July 2009Subscribe: in a reader, e-mail, , or
By Robert NilesTraveling through the U.S. south, you find a lot of places to eat barbecue. And theme parks are no exception. I ate more meat at Busch Gardens Williamsburg yesterday than I usually eat in a week. (And I was splitting every meal!) I can't imagine the amount of 'cue that some folks can put in.
Published: July 31, 2009 at 7:51 PM
So let's talk about meat this week - slow smoked, pink on the inside, barbecue meat. But which kind?
I'm not talking about sauces here. (That's another debate entirely.) Simply, which kind and cut of meat do you select when you are eating barbecue at a theme park. No picking the combo plate, either. You've got to select just one. (And you can select "none" if you're not a big meat-eater.)
Please tell us about your single favorite theme park barbecue meal, in the comments.
By David GrahamDisney is raising its prices, starting this weekend. One-day tickets (which few people buy) will go from $75 to $79.
Published: July 31, 2009 at 4:16 PM
Multiple-day tickets will rise by a smaller percentage, with the park hopper add-on rising two bucks, to $52.
Tickets at Disneyland, in California, will go up as well, another $3 - from $69 to $72. Annual pass prices will rise, too. The SoCal Select pass will go up $10, while the premium AP goes up $40.
Disney typically increases ticket prices in August. However, Disney World recently extended its free dining plan deal through December, raising the question about whether will continue discounting its "rack rate" on 2010.
By Scott JosephHere is my review of the new restaurant at Walt Disney World's Downtown Disney.
Published: July 31, 2009 at 4:13 PM
Paradiso 37 is neither good nor bad, but I have one question: 37 what? Read the full review
By Robert NilesTheme Park Insider readers for years have voted Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia as one of their three favorites parks in the country. And for good reason. Busch Gardens deftly blends what might be the nation's most beautiful theme park with an impressive iron park, creating a unique blend of theme and thrills that ought to be drawing more Disney and Universal fans up the Atlantic coast.
Published: July 30, 2009 at 9:17 PM
Let's start with the iron, shall we? Rising above the tree line, Busch Gardens' Big Five coasters don't seem quite as intimidating, set amid the lush forest and gardens, as they would looming over the asphalt found at most other parks featuring coasters in this class.
My "coaster buddy" Natalie was willing to give BGW's finest a go, starting with the first upside-down coaster I ever rode, the Loch Ness Monster.
After walking right on with no wait, shortly after 10am, Natalie confessed surprise with how swiftly Nessie flew through its inversions.
"I thought we'd linger longer at the top," she said.
I made two mental notes. First, I need to start talking about physics with Natalie. Second, now would be a really bad time to describe the first drop on Griffon. So let's move on to Apollo's Chariot.
This Bolliger & Mabillard Mega Coaster is essentially the same ride as Kings Island's Diamondback, but I found myself enjoying it more here. Perhaps it was the more lush setting. But I really think it was simply the name.
"Diamondback" ought to be the name for a rough, western-themed wooden coaster. "Apollo's Chariot" is a far better name for this smooth and majestic ride. When I climbed on Diamondback last week, the name prepared me, subconsciously, for something different, leaving me a bit confused and even, a little disappointed.
But the name Apollo's Chariot prepared me for exactly what I got. Branding is important. When we pulled into the station, Natalie grabbed my hand, and dragged me into the queue for another ride.
Next, it was time for a farewell (and initial) ride on the closing-in-September Big Bad Wolf.
The Suspended coaster appears to be falling from parks' favor, but it offers a unique ride, emphasizing lateral forces with cars flying to the side around each curve.
After lunch, we continued our coaster quest, taking on Alpengeist. Natalie didn't want any part of its Inverted sibling Silver Bullet when we visited Knott's Berry Farm earlier this year, so she impressed me by hanging in and agreeing to try this ski-themed coaster.
Alpengeist provided us with the longest line of the day - 30 minutes. (!) Don't get me wrong, the park was far from a light crowd today, with pathways filled throughout the day. Busch Gardens simply offers enough capacity to handle crowds without having to force visitors into hours-long waits for even moderately popular rides.
That said, unless you're riding in the front row, where you can see the track in front of you, a trip on Alpengeist is like riding in a blender. With the seats in front blocking your view, you've no way to know what's coming. It's like riding a coaster in the dark, in broad daylight.
(FWIW, my Tweet on this elicited a fantastic response from Screamscape: "I recommend night rides on Alpie in the middle or back of the train. It's like being in a blender under strobe lights.")
After Alpie, we took the rest of the afternoon off from the coasters, leaving the Busch Gardens' newest coaster for our final ride of the day - Griffon.
If you've not ridden Griffon, I leave you to watch Russ Meyer's outstanding on-ride video from the ride's opening day. Honestly, this is a pretty simple ride: Dive, Immelmann, Dive, Immelmann, splashdown. That's it. But the elements are superbly executed, as one now expects from Bolliger & Mabillard. And yes, we did linger at the top on this one.
We'd done it. We'd defied the five. Though, actually, Natalie had done me one better. She'd bagged all six of BGW's roller coasters today. We can't forget about Grover's Alpine Express in the Sesame Street Forest of Fun.
While Natalie and I were bagging those other coasters, Brian was on his own quest to experience the park's 3D and 4D attractions, including Lights, Camera, Imagination!, Curse of DarKastle and Corkscrew Hill.
That's the brilliance of Busch Gardens - it's not just top roller coasters, but also those effects shows, animal exhibits...
...and live shows, too. Give Busch big points for the live music at Das Festhaus...
...for a meal-time show that got visitors up and dancing along.
The most impressive dancing in the park, of course, was to be found in the Emerald Beat show.
The only thing keeping this show from a solid 10 was the heavy synth music in lieu of a live band. Yeah, I know they're trying a Riverdance/Lord of the Dance thing here, but a live Irish combo would elevate this show in a unique, noteworthy and refreshingly non-Michael Flatley way.
Finally, the food. Busch parks have always come through for me on food, and today did not disappoint. We ate all three meals in the park, at Squires Grille...
...and Trapper's Smokehouse.
By selecting the combo meal and splitting it, with the kids splitting a kids meal and a side each time, we spent less than $100 total to feed all four of us for the day. And enjoyed every bite.
It's my job to nit-pick, to look at every detail of a theme park to help you decide the best ones to visit with your valuable time and money. With good food, solid entertainment, great thrills and a beautiful setting, Busch Gardens Williamsburg is just a flawless theme park. If you haven't yet been, go.
Next up: Keep reading Theme Park Insider this weekend, when we visit Dollywood.
Previously on the Summer Roadtrip:
By Scott JosephTickets go on sale for this year's Epcot International Food & Wine Festival events Aug. 11. Many of the top events typically sell out within minutes. The festival runs Sept. 25 through Nov. 8 at Walt Disney World in Florida. More information
Published: July 30, 2009 at 1:08 PM
By Robert NilesLike many folks who visit Busch Gardens Williamsburg each year, we're visiting some area historical sites in addition to our theme park visit.
Published: July 29, 2009 at 7:20 PM
Today, we visited Colonial Williamsburg:
Laurie and I started the day by leaving the kids with Williamsburg's free babysitting service:
Since this is a working trip, I spent some time with the 18th-century version of an independent website publisher:
Then, we decided to get good and lost in the Palace Gardens' maze. Just remember, if you get into trouble, shoot up red sparks.
Eventually, we had to reclaim the kids. So we took 'em over to the green for a game of hoops.
Later, Natalie and Brian looked into some 18th-century science projects.
Williamsburg gives kids 14 and under an activity guide, which they can get punched to earn a prize. The prize is ultra-lame - a postcard - but Natalie and Brian enjoyed the activities (like playing hoops) so much that they didn't care.
The only disappointment? The food. I mean, the barbecue sandwich I had for lunch looked fine:
But, for $9+, plus drink and tax and tip, it just wasn't special enough to match the surroundings. (Our dinner, at Aromas Coffee and Cafe in Merchants Square, was much, much better... and recommended.) So go outside "the park" for your meals.
Ultimately, Colonial Williamsburg is a theme park. Not one with rides, but a themed recreation of another time, nevertheless. Almost all the buildings date from the 1930s or later. And to get the most from your day, it demands planning and strategy, just like visiting a theme park.
I think of CW as a colonial RenFair. If you want to get the most from the day, you need to interact with the players. My kids loved playing games with the actors, such as the hoops. And if you follow along with the various reenactments, you really can begin to feel and enjoy the spirit of the place.
Walk up and down the streets without interacting, however, and you'll just feel like you're chum for the sharks in a highly-themed shopping mall. With mediocre food.
For real history, though, I much preferred the authenticity of Historic Jamestown:
This is the site of the first successful English settlement in the Americas. (Don't get it confused with the theme park-y re-enactment, Jamestown Settlement, next door.) It's ruin now, but with such powerful history here, actors and reconstructions aren't needed for visitors to feel its ghosts.
Last weekend, we visited Washington, D.C., on our way to Williamsburg. I won't review every detail, but did want to note two worthy choices that many other visitors seem to miss.
Ever since Barack Obama moved in, getting tickets into the White House has become next to impossible. And long lines and crowds greet almost all visitors to the Capitol, even with advance reservations through your Representative or Senator. But most of the time, you can walk right into the nation's third branch of government, with few others in your way.
When the court is not in session (i.e., the summer through September), you can sit in the courtroom itself for hourly talks about the court, given on the half hour. The rest of the building is a shrine to American jurisprudence, and well worth visiting for legal and history geeks, like me. And no lines to get it in.
Mitsitam Cafe, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian
This is, simply, the best meal in town. Several of the Smithsonian's cafeterias excel (with the regrettable exception of the one at the most popular museum, Air and Space), but the cafeteria at the American Indian museum resets the standard for what a cafeteria can be.
Let's put it this way, if we made themed museum cafeterias eligible for the Theme Park Insider Award for Best Restaurant, I'd be sending a framed award to Mitsitam next July. It's that good.
How about a cedar-planked, fire-roasted juniper salmon? Or a razor clam stew, with potatoes and leeks, that will be taunting my dreams for weeks to come?
One final tip for D.C. visitors. I'm a big fan of the district's excellent subway system, Metrorail. But if you'll be taking more than one round trip during weekday rush hours, go ahead and pay the $5 for a Smartrip card. That'll save you the soak-the-tourist surcharge that Metrorail charges during rush hours to passengers who don't pay via Smartrip cards.
Tomorrow... our visit to Busch Gardens.
By Robert NilesAs I remember it, Thursday was payday at the Walt Disney World Resort. And, curiously enough, Thursday was the day that Disney ran "cast member specials" at many locations around property.
Published: July 27, 2009 at 6:54 PM
The weekly prime rib in the Magic Kingdom employee cafeteria. Admission and drink specials at the Pleasure Island bars. Heck, some fellow cast members pounded so many drinks at the ritual Thursday night Pleasure Island CM gatherings that they practically gave back their entire paycheck to the company before it even saw the CMs' checking accounts.
Of course, many of us suspected that was the point. And the whole "Pleasure Island" irony wasn't lost on too many cast members, either. We knew the Pinocchio story.
But that didn't stop plenty of folks from having their fun, giving back their cash, then returning to the salt mines (or the Jungle, or the Mansion, or the Horseshoe) the next day - to start earning enough for next Thursday night.
Of course, many other cast members not only knew what was going on, but also decided to play a different game. They skipped the cafeteria prime rib (though, to be honest, at less than 40% of the price of the same meal "on stage" - it was a pretty good deal) and never darkened the doors of Pleasure Island. The tried to schedule Fridays off, knowing that they could pick up overtime shifts when others called in "sick" on Friday morning. They saved what the company paid them, and rarely succumbed to temptations of paying it back.
Like many cast members, I suspect, I floated somewhere between these extremes. Most weeks, I saved my cash and worked as much OT as I could get (or physically stand). But some weeks, especially after a couple of OT-heavy checks, I ordered the prime rib lunch, or joined my fellow CMs at Pleasure Island.
I guess for some folks, working at Disney was a job. And for others, it was a party. But for most of us, it was a little bit of both.
By Robert NilesFour quick theme park news items for the weekend:
Published: July 24, 2009 at 7:00 PM
The Orlando Sentinel has a fun story about Walt Disney World's cast member canoe races, now in their 37th year in Florida. I paddled in the CROW when I worked TSI back in 1990. Despite being on the MK West team, which supposedly had a "home river" advantage, we got smoked. And soaked. And my arms hurt for days afterward.
Cedar Fair's found a way to make millions of dollars during this recession. It's selling land. The amusement park chain pocketed $50 million by selling 85 acres of land next to Canada's Wonderland. A land for coaster swap? Maybe not. Cedar Fair said it will use the money to pay down corporate debt.
By Robert NilesAfter watching the latest Harry Potter movie this past week, my kids are looking forward to the next installment in the Harry Potter universe: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal's Islands of Adventure.
Published: July 23, 2009 at 6:36 PM
Here's what we know about the main attraction in the new land, which will open early in 2010: It will take place inside Hogwarts Castle. You will board after queueing through the Great Hall. The ride vehicles will be four-person seats on Kuka robot arms, mounted from an overhead track. And there will be about 10 scenes in the ride.
But what do you want those 10 scenes to be? Let's vote!
I've selected several potential scenes from the first three Harry Potter books. They are all scenes from inside Hogwarts Castle and do not include the Great Hall or the entry, which will be part of the queue. Nor do they include the common rooms, well, 'cause you're not supposed to be in common rooms outside your house. ;-) And they do not include any scenes that take place outside the castle, since that's where the ride will be set.
Pick the one you most want to see, from these options, then discuss in the comments.
Have a great weekend!
By Domenik JostWhen details first emerged Thursday afternoon at around 12:45 pm local time, reports said a person had drowned at SeaWorld Orlando's Discovery Cove, but later the Orange County Fire Departmemt could not confirm the victims circumstances. The only thing OCFD could confirm is that paramedics took the victim to Dr. Phillips Hospital.
Published: July 23, 2009 at 1:51 PM
UPDATE: Nick Gollattscheck, a Discovery Cove spokesman, said: "Today a 70 year old guest suffered a cardiac arrest while swimming in the river attraction at Discovery Cove. Park lifeguards immediately spotted her and brought her to the shore and began CPR. She was unresponsive when she was transported to Dr. Phillips Hospital. Please contact Dr. Phillips for further information on her condition. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family."
By Robert NilesMany of us get to our summer theme park destinations on a roadtrip. For families, it's a cheap way to travel, even with rising gas prices. (We have a Prius, and so gas prices don't bother us much, at all. In fact, we made it from Lawrence, Kansas to Bloomington, Indiana on a single, 11-gallon tank.)
Published: July 23, 2009 at 8:41 AM
Often, folks end up eating at fast-food chains and staying in chain hotels while on the road. Hey, I've done it, too. But I wanted to take a few moments today to bring your attention to some family-owned independents we've found on our travels. They don't have national ad budgets, or widespread name recognition, so you've probably never heard of them before. But I can endorse them all, and hope you'll give 'em a try if you're ever in their areas.
I love supporting locally-owned, independent establishments. As someone who owns and runs a couple of independent websites, I feel good about supporting people who are running their own businesses. And I usually find the quality of food and service superior in local, independent shops, as well.
Colorado Wine Country Inn
Don't let the name turn you off, this is quite a family-friendly hotel, with comfortable rooms at reasonable prices. It's new, just opened within the last year or so and the only knock I could put on this place is the "new carpet" small. (Which I hate.) But, hey, it beats the musty, smoky, doggy smell that I've found at waaay too many hotels across the country over the years.
I don't stay anywhere without WiFi (otherwise, you don't get site updates), and the Wine Country Inn's was just the way I like it: unlimited, fast and free. There's a good free hot breakfast and cook-outs many weekend nights. Set amid vineyards and orchards on Colorado's western slope, the only thing this hotel is missing is a great chef-driven restaurant. But give this place a little time and support and we'll see how it grows.
Reading Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation reinforced my desire to avoid the Frankenfood served up by almost all fast food chains. (I haven't eaten at a McDonald's in more than nine years.) Local Burger is everything a hamburger joint ought to be, serving locally grown, organic meats and fixins. I had a bison burger with the best stone-ground mustard I've ever tasted.
Portions might seem on the small side, but don't be fooled - food of this high quality is quite filling. But skip the fries in favor of the applesauce. The fries aren't as crispy as I would like, but the applesauce is a cinnamony delight.
It ain't cheap - six bucks for a burger, but your stomach, and your conscience, will thank you for spending the extra couple bucks for a good meal.
La Prima Tazza
Laurie loves her coffee in the morning, and found this great alternative to the ubiquitous Starbucks. La Prima Tazza brews up a wild assortment of morning beverages - everything from a great latte to some fun iced drinks. Natalie loved their take on a New York egg cream. Service is engaged and attentive, and the quality of the baked goods a pleasant bonus.
Mother Bear's Pizza
Okay, I've been going to Mother Bear's for years. But I was relived to find that it still offers the same, rich, tasty pizza that I loved as a student. Start with an order of breadsticks and spicy cheese dipping sauce, then get one of Mother Bear's traditional pan pizzas. Just go for a size smaller than you would for a hand-tossed pie. Mother Bear's piles on the cheese, forming a cripsy, browned cheese crust along the edge of the pie. Just. Kill. Me. Now.
The Pour House Cafe
Laurie's old choice for coffee in Bloomington is long gone. (And frankly, it wasn't that good.) But she was very pleased with the Pour House, a comfortable shop on the main Kirkwood strip. We both enjoyed the "Canadian Polar Bear" (espresso, milk - I chose soy, maple and white chocolate). Laurie had her's hot, mine was over ice. There's a large map on one wall, pointing out some of the places that the store's sent its daily profits to support charities around the world. It supports local causes as well, with money going to buy school supplies for local needy kids, too.
If you are a theme park fan who likes to support family businesses, Holiday World is, of course, on your to-do list. I have to complain about one thing, though. Holiday World's free drinks and free parking have spoiled me forever, just like front-of-the-line access for Universal Orlando hotel guests did for me last summer. I winced every time I paid $3.50 for a drink at Kings Island this week, thinking fondly of Holiday World each time.
Which, of course, is just the way Holiday World planned it. Hey, folks who run their own businesses can be pretty smart.
By Robert NilesToday we've got roller skating roller coasters, stupid guest tricks, cute animal videos and a deal on theme park tickets. What more do you want?
Published: July 22, 2009 at 2:55 PM
Nah, neither have I, but you can scratch that off your list off "things no one yet has done." A 36-year-old man strapped himself to a pair of inline skates and "rode" the Mammoth at the Trips Drill theme park in Germany.
It's a 98-foot wooden coaster with a top speed of about 55 mph, and you can check out a short snip of video at the top of this report.
Cops cuffed the 27-year-old from Pennsylvania when he returned to his car at the end of the day.
The folks at SeaWorld Orlando's Discovery Cove deliver for you:
Deals two redux
By Robert NilesIs it possible for a roller coaster to be too smooth?
Published: July 21, 2009 at 3:18 PM
That's what popped into my mind as the train hit the brake approaching the station on Diamondback, Kings Island's new Bolliger & Mabillard mega-coaster. Diamondback's all about natural speed - a celebration of the vertical drop, the element Theme Park Insider readers selected last year as their favorite on a roller coaster.
We rode in the front row of the second car, allowing us a peek over each hill before a burst of acceleration kicked in as the train crested. And what acceleration it was - up to 80 mph of pure, natural, gravity-driven power, sweeping us into the next element on the track. Natalie declared, "It's so smooth, it didn't even mess up my ponytail."
She's right. Diamondback is pure Bolliger & Mabillard butter - smooth, silky and satisfying.
I didn't find it exhilarating, the way the greatest coasters can be. Maybe it was the lack of inversions. Maybe it was just... too smooth and two-dimensional to really fire up a coaster pro like me. But I didn't have same giddy feeling that I enjoyed when I got off The Voyage last weekend. Don't get me wrong - it was very good, just not an all-time, world-class great like The Voyage.
And that's the way I felt about the rest of Kings Island. It's a good regional amusement park, with some moments well worth recommendation, but little these days to elevate it to "must visit" status for folks outside the U.S. midwest.
I brought the wife and kids to KI today, both so that I could experience Diamondback and so that I could show the kids one of the parks that I spent a great deal of time in as a kid.
Goal one: accomplished within 15 minutes, thanks to arriving at the front gate 10 minutes before the park opened. Goal two, though, initially appeared to be a total failure.
This isn't the same park I last visited on grad night in 19*coughcoughcough*. The half-scale Eiffel Tower, The Beast and the Racer are still here - otherwise Kings Island's various owners over the past decades totally have remade this park. The safari is gone, as are coasters such as The Bat, The Screamin' Demon and the King Cobra. The Hanna-Barbera land was consumed by a much larger Nickelodeon Universe. And what little Disney-esque theming once existed is slowly giving way to a more generic iron park, much the same as I am seeing at its Cedar Fair-owned sister park, Knott's Berry Farm in California.
None of that makes Kings Island worse than it was when I frequented it as teenager living in Indianapolis. Just different. Heck, if Kings Island were the same park it was in the Brady Bunch episode that my kids have committed to memory, fans would have abandoned this park years ago, and justifiably so. Parks should change.
Diamondback's a great addition to a line-up of solid coasters that offer an impressive variety of experiences, from the indoor coaster Flight of Fear to the heels-over-head fun of the six-inversion Vortex. Heck, today's Kings Island coaster line-up knocks the smack out of what it offered when I was a kid.
The Beast used to tower over the other rides in the park. Today, it stands meekly in the shadow of Diamondback, barely clearing the treeline of the surrounding woods. I'd forgotten how much this once-pathbreaking wooden coaster emphasized straight-line speed over airtime, unlike more modern, world-class woodies.
As we stood in the gate, waiting to board, I told Natalie that I was her age, 12, when I first rode The Beast, as she would be doing today. The Beast was the coaster that turned me on to a world beyond kiddie and family rides, a love that became a lifelong passion when I rode the Loch Ness Monster at Busch Gardens Williamsburg later that year.
Natalie took her first step into that world with a ride on Knott's Ghostrider earlier this year. And I could see her apprehension as she agreed to try The Raven with me at Holiday World last weekend. She was game for The Legend, after that, but not yet ready to tackle The Voyage.
She said she'd give Diamondback a go, after watching the YouTube video of it yesterday. As we came back to the station this morning, while I was wondering if the ride was too smooth for me, Natalie yelped.
"I love big drops!"
By the time we got off The Beast, I could see the coaster fever in her eyes. A week ago, she wasn't sure about thrill rides. Now, she's a dedicated fan.
These were the perfect next coasters for her, for where she's at as a roller coaster fan. So while my daughter didn't see the same park as I did when I was 12, she saw today a park that did the same thing for her as it did for me back then. So I guess goal number two was accomplished after all.
That's the value of Kings Island. You can't drag most kids straight onto an extreme coaster and expect those kids to become coaster fans. More likely, if you put a kid on a coaster that's too advanced for them, you'll turn 'em off coasters for life. Regional parks like Kings Island give kids (and some grown-ups) the opportunity to experience a variety of coasters and thrill rides, attractions that can help give them the fever to chase the most unique thrills all over the country, and the world, as they grow older.
Our next stop on that path? C'mon, can't you guess?
Join us next week on Theme Park Insider's Summer Roadtrip, as we visit... Busch Gardens Williamsburg.
You're gonna love it, Nat.
By Robert NilesEvery Monday, 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 any theme park and have a story you'd like to share in this weekly feature, e-mail Robert.
Published: July 20, 2009 at 7:16 AM
Most Disney World attractions jobs require some level of spieling - that is, speaking a script to guests. At minimum, you offer a few safety instructions as guests board a ride vehicle. At the other extreme, you're working a ride like Jungle Cruise, where your spiel is the attraction.
By dumb luck, I was one of the few male cast members who worked more than a year in Magic Kingdom West attractions and never once pulled a shift in the Jungle. But that didn't stop me from telling silly jokes to try to get a laugh.
Weird Al is right about one thing - the Magic Kingdom is filled with actors - former actors, aspiring actors and part-time actors. The nature of the job attracts people who are comfortable in performance. So we spiel. (To this day, if you call me for a public speaking or TV gig - and my sked is free - I'll be there.)
There was no script for spieling on Tom Sawyer Island, but I always enjoyed talking with (and performing for) the guests. So at those times when we enough people in the rotation to cover a dock attendant, I made up some spiels, rather than stand there in awkward silence while waiting for the next raft. None of these were SOP (standard operating procedure, Disney-written spiels); I just made 'em up myself.
My favorite was a "safety" spiel.
"Good morning, everyone!" (Wait for response.) "Oh, come on, you can yell louder than that; I said Good morning!" (Wait for response.) "My name is Robert and I'd like to welcome you to the Tom Sawyer's Island rafts. Now our rafts are the only way over to Tom Sawyer's Island, which really is an island. It is completely surrounded by the Rivers of America.
"So just come on back to the raft dock where you arrived on the island when you want to come back to Frontierland. Now, if you don't want to ride the raft back, though, there is one - and only one - other way back off the island.
"Everyone raise your right hand, over your heads, please." (I raised my hand, and waited for the crowd to do the same.) "Now put that down, and raise your left hand, over your head." (You have to envision us all raising and lowering our hands over our heads.) "Now, the right again, then the left, and the right... and if you want to add in a kicking motion, that'll help you get off the island a lot quicker, too.
"Or... you can just come on back to the dock and wait for the raft."
This spiel, in addition to waking everyone from their slumber before they visited what is, essentially, a playground, helped prevent the second most-frustrating question we got from guests: "Is there any way else back off the island?"
(The first most-frustrating question was "Are these rafts on tracks?" Grrrr.....)
I had a go-to line while driving the rafts, too, which I delivered as I pushed the raft away from the mainland dock.
"If anything should go wrong during our trip, oxygen masks will drop from the compartments above your heads, and your seats may be used as a flotation device."
Of course, the TSI rafts have no roof, and no seats. Still, every time I cracked this joke, some people would look up to find the masks or down to find their seats. And their friends would laugh at them for doing it.
I'm sure the current and former Jungle skippers who read TPI have some personal favorite non-SOP jokes that they could share, as do folks who worked other attractions. Feel free to share 'em in the comments.
By Robert NilesSANTA CLAUS, Ind. - Wooden roller coasters belong in, well, the woods. So it seems appropriate that one should have to drive deep into the Indiana wilderness to find what might be the best collection of wooden roller coasters in the country.
Published: July 18, 2009 at 8:46 PM
Holiday World might be the most isolated theme park in the nation. Forget about walking across the street to a fast food joint for lunch outside the park. The nearest food to this park is acres of corn, not just on the cob, but on the stalk and in the husk, as well.
Located in the tiny town of Santa Claus, Indiana ("Look," said Laurie as we approached the park, "it's Saint Nicholas Catholic Church!"), Holiday World lies a two-lane country drive south of Interstate 64, a bit more than an hour west of Louisville.
While the park itself might isolated, you can't say the same of its visitors. I've never overheard more talk of visits to various top parks around the country as I heard waiting in the queues at Holiday World. Makes sense, too. There are almost no locals here to pad the crowds. Nor does rural Southern Indiana attract the "go-along" tourist crowd the way the Orlando parks do. No, those who take the time to make the drive to Holiday World are seasoned, dedicated theme and amusement park fans.
Based on a suggestion from TPI reader James Rao, Natalie and I started by making a sharp left to begin our day at The Raven, a 1995 CCI production. We arrived a half hour after the park opened, and The Raven was already a half-hour wait, with two trains running. (Like I said, Holiday World's visitors are pros....)
The Raven drops you into a series of swift turns in the woods, with one skimming riders along the surface of adjacent Lake Rudolph. Fast and powerful, The Raven finished with a one-two punch of a tight turn, followed by a stiff block brake just outside the station. Natalie jumped off the coaster, elated, her roller coaster appetite ready for even more.
We made the short walk over to our next stop in Holiday World's coaster trio, The Legend.
The Legend offers everything The Raven did, in about triplicate. As I tweeted after the ride, "Sorry, Raven fans, but The Legend is in a different league." Steep and swift, The Legend mixes tunnels and turns in a deep woods setting that immediately prompted me to wonder where it might rank among the top wooden coasters I'd ridden.
That lasted until I rode The Voyage.
Holiday World's tallest and fastest coaster is clearly its best, and well deserving of its claim as the best wooden roller coaster on the planet. I haven't ridden all of them yet (most notably, I've yet to visit El Toro in New Jersey), but The Voyage is my new favorite among those I have.
Saturdays in July are the most crowded days of the year at Holiday World and the 70-minute wait in a back-and-forth underground queue left me feeling as hopeless as a pilgrim halfway across the Atlantic. (The nautical nets and ropes hanging from the ceiling added to the feeling of waiting in a ship's hold.)
But we did, at last, emerge
The Voyage's initial drop propels you into the steepest secondary hill I can recall, setting up a delightful series of dips and drops, each one pushing me out of my seat for a generous helping of airtime.
The turnaround on wooden coasters is usually the "jump the shark" moment, after which the thrills diminish as the train's potential energy dissipates and the train scuffs off momentum on its way back to the station. Not on The Voyage. Someone at The Gravity Group figured out that you can carry extra speed and energy if you don't let a little thing like the ground stop your coaster's momentum. The Voyage's back half delivers a thrilling triple-dip of subterranean tunnels that gives riders a satisfying taste of a wooden coaster in the dark.
Yeah, this ride earns a 10.
The rest of my half day at the park?
Natalie demurred on joining me for the ride on The Voyage, but eagerly volunteered to ride with her mother on Pilgrim's Plunge. Well, they were eager until the wall of water greeted them at the bottom of the 131-foot drop.
Laurie said that the most thrilling part of the ride actually was the lift ride up to the drop. Sitting in the back row, there's no visible support for the boat on its trip of the 90-degree vertical lift, creating a disturbing feeling that you are floating into the sky.
Brian and I also enjoyed Gobbler Getaway, a Sally shoot-'em-up dark ride. At first, I envisioned PETA pickets around a ride where the goal was to shoot as many turkeys as possible for Thanksgiving dinner. But grandma doesn't want you to shoot the turkeys, just to use your "calls" to draw 'em out of hiding.
The action's the same though. Aim the
I racked up a 570 on the targets, with Brian bagging a 370. Laurie, however, scored a big turkey egg - zero. There's a big advantage here riding in the front seat, as you'll have the clearest shot at the small targets. (It also helps to be a half-way decent shot. If Laurie ever gets really mad at me after one of these trip reports, I don't have to worry about her coming after me with a gun. She'd just miss.)
Brian skipped the coasters and enjoyed some time on the park's Holidog's Fun Town playground.
While I rode The Voyage, Laurie convinced Natalie to go for a spin (literally) on Revolution. (Or, as Natalie called this centrifuge ride, "The Vomitron.") We skipped the Splashin' Safari water park, as well as the rest of the collection of low-capacity, over-crowded (for today, at least) spinners and carnival-style rides sprinkled throughout the park.
We enjoyed the Thanksgiving-style lunch at the Plymouth Rock Cafe, splitting an adult turkey and an adult fried chicken meal among the four of us.
Not as tasty as grandma's, the meat and fixin's nevertheless stood up well as theme park fare. And the free soft drinks, available throughout the park, helped keep the cost reasonable, as well.
In addition to the free Pepsi products, Holiday World offers free parking (!) and free sunscreen. I figured the sunscreen would be lotion or spray, and was surprised to find that it is actually a massive screen of clouds that keeps the park cool and comfortable throughout the day.
What? That wasn't a special effect? Okay, well, it still was nice to spend a day at a park, and not feel burned.
Stay tuned this week for our next visit on the Theme Park Insider summer roadtrip, to Kings Island, north of Cincinnati, Ohio.
By Robert NilesWe're getting reports that a 20-year-old Busch Gardens Tampa employee was hurt today when he fell 35 feet from the park's SkyRide attraction.
Published: July 18, 2009 at 8:12 PM
Maikon Bonani, 20, reportedly broke a bone in his back in the fall. Bonani is the starting kicker on the University of South Florida football team, and the team's coach confirmed the injury to the St. Pete Times newspaper.
By Robert NilesWe've long recommended getting to the park early to get the most from a theme park visit. But that brings up one important logistical question:
Published: July 17, 2009 at 7:19 AM
What to do about breakfast?
Do you eat breakfast in the park? Or before you leave home (or the hotel)? If it is a roadtrip, how you eat along the way, at a restaurant or in the car?
So that's the vote of the week. I understand that you might use several of these options, so let's make the vote result the typical option on your biggest theme park trip of the year.
My favorite option is to eat in the park when it is part of an early admission deal. I love when Legoland California offers its 'Brickfast', for example. That deal offered a buffet at the park's excellent, though underappreciated, Sports Cafe as well as early admission on several rides in the Imagination Zone section of the park. This way, there's no trade off between eating the park and losing valuable early-morning ride time.
In the comments, tell us about your typical (or favorite) theme park-morning breakfasts. Have a great weekend, and stay tuned to TPI this weekend for our summer roadtrip series report from Holiday World!
By Robert NilesOver the years, many readers have submitted complaints about theme parks to Theme Park Insider. Whether it's on the discussion forum, the ratings and review pages, or here on the Blog Flume, reader feedback about the parks has helped millions of TPI readers plan better vacations.
Published: July 16, 2009 at 9:00 PM
However, I do sometimes delete complaints, or decide not to approve them when they are submitted as new threads to the forum. I'd like to explain why.
I can the complaints when I feel that they are presented in such a way that will focus TPI readers' anger not on the allegedly offending park, but on the reader who submitted the complaint. I don't want to TPI to become a forum for attacking its readers. Go someplace else if you want that virtual bloodsport. But, from time to time, I feel the need to protect readers from their fellow readers. And that's why I delete or decline to promote certain threads. (It's because I'm trying to protect certain parks or chains, or because I'm hostile to certain types or classes of people - all accusations I've had throw at me over the years.)
So how can you make a complain about something that went wrong at a theme park, without sounding so shrill that readers turn on you instead? Let's talk about that, today, as well.
I'm going to suggest a simple principle I learned in journalism school: show, don't tell.
Start by setting the scene. Show us where you went, and when. Then describe what happened to you that caused you to complain. Don't judge anyone or offer your opinion - just describe the scene and the people within it: What happened? To whom? And when?
Then describe for how you - or the person harmed - reacted. If there was no outward reaction, how did the incident make you (or the other person) feel? How did it affect your day, your vacation, and the days and weeks after? Keep this short and don't assign any blame to anyone else. Just describe.
Finally, if you see an obvious way that the incident could have been prevented, or the aftermath better addressed, suggest that. But don't accuse anyone of any ill will, and especially do not accuse anyone of a crime, including unlawful discrimination or negligence. If that is what happened, your description will make that clear - you do not need to make an accusation explicit.
Oh, and try to do this all in no more than 500 words. The shorter, and the more clear, the better.
The minute folks start throwing around words like "discrimination" and "lawsuit" and other punitive terms, the natural reaction of many readers is to become defensive of the parks that they love so well. And some of those readers then turn against the individual who wrote the complaint. They can accuse their fellow readers of all sorts of dark motives, from trying to get rich off suing a park, or trying to hog publicity and sympathy with trumped-up claims.
That the complaining reader might have a perfectly valid complaint falls beside the point. And I can't stand that. I hate to see people have a bad time at theme parks, and I hate even more to see that unfortunate experience compounded by a bad experience here.
So that's why I am offering this advice today. I want the necessary complaints written here - and those sent directly to the parks themselves - to get positive action. Valid complaints ought to lead to changes that make the parks better experiences for everyone. Not to inattention or further hostility. Thanks for reading.
By Robert NilesGetting reports of a collision between two Walt Disney World buses today. A dozen people have been transported to local hospitals, according to one report.
Published: July 16, 2009 at 5:38 PM
Post additional details if you have 'em.
By Robert NilesWell, today was the premiere of the new Harry Potter movie, "Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince," the fix for fans before the debut of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal's Islands of Adventure in Orlando next year. (The final two HP movies bow in November 2010 and July 2011.)
Published: July 15, 2009 at 9:26 PM
Let's let this be an open thread to talk about the latest HP flick, as well as the Potter theme park land. I know that several folks involved in the project read TPI (remember, you can post anonymously by logging out first). And a few of them have been kind enough to leak some juicy stuff to me. (Thankyouverymuch!)
Most of big picture is out in the open by now: Kuka robot arms will power a suspended dark ride through Hogwarts Castle (think Legoland's Knights Tournament meets Peter Pan or ET - but with a much cooler storyline and animated effects.) The timeline will be in the middle of the book/movie storyline - around the fourth book, I've heard. Dining will be at the Three Broomsticks in adjacent Hogsmeade, with another more kid-focused attraction in the mix. And Dueling Dragons will be rethemed to Potter, as well.
So how do you think this will rate? Feel free to add your wishes or insider's details, in the comments.
By Robert NilesA few notes from around the theme park world this week:
Published: July 14, 2009 at 8:16 PM
By Robert NilesAt what point do you stop being cast member?
Published: July 13, 2009 at 8:22 PM
Sure, there's the last day at work in the parks. But not always. My last summer at the Magic Kingdom, I worked as a "CT," or seasonal, employee, pulling weekend shifts at Tom Sawyer's Island and weeknight shifts at parade audience control. (On weekdays, I was working as a news intern for Orlando talk radio station WDBO-AM.) I didn't take special note of my final shift as a Disney World cast member because I hadn't thought it would be my last. My plan was to come back from graduate journalism school and work the Christmas holidays at Disney. But the local newspaper up in Indiana hired me instead, so I called up and quit my Disney job, to start my journalism career.
But in some sense, I never stopped being a CM, even after that day when I quit. Obviously, my love for theme parks has endured, and I continue to use this forum to help folks get the most from their theme park visits, just as I did (in a far more limited way) working inside the parks.
And when I visit the parks themselves, whether I am at the Magic Kingdom or another Disney park, I still find myself... slipping into the CM vibe. On Natalie's birthday at Disneyland last week, I chased down one of the Main Street Vehicles to return two hats to a mother and daughter, after they'd blown off in the street in front of me. Later, at Small World, I smiled silently at an older woman whose friend was fumbling with a camera while trying to take a group picture. The woman asked her friend to hand me the camera, and I took the picture, with everyone included. A couple of lost guests stopped to ask me questions. I picked up a piece of trash from the street.
I don't slip into this same mode when visiting other companies' parks. And frankly, I don't feel it as strongly outside the Magic Kingdom and its older twin, Disneyland. But five summers of working in the Magic Kingdom taught me habits I, obviously, have yet to break.
You know what? I'm happy with that. Creating magic is really just about creating a friendly environment where folks are always ready to help one another. At one point, that was my job and Disney paid me to do it. Today, creating that magic is its own reward, helping me feel the friendship and appreciation of folks whom I can have an opportunity to help, in whatever way. (And since I don't work for Disney anymore, that can include talking about rival parks, too.)
Maybe some people never stop being a cast member - at least not entirely. Thank goodness for that.
By Robert NilesI highly doubt any current readers were visiting the site then, but I started Theme Park Insider when I lived in Denver, Colorado back in the late 1990s. That made my "home" park, if you will, Six Flags Elitch Gardens, now sans the Six Flags, since the chain sold the Denver park, along with several other properties, when Dan Snyder brought in his management team a few years back.
Published: July 12, 2009 at 8:55 PM
Elitch Gardens was, uh, not one of my favorite parks. Built on a slab of asphalt next to Denver's Pepsi Center arena, Elitch offers nothing that looks like a "gardens." It's a run-of-the-mill iron park, with low capacity and resulting long waits.
The Denver Post's John Wenzel wasn't too impressed with Elitch's, either, smacking down the park in today's edition of the paper.
During a recent weekday visit, families and middle-aged couples were sparse. Teenagers traveled in noisy packs, glued to their cellphones and cigarettes, generally making anyone over 18 feel ancient.
Wenzel questioned whether the park should remain open, given its lackluster state.
Would the space be better used as an extension of the Highland and Platte neighborhoods, with their locally owned eateries, boutique shops and similarly hip clientele? Or would doing that just add to the unaffordable condo values and menagerie of ridiculous haircuts?
My wife, who grew up in Denver, tells me that Elitch's wasn't always this way. It once stood on a different site (moving in 1995) and had, well, actual gardens. The site was small, though, and when the city moved to redevelop the Central Platte Valley near downtown, the park's owners - who would later go on to obtain Six Flags - jumped at the chance to move to this larger site.
But they didn't do much with it, except move over some off-the-shelf rides and install a dreaded Vekoma "Mind Eraser."
The Post writer doesn't seem to have much love for theme parks, though I'm inclined to forgive that attitude given the lack of positive role models in the U.S. Mountain West. But the questions, now raised, seem to me worth asking:
When is nothing better than something? And at what point do fans just go ahead and let a park die?
By Robert NilesThis summer, I'm taking Theme Park Insider on a roadtrip, from Anaheim to Williamsburg to Orlando and back again, all so TPI readers can enjoy some of the country's best theme parks, without having to cough up the cash.
Published: July 10, 2009 at 9:43 PM
We're starting the trip at the what you just named the country's best theme park, Disneyland, just down the road from Theme Park Insider world headquarters, in Anaheim. Disneyland, along with the other Disney theme parks, has been offering free admission to people on their birthday's this year, so our visit today was to celebrate official TPI kid Natalie's 12th birthday.
To make it a party, Natalie brought along four classmates to join her family today. Now, before you take up your torches and pitchforks to overthrow me as your Theme Park Bargain Hunter for springing for such an elaborate event, please note that Natalie got those four tickets free from Disney, as one of the rewards for winning first place in a Los Angeles County creative writing contest in May. (Yeah, I know my own ethics rules say no free tickets from theme parks, but I'm ruling that Natalie earned these on her own, and I didn't use 'em to get in - just her friends did.)
Since my Disneyland annual pass was blocked out today, I had to buy a $40 blockout day ticket to get into the park (much cheaper than the $69 one-day, one-park ticket). But the Disney ticket folks also applied the price of that blockout ticket to upgrading my annual pass from SoCal Select to the SoCal pass, giving me 35 additional valid days to visit the park, in addition to getting me in today. Also, my AP discounts were in effect inside the park, even though I was on a blockout ticket. (A couple details there I thought some of you might like to know.)
Indiana Jones was down when we entered the park, around 8:30 this morning, so we headed first to the Haunted Mansion. I love the west side of Disneyland and consider it - from Splash Mountain to the Tiki Room - the single best stretch of theme park attractions in the United States. And I love what Disneyland's done to the area since its 50th anniversary, four years ago. The Haunted Mansion, along with Pirates of the Caribbean, enjoys some delightful, fresh effects that have been added over the past few years, including the new bride in the attic.
We then walked on to Splash Mountain, where I snapped this shot of the ride's musical finale.
My kids were interested in comparing Splash with its inspiration, the Log Flume at Knott's Berry Farm, which they'd ridden earlier this year. They were surprised at how similar the rides themselves were, yet how totally different the attractions were, due to Splash Mountain's incorporation of so many characters and so much music.
We backtracked after Splash, riding Pirates and checking in on Indy (still closed), before settling on a ride on Big Thunder Mountain.
I amused the kids with a story about how I could eat a bowl of cereal on the ride's morning test runs when I worked on the Florida version, mostly to coax Brian into accepting that the coaster itself wasn't too rough or scary. He hadn't ridden in years, and forgotten what it was like. Doing the "goat trick" after the B lift, he yelled at me, "I remember now - this ride is great!"
Natalie and the girls had decided that they wanted to try the canoes (another of my former Florida haunts), but they didn't open today until 11am. So, to pass the time, and to run a bit of energy off, we decided to visit my beloved Tom Sawyer's Island.
Yeah, I know they've slapped the "Pirates Lair" overlay on the island. But it's still Tom and Huck's place, to me. The duo would well approve of the pirate detritus that's been spread over their playground, and I'm happy to see the place get some maintenance and visitor attention.
We rode back over to the mainland in time to catch the first canoe of the day, and everyone worked up an appetite paddling around the Rivers of America. (Though it really does feel a shorter trip than Florida's.) River Belle Terrace didn't start serving lunch for another 15 minutes, though, so we hopped into the rapidly growing line for the just-opened Indiana Jones ride.
Sorry fans, but I just don't get the passion that so many folks seem to have for this ride. You just drive around a room in a lurching jeep, following Indiana Jones who's doing... something... down in the Temple of the Forbidden Eye. Frankly, this was my least favorite ride of the day. I just can't follow the story with the same clarity that Universal Orlando's Spider-Man provides in a very similar type of ride.
Next, we stopped in the Tiki, Tiki, Tiki, Tiki, Tiki room for a needed, restful break after all the walking we'd been doing this morning.
To me, the Enchanted Tiki Room is the single most under-appreciated attraction at Disneyland. Freed from the leaden Offenbach number that dragged down the show years ago, the Tiki room offers a tight, lively and charming musical refreshment for park visitors. It's not perfect (the final number is simplistic early-'60s cliche and the four main birds' accents could use some 21st century subtlety), but the bulk of this show demonstrates why Disneyland's so beloved by so many people - it provides delightful music in an accessible narrative that manages to relax and engage at the same time. Throw in a cool, dark room with padded seats and you've got yourself a slam-dunk attraction for the middle of the day.
After lunch, we hit the east side of the park for the rest of the afternoon. The kids rode Buzz Lightyear while I walked one of Natalie's classmates to meet her parents in the pick-up area on Harbor Blvd. because she needed to duck out early for a prior commitment. By the time I got back, the girls were in line for the Matterhorn, while Brian and his mom were queued up for Finding Nemo.
Sorry, Disney, but the Matterhorn's gotten unacceptably rough over the years. A bobsled slide down a mountain ought to be slick and ice-smooth, not like running a mountain bike down a rutted trail during the May mud season. It's past time for a rebuild.
While Brian and mom finished on Nemo, the girls voted for a trip on Small World (which I reviewed and video'd for TPI last February).
They played the "Where's Waldo" game of picking out the new Disney characters, then we met with Brian and mom for a quick lap around Toontown. As the parade sucked the crowds out of Fantasyland, we moved in for a ride on the teacups...
... and we wrapped up our day with a trip through Sleeping Beauty's Castle and a ride for the birthday girl on the carousel.
The only miss? Two downtimes frustrated our two attempts to ride Space Mountain, which we never did get on, even though I grabbed everyone FastPasses earlier in the day. Still, by the time we sat down for dinner at Pizza Port, everyone was exhausted and ready to call it a very enjoyable day.
Stay tuned to Theme Park Insider next weekend, when we visit Holiday World in Santa Claus, Indiana!
By Robert NilesThe hot viral travel video of the week has been a Canadian band's smack-down of United Airlines for breaking one of its guitars, and not paying for it.
Published: July 9, 2009 at 7:13 PM
This made me wonder... how hard would it be for an airline to say, "New policy: Any baggage handler - or other airline employee - caught throwing luggage will be fired. No exceptions. Just pick it up and place it where it needs to go."
I know I'd go out of my way to book on an airline that instituted this policy. Baggage handlers don't like it? Tough. I'd bet there would be 100 applicants waiting for any job a baggage handler quit or struck over such a policy.
Many of us fly to theme park vacations. (Or for other, lesser obligations, like, say... work.) In your experience, which airline has been the worst for service - whether it's busting your luggage, leaving you stuck on the tarmac, consistently canceling or delaying flights or generally jerking you around? (I'm sticking with the top U.S.-based airlines here. Haters of Ryanair and other non-U.S. carriers are welcome in the comments.)
Let's hear your worst airline horror story, in the comments.
By Domenik JostUpdate on Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit:
Published: July 9, 2009 at 9:12 AM
Testing and training is in full gear for Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, the new roller coaster set to debut very soon at Universal Studios Florida. In the past few days numerous videos showed up on YouTube showing off the new super bright LED Lights the coaster will feature. Have a look for yourselves.
As a note, the lift is very loud. Hopefully this will turn out to be just a part of the testing phase and will turn out to be similar to the Dueling Dragons where as you wait for the other coaster car the lift sounds louder than if you are moving faster. If you time the car from the bottom to the top it is more than the previously said 15 seconds it will take to reach the top of the vertical lift.
Keep your eye out for news of the highly anticipated soft openings to be coming very soon.
By Robert Niles
Published: July 8, 2009 at 3:52 PM
Update: And one more thing... Knott's Berry Farm has released the maze line-up for this year's Halloween Haunt.
By Robert NilesUniversal Orlando's released some more art for this year's "Halloween Horror Nights 19: Ripped From the Silver Screen."
Published: July 7, 2009 at 1:36 PM
Universal will theme the event to three horror flicks, "Saw," "Child's Play" (the Chuckie flicks), and Universal's upcoming remake of "The Wolfman." The newest Saw flick drops on Oct. 23, and Wolfman hits theaters on Nov. 6. Tickets on sale at Universal's website.
I'm planning to fly out for this year's event, which I've not done before. Any suggestions on what you'd like to see me cover for Theme Park Insider?
By Robert NilesThe Orlando Sentinel today published an insightful graphic describing what's been widely reported, here on Theme Park Insider and elsewhere, about what happened during Sunday morning's fatal monorail crash at Walt Disney World.
Published: July 7, 2009 at 10:31 AM
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the accident, and it appears that the federal agency will have much to criticize in its report. Not only does there appear to have been operational failures by monorail personnel, leading to the accident, but also Disney's monorail system design was fatally flawed.
The accident appears to have happened because Monorail Pink, which was to have transferred to another monorail beam, did not make the track switch, and instead proceeded backward down the Epcot line, back into the station where it collided with Monorail Purple, killing driver Austin Wuennenberg. Apparently, the monorails' automatic collision avoidance system was switched off during the track switch.
And that is the design flaw. An anti-collision system should never be switched off so long as operations is in control of the track and there are guests on board the system. (Only when the system is clear of passengers and maintenance takes control of the track should safety systems be allowed to be turned off.) If overriding the collision system is standard operating procedure during any moment of the monorail's normal operation, including for track switches, a scenario such as what happened Sunday morning should have been easy to anticipate.
Relying on operators, many of whom have less than a year's experience, to not make a mistake is not good enough. Disney should know this - indeed, that's why the monorails have an anti-collision system in the first place. But that system can't work if it is turned off.
If the scenario described is indeed what happened Sunday night, the NTSB should:
In addition, the state of Florida should take this opportunity to take a hard look at whether it should transfer control of the Reedy Creek Improvement District from the Walt Disney Company to Orange County. The public should have oversight of operations at the Walt Disney World Resort, as it does for all other Central Florida theme parks. If the NTSB can investigate a monorail accident - and it should - then fire, ambulance and inspection responsibilities at the resort should be under public oversight and control, as well.
Disney made a reasonable case 40-some years ago that local governments were not sensitive to the unique planning and zoning needs of a theme park resort, so the Disney company needed its own quasi-government control. Today, that's simply no longer the case.
Orange County and City of Orlando planning and zoning authorities oversee development at the Universal Orlando resort as well as at SeaWorld Orlando. Orange County's emergency response departments are perfectly capable of managing the existing fire and ambulance teams at Reedy Creek. In fact, integration with Orange County's emergency response resources might conceivably improve response at the resort in a catastrophe.
And public oversight would put more eyes on operations such as Disney's monorail system, allowing inspectors to identify design flaws such as this one, before they cost the life of a young cast member.
The Walt Disney World Resort straddles Orange and Osceola Counties. This hasn't created a jurisdiction problem, as the services typically provided by the county have until now been provided at the resort by Reedy Creek. But Reedy Creek is to revert to county control, it should go to one county or the other, and not be split in two. I'm arguing control should go to Orange County, given that county's experience in overseeing two other major theme park resorts.
In making the switch, Orange County residents should not be asked to pay for support services at the Walt Disney World Resort. Reedy Creek has paid its own way, and should continue to do so, with new levies on Disney to pay Orange County to manage the former Reedy Creek services.
But it is past time to lay to rest the idea that certain business should operate outside of public oversight. The people of Central Florida, and all visitors to the Walt Disney World Resort, deserve the peace of mind that an outside set of eyes are watching what happens inside the resort, to help ensure that all of Disney's guests are being kept as safe as possible.
By Robert NilesUniversal Studios Florida today released the song list for its upcoming Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit coaster. Folks have seen test runs with Universal employees (I am told), so soft openings should not be far away. (An insider reported last week that CityWalk employees were invited to ride last week, but later reported that Universal rescinded that invitation.)
Published: July 6, 2009 at 8:48 PM
Anyway, I couldn't let this opportunity to do a mid-week vote slide. So let's hear when you'll be listening to on your first ride on the new coaster, whenever it opens.
There are 30 choices, six each in five categories: Classic Rock/Metal, Rap/Hip-Hop, Club/Electronica, Pop/Disco and Country.
Talk about your choice, in the comments. Personally, I'm leaning strongly toward "Sabotage" by the Beastie Boys, with an outside chance for "Pump up the Volume" by MARRS. (I just think those would go well on a coaster.)
But if I like the ride, and get the chance to ride again when I'm in a campy mood, I'm totally throwing down the Hammer. ;-)
By the way, what's up with the Hinder version of "Born to be Wild?" Couldn't clear the rights to Steppenwolf? Or did Universal pick songs while watching NASCAR?
By Robert NilesEach Monday I write a story about my time working as a cast member at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. I try to be at least a little bit funny, but mostly I write to give fans an opportunity to see what life is like for park employees, and to give current and former employees a chance to share their memories of working in the parks, as well.
Published: July 6, 2009 at 9:01 AM
Today, though, I'm in no mood to be funny. Like many former and current Disney cast members, I'm heartsick today over the loss of Austin Wuennenberg in yesterday's fatal crash on the Disney World monorails.
So today's cast member story is left as a memorial for Austin. If any TPI readers knew him personally, you are invited to share a story in the comments. Otherwise, we'll use this post as an opportunity to send our condolences, and thanks, to his family, friends and fellow cast members.
By Gareth HTwo monorails collided at Walt Disney World Resort early this morning, killing one driver.
Published: July 5, 2009 at 2:25 PM
The incident happened at the Ticket and Transportation Center at around 2 am. The monorail was returning a handful of guests to the TTC from Epcot.
Eyewitnesses say one train slammed into the back of the other.
Updates from Robert: The driver, Austin Wuennenberg, 21, of Celebration, Fla., was cut from the wreckage at the scene and pronounced dead.
The Disney monorail system remains closed today, Sunday, pending an investigation of the incident.
Dsney's monorail system is equipped with a system that is supposed to shut down the trains automatically when they come too close to another train. Drivers who trip the system during their checkout test, or more than twice during operation, are removed from the monorail fleet and transferred into other departments. This was the first fatality in the history of the Disney World monorail system.
Here is a YouTube video of the immediate aftermath, and guests try to find a way to extract the driver.
I can't tell from the video if it was Monorail Pink hitting Blue or vice versa. I think it was Blue hitting Pink, but I am not certain.
Here is the statement from Disney spokesperson Mike Griffin:
"Today, we mourn the loss of our fellow cast member. Our hearts go out to his family and to those who have lost a friend and co-worker. The safety of our guests and cast members is always our top priority. The monorail is out of service and we will continue to work closely with law enforcement to determine what happened and the approximate next steps."
Let's also not forget that this has been a bad week for Orlando-area theme park employees, with this incident following the serious injury of an employee at Universal Orlando earlier in the week.
From the comments: "Monorail pink was clear of the station and stopped (waiting for the track switch to switch for another beam), and monorail purple was given clearance to enter the station. For some reason, someone gave monorail pink authorization to reverse to back into good position after a slight overtravel. Apparently they never switched it back to forward and monorail pink ran full speed in reverse back into the station hitting monorail purple. The CM [cast member] who died was not at fault, and was doing his job. The fault CM was either the one in the Control Tower, The Pink driver, or the Manager who was supervising the transfer procedure."
Monday update: Disney's running the Magic Kingdom route today, though the Epcot line remained closed to guests. The NTSB is going to investigate, which could have chilling results for Disney. The NTSB ain't OSHA, and has much more weight to throw around in these things.
But they could help set things right, too, if that's what's needed to make sure something like this never happens again.
By Robert NilesChristopher Elliott (whom you might know from National Geographic Traveler and MSNBC websites), did a Q&A with me that's he posted on his site, elliott.org. In the interview, I threw a shout out to Holiday World's unique "free soft drinks" promotion, which has inspired my vote of the week.
Published: July 3, 2009 at 1:43 PM
Yes, you can get all the free soft drinks you care for at the Southern Indiana park, provided you don't mind going without Coke. Holiday World's a Pepsi shop, as were the Busch and Cedar Fair parks the last I checked. Disney, Universal and Six Flags parks pour Coke products.
Once upon a time, you could find beverages from both companies in the same park. Pepsi, for example, was the original sponsor of the Country Bear Jamboree at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, while you'd find Coke sponsoring attractions on Main Street USA and in Tomorrowland.
These days, though, the two big soft drink companies have locked down exclusive pouring rights at almost all public facilities, from theme parks to sports stadiums... even for entire college campuses. When I went to Northwestern, students eagerly awaited the evening arrival of "The Sandwich Man" and his food truck, because he sold cans of Coke, while every vending machine on campus dispensed only Pepsi products.
So, which company's drinks do you prefer? (For reference, Coke products include A&W, Barq's, Canada Dry, Coke, Dasani, Dr Pepper, Fanta, Minute Maid, Schweppes, Sprite and Powerade. Pepsi products include Aquafina, Gatorade, Lipton, Mountain Dew, Mug, Pepsi, Sierra Mist, Sobe and Tropicana.)
I'm throwing in a neither option for people, like me, who don't drink the fizzy drinks.
In the comments, please defend your choice, and attack the oblivious know-nothings who picked the other. Have a great weekend, everyone!
By Robert NilesThemeParkInsider.com readers have been voting, and for the second year in a row, they've selected Disneyland Park in Anaheim, California as their choice for the world's best theme park.
Published: July 2, 2009 at 8:47 PM
Disneyland leads the winners in this year's Theme Park Insider Awards, selected based on cumulative reader ratings submitted to the site over the past 12 months. Disneyland earned the highest average rating for its attractions and restaurants, among ThemeParkInsider.com readers who submitted ratings for locations at multiple parks during the past year.
Our goal at ThemeParkInsider.com is to give people the best advice on finding the best value in a theme park vacation for their families. The Theme Park Insider Awards provide us the chance to say 'thank you' to the very best of the best in the theme park industry, from its millions of customers and fans.
Best Theme Park - Disneyland Park
"We are always happy when people enjoy and appreciate our product," said Mike Hyland, director of public relations for Disneyland Resort. "Thank you for honoring Disneyland as World's Best Theme Park."
Theme Park Insider's Top Three Theme Parks:
Best New Attraction - Manta, SeaWorld Orlando
This year's Best New Attraction is Manta, the new Bolliger & Mabillard flying roller coaster at SeaWorld Orlando. ThemeParkInsider.com readers gave Manta the highest average reader rating among all attractions that debuted between June 1, 2008 and May 31, 2009.
"We've known since the early design stages that Manta would be crowned as one of the world's top thrill rides, there's just nothing else like it," said SeaWorld spokesperson Nick Gollattscheck. "And to have Manta named Best New Attraction by readers of Theme Park Insider is quite an honor. They are our biggest fans and people who know an incredible thrill ride when they see one."
Theme Park Insider's Top Three New Attractions:
Best Theme Park Hotel - Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando.
Theme Park Insider honors the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando Resort as the Best Theme Park Hotel of 2009. The Portofino Bay earned the highest average reader rating among all on-property theme park hotels over the past 12 months. Readers raved about the Portofino Bay's setting, service... and its free front-of-the-line access to Universal Orlando's rides and shows.
"The entire team here at Loews Portofino Bay Hotel is thrilled and delighted to receive this honor," said General Manager Paul Leclerc. "Our loyal guests mean so much to us and ensuring their satisfaction is our highest priority. Our commitment to delivering a taste of 'la dolce vita' - the sweet life - to our guests is stronger than ever."
Theme Park Insider's Top Three Theme Park Hotels:
Best Theme Park Restaurant - Les Chefs de France, Epcot.
And in the final - and closest - category, Epcot's Les Chefs de France edged six-time Theme Park Insider Award winner Mythos to claim this year's honor as Best Theme Park Restaurant. Voting's been tight in this category for the past several years, reflecting the high quality of the top three honored restaurants, and the passion they elicit among their fans.
Theme Park Insider's Top Three Theme Park Restaurants:
Congratulations to all the winners and finalists... and thank you for providing us such great places to spend our vacations!
By Robert NilesOne of our go-to Universal Orlando insiders says the word going around the park is that the long-delayed Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit roller coaster might be opened to visitors on a "soft opening" basis as early as this weekend.
Published: July 2, 2009 at 8:29 PM
Universal's been testing the ride with water dummies this week and witnesses report a much swifter, smoother ride than they've seen on test runs in the past. Universal's replaced track and support systems on the ride to get it operational and the next step would be runs with real passengers.
Expect runs with employees first. But if those go well, hey, folks who just happen to be hanging around the ride entrance when ops are ready to make another test run might get their chance.
(And if that is you, full reports will be expected from you, back here on TPI!)
By Robert NilesYesterday I got a press release from Legoland California promoting a Michael Jackson tribute that the park was planning to install today outside its Chinese Theater display in the park's Miniland section:
Published: July 2, 2009 at 2:40 PM
Model Builders are creating a four-inch tall Minilander of Jackson, complete with white glove and red leather jacket, that can be seen by Park guests as he exits a limousine in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. The scene will include photographers and random paparazzi surrounding the limousine as mini-lander fans try to catch a glimpse of the pop icon.
I didn't run with it because, frankly, I'm a little burned out on the Jackson coverage (our neighbors have been blaring Jackson music nearly 24/7), and I was chasing down info on the Dueling Dragons accident.
Well, I got another release from Legoland this afternoon. A picture of His Holy Plasticness perhaps?
Not so fast...
"We were looking forward to installing a small tribute to Michael Jackson in Miniland," said Peter Ronchetti, General Manager of LEGOLAND California Resort. "However, legal matters have come to light that prevent us from displaying the model in the Park."
Lemme read between the lines here... someone in Jackson's camp wanted Legoland to pay for the right to use the dead celebrity's likeness is a theme park and a deal wasn't signed, so no Michael in Miniland?
Hey, let's not give up so quickly, Legoland.
Perhaps Legoland ought to take another crack at a Jackson tribute. Perhaps instead of the gloved one in Hollywood, Legoland could create a procession of four-inch lawyers, Lego briefcases in hand, surrounding the limo? Or, if not a limo, surrounding a Lego Hearse? (I'm so bad. Wait a minute. I can't say 'bad' - that's a Jackson album title! I am so sued now....)
I suspect that a few snarky TPI readers might be able to offer additional suggestions. The comments are open...
By David SutterHard to belive the Great Adventure in Jackson, New Jersey openned 35 yrs ago this weekend. And over the years has managed to become one of the most visted theme parks in America.
Published: July 2, 2009 at 9:35 AM
Six Flags should take the time to mark this mile stone. And look back at what made the park work in the early years. And use that to makes it plans for its future.
That being said I will be attending a event there in Auguest for all past cast members. Which should be interesting.
I wonder what Warner Le Roy would think of his creation today?
By Robert NilesA worker was injured at the Dueling Dragons roller coasters at Universal's Islands of Adventure before the park opened this morning. One report said the worker was struck by one of the cars, presumably on a morning test run.
Published: July 1, 2009 at 12:17 PM
The area around Dueling Dragons is a swarm of activity these days, as construction proceeds on the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The Dragons coasters are rumored to close this fall to be rethemed as part of the new Harry Potter land.
If any Universal insiders have additional details, please post them in the comments.
Update: The Sentinel updates with quotes from Universal spokesperson Tom Schroder: "It's too soon to share more information," Schroder told the paper. "We're doing everything we can to support our team member and his family."
"Our ride is safe," Schroder said in the story. "What happened this morning had nothing to do with the safety of the ride experience."
Keep reading: June 2009 Archive
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Top U.S. Theme Parks
Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom
Other Top International Parks
Readers' Top Themed Rides
Top Roller Coasters
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