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November 2008

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Vote of the week: Which is the best theme park for Christmas events?

By Robert Niles
Published: November 28, 2008 at 11:34 AM
We've been covering a lot of theme park Christmas and holiday celebrations on Theme Park Insider, and will continue to do so over the next few weeks. But I wanted to hear from you about your favorites.

I've picked 10 top theme parks that open for and run winter holiday celebrations. You tell me which one you think is the best, that is, the one you would most want to attend, if you could pick only one.

Why is that your favorite? Tell us you take on theme parks' holiday events, present and past, in the comments.

Comments (9) | Archive Link

Life Magazine archive of classic Disney theme park photos

By Robert Niles
Published: November 27, 2008 at 7:42 PM
Okay, lots of other websites have been doing this, and I just had to join in. In case you hadn't heard, Google's booked a deal with the owner of Life magazine's photo archive to place and host thousands of images from the magazine, including many never before published, on the Web for free.

I searched through the archive and grabbed five classic Disneyland images, plus one from the opening of Walt Disney World. Let's start with Life's classic image from the opening of Disneyland in 1955, with children running through Sleeping Beauty's Castle.

Sure, it's a great shot, but it always bugged me 'cause it shows the kids... fleeing from Fantasyland back toward the park exit! Here's a more accurate picture, with the crowd following Disney characters through the castle. (Even if it is a worse photo, due to everyone having their backs to the camera.)

Here's picture of the Mad Tea Party, in its original location next to the castle, in Fantasyland.

And another of Frontierland's Mine Train through Nature's Wonderland.

This is my favorite shot from the archive, a stunning photo from the climbers' POV at the top of the Matterhorn. In the background, you see... hey, wait a minute, something's not right here....

Yep. The image is reversed. Here is the image flipped to the correct orientation. Over the climber's right shoulder, you can see Captain Hook’s Pirate Ship, Storybook Land, Midget Autopia, the old Fantasyland train station and the Matterhorn dispatch station.

Finally, here's the opening day cast photo that Life ran on its front cover celebrating Walt Disney World's opening in October 1971.

You can search the complete Life magazine photo archive on Google at http://images.google.com/hosted/life.

Comments (5) | Archive Link

Happy Thanksgiving

By Robert Niles
Published: November 27, 2008 at 9:17 AM
There will be no vacation planning article today, due to the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States. And next week, I'll be flipping the schedule around. The vacation planning article will run on Tuesday, and the Tuesday Park Visit will run on Thursday, as I visit the holiday festivities at Universal Studios Hollywood.

As for today: Thanksgiving. I'd like to give thanks for... you, the Theme Park Insider readers who spend part of their valuable time on this website. Thank you for reading, and I hope that you will continue to visit the site, and tell your friends about it, in the year to come.

While I am at it, I also am thankful for:
- Single rider lines
- Theme park restaurants that serve vegetables
- Online ticket sales

Feel free to keep the list going, in the comments.

Comments (6) | Archive Link

Top theme park tips of the week: FastPasses, shortcuts and slow seasons

By Robert Niles
Published: November 26, 2008 at 10:23 AM
Each Wednesday, I'll be highlighting the most popular theme park tips submitted by Theme Park Insider readers on our Tips for visiting theme parks page. Anyone can submit a tip to the page, whether you are registered with the site or not. And anyone can vote on any of the tips - yes or no. The most popular tips rise to the top of the lists, and the least popular drop off.

Here are some of the most popular recent reader tips for visiting Walt Disney World:

"The Attractions you MUST get a fastpass for to save your sanity: Splash Mountain, Peter Pan's Flight, Space Mountain, Toy Story Mania, Test Track, Soarin, Rockin Roller Coaster, Kilimanjaro Safaris."

"When getting fastpasses, make a plan what you want to do while you wait for your fastpass time. This can include eating, seeing a show, or waiting in a shorter line somehwhere else."

"Most character meals are $5-$10 per person cheaper at lunch. Lunch is usualy served until 3:45, so eat late lunch/early dinner and save up to $40 per family of four."

You can vote on these and other tips on the Walt Disney World tips page.

And from the Disney's Animal Kingdom tips page:

"Two things... if you ride Kilimanjaro Safari at about 3 or 3:30 in the afternoon a lot of the animals will be active. Also ride Everest in the last half hour before the park closes and you'll walk right on!"

Here are three other notable tips from the past month, that I thought readers might want to weigh in on. Click on the links to go to these tip pages and vote:

From Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom tips:
"Parade time is excellent for shorter waits on popular rides like Space Mountain or Splash Mountain. Enough people line the walkways to watch the parade, that the wait time is substantially reduced."

From Six Flags Magic Mountain tips:
"If choosing Tatsu first, walk into the exit path of Revolution and take the stairs past the actual ride discharge. This will place you past X2 and Viper half way up the hill. Saves time and energy."

From Disneyland tips:
"The best time to go to DL is the week after Thanksgiving till the week before Christmas. Its themed for the holidays and has the lowest attendance!"

You can read, or click to, all of our current tips on http://www.themeparkinsider.com/tips/. If you don't see your favorite tip, just scroll down to the bottom of that page and click the button to submit yours. Thanks, again, for reading Theme Park Insider!

Comments (5) | Archive Link

Christmas at Disneyland: A photo gallery

By Robert Niles
Published: November 25, 2008 at 8:40 AM
Tuesday Park Visit: Sure, Thanksgiving's two days away, but it is already Christmas at Disneyland in Anaheim, California. Walt's original theme park laid out the Christmas decor last weekend, getting a head start on this year's holiday season.

I dropped by Monday for a look, and was surprised at the mass of humanity that had the same idea. Back in the Stone Age, when I worked at Walt Disney World, the Monday and Tuesday before Thanksgiving were the two slowest days of the year. No longer. Apparently, half of Southern California's decided to take the whole week off, and many of them decided to hit Disneyland for part of it. If theme park attendance is suffering in this economy, don't blame Disneyland.

Disneyland's Christmas tree dominates Town Square.

Mickey was out greeting guests in front of the Main Street Fire Station.

Garland spans Main Street, with the castle in the distance.

"Snow" and icicles cover Sleeping Beauty's Castle for the holiday season.

Decor's a bit more restrained, and rustic, in Frontierland.

But there's plenty of glitter in New Orleans Square.

Look into this hidden courtyard, off Royal Street, to find Christmas decorations for sale and a charming setting for a family photo op.

Haunted Mansion Holiday continues to draw crowds, from Halloween through the New Year.

How busy was it? So busy that the Canoes were running at capacity on a weekday.

Santa's Reindeer Round-up is back at the Big Thunder Ranch.

And here are Santa's reindeer.

The Mickey Santa hats are back on sale again.

If you go by the calendar, Disney's got about one month to get the Sleeping Beauty's Castle walk-through back open.

But judging from the looks of things, it might be a loooong while before that "last leaf of Autumn" falls in Anaheim.

It's a "Small World" Holiday, but a large world of strollers outside the newly-rehabbed boat ride.

Even the toons get their own Christmas tree.

Minnie bids us farewell, from her meet n' greet in Toontown.

In two weeks, I'll travel to Orlando for Christmas at Walt Disney World, with photo galleries from The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights and Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party.

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Why put a meet 'n greet next to a smoking area?

By Robert Niles
Published: November 24, 2008 at 2:35 PM
Just got back from Disneyland, where I shot a bunch of photos for a "Christmas at Disneyland" Tuesday Park Visit entry I will post on the Blog Flume tomorrow.

But I wanted to share this photo:

Photo

It's Woody from Toy Story, doing a meet-and-greet just outside the Big Thunder Ranch. But what caught my eye (and nose) was what was on the other side of the path, just a few feet away:

Photo

Frontierland's smoking area.

Uh, might it be a good idea not to place characters who will attract a queue of children within a couple steps of one of the park's three remaining designated smoking areas? Just a thought.

Comments (9) | Archive Link

Mannheim Steamroller set to kick of Universal Orlando holiday festivities with 2 free concerts

By Domenik Jost
Published: November 24, 2008 at 2:34 PM
The Mannheim Steamrollers are coming to Universal Studios Orlando. They will be playing two free concerts inside Universal Studios Florida on December 6 at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Check out the Orlando Sentinel story (link):

Mannheim Steamroller will perform two live concerts at Universal Studios on Dec. 6 to kick off the resort's annual holiday program, Universal Orlando announced this morning.

The Grammy-award winning band, which puts a New Age-jazz spin on Christmas and other holiday seasonal music, will perform songs it specifically composed for the resort's original hoiday stage show, "How the Grinch STole Christmas," as well as new music from the band's latest album release, Christmasville.

The concerts will take place at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. in the New York area and of Universal Studios and are included in park admission, which nomally is $75 per person.

The performances are the start of the month-long holiday festivities at Universal Orlando. Beginning Dec. 6 and running through Jan. 1, the resort's celebration will include the specially themed Grinchmas show and Macy's Holiday Parade.

Comments (1) | Archive Link

And so the InBev era begins at the Busch theme parks...

By Ted Lund
Published: November 23, 2008 at 4:28 PM
[Editor's note: This was submitted to the discussion forum, but I moved it up to the front-page Blog Flume. FWIW, I haven't independently confirmed anything below yet, so I'm deferring to the author for now.

Editor's Update: Busch denials.

Editor's Update 2: From someone whose judgment I respect with contacts whom I know: "I had spoken to one of Sea World's most senior animal training staff about this very issue. He told me that, honestly, he's heard nothing that would indicate anything at Sea World is going to change, at least as far as animal care and management is concerned. InBev seems quite content to get out of the way and let the experts do their jobs, as it were."]

Interesting words from several different employees from within SeaWorld Orlando and the areas affected by the recent sellout of AB (these folks are credible and have been right up to this point):

1. No buyers for the park at this time. Busch family was pursuing a deal to buy the parks, but that seems to have fallen through.

2. The iconic Clydesdales and Budweiser donkey have been sold. They were not a part of the actual AB Clydesdale operation, but rather were property of the parks. The donkey has already left the building — the horses are being allowed to stay until Jan 1.

3. Jan 1 seems to be a big day in the parks. The Hospitality House will close for good on that day. All AB employees (the folks in the Brewmasters Club actually work for AB marketing) in that area are gone. No more Brewmaster's Club or two free samples.

4. Jan 1 is also the day that all of the old AB Eagle logos are coming down. No word as to whether or not they'll be replacing them with the new AB-InBev seagull-on-acid logo. They've already nixed the "Here's to our Heros" segment from the Believe beginning (the one featuring the IVth). Although they are keeping the other segment of the intro, it will be interesting to see if that goes away on Jan. 1 as well.

If you enjoyed the parks under the 20 years that AB has owned them, (I am presuming these changes are going to be company wide)... now through Jan. 1. is the time.

The beer thing at the SeaWorld parks doesn't really bother me, but I remember in the early 70s going to Busch Gardens Africa for my birthdays with my parents and riding "the world's longest escolator" ride to the brewery tour. I just can't imagine BG without the "Busch."

Very sad day indeed if this is true — which I believe it is.

Comments (17) | Archive Link

Vote of the week: Favorite Thanksgiving dessert?

By Robert Niles
Published: November 21, 2008 at 9:50 AM
The first online poll I created was for Thanksgiving. It was for the Rocky Mountain News' website back in 1998 and the question was "Cranberry sauce: Whole berry or Jelly-style?" I ran that question again when I joined the Los Angeles Times and again when I started the Vote of the Week here on ThemeParkInsider.com. (On TPI, jelly-style won, 60% to 39%.)

Since we now are coming to another Thanksgiving week (at least, here in the United States), I'm throwing another holiday-themed vote at you. Let's talk dessert this time.

I suspect that pumpkin pie will be the big winner this time, but I voted Sweet Potato. And I suspect there might be more than a few pecan pie and cheesecake fans out there, too. Even if you are not in the United States, feel free to vote on whichever dessert sounds best to you.

Let's debate our favorites, in the comments.

Comments (15) | Archive Link

Planning your theme park vacation: Step 3 - keep track of your expenses

By Robert Niles
Published: November 20, 2008 at 2:58 PM
In our first two installments, we talked about the importance of saving for a vacation, then daydreamed a bit about where you might want to go. The next step is to start putting numbers on paper. But before we start looking into the cost of visiting specific parks, let's take a moment to think about how we will manage the information we find.

Theme Park Insider reader Don Neal e-mailed me about a wonderful system that he uses to budget for his family's theme park vacations. With his permission, I'm passing along his system, along with the spreadsheet he uses. Here's Don:

I love to plan, possibly to the point of over-planning. but I have never been let down because of it. It's one thing to know about the parks and the area, but not understanding cost will ruin a trip faster than anything. So to help with [that], I developed a spreadsheet [Microsoft Excel file] that I can reuse over and over with all the usual costs added in, plus some of the ones that no one thinks of.

It tracks the item, quantity, frequency (think days), cost per unit, and the total as a result.

The items that I track are:

Transportation
- Airfare if flying
- Rental Car if renting
- Gas (if driving, I calculate the mileage at 22/mpg divided into the total x the current rate per gallon plus 10%)

Accommodations
- Hotel on the way to or from if you are driving
- Hotel or condo upon arrival

Food
- Groceries, if staying at a place that has a kitchen (snacks, breakfast, drinks, etc)
- Breakfast, Cost per day x number of days ($4 per person assuming a trip to McD's or eating at the condo)
- Lunch, Cost per day x number of days ($7 per adult, and $5 per child assuming eating at the parks)
- Dinner, Cost per day x number of days ($15 per adult, and $7 per child assuming a Friday's, Hard Rock, or Applebee's type)
- The frequency of these can be dropped if park packages are purchased or meal deals bought.

Entertainment
- Putt-Putt: who doesn't go to Florida or Myrtle Beach and not putt-putt, $10 a person x frequency.
- Movies: This is about a 50/50 with us but I always budget for it. $10 a person x frequency
- Parks: Filled in based on where you are going. Add additional lines if multiple parks are in order.
- Shows if applicable, cost varies.

Spending Money
- We always budget spending money. This is where your money can disappear rather quickly. The $30 shirts, $20 hats, $20 key chains. We set aside a certain amount up front. Usually $100-150 per adult and $50-75 per child depending on available finances.

Misc
- Parking fees and tolls: $12 a day. This one slips a lot of people's minds as well. Can add up fast between trips to the beach in FL, parking at the parks, and such.
- Forgotten items: $5 a day. Shampoo, a toothbrush, throw away cameras, bandaids, and so on. Always something that gets forgotten.

This usually gives people a much larger number than what they are prepared for but it lets them get a true idea of what the trip is going to cost. I have helped several friends doing this and they all have come back praising the process. It only takes 15-30 mins to look up airfare, hotels, and park fees. Also if you plan to pay in cash, saving up so that you don't come back owing MC or Visa $5k-10k. We are going to Disney in June and are already saving up for it. We pull out the money and organize it in envelopes so we know what's what and are able to track it. Some people would think that's more effort than it's worth, especially on a trip where you are wanting to relax and not think about money, but we did this last year and came back with $80 in our wallet. Can't beat that. And I didn't owe anyone a thing when I got home. Nothing but great memories and time with the family.

I've put Don's spreadsheet up on Theme Park Insider for readers to use for their vacation planning. You can make several copies of the spreadsheet, one for each potential destination or trip length you're considering. That way, you can make a solid, apples-to-apples comparison about trip costs.

And then, once you've made your choice, your budget will be set and your family soon ready to roll.

Next week, we'll start filling out these categories by pricing individual park options.

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Free theme park parking? Huh? Where?

By Robert Niles
Published: November 20, 2008 at 2:18 PM
I love Atrios' blog, but what is this "Disney City with Unlimited Free Parking Everywhere" of which he speaks?

Disneyland jacked me for $11 last time I was there. Ugh.

Comments (2) | Archive Link

Cold and smoke should be on-ride effects, not weather

By Robert Niles
Published: November 18, 2008 at 9:53 PM
Tuesday Park Visit: With chilly temperatures in Central Florida and smoky skies in SoCal, I thought this would be a good week for a "virtual" Tuesday Park Visit. So let's fire up the time machine and visit the theme park of the future. Specifically, let's take a video visit to some of the top rides planned for major theme parks in spring and summer 2009.

(Plus, this is a shameless ploy to draw your attention to Theme Park Insider's What's Under Construction at Top Theme Parks page, where you can find links to all the planned new attractions for next season, and beyond.)

Let's start in the cold, snowy Midwest, where roller coaster fans can keep warm thinking of the new B&M mega coaster that awaits them at Kings Island next year: Diamondback.

West coasters get to go "old school" next spring, with a new GCI woodie at Six Flags Magic Mountain: Terminator: The Coaster

Down south, the Orlando theme parks will debut two new major coasters next year. I don't have any spec video for Universal Studios Florida's Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit. But SeaWorld has released construction video for its new B&M flyer, Manta:

Finally, we haven't forgotten our European readers. Here's the latest promotional video from Thorpe Park for Saw the Ride, which includes some on-ride concept video, amid all the hype:

Check out the rest of 2009's new rides on the What's New page, and feel free to submit new listings for upcoming, confirmed new attractions as they are announced.

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Several injured in escalator mishap at Universal Studios Hollywood

By Robert Niles
Published: November 17, 2008 at 6:50 PM
Getting reports that at least two eight people were hospitalized when the Starway escalators that connect the upper and lower lots at Universal Studios Hollywood malfunctioned this afternoon.

The escalators reportedly stopped suddenly, or reversed, toppling riders. Several were treated at the scene. No other word yet on the reported hospitalizations.

Update: E-mail from a reader. Keeping him anonymous.

My daughter and I were on the escalator when it broke. There was 20 - 25 people on it and when it snapped it came in reverse due to all the weight on it. I'm surprised that there isn't a brake to stop that from happening as in elevators and I was shocked to find that none of 7+ universal staff that responded offered any assistance to the injured except to stand around talking in their radios, shoo away anyone that witnessed the accident or was only brused and shaken by it, and to block off the escalator. Joseph Pardieu manager of guest relations told me later that their staff is not trained in first aid or have first aid kits available. They leave all that to emergency services.

So don't have a accident at the park since no one there will come to your aid they would rather watch you bleed than give you something as simple and a compress bandage to cover your wounds until medical help arrives.

On a positive note when emergency services arrived about 10 minutes later they were outstanding in the conduct of their duties. Park staff on the other hand seemed unwilling to take any witness personal information down and went so far as to inform us at the Guest relations center that they would not be offering refunds and I could fill out a complaint form if I wanted to.

Comments (4) | Archive Link

Bob the Builder 4-D film to debut at Legoland

By Robert Niles
Published: November 17, 2008 at 9:33 AM
Legoland announced today that it will bring popular toddler character Bob the Builder to its theme parks in a new 4-D movie.

Bob the Builder In 4-D: Bob the Builder and the Roller Coaster will debut at Legoland California and Legoland Windsor in March 2009. The film will open in Germany and Denmark in April.

In the movie, which is a co-production of SD Entertainment and Threshold Animation Studios, Bob the Builder and his crew build a roller coaster, starting with a Lego brick model and then working up to the real thing. Of course, there are a few problems, and lessons about teamwork along the way.

But can they build it? Yes, they can. (And in the sequel, Bob and his friend David Axelrod will help a Chicago politician run for U.S. president.... Sorry, easy joke.)

Seriously, Bob the Builder is a perfect fit for the Legoland parks, and his inclusion in a park attraction is long-overdue. Legoland's 4-D theater is not as technically advanced as those at other parks, with fixed bench seating instead of moveable chairs. But Legoland's target market of younger visitors isn't looking for an intense thrill experience, either. We'll see how the film plays when in debuts in Carlsbad this spring.

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Vote of the week: Do you bring your own food to theme parks?

By Robert Niles
Published: November 14, 2008 at 12:10 PM
The Thanksgiving holiday is fast approaching in the U.S., so I'm thinking about food. Should I make a big turkey again this year... or just reservations? ;-)

Of course, food is a big part of a theme park visit, for many TPI readers. They've picked Universal Orlando's Mythos as their favorite restaurant several years in a row. And Disney favorites such as Le Cellier and The Hollywood Brown Derby have many fans on the site.

But not everyone queues up for full-service dining at theme parks. Many visitors don't bother buying food in the parks at all, choosing instead to bring their own - no matter parks' policies forbidding outside food and drink.

What do you do? How widely violated are park rules about outside food and drink? Do you break those rules to bring your own lunch, or just bend' em a little, and bring in your own bottled water or baby meals?

For the vote below, think of your typical theme park visits and pick the choice that best describes what you most often do.

Let's talk about theme park food in the comments.

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The shut-down round-up

By Robert Niles
Published: November 14, 2008 at 10:40 AM
Three notes about closures and delayed openings at U.S. theme parks, from my e-mail this week:

Dollywood's shelved plans to open its Adventure Mountain obstacle play area next spring, delaying the project until 2010 for... you guessed it, "economic reasons."

The cost of Adventure Mountain - originally set for $5 million - has climbed closer to $7 million, said Pete Owens, spokesman for Dollywood. The rising cost of construction material is among the reasons the price has increased from original estimates, Owens said.

Legoland California's taken its new SeaLife aquarium down for rehab, just a few months after its opening. The park's second gate will be down until Dec. 26. From the press release:

Modifications being made to the Aquarium include adding an interactive LEGO sand castle building area; enhancing the LEGO animation in the Lost City of Atlantis display; adding décor to the Lake Tahoe area; remodeling the front and Park-side SEA LIFE entrances; and improvements to the interactive audio/visual technologies currently being used throughout the Aquarium.

I don't know whether to file this reader's e-mail under "People take jokes waaaay too seriously" or "Most depressing e-mail of the week":

Hello. I used to work for a theme park here in Myrtle Beach (Hard Rock Theme Park). It recently filed for bankrupcy. There is rumor that you may be purchasing this theme park. Is there any truth in this and if so will any of the employees be considered for rehire?

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Planning your theme park vacation: Step 2 - where do you want to go?

By Robert Niles
Published: November 13, 2008 at 12:23 PM
Last week, we talked about money in taking our first step toward planning next year's theme park vacation. Today, we're going to forget about money for a few moments, and instead just daydream a bit about what we want from a theme park visit.

Where do you want to go? Let's think about the possibilities.

Again, I said to forget about money, for now. So don't toss aside an option simply because you think you can't afford it. We'll start pricing theme park vacations in the weeks ahead. But a "bargain" deal - an "affordable" vacation - will turn out to be a waste of money if you don't have a good time.

The key to getting the best possible deal on a theme park vacation is value. Value goes two ways. Most people think about what you give - the money you spend on a trip. But what you get is just as important in establishing value. If you don't have a good time, you're not getting value, no matter how little you spent on the vacation.

So, what are our options? For today's article, we'll look only at U.S. theme and amusement parks. (We'll take on the international parks later.) Think about your family, their ages and interests, as well as where you live and your preferred method of travel. Again, let's keep money out of it. If you prefer to get the travel part of your trip over quickly by flying, but you worry about airfares, don't, for the moment.

Let's take a look at six of the big reasons why people visit theme and amusement parks. Think about which of these categories best describes you and your family. (Of course, you might fit into more than one!) Then read though these categories and note which parks' names you see most often in your favorite categories. (Links to more information about all these parks can be found in the green column on the right side of this page.)

Roller coasters

Are coasters the reason you visit theme and amusement parks? Do you judge a vacation by the amount of airtime you had? Do you find yourself passing times in queues debating with others at what point a corkscrew becomes a heartline roll?

If you're looking just for coasters, your first choice for a destination ought to be Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio. If you would prefer a west coast trip, think about Six Flags Magic Mountain, with an additional visit to nearby Knott's Berry Farm.

Other parks with multiple highly-rated coasters include Busch Gardens Europe in Williamsburg, Virginia, Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, New Jersey, Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee and Universal's Islands of Adventure at Universal Orlando in Florida.

Story-driven rides and shows

With classics like Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion, Disney has been the king of the category. But fans of these rides should not overlook the Universal and Busch theme parks, either. Universal Orlando's Amazing Adventure of Spider-Man is one of the world's best dark rides, and the Busch Gardens and SeaWorld parks have created some memorable attractions in this space, as well, including Busch Gardens Europe's Curse of DarKastle and SeaWorld Orlando's Journey to Atlantis.

Kids' rides, shows and characters

Where you choose to go here will depend upon your kids' ages, as well as what their favorite characters are. Here is a list of popular cartoon, comic book and kids' entertainment companies and the theme parks where their characters can be found.

Disney: Walt Disney World, Disneyland
Nickelodeon: Universal Orlando, Kings Island
DreamWorks: Universal Orlando, Universal Studios Hollywood
Warner Bros: Six Flags
Marvel: Universal Orlando
DC Comics: Six Flags
Sesame Street: SeaWorld, Busch Gardens
Peanuts: Cedar Point, Knott's Berry Farm
Thomas the Tank Engine: Six Flags
Wiggles: Six Flags
Barney: Universal Orlando

As you can see, this category isn't a slam-dunk for Disney, though many families will opt for Disneyland and Disney World. Legoland California might be the best park in the country for families with kids ages 3-9, though its options for kids younger than 3 are limited. Cedar Point has a large Peanuts plays areas aimed at Toddlers, Kings Island's got the Nick 'toons, and several Six Flags parks have extensive play areas aimed at pre-schoolers, as well.

Animals

The SeaWorld parks are obvious favorites among many animal lovers, but be sure to think about Busch Gardens Africa in Tampa, Florida, Disney's Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World and Six Flags Great Adventure, too. SeaWorld's San Diego park might be a top choice here, given its proximity to the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Wild Animal park.

Food

Theme parks provide immersive, sensory experiences - so why should taste be left out? Many foodies visit Walt Disney World's Epcot just for its variety of international restaurants, as well as its annual Food and Wine Festival in the fall. Other Walt Disney World parks offer outstanding food selections, too. On the west coast, Disneyland's famous Blue Bayou restaurant inside Pirates of the Caribbean packs 'em in, but the Napa Rose restaurant inside the Grand Californian Hotel has won many industry honors.

Universal Orlando features the world's top theme park restaurant, as voted by Theme Park Insider readers (Mythos at Islands of Adventure) as well as restaurants from Emeril Lagasse and other noted chefs.

Home cooking fans rave about Dollywood, and the Busch and SeaWorld parks put out a good spread, too. (Makes sense, since they are the only parks owned by a food and beverage company.)

Close to something else?

Theme parks don't have to be your only stop on a vacation. Many parks lie close to other attractions popular with families.

Almost every theme park these days has a water park either next door, or nearby, so swimmers will find plenty to do no matter where you choose to go. But if you are looking to combine a theme park vacation with a trip to the beach, here are your options:

Parks with beaches with a few minutes' walk or drive: Legoland California, SeaWorld San Diego, Cedar Point (okay, it's Lake Erie, but it is a beach.)
Parks with beaches within a couple hours' drive: Disneyland, Universal Studios Hollywood, Six Flags Magic Mountain, Knott's Berry Farm, Busch Gardens Africa, Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, SeaWorld Orlando, Busch Gardens Europe, Six Flags Great Adventure

If your family has national park fans, consider Dollywood, located next door to the very popular Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Families with kids studying American history in school should think about Busch Gardens Europe, which stands just down the road from Colonial Williamsburg and nearby Jamestown settlement and the Yorktown battlefield.

Finally, movie fans should consider Universal Studios Hollywood, the closest theme park to the tourist areas of Los Angeles. (Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm lie in Orange County, which is a tough drive away from the westside of L.A. and Beverly Hills - up to 2-3 hours in traffic during rush hour.)

Got some ideas? Great! Too many ideas? Well, remember, you don't have to do it all in one year. Please feel welcomed to submit your thoughts or questions as a comment below, and let other Theme Park Insider readers share their opinions with you.

Also, it's good to have several options in mind at this stage, just before we start confronting your dreams with your budget realities. That's what we'll do next Thursday, when I write about how to price your options for a theme park vacation.

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Just how much will you be able to do at Disney World with a cell phone?

By Robert Niles
Published: November 12, 2008 at 10:41 AM
I'm on the road and don't have time for a full post but I wanted to let folks talk about the new Disney/Verizon deal that's all over the news.

Basically, at some point in the future it will allow Disney theme park guests with Verizon network phones to access attraction wait times via their phones, as well as to get park maps and "Pal Mickey"-style messages as they roam the park.

If you aren't on Verizon, you are out of luck. Verizon's deal starts next year in Epcot with a Kim Possible tie-in. No ETA that I've found for the cell phone functionality.

Thoughts? (I'd give a link but I'm writing on my iPhone and can't copy and paste.)

Update: Here's the release.

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Earnings update: Revenge of the 'little guys'

By Robert Niles
Published: November 10, 2008 at 5:12 PM
Here's the short version of how U.S. theme park companies are doing:

Disney, Universal, Busch: down
Six Flags, Cedar Fair: up

The details? We looked at Disney last week. Here are how other companies did over the past three months:

Six Flags

  • Attendance up 200,000. (No base figure released.)
  • 5% overall revenue increase over last year's Q3
  • 2% increase in per capita guest spending for the quarter
  • 60% increase in net income over last year.

    Universal Orlando

  • Attendance down 2% for the quarter
  • Revenue down 1%
  • Net income down 18%

    Cedar Fair

  • Attendance for season at all parks up almost 3%, or 607,000 people.
  • In-park spending down about 1% in Q3 over same period last year.
  • Q3 net income up 70% over same period last year.

    This was to be expected, given high gas prices and the consumer slowdown in the last quarter. U.S. visitors stayed close to home, favoring the "local" amusement parks run by Six Flags and Cedar Point, over the destination theme parks and resorts, run by Disney, Universal and Busch.

    A weak dollar helped offset that loss by bringing in foreign tourists to Orlando over the summer, but with the dollar strengthening, that bump is going away, leading to sharply reduced advance bookings in Orlando.

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  • Cypress Gardens to close all rides, Nov. 17

    By Robert Niles
    Published: November 10, 2008 at 10:49 AM
    Just got the press release via e-mail:

    After months of exhaustive analysis by park officials and owners, Florida’s first theme park, Cypress Gardens, will temporarily close on Monday, November 17th, for a major renovation. With a reopening scheduled for March of 2009, the plans include expanding the wildly popular water park, while preserving the history and nostalgia of the original park, with a focus on the original botanical gardens and their worldwide notoriety. The ski show shall continue as part of the original park experience. The existing animal area and the ride area will be permanently closed. “The operating expense of running 38 amusement rides, a zoo, the botanical gardens, a ski show, and a water park are considerable,” said Cypress Gardens co-owner Rob Harper. “It is obvious the park cannot successfully function as four parks in one. We have some exciting new plans that everyone will be thrilled to see come March,” Harper added.

    The last day at the park, as it is now, will be Sunday, Nov. 16. No word yet on the fate of remaining rides at the park. Thoughts?

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    Vote of the week: When do you take vacation?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: November 7, 2008 at 10:03 AM
    We're talking about vacation planning on Theme Park Insider this week, with my series on that topic debuting yesterday. Plus, Disney's three-nights-free plan has people talking, too.

    So the vote of the week this week is this: When do you prefer to take your vacation? Are you a summer vacation fan? Do you prefer traveling over the Christmas holidays? Sping Break? Or are you one of those folks who goes for the smaller crowds and better deals by booking your trip during the school year?

    I'll have an article on this topic in my vacation planning series, but for now, I'd like to hear from you.

    Tell us about your choice, in the comments, please. Thanks!

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    Disney fights attendance drop with 'three days free' deal

    By Robert Niles
    Published: November 6, 2008 at 11:05 PM
    Disney, like many U.S. companies, announced a brutal quarterly earnings report today. Of interest to theme park fans is the news that year-over-year attendance dropped at Walt Disney World and Disneyland by one percent over the past three months, with income dropping four percent. Disney also announced that advanced bookings are down 10 percent at Disney World for the upcoming holiday season.

    Now, a one-percent drop isn't as bad as some parks have faced, and the drop in the theme parks pales in comparison with the way that other Disney divisions are losing cash. ABC and the TV stations dropped $150 million over the three months alone.

    But Disney isn't used to attendance drops at its theme parks. So the Mouse isn't taking this one lying down.

    No, there's no new attraction development. But Disney is planning to offer a 'three nights free' deal to Disney World visitors who book a week-long vacation before the end of the year. You buy four nights in a Disney hotel with a four-day Magic Your Way theme park ticket and get the extra three days free.

    Visitors can take their trip any time before next summer (excluding Spring Break). Details should be available on Disney World's website within the next day or two.

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    Planning your theme park vacation: Step 1 - save, don't borrow, the money

    By Robert Niles
    Published: November 6, 2008 at 11:44 AM
    This week, and every Thursday until next spring, we'll be talking on ThemeParkInsider.com about how to plan for your family's 2009 vacation. My goal with this series is to help you find the best possible vacation for your family at the lowest possible price.

    Many folks equate "theme park vacation" with "week in Orlando." While we certainly will find ways for many of you to get that great, affordable vacation to Central Florida, I'll also show you other options from around the country (and, in a few cases, the world). A family weekend at Legoland and the beach in Carlsbad, Calif. The couple days at Dollywood while camping in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A mid-year history trip to Williamsburg, Virginia, with a day at Busch Gardens, too.

    But before we get to any potential itineraries, we have an important issue to address first: money. Like I said, the goal here is to plan a vacation for the lowest possible price. To do that, you need to start right now.

    Today.

    The easiest way to save 10-20 percent, or even more, on your family vacation is to pay for it with your own money. Don't borrow it from the bank by charging it to a credit card. (Or, worse, doing something truly foolish like paying for it with a home equity loan.) If you put your vacation expenses on a credit card and leave them there for a year, you'll end up paying not just the cost of the vacation, but 10-20 percent more for the interest charges on that balance, too.

    Pay off your vacation when you take it, and you save that extra expense. And, if you squirrel away your money into an interest-paying account during the year, you can consider the interest you earn an extra discount on the cost of your theme park vacation. (There's an engaging video at DaveRamsey.com that using the example of buying a car to show how people who pay cash end up way ahead in the long run over folks who borrow. Also, it's okay to put your vacation expenses on a credit card if you pay it off every month. Charging to, then paying off, a low- or no-annual-fee rewards card also can help you cover the cost of a vacation by earning you free airfare, hotel rooms and rental cars, too. Just try to use one card for all your expenses throughout the year to maximize your rewards.)

    Saving in advance also helps you control the cost of your family vacation. If you didn't save it, you can't spend it. But don't think that means you can't have a fun vacation. I'm writing this series to help you find a fun, relaxing and memorable vacation, no matter what your budget ultimately turns out to be.

    So how are you going to save up for your vacation? If you are fortunate enough not to be living from paycheck to paycheck, think about how much money you would be willing to take out of savings, right now, for a family trip. That's your base. If you are living paycheck-to-paycheck, your base is zero, but don't worry. We can find a way to build from there.

    Whatever you do, do not take money from a retirement account, or reduce the amount you are contributing toward a 401(k), to pay for your vacation. That's just borrowing from your future, and we're trying not to borrow for this, remember? :-)

    Let's start by writing down every single thing you spend money on for the next week. Next Thursday morning, look at that list and decide what you can cut out and instead put that money toward your vacation. Bringing lunch from home instead of going out? Buying a cheaper cup of coffee in the morning, or brewing it at home? Skipping a couple weekend getaways for a better week-long vacation? Figure out how much money you can set aside each week to pay for your vacation. Then do it. Transfer it into a savings account and leave it there.

    Count your pennies, too. Put a jar on the night-stand and dump your spare change into it every night. Have your kids do the same with their own jars. You might be surprised how much "walking around" souvenir money you've saved this way by next summer.

    With your budget in hand, you'll be able to make a more informed decision about what kind of vacation your family will be able to afford. Not only that, you'll be able to envision your vacation knowing that it will not put you deeper in a financial hole. How reassuring would that be?

    It gets better, too. With your 2009 vacation paid off the moment you get home, you'll be able to start saving for 2010, without any old vacation debt payments slowing you down. And so on.

    Next week, we'll start thinking about specific destinations. Excited yet? You should be. Planning a trip can be a great way to enjoy your vacation 52 weeks a year. Start writing down your expenses and let's get started.

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    No theme park visit today: Go vote!

    By Robert Niles
    Published: November 3, 2008 at 10:26 PM
    There will be no Tuesday Park Visit on Theme Park Insider this week, as Tuesday is Election Day in the United States. (So, I figured, no one was gonna read a theme park trip report on Election Night anyway.)

    We will be back next week, with a visit to a location yet to be determined (though I am leaning toward Universal Studios Hollywood - anyone got any picture requests?)

    In the meantime, I'd like to encourage all my U.S. readers over age 18 who haven't voted yet to get out and do so. I'll skip the endorsements, save one: If you, like me, live in or around Pasadena, California, I hope that you will vote in favor of Measure TT, the school bond issue that will help build a new gym at my kids' school, as well as to fund improvements at dozens of other local schools.

    In fact, no matter where you live, if there is a school bond issue on your ballot, I urge you to vote for it. Educating every single child in a community, no matter what their medical condition or family situation, is horrifically expensive, and few communities allocate enough money to do it well.

    Bond issues help plug that gap, paying for new and repaired buildings, helping districts save money on rent and utility bills. (We saved $50-100 a month by installing a new fridge and heater-A/C in our home. Imagine what a building as large as a school could save per month.)

    More theme parks ought to build "E ticket" attractions, and more communities ought to build "E ticket" schools. If kids deserve the best on their vacations, they deserve the best while at home.

    If you don't like the direction of your local school district, don't take it out on the kids by voting against a bond issue. Get involved, and take it out on the school board by voting out incumbents in the next election. (FWIW, I think the board in Pasadena's doing great in turning around what had been a terrible situation.)

    Anyway, let's all hope for the best for the U.S. and our local communities tomorrow, and I'll see you in the parks soon!

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    Stuck Between a Rock & a Hard Place: Hard Rock Park is For Sale

    By Mike Duchock
    Published: November 3, 2008 at 10:53 AM
    According to the Sun News in Myrtle Beach, Hard Rock Park has put itself up for sale.

    The $400 million theme park that opened last spring shut down for the season in September as well as filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. If a buyer doesn't come forward to purchase the park for an undisclosed sum it will remain closed for the 2009 season.

    Given the current economic situation there may not be too many takers for the park. Cedar Fair and Six Flags look like unlikely suitors given how stretched their budgets are. Could Herschend Family Entertainment or an international firm make an offer?

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    Keep reading: October 2008 Archive