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January 2009

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Vote of the week: What's the hottest new roller coaster for 2009?

By Robert Niles
Published: January 30, 2009 at 12:14 PM
We've got five new major roller coasters under construction now for the 2009 season. And five theme parks sweating whether or not their multi-million dollar investments will help them protect their attendance and revenue in a troubled economy.

So let's help 'em out with a little advance information (you can get the details about these coasters on our What's Under Construction at Top Theme Parks page):

Tell us in the comments why you're looking forward to the coaster you picked.

Comments (10) | Archive Link

Disney's cooking with gas -- literally (okay, sort of)

By Robert Niles
Published: January 29, 2009 at 12:59 PM
Here's a fun story about theme parks recycling; Disneyland yesterday completed the conversion of its locomotives from diesel fuel to "biodiesel," in other words, used frying oil from the resort's restaurants.

So that oil that fried your chicken nuggets in New Orleans Square someday later will be powering your trip around the park back to the front gate.

Disney's fry oil has been in the news before, when the company announced that it was joining others in the food service industry in switching to oil without harmful trans fat.

Here's a full story from the Orange County Register. You may submit your best jokes/puns below.

Comments (10) | Archive Link

Planning your theme park vacation: Save on airline baggage fees

By Robert Niles
Published: January 29, 2009 at 12:39 PM
Yeah, call me a cheapstake. But I'm just not going to pay $15-$50 a bag to check my luggage on an airline flight. Especially given the (lack of) care that airlines typically have shown my bags in the past. I believe in Peter Greenberg's theory of airline luggage - that there are two kinds: carry-on and lost.

So when I fly somewhere, I'm packing everything into one carry-on, darn it. And I think that you should, too.

When I flew to Hawaii for the first time ever this month, my wife and I carried on our bags and didn't have to leave any essentials behind. Since flying to Hawaii requires a similar wardrobe to an Orlando or Southern California theme park trip, today I offer my tips on packing carry-on bags, so you can avoid the airlines' checked luggage fees. Plus, you'll save about half an hour at your destination, since you'll get to skip baggage claim. Time is money, too!

1) Pick the correct bag.

You need a bag that's no more than 22" x 14" x 9". And that includes the wheels, handles and anything else sticking outside the main bag. Those also are the maximum dimensions on most airlines when the bag is packed. Waiting the security line for our Hawaii trip, I watched two men get pulled from the line because their otherwise appropriate carry-on bags were so stuffed that they measured at least 12 inches deep, instead of the required nine.

Some airlines are weighing carry-ons as well as measuring them, so you can't exceed 50 pounds in the bad, either. So let's leave the heavy stuff at home, shall we?

2) Be smart about toiletries.

Here, the airlines are not your opponent. The government is. The Transportation Security Agency's "security theater" rules prohibit you taking through the security checkpoint any liquid or gel in a container larger than three ounces. And those must be placed in a single one-quart plastic bag. One bag per passenger. Obviously, you'll need to economize here.

The epiphany for me came when I realized that it was cheaper for me to buy sunscreen in Hawaii than to pay to check my bag. You'll get free shampoo and conditioner at your hotel. Plan to use them. Then stop at a grocery story on the way to your hotel to stock up on sunscreen, toothpaste, saving cream as well as any snacks you might need during your trip. Don't buy these at the airport or the hotel gift shop, because then you might end up spending more than you would have on the checked bag.

[Now, you'll notice that I am assuming that you'll have a rental car on your trip. If you are flying to Disney World and using Disney's Magical Express, which shuttles you from the airport straight to your hotel, you can skip much of this article. You'll have to wait on that Disney bus for your fellow passengers who did check bags, so there's no time advantage to carrying on. Plus, you won't have as many cheap options to buy supplies during your trip. If you're taking DME, I say, check the bag if that's easier on you and consider the extra $15+ bucks per bag the tradeoff for the free bus trips and not having to rent a car. But the packing tips below will help you maximize space in the bag for souvenirs on the return flight, so keep reading. ;-) ]

Save your precious plastic baggie space for make-up, deodorant or other relatively expensive items that the family wouldn't share and use up during the trip. Just make sure that you buy those in containers of three ounces or less.

I'm lucky when visiting the Central Florida parks in that my parents live in Celebration. So I've stashed a "dop kit" of toiletries with them that I use when I visit, allowing me to skip this concern altogether when flying to Orlando. Consider that option if you fly regularly to visit grandparents, etc. It's not like shaving cream and toothpaste spoil in a year.

3) Wear your jacket and bulkiest shoes.

If you can't stick to only one pair of shoes for your entire trip, wear the bulkiest ones on the days that you fly. That way, you can put the easier-to-pack shoes in your bag. If the packed shoes won't fold flat, stuff 'em with socks to maximize packing space.

You can stuff a fair amount of stuff into your jacker pockets, too, since that's an extra item that you carry on and that airlines almost never count against your limit.

4) Roll, roll, roll your clothes.

Never, ever fold your clothes into neat piles when packing luggage. Why?
A) That'll set the crease of the folds into your clothes. Maybe you want that; probably you don't.
B) That creates a lot of surface area for each piece of clothing to rub against its neighbor, creating more wrinkles.
C) It's not the most efficient use of space.

Instead, roll your clothes into little cylinders and pack those snugly into your bag. You'll get more into the bag and have less wrinkled clothing when you arrive. The key is to roll tightly. Fold the sleeves in on your shirts and the legs over on the pants and shorts, then roll as tightly as you can. Socks and undergarments should get the same treatment, too. (Again, load the socks into any packed shoes.)

The only downside? If you're also taking cameras and electric cords in your carry-on, your bag is going to look to the security agent like... a bunch of tight cylinders with cords and wires wrapped around them. Which means that you might end up having to open the bag at security and show them that you're just packing... clothes. So leave yourself five extra minutes and think about the money you're saving.

5) Remember your "personal item."

Thank heavens for second chances. In addition to your carry-on bag, most airlines allow you a second "personal item" to carry on. For ladies, that means your purse. But computer and diaper bags also count. And each person in the family gets one.

I pack my laptop and reservation print-outs in a computer bag, along with my cell phone, charger and other cords. I also use this to carry the book I'll read on the place and whatever snacks I've packed. My wife typically brings another computer bag, into which she's packed her book, snacks, a few extra items... and her purse. (Remember, you can bring as many bags as you want, so long as they fit into the two you are carrying on.)

The carry-on will go in the overhead compartment and the personal item under the seat in front of you, so remember you put anything you'll need during the flight into the personal bag.

Which brings us to my last item of advice.

6) Never book the bulkhead seat.

Because if you do, you won't have a seat in front of you, and you lose that space to stash a personal item. Plus the forward overhead compartments typically contain crew equipment, forcing you to stow your carry-ons behind you on the plane, which becomes a nightmare when you land and try to exit. Use the seat selection tool when you book your tickets and pick another row.

For a family of four checking one bag each on both legs of a trip, checked bags fees can add $200 to the cost of your vacation. That's a couple of hotel nights, or more in some places. Save that money, and save yourself the headache of waiting and wondering if your bags will show at the baggage claim by using these tips to help you carry on.

Comments (5) | Archive Link

Universal Orlando to debut new offer in Super Bowl commercial

By Robert Niles
Published: January 27, 2009 at 11:26 PM
Universal Orlando e-mailed a press release today advancing its commercial that will run this Sunday during the Super Bowl NFL championship game.

There's a "preview" for the commercial (believe it or not) online. [WMV file]

The preview and the release tease an "unprecedented offer" from the resort that will make people feel like a "superhero." The commercial preview features a kid in a makeshift superhero costume, so that's clearly a theme.

Let the regional parks be on notice, as we've noted before, the Orlando area parks, led by Disney and Universal, are not taking this economic challenge lying down. They're discounting and marketing like heck, looking to expand share in a tough market.

Update: It's free tickets. We're talking about it on this thread.

Comments (7) | Archive Link

Kings Island tops out Diamondback coaster

By Robert Niles
Published: January 27, 2009 at 11:31 AM
Yesterday at 2:42 p.m. workers at Kings Island amusement park, outside Cincinnati, installed the final section of track for Diamondback, the park's new Bolliger & Mabillard Mega Coaster.

That means that construction is on schedule for an April debut for the $22 million coaster, with its "stadium seating" design. You can take a virtual ride on Diamondback on our listing page, and follow the construction on Kings Island's live Diamondback webcam.

Diamondback roller coaster at Kings Island
Image courtesy Kings Island

Brrr. Snow. Frankly, I'm impressed with any coaster builder working in that. I'd say "hats off," but in that snow, y'all really need to keep 'em on.

Update: I'm feeling a bit sick today, so I'm not going to be able to get out to a park for a Tuesday visit. Will try later in the week, though.

Also, I'd love to take requests from folks on which SoCal attractions they'd like me to visit and post photos/recaps/comments/interviews on the site. Post requests in the comments or e-mail 'em to me. (Link at bottom of page.)

Comments (15) | Archive Link

Boy from landmark Disneyland incident dies

By Robert Niles
Published: January 26, 2009 at 1:57 PM
The Orange County Register is reporting that Brandon Zucker, the boy who was severely injured on Disneyland's Roger Rabbit's Car-Toon Spin in 2000, has died.

Zucker, then 4, suffered brain damage when he flew out of the Toontown dark ride vehicle and was dragged and trapped underneath it. A state investigator later faulted design flaws on the theme park ride, and Disney settled a lawsuit with the family. Zucker was left unable to walk or talk after the incident.

Now 13, the boy was taken to the hospital on Sunday, where he died this morning. No cause has been announced.

The Zucker incident was one of several highly publicized injuries and fatalities at Disneyland Park under the Paul Pressler management team in the late 1990s and early 2000s, incidents that galvanized public opposition to Disney management at the time. That opposition ultimately contributed to the ouster of Disney chief Michael Eisner as well as the installation of a new management team at Disneyland and the other Disney theme parks.

Comments (3) | Archive Link

Vote of the week: Which is your favorite theme park vacation discount?

By Robert Niles
Published: January 23, 2009 at 11:27 AM
We've been talking about ways to afford a family theme park vacation on a tight budget, and we've seen Disney and Universal theme parks offer aggressive discounts in an attempt to entice you to book, despite the souring economy.

But which discounts tempt you most? That is today's vote of the week.

Now, I know that the devil is in the details here. Often, it's a question of how much of a discount, or how many night free that prompts someone to hit the "Reserve Now" button on their browser. But I'd like to get a sense, from you, which type of discount gets your attention, absent specific numbers.

Here's what we're talking about - options that are being offered by various major theme parks:

  • Straight-up ticket price discounts, with no minimum required
  • Free days added to your ticket when you buy a minimum number of days
  • Hotel room rate discounts, again, with no minimum stay
  • Free hotel nights added when you buy a minimum number of nights
  • Free meals, either for kids or for the whole family
  • Free ground transportation, such as bus transport or rental car
  • Free gift cars, for buying stuff in or around the park
  • Free additional front-of-line access on rides and shows in the park, not available to other visitors
  • Free special access to rides, shows or characters, such as early openings and reserved character dinners, available only to select guests

    Tell us in the comments about what parks can do - and have done - to motivate you to book.

    Comments (11) | Archive Link

  • Disney offers buy-outs to 600 managers; Universal lays off 70*

    By Robert Niles
    Published: January 21, 2009 at 8:08 PM
    Substantial hotel and ticket discounts have helped slow the expected loss of visitors at Walt Disney World and Disneyland this year, but not enough to save some employees' jobs.

    Disney announced today that it's offering buy-outs to 600 managers at its U.S. theme parks. If not enough take the offer to leave (and the company didn't say how many that would be), then Disney might start laying off employees.

    Disney also said that advance bookings at Disney's hotels were down six percent for the first six months of 2009, compared with the same period one year ago. That's a better showing the 10 percent drop the company forecast earlier, when it announced its current round of discounts.

    *Update: (From the comments) Universal Orlando lays off 70 employees.

    Comments (20) | Archive Link

    An evening of themed entertainment, island style

    By Robert Niles
    Published: January 20, 2009 at 1:14 AM
    LAHAINA, Hawaii - Tuesday Park Visit: My weekly park visits are intended, in part, to provide Theme Park Insider readers who live in the snowy north with a vicarious thrill each week, with photos and accounts of a visit to a sunny theme park in a warmer part of the country.

    Well, with a high temperature of 54 degrees (and a low of 30!) expected in Orlando today, I needed a better, warmer place to visit today.

    So... welcome to Maui!

    Kaanapali Beach

    ...Where it's sunny, 80 degrees and we're going to experience one of America's oldest forms of themed entertainment - an authentic Hawaiian lu'au.

    Last night, Laurie and I drove down from our hotel on Ka'anapali Beach to the Old Lahaina Lu'au, hailed by many critics as the best on the island. For $95.83 per person, the lu'au includes an all-you-can-eat buffet and open bar, plus a musical history of the Hawaiian islands, told through dance. Unlike many of the shows performed at area hotels, the Old Lahaina Lu'au is noted for its more authentic tone, treating hula and other Hawaiian dance not as gimmicks in a variety show, but as an art form, worthy of a dignified performance.

    Upon arriving, greeters offer you a lei in welcome...

    Lei greeting

    ...as well as a Mai Tai (or a fruit punch for non-drinkers).

    Mai Tai fruit punch

    Dinner is served at sundown, but first, the roast pig needs to be unearthed from the "imu" firepit, where it has been cooking all day.

    Kalua Pua'a

    The Kalua Pua'a pork soon reappears, along with the other Hawaiian goodies I piled on my dinner plate.

    Kalua Pua'a

    The pork is at the upper right, about 2 o'clock. Following clockwise around the plate, we've got Mahi Mahi, Taro Salad (taro and spinach in coconut sauce), stir fry vegetables, banana bread, octopus "poke" (marinated with Maui onions), ahi tuna "poke", Lomi Lomi Salmon (marinated with onions and tomatoes), a green salad, and at 12 o'clock on the plate, Pulehu Steak (grilled top sirloin). Just below the sirloin is Big Island sweet potatoes. Yep, they're purple, not the orange that mainlanders (okay, most of us) are used to.

    Personally, I thought the octopus the best selection on my plate, with the ahi a close second. I guess I like "poke!"

    But I liked the show even more. The show traces hula's roots to Tahiti, and its ancient drum dance.

    Ote'a

    Dancers, chants and music blend with live narration in telling the Hawaiian myth of Pele, the fire goddess.

    Kahiko

    After the missionaries arrive and hula is banned, the dance returns at the coronation of King David Kalakaua in 1882. Yes, the gentlemen don the grass skirts, too.

    Royal Hula

    A rousing finale shows hula's modern vitality, as the inspiration for modern competition and celebration.

    Finale

    Finale

    No fire dances, no silly jokes, no Don Ho impersonators. Just a dedication to a unique theme and a professional cast realizing that creative vision.

    Sound like something a dedicated theme park fan could get into, right?

    Comments (12) | Archive Link

    New official on-site hotel in works for Legoland California

    By Robert Niles
    Published: January 19, 2009 at 1:00 AM
    Merlin's taking another step to invest in its theme parks. The entertainment giant, rumored to be a suitor for the Busch theme parks, has petitioned the city of Carlsbad and the California Coastle Commission for permission to build a 250-room Lego-themed hotel on park of the Legoland California theme park parking lot.

    The hotel would be the third adjacent to the Legoland property, though the first owned and developed by the park. A Sheraton opened last year (and a dedicated entrance for that hotel is in the works). The Grand Pacific Palisades Resort preceded the park opening.

    Comments (7) | Archive Link

    Haunted Mansion's 40th Anniversary

    By Nick Markham
    Published: January 19, 2009 at 12:42 AM
    I just wanted to let everyone know that the 40th Anniversary of the Haunted Mansion event will take place 9/9/09 at Disneyland! But you do need to make reservations for the event. There are many different levels for reservations, each one a different price. The lowest gets you into Disneyland Park (after 9 PM only) and a special cake and toast to the Haunted Mansion with a gift bag. And the most expensive package (about $450) includes 1 night stay at Grand Californian Hotel & Spa, 1 day admission to Disney California Adventure (after 6:45 PM only), 1 day admission to Disneyland Park (after 9 PM only), and a few more little perks similar to the other packages, but also including a special seminar with... Tony Baxter!

    Comments (4) | Archive Link

    Theme park news and notes: More InBev rumors

    By Robert Niles
    Published: January 17, 2009 at 12:55 AM
    Thanks to Theme Park Insider reader James Rao for the tip.

    A story in the Financial Times is stirring up more uncertainty about the fate of the Busch theme parks.

    Bidders are lining up to participate in the sale of more than $7bn worth of assets that are being prepared to go under the auctioneer's hammer in the wake of InBev's $52bn takeover of Anheuser-Busch, the brewer of Budweiser.

    Busch Entertainment, the group's theme park business, which owns SeaWorld Orlando, is expected to be one of the first business units put up for sale with a possible price of up to $4bn.

    Potential bidders include Merlin Entertainments, the Blackstone-owned theme park group whose assets include Madame Tussauds and Legoland.

    Possible strategic bidders include media group Walt Disney, the world's biggest operator of theme parks, and Universal Studios, which is majority-owned by the US television and film business, NBC Universal.

    Six Flags, which owns 20 theme parks in the US, Mexico and Canada, is also expected to ask for the sales memorandum.

    Before you freak out over the prospect of "Six Flags Williamsburg," let's break down the story and see what it really says.

    First, there's no timeline for when the BEC parks will go to auction. The story says that InBev has until November before it must make a payment on the bridge loan it secured in anticipation of getting money from selling selected Busch assets, such as the theme parks.

    Second, requesting a "sales memorandum" isn't the same thing as making a bid. Every competitor will request a sales memorandum. Why? Because they can contain loads of juicy information about a company that previously might have been known only to insiders, including sales, expense, profit and loss figures. You'd have to be an idiot not to request one when a competitor goes on the block, even if you have no intention of bidding for it.

    Third, and here's the biggie: InBev "could also opt to spin off Busch Entertainment via a demerger if it does not achieve the price it is looking for through an outright sale" (between $2 billion - $4 billion).

    What the heck is a "demerger"? In short, it means that BEC would be split from InBev, with InBev shareholders getting shares in BEC. With the $400-million Hard Rock Park failing to earn even a $35-million minimum bid in bankruptcy court, there's not much solid recent pricing information about theme parks to guide a bid for BEC. Perhaps the demerger could be the way this goes. The silver lining? Maybe the Busch family isn't out of the picture yet.

    I'm off to Hawaii for a week. Look for lots of warm-weather pictures in Tuesday's "park visit" report, as well as the regular TPI updates, posted from the home state of our incoming U.S. President.

    Comments (15) | Archive Link

    Vote of the week: Big names headline Universal Orlando's Mardi Gras

    By Domenik Jost
    Published: January 15, 2009 at 11:23 PM
    [Editor's note: Domenik submitted this story, and I'm hijacking it for a vote of the week. Keep reading - Robert]

    It's that time of year again to scream the loudest you can to get as many beads as humanly possible at Universal Orlando's Mardi Gras celebration.

    Beginning on February 7, the celebration kicks off with it's traditional parade through the streets of Universal Studios Florida.

    This year's theme is for the parade is "The Wonderful World of Literature" and includes Western (Wild West), Mythology (Greek/Roman), Horror (Gargoyle), Fantasy (Lord of the Rings), Children's (Toy Trains, Nursery Rhymes), and Adventure (Pirates) floats followed by the traditional Mardi Gras floats.

    Parade Times:
    February 7 - March 28 at 8:00 p.m.
    April 4, 11 & 18 9:00 p.m.

    This year's Mardi Gras concert line up looks to be one of Universal Orlando's most promising yet:

    February 7 - KC & The Sunshine Band
    February 14 - Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons
    February 15 - Village People
    February 21 - Ne-Yo
    February 28 - Pat Benatar featuring Neil Giraldo on guitar
    March 7 - Barenaked Ladies
    March 14 - Montgomery Gentry
    March 21 - Collective Soul
    March 27 - Boys Like Girls
    March 28 - Kelly Clarkson
    April 4 - MC Hammer
    April 11 - Trace Adkins
    April 18 - Nelly

    So here is our vote of the week. Gush, or complain, in the comments.

    Comments (12) | Archive Link

    Planning your theme park vacation: Step 6 - Saving money inside the park

    By Robert Niles
    Published: January 15, 2009 at 2:36 PM
    Okay, we've started setting money aside, decided where to go, set up a system to track our expenses, checked prices online, weighed the benefits of staying on-site or off, and looked up the latest deals at the top parks.

    How else can we save money on a theme park vacation?

    Easily. By watching what we spend while inside the park.

    Think about the ways that your diligently saved cash can evaporate inside a theme park. Forget the sunscreen? That's $20. Headache? Another $10 for a handful of pain pills. Drinks can cost $3 a serving. Scrape a knee? You can get a free bandage at first aid, but only after you waste an hour of your day waiting around and filling out accident forms.

    And heaven forbid you parents run out of diapers. Notice that I haven't begun to talk about food or souvenirs yet?

    So, yeah, you have plenty of opportunities to save while inside a theme park. Here's my Golden Rule for in-park vacation savings:

    Never buy anything inside a theme park that you can buy outside the park.

    You can get sunscreen, pain relievers, bandages, baby supplies and a refillable water bottle at home for a fraction of the cost you'd pay inside the park. So do. Bring a stash of waterproof, reseal-able plastic baggies, too. While digital cameras have eliminated the need for you to stock up on film before you enter the park, having those waterproof baggies will come in handy in keeping that digital camera and your cell phone dry when you ride on a flume or any other water ride.

    So what about food and souvenirs? The same rule applies: Never buy anything inside a theme park that you can buy outside the park.

    I'm not one to urge you to forgo lunch and live on a stash of energy bars or sandwiches that you smuggled through the front gate. This is your vacation, and you should enjoy it. And part of that enjoyment is eating well.

    But the point of this series is to show you ways to get the best value for your money. What pay theme park prices for the same food-court pizza and character T-shirt you can buy at the mall for less?

    Instead, spend your money on unique experiences, at restaurants you can't visit anywhere but the park and for souvenirs you won't find anywhere else. Browse Theme Park Insider's park listings for highly-rated restaurants that serve something you don't eat every week. Keep your eyes open for unique souvenirs that you love and can afford with the money you've set aside before you arrived. (As we mentioned in week one, pay for nothing with credit, and you won't be stuck paying for your trip for weeks and years to come.)

    Perhaps if more guests insisted on unique food and souvenir items, we'd see less mall fare and more original selections from parks in the future, too.

    When you order your food, save money by watching how much you order. Get something from the kids' menu or split an entree with someone else. Go for one unique, filling snack instead of a full meal. (Fish and chips or a turkey leg should easily do for lunch or dinner. Heck, two people could split one of those turkey legs.) Don't get light in the wallet and fat in the waist by ordering full meals for all at every opportunity. Most folks can get by on far less than they eat on a typical theme park visit.

    Hitting that water bottle frequently can help. Often, when you body cries for nourishment in the middle of the day, it craves water more than food. Refill your bottle with water at self-serve beverage stations or fountains throughout the park. Staying well hydrated, and well-covered in sunscreen, also will help you avid the heat exhaustion and sunburn that are the top health and safety problem affecting theme park visitors.

    Again, it's all about value. When you start to open your wallet inside a theme park, think:

    Is this the same thing that I could buy for less outside the park?

    Is this worth the money I'm spending, or can I get by with less... or without it?

    When you start asking those questions, you'll be thinking before you spend. And that's the best way to save money, inside a theme park or out.

    Comments (6) | Archive Link

    Disney, China seal deal for Shanghai Disneyland

    By Robert Niles
    Published: January 15, 2009 at 10:23 AM
    A Chinese newspaper is reporting that the proposal for Shanghai Disneyland is now a done deal.

    The park would open in 2014, at the earliest. No design details yet, but Disney will own 43 percent of the park, with the remainder held by the Shanghai government, through a holding company.

    The park would be Disney's second in China (after Hong Kong Disneyland) and fourth theme park resort outside the United States.

    Comments (5) | Archive Link

    Discussion and deals round-up

    By Robert Niles
    Published: January 14, 2009 at 9:57 PM
  • The American Idol Experience at Disney's Hollywood Studios is moving into public previews this week. I'm on the west coast, and unable to get to Orlando this week, so I'd love to hear from any Theme Park Insider readers who get in to see the show. I'd also love to hear any information from Orlando about rumors that Disney's got "ringers" ready to go if no one in the crowd can sing worth a lick.

  • Also on the discussion board, but this time for our west coast fans, Joshua Counsil has posted a four-part trip report from a recent Las Vegas excursion:
    Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4.

  • On our tips page, I just posted this one: "Hate seeing people without food hogging tables at counter service eateries? Then do not send someone to save a table until you've ordered your food." You can go to the tips page to vote it up or down.

  • Finally, I get these last-minute Orlando hotel deals from Expedia each week, since we've partnered with them from time to time. This week, they're promoting hotels from $31 a night and flight/two-night-hotel packages from $234 per person. Here's the link if you are interested in checking that out.

    Comments (4) | Archive Link

  • An insider's visit with theme park designer Bob Rogers

    By Robert Niles
    Published: January 13, 2009 at 11:33 PM
    Tuesday Park Visit: This week, we're not visiting a theme park, but a place where theme park attractions are made.

    Half a century ago, there was no "animation." Drawings that moved across the screen were mere "cartoons," looked down upon by moviemakers and moviegoers alike. A generation later, many inside and out the entertainment industry feel the same about theme parks -- that they, too, are mere amusements unworthy of consideration as art.

    Walt Disney spent a fortune to convince the industry, and the public, that what they dismissed as cartoons could be animation art. And, today, many folks are spreading the word that theme parks can be art, too.

    Count among them Bob Rogers, a two-time Academy Award nominee and Themed Entertainment Association lifetime achievement award winner. Bob invited me to join him on a tour of his BRC Imagination Arts studio in Burbank this afternoon, where he shared that anecdote about how his generation grew to see animation as art.

    "If theme means story and a park is a place, then a theme park is, at its heart, a story place," Rogers said.

    "We consider [theme parks] an art, as well as a science, as well as an enterprise."

    Bob Rogers with Robert Niles
    Rob Rogers, right, with Robert Niles

    If theme park fans are unfamiliar with Rogers' name, they probably are not unfamiliar with his work. Among many other projects, Rogers and his team created the original "Magic of Disney Animation" show at the then-Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park in Walt Disney World, the post-ride Assembly Experience and Driving Technologies Laboratory at Epcot's Test Track, the Shuttle Launch Experience at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and the Mystery Lodge at Knott's Berry Farm, as well as a little film I reviewed last month called "Impressions de France."

    Millions of theme park fans each year enjoy the work that artists such as Rogers create for theme parks, museums and other attractions around the world, but few get the opportunity to look "back stage" in the shops where these attractions begin, often as sketches on a meeting room table. During the two hours I spent at BRC Imagination Arts, I got to control the "Bird" animatronic from the old "The Bird and the Robot" show at Epcot's World of Motion pavilion (another BRC production), hold a life cast of Abraham Lincoln's head (used to create the animatronics at the Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, Illinois), and experience a space shuttle launch in the firm's motion simulation chair.

    Robert Niles controls The Bird
    A former Tiki room host gets his chance to control the bird

    The shuttle experience illustrated, for me, how much the film, the music and the narrative that they create power the emotion of a simulator attraction, even more than the shaking chair itself. Indeed, when the show was finished, Rogers confirmed that the chairs in the Shuttle Launch Experience were mere 1 DOF [degrees of freedom] chairs - just one-dimensional pitch; no yaw, no roll. But the relative mildness of the physical thrill didn't keep me from walking out of the show with a smile on my face.

    Rogers talked about the importance of creating emotion in a theme park experience, to keep visitors coming back.

    "How many people go to see 'Hamlet' time and time again wondering if he's going to figure it out this time, and not end up dead in a pile of bodies?" Rogers asked.

    "You have to make sure that you touch the heart," he said.

    Unfortunately, both for fans and for designers such as Rogers, designers each year get too few opportunities to touch fans' hearts. Movie fans get to enjoy hundreds of new releases each year, while theme park fans are left with a handful of new rides.

    "State of the art rhymes with 'stake in the heart,'" quipped Rogers. "A state-of-the-art product is followed by state-of-the-art problems, then state-of-the-art invoices."

    Rogers used a popular analogy to describe the life cycle of management in the theme park industry: 1) Dare-taker, 2) Caretaker and 3) Undertaker.

    "Too many corporations running theme parks in the late caretaker and even early undertaker stage. They need a entrepreneurial type, someone with show business in his [or her] blood, to snap the whip and bring a company back to the daretaker stage."

    Rogers gave credit to Michael Eisner for doing just that to Disney in the 1980s (before, of course, things went south again in the late 1990s), something that, I think we'd all agree, the consolidating theme park industry needs to have done to it again.

    "Many of the companies running theme parks today are so big, and making so much money that the bean counters get to make the decisions," Rogers said, echoing a sentiment heard often around here on the discussion forum and in the blog comments on TPI.

    That's exactly why, I think, so many theme park fans are so anxious about what will happen with Universal Orlando's Harry Potter project. J.K. Rowling is one of the few daretakers in the entertainment world today with the economic clout to make the bean counters at Universal Orlando's corporate overlords approve whatever she wants. That makes The Wizarding World of Harry Potter one of the rare opportunities for theme park fans to get the rich, immersive physically and emotionally engaging story-telling environment that so many crave. We want to see those projects, and see them succeed wildly, so that theme park companies won't fear to green-light more ambitious projects.

    Yet theme parks are not the only venues for immersive attractions, Rogers suggested.

    "It used to be that theme parks were the laboratories for museums and other places," Rogers said. "Today other places for the labs for theme parks. The interesting things are happening in places like the Lincoln Museum and the Heineken Experience," he said, citing two BRC Imagination Arts clients.

    Rogers showed me a promotional film and design artwork for the Heineken Experience, which opened late last year in Amsterdam.

    The experience is a multi-sensory factory tour, where visitors not only see beer being brewed, but get to taste its raw ingredients, take a (virtual) walk through it and even see a 4D show where they are "bottled" along with it. The experience wraps up on a bottling floor, where visitors can order and receive their own, personalized bottles of Heineken.

    It was real hard to listen to Rogers and not think of Heineken's biggest rival, InBev, closing the Brewmaster's Clubs at its Busch theme parks. Given that visitors are shelling out 15 euros a pop to visit the Heineken Experience, Rogers' crew is making a strong case that beer can continue to be a lucrative themed attraction.

    But Rogers used the Heineken Experience to make another point about the power of themed attractions.

    "They wanted to give people a sample [of beer] right at the beginning, and we told them, no, give them a salty pretzel at the beginning, but make them wait for the beer until the end," Rogers said.

    Why? It's all about the power of the narrative.

    "First, you have to teach them about the beer, show them the brewing process," Rogers said. "Get them thinking about the beer, dreaming about the beer. Then they'll appreciated it more at the end."

    "If you just give it to them at the beginning, they don't know anything about the beer yet," Rogers said. "You have to put someone on a quest for them to feel that [emotional] power."

    That's really it, isn't it? The story, the quest. What will happen when something, inevitably, "goes terribly wrong!"?

    To me and, I suspect, many Theme Park Insider readers, storytelling powers great theme park experiences, more than physical thrills and sensation alone. Shake my limbs and spin my head, but you'd better touch my heart.

    Comments (9) | Archive Link

    Obama's Inauguration, in Legos

    By Robert Niles
    Published: January 12, 2009 at 3:33 PM
    There's a new addition to Miniland at Legoland California, but it will be there only from Friday, Jan. 16 through Memorial Day.

    Barack Obama in Legos
    Image courtesy Legoland

    Yep, it's the Presidential inauguration of Barack Obama.

    The inauguration scene will be placed on the steps of the Miniland U.S. Capitol and will include Obama and his family, Joe Biden, Bush, Cheney and other participants, including Rick Warren, Itzhak Perlman and the U.S. Marine Corps Band, according to a Legoland press release.

    Be sure to check out the crowd, too. Legoland promises that a Lego Oprah Winfrey will be among the assembled onlookers.

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    Theme park news and notes for Jan. 10

    By Robert Niles
    Published: January 9, 2009 at 6:01 PM
  • In my theme park trip planning piece this week, I noted that Disneyland was once again offering Southern Californians its 2fer ticket, two days at the two theme parks for the price of one. But I hadn't realized that Disney hadn't sent out the press release, publicly announcing this year's version of the deal.

    Disneyland did that today, so I guess we had a bit of a scoop there.

  • Legoland California sent a notice today which included word of Fairy Tale Brook's reopening after a revamp. Except, and I hadn't noticed this before, Legoland calls its ride revamps... (wait for it) "plastic surgery."

    I love Legoland's attitude.

  • Scott Joseph blogged about Thursday's death of french chef Gaston Lenotre. Why is this of note to theme park fans? Because Lenotre was one of the three "Chefs de France" who owned that restaurant in the France pavilion at Walt Disney World's Epcot. Joseph's piece includes some worthy anecdotes.

    Comments (1) | Archive Link

  • Vote of the week: What's the best upcoming change at Disney's California Adventure?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: January 9, 2009 at 12:41 AM
    Following our Tuesday Park Visit to Disney's California Adventure this week, as well as a suggestion from Theme Park Insider reader Tim W, we're asking about California Adventure's ongoing billion-dollar expansion/renovation project.

    If you're not familiar with the changes and additions going in at the park, of which Toy Story Midway Mania was the first phase, you can read about them here.

    Tell us in the comments why you picked what you did. Or, what you think Disney ought to be doing with DCA.

    Comments (10) | Archive Link

    Planning your theme park vacation: The best deals so far

    By Robert Niles
    Published: January 8, 2009 at 3:17 PM
    I started our series on planning a theme park vacation on the cheap late last year, knowing that 2009 would be a tough one for many theme park fans. With sound planning and a bit of useful advice, many people could find a way to afford a fun family vacation this year, I hoped.

    Well, the big theme park companies have recognized how tough times are for many families, too, and theme park resorts are responding with aggressive discounts. Yes, you'll still need to plan and set money aside, but many more deals are available now for families that want to get away for a winter or spring theme park vacation.

    I'll summarize many of those deals today. But I want to start (and hope you will to) at a nifty site I found a few weeks ago: RetailMeNot's travel page includes links to coupon codes that can be used on dozens of reservation websites, from rental cars to hotel rooms. I've found $17 off tickets at Legoland California, as well as $10 off at SeaWorld ($20 off for admission after 12 noon). You'll definitely want to click around here and search for the hotel or car rental you are considering before booking.

    RetailMeNot does not offer any coupon codes for Disney or Universal (at least, not that I could find). No worries, though, because the deals are easy to find on those parks official websites. Let's start in Florida:

    Disney World deals

  • Buy a 4-night/4-day package and get 3 extra days and nights free. This deal is available for most nights between 2/9/2009 - 6/27/2009, excluding 4/5 - 4/18 (Spring break for many families).
  • Rooms at Disney's Value Resort hotels are available for as low as $49 a night.
  • A free $200 Disney gift card for people who stay at Disney from 2/9/2009 - 3/29/2009.
  • Free airport transportation and baggage handling for anyone staying at Disney hotel.

    Universal Orlando deals

  • Hotel discounts available starting at 15% for three-night stay, up to 49% off for seven days. The discount works out to rates as low as $110 a night at Universal's Royal Pacific Hotel.
  • Free unlimited front-of-line access in Universal's theme parks for guests staying at Universal's three on-site hotels.
  • Kids eat free for lunch and dinner at Universal hotels on selected weeks.
  • A free $150 Universal Orlando savings book for families staying at Universal before 3/31/09.
  • A 7-day, two-park theme park ticket for $95, when you buy online at Universal's website. (You do not need to be staying at a Universal hotel to get this deal, but the tickets are good only for the seven consecutive days starting from first use.)

    What's the bottom line here? You can get seven nights at Universal Orlando, in an on-site four-star hotel within walking distance of the parks, with a seven-day ticket to both parks including unlimited front-of-line access, for four people for about $1,200 (plus room tax).

    At Walt Disney World, you can get seven nights in an on-site Value Resort hotel and seven days at the various Disney theme parks nights for as low as $1,375.

    The difference (besides the theme parks, of course) is a higher-quality hotel and no theme park waits at Universal Orlando, while you would get free airport transportation at Disney.

    In Southern California, the deals are not as aggressive, but some savings are available.

    Disneyland deals

  • Annual 2fer for Southern California residents. The offers is available through June 3, and gives you a free one-day ticket to California Adventure when you buy a one-day ticket to Disneyland (Or vice versa). The free ticket must used within 30 days of the first.
  • Kids fly free on Alaska Airlines from selected cities to Southern California when you book through Disneyland's website and stay at selected area hotels.
  • Room's at Disneyland's hotels are available from $135 a night.

    Universal Studios Hollywood deals

  • Get a second day at the park free when you buy your one-day ticket online. The second day must be used with seven days of the first.
  • Southern California residents can get a one-day ticket for $49 (that's $18 off), when they buy online.

    The Busch theme parks (SeaWorld and Busch Gardens) also have deals available on their official Worlds of Discovery website. The most common deal gets adults in at the kids' price, with a second day's ticket free. Year-long "Fun Cards" are available again at some of Busch's parks. Check the website for the deals available at the park you're considering.

    So what will happen this summer? Since there's little chance of the economy getting substantially better by then, I expect more deals and discounts, including the continuation of some of these specials. That said, if you have the vacation time available and can get the money put aside, I wouldn't skip on these deals. Winter and spring can be much better times to visit theme parks, with milder weather and smaller crowds than summer.

    And who knows? If the deals get better, maybe you can afford *two* theme park vacations this year!

    Comments (6) | Archive Link

  • Top tips of the week

    By Robert Niles
    Published: January 7, 2009 at 5:35 PM
    Here are some of the more popular tips submitted within the past week or so on our Tips for Visiting Theme Parks pages:

    All parks: Are your kids seat-kickers on airplanes? Take off their shoes. They'll be more comfortable, and not kick. Take off yours for comfort, too. Just, please, wear socks!

    Walt Disney World tips: If you stay at a Disney hotel, you can get free transportation and baggage handling at the airport with Disney's Magical Express service.

    Disneyland Paris tips: If you don't like the breakfast in your hotel, go to the Plaza Gardens in Fantasyland early; they give free breakfasts to people staying in the hotels.

    Universal Studios Hollywood tips: Hit the lower lot early in the morning to avoid the long line at the thrill rides.

    Universal Studios Florida tips: If you were never a big fan of the "Earthquake" attraction, you may want to skip "Disaster", as only the pre-show and audience interaction have changed. The ride is still the same.

    You can vote (yes or no) on these, and dozens of other tips by clicking the links above, or going straight to the Tips for Visiting Theme Parks page. You don't need to be a registered member of the site to vote or to submit a tip, so please, if you haven't yet visited the tips page, take a look today. Thanks!

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    Cracking the Easter Eggs on Disney's Toy Story Midway Mania

    By Robert Niles
    Published: January 6, 2009 at 4:04 PM
    Tuesday Park Visit: So here's the question: How high could I score on Toy Story Midway Mania?

    Many Theme Park Insider readers love shoot-'em-up dark rides. I racked up a respectable (according to one Imagineer) 119,400 on Midway Mania when I rode at the ride's premiere at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Walt Disney World last May. But could I do better?

    So I drove down to Disney's California Adventure to ride the west coast version of Midway Mania and find out.

    Toy Story Midway Mania was the first phase of the California Adventure's ongoing billion-dollar-plus renovation. Work continues as the Paradise Pier area transforms from a nondescript beach-side carnival to a new Victorian-era theme. The lagoon's been drained, and the sun is off the Sun Wheel, in preparation for the arrival of Mickey's face.

    The set-up's the same here on the Toy Story Midway Mania ride as in Orlando: bar-mounted "pop guns" triggered with a string pull. I'd scoured online message boards and personal e-mails and came armed with several tips on how to unlock various Easter Eggs in an effort to boost my score.

    I rolled solo today, so I could take advantage of the single-rider line. The crowd wasn't huge, but Midway Mania typically runs the longest wait in the park: a posted 20 minutes today. The longest I waited was about five minutes in the single-rider line. (The hosts, to their credit, were asking odd-numbered parties if they minded a single rider joining them. When I waited the five minutes, four parties passes on me joining them. Your loss for high score advice, pals!)

    Midway Mania's got five show scenes, each with a different screen and game. In the first, I'd read that the two Easter Eggs where (1) to aim for a small rat atop the barn at the top of the screen, which when hit would flip the barn and reveal more, higher-value rats, and (2) to aim for a fox on the henhouse at the bottom corner of the screen, which when hit spawns several 1,000-point chickens to target.

    After hitting both, I'd recommend aiming first for the fox. I scored 6,000 points lower in this scene the time I aimed for the rat first. The target's small and far away, and the bonus rats much harder to hit than the big, close, easy chickens. There's time before the fox reappears (giving you another go at another series of chickens) to go after the rats, if you've got a good eye and keen aim.

    The balloon pop scene comes next. Here, you want to aim at the five balloons on a cloud in the upper corner of the screen. Clearing the five will trigger a cascade of 500-point balloons down the screen. If your fellow rider can clear the five balloons on "their" cloud at the same time, you'll get 2,000-point balloons.

    After the balloon cascade, aim for the highest-value targets on the screen, the 500-point red "apples" surrounding the large green balloons, as well as some smaller high-value balloons you'll find in the lower corners of the screen.

    The plate breaking scene follows. Here, your best targets are 2,000-point plates that will appear in the upper corners of the screen. If you and the other rider both break those plates at the same time, a row of additional 2,000-point plates will appear. In addition, a tank appears in the middle of the screen that will throw 5,000-point plates, too. In between those plates' appearances, aim for as many 1,000- and 500-point plates as you can.

    After the plates comes the Buzz Lightyear scene, where you try to toss rings around LGMs (little green men). I had the luck of uncovering the big Easter Egg here by accident in Orlando, when my "partner" and I ringed all the LGMs on the rocket in the middle of the screen, spawning a monster you could hit for 500, then 1,000, points a shot. I couldn't get any help from my riding companions this time, so I instead aimed for the 1,000- and 2,000-point LGMs at the side of the screen. Hit enough of these, and there's a small 5,000-point LGM in the upper corner, too. (I never did hit that.)

    The final scene, Woody's Shootin' Gallery, offers two games. In the first, you're aiming for bulls-eye targets, which, when hit, will spawn additional targets, of 200, 500 and 1,000 points. The 500-point targets will spawn more 1,000-point targets, so aim for those first. Once hit, each target here will disappear, so move quickly and don't dawdle over hit targets. Keep shooting after the first game, as your car moves toward the second. You can find several 1,000- and 2,000-point targets lurking at the bottom of the screen as your car moves.

    In the second part of the final scene, you aim at mine cars. As you shoot, keep your eye above the cars and blast the 1,000-point bat as soon as it appears. That will spawn a 5,000-point bat for the taking. The point value of the cars also increases with the more that you hit so keep firing away.

    Finally, after the cars, a large "bonus round" target appears on the screen. Blast away non-stop, for its value increases from 500 to 1,00 to 2,000 points the more you hit it. In Orlando, I saw it go to 5,000 for another rider just as the game ended. Most riders I've talked with report getting the bulk of their points in the final scene, both due to their shooting improving over the course of the game, as well as for the many high-value targets available in the final games.

    So how'd I do? Well, without consistent help from a partner who also knew the tricks of the game (the prices one pays for the short wait in the single-rider line), I couldn't crack the top scores of the day. But I increased my score on each ride, topping out at 163,200 on my final attempt.

    So, Midway Mania fans, how'd you do?

    Comments (8) | Archive Link

    Disney offers free passes to active and retired U.S. military*

    By Robert Niles
    Published: January 5, 2009 at 1:30 PM
    Disney is reviving its "Disney's Armed Forces Salute" program, with free five-day passes to Walt Disney World now available to all active and retired U.S. military personnel.

    The offer is good through Dec. 23, 2009. Personnel should show their military ID at a ticket window to get the free ticket, as well as to buy additional five-day passes for $99 each. (Note that these are not park-hoppers.)

    I haven't seen a specific announcement about Disneyland, but the last time Disney ran this promotion, free tickets at Disneyland also were available with a military ID.

    Disney's run this promotion in previous years, and Busch has had a long-standing policy of free admissions for U.S. military at its theme parks (Busch Gardens and SeaWorld). Busch's offer does include family members, too, if I recall correctly.

    *Update: The details from Disneyland...

    Through June 12, 2009, each active or retired member of the U.S. military can receive one complimentary three-day "Disney's Armed Forces Salute" Park Hopper ticket valid for admission to both Disneyland and Disney's California Adventure parks. During the offer period, active or retired U.S. military personnel also may make a one-time purchase of an adult or child three-day "Disney's Armed Forces Salute Companion" Park Hopper ticket for up to five family members (including spouse) or friends for the price of an adult 1-Day Park Hopper ticket. [Currently $94 - added by Robert]

    Disneyland Resort hotels are also offering special room rates for active or retired military personnel. For example, at Disney's Paradise Pier Hotel, active or retired members of the military and their families may find hotel rooms starting at $119 per night during value season, with great savings during other times of the offer period. This offer is available through June 12, 2009, and the number of rooms available at these special rates is limited.

    For information regarding "Disney's Armed Forces Salute" at the Disneyland Resort, or to make reservations, military personnel may call 714-956-6424.

    Comments (8) | Archive Link

    Theme park news and notes*

    By Robert Niles
    Published: January 3, 2009 at 2:34 PM
    A few notes from the theme park industry, of potential interest to Theme Park Insider readers:

  • Knott's Berry Farm is offering $29 off the "rack rate" adult ticket price for people who make a canned food donation at the park. Knott's 8th annual food drive for the Orange County Food Bank runs from January 5 through February 1, 2009. People who bring at least one can of food for the drive will get into the park for $22.99. Details

    Let's note another change at Knott's, too. The park's switched from kids tickets to "junior" tickets. The lower age for this ticket remains 3 years of age for this $22.99 ticket, but the upper limit on the ticket is now 48 inches tall, not 11 years old, as it was before. That's effectively a price increase on middle-elementary kids. (Kids under three continue to get in free.)

  • Legoland California's long-time general manager, John Jakobsen, has left the park and "moved upstairs" at Merlin Entertainments. Jakobsen has been named Managing Director of all Legoland parks. He'll be based out of Merlin HQ in Poole, England. Peter Ronchetti, GM of Merlin's Thorpe Park, is moving to the U.S. and is the new GM at Legoland California.
  • Former Orlando Sentinel restaurant critic Scott Joseph reviewed Narcoossee's at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort on his website. Support another ex-Tribune Co. writer and check it out.
  • *Update: We've got a discussion thread going with a report that the free beer will stop flowing at SeaWorld Orlando at the end of the month. An e-mailer said that the Hospitality House and Brewmasters Club will close one week earlier, on Jan. 25. Any SeaWorld/BEC people want to add details?

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  • Vote of the week: Will you use the Disney birthday ticket in 2009?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: January 2, 2009 at 10:58 AM
    With the New Year, Disney has begun its 2009 'free ticket on your birthday' promotion. So I'm interested in seeing how many Theme Park Insider readers will be taking advantage of this promotion.

    The freebie is real - no sitting through a Disney DVC timeshare sale pitch necessary. ;-) But there are a few catches:

    1. It's not as easy as showing up at the entrance gate with a birth certificate or driver's license. You should first register on the Disney theme parks website to claim your birthday ticket. (If you do show up at the park without registering online, you'll have to go to the Will Call window to do the sign-up there. Trust me, you won't want to wait in that line. Sign up early. Also, there are other freebies available for folks who have an annual pass that would otherwise get them in on their birthday this year.)

    2. No rainchecks. You've got to go on your actual birthday. No moving your celebration to a more convenient weekend day or holiday.

    3. It's just for you. If you want to bring family or friends, they have to pay. (Unless they share your birthday, of course!)

    All that said, will you be taking advantage of Disney's free ticket offer in 2009? Pick the option that best describes where you are at with the decision today.

    If you are going, or thinking about it, tell us in the comments which park you'll visit.

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    Happy New Year from the 2009 Rose Parade!

    By Robert Niles
    Published: January 1, 2009 at 1:27 PM
    Happy New Year from Pasadena, California, where yours truly was up early this morning - at a new location - to bring you photos and videos from the 120th annual Rose Parade.

    This year's theme was "Hats off to Entertainment" and the opening float from Honda, featuring a 50-foot version of its ASIMO robot, displayed the theme literally.

    Earlier this week, I showed you photos of the Honda float, and others, under construction. Here's how the Trader Joe's float turned out:

    Rain Bird won this year's Sweepstakes trophy for "most beautiful entry."

    Here is the Pasadena City College's Honor Band, performing a parade classic, "76 Trombones" from "The Music Man."

    Here's a close-up look at the Farmers Insurance float we saw earlier. It won the Craftsman award for exceptional showmanship.

    The City of Cerritos won the Grand Marshal's trophy for this float, co-sponsored by Medieval Times.

    The City of Sierra Madre won for most beautiful non-commercial float for this tribute to Bollywood.

    Wile E. Coyote remains in hot pursuit of the Road Runner on New Mexico's Rose Parade float.

    Disneyland's Sleeping Beauty Castle makes a cameo appearance, in floral form, on the City of Anaheim's float.

    Believe it or not, the National of Associates of Realtors entered a float this year. Why are those folks in boats? Because their house is underwater!

    The Kiwanis entry won for most beautiful small float.

    Some of the floats include impressive animation elements. Here is an example from the Kaiser Permanente float, which won for "exception merit in multiple categories."

    Here is that amusement park-themed float from Cal Poly:

    I'm posting this one for the folks at Busch Entertainment Corp. It's the City of St. Louis float, pulled by a team of Clydesdales and featuring a certain beer company's famous wagon. With no sign of "InBev" anywhere. Enjoy, folks.

    The most over-the-top, outrageously fun float had to have been Jack in the Box's tribute to Disco, complete with live band and dancers. And, of course, Jack, there in the middle.

    Bayer Advanced won the Fantasy award for its floral tribute to the Wizard of Oz, another float we saw under construction earlier this week.

    So... which was your favorite float in this year's Rose Parade? Tell us about it in the comments. And, again, happy new year from ThemeParkInsider.com!

    Updated: My wife Laurie has posted some photos from our traditional spot at the end of the Rose Parade route.

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