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December 2008

New Year's resolutions for theme park fans

By Robert Niles
Published: December 30, 2008 at 9:09 PM

As we wrap up 2008 and look ahead to 2009, many folks are taking time to make New Year's resolutions.

And next week, most will take a little more time to break them! :-p

Still, I think the exercise a worthy one, for how it shows us how much of our lives we can control, and improve. Heck, the whole point of Theme Park Insider is to help us plan and have better vacations.

So in that spirit, here are 10 New Year's resolutions for 2009:

  1. To spend a day at a theme park we've not visited within the past 10 years, or ever.
  2. To go on at least one old attraction we've never been on at a park we've visited many times.
  3. To walk an uninterrupted lap around the park at some point on every visit -- not to get anywhere, but just for the sights and the exercise.
  4. To let the other folks go first when we get to the queue entrance at the same time.
  5. To start a conversation in a queue with another visitor we don't know.
  6. To start a conversation with a park employee whom we don't know.
  7. To give a lost visitor directions.
  8. To ask for directions when we are lost.
  9. To go to a park's guest services desk on our way out of the park and compliment the work of a specific park employee.
  10. After each visit, to post more attraction, restaurant and hotel reviews to ThemeParkInsider.com. ;-)

I used the first person plural ("we") in the hope that maybe you would adopt some of these resolutions for yourself, too.

What else would you add to this list? Please add your New Year's resolution for 2009 (theme park related or not) in the comments.

And have a Happy New Year!

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Say goodbye to Santa and hello to 2009 at Universal Orlando

By Domenik Jost
Published: December 30, 2008 at 6:33 PM

Christmas has come and gone. I decided to go out and see the Macy's Holiday Parade before it ends on January 1st. I got to say hello to Uncle Sam,

and waved goodbye to Santa as the Macy's Holiday Parade walked off into the sunset.

With the promising new year only hours away, Universal Orlando is hard at work getting ready for the upcoming Mardi Gras season as well as working on finishing its Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit coaster. In the past few weeks a lot of changes have happened in very familiar areas of Universal Studios Florida.

The first surprise is lurking behind the Christmas Tree in New York. It's a piece of the Rockit track piercing through the building and rising past the roof behind the it.

So when is Universal Orlando going to add the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit to its Studio Directory?

It is always an interesting sight to see a coaster go through piece of scenery.

The Sharp Aquos Theare and Jimmy Neutron Stage have become a new neighbor, the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit loading dock which is really starting to take shape.

Yet the Rockit Coaster track and loading dock are not the only part of the construction happening. The installation of the Rockit Coaster includes a permanent stage in place of what has during Mardi Gras been called the "Yard Stage" between Jimmy Neutron and Twister.

The stage is really taking shape in the traditional stage look which Universal has used for years with room for two big screens on each side of the stage.

The permanent installation of the stage has me wonder if Universal will add LED Video walls instead of using rear projection screens on the outside stage.

Mardi Gras is just over a month away and set to start off its Saturday night celebrations February 7, 2009 and last until April 18, 2009. The Mardi Gras 2009 celebration is also to include Sunday, February 15, 2009 as well as Friday, March 27, 2009. I can explain Feb. 15 being added in addition to it being Valentines Day Weekend. For Friday, March 27, the only thing I could think of is it being possibly the opening weekend of the Rockit coaster, but that is just speculation on my part. The only confirmed concert date so far is KC and The Sunshine Band taking the stage to kick of Mardi Gras on February 7, 2009. (They are listed to be at Universal Studios in Orlando, FL on the bands' website) A Universal Orlando employee that I asked if he knew of any of the concert line up told me that his supervisor had only heard of one confirmed artist, Nelly. Another rumor coming from Pollstar is that Trace Atkins is to perform on April 11, 2009.

The full line up should be released by Universal Orlando very soon, more than likely as soon as the Holiday Celebrations are over.

Among all the renovations of the stairs and building next to Nascar happening and finishing (I forgot to check it out and take pictures), I did notice that the Hard Rock Building had gotten a Christmas present, a new color led video display replacing the old single color display which displayed the events happening at the Hard Rock.

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An Insider's look at the annual Rose Parade

By Robert Niles
Published: December 29, 2008 at 9:23 PM

[Editor's note: In lieu of our regular Tuesday park visit, this week we are staying closer to home, with our annual look at the floats from this year's Tournament of Roses parade.]

The 120th annual Rose Parade steps off here in Pasadena, California on Thursday morning. But that isn't the first opportunity that folks have to see them any floral-decorated floats that comprise the New Year's Day parade. For three to four days before the event, people can watch volunteers decorate the Rose Parade floats, at several locations in and around Pasadena.

We've made a trip the float decorating an annual tradition at Theme Park Insider. In years past, I paid my $7 bucks and waited with everyone else to snake through the viewing queue. This year, though, I applied for a press pass, which allowed me closer access to the floats.

Not that that helped a great deal. Photographing Rose Parade floats presents a challenge. You need to step back to capture the full scale of the floats. But you need to get close - really close - to see the amazing detail of the individual flowers, leaves, petals and even seeds that cover every inch of every float.

The Rose Parade famously requires every part of every surface of each float to be covered by living matter. No paint or plastic allowed. That makes the Rose Parade an event that photos and television simply cannot do justice. You need to see the floats in person to fully appreciate them.

But I'll try anyway. ;-)

I shot more than 100 photos this morning, but narrowed those down to images from six floats that I found particularly interesting (and for which that I could get some decent shots). At this point in the process, the floats are structurally complete, but need much more decoration. Volunteers will be working around the clock until late on New Year's Eve gluing flowers and other decor onto these vehicles before they are driven to Orange Grove Blvd. in Pasadena for judging and the parade.

Scaffolding encases almost every float, as decorators can't sit or climb on the delicate flora they've applied. In addition, many of the floats are designed to extend, some rising up to 50 feet in the air. But all the floats are decorated while in their "down" position, allowing them to fit into the various warehouses where they are prepared.

The American Honda float will be the first you see in the parade.

This float will feature a 49-foot version of Honda's ASIMO robot, complete with top hat. (This year's parade theme is "Hats off to Entertainment.") Here we see the float from the back, with ASIMO lying face first in front of the massive podium.

Here's a close-up of ASIMO, holding his top hat, as workers apply seeds and leaves on his backpack.

Trader Joe's grocery stores have a float in the parade each year, and this year's theme is "Saturday Matinee," with various movie monsters and heroes, all wearing 3D glasses.

Here's a view from behind the float, with King Kong on his back, still clutching his box of popcorn.

Up front, we see workers applying beans to the Creature from the Black Lagoon, while a masked cowboy looks on.

The Farmers Insurance Group float is called "Family Outing"

Workers swarm the float, applying details to the trees, birds and other elements in the scene.

At the back of the float, several volunteers cover the float's country inn with petals and leaves.

There is one amusement park float in this year's parade, sort of. Cal Poly University's float theme is "Seaside Amusement."

Here you can see the carousel horses at the front of the float, with the stanchion of a parachute drop ride rising behind them.

A volunteer glues leaves onto one of the bumper cars that will drive around the Cal Poly float.

Bayer Advanced's float this year pays tribute to "The Wizard of Oz."

There's still much to be glued to this float. Volunteers started with the Scarecrow and are working their way down to the base of the float.

Here's a view from the back, with the Emerald City and the Wizard reclining back from what will be their upright position during the parade.

Finally, here's another film-themed float, this from the City of Glendale, California.

I walked up to the visitor's catwalk to get this shot of the entire float.

Then back down to the floor, for a close-up of volunteers applying leaves to the limousine grill.

I'll be on the parade route Thursday morning, taking pictures of these and other floats that I'll post here on ThemeParkInsider right after the parade.

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Universal Studios Hollywood introduces new annual pass program

By Robert Niles
Published: December 29, 2008 at 4:14 PM

Here come those discounts that I've been predicting.

Universal Studios Hollywood has revamped its annual pass program, today introducing a new "All Access Pass" for $72. This annual pass comes with no blackout dates, food and merchandise discounts, as well as priority boarding on the Backlot Studio Tour (though blackout dates do apply to that perk). Passholders also can buy additional one-day tickets for $12 off the regular $67 price.

Universal's also re-upping its rain check policy, giving visitors a free one-day return ticket good for any day within the next 30 on days when the park gets more than 1/8” of rain by 2:00 p.m. Plus, the park is offering free coffee and hot chocolate at designated serving stations on rainy days.

(Central Florida readers, please note. Unlike in Florida, rain is rare in Southern California - pretty much non-existent in summer. When we do get rain more than 1/8", it tends to be an all-day thing in winter, usually January or February. Thus the free coffee.)

Universal's old buy-a-day, get-the-year annual pass deal included a handful of blackout dates, though nowhere near as many as Disney's 100-plus days for its lowest priced APs. In recent weeks, though, Universal's eliminated the usual holiday blackout days, to boost attendance and increase the value of the passes.

This move seems to extend that deal, formally eliminating the blackout dates at the under-$100 price point. (Universal has offered a more-expensive pass with no blackout dates, as well as other perks.)

The passes go on sale today at universalstudioshollywood.com and will be available through April.

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'Cats in the water

By Robert Niles
Published: December 29, 2008 at 1:10 PM

Theme park visits are a staple of the PR run-up to bowl games in any community (such as Southern California and Central Florida) which hosts one of these post-season college football match-ups.

Typically, I don't bother covering these photo ops, since they're more about promoting the football game than providing any insight to potential theme park visitors.

But I definitely make an exception when my Northwestern Wildcats are involved!

Northwestern is in San Antonio to play Missouri in the Alamo Bowl tonight. The folks at SeaWorld San Antonio just sent along pics of the Cats' visit last week.

Ah, yes, the requisite SeaWorld splash. I remember that moment well.

Go U, Northwestern!

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New on the site: Kansas City's Worlds of Fun

By Robert Niles
Published: December 28, 2008 at 9:25 PM

Thanks to some extra work from Theme Park Insider member James Rao, we have another park on the site available for your ratings and reviews: Kansas City's Cedar Fair park, Worlds of Fun. If you've visited that park in the past season, please click over and submit your ratings and reviews for the rides and restaurants you visited.

You might also notice that I have removed Hard Rock Park from the right-side navigation on the site. The page is still there, linked from our ratings and reviews home page, but since it seems highly unlikely that the park will open in 2009, if ever again, I felt the space on the nav rail could be better served with another park.

The link line-up will change whenever the 2008 attendance report is released, but since James and some other TPI readers were eager to talk about Worlds of Fun, I figured we'd give it the slot for now.

Also, I sent this out to our e-mail subscribers, but I also wanted to make sure that Web-only readers were invited to check out our new Theme Park Insider Twitter feed. That's where I will be posting daily updates, plus more frequent posts live from whatever theme park or event I am visiting. (If you haven't signed up for our e-mail newsletter either, that's another great way to stay in touch with what is happening on the site.)

Finally, if you are on Facebook and have not yet become a fan of our Theme Park Insider Facebook page, why not take a moment to do that, as well? We'll have easy access there to photos and videos during the year, plus that's a great place to post when you'll be in a park, if you want to meet up with other TPI Facebook readers.

Thanks for reading, and we'll have some fun pictures from SeaWorld San Antonio tomorrow, as well as our early look at this year's Rose Parade floats.

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Vote of the week: What was the top theme park story of 2008?

By Robert Niles
Published: December 25, 2008 at 10:04 PM

It's time to decide what, of the many things that happened in the theme park industry in 2008, was the biggest story in theme parks last year.

Was it Aquatica opening at SeaWorld in Orlando? Hard Rock Park's opening... and closing? The fire that destroyed the King Kong attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood? The death at Six Flags Over Georgia? The InBev takeover at Busch? Or something else?

For what it is worth, here were the most-read articles from the Blog Flume on Theme Park Insider in 2008:

  1. Aquatica--SeaWorld's Waterpark
  2. 2007 theme park attendance report released
  3. Universal Orlando's top chef talks about Mythos, food trends... and Harry Potter
  4. The Four Hour Tour: Epcot
  5. The Four Hour Tour: Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom
  6. The Four Hour Tour: Universal Studios Florida
  7. SeaWorld's Aquatica: A trip report
  8. The Four Hour Tour: SeaWorld Orlando
  9. The Four Hour Tour: Universal's Islands of Adventure
  10. X2 launches at Six Flags Magic Mountain [with video]

As you can see, the most-read articles tend more toward "evergreen" trip-planning pieces than news reports. So let's take this opportunity to pick what you, Theme Park Insider readers, vote as the top theme park story of the year.

I've used my judgment as Theme Park Insider editor to nominate the top 10 stories of the year. Now, it is up to you to vote for number one. (I have left a "none of the above" option if you'd like to nominate another story. If you pick "Other" tell us in the comments which story you'd nominate as the top story of the year.)

Thanks for another great year here on Theme Park Insider, and watch next week for our previews and coverage of the Tournament of Roses Parade, from here in Pasadena, California.

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A merry theme park Christmas to everyone!

By Robert Niles
Published: December 24, 2008 at 3:14 PM

We've had a lot of fun over the past month here at Theme Park Insider, covering some of the country's best theme park holiday celebrations.

So for those of you online over the Christmas holiday, here's a recap:

Christmas at Disneyland

Christmas at Disneyland

Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party

Osborne Family Spectacular of Dancing Lights at Disney's Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World

Osborne Family Spectacular of Dancing Lights

Grinchmas at Universal Studios Hollywood


And, from yesterday, Holiday Block Party at Legoland California

Holiday Block Party

So, in the spirit of Theme Park Insider, we wish you happy holidays with the words of... Krusty the Clown:

"So, have a merry Christmas, a happy Hanukkah, a kwaazy Kwanza, a tip-top Tet, and a solemn, dignified, Ramadan."

...Or whatever you feel like celebrating. Happy holidays, everyone!

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A day in the life back at WED

By Robert Niles
Published: December 24, 2008 at 12:17 PM

Following our discussion of Epcot's Impressions de France last week, Bob Rogers e-mailed a great photo with a lot of history for Disney buffs:

Bob Rogers and Rick Harper
EPCOT "Impressions de France" co-producers/co-writers Bob Rogers (left) and Rick Harper (right) stand in front of the story board for the film. Rick was also the film's director, director of photography and music researcher/editor. This photo was taken in 1980 at Walt Disney Imagineering (it was WED Enterprises then) shortly before filming began. Today Rick Harper and his wife live in Carmel, California. He retired from filmmaking in the early 1990's, pursuing his interest in oil painting. He can be reached at carmelharper@hotmail.com. Bob Rogers is the founder and Chairman of BRC Imagination Arts, headquartered in Burbank, California, www.brcweb.com. Photo courtesy of Marty Sklar.

I've also posted the photo to our Impressions de France page.

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It's tough to be Santa at Legoland's Holiday Block Party

By Robert Niles
Published: December 23, 2008 at 7:42 PM

The kids are off from school this week and next, so we all packed into the Prius today for a drive down to Legoland California for its annual Holiday Block Party.

Like many theme parks during the holidays, Legoland has its own massive Christmas tree...

...but this one's made of Legos, of course.

The kids got to have the pictures taken with Santa Claus...

Frankly, other than the tree and Santa near the front entrance, there wasn't much holiday decor around the park. The big events at the Holiday Block Party were ones we couldn't stay late for: a tree lighting and fireworks. But I did find a few holiday gags in Miniland, where I couldn't resist snapping a picture of my favorite scene.

Yep, that's a Lego guy getting arrested in Lego New Orleans. While another Lego tourist videotapes the arrest. Nice. Legoland offers a sly sense of humor to those parents willing to take the time to look for it.

Over at the Houmas House in New Orleans, the Lego Santas are getting ready for the holidays with their annual convention.

Unfortunately, throughout Miniland, it seems that the Santas are not finding a Merry Christmas. On a Beverly Hills rooftop, Santa's the victim of a Christmas heist.

And it seems that an earthquake's knocked Santa off the roof in San Francisco. The reindeer are doing their best to haul St. Nick back up.

Only to have Santa detained by the Secret Service when he tries to deliver his presents to the White House. Oh well, the president was getting only 24 percent of his presents, anyway.

The rest of the day? We had lunch at the Knight's Table Barbecue, where, I am sad to say, I can no longer recommend the ribs.

The tasted as though they'd been sitting on the steam table too long: tough at one end, rubbery at the other and devoid of flavor throughout. My wife recommended the beef stew in a bread bowl ("It looks awful, but tastes great!"), while the kids reported the chicken breast nuggets and fries quite tasty. Especially when dipped in the variety of available barbecue sauces.

I am happy to report that we finally did get Laurie and Natalie to ride the Knights Tournament robocoaster. (They opted for Level 2 of 5.)

And Brian got his first chance on the "big kids" Driving School.

Where he proudly earned his Legoland license.

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Theme Park Insider's holiday schedule

By Robert Niles
Published: December 22, 2008 at 1:07 PM

Hey there,

For those of you still on the Web (or trapped at work killing time) during the holiday season, here's what's coming up on Theme Park Insider over the next two weeks:

First, if you are on Facebook, please "become a fan" of Theme Park Insider by joining our new Theme Park Insider Facebook page. (This replaces our old group, as I can do a lot more with the content of a "page" on Facebook than a I could do with a "group." Techie stuff, forgive me.)

Tomorrow on TPI, we'll have a "Tuesday Park Visit" to Legoland California, where we will check out the holiday happenings there.

Wednesday, I'll post a holiday wrap-up, with pictures and links to our holiday reports from Disneyland, Universal Studios Hollywood and Walt Disney World.

Friday, we'll look back at the top theme park stories of the year, and you'll have your chance to vote on what you think was the biggest story of 2008 in the theme park industry.

Next week, we shift focus to the annual Tournament of Roses parade. In the days before the parade, we'll have early photos of many of the floats, as they get there final decorations here in Pasadena, Calif.

And on New Year's Day, we'll have a massive photo gallery of Rose Parade floats, as they pass three blocks from Theme Park Insider world headquarters. Subscribe to my Twitter feed for live updates from the parade route, too.

So... please keep clicking here on Theme Park Insider, as we will have lots of fresh content over the next couple weeks to keep you well entertained. Thanks for another great year.

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Vote of the week: Would you have visited Hard Rock Park in 2009?

By Robert Niles
Published: December 19, 2008 at 12:46 AM

Plug in the amp and tune the guitars; it's time for the fat lady to sing.

There does not appear to be a buyer for Hard Rock Park, all but dashing hopes that the bankrupt theme park will reopen after what appears to have been its only season.

Many blame the park's management for not advertising and marketing the new theme park aggressively. I got several notes from a park PR rep in advance of its opening last spring, including an invite to attend media previews. But as the summer went on, I stopped hearing from the park. And I never noticed ads for Hard Rock Park on TPI or other websites, despite the fact that all other major U.S. theme parks were advertising extensively on the Web.

Would more publicity have helped? Let's vote on what your plans would have been for visiting Hard Rock Park in 2009.

Let's start by voting on what you did do in 2008.

Now, take a look at the park's attractions, if you haven't before. Assume that the park would be priced the same as whatever you consider a comparable park to be, with similar crowds and discounts. And that you could find a reasonably priced hotel room for your budget in the Myrtle Beach area. Would you have gone to Hard Rock Park in 2009, if you had had the chance?

Share in the comments your ideas on what could have saved (or might yet still save) Hard Rock Park.

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No deal for Hard Rock Park?

By Robert Niles
Published: December 18, 2008 at 3:33 PM

A report out of Myrtle Beach claims that there were no bidders for the bankrupt Hard Rock Park in bankruptcy court this week. In addition, PARC Management, an amusement operator that bought former Six Flags properties such as Darien Lake, has made a pitch for local officials to help pay for financing for PARC to take over the property.

Local officials turned down the offer cold, citing their own lack of available money, according to the Myrtle Beach newspaper website.

A minimum bid of $35 million was required to enter the auction for the shuttered $400 million theme park. Still awaiting official word from the Delaware bankruptcy court if there were indeed no bidders at that price.

What's next, though? A live on-site auction as the park's rides and equipment are sold, piece by piece? It really does sound like this park might be gone for good now.

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Planning your theme park vacation: Step 5 - Consider on-site hotel benefits

By Robert Niles
Published: December 18, 2008 at 11:36 AM

A hotel room reservation can give you much more than use of a couple of beds and a bathroom for a night. When you book a room at many U.S. theme parks, you might also get special admission to the park itself, which can help you bypass long waits for some popular attractions.

Almost every theme park has introduced a system that allows some of its visitors to bypass lines. Many of you might be familiar with Disney's FastPass. FastPass is a ride reservation system that assigns you a return time later in the day to an attraction. Show up at your assigned time, and you can enter without having to wait in the regular, stand-by line.

In addition to ride reservation systems, there are two other types of systems that theme parks use to allow certain guests to bypass the regular queues:

  • Priority boarding: These systems allows you to skip the line (or, at least, most of it) whenever you want to board. There's no need to wait until an assigned return time.
  • Exclusive admission: This allows designated guests entrance to a restricted ride, show or section of the park, either before it opens or after it closes to the rest of the guests.
  • Hotels at many major theme park reports offer one of these three line-bypass options to their overnight guests. If you are thinking about a family vacation visit to one of these parks, you should consider the value of these perks when deciding whether to stay in a participating hotel before automatically deciding on a cheaper hotel nearby.

    Unfortunately, some of the line-bypass options offered by these hotels are not sold to non-hotel guests at an additional price. That makes it difficult to assign a fixed dollar value to the benefit of the line-bypass perk. So you'll have to make that judgment on your own.

    Here's my advice, though: Of the three, priority boarding systems give you the most benefit with the greatest flexibility. You can get on the rides you want right away, without having to wait for a return time.

    The value of an exclusive admission depends entirely on just how "exclusive" it is. If 5,000 hotel guests are trying to get on to the same five rides, that isn't much of a perk.

    At this point, no theme park is offering a ride reservation system exclusively to its hotel guests, so you don't need to consider that option when deciding where to stay. In a future column, we'll take a look at the ride reservation systems offered at various parks, though, because that might affect your decision about which park to visit.

    So what is the best deal for theme park guests who want to skip theme park lines?

    Without a doubt, I give that award to Universal Orlando, which offers unlimited priority boarding privileges to guests at its three on-site hotels. Your room key is a front-of-the-line pass that allows you to skip the wait at all but one attraction in the resort's two theme parks, Universal Studios Florida and Universal's Islands of Adventure. (The one attraction, BTW, is the extremely low capacity Pteranodon Flyers ride at IOA.)

    I wrote last summer about how Universal's front of the line pass affected the way my family approached its theme park vacation. We've never had a more relaxing trip than we did with the Universal Orlando pass.

    Of course, this benefit is only a deal if your family wants to go to Universal Orlando. If those theme parks aren't something you would want to see, then a no-wait ticket isn't worth your time, even if it were free. If there's any budget lesson I hope that you learn from reading this site, it is this: You shouldn't spend any money to visit someplace you don't want to go, no matter how short the waits or low the price.

    But if you haven't looked at Universal Orlando as a vacation option before, do. Universal's online ticket deals, coupled with the front of the line pass for hotel guests can make this an extremely attraction budget option for a high quality Orlando theme park vacation.

    Other options

    No other theme park offers the unlimited priority boarding pass that Universal Orlando does. But several do offer exclusive admission for their hotel guests. Here are the major ones:

    Walt Disney World: Disney offers "Extra Magic Hours" to its on-site hotel guests, where one of its theme parks is opened an hour early, or kept open a few hours later for hotel guests only. Not every attraction is opened by Extra Magic Hours, and crowds can be large, as Disney has room for tens of thousands of hotel guests on its property.

    But typically, many folks do not take advantage of Extra Magic Hours and the wait times for participating attractions are shorter than they would be during peak times the rest of the day. Here's my advice: Take advantage of the Extra Magic Hours, then spend the rest of the day at one of the other parks (if you have a park-hopper ticket). The parks not offering Extra Magic Hours tend to be less crowded than the one which does on that day.

    One the better perks at Disney World, however, might be Disney's Magic Express, a free shuttle to and from the Orlando airport and your Disney hotel. Disney even handles your checked bags for you, so you needn't bother with baggage claim. Of course, using Magical Express, you won't be able to rent a car, which will keep you "on property" for the duration of your vacation. But if you were going to do that anyway, Disney's Magical Express allows you skip rental car expenses and airport hassle.

    Disneyland: Disneyland opens Fantasyland early on selected mornings to guests who book hotel reservations through Disney's website or telephone operators. On certain mornings, Toontown is restricted to these guests for its first hour in the morning, too. Disneyland's plan is notable because it is not restricted to people who stay in one of Disneyland's three on-site hotels; it's open to anyone who stays at one of its participating "Good Neighbor" hotels, provided that they booked through Disney.

    This perk can be worthwhile for families with young kids looking to avoid what can become nasty mid-day waits for Dumbo and other low-capacity Fantasyland rides. But if your family loves Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones Adventure and other Disneyland classics, getting into Fantasyland early won't help you any. In fact, you'd get those rides earlier by waiting with the rest of the early-morning crowd at the top of Main Street than being stuck back in Fantasyland.

    Cedar Point: The Sandusky, Ohio park allows its on-site hotel guests to enter the park early to ride popular roller coasters Maverick, Millennium Force, Iron Dragon, Skyhawk and Raptor, as well as the rides in the new Planet Snoopy kids' area. Cedar Point's coasters can have nasty waits later in the day, so this can be a great option for visitors who want a head start on bagging coasters.

    Hersheypark: The Pennsylvania theme park offers what it calls "Sweet Start," early admission to selected rides in the park for guests staying at the Hotel Hershey. In addition, Hersheypark offers its hotel guests the opportunity to buy Sweet Access Pass VIP tour, which gives you priority boarding on several Hersheypark rides during the day, in addition to other perks. According to Herhseypark's website, this pass is not available for purchase by visitors who do not stay at the hotel.

    I haven't visited Hersheypark, so I will defer to any Theme Park Insider readers who wish to comment on the value of either the Sweet Start or Sweet Acccess Pass.

    Once again, if you have any questions about theme park vacation planning, please e-mail me at themeparkinsider -at- gmail.com. Previous vacation budget planning columns.

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    Why 'Impressions de France' is the best movie ever made for a theme park

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 16, 2008 at 11:09 PM

    Creating a theme park travelogue must be like taking the history exam from hell.

    You've got 20 minutes to tell the entire story of a nation. Blow any details, and an unholy alliance of ethnic activists and theme park fans will bombard the media with complaints, embarrassing your theme park client. Fail to hold your viewers' attention, and the park will close your movie and turn the theater into a holding queue for a souped-up tram ride.

    So you play it safe, right? Hire or create an audience-friendly narrator, find some mild conflict to drive the plot (nothing that's spilling blood these days, of course) and commission a hook-laden pop tune for the uplifting finale.

    But it never really works. The twenty minutes that most theme park films get simply isn't enough time to tell a nation's story. So you're left with a simplistic, overly earnest work that tries to charm like a puppy in a pet store cage.

    Epcot's Impressions de France wins by refusing to play this game. No traveler ever really learns the story of a nation. At best, he or she absorbs a few instructive impressions about the land he or she has visited. And that's what Impressions de France offers -- impressions.

    Eiffel Tower in Impressions de France

    Impressionism, of course, is France's gift to art. By eschewing narrative for impressionism, director Rick Harper played on France's home turf. And he also created a work that would not grow stale after a few viewings. Effective impressionism reflects the viewer as well as the artist, allowing a work to change and develop in a viewer's eyes over the years, as that viewer brings something different to each encounter with the work.

    Even outside the travel genre, theme park films often fail on this account. Lacking the immersive environment of a dark ride, or even a roller coaster, the short films that screen in theme parks too often offer too little to engage a audience after three, five or ten viewings. You've seen Shrek go over the waterfall or Prof. Szalinski's mice crawl over your lap a few times and... meh. What's the wait time for Pirates again?

    When I first watched Impressions de France as a perpetually hungry teen-ager more than two decades ago, I couldn't get enough of the marketplace scene, as the kids rushed toward the shelves of pastries and sweets. Today, married and with children of my own, other scenes capture my eye and imagination. I notice the father in the red jacket whom the waiting mother and child wave to as he arrives in the train station. When a newly-married couple emerges from the church in Brittany, my heart soars with hope as the scene melts into a vision of an elderly couple, in the same evening twilight, walking alone atop the cliffs of Normandy. Could it be the same couple, still together after many decades?

    All these details, emerging from my impressions, rewarding me with something fresh upon every visit. How can you not love this film?

    And the music. Buddy Baker's score envelops Harper's film with luscious French melodies, from Debussey's "Claire de Lune" to Saint Saens' soaring Organ Symphony no. 3. Walt Disney understood the power of classical music, drawing upon it to power works from Fantasia to Sleeping Beauty. Here, Baker extends Disney's vision, selecting the best of French classical works to enliven Harper's engaging visual images.

    No, this is a not a complete picture of France. You won't find mention of labor trouble or ethnic conflict here. Its impressions of the nation are not made randomly, but instead draw from moments of France at leisure.

    As it should for an audience that is, itself, on vacation.

    By ignoring the story of France to share impressions of France, Harper's film scorns the brain to engage the heart. And, with the power of its music, it succeeds.

    That is why Impressions de France is the best film ever made for a theme park.

    Please visit Theme Park Insider's Impressions de France listing page for a complete list of the classical selections played during the film.

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    A photo tour through Disneyland's Sleeping Beauty Castle

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 16, 2008 at 1:53 PM

    Tuesday Park Visit: After more than seven years, Disneyland has reopened the Sleeping Beauty Castle walk-through. But you won't find the same attraction that closed in late 2001.

    Yes, you still walk the steps inside Disneyland's castle and see the story of Sleeping Beauty, told in window dioramas. But the 1970s-era dolls and miniatures are gone, replaced with vivid animated scenes, done in the style of Eyvind Earle's designs from the original Walt Disney animated film.

    The characters are rendered in two-dimensional cut-outs, not as three-dimensional dolls as they were before. That might seem like a step down in quality, but trust me, it isn't. Disney's enhanced many of the scenes with animated effects that help bring the story of Sleeping Beauty to life.

    As before, the story is told on pages from books, placed opposite the diorama scenes throughout the walk through.

    Yes, the flames flicker as the spinning wheels burn.

    Sparks fly from the fairies' wands as they watch over Aurora.

    The spinning wheel whirs and the spindle glows, as Maleficent gloats over Aurora's fallen body.

    Each element here is 2D, but their positioning creates an engaging 3D image. Disney's multiplane camera brought to life?

    A light shining onto the Aurora cutout creates a shimmering effect in this scene.

    Demons fly over the castle, as lightning flashes.

    This might be the most spectacular window in the entire show. Maleficent breathes green fire onto the branches below, which catch flame.

    But Prince Charming prevails, and moves in for the kiss.

    And, of course, they live happily ever after.

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    Hard Rock Park bankruptcy auction looms*

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 14, 2008 at 11:19 PM

    [Update: We're having a contest to guess the bankruptcy sale price. Submit your guess in the comments!]

    On Monday, Hard Rock Park will go on the block, as the bankrupt Myrtle Beach, South Carolina theme park is auctioned off. There's a great story on the Myrtle Beach newspaper's website detailing just how the park failed. Ultimately, it was not gas prices, and it certainly wasn't a bad in-park experience.

    No, ultimately, arrogance did in the Hard Rock Park, long before the park even opened. Park managers' refusal to advertise, to work with local hotels on promotion, to package and price the park aggressively -- all these failures to work with others left the park empty and its balance sheet a mess.

    This is not news to Theme Park Insider readers, who had insight into HRP's arrogance years ago. But it enlightening to see such thorough documentation of the many mistakes that Hard Rock Park made on its way to bankruptcy.

    As usual, businesses enter bankruptcy most often not because of adverse market conditions, but because their managers did not anticipate and plan for those adverse conditions.

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    SeaWorld lays final segment for Manta track

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 14, 2008 at 9:58 PM

    Here's another photo, e-mailed from the folks at SeaWorld Orlando, to keep roller coaster fans warm this winter:

    Manta roller coaster at SeaWorld Orlando
    (Photo courtesy SeaWorld)

    It's the final segment of track being put into place on Manta, SeaWorld's new B&M Flying coaster, debuting in Spring 2009.

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    Legoland announces new theme park for 2013 in Malaysia

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 14, 2008 at 9:56 PM

    We're still awaiting official word if Merlin Entertainments is going to proceed with a second Legoland theme park in the United States. (Legoland has been bogged down with various government boards around Kansas City for years.) But Merlin's moving swiftly to announce projects outside the United States and Europe.

    Following the announcement earlier this year of a new Legoland in Dubai, this week Merlin officials announced that a sixth Legoland park will be built in Malaysia. The $200-million theme park will be built across from Singapore, as part of the multi-billion-dollar Iskandar Development Region in Malaysia's Johor state.

    Merlin will own 20 percent of the park, though it will design it and operate it. The park is scheduled to open in 2013.

    Update: Interesting local reaction. In short, people not happy. They wanted Disney instead.

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    Vote of the week: Favorite theme park travel movie?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 12, 2008 at 12:02 PM

    This week's vote is inspired by my trip this week to Epcot at Walt Disney World in Florida.

    Inspired by world's fairs, Epcot offers pavilions and attractions themed to countries around the world. Travel's always been a popular theme for amusement attractions. Way back in the day, Disneyland offered its pioneering CircleVision film, "America the Beautiful," which was followed at other Disney theme parks by other CircleVision travelogues, including "American Journeys" and "The Timekeeper."

    Bringing impressive travel films to a unique presentation environment, such as the CircleVision theater, was a logical next step for Disney, given its history with non-fiction film-making, such as its "True Life Adventure" series.

    These days, it seems that movie attractions are losing their popularity. If you see a movie attraction in a theme park, it's more like to be a 4-D film than CircleVision, and the subject cartoon characters instead of the world around us. Yet Epcot holds out, offering four unique movie travelogues for us old-school theme park fans.

  • Impressions de France
  • O Canada!
  • Reflections of China
  • Soarin'

    (Okay, for the record, let's note that Soarin' is a dupe of Soarin' Over California from Disney's California Adventure, so Epcot's not the only place you can see any of these four.)

    But which is your favorite? For this vote, let's focus just on the film itself, and ignore whatever advantage Soarin' might have from its gentle ride element.

    I've got some strong feelings on this one, which I will reveal and discuss in my Tuesday Park Visit column next week. But I wanted to set up that piece by hearing from you. Talk in the comments, please, about your favorite from among these films (or the old ones that no longer run).

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    Legoland owner buys Mall of America aquarium

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 11, 2008 at 3:21 PM

    Just got the press release:

    Merlin Entertainments, the world’s second largest visitor attraction operator, today announced the acquisition of the Underwater Adventures Aquarium in Minnesota, USA, from The Minnesota Aquarium LLC, for an undisclosed sum.

    Underwater Adventures is located in the iconic Mall of America in Minnesota and currently welcomes more than 600,000 visitors a year to its impressive displays of living marine creatures.

    This acquisition underlines Merlin’s expertise in the operation of marine attractions. The company is already the world’s leading operator of aquaria through its SEA LIFE brand which welcomes over 10 million visitors a year to its 28 sites including its recently opened site at LEGOLAND in Carlsbad, California – the company’s first SEA LIFE location in North America.

    Normally, I wouldn't pay much attention to this sort of thing. We don't cover aquariums, and even Mall of America's Nickelodeon Universe theme park isn't big enough to draw much attention on the site.

    But, given the current state of the economy, I felt the need to shout: "Hey, look! A theme park company that's BUYING something instead of TRYING TO SELL!"

    Yeah, that's all we got now. But, hey, Merlin, there's this other attraction company that does aquariums that you might want to take a look at....

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    A visit to Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 10, 2008 at 6:21 PM

    LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Years ago, when I worked in the Magic Kingdom, we looked forward to the annual employee cast member Christmas party, when Disney would reserve... Disney World (duh!) and treat its employees to a night in the Magic Kingdom, complete with a free picture with Santa Claus, a free snack and cheap employee prices on all the food.

    Yet I never actually went to the thing. For me, the appeal was the overtime, the extra shift working the party where, unlike my normal shifts, I could eat "on stage" and know that I'd be treated extra well... since every other guest knew what a pain doing this job could be.

    Easy money. Good times.

    Of course, lots of people did go. Each cast member could bring his or her family or a guest, and demand for tickets among non-Disney employees grew immensely over the years. So much so that Disney figured that it could make a small fortune running a version of the party not for employees, but for paying guests.

    And, thus, Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party was born.

    Photo from Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party

    These days, Disney doesn't do the cast-only parties anymore. All spare late November and early December evenings are given over to MVMCP instead. So, after you guys voted MVMCP your favorite special event at Walt Disney World, I decided to book a flight to Orlando and, for the first time, go.

    Photo from Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party

    Perhaps one of you with better information than mine can tell me why Disney doesn't do this event in Anaheim. With the much larger local audience, I figure that Disney could clear a couple million a night doing this event at Disneyland. That's a better park for the holiday, anyway, with more extensive decorating plus holiday versions of It's a Small World and the Haunted Mansion. The Magic Kingdom doesn't even run the Christmas version of the Country Bear Jamboree anymore.

    Still, the Magic Kingdom's holiday castle is hard to beat:

    Photo from Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party

    The MVMCP has changed over the years. The free photos with Santa cost money now, though Disney still offers free snacks. And that's where I headed first.

    Photo from Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party

    Cast members served up all the hot chocolate and sugar cookies (with sprinkles!) you care to eat at several locations around the Magic Kingdom. I chose the Diamond Horseshoe for my first snack, since it's got the best holiday decor, as well as a no-wait meet n' greet with Woody and Bullseye.

    And here are said snacks:

    Photo from Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party

    "Wow, those cookies are huge!" my Mom exclaimed when she saw me upload this picture. "Actually, Mom," I said, "that ain't exactly a Venti hot chocolate." (I'm guessing six ounces. Maybe eight.)

    For the most part, aside from the cookies and hot chocolate (apple slices and apple juice also are available for the lactose intolerant), it's pretty much a normal December night at the Magic Kingdom. I hit a few favorite rides, then grabbed a space in Liberty Square to watch "Mickey's Once Upon a Christmastime Parade."

    Photo from Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party

    Mick and Min kick it off instead of wrap it up, since they're outranked by the special guest in this parade.

    Photo from Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party

    Roller stakes sub for ice stakes on the streets of Liberty Square.

    Photo from Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party

    By the way, don't overlook the performers as you wait to point out the next float to your kids. A) The kids can see the large float 10 feet from the faces without your help, thank you very much, and B) These guys are doing some neat stuff - skating, dancing, acrobatics.

    Photo from Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party

    Is Goofy really a genetic combination of a dog, Willy Wonka and Elton John? Hmmmm...

    Photo from Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party

    My favorite part of the holiday parade always has been the toy soldiers' band.

    Photo from Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party

    Though the reindeer run a close second.

    Photo from Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party

    And, finally, here comes that special guest, Santa.

    Photo from Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party

    The other highlight of the party is the special holiday version of the "Wishes" fireworks show. Here are a few of my shots:

    Photo from Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party

    Photo from Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party

    Photo from Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party

    Photo from Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party

    Photo from Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party

    Photo from Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party

    Photo from Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party

    And with that, I wrap up my trip to Orlando. Don't worry, TPI fans, I'll be back on the east coast soon enough. We've got some aggressive theme park touring planned for the new year.

    And check back next week for another "Tuesday Park Visit" column from my Orlando trip. And later in the month, we'll keep the holiday spirit alive with our annual early sneak peek at the year's Tournament of Roses Parade floats, while they are still under construction.

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    A photo tour of the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights at Walt Disney World

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 9, 2008 at 10:12 AM

    LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Tuesday Park Visit: Walt Disney World does holiday lights like no one else. And the biggest holiday light display at Disney World is the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights at Disney's Hollywood Studios.

    So... I just had to go.

    I arrived at the Studios at twilight last evening, taking the boat from Epcot Center.

    Photo from Disney's Hollywood Studios

    The light display stands on New York Street in the park's Streets of America land. The light come on each night at 6, with a short musical interlude as the lights "dance" in synchronization with the music. After the music stops, the lights stay on in static mode, until the music begins again in about 15 minutes. (That same cycle continues until the park closes.)

    Photo from Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights at Disney's Hollywood Studios

    Pulling back from the marquee....

    Photo from Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights at Disney's Hollywood Studios

    Turning to the left....

    Photo from Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights at Disney's Hollywood Studios

    Walking back up the street....

    Photo from Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights at Disney's Hollywood Studios

    Mickey and Santa shake hands. (As I watched this, the smartass in me wondered what Trey Parker and Matt Stone could do with "Mickey versus Santa Claus.")

    Photo from Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights at Disney's Hollywood Studios

    Turning around, the lights scold me for my unspoken sarcasm. ;-)

    Photo from Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights at Disney's Hollywood Studios

    The light display spills over into the courtyard in front of the Lights, Motors, Action stunt show.

    Photo from Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights at Disney's Hollywood Studios

    Photo from Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights at Disney's Hollywood Studios

    Hey, how'd Mickey get over here so fast?

    Photo from Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights at Disney's Hollywood Studios

    Returning to the street, taking a longer view....

    Photo from Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights at Disney's Hollywood Studios

    We walk off the street as carolers bid us farewell.

    Photo from Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights at Disney's Hollywood Studios

    The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights will continue each night through January 4. Check back tomorrow on Theme Park Insider for a photo report on Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party at the Magic Kingdom.

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    Let's do lunch at Epcot's Tokyo Dining

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 8, 2008 at 7:54 PM

    LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Welcome to Walt Disney World!

    Entrance to Walt Disney World

    Theme Park Insider hits the road this week, with a special cross-country visit to Central Florida. Today, I visited Epcot, a park which I am embarrassed to confess I haven't visited in nearly three years. There's much to catch up with here, and based on a suggestion from TPI reader James Rao, I decided to make the top priority for my day a visit to review Tokyo Dining, the (relatively) new fine-dining restaurant in the Japanese pavilion.

    Photo from Tokyo Dining at Epcot

    Tokyo Dining, which opened last year, is located upstairs, along with the Teppan Edo steakhouse. Tokyo Dining offers a pleasant dining area, divided in two. The one with a more traditional feel stands nearer the windows overlooking the Japanese pavilion and World Showcase lagoon. The smaller, more modern central dining area stands in front of the counter where sushi chefs and assistants prepare and assemble your meal.

    Photo from Tokyo Dining at Epcot

    I had no problem walking in without a priority seating time and getting a table in the early afternoon. Diners filled about half the restaurant on this early December day, not a typically heavy period at Disney World.

    The wait staff at Tokyo Dining reaffirms popular stereotypes of Japanese service - cheerful, polite and eager but never aggressive. Yet I not once found myself waiting, wondering where the waiter had disappeared. Sure, the place wasn't that full. But the staff didn't let its attention waver, either. When I was ready to order or to pay, my waiter was there.

    As I always seem to do in Japanese restaurants, I began my meal with green tea and miso soup.

    Photo from Tokyo Dining at Epcot

    The miso came with fried tofu, not something I'm used to, as well as an abundance of kelp. Call this the "Chunky" version of miso soup. Still, I wouldn't complain. Miso soup might be the perfect food to me. Go ahead, throw more in. I'll take it.

    Dining alone, I opted for a combination lunch, so that I could sample more than one option from the menu. The Ginza Gozen includes steamed rice, seaweed salad, five pieces of sushi (one tuna, one yellowtail and one shrimp nigiri and two crab and roe rolls) and nine pieces of tempura (three scallops, two shrimp, and one mushroom, green bean, zucchini and sweet potato).

    Photo from Tokyo Dining at Epcot

    At $23.50, I can't complain about the quantity, though I was disappointed to see surimi in lieu of crab in the roll. Don't come to Tokyo Dining expecting world-class sushi. The nigiri satisfied, though it didn't thrill. The tempura, on the other hand, exceeded the expectations set by the sushi - crispy, light and perfectly finished through.

    (Comparing Tokyo Dining with the Southern California chain Japanese restaurants that I'm used to, I'd rate this one better than Kabuki, but not quite up to Sushi Roku.)

    I wish that more theme parks would embrace Japanese food - I find it a refreshing way to refuel in the middle of a theme park visit, engaging my taste without weighing me down. Tokyo Dining wouldn't be a destination restaurant for me, on its own, but within an Epcot visit, I found it a delightful and relaxing lunch.

    More Epcot notes

    In addition to Tokyo Dining, I checked out two other Epcot attractions that Disney had revamped since my last visit: O Canada!, the Circlevision movie starring Martin Short and Gran Fiesta Tour, the rethemed indoor boat ride in the Mexican pavilion.

    Both shows had been showing their age, especially the Mexico ride, which indulged the cheesy stereotypes of Mexicans as street hawkers, leaving riders with the impression that if they'd seen Tijuana's Avenida Revolucion, they'd seen pretty much all Mexico had to offer.

    The new version, which follows the same ride as before, brings Disney's Three Caballeros into the mix. Jose Carioca and Panchito are looking for Donald Duck, who's disappeared and in danger of missing the show. Donald - Disney's id - is predictably off enjoying the sights and sports throughout Mexico, having more fun than anyone else in the joint. Sure enough, Jose and Panchito find Donald with the mariachi and it's showtime, as fireworks explode in the sky and the tour comes to a close.

    Riders are left with the impression that Mexico is... fun! Contrast that with the overly earnest O Canada!, where Martin Short tries to inject some humor into the Great White North. Having provided about two of every three non-Jewish comedians now working in Hollywood, Canada's not exactly a dour place. But the new film tries sooooo hard to make Canada seem hip that the viewer feels more embarrassed for Short than thrilled by him. Of course, that's Short's shtick - the overly earnest guy we end up laughing at, not with.

    It's okay. Just okay. Which is a shame because Canada deserves a funnier, warmer and most engaging film than this.

    Check back tomorrow for our Tuesday Park Visit, when I head over to Disney's Hollywood Studios for the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights.

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    On the road to Orlando

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 7, 2008 at 1:03 AM

    I will be on the road and offline for most of the day Sunday, as I'll be flying to Orlando to bring you the holiday happenings at Walt Disney World.

    Check in to Theme Park Insider Monday through Wednesday for coverage of the Osborne Lights, Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party and whatever else I feel like shooting while I am in Central Florida. (I am taking requests, so submit 'em below, all you northerners looking for a Florida fix!)

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    Vote of the week: Who are the biggest villains in the theme park industry?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 5, 2008 at 11:33 AM

    "The most arresting narratives revolve around a well-defined hero and villain fighting it out over something uniquely important to the time and place," political activist and online entrepreneur Markos Moulitsas wrote in a book I recently reviewed over at OJR.

    His words echoed in my mind as I read this week through a bunch of old TPI posts. We used to have some great villains on the site: Paul Pressler and his inept management team for cutting the magic out of Disneyland, the post-Frank Wells Michael Eisner for promoting Pressler and driving away Pixar, former Vivendi chief Jean-Marie Messier for his ego-driven reign of terror absurdity over Universal, the Premier Parks management team for taking over Six Flags and saddling it with enough debt to nearly drown the chain, and CBS for its negligence of the Paramount Parks chain.

    But who are our villains now? Who are the managers, bosses and bumblers standing in the way of our enjoying great, creative, immersive theme parks?

    So much has improved over the past few years. Roy Disney (citing ThemeParkInsider, BTW) helped lead a revolt that ousted Eisner and led to Pixar's John Lasseter (a former Jungle skipper!) assuming creative control over theme parks and animation at Disney. NBC bought Universal and kept the parks. Dan Snyder ousted the OKC bumpkins (okay, that one's still in progress). Cedar Fair's brought some stability to the former Paramount Parks, though not many new coasters. At least a Kings Island pass works at Cedar Point now, though, and vice versa.

    So whom do we complain about now?

    Moaning about the "global economy" just doesn't provide the sharp focus and emotional satisfaction that railing against J6M (gag) did. InBev, maybe? For not embracing the Busch theme parks and their management the way so many fans have?

    C'mon. Every great theme park story needs a bad guy. Think Zurg in Buzz Lightyear. Doc Ock et al in Spider-Man. The singing dolls in Small World. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

    In the comments, please nominate your picks for current theme park villains, the folks that you think TPI needs to rail against to help make theme parks a better, more entertaining value for us all.

    And for the vote, let's pick baddest of the bad guys from our past.

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    Universal Studios Hollywood debuts its 'Grinchmas' snow playground

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 4, 2008 at 12:40 PM

    Tuesday Park Visit (on Thursday this week): This morning, I headed over to Universal Studios Hollywood for the media preview of its Grinchmas winter playground.

    Universal is opening on Christmas Day this year, for the first time ever, and has sprinkled holiday decor throughout the park. Here, the park's Brooklyn street scene lies under a dusting of "snow."

    For Grinchmas, Universal's taken its The Adventures Of Curious George play area and overlaid a "Grinch Who Stole Christmas" theme.

    The rocket ship is now a Christmas tree and the water "sprayground" is blocked off by a large shallow pit of real snow, trucked in for the occasion.

    This isn't the soap-bubble fake stuff that you'll find in some places around Southern California. Nor is it just flakes in the sky, which melt upon hitting the ground. This is a foot deep of good stuff, the kind you can roll around in, dump on your brother's head and pack into a snowman, as Universal did for the show.

    Universal brought in Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa for an opening ceremony with the Grinch, the mayor of Whoville and a much-older-than-toddler-aged Cindy Lou Who.

    After the mayor's spiel, the bussed-in local schoolkids, on cue, all pelted the snowman with snowballs, as local TV crews filmed the action. I, however, decided to shoot the sign behind the snowman...

    The one that started with "No Throwing Snow." So, I guess that regular theme park customers won't get to join in the media-friendly snowball fight. Alas. ;-)

    A snow play ground might not seem like much to folks from up north. But having spent two hours in a traffic jam trying (and failing) to get up to Big Bear a couple Decembers ago, it's nice to have that option closer to home. (I believe that the last measurable snow in Pasadena fell in 1949.)

    Touch is one of the underutilized senses in theme parks. And this attraction is, ultimately, all about touch -- the feel of snow on your hands, on your face and all around your body.

    The Grinchmas snow play area will be open weekends, starting this Saturday, and daily from Dec. 21 - 31.

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    Top theme park tips of the week: Where to start and what to buy

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 3, 2008 at 11:09 PM

    Two reader tips from the past week stood out among those submitted by Theme Park Insiders.

    From the Walt Disney World Tips:

    "Fast passes go very quickly at Toy Story Mania and Soarin. Get there early. Take advantage of the single riders line at Rockin Roller Coaster, Expedition Everest and Test Track. The line is usually short with hardly any wait."

    And from Tips for All Parks:

    "Oldie but a goodie - Always work your way backwards through a park instead of stopping at the first attraction you get to. You will beat 60% of the crowds."

    I've done a couple of media interviews in the past week about annual passes, so I thought I'd throw a little love toward two more tips about APs that you'll find down toward the bottom of that Tips for All Parks page:

    "If you are going to visit a park more than once in a year, look into buying an annual pass. Most include discounts on food, merchandise and parking and some can pay for themselves in as little as two visits."

    "If you're going to get an annual pass, add parking to at least one pass. It seems expensive at first, but at over $10 a pop for parking at most parks it pays off in the end."

    As always, you can submit your favorite tips for visiting theme parks, and vote up or down on those submitted by others at http://www.themeparkinsider.com/tips/.

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    The price point of no return

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 3, 2008 at 1:02 PM

    I posted an update to my Monday blog entry with this link, but after thinking a bit about it, I wanted to give it its own entry.

    I'm talking about the Orlando Sentinel story from Monday about hotel occupancy and room rates for the motels along U.S. 192 in Kissimmee, near the southern entrance to Walt Disney World.

    The hotels and motels on Walt Disney World's doorstep are worse off now than during the 2001 recession and the travel slump that followed the Sept.11 terrorist attacks.

    Only three of every 10 hotel rooms in the west Kissimmee area were occupied on an average night in September. Signs along U.S. Highway192 near Disney's southern entrance advertise rooms for less than $30 a night. Traffic along the six-lane commercial strip is light; parking lots are empty or nearly so.

    Even in the flush times of the recent bubble economy, 192 wasn't doing as well as it was in its 1970s heydey, when the Magic Kingdom was the only big theme park in Orlando and everyone entered Disney property from 192. But the numbers in the Sentinel story are chilling to any hotelier.

    One might think that occupancy would go up as price goes down. And, to a certain extent, price breaks do help fill rooms. But there comes a price point below which price cuts actually hurt occupancy rates.

    Think of it this way: Imagine a hotel where the room price was zero. You wouldn't find an infinite number of families clamoring the stay there. No, a hotel where every bed is free isn't a resort destination - it's a homeless shelter. Most folks won't want to stay there. (Indeed, the Sentinel story mentions that some hotels are now renting not to tourists, but to long-term boarders. That's not a good sign for the neighborhood's health as a tourist destination.)

    When prices get too low, people stop thinking "bargain" and start thinking "sketchy neighborhood." Empty parking lots around cut-rate hotels reinforce the perception, leading to fewer bookings, then to lower prices, then to fewer bookings, then to lower prices... then to homeless shelters.

    Simply, the Orlando area, including U.S. 192, has too many hotel rooms for current demand, in this economy. And this is the way that the market eliminates them, by pricing them into oblivion.

    Still, if you don't care about the neighborhood and simply are looking to score a dirt-cheap room, there are many bargains to be had on the way down.


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    Planning your theme park vacation: Step 4 - Bookmark reservation websites

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 2, 2008 at 11:05 PM

    Before you start clicking around the Web to price your dream family vacation, you will want to put together a well-organized list of sites to help you price and book your trip.

    This week, I've put together that list for you, with links to websites where you can check airfares, hotel rates and theme park ticket prices. These include all major U.S. airlines, hotel and theme park chains, as well as direct links to airlines (such as Southwest) and hotels (such as Disney World's) that don't show up on the big industry-wide search sites.


    If you are thinking about flying the family to your destination, airfare will be a major expense for you, one that is highly sensitive to which days you travel. So it makes sense to start here, searching for the best airfare.

  • Orbitz - This is the big, industry-wide search engine that covers (almost) all major U.S. airlines, with a couple of exceptions:
  • Southwest - This is the biggest airline missing from Orbitz, so you will want to search it in addition to Orbitz for trips to the cities you are considering for your vacation.
  • JetBlue - If you are traveling from the New York City area, you probably know about JetBlue. But if you are and haven't checked out this airline yet, do. You often can find good deals down to Orlando, and the live TV at every seat while in the air is a sweet perk.

    If you want to get a sense for whether airfares will be going up or down between your home airport and your dream destination, visit:

  • FareCast, which checks airfares from several major websites against historical data to estimate whether airfares will go up, down or remain steady. It will recommend whether you buy now, or wait, based on that information.


    When searching for hotels and theme park tickets, don't zone in on the search form when you click to a website. Look for graphics trumpeting deals.

    If you are considering staying at an on-site hotel at either the Walt Disney World or Universal Orlando resorts, you'll want to check prices and availability directly on their websites:

  • Walt Disney World
  • Universal Orlando

    Disney's hotels rarely show up on industry-wide hotel search forms and Universal often offers perks on its website that are not available through other sites.

    Speaking of perks, you migt just want to go ahead and click directly to each resort's special deals pages:

  • Walt Disney World's 'Special Offers' page, currently featuring "Buy 4 Days, Get 3 Free" for most nights between Jan. 4 and June 27, 2009.
  • Universal Orlando's 'Deals' page, currently featuring five nights for the price of three, if you book by January 31, 2009.

    We have a special section on Theme Park Insider devotes to reader ratings and reviews of hotels in and around major theme parks:

  • Theme Park Insider's Theme Park Hotels page - On some individual hotel review pages, you can price room rates and book hotel reservations. (Note: Theme Park Insider does get a commission on rooms booked through those pages.)

    If you are looking to search for a wider variety of hotels, including all major chains, you should search the major hotel search engines:

  • Expedia
  • TravelNow (same database as Hotels.com)

    Many people book discounted hotel rooms using services such as Priceline.com, where you can bid for hotel rooms, not knowing the exact hotel where you would stay. For theme park trips, I've found Priceline and such services less useful, since proximity to the park is so important to me. Again, if you don't mind staying what might be a bit of a drive away from the park, go ahead and give Priceline a try. But visit BiddingForTravel first to learn effective strategies for bidding for hotel rooms on Priceline, if you've never done that before.

    Theme Park Tickets

    Always, always, always buy your theme park tickets online before you visit the parks. You'll not only have the time at home to ensure that you are getting the best deal, you will save yourself valuable time when you arrive at the park, since you can skip the ticket booths and head straight for the turnstiles.

    If you decide to book a hotel at Disney World or Universal Orlando through those parks' websites, do still check their ticket prices first through these pages. I have found cases where those resorts' hotel booking page did not offer me the best deal I could get on tickets from their ticket-only pages. You can book the room only on the hotel reservation page, and the tickets on the tickets page, if that gets you a better deal.

    Major chains and multi-park resorts:

  • Walt Disney World
  • Disneyland
  • Universal Studios
  • Busch Gardens/SeaWorld
  • Six Flags

    Other individual parks:

  • Cedar Point
  • Dollywood
  • Hersheypark
  • Kings Island
  • Knott's Berry Farm
  • Legoland California

    Don't forget to look at annual passes. Six Flags and Cedar Fair [Cedar Point, Knott's, Kings Island, etc.] annual passes are good at all parks in those chains. Some Busch Gardens/SeaWorld passes are good a multiple parks in that chain, as well. If you are planning to spend more than a single day at a particular park or chain, an annual pass might offer you a better price per day than buying individual tickets. In most cases, you do not need to live nearby a park to buy its annual pass.


    Yeah, I know that some people score cheap theme park tickets, even hotel nights, by sitting through timeshare sales pitches. But I like my readers, so I'm not going to recommend that you endure that. If you are up for it, fine. But there are other sources that sell discounted tickets to theme parks:
  • AAA - The Auto Club offers discounted tickets and hotel deals to its members. Showing your AAA membership card can get your discounts on food and merchandise in some theme parks, too. Check the AAA's website for details.
  • Recreation Connection provides discount tickets to many major employers, schools and credit unions. Your HR office might have more information, or you can search the Recreation Connection website to see if you are eligible to buy tickets through them.

    Remember, theme parks have gotten more aggressive about offering deals through their own websites, so don't assume that discounters offer the lowest prices.

    Finally, once you've got some numbers from these websites, remember to plug them into our spreadsheet to estimate the cost of each trip you are considering.

    If you have a specific question about family vacation planning, and how to get the most for your budget, please e-mail Theme Park Insider editor Robert Niles via themeparkinsider - at - gmail.com or this form. He will select questions to answer in a future column.

  • Comments (5) | Archive Link

    It's gut-check time for Orlando theme parks

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 1, 2008 at 11:32 AM

    The weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year's traditionally are among the slowest, if not the slowest, of the year for Central Florida's theme parks.

    At the turnstiles, that is. In the planning and promotions departments, though, this is hardly a down time. The holiday season is when families start thinking about their summer vacations. (Heck, that's why we're running a series on theme park vacation planning.) Theme parks are taking a hard look at their advance bookings and ticket sales and making decisions about advertising, promotions and pricing.

    According to Jim Hill, the outlook at Walt Disney World may be grim. Hill reports that just 35 percent of the resort's hotel room nights have been booked for January.

    Theme park managers, from Disney, Universal and Busch, aren't taking the news lightly, it appears. Reps from all three have been talking to local officials, trying to squeeze some more money from regional marketing funds to pay for additional advertising.

    It's gut-check time, not just for Orlando-area theme parks, but for businesses throughout the industry and the country as a whole. Massive changes are coming in the U.S. economy, as the government ponders new bailouts and markets shift. The companies that can hold on to and win new customers now will be the ones that dominate their industries for a generation. Those that cut back and lose market share might not even survive this downturn.

    Are you in, or out? That's the question that theme parks will answer with their actions in the next few months.

    Update: [Junk] rolls downhill: U.S. 192 hotels suffering, too. Just 30 percent of rooms were occupied in September. Thirty-buck rooms abound, but still go empty.

    Comments (19) | Archive Link

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