legoland California)
    Nights in White Satin (Hard Rock Park)
    Pony Express (Knott's Berry Farm)
    River Battle (Dollywood)
    The Simpsons Ride (Universal Studios Florida)
    Toy Story Midway Mania (Disney's Hollywood Studios)

    If you have been on any of the above, please click the links for the attractions you've experienced and submit your rating to be counted for this year's awards. The winners in all four categories will be announced on the Fourth of July.

    Campaign for your favorite in the comments....

    Comments (14) | Archive Link

    New hotel reservation feature on Theme Park Insider

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 22, 2008 at 10:59 PM
    I wanted to let Theme Park Insider readers know that we have a new hotel agency handling reservation requests made from our theme park hotels listing pages.

    For selected theme park hotels, such as Universal's Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando, you can click a Check Room Rates link at the top of our listing page, which will take you to a booking form.

    It's a convenient way to price hotels, while also looking at Theme Park Insiders' reader ratings and reviews. (And, yes, if you book through these links, a small commission goes to TPI, helping me pay for the site.) I've also cleaned up the listings on our hotel pages, too, though I would encourage readers to click the links and add their thoughts and reviews, as well.

    If you are looking for an easy way to book an entire vacation, while supporting the TPI community, please visit our co-branded TravelNow.com home page, where you can book flights, hotels and cars for destinations all over the world.

    On another note: I will be in Orlando this week, and, as I promised after I visited last month, I'm providing advance notice this time. So if any Theme Park Insider readers want to stop by to say "hi" to the editor, I'm planning to be at the Enchanted Oak Tavern at Islands of Adventure for a late lunch, at 1 pm, on Tuesday. [Okay, flight got delayed four hours on Monday, so we're sleeping in Tuesday. Let's move the meet to noon on Wednesday.] Hope to see a few of you then.

    Archive Link

    The Giant Wheel Is Coming To Orlando

    By MyFoxOrlando WOFL FOX 35
    Published: June 21, 2008 at 10:12 AM
    In a town full of amusements an International icon could soon be in our midst.

    The Great Wheel Corporation is planning to build one of their great wheels right here in Orlando.

    The project is super hush-hush until June 25th

    Read more...

    Comments (8) | Archive Link

    What is the best theme park hotel?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 20, 2008 at 11:48 AM
    Another category in this year's Theme Park Insider Awards is Best Theme Park Hotel. This award is open to "on property" hotels at theme park resorts. The award will go to the hotel with the highest average reader rating on ThemeParkInsider.com, above a minimum number of votes.

    The leading contenders for this year's award are (in alphabetical order):

    Disneyland

  • Disney's Grand Californian Hotel

    Universal Orlando

  • Universal's Hard Rock Hotel
  • Universal's Portofino Bay Hotel

    Walt Disney World

  • Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge
  • Disney's Contemporary Resort
  • Disney's Grand Floridian Resort
  • Disney's Old Key West Resort
  • Disney's Polynesian Resort
  • Disney's Wilderness Lodge
  • Disney's Yacht Club Resort

    If you have been to any of the above hotels in the past year or two, please click on their links and submit a rating.

    The award will be announced on the Fourth of July. But, for fun before then, vote for your favorite in our straw poll:

    Please tell us about your favorite, in the comments:

    Comments (10) | Archive Link

  • What is the best theme park restaurant?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 18, 2008 at 8:31 AM
    One of the four categories in this year's Theme Park Insider Awards is Best Theme Park Restaurant. This award is open to all table service restaurants located "inside the gates" of a theme or amusement park. The award will go to the restaurant with the highest average reader rating on ThemeParkInsider.com, above a minimum number of votes.

    The leading contenders for this year's awards are (in alphabetical order):

  • The Hollywood Brown Derby
  • Le Cellier Steakhouse
  • Liberty Tree Tavern
  • Mythos Restaurant
  • Sharks Underwater Grill
  • Walt's

    If you have eaten within the past year at any of the above restaurants, please click on their links and submit a rating or review.

    And, for fun, let's see how readers are feeling about these top restaurants, in a head-to-head match-up:

    Campaign for your favorites in the comments.

    Comments (13) | Archive Link

  • Midway Mania debuts at California Adventure

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 17, 2008 at 10:23 AM
    West coast theme park fans are getting their chance to try Disney's newest 3D shoot-'em-up dark ride, as Toy Story Midway Mania is today open, officially, at Disney's California Adventure in Anaheim.

    The ride is the same as the one at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Walt Disney World, which I rode when it opened last month. My review also includes an interview with Disney Imagineer Chrissie Allen about Toy Story Midway Mania, its inspiration and the differences (or lack thereof) between the east coast and west coat versions.

    Comments (1) | Archive Link

    Orca dies at SeaWorld San Antonio

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 16, 2008 at 2:16 PM
    Got word that Halyn, a 2½-year-old female orca at SeaWorld San Antonio, died unexpectedly Sunday night.

    No cause of death yet, but an investigation continues. It's the second death of a whale at the park in the past year.

    Comments (6) | Archive Link

    Maximum RPM open at Hard Rock Park

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 16, 2008 at 9:59 AM
    Hard Rock Park, in Myrtle Bach, South Carolina, sends word that Maximum RPM!, its sports car-themed Premier Rides coaster has now opened.

    The coaster, with its distinctive Ferris Wheel lift, had remained closed during the park's opening weeks. With its debut, all of the park's initially announced rides are now open.

    Comments (5) | Archive Link

    New tip on Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 15, 2008 at 6:15 PM
    Got this delightful heads-up in my inbox today:

    "Hello, I write to you from the Spanish Harry Potter fansite BlogHogwarts.com.

    Today, The Daily Mail is reporting that J.K. Rowling has written a new story which is being turned into a mini-movie by the film-makers and is going to be display at The Wizarding World Of Harry Potter theme park.

    You can check it here: http://www.sundaymirror.co.uk."

    From the article:

    All the regulars, including Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint are shooting the movie at Leavesden, Herts, before starting two films based on final Potter novel The Deathly Hallows.

    A source said: "They are also working on extra sequences and clips which will be part of the rides. J.K. Rowling has been involved in everything. She wrote the story."

    Comments (3) | Archive Link

    Vote of the week: Readers' theme park designs

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 13, 2008 at 8:15 PM
    This week's vote requires you to do a little background reading. Last week, TPI reader Rob P submitted a discussion thread called Design Your Own Theme Park, I promised to put some of the more intriguing proposals up for a vote, so here we are.

    The criteria were that the park include only existing theme park attractions and that people include a mix of rides and shows, not just all thrill coasters. And that the parks be organized into at least three themed lands.

    So, after said that, and having read the thread...

    Let's keep talking about our ideal theme parks, in the comments.

    Comments (14) | Archive Link

    InBev makes $46.3B takeover offer for Anheuser-Busch

    By Bruce Lane
    Published: June 12, 2008 at 9:13 PM
    It seems that the rumors about Belgian brewing giant InBev making a bid to buy Anheuser-Busch were not just rumors after all. According to a story in the June 12th Chicago Tribune, available at this link...

    ...the firm has made a $46.3 billion offer.

    While the article makes mention that there could be "massive cutbacks" in store if the merger goes through, absolutely no mention is made of what might happen to Busch's Entertainment Division. In fact, no mention was made of the fact that the company even HAS such a division.

    I don't know if this is good, bad, or indifferent. At this point, I would say let the speculation fly!

    Comments (10) | Archive Link

    Universal Orlando's Facebook promotes TPI

    By Domenik Jost
    Published: June 12, 2008 at 2:09 PM
    So now that it is time again for the TPI Awards, Universal Orlando steps up and promotes TPI. Is this a strategy to get more votes in? After all, Universal Orlando's Mythos Restaurant which has been voted #1 Theme Park Restaurant for five consecutive years by TPI members.

    I happened to stumble upon this during the usual routine of checking the popular social networking website Facebook.

    I received an update from Universal Orlando and thought it was an interesting headline, "Theme Park Insider." My first thoughts were that Universal had received some sort of award, on second thought the 4th of July week has not passed yet and no rewards have been given for this year. So of course I had to click on it and see what it was.

    Do you have a Facebook? You can find Theme Park Insider on Facebook and you can find Universal Orlando on Facebook, too.

    Comments (3) | Archive Link

    Summer attendance check: What are you seeing?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 11, 2008 at 10:51 AM
    I'd love to hear from Theme Park Insider readers... What you are seeing in terms of theme park attendance so far this season? Larger crowds, or smaller ones? Longer lines, or shorter?

    Cedar Fair CEO Dick Kinzel said yesterday that attendance at Cedar Point and other northern theme parks in the chain has been "soft." (Which, usually means "down.") Granted, Cedar Point didn't debut a coaster this year, and the park relies on regional drive-in traffic, while gas prices are above $4 a gallon.

    How is the situation at the parks you have visited so far this season? Tell us in the comments.

    Comments (21) | Archive Link

    Humor column on amusement park ride

    By Tim Mollen
    Published: June 10, 2008 at 2:49 PM
    I enjoy the Blog Flume, and thought readers might enjoy the newspaper column I wrote this week about an ill-fated amusement park visit.

    My syndicated humor column is called “Lost Journal,” and you can read more at www.timmollen.com.

    Thanks, and have a great week!

    Comments (2) | Archive Link

    Jury duty day...

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 9, 2008 at 9:13 PM
    Sorry for the lack of posts today. I wasn't able to do my usual every-waking-moment-online routine today because I instead spent the day in downtown Los Angeles... on jury duty.

    I've been called every couple years since I've been living in L.A., but this was the first time I had to report in person. Under California's system, when you are summoned by mail for jury duty, you have to call in the Sunday evening before you are scheduled to report. If they do not need you that day, you will be asked to call for the next four evenings. If they haven't called you in to report in person by Thursday night, you are done with your jury duty service and can't be summoned again for another year.

    That's what I had done the last three times I was summoned. (Hint: If you don't want to have to report in person, postpone your service until the week before Christmas. Lots of teachers on break in the jury pool, and no trials, 'cause no lawyer wants to start a trial just before Christmas.) But this time, I was told to come in.

    Once you get past the tedium of waiting for an assignment, and get into the courtroom, well, I found the experience a nice refresher in democracy. The lawyers and the parties stand for you as you enter the room. The judge instructs everyone in the process, and the potential jurors all learn something about due process, equal protection and civic duty in the process. As much it seems like a pain getting to that point in the courtroom, I think that's a worthy experience for all citizens to have every few years.

    All that said, though, I'm off the hook. I wasn't selected for a jury on the day I reported in person, so, under California's system, I'm done. Off the hook for another year.

    So... tomorrow morning, it's back to theme parks. In the meantime, chat amongst yourselves about jury duty, if you'd like.

    Comments (6) | Archive Link

    Vote of the week: Favorite way to save money at theme parks

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 6, 2008 at 8:37 AM
    Most families always are happy to find ways to save money on a theme park trip or vacation. But what is your absolute favorite way to do that?

    That's the topic of this week's vote. Keep in mind that many of these options involve trade-offs. If you bring food or drinks into a park, you violate the park's rules and could be thrown out. If you buy tickets from a third-party, they could be legit, but they might not be. If you buy an annual pass, you'll need to visit the park multiple times for it to become a real discount. And if you sit through the time-share presentation for the free Disney World tix, well, you've got to sit through the time-share presentation. ;-)

    And some of you might not care. You'll go ahead and pay premium prices for an excellent theme park vacation, and figure out some way to cut corners elsewhere to pay for it.

    Please select your favorite option...

    ... then tell us the details about your money-saving strategies, in the comments.

    Comments (16) | Archive Link

    What will be the Best New Attraction in the 2008 Theme Park Insider Awards?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 5, 2008 at 2:35 PM
    Wow. It's June? Where did the first half of this year go?

    This means that we are just one month away from the announcement of the 2008 Theme Park Insider Awards, which honors your picks as the world's best in theme park entertainment.

    One of the award this year will be "Best New Attraction," with the eligible entrants any permanent attraction that debuted at a theme park between June 1, 2007 and May 31, 2008. Here's where I need your help. I've listed the major contenders below, but would like to hear if I've missed any big ones.

    The Dark Knight Coaster (Six Flags Great Adventure)
    Eagles Life in the Fast Lane (Hard Rock Park)
    Fahrenheit (Hersheypark)
    Led Zeppelin - The Ride (Hard Rock Park)
    Lost Kingdom Adventure (Legoland California)
    Nights in White Satin (Hard Rock Park)
    Pony Express (Knott's Berry Farm)
    River Battle (Dollywood)
    The Simpsons Ride (Universal Studios Florida)
    Toy Story Midway Mania (Disney's Hollywood Studios)
    Tree Top Trails (Jungala in Busch Gardens Africa)

    In cases where the same ride debuted at more than one park (e.g. The Simpsons Ride), I selected the version that debuted first. Also, reinstallations from other parks and clones of rides introduced at other parks in previous years are not eligible. (That takes out Dominator.) I also left out minor kiddie rides that have no prayer of winning, such as the other rides around Lost Kingdom Adventure at Legoland.

    Finally, for this list I picked what I thought would be the three top contenders from the new Hard Rock Park, where, of course, all the rides are new, and thus, eligible.

    I'd like to invite all TPI readers to click the links above of attractions that they've ridden, and to submit a rating and review. (Please read our Guidelines for ratings and reviews on Theme Park Insider first, though.) Those ratings will help determine this year's winner.

    The winners of the 2008 Theme Park Insider Awards will be announced on July 4, 2008. In the weeks between now and then, I'll be featuring leading contenders in the other categories, and inviting you to submit ratings and reviews for them, as well.

    (And, please, let me know in the comments if I've spaced and forgotten one of the big new rides from the past year. Thanks!)

    Comments (6) | Archive Link

    Disney World offers online 3D viewing option, using Google Earth

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 5, 2008 at 10:48 AM
    If you've got the Google Earth software on your computer, Disney World has announced instructions on how you can see Disney World online in 3D.

    Go to the link above for instruction, or just open the lastest version of Google Earth, search for Disney World, click on the gold mouse ear logo in the middle of the Seven Seas Lagoon, then click on the "click here to see Disney World in 3D" link to download and build the 3D images to your computer.

    Then you just navigate as usual in Google Earth, with close to the ground images now available in 3D. I found that the imagery took a while to download and resolve on my DSL connection, and many remained a bit "cartoony." But it's still a fun way to kill way too much time online.

    If you don't have Google Earth, you can get 2-D aerial views of Disney World, as well as other major U.S. theme parks, using Theme Park Insider's Google Map of U.S. theme parks. That's embedded on our Theme Park Ratings and Reviews. Just click the "SAT" option at the top of the map, then navigate into the parks you want to see. You can also see those aerial views in the Google Map by clicking on the links in the "Location" section on various park detail pages. (Find those links by clicking the park names in the column to the right).

    Comments (3) | Archive Link

    Stick a fork in Kong - he's done

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 3, 2008 at 4:39 PM
    Universal Studios Hollywood confirmed today that it will not rebuild the King Kong attraction that burned Sunday.

    Here's the statement from Universal:

    New York Street will be rebuilt and a new attraction will replace King Kong. We expect the backlot to be completely rebuilt within several months and replacement for King Kong to be announced in the coming months.

    Universal Creative's Mike West talked last month in an audio interview with Theme Park Insider about Universal's desire to keep its attractions fresh. At the time I thought to myself, "Hmm, Kong and Jaws are feeling a little stale at USH. Wonder if we'll get anything new on the west coast anytime soon?"

    Well, consider this the fire that broke the big ape's back. Yes, the attractions are classics. But they don't resonate with today's movie and TV audiences the way that The Simpsons or even Jurassic Park do. If the old attraction's still standing, there's a cost incentive to let it remain until one can make a business case to replace it with something new.

    But if that ride burns down, well, it just doesn't make sense to spend money to rebuild an attraction that probably was on the chopping block short list anyway. Let's see what Universal comes up with.

    I know Universal people read TPI, so, let's hear it, TPI readers... what should Universal build to replace Kong on the Studio Tour?

    Comments (20) | Archive Link

    Will the Busch theme parks be the next to be sold?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 3, 2008 at 8:57 AM
    Speculation is building that the Busch theme park chain might be the next one to change owners.

    Belgian brewer InBev is trying to round up $50 billion in financing to take over St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch, owner of the Busch Entertainment Corporation, which operates the Busch Gardens and SeaWorld theme parks.

    Busch is hiring its own financial advisers to fend off the attempt. Busch recently moved its theme park operations from St. Louis to Orlando, and some analysts believe that InBev would have little interest in running theme parks, and might look to sell the parks to raise money to help cover the cost of the potential deal.

    In the past few years:

  • CBS sold its Paramount Parks to Cedar Fair.
  • Lego sold a majority share in Legoland to Merlin Entertainments, which later bought Tussauds.
  • Six Flags was taken over by a investment group led by Dan Snyder
  • Universal was bought by General Electric, as Vivendi broke up and Universal was combined with GE"s NBC.
  • Disney changed its top management, as Robert Iger replaced CEO Michael Eisner.

    That's left Busch as the model of stability in the industry. So much for that stability, now.

    Comments (9) | Archive Link

  • Universal fire blamed on work crew

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 2, 2008 at 8:03 PM
    A Reuters report cites Los Angeles County Fire officials who are blaming a Universal work crew for the fire that destroyed the King Kong attraction and burned a section of the Universal Studios Hollywood backlot Sunday.

    An investigation revealed the fire was touched off by three members of a studio work crew who had been using a blow torch to apply asphalt shingles to the roof of a building facade.

    They finished their work at about 3 a.m. and stood watch for an hour, according to company policy. Seeing no signs of a fire, they left the scene for a break, but a security guard in the vicinity noticed flames about 45 minutes later and called the fire department.

    From the report, I still wonder what happened between 3 am and 4:45. Anyway, the park reopened today, as promised, as did the Studio Tour, which drove by some of the affected areas.

    Comments (2) | Archive Link

    Fire destroys Kong attraction at USH*

    By Gareth H
    Published: June 1, 2008 at 12:18 PM
    A fire is burning on the backlot of Universal Studios Hollywood, destroying sets on the New York and New England streets. More than 300 firefighters have contained the fire from spreading into surrounding brush, but the first continued to burn within the studio complex Sunday morning. There are no reported injuries. Three Several firefighters have been treated for minor injuries.

    A Universal spokesperson said that the theme park was to open Sunday, though the backlot Studio Tour would be affected. [Universal didn't open as originally announced, according to some messages I've received. - Robert]

    Here's a photo gallery from the LA Times.

    *Update: The fire destroyed the King Kong building within the Studio Tour, as well as the Back to the Future town square. The fire started in or near a soundstage near the New York brownstones. - Robert

    Update 2: Old-timers will remember that the backlot has burned before. In the early 1990s, a security guard was imprisoned for arson after starting a fire that burned some the same locations that burned today. Locals, post your news in the comments. - Robert

    Update 3: I talked with Debbie Park, a Universal spokesperson. She said that the Universal is planning to open the park at 10 am tomorrow (Monday), when all attractions - including the Studio Tour - will be open.

    Park said that it is too early to tell all that has been damaged or completely destroyed by the fire. But, she said, from what they have been told from firefighters and others on the scene, Kong was destroyed.

    Tomorrow, Universal officials will re-group, assess the damage and start the process of deciding what to do from here, and Universal will issue another statement once that process has begun, Park said. - Robert

    Comments (16) | Archive Link

    Keep reading: May 2008 Archive



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