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April 2009

Manta soft opening starts Tues., May 5*

By Robert Niles
Published: April 30, 2009 at 1:34 PM
SeaWorld Orlando just announced that its new B&M Flying coaster Manta will "soft open" to the public on Tuesday, May 5, at noon.

Since I can't be there for the opening, I am asking all Orlando-area Theme Park Insider readers, as well as visitors in town for the day, to submit your write-ups and reviews as soon as you ride. You can post to the Blog Flume here and post photos to our Facebook page.

* Update: SeaWorld just released this POV video:

* Update 2: You can win a free on-ride photo or a front-of-the-line pass on the SeaWorld website.

Comments (26) | Archive Link

Theme park deals, discounts and promo codes for May 2009

By Robert Niles
Published: April 30, 2009 at 1:26 PM
If readers are interested, I'll plan to post on the final Thursday of each month the best current discounts that I've found on tickets to top theme parks. Feel free to post any additional discounts or promo codes that you know of, in the comments. (I'll update this listing as you post better deals.)

Universal Orlando
The best deals for Universal appear to be on the resort's own website: http://www.universalorlando.com/tickets/hot-deals.html.

  • $99 7-day, 2-park ticket
  • Buy 3 nights hotel, get 2 more nights free
  • Layoff protection plan; deposits refunded if you lose your job before your trip.

    Walt Disney World
    Check Disney's website at http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/special-offers/ for current deals. Now featuring free Disney Dining Plan on 5-night, 6-day packages, valid for stays most nights Aug. 16 to Oct. 3.

    Free admission on your birthday, too.

    SeaWorld
    SeaWorld Orlando offers adult tickets at the kids' price, $64.95, with a second day free on its website.

    AAA offers one-day tickets for $58.50 (adult) and $49.50 (kids) to SeaWorld San Diego. (Here's the page for AAA discounts to all Busch-owned theme parks.) The current Southern California AAA magazine promoted two Fun Cards for $119 and kids at half price using the promo code SWCAAASmr09, but that code had not yet been actived on the SeaWorld website when I tried it.

    Busch Gardens
    If you are in AAA, you can get Busch Gardens Williamsburg tickets for $51.95 (adult) and $41.95 (kids) using the Busch AAA link.

    At Busch Gardens Tampa, the BGT website offers adults at kids price, $59.95, with a second day free.

    Six Flags
    Several Six Flags parks are offering double-digit discounts via the Six Flags website:

  • $24.99 to Six Flags Magic Mountain
  • $34.99 to Six Flags Great America
  • $39.99 to Six Flags Great Adventure

    In addition, if you use the promo code WOMANSDAY you can buy a free kids' ticket with full-price adult ticket purchase.

    Disneyland
    The 2fer deal continues for local residents in May, replaced with the $99 three-day park-hopper in June. Tickets available online and at local groceries.

    For visitors, there's two days free when you buy three.

    Free admission on your birthday, too.

    Universal Studios Hollywood
    AAA offers a one-day ticket for $54.99 and the Universal website offers a two-day ticket for $67.

    Legoland California
    You can get one-day tickets via the Legoland website for $53 (adults) and $48 (kids) using promo codes from RetailMeNot.

    Comments (2) | Archive Link

  • Turn on, sneak in, and get kicked out at SeaWorld Orlando

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 29, 2009 at 12:04 PM
    Kudos to the security team at SeaWorld Orlando for yesterday taking out someone who ought not be anywhere near a theme park.

    And kudos as well to the Orange County, Florida sheriff's deputy who prepared a "stunning" report about the incident. Here's the Sentinel's summary.

    Go read it. I'm at a loss to describe the weirdness of which some people are capable. I am, however, disappointed that Shamu didn't Tweet this.

    Comments (12) | Archive Link

    Theme parks face impact from potential epidemic

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 28, 2009 at 2:08 PM
    Turn on the cable news stations and it's all swine flu, all the time. The European Union is advising Europeans against travel to areas of Mexico and the United States affected, including Southern California. (Though, from a theme park perspective, relatively few Europeans visit SoCal's theme parks, opting for the Orlando-area parks such as Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando instead.)

    Six Flags has closed indoor rides and shows at its Six Flags Mexico theme park in Mexico City, as much of that metropolis closes down to prevent the spread of the virus.

    But the big impact to the theme park industry would be the virus emerging in Orlando. And authorities there are awaiting test results on a possible case. A local TV station reported that a tourists from Mexico visiting Walt Disney World was infected. But Florida Hospital officials denied that report, saying that they were awaiting test results and that the case might be one of "normal" flu.

    Pardon me for questioning the hype, but I wonder why everyone is getting so worked up about a few dozen cases of "swine" flu, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 99 people, on average, die from the flu in the United States a day. It's not like dozens of deaths from the flu is anything new. This is a nasty illness, well worthy of respect and utmost prevention at all times, not just when cable TV talking heads obsess over it.

    Now, I shall go wash my hands.

    Update (4/30): Never mind. This strain appears less severe that the "normal" flu.

    Comments (32) | Archive Link

    Silver Dollar City - Trip Report and Review

    By James Rao
    Published: April 28, 2009 at 11:39 AM
    Tuesday Park Visit: [Editor's note: TPI reader James Rao submitted such a great report from his visit to Branson's Silver Dollar City that I'm turning the Tuesday Park Visit report over to him this week. Take it away, James!]

    Principals – Me (40-ish), wife (40-ish), kids (54", 50", and 44").

    In an effort to support the idea of the "staycation", and to preserve what little savings I currently have, it was decided that all of our family's amusement park trips this year would be local. To that end, we purchased season passes to our local iron ride park, Kansas City's Worlds of Fun, and to our local theme park, Silver Dollar City (SDC), in Branson, Missouri. We made our first trip to SDC on April 23 & 24. The following post is part review and part report from that trip.

    SDC is part of the Herschend Family Entertainment Corporation and is located in Branson, Missouri, about 3.5 hours from my house. If you have ever been to Dollywood (also a Herschend park), you have a pretty good idea of what it is like at SDC. The park is meticulously maintained, well-themed, and filled to the brim with "cast members" playing their part in an attempt to provide as immersive of a theme park experience as you can get west of Florida, or east of California.

    The park is entirely family-oriented, with a slight contemporary Christian-bias, and is neck deep in country music and country sensibilities. In a way, it is as if the Frontierland at the Magic Kingdom was expanded into a theme park unto itself. SDC's history can be traced all the way back to the 1500s, when Native Americans discovered (what eventually became) the Marvel Cave directly beneath where the park now resides. By the late 1940s, Marvel Cave was drawing over 5,000 visitors a year. In the late 40s, the Herschends bought Marvel Cave and added a custom-designed train to carry folks back to the surface and were further inspired to create an authentic replica of an old time Ozark Mountain community. By the end of 1960, Silver Dollar City was born.

    Today, Silver Dollar City is still primarily focused on its craft exhibits, shows, and hour long tours through the landmark Marvel Cave (which was being refurbed during our visit and will have to wait until we return next month), but also has added themed attractions in the form of thrill rides to widen their customer base. Those thrill rides include a few outstanding roller coasters.

    ThuNderaTion (TNT), is one of Arrow Dynamics' largest and fastest mine train coasters, with a 3,000-foot-long course and a top speed of almost 50 miles per hour. The coaster makes excellent use of SDC's sloping terrain, and offers unique seating in that some cars face forward while other face backwards. With very low height requirements on the ride, it is very much a family coaster, but still manages to pack quite a thrill for those less jaded riders.

    The park's premier coaster, IMHO, is Powderkeg, an S&S Power launched coaster that hits speeds of 50+ mph in 2.8 seconds before catapulting riders on a twisting, hill-laden track that provides a tremendous sense of flying. Again, low height requirements allow this thriller to be experienced by almost all ages, even some little kids who probably would have been better off on ThuNderaTion. Of all the rides we toured, this one generally had the longest waits, as the launch mechanism takes a few seconds to load, then another 10 seconds to fired ("You're too close to that nitro!"). Still, it is well-worth the wait, and would be a excellent ride in any park.

    The park's final coaster is Wildfire and it is SDC's most modern coaster offering. Built by Bolliger & Mabillard, Wildfire is the tallest and fastest ride at SDC. It features five inversions including an Immelmann loop, a standard loop, a cobra roll, and a corkscrew. The most striking aspect of the ride is how it just sits on the outskirts of the park on a hill, making all the highs seem higher, and the drops seem steeper. With four-across seating, only the front row of the coaster had much of a wait.

    In addition to those coasters, Fire-in-the-Hole is an excellent dark ride that uses a coaster train to propel riders slowly past various scenes of stalwart firemen battling a blaze set by a group of vigilantes known as the Baldknobbers. It is somewhat like Pirates of the Caribbean, although the set pieces are not animatronics and are pretty dated. But overall the experience is quite fun. Plus a few surprise dips and splash down serve to provide some minor, but welcome thrills. We rode this one several times, and I enjoyed it more once I got past the notion that it was a standard indoor coaster, when in fact it is truly a slow moving dark ride, similar to Blazing Fury at Dollywood.

    Lost River of the Ozarks is a decently themed white water raft ride that includes a tour through a misty cave, as well as some nifty and speedy rapids. We rode this once with a completely rain coated cast member, and got pretty wet. I am happy to report that this white water ride bucks the trend a bit and actually tries to get you wet due to the action of the raft in the rapids, not because someone turns on the shower at the end with some cheap waterfall effect.

    The Flooded Mine is a Buzz Lightyear-style shooter that is themed to a prisoner uprising in a coal mine that has sprung a watery leak. There was no line for this ride on either day we attended, and in fact we rode it several times in a row without getting out of our boat. We enjoyed the experience quite a bit, and if you take the time to consider the attraction fully, you will find there is a depth of theming at work here that is truly Disney-on-a-budget (intended as a compliment), not just some off-the-shelf effects flown in from Sally Corp.

    American Plunge is a log flume ride that traverses a somewhat unique pitch black ride segment before emerging to a lift hill and subsequent dive. The end result offers a fun experience with a steeper drop and more thrills than most rides of this type. While not anywhere up to the level of a Splash Mountain or Ripsaw Falls, this flume ride is a bit better than average.

    The Giant Swing is another S&S Power attraction, this one being a Screaming Swing like the Skyhawk at Cedar Point. Set inside a huge red barn that is totally within the theme of the park, this intense midway ride is a whole lotta fun. Granted I wouldn't want to wait in a long line to experience it, but on a less crowded day when you can ride several times in a row with minimal waiting, it is a very fun attraction.

    Electro Spin is a Zamperela Disk-O flat ride, similar to the Dizzy Disk at Dollywood. It features a half-pipe of coaster track with a disk that holds up to 40 riders. The disk spins and the ride moves back and forth in the half-pipe making for a fairly intense spinner. Electro Spin is yet another midway ride that is a lot of fun when faced with a short wait, and still fairly unique (not running rampant like an octopus, scrambler, or roundup attraction). We rode this flat ride several times, usually without any wait.

    Speaking of the Electro Spin, it is set in a segment of the park exclusively devoted to midway spinners and their ilk. This area, called the Grand Exposition is very well decorated, and styled to remind you of that era when inventions were new, exciting, and very odd looking! As most of you know I am not a huge fan of midway experiences, however SDC does a great job of providing thrills for all tastes in this area. Little kids have their share of lame/tame spinners as well as a baby coaster (same model as the kiddie coaster at Holiday World), thrill seekers have a pendulum ride, tea cups, and the previously mentioned Electro Spin, and there is a breezy and relaxed wave swinger for all ages (it is like the version at Busch Gardens Williamsburg in that it has some double seats so even the shorter kids can participate with their parents).

    One other section of the park that should be mentioned is a huge play area in the back of the park called Geyser Gulch/Splash Harbor. Combined, this area provides hours of entertainment for both the young and not-too-old. Geyser Gulch is the drier part of the area, with a huge area to climb and shoot foam balls, as well as an area for shooting clever water targets.

    Move on to Splash Harbor, and prepare to get soaked! Basically set up to be a water war zone, participants fire water cannons at each other from competing platforms, drenching everyone who plays. Do not venture into Splash Harbor if you want to stay dry, as those with water guns seem to delight in finding curious folks who wander into the area and blasting them into oblivion. We spent about an hour in this area until we were fully soaked. From here we proceeded on to the water rides and then back to the hotel for a change of clothes.

    It was not uncommon to find longer lines at the park's shows than at the roller coasters. During our trip, there were two shows we were interested in watching: Feet of Fire (live Irish music, step dancers, symbolic fire dancing, and some Irish folklore thrown in between musical numbers) and the Zhejiang Acrobats (featuring contortion artists, plate spinning, an aerialist duet, and stick fighting). There were three showtimes for each show and they were all packed, with lines often weaving like snakes from the back of the park to the front. I was amazed by the amount of people waiting hours just to see a 30 minute show. I can't imagine how crowded it must get on the weekends! We did manage to see both shows, but it took some doing, and our seats were not that great. The Feet of Fire show was okay, not as good as the similarly themed show at Busch Gardens Williamsburg, Emerald Beat, however, the Zhejiang Acrobats show was amazing. Beautiful to watch and stunning to witness, I wished I had stood in line longer or bought a Show Lover's Pass in order to obtain better seats. Outstanding. There are other shows throughout the park, as, again, this is Branson, and a large population of park goers are not interested in rides at all, just shows, crafts, shopping, and food.

    Ahhh, the food. Would that all theme parks put this much effort into their food stuffs! Not that everything prepared at SDC is perfect, but the overwhelming majority of hearty fare is unique and delicious. The mainstays of the park are the hearty helpings of skillet meals. These satisfying meals are cooked in a large cast iron skillet perfectly matching the overall theme of the park.

    We ate at the Lumbercamp Falls skillet and had both the Skillet Sausage Medley (Smoked Sausage Slices, Roasted Redskin Potatoes, Red and Green Peppers, Onions & Sweet Corn) and the Fajita Skillet (Strips of Fajita Chicken, Green Peppers and Onions wrapped in a Tortilla, topped with Shredded Cheese, Salsa and Sour Cream on the side). Both were delicious, with the Fajita Skillet being my favorite as it was not nearly as heavy on a hot spring day. Also at the Lumbercamp two of my kids ate foot long corn dogs which were very good, similar to, but larger than, the corn dogs you can buy at your typical Sonic Drive-in. We also shared a Lumberjack Stack of Chips, which are thinly sliced potato chips fried on site while you watch. A variety of seasonings are available, but I would recommend salt and lots of black pepper. Yum. The seating was covered and outdoors. With a nice waterfall in the background, plenty of shade, and a slight breeze, the outdoor seating was a delight. On a hot summer day, I would probably long for some A/C.

    For another meal we ate at the Wagon Works Grill, which also offers covered seating, outdoors – no A/C. But again, on a cool spring day, it was perfect. Here we ordered a couple of Trail Boss Cheeseburgers and some chicken tenders for the kids, along with French fries. The burgers were charred, but not overcooked, and delicious. They did not taste at all like they had been sitting in a warmer for hours on end. The chicken tenders were excellent, with thick, rich tasting breading, and juicy chicken. The fries were fresh and very good.

    For our final meal at the park, we ate in the Frisco Barn where an assortment of "Tastes of the World" were being offered to go along with the World Festival theme that was taking place. My kids wanted Chinese food, and it was awful. Not even as good as what you can expect from the Panda Express at the mall – and that's not very good either! My wife and I split the Calzone which was huge and pretty good. The red sauce, sadly, was pure Chef Boyardee, but the breading was excellent, and probably made fresh in the park. However, it is probably best to stick with the meatier, heartier, down-home foods at SDC, as our ethnic experience was a bit disappointing.

    We also bought and split a couple breakfast items from Eva & Delilah's Bakery where excellent items are made fresh daily. Here we shared a bacon, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwich, as well as a sausage and cheese roll. Both were delicious. On another occasion we shared a huge chocolate chip cookie which was also very good. The bakery will probably be your first and last stop in the park, as it is situated near the park entrance.

    Overall, the food was very good, and like Disney, something you include in your park touring plan when traveling to SDC. In the future we are looking forward to trying several other eateries, including the Lucky Silver Mine Buffet (indoors and underground BBQ establishment), Hatfield's Tater Patch (them skillet taters look awesome), and Aunt Polly's Fried Chicken. Not to mention we neglected to get a Funnel Cake, despite the fact that they looked simply amazing. We will rectify that mistake when we revisit in May.

    SDC is not perfect. It could use a few more coasters, and themed experiences, as well as longer hours, even in the off-season. However, I would rate the park as outstanding and rank it somewhere between Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Holiday World. If you get a chance, I definitely recommend a visit.

    Comments (16) | Archive Link

    New construction photos of Universal Studios Florida's Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit coaster

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 27, 2009 at 3:53 PM
    With last week's news that Universal Studios Florida was pushing back the debut of its new roller coaster, Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit, I wondered how much work Universal still had to do. Well, Theme Park Insider reader Gareth H must have read my mind, because this afternoon he sent along these photos he snapped as he drove in to Universal.

    Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit track
    Track arriving at Universal.

    Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit track
    A crane lifts the main drop track into place.

    Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit track
    A view of the station

    Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit track
    A view from track level

    (From the look of these, I'm thinking late June, early July. Anyone else want to take a guess?)

    Thanks for the pics, Gareth.

    Comments (26) | Archive Link

    First photos of Disney World's Sanaa restaurant

    By Scott Joseph
    Published: April 27, 2009 at 3:51 PM
    Just posted a couple of first photos of Sanaa, the India-inspired African restaurant set to open May 1 along with Kidani Village at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge. Quite a colorful place from the looks of it.

    Comments (2) | Archive Link

    Theme park cast member stories: When nature calls....

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 26, 2009 at 10:53 PM
    This weekend, many of my former co-workers from Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom West Attractions held a reunion in Florida. (Magic Kingdom West attractions are the rides and shows in Adventureland, Frontierland and Liberty Square, including Jungle Cruise, Pirates of the Caribbean, Big Thunder Mountain and Haunted Mansion, among many others.)

    Living on the "other" coast, near Los Angeles, I wasn't able to make the party, though I am enjoying the many pictures posted to Facebook. There was much reminiscing, I'm told, about "101"s, Disney's code for an attraction out of order. In that spirit, I thought I'd offer up a downtime story of mine own here this week. Let's see what other stories mine might elicit. ;-)

    The first attraction I worked when I started in MK West was the Country Bear Jamboree, or, as Disney attraction cast members know it, "Bear Band."

    Bear Band, in 1990

    Bear Band required very little skill to operate, which is why it was a popular first attraction for new hires. There were three positions in the rotation when I worked there:

  • Greeter: Opened and close queue loops to keep the line off the street. Keep the strollers straight. This position was dropped when the show had no line. Greeter was usually a good position in which to flirt with girls (or guys, depending upon your gender and sexual orientation). But Bear Band's ridiculously cheesy costumes made that impossible here. Seriously, I think that shirt/pants combo was once a "Garanimal." (Google it, post Gen-Xers.)
  • Turnstiles: Close the turnstiles when the preshow area fills. Give the preshow spiel. Open the doors to the theater. Close the doors when the preshow area is empty. Reopen the turnstiles. Repeat.
  • Theater: Direct everyone to "please slide all the way down to the end of the row, moving down to the last available space." Hit the button to start the show. Give the show spiel. After the show, spiel everyone out. Repeat.

    Actually, there was a fourth position, making change at the Shooting Gallery, but every time we could, we froze some loner there so we wouldn't have to deal with people complaining about the aim on those lame infrared "rifles."

    Theater was fun, the first dozen or so times you saw the show. By the time you'd seen the "Country Bear Vacation Howdown" for the 500th time, the 18-minute show cycle became a Kafkaesque experience. Your mind was forced to wander, simply to remain sane: How many times this show will people take flash pictures, despite my telling them not to do so? Should I teach myself French? If I kill myself now, will I simply reawaken when the next show begins? Do you think I can get a date with Andie MacDowell?

    Ultimately, you lived for the downtimes. You cherished any malfunction that broke the monotony, and introduced some variance into the shift. (That, or Thunder having a no-show and calling you over there to cover.)

    My favorite? Well, you need to know that Bear Band is a totally mechanical show, with hydraulics pushing, twisting, turning, raising and lowering each of the bears. The "host," Henry, appears on three turntables, sharing the each space with another character, on the other side of the turntable. For his first appearance in the show, Henry appears stage left, seated alone, wearing a green "Camp Grizzly" t-shirt and a pair of khaki shorts.

    Henry bends forward at the waist when he laughs, controlled by a hydraulic line that runs up his core. And this day, that line sprung a leak, spewing hydraulic fluid at a point just below the bear's waist.

    Right through his khaki shorts.

    That's right, Henry was wetting himself.

    Being a good, show-conscious Disney cast member, I threw the switch to stop the show, apologized to the crowd and asked them to exit the theater. Not that anyone heard me over the laughter from the audience. It took me a good five minutes to break up the queue of people who'd gathered in front of Henry's turntable, to get their photo taken with the incontinent bear.

    After I'd cleared the theater and we'd called maintenance to repair the show, there was the usual downtime paperwork to be done. And neither my lead nor I could resist the temptation, in the section where we were to describe the reason for the downtime, to write:

    "Henry peed his pants."

    Former theme park employees, please share your silliest downtime stories, in the comments.

    For more stories about working at Walt Disney World, please visit our "Stories from a Theme Park Insider" page!

    Comments (6) | Archive Link

  • Disneyland one-ups the 2fer with 3-Day Summer Fun Pass

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 24, 2009 at 2:16 PM
    In a sign how hard the economy is hitting the theme park industry, Disney is discounting tickets for the summer high summer at Disneyland.

    For several years, Disney's offered a "2fer" deal in the spring, where local residents can buy a one-day, one-park ticket to either Disneyland or California Adventure and get a free one-day ticket to the other park to be used on another day within the month.

    That deal ends in May. But this year, starting June 1, locals also can buy a three-day park-hopper for $99. You have to use the first day between June 1 and August 23, 2009, then you have 45 days after the first day you use to use the other two days. July 4 is blacked out.

    Archive Link

    Opening menus finalized for Sanaa at Disney's Animal Kingdom

    By Scott Joseph
    Published: April 24, 2009 at 2:15 PM
    Just got a look at the final menus for the launch of Sanaa, the not-an-Indian restaurant at the also-new Kidani Village at Disney's Animal Kingdom. Lunch, dinner, dessert, wine and kid's menus posted at scottjosephorlando.com.

    Comments (3) | Archive Link

    Vote the week: Favorite theme park snack?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 24, 2009 at 7:58 AM
    Thanks to TPI kids Natalie and Brian for this week's vote. Jealous over mom and dad's trip to Disneyland this week, they started listing some of the "theme park" food they would like have to eat. Right now, preferably.

    And so, Dad gets his vote. What is your favorite snack at a theme park? We're staying away from snacks that can be a meal, such as turkey legs and pizza. Also, beverages are out, so no answering "beer." (You know who you are.)

    The categories are a bit broad, too. Ice cream can include everything from Dippin' Dots to Mickey-head bars. Vote for whichever option is closest to your favorite item.

    And tell us about your favorite theme park snacks, in the comments, please. Have a great weekend!

    Comments (32) | Archive Link

    Planning your theme park vacation: More useful Web links for saving money

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 23, 2009 at 9:03 PM
    My former LA Times colleague Liz Pulliam Weston, who now writes for MSN Money, has published a great list of The 100 most useful Web sites, upon which she's included Theme Park Insider. Many of the other 99 are well worth checking out, too.

    I've been writing about what you can do to save money on your theme park vacation and many of the sites that Liz lists can help with that, as well as getting everything else in your household's budget in order.

    Some of the most valuable sites that she links offer tips and advice on saving and investing, as well as finding the best quality for lowest price when shopping for just about anything.

    But there are several sites devoted to coupons and travel deals, too.

    Slick Deals has an awful interface, but if you go straight to the search box, you can find some good discounts on theme parks, including Six Flags and Busch Gardens.

    I've written before about RetailMeNot, which allows you to search for online discount codes, and Liz recommends the site as well. Also, Liz suggests CouponCode.com, which includes a nice page of online travel discounts.

    In addition to Theme Park Insider, Liz recommends MouseSavers, which has a nice page on Disneyland discounts. (I didn't like their Disney World advice as much.)

    If you'll be traveling by air this year to your favorite park, don't forget to check both FareCast and Seat Guru before booking your flight. FareCast offers predictions on whether airfares on a given route will change in the next few weeks, given historic data, and SeatGuru helps you find the best seat locations on any model of airplane.

    Finally, if you are a total cheapskate, and simply looking for a free place to crash, you're covered, too. Try CouchSurfing.com.

    Feel free to submit other favorite money saving links, in the comments.

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    An insider's Q&A with 'Men in Black Alien Attack' creative director Dave Cobb

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 22, 2009 at 9:19 PM
    Universal Studios Florida's Men in Black Alien Attack has set the standard for theme park shoot-'em-up dark rides since its debut in 2000. It deservedly remains a favorite of many Theme Park Insider readers, so when MIB Creative Director Dave Cobb agreed to answer your questions about the ride, I wasn't surprised that so many of you responded.

    I picked what I thought were the top 10 questions and forwarded them to Dave, whose responses you'll find below. A big thanks to Dave!


    Dave Cobb and friend. Photo courtesy Dave Cobb.

    Q: What is the design process like for creating a theme park ride? How much time is spent on just drawing up the idea? How many people are working throughout the project (design phase thru completion)? Are you given strict guidelines (besides money and space) as to how and what the ride will be?

    A: Wow, that's four questions in one. I could easily spend hours answering just *one* of those, LOL.

    Most theme park projects start out with a few business-related requirements in mind -- usually a specific audience demographic, and a budget, and sometimes a piece of land. Sometimes there might be a character, or movie, or other intellectual property attached at the start. Beyond that, it's all "blue-sky" -- we usually kick things off with a big group brainstorming session called a "charette" (Google it). After that, the early concept phase can sometimes be quick, or can go on for a long time, depending on the complexity of the project. Very few companies have the luxury of languishing in concept design for a long time -- it's nice work if you can get it, but I also find that there is tremendous creativity to be found in constraint. Any artist will tell you that the most daunting thing is a totally blank canvas -- it's nice to have a bit of challenge spelled out for you early in the process. I've found that all of my most rewarding projects start with some sort of defined challenge or set of requirements. With MIB, we had not only a business plan laid out for us, but also a strict schedule. We actually went from day-one, nothing-on-paper concept to opening day in just about twenty-eight months -- which is pretty quick, but not unheard of.

    As far as the number of people that worked on MIB, it’s hard to answer. The immediate team -- meaning the Universal employees who created, designed, and managed the project -- was only about fifty or seventy-five people. However, a big project usually involves dozens of other vendor companies -- architects, construction, scenic fabricators, special effects, lighting, audio, show control, ride systems -- and each of those companies have staff of their own. Which means, it’s probably well into the hundreds, if not near a thousand or more.

    It's most definitely a team effort -- no one person "designs" any theme park ride. It's a lot like movie production, in that respect -- all sorts of talents and disciplines that come together to create something that entertains an audience. Only we build it permanently.

    Q: I'm curious to know the thought process behind the creation of the ride. Was it always meant to be a shooter, or were other options considered, such as maybe a roller coaster or some sort of 3D attraction? Was it always going to be MIB? Did they start with that brand to begin with?

    A: There were briefly some other concepts thrown around (I vaguely remember an indoor coaster) but it was pretty clear from the beginning that a shooter was the way to go. I mean, c'mon, have you *seen* the movie? :) The minute we saw the scene in the weapons room with all the awesome alien zappers, we were hooked on the idea.

    Where MIB ended up was actually Universal Florida's largest empty expansion area, so there were at least a dozen alternate ideas for that *location* over the years -- for instance, before IOA was created, it was an early option for the Florida version of "Jurassic Park: The Ride". However, that's just the nature of theme park development and expansion, and those ideas came about long before MIB was even a movie, and years before we came up with the MIB attraction -- which was never going to be anything other than MIB.

    Another interesting tidbit: from the start, we knew which ride vehicle we were going to use. Over at IOA, they were in the middle of production on "The Cat In The Hat", and Universal was very pleased with the performance and reliability of that vehicle and its spinning motion base. So, we decided very early on that we'd adapt it for MIB.

    Q: I want to know what was planned for the ride that never actually made it into the final design. Cool things we wish we could've seen.

    A: Surprisingly, not a lot. Given our accelerated schedule, we just didn't have time to waste... but, there were a few things.

    First, there was the issue of the "little red button" -- in the movie, it makes the MIB sedan launch into super-speed. In our original concept, we tried to put a "super-speed tunnel" about halfway through the ride, through a combination of wind, audio, and projection effects. In fact, it was the transition from the "Central Park" scene into "Times Square" -- which is currently the "Alien Scanning" scene where you see the opposing car filled with aliens (if you look closely, the entrance to that scene is under a tunnel archway, similar to the "red button" scene in the movie). We realized pretty early on that our relatively slow-moving vehicle would never truly give the sense of massive speed, and a convincing projection-tunnel speed effect would have taken up way too much room. Plus, from a story perspective, we really needed to set up the vehicle interaction, and the ability to shoot the opposing car. So, we changed the scene entirely, and made the red button more of a surprise at the end.

    Second, very beginning and ending of the ride went through many, many changes. We actually didn't start with the early-60s worlds-fair architectural theme for the exterior of the building, and finding an environmental story that kept the MIB headquarters "hidden", but still created a cool, inviting building and entry, was a bit tricky. Originally, the building was going to look just like the ventilation building of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, and guests would walk past the giant fan & vent before taking the elevator down to HQ -- just like in the film. At the end of the ride when you got zapped, we went through a number of iterations that were all meant to be a complete, head-scratching non-sequitur -- like ending up at the end of a Florida orange juice factory tour, or at the luggage claim of Orlando International Airport, or even the end of some nondescript "international" pavilion of a world's fair -- to make you feel like, "huh? what just happened?", like you've been Neuralized. But then we thought, how does all that relate to a theme park? Worse, we worried that most people wouldn't "get it" if they weren't a diehard fan of the movie. So, we needed something more direct to make the Neuralizer finale really work -- and the mystery of whether aliens exist became the most effective setup and punchline. Plus, including the towers of the 1964 New York World's Fair fed directly into the MIB mythology. Now, the entire building serves as a bookend that both "conceals" and "winks" at the world of MIB inside the ride (and it even fit into the park's existing "World Expo" area theming, which might be gone by now).

    Q: I'd like to know what, if any, engineering innovations were implemented for the ride. What were their inspirations?

    A: Well, there is a patent for the dual-track ride system, and the way the vehicles can interact with each other. Getting pairs of vehicles to line up isn't as easy as it sounds, because the two tracks are different lengths. The speed of the vehicles varies from moment to moment to make sure they stay in pairs -- for instance, on a big turn, the outside track has to speed up, while the inside track has to slow down. So there was a lot of new code and ride control stuff that we had to come up with.

    Also, getting the on-board scoring system to wirelessly communicate with the rest of the ride, that was a bit of a science project. We wanted the scores to show up on-screen for the finale, and wanted your vehicles *average* score to cause a change in what Agent J (Will Smith) says to each pair of vehicles, and we wanted that to translate into one of three "rankings" for each vehicle that triggers a specific animatronic gag in the final scene. It's all existing hardware -- from solid-state video playback, to video title generators, to theatrical lighting and scenic scrim, to pneumatic animatronic characters -- but there's some very clever programming in there to make it all talk together and work right.

    A lot of innovation in theme park attractions comes from not only new technology and new hardware, but also *how* existing technologies are combined. That's very true in MIB, where we took a lot of individual components and proven technologies that had been around awhile -- infra-red game systems, animatronics, busbar dark-ride tracks -- and combined them in a way that no one had ever attempted before. Sometimes the "next big thing" is really just looking at what already works, and tweaking it into something new.

    Q: I have a question about the ride vehicles, are they able to be reprogramed (such as 360 degree movement) easily and or quickly? What did you use to program them? Also, are some sets in the ride controlled by the vehicle or do they rely on timing? What type of programs did you use to design the ride vehicles and sets?

    A: All theme park attractions are run with the same kind of technology that you'd see in an assembly line. It's all derived from industrial and theatrical automation. The same technology that runs the lighting and scenery for a broadway show, or puts your car together, or handles your luggage in an airport, can be adapted to run a dark ride. Even the MIB vehicles are, in essence, on an "assembly line" and are controlled as such. Obviously, the specific system architecture and code are different, but the system designers and programmers we worked with came from an industrial-automation background, working under the direction of wacky creative/theatrical types like me. That's typical of our industry, to smash together two seemingly different worlds and disciplines like that. Happens all the time.

    To address the specific vehicle rotation question, It's an encoded motor -- we had to program the vehicle rotation with a series of numbers that didn't really relate to any physical or visual position of the ride, just what the vehicle control system understood as its motor position in relation to the chassis on the track. It was all very complicated and involved a ton of trial and error.

    Hardware-wise, a complex ride like this usually involves a hierarchal system -- each individual component (a ride vehicle, an animatronic character, a special effect) has its own internal logic programmed into it, and they take their cues from a series of larger automation systems that control specific categories within the attraction. Most attractions are usually overseen by three main automation systems -- Ride (vehicles, track logic), Show (animatronics, effects, audio, lighting), and most importantly, Life Safety, which rules the roost and can shut down all of the other systems safely in case of an emergency.

    As far as how the sets and vehicles were designed, most of those were done with a combination of hand illustration & drafting, Photoshop, and 3D modeling -- later in construction and manufacturing, it involves translating those creative ideas into a lot of CAD drafting & engineering, and sometimes using high-tech manufacturing techniques like computer-controlled routers and laser cutters. But a lot of it is still done by hand, just like most other creative industries. There's no special software just for the theme park business -- whatever tools that designers use in other jobs like product design, animation, video games, theater and architecture, that's what we use, too.

    Q: Too often armchair creative directors discuss the "cost" of developing a ride in terms of its design and construction. Another type of cost associated with an attraction is its operation and (especially) its maintenance. I'm hoping that DC will comment on whether or not new ride systems and special effect technology are addressing these cost considerations. In other words: are new ride systems and special effects not only becoming "cooler" but are their warranties stronger, are they becoming more durable -- and thus -- are they more cost effective over the long term than they have been in the past?

    A: This sort of relates back to what I said about innovation. It's really great when you can come up with something for a theme park that no one has ever seen before. Obviously, setting new standards for technology and innovation is certainly part of what we strive for, and nearly every theme park project is "prototypical" in one way or another. It's not an industry where we churn out millions of widgets and distribute them around the world, it's just the opposite -- we have to build *one* thing that's cool enough for millions of people to travel to.

    But it's also a business. If you build something that's really cutting-edge, but it breaks down half the time, then it's not really doing its job. If everything we did was completely prototypical, we'd never get anything open. I've had really awesome, technically difficult elements in attractions that, after breaking down too many times or costing too much in repairs, have just been completely shut off. There's a balance between innovation and successful operation, and that comes with the territory. Good design is also smart design.

    So, it's all about balance, and picking your challenges. We like to stay aware of cutting-edge gadgets and techniques to inspire us -- but at the end of the day, it has to really *work*. That's where the true talent in this industry lies -- people that are *generalists*, who can look at the broad picture of technology and creativity and find ways to wow an audience that are safe, reliable, and maintainable.

    Q: Why have no other companies come close to matching the detail and interactivity of MIB? Many shooting gallery dark rides have opened since MIB debuted (Turkey Whirl at Holiday World, Ghostwood Estate at Kennywood, Reese's Challenge at Hersheypark, numerous incarnations of Scooby Doo across the country, and Toy Story Mania). How much of MIB is Sally, and how much additional money did it take from Universal to take the attraction from a "stock" ride to one of the most amazing and unique dark rides in the world? Will another theme park ever consider investing the amount of money necessary to modify a "stock" ride to take it to the level of MIB?

    A: The term "stock ride" is a bit misleading when you're talking about dark rides. Sure, the Sally Company has an existing library of designs, themes, and engineering -- but even their "stock" rides are still custom designed and manufactured. It's not like they have a warehouse full of characters, vehicles and track pieces sitting there waiting to be bought. I understand what you mean, though -- and yes, the more that these kind of experiences get commoditized and cheaper to build, the more you'll see them in other parks. Look at simulator rides -- Disney was one of the first big parks to put one in with "Star Tours" in 1987, and by the late 90s they were ubiquitous in parks, malls, everywhere. But therein lies the rub - the more common something gets, the less special it is. Keeping the concept fresh is key.

    However, MIB was not manufactured by Sally, nor was any of it "stock". Although I admire Sally's interactive dark-ride products, they had nothing to do with MIB at all.

    MIB's base vehicle came from pre-existing engineering (as I said, from "The Cat in the Hat"), but the rest of the vehicle design and production was all custom. The game technology was from a company that develops laser-tag arena games, but it was all custom-designed and manufactured for our specific vehicles and gameplay. The sets and characters were all custom designed and manufactured from scratch (fun fact: the vehicles, weapons, and about half of the aliens in the ride were designed by the same guy who created the monster from "Cloverfield" and creatures & spacecraft in the new "Star Trek" movie -- and he's currently working on concepts for "Tron 2.0"...*squee!*).

    Q: What is the major skill you need to possess to do this kind of work? Illustration & graphics, theatrical design, architectural engineering, script writing?

    A: Depends on what job you want to do. Like I said, no one person "designs" theme park rides, it's a highly collaborative business that takes all sorts of talents, everything from artists to engineers to project managers. Almost any skill set you can think of can be applied to a theme park project in one way or another. It's one of the reasons I love the work so much -- I get to meet and interact with all kinds of really interesting, really unique people with a wide variety of skill sets. One project had me working with a "wind acoustician" to figure out air-current patterns inside of a building, while another had me working with a spinal surgeon and ergonomic specialist to help make sure a simulator was programmed safely for people to ride.

    As for me, I consider myself a writer and a "pollinator", who helps dream up and define the concept, and then helps keep it moving as it grows. A creative director becomes the source of guidance and inspiration for the team -- I get to collaborate with really creative folks on fun ideas, and then I have to keep them inspired and moving forward as those ideas develop. Think of it like a writer/director on a movie or theater show -- do they design the sets and costumes, or focus the lights, or compose the soundtrack? Not usually, but they have to be *highly* conversant in all of those skills and art forms, to be able to give direction to the team and inspire them to do their best work. It's a combination of being very broad-minded and very detail-oriented at the same time. You have to be able to stay the course and keep the team focused on the overall vision and the big picture -- but also be able to drill down to small details and help figure out specific design challenges from all sorts of disciplines.

    Just having great attraction ideas, and writing or drawing them is only the beginning. You have to know about how attractions work in the real world, too -- from how they operate to how people line up to how they're maintained to how an audience reacts, it's all important to know and study. Working in a theme park, in any capacity, is one of the best ways to start. I worked as a tour guide at Universal Studios Hollywood right out of high school, and it was incredible real-world training -- both the on-stage public speaking part, as well as the behind-the-scenes operational part. Anything that allows you to work with or around an audience -- be it a theme park, a museum, or even your local community or school theater department -- it's all great training for theme park design. Know your audience!

    Put simply, it really helps to be a fan of *everything* -- design, technology, coasters, live shows, animation, special effects, architecture, fine art -- it all applies. The people who succeed in this industry are generalists.

    Q: I want to know his top score.

    A: Somewhere in the high 800,000s, but that was ten years ago when we opened. Even then, there were employees and kids from across the street at Dr. Phillips High School (behind the park, lots of pass holders) who could totally kick my ass. There's a proud group of folks out there who can max out their scores to 999,999 (they don't roll over - at least, they didn't originally, but that may have been changed since opening). Last time I rode was November of 2008, and I barely cracked 500k. I'm getting rusty. :)

    Q: What are your top three tips, to help get the suit at the end of the ride?

    A: I remember reading some Internet rumors about "hidden targets" in the ride -- targets without a character or visible hit point, but that if you knew where to zap, you got hundreds of thousands of points. I swear that, as of opening day in 2000, we hadn't included anything like that -- so if there are any hidden targets, they've been added since then. However, there *are* some good points to be had by really looking for aliens in difficult places -- like up in the higher windows, or hanging from the streetlights, or zapping at the Big Bug's teeth and eyes (look closely and you'll see some targets hidden in there). Another good one is Frank the Pug -- he's hidden to the right of the inside track, next to the Crashed Spaceship, at the Locksmith's counter. He's not animated or anything, he just sits there -- but he's worth a bunch. Right next to the locksmith, look for Steven Speilberg's head -- he's the disguise being used by the aliens holding up the newspaper -- if I recall, he's worth quite a bit, too.

    Also, remember that your guns work via infra-red beams -- which are actually *cones*, and the diameter of your beam gets bigger as it goes farther away. In other words, you're slightly more accurate with distant targets than you are with close ones. However, the beam *power* falls off a bit as it goes farther away, too -- so it's a trade off. Try to stay on targets that are a car's length or two away from you.

    Most importantly, stay on one target at a time. If you hit something, hit it again. And again. In quick succession. In fact, stay on a single target and hit it as many times as you can before you have to move to another one. Don't waste time targeting when you could be shooting and scoring.

    Finally, be ready for that red button. The first person to hit it gets points galore. I've even heard of people being able to score more than once if you push it very rapidly in quick succession. Might be a glitch, or perhaps they reprogrammed it after opening.

    That's the nice thing about a game-based ride -- there's enough software flexibility so you can change the scoring system and create new target logic anytime you want. I have no idea if the game programming is the same as opening day, or if the park has changed up the scores since then, or if the three rankings are even the same score level we originally established. The park would be crazy not to fiddle with those elements every once in awhile, to keep the fans guessing. I certainly would. :)

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    Universal Orlando pushes back opening for Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 22, 2009 at 4:50 PM
    This shouldn't surprise anyone, given the wall of silence that Universal Orlando has offered all questions about when its Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit roller coaster would debut, but Universal's now confirmed that it will not open this spring.

    Instead, Universal's pushed the opening date back into summer, according to several sources. (Here's one that got its story up earlier.)

    Universal folks and fans, give us your thoughts and estimates on HRRR, in the comments.

    Update: Now SeaWorld is pushing *up* the opening date for Manta. Look for a soft opening the first week in May. Trip reports, with photos, will be greatly appreciated, as I won't be in Orlando that week.

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    Remember Six Flags New Orleans?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 22, 2009 at 10:25 AM
    Well, the people in New Orleans do, because it is still standing there. Closed. The final piece in the former Premier Parks' over-expansion plan closed after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and remained closed as Six Flags opted not to invest the capital necessary to reopen the park.

    Today, New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin is in New York to talk with Six Flags President Mark Shapiro about the future of the amusement park.

    The former Jazzland was acquired by Six Flags in 2002 and operated as Six Flags New Orleans for three seasons before closing.

    There's zilch chance that the park will reopen; the talks appear to be focused instead on some sort of financial settlement that would allow the city to bring in another developer to do something with the property. (The city owns the property and Six Flags has a long-term lease.)

    Update: No deal. So New Orleans is going to sue Six Flags.

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    Dining among the tumbleweeds at Disneyland's Big Thunder Ranch

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 21, 2009 at 3:43 PM
    Tuesday Park Visit: Okay, the kids are threatening to kill us, but after Laurie and I dropped them off at school this morning, we drove down to Anaheim for lunch at the Celebration Roundup & Barbecue at Disneyland's Big Thunder Ranch.

    This new version of the old Big Thunder Barbecue's been open since April 2, and is already packing in... almost no one.

    Seriously, it's as if Disney was trying to keep people away. Celebration Roundup & Barbecue is not listed among the Frontierland dining options in the Disneyland guide map. Nor is it listed on the show schedule, despite its character appearances and musical performers. (It is mentioned on the flap of the guidemap, along with other new and upcoming attractions and events, but that's not where folks look when deciding what to eat.)

    Disney's hawking Celebration Roundup & Barbecue as part of a media day on Friday, so perhaps the promotions will begin after that. But for now, this is the best place at Disneyland to hog some characters all to yourself.

    The barbecue is an all-you-can-eat meal, served family-style at the table (no buffet line!), with Jessie, Woody and Bullseye from "Toy Story" hosting. The price is $28.99 for adults and $12.99 for kids 9 and under, plus tax and an automatic 15% tip. But for some reason, Disney seems loathe to tell you any of this.

    Hosts and hostesses out front will ask you if you understand how the menu works - that this is a "fixed-price meal, served family style at the table." Then they will ask you at the check-in desk. And when you are seated. When she was asked for the third time if she understood the menu, Laurie blurted out, "We pay you and you keep bringing us food, right?"

    Perhaps the cast members are wired with shock collars that will send 10,000 volts through their bodies if they volunteer the phrase "all you can eat" or "character dinner." One wonders how badly Disney managers overestimated the popularity of a premium-priced character meal during the worst recession in Disneyland's existence, and wanted to keep expectations low and the tables turning. But given the sparse turn-out to date, I'm giving Disney two weeks before we see a giant banner out front of Big Thunder Ranch, proclaiming "An All-You-Can-Eat, Family-Style Barbecue! With Woody and Jessie!"

    Jessie's there to greet you as you enter, with a Disney photographer there to capture the moment, like you were entering at a luau or boarding a cruise.

    A cast member will come by your table later, with three prints of your photos in a commemorative cardboard frame, for an extra $29.99.

    While we were waiting for our food, "Tex Tumbleweed" and "Miss Chris" worked the three occupied tables in the "crowd," with an admirable set of singing, strumming, soft shoe and whistling.

    Then, the star of the show arrived, the spread.

    Lunch included beans, cornbread, a bucket of barbecue chicken and ribs, corn on the cob (sliced into easy-to-handle rounds) and cole slaw. Drinks are included, and Laurie and I both went with the obvious choice and selected lemonade.

    The barbecue was good, not great, tasting like baked meats well-simmered in sauce, rather than pit-cooked or smoked barbecue. The meat was moist and not at all tough, though it lacked the smoky tang that distinguishes "real" barbecue. Laurie and I loved the corn, though, if for no other reason that the unusual cut made this the easiest corn on the cob to actually eat.

    While we ate, Woody and Bullseye came on stage to perform their short show...

    ...then Woody came down to wander the tables and pose for photos.

    Finally, once we threw in the towel and ripped open the Wet Wipes on lunch, our server brought around dessert - two cupcakes in waffle cones, topped with whipped cream and presented on an ostentatious metal ribboned birthday box.

    I ordered the strawberry shortcake, with a yellow cupcake and strawberries. Laurie went for the red velvet cupcake, with cream cheese frosting. A chocolate mousse with raspberries is also available, and I'd try that if I had another chance, rather than getting the rather dry strawberry option again.

    Celebration Roundup & Barbecue is in an awkward place. If it remains unpopular, it's a great deal, with fawning service, attentive characters and unlimited good food. But if it were ever packed to the fences, I don't know that it would remain as good a deal. But I supposed that would have to happen before anyone could tell.

    And given the state of the economy, I don't see that happening anytime soon.

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    Theme park cast member stories: The Florida summer afternoon thunderstorm

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 20, 2009 at 2:47 PM
    Rain soaks the Central Florida theme parks almost daily during the summer months. Storm clouds typically gather in the afternoon, darkening the sky, then dumping their rain upon the parks, often accompanied by a fearsome show of lightning and thunder.

    Visitors scurry into shops, restaurants and queues like businessmen fleeing before Godzilla in a cheesy '50s monster flick. But the regulars, the attractions cast members for whom rain has become the one thing that breaks up the monotony of yet another eight-hour shift, stand there in their rain gear, enjoying a few guest-free moments until the rain ends and the tourists emerge from their hiding places.

    (I also worked one summer in merchandise. And for these CMs, the rain storms mark the day's nadir, the moment when throngs of tourists rush into the store, crushing everyone and everything - and sometimes, lifting a not-insignificant amount of stuff in the process. Just a lousy time, when no one can go on break, to boot.)

    Afternoon thunderstorms meant an extra break for many attractions cast members, though, as lightning in the area takes down several attractions, including Tom Sawyer's Island, where I worked many shifts between 1988 and 1991.

    One on summer afternoon, I was loading a raft for a trip back from the island to the mainland. The clouds gathered quickly that day, darkening the sky over the Splash Mountain construction site to a roiling black. Yet the skies over TSI remained sunny. One father squinted as he looked up into the sky and asked me, with a kidding tone, "How long do you think we'll have until that rain hits?"

    "If you are lucky," I replied as I cast off and put the raft into gear, "we'll make it to the other side of the river first."

    He laughed at what he thought was my joke. I laughed at him for thinking that.

    Halfway across the river, I announced to the raft, in my loudest stage voice, "Please no open umbrellas on the raft. Wait until we dock before opening umbrellas."

    Several people turned to look at me, with puzzled expressions. The sky was sunny, why are you talking about....

    Then the rain hit. A torrential, Old Testament rain. One for which no rain jacket or umbrella provides any protection. The type of rain that leaves your underwear soaked for the remainder the day.

    To their credit, my raft guests heeded my warning and did not open their umbrellas. (You don't want to get poked in the head with one when our free-floating raft bumps the dock.) I don't know whether they respected my authority or simply understood, as I did, that umbrellas were of no use against this vertical flood.

    I docked my raft, nodded at my lead, then headed down to the tunnels for a fresh, dry costume. And a change of underwear (which I always kept in my locker). You could tell the rookies among Disney cast members. Those were the ones who, after a soaking rainstorm like this, were wearing dry replacement costumes, through which their dripping underwear was soaking.

    Former park employees, share your favorite weather-related stories, in the comments.

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    Walt Disney World water parks join Theme Park Insider

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 20, 2009 at 9:28 AM
    In response to many, many requests, I finally have added the Walt Disney World water parks to the Theme Park Insider listings.

    Blizzard BeachWe now have pages for Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon on the site. If you've visited one or both of these parks in the past year, please click over there and start submitting your ratings and reviews of the various attractions there.

    Those parks join SeaWorld Orlando's Aquatica as the water parks listed on the site. I'm not planning to add more at this time, as those are the three most popular themed water parks in the world.

    Busch Gardens name changes
    Also, I have changed the names of the two Busch Gardens parks on the website, back to Busch Gardens Tampa and Busch Gardens Williamsburg. This is after consulting with folks at Busch Entertainment Corp. and thinking about what I thought worked best for the site.

    Officially, BEC calls each of these parks simply "Busch Gardens," though it appends those extra names for various marketing campaigns. Two parks with the same name won't fly on the website, though, for a variety of reasons having to do with not only the site's publishing system, but also readers' ability to know which park's attractions they are rating or reading about.

    So, for simplicity and ease of understanding, I am using the city in which each park stands, Williamsburg and Tampa, to denote which park is which.

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    Diamondback debuts at Kings Island

    By Derek Potter
    Published: April 17, 2009 at 11:31 PM
    In Ohio, the economy is in the toilet, and the winters are too cold. The orange road cone is the state plant, and the roads on which they grow still don't seem to be fixed. Ohio is way behind the times in most respects, and seemingly refuses to catch up. Truth be told, a lot of the time Ohio is just plain boring.

    Every once in a while though, a day comes along, and I'm reminded that sometimes it's not so bad in Ohio. Today was one of those days.

    Today was media day at Kings Island, and I previewed one of the biggest rides to hit the park. Diamondback is an out-and-back hypercoaster designed by Bolliger & Mabillard, the company responsible for several of the highest rated coasters in the country. Strangely enough, this is the first B&M coaster at Kings Island. Many fans see this one as a long time coming, as previous management had always seemed to avoid using them for new rides.

    Here are the numbers for everyone:
    Height: 230 ft
    Angle: 74 degrees
    Speed: 80mph
    Track Length: 5282 ft

    The first thing that caught my eye about Diamondback is the way that it's draped across the midway in Rivertown. The first drop and last helix pass over the main walkway between the Beast and Nick Central, giving pedestrians a close up of its height and speed. For those of you wondering, there is no theme here. There are no video screens or special effects... no storyline, nothing but gravity and power, which quite frankly is all this ride needs.

    Entering the station, the thing I noticed the most is the new train design. The seats are reclined a bit and staggered, giving the cars a roomier feel. After being seated, most feet do not reach the floor, giving the ride a floorless quality even though there actually is a floor to the train. The trains also have absolutely no sides....not an inch. Quite simply it looks like a couple of stools bolted to a metal floor. This feature adds a very real element of apprehension for some riders, even though the trains are safe. The cars add an element of freedom to the ride, almost as if there is actually no seat at all for you to sit in.

    While on the subject of sitting in seats I'll say this. You will spend as much time out of your seat as you do in it on Diamondback. The airtime provided by the 12 steep drops on the ride is some of the longest air I've ever experienced. From the top of the first drop to the end, the front seat seemed to be one continuous negative G, only putting you back in your seat at the very bottom of the hills and firmly planting you there during the helixes, and the inverted turn at the back of the track...affectionately known to coaster fans as a "hammerhead turn". Even the back seat provided some air, although the out of control feeling of being pulled rather than pushed is what people will like about the back of the train.

    Rider reaction was pretty much unanimous. Everyone loved it...well almost everyone. I caught a glimpse of Cincinnati mayor Mark Mallory after his ride. I don't know what photo of him will appear in the paper, but I'm thinking he was there for the publicity only, because he didn't look too hot when he stepped out of the train. Most were blown away by the ride, and quick to deem it the best ride in the park. Some Beast fans may take exception to that, but even they had to admit that Diamondback is indeed an amazing ride.

    As for me, I was more than amazed. The best comparison I can make is this: It's Apollo's Chariot on steroids. It's taller, faster, steeper, has more airtime, and the train adds an X-factor that sets it apart from its peers. Half of the track is hidden from view, the helix and splashdown provide an exciting ending, and the reride value is off the charts. Kings Island has hit the proverbial home run with Diamondback, and I predict that it will be at the top of many coaster lists for years to come.

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    Vote the week: Are roller coasters better up front, or in back?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 16, 2009 at 10:59 PM
    This week's vote comes from our Theme Park Tips section, where last week, a Theme Park Insider reader submitted an engaging tip on where to sit on a roller coaster. "Forget going to the front of a roller coaster, the real thrill is a the back!" the reader suggested.

    You can vote yes or no on that tip, if you'd like. And I'm going to promote the question here, by making it our vote of the week. I'm adding a third option, too, as not to push the leaners or indifferent.

    Coaster fans, tell us in the comments why you picked what you did.

    And if you are going to Kings Island this week for the debut of Diamondback, be sure to click to our Diamondback page to submit your rating, reviews and photos.

    Comments (35) | Archive Link

    First Diamondback ride brings in more than $100,000 for charity

    By Derek Potter
    Published: April 16, 2009 at 12:45 PM
    And now for some good news from the industry...

    The online auctioning off of the first rides on Diamondback, Kings Island's newest coaster opening this Saturday, netted about $102,000 for the nonprofit organization "A Kid Again". Final bids ranged from $100 to $5000. Many of the seats were won by local and national businesses, who in turn donated the seats to the children who are a part of the charity. The park had to increase the number of "first rides" due to the auction popularity.

    Kings Island opens the 2009 season this Saturday. It will not be open this Sunday though, due to a private function. The park will continue to be open weekends until May 22, when it will open daily for the summer.

    Comments (5) | Archive Link

    Disney theme parks lead in 2008 annual attendance report

    By James Rao
    Published: April 16, 2009 at 9:23 AM
    You can view the full 2008 Themed Entertainment Association/Economics Research Associate's Attraction Attendance Report here.

    The North American top 20 is largely unchanged except for Canada's Wonderland, which experienced a big upswing due to the addition of their new coaster. However, a new coaster did not help Hersheypark as it experienced a 4% decrease despite the addition of Fahrenheit in 2008.

    Busch parks experienced drops across the board, probably related in no small part to the InBev takeover and some animosity to what some folks view as Busch selling out. (Just my opinion).

    Cedar Fair and Six Flags experienced some moderate upswings due to additional attractions (Dark Knight coaster at Six Flags) and lowered admission prices (at Cedar Fair).

    Disney ruled the roost once again, dominating all markets and bringing in more visitors than virtually all other theme park chains combined. However, their dismal showing at Hong Kong DL should be cause for concern.

    Universal experienced attendance downturns largely due to construction at their Orlando destinations and people holding off on vacations until the new rides/lands are complete.

    One interesting note: most of the attendance declines occurred after the regional parks had closed for the 2008 season, leaving the destination parks to deal with the faltering economy and therefore taking the brunt of the hit. One member of the reviewing board seems to think that the declines will continue across the board in 2009, with a potential for increases again in 2010.

    Thoughts?

    Comments (14) | Archive Link

    Doublethink at Six Flags: CEO to get $3 million bonus if amusement park chain goes bankrupt

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 15, 2009 at 9:34 AM
    Ah, the good stuff that can be found in SEC documents.

    In the one linked above, we learned yesterday that Six Flags CEO Mark Shapiro could get a $3 million bonus if the chain successfully renegotiates its crushing debt burden. Shapiro would get the bonus if Six Flags restructures the debt on its own, or if the debt is restructured as a result of filing Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

    So if the chain goes bankrupt, and emerges from bankruptcy, Shapiro gets an extra $3 million, on top of his $1.3 million annual salary.

    To be fair, the chain does have to emerge from bankruptcy for Shapiro to get the cash. If Six Flags goes belly up, no bonus. But still. While I think Shapiro deserves a hefty bonus if he can continue Six Flags' turnaround while staying out of bankruptcy court, it seems just wrong to me to be rewarding corporate executives for anything when their firms end up in bankruptcy.

    Bloomberg also has some reaction to this so-called "success bonus."

    Comments (9) | Archive Link

    A photo tribute to the floorless coaster

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 14, 2009 at 6:21 PM
    From time to time I pull out some of the photos shared by Theme Park Insider readers of great attractions around the country and world. Today, it's a tribute to Bolliger & Mabillard's floorless roller coasters.

    We start with the world's first floorless coaster, Six Flags Great Adventure's Medusa, tricked out for 2009 and now known as Bizarro:

    Batman: The Dark Knight:

    Hydra The Revenge:

    Superman Krypton:

    And now, my personal favorite, SeaWorld Orlando's Kraken:

    Now, the newest, floorless dive coasters: Griffon:

    And SheiKra:

    And finally, a POV video from Kings Dominion's Dominator:

    (By the way, we could use some decent shots of Scream and Medusa, if you want to help us out. Click the links to their profile pages, then hit the button to upload a photo. To my great regret, there appears to be no way to get the LA Times to either publish or send me the live-narrated POV video of me riding Scream on its media preview day.)

    Update: Here is Scream:


    Comments (17) | Archive Link

    If you run a theme park, read this

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 13, 2009 at 9:22 PM
    There is great advice, and strong business lessons from history, in James Surowiecki's piece in the New Yorker this week.

    Surowiecki never mentions theme parks in the piece. But he does tell of other consumer businesses and how they reacted to depressions and recessions. In short, those that cut back did worse during the recovery than those who remained aggressive in the down times.

    Let that be a lesson to theme parks mulling a cut in customer service, new attraction design, promotions or advertising. Now is the time when you can bury your competitors - or bury yourself.

    Fans are looking for ads touting new rides, new shows, new experiences and fresh deals. Ultimately, fans are looking to see who has their back this summer. Parks that come through will be the parks that endure.

    Comments (6) | Archive Link

    Got any questions for the creative director of Men in Black: Alien Attack?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 13, 2009 at 3:25 PM
    Universal Studios Florida's shoot 'em up Men in Black: Alien Attack pulled off one of the big upsets in this year's Best Ride in America tournament (before the whole thing became a battle of various theme parks' Facebook groups). The discussion thread about MIB revealed that many Theme Park Insiders have a lot of love for this video game-inspired dark ride. (And you can count me among them.)

    One thing led to another, and that discussion put me in touch with Dave Cobb, the ride's creative director. Dave now graciously has agreed to answer questions from Theme Park Insider readers about the ride, so here is your chance.

    Dave got his start working in the parks, specifically, at Universal Studios Hollywood. He worked his way up through Universal Creative, where he became the Creative Director for Men in Black: Alien Attack, taking the project from design to completion in just 27 months.

    Since then, he's worked as the Senior Creative Director for Paramount Parks and today he holds the same title at Thinkwell Design & Production, a Burbank, California firm that's created everything from theme park attractions to museum presentations to Super Bowl pre-game shows.

    We'll visit with Thinkwell in a future piece. For now, though, I want to talk with Dave about Men in Black: about the creative process, his inspiration, some background about the ride, its legacy within the industry, you name it. And, oh yeah, his insider's tips for higher scores, too. ;-)

    So, please submit any questions you have for Dave about the attraction, using the comments below. I'll pick the best ones (and add some if there's something I want to ask that you didn't cover) and take them to Dave. Then I'll post his responses in a Q&A here on Theme Park Insider.

    Update (Apr. 22): Thanks for your questions. Here is the interview, with Dave's answers.

    Comments (13) | Archive Link

    Theme park cast member stories: 'Is that *really* your name?'

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 13, 2009 at 10:42 AM
    Inspired a bit by the movie Adventureland, from time to time I'll be posting vignettes I remember from my days as a Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom attractions cast member. If you've worked in the industry, as well, feel free to post your favorite (reasonably family-friendly) stories in the comments.

    My favorite place to work was Tom Sawyer's Island, driving the rafts to and from the island. A couple of times, however, glue holding my nametag to the pin attaching it to my shirt gave way, and I lost my nametag into the river.

    No big deal; just take the pin back downstairs to the costume department, and they've give you another one, free. (They'd charge you a buck for the lost tag, if you didn't have the pin and the story.) If they didn't have a tag with your first name on it, you'd have to make do with one from the bin for a couple days, until they could make a new tag and deliver it to you.

    Unfortunately, that meant that you would have to go by that other name while "on stage" until your new tag arrived. Having no "Robert" that day, I decided to have a little fun and go with the only other "R" name in the bin...

    Randy. (UK readers, please contain yourself while I finish the story.)

    The next morning, I was skedded to work the Tiki Room, which meant long stints standing in front of the Swiss Family Treehouse, as the turnstile position for Tree was part of the Tiki Room's staffing rotation. Without my regular Robert name tag, I was supposed to respond whenever a guest called me Randy.

    Again, no big deal, until a couple of elderly English women approached the tree, and one near twisted her neck off whipping her head around to take a second look at my nametag.

    She grabbed her friend by the arm.

    "You've got to take a look at this!" she exclaimed, pulling her friend toward me.

    "Is that *really* your name?"

    "Yes, ma'am, it is," I lied, like a good Disney cast member.

    She squealed, wrapped her arm around me and declared, "I have got to get a picture of this!"

    So the women corralled the next person in line, and demanded that we all step out in front of the free for a photo: "Randy" the Walt Disney World cast member, with two elderly, and presumably equally "randy," English ladies draped over his sides, giving him a long and thoroughly inappropriate embrace.

    "Wait 'til we tell the others about this!" the second giggled. And for the rest of my shift, I greeted in my queue dozens of older English ladies, chuckling, smiling and sometimes winking as they passed me.

    I shudder to think of the stories that were told about me when the first two ladies were showing those pictures.

    [For those unfamiliar with English slang, who don't get this story: here ya go.]

    Comments (16) | Archive Link

    Vote of the week: How much would you pay to skip a line?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 10, 2009 at 10:03 AM
    SeaWorld San Diego this week announced a new ride reservation system, Quick Queue. For $19.95, you get one pass to the front of the queue on the park's three rides, Journey To Atlantis, Shipwreck Rapids and Wild Arctic, a second pass through the line on your choice of one of those three, plus one free ride on both the park's SkyTower and Bayside SkyRide.

    The combo ticket for the SkyTower and SkyRide costs $5, so you basically are looking at $14.95 for skipping four queues here. That works out to about $3.75 per queue.

    SeaWorld says that the price for Quick Queue is seasonal, so it might go up or down based upon demand. Which makes sense, I guess. The more people in the park, the longer the lines are, which makes skipping those lines more valuable.

    Which brings me to this week's vote. How much would it be worth, to you, to skip a queue at a theme park? Let's price this per hour of wait time skipped.

    So if you'd be willing to spend $10 to skip a two-hour queue, vote for $5 in the poll below. (That $5 per hour of line skipped.) Round to the nearest dollar, please.

    Let's do some math here. If you are spending $60 on a theme park ticket for the day, and getting on 10 rides, you're spending $6 per ride. If you spend an extra $20 to get on four more rides that you wouldn't have been able to fit in otherwise, then you've spent $80 for 14 rides, which works out to about $5.70 a ride, a better price per ride.

    You'll have to work the numbers based on the parks you attend and how many rides you typically work in during a visit. But I'd be interested in seeing what you decide. (And, I bet, some theme parks would love to see these results, too.)

    Talk about your calculations, in the comments, please. And have a great weekend in the parks!

    Comments (26) | Archive Link

    It's official: Six Flags off the New York Stock Exchange

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 9, 2009 at 2:29 PM
    In a long-anticipated development, Six Flags' stock will be booted off the New York Stock Exchange, effective April 20.

    The stocks has been trading under $1 per share since last fall. That's the minimum price for a stock to be eligible for listing on the NYSE.

    Six Flags will not appeal the decision, and had been warned that this day was coming, if the stock price did not rise. Shares were trading around 26 cents today.

    Six Flags' stock will now trade on the over the counter market, along with so-called "penny stocks." While the move is typically considered a blow to a company's prestige, corporate prestige is in pretty short supply around Wall Street these days. So NBD there.

    Six Flags is playing that angle, too.

    "The delisting of our common stock is a by-product of the inherited debt load on our balance sheet and the overall financial markets. In no way does it reflect the operational strength or turnaround of this company," said Six Flags chief Mark Shapiro said in a statement. "This development will have zero impact on our park operations, the guest experience this summer or our vendor relationships."

    Comments (7) | Archive Link

    Crowds pack Disney World theme parks for spring break

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 9, 2009 at 12:01 PM
    My sources are telling me that crowds are slamming the Walt Disney World theme parks in Florida this week, with the Magic Kingdom closing its parking lot at times, and cars being redirected to overflow lots at the other Disney theme parks.

    The week before Easter traditionally is the busiest of the Spring Break weeks for theme parks. Here in Southern California, I found a large crowd at Knott's Berry Farm when I visited earlier this week.

    I've yet to hear reports about crowds at Universal Orlando, though I am sure one of you will help me out with that, in the comments.

    If you've been reading the site in the past, you'll know that parks have been dreading this year, given the lousy state of the U.S. economy. Disney World, in particular, has discounted heavily on hotel and food packages and (this is key) promoted those discounts relentlessly. That strategy appears to be paying off, with large crowds coming to Central Florida this week.

    The Central Florida theme parks do not release attendance data, so we can't know for certain how this year's attendance matches with previous years. (Some general information about park attendance trends will become available when Disney and Universal release their 10-K reports for the quarter, later this year. Those are the reports corporations that issue public stock are required to file with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission every three months, detailing the company's financial status and outlook.)

    But big crowds are good things for theme parks. What are you seeing at the parks you've attended this week?

    Update: When the parks are packed, it's a perfect time to try one of our four hour tour plans. They'll help you get some of the biggies, early in the day.

    Comments (21) | Archive Link

    And Hard Rock Park's new name is... Freestyle Music Park?

    By Derek Potter
    Published: April 9, 2009 at 9:55 AM
    Owners of the park formerly known as Hard Rock have announced the new name. Get ready ladies and gents......Freestyle Music Park.

    After negotiations with Hard Rock Corporation broke down, and on the heels of a truly bizarre lawsuit that actually awarded former CEO/captain of the sinking ship Steve Goodwin intellectual property rights, the new owners were put in the position of finding a new name...and finding it quickly.

    One sad note is that the great live shows that graced the park last year will be canned, probably because they don't want to pay Goodwin the royalties that he seeks for his "rights" It's rumored that one of the shows will be a skate/BMX stunt show. It also appears that the rides, restaurants, and areas are being renamed...also probably to prevent Goodwin from sticking his hand out. A Memorial Day opening is planned.

    My opinion? The new name doesn't work. It doesn't have a very good ring to it at all. I understand the timeline they had to deal with, but there wasn't anything better than that? The decision favoring Goodwin in the intellectual property rights lawsuit seems to have really pulled the rug out from under the new owners. Continuing without the Hard Rock name is one thing, but renaming attractions and designing new themes effectively in two months is a real uphill battle. Here is the story from the Sun News.

    Thoughts on the new name?

    Update: Arthur Levine's got an interview with Hard Rock Park's Freestyle Music Park's Steve Baker.

    [Slaps forehead] I totally had forgotten that the name of FPI MB Entertainment, the new owners of the park, stands of Freestyle Park International Myrtle Beach. And that the park that they run in Russia is called Freestyle Park. So Freestyle is their brand name. This is the music-themed park in the chain, ergo, Freestyle Music Park. Utterly predictable. After ID'ing the Freestyle Park and Steve Baker connections before anyone else, I can't believe I missed that.

    Comments (15) | Archive Link

    Now that's how theme parks should use social media

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 8, 2009 at 9:00 AM
    I've been following several theme parks and fan websites on Twitter for months now, both to spread the word of what we are doing on Theme Park Insider and to look for leads on stories we should be covering. (Our feed is at twitter.com/ThemePark, BTW.)

    Real Shamu on TwitterBut SeaWorld Orlando's launched the most entertaining official park Twitter feed I've yet seen: One from Shamu.

    Written in the killer whale's voice, the feed includes such snarky nuggets as "4 otter babies at SeaWorld. Cute. But can you imagine how many it would take to make a decent meal?" and "Overheard talk today of 'killer whale breeding program.' Program? Where’s the romance?"

    Fun stuff. I hope that the SeaWorld PR staff, er, I mean, Shamu, can keep up the pace. Now, how about a follow for TPI, ya big guy?

    Comments (12) | Archive Link

    Now, it's Universal Orlando in a credit mess

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 7, 2009 at 11:43 PM
    We've been following on this site for years Six Flags' credit mess. (Search the archives, I'm too tired to link all the relevant stories at this stage.) But now another theme park company is facing drastic consequences due to credit issues.

    Universal Orlando.

    That's the word from an Orlando Sentinel report this morning.

    Unlike Six Flags, which took on excessive debt due to a long-ago leveraged buy-out and overly aggressive expansion plan, Universal Orlando's credit problem is more simply like a game of musical chairs. They might be caught standing when the music stops.

    The music, this time, is widespread credit availability, which Universal Orlando, like many businesses, have been using to finance ongoing obligations, including park construction and payments on previous debt. Universal's making money and has several major new attractions coming up this year that will drive traffic to the resort. (Harry Potter, *cough*) But if Universal can't get existing creditors to deal, it's gonna have to come up with a load of cash, fast.

    And that means no money for new rides, new shows or for much maintenance around the park.

    Complicating this is Steven Spielberg's consulting deal with Universal, which soon gives him the opportunity to ask for a massive buy-out in lieu or continuing to cash his multi-million dollar annual royalty checks. Frankly, I don't envision that one being much of an issue. Spielberg's not going to do anything greedy and stupid that would endanger future paydays.

    Could Universal end up in the same boat as Six Flags? Personally, I doubt it. Universal's got more resources, and a better market outlook, than Six Flags brings to the table.

    But this isn't the type of stomach-churning thrill ride that fans want to be getting from their parks anymore. Let's leave that for the roller coasters, not the 10-K reports.

    Comments (15) | Archive Link

    Don't try to understand Knott's Berry Farm; just enjoy what you can

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 7, 2009 at 9:35 PM
    Tuesday Park Visit: After half an hour waiting in a queue more like a darkened holding pen, I was getting steamed. Announcements squawked over a loudspeaker every few minutes, but neither I nor my 11-year-old daughter could make out a word. With no posted waiting time, nor a theme park employee anywhere in sight, we had no idea how much longer we'd be waiting.

    Welcome to Knott's Berry Farm, the most incomprehensible theme park in America.

    Knott's Berry Farm

    Natalie and I ended up waiting an hour and 10 minutes to ride GhostRider, after park employees mercifully added a second train on the track. (GhostRider can run three.) Still, two trains gives Knott's 1998 CCI wooden roller coaster an approximate capacity of 800 riders an hour, placing it light years ahead of many other attractions in this capacity-starved park.

    While Natalie and I were waiting, waiting and waiting for GhostRider, my wife and son cooled their heels across the park, serving nearly an hour in the queue for Joe Cool's GR8 SK8, an Interactive Rides Sky Skater that we calculated was putting through fewer than 100 riders per hour.

    And yet...

    If one looks past the thrill rides with less capacity than Jessica Simpson taking the MCAT, one can find amidst them a park filled with little details that can make a theme park visit magical.

    Such as Mystery Lodge, a Native American storytelling show with effects that would be right at home in Walt Disney World's Epcot. (No surprise, as the show's the work of the same creator who produced Epcot's Impressions de France, my all-time favorite theme park movie.)

    Mystery Lodge
    Image courtesy BRC Imagination Arts

    While Natalie and I enjoyed Mystery Lodge, Laurie and Brian discovered Knott's Ghost Town Magic store, where park magician Robert entertained and confounded Brian with a variety of impressive tricks.

    So which is Knott's? A over-crowded thrill park? Or a well-detailed theme park filled with personal touches and storytelling?

    Well, it's both. And that's what makes this park so hard to comprehend. The worst guide map in the industry doesn't help matters, either. While Knott's map details every minor shop in the park, it ignores dozens of attractions, listing just one ride in the park's Camp Snoopy kids' land.

    Getting around Knott's never was easy. The park lacks the intuitive hub-and-spoke layout that Walt Disney employed up the street at Disneyland. Themed lands at Knott's, such as they are, don't blend from one into another, either.

    Walking through Knott's is like walking through a theme park boneyard. The mighty Bolliger & Mabillard inverted coaster, Silver Bullet, lords over the park, its support beams impaling the old Indian ceremonial dance stage and cutting off the remaining fragment of the pond where Walter Knott's steamboat once sailed. The delightful 1969 Log Ride, prototype for Disney's Splash Mountain, stands smack next to unthemed carny games, with a Wipeout across the way, and the theme-less Supreme Scream drop ride standing over all.

    Given the confusion, perhaps it is fitting that the park's most famous restaurant isn't in the park at all. After reuniting, we four got our hands stamped to exit and walk over to Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant... for lunch.

    Mrs. Knott's Chicken Lunch

    The fried chicken is fine, not as tasty as others. But the chicken noodle soup, more stew than broth, delights. And if you can beat your table mates, grab one of the crustier biscuits, which taste more like fritters than the tasteless pucks of dough you'll find from the Colonel.

    And, of course, we enjoyed Knott's Boysenberries in every form - jelly, pie and punch. Not too tart, not too sweet, just well balanced flavor each time.

    After our late lunch, we returned to the park for the Knott's classics, the Log Ride and the Calico Mine Ride. Funny how the park's oldest rides seem to have the fastest moving lines. Two classic joys amid the modern metal.

    Ultimately, everyone said they had a great time. But I when I pressed for specifics, no one could quite say, exactly, why.

    That's Knott's. You very well might enjoy it. But don't bother trying to understand it.

    Comments (17) | Archive Link

    Misadventures in travel writing

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 6, 2009 at 6:45 PM
    It's been a lousy day; I feel miserable, so I'm gonna rant. Forgive me. But I will try to make it fun.

    I guess since this website has become my primary job, this has made me into a professional travel writer. Unfortunately, much travel writing drives me nuts. Here's the latest example that set me off, a feature in Travel + Leisure magazine this month on Discovering the Baltic Islands:

    At the outskirts of Ventspils, gray Soviet-era housing blocks rose from the fields. One of them, an unfinished skeleton, looked almost archaeological, a ruin from the previous empire. We drove past little houses, each with a fastidiously tended garden out front. They made the town seem house-proud and tidy. Ventspils is an ice-free port where Russian oil and minerals are loaded onto ships. It is bisected by the Venta River, over which rises an elevated bridge that swept us up and then gently deposited us in the center of the sleepy old port town. Our room that night, in the Hotel Vilnis, was modest and clean. Only the convention of attack-dog trainers, whose dogs were barking in cages outside the lobby, made the visit the slightest bit unsettling.

    Allow me to translate: In the midst of gray, Soviet-era housing blocks in an industrial port city, they're staying in a crappy hotel hosting a killer dog convention.

    Good times in Ventspils!

    What more does one need here for the writer to come out and say this night of the vacation stinks: Hannibal Lechter delivering the room service?

    I hate to pick on T+L here, because you can find this type of writing everywhere, from the Sunday newspaper to dozens of titles on any large bookstore's magazine rack. (Plus, T+L had the good sense to name us the best theme park site on the Web not too long back....)

    This style of writing drove me to start this website in the first place: reporters gushing about the ordinary, "writing around" the contemptible and pretending that every moment on even a lousy trip represents the finest experience your money could buy.

    Because that's what this style of travel writing is really about - encouraging you to spend your money. Look, I love theme parks. I spend thousands of dollars visiting them every year. (FWIW, some travel writers accept free flights and hotel rooms - I never do.) But I don't want you to spend a dime of your money on a lousy trip.

    With two weeks, and often less, to get away on a trip, and a limited supply of cash to pay for it, you deserve better than reliving a scene from "The Usual Suspects."

    That's why I beg readers not to forget that they can, and should, rate some attractions on this site as "average" or below. And to penalize attractions for excessive wait times, and restaurants for inattentive service or mediocre food. If you can get the same experience elsewhere, at the same or a better price, then it ain't "perfect."

    Not all travel writing need be prescriptive. But even literary travel writing ought to be honest. Some trips stink. Sometimes, it's not the destination's fault. A relationship falters. Someone gets sick. There's an attack dog convention in town.

    But some places just aren't meant to be vacation destinations. That doesn't mean those locations do not have compelling stories to be told - just that those stories ought to be told in a different venue than a leisure travel publication, whether that be in print or online.

    So if I ever recommend that you sleep with the pit bulls, please, send me to sleep with the fishes instead.

    Comments (14) | Archive Link

    First look at menus for Disney's Sanaa restaurant at Animal Kingdom Lodge

    By Scott Joseph
    Published: April 6, 2009 at 1:18 PM
    I just got a first look at the menus for Sanaa, the Indian flavored restaurant scheduled to open May 1 at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge.

    Holy cow, is that beef short ribs next to a pork chop? So much for authenticity.

    See the menus for yourself at scottjosephorlando.com.

    Comments (9) | Archive Link

    2009 Best Ride in America Tournament: the final

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 6, 2009 at 6:47 AM
    This is it: The finals of the Best Ride in America Tournament here on Theme Park Insider.

    After three weeks and 62 match-ups, we are down to this one: Cedar Point's Millennium Force versus Universal Studios Florida's Revenge of the Mummy.

    If you predicted at the beginning of the tournament that this would be the final match-up, well, you're lying. ;-)

    This is a classic battle, though: Thrills versus theme; regional park versus Orlando park; amusement park company versus entertainment conglomerate, Cedar Point's Facebook followers versus Universal Orlando's.

    We will know by 9 pm tonight (Pacific Time) soon which one you have picked as the Best Ride in America. So come vote, and join the debate in the comments.

    [Update: There appears to be an attack being launched against the site from servers at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, which I assume is the result of Cedar Point fanboys. Therefore, I've blocked access from those IPs and am about to close this thing to protect the rest of the site. Stay classy, Bowling Green.

    Update 2: This has been fun, folks. But I need to protect the site and keep the services running. So we're shutting this down. Great run from everyone, and we'll use some new tools for this next year.

    Update 3: I do want to apologize to everyone for having to shut this down early, after I saw what looked like the beginnings of an automated attack. I will point out, though, that voting was open for more than eight hours, so cut us some slack, okay?

    Update 4: I want to offer one more, final apology for what happened with this poll. As the editor of the site, I have access to referral logs that tell me everyone who is linking to the site. I want to thank everyone who was involved in getting out the vote for this tournament. You helped us have a lot of fun and I am more grateful to you than you could realize.

    That said, I became concerned when some of the discussions on some fan websites became more focused on cheating the poll than getting out the vote. In fact, yesterday, people on at least one fan website had found a way to vote multiple times in the poll.

    Let me also say that the people running the official park websites and Facebook pages were nothing but cool and totally above board in dealing with me and with the site. They had nothing to do with any funny business and are total pros.

    I was ready to let the discovery about how to cheat the poll go, since the percentage of votes for each side was not out of line with percentage of referrals coming from the various official park and Facebook pages. But when I got wind of some conversations about using automated agents to game the poll, then saw a new bot in my log files that I hadn't seen before, around the time the site started having performance issues, well, I freaked out.

    With a potentially compromised poll, and a potential overload of the website, I just didn't see the upside of continuing with the poll any longer.

    Again, I apologize. And I have been taking notes, and have a list of features that I will build into a new tool to replace the poll tool we used this year, so I can rest more assured that cheating will not happen in the future.

    Thank you, again, to everyone who played fair, got out the vote and came to chat about their favorites. I hope you had a great time. I know that, up until yesterday, I did. Thank you, again, and I hope we'll see you all around Theme Park Insider on a regular basis in the future. - Robert ]

    Thanks to everyone who participated in this year's tournament, and I hope to see you next year for the new format.

    Comments (138) | Archive Link

    Walt Disney Co. cuts 1,900 theme park jobs over the past six weeks

    By Domenik Jost
    Published: April 5, 2009 at 9:58 AM
    We've seen theme parks all around cut jobs, some going bankrupt, others just re-organizing. This time it's the Walt Disney Company.

    According to the Orlando Sentinel, the Walt Disney Co. acknowledged Friday that it had cut 1,900 jobs in 6 weeks, including 1,400 in Florida alone. This makes for the largest amount of job cuts since Disney cut between 1,200 and 1,400 jobs in Orlando during spring 2001. Disney is Central Florida's largest employer and is said to have had about 62,000 local employees before the recent cuts.

    Comments (7) | Archive Link

    Many openings at theme parks this weekend

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 3, 2009 at 12:16 PM
    Regional theme and amusement parks are opening across the country this month. In addition, I wanted to draw your attention to three openings this weekend at parks popular with Theme Park Insider readers.

  • The long-awaited return of the Big Thunder Barbecue at Disneyland, now with character dining.

  • A new sea lion and otter show at Sea World San Diego: Sea Lions LIVE. This one includes spoofs of American Idol and Dancing with the Stars.

  • The opening of the new Sesame Street Forest of Fun children's play land at Busch Gardens Williamsburg.

    Reader reviews welcomed and encouraged, as always.

    Comments (6) | Archive Link

  • 2009 Best Ride in America Tournament: the semifinals

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 3, 2009 at 7:04 AM
    You've done it. You've narrowed the field to the final four rides, as we vote today in the semifinals of the Best Ride in America Tournament here on Theme Park Insider.

    It's a great field, too, with four outstanding attractions that represent the best work done by the industry over the past decade. Not a clunker among these. So let's get to it!

    A few notes, first. Breaking the voting into two sessions worked well in focusing the comments and keeping traffic to the site consistent through the day. But I'm beat. It's Friday, and the 14-hour days watching the comments are getting to me. (I feel asleep at 10 'til nine last night.) So we're doing this in one batch today. Voting closes when my kids want dinner tonight. So vote ASAP - right after you read the comments!

    Second, if anyone keeps the theme park spirit going to day by sneaking out to see "Adventureland," tell us what you thought of the movie in our Adventureland thread.

    Third, I'll make another pitch for new readers to join our Facebook page, follow our Twitter feed, or sign-up for our e-mail newsletter. We're happy that you've visited us and want to keep in touch. I love many of the comments that I've read from new readers and hope that you'll continue to be part of our Theme Park Insider community. We're here, especially, for fans who aren't bound by love for a single brand of park or type of attraction and who adore the wide range of thrills, theme and excitement offered by the world's theme parks.

    Now, let's get to the voting.

    Both match-ups today feature a well-regarded roller coaster from a seasonal park going up against a themed dark ride from Universal Orlando. First up, it's Busch Gardens' Apollo's Chariot versus Universal Studios Florida's Revenge of the Mummy.

    And in the second match, the biggie: Islands of Adventure's The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man versus Cedar Point's Millennium Force. Alert the Facebook groups and let's hold the servers hold up.

    Have fun in the comments, folks.

    Update: Oh, yeah. The contest. There was a five-way tie among folks who picked the most of the final four rides. (No one got 'em all. Heck, I only got one.) So I selected at random among the three who picked Spider-Man to win, since that was the only ride still in among those picked to win by the five. (Sorry to the other two... who picked Toy Story!) And your winner is... Marc Ricketts. Congratulations, Marc.

    Comments (107) | Archive Link

    2009 Best Ride in America Tournament: Spider-Man, Hulk, Millennium Force and Everest

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 2, 2009 at 1:33 PM
    It's time to wrap up the quarterfinals of the Best Ride in America Tournament here on Theme Park Insider.

    In our afternoon match-ups, we start with two Islands of Adventure neighbors: The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man taking on Incredible Hulk Coaster.

    And we wrap up with another battle between an Orlando area themed coaster and a thrill machine from Cedar Point: Millennium Force versus Expedition Everest

    Last chance for campaigning, in the comments.

    Comments (58) | Archive Link

    Six Flags to hold 2nd Annual Walk in the Parks Event Across the US

    By Anthony Murphy
    Published: April 2, 2009 at 1:32 PM
    Six Flags is holding their second annual Walk in the Parks to raise money for Cure Kids Cancer. Cure Kids Cancer is an organization that works with local children's hospitals around the United States to raise money for pediatric cancer research. This year, the Cancer Walk will be taking place earlier than last year. It will take place at the following Six Flags Parks: Over Georgia, SF America, Fiesta Texas, New England, Great Adventure, Great Escape, Magic Mountain, Over Texas, Discovery Kingdom, Great America (Chicago), and SF St. Louis. Dates for these events go from April 26th to July 26. For more information check out their website at:

    Walkintheparks.org

    Comments (2) | Archive Link

    2009 Best Ride in America Tournament: Griffon, Apollo's Chariot, Mummy and Maverick

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 2, 2009 at 6:55 AM
    We're down to just eight rides, as we start the quarterfinals of the Best Ride in America Tournament here on Theme Park Insider.

    In this morning's match-ups, we start with a battle between roller coasters from Busch Gardens Europe: Griffon versus Apollo's Chariot.



    It's theme versus thrill in the second match, as Universal Studios Florida's Revenge of the Mummy takes on upstart Maverick from Cedar Point.

    Have it out in the comments.

    Update: Allow me to make another pitch for Facebook readers to join Theme Park Insider's Facebook page. We'll be dumping much in-park and on-ride video there this summer.

    Update 2: Two o'clock's come and gone on the west coast, so voting is closed. We've moved on to the other set of quarterfinals, with Spider-Man vs. Hulk and Millennium Force vs. Everest.

    Comments (99) | Archive Link

    Another theme park movie? 'Adventureland' hits theaters Friday

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 1, 2009 at 9:06 PM
    The genre of theme park movies pretty much begins and ends with "National Lampoon's Vacation."

    Until this week.

    Friday, Greg Mottola's "Adventureland" hits screens in the United States. Mottola most recently directed the comedy "Superbad," and earlier worked with Judd Apatow on the TV show "Undeclared." But before any of that, Mottola was... an amusement park employee. The now-44-year-old worked in the 1980s at a Long Island amusement park called Adventureland, and has written and filmed a movie loosely based on that experience.

    Adventureland
    Jesse Eisenberg, Martin Starr star. Photo courtesy Miramax.

    They've kept the name, but shot the movie at Pittsburgh's Kennywood, which filmmakers grunged up to look like a more decrepit '80s suburban carnival park. In Mottola's film, working in a park isn't a glamor job: The movie's website tag line? "Long hours. Low pay. High times."

    Yeah, expect a lot of stoner jokes in the flick, which, like Superbad, revolved around a smart, earnest young geek trying to make it with any one of a number of elusive girls. In the end, though, the main character tones down the nerd act, gains some cool and gets some of what he's, um, been looking for.

    As someone who also spent his first year out of college, in the late 1980s, working in a theme park, this movie hits very close to home. It's not exactly a twin of my life's story, though. I was fortunate enough to work at Walt Disney World, hardly a lousy amusement park, and the next joint I smoke would be my first. (Was that TMI on TPI? Whatever.)

    But working in a park affected me deeply, too. Mottola made a movie. I built a website. Okay, I worked at a better park than Mottola did, but he'll make far, far, far more cash off his project than I'll ever see off mine.

    Still, I thank him for inspiring me to spend several hours on the Magic Kingdom West Attractions Alumni Facebook page, clicking through hundreds of old pictures, remembering faces and incidents I'd since forgotten, but swiftly remembered.

    I've spent almost two decades working in journalism, traveling the country and meeting people from disabled farm workers to U.S. Senators. But working in a theme park remains, by far, the most social job I've every held. Every month I worked at the Magic Kingdom was crammed with rich moments that could fill several movies. I was invited to an advance screening of the movie, but could not attend. But I'm looking forward to hearing what Theme Park Insider readers have to say after the movie opens on Friday.

    Comments (15) | Archive Link

    New Walt Disney museum to debut in San Francisco this fall

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 1, 2009 at 10:09 AM
    The Walt Disney Family Foundation this fall will open a new museum dedicated to Walt's life and work. But the museum won't be in one of the Disney company's theme parks - it will be in the Presidio complex in San Francisco.

    From the press release [PDF}:

    The stories of Disney’s life, creativity, family, and the processes and innovations he brought to his art will be told through a series of ten galleries. Highlights of the Museum will include:
    • Drawings Disney made in his youth
    • Drawings and cartoons from Laugh-O-gram Films, Disney’s first company
    • Early drawings of Mickey Mouse
    • Storyboards, a Disney innovation that mapped out timeless film classics
    • The technically innovative Multiplane Camera that brought vibrancy and depth to his revolutionary feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
    • The unique Snow White Academy Award®, which included a full-size Oscar® and seven miniature castings
    • The narrow-gauge Lilly Belle train he built for his Hollywood home, which recalled his youth and helped spur his vision for Disneyland
    • A model of the Disneyland of Walt’s imagination

    Throughout the exhibits, visitors will find rare film clips, concept art, scripts, musical scores, and cameras that Disney and his staff used in creating his characters and films.

    How much of this is redundant to Walt Disney: One Man's Dream at Disney's Hollywood Studios and its predecessor, the old Walt Disney Story at Disneyland, I don't know. Perhaps this museum just will manage to provide a home for this story and these exhibits outside of the parks, where they were under pressure constantly from new attractions, shops or whatever else the parks need to put in to keep the turnstiles moving and cash registers chirping.

    There is also a page on the Disney website dedicated to the new museum, though without much information as of this morning.

    Comments (4) | Archive Link

    Busch Gardens, SeaWorld auctioning VIP tours and more for wildlife charity

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 1, 2009 at 9:52 AM
    The Busch theme parks are auctioning off a slew of special packages and behind-the-scenes tours to raise money for wildlife conservation.

    Bidding is open now at http://www.auctionwire.com/savewildlife, and available items include animal interaction programs, VIP tours to Howl-O-Scream and other special events, a private photo shoot with Shamu, in-park dining packages, summer camp enrollment, as well as VIP admission to the media day for Manta.

    The money goes to the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund. Fans can also contribute to the fund at any Busch park, and get a free tote bag as a thank you for their donation this month. The parks are also matching all donations over $100 during the fun-raising drive.

    Busch's press release said that the online auction runs through the end of the month, but the auction website says that all auctions end in 10 days. So, if you are interested, don't risk it - bid early.

    Comments (2) | Archive Link

    2009 Best Ride in America Tournament: final eight round-up and wrap-up

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 1, 2009 at 7:10 AM
    We are down to the final eight rides in Theme Park Insider's annual Best Ride in America tournament. The quarterfinals go tomorrow, with the semi-finals on Friday. Make a mental note and please be there to vote, to comment, and to read what everyone else has to say.

    Here are the final eight, from this year's voting:

    2. The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man
    3. Millennium Force
    4. Griffon
    5. Apollo's Chariot
    6. Expedition Everest
    8. Revenge of the Mummy
    10. Incredible Hulk Coaster
    33. Maverick

    For all the supposed chaos in this year's tournament, six of the top eight seeds advanced. (To compare with the NCAAs, that would be as if the elite eight included three number one seeds, three number twos, one number three and a number eight. Hardly 'Upset City.')

    For the two top-eight seeds that lost, one was a roller coaster from a thrill park (El Toro) that lost to a themed flume ride from an Orlando park (Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls). The other was a themed drop ride from an Orlando park (Twilight Zone Tower of Terror) that lost to a roller coaster from a thrill park (Maverick). So it all evened out.

    Again, we'll be running a different format for the tournament next year, along with a two-month-long lead-in, filled with feature articles about the nominated attractions, rides and shows. I'm excited about that, and hope that you will join us for it (as well as sticking around for the rest of what looks like an exciting year to read about theme parks).

    In the meantime, feel free to use the comments to note the silliest, stupidest and occasionally funny April Fool's pranks you read around the Web today.

    Comments (26) | Archive Link

    Keep reading: March 2009 Archive



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