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August 2009

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Disney to acquire Marvel; problems for Islands of Adventure?

By Scott Marlow
Published: August 31, 2009 at 8:53 AM
The Walt Disney Co. announced this morning that it is acquiring Marvel Entertainment Inc. for $4 billion in cash and stock. The deal gives Disney ownership of Marvel's characters, including Iron Man, Spider-Man, X-Men, Captain America, Fantastic Four and Thor.

This obviously could present a major issue for Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure, as the entire "Marvel Super Hero Island" is based off of Marvel characters, as well as other character use around the entire Universal resort. Personally, I don't see Disney allowing Universal to continue using the characters in their "direct competition" theme parks, unless perhaps Universal would be willing to pay a good sum in royalties/usage rights.

Update from Robert: Lots of good information (as well as rumors/wishful thinking) in the comments. Inside sources say that Universal's deal with Marvel gave it exclusive use of the Marvel characters in theme parks east of the Mississippi (*which might be temporary) and its license for existing IOA characters is in perpetuity. Does that mean Disney will have to pay Universal to use the Marvel characters in Walt Disney World?

Also, we have a discussion thread going on what Disney should do with Marvel.

Update 2 from Robert: I've been canvassing industry insiders and the consensus seems to be that this is a play by Disney to do better in the "tweenager" boy market. Disney's recent efforts in that age group have been almost exclusively aimed at girls.

You'll see this play out first on Disney Channel, with new animation series aimed at tweenager boys. They won't be the adult-oriented versions of the characters from the films, but more like the original, more kid-friendly versions.

After Disney Channel, then the most successful franchises from cable TV will be developed for animated movies. You'll likely see an afternoon parade at California Adventure in a couple years, as well.

Only after Disney's had several years developing the Marvel characters within its cable and movie outlets will there be serious thought about theme park attractions. The DCA rehab/expansion will be completed first, as will the WDW Fantasyland work to be announced next month at D23.

That leaves plenty of time for Disney to analyze the viability of a third (Marvel-based) park, or Marvel DCA expansion, in Anaheim and to pursue a possible buy-out deal with Universal to get the rights to develop attractions in Florida.

Thanks to my industry insiders for their insight. (And my apologies for that awful sentence.)

Comments (75) | Archive Link

DragonQuest 101

By Robert Niles
Published: August 31, 2009 at 5:02 AM
Update, Sept. 1: Disneyland reports that the dragon will debut during Tuesday night's showing of Fantasmic.

Well, the plan this morning was that I would be bringing you video and some still photos of Disneyland's renovated Fantasmic! show, complete with the new high-tech Maleficent dragon animatronic that Disney's been promising all summer.

Disney was supposed to debut Maleficent earlier this summer, at the "Summer Nightastic" press event, but the dragon went "101" (Disneyspeak for "not working") and has remained inoperable since.

Until Friday, when I got a breathless e-mail from Disney's PR rep, inviting me (and many others, I am sure) to a pre-dawn "dress rehearsal" of Fantasmic! this morning, complete with the new dragon. I RSVP'd with a "Heck, yes!" and hauled myself out of bed at 3 o'clock this morning for the drive down to Anaheim.

You can see where this is going, can't you?

"Murphy," as many folks inside and out of the company have taken to calling the dragon ("whatever can go wrong, will"), still ain't working, as I discovered when I arrived and the PR reps informed us that the event was off.

So Disneyland's dragon joins Universal Studios Florida's Rip Ride Rockit coaster as the most recalcitrant theme park attractions of the summer. Of course, Rip Ride Rockit eventually did open. And, I suppose, at some point Murphy Maleficent will appear as well. Until then, though, Disneyland seems well on its way toward setting the record for most press events hyping an attraction that no one in the press has yet seen.

Two, and counting.

(I'm going back to sleep.)

Update: Disney's sent hand-out art and video of the dragon from a run-through when it did work:

Fantasmic Dragon

Comments (9) | Archive Link

Cedar Fair says goodbye to Nickelodeon

By Derek Potter
Published: August 29, 2009 at 8:32 PM
It would appear that Cedar Fair is saying goodbye to Nickelodeon sooner rather than later.

Canada's Wonderland, Kings Dominion, Great America, and now Kings Island have all announced that Planet Snoopy will be coming in 2010, marking the end of Nickelodeon's stay in the former Paramount Parks. While still a sort of rumor, Nickelodeon appears to be moving forward with Southern Star amusements in a partnership at the now closed Six Flags Jazzland site in New Orleans.

I don't know if there were any negotiations, but the only reason I can come up with for this dissolution is money. Nickelodeon is one of the most relevant child franchises out there, and was always one of the biggest draws for all of the old Paramount parks, and they probably know that. I know that Cedar Fair's current business model (albeit successful) seems to contain an utter refusal to develop themed areas and rides, and that in order to maximize the potential of Nick, those attractions must be built.

In the end, I don't think that either party will benefit from this move. While Cedar Fair seems to have the confidence in them, it's now up to the somewhat disconnected, aging Peanuts to fill the large shoes of Dora, Spongebob, and the other Nick characters at the Cedar Fair parks. Meanwhile, Nickelodeon loses it's national theme park presence and if the rumors are true, will toil in the small obscure market of New Orleans with a reportedly undersized budget. I have a feeling that both companies will revisit their decisions and think that perhaps they should have stuck together.

Ever heard of Nintendo, Cedar Fair?

Comments (14) | Archive Link

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

By Robert Niles
Published: August 28, 2009 at 12:01 PM
We've been talking about theme park souvenirs on the site this week. While put that question up for a vote a couple years ago, this time I threw it out to Theme Park Insider's Facebook fans and Twitter followers first.

They responded with more than a dozen favorites, which I've included as the options in this week's vote.

Thanks for reading Theme Park Insider (and for following us on Facebook and Twitter!). Have a great weekend!

Comments (18) | Archive Link

How theme parks can increase guest spending: Improving food service throughout the day

By Robert Niles
Published: August 28, 2009 at 10:42 AM
While I sometimes enjoy buying souvenirs in theme parks, I spend far more money, overall, on food and drinks when I'm inside the parks.

So any discussion about increasing the amount of money that people spend must focus on in-park food service. Again, to bring infrequent readers up to speed, I've been writing several articles about how parks can help themselves by earning more money from each visitor spends in the park during this recession. But my suggestions are designed not to lead to more nickel-and-diming, but to show parks ways to increase the value of what they offer, so that we will want to spend more money, and will get better deals in return.

I've already written about breakfasts, and why parks should offer better options to lure visitors earlier in the day. And we've gone over why it makes sense for parks to offer free drinks to their guests in the parks.

Today, I'd like to talk about lunches, snacks and dinners. Here's my top advice:

Offer well-themed food and drinks

What's your favorite meal of the year? Mine is Thanksgiving dinner. Which is why I was completely captivated by the idea of a restaurant in Indiana's Holiday World that serves Thanksgiving dinner year-round. Not only does it fit the park's theme perfectly, it sounded just delicious.

Holiday World Thanksgiving-style dinner

And it was. (Though, as I mentioned at the time, I really would have loved the addition of a fresh cranberry sauce. Please, Mr. Koch!)

Theme park food should enhance the theme of a park. Holiday World's ongoing Thanksgiving feast does this, as does SeaWorld Orlando's Sharks Underwater Grill and Busch Gardens Williamsburg's Festhaus show. And Epcot's Future World provides the strongest example of dining as themed entertainment.

Such restaurants become additional attractions, ones that encourage visitors to dine in the park and consider those meals a benefit of the day, not a hassle.

Chain restaurants and snack stands not only fail to add to the theme of any park, they remind visitors of the world outside the park, on (literally) a gut level. People who are not mentally immersed in their theme park visit are far more likely to cut their day short, resulting in less in-park spending.

The fussier, the better

If there's one word I could use to describe what a theme park experience should be, it would be "special." Every experience you have within the park should be something that you can't easily or wouldn't frequently replicate outside.

When I worked in the Magic Kingdom's Frontierland, the longest line in the area often wasn't for a ride, it was for the Turkey Leg wagon. I rarely visit Legoland without stopping for a serving of apple fries. And who doesn't like to ogle the French pastries at Disney's Epcot?

Part of the appeal of a theme park snack also should include a moment of individual service to the guest, beyond handing you food-on-a-stick and taking your cash. Part of the appeal of getting cotton candy is watching the person twirl the cone in the bin, building your treat. That "specialness" is lost when parks sell cotton candy in a bag.

Let's put omelette stations in for breakfast, and crepe stations for snacks and lunch. Offer hand-dipped and fresh-fried corn dogs and only hand-pulled cotton candy. The more moments of individual service that a park can provide a guest, the better that guest will feel about the park, and the longer they'll stay. And that means more money for the park and more value for the guest.

Prepackaged snacks and meals look better on the park balance sheet in the short term, but only because those balance sheets don't account for real cost of lost service to park guests - less spending, lower satisfaction and fewer visits.

Lower calorie snacks

Few people think "theme park" and "healthy food" in the same thought. And, as I mentioned in the point above, theme park food should provide a special experience, outside of one's normal, daily diet.

But there's a practical reason why parks should offer more lower-calorie snacks, and it's the same reason I keep coming back to throughout these posts: parks should be doing whatever they can to encourage visitors to stay longer in the parks.

People who load up on high-calorie snacks are less likely to want to go on certain rides, limiting the number of attractions available to them throughout the day. They're more likely to want to either skip or minimize dinner, which can be both a lucrative meal for parks and an enticement to keep visitors in the park through the afternoon. High-calorie snacks and heat don't mix, either, leading to sick-to-their-stomach guests who don't enjoy their stay in the park and don't make plans to come back.

So push the popcorn... and the free water. Offer frozen fruit. Reduce snack portion sizes (and their prices). Forcing meal-sized (and priced) snacks on visitors in mid-afternoon leaves too many of them feeling fat and fleeced, not fun and refreshed for a longer stay in the park.

Offer less expensive options at lunch

Same principle. The idea is to keep the guest in the park until dinnertime (and beyond). A less-expensive lunch keeps money in their pockets for later in the day.

When we visited SeaWorld Orlando, we had lunch at Sharks, one of the most expensive restaurants in the theme park industry. We enjoyed it, but when dinnertime approached, we high-tailed it out of the park for a cheap pizza dinner back at grandma's house.

If the high-priced Sharks hadn't been open for lunch, we'd have eaten somewhere else in the park for that meal, then stayed for dinner at Sharks. And SeaWorld would have made more money from us. If Sharks had offered a lower-priced lunch menu, we still might have eaten there for lunch, but we'd have been more likely to stay in the park for dinner, too, since we wouldn't have blown so much on lunch. SeaWorld probably would have made more from us in that case, too, as we'd have stayed longer in the park, eating two meals rather than one.

Change the menu at dinner

If parks go less expensive for lunch, they should pull out all the stops and offer guests the option of larger, fancier entrees at the dinner hour.

That not only plays to Americans' (and others') cultural taste, the addition of dinner-only entree options rewards visitors for sticking around until the end of the afternoon. You can't get this good stuff at lunch.

When I first visited Disneyland's old Big Thunder Barbecue, I enjoyed the barbecue chicken I had for lunch. But I also noticed that it offered grilled trout and steaks for dinner. So I came back the next day to see if they were as good as the chicken. (They were.) Had Big Thunder BBQ offered the same menu at lunch and dinner, I wouldn't have returned, and with one fewer restaurant option in the park for that second day's dinner, the odds would have been greater than I might have left the park to eat elsewhere.

Again, I offer these suggestions in the hope that they will help both parks and visitors. Parks need money, but we demand value. There's plenty of room here for a mutually beneficial deal. But to find it, we need parks to quit looking so much as the short term and instead look for options that keep visitors in the parks longer, even if they cost park a little bit more upfront.

I think that parks will find that a little bit of patience can pay.

Comments (14) | Archive Link

Theme park deals, discounts and promo codes for September 2009

By Robert Niles
Published: August 27, 2009 at 11:19 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.

Halloween Events

Tickets for Universal's Halloween Horror Nights are now on sale. Universal Orlando is offering up to $30 off for Florida residents, with a valid UPC code from a Coke product. (Regular price is $69.99 a night.) Others can buy a Frequent Fear Pass that gets you in on all Sundays-Thursdays, along with the first weekend.

Universal Studios Hollywood is discounting all tickets bought by Sept. 20. Discounts range from $5 to $15 off the regular price of $56.

Walt Disney World is offering $7 off tickets to Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, with advance purchase. The regular adult price is $59.

Busch Gardens Tampa is offering up to $40 off the regular price of $69.95 to Howl-O-Scream, with advance online purchase. Some deals require valid UPC codes from Pepsi or Budweiser products.

Disney

Walt Disney World continues to offer its dining plan for free for visitors who book a five-day vacation through the Disney website.

In addition, Disney World is offering to extend annual passholders three extra months free with a 12-month renewal.

  • Disney World's special offers page

    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:

  • $99.99 7-day, 2-park ticket
  • Buy 3 nights hotel, get an extra night free, along with two 2-park unlimited admission tickets and 2 free Wet 'n Wild water park tickets..
  • 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 $99.99 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.

    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 and additional offers.

    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

  • The parade of silly theme park hats

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 26, 2009 at 10:25 PM
    I suspect that we are not the only family that finds great entertainment in going to theme park hat stores and taking many, many pictures.

    Behold, the parade of silly hats... beginning, appropriately enough:

    The Mad Hatter

    Sorcerer's Apprentice

    Happy Birthday

    Buzz and Zurg

    Nemo

    Pioneer bonnet

    Evil Leprechaun

    Hamburger Head

    Parrot Head

    This is my all-time favorite silly hat photo. Look at the eyes...

    Crabby

    Comments (8) | Archive Link

    Another Earnhardt themed roller coaster?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 26, 2009 at 8:26 AM
    Carowinds announced today that its new $23 million (not $11 million, as previouly leaked) B&M hyper coaster will be called...

    Intimidator

    With a Dale Earnhardt theme.

    Just like Kings Dominion's Intamin giga, announced last week.

    How many NASCAR-themed coasters does the VA/NC/SC area need?

    FWIW, this ride will be similar to Kings Islands' Diamondback, and will use the same staggered seating cars.

    Update: Based on Carowinds' claim that this will be the tallest coaster in the Southeast, I offer this poll:

    Also, here are two animations of the new ride, a POV and a fly-around:

    Comments (28) | Archive Link

    The most unusual theme park job in the world?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 25, 2009 at 7:46 PM
    When I shot this photo at Holiday World, I thought I was capturing a glimpse of the worst theme park job in the world.

    Wading around in a pool, getting smacked in the knees by a fleet of kiddie bumper boats? No thank you!

    But the longer I watched, the more it became clear that the workers were having a great time with the kids.

    Okay, scratch that then. Here's the most unusual theme park job in the world. (Though I am certain readers will point out far more unusual ones, in the comments.)

    Comments (14) | Archive Link

    How theme parks can increase guest spending: Sell all park merchandise online, too

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 25, 2009 at 7:44 AM
    On our way out of SeaWorld Orlando, the final stop on our summer theme park tour, Laurie said to me:

    "I wanna stop in a store to see if they have this mug."

    It was hardly an unusual request. Millions of theme park visitors make a last-minute purchase on their way of a park. That's why Disney built its largest store - the Emporium - right at the end of Main Street U.S.A. in its popular Magic Kingdoms. And Dollywood's taken it a step further. It's placed the exit of the park inside its Emporium, making it impossible for visitors to leave without one last look at thousands of park souvenirs.

    Dollywood park exit - right through the store.

    Earlier in the day at SeaWorld, Laurie had seen a cute coffee mug with a shark on it, but she hadn't bought it. She didn't want to carry it around. She wasn't sure that she wouldn't find something she wanted more, later in the day. Many of us have made the decision, when browsing through the shops at a theme park.

    But... (and you can see where this is going, can't you?), when we searched through the souvenir stores and stands at the SeaWorld's exit, we couldn't find the mug. And we weren't about to hike all the way back through the crowded park to buy it, not with everyone's feet dead tired and the family hungry for dinner.

    So what did we do? What millions of other consumers do in the same situation: We walked out, without buying the mug. (Or any other souvenir, since we were so fixated on the mug.)

    I've been writing about ways that theme parks can increase their per-guest spending, not by nickel-and-diming visitors, but by increasing the value of what they offer, so that visitors will want to spend more. Theme parks, collectively, are leaving millions of dollars of profit in consumers' wallets each year by not making it easier for those consumers to buy the merchandise that they've already decided they want.

    Visitors should have one last chance to buy anything available in a park when they exit at day's end. SeaWorld's set-up, with a relatively small store and a few outdoor stands, wasn't anywhere near large enough to stock everything from park's entire product line.

    But even if it were, that wouldn't be enough to capture every available visitor dollar. Parks need the ability to close sales with visitors even after they're returned home. Parks must stock their souvenir inventory online.

    Disney is the master at this. Disney's created an online store of items from its theme parks. You can buy photos taken of you in the Disney theme parks even after you've returned home. No matter how long ago you last visited a Disney theme park, if you ever think, "Hmmm, I'd really like a pair of mouse ears" - boom! - you are no more than a few clicks away from having them delivered.

    There are darned good reasons why Disney enjoys the highest per-guest spending in the theme park business. And this level of follow-through is one of them.

    I looked around the SeaWorld website later that week, and if Shamu's selling stuff online, I couldn't find the link.

    Again, I have no interest in buying cheap junk from theme and amusement parks. Nor do I want parks to spam me after my visit with offers to buy more stuff, if I gave up my e-mail address when I bought my ticket online. But if there is an item, from the back of the park, that I wished I'd bought but didn't, I do want the ability to go get it online or at the park exit, whichever is most convenient for me.

    For the stuff I want, make it as convenient as possible for me to spend my money. Before my visit, let me buy print at home tickets online, whenever I want. And let me easily buy anything the park sells - before, during or after my visit, as well.

    Earlier:

    Comments (20) | Archive Link

    Today's cute animal photo

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 24, 2009 at 1:07 PM
    SeaWorld Orlando today sent over some pictures of Loggerhead Turtle hatchlings that the park has had temporary custody of, due to high surf from Hurricane Bill preventing them getting to their nest near the Cape Canaveral National Seashore.

    Baby turtles

    (For reference, these turtles are about two inches long, so the pic is larger than life size.)

    I must now try to pry my daughter away from the computer screen so that I may work. Good luck to me on that.

    Comments (2) | Archive Link

    Disney releases more details about next month's D23 fan convention

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 24, 2009 at 10:47 AM
    Disney's released a more detailed schedule for its D23 fan convention, which runs Sept. 10-13 at the Anaheim Convention Center, across the street from the Disneyland Resort.

    Below, I've highlighted the events that would most likely be of interest to theme park fans. A complete schedule is available on the D23 website. Contrary to what many folks believe, you do not have to be a member of Disney's D23 fan club to attend. Anyone can buy one-day tickets to the event for $37. ($27 for kids 3-12. Interesting that the kid cut-off date is 12 for the expo, but 9 for the theme parks.) A four-day pass is $111 for adults and $81 for kids. D23 members do get a discount: one-day tickets for $30 and $22; the passes for $90 and $66.

    If you are planning to attend, please consider posting a daily write-up and photos here on the Blog Flume or the Theme Park Insider discussion board. I, and your fellow readers, would love to read your reports!

    Thursday, Sept. 10, 2009
    Bob Iger Presentation, 10 a.m. – Walt Disney Company President and CEO Bob Iger with an hour-long presentation on the future of Disney and new projects taking shape around the globe. Arena.

    An Afternoon With Imagineering Legends, 4:30 p.m. – Recently retired Executive Vice President of Walt Disney Imagineering Marty Sklar hosts a panel, including X Atencio, Alice Davis, Blaine Gibson and Bob Gurr. Storytellers Theater

    The World of Vintage Disneyland – In Color, 2 p.m., Storytellers Theater

    The Music of The Haunted Mansion, 3:30 p.m., Stage 23

    Friday, Sept. 11, 2009
    Happy Haunts: 40 Years of The Haunted Mansion, 12:30 p.m., Stage 23

    Special Preview: "The Wonderful World of Color," 2 p.m., Storytellers Theater

    We Make the Music: Conversations with the Creators of Disney Theme Park Music, 3:30 p.m., Storytellers Theater

    Saturday, Sept. 12, 2009
    So You Want to Be an Imagineer, 9 a.m. – Marty Sklar hosts a conversation with more than half a dozen guest Imagineers, who will discuss the challenges and rewards of their careers, and the special skills that are needed to "make the magic." Storytellers Theater

    Imagineering the Future of Disney Theme Parks, 11 a.m. – Walt Disney Parks & Resorts Chairman Jay Rasulo unveils new experiences on the horizon at Disney’s Parks and Resorts around the world. Arena

    The Science of Imagineering, 12:30 p.m., Storytellers Theater

    Refreshing a Classic: Remaking "it’s a small world" for the 21st Century, 2 p.m., Storytellers Theater

    The Making of the U.S. Presidents, 3:30 p.m., Storytellers Theater

    Sunday, Sept. 13, 2009
    The Making of Toy Story Midway Mania, 9:30 a.m., Storytellers Theater

    The Science of Imagineering, 1 p.m., Storytellers Theater (repeat of Saturday's show)

    Imagineering Pixar for the Disney Parks, 3 p.m., Storytellers Theater

    Comments (7) | Archive Link

    Theme park cast member stories: Hablamos Español... Sorta

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 24, 2009 at 9:10 AM
    Laurie and I went out for dinner in Austin, Texas a couple weeks ago with a mutual friends from college, who'd married a lawyer from Argentina. They're fluent in Spanish, so Laurie was practicing her Español, as she likes to do with native and fluent speakers.

    Our friend asked if I knew Spanish, too, and I replied that I know a few phrases.

    Laurie rolled her eyes. "Go ahead," she said. So I rattled off my best Spanish, as our friend arched her eyebrow higher with each phrase:

    "Cuatro personas por fila, por favor"*

    "No más de veinticuatro personas por barco"**

    "Permanezcan sentados, por favor"***

    "Mantenga las manos y los brazos dentro del barco"****

    "No tomar fotografías con flash"*****

    I could tell she was struggling to find some context for these seemingly random phrases, but her blank stare turned to understanding once Laurie explained....

    "He learned to speak Spanish working at Pirates of the Caribbean."

    ---

    *Four people per row, please

    **No more than 24 people per boat

    ***Remain seated, please

    ****Keep your hands and arms inside the boat

    *****No flash photography

    Comments (8) | Archive Link

    7,000 miles, 33 days, 25 states, 4 people, 1 Prius

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 23, 2009 at 10:41 PM
    Our Theme Park Insider Summer Roadtrip was just part of my family's summer vacation this year. With Laurie and I working from home, we didn't have any employment commitments keeping in town for the summer. Anywhere we can find an Internet connection, we can work. So we decided to take advantage and plan an ambitious roadtrip, one that would take us to each of our parents' homes for a week, so the kids could spend some time with their grandparents, aunts, uncles and two baby cousins (whom they'd not yet met).

    The Niles family Prius
    The Niles family Prius

    So we'd spend one week in Cincinnati (where Laurie's parents live), and one week in Orlando (with my parents). From there, we played a giant game of connect-the-dots, to craft an itinerary that would get us to both cities, taking through to friends' hometowns and theme parks along the way.

    Ultimately, we had to trim our plans a bit. We couldn't leave until after Natalie's birthday (July 10) and had to be back in town for me to attend an AYSO referee course (Aug. 14). Reserving a day to pack and prepare after Natalie's birthday, that left us with July 12 - August 13.

    Our roadtrip was scheduled.

    Brian in Utah's Castle Valley
    Brian, in Utah's Castle Valley

    Even though we had just over a month on the road, we couldn't get to all the parks along the way. I cut planned visits to Worlds of Fun (and its new coaster, Prowler), Six Flags St. Louis and Kings Dominion, opting instead for Holiday World, Kings Island, Busch Gardens Williamsburg, Dollywood, Universal Studios Florida and SeaWorld Orlando. As it turns out, we skipped Universal as well, since Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit hadn't opened when we visited and there was nothing new at the park since our week-long visit last year.

    We wanted to expose our California-dwelling kids to some history, as well, on this trip, so we included stays in Washington, D.C. and Williamsburg, Va. (an easy combo with Busch Gardens).

    A prairie dog in Lakewood, Colorado
    Natalie shot this picture of a prairie dog, along the trail by our old home outside Denver.

    To add to the degree of difficulty, I like to avoid eating at most fast-food and chain restaurants (I haven't eaten at a McDonald's in more than a decade), so we wanted to time our meal stops for towns where we could find alternatives. College towns turned out to be our solution, allowing us some nice locally-owned options.

    We would take the trip in our Prius, making the trip more affordable with its great gas mileage. (We made it from the University of Kansas in Lawrence, all the way across Missouri and Illinois, to Indiana University in Bloomington, on one, 11-gallon tank of gas.) But we wouldn't have much room in the car or for luggage.

    So I decreed that no one could pack a suitcase. We'd go with duffle and backpacks, easier to cram in the Prius' hatchback, without blocking the driver's view out the back. We each packed six days' worth of clothes, based on the longest we'd be traveling between stops where we knew we could laundry. Still, our luggage became a jigsaw puzzle, which could be placed in the back only one way that would allow me to draw the horizontal Tonneau cover across it. That became my job at the end of each stop.

    We saw some great signs during the trip:

    Give it to us, but don't blame us
    Um... kinda having it both ways there, aren't they?


    Don't even think of breaking this rule
    I guess they're serious about this rule, huh?


    People in DC really want a rep in Congress
    People in D.C. *really* want some representation in Congress.

    To save food costs (and our waistlines), we decided to split all meals, which worked fine. The only bad experiences we had with food were the few times we strayed and ordered a third, or fourth, meal. U.S. restaurant portions are huge, and there's no way to take a doggie bag on the road. Most times the grown-ups split one meal and the kids the other, but we often switched off based on the menu options, with one kid sharing with a parent.

    Brian, where Dr. King was the I Have a Dream Speech
    I took this shot of Brian, standing at the same spot on the Lincoln Memorial steps where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, delivered the "I Have a Dream Speech." If you look for it, you can find the marker, too.

    The oddest restaurant moment? In Austin, we ate an an outstanding restaurant called El Chile. It did not yet have a liquor license, so in lieu of selling margaritas, the restaurant was giving them away. Apparently, in Texas, if you don't have a liquor license, you cannot sell alcohol, but there's nothing stopping you from giving it away. I will allow you to draw whatever conclusion you wish about what this might say about the state of Texas.

    Kermit the Frog
    *The* Kermit the Frog, at the Smithsonian in Washington.

    FWIW, at that same dinner, Brian discovered he really likes jalapenos. The boy might try to kill you if you place a tomato or slice of cheese within the vicinity of his sandwich, but you can load on all the jalapenos, guacamole and salsa you want.

    Better the heat on the food than in the car, though. For the most part, we lucked out on weather, enjoying below-average temperatures throughout the south. Our drive through desolate west Texas, from Austin to El Paso on Aug. 12, was under mostly overcast skies, with temperatures in the 80s. We dodged a big bullet there.

    Hiking the Appalachian Trail
    Laurie and Natalie, on the Appalachian Trail. Still no sign of any Republican Governors!

    And the Prius held up great. We'd driven so far by the time we reached Orlando that the car hit its scheduled maintenance mark. So we dropped the car at a Toyota dealership for an oil change and tire rotation. No hassle; no worries.

    Indeed, we had no problems throughout the trip. The kids behaved splendidly, treating the kids and grown-ups they met with kindness and patience, and laughing at the "Get Smart" and other old TV show DVDs they watched in the backseat when they needed a break from the endless road. Yeah, everyone hates listening to selfish parents gloat, but... my kids rock.

    Pot people at Dollywood
    The best, and most inappropriate, joke on the trip? Laurie, upon spotting these, remarked, 'I can't believe they let a couple of potheads in Dollywood.' Classic.

    So, we'll do this again. We're trying to decide between a "northern route" roadtrip that would take us up to Seattle and over to Chicago and then to Cleveland and Cedar Point, or... a European roadtrip, that would allow us to hit some top theme parks as well as some violin-related sites for Laurie's website.

    But we need a bit of a break before we make that decision!

    For those interested, here was our itinerary:

    Sun., July 12; Pasadena, CA to Palisade, CO (Stayed at the Wine Country Inn. Highly recommended.)

    Mon., July 13; Palisade to Denver

    Tues., July 14; Denver

    Wed., July 15; Denver to Lawrence, KS (Stop at La Prima Tazza for coffee.)

    Thur., July 16; Lawrence to Bloomington, IN (Don't miss Mother Bear's Pizza. Get the breadsticks with spicy cheese.)

    Fri., July 17; Bloomington

    Sat., July 18; Bloomington to Holiday World, Santa Claus, IN, to Hebron, KY (Laurie's sister's home).

    Sun., July 19 - Thur., July 23; Cincinnati area (Kings Island on July 21)

    Fri., July 24; Hebron to Fairfax, VA

    Sat., July 25 - Mon., July 27; Washington D.C. area

    Tues., July 28; Washington to Williamsburg, VA

    Wed., July 29; Colonial Williamsburg

    Thurs., July 30; Busch Gardens Williamsburg

    Fri., July 31; Williamsburg to Durham, NC

    Sat., Aug 1; Durham to Pigeon Forge, TN

    Sun., Aug 2; Dollywood

    Mon., Aug 3; Pigeon Forge to Orlando (via South Carolina and Georgia coast)

    Tues., Aug 4 - Sun., Aug 9; Orlando (SeaWorld on Aug. 9)

    Mon., Aug 10; Orlando to New Orleans

    Tues., Aug 11; New Orleans to Austin, TX (Dinner at El Chile)

    Wed., Aug 12; Austin to Las Cruces, NM

    Thurs. Aug 13; Las Cruces to Pasadena

    Brian helped take several pictures on this trip
    Many thanks to Brian, my junior photographer, who took several of the pictures I've published from the trip.

    Happy travels, and thanks for following along.

    Comments (16) | Archive Link

    Steel. Lots of twisty, tasty steel

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 21, 2009 at 3:32 PM
    One more random photo from the Theme Park Insider summer roadtrip:

    Steel roller coaster track

    This one, obviously, offered up for the roller coaster fans on the site. Buckle up!

    Comments (10) | Archive Link

    Vote of the week: Which is your favorite theme park Halloween event?*

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 21, 2009 at 1:05 PM
    It might be hard to believe for some us, but in late August, we're just a month away from the start of theme parks' big, hard-ticket, after-hours Halloween events.

    Which one is the one you're most looking forward to this year? That's our vote of the week.

    Of course, these are not the only Halloween events at theme parks. Six Flags has its Fright Fest event at its parks, Cedar Point will open for Halloweekends, Busch Gardens in Williamsburg has its version of Howl-O-Scream, and SeaWorld, Legoland and Disneyland will offer their own, more kid-friendly, events.

    But those are typically included with regular, daytime park admission. I've selected the top five after-hours events, which require separate tickets to attend. Four of them are aimed at grown-ups (or at least teens and above); Disney's, as one might expect, is a kids-'n-parents affair.

    Tell us, in the comments, why you picked the one the picked.

    *Update: Yeah, the headline asks a very different question than the poll does. Robert FAIL... again.

    Comments (21) | Archive Link

    Funnel cake

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 20, 2009 at 4:22 PM
    Here's a random photo from our recent summer roadtrip, offered up for hungry theme park fans.

    Funnel cake

    Grab a virtual fork and dig in!

    Comments (7) | Archive Link

    Kings Dominion to open 305-foot coaster in 2010

    By Adam Nodjomian
    Published: August 20, 2009 at 10:23 AM
    Intimidator 305 is a new giga coaster opening in April 2010 at Kings Dominion.

    Intimidator 305 is named after the late Dale Earnhardt's stock car. The name of the coaster references Earnhardt's nickname, his car number (3) and the height of the coaster, 305 feet.

    At top speed the $25 million coaster will go about 92 mph, following an 85-degree, 300-foot initial drop. It will contain three high speeds turns and six air time humps. There is a small lake in the middle of the coaster. The trains will be black, with the red Chevy logo upfront, have about 16 rows of two across, and overhead restraints.

    The concept art shows the coaster stretching from the anaconda station to beyond the Rebel Yell turnaround. The brake run will take place on a downward slope with what is probably magnetic brakes.

    Comments (16) | Archive Link

    How theme parks can increase guest spending: Free water (or even free drinks)

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 20, 2009 at 10:13 AM
    Huh? If you're giving people something for free, how does that make them spend more?

    Lemme back up for a minute, to answer that question. The biggest factor affecting how much someone spends in a theme park is how long that person stays in the park. So if you want your guests to spend more money, you've got to find a way to keep them in the park for more of the day.

    In my first piece on this topic, I wrote about improving breakfast options in the parks, as a way to get more people into the parks earlier in the day. Free water is designed to keep them there later on summer days, when heat and dehydration combine to force many visitors to seek relief with an early retreat to their hotel, or, worse for the park, home.

    Pretty much all parks do offer free water at their restaurants. If you ask. Or you can always stoop over at the nearest water fountain. I'm suggesting that parks get much more aggressive about it, to dramatically increase the percentage of people taking advantage.

    Do like Dollywood, and line up cups of ice water on the counter, free for the taking. Or better yet, do like Holiday World, and place open drink cells throughout the park, so people can have all the free water - and soft drinks - they want.

    Free soft drinks, I can hear you ask: Am I insane?

    Soft drinks are among the highest margin items that theme parks sell. Giving them away surely would cripple the per-guest spending that we're trying to increase, right?

    Maybe not. Free drinks not only encourage people to stay better hydrated, allowing them to last longer in the summer heat, they change people's mentality about the park.

    The free drinks we got at Holiday World affected the way we thought about our money while we were in the park. By not having to spend two or three bucks a drink, we felt like we could more easily afford souvenirs and extra snacks later in the day. I'm convinced that we ended up spending more at Holiday World because of the free drinks than we would have without them.

    For further proof, let's talk about our trip to Kings Island, later the same week. Spending three bucks per Coke left us feeling ripped off after the Holiday World experience, and helped convince me to keep the wallets shut when the kids started looking at souvenirs. The hassle of asking for water also led to us getting less than we did at Dollywood. So, when we were wavering in late afternoon about whether or not to stay longer, feeling tired and hot, we made the easy decision: leave.

    Would we have chosen differently had Kings Island more aggressively offered free water, or free drinks? Probably.

    Again, the key to higher guest spending is a longer day in the park. If giving away a three-dollar Coke (which actually costs the park pennies, if anything, giving pouring deals), helps keep guests there so that they can buy a $20 dinner or souvenir later in the day, that initial loss pays for itself.

    When I attended the media day for Terminator: Salvation at Six Flags Magic Mountain, I saw Six Flags employees offering cold bottled water to every park employee and media rep at the ride. Park President Jay Thomas encouraged everyone to take one, imploring people to "stay hydrated" in the California desert sunshine.

    Every park should be that aggressive in offering water to every guest when the temperature exceeds a certain mark. Even if a park decides against offering free soft drinks, it should put free cups of ice water out on all its food service counters and set up freely accessible water drink cells throughout the park, for people to refill their water bottles. Gross old water fountains don't cut it anymore.

    Happy, healthy park guests spend more than cranky, ill-feeling ones. Providing cold drinks to everyone is a small expense for parks to take when compared to the money that they can make if more people stay, eat and shop in the parks later in the day.

    Comments (29) | Archive Link

    Thorpe Park wants to battle B.O.

    By Anthony Murphy
    Published: August 19, 2009 at 1:41 PM
    Thought this would brighten up your day from all this bad news coming from the parks or at least give you something to think about:

    Thorpe Park [anyone want to update those listings? - Ed.] in England has now told their patrons that they can not put their arms up on their roller coasters. Why you ask? Because they want to stop bad body odor from the armpits of their guests on their roller coasters.

    Here's a link from the UK Mirror.

    What next?

    Comments (18) | Archive Link

    That was a quick soft open... Universal makes it official with Rip, Ride, Rockit

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 19, 2009 at 10:27 AM
    The press release hit my in-box this morning. Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit at Universal Studios Florida is now open. Officially. No more "soft open" for the Maurer Söhne roller coaster.

    Rip Ride Rockit at Universal Orlando
    Image courtesy Universal

    Interesting that there was no mention of a media day to create a publicity push for the new ride. Folks in the Orlando area and the southeast, you'll have to let the rest of us know if you see any additional advertising for the ride, or if Universal is continuing with its reduced media presence.

    Also, as soon as someone's gotten the on-ride video from the coaster (which wasn't working during the soft open, as I understand), lemme know and I'll embed it here on TPI. (The only reason I ever care about media days is to get legal on-ride video of new rides, and if Universal's gonna have the lipstick cams on this one all the time, we can get that video whenever.)

    Comments (13) | Archive Link

    Could Nickelodeon be coming to the former Six Flags New Orleans?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 19, 2009 at 10:14 AM
    Popular kids TV channel Nickelodeon is now officially on board with a proposal to redevelop the Six Flags New Orleans theme park, which was shuttered after Hurricane Katrina hit the area five years ago.

    Howard Smith, Nickelodeon's vice president for recreation, joined with the head of a start-up amusement park development company yesterday to announce plans for the park. It's not a done deal, by any means. Viacom, Nick's corporate parent, and the start-up, Southern Star Amusement Group, want local and state authorities to pay the majority of the project's estimated $165 million cost. Southern Star, which has not yet developed any other projects, also needs to come up with millions on its own, too.

    And there's a competing proposal to redevelop the site for amateur sports stadiums, though that project doesn't have any funding, either.

    Nevertheless, Smith said that Nickelodeon is committed to the project, at least from a marketing perspective. "We will marshal our resources to get [viewers] to come to the park," he said at the press conference, hosted by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.

    Since Six Flags still has the lease on the property, that company - and its bankruptcy judge - must be part of any deal to transfer or terminate the current lease. And the project needs to secure $100 million from the sale of Gulf Opportunity Zone bonds, a program set up to encourage investment in the area after Katrina. And Southern Star needs to raise money to bring to the table. (Nick's not putting any cash into this, and will get a licensing fee out of it.) So while Southern Star has managed to bring Nickelodeon on board - making this proposal newsworthy - there's much, much more that needs to happen before Nickelodeon Park gets listed on TPI.


    View Larger Map
    A map of the Six Flags New Orleans site (the green arrow)

    Okay, now it's opinion time.

    You. Have. Got. To. Be. Kidding. Me.

    First, I find Nickelodeon's theme park strategy incomprehensible. To me, the idea ought to be to reach the widest number of freely spending theme park visitors as possible, in an environment that enhances your brand. Instead, Nick all but pulled out of the Universal theme parks in Orlando and LA in favor of placing its brands in Viacom-owned amusement parks in secondary markets. Then Viacom sold those parks to Cedar Fair, which is widely expected to drop Nick branding from its parks next season.

    So what's left? Nick took over the Camp Snoopy park at Mall of America and has branding on a Holiday Inn on an obscure section of South I-Drive in Orlando. Now, potentially, Nick could be adding a park located east of New Orleans, a mid-sized and shrinking media market.

    That's it. In less than a decade, Nick's gone from strong presence in two of the top 10 attended theme parks in the country to one, and possibly two, lightly-attended seasonal parks in stagnant secondary markets.

    What the eff?

    Now, let's talk about the New Orleans market. I spent a night in New Orleans less than two weeks ago, and drove past the Six Flags site. I love New Orleans, but it remains a shell of its former self. Even before Katrina, the market had a hard time supporting the former Jazzland. It was always a small park, located at the intersections of Interstates 10 and 510, east of the city. There is no way that $165 million transforms it into a worthy destination theme park resort, especially not in an environment that has as little family-friendly tourist infrastructure as post-Katrina New Orleans. If the stars align and the project actually comes together, it will produce, at best, a regional-quality amusement park (with Nick branding) in a region that can't support a regional-quality park.

    So, in a perverse way, I suppose it makes a weird sort of sense that Nickelodeon would attach itself to this project. Viacom seems like a company that is going out of its way to screw up in the theme park business.

    Comments (12) | Archive Link

    Carowinds to Add $11 Million Ride for 2010

    By Justin Moore
    Published: August 18, 2009 at 9:05 AM
    Carowinds has announced that it will build an $11 million ride for for the 2010 season. Cedar Fair, the Charlotte, NC theme park's owner, has not released specific details about the attraction, only that more information will be released August 26.

    I don't have to tell folks in the Carolinas that an $11 million investment in Carowinds is exciting news! Stay tuned for more.

    What kind of attraction do you think Cedar Fair is bringing to Carowinds?

    Comments (35) | Archive Link

    Accident at Disney Hollywood Studios' Indiana Jones show claims third Disney cast member in a month

    By Gareth H
    Published: August 18, 2009 at 8:19 AM
    A Walt Disney World cast member is dead after an accident Monday evening at Hollywood Studios.

    Stunt performer Anislav Varbanov, 30, was fatally injured during a rehearsal for the " Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular." He was doing a tumbling roll after 7 p.m. when he was hurt.

    He was pronouced dead at 8.43pm.

    Comments (37) | Archive Link

    First Look -- Kouzzina by Cat Cora Menus

    By Scott Joseph
    Published: August 17, 2009 at 7:54 PM
    Got a hold of the menus for Kouzzina by Cat Cora, the mostly Greek restaurant that opened very, very quietly Saturday at Disney's BoardWalk. If you know Greek, you'll recognize some of the dishes. Here's a link.

    Comments (8) | Archive Link

    Theme park cast member stories: Walking the theme park power walk

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 17, 2009 at 12:07 PM
    You think it's frustrating walking through a crowded theme park on a busy summer day?

    Try walking through those crowds while the 15 minutes of your precious sit-down, air-conditioned break are ticking away.

    Every new theme park employee faces this problem. You go on break for the first time, then waste 10 minutes of your break wading through the crowd to get to, and then back from, the break room. (Or the cafeteria.) That's why theme park employees develop what I call the "theme park power walk."

    RapidsIt's the ability to walk through a theme park crowd like a kayaker steers through Class IV rapids. You watch the crowd to see how fast it's flowing, go with the swiftest stream, then keep your eyes open for obstacles downstream that you'll need to steer around.

    The biggest mistake people make when trying to navigate a theme park crowd is looking at the bodies in front of them. Look at their heads, instead. Stay with folks looking straight ahead, and prepare to swing around those who move their gaze to either side. They'll soon stop or slow down, throwing the current around them into turmoil.

    Strollers are the jagged boulders of the theme park rapids. Swing well away from them.

    Big groups are trouble, too. All you need is for one in the group to get distracted, and all will slow or stop. Find the people walking alone, eager to get to their destination, and slice through the crowd with them.

    I laugh at folks who try to run in theme parks. Forget the rules prohibiting it. Runners are like those sports cars on the highway that rush up to pass you, never noticing the slower traffic ahead that's gonna force them to eat their brakes. A good power walker, keeping his or her eyes on the current flowing ahead, will beat a runner through the crowd almost every time.

    Of course, my power walk drives my family nuts when I've brought them along to a park. My wife worked one summer at Epcot, but she was "talent" (in the orchestra) and rarely had to get through the park alone, so she never developed "the walk." So they hang back like "civilians," wondering why I'm plowing through the crowd when I'm supposed to be on vacation and relaxed.

    Hey, old habits die hard. Plus, I've got a ride to get to!

    Comments (19) | Archive Link

    How theme parks can increase guest spending: Better breakfasts

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 17, 2009 at 9:07 AM
    The recession is hurting theme parks, no doubt. Profit is down at almost all the chains, and Six Flags is running in the red, according to recent financial reports. Deep discounts have helped minimize the losses at the front gate, but that's cost parks even more on their bottom lines, as per guest spending has plunged. (Which makes sense: People coming to the parks on deep discounts spend less to get in - obviously - and tend to keep spending less once inside.)

    So how can theme parks turn the corner? As fans, we want to see financially healthy theme parks. Discounts are great, but world-class new attractions, well-maintained parks and experienced employees are great, too. And we get those only when parks are making money over the long term. A profitable industry also encourages competition and the construction of new parks and park expansions.

    Starting today, I'll be sharing some of the ideas I've had about what parks can do to increase in-park guest spending, based on what I've seen on my cross-country roadtrip this summer. None of my ideas will involve soaking customers, simply to wring more cash from us. (Ultimately, I write for the customers and am on their side.) My ideas are designed to suggest ways that parks can provide extra value to us, value that some (if not many) of us would be willing to pay a little extra to get.

    Let's start with the beginning of the day.

    Suggestion #1: Theme parks ought to offer more and better breakfast programs

    A recent Theme Park Insider vote of the week found that just eight percent of theme park fans eat breakfast in the park. The plurality, 40 percent, ate at their hotels - many of which, presumably, offer free breakfast with the night's stay. But 21 percent of readers reported eating at an off-site restaurant. That's money that the parks could be, and should be, getting.

    But to do that, parks have to provide more value than the outside restaurants do.

    Here are two ways to do that:

    1. Let breakfast eaters get in the park early. I love the program that Legoland California has offered. For an extra charge, visitors get an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet at the park's underrated Sports Cafe, as well as early access to all the rides in the park's Imagination Zone, including the Technic Coaster. Think of it as Disney's Early Magic Hours, but only for people who buy breakfast in the park.

    Given that our number one piece of advice at Theme Park Insider is to get to the park early, how many more people would choose instead to eat at the park is that guaranteed them first crack at some of the parks' most popular attractions? Plenty, I'd bet.

    2. Give breakfast eaters a unique interactive experience. Plenty of parks offer character breakfasts. While those provide great options for families with kids, parks shouldn't limit themselves to that segment of the market.

    Breakfast with Shamu at SeaWorld San Diego
    Breakfast with Shamu at SeaWorld San Diego

    Park managers should ask, with whom else might visitors want to have breakfast? The SeaWorld parks offer a popular Breakfast with Shamu program, where visitors eat a buffet while listening to and talking with the parks' killer whale trainers, who lead a show with the whales. Visitors sit next to a tank beside the main show tank, where they can get much closer to the whales than they can during the regular park performances. That's huge value (pun very much intended) for Shamu lovers.

    You don't need killer whales to do that program. Parks with high-quality live entertainment could do a breakfast with the performers, offering both performances in a more intimate setting and a Q&A with the artists.

    Oh wait, here's a third:

    3. Do both. My biggest problem with character breakfasts and the like is that they leave me in a restaurant while other parks visitors are bagging rides with the shortest lines of the day. I love when parks offer an earlier option, where I can finish the breakfast before the park opens and... they let me ahead of the crowd at the rope drop to make my way back to the top rides. (FWIW, parks could double their money by offering a second run of the breakfast at park opening time for later arrivals.)

    Granted, these programs tend to be more expensive than a regular breakfast, even if the extra expense is justified by the value delivered. But parks could do better in attracting dollars from visitors who don't want to spend anything extra, beyond the typical cost of a restaurant breakfast.

    Here's how:

    4. Offer more variety and higher quality at the front of the park. Visitors should be able to choose from a traditional full breakfast (eggs, waffles or pancakes, meat, etc.) or lighter fare, such as yogurt, fruit, cereal and pastries. Park managers should scope out what hotels at their visitors' price points are offering and replicate that. I'd love to see a theme park with omelette and waffle stations, in addition to heat lamp and refrigerator case selections. (Bonus points for egg white and soy options, too.)

    And whatever choices a park offers, put them at the front of the park, in front of the rope drop, so that early arrivals can finish their breakfast before entering the park.

    I've saved my biggest suggestion for last, though. If parks do nothing else to better serve potential breakfast customers, they should do this:

    5. Get a decent coffee vendor. On our entire roadtrip, my coffee aficionado wife reported getting exactly one decent coffee drink in a theme park.

    At the Starbucks on International Street in Kings Island.

    For all the great food we had otherwise at the two Busch parks we visited, the coffee was consistently lame. Either spend the bucks to install a fancy machine and lure some good baristas to run it, or contract out to a firm like Starbucks, Peets or Coffee Bean. Spring for high quality beans, tea, milk (including soy) and syrups, too. Instant coffee and flavored artificial creamers don't cut it anymore.

    So... what do you have to say about theme park breakfast options? What would you like to see?

    Comments (12) | Archive Link

    Universal Studios Florida opens Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit coaster

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 15, 2009 at 12:34 PM
    After a delay of several months, Universal Studios Florida has opened its long-awaited musical roller coaster Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit to the public. It is a soft open, so it could close at any time, so ride if you see it available!

    The ride opened to Universal employees last night, and to the public today. Reports from readers onsite welcomed in the comments.

    No word yet on an official open date or media day.

    Comments (18) | Archive Link

    Vote of the week: What new theme park ride or show do you want to see?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 14, 2009 at 8:53 AM
    It's the start of the theme park "silly season," where our attention begins to turn from the summer theme and amusement park high season to the new rides and shows that the parks will build over the winter to debut next year. (We've got our ongoing list of new attractions under construction, too.)

    So, what do you wish your favorite park would build for next year? That's our vote of the week. (We'll assume elaborate theming and a story element for all the suggested ride systems and shows below.)

    Tell us more about your dream new attraction, in the comments. And have a great weekend!

    (*Note: I reset the initial poll voting to add another option. If you were among the first 25 who voted, please vote again.)

    Comments (17) | Archive Link

    Kennywood to get new coaster, close Turnpike

    By Joe Atchison III
    Published: August 13, 2009 at 5:26 AM
    The Turnpike track has been at Kennywood for as long as I can remember. That will change this Saturday when it closes to be located elsewhere in the next few years. In its place will be a new coaster that launches riders from 0 to 50mph in 3 seconds.

    See the ull story and an artist's rendering

    Comments (6) | Archive Link

    Roller coasters collide at Blackpool in the UK

    By Gareth H
    Published: August 12, 2009 at 7:20 AM
    Two cars on the Big Dipper on Blackpool's South Shore collided 20 feet off the ground yesterday.

    Twenty-one riders on the roller coaster were hurt, with three taken to the hospital, though none critical.

    Around 32 people were rescued from the two trains by emergency services, including a specialist rope rescue team.

    The Big Dipper is one of the popular British amusement park's wooden roller coasters. It appears that one train became stuck on the track, then was hit by the other train.

    Comments (5) | Archive Link

    Travel day today

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 11, 2009 at 8:17 PM
    I am on the road today, and pretty wiped out anyway, so I won't have a new blog post for you. (Though if any news breaks, readers are always welcomed to post.)

    However, that doesn't mean that there's no new stuff on the site today. (Apologies for the multiple negatives there.) Readers have submitted several great new threads on the discussion board. Please check 'em out, and if you have something to say, respond!

    Comments (1) | Archive Link

    Advice for first-time visitors to Epcot's Food and Wine Festival

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 10, 2009 at 7:32 PM
    Tuesday's the first day to make reservations for this year's Epcot Food & Wine Festival at Walt Disney World. As Orlando food critic Scott Joseph and Theme Park Insider readers have noted, there are some notable changes this year, including charges for once-free sessions.

    How this will affect the demand for reservations, we'll soon find out. I asked Scott and several other festival veterans what advice they'd offer first-time visitors to the festival (such as, well, me). Here are the top tips:

  • Don't stress about making your plans now. There's plenty to see, do, eat and drink at the festival to entertain even the most demanding first-time visitor who arrives without a single reservation.

  • Do take a look at the festival guide [PDF] at some point before you arrive, though. If you see a particular chef, event or demonstration that really interests you, go ahead and try to make a reservation. Do keep timing in mind, though. In the past, many demonstrations have had queues forming early, though this might change with the new $8 charges for many. Still, Epcot's a big park, and you're probably not going to make it from an event that ends at 12:45 to another that starts at 1. Give yourself about an hour between events.

  • The Party for the Senses rarely sells out, and other events scheduled in the World Showplace (which is huge) are usually the last to fill up. Keep that in mind, if you are trying to make advance reservations for a few events.

  • When you arrive, make a lap around the World Showcase, scoping out the offerings, before you start with the food and the wine. If you jump in first, without seeing all that's available, you're likely to end up with too much in the belly and too little in the wallet when you run across that really special selection.

  • You can't get everything out of the festival in a single day, so don't even try. Again, take a look around, and pick what most interests you. Don't be afraid to take a bit of a risk, though. Trying something new, ultimately, is what the festival is all about.

    I'm considering flying out for this year's festival, possibly making it a two-fer trip with a visit to Halloween Horror Nights at Universal. I'll keep you posted, in case any TPI readers are interested in a get-together at the festival.

    Comments (7) | Archive Link

  • Fall at Walt Disney World claims life of Magic Kingdom cast member

    By Anthony Murphy
    Published: August 10, 2009 at 7:26 PM
    A Walt Disney World cast member passed away today, after being injured in a fall at the Magic Kingdom theme park last week.

    Mark Priest was a performer in the "Pirates Tutorial" show at the park, where performers lead audience members in a series of pirate tasks. Priest reportedly fell during the show on Thursday, breaking his neck.

    Disney officials told the Orlando Sentinel that they had no indication that Priest's injuries were life-threatening. OSHA and the Orange Country Sheriff are now investigating.

    This is the second death of a Walt Disney World cast member in an on-the-job incident this summer, following the monorail crash that claimed the life a a monorail driver last month.

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    Theme Park Insider Summer Roadtrip: SeaWorld Orlando

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 9, 2009 at 5:45 PM
    Come with us for a little aerial tour of SeaWorld Orlando:

    Brian shot that video this morning from the park's Sky Tower, while Natalie and I continued our coaster quest with rides on Manta...

    Manta at SeaWorld Orlando

    ...and Kraken.

    Kraken roller coaster

    I'd ridden Kraken before, and continue to cherish this Bolliger & Mabillard floorless coaster as the finest sequence of inversions I've experienced. But this was my first trip on Manta, the B&M Flyer that you voted the Best New Attraction of 2009. Despite a posted wait of 60 minutes, we were on board in 25. The queue, an underwater walk through an aquarium, is beautiful. The ride?

    Um... wow. Well, as always, TPI readers display excellent judgment. This is, simply, the greatest roller coaster I've ever had the pleasure to ride. Flying on your belly, B&M's selection of dips, twists and flips leaves riders giddy, having experienced the freedom of twisting, turning flight for the first time.

    Yeah, there are other B&M Flying Coasters out there. But none fly through such a beautiful environment as SeaWorld's. And for those of you worried about comfort in this unusual riding position, I found that scooting my shoulders up a bit after the train seat rotated forward helped me immensely. YMMV, of course.

    After short waits to ride Kraken and Journey to Atlantis following our flight on Manta, we were done with rides for the day, and ready to take in SeaWorld's shows. First up was Blue Horizons, the dolphin and acrobats show that will be copied at SeaWorld San Diego next fall.

    Blue Horizon at SeaWorld

    Here's a clip of the show's finale:

    Laurie and Brian had made reservations at Sharks Underwater Grill following their ride on the Sky Tower, so we headed over to the shark tank for our 12:30 lunch reservation. It's tough to get a good still shot of the view from inside the restaurant, so let's go to the video, instead.

    As Scott Joseph noted in his review of Sharks last spring, this place ain't cheap. I had the 8 oz. Salmon filet with ancho chile beurre blanc and poblano mashed potatoes, which set me back $25.

    Salmon dinner

    Laurie's 8 oz. Filet mignon with jerk-seasoned demi glace and topped with gouda cheese and served with a fried garlic yucca cake went for $30. (Fried yucca cake, you ask? Think of a large, upscale hash brown cake.)

    Filet mignon

    Both entrees also were served with summer squash, zucchini and carrots. The kids went with basic kids' meals - a hot dog and penne pasta - which each came with a blue gummy shark. Nice.

    Was it worth it? As a nice, sit-down dinner to reward the family at the end of the day? Absolutely, yes. But not as lunch in the middle of a mid-90s Orlando summer sweat-fest. SeaWorld offers much-better-than-theme-park-average food. Since Sharks has no lunch menu, offering dinner prices all day, why not hit one of SeaWorld's other eateries for a lighter lunch? (And the steak would have been better without the cheese, by the way.)

    After lunch, we took a short walk over to the Sea Lion and Otter Stadium for Clyde & Seamore Take Pirate Island.

    Clyde & Seamore Take Pirate Island

    This show doesn't aim for the heart, like other SeaWorld performances. It's going straight for the funny bone, and hits its mark. (Get there early and watch the mime assault late-comers for some of the best gags.) Of course, Natalie reserved her loudest applause for the otters.

    Otters on the run

    She's demanding that SeaWorld's next park be built in California, and be called SeaOtterWorld. @shamu, please take note.

    Speaking of the Big Whale, we wrapped up our day with Believe.

    Believe at SeaWorld

    Believe's appropriately heavy with environmental and follow-your-dreams messages, but it's hard to notice anything about the show beside the awesome display of orca power and grace.

    Shamu and trainer

    After the half-hour show, "Shamu" came forward for the audience's well-earned applause.

    Shamu

    That wraps up the east coast leg of our summer roadtrip. Keep reading TPI for additional trip reports in the weeks to come.

    Previously on the Summer Roadtrip:

    Comments (15) | Archive Link

    Man collapses on Kings Island's Firehawk roller coaster

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 9, 2009 at 5:10 AM
    A visitor to Kings Island died yesterday, after riding the Cincinnati-area park's Firehawk roller coaster.

    According to a park statement, the man was having trouble breathing when he train returned to the station at the amusement park yesterday afternoon. Park employees responded and treated him at the scene, before he was taken to Bethesda North Hospital.

    The man died at the hospital last night. Firehawk is closed this morning, pending a state re-inspection of the ride.

    Pre-existing health conditions are the leading cause of trouble on amusement park rides, which is why parks advise against riding if you have health problems.

    But millions of Americans have health conditions they don't know about, due to a variety of reasons, including lack of or inadequate health insurance. For a list of tips to help keep you and your family safe at theme parks, please read our Theme Park Safety Tips page.

    Comments (15) | Archive Link

    Disney to charge for formerly free sessions at Epcot Food & Wine Festival

    By Scott Joseph
    Published: August 7, 2009 at 6:22 PM
    It's looks like the free wine seminars and culinary demonstrations that were lagniappe for people attending the Epcot Food & Wine Festival are a thing of the past (and the recession). Disney's charging for them now.

    Comments (2) | Archive Link

    Universal Orlando's lost summer

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 7, 2009 at 11:45 AM
    Take a look at theme parks' second-quarter financial results, and the contrast could not be more clear:

    Disney offers huge discounts, spends aggressively to promote them, and maintains its attendance levels in the worst economy since the Great Depression. But it suffers a significant profit loss as a result.

    Universal also offers some discounts, but cuts its promotion budget, trims costs throughout its properties, and its attendance tanks. But thanks to the cost cuts, it increases its profit.

    Which company did the better job?

    If you're a cold-eyed, myopic Wall Street analyst, you might select Universal. Theme park fans, who care more about price and service than profit, might opt for Disney.

    It's a classic management dilemma confronting any business in a bad economy: Do you cut price and sacrifice profit for market share, or do you cut costs and risk market share to protect profits?

    Disney and Universal seem to have picked opposing strategies. But upon a closer look, Universal's choice might not have been so intentional. Circumstances may have led Universal to see that it had no chance to build market share in 2009, forcing it to sacrifice a "lost summer," while trying to bank as much cash as it could for 2010.

    Ad campaigns tend to one of three approaches:

  • Promoting a new service, product or discount
  • Reinforcing an emotional bond with a product
  • Appealing to an immediate hunger or desire

    The third approach is tough for destination theme park resorts. Vacations take too much planning to be a true impulse buy - like ordering a pizza at 10pm. Disney can do the second phenomenally well, but other theme parks tend to have less emotional connections with their audience. (Roller coasters resonate with a relatively limited percentage of the marketplace. SeaWorld's cute critters appeal to more. But Mickey and Disney's princesses tend to rule this category.)

    That leaves the first option, which is what you see in so much theme and amusement park advertising. Universal hit the market big with its Super Bowl ads giving away 7-day tickets to the resort. But after that, what was Universal to promote?

    Well, its new roller coaster at Universal Studios Florida, of course.

    Whoops.

    Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit didn't open as planned last spring. And as the summer season melts away, it still hasn't opened. With no new ride to promote, Universal instead opted to save the money it would have spent on ads, and bank the money for next year.

    Why wouldn't Universal instead promote more discounts, like Disney did, and try to hold on to its market share in the summer of 2009?

    I can answer that question in two words: "Harry Potter."

    With the much-anticipated Wizarding World of Harry Potter opening at Islands of Adventure early next year, many theme park fans understandably have decided to wait until that new land opens before visiting Universal Orlando. Perhaps a new roller coaster at USF might have encouraged some of those fans to plan another trip to Universal this summer, but with HRRR not open, the decision to postpone a visit became easy for many.

    Universal management understands that. So it punted, gave up on 2009, and, I suspect, is hoping that Harry Potter saves the year for Universal in 2010.

    The boy wizard's batting 1.000 so far, with every book and movie from the series becoming a huge hit. But Universal got burned this year with an attraction opening that didn't come through. There's still no firm opening date for Universal's Harry Potter land, and the longer that Universal goes into the 2009 holiday season without announcing one, the more potential visitors the resort will lose as families make alternate vacation plans.

    A business with pockets as deep as Universal's might be able to afford one lost summer of crumbling market share. I am sure that no one at Universal wants to see what would happen should they lose two.

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  • Vote of the week: What theme park discounts will Disney offer in 2010?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 6, 2009 at 6:54 PM
    Don't be fooled by news reports claiming that a vacation to Walt Disney World will be more expensive following Disney's annual price increase last week. Published ticket prices are like the "rack rate" for a hotel room. Sure, some people pay them, but many more find deals.

    As the economy continues to struggle, many observers expect the Walt Disney Company to continue to discount the cost of its theme park vacations in 2010. Count me among them. But don't take my word for it. I asked editors at several other websites that cover the theme park industry to offer their predictions, too. And all expect continued discounts from Disney.

    Arthur Levine, About.com Guide to Theme Parks:

    Unlike Madame Leota, I don't have a crystal ball. But based on this year's plethora of offers, I'd expect Disney to continue making almost anything and everything available to boost attendance and hotel occupancy as long as crummy economic conditions prevail. While I was surprised, given the sour economy, to see Disney stick with its annual August ritual and jack up ticket prices a few days ago, I would not expect them to offer discounted multi-day passes--at least at WDW--beyond the savings built into the existing Magic Your Way program.

    Mary Waring, MouseSavers.com:

    Unless there is a radical change in the economy by the end of this year, I would expect that next year we'll see the same type of deep discounts we saw this year at Walt Disney World. That means something like the "7 nights for the price of 4" vacation packages in January-June, discounted summer vacation packages, and "free dining" vacation packages in late August through early December.

    At Disneyland, I would expect to see continuing discounts on tickets for Southern California residents (2fer tickets, $99 specials, etc.), plus the usual vacation package discounts like "everyone gets in for the kids' price" in January-April, "5 nights for the price of 3" in April-September, and "4th night free" in September-December.

    Al Lutz, MiceAge:

    At Disneyland (with a healthy local visitor base, and busy new attractions schedule) the story there is about how much more they can get out of the customer, so if the numbers hold my thought is that you won't see much of a change or increase in any current discounting.

    They have a different situation in Walt Disney World. Without a strong base of locals, lots of rooms to fill, and past management slow to schedule new attractions and resistant to upgrade/refurb what they already have; my thought here is that they will have be more aggressive in offering discounts. Expect to see more formerly extra cost options to be free - triggered/increasing as stays are lengthened. I would also expect to see more package deals focused on transportation discounts.

    In this unsteady economy everything is subject to change; which is why I haven't done much more than generalize here. But one thing I am sure of is that there is no company more adept at adjusting their plans than Disney, others only wish they had their problems. ;)

    Let me throw this question to you now. Of the discounts Disney's run in the past (or have been rumored to run in the future), which one would be most likely to get you to book a vacation visit to the Walt Disney World or Disneyland Resorts? You can vote in both polls, but select just one option in each. And if you are not interested, or unable to buy with any discounts, those options are available, too.

    Tell us your thoughts, in the comments, about which types of discounts motivate you to book trips, either to Disney theme parks, or anywhere else.

    Scheduling note: I've been laid up by a nasty cold here in Orlando, so we've pushed back our trip to SeaWorld to Sunday. I'll file a report, with photos and maybe some video, Sunday night. Thanks for reading.

    Comments (17) | Archive Link

    SeaWorld San Diego to debut Blue Horizons show in 2010

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 5, 2009 at 6:26 PM
    SeaWorld San Diego announced today that it will change its Dolphin shows and theater for 2010, bringing a version of the Blue Horizons show, originally from Orlando, to the California park.

    From the press release:

    At the center of “Blue Horizons” is Marina, a young girl whose vivid imagination sets the stage for an extravaganza of graceful dolphins, magnificent pilot whales and a rainbow of exotic birds. “Blue Horizons” features action both above and under the water, as a cast of divers and aerialists, dressed in eye-catching costumes symbolizing sea and sky, plunge off the elaborate set into, and also propel out of, the deep blue water.

    The Orlando version has earned positive reviews from Theme Park Insider readers, with one calling it "the most beautiful show that the park has to offer."

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    Theme park deals, discounts and promo codes for August 2009

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 5, 2009 at 6:06 PM
    Sorry for being a week late this month, but the roadtrip has thrown my schedule off a bit. But normally, 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. This month, you're getting 'em today.

    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

    Walt Disney World continues to offer its dining plan for free for visitors who book a five-day vacation through the Disney website.

    In addition, Disney World is offering to extend annual passholders three extra months free with a 12-month renewal.

  • Disney World's special offers page

    Disneyland continues two nights free with a three-night hotel purchase, as well as two days free with a three-day theme park ticket purchase.

  • Disneyland's special offers page

    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.
  • Layoff protection plan; deposits refunded if you lose your job before your trip.

    In addition, Universal Orlando is offering a $150 discount guide for food and merchandise with any theme park ticket purchase via the Universal website.

    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.

    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 and additional offers.

    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.

    Six Flags

    Six Flags offered $15 tickets through its Twitter account last month, and has suggested additional short-term sales might be available to its Twitter followers in the future.

    If you have a Flip video camera, you can bring it to a park on Sundays before Sept. 6 and you'll get a free Flash Pass. Details.

    Comments (3) | Archive Link

  • Theme park attendance is down everywhere - except at Disneyland

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 4, 2009 at 4:15 PM
    Most of the major theme park companies have released their second quarter revenue reports, so we've gotten a picture showing how attendance is holding up at the nation's theme parks during the first half of the year.

    And... it isn't. As many feared, attendance is tanking at theme parks across the country, with one notable exception. What's worse, Easter fell during the second quarter this year, pushing results higher than they would have been, if you can believe it.

    So who's doing okay? Disney, specifically Disneyland, where attendance was up 2 percent over the same period last year, thanks to Disney's get-in-free-on-your-birthday promotion, as well as annual and multi-day pass deals.

    Overall, attendance at Disney was flat, with gate counts down just 1 percent at Walt Disney World. But even as attendance held up, revenue and profit tanked, as the free days and free meals Disney used to lure visitors meant that the folks who did show up in the parks were spending far less than visitors last year.

    Here are the second quarter results, by company:

    Disney:
    Attendance: Flat (Up 2% at Disneyland, down 1% at Walt Disney World)
    Revenue: Down 9%
    Profit: Down 19%

    Universal:
    Attendance: Down at least 10%
    Profit: Up 13% (Universal cited cost cutting to help create the profit.)

    Six Flags:
    Attendance: Down 8%, from 8 million last year
    Revenue: Down 13% to $302 million
    Profit: A loss of $98.6 million, compared with profit of $113.5 million last year.
    Per person spending: Down 4% to $36.70 per visitor.

    Cedar Fair:
    Attendance: Down 13%, from 7.6 million to 6.6 million
    Revenue: Down 11%, to $264 million
    Profit: Down 50%
    Per person spending: Down 2% to $39.50 per visitor.

    I haven't found any data on the Busch theme parks, since Anheuser-Busch is now part of the Belgian company Anheuser-Busch InBev. If anyone from Busch Entertainment Corp. wants to share some data, you know where to get in touch. :-)

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    Theme park cast member stories: Boozy McTourist and the Giant Mickey Mouse

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 3, 2009 at 7:20 PM
    This week's story is for all the former and current merchandise employees out there. Let's talk about the most outrageous sale you ever had or witnessed.

    Here's the story of mine. In the summer of 1987, I worked registers at what was then Mickey's Mart, in Tomorrowland at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. Mickey's Mart was one of the largest stores in the Magic Kingdom, second only to Emporium in sales, I was told. Despite the Tomorrowland location, the merchandise was pretty much the standard Disney theme park fare - shirts, plush, toys, candy, even cigarettes under the counter. (But no gum - no one on Disney property could sell chewing gum.)

    The biggest item in the store was an enormous stuffed Mickey Mouse, perched on the ledge under the store's ceiling, opposite the windows where the People Movers rode past. This Mickey stood close to five feet tall, and cost around $300, if memory serves. Mickey was graying with age, thanks to a layer of dust building up on him, due to the fact that no out-of-town tourist would be fool enough to buy something so big. If one did, I was told, there was a second GinorMouse waiting backstage, since it'd be too much hassle to move the Big Mick from his perch.

    You can see where this story is going, can't you?

    One late July evening, just after the fireworks and about an hour before close, a middle-aged man stumbled up to the register next to mine, and bellowed, waving toward Big Mickey, "How much for that Mickey Mouse up there?"

    This was not an uncommon question, as tourists often gawked at the Big Guy.

    "That Mickey is $300," the CM next to me replied.

    "I'll take it."

    Stunned silence. It was like a real-life version of one of those old stockbroker commercials. Every CM in the room, it seemed, plus a whole lot of tourists, turned to look at the guy. (Hey, he was pretty loud.)

    One those onlookers was the man's daughter, who appeared to be in her mid-teens... and looking very forward to the day when she wouldn't have to be seen in public with her dad ever again.

    "No way, Dad. You can't buy that. We'd never get it home."

    "Hah," the man cut across her. "You wanted a Mickey Mouse. I'm going buy you a Mickey Mouse."

    She looked like she'd prefer being killed on the spot, but Daddy was getting his way. As he handed over his AMEX card, both the CM on his register and I got a whiff of the beer he'd been drinking. Hey, we'd long suggested that the only way someone would be fool enough to buy the Big Mick would be drunk.

    But given that the Magic Kingdom didn't serve alcohol, we figured someone would have to have gotten pretty loaded at Epcot to make it all the way back to the MK to buy Mickey and still be buzzed enough to do the deal. Well, that night, Boozy McTourist came through.

    Of course, it took a while to explain to Boozy that he wasn't getting that Mickey, but a clean one that we'd stored backstage. And that he couldn't just carry something that large from the store, that he'd pick it up at the park exit, where we would deliver it. As we explained all this, I could see the slosh in his expression turning to stupor, as well as his daughter's embarrassment mutating into an anger that I am sure would fuel many therapy sessions in the years to come.

    Backstage, the stock guys were fighting over who got to drive Mickey on the cart through the tunnels to Main Street, where hosts at the merchandise pick-up location already were gleefully awaiting Boozy McTourist's arrival. I never did hear what happened there, but the next night, there was another Big Mick waiting backstage, for the next drunken tourist with too much money and a child to embarrass.

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    Theme Park Insider Summer Roadtrip: Dollywood

    By Robert Niles
    Published: August 2, 2009 at 6:05 PM
    We awoke this morning in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee to a steady rain. A quick check of the forecast called for showers all morning, followed by thunderstorms in the afternoon. Looks like we'll we doing Dollywood in the rain.

    Now, lots of folks won't bother visiting a theme park in the rain. Which is why I say... all the more reason to go. Folks not visiting means shorter lines for the rest of us.

    So Natalie and I walked right on to Thunderhead...

    Thunderhead

    ...and Mystery Mine.

    Mystery Mine

    Perhaps I would have enjoyed Thunderhead more if I hadn't ridden substantially the same ride at Six Flags Magic Mountain earlier this spring. And if I hadn't been spoiled on wooden coasters by Holiday World's world-class trio. But after riding those, Thunderhead just didn't wow me the way it had so many other riders in the first few years after its 2004 debut.

    And Mystery Mine? I hadn't been on a Gerstlauer Euro-Fighter before, despite the fact that Mystery Mine had won our Theme Park Insider Award for best new attraction in 2007. The best way I can describe this unique coaster is as if a wickedly talented designer had pulled apart a Wild Mouse and rebuilt it for extreme moves. You've got two 90-degree lifts, a heartline roll and dive loop, as well as a couple of jaw-rattling sudden dips.

    I mean that last part literally. The position of the over-the-shoulder rests just under my jaw about near knocked my teeth out on one of the early dips. Mystery Mine is to roller coasters what the 12-tone scale is to music - a radical design that engages students of the genre but just doesn't feel like much fun.

    We had a much better time on Lumberjack Lifts, a 25-ft. pull-up tower.

    Lumberjack Lifts

    Frankly, the rides at Dollywood just didn't do much for me. We had started our day on the Journey to the Center of the Earth 4D ride, which was little more than a clip job from the Brendan Fraser movie. While the Tennessee Tornado offered a smooth triple loop in a lovely mountain setting, Blazing Fury served up three small drops within a crudely animated dark ride. And while River Battle could have been a hoot on a hot, crowded day, on a rainy morning with no one else on the ride, it felt kinda pathetic. Who are we gonna get wet?

    Our day picked up with lunch, though, as we took Theme Park Insider readers' advice and opted for the all-you-can-eat chicken buffet at Miss Lillian's Chicken House.

    Miss Lillian's Chicken House

    At $13 for adults and $6 for kids (11 and under), this is a steal of an all-you-can eat deal. The salad wasn't worth filling a plate with, but the fried chicken, corn, mashed potatoes, pepper gravy and chocolate cake all earned thumbs up from the family. The biscuits were especially tender and tasty, though we missed not having jelly to smear all over them.

    Miss Lillian even stopped by to help Brian find his inner "chicken spirit."

    Miss Lillian and Brian

    Okay, the food was good, but that wasn't enough to earn the praise I'd hear from so many readers over the years about this park. If it wasn't the rides, what could it be?

    Well, duh, Robert, this is Dollywood, Dolly Parton's theme park. What makes this park impressive became apparent as soon as I walked into a musical show.

    Dollywood's top show this summer is Sha-Kon-O-Hey!, a tribute to the people and spirit of the Smoky Mountains. A phonetic transcription of the Cherokee shaconage, the title means "Land of Blue Smoke." The 45-minute show features singing, acrobatics and a live bluegrass band accompaniment, with eight original songs composed by Parton herself.

    The story opens with a Depression-era Smoky Mountain family packing up to move west, in pursuit of work.

    Sha-Kon-O-Hey

    But the family's young boy doesn't want to go, and retreats to an old tree, where he wishes to the spirits to stay.

    Wishing at the tree

    The boy's wish reveals an enchanted valley, where the spirits of generations past dwell. (And sing and dance, of course.) He's joined there by his sister and grandmother, who'd come looking for him.

    Spirits in the valley

    Grandmother is the kids' bridge to the past, teaching them the "old ways" and the stories of her youth, but the kids can't run away from their father. The boy returns to the tree to amend his wish.

    Back at the tree

    The kids reunite with their father for the trip west, while grandmother will remain home, with the people and spirits of the Smokies.

    Sha-Kon-O-Hey finale

    By the time we exited the theater, the skies outside had cleared and the sun shone brightly. So let's let the symbolism beat us over the head, shall we? You want to find the real attraction at Dollywood? Just listen for the music.

    Update: Laurie wrote her take on Dollywood over at Violinist.com.

    Next stop on the roadtrip: Orlando

    Previously on the Summer Roadtrip:

    Comments (19) | Archive Link

    Keep reading: July 2009 Archive



    Stories from a Theme Park Insider

    Stories from a Theme Park Insider

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