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August 2008

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Vote of the week: When disasters strike theme parks, for real

By Robert Niles
Published: August 30, 2008 at 9:02 PM
Weather can affect any vacation, whether it be a rainstorm on a day you'd planned to go to the beach, or a warm spell during your ski getaway, turning the slopes to mush.

But natural disasters can make those inconveniences trivial. As I write this, Hurricane Gustav is bearing down on New Orleans, where the Six Flags amusement park closed during Katrina and never reopened. Last month Tropical Storm Fay dropped what seemed like 10 feet of rain on Florida, soaking the Central Florida theme parks along with much of the rest of the state.

Earlier this summer, a moderate earthquake struck Southern California, rattling visitors to the area's theme parks, though, thankfully, none were injured seriously. Summer also not only brings theme park season to the U.S. Midwest, it brings thunderstorms, and the occasional tornado, too.

Which brings me to our vote of the week:

Have any of these ever affected you, personally? Have they ever affected a theme park visit? Tell us your stories, in the comments, please.

Comments (11) | Archive Link

Introducing 'Top Tips for Visiting Theme Parks'

By Robert Niles
Published: August 29, 2008 at 2:42 PM
We've got a new feature on Theme Park Insider, starting today. It's a "top tips" list, and I'm asking for your help in building it.

Just click to http://www.themeparkinsider.com/tips/ to get started. There, you can submit your most useful tips when visiting specific theme parks and theme park resorts. They can be about what rides to go on first, what to eat, what to look for, anything.

Here's where it gets cool. Once you've submitted a tip, then you and any other Theme Park Insider reader can vote on it - yes or no. The most popular tips will rise to the top of the list. (And the least popular ones, eventually, will disappear.)

(It's like Digg, but for snippets of advice, instead of for webpages.)

I hope that you'll be generous in sharing your best "insider" tips for getting the most from a theme park visit, and that you will keep checking back to vote on the tips that others have submitted. Over the weekend, as we get more tips in the database, I'll be adding links to park-specific tip lists from each park's listing page, as well as from the home page.

Finally, I am sure that TPI readers have plenty of tips to share on other topics, as well, not just theme parks. So I invite you to beta-test my new site TipReel.com, which is based on this same concept. Tell your friends, too.

Thanks, again, for reading Theme Park Insider.

Comments (4) | Archive Link

Universal Orlando starts promotional push for Halloween Horror Nights

By Robert Niles
Published: August 28, 2008 at 10:21 AM
Universal Orlando's been sending out its "teaser" press kits in advance of this fall's Halloween Horror Nights. Theme Park Insider just got its, and I thought you'd like a look.

Letter and locked box

The press kit came in two deliveries. Yesterday morning, I got a package that included an ornate locked metal box, along with a letter:

You're about to face someone you've never met, but long feared... A key will arrive tomorrow. You'll meet then.

Of course, without the key, you can't open the box (well, unless you snap the rather thin chain - but I played along), so you have to wait until the next day to see what's inside.

And this morning arrived the FedEx envelope with the key.

Opened Halloween Horror Nights press kit

A strategically placed lipbrush triggered an eerie tune when I opened the jewelry box, which contained a shattered mirror, upon which was scrawled "Welcome to my World." (Bloody Mary's I presume?)

Contents of Halloween Horror Nights press kit

Also in the box were a dried rose and four pictures, each with a message in crayon scribbled on back:

  • "Face your fears"
  • "What lies behind the mirror"
  • "What awaits you"
  • "Fear me"
  • In keeping with such teaser packages, there was no other information about the event. But we can hook you up with that on our Halloween Horror Nights page, or discussion thread.

    Comments (7) | Archive Link

    Brady Bunch invades Kings Island, v2.0

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 26, 2008 at 10:13 PM
    Sometimes, I have to report information on this website that makes me uncomfortable. This is one of those stories. But I will attempt to put aside one deeply disturbing episode from my youth, and get to it....

    The Brady Bunch is coming back to Kings Island.

    Why the discomfort? Let's keep in mind that I watched waaaaay too many episodes of The Brady Bunch when I was a kid. One of my proudest moments as a child came when my mom got assigned as a substitute to teach Maureen McCormick's high school English class. (I demanded she recount every detail, again and again, for days after.) As an emerging theme park fan, the Kings Island episode was a must-watch for me, too. I could not get enough of the Bradys.

    Of course, by the late 70s, I'd overdosed on the Bradys like a drunk swimming in a pool of Mad Dog 20/20, and would have been happy never to see or hear from them again. And I didn't, until my lovely daughter "discovered" the Bradys while watching cable TV on a sleepover at a friends' house. She just happened to mention this little fact to my parents, who this past Christmas dutifully presented Natalie with the DVD boxed set of every damned Brady Bunch episode ever made. Thanks, Mom and Dad. Thanks a lot.

    I cannot escape the Bradys.

    And, if you visit Kings Island this weekend, you won't either. Actors Barry Williams (Greg), Susan Olson (Cindy) and Mike Lookinland (Bobby) will perform in a Brady Bunch reunion show in the park on Sunday, August 31.

    (FWIW: Interesting additional theme park tie-in. Robert Reed, the actor who played father Mike Brady, lived in Pasadena until his death, in a home just a couple blocks away from... the original Busch Gardens.)

    Comments (12) | Archive Link

    Vote of the week: Do you bring a stroller, or rent one?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 22, 2008 at 1:10 PM
    One of the greatest days any parent can experience is that day, which usually passes unnoticed, when your child no longer wants be schlepped around in a stroller.

    C'mon parents: You know the drill. Park the car, run around and open the trunk. Unload and unfold the stroller, locking every joint into place. Get the kid out of the car seat and into the stroller. And when you're finally ready to head home, do everything again in reverse.

    At a theme park, it's even worse. You have to find a place to store your stroller at every attraction, and it takes up space in the trunk with all the other junk you collect at the park. (And if you're flying to the park, that's one more piece of luggage to gate-check.)

    That's why many families choose to rent a stroller at the park, instead. More space in the car. No hassle getting through the front gate. No worries about loss or damage.

    But, ow, the price!

    So, parents, what is your strategy?

    Tell us how you deal with strollers in the park, and which parks are most "stroller"-friendly, in the comments.

    Comments (14) | Archive Link

    The Six Flags Great America VIP Tour experience - a review

    By Jan Cornell
    Published: August 22, 2008 at 10:19 AM
    I recently had the opportunity to visit Six Flags Great America on a VIP Pass. (For those who are unaware of this option, a link to the Six Flags website with all the details is at the end of this article.)

    Briefly, the VIP Pass is an all-inclusive admission ticket with attractive additional benefits, including:

  • Unlimited front-of-the-line privileges on all rides, all day long.
  • Unlimited drinks and snacks.
  • Unlimited games.
  • Lunch and dinner with reserved seating.
  • Free parking.
  • A free souvenir photo (ride or character).
  • Reserved seating at shows.
  • Wavier of normal extra fees for attractions such as Dare Devil Dive.
  • A private guided tour, with your personal guide for the day.

    The only thing I can think of that the VIP Pass doesn’t include is merchandise in the shops.

    The VIP pass is expensive — for Six Flags Great America it costs $299 per person, with a four person minimum. The price does vary per park. For example, at Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom (in Louisville) the VIP Pass costs $199.

    I took three of my kids, aged 16, 14 and 10. The website said the tour would begin at 11 AM. Unfortunately for us, the park’s operating hours changed on the day of our tour, because school was back in session in Gurnee. Closing time moved up to 7 PM, from 10 PM. I asked if we could begin at 10 AM and they allowed us to do so with no problem. The shortened hours had another implication as well. There were no shows, as most of the performers had to go back to school.

    We arrived at Six Flags and parked, as instructed, in the Front Parking Lot. The fee for parking there was $25. I paid this up front, and was later reimbursed for the expense. We made our way to the main gate and were directed to Guest Relations, to await our tour guide. I must say that all the personnel were very helpful and friendly throughout the day, by the way.

    In a few minutes, our 19-year-old tour guide Bill showed up. He was a very personable and clean-cut young man who had just graduated high school. This was his fourth season working at the park. Apparently only people with a lot of experience are allowed to host the VIP tours. He told me he had worked pretty much every job in the park during his tenure there. At first we were apprehensive as we realized that he was to accompany our little group for the entire day. Those fears were completely unfounded, however. He was totally unobtrusive and proved to be indispensable in many ways. One particularly valuable asset he offered was an encyclopedic knowledge of the most efficient way to get from point A to point B. Our paths often took us through shops, back passages and so on, and there were very few wasted steps during our day. He offered recommendations on restaurants. And he functioned almost like a butler, getting drinks, getting snacks, and so on. We later remarked that we felt guilty because we’re so used to doing things for ourselves, and here we were being waited on hand and foot most solicitously!

    He also recommended an overall strategy for approaching the park. We brought our bathing suits, intending to hit the water park (Hurricane Harbor) at some point throughout the day. We thought we should go there in the afternoon, after everyone was hot and tired. But Bill pointed out that the VIP Pass doesn’t confer any real advantages in the water park. The front-of-the-line privilege is implemented by taking one in via the attraction’s exit. But in the water park, the exit is usually a water slide! So he recommended doing Hurricane Harbor in the morning instead, when the crowd was thinnest. Well, we ended up spending only 15 minutes in the water at the end of the day, as it turned out. We were itching to start riding the coasters!

    Bill took our bathing suits and stored them for us. No need to rent a locker for VIPs! He then took us around the park in a circular path. We had wanted to ride Superman first, but it had not yet opened. Some of the rides don’t open until 11 AM. So he started with the rides that had already opened. Our first coaster was the Ragin’ Cajun. (For details and reviews of any individual ride at the park, see Theme Park Insider's Six Flags Great America page.)

    At any rate, we proceeded around the park from there. We would get to a ride and Bill would lead us up the exit ramp. Over his shoulder, he had a satchel with “VIP Tour” emblazoned on it, so there were never any questions from the ride attendants. He would take us straight to the front of the loading area. As passengers disembarked, he let us in the back gate and we took our seats in the front car, before the gates were opened for the next group of riders. We heard maybe one or two negative comments about us from other riders the whole day. At one ride, when someone complained to Kate (my 16-year-old), Bill told them she was a German pop star. They quieted right down!

    After perhaps two hours, we had ridden most of the “Maximum Thrill” rides. Yet we were completely relaxed and felt quite fresh, because we had no waits whatsoever. My personal favorites: The American Eagle and Raging Bull.

    Next, the kids wanted to focus on the arcades and carnival games. We went to an arcade and Bill produced four cards, each loaded with $10, to swipe at the machines. He reloaded them whenever we asked. The arcade machines offered some nice prizes, particularly electronics — think iPods, cameras, and so on. We didn’t manage to win any of those.

    The carnival games were a different story, however. They are normally quite expensive to play, in my opinion. For example, there was a game in which one threw a ball in an effort to tumble a tower of three blocks on the first try. It cost $3 a ball, or two for $5. But with unlimited games, one can simply play again, and again, and again, until victory (or exhaustion!) At that particular booth I’m certain that between the four of us we made over a hundred throws. But we brought home two electric guitars! They were Chinese knockoffs of the Fender Stratocaster and would normally go for $200 to $300 at retail — quite a nice prize, actually. John, my 14-year-old, is presently taking guitar lessons, and he was ecstatic. He won an acoustic guitar as well, at another booth. We also won two enormous stuffed Tweety Birds, a giant stuffed gecko, and a slew of smaller animals, before it dawned on us that the four of us had to get all this stuff back to Michigan (a seven-hour drive) in a Mini Cooper! Anyhow, Bill got on his radio and summoned one of his minions to cart away our winnings, for retrieval at the end of the day. We never had to carry anything for ourselves throughout the entire day, incidentally.

    Next we broke for lunch. Bill recommended the ribs at the Mooseburger Lodge, one of the park’s sit-down restaurants. His suggestion was spot on. The ribs were amazingly good, particularly for a theme park. They were tender, moist, and delicious.

    After lunch we continued to hit the coasters, focusing mainly on those of the Maximum Thrill category. We did take time to enjoy the Dare Devil Dive. This is an attraction that normally entails an extra fee but is included in the VIP Pass. It involves strapping on a harness, being hoisted up 125 feet in the air and then pulling a ripcord. This releases the harness and you swing as if on an enormous swing set. It was a lot of fun.

    Then the younger two kids wanted to hit the water park. By now it was 4:30 PM. We found to our dismay that the water park closed at 5 PM. So we split up. Bill directed myself, John and Claire to the water park and he took Kate with him to go on more rides. He actually rode with her on some of them so she wouldn’t have to ride solo — all part of the job, I suppose!

    We then met back up and ended the day with repeats of favorite rides and a few more games. We were tired, stuffed, and in my case, a bit nauseated — my 50-year-old stomach just doesn’t tolerate rides the way it used to! But we were all very happy.

    For more information on the VIP Tour at Six Flags Great America visit http://www.sixflags.com/greatAmerica

    Comments (4) | Archive Link

  • Name change for Disney World's proposed fifth theme park?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 21, 2008 at 2:01 PM
    Jim Hill has more details this week about the fifth theme park at Walt Disney World.

    Hill reports that the name of the park, first reported as Disney's Night Kingdom, is up for question, with the current proposal being "Disney's Jungle Trek." The reason for the switch is a plan to extend the park's hours with an earlier opening, perhaps noon, making the "Night" part of the name, well, a bit inaccurate.

    Why would Disney extend the hours? To make more money, of course! More hours = more people = more admission revenue.

    The theme of the park, at this stage, is a "global village" with buildings and individual adventures themes to the four corners of the world. (Pet peeve rant here: A globe is a sphere, which has no corners. Isn't this an absurd phrase, then? Yet loads of people use it, even me. /rant) Of course, that theme might sound familiar to Disney fans, who might know such a park as "Epcot."

    Ultimately, though, the park, regardless of what it is name, will be a premium experience, along the lines of SeaWorld's Discovery Cove, with an estimated $300 a person a day price tag and small-group, guided experiences throughout.

    I've heard from multiple sources close to Disney that this project is a go at this point, but, obviously, substantial questions remain about branding, theme and park layout. What would you like to see?

    Comments (21) | Archive Link

    Today's Olympic event: Theme park promotional tie-ins!

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 19, 2008 at 4:02 PM
    Last week, I asked if the Olympics were affecting theme park attendance, with so many people watching the games on TV.

    The answer, pretty much, was "no," but I also asked if parks were doing anything to use the Olympics as a promotional tie-in for the parks.

    Well, ask and ye shall receive. Got this from SeaWorld Orlando yesterday:

    Yeah, it's pure PR. But the splitscreen of Phelps and the killer whale doing the backstroke kills me.

    Comments (7) | Archive Link

    Major bus crash on way to Alton Towers theme park in England

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 18, 2008 at 5:45 PM
    A double-decker bus carrying tourists to the Alton Towers theme park in the United Kingdom crashed Monday, killing one and injuring 70 others, according to the BBC.

    Thirty-one of the injured were taken to local hospitals. The others were treated at the theme park's first aid center. The bus, which was reported to be carrying foreign workers on a trip to the park, rolled down an embankment, after coming down a hill and missing a curve.

    "It's a narrow country road," a witness told the BBC. "It's mayhem, absolute mayhem. We had a torrential downpour of rain just before it happened."

    Comments (2) | Archive Link

    Vote of the week: The best Disney mountain?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 15, 2008 at 10:54 AM
    Thanks, again, to Theme Park Insider reader Tim W for the topic for this week's vote.

    Disney's known for its coasters built, not on frames above a flat surface, but into the side and interior of faux "mountains," starting with Disneyland's original Matterhorn, and continuing with Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain, Splash Mountain and Expedition Everest. [Links are to selected installations at the company's various parks.]

    So, which one is the best? Go with either your favorite among the ones you've ridden, or the one you think sounds the best, even if you haven't ridden them all.

    Tim suggests for the comments, "what mountains do you hope to see in the future? Volcano (fire), or maybe Witch Mountain? Any more ideas?"

    Comments (27) | Archive Link

    Are the Olympics affecting theme park attendance?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 14, 2008 at 11:03 AM
    NBC's broadcast of the Olympic Games is drawing huge ratings, as millions of Americans stay home to watch the games on TV. Does that mean fewer people are visiting theme parks during the games? I talked with representatives of several theme parks to find out.

    At Busch theme parks, including SeaWorld and Busch Gardens, attendance is actually up over expectations, parks reps report. "We are doing very well since the Olympics started," Joe Couceiro, Vice President for Marketing at the Busch Entertainment Corp., told me yesterday. Coucerio said that NBC's prime-time TV schedule is not keeping people from making daytime visits to his company's parks. "Maybe they go back and watch in a hotel lounge or in their hotel rooms, but I don't think the games are affecting people visiting the parks."

    Other parks reported similar results. "We're above budget on a daily basis," wrote Julie Estrada of Legoland California. Spokespersons for Disney and Universal declined to comment on their daily attendance, citing corporate policies, though a spokesperson for Universal Studios Hollywood did write that "we're doing fine." (No rep for Six Flags has responded yet.)

    Can parks use Olympic tie-ins to boost attendance? Hong Kong Disneyland is hosting nightly sports-themed parades, including in-park airing of video highlights from the day's Olympic events. Hong Kong, which is now controlled by Olympic host China, is site of the equestrian events at this year's games.

    Busch's Couceiro said that tie-ins can help bring attention to the park, if they are held before or during the games. He pointed out that SeaWorld has hosted send-off events for U.S. Olympians in the past, though it did not this year. "Once the Olympics is over," he said, "the excitement really dissipates."

    Couceiro said that most popular televised events, such as the Olympics and Super Bowl, have little effect on park attendance. There is one potential exception, though, especially for parks that draw a large number of Europeans visitors.

    "The World Cup may have an impact, especially from International visitors," Couceiro said. "The passion that fans have for following their country's team certainly can impact their travel plans" toward Cup matches and away from theme parks, he said.

    What are you seeing? Tell us, in the comments, how the attendance appears at the parks you've visited during the games. And if you are staying home to watch instead of visiting a theme park, let us know that, too.

    Comments (8) | Archive Link

    TPI's editor talks theme parks in a podcast

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 12, 2008 at 10:22 AM
    I wanted to let you know that I did an audio interview with the folks at Rexandthebeast.com last week and the podcast is now up at http://www.rexandthebeast.com/robert_niles. It's all theme parks, so if you have a moment, take a listen.

    Comments (1) | Archive Link

    In the tank with SeaWorld San Diego's beluga whales

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 11, 2008 at 12:02 PM
    SAN DIEGO -- Here's the first thing I learned about beluga whales.

    They swim in cold water. Really cold. Like "oh my God, when people talk the icy hand of death, this what they mean" cold.

    "You'll start feeling the cold around the fourth step," Mike Price, a SeaWorld trainer and my guide at the park's Wild Arctic Interaction, told me as I walked down the steps into the attraction's beluga whale tank. Yep, he was right. As my wetsuit-clad body hit the fourth step into the pool, the alarms went off in my brain.

    "You idiot! Get out. You are not a popsicle. You do not belong here."

    I clenched my teeth, then tried to relax my shoulders enough to turn my head and look over toward the three magnificent white beluga whales circling just a few feet away. My body wasn't sold yet.

    "Don't you remember 'Moby Dick'?" my hypothalamus screamed. "What happened to those guys who tried to hang with a white whale? Even if we get through the cold, you don't want a piece of that!"

    At that moment, ego took over: "Quit wimping," I told myself. "Gut it out and get in there."

    Six other SeaWorld San Diego visitors and I spent about about a half-hour in the park's beluga whale tank last week as part of the park's Wild Arctic Interaction program. The program, which costs $170 on top of park admission, includes a guided backstage tour of several other animals from the Wild Arctic attraction, including a pair of arctic foxes, ring and harbor seals, a 3,300-pound walrus and a 11-foot polar bear. (We saw the polar bear from behind a steel cage wall and security glass. No one swims with the polar bears. No one who lives long, anyway.)

    But the highlight of the program is the in-tank experience with the beluga whales. SeaWorld provides a wetsuit and an individual locker room for changing in and out of the suit. There's even an instruction video in the room, showing you how to put on the wetsuit, and attendants outside to help you zip up. Because unless you are a contortionist, you ain't zipping up the back of that suit without help.

    Here's a tip: Don't rush to the be the first out of your dressing room. No one's going anywhere until all participants are in their suits, and there's no joy in waiting outside, on asphalt, in 80-plus degrees sun, wearing a black wetsuit for 10 minutes. Take your time.

    Trainers Mike Price and Mitzi Synnott rejoined us as we gathered behind the stage door leading into the whales' exhibit tank. Two other visitors and I went with Mike, the other five followed Mitzi.

    The shock of the 50-degree water lasted only a moment, thanks to the wetsuit, and so long as I followed my "Pirates of the Caribbean" training ("Please keep your hands and arms out of the water at all times!"), my body felt comfortable. We stood on a waist-deep, steel-mesh ledge on the edge of the 600,000-gallon tank, as other SeaWorld trainers sent the whales over to each group, one at a time. The odd whale out stayed with another trainer, who addressed the watching crowd of "normal" tourists, including my wife and our kids.

    Ferdinand was the first over to our group. Mike had Ferdinand offer us each his fin for us to grasp with our hand. Then he had Ferdinand roll over so that we could rub the skin on his firm, rubbery flukes.

    Mike explained that beluga whales lack a dorsal fin, which faster-swimming whales, such as the orcas, use both for stability in the water and shedding heat. The slow-moving, cold-water-dwelling belugas need neither, he explained.

    We also felt Ferdinand's head (technically, the melon), which felt like gelatin and, Mike explained, which belugas can move and harden by blowing air in its sinuses.

    "Here's a great trick," Mike said as Ferdinand rose out of the water three feet in front of us. "Watch Ferdinand roll his tongue." We watched, as Ferdinand drenched us with a mouthful of seawater. Ah, yes, this might be a small-group, hands-on animal interaction, but it is still a SeaWorld show. You're gonna get wet.

    Then we met Nanuq, then Allua. We played with each, holding their tails, pushing them back and rewarding them by feeding them fish after every successful move. Mike even let us play "trainer," showing us the moves he uses to direct the whales into various tricks. (Though, of course, I suspect that the whales just ignored us in favor of following Mike.) I soon lost all track of time, and noticed the tense looks on all the other participants' faces had been replaced with a bunch of goofy grins.

    So what is this: A 21st century animal minstrel show for rich tourists, or something more meaningful?

    "The Wild Arctic interaction is unique in that it allows you to meet face-to-face with animals from a part of the world that you're never ever going to go," Mike said to me after we'd left the pool. Indeed, just two weeks ago, a pod of dolphins swam a few dozen yards away from my family when we were swimming in the ocean off San Clemente. But I'm never going get that close to a beluga whale in the wild. (And if I did, I wouldn't get to enjoy it for long, because either the hypothermia, or the polar bears, would soon finish me off.)

    "When people get in that pool, when they see that animal up close for the first time, it's like 'Whoa,'" Mike said. I think I picked a different expletive, but my brain was frozen at that moment, so I can't be sure.

    "That 'whoa' connection is the biggest part of my job. I mean, we've heard about the loss of arctic ice pack, about the loss of habitat up there, but if people can say, 'Hey, I remember meeting Ferdinand at SeaWorld,' then those people know the animals that are affected by climate change. They remember them. Otherwise, without that experience, those people might not care as much about the loss of the beluga whales or the polar bears."

    It's a strong point. Entertainment educates. It's the same principle that makes "The Daily Show" powerful political commentary. To hit 'em in the head, aim for the heart.

    Back in the pool, Mike had asked us to line up so that Allua could wave her tail "good-bye" to us. Like the sucker I am, I waded over right next to her tail for the best look. One, two, three...

    Splash. Gallons of icy seawater flew off her tail and across my face. I couldn't stop myself. I laughed.

    Like, I said, it's a SeaWorld show. Someone's gotta get soaked.

    Previously: Backstage with SeaWorld's trainers

    Comments (6) | Archive Link

    Theme Park Insider behind the scenes: with the trainers at SeaWorld San Diego

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 8, 2008 at 5:22 PM
    SAN DIEGO - I came to SeaWorld San Diego to interview animal trainers at one of the country's most popular theme parks. Yet I found myself wearing a polyester sailor's suit, walking out in front of a stadium filled with tourists, urging them to clap along to a Village People song.

    If you ever wondered about the abilities of SeaWorld's trainers to make animals perform... well, just remember that they got me out there, in that suit.

    For the next 20 minutes I watched perfectly choreographed chaos -- not from the stadium seats with the rest of the park guests, but from backstage, just behind one of the curtains leading to the performance set of "Clyde and Seamore's Risky Rescue." Sea lions slid past my feet, down a narrow corridor and through the curtain onto the stage. Otters scampered around my legs and up a tiny flight of steps to their position on the top floor of the set. A massive walrus swam from its holding pool behind the set, under the stage and into the stadium's show pool.

    Every movement came in response to a cue from a trainer, and every successful move was followed by a reward from that same trainer, whether that movement came on stage, back stage or even on the way to and from the animals' living areas.

    SeaWorld's trainers preach the value of positive reinforcement, whether it's to train an 800-pound sea lion to accept eye drops... or to direct a website editor around backstage during a show.

    "Like a preschool teacher, you're always there to make it fun and exciting for the animals," said Ken Peters, a 20-year veteran who trains the killer whales at Shamu Stadium.

    I met with Peters and SeaWorld's director of animal training, Al Garver, earlier that morning in the holding pools behind Shamu Stadium. As we stood in the "fish room," amid number-coded buckets of herring, smelt, mackerel and salmon (each animal gets its own special mix), Peters explained that food isn't the only reward that SeaWorld's trainers use to reinforce behavior.

    "Most of their reinforcement is interacting with us," Peters said. In addition to the primary reinforcement of food, trainers use a variety of "secondary" reinforcements – ice, touch, massages, even toys.

    The killer whales' toy box. They bat and push these large plastic toys around their pools between shows.

    Trainer Dave Roberts, at the Sea Lion and Otter show, said that the use of secondary reinforcements has helped make the shows better over the years.

    "Twenty-five years ago, it was 'Do the jump; get the fish,'" he said. "Today, we've come so far, now it's 'Do the jump; get whatever you like.'

    "So today, at the end of the day, they are just as eager as they were at the beginning of the day. Twenty-five years ago, it was 'Hey, I'm full. You want a ride across this pool? Call a cab.' The animals were just sated."

    But reinforcement isn't just for spectacular jumps.

    "Aside from show behaviors, all animals are taught husbandry behaviors," Roberts said. Animals are weighed each day, and trainers and veterinarians regularly collect blood, urine and even sperm samples from the animals. But no one can just walk up to an animal and ask them to stick out a fin. Those procedures need to be taught, and reinforced.

    "The aerials are really exciting for the crowds, and the trainers, too, but what a trainer finds most exciting is when a young whale learns those little behaviors for this first time," Peters said. "If you can train the animal to be okay with these things, the trainer knows that they will be okay with all the other things.

    "It's like watching a baseball game. Sure, it's nice to watch home runs, but what gets parents most excited? It's seeing their kid get a hit for the first time."

    I, with Peters' help, shake "hands" with Corky, SeaWorld's oldest killer whale. (BTW, I noticed none of them actually are named "Shamu." That's just a stage name now.)

    So how do they do it? Peters said that the same basic principles apply to training killer whales as to more common animals, such as dogs.

    "I don't think that the water is that important a variable," he said. What does distinguish his training methods is the exclusive use of positive reinforcement.

    "There's no yanking on a chain, like some do with a dog," he said. "If you use punishment on a whale, it will punish you back."

    "When you get in the water with an animal," Garver said, "you want it to be all positive."

    Garver also said that working with killer whales actually can be easier than working with some of the smaller animals in the park.

    "Killer whales are at the top of the food chain," he said. "They are not afraid of people the way that other animals are. So they can get into training much quicker. Other animals, farther down the food chain... they have an innate flight response that you can spend an inordinate amount of time getting over."

    Garver and Peters pointed to the park's Commerson's Dolphins as an example of an animal whose status at the bottom of the food chain made them "skittish" and more difficult to train. Still, the killer whales' status at the top of the ocean food chain does present challenges.

    "With whales, you have to meet them halfway," Peters said. "A lot of times with dogs you can say 'Hey, I'm in charge.' If you try that with these guys [he pointed to the killer whales in the show pool behind him], that's, uh, not going to work real well."

    After talking with Peters and Garver, I walked over to the Sea Lion and Otter Stadium, where I met Roberts and saw him and his crew bring out the sea lions for their morning weighing, treatment and feeding.

    Roberts, fish in hand, points out the day's show schedule, noting which animals will playing the roles of "Clyde" and "Seamore." Sometimes, two animals will share one role in the same show. Roberts plays the part of "Sam" in the show.

    I followed Roberts back to the sea lions' pool, where we gave the command for the three sea lions (or "dogs," as the trainers call them) to move on to the rocks at the back of the pool. Then he called one of the sea lions by name, who then swam to the gate at the front of the pool. Roberts opened the gate for Duke, whom Roberts then gave a command to move to a "safe" position on Roberts' opposite side from me.

    Roberts rewarded all three sea lions for their cooperation, then gave the command for Duke to follow us to the scales, a large metal plate on the outside floor behind the stadium.

    That's where I watched the sea lions and walruses be weighed. One by one, each waddled up to the scales and waited patiently, in position, for the trainer to record its weight and reward it with a helping of fish.

    Most impressive to me was McLean, a sea lion who had had cataracts, tilting his head to each side, on command, to accept drops in each eye.

    McLean waits for his reward.

    Man, I gotta get these guys to come to my house to train my kids to take medicine, I thought. But then I figured Natalie and Brian wouldn't be real enthusiastic about raw mackerel as a "thank you."

    So, because some Theme Park Insider readers wanted to know, how does someone get a gig as a SeaWorld trainer?

    SeaWorld's director of education, Joy Wolf (yes, that's really her name), gave me a hand-out with the requirements:

  • academic training in biology, zoology or psychology
  • public speaking skills and experience
  • passing a swimming test
  • SCUBA and CPR certification

    Garver said that the swim test eliminates people who are not comfortable in the water, the microphone test and audition eliminates candidates who are not comfortable speaking in public and the interview helps SeaWorld's current trainers get a sense whether a candidate has the right attitude to handle the challenges of animal training.

    "Trainers are our own worst critics," Garver said. "After a session, we'll pick apart everything that worked or didn't."

    "If you can't take constructive criticism," Peters said, "this probably is not the right position for you."

    Monday, Theme Park Insider editor Robert Niles writes about slipping on a wet suit and getting in the tank with SeaWorld's beluga whales.

    Comments (7) | Archive Link

  • Busch Gardens Europe Announces Sesame Street Addition for 2009

    By Justin Moore
    Published: August 8, 2008 at 2:08 PM
    Beginning in spring of 2009, Busch Gardens Europe is adding a new kids section to the park with the "Sesame Street Village." The new land will stick with the park's European theme and will feature four new rides, including a junior coaster and log flume, in addition to dry and wet play areas, rope climbs, stage shows, retail and food establishments and a new 4-D attraction featuring characters like Big Bird, Elmo and Cookie Monster.

    The village will be constructed adjacent to the current England area, thus expanding the current layout and size of the park. Not too surprising this move, considering BEC also operates Sesame Place.

    This sounds similar to the "Land of the Dragons" section in Germany (which will not be replaced), but obviously bigger and based on Sesame Street. Will Elmo have an English accent? The press release failed to mention...:) "He he, that tickles mate..."

    For the full release check out the BGE site: http://www.buschgardensnews.com/page/pressannouncement

    Some questions this raises in my mind:

    Does BGE need another children's section?
    ...reminds me of Hannah Barbera characters in the old Paramount Parks and Looney Tunes at Six Flags...not sure I like seeing characters outside of WDW. That's just me.

    Is this a move to bolster the park's value before a new buyer comes along - putting on a fresh wax before she sells? Could be that this has been in the pipe for some time...

    Comments (10) | Archive Link

    Vote of the week: What country should be added to Epcot?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 8, 2008 at 12:11 PM
    Thanks to Theme Park Insider reader Tim W for submitting the idea and options for this week's vote.

    We're talking about Walt Disney World's Epcot this week. As you are watching the parade of nations at the Olympic opening ceremonies today, which of these countries would you like to see come to World Showcase?

    Tim submitted several options, including some that would bring in clones of existing Disney attractions from other theme parks and others using related Disney characters. Which option would you choose?

    Let's talk about these options, or just ramble on about the Olympics, in the comments.

    Comments (18) | Archive Link

    TV report fuels rumors of Hard Rock Park demise

    By J. Dana
    Published: August 7, 2008 at 1:11 PM
    Rumors Circulate About Hard Rock Park Future, from WPDE-TV. My transcript:

    Rumors about the Grand Strand's first rock and roll theme park are spread-ing all over town. Many have heard that Hard Rock Park is going broke, or that it will become part of a casino project. The theme park's CEO, Steve Goodwin, has gone on record in the past saying it has been a really tough summer for the attraction. However, beyond that admission, not much else has been confirmed. But, the rumors are flying, and, right now, the skeptics are in charge.

    Local business leaders and industry insiders want Hard Rock Park to succeed, but theme park consultant Dennis Speigel says the park's developers picked a bad summer to open because of high gas prices and a slow economy. Speigel also said the park's high ticket prices and very aggressive projection of three million visitors their first year did not help the matter.

    "Very few parks, with the exception of Disney World, and possibly Universal, have ever achieved that number," he said. The park's days and hours of operation have been cut back, and their web site has no concerts scheduled af-ter August 30th. According to the rumor mills, that could mean the park will close this fall. But, Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce President Brad Dean said while foot traffic at the park is disappointing, no one on the outside knows the true story.

    Dean said that the skeptics who did not believe Myrtle Beach was ready for a big theme park are having their day. But that it's way too early to talk about Hard Rock Park's demise.

    "Obviously, they may not hit the projections they were hoping for this summer, but I think the longer term story has yet to be written," he said. Hard Rock Park has not released attendance numbers, citing competitive reasons.

    Comments (7) | Archive Link

    Will Disney be ignoring all guest comments?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 7, 2008 at 1:01 PM
    I've spent quite a bit of time in Busch and Six Flags theme parks this summer, talking with park managers who have made a point of insisting that their companies read and respond to every written or e-mailed guest comment that they receive. I haven't written a guest comment to either company since, well, ever, so I don't have any first-hand experience with whether that is indeed the case. But the managers I spoke with felt strongly enough about the topic that they brought it up.

    Now, for the other side... Al Lutz reports on MiceAge this week that Disney won't be even reading comments from its guests anymore. In the section titled "Mickey, Can You Hear Me?" Lutz reports that Disney, in response to lawsuits from guests who allegedly made suggestions that Disney later adopted, won't be allowing guests to fill out comment cards inside the park. Nor will it even read letters about theme park visits sent in by guests.

    "When [a] letter contains a phrase or sentence that mentions a visit to a Disney park, it is folded closed. Once closed, the visitors letter is attached to a form letter that politely informs the reader that this correspondence has been formally rejected by Disney for liability reasons and has been returned to the sender without further acknowledgement of the company.

    "The form letter and the visitor's original letter are then stuffed into a larger envelope, and the packet is returned to the sender via regular mail."

    OMFG. I can't even wrap my head around this one. You've got to be kidding me.

    Comments (11) | Archive Link

    Kings Island to debut B&M's Diamondback Mega Coaster for 2009

    By Eli Katzman
    Published: August 7, 2008 at 10:51 AM
    It is said to be Kings Island's tallest and fastest roller coaster, and their "meanest". Diamondback is going to be 230 ft. tall, with a 215 ft. first drop, with the heights of 5 other hills ranging from 106 to 193 ft. It's top speed will be a raging 80 mph, and the length will be 2 feet above a mile, including a splash-down finish, like Griffon at BGE and Sheikra at BGA.

    Train on Diamondback. Image courtesy Kings Island.

    Diamondback is by B&M, and will have the first of it's kind style of seating in the U.S., like Behemoth at Canada's Wonderland. There will be 8 cars of 4 in a car, with 3 trains, with a total of 96 people combined. It's seating is very unique, because each car has 4 across, except the far ends on both the left and right are put about a foot behind the middle two seats.

    Train on Diamondback. Image courtesy Kings Island.

    The investment was $22 million, and will be the most money spent on a thrill ride in the park's 36-year history.

    Comments (2) | Archive Link

    What's the best thing to eat at a theme park championship: Dole Whip vs. Turkey Legs?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 6, 2008 at 7:21 AM
    Well, after all this, the top seeds made it to the finals of our tournament to determine the best single thing to eat at a theme park. So today, we're at the finals, and you'll get to pick between the top seed, the Dole Whip from Adventureland in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom and Disneyland, and the second seed, the Turkey Legs from the MK's Frontierland.

    Last call for campaigning, in the comments.

    On a personal note, having stood an inordinate amount of time near both locations when I worked at Disney World (by the Dole Whip stand while working the Swiss Family Treehouse and by the Turkey Legs while working both Tom Sawyer Islands and Country Bear Jamoboree), let me say this... you're killing me, people.

  • Complete tournament results
  • Comments (8) | Archive Link

    What's the best thing to eat at a theme park, round 3: Dole Whip vs. Casey's Corner Hot Dog?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 5, 2008 at 8:44 AM
    Yesterday, readers narrowly selected Frontierland's Turkey Legs over the Blue Bayou's Monte Cristo Sandwich in our tournament to pick the best thing to eat at a theme park. Today, in the other semifinal, you'll get to pick between the Dole Whip served in Adventureland at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom and Disneyland and the Hot Dog from Casey's Corner in the Magic Kingdom. Rave about your choice in the comments, please.

    Tomorrow, we'll match the winner against the Turkey Legs in the tournament final!

    Comments (4) | Archive Link

    More heat behind the Merlin/Busch takeover rumors

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 4, 2008 at 2:18 PM
    Lots of publications are jumping over the Telegraph's report that Merlin Entertainments Group stakeholder The Blackstone Group is considering a play for Busch Entertainment Corp., the theme park arm of the Anheuser-Busch, said to be for sale after the takeover of the brewer by Belgian conglomerate InBev.

    This should be nothing new to TPI readers. Remember, we fingered Merlin as the most likely suitor back in June. The Telegraph story suggests that Blackstone might make a play independent of Merlin, then possibly merge BEC with Merlin... or even Universal Orlando, of which Blackstone owns half.

    I can't see the UO deal happening, mostly because of the NBC Universal/GE involvement. But, if InBev doesn't sell the parks to the Busch family, then Merlin/Blackstone remains a definite candidate to obtain Busch Gardens and SeaWorld.

    Comments (3) | Archive Link

    What's the best thing to eat at a theme park, round 3: Turkey Leg vs. Monte Cristo Sandwich?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 4, 2008 at 9:26 AM
    We are down to the final four nominees in our reader tournament to select the best thing to eat at a theme park. We'll have semifinal match-ups today and tomorrow, with the finals on Wednesday.

    Today's semifinals matches the Monte Cristo from Disneyland's Blue Bayou against the Turkey Legs available in Walt Disney World's Frontierland. Which is your favorite?

  • Complete tournament results and schedule
  • Comments (2) | Archive Link

    Disney raises prices; Universal spills more Potter detail

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 2, 2008 at 12:04 PM
    I wanted to draw your attention to a couple of discussions about recent news developments:

  • Themeparks too Pricey?: Karin S asks, following Disney's announcement yesterday that it is raising ticket prices at Walt Disney World and Disneyland.
  • Three Broomsticks to be constructed: Amanda Jenkins writes about Universal Orlando's announcement about the upcoming restaurant in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
  • Comments (1) | Archive Link

    What's the best thing to eat at a theme park, round 2: Dole Whip vs. Epcot's School Bread?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 1, 2008 at 8:58 AM
    Today we wrap up the second round in our single-elimination tournament to find readers' favorite thing to eat in a theme park. Our top seed, Disney's Dole Whip, is back, this time facing the School Bread from Epcot's Norway pavilion.

    Which is your preferred sweet snack? Tell us in the comments, after you vote:

    The vote closes tomorrow, and we will start the semifinals on Monday morning.

    In yesterday's quarterfinal, the Turkey Leg from Walt Disney World's Frontierland beat out the Cheddar Cheese Soup from Le Cellier Steakhouse in Epcot's Canada pavilion, 52% to 48%.

  • Complete tournament results and schedule
  • Comments (2) | Archive Link

    Keep reading: July 2008 Archive

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