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February 2009

Vote of the week: What is the best hotel/resort restaurant at Walt Disney World?

By Robert Niles
Published: February 27, 2009 at 9:57 AM

Following the story yesterday about Disney World food and beverage VP Dieter Hannig leaving the company, I thought I'd ask about readers' favorite hotel or resort restaurant at Walt Disney World.

I know from the site's ratings which restaurants you like inside the parks (Le Cellier Steakhouse, Tokyo Dining and The Hollywood Brown Derby), but this week I want to learn which restaurants outside the parks you think the best. [Update: I messed up and put Artist's Palette below, where I meant "Artist Point". So consider a vote for Artist's Palette a vote for Artist Point.]

FWIW, I left the Downtown Disney restaurants out of this vote because I wanted to limit it to restaurants that we do not include in our regular ratings and reviews.

I'm expecting a lively debate in the comments about these restaurants this week. Have at it!

Comments (21) | Archive Link

Disney World loses its top chef

By Robert Niles
Published: February 26, 2009 at 5:45 PM

Scott Joseph reported yesterday that Dieter Hannig has taken the Disney management buy-out and is leaving Walt Disney World. If you're not familiar with the name, he's the person in charge of dining at the Walt Disney World Resort. (Vice President of the Food and Beverage division was the official title.) He came to Orlando from Disneyland Paris in 1988 and changed operations in Central Florida to give individual chefs greater autonomy over their restaurants.

The Orlando Sentinel chased the story today. Here is its version.

Hannig, 59, is moving with his wife to Panama, where they will be opening an organic food and yoga resort. Something that off the "normal" wall would seem to beg for a snarky comment... if it weren't such a cool-sounding idea. Hope he has a great time. Anyone who tries to elevate the food experience at theme parks deserves a special commendation from fans, in my book.

As for other passages, I wanted to take a couple grafs of your reading time to note the closing of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver. As some of you might know, I used to be the editor of the Rocky's website. In fact, Theme Park Insider was born while I worked at the Rocky. Thanks to a bone-headed management policy at the time, we were not allowed to use Rocky staff writers to create original content for the website when I worked there. So, to get that content, I had the then-novel idea of conning asking readers to contribute content to the site. We started with reader reviews for restaurants and movies, then added birth and wedding announcements, eventually moving on to reader votes and comments on the paper's editorials.

While I was building these interactive features for the site, I became intrigued by the idea of a publication that was built on nothing but reader-contributed content. So, in my own time at home and on my personal computer, I built a new Web application to allow people to rate and review individual attractions at Disney World and Disneyland, the first site online where people could do that. Of course, that application grew into Theme Park Insider.

My former co-workers at the Rocky have done great work over the years, and deserved better than the bad strategic decisions that left them sitting ducks in a deteriorating economy. If you live near Denver, pick up the last copy of the Rocky tomorrow, will ya? And if you're near the 16th Street Mall tomorrow afternoon, and see a bunch of journalists in a bar, buy one of 'em a drink and say 'thanks.' They've earned it.

Comments (5) | Archive Link

President Lincoln is back in the house at Disneyland

By Robert Niles
Published: February 25, 2009 at 3:43 PM

Ask, and ye shall receive.

From Disneyland's PR people this afternoon:

A longtime favorite of Disneyland guests will return as “The Disneyland Story, featuring Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln,” an enhanced version of the show which appeared, in various forms, in the Main Street Opera House at Disneyland park from 1966 through 2004 . The attraction will reopen later this year in celebration of the 200th anniversary year of Abraham Lincoln’s birth.

The current Opera House presentation, “Disneyland: The First 50 Magical Years,” will go on hiatus beginning Monday, March 16, in preparation for the new “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” show. When the updated “Disneyland Story, featuring Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” opens later this year, “Disneyland: The First 50 Magical Years” will be presented as part of the “Disneyland Story” display of art, models and mementoes in the Opera House lobby.

Disney's also reviving the Disney Gallery, which went away when the apartment over Pirates of the Caribbean was converted into Disneyland's "Year of a Million Dreams" suite. The new home for the Gallery will be the Bank of Main Street, displacing the Annual Pass processing center, which will move to the Plaza Pavilion.

I wrote earlier this month that Disney blew a PR opportunity by not having Lincoln open for the bicentennial. But I am happy to see that the show will return this year. No firm date for the re-opening, yet. Better late than never.

Comments (2) | Archive Link

For what it is worth...

By Robert Niles
Published: February 24, 2009 at 8:55 PM

... a high-speed rail system (a *real* system, with a dedicated, two-way track) that connected Santa Clarita, CA (Magic Mountain) to Universal City (Universal Studios Hollywood) to Downtown Los Angeles to Anaheim (Disneyland) to Riverside to Las Vegas would represent one of the best investments in economic development that the U.S. federal government could make.

The route would get huge daily commuter traffic within the greater LA area, as well as enabling significant economic development in Vegas. Not just tourism, but business relationships outside of the stereotypical casinos and theme parks.

The old model of oil-fueled family cars providing almost the personal transport within and between nearby cities will not be economically and environmentally viable much longer.

Of course, some politicians can't resist trashing public support for any project attached to the name "Disneyland," as if anything associated with a theme park is just some silly children's plaything.

Theme parks are multi-billion dollar businesses, attracting tens of millions of Americans each year. And the biggest ones are not located in random, sleepy little burgs, but within some of the most dynamic local economies in the nation.

So, build the darned rail system! And give us one to San Francisco, too. I'd much rather see billions go to employ hard-working Americans designing and building these rail systems than to prop up the stockholders of the nation's zombie banks. We need somebody to spend some money to get our economy going again. I'd rather we all get something useful for that investment.

That's my $.02. Debate continues in the comments, if anyone's interested. Weaving theme parks into the conversation earns brownie points. :-)

Comments (12) | Archive Link

Tickets on sale for Disney's California Food and Wine Festival

By Robert Niles
Published: February 23, 2009 at 9:30 PM

Tickets go on sale tomorrow, Tuesday, February 24, for the Food and Wine Festival at Disney's California Adventure. The event runs from April 24 through June 7 and will feature both events free with park admission as well as a more ambitious line-up of hard-ticket "signature" events. (It's the signature events that you can get tickets for tomorrow.)

This year's line-up of chefs and vintners includes:

  • Guy Fieri from Food Network,
  • Keegan Gerhard, also from Food Network,
  • Tom Lasorda, who also sells wine in addition to talking baseball, and the big one for Disney fans:
  • John and Nancy Lasseter. Yep, the chief creative officer for Disney and Pixar also bottles wine.

    Each of these two-hour events at DCA's Animation Courtyard is $185 plus tax per person and includes appetizers, wine and the Q&A with the guest.

    I've not been to the Food and Wine Festivals either at DCA or the much larger original at Disney World's Epcot, so I'll defer to readers' judgment on the worthiness of these events. (Though I'd think a catered Q&A with Lasseter well would be worth attending, regardless of a Disney's fan's affinity for either food or wine....) Comments?

  • Comments (2) | Archive Link

    Prices vary wildly on Busch theme parks' chain-wide annual passes

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 23, 2009 at 3:11 PM

    Busch Entertainment today sent along a press release detailing new benefits for annual passholders at Busch's Sesame Place theme park in Pennsylvania. Sesame Place is offering a 30 percent discount on all food and merchandise purchases in the park for its passholders this season. The park offers three pass levels, from a basic $77.95 pass to a $110.95 pass with free parking and preferred show seating, to a $159.95 "Super Grover Season Pass" that includes unlimited free admission to all Busch Gardens and SeaWorld theme parks through Dec. 31, 2009.

    And that's what caught my eye. Because I hadn't seen Busch offering an unlimited admission pass to all its theme parks for such a low price. I checked, and found wildly different pricing on Busch's "Platinum Pass," depending upon the park where you buy it.

    In Florida, you can't even get a one-year pass to all Busch parks. The best you can do is a two-year Platinum Pass, for $429.95. Ouch. But if you were to buy the same two-year pass from Busch Gardens SeaWorld San Antonio, you'd pay just $199.99. It's $249 at SeaWorld San Diego, but they'll throw in an extra two months on to the pass if you pay for it all at once and don't opt for the EZPay multiple payment plan.

    San Diego offers a one-year Platinum Pass for $169, again, with two months free if you pay the full price at purchase. The same pass (minus the two free months) is $179.95 at Busch Gardens Europe in Williamsburg, Virginia.

    For comparison, the Florida-based theme parks are selling a one-year, two-park annual pass for $159.95, $10 less than you could get a pass that covered all of Busch's theme parks, if you bought in San Diego.

    I know that we've talked about these types of pricing discrepancies before. But I still don't get it. I can see a variance of give or take $10-20 bucks based on home parks for a chain-wide annual pass, to reflect higher costs of operation in different markets. But a $230 difference?

    And why charge the highest chain-wide prices in Orlando, the market with the most out-of-town visitors. Why wouldn't Busch want to encourage Orlando visitors from mid-Atlantic states, for example, to make a weekend trip to BGE or Sesame Place later in the season? Two days at SeaWorld Orlando costs $130 with online advance purchase, $150 at the gate. I bet if you offered visitors at SeaWorld Orlando's front gate the opportunity to come back for the next year, plus visit Busch Gardens Africa and all other Busch theme parks (save Discovery Cove) for that year for just $20 more than the two-day gate price, you'd get more than a few takers.

    What are your thoughts about chain-wide annual passes, and their prices? What would you like to see? What would get you off the fence and visiting more theme parks this year?

    Comments (6) | Archive Link

    Vote of the week: Would you try out for Disney's American Idol Experience?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 20, 2009 at 10:48 AM

    Let's talk about The American Idol Experience. The show officially debuted at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Walt Disney World earlier this month, though it has been in soft opening since last month.

    American Idol Experience at Walt Disney World

    Never before in theme parks, that I can recall at least, has a show been so dependent upon audience participation. Theme parks, especially Universal, for years have been using audience volunteers. But they've typically been glorified props, brought on stage to follow specific instructions, doing little, if anything, of their own initiative.

    American Idol uses park visitors very differently. Here, the visitors are not props; they are the show. If Disney doesn't get some good singers to volunteer, the show fails. (A fact that's prompted rumors that Disney's hired cast ringers to fill out shows where too few competent singers step up.)

    Would you step up for American Idol? That's our vote of the week:

    Tell us your thoughts about the show, in the comments.

    Comments (24) | Archive Link

    Planning your theme park vacation: Readers' top money-saving tips

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 19, 2009 at 11:02 AM

    I've offered several money saving tips for theme park vacations in this series over the past three months, and many Theme Park Insider readers have their own advice to offer, as well.

    Several of the items submitted to our Tips for visiting theme parks page offer advice on how to save money and time (which is money, in my book) on your vacation. Here are 10 of the more popular tips from that section. The figures after each tip represent the number of readers who have voted for, and against, that tip, as of when I posted this article.

    You can vote on these tips yourself - yes if you agree with it, no if you do not. Just click the linked numbers to go that tip's page and cast your vote. You do not need to be a registered Theme Park Insider member to vote.

    And if you have a favorite money-saving tip that you've not seen discussed in the series, please submit it here. Again, you don't need to be a registered member on the site in order to submit tips.

    All parks: Get to the park early to be sure you can get on your favorite rides before the park gets too crowded. [494 + / 42 -]

    Universal Orlando: If you stay in one of Universal's three on-site hotels, the Royal Pacific, the Hard Rock or the Portofino Bay, you get free front-of-the-line access to all Universal Orlando attractions. [333 + / 22 -]

    Walt Disney World: If staying at a Disney-owned resort, take advantage of the Extra Magic hours, where lines are short and crowds are small! It's the best time to visit some of the more popular attractions while feeling like you're the only ones in the park! [133 + / 31 -]

    Walt Disney World: If you stay at a Disney hotel, you can get free transportation and baggage handling at the airport with Disney's Magical Express service. [46 + / 4 -]

    All parks: Bring your own water bottles. It will save you time and money! [89 + / 9 -]

    Walt Disney World: Free water! Yes it sounds silly, but any of the drink stands with a fountain will gladly pour you a big cup of ice water for free. Some of the bottled water snobs may not approve, but Disney's water tastes fine to me. [36 + / 1 -]

    All parks: If you're going to get an annual pass, add parking to at least one pass. It seems expensive at first, but at more than ten bucks a pop for parking at most parks, it pays off in the end. [36 + / 3 -]

    All parks: 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. [21 + / 1 -]

    All parks: Ask the human resources department at your employer if it sells discount tickets to theme parks. Many do, as well as discount tickets to local theaters, zoos and attractions. Check those prices against the parks' websites and pick the better deal. [9 + / 2 -]

    All parks: If you are flying, save time and checked-bag fees by carrying on your luggage and buying sunscreen, etc. at a store (not the hotel!) when you arrive. [7 + / 1 -]

    Archive Link

    Disney to consolidate more Disneyland, Disney World management

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 18, 2009 at 5:41 PM

    Disney announced today that it will lay off more managers in its theme park and attraction divisions, and that to do so, it will consolidate more operations common to Walt Disney World and Disneyland, as well as its Disney Vacation Club and other remote properties.

    While I try to track down more of what this means to theme park fans, here's the LA Times write-up of today's announcement.

    Frankly, much of what Disney does ought to be handled at a central location, including buying supplies, souvenirs and operational support. And some of that happens now. Under this plan, more will.

    That said, I hope that Disney's Worldwide Operations team keeps this in mind (and I think I speak for many fans when I write this): I have never in my life, and never will, buy a sweatshirt or any other souvenir that says "Disney Parks" on it.

    I want the sweatshirt I buy in Anaheim to say "Disneyland" and the one I buy in Lake Buena Vista to say "Walt Disney World." Those are Disney's theme park brands. With the volume that Disney commands, it ought to be trivial for one office at Disney HQ to order those two designs from the same source, if Disney chooses. If Disney consolidates on the back end, fine, but it should never make the mistake of trying to cram a generic experience down visitors' throats. My $.02.

    Comments (7) | Archive Link

    Portobello makes a strong comeback at Downtown Disney

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 18, 2009 at 3:12 PM

    Scott Joseph just sent over a link to his recent review of Portobello in Downtown Disney. [Apparently, it's not a "Yacht Club" anymore. :-P ]

    Scott gives the new team running the restaurant a strong review:

    The restaurant I found at Downtown Disney recently was very different from the old place. The food was top-notch – creative interpretations of Italian dishes that were flavorful and filling. And I suddenly find myself able to once again recommend it as a destination.

    When it first opened, Portobello was my favorite restaurant in Downtown Disney, and not just because the husband of one my friends and co-workers in Magic Kingdom West Attractions cooked there. After growing up in Indianapolis (bleech) and spending four years broke as a college student in Chicago, Portobello was the restaurant where I discovered that food could be something better than cafeteria or fast food. I thank Portobello for my ever-since-then addiction to roasted garlic, for example. So it's nice to see that they've got folks in the kitchen again who care about food as much as my friend Gene did back in the day.

    Here are a couple other notes today that I wanted to mention, but for which didn't feel like creating separate blog entries:

  • The new owners of Hard Rock Park got off to a good start, announcing that they will cut one-day ticket prices to under $40 and give last year's annual pass holders admission to the park this year for free. The park will add a few new children's rides, too.

  • Universal Orlando is offering free admission to U.S. military personnel, too, joining Disney and the Busch theme parks. Through June 28, personnel with a valid military photo I.D. can get a seven-day, two-park ticket free. Family members can buy them for $35 off. Tickets are available at base ITT/ITR offices, or at (and I found this worth a chuckle) the Shades of Green at Walt Disney World.

  • Comments (11) | Archive Link

    How to enjoy a day at Disneyland, in the rain

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 17, 2009 at 3:25 PM

    Tuesday Park Visit: February means rain in Southern California. But Disneyland's open every day, rain or shine. So how should a theme park fan prepare for a day at Disneyland in the rain?

    Disneyland in the rain
    You might see more of these than characters on the street if you visit Disneyland in a downpour.

    Winter rains can last much of the day, so you'll need to prepare if you are to fully enjoy your day in the park, which you can if you've brought the correct gear.

    Summer rains, which don't happen in Southern California but do hit just about everyday in Orlando, are a different beast. Those rains tend to be brief, but intense, interrupting your afternoon or early evening. For those, it's best just to plan indoor attractions and activities during those storms. (An early dinner, perhaps?)

    What to wear

    The most important factor affecting how much fun you'll have a Disneyland, or any theme park, in the rain is what you wear. I recommend a hooded jacket or parka that covers your rear end. Why? You'll be sitting in plenty of wet seats during your visit, from the parking lot tram to "Small World" boats. Better to sit on your jacket than get your pants wet.

    Disneyland's Small World in the rain

    I recommend jackets over ponchos, too. First, why shell out the money for a Disney poncho when you probably have a good rain jacket at home? Second, ponchos become little saunas when the sun emerges, as it has today throughout the L.A./Orange County area. You can always unzip your rain jacket and get some air.

    Finally, I recommend hoods over umbrellas for two other reasons. First, that's one less thing you have to carry around the park. And second, courtesy. On crowded theme park walkways, I don't want your umbrella poking me in the eye or neck. Just leave it at home and put up your hood in the rain.

    What to do

    We've published a great four-hour tour of Disneyland, with touring tips, most of which apply in a rainstorm, as well as on a sunny day. Most of Disneyland's top attractions stand indoors, protected from the rain.

    Here are a few rides, though, that you might want to skip, or be unable to ride, in the rain:

  • Big Thunder Mountain Railroad - Roller coasters in the rain can be more pain than fun. Intense rain also can shut down this ride. If that happens, you really don't want to be stuck out on the track in a driving rain.
  • Tom Sawyer's Island - A great play area on a dry day, but your local park is a better value in the rain.
  • Tarzan's Treehouse - Often closed in the rain, due to slippery steps.
  • Splash Mountain - Not the best idea to get soaked on a chilly day. But if it's a warm rain and you're already wet, why not?
  • It's a Small World - The queue and load platform are uncovered, making this uncomfortable in heavy rain, not to mention soaking the boat seats.
  • Storybook Land - Ditto, plus the fact that the whole ride is outside. Save it for a dry day.
  • Mad Tea Party - Often does not operate in the rain due to a slick ride platform.
  • Dumbo - How much do you want to spin around with rain in your face?

    Think about where you'll want to eat lunch and dinner, too.

    Disneyland's Plaza Inn in the rain
    No one will be dining today on these dripping Plaza Inn seats.

    Your best bet is to call in advance and make reservations for the indoor Blue Bayou restaurant. If you can't get into the Bayou, Redd Rockett's Pizza Port is another good indoor option. Otherwise, you'll be trying to cram into limited covered seating areas at the other counter-service restaurants. If the rain's heavy and you can't get into one of the indoor restaurants, take a break and walk over to one of the nearby Downtown Disney restaurants instead.

    When not to go

    The great advantage to visiting Disneyland in the rain is - shorter lines. Let's face it, most folks are chicken about the weather. Especially in Southern Californian, where locals freak out in the rain. (Watch a local newscast on a rainy day sometime. It's like the apocalypse is happening.)

    But Disneyland in the rain isn't for everyone. If you have a toddler, that list of attractions that might be closed or uncomfortable could get you thinking twice about a rainy day trip. Parents might not want to spend full price for a Disneyland ticket if they can't take their child comfortably on several favorite Fantasyland rides.

    I'd also recommend that on rainy weekdays local visitors skip our traditional advice to get to the park at opening. Southern California drivers aren't the best in the rain, and you'll want to avoid a rainy morning rush hour on area highways, if you can. The lines won't be too bad; go ahead and wait until after nine to head out for the park.

    Got a favorite tip to help people cope with a rainy day in a theme park? Please share it in the comments. Thanks!

  • Comments (3) | Archive Link

    Hard Rock Park sold to FPI MB Entertainment for $25 million*

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 16, 2009 at 6:02 PM

    * Updated throughout: A bankruptcy judge today approved the sale of the closed and bankrupt Hard Rock Park to FPI MB Entertainment.

    The deal is for $25 million - quite a discount from the $400 million the park reportedly cost to build. The judge said that a competing bid from a new group calling itself Coastal Entertainment, came with "too little, too late," according to a live blog from the courtroom on the Myrtle Beach Online site.

    We did a little digging into FPI's background last week. The sale is to close by Thursday, and we're awaiting word if FPI can reach a deal with Hard Rock International before then, to preserve the park's branding. If they can't, FPI will have to rebrand the park and destroy all unsold Hard Rock-branded park merchandise.

    Update: FPI MB Entertainment has confirmed that Baker Leisure Group will manage operations at the park. (We first reported the connection between FPI MB Entertainment and Baker here on TPI last week.)
    In the previous version of this post, we asked readers whom they'd like to see get control of the site. Now that the sale is approved to FPI, tell us what you think.

    Comments (8) | Archive Link

    SoCal theme park weekend news round-up

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 14, 2009 at 8:03 PM

    Here's a round-up of recent news from Southern California's theme parks:

  • Legoland California is celebrating its 10th anniversary on March 20, 2009. To mark the occasion, the park's running a contest for kids to design and build their own Lego models honoring the park's birthday. The Grand Prize winners in each of the three age categories [4-9, 10-15, 16+] win four annual passes to Legoland and SeaLife Aquarium. The finalists get to walk the red carpet at the park's birthday celebration and attend the premiere of the park's new Bob the Builder 4D film.

    Models must be made entirely out of Legos, and can be no larger than 12 inches tall by 10 inches wide. You can enter the content by submitting photos of your model to http://www.legoland.com/poster.

  • From now until the end of the month, Universal Studios Hollywood is again offering its buy-a-day, get-the-year free deal. The pass is available to Southern California residents for $67, but doesn't work on 11 selected blackout dates. For $5 more, you can get the All Access Pass, which has no blackout dates.

  • Not to be ignored, Disneyland sent along another press release highlighting its ongoing promotion giving folks free admission on their birthdays. This week, the park honored a woman from Lake Forest, California, who claimed her free ticket on her 100th birthday. Neat story, huh? Oh, but there is more. The grand-grandmother, Frances Taylor, reported that she emigrated from Scotland when she was three, but that she and her mother got bumped from the first ship they'd booked... the Titanic.

    Image courtesy Disneyland

    There's Frances with Mick, Min and the gang, in the PR photo sent out by Disneyland.

  • Comments (2) | Archive Link

    Vote of the week: Which classic attraction should Disney change next?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 13, 2009 at 11:24 AM

    Disney's tinkered with many of its classic attractions over the past decade. This month, Disney debuted its new version of It's a Small World at Disneyland, but in recent years Disney's also tweaked Pirates of the Caribbean, added a pirate overlay to Disneyland's Tom Sawyer Island, and rebuilt that park's Space Mountain. Disney also added holiday overlays for Small World and Haunted Mansion in California, as well.

    Of course, sometimes the changes don't go over so well. Witness the new Tiki room at Walt Disney World or the ho-hum Tarzan's Treehouse in Anaheim.

    Which classic Disney attraction would you like to see refreshed next? That's the question for this week's vote. I selected as candidates classic Disneyland attractions that appear at more than one other Disney theme park and that haven't been changed significantly in years, but that I felt could be tweaked without fundamentally altering the attraction. Let's face it: There's not much else that can be done with the likes of basic flat rides such as Dumbo or the Mad Tea Party.

    Tell us in the comments what, specifically, you'd like to see done to the attraction you selected. But be realistic, please. Replacing Thunder with a B&M Flying Coaster isn't an option here. ;-)

    Comments (19) | Archive Link

    Planning your theme park vacation: Teach your kids the power of budgeting

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 12, 2009 at 12:28 PM

    We've talked before about the importance of saving money in advance for your vacation, and tracking your vacation expenses. People who charge vacation expenses to their credit cards, without giving those charges much though soon find their vacation memories tarred by the months and months of bills that follow.

    Today, I want build on that point by talking this week to the parents on the website.

    Downtime's great, and vacations are wonderful by themselves. But why miss a great opportunity to teach your kids a lesson or two? Vacation planning's a great time to teach your children the importance of creating and sticking to a budget. Your kids don't have to grow up to be careless with money, and forever in debt. But they need to learn that lesson from you, if they are to avoid what could be the catastrophic expense of learning it on their own.

    I'm a big fan of giving kids a set allowance when going to a theme park, with the agreement that the kids will not ask you for any more money, or to buy anything else, once you're on your trip. If you have kids between 10-14, invite them to sit with you as you talk about your vacation plans and set up your vacation budget.

    Why 10-14? Kids younger than that typically don't have the skills or patience for the math involved, and kids older than that typically don't have the patience to sit with their parents for more than a moment for any reason. ;-) So you can leave them out of this initial step.

    Decide on an amount that you can afford to give each child, then tell them when and where they will get it. Let them know that they are responsible for their own money from that moment forward. If they lose it or spend it on something they don't want, there's no getting more from Mom or Dad.

    If the kids want to spend their own money on the trip, too, that's fine. But I don't try to "even it out" by giving more money to a child who has saved less than a brother or sister. That's a lesson, right there, on the value of saving money during the year, and I don't want to undermine that.

    It's ultimately up to you how much of an allowance that you can afford to give. Perhaps it's just a child's regular weekly allowance. Perhaps it's something more. But I do think that this is such a potentially valuable life lesson that you should give your child an allowance on a family vacation, so that they can learn this lesson on budgeting their money.

    I don't put the kids on the hook for their own meals - meal time is family time in my household. But if kids want a snack between meals (if it's not too close to a mealtime), that's coming out of their money. Same for souvenirs, carnival games and pay-for-play rides. I buy them the ticket, their meals... and that's it.

    Of course, simply providing the kids with their own money is just the first half of the lesson. The second comes in the park, the first time your child sees something he or she wants to buy. That's when I remind my kids that they have a limited amount of money, and they ought to spend it well.

    I worked one summer in theme park merchandise, and lemme tell you, I don't know of theme park anywhere that's ever run out of a souvenir in the middle of the day. If there's only one left on the shelf, trust me, there's a warehouse with a 100 of 'em out back. You can take the time to make your way around a lap of the park, to see all that's available before you decide to buy. Plus, remind your kids that if they buy something right away, they are on the hook for carrying it around all day. That fact's usually the one that closes the deal on waiting out an impulse purchase.

    You're looking for two results. First, your kids stop bugging you for souvenirs, snacks and extras. (No whining! Yes!) Second, you'll see your kids stop to think before reflexively clamoring to buy. Ad I've written throughout this series, the key to financial responsibility is to think before you spend.

    Your kids will have a great time on the family's theme park vacation. I hope that this lesson will help them learn how to develop the financial responsibility to have a great time throughout the rest of their lives, as well.

    Comments (4) | Archive Link

    A buyer for Hard Rock Park, after all? *

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 10, 2009 at 7:39 PM

    It looks like Hard Rock Park might be saved from the theme park graveyard, after all.

    A group of investors, calling themselves FPI MB Entertainment, has put down $2.3 million toward a $25 million purchase of the bankrupt and shuttered Myrtle Beach theme park.

    The Sun News in Myrtle Beach this evening quotes court documents saying that the new owners want to reopen the park by Memorial Day.

    Of course, the new owners need to arrange financing to borrow the bulk of the purchase price which, in this economy, is hardly a sure thing. But they've put money down and have a deal with the court, so that's the most encouraging news Hard Rock Park fans (both of you -- okay, kidding...) have heard in months.

    Update: From an FPI Entertainment press release:

    FPI MBE is a group whose members collectively have more than 100 years in the attractions and entertainment industry and are committed to the successful reopening and operation of the Hard Rock Park. Members of FPI MBE include Freestyle Park International, a division of MT Development of Moscow; Roundbox Advisors; and a group of local Myrtle Beach, S.C. area investors. A world-renowned theme park management company has been retained to manage the operations of the park.

    That's all there is. The release said that they are not taking questions until after the sale closes.

    * Update 2: (Robert does some Googling...) Here's some information about Freestyle Park in Moscow. MT's partner on that is Baker Leisure Group, from Orlando. Steve Baker is the former Epcot World Showcase manager who left Disney in 1998 1988 to form his own themed entertainment management company -- whose first client was (wait for it) the Hard Rock Cafe.

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    Lincoln bicentennial a missed opportunity for Disney's theme parks

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 10, 2009 at 3:39 PM

    Tuesday Park Visit: (Well, should have been....) Thursday marks the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln, considered by many America's greatest president. Walt Disney was among those fans of Lincoln; the first audio-animatronic figure Disney had built was of his fellow Illinoisan.

    So what better way to commemorate Lincoln's bicentennial than watching him "come to life" at a Disney theme park, with either Disneyland's Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln or Walt Disney World's Hall of Presidents?

    Well, those would have been nice ways to mark the day... if either of those attractions were open.

    The Hall of Presidents is down for refurbishment until July and Disneyland closed Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln for a 50th anniversary film about the opening of Disneyland, which is still showing in Mr. Lincoln's old theater, three-and-a-half years after Disneyland's 50th anniversary.

    Main Street Opera House at Disneyland

    Not having either of its Lincoln animatronics open for the bicentennial represents are rare missed PR opportunity for Disney. Yes, Disney needs to install a Barack Obama animatronic in Florida. But could you imagine the press that Disney would get if it had debuted the Obama figure not in July but on Thursday, Lincoln's 200th birthday?

    Fate rarely deals more fortunate hands than that - to have, on Lincoln's bicentennial, the debut in the Hall of Presidents of the nation's first black president, who, like Lincoln, was a former member of Congress from Illinois and who also is married to the descendent of slaves freed by Lincoln.

    Ya think maybe that would have gotten some airtime around the country?

    Or Disney could have taken this opportunity to replace the 50th anniversary show at Disneyland, returning Lincoln to the Main Street Opera House on the occasion of his 200th birthday. That would have provided a local angle that Los Angeles-area media would have seized upon to mark the day.

    I'm sure that the extensive rehab of the Hall of Presidents will impress when it opens this summer. But if Disney and his team could build the entire Disneyland park in one year, as the 50th anniversary film reminds us, surely Disney could have prepared its Obama animatronic in three months, to meet this bicentennial deadline? (And left the more extensive refurbishment for later in the spring.)

    C'est la vie. At least there will be one place where folks can watch Mr. Lincoln come to life on his birthday: Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. I've never been, but when I visited with attraction designer Bob Rogers last month, I got to see copies of some of the figures that went into that museum, which Rogers' firm helped design.

    Robert Niles and Abraham Lincoln

    The museum will webcast a reading of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address on Thursday at 9:30 a.m. Central Time (10:30 a.m. Eastern). It'll be a simultaneous reading with people participating from around the country. I hope you'll look in. I just wish that the Lincolns in Orlando and Anaheim could have participated, too.

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    Flash-forward to 2010: Which theme parks will remain alive?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 9, 2009 at 12:07 PM

    We're in a little lull here just before a holiday weekend, then spring break, then the opening of the 2009 season at the regional theme parks. So now's as good a time as any to envision how the 2009 will go.

    Let's focus on the finances. Everyone expects 2009 to be a brutal year for the economy. What do you envision the theme park industry will look like when the year's up, and we enter 2010?

    Give us your predictions for the following questions:

    1. Will overall theme and amusement park attendance in North America be up or down in 2009, compared with 2008?
    2. Will any theme park chains go under in 2009? If so, which ones?
    3. Will any individual theme parks close for good in 2009, like Hard Rock Park did in 2008? If so, which ones?
    4. Which theme park companies will increase their market share in 2009, at the expense of its competition?

    I'll post my predictions this afternoon. 'Til then, let's hear yours.

    Comments (9) | Archive Link

    Behold, the power of Bob Iger

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 7, 2009 at 9:49 PM

    Let's hop back in the Wayback Machine here at Theme Park Insider, back to an ancient time when Pixar was looking to break from Disney, DreamWorks was challenging both Pixar and Disney for kid-movie supremacy, and NBC was hooking up with Universal to take on Disney/ABC.

    And then... Bob Iger replaced Michael Eisner.

    Since then, not only has Pixar come back to Disney, but Pixar managers are now running the animation division at Disney. DreamWorks broke up with Universal, then left for Paramount, only to come back to Universal, and to then break up again.

    So where's DreamWorks heading next?

    Disney, that's where. Yes, Steven Spielberg's company is tipped to be entering a distribution deal with Disney, arch-nemesis of Universal (Spielberg's longtime professional home). If the deal is done, the man who gets a cut of every single admission ticket sold at a Universal theme park would be leaving the distribution of him films to... Disney. Wow.

    (Let's not forget that DreamWorks Animation remains a separate company, thanks to a stock IPO a few years back. So don't go looking for "Shrek" and "Madagascar" characters to be moving into "It's a Small World" alongside the new Disney and Pixar toons.)

    Still, let's give a tip of the hat to Bob Iger and his management team, who have managed to bring Steve Jobs and now, possibly, Steven Spielberg into Walt's house. That Disney and Pixar would get back together seemed unlikely in the last days of the Eisner era. That DreamWorks would end up at Disney would have been inconceivable back then.

    So what could a Disney/DreamWorks marriage mean? Well, Spielberg and Disney are on speaking terms again, might we dare to dream of... "Roger Rabbit 2"?

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    Vote of the week: Rain at a theme park

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 6, 2009 at 12:35 PM

    The rain is pouring today in Los Angeles, but I suspect you'd still see plenty of folks making the drive to Anaheim, spending the day at Disneyland.

    Let's talk today about theme parks in the rain. Typically, rain drives visitors from theme parks like smog from the sky. Folks just don't want to shell out $50+ per person to schlep around in a poncho all day. If you're visiting a park for roller coasters, your day's even worse. Many coasters will not operate in the rain, and on those which do, rain drops become icy bullets, pelting your skin at high speed. Ugh.

    But for other visitors... rain means shorter lines, cooler temperatures and a more relaxed staff, likely to "sure, stay on and ride again. There's no one else waiting."

    So, which is it for you?

    Tell us in the comments your favorite, or worst, experience on a rainy day in a theme park.

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    Disneyland debuts changes to 'It's a Small World' [with video]

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 5, 2009 at 3:20 PM

    There is no theme park attraction more fondly despised than Disney's "It's a Small World."

    It's a Small World

    Hate it. Love it. Love it. Hate it. Riders' reactions to this musical boat ride swing back and forth like Faye Dunaway getting slapped around by Jack Nicholson at the end of "Chinatown."

    For many, "It' a Small World" exemplifies the cliche "too much of a good thing." The first time you hear it, the Shermans Brothers' cheery musical theme delights, full of sunshine and optimism. Mary Blair's vibrant design smartly encases early 20th-century Americana within a context of 1960's mod style, with hundreds of same-sized, same-shaped dolls performing the Shermans' tune.

    A few moments into your first ride, the music and setting refresh your spirit with a deep breath of good cheer and optimism. But by the end of the 10-minute ride, the constant repetition - of dolls and of music - has reduced the experience to theme park minimalism. It's Philip Glass, if he'd been commissioned by your local kindergarten.

    Of course, some people cherish "It's a Small World," and wouldn't change a thing. (And some people adore "Einstein on the Beach," too, but no one's building a theme park for them. At least, not if there is a God.) Unfortunately for those the first folks, the wardens of "Small World," Disney's Imagineers have made changes. And those are debuting to the public tomorrow (not today, as many local media reported).

    Today, I got an advance look, taking a couple ride-throughs the new "It's a Small World," one with with Kim Irvine, who is Director, Concept Design at Walt Disney Imagineering.

    And here it is:

    Didya notice anything different? If you've not been reading any theme park-related websites for the past year or so, here are a few clues:

    Alice and the White Rabbit Aladdin and Jasmine
    The Little Mermaid Sheriff Woody and Bullseye

    Yep, they've put Disney toons in "It's a Small World."

    But what about the ride's theme of children from around the world coming together, in goodness and song and purity and light?

    Get a grip, people. If there's anything that unifies the children of the world today, watching Disney characters may very well be it. Disney's taken care to weave the characters within the context of the ride, gently slipping a few notes from various movie themes into the dominate melody, as welcomed counterpoints to the main theme. For the most part, the characters fit, though I would have preferred a more stylized Flounder (from "The Little Mermaid") and smaller Woody and Jessie dolls in the new American West scene, to better fit within Blair's original look.

    Here's Irvine's response when I asked her about how the changes have affected the ride:

    The addition of the Disney characters adds a competitive element to riding: How many characters did you see? There are many: Alice in Wonderland, the White Rabbit, Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket, Aladdin, Jasmine, Abu, Mulan, Mushu, Ariel, Flounder, Lilo, Stitch, Nemo, Dory, Woody, Jessie.... some obvious, others well camouflaged.

    But doesn't competition undermine the thematic ideal of children coming together? I can hear the wardens nag. Have you ever watched an Olympics? Or seen a mob of third-grade boys crowded around a Wii?

    Disney's changes to Small World might just do the impossible. No, not bring about world peace. These changes might just make people getting off "It's a Small World"... want to turn right around and ride it again.

    Comments (24) | Archive Link

    Told ya so... Busch dumps Dubai plan

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 4, 2009 at 9:39 AM

    Thanks to TPI reader Jason Jackson for submitting this first. Busch Entertainment Corp isn't going to build four theme parks on a Shamu-shaped island in Dubai, after all. Here's the word from Beth Kassab at the Orlando Sentinel.

    I've been telling folks that many of the announced theme park projects for Dubai would turn out to be vaporware, and that even the ones that got started are facing a tough go of it, with falling oil prices and a worldwide credit crunch triggered by still-overpriced U.S. housing.

    Most of the theme park companies lured to Dubai weren't drawn by the market's potential. No, they were brought in by fat royalty and consulting checks written by oil-enriched Dubai-based developers, who were to handle and pay for the construction, and in many cases, the operation of the parks.

    Perhaps some of these projects may yet see opening day. (I'm told that Universal's is the closest to becoming reality.) Even the Busch deal might be put back on the table at some point, according to Kassab.

    But the economics of these projects are tough. To get them built, the developers need expensive oil to fund the construction and licensing. But to attract the tourists that would keep the parks alive and profitable, the operators need cheap oil, to keep airfares low. Anyone see a problem there?

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    A (last?) look at Universal Hollywood's Backdraft and Special Effects Stages

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 3, 2009 at 9:00 PM

    Tuesday Park Visit: It was a gorgeous day today in sunny Southern California. Perfect for a visit to Universal Studios Hollywood...

    Universal Studios Hollywood

    ...where construction continues on "Project Phoenix," rebuilding sets and attractions lost in last year's backlot fire.

    Universal Studios' back lot

    But that's not what brought me to Los Angeles' most popular movie studio today. I came to mark a different change at the theme park: the upcoming closure of the Backdraft and Special Effects Stages attractions, to make room for the park's planned Transformers ride.

    This is the last season for those two attractions, so I thought I'd spend a Tuesday Park Visit to give them one last look. First, Backdraft:

    Backdraft show at Universal Hollywood

    Based on the 1991 Ron Howard movie, this attraction isn't grabbing anyone looking for Hollywood's latest trends and special effects. Backdraft leads visitors through three set stages, the first two offering filmed montages from the movie and its production. Neither goes into any specific detail on how Howard's crew created the fire effects, though the montages do pay deserved tribute to both the crew and the real-life firefighters who inspired the movie.

    It's the third set we all came to see; a life-sized reproduction of the film's climatic scene, complete with real-life pyro effects, hot enough to make folks in the first row lean back and clutch their cameras, lest Backdraft's flames singe their newly-bought gadgets from a certain electronic shop's "going out of business" sale.

    Flames erupt at the Backdraft show

    It's not that bad, really - just a bit surprising to visitors not used to having an attraction trigger their sense of touch.

    More pyro special effects

    I won't miss Backdraft when it's gone. The movie it's based on is not a classic - it's just ancient - and the attraction doesn't provide any fresh insight into filmmaking. Basically, all you are left with is pyro, and that's just not enough to engage me for more than one (hopefully, short-wait) visit. Give me a story that draws me into such action, instead.

    After this flame out, it's a quick walk over to Special Effects Stages, where the show was starting just as we let out. (Point to Universal for good show scheduling.)

    Like Backdraft, Special Effects Stages moves us through three sets, each with a filmed montage, as well as audience volunteers/draftees dragged on stage as props for the two live hosts. We're learning about the technical side of movie-making here, specifically, about green screen photography, make-up and sound effects.

    On the first set, two audience volunteers act out a scene from "The Mummy," which is overlaid with CGI effects.

    Volunteers at the Special Effects Stages

    Before, of course, something goes terribly wrong, and the male volunteer ends of a skeletal crisp.

    There's no time for mourning (indeed, the volunteers' friends shrugged when asked about their pal); we're off to the next stage for a make-up demonstration, where a host hacks through a volunteer's arm, gushing studio blood. We learn about robotic effects, too, and a child is hooked up with a remote-control suit to manipulate "Fluffy" the monster.


    The boy does a fine job, every goes "awwww" and claps, and then... something goes terribly wrong and the blood-thristy monster springs from his perch to chase the beleaguered (and, presumably, tasty) host from the room.

    There's no time for mourning; we're off to the next stage, where audience volunteers/conscripts are quickly put into place to serve as Foley artists demonstrating the creation of studio sound effects.

    The Foley stage

    Another small boy does fine with his task, but a grown-up volunteer botches his line, earning him a banishment to side recording studio where we see the volunteer/impending victim only in profile. Sure enough, something goes terribly wrong; the monster from the previous scene emerges and consumes his dessert.

    There's no time for mourning, though, as our volunteer and the host return unharmed to the stage and it's time to leave.

    Universal's spent some time and money keeping Special Effects Stages fresh through the years, and it shows. The hosts handled their jobs gracefully, and with much humor and enthusiasm, and, frankly, I will miss this show when it's gone.

    But not too much. One moment sticks with me. As the co-host put the audience volunteers through their tasks in the sound studio, he tossed off a remark that all real movie and TV sound effects these days are added digitally. So, does that mean the only working Foley stages anymore are in theme-park demonstrations? The movies referenced and the hosts' patter may be fresh, but the movie-making techniques explored in Special Effects Stages sometimes aren't.

    Along with the Studio Tour, this should be one of the core attractions in a movie studio theme park. Here's hoping that Universal finds space for a new Special Effects Stages elsewhere in the park, one set in a computer studio that really shows us how the latest in CGI and computer sound effects makes today's movies magic.

    In the meantime, though, if you make it to USH before fall, give this version of the show one last shot. And if you can't? Well, life goes on.

    There's no time for mourning, you know.

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    Disney attendance down, but future bookings up, thanks to discount deal

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 3, 2009 at 8:47 PM

    Disney reported today that attendance was down - by 5 percent - at its U.S. theme parks in the first quarter of its fiscal year (Oct.- Dec.) That's the bad news. The good news (for Disney, if not for fans looking for short lines in the parks) is that attendance is up this month over last year at the the Disney parks, as are advance bookings through June.

    Disney's extending its "buy four nights, get three free" promotion at Walt Disney World, allowing trips to be booked with the offer until March 29, good for travel dates through Aug. 15. The company credited the deal, and its promotion, with the relatively strong showing at the parks.

    The bottom line across the company, however, is carnage, with a 32% drop in first-quarter net income. The parks out-preformed the rest of the company, though... only dropping 24% in net income during the first quarter.

    The message for theme parks in 2009 is clear: Discount or die, folks.

    Comments (10) | Archive Link

    Busch antes up: SeaWorld Orlando offers 'buy three nights, get two free' deal

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 2, 2009 at 10:45 AM

    Disney's in. So's Universal. Now Busch is offering an aggressive discount in an attempt to draw visitors to Orlando, despite the lousy economy.

    Here's the deal from SeaWorld: Buy a 3-night/3-day package and get 2 additional nights free, including unlimited admission to your choice of SeaWorld and Aquatica or SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Africa (in Tampa) during your stay.

    Packages are available through June 26, 2009 and start at $561 for a family of four. The deal must be booked before March 31.

    Update: You know I love online votes. So let's put this one to a vote:

    To review, Disney and Universal are offering buy four hotel nights, get three free (though lesser discounts are available for shorter stays at Universal), and SeaWorld's got buy 3, get 2. At Disney and SeaWorld you buy the tickets for four- or three-day theme park tickets to get the extra days free; Universal you get seven days for the price of two on the park ticket (available with or without the hotel deal).

    Tell us in the comments if you've booked any of these deals, and what cliched it for you. If not, tell us what more the parks need to do to entice you to book a trip.

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    Universal Orlando giving away 300,000 free 7-day tickets*

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 1, 2009 at 4:15 PM

    Well, that was a heckuva deal.

    If the Super Bowl hasn't started by the time you read this, you might still have a chance to be one of the first 100,000 people to go to http://www.universalheroes.com/ and enter to get a free seven-day ticket to Universal Orlando.

    That was the deal the resort offered in its Super Bowl commercial, which aired just before the National Anthem at the game.

    Post if you got 'em, and when you submitted. I put my entry in about within a minute. No word yet. What's the over/under on when they run out?

    * Update: Universal's also giving away 28 trips for four to Universal Orlando, in addition to the free 100,000 tickets. The trips include airfare, the seven-day ticket, and three nights' hotel. (Three nights' hotel with a seven-day ticket? Huh?) You can still enter for the free trips even if the 100K tix are gone.

    Update 2: Just showed it again: 8:23 pm ET.

    Update 3: Universal just sent out its press release. Confirms that the commercial ran three times, with 100K tix given after each. Total value of 300K free tix and 28 trips, according to Universal Orlando? $35 million.

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    Keep reading: January 2009 Archive

    Stories from a Theme Park Insider

    Stories from a Theme Park Insider

    What's it like to work in a theme park? Stories from a Theme Park Insider takes you inside the famous tunnels and backstage at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom for a look at how theme parks really work, sharing the funny moments and embarrassments that can happen when your job is someone else's vacation.
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