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June 2009

Universal Hollywood hits its mark with grown-up 'Creature from the Black Lagoon'

By Robert Niles
Published: June 30, 2009 at 2:46 PM

Universal Studios Hollywood is trashing industry convention with Creature from the Black Lagoon, staging a raucous Broadway-quality musical that revels in adult humor.

This isn't a show for the kiddies. Universal dusted off one of its classic monster franchises and brought it back to life with a fresh musical adaptation, one that's equal parts silly, sexy and snarky.

The Creature from the Black Lagoon confronts his prey

If you're not familiar with the 1954 horror classic, USH's 25-minute live show riffs off the same plot - an expedition travels to the Amazon, where a comely young scientist becomes the target for the eponymous creature. Except that this time, in a twist straight out of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, our lustful young lady lead is as hot for the Creature as he is for her.

Listen carefully to the lyrics, as Universal Creative's packed the show with silly pop culture references and sharp R-rated puns, the best of which I don't dare repeat here but that had me laughing loudly, as much at Universal's audacity for trying them as for the jokes themselves.

Visually, "Creature" delights, with choreography from Lynne Taylor-Corbett, a film veteran who also choreographed the Aladdin show at Disney's California Adventure. "Creature" makes full use of modern stagecraft, launching its leads above the audience for a stunning mid-air recreation of the film's swim sequence. A towering puppet also plays a role, slyly controlled by several puppeteers.

The cast, as usual for Universal Studios Hollywood, gives its all, but with a delightful script and original score to play with, they deliver a far more entertaining show than the Castle Theater's seen in years.

Some parents might complain, but I say it's about time that a theme park tried to extend its range. The jokes here would seem tame in any comedy club, but for a theme park, they are risque. (Universal promises warnings outside and inside the theater, advising parents of the adult content within.) Many theme park shows have played two-level jokes before, with a double entendre aimed at keeping the parents in the audience as amused as their kids. "Creature" dumps the kiddie level, and aims its gags straight at the grown-ups.

"Creature" hits its mark.

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Theme park cast member stories: The quest for overtime

By Robert Niles
Published: June 29, 2009 at 10:21 AM

Theme Park Insider readers might not be fond of the crowds that pack the nation's theme parks each Fourth of July holiday, but when I worked at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom I loved the holiday throng.

Why? Because big crowds meant one thing to me... overtime.

Working overtime not only meant extra hours in my weekly paycheck, it meant a 50 percent pay increase for those hours, as well. So I and everyone else I worked with at the MK did just about everything we could to score as much overtime as we could stand.

Robert on the parade route
Robert, in Thunder Mountain garb, rolling out the parade route in Liberty Square.

Now "as much as we could stand" varied wildly from employee to employee, as you might expect. As enthusiastic 20-something, I had the will and stamina to work long hours. And since I wasn't that into the cast member party scene, I usually didn't have anywhere better to go, either. So on holidays like the Fourth, I aimed for an opening shift, then volunteered to extend my day as long as I could find a location that would have me.

Back in my day at the MK, any time worked over eight hours in a day was paid at the time-and-a-half overtime rate. If you were really good at working the schedule, and could get more than 16 hours in a shift, that time was paid at double your usual hourly rate.

All time worked on a sixth or seventh day in the work week also was paid at the time-and-a-half rate. And all full-time employees got eight hours of holiday pay on the Fourth, whether they worked it or not.

Finally, if you had less than six hours between the end of one shift and the beginning of the next, you started that second shift at the same pay rate that you ended the previous one. This "shift differential" was key in hitting the double-time jackpot on holidays. Work through the late close (as late as 2 am), then come back for an opening shift the next day (around 7am) and you could start the day on overtime, moving swiftly to double-time, once you hit the 8 hours of overtime mark.

The most lucrative shift I ever worked came one New Year's Day, after working late on New Year's Eve and picking up an opening lead shift when dozens of other cast members called in, uh, "sick." But I'll leave that story for later.

There were three basic rules for extending:

1) Extend at a different location. Working your second shift at a different location helped break up the monotony of a long day.

2) Try to extend into a shift that would send you to a parade. Several attractions shifts were assigned to go to parade audience control (PAC) for a couple of hours during their shift. Scoring one of these meant, again, more variety and less monotony - key to staying alert and engaged during a long, long day. Plus, working at Disney is a social experience. Going to parade meant seeing another dozen or so of your friends that you wouldn't have gotten to see otherwise that day.

3) Avoid extending at theater shows. It's okay to start a double-shift day at someplace like Bear Band (Country Bear Jamboree), Tikis or the Hall of Presidents. Heck, that'd help you save energy for later in the day. But ending your day sitting through the shows is no way to stay awake.

If you wanted to extend, you let your lead know early in the day, making calls around to other locations if your lead wouldn't do that for you. If you didn't get a yes right away, you might get an extra shift later, when people started calling in sick or not showing for their shifts.

The last Fourth I worked, I opened at Tom Sawyer Island, reporting for work just before 9am. My seven-hour shift ended after the 3pm parade, but I knew I wouldn't be going home then. I knew that the park would need as many people as it could get to work crowd control for the parades and fireworks that night, so after working crowd control for the afternoon parade, I extended with the PAC group for the rest of the evening.

I walked downstairs to the tunnels to change from my TSI gear into the PAC costume (white short-sleeved shirt, grey polyester slacks, and burgundy striped tie), then set out with a few other crew members to step up ropes and stanchions for the evening.

The Fourth keeps you busy as a cast member. You've got to keep the Liberty Square bridge clear for night parade to pass, shooing away folks trying to camp out for good places to see the awesome special fireworks show. Guests will commandeer benches and chairs and move them to places one wouldn't think possible. I once confronted two teens who'd moved chairs from the Liberty Square cookie stand on to the roof of one of the local shops.

After the parade, we moved swiftly to rope up three lanes across Liberty Square bridge, rolling out the stanchions we'd stashed in the middle of the bridge. The lane closest to Castle would be for folks to stand still and watch the fireworks. The one in middle would be for walking from the hub to Liberty Square. The one farthest from Castle would be for walking from Liberty Square back to the hub.

At some point the hub would fill and the people trying to exit Liberty Square would have nowhere to go. At that point, we'd cut access to bridge and direct people either to the left up the path toward Fantasyland, or to the right through what was then a backstage path toward the Adventureland bridge and Main Street. (Disney's since created a permanent guest pathway along that route.) About a half hour before the fireworks began, the park achieved total gridlock, and there was nothing to do but chat up the folks around you and wait for the show.

After the show, we made ourselves as tall as we could be, then started waving or flashlights over our heads, in the direction of Main Street, while shouting "Please keep moving" at the mostly immobile crowd. I'm sure that folks became a bit annoyed at our constand pleading, but we had no choice.

Yeah, we wanted the crowd to move. But mostly we needed to keep moving, too. After 14-16 hours that day in the park, the last thing many of us wanted to do was just stand there watching, like whatever poor soul was stuck that hour in the Bear Band theater.

Got a fun story about a park on the Fourth (working or attending)? Share it in the comments, please.

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Walt Disney World debuts its new Hall of Presidents

By Robert Niles
Published: June 28, 2009 at 9:54 PM

The latest version of the Hall of Presidents opened ay Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom this weekend to annual pass holders, cast members and other invited guests.

Theme Park Insider reader William Clark was there, and sent along some photos:

The new Hall of Presidents has an exterior marquee for the first time.

The lobby features a new infusion of Presidential memorabilia, including this dress from former First Lady Nancy Reagan.

President Barack Obama joins the roll call (left center), next to fellow Illinoisan Abraham Lincoln.

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Vote of the week: Will you visit a theme park on the Fourth of July?

By Robert Niles
Published: June 26, 2009 at 10:10 AM

America's Independence Day holiday, the Fourth of July, is the biggest day of the year for the theme and amusement park industry. More people might pack top parks like Disneyland on some Christmases or New Years', but collectively, more people visit parks on the Fourth than any other day of the year, thanks to every park in the country being open on the holiday.

America float in Disney's Electrical Parade
The America float wraps up Disney's Electrical Parade

(The Fourth of July weekend is also when we announce the results of our annual Theme Park Insider Awards, honoring the best theme park, new attraction, restaurant and hotel in the industry this year.)

So... are you going to go next weekend? As a theme park fan, do you want to be part of the biggest day of the year? Or... are you the type who visits only when others don't?

And the economy this year... can you afford the trip? Or are you doing something else for the Fourth this year?

Tell us, in the comments, your plans for the Fourth. And, if you are planning to visit a park, share with us your strategy for getting the most out of a very crowded day. Thanks, and have a great weekend!

Comments (24) | Archive Link

New shows, new themes and new tech at Universal Studios Hollywood

By Robert Niles
Published: June 25, 2009 at 10:04 PM

Got an e-mail yesterday from a Universal Studios Hollywood insider, reporting some nifty tech upgrades at the park:
Just wanted to give you a heads-up -- next time you're at USH, stop by the Shrek 4D attraction -- We've just upgraded the projection system and the new projectors are a vast improvement ofer the originals. The old projectors were a quartet of Barco ELM R12 behemoths. Each eye consisted of two projectors and each projector covered half of the screen. The two images were blended down the center. The original projectors were only 12,000 lumens. The new projectors are state of the art Christie HD+30K units.

Burning your retinas at 30,000 lumens each, they provide a marked improvement in image quality. Much brighter, better color saturation, better color consistency (the old side by side pairs suffered from mismatches in color temperature), and MUCH better contrast (really becomes obvious in the cemetary scene). These are, incidentally, the exact same projectors that are going into the new King King attraction (16 of them) as well as the upcoming Transformers (24 of them).

USH also released some detail about this year's Halloween Horror Nights:

Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights will present an all-new "live" attraction based on the most profitable horror franchise to date, SAW, per an agreement among Universal Studios Theme Parks, Lionsgate and Twisted Pictures.

The new SAW experiences, to be presented at this year’s Halloween Horror Nights event, will mark the first time that SAW characters and stories will be developed as "live" attractions in a U.S. theme park. At Universal Studios Hollywood, characters, themes and live action recreations of the infamous "traps" from the entire SAW horror franchise will be featured in a "maze" experience, in multiple "scare zones" and aboard the parks signature "Terror Tram," where guests will be subjected to a deadly "game" that will echo a story element instantly recognizable to SAW’s legion of fans. The team designing the live SAW experiences includes the Universal Studios Hollywood creative department as well as Lionsgate and Twisted Pictures.

A SAW attraction will also be included in the Halloween Horror Nights event at Universal Orlando.

Finally, wrapping up the USH news, I will be attending the debut of the park's new live show, The Creature From The Black Lagoon: The Musical, next Tuesday, reporting with a review later that day here on Theme Park Insider.

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Theme park deals, discounts and promo codes for July 2009

By Robert Niles
Published: June 25, 2009 at 11:32 AM

On the final Thursday of each month I post the best current discounts that I've found on tickets to the most popular theme parks in the United States. 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.)
Park PR people, please post your deals in the comments, or e-mail me.

Two pieces of general advice:

  • If your employer, school or credit union sells discounted movie and local attraction tickets, they might sell discounted theme park tickets, as well, even to out-of-town parks. Always check with them to see if you can find a better deal than those listed here.
  • Six Flags, Cedar Fair (Cedar Point, Knott's, Canada's Wonderland, etc.) and some Busch/SeaWorld annual passes can be used at other parks in the chain. If you'll be traveling, you might find cheaper deals buying those passes through parks other than the one closest to you.

Disney

At Disneyland, The best deal for Southern California residents is a three-day park-hopper for $99. All three days must be used within 45 days of first use. Tickets available at local grocery stores, and on the Disneyland website.

The best deal for Disneyland visitors is two days free with the purchase of a three-day ticket. A similar deal is available on hotel/theme park packages - two days/nights free with a three day/night purchase. Details and booking available on the Disneyland website.

At Walt Disney World, rumors abound that Disney will bring back its buy-four-nights, get-three-nights-free offer that it ran earlier this year. Currently, Disney World is offering free dining plans with 5-night, 6-day packages, valid for stays most nights Aug. 16 to Oct. 3.

Both Disney World and Disneyland continue to offer free admission on your birthday, too.

Universal

The following deals continue to be available via Universal Orlando's website:

  • $99 7-day, 2-park ticket
  • Buy 4 nights hotel, get two 2-park unlimited admission tickets.
  • Get 1 free 2-park kids' ticket with each paid adult ticket and hotel purchase.
  • Layoff protection plan; deposits refunded if you lose your job before your trip.

    At Universal Studios Hollywood, the best deal for local residents is a $60 unlimited admission pass that is good for six months. For tourists, USH is offering two days for the price of one, when bought online. Both offers are available via Universal's website.

    AAA offers a one-day Universal Hollywood ticket for $52.99. (The AAA deals for Universal Orlando are no better than the $99 7-day pass available on the Universal website.)

    SeaWorld

    SeaWorld Orlando offers adult one-day tickets at the kids' price, $64.95, with a second day free.

    SeaWorld San Diego offers the same deal, priced at $55. If you use the promo code SWCAAASmr09 you can get the same price on adult tickets and kids tickets for $27.50.

    SeaWorld San Antonio offers free kids admission with stays at participating local hotels.

    SeaWorld San Antonio also sent along the following additional deals:

    Pass Members Sundays: 30% off, food, merchandise and tours. Valid on Sundays now through December 31, 2009. Dining and tour experiences require advance reservations and subject to availability. Includes 30% off the Dine with Shamu Summertime Splash.

    4th of July Celebration: Fireworks display with reserved seating inside Ski Stadium. Each guest will receive popcorn, a bottled drink and a "glow-in-the-dark" souvenir. Wristband required for entry, cost: $20.95 per person. Pass members receive a 10% discount. Click for reservations

    All you care to eat picnic: $12.95 and $8.95 for children. Pass members receive 10% discount or 30% on Sundays. Available on select days only. Reservations here.

    Busch Gardens

    At Busch Gardens Williamsburg, adults can buy a one-day ticket for the kids' price of $49.95, or a Fun Card that provides admission for the rest of the year for $59.95. See the BGW website for links.

    Busch Gardens Tampa also offers adults at the kids price, which is $59.95 for the Tampa park, but you also get a second day free.

  • Comments (2) | Archive Link

    Disney World prepares for Hall of Presidents reopening

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 24, 2009 at 2:15 PM

    Disney World's prepping for its big Fourth of July weekend press event - the reopening of the Magic Kingdom's Hall of Presidents.

    I've heard that Disney has invited annual passholders to a preview this Sunday, June 28. If any Theme Park Insider readers attend, please, post photos and observations here on the Blog Flume.

    Meanwhile, Disney's released some details (though not photos yet) to our friends at the Orlando Sentinel.

    The big news is, of course, the addition of Barack Obama to the Hall. But there's new narration to the show, a shorter intro film and a revamped roll call of the presidents, as well.

    Comments (5) | Archive Link

    It's not too early for the silly season

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 23, 2009 at 3:00 PM

    I've made a couple of updates to our What's Under Construction listings, to add the upcoming Giga Coaster at Kings Dominion, as well as the new Sesame Street play area (replacing Land of Dragons) at Busch Gardens Tampa.

    Dune Raiders at Legoland California will be opening this weekend, and Creature from the Black Lagoon at Universal Studios Hollywood next week.

    As for Universal Studios Florida's Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit? I've quit guessing on that one. Test runs have been happening, but no word yet from the park on a media day.

    Remember, you can add missing and upcoming attractions to the listings on any park page. Or e-mail me with changes. Thanks!

    Comments (3) | Archive Link

    Holiday World mishap sends dozens to hospital

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 23, 2009 at 2:29 PM

    Not a great week for attractions in the Midwest. Following yesterday's news of a critical head injury that led to the closing of Kings Island's Son of Beast comes word that a water park accident at Southern Indiana's Holiday World sent 42 visitors to the hospital over the weekend.

    Too much of bleach and chemicals in the park's Bahari River filled the area with noxious fumes, sickening visitors. Some were taken by ambulance to an area hospital, others drove on their own, others were treated at the scene. Everyone's been released and the ride has since reopened.

    Also: It looks like part of the Mark Twain Riverboat caught fire during Fantasmic at Disneyland last night. It appears to have been quite small, endangered no one and quickly put out. Here's a picture.

    Comments (1) | Archive Link

    Kings Island closes Son of Beast

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 22, 2009 at 1:48 PM

    Just got a report that Kings Island has closed the Son of Beast roller coaster amid a state investigation of the ride.

    Son of Beast at Kings Island

    A 2006 accident sent two dozen riders to the hospital, and was later found to be the result of broken timbers on the wooden coaster. The ride closed then for an extended state investigation and repairs. New trains were installed in 2007, but the ride continues to suffer a painful reputation.

    Kings Island fans, what are you hearing?

    Comments (37) | Archive Link

    Theme park cast member stories: Picking the audience volunteers

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 22, 2009 at 9:46 AM

    Every Monday (Tuesdays in holiday weeks), Theme Park Insider editor Robert Niles shares one of his stories from working as a cast member at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. If you have ever worked at a theme park and have a story you'd like to share in this weekly feature, e-mail Robert.

    My trip last week to Universal Studios Hollywood reminded me of the first time I was selected as an "audience volunteer" at a theme park.

    It was on the Universal Studio Tour, which in the early 1970s pretty much was the entire show at Universal Studios Hollywood. In those days, folks would get off the tram at various sound stages, where they would walk in to see the demonstrations.

    One was the set for a Rice-a-Roni "commercial." This set-up provided the excuse to show visitors how a green screen worked. A San Francisco cable car stood in front of the screen, and tour guides picked a young couple and a couple of kids from the audience to play the script.

    A freckle-faced six-year-old, I was picked to be one of the kids.

    I don't remember doing much, just riding on the car, which shimmied a little on the fake track. The little girl and I didn't have lines, but were there to look cute for some gag that the grown-ups might have found funny but that sailed far over my six-year-old head.

    All I knew was that I got to have a couple hundred people watch me and I got my face up on a big TV screen. Fresh off my triumphant performance as Mickey Mouse on the Romper Room Halloween Special the fall before, I welcomed the chance to get back on TV again. So I was seriously unhappy when my parents broke it too me after the show that my work would not be on TV after all, that it was simply a stunt for the tour.

    Anyway, that kicked off my streak of being picked as an audience volunteer every time I visited a Universal theme park. I lived across the street from Universal Studios Florida when it opened in 1990, and visited frequently using my annual pass. (The fact that Universal was giving a free one-day ticket to AP holders each day they visited during that first summer definitely encouraged my visits. I was giving away Universal tickets as wedding presents to my friends for years.)

    A couple times I pulled a rope, dropping foam at other visitors in Earthquake. But my go-to role was as Mother in USF's Alfred Hitchcock show. The first six times I visited the show, I was pulled out of the queue and taken backstage, where a Universal employee helped me into the Mother dress and wig.

    I had no idea why what I was doing was funny, because I never got to see the show. Finally, on my seventh visit, I declined the chance to play Mother, and chatted up the attendant who'd asked.

    As I suspected, as a skinny 5-foot-9 guy, I was the right size to fit in the Mother dress. Plus, I'd always worn white tennis shoes to the park, which was the other requirement. I watched the show that time, finally understanding the gag, then when I came back a month later, I was ready to give Mother another go.

    But they didn't pick me. The streak was dead. Some guy with a mustache played Mother instead. Curious, I asked an employee if they'd changed their criteria. After a bit, he fessed up that they'd had. Why?

    They'd been picking too many Disney cast members (like myself, then) to play the part and wanted to get more tourists instead. At the time, mustaches were a violation of the Disney dress code, so... bingo, now "Mother" had to be rockin' a 'stache.

    I haven't been picked as an audience volunteer at a theme park since.

    I'd love to hear your stories about "volunteering" in theme park shows, or, for folks who work in the parks, about how you picked people from the audience, as well.

    Comments (16) | Archive Link

    Father's Day silliness at 'One Flag' park

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 21, 2009 at 5:03 PM

    The kids went all out this morning at Theme Park Insider world headquarters, fashioning "One Flag Amusement Park" from their rooms upstairs.

    My tour began with park president Brian and "Pumpkin Princess" Natalie, decked out in her orange dress and wig. They led me to my first ride of the day, "Electric Bullet," where the kids spun me around in Brian's swivel chair while I shot his plastic cap gun at blue star targets they'd taped around his room.

    But before I could ride, I had to watch a shot pre-show and safety spiel that the two had recorded on our Flip video camera. Yes, they did warn me to "keep my hands and arms inside the vehicle at all times."

    Good kids!

    After racking up the high score on Electric Bullet, I was walked over to Natalie's room for the "Fishing" carnival game, where I hooked a pair of AYSO dog tags on my line.

    Then, it was into the bathroom for "Spider-Man's Challenge," where I had to cross the room without touching any piece of the web of yarn they'd threaded across the it. I bumped the wall the first time, and Natalie played a warning spiel that they'd recorded on the Flip. The second time through, I made it across, earning the "Congratulations" spiel.

    After that, we took a quick break at the snack bar, where they presented me with the "Father's Day Special," peanuts that they fried in sugar on the stove top earlier this morning. Not bad, actually.

    My final ride was downstairs, in front of the TV, upon which Brian screened his "Terminator" ride. I sat in another swivel chair, which Brian shook and swayed in synch with the film. ("It's like The Simpsons Ride!" he exclaimed.)

    The movie, shot from the Terminator's point of view, offers half a dozen scenes of chasing and shooting at Natalie, who played a different character (in a different costume) in each. In a nice touch, Brian shot the whole thing holding a piece of red plastic over the lens (to match the Terminator's POV).

    On my way out of the "park," I was presented with a hand-written sheet of coupons, good for free rides, snacks and meals upon future visits.

    "You'll have to come back next year," Brian said, "when we'll be celebrating our first anniversary."

    I most certainly will.

    Comments (10) | Archive Link

    Vote of the week: Universal Studios Hollywood or Universal Studios Florida?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 18, 2009 at 9:11 PM

    Thanks to Theme Park Insider reader Justin for suggesting this week's vote:

    I was curious: Regarding people who've visited both parks, do people prefer Disneyland or the Magic Kingdom? Do people prefer Universal Studios Florida or Universal Studios Hollywood?

    We addressed the Disneyland versus Disney World's MK question earlier this spring. But it's high time we let the Universal parks duke it out. So, today, we will.

    Remember, it's just the studio parks we're talking about here, not the whole Universal Orlando complex. So don't go talking about Islands of Adventure here. That doesn't count. Only the USF part of the resort matters on the Orlando side in this vote.

    Pluses for the Orlando park? Men in Black. A better Mummy. Sit-down dining in the park.

    Pluses for Hollywood? The Studio Tour. Waterworld. A movie-themed park with actual movie-making.

    What do you think? Tell us about your choice, in the comments. And have a great weekend!

    Comments (14) | Archive Link

    Celebrating at Disneyland; not so much at Freestyle Music Park

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 18, 2009 at 3:42 PM

    Since I was at Universal today for its event, particle physics and medical science prevented me from also being down at Disneyland for today's Lakers/Kobe Bryant victory parade. But Disney's PR team dutifully sent along a photo:

    Kobe went to Disneyland

    Disneyland also picked from the crowd a father and son wearing Kobe jerseys to ride the Matterhorn with the Lakers' star. No one with a daughter selected, though. Go figure. /snark

    BTW, does anyone have a photo of Disney World president Meg Crofton in her Lakers-themed Mickey ears, following the bet?

    In more depressing (unless you're an Orlando Magic fan) but not unexpected news, attendance is not meeting the new owners' forecasts at the renamed Freestyle Music Park in Myrtle Beach, S.C. A first-year attendance figure under 1 million helped doom the former Hard Rock Park to bankruptcy, and it appears that the new owners aren't doing much better in attracting people to this park.

    Comments (8) | Archive Link

    Universal Studios Hollywood reopens more of its Studio Tour backlot

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 18, 2009 at 12:13 PM

    Universal Studios Hollywood marked progress today in its recovery from last summer's backlot fire as the theme park and movie studio reopened its Courthouse Square set to the public.

    Theme Park Insider readers Chris, Doug and John joined me on the first Studio Tour tram to drive through the new Courthouse Square.

    On our way to the set, we passed some of the ongoing construction on Universal's backlot, all part of the "Project Phoenix" reconstruction. Here, John takes a picture of the new Brownstone Street.

    Our tram guide said that Universal's taken this opportunity to reconceive some of the backlot sets, and now some of the locations will be built with interiors, instead of as mere hollow shells, to save film crews time shuttling between the back lot and the front lot soundstages.

    We rounded the corner into Courthouse Square, to find that Universal piled on the cheese for the reopening. Doc Brown and other Universal characters led a marching band into the balloon-festooned square to kick off the short made-for-the-cameras event.

    TV crews camped out in the middle of the square, but we in the tram were the guests of honor.

    Construction continues on the far side of the square, used as Hill Valley in the "Back to the Future" films and now used in the CBS TV show "The Ghost Whisperer."

    A quick smack of a champagne bottle against the front of the tram to "Christen" the route, and we then pulled away for the rest of the backlot tour.

    Universal's next step for the backlot is to build a new version of the Kong attraction, which is slated to open next summer.

    Update: Doug e-mailed a great hillside shot he took of Courthouse Square, with the "clock tower" building in the middle and the construction surrounding.

    Comments (2) | Archive Link

    Readers pick their top tips for visiting theme parks this summer

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 17, 2009 at 10:38 AM

    Looking for some great tips and advice for visiting theme parks this summer? The readers of ThemeParkInsider.com have 'em for you.

    If you've not visited our Tips page yet (or recently), that's where we vote on short items of advice that help you get more out of a visit to specific parks, or all parks in general. Anyone can submit a tip, or vote. You don't need to be a registered member of the site.

    Tips are listed in order of popularity, with those receiving the highest net rating ("yes" votes minus "no" votes) at the top.

    Here are the top tips in several categories...

    Top tips applicable to all parks:

    1. Get to the park early to be sure you can get on your favorite rides before the park gets too crowded.
    2. Bring your own water bottles. It will save you time and money!
    3. Don't use lifts or other tricks to make your kids look taller than they are. Height and safety restrictions are there for a reason.
    4. Always work your way backwards through a park instead of stopping at the first attraction you get to. You will beat 60% of the crowds.
    5. If you're going to get an annual pass, add parking to at least one pass (if it isn't included already). It seems expensive at first, but at more than $10 a pop for parking at most parks, it pays off in the end.

    Top Disney World tips:

    1. Call 407-WDW-DINE or visit http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/restaurants/ up to 90 days before your visit to make your dining reservations.
    2. [Epcot] As soon as the park opens, go either to get a fastpass for Soarin' or Test Track ASAP
    3. [Disney's Hollywood Studios] If you're on hand for park opening and want to ride Rock 'n Roller Coaster and Tower of Terror, make sure to get a FastPass for one of these before getting in line for the other.

    Top Universal Orlando tips:

    1. If you stay in one of Universal's three on-site hotels, the Royal Pacific, the Hard Rock or the Portofino Bay, you get free front-of-the-line access to all Universal Orlando attractions.
    2. You can make advance dining reservations for Universal restaurants and character meals, including the Theme Park Insider Award-winning Mythos, by calling 407-224-4012.
    3. [Universal Studios Florida] On Men in Black, aim for the light at the top of the car on the other side of the track when you are turned face-to-face with it, and do not forget to hit the red button on your dashboard when it flashes and you are told to hit it.

    Top Disneyland tips:

    1. If it is hot, or crowded, go sit in the Tiki Room... A great place to cool down and rest the feet.
    2. Riding the steam train to the Main Street station can be a great way to get out of the park when Main Street and the hub in front of the castle are packed during parades and fireworks.
    3. The best time to go to Disneyland is the week after Thanksgiving till the week before Christmas. It's themed for the holidays and has the lowest attendance!

    We're always look for more tips, and more votes, so if you've got one better, click over and submit it!

    Comments (4) | Archive Link

    Who wants to get the first ride through the new Courthouse Square at Universal Studios Hollywood?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 16, 2009 at 12:03 PM

    You might remember that a fire destroyed part of the Universal Studios Hollywood backlot last summer, including King Kong and the famous Courthouse Square set, where the Back to the Future movies, among others, were filmed.

    Well, Universal's been rebuilding the backlot, and while the new Kong isn't ready yet, Courthouse Square is, and the first Studio Tour of the newly refurbished sections of the backlot goes out on Thursday morning.

    Universal Studio Tour

    I've been invited to be on the first tram, and Universal's letting me bring three guests along. Interested? E-mail me, or respond in the comments below.

    This isn't a free admit to the park. It's basically a front of the line pass to get onto the VIP tram. But it'd be a fun way to spend a Thursday morning, if you are in the LA area and either have a USH pass or were looking for an excuse to visit the park.

    First come, first served. I'll e-mail privately with details on where we'll meet up to get on the tram. Then I'll be posting pictures and a write-up here on the Flume Thursday afternoon.

    Comments (4) | Archive Link

    How to solve a customer service problem, online dining reservations at Disney World, plus other notable links*

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 16, 2009 at 11:45 AM

    Three notable blog links today:

  • Christopher Elliott, one of my favorite consumer travel advocates, has a nice story about how a Disney World visitor got a billing mistake resolved. There's some great advice at the bottom of the piece, as one often finds in Elliott's stuff:

    When something goes wrong, give the grievance process a little time. Guests often expect an immediate resolution, but that’s not always realistic.

    In other words, be polite when asking for a resolution: Explain your problem and ask for help. Go up the chain, if needed, but don't go medieval, threatening to sue.

  • Arthur Levine at About.com recaps Six Flags CEO Mark Shapiro's conference call yesterday, where Shapiro addresses the company's recent bankruptcy filing.

    Shapiro was frank about the debt problems, but optimistic about the parks' future. I thought that he hit many the same notes as he did in his one-one-one interview with Theme Park Insider last March, when the bankruptcy rumors had started to fly.

  • Al Lutz at MiceAge lights into Disney for crowd control problems during the public premiere of the "Nightastic" shows at Disneyland and California Adventure. (That was on Friday night, the night after I attended.)

    It's an ongoing problem with anything new at Disneyland: the APs swarm the place for the first days, making access near impossible. I'm putting this on the Tips page now: Don't try to see a new Disneyland attraction or show in its first two weeks. Wait, and the crowds will be much lighter.

    Deeper in his post, Lutz confirms that the Electrical Parade will return to Disneyland next year, largely due to construction disrupting the parade route in California Adventure. (Plus, they'll be in the first year of the World of Color show then, anyway.)

  • * Finally, Walt Disney World now offers online reservations for its restaurants via disneyworld.disney.go.com/restaurants. Have at it.

  • Comments (1) | Archive Link

    Worldwide Disney Parks updates from Imagineering*

    By Roger Dodger
    Published: June 16, 2009 at 3:21 AM

    [Editor's note: It's a new name on the byline, but an old friend of TPI whom I trust, who is posting anonymously with permission for what should be obvious reasons. Anyway, have fun with this inside scoop, and remember, planning does not mean construction, so not everything these guys talk about gets built.]

    Update: See the comments for confirmation and details from Disney on the renovation of the Disneyland Hotel.

    The Imgagineers gave an update today about Disney's worldwide park/resorts/etc plans. I'll try not to be too wordy, but just give an overview. It's all from memory since taking notes wasn't really encouraged.

    1. STAR TOURS: As rumored, the rehab is about to start. And you know why? Because Tokyo Disney (Oriental Land Company) wanted their own version so they poured in some money. And George Lucas has been VERY involved. The new version sounds REALLY cool. Apparently, the original Star Tours was supposed to be updated every three years or so with a new film (ha!). So now, they're creating a new 3-D film (yes, everyone will have to wear 3-D glasses). The new film will be set in the time between Star Wars Films 3 and 4 (so, after Queen Amidala's death but before Luke finds Obi Wan and blows up the Death Star). But here's the cool part -- they're saying that the ride will now have hundreds of versions, so guests will never know what they're getting into....they're going to film about 25 openings, about 25 middles, and then 25 endings, so your ride will never be the same...this is one way to make sure it stays fresh for MUCH longer. I can't wait to see this.

    2. WDW's Fantasy Land (in the Magic Kingdom) is getting a MAJOR expansion (yes, expansion). And where will that expansion go, you ask? In Mickey's Toon Town Fair, a place that was originally designed to be only a 3-year entry. Apparently, Imagineers are adding "The Enchanted Forest," a place, according to the head story exec, where Princesses seem to always run into (to much laughter). So, yes, it sounds like it will definitely be a heavy does of princesses, but with lots and lots of room for kids and whole families to have tons of fun. Looks like it will include musical shows, story times, birthday parties, lots of character meet-and-greats (of course). We'll see if it turns out to be as cool as their promising. And the area between the castle and the Carousel is being transformed into a castle courtyard, complete with brand new themeing and shrubbery. This is definitely going to be a big change.

    3. As speculated, the LITTLE MERMAID dark ride is going into both Disneyland AND WDW. Yep, it's taking over the space once occupied by the Subs.

    4. The next major Disney theme park will be on 2,000 acres in Shangai. Which surprises me, considering the poor attendance thus far at Hong Kong. But, of course, Hong Kong's park is pretty small. The Shanghai project looks to be pretty expansive, with lots of lakes, hotels, etc.

    5. The Disneyland Hotel is getting a top-to-bottom rebuild. And the entire courtyard/recreation area is being torn down and rebuilt. Basically, Disney's almost rebuilding this hotel from scratch.

    6. Disneyland Paris is getting a whole new TOYSTORY Play Place land, which looks like it's kind of like the "Honey I Shrunk the Kids" play area, but WAAAAAY more expansive and with actual attractions. We can probably expect to see some form of this in Florida soon, to replace the "Honey" play area.

    7. Disney has purchased land in Washington D.C. to build a major resort/water park/themed area....basically, the head designer said that since Disney failed twice to build an American History-themed park, this was their attempt to "do it" right. The designs showed a very, very large historical-type resort hotel with an adjacent water part. They said, however, this plan was in the very early stages.

    8. The POP CENTURY resort is back on track to be finished now, but the remaining hotels will be Animation Suites hotels, which are described as vacation suites for families on a budget -- and completely new concept for Disney. Waaay cool.

    9. The Tree House Villas have all been replaced and are ready to be occupied by Disney Vacation Club members.

    10. On the Cruise Ships, the areas for age-specific programming are being expanded, but the cool part is the new ANIMATOR'S PALETTE restaurants -- guests will actually draw cartoons when they sit down. These cartoons will be given to the "magic people." Then later, during the meal, those actual drawings will come to life and be animated on the walls next to each table. Very cool.

    Also, the Turtle Talk with Crush is coming aboard the new Cruise Ships, and Crush will be swimming all around the Animator's Palette to interact with guests. Sounds cool.

    11. Hong Kong Disney is getting site-specific attractions based on existing ones here in the states -- for example, instead of Haunted Mansion, they'll be getting the Mystical Manor, where a curse is released inside the house and all manner of supernatural things occur.

    That's all I can remember at this moment -- I'll post more as I remember.

    Comments (20) | Archive Link

    Theme park cast member stories: Sometimes, Mother Nature runs the show

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 15, 2009 at 10:27 AM

    Every Monday (Tuesdays in holiday weeks), Theme Park Insider editor Robert Niles shares one of his stories from working as a cast member at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. If you have ever worked at a theme park and have a story you'd like to share in this weekly feature, e-mail Robert.

    The people who design and build theme parks create powerful immersive environments. The scale of engineering involved can be immense. The apparent "ground level" of Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, for example, is actually the second story of a massive complex, built upon a series of "tunnels" that were built at the actual level of the ground. Earth was excavated from what became the Seven Seas Lagoon, piled around the tunnels, and the Magic Kingdom built on top of that.

    We often joked at the Magic Kingdom that the tallest mountain in Florida was Disney's Big Thunder Mountain, a fake peak built by Disney's contractors. (This was before Splash Mountain, so that might be the joke now.) Regardless, starting from when you board the ferry at the Transportation and Ticket Center and sail across the Seven Seas Lagoon, all the way through your day in the Magic Kingdom, whether you take a boat around the Rivers of America or ascend Big Thunder, every body of water you see and every landscape you cross will be 100-percent, completely, totally man-made.

    But from time to time, Mother Nature reminds cast members they cannot completely dismiss her will. The afternoon thunderstorms provide one example. We often found others working the rafts at Tom Sawyer's Island.

    TSI rarely failed to open at its designated time each morning, when I worked there. The rafts typically opened an hour after the park, partly because it wasn't exactly the most popular attraction in the Magic Kingdom, but mostly because no work could be done on the island, to stock the restaurant or do any required maintenance work, until the sun came up. Unlike every other location in the park, the island had no artificial street light, which is why the island closes at dusk. With no artificial lights for the third shift, work had to wait until sun-up, so we waited until 10 am to open the island to guests.

    The lead still showed up at 7:30, though, as he or she would be needed to ferry some of the maintenance and food workers across the river. Custodial had a Jon boat that they used to take trash off the island, but everyone else relied on the rafts. I arrived for my lead shift several minutes early one morning, carrying the box of doughnuts and the morning paper that I used as bait to ensure both that my morning crew would be on time, and that supervisors would drop in, when I could confront them with the list of show quality repairs that I wanted approved.

    But this morning, as I turned the corner onto the TSI mainland dock, I immediately knew that this wouldn't be a normal morning at TSI.

    Not with a very large alligator - and her kids - sunning themselves on the dock.

    I froze and hid the doughnuts behind my back (I have no idea whether gators like doughnuts, and had no inclination to find out). Slowly, I backed up, and walked the long way around the TSI cabin, so I could get into the office from the queue exit.

    I called animal control.

    "Um, we've got three alligators on the Tom Sawyer's Island raft dock. Could you send someone down?"

    "On the island or the mainland?"

    "Mainland."

    "Oooookay."

    While I waited for animal control to show up, I called the opening supervisor. No need for doughnuts today, I figured I'd soon have every suit in the Magic Kingdom on my dock regardless.

    Well, not actually on the dock, but near it. Okay, a respectable distance away. But they'd be looking at the dock.

    Within five minutes, I was hosting a little morning get-together for two animal control guys, two attractions supervisors, the area manager, and a merchandise supervisor who walked over to see what the fuss was about.

    One of the attractions sups turned to one of the animal control guys.

    "So, how soon can you move those alligators so that we can open?"

    The animal control guys exploded with laughter.

    "Sorry, we don't move gators. They get to stay as loooong as they want."

    The attractions supervisors looked a bit queasy.

    "You want to know when you'll be open?" the other animal control guy asked, as he nodded toward the attractions supervisors. "Go on down and ask the gator!"

    So when the park opened that morning, Tom Sawyer's Island became Disney's Gatorland, and the raft drivers became crowd control, managing the flow of guests who lined up along the riverside walkway to gawk at Mrs. Gator and her young-'uns. Around 10:15, the gators had had enough, slipped into the water and swam away.

    We waited another 20 minutes before we opened the ride. Just in case the gators decided to come back.

    Because, you know, sometimes Mother Nature runs the show.

    Comments (3) | Archive Link

    A Thrill Ride for my Taste Buds!

    By Anthony Murphy
    Published: June 14, 2009 at 6:49 PM

    This past Friday, I was lucky enough to be invited to take part in a Food Network Event at Six Flags Great America.

    While nobody was exactly sure what was taking place in Southwest Territory, we all found out that we were the special guests on a Theme Park edition of Dinner Impossible hosted (and prepared) by Chef Robert Irvine. His challenge was to make a buffet style dinner for 250 Great America guests using ingredients found in the park, especially ingredients that are a staple of the theme park industry such as hamburgers, hotdogs, and, Great America’s claim to fame, funnel cakes!

    Robert Irvine

    Irvine was running around a ton between 6 and 7, but made his deadline (7pm) before the Mission Bells of Southwest Territory rang by 30 seconds. Anyway, the food was quite interesting and very sweet for the most part. I tried to take a little of everything as seen in the picture below (I know it’s a lot of food!)

    My plate

    Here is what was on the menu:
    Hot Dog Sticks
    Asian Style Maryak Potatoes with Ginger Gelato and Deep Fried Ribs
    Jerk Chicken in a Waffle Cone
    Seafood Hotdogs in Citrus Chutney
    BBQ Beef Brisket in Funnel Cake
    Seared Scallop Sandwich with Shelled Brie and Apple Sage Cotton Candy
    Turkey Legs Osso Bucco
    Square Burger Roller Coaster Rueben
    Tornado Popcorn Cake and Melba

    For the most part, the food was actually pretty good, but some stuff, like the Seafood Hotdogs and the Seared Scallops were a little too sweet and weird. The one dish that surprised me was the Beef Brisket in the Funnel Cake and the dish that I enjoyed the most was the Jerk Chicken in a Waffle Cone. The ingredients that made me wonder where they were from were the seafood. Actually, I found out that it’s from Hurricane Harbor, their Water Park and Key Lime Cove, their new official resort. However, the people at my table were surprised that they did not have him use pretzels, Lemon Ice, and their famous Apple Turnovers. All in all, the Dinner Impossible was a success! As my friend Taleb Masri said, “It was a thrill ride for my taste buds!” So make sure to check out this episode which should be airing late September.

    The buffet

    I would also like to thank Terri, the manager in charge of the event for letting my group when I was told that I was too late to participate. I RSVP to this event and warned them that it would be hard for me to get there in Chicago Rush hour traffic between the registration of 2-5, but I would be there before the MUST BE SEATED at 6:30. If SFGA does this again, they need to get nicer people for that front area and hold seating for the people that were kind enough to RSVP. I got in so crisis avoided, but I just wanted to thank Terri again who was the bright spot on poor attitude workers.

    Comments (13) | Archive Link

    Six Flags Files For Chapter 11 Bankruptcy

    By Nick Markham
    Published: June 13, 2009 at 10:29 AM

    Earlier today, Six Flags filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy. The company has more than $2 billion of debt.

    According to Mark Shapiro, President and CEO of Six Flags, “The current management team inherited a $2.4 billion debt load that cannot be sustained, particularly in these challenging financial markets. As a result, we are cleaning up the past and positioning the Company for future growth.”

    Shapiro said this is a plan to cut off all of the debt so that Six Flags can rise back up and be as competitive as ever.

    “No one should be confused about what a bankruptcy process means for Six Flags. Following a record year of performance in 2008, which completed the three-year turnaround of our system-wide park operation, this action to clean up the balance sheet paves the way for a full revival of the company. We will emerge from this process stronger and more competitive than ever. ”

    Bankruptcy does not mean that the company is defunct or that the parks are closing down. It simply means that a court will oversee the restructuring of the company's debt, instead of the company trying to do that on its own, as it has for the past many months.

    Update from Robert: Here is a statement that Magic Mountain President Jay Thomas just e-mailed:

    Just to remind you, this is a back of house issue of our parent company that will have no impact on Six Flags Magic Mountain & Hurricane Harbor, or any of the Six Flags Parks. We will be open each and every scheduled operating day and continue to plan for our future. In fact, we are actively planning for our 50th celebration in 2011 - guaranteed to be the biggest celebration in our company's history.

    The progress we have made at Six Flags Magic Mountain over the past three years continues to impress the guests who visit. We set all time records in our Guest Satisfaction Scores at our property in 2008. With additions such as X2, Thomas Town and the ALL NEW coaster Terminator Salvation The Ride, we have a product offering for thrill-seekers of all ages.

    We are the absolute best value in town, hands down! We are here to stay, and thanks to the restructuring, we will be staying for many years to come.

    Also, for first-time visitors to Theme Park Insider, we are the news source that first broke the news of Six Flags' debt difficulties, way back in June 2002 when the chain was run by management from the former Premier Parks.

    Here is some other, more recent, coverage from TPI on Six Flags' finances:

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    Vote of the week: What is Disney's best night-time show?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 12, 2009 at 1:23 PM

    Thanks to Theme Park Insider reader Tim W for this week's question, which I've been holding in reserve for ages now. But with the Disneyland Resort this week unveiling the newest version of its two night-time shows, it's finally the perfect time to ask this question.

    Which of Disney's current night-time shows do you think is the best? We're including shows from seven of Disney's parks around the world. (Fantasmic does double duty, with the original version at Disneyland and a second at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Florida.)

    There's no criteria here upon which to judge, just your impression and decision on which show you most enjoy watching.

    But do tell us in the comments why you picked the show you did. And have a great weekend!

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    Disneyland debuts its Nightastic summer show line-up

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 12, 2009 at 10:40 AM

    Disneyland's hoping that three refurbished night-time shows can help pack its parks this summer, with no new attraction to offer Southern California's theme park fans.

    Disney's branded the effort "Summer Nightastic" and last night previewed the shows to invited reporters, a slew of guests and a horde of people who know someone who works at some media outlet.

    Ultimately, ticket deals, such as the current three-day park-hopper for $99, promise to do more to boost attendance to the park Theme Park Insider readers ranked the world's best last summer. But fresh attention to classics such as the original Fantasmic should encourage most theme park fans, and would be a welcomed addition to Disneyland's line-up.

    So to that, let's score Disneyland at two out of three. A movie-driven soundtrack and the soaring vocals of former Disneyland cast member (and Broadway star) Eden Espinosa elevate Magical among Disney's best efforts in fireworks shows.

    And a fresh recording of the Baroque Hoedown, along with a new Tinkerbell float, the return of the Snow White and Pinocchio units, and enhanced lighting effects, breathe life into Disney's Main Street Electrical Parade.

    Tinkerbell's float in Disney's Electrical Parade

    But Disney struck out on Fantasmic, as on-going technical problems with a new version of the Maleficent dragon robbed Disneyland's premier live show of its fire-breathing climax.

    I spoke with Doug McIntyre, Disneyland's Director Development and Production, at the end of the evening and he rejected claims that the new dragon unit had suffered extensive physical damage during testing for Fantasmic.

    "We've had a tough couple of weeks, to be honest with you," McIntyre said. "We were about seven weeks behind in the build process, got to test and adjust process and had an issue." Despite repeated questioning, McIntyre would not say what the issue was, except to dispute rumors that the unit's head had fallen off or that it had broken into pieces.

    "It's 45 feet tall, wingspan of 32 feet, has 18 different animation axes of motion in it and takes five computers to run it," McIntyre said. "It's a beast."

    McIntyre said that the dragon failed during its programming, and producers will need to finish programming it once repairs are complete. [Reading between the lines of McIntyre's comments about the development timeline for the dragon, we're looking at weeks, not days, until it is ready to debut.] Based upon initial movement in early programming though, McIntyre remains optimistic that Maleficent will wow audiences when it is ready.

    "It's the most stunning, fully realized staged Disney character that I've ever seen done."

    Disneyland also debuted its "new" Tomorrowland Terrace concept, TLT Dance Club, with a concert by Disney Channel B-lister Mitchel Musso. Personally, I love seeing live bands return to the Tomorrowland Terrace stage, and hope that Disney will be more aggressive about booking acts that will elicit the fan reaction that Musso did last night.

    Mitchel Musso performs at Disneyland

    Disney's got a huge stable of acts, and there's, um, "No Doubt" that Orange County's produced some top bands as well. (Forgive me.) I'd love to see the next generation at Disneyland, on their way up.

    Nightastic starts tonight and runs through August 23, a relatively short run for Disney's summer season. But McIntyre hinted strongly that Magical would return next summer (and that Disney might have a new fireworks show for Halloween), so that won't be the last we see of this trio of shows.

    Now, if only Maleficent would find her inner dragon and show up.

    Comments (8) | Archive Link

    SeaWorld Orlando offers buy-one, get-one ticket for Florida residents

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 11, 2009 at 2:39 PM

    Florida residents who buy a one-day ticket online to SeaWorld Orlando can pick a free one-day ticket to either Aquatica or Busch Gardens Tampa, starting today.

    SeaWorld Orlando

    The second ticket must be used by the end of the year. Tickets are available at SeaWorld's website, and cost the regular SeaWorld one-day price of $74.95 for adults and $64.95 for kids.

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    Top theme park hotel spotlight: Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 11, 2009 at 11:02 AM

    We're in the final month of rating as we nail down the winners of this year's Theme Park Insider Awards. Each Thursday, we're profiling one of the hotels contending for the Best Theme Park Hotel honor. Today it's Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge at Walt Disney World.

    Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge

    Disney World resorts are known for their highly themed settings, but in the case of the Animal Kingdom Lodge, it isn't just stagecraft magic. Those are real animals walking outside your window at the Lodge, located near the Disney World theme park of the same name. Renovations and expansions over the years have brought more attention to the Lodge, but it remains a favorite of many loyal fans for its decor, service, amenities and of course, the animals.

    If you've stayed at the Animal Kingdom Lodge in the past 12 months, please visit its listing page to submit your rating and leave a comment.

    Previously:

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    Looking to reach theme park fans and travel consumers?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 11, 2009 at 10:59 AM

    [We interrupt our normally scheduled theme park chit-chat for a commercial message form Robert. If you don't work for a theme park or other travel-related business, you can skip this post.]

    I haven't done this before, but running the site is my day job now, I wanted to reach out to theme parks and other business that want to help protect their market share in this tough economy by finding a more efficient way to advertise to theme park fans and family travel consumers.

    We've built a sizable community of those fans here at Theme Park Insider, and while we have a pretty strict ethics policy that prohibits paid messages in the blogs, reviews and discussion forums on the site, I have created two banner ad positions that are available for businesses wanting to reach theme park customers.

    The mean Theme Park Insider reader spent between US$1,501-$1,750 last year on theme park visits, according to an online survey of site readers. (The median per-reader spending would be higher than that.)

    According to Google Analytics, ThemeParkInsider.com reaches more than 200,000 unique readers a month and more than 1.8 million unique readers a year. That's nearly $3 billion in annual theme park spending by readers of this site.

    We run two types of ad formats on Theme Park Insider:

    • A 160x600 Wide Skyscraper that runs along the left side of each page
    • A 300x250 Medium Rectangle that runs at the top of the green column on the right side of each page

    If you are running an ad campaign through Google, and if you have image ads running for at least one of those two ad sizes, you can site-target www.themeparkinsider.com to increase the chances that your ads appear on this site.

    If you're not running ads through Google, and would like to place an ad with us directly, please contact me via the site or e-mail me at themeparkinsider[at]gmail.com. We have the following monthly packages available:

    For the 160x600 Wide Skyscraper ($6 CPM):

    • 50,000 impressions - $300/mo
    • 100,000 impressions - $600/mo

    For the 300x250 Medium Rectangle ($4 CPM):

    • 50,000 impressions - $200/mo
    • 125,000 impressions - $500/mo

    Thank you for your support of Theme Park Insider. (And if you are not an advertiser, but a reader who appreciates the site and would like to throw us a few bucks, we gladly accept donations, too.)

    [I'm also going to ask folks to not comment on this post. If you have a comment about ads or ad policies on TPI, please contact me directly using the means listed above. Thanks.]

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    Game show + Roller coasters = ?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 10, 2009 at 3:00 PM

    I don't have cable (yeah, I'm cheap), so I didn't find out about this until reading Deadspin this afternoon, but Cartoon Network is debuting a new game show on June 20 called Brainrush, where contestants will have to answer questions... while riding a roller coaster.

    From the clip, it appears that the questions are ridiculously simple, given that you get the answers from the host. But can you remember jack while flipping upside down at 60+ mph? Hmmm, we'll see.

    That said, I totally want to do this show. I've done game shows. I've done TV on roller coasters. I'd have this in the bag... which is why they'd never let me on in a zillion years.

    Still, it looks a lot more exciting than "Cash Cab." Your thoughts?

    Comments (11) | Archive Link

    Restaurant review: Les Chefs de France, classic French from an original 'top chef'

    By Scott Joseph
    Published: June 10, 2009 at 10:39 AM

    The final finalist of this year's Theme Park Insider Award for best restaurant is Les Chefs de France at Epcot.

    Les Chefs de France

    Most of the guests who pass by the classically reproduced brasserie -- indeed most who dine there -- have no idea that one of its owners is considered to be the most famous chef in the world. In fact, Paul Bocuse could be said to be the world's first celebrity chef for something he did in 1965.

    You can read the details and a full review at Scott Joseph's Orlando Restaurant Guide.

    Then, if you have eaten at Les Chefs de France in the past 12 months, you are invited to submit a rating and comment on the restaurant's Theme Park Insider listing page.

    Update from Robert: Here are Scott's previous reviews:

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    Theme Park Insider's list of official theme park Twitter feeds

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 9, 2009 at 2:15 PM

    I use Twitter on my iPhone, and have found it a great way to keep up with many news sources, as well as friends and industry acquaintances. If you're among the dwindling crowd not familiar with Twitter, it's a feed of short messages (140 characters or less) from people you choose to follow. Anyone who registers may post updates, which are read by anyone who has chosen to follow you. Following is not reciprocal, so you don't have to follow people who follow your updates, and vice versa.

    In the theme park world, SeaWorld's RealShamu is the king of all Twitterers, with frequently hilarious posts, cute photos and giveaways to fans. But many other parks maintain Twitter feeds, too. Some are meant primarily for writers who cover the parks, but many, like RealShamu, are written for fans.

    Here is a list of official Twitter feeds that I follow from several theme parks:

    If you follow an official feed from another park (or if you are on the PR staff at a park with a Twitter feed not listed), please post the URL for that feed in the comments. I'll update the list as additions are posted.

    And, of course, you can very welcomed to follow Theme Park Insider on Twitter, too.

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    Theme park cast member stories: 'Quit thinking and just drive the raft'

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 8, 2009 at 10:56 AM

    Every Monday (Tuesdays in holiday weeks), Theme Park Insider editor Robert Niles shares one of his stories from working as a cast member at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. If you have ever worked at a theme park and have a story you'd like to share in this weekly feature, e-mail Robert.

    I've been telling this story at journalism training conferences for some time now, since I believe it illustrates some common problems with corporate training. But it's a good theme park story, too, so I'll include it here today.

    My first day in Magic Kingdom West attractions, I was assigned to learn how to drive the Tom Sawyer Island rafts.

    Rafts to Tom Sawyer's Island

    My experience with water craft before starting that hot, humid June morning was limited to canoeing while in Boy Scouts. I'd never sailed (which would have been far more relevant), so my trainer took me through the steps.

    Unlash the stern. Push the bow away from the dock. Come around back and put the raft into forward gear. Straighten the tiller and until the mast lines up the Frontier Mercantile sign across the river.

    When the raft gets to a certain shrub on Duck Island, push the tiller all the way to the right to make the raft turn left. Hold the tiller there until the mast swings around to the shack on the island dock. Then cut the throttle to neutral and swing the tiller the other way, all the way to the left. Give the raft a blast in reverse to slow it down, then work the throttle forward or reverse, as necessary, to ease it close to the dock. (Put the tiller to the right when going forward and to the left when in reverse.)

    Then lash the stern, put the throttle in forward, go around front, tie off the bow and help guests off the boat.

    And that was just the first half of the trip, mainland to island. There was another set of instructions for getting back.

    Most of the time, I could "stick to the script" and get over and back without incident. But if I pushed off a little too hard when leaving the main dock, or started my turn at the wrong moment near Duck Island, I just didn't know how to adjust. So I'd be stuck in the middle of the river for five minutes (or more!), blocking the canoes, keelboats and sometimes even the riverboat, as I rocked the throttle back and forth, swinging the tiller around, trying to find the magic combination that would lead me back to shore.

    After a couple weeks, my lead had seen enough. It was time for retraining.

    She sent me out the next morning, before the park opened, this time with a different trainer.

    "So, how'd you learn to do this?" he asked.

    "Well, I push off the bow, then line up the mast with the Frontier Mercantile sign."

    "Oh, God, no."

    He took the tiller and steered us to the middle of the river.

    "Okay, Robert, drive the raft."

    "Huh?"

    "Just drive the raft. Take us wherever you want to go."

    "I've always wanted to drive around the island," I said, looking away.

    "Let's go."

    So we went, with me slowly nursing the raft around the Rivers of America.

    "Speed up," my trainer said. "The faster you drive, the tighter you can make these turns."

    For the next 10 minutes, we sailed around the island, with me taking the raft from riverbank to riverbank, wherever my trainer asked me. But he never told we what to aim for, or what on the raft to move - just where he wanted me to go. I felt the tiller and the throttle, how they worked together, and what combinations would move me where, and how quickly.

    When we made it around, he asked me to dock on the island side. I swept the tiller to the side, and slid up next to the dock.

    "Okay, let's head back."

    I cast off, and with a smooth turn, brought the raft into the mainland dock.

    "You're fine," he said, hopping off the raft and jogging into the office. "Don't worry about where the mast is pointing. Quit thinking about it.

    "Just drive the raft."

    I never missed the dock again.

    For more stories from Robert, check out his eBook, "Stories from a Theme Park Insider".

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    Guess who's coming to Fantasyland?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 8, 2009 at 10:16 AM

    Here's an insider's tip for Walt Disney World visitors...

    If you're an on-property hotel guest staying up late with the kids in the Magic Kingdom for "Extra Magic Hours," you might want to hang around 'til about midnight.

    Why? You never know who might show up to join you for your last ride of the night. (Hint: Bring cheese. Lots of cheese.)

    Riding Dumbo with the Big Guy (and Gal)

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    Universal releases Hollywood Rip, Ride and Rockit coaster train photos

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 5, 2009 at 10:33 AM

    Universal Orlando has released a close-up photo of the ride vehicle for its new Hollywood Rip, Ride and Rockit roller coaster, debuting next month at Universal Studios Florida.

    Hollywood Rip, Ride and Rockit ride vehicle

    You can see a 3D Flash graphic of the vehicle on Universal's website, as well.

    The vehicles feature wrap-around 55-watt speakers, a music control panel on the lap bar, reverse POV video cameras mounted in the seatback in front of you, and LED lights alongside the train. Seat rows are raised in "stadium seating" style, as well.

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    Vote of the week: Are the theme parks' discounts luring you in?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 4, 2009 at 10:42 PM

    Theme parks have been turning to discounts to drive traffic as the U.S. economy remains sluggish. Disneyland's offering a three-day park hopper for $99. Universal Orlando is offering free tickets for kids. SeaWorld and Busch Gardens have been keeping their Fun Card promotions going, and are offering two days for the price of one online at many parks. We've detailed many of the deals, and some guy's been talking about them on TV, too.

    But are the deals good enough for you? Have the discounts been enough to entice you to plan a trip you wouldn't have taken without the deals? Here's your chance to tell the parks how well their attempts to lure you in are working.

    Tell us in the comments about the deals you've used. If you haven't taken advantage of any discounts this year, tell us what deals you would like to see, ones that would make you more likely to book a trip.

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    Top theme park hotel spotlight: Disney's Wilderness Lodge

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 4, 2009 at 9:33 AM

    We're in the final month of rating as we nail down the winners of this year's Theme Park Insider Awards. Each Thursday, we're profiling one of the hotels contending for the Best Theme Park Hotel honor. Today's it's Disney's Wilderness Lodge at Walt Disney World.

    Disney's Wilderness Lodge

    Patterned after the Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone National Park, the Wilderness Lodge is located across the Seven Seas Lagoon from the Magic Kingdom, around the bend from the Transportation and Ticket Center. It's not on the monorail line, but many Disney fans make the drive or take the bus over to the hotel for its notable restaurants, including Artist Point and the Whispering Canyon Cafe.

    If you've stayed at the Wilderness Lodge within the past year, please visit its listing page to submit your rating and leave a comment.

    Previously:

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    Restaurant review: Sharks Underwater Grill at SeaWorld Orlando

    By Scott Joseph
    Published: June 3, 2009 at 4:13 PM

    The fourth finalist in this year's quest for Best Theme Park Restaurant is Sharks Underwater Grill at SeaWorld Orlando. It's got one of the best views any restaurant can have, and the ambience in the dining room allows the shark and fish-filled "pool," as they call it, to be the star. Service is top notch too. So there you have it, a really terrific restaurant.

    Sharks Underwater Grill at SeaWorld

    Wait a minute, I'm forgetting something...

    Ah, yes, the food.

    Read the full review at Scott Joseph's Orlando Restaurant Guide.

    Then, if you've dined at Sharks Underwater Grill in the past year, submit your rating and leave a comment on the restaurant's TPI listing page.

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    The NBA Finals mayors' bet - Disney style

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 3, 2009 at 12:41 PM

    Yeah, it's cliche by now. The mayors of the two cities whose teams are playing for a pro sports championship make some silly "bet," usually involving shipping some famous product from the losing city to the winner. Both cities send out a press release, and bored journalists dutifully write it up.

    Well, with the Los Angeles Lakers meeting the Orlando Magic in this year's NBA Finals, we have a twist. The presidents of Disneyland (located just south of LA) and Walt Disney World (located just south of Orlando) are making a bet.

    From Disney's press release, dutifully written up here by this theme park journalist:

    If the Magic win, [Disneyland president Ed] Grier will walk down Main Street, U.S.A., at Disneyland park wearing a pair of specially made Mickey Mouse ears in Magic blue and silver. If the Lakers win, [Disney World president Meg] Crofton will don a pair of Lakers’ purple and gold mouse ears and walk down Main Street, U.S.A. at Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom.

    Mickey ears? That's the best they could do? How about a Blue Bayou Monte Cristo versus some Le Cellier Cheddar Cheese soup or something?

    Update: A reader reminds me that Walt Disney World is not actually located in Orlando (it's in Lake Buena Vista) and Disneyland is not in Los Angeles (it's in Anaheim). In fact, the only theme park chain that is in the actual cities of Orlando and Los Angeles is... Universal.

    But "Universal Studios Hollywood vs. Universal Orlando" doesn't fall off the tongue the say way as "Disneyland vs. Disney World." Nor have Universal's PR teams rushed to own this match-up the way that Disney's have.

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    Test run for Universal's Hollywood Rip, Ride, and Rockit

    By Nick Moore
    Published: June 3, 2009 at 6:57 AM

    I was online and came across a test run for Universal's Hollywood Rip, Ride and Rockit filmed by visitors last week. The lift seems pretty slow, but could it just be they are testing it? I can't imagine it going that slow once the ride opens.

    Thoughts?

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    What makes a theme park attraction? A conversation with the creative team at Thinkwell Design

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 2, 2009 at 9:39 PM

    Tuesday Park Visit: A couple weeks ago, I drove over to Burbank to visit with the brain trust at Thinkwell, an attraction design firm run by several former Universal Creative designers. Thinkwell's the current home of Dave Cobb, who joined us on Theme Park Insider a few weeks back to talk about his work on Universal Orlando's Men in Black Alien Attack. Dave was there for my short trip to Thinkwell, and we were joined by CEO Cliff Warner and Chief Creative Office Craig Hanna.

    Warner, Cobb and Hanna
    Warner, Cobb and Hanna

    For an hour, we sat around the table in the firm's charrette room, talking theme parks like a bunch of fans. Which, of course, we are.

    "We all love this stuff," Cobb said. "We tell clients, at the end of the day, when we turn over the keys and finish an attraction for you, we're going to be the first ones in line buying a ticket.

    "We are your audience."

    While the guys at Thinkwell may be fanboys at heart, they remain design pros as well, with an insider's view of the industry. We talked about the process behind creating compelling attractions at theme parks, as well as at museums and some of the other locations that are commissioning work from the world of themed entertainment.

    "You always start with 'what does the client want?'" Warner said. "It's a business."

    "Any artist will tell you that a blank canvas is the most frightening thing," Cobb said. "It is nice to have some sort of boundary, and usually you have a location, or a budget or an IP [intellectual property, such as a movie or comic character], or hopefully all three. The more you get of that, the easiest it is to jump into blue sky."

    In the blue sky phase, designers will draw upon their own inspiration, as well as consultation with the client, to develop a range of potential attraction concepts. In the themes entertainment world, that process demands a balance of storytelling with the appropriate application of technology.

    "We don't say what kind of 4D theater should we put in here," Hanna said. "We start off with, okay, it's the new Terminator movie; what's going to be the best attraction we can create based on this intellectual property? If you have Finding Nemo, you don't want to do a stunt show, because those things don't fit. But if you have Men in Black, then you do want to do something where people are shooting aliens. These things have to feel right together."

    Attraction design requires generalists who can blend traditional stagecraft skills with an appetite for emerging technology and appreciation for the power of storytelling, the three said.

    "Our tech guys are very passionate creatively," Cobb said. "Our architects understand show. Our set designers understand architecture. It's a matter of finding people who are generalists and are fans of everything."

    "We don't do R&D [pure tech research and development]; we don't do science projects," Hanna said. "But what we will do is take something that has been done over here and something that has been done from over there and combine them in a way that hasn't been done before."

    "I think you can see the things out there that were driven by technology and not story," Warner said. "And I think that we people see them, they say, this doesn't make sense. As much as everyone like looking at a Kuka, the mechanical robot arm in a factory, you have to find a way to tell a story around it."

    Hanna jumped back in: "Your interest wanes very quickly when your experience is based just on technology. It's gonna get old really, really fast. It's got to be based on a timeless experience."

    Cobb clarified that they weren't looking to slam all iron parks.

    "If we have a client come to us and wants to lay out an iron park and have good regional park rides, there is a way to do that," Cobb said. "Not everything has to have a $120 million budget and be based on a major movie IP. Look at the charm of some of the parks on the east coast, like Kennywood or Knoebels, or even here at Magic Mountain, when they laid out Tatsu. It's part of the mountaintop, part of the park experience. [It was] much better than the one they put in the parking lot five years earlier with no theming at all. Tatsu has no theming, but its still a beautiful coaster because of the thoughtfulness of the design."

    Cobb said that he's seeing more regional parks look at theming as they try to recover audience following the Coaster Wars of the 1990s.

    "I love coasters as much as the next person, but that constant one-upsmanship business plan did not help anyone," Cobb said. "It polarized the audience. I remember going to Magic Mountain when I was a kid in the 70s, and there were shows, there were headliners playing the theater, there was more to do than get on coasters.

    "I say it's like candy. You like candy, yeah, but too much of it is not very good. It doesn't make a meal. The parks that are just focused on coasters, in the long run, are going to have a tough go of it."

    Unlike in other industries, however, theme park designers have a tougher time making a business case for one option over others, given how closely parks guard their attendance, capital expense and marketing data.

    "This isn't an industry with an assembly line making a million widgets," Cobb said. "We're making one widget and it's going in one place so it better be right."

    That leaves themed entertainment designers to draw upon their own experience, both with previous clients and with the audience.

    "Our job is to be experts in the guest experience," Warner said. "So we have to ask ourselves 'what is the mindset of the consumer?'"

    "It's our responsibility to know what all the hubbub's about," Cobb said, "To go see Twilight on opening night with a line filled with screaming teenage girls."

    "It's so tempting to be cynical about every form of popular entertainment, and you can't afford to be in this industry," Cobb continued. "You cannot afford to be cynical. You can be critical; critical thinking and discussion is important. But the moment that I look at some piece of huge popular culture that the kids love and I roll my eyes, then it's over; it's time to retire.

    "You have to understand why the audience likes that stuff. Even if you don't like it yourself, you have to be open to why. All of that stuff boils down to human reaction and emotion and that's what we do - we try to elicit those emotions."

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    Universal Orlando announces dates for Halloween Horror Nights 19

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 2, 2009 at 1:25 PM

    Sure, it's June, but late spring isn't too early for Halloween fans to start planning for fall. Tickets are now on sale for Halloween Horror Nights 19 at Universal Studios Florida.

    Tickets are $69.99 plus tax and available via Universal's website. The dates for this year's event are September 25-26, October 1-4, 8-11, 15-18, 21-25 and 28-31.

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    Theme park cast member stories: The Mouse is always watching

    By Robert Niles
    Published: June 1, 2009 at 11:25 AM

    Every Monday (Tuesdays in holiday weeks), Theme Park Insider editor Robert Niles shares one of his stories from working as a cast member at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. If you have ever worked at a theme park and have a story you'd like to share in this weekly feature, e-mail Robert.

    My first summer at Disney World, I worked merchandise in Tomorrowland. As a merchandise host, I didn't move around to various shifts and locations the way I would in later years when I worked attractions. Every evening, I pulled the same shift - 5:30 pm to 1:30 am, closing register at what was then known as Mickey's Mart. (It's Mickey's Star Traders now, I believe.)

    You'd think that working in "Tomorrowland," Disney's stores would have employed the latest retail technology.

    Yeah, and over in Frontierland, they had real cowboys and Indians working the rides.

    Nope, in the summer of 1987, while mall stores had new-fangled things like magnetic stripe readers to charge credit cards, we were still processing cards with manual carbon imprints. To see if a card was valid, we had to look for the number in a printed booklet of lost and fraudulent cards.

    And we thought we had it lucky. In the other stores in Tomorrowland, checkers were still using old manual cash registers, ones that did not have electronic displays, but little metal pop-up digits. To compute the sales tax, you had to read the "fine print" numbers on the bottom of each digit, add them across in your head, and then add that amount to the register's total.

    Tomorrowland? Try Hooterville.

    If Disney hadn't yet coughed up the dough for modern cash registers, it did not skimp on one other important component of retail - security. I discovered that one evening when a guest tried to pay for his kids' souvenirs with a fake $50 bill.

    They guy's kids probably could have drawn a better fake. This was, literally, a two-sided photocopy of a $50 bill. In black and white. The guest was Brazilian, and didn't speak a word of English; he'd likely never seen a real US$50 bill before and didn't know better.

    SOP [standard operation procedure] when accepting a bill of $50 or larger was to show it under the counter to the checker next to you, to confirm the bill wasn't a fake. With a lame attempt at ESP, I hiked my eyebrows as I held out the fake to my co-worker, who dropped under the counter as if he'd been shot when he saw it. He waved his hands and shook his head so hard I thought I soon would be having to call a medical unit as well as security. I mouthed "I know" as he got back to his feet, excused himself to his customer and dialed the lead's office on the phone next to his register.

    With the speed of retiree driving a K-Car on I-4, I made change for my customer, trying to stall while my co-worker made the call. Seconds later, he told me to finish the sale and close up for an immediate "break."

    I tried to keep my eye on the customer as I walked around the counter, toward the lead's office. But before I could walk five steps, a large man in sunglasses grabbed me by the shoulder.

    "Come with me," he said, as I broke eye contact and lost sight of Mr. McFakebucks.

    The man pulled a walkie-talkie from his pants pocket and muttered, "I'm with the checker."

    Sixty seconds hadn't passed from the moment McFakebucks passed me the bill and Disney's plainclothes security already was on the scene. He told me to take off my nametag and walk with him around the area while we looked for McFakebucks and his family.

    Three minutes later, I found them, standing under the Astro Orbiter platform, in his red baseball cap and holding his crisp new Disney shopping bag. Security guy muttered something else into his walkie-talkie, then grabbed me again by the shoulder, pulling me away. As I looked back over my shoulder, I saw two more Disney plainclothes security guys converging on the McFakebuck family.

    Thirty minutes and about 500 forms later, I next saw the McFacebucks in a small conference room in the tunnels under Main Street, when another security supervisor walked me by to ID the suspect. Mrs. McFakebucks saw me, pointed, and called out what sounded like "the man from the store" in what was probably Portuguese but sounded close enough to Spanish for me to get the gist. The supervisor hustled me away.

    He then explained that Mr. McFakebucks was a journalist from Brasilia, who'd bought the fake money in a marketplace in Brazil, thinking he was getting real American bills. He was as much a victim as Disney, which was letting him go. The fake money would go to the Secret Service, along with whatever information McFakebucks could give about where he'd bought the phony cash.

    "Hey, this happens every day here," the supervisor told me, pointing at a locker filled with fake cash, awaiting delivery to the Secret Service.

    So how was the security guy able to get to me so fast?

    "When your lead called it in, we radioed the undercover in the area," the supervisor explained. "We always have a plainclothes agent in every major store in the park."

    So there you go. Wherever you go at Disney, Mickey's always watching you. Don't mess with the Mouse.

    Former and current theme park employees, please share your favorite security-related stories, in the comments.

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