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September 2009

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Is Comcast buying Universal?

By Robert Niles
Published: September 30, 2009 at 7:55 PM
Reports are flying that cable TV giant Comcast might have a deal to buy NBC Universal from GE. You might remember Comcast making a play for Disney five years ago, in the dying days of the Eisner regime. Comcast is denying a deal is in place, though.

All the talk to date focuses on how Comcast's cable systems would mesh with NBCU's cable networks. And Universal's film library. But no one's talking about the theme parks yet.

Having made a play for Disney before, surely someone at Comcast has done some research about the industry. When NBC bought Universal from Vivendi a few years back (Vivendi retains a 20% stake in NBCU), early talk from NBC was that it would rid itself of the parks ASAP. But Universal park execs made a strong case to their new bosses, showing them what cash cows and promotional vehicles they can be, and NBCU's been pretty much a happy owner of the parks every since.

With InBev still trying to find a buyer for its Busch Gardens and SeaWorld parks, now would seem a lousy time to be selling any parks. And let's not forget that the Busch theme parks' rumored suitor, Blackstone Group, is now a 50% stakeholder in... (say it with me now) Universal Orlando.

Update: This is the open thread for any additional breaking news overnight. (Remember, we have an earlier thread today about the monorail situation at Disney World, so post there with any new info on that.)

I'll be on a plane between LAX and SFO early in the AM, so I might be offline for part of the morning, depending on whether I can get WiFi on my flight. Be good, and I'll be back soon.

Comments (4) | Archive Link

What new street food would you like to see at your favorite theme park?

By Robert Niles
Published: September 30, 2009 at 7:42 PM
Walking around Disneyland's Halloween Time yesterday, I failed to find any carts selling seasonal food. Maybe I was there too early in the day (I left around noon), but I've heard that the special "Halloween" items at Disneyland are pretty much limited to desserts at a few of the slide-tray restaurants.

I wish that more theme park would embrace seasonal and street food. When I was in high school in Indiana, late summers brought fresh grilled corn at the state fair and fresh strawberry shortcake at the annual Strawberry Festival downtown. Disney's Epcot has proven that food festivals can draw visitors to theme parks. More parks should hook up with local farmers and vendors to bring seasonal treats into the park, then promote the heck out of the fact.

When I think of fall snacks, I think again of driving down to Brown County in Indiana to watch the leaves turn... and getting some freshly fried biscuits with apple butter. I haven't found anyone outside central and southern Indiana who makes them the same way, but I crave them every fall.

A paper plate of these biscuits, with a dollop of apple butter on the side, would make a perfect theme park snack at Halloween time. (It's fried dough, people! Theme park food is all about the fried dough.)

While I'm on the topic, here are two more items I'd love to see on a food cart at a theme park near me. Like the churros now ubiquitous at parks around the country, both are Mexican-American street-food staples: easy to prepare in bulk and highly addictive.


Otherwise known as "Mexican Corn," an elote is corn-on-the-cob, grilled with butter, mayonnaise, chili powder and cotija cheese. The fresh taste of the corn balances the sharp chili and the rich mayo and cheese perfectly. And it's served on a stick, making it a perfect fit in theme parks.

Danger dogs
Known by many other names, I'm talking about bacon-wrapped hot dogs here. In L.A., you'll usually find them grilled with jalapenos, though I am told that a New Jersey version finds them served over a fried egg. Disney served a version of these on a cart in Adventureland years ago, but I haven't seen them recently. To be most successful, the dogs should be made available with whatever's the most appropriate regional option.

What other regional street-food specialties would you like to see at your favorite theme park?

Comments (13) | Archive Link

Yes, Disneyland really was a lot more crowded this summer

By Robert Niles
Published: September 30, 2009 at 11:00 AM
How about a virtual lunch from the Wine Country Trattoria at Disney's California Adventure? Enjoy your Chicken Panini:

Lunch at DCA

On to the late-morning (early-afternoon for the east coast) news:

  • Disney Parks chief Jay Rasulo let spill yesterday that more than 3 million people have registered online for Disney's free birthday tickets, but that only about 1 million have actually shown up for the deal. That percentage fits with my family. We all registered, but of the three birthdays in the family so far, we used the free ticket only for Natalie's.

    The free tickets are helping drive attendance up at Disneyland, 10 percent in the third quarter over last year. The lousy economy also helps Disneyland attendance, as it keeps an audience of 15 million Southern Californians closer to home. Can't afford Hawaii or Cabo this year? You're going to Disneyland!

  • Walt Disney World's hotel monorail went down this morning due to an apparent electrical fire. One monorail needed a tow back to the TTC. No one hurt, but expect longer lines and hassle until the system's back up. Post more info if you've got it.

  • Also from Walt Disney World, TPI reader David Graham notes an Orlando Sentinel bulletin about a teen boy who died in his sleep at Port Orleans last night. The boy had a long history of medical issues, though no cause is yet determined.

    Archive Link

  • A frightful start to the day

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 30, 2009 at 6:27 AM
    Good morning, theme park fans!

    A couple of notes to start the day:

  • Arthur Levine at About.com recaps yesterday's conference call with Six Flags CEO Mark Shapiro. There's some intriguing information about the rehab of Six Flags Over Texas' Texas Giant roller coaster for 2010, as well as a warning about the chain's dismal 2009 attendance and spending results.

  • Busch Gardens Tampa sent along a promo video for this year's Howl-O-Scream, showing a visitors running screaming through one of the park's mazes.

    Can you do a caption contest for a video? I say yes, because this one demands it.

    Comments (17) | Archive Link

  • 10 volunteer opportunities you won't find on Disney's list*

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 29, 2009 at 5:34 PM
    Walt Disney World and Disneyland next year will give away one million tickets to its U.S. theme parks to U.S. and Canadian residents who complete a day of service to designated volunteer organizations.

    But what will those volunteer opportunities be? We'll find out on Jan. 1, when the "Give a Day, Get a Disney Day" promotion starts. But, based on deep-insider information, here are 10 volunteer opportunities that we know will not be on that list.

    1. Writing "The History of Light Magic"
    2. Debt-service accountant for the Six Flags Corporation
    3. Musophobia counselor
    4. Halloween "scareactor" at Legoland California
    5. Undercover state Alcoholic Beverage Commission inspector for the Magic Kingdom
    6. Intern for the Rev. Donald Wildmon
    7. Crowd control for "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter"
    8. Publicist for Al Lutz
    9. Cryogenics research
    10. Pushing boats at Pirates of the Caribbean

    Add others in the comments. ;-)

    * Update: We'll make this the open thread for overnight/early-morning news and rumors.

    Hey, did anyone buy the Busch theme parks yet? (Ducks) :-p

    Comments (10) | Archive Link

    Space Mountain's 'Ghost Galaxy' highlights HalloweenTime at Disneyland

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 29, 2009 at 12:45 PM
    Tuesday Park Visit: It's Halloween Time again at Disneyland, in Anaheim, California.

    Keep a sharp eye as you leave the Mickey and Friends parking garage, and you'll find some Halloween-themed scenes along the way toward the park:

    The park's entrance sports its traditional Halloween decor:

    And Main Street remains decked out for the season, with a massive Mickey Jack O'Lantern greeting visitors:

    Frankly, outside Main Street, not much of the park is decorated for Halloween. Fantasyland and Adventureland remain the same as they ever were, and with one big exception, Tomorrowland is, as well. But you will find plenty of Halloween decor at the Big Thunder Ranch:

    Disney offers an after-hours, hard-ticket Halloween event on selected evenings across the plaza, at Disney's California Adventure. That's where you'll find the character flood and trick-or-treating. The highlights of Disneyland's HalloweenTime are its two holiday-themed attraction overlays.

    Haunted Mansion Holiday's been playing for years...

    ...But it still impresses with its seamless adaptation of the "Nightmare Before Christmas" story into the Mansion ride.

    The new attraction this year is an overlay of Space Mountain, "Ghost Galaxy."

    To be clear, the ride's the same - Disney didn't make any track or train changes. But there's a fresh soundtrack and video effects.

    Remember that flaming ghost from the attraction entrance? You'll see him again, throughout the ride, as he chases your spaceship across the galaxy. The new soundtrack, with its "Carmina Burana" overtones, adds to the suspense... and the fun.

    I found "Ghost Galaxy" an engaging twist on Space Mountain, one that added a welcome narrative element ("get away from the ghost!") and some sweet visual near-misses throughout. Space Mountain's all about twists and turns, and the pursuing ghost heightened the thrills. Heck, I preferred this version to the regular Space Mountain, though I could see how the extra cheese factor might get a little too filling if it ran longer than one month a year.

    In addition to Ghost Galaxy and Haunted Mansion Holiday, Disneyland is presenting a special Halloween-themed fireworks show in the evenings. (Which I didn't stay for on this short day trip.) HalloweenTime continues at Disneyland through November 1.

    Comments (7) | Archive Link

    Disney to offer free tickets to volunteers in 2010

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 29, 2009 at 6:48 AM
    Disney's confirmed the replacement for its popular "Get in free on your birthday promotion." For 2010, Disney will be giving free one-day tickets to U.S. and Canadian residents who volunteer in their communities.

    Disney's volunteer program logo, with the Muppets.To get a free ticket in the Muppet-themed "Give a Day, Get a Disney Day" promotion, you'll have to sign up for a designated volunteer activity through Disney's website. Once you complete the activity, you'll be given instructions on how to download the ticket voucher, which you will have to redeem at the park's ticket windows. (Just as most folks did for the birthday deal.) Here's the FAQ for the promotion.

    Volunteer opportunities are being managed by the HandsOn Network, which runs the existing 1-800-Volunteer program and website. You can go there to get an idea of the sort of activities that might be available under the Disney program.

    There are blockout days for these free tickets:

    At Walt Disney World: March 29 - April 8 and July 4, 2010,
    At Disneyland: February 13-14, March 21, June 21-22, July 4, November 21, and December 11-12, 2010.

    Also, Disney is limiting the number of tickets awarded in the program, which will end on Dec. 15, 2010.


    Update: My first take? One has to be at least six years old to get a free ticket, but this program, unlike the birthday deal, does provide an entire family the chance to get a free day at Disney.

    The birthday program was a simple loss leader, as it left the rest of the birthday celebrant's family and friends to buy their own way into the park. This program is a more generous offer for families that volunteer together.

    The downside? The blockout days and the possibility that people who come in late in the promotion won't get a free ticket at all. That could lead to an early stampede of volunteers, who then disappear as the one million tickets are given away. That's not necessarily the best solution for some organizations, which could use help more evenly distributed through the year.

    Finally, much depends on what organizations are designated as "ticket eligible." There is the potential for some controversy, if some of the causes have an ideological or religious bent. Also, rural Disney fans and others in certain parts of the country could be left out if there is not a ticket-eligible opportunity near them.

    On the whole though, this could be fun. Heck, there was some talk earlier this year of getting TPI readers together for a volunteer day down in Orlando. Perhaps readers might get together to do something through this program next year.

    Comments (14) | Archive Link

    Keeping up with the Blog Flume

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 29, 2009 at 6:23 AM
    As frequent readers of the site might have noticed, we've picked up the pace of our publishing schedule here on Theme Park Insider.

    On Mondays through Thursdays, we're now posting to the Blog Flume between 4-5 times daily, with another couple posts on Friday. (Weekends will see posts as big news breaks, otherwise, we're off at the blog. Discussion is ongoing in the comments and the discussion forum, of course.)

    If you're looking for a convenient way to keep track of when there's a fresh post on the Blog Flume, may we suggest following Theme Park Insider on either Twitter or Facebook, if you aren't doing so already?

    I'm linking our new Blog Flume posts from our feeds on those services, as soon as they are available. Plus, I throw a few extra posts on Twitter and Facebook, from time to time.

    Yesterday, our Facebook and Twitter followers responded after I asked them the question: "Inspired by Barbara Walters and Katherine Hepburn, I'll ask: If you could be a roller coaster, which would you be?"

    And later today, I'll be at Disneyland, shooting a photo gallery that I'll post this afternoon on the Blog Flume. But while I am there, I will be Twittering and posting to Facebook for TPI's fans there.

    So, please, join us on those services, too. Then click over to the website for the full articles and discussion, here. And thanks, again, for reading Theme Park Insider. In whatever form you do.

    Comments (1) | Archive Link

    Overnight/early-morning open thread: The iPhone 3L (Lego) edition

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 28, 2009 at 9:09 PM
    Planning a visit to Legoland? What better way to call for information than...

    Lego iPhone

    The Lego iPhone!

    Some backstory: Brian built this from various Lego spare bricks, and it's exactly the same size as a regular iPhone. Last night, he decided to play a prank on his mother, and take the "iPhone" into the bath with him. Mom walks in, ready for hair-washing inspection, and sees Brian playing with what looks from 10 feet away exactly like her iPhone.

    Much hilarity ensued.

    In retrospect, Brian and I decided that he really should have dropped it in the tub, to push the Mom completely over the edge. And... we should have used the Flip to record the whole thing.

    Yeah, we're gonna pay for this, and probably soon. Mom is likely plotting as I write.

    Anyway, it's the overnight open thread. Post in the comments if any news breaks before I return Tuesday.

    Comments (1) | Archive Link

    Theme Park Interactivity 2.0: Building the next generation of attractions

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 28, 2009 at 1:04 PM
    Jason Garcia's piece in the Orlando Sentinel this morning about interactivity in theme park attractions raises a topic that we ought to talk about more.

    (Which is one way of saying, 'Yeah, he quoted me, but I got more to say.')

    Theme parks have been reaching out to the video game generation for a decade now. Shoot-'em-ups like Men in Black and Buzz Lightyear have become theme park staples. Disney's light-up pins and Pal Mickey have flirted with extending interactive technology outside the attraction gates. And SeaWorld's long been the master at interactive experiences, with its various animal encounters. (For a hefty extra charge, of course.)

    But those represent just the first steps toward truly interactive theme park experiences. It's all Web 1.0 - the way the Internet was "interactive" around 1998 or so. You click on whatever you want and get different experiences all day.

    The real power of interactivity emerges when it doesn't simply allow guests to interact with the park (or website publisher), it comes when the guests can interact with each other. That's Web 2.0 - and what Theme Park Interactivity 2.0 needs to become.

    Think about what really hard-core MIB fans do when they come down the line. They chat up the folks in the line around them, asking how many times they've ridden, what's their high score, etc. If they're not sharp, let 'em cut ahead. But if they're good, keep 'em, and put together a car that's sure to win the suit, beating the car on the other side.

    Men in Black Alien Attack queue

    What happens when parks find a way to formalize that cooperation within a theme park adventure? How cool would a Harry Potter attraction be if you had to sort into teams (houses?) to complete a mission - and the winners were rewarded with getting to stay for the next mission without having to wait in the queue again? (Think pick-up basketball here: Losers walk and winners play the next team.)

    Interactivity raises the addictiveness of theme park attractions, like airtime and high scores first did in years past. An attraction that visitors will want to ride again and again not only continues to drive attendance long after its initial season (making it a better capital investment for the park), it relieves the pressure on the park to develop more expensive attractions, shops and restaurants to occupy guests after that initial ride, doubling the value of the investment.

    Theme park managers and designers read this website. What would you like to see from them? What interactive experiences would you love to see in a dream attraction?

    Comments (8) | Archive Link

    Disney knifes fan sites in the back; starts its own theme park blog

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 28, 2009 at 10:20 AM
    The Walt Disney Company today launched its own blog devoted to its theme parks. The blog is written by Disney employees, including PR reps from the parks. The blog, which launched with three entries, promises "the latest, official information about our destinations as well as some exclusive behind-the-scenes looks at what makes Disney Parks the most magical place on earth."

    Following the recent launch of its official fan community, D23, and Disney World's "Moms Panel" for Q&A advice, Disney's now moved into just about every space occupied by its legion of online fan sites and communities. Disney's been polling D23 members and other customers about their use of Disney fan sites, as the company makes it move toward taking over their readership.

    Of course, not every online theme park community focuses all its coverage on Disney. (Ahem.) While it's nice to hear company-approved releases from Disney and other theme parks, it's also nice for theme park fans and customers to have independent voices covering the industry. We don't work for any theme park company at Theme Park Insider, nor do we take free trips and cruises from theme parks, as some folks at other sites do.

    I'm sure that the biggest Disney fan sites will endure, since entire communities don't easily pack up and move from one URL to another. But I'm glad that the Theme Park Insider community covers more than just Disney. The Disney theme park blog won't breathe a word about the Wizard World of Harry Potter. Nor will it let you know about neat deals like free soft drinks and parking at Holiday World. Nor will the Disney blog, or the Disney fan sites, delve into the ownership situations at competing chains such as Busch and Six Flags.

    And, most important, your non-park-sanctioned snark is always welcome here.

    FWIW, I'd love to hear what you think about the new "official" Disney blog. I'm not above (or below) ripping off certain features if TPI readers would like to see us try them, too. ;-)

    Comments (25) | Archive Link

    Theme park cast member stories: Everyone loves a parade

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 28, 2009 at 9:50 AM
    Going to Parade Audience Control [PAC] always broke up the day when I worked in the Magic Kingdom, giving me the chance to see friends I hadn't seen yet that day, as well as to spend some extra time chatting with guests. The PAC crew gathered anywhere from a half hour to two hours before the parade, depending upon the day's attendance. Most folks on PAC would set up and man the crosswalks along the parade route, keeping them clear and making sure that park guests stayed off the parade route itself.

    On the west side of the park, where I worked, the PAC crew had an additional, important duty. We had to "roll out" the parade route itself. On Main Street, the parade just drove up the street. (These days, it goes in the opposite direction, down the street.) But in Liberty Square and Frontierland, there's no defined "street" for the parade to travel. We had to define a route, with ropes and stanchions.

    That was my favorite part of PAC duty. We had two roll-out crews, one for each side of the route.

    The plugger would use a metal pin to pull up from the ground the round brass or rubber plugs that filled the stanchion holes.

    The stanchion (that's what we called him, and it was almost always a male) would pull a stanchion from the box and place it in the hole. In later years, Disney switched from plain, metal stanchions to themed ones - white, carved wood for Liberty Square and rough-hewn rails for Frontierland. That led to the addition of a second stanchion position, one person to push the cart and a second to pull and place the poles.

    The clipper took the rope from a large spool and clipped it to the stanchions along the route.

    Finally, the roller walked along, with the 30-some-pound spool of rope strapped to his chest.

    Once we had the route set up, we each were assigned a crosswalk to work during the parade. The rollers worked the bridge between Liberty Square and the hub, cutting off to foot traffic when the parade reached the top of Main Street. (Again, the Magic Kingdom parades flow the other way these days, so the timing's a bit different.)

    As the end of the parade approached, the roller would strap the empty spool back on his chest, and the rest of the crew would gather at the bridge. The clipper would clip the end of the final rope to the spool as the "rope girls" who followed the final float would step off the bridge, then the crews would walk alongside them, taking up the parade route.

    It's really an impressive feat. One moment, you've got a defined parade route, with ropes and poles holding back the crowd. And the next... it's gone. That can happen because Disney has a crew of four (or five) cast members on each side of the route, working together swiftly to take up the route.

    The clipper unclips the two ropes on either side of a stanchion, then clips the ends together. The stanchion pulls the pole and places it on the cart. Then the plugger drops a plug into the hole.

    Meanwhile, the roller rolls up the rope, like he's fishing on Lake Butler, only he's hauling in a catch the size of Shamu.

    Robert on the parade route
    TH's favorite photo: Me, as roller in the early 1990s, with my clipper, in Haunted Mansion garb, behind me.

    The roller and the clipper have to work together. The roller has to let the rope keep a little bit of slack so that the clipper can easily clip it to the next rope, once he or she's unclipped it. But the rope can't hit the ground, or even sag so low that guests might cross it. Worse, if that happens, and the roller has to roll a double speed to take in the feed, a set of clips might fly over the top of the spool, tangling the line.

    That is a blown roll, and it's the biggest hassle on PAC. With the rope tangled and the spool jammed, PAC crew have to wind the parade ropes by hand. Supervisors usually jump in at this point, winding the rope around their hands and elbows for the rest of the way.

    The big hassle comes after the parade, when the spool must be untangled and the ropes would back on it. But the ropes must be wound on the spool in a precise order. The rope sections between stanchions are all different lengths, and if those sections are clipped together in the wrong order on the spool, the next crew won't be able to set the route.

    So the lines are unwound backstage, then laid on the ground so that they can be replaced in the correct order, before being respooled. With several people working, that could be done in half an hour or so, depending upon how early in the rollback the roller lost it.

    Needless to say, if you were rolling and lost it, you were not a popular person for the remainder of the day.

    And yes, I blew a roll-out. Like almost everyone who works roller, I blew my first rollback. I got it right the second time, then blew my third. But give credit to one PAC lead who gave me a third chance - I never blew a roll-out again, rolling the route out and back more than 100 times my final two summers at Disney.

    Each Monday morning, Theme Park Insider editor Robert Niles shares stories from working inside the parks. If you have a story you'd like to share, e-mail him. Here's the archive of previous stories.

    Comments (5) | Archive Link

    Good morning, theme park fans!

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 28, 2009 at 6:15 AM
    Forget the triple-shot grande latte. There's nothing like getting face-to-face with a hungry orca to wake ya up in the morning....

    Shamu says hello

    Who's ready for another fun week on Theme Park Insider? Lots of stuff on deck for later today and throughout the week. Someone throw the big guy some salmon and let's get started.

    Comments (1) | Archive Link

    Opening night reports from Halloween events

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 25, 2009 at 3:51 PM
    Tonight's the opening night for several theme park Halloween events around the country, including the big one, Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights.

    Theme Park Insider reader Dominik Jost gave you a sneak peek at HHN 19 yesterday, with his report from the event's employee preview night.

    Ms. Vayne and her models
    Busch Gardens Tampa Howl-O-Scream hostess Ms. Vayne and her models. Photo courtesy Busch Gardens.

    If you'll be at HHN this weekend, or Knott's Berry Farm's Halloween Haunt, or Busch Garden's Howl-O-Scream, or Disneyland's HalloweenTime, please let us know how it went, in the comments.

    (I'll be at Disneyland early next week, filing a photo gallery and review of the new features for TPI then.)

    Comments (16) | Archive Link

    Vote of the week: Words or numbers?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 25, 2009 at 7:13 AM
    It's waaaay early, but I am preparing for next spring's Best Attraction in America tournament already. This time, the brackets will be set by New Year's, to allow me to introduce a daily feature profiling each of the participating attractions, before the tournament starts in mid-March.

    This year's tournament will feature four brackets, for best roller coaster, themed ride, live show and multimedia show, respectively. Which 16 attractions get in each bracket will be determined by you - through the cumulative reader ratings submitted on the site.

    That's why it is so important that Theme Park Insider readers click through our park listings and vote of the rides and shows they've experienced. Please take a look at our Guidelines for Rating, to get a sense of what you should be thinking about when deciding your ratings.

    Although we rate attractions on a scale of 0 (Intolerable) to 10 (Perfection), when you are submitting a rating, you won't see numbers. Instead, you'll be asked to pick which one of 11 adjectives best describes the attraction:

    • Perfection
    • Outstanding
    • Commendable
    • Good
    • Fair
    • Average
    • Mediocre
    • Weak
    • Lame
    • Pathetic
    • Intolerable or Unsafe

    Here's my question for you: Is that the way we should do it? Or should we simply ask you to pick a number - from 0 to 10, instead?

    I switched from numbers to the descriptions years ago for two reasons - 1) to eliminate confusion as to whether 10 was the bad rating or the good one, and 2) to discourage "ballot stuffing" by people who just clicked 10 or 0 for everything.

    But is this system discouraging people from voting by making it too confusing? You tell me.

    For what it is worth, I have implemented a system to throw out votes from people who do try to manipulate the system with extreme voting. TPI's publish system converts all the ratings to their corresponding numerical value when computing attractions' average reader rating. But it throws out all votes from readers who vote all or almost all 0s and 10s. (Techie explanation: If the standard deviation of your votes is too high, or too low, bye-bye.) Doing this helps amplify the voices of the readers who take the time to submit thoughtful ratings that use the entire range of available choices.

    If you have a suggestion, please leave a comment on how we can encourage better use of Theme Park Insider's rating system. And thanks for reading TPI!

    Comments (10) | Archive Link

    Overnight/early-morning news thread

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 24, 2009 at 10:22 PM
    Post in the comments, if anything interesting breaks. See you Friday!

    Comments (3) | Archive Link

    Theme park visitors pick their favorite free drinks

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 24, 2009 at 6:10 PM
    The folks at Holiday World have released some interesting informtion via the park's Facebook page. It's the list of most popular drinks selected by park visitors over the past year.

    Theme parks typically don't release much information about the sales of specific food, beverage or merchandise items. I suppose Holiday World isn't either, because, as many of you might know, Holiday World gives away all of its drinks for free.

    Gatorade was the most popular drink poured by Holiday World visitors this season. Here's the complete list:

    1. Gatorade
    2. Lemonade
    3. Pepsi
    4. Mt. Dew
    5. Root Beer
    6. Dr Pepper
    7. Diet Pepsi
    8. Sierra Mist
    9. Sweet tea
    10. Diet Mt. Dew
    11. Fruit Punch
    12. Diet Dr Pepper

    Brian picking his drink at Holiday World

    Does that match up with what you'd pick? Theme Park Insider readers have expressed their preference for Coke products over the Pepsi products that Holiday World serves, but how does "free" affect your decision? Please pick your favorite from the list below. (I've included coffee, unsweetened tea and water, which Holiday World offers but did not include in the results.)

    Comments (14) | Archive Link

    A first look inside the Walt Disney Family Museum

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 24, 2009 at 2:27 PM
    Walt Disney Family MuseumA former journalism student of mine, who now edits the website at the San Francisco Weekly, was kind enough to send along a link to their photo tour of the Walt Disney Family Museum, which opens officially on October 1.

    The museum, located in several historic buildings in San Francisco's Presidio, tells the story of Walt Disney's life and career and features many personal items and studio artifacts, donated by the Walt Disney Company and family friends.

    Comments (2) | Archive Link

    Happy Guinness Day, theme park fans

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 24, 2009 at 10:38 AM
    Apparently today, Sept. 24, 2009, is the 250th birthday of Guinness, the famous Irish beer.

    Haven't heard if there are any special celebrations planned at Orlando's theme park pubs, though today is the "preview day" at the Epcot Food & Wine Festival, and I would assume that folks would be gathering at the Rose & Crown for that, at least. If anyone wishes to file a report from there or from Universal's Finnegan's, the comments are open to you.

    Just do so before the third pint, please.

    Comments (18) | Archive Link

    Halloween Horror Nights: Ripped From the Silver Screen Preview

    By Domenik Jost
    Published: September 24, 2009 at 7:14 AM
    The Halloween Horror Nights haunting season officially begins this Friday September 25, 2009 but here is a little teaser review from the Employee Preview night.

    The night started by walking past the Universal Palace Theater ticket booth. Right above the booth hangs the large LED video screen which last year was the mirror with Bloody Mary appearing in the video. You will come face to face with the usher as you make your way towards the security checkpoint.

    The first house on the list to go to was Wolfman. First thing to notice was the great detail that was put into this set. From the beginning I felt like I was outdoors but I knew in the back of my mind that I was in a soundstage. The house was truly magnificent in the way of lighting and set detail. As for the costumes, they retain just good of a quality as the house and look great. The Wolfman placement and scenes in this house were A+. The story really is frightening, seeing a human transform into the creature we know as the “Wolfman”. Overall rating of the house so far: 4.5 of 5 stars.

    Next up was to head in line to Frankenstein. As we were waiting though the Orlando Fire department showed up and everyone had to evacuate the house and leave the queue back into the park. We found out that they had to practice a fire drill and that it would take approximately a half hour for the Fire Marshall to clear the house for re-opening to park guests.

    So we decided to go over and visit Silver Screams. The entrance façade to this house was again very, very well done. You walk in to seeing the Universal Palace Theater in its bright and glorious day displaying “Phantom of the Opera” on its sign, but just as you take a few more steps the scene changes. Now you see the theater in the present day with a gloomy abandoned ticket booth, burnt out bulbs and missing letters on the sign. You move on to walk through scenes of different movies including the scene where Julian Browning lost his life in the theater he so much loved. The scenes from the different movies were very accurately re-created and looked great. This house has a lot of potential for the event; I hope it lives up to it. Overall rating for the house I can only give it a 3.5 of 5 so far but the event has not officially begun yet so there is plenty of room for improvements to be made.

    Up next was Chucky. I for one was really looking forward to this house ever since it was announced, and I can tell you I was not disappointed at all. As you walk in you really feel like you are in a toy store. Throughout the house you will see Chucky’s favorite phrases and words painted all around the house. This is definitely the “funhouse” of this year’s HHN event. The actors were spot on with their scares that night and truly did a magnificent job. The Chucky costumes looked great. You have lots of moments in this house where that little serial killer doll will be closer to you than you ever wanted to be to him. This house truly does contain a lot of ‘Child’s Play’. Overall rating for Chucky: 4.5 of 5

    After leaving the funhouse we headed next door to The Spawning. Heading up to the spawning the facade was the entrance to the sewers. As you head more into the sewers there were scares coming out of different sewer pipes. The look of the house is definitely the look of a sewer system. I was surprised however that it did not actually smell even a little bit like a sewer. Of course this was still a rehearsal and there might be more definitely will be improvements coming all around the park. Overall there is great potential for some great scares in this maze. Overall rating of The Spawning thus far: 4 of 5 stars.

    After The Spawning we skipped past Saw because of an outrageous 90-minute wait time and headed to Leave it to Cleaver. Right as you get into the queue for this house your attention gets drawn to the video being projected onto the building. The video was recorded for commercials decades ago. As you enter the Meetz Meats factory you get greeted by an employee. Inside you see disturbing scenes of the secret ingredients that makes Meetz Meats so good. By the end of the house you will know why no one beats Meetz Meats. The detail to this house was incredible. There did not seem enough happening with the scare actors though as most of them were more standing around watching you go by. I know it was the preview night and will not judge them for getting used to their house. I hope that this house really improves with its scare tactics. This house has a lot of potential and a really great story line from beginning to end. Overall rating for the best meats around: 4 of 5 stars.

    Last but not least I got to go back and give Frankenstein another shot and this time we actually made it in. This house was really well pulled off and the Frankenstein’s were not how you are used to picturing Frankenstein. In this house the monsters are taking revenge on Dr. Frankenstein and be sure to look up in the last scene of the house to see what they did to him. The costumes looked absolutely great and were very detailed. The very well placed scare actors in this house ensure that you have a few scares hiding around the next corner waiting for you. Overall rating: 4.5 of 5 stars.
    Unfortunately I had not been able to make it to the last two houses myself but I picked up a few little mini review here and there.

    Dracula’s opening scene and façade are supposed to be very well done an in the detail you would expect. The house was said to be very foggy which made for much more amazing scares.

    In Saw you can hear Tobin Bell’s voice throughout the house. The house starts out in Jigsaw’s Workshop and there is plenty of TVs playing Billy all around. In one scene Billy can be seen on his tricycle coming down the hall. The traps were from what I heard amazingly detailed and well done. From other reviews this house made for some great scares.

    So I had decided that I wanted to go see the new Bill and Ted show. For the first time the show actually had a story line and plot to it which made the show all too more interesting. The show I would describe this year as the perfect Geek fest and definitely something someone is going to tweet about. And that is all I am saying about that, I do not want to be the one to spoil the show.

    I cannot really judge the scare zones as there were a lot of kinks being worked out for those. A lot of effects were not working and some zones scare actors were either working hard or confused about what to do. I will not rate any of the scare zones till the event is actually underway.

    Overall you truly feel like you are walking right into the screen to live the horror. Ripped from the Silver Screen is like a 5-D horror movie adventure where you come face to face with your worst movie nightmares. Be ready to live the horror that you have seen comfortably from a theater seat.

    Overall event rating from one night of screams: 4 out of 5 stars and it will only get better.

    Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights runs September 25-26, October 1-4, 8-11, 15-18, 21-25 and 28-31. Pricing varies per event night. For more information on the event and to purchase tickets visit www.halloweenhorrornights.com/orlando

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    Kings Island/Cheez Whiz Open Thread

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 23, 2009 at 9:17 PM
    Long DayWell, that was a long day of posting.

    We'll do the open thread thing again tonight/this morning. Please post in the comments if anything newsworthy happens while your lazy west-coast editor actually spends some time with his family, then tries to sleep.

    Will Blackstone buy Busch's theme parks on Thursday? Will a certain Orlando restaurant critic discover that Disney has replaced the cheese in its Cheddar Cheese Soup with Cheez Whiz? What other crazy rumor do you think you can get a Central Florida TV station to believe?

    And, if nothing newsworthy happens before I return and you have nothing else to discuss, you can always talk about this.

    Kings Island fans, perhaps you have some 'splain' to do.

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    Cypress Gardens closes its doors... again

    By Domenik Jost
    Published: September 23, 2009 at 6:31 PM
    After two years under its latest ownership, the Winter Haven, Fla. theme park shuts down again. Details on the Discussion Board.

    Comments (2) | Archive Link

    Universal unveils a new 'Madagascar' dark ride... for its Singapore park

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 23, 2009 at 6:07 PM
    Universal has released some new concept art for the Universal Studios Singapore park that will debut in Southeast Asia next year. The park will be part of the US$4.5 billion Resorts World Sentosa development on the island of Sentosa in Singapore.

    The new concept art details several of the DreamWorks Animation-themed attractions that will appear in the park. The most ambitious, Madagascar: A Crate Adventure, will be a dark ride featuring the main characters, Alex, Marty, Melman and Gloria, joining with lemur King Julien and the penguins to battle Julien's enemy, Foosa. The Madagascar section of the park will also include a Julien-themed carousel, with dance house music.

    The other end of the park will feature the Castle of Far, Far Away from Shrek 2.

    The castle will house the theater for another installation of the Shrek 4D movie. However, there also will be a junior coaster flying through and around the castle grounds. A live show and mini Ferris Wheel complete the land.

    No firm opening date yet, except a promise of a soft opening in early 2010.

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    Epcot Food Fest will feature changes, new food items

    By Scott Joseph
    Published: September 23, 2009 at 3:44 PM
    Just as the theme parks have to keep reinventing themselves to get guests to come back, so does the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival. Many of the changes this year are in the food kiosks around the World Showcase -- 70 new dishes in all. Here's a preview sampling.

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    SeaWorld without Shamu? Or could a clash of corporate cultures keep Merlin out of a Busch theme park deal?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 23, 2009 at 10:43 AM
    There's a great comment in the Busch/Blackstone open thread that directed my attention to Merlin Entertainments' corporate policy on the care of marine mammals.

    Merlin is the theme park company that operates Legoland and the SeaLife Aquariums, and is 70% owned by Blackstone Group, the reported suitor of the Busch Entertainment Corp. theme parks.

    Merlin's policy seems at odds with current SeaWorld operations, including the use of marine mammals in shows.

    Dolphins at SeaWorld Orlando
    Dolphins perform in the 'Blue Horizons' show at SeaWorld Orlando.

    Would this conflict prevent Blackstone from using Merlin as the investment vehicle to acquire BEC? If so, that would mean the loss of some interesting synergies, such as between SeaWorld and Legoland in San Diego County, as well as a potential marriage between Lego and Sesame Street in the Merlin and BEC parks.

    Even an independent investment by Blackstone in BEC could prove troublesome, if there is significant support within Blackstone's management for Merlin's way of handling marine mammals. SeaWorld without Shamu would be a very different company than what today's consumers expect.

    Update: The comments keep getting better. Now, we've got word of a non-compete clause that Blackstone and Universal signed, which would keep Blackstone from buying or investing in any other theme parks in the state of Florida (e.g. SeaWorld and Busch Gardens), without Universal's blessing.

    "Blessing" usually being a way of saying "getting money" in business.

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    Busch/Blackstone Open Thread

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 23, 2009 at 12:01 AM
    There's much talk that a deal between Blackstone and the Busch Entertainment Group for a purchase of the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens theme parks will be announced Wednesday morning.

    Since I'm on the west coast, this deal could happen in the very early hours of the morning, before I log on. If it does get announced, I've opened this thread for readers to post details as they come available and talk about the deal. (And if it doesn't, just go ahead and talk about whatever you want to talk about.)

    Update: Thanks to everyone on the east coast for the comments overnight and this morning. The overnight open thread worked well. I might do this more often in the future.

    Let's see if we can put this all together:

    There's no sale at this point. The meeting this morning was a regular employee information meeting at SeaWorld Orlando. As far as I can tell, there have been no meetings at other Busch theme parks.

    From day one after InBev closed the deal with A-B and put the parks up for sale, folks who cover the entire industry (i.e. more than just Disney) have figured out that Blackstone Group was the only entity with any theme park experience that had the capital to make a play for the Busch Entertainment Corp. (though Disney and Universal would kick the tires to see how they were holding up).

    Once reports got out that Blackstone execs were in the parks, getting the insiders' tour, observers figured that a deal was close. So as soon as one of the parks scheduled a big employee meeting, folks put two and two together and figured that would be the time of the announcement.

    One Central Florida station went so far as to report the deal was done, and included quotes from yours truly, from an interview I did last week talking about the hypothetical of a Busch/Blackstone deal.

    I concur with the commenter who said that the company wouldn't likely announce the deal on the same day as a big employee news meeting if it didn't announce it at that meeting. In my experience, deals like this get announced late in the day, anyway, not during trading hours.

    FWIW, I also think there's a lot of BS floating around out there about how this deal would play with Universal Orlando. Let's not forget that Blackstone owns only half of UO. It wouldn't spend the cash to buy SeaWorld Orlando and create a synergy with UO unless its partner at NBC Universal brought some cash to the table, too. Why spend the money to give NBCUni half the benefit?

    A Merlin synergy makes more sense, since it would allow Merlin access to the SeaWorld brand and... (this gets me really excited) could lead to bringing Lego and Sesame Street together in various parks. That's marketing gold there. Blackstone has a 70% stake in Merlin, with Lego as a minority partner. If the Busch family is brought in as another minority partner with this deal, taking some of Lego's equity in exchange for that equity becoming more valuable with the addition of the BEC parks, the deal makes even more sense. (I can't see Lego putting up cash to buy BEC.)

    I can't see why NBCUni would front half the expense to have the UO entity buy the BEC parks. Where's the advantage for NBCUni, outside of Orlando?

    If this deal happens, I see it as either a Merlin acquisition or an independent investment. In neither case do I see formal UO involvement, again, unless NBC Universal is going to put up cash. Of course, I could be totally wrong, in which case you may feel free to hop in the comments and call me an idiot. :-)

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    Disney stops serving all-beef hot dogs

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 22, 2009 at 12:57 PM
    Yesterday, I retweeted a post from Scott Joseph which broke the news that Walt Disney World is no longer serving all-beef hot dogs in its parks, in favor of a beef-and-chicken mix instead.

    Reaction from readers on Twitter has been swift... and negative. "So long, Casey's," one Twitterer wrote.

    Casey's Corner at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

    Let's throw open that discussion here, too. What do you think of Disney's switch? Any Disney CMs care to comment? (Log out to post anonymously.)

    Comments (38) | Archive Link

    Six Flags Over Georgia flooded

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 22, 2009 at 12:00 PM
    ...And not by people. By water. Acres of it.

    Days of rain have swollen local rivers and streams, leading to flooding in the metro Atlanta area, particularly around Six Flags in Austell. The AP has a photo of what looks like the Georgia Cyclone The Great American Scream Machine's track (corrected by reader) partially submerged.

    Park officials say that Six Flags Over Georgia is preparing to open this weekend. The Atlanta paper has more photos here.

    Here's some aerial video:

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    Kouzzina by Cat Cora is officially open

    By Scott Joseph
    Published: September 21, 2009 at 6:55 PM
    Kouzzina by Cat Cora celebrated its grand opening (three and a half weeks after a soft opening) with an invitation-only luncheon attended by Cora, her parents and partner and their children.

    She wanted to get the idea of a family kitchen across. The food is primarily Greek but comes via Cora's Mississippi. Here are some notes on the food and the restaurant.

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    Doing the math on Walt Disney World's free dining deal

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 21, 2009 at 1:08 PM
    A long-time Theme Park Insider reader sent me the link to a post where a writer does the math and determines that it is actually cheaper not to get the much-advertised "free dining" offer when staying at one of Walt Disney World's "deluxe" resorts.

    The writer said that you would be better off booking the regular "Magic Your Way" room-and-tickets rate, then adding on either the quick-service or basic dining plan, than buying the supposedly "free" dining plan that Disney's offering. (With the usual caveats that prices vary by date, yada yada, etc.)

    The point reminded me of the great advice that many readers offered during our series last winter on planning your theme park vacation: Make a budget and always do the math on your options.

    For me, well, I have to admit that I've never stayed on property at Walt Disney World. You see, my parents live by themselves in a four-bedroom house in Celebration. And nothing Disney's offered to date can compete on value with having that free place to stay in nearby Celebration. (Not to mention the priceless benefit of staying with the kids' grandma and grandpa, of course!)

    And yet... we have stayed on site at Universal. Why? Because the value of staying within walking distance of the parks, plus front-of-the-line access, coupled with the awesome pool and facilities, makes that a better deal for us for a couple nights than staying with grandma and grandpa.

    Let's break it down. At Disney, here are the benefits for staying on-site:

    Disney's Magical Express: Disney's free bus service to and from the airport is of no value to us since we wouldn't visit Orlando without seeing my parents, and to do that, we need a rental car.

    Proximity: To me, proximity is of value only if I don't have to get into my car. That means I'm not getting any value on this point unless I'm staying at one of the deluxe resorts on the Magic Kingdom monorail line, or at one of the Epcot resorts.

    Extended park access: That would be of some value to me, but not nearly as much as Universal's front-of-the-line access, which I can use at any time of day. Disney's Magic Hours are limited to specific times, and used by many other on-property guests at those same times.

    Free dining: This can be a great perk, but by itself isn't enough for us to swing the value toward staying on-site, given that neither I nor anyone else in my family is a big eater. We usually split entrees when dining out, drink water and rarely order appetizers or dessert. That makes the marginal value of a free dining plan relatively small to us.

    Quality of accommodations: A plus for Disney, but hardly unique, given the variety of accommodations available in the area.

    Now... if we didn't have relatives in the area, we'd lose the free room option, as well as the need for a rental car. That makes the Magical Express a real value and puts an on-site Disney stay in play versus other high-quality hotels in the area.

    At that point, it would come down to price, and the value we place on the benefits available at Disney and nowhere else. If that value is greater than the difference in price between a Disney hotel and off-property one, then we would book at Disney.

    I'm curious to see what Disney will offer as a deal for 2010. But unless Disney puts some form of FastPass benefit on the table, along with a significant discount, it's hard for me to see how we'd opt for Disney over the chance at free front-of-the-line for Harry Potter by staying at a Universal resort next year.

    Again, we like Universal Orlando as much as Disney World. And it is often easier to book shorter stays at Universal than at Disney, where week-long bookings are the norm.

    The real lesson here is, as always, do the math. And do the math for yourself and your family. As the Niles family experience shows, what works for one family very often doesn't work for others.

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    Theme park cast member stories: The Old Man and the Caribbean Sea

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 21, 2009 at 6:08 AM
    "Sorry for the hold-up, folks. Seems to be a slow-moving train up ahead. You just remain seated, and we'll be right with ya."

    The "old man" was up, which meant we were down at Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. I'd been trained at Thunder only a couple weeks earlier, but had already learned about the "old man" - the pre-recorded spiel of a supposed prospector that played automatically whenever the roller coaster's computer system shut down the ride.

    A little kid on the main side station had been crying, so the crew held the train. Disney rules prohibit dispatching a ride vehicle with a crying child: The child has to either stop crying, or get off the ride. We would allow families to wait on the unload platform as long as necessary until their child stopped bawling, then reseat them on the next train. But no train was going anywhere with a crying kid on it.

    Unfortunately for everyone in line, if the family of the crying kid didn't accept the, uh, invitation to wait to the side, that train could not leave. And if one train didn't leave on time, that meant there was no room in the station for the train behind it on the track. (Thunder has two stations, with up to five trains on the track.)

    With one train stuck outside the station, the train on the lift behind it on the track had to stop. Which meant the train on the lift behind that had to stop, too. Which meant that the old man would be getting up, and the ride was going down.

    Coming back up from a "cascade stop" such as this was relatively simple. You just get everyone off the train on the spur side station, then send it back into storage. Then you bring in the next train off the track, unload its guests, and then send it back into storage. You keep doing that until all the trains are off the circuit, leaving each one either in storage or in a station. Then you bring the trains back onto the circuit, one at a time, until you're running the three, four or five trains you need - depending upon the size of the crowd in the park.

    Thunder Mountain at Walt Disney World
    A train coming down from 'C' lift on Thunder at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

    Whichever cast member was working Thunder's control tower when the old man woke up is the one who gets to oversee the restart. That day just happened to be the first-ever downtime for guy in tower at that moment, a guy who, like me, had been working months at Pirates of the Caribbean and just recently cross-trained on Thunder.

    The ride's lead hurried up to the tower to assist. Typically, with a more experienced cast member in tower, the lead just stood by and chatted with CMs and guests. Today, she stood closer, watching as the rookie slowly worked his way through the procedures.

    When the trains stop on the lifts throughout the ride, we'd turn on the lights and send operators to each lift, first to check on and calm the riders, then to restart the lifts. We always worked our way backwards, starting one lift at a time, so that no one would have a train rushing by him or her while out on the track. But, still, because there were operators on the track while other parts were starting up, the tower operator had to announce over the ride-wide loudspeakers as each section of track restarted.

    And he did. Oh boy, did he!

    "Attention on Pirates of the Caribbean. Block zone four is restarting."

    Knowing the rookie was fresh over from Pirates, several of the Thunder vets started to giggle, then caught themselves. I, a Thunder newbie like the rookie, simply thought, "There but for the grace of the Old Man, go I" and kept my mouth shut.

    "Attention on Pirates of the Caribbean. 'C' lift is restarting."

    At that point, no one on the load platform could contain themselves. The dispatcher on spur side actually doubled over in laughter. Even guests in the crowd turned to one another, asking, "Did he just say what I thought he did?"

    "Attention on Pirates of the Caribbean. 'B' lift is restarting."

    The crowd on the load platform started to laugh. The dispatcher on the spur side composed himself enough to start singing "Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Pirate's Life for Me." Many in the crowd joined in.

    Already overwhelmed by his first solo restart of the ride, and now utterly perplexed by the reaction on the platform, the rookie leaned over the mic to announce the next lift restart.

    "Attention on Pi-"

    Recognition dawned scarlet on his face. He eyes grew with terror, then squeezed shut. The lead was about to draw blood, she was biting her hand so hard to keep from laughing.

    "Uh, attention on Big Thunder Mountain, 'A' lift is restarting," the rookie croaked, in a meager voice.

    The Thunder CMs erupted in applause. The dispatcher who'd been conducting the crowd stood tall and pointed toward tower: "That's right! Y'all's on THUNDER MOUNTAIN now!"

    The rookie drank free that night.

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    Ahoy there, mateys, and welcome to Talk Like a Pirate Day

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 19, 2009 at 12:06 PM
    Shame on me for almost forgettin'. A former pirate like meself ought to knows better. Arrgh!

    Today is September 19 - the annual Talk Like a Pirate Day!

    Pirates of the Caribbean
    Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean. Photo by Theme Park Insider reader Todd Shewchuk

    I shall put on me ol' wine-and-orange-striped Pirate socks and annoy me mateys with tall tales for the rest of the day!

    Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me!

    Comments (8) | Archive Link

    Vote of the week: Dude, where's my car?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 18, 2009 at 12:17 PM
    Let's talk about something potentially, well, embarrassing.

    You've had a great, long, day in the park. You're thrilled, but exhausted. Maybe you're lugging several shopping bags, a stuffed animal or two... and a sleeping kid.

    Somehow you make it on to the tram, and back off at what you thought was your stop. Except...

    Where's your car?

    Parking lot at SeaWorld Orlando

    That's this week's question:

    Tell us your horror stories, or, if you are the perfect among us, your best tips for always remembering where you parked that thing.

    Have a great weekend!

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    Xcelerator accident video leaked onto YouTube

    By Domenik Jost
    Published: September 18, 2009 at 11:57 AM
    A shocking YouTube video reveals the launch cable of the Xcelerator exploding into thousands of little pieces of debris.

    [Update: Video's gone now. Feel free to post link to mirrors in the comments, if you find any.]

    The accident left two guests being treated for injuries and sent to the hospital.

    The Department of Safety and Health and Knott's Berry Farm are investigating the accident.

    Editor's note: My apologies for not linking the report on this earlier. The accident happened two days ago and was reported almost immediately by a reader to the Accident Watch.

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    Halloween 2009: Six weeks, and counting...

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 17, 2009 at 6:34 PM
    We are six weeks from Halloween this weekend. Just thought I'd start getting folks in the mood, starting with this picture from Disneyland last year:

    Halloweentime at Disneyland

    Universal Orlando just sent me the press invite for this year's Halloween Horror Nights. Keeping with the movie theme, it was some lovely bloody popcorn. (Yes, they used real popcorn. No, they did not use real blood. At least, I hope not....)

    Media kit for Universal's Halloween Horror Nights

    And Busch Gardens Tampa just released a preview of its Nightshade Toy Factory from this year's Howl-O-Scream:

    Comments (5) | Archive Link

    What will Disney do?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 17, 2009 at 12:31 PM
    Well, the cards are on the table, and we know what's coming in the Central Florida theme park market in 2010:

    Universal Orlando is opening The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Islands of Adventure next spring.

    Busch Gardens Tampa is building a new kids' area: Sesame Street Safari of Fun.

    SeaWorld Orlando is awaiting a new owner.

    And at Walt Disney World?

    - crickets -

    Seriously, the summer of 2010 is shaping up to be the biggest lay-down since bedtime at the Octomom's. No one's got nothin' for Universal. Next summer will be the "Summer of Harry Potter" in Central Florida, and the other parks in the area don't seem to be planning anything to combat Dumbledore's Army.

    I find it hard to believe that market-leader Disney would just lay down for the upstart Universal like this. Not only does Disney not have any new attractions planned in 2010 for its four theme parks, it has announced major new attractions for 2011 (Star Tours II at the Studios) and 2013 (new Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom). Those announcements might encourage recession-weary Disney fans to postpone a 2010 visit a year or three, waiting for those new attractions to come online.

    So what will Disney do?

    There are two ways to draw visitors into a theme park: New attractions... and deep discounts. With option one off the table, that leaves Disney with option two.

    In 2009, Disney offered a buy-four/get-three-days free deal and free dining plans to boost its resort attendance. Plus, the "get in free on your birthday" promotion. And attendance still went down, though by not nearly as much as it would have without those deals.

    What can Disney offer in 2010? Bet on it... Disney will do something to entice fans to spend their time and money with the Mouse next year. It won't cede the year to Universal.

    Comments (27) | Archive Link

    'What do you mean I'm going *back* to Disney World?'

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 16, 2009 at 11:32 AM
    With Walt Disney World deploying Dueling Dumbos for 2013 in the Magic Kingdom...

    Dumbo in the Smithsonian

    ...does that mean the Smithsonian has to give its Dumbo back? ;-)

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    Universal's impending PR problem with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 15, 2009 at 9:55 PM
    Universal Orlando managers must be enjoying the avalanche of coverage that their webcast today has generated for Islands of Adventure's upcoming Wizarding World of Harry Potter development.

    But could that coverage be creating a PR problem for Universal?

    Take a look at some of today's headlines:

    These are among the biggest and most influential major media outlets in the country. And they all say the same thing: Not that Harry Potter will be a new land within Islands of Adventure. No, the headlines say that Harry Potter will be a new theme park.

    And that could turn out to be a huge problem for Universal.

    One bad scenario for Universal: Folks expecting an entirely new theme park will be confused when they get to the ticket booths or Universal website and don't find "the Harry Potter park" as one of their ticket options. They'll wonder that it is not open yet, or worry that they're being conned into buying a ticket for a park that they might not want in order to get into Harry Potter.

    A slightly worse scenario: Even before getting to that ticket purchase, people will factor the cost of visiting an additional theme park into their planned Orlando vacation, and some might skip looking into a visit as a result, without knowing that Harry Potter is included in the cost of admission to IOA.

    The worst case for Universal: People find the right ticket option, buy it and visit - only to discover that the "new theme park" is really just three rides (and only one of them new) and no shows. Expecting a full-fledged Harry Potter theme park, they get mad that they didn't find that and turn to e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, online message boards and all their friends to complain. Loudly.

    Blame the company for its silly "theme park within a theme park" verbiage. Rather than just come out and say Harry Potter would be a new themed land, or "island" if you will, within Islands of Adventure, Universal has lost an opportunity to create needed brand recognition for IOA, while potentially leading many future visitors to expect something that Universal Orlando will not deliver - an entire theme park devoted to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

    Universal needs to spend the months between now and next spring clarifying this Wizarding World, heavily promoting it as a land within IOA: "Want to see the 'Wizarding World of Harry Potter'? It's only in Universal's Islands of Adventure!" etc. The news media coverage, as shown by the headlines today, is moving in a direction that Universal shouldn't want; Universal needs to hit hard with advertising, online and on air, in order to better manage public expectations for the new land.

    This doesn't mean that Universal has to play down WWOHP. This looks like it will be one of the most impressive new projects within a theme park in years. But it will be a project within an existing theme park, and Universal's looking at a PR nightmare if the public fails to comprehend that.

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    Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter to open in Spring 2010, webcast confirms

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 15, 2009 at 8:27 AM
    The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal's Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Florida will open in "Spring 2010," Harry Potter co-star Tom Felton announced today in a live press webcast.

    Felton, who plays Draco Malfoy in the popular movie series based on J.K. Rowling's best-selling books, was welcomed on to the webcast set by Universal Creative president Mark Woodbury, who hosted the webcast.

    "I'm not usually welcomed in the Gryffindor common room," Felton cracked as he entered the crimson-and-gold set.

    Tom Felton
    Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy) in Universal's Gryffindor Common Room

    Woodbury described some highlights of the new land during the half-hour webcast. He began by introducing the official map of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, created by the same team that devised the Marauders' Map for the "Prisoner of Azkaban" film.

    WWOHP map
    Map of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

    Visitors will enter the land through the village gates of Hogsmeade, where they will see Hogsmeade Station and the Hogwarts Express to their right. On the left will be Zonko's joke shop and Honeydukes candy store, which both will be themed merchandise locations, selling items from the books and movies, as well as park-specific Potter-themed items.

    Down the street on the left, visitors will find The Three Broomsticks restaurant and Hog's Head Pub, which will be restaurants, serving Harry Potter-themed fare, including Butterbeer and Pumpkin Juice.

    Across the street stands the Owlery and Owl Post, which will be a working post office, offering Hogsmeade post marks on sent items. Next to that will be Ollivander's, another merchandise location where "the wand chooses you," in an undescribed "interactive experience." There'll be a Dervish and Banges merchadise shop, as well.

    That leaves the attractions. Woodbury confirmed that there would be three: Dragon Challenge (a rethemed Dueling Dragons), Flight of the Hippogriff, a family coaster set amid a Care of Magical Creatures class led by Hagrid (this is rumored to be the Flying Unicorn coaster, rethemed) and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, the centerpiece new attraction located within Hogwarts Castle.

    Concept art
    Concept art from Universal of the Forbidden Journey entrance

    Woodbury did not provide details on Forbidden Journey, except to confirm that it is not a roller coaster. However, it's been widely leaked that the ride will be a indoor track ride, where visitors will travel via "Floo Network" on Kuka robot arms, mounted on an elevated track, through iconic scenes from the Harry Potter stories. It was confirmed that visitors will walk through the Gryffindor common room on their way into the ride, and the ride's blueprints show the queue area proceeding through the Great Hall, as well.

    Will Wizarding World of Harry Potter meet its opening date? Which scenes will make the cut for the Forbidden Journey ride? What's on the menu at the Three Broomsticks? And will the Ollivander wands trigger any interactive experiences outside the shop? Questions remain as fans anticipate the land's opening next year.

    Update: Here is the video fly-over of the new land that Universal played during the webcast. It's an overview of the map, with close-ups of Hogsmeade, followed by Dragon Challenge, Flight of the Hippogriff and then Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.

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    Shazam, an iPhone and the music of the Disneyland Resort

    By M. Ryan Traylor
    Published: September 14, 2009 at 9:39 PM
    Music is a universal language filled with emotions. People associate their first kiss, first dance, a birth or loss of a loved with songs. Music has been used for thousands of years to stir emotions. A good theme park knows how to use music to its greatest ability.

    Disney is a park and company that has made a career out of music and songs. Most of us know "Zip a Dee Do Dah", "Supercalifraglisticexpialadocious", "Whistle While You Work", "I Got No Strings", "A Whole New World", "Beauty and the Beast", and many (many) others. But there is a lot of music that goes unnoticed. These are the scores to rides and the background ambience throughout the park.

    Speakers behind horizontal screening in aluminum signage

    I journeyed down to the Disneyland Resort with iPhone in tow and decided to put the Shazam application to the test. Some of these background songs I recognized from films, but there were a few that I couldn't quite place. I was only able to get a 20% response. (I think that 40% of the undefined songs were probably due to the poor reception. The other 40% is probably because Disney has created original mixes of some of its most famous themes and they do not have a digital tag for them yet.)

    Soarin's queue has the most beautiful, awe-inspiring, and epic music of any ride in the parks. Music is taken from the following movie score cues: "President Shepherd" and "Main Theme" from The American President by Marc Shaiman, "MacArthur/Patton Suite" from Longest Day – WWII Movie Theme Compilation by Jerry Goldsmith (who also composed the Soarin' theme), "You're On" from Dave by James Newton Howard, and "Victory At Ed Parker's" from Dragon: A Bruce Lee Story by Randy Edelman. The, well for lack of a better word, soaring melodies prepare guests for the journey they are about to embark.

    Throughout the California Adventure Park, the sounds of Dave and Field of Dreams can be heard, along with Calliope versions of classic sounds of the Beach Boys, The Mamas & The Papas, and Scott McKenzie associated with California. And the Disney touch resonates deep within this music. If you listen closely enough you can hear the Bugs Life chorus providing backup vocals. (This was very apparent over by the Orange Stinger/Silly Symphony Swings.)

    Speaker in the 5-cent cold shower box

    This calliope style is also carried over to Screamin', which is the second best ride score after Soarin'. (Although, I have not heard the Indiana Jones ride score without dialogue and sound effects) The notes scaling on the camel back humps over the midway expresses the rides mood perfectly. The ride is even further enhanced with tension building score for the second lift hill.

    Another great treat is over at Tower of Terror. Here the jazz sounds of Red Norvo's "Remember" and Sidney Bechet's "Dear Old Southland" are just a few that can be heard from the ride plaza until entering the library.

    Speaker is in the window second from left. (There is no glass in that window. It's a painted screen.)

    Over in Disneyland, too much of the material is original content specific for the park and could not be tagged for information.

    Now, where can you find this music for sale? Disneyland and Walt Disney World both have a CD for sale at in park stores that contain the official music of rides and some lands. But there is even more music out there available to you. A search of iTunes will bring up some of the music mentioned, but the film scores are a difficult find.

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    D23 Saturday Trip Report

    By Kari Harrison
    Published: September 14, 2009 at 9:36 PM
    My day at the D23 Expo did not get off to a good start. After waking up at 5am on a Saturday morning and taking the long journey on public transportation from West LA to Anaheim, I arrived at the convention center a little after 8:30. I made my way up the escalator to the Storyteller’s theater for the 9am “So You Want To Be An Imagineer” presentation, and I was shocked at the length of the line to get in. There had to be at least 500 people in line, with more people constantly trickling in. They made an announcement at 8:50 that the capacity of the theater was only 350, and most of the people in line would not get in. Once the theater was full, they opened an overflow room where you could watch the presentation from a TV, but that also quickly filled to capacity, and I was left with disappointed with at least a hundred other fans. After a few failed attempts to sneak in, I finally accepted the fact that I would have to find something else to do. I took the opportunity to visit the Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Pavilion.

    This was probably the most interesting thing I did all day. The first area was dedicated to the new cars land – with a 1:50 scale model of the new Radiator Springs Racers, and some concept art for the land. I have not visited the Blue Sky Cellar, but I imagine you can see pretty similar stuff there. They did however have a mock-up of the Lightning McQueen character. It’s done in the same way as the Mr. Potato head character at Midway Mania. Of course as soon as I took my camera out to take a picture I realized it had been open in my bag all morning and was now out of batteries (hence the picture-less report). There were several interesting exhibits on the evolution of animatronics. One showed the original control panels compared to the current one. They also had the original Mr. Lincoln animatronic from Disneyland. But the big ticket item was the unveiling of the new “Autonomotronic.” This is an animatronic with facial recognition, voice recognition, and the ability to make decisions in real time. In the demonstration it was able to detect people who were smiling, hear and repeat guest’s names, and recognize when they said specific words, like colors. I talked to one of the guys who worked on it and he said the technology is still very new and they haven’t really decided what to do with it yet.

    Another new item they had was called Storyteller’s Sandbox. They were doing play testing at the expo of this new demonstration. Six blackjack like tables were set up in a room, with a cast member working at each. The tables were filled with “magic sand.” A man was at the front of the room, telling a story, and then images were projected on to the sand. With the help of the cast member, the guests could shape the sand so that the images looked more life like. For example, in my group we were talking about Hawaii, and we created a topographic map of the island of Oahu out of the sand. It was interesting, and different, but I can’t think of anything they would use it for. There were also models of the new resort at Ko Olina, Hawaii, and the two new Disney cruise ships.

    At the end they had an exhibit on the expansion for Hong Kong Disneyland, adding a Toy Story Land, Mystic Point, and Grizzly Trail. The big ticket attractions from each are the RC Racers, Mystic Manor, and Grizzly Mountain Coaster, respectively. No information was really given on the RC Racers, but Mystic Manor is a new, Haunted Mansion type ride, but with a more elaborate story of a collector and his curious pet monkey who accidentally opens this enchanted music box. Each room will have a theme, like Chinese artifacts, or ancient masks, and these intimate objects will come to life when the magic music reaches it. There will also be more rooms than you can see in one ride, so each ride will be different. Grizzly Mountain Coaster is sort of a combination between Thunder Mountain and Expedition Everest. It is a launching coaster, with a backwards section that sounds similar to Everest, but it’s set in a runaway mine car. However, unlike both rides it will go all over the Grizzly Trail land, instead of being contained to a smaller mountain. It was described to me as if you unraveled Thunder Mountain and spread it around all of Frontier Land.

    The highlight of the Future of Parks and Resorts presentation was the Fantasyland expansion, which was already talked about earlier today. They also announced the addition of two more cruise ships to the Disney Cruise Line, and that the Disney Wonder will be moving the west coast. There was also mention of an addition at Castaway Cay. Then of course the announcement of Star Tours. They showed a clip from the new ride which was a scene from Episode 1 with the pod racers.

    After that I went to the Science of Imagineering presentation. It was originally designed for little kids, so the science part wasn’t too advanced, but it was certainly entertaining. They did show a new gadget that was pretty cool – it is a speaker that projects such a high frequency, you can’t hear it until the sound wave hits your ear directly and vibrates off of your skull. It basically makes it seem like the sound is coming from inside your head.

    The last presentation I went to was on the evolution of It’s a Small World. The most interesting part was when they were explaining the reasons they decided to put characters into the Disneyland version. This was because every so often, the rides need to be completely refurbished and restored. In this particular case, the flume was still the original one from the 1964 World’s Fair, and it needed a complete overhaul. Whenever a ride is going to be closed for a long time like this, they find it necessary to add something to the ride, so that guests can feel excited about something new, instead of disappointed that something is closed. This was the case for Pirates, and it was also the case for Small World.

    The “Making of the US Presidents” presentation was rescheduled for later in the day, so I wasn’t able to make it, but I spent the rest of my afternoon walking around the showroom and looking at the different stores, collections, and exhibits. There are a few kinks that I think will have to be worked out before next year. Every presentation was full to capacity, with many people being turned away. And with every presentation only being shown once, this created a lot of unhappy people. The staff was all extremely friendly, but there seemed to be little communication between staff members, when I asked multiple people the same question, I always got different answers.

    All in all, it was a really good day. I enjoyed the presentations I was able to go to, and the Theme Park exhibit was really interesting and a lot of fun. I will definitely be returning next year.

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    Theme park cast member stories: To all my Brazilian girlfriends

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 14, 2009 at 9:33 AM
    She was part of a Brazilian tour group - you could tell from the gold and green T-shirt that she wore, the same worn by hundreds of other teens in the Magic Kingdom that day. She walked up to me slowly, almost stumbling, glancing nervously back over her shoulder toward her friend with each step. They giggled.

    "Picture?" she asked me, holding a camera in her hand.

    Having done this, oh, about ten thousand times before, I immediately answered "yes" and reached for the camera, figuring I'd be taking a picture of the two teen girls.

    Not so fast. The second girl sprang forward to snatch the camera, as the first girl turned and pasted herself to my side. Smile, flash, and they were gone. Giggling.

    The other cast member working that parade crosswalk with me chuckled.

    "So, what's your girlfriend's name?"


    "Your new Brazilian girlfriend."

    "I've never seen her before in my life. I have no idea even what her name is," I replied.

    The other CM threw back her head and laughed so loudly that some of the folks waiting for that night's Electrical Parade turned to look.

    "That's not what she's going to tell her friends back home!"

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    No big surprises as Disney announces theme park expansions at D23

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 12, 2009 at 3:22 PM
    Disney had made it official, with today's announcement at the D23 expo in Anaheim: Disney World's Fantasyland will get a major expansion for 2013, including its own copy of California Adventure's Little Mermaid dark ride, and a new 3D Star Tours movie will be coming to Disneyland and Hollywood Studios in 2011.

    New Fantasyland at WDW's MK

    I know that at least one TPI reader on the scene is working on a report (I couldn't attend due to family commitments.) But I chatted with Jason Garcia of the Orlando Sentinel about the plans, which he detailed.

    Basically, the plans wipe out everything to the east of the carousel and to the north of the Pooh ride in the Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland, all the way over to the Tea Cups. That includes Mickey's Toontown Fair. The Barnstormer survives, to be relocated, along with Dumbo, to the far east-side of Fantasyland (the side close to Tomorrowland). In the middle, in addition to the Ariel ride, we get a Belle-themed restaurant and walk-through attractions for Aurora and Cinderella.

    Ultimately, these new developments most help Disney, not as a response to Harry Potter and Universal, but as additional attractions that, along with Harry Potter, can lure more tourists back to Orlando. With the home equity "funny money" that financed so many Central Florida vacations over the past decade no longer available, the area's theme parks need to deliver more value to entice families to book a trip.

    The downside to such announcements, though, is that they can persuade visitors to postpone their trips, waiting for the big new attractions to debut (and trying avoid construction hassles). I've heard from many sources who have stayed away from Universal this summer for that reason. I worry that today's announcement might further depress attendance at Disney in 2010-12 as these attractions go into construction.

    More free meal plans, anyone? ;-)

    Update: Another part of the MK Fantasyland plan moves Dumbo to the eastern edge of the area, adding a second carousel in an effort to cut down the kiddie ride's notoriously long wait-times. Kudos to James Rao in the comments for dubbing this new version "Dueling Dumbos."

    I am inspired to add a poll:

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    Vote of the week: To EO or not to EO?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 11, 2009 at 8:22 AM
    Soon after Michael Jackson died last month, some Disney fans asked that the company bring the "Captain EO" 3D movie, which starred Jackson, back to the parks. Disney dumped the show when Jackson's popularity waned amid child abuse allegations, replacing it with the "Honey, I Shrunk the Audience" 4D show.

    Someone at Disney must have thought it a worthy idea, because company brass arranged a screening of the film, and some reported that "Captain EO"'s return was imminent.

    Yesterday, however, Disney CEO Bob Iger threw water on that fire, denying that the company would bring back the show. Still, Disneyland watcher Al Lutz says that Iger's denial was a ploy, and that EO's return will be announced either tomorrow or after the New Year.

    So what should Disney do with its Disneyland and Epcot theaters that are now showing "Honey, I Shrunk the Audience"? That's our vote of the week.

    Share your thoughts in the comments. And have a great weekend!

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    Picking the right theme for kids' attractions: Or, how the newspaper industry's decline will affect theme parks

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 10, 2009 at 10:57 AM
    Picking the right theme for an attraction is art unto itself. Often, a new attraction concept begins with the "IP," or intellectual property - the theme. You want a "Men in Black" or a "Monsters, Inc." attraction, and go from there. But other times, you begin with a demographic or a ride model, and look for a theme that fits.

    For kid-focused attractions, the job's even more difficult. Kids have a much more limited cultural palette than adults, given that they've only been alive for a few years and haven't had time to amass the cultural references that grown-ups can access. For toddler attractions, the options are even more limited.

    I remember a children's musical concert that Laurie performed in about 15 years ago, in Lincoln, Nebraska. The conductor asked the kids in the crowd to identify the next song the orchestra would play, which turned out to be the theme to "The Muppet Show." The parents recognized the tune instantly, but not one kid in the crowd had a clue. None of them had ever seen "The Muppet Show," which had long been off the air then and not yet available on video.

    Just because a theme appealed to grown-ups when they were kids does not insure that it will resonate with today's kids. Theme park managers and designers must spend time with children, and immerse themselves in their culture, in order to select the themes that will engage those kids for the next generation.

    Natalie and Brian with Dr. Seuss' Thing 2 in 2006

    Ideally, given that theme park attractions often stand for 20 years or more, they will select a theme that will resonate beyond a single generation. Time-tested books, such as Dr. Seuss', and established movie franchises, such as Toy Story, provided the safest bets for these themes.

    Comic strips used to provide a safe bet, too. Once established in newspapers' funny pages, top comics endured for decades, hooking new generations of fans with fresh material daily.

    As many of you probably know, I have a side gig as a media critic, and spent more than a decade working as an editor, reporter and commentator for newspapers. The newspaper industry is dying, as decades operating as monopolies have left papers ill-prepared to handle fresh competition online. One of my former papers, Denver's Rocky Mountain News, has closed already. Others will soon, while the papers that survive lay off staff and trim their pages.

    Almost all of what newspapers do will be done, and often better, online. Websites, including those produced by newspaper companies, are providing breaking news, investigations, commentary and analysis and more data than papers could ever have provided in print. The one feature that doesn't seem to be porting well to the online environment is... the funny pages: comic strips.

    Sure, most strips have their own websites. But those appeal to established readers of the strips. New readers don't have a convenient place to go to find a variety of fresh strips each day, the way they did when the newspaper came to their doorstep each morning or afternoon. Today's kids are more likely to look to online-friendly formats like video for their daily dose of humor, rather than to static three- or four-panel comic strips. Classmates at my kids' school aren't talking about old Peanuts re-runs; they're watching Fred and Happy Tree Friends.

    I predict that comic strips will be the first casualty of the newspaper industry's demise. And that will affect theme parks. Parks simply can't maintain attractions based on comic-strip themes and expect them to connect with kids beyond this generation, in the best-case scenario. Frankly, comic strip themes probably are already lost on today's kids.

    That leaves parks using comic-strip themes with a choice: Dump them, or take the responsibility to recast these characters as the parks' own. The second option ain't cheap; it requires flooding the park with many more characters to introduce them to the kids, as well as writing and producing shows that will establish the characters' stories and personalities. Even then, these characters will resonate only with kids once they've visited the area, and the park will lose the potential for audience growth that comes from kids begging their parents to take them to see their favorite characters, the way that young Disney character fans beg for trips to Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

    Of course, there is a third choice: Do nothing, and watch you kids' land languish as bored children wonder who those funny-looking characters are, with many of them just getting creeped out and begging to leave.

    In this light, Cedar Fair's decision to expand, rather than discard, the Camp Snoopy theme threatens to become disastrously short-sighted. While saving the company on licensing fees in the short term, sticking itself with a comic-strip theme could cost the company significant growth in the long term, unless it assumes the responsibility to establish a narrative for these characters within their parks, then market the heck out of them to kids, especially online.

    Universal's not off the hook, either. Disney will soon own the characters in Islands of Adventure's Marvel Super Hero Island. Much of the adjacent Toon Lagoon references comic strip characters. Once the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is open, Universal will need to take a hard look at the theming for the opposite end of IOA, and may need to make some changes to ensure the viability of that corner of the park for the decades to come.

    I've spent too much of my professional life watching newspapers commit financial suicide. I have little patience for watching theme parks inflict costly wounds upon themselves, as well.

    Previously: Should theme parks build kids' lands?

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    Happy belated 40th birthday to Disneyland's Haunted Mansion

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 9, 2009 at 2:40 PM
    Disneyland is hosting this evening its 40th anniversary event for the Haunted Mansion, reminding me that I missed the attraction's actual 40th birthday on August 12, when I was driving home from the big summer roadtrip.

    So a belated happy birthday to the Mansion:

    Disneyland's Haunted Mansion

    The Bride and the Groom in the Haunted Mansion

    Mansion was the one attraction I really, really wanted to work at in Walt Disney World, but never had the chance to, save a few greeter shifts. I would have loved to ham it up with that stretch room spiel.

    Haunted Mansion in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom
    The Haunted Mansion in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

    Standard trivia, but repeated here for infrequent readers who might not know: The stretch rooms were installed so that visitors could descend in elevators to a level where they could walk under the Disneyland Railroad tracks to get to the show building, which is located on the outside of those tracks.

    At Disney World, the Mansion is contained within the track perimeter, so there are no elevators. The ceiling above rises to create the same effect.

    I must admit, I don't know which system is used at Disneyland Paris, but here's a picture for Mansion fans, anyway.

    Disneyland Paris' Phantom Manor
    Phantom Manor at Disneyland Paris

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    Should theme parks build kids' lands?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 9, 2009 at 12:32 PM
    Cedar Fair's made it official that it will be dropping the Nickelodeon theme from the kids' areas at its former Paramount Parks, in favor of the "Camp Snoopy" theme first debuted at Knott's Berry Farms in the 1980s. I, and others, have argued at Peanuts is no longer a compelling theme for today's kids (most of whom were not alive when Charles Schulz died nine years ago, and the strip stopped publishing fresh comics).

    But before we tackle the question of how a kids' area should be themed, let's take on the bigger question of whether theme parks should build kids' areas at all.

    Blue's Skidoo at Kings Island's Nickelodeon Universe

    Nickelodeon Universe at Kings Island has won awards as the country's best kids area. But what does the rest of the park look like? An increasingly themeless iron park, built for teens and grown-ups. That's the danger inherent when parks commit to building large kids' areas: They divide the park's audience, herding the kids and their parents into a ghetto in one corner, while the rest of the property evolves into a PG-13 thrill park.

    It's a pattern we've seen repeated at dozens of Cedar Fair and Six Flags parks across the country. With the kids' area supposedly taking care of the "family" market, park management feels no need to develop truly family-friendly attractions that people of all ages and abilities can enjoy.

    So families are left with their ghettos of lightly-themed, low-capacity carnival rides, which stop having appeal to kids somewhere in the middle elementary years.

    And what happens then? Yes, some of those kids become roller coaster fans and begin to explore the other attractions in the park. But let's not forget that many kids don't ever develop a love for coasters. Too old for the kiddie land, and uninterested in thrill rides, they find nothing appealing in these parks... and quit wanting to go.

    Smarter, more successful theme park companies - Disney, Universal and Busch - build attractions for those consumers, and they win those families' loyalty, and money, as a result.

    I've had a tough time finding rides for the whole family at parks like Kings Island and Knott's Berry Farm. At KI, we rode the Scooby-Doo shoot-'em-up together, as well as the elevator ride up the Eiffel Tower. That's it. We split up for every other ride of the day, with 12-year-old Natalie hitting the coasters and nine-year-old Brian Nick Universe. At Knott's, we all enjoyed the Mystery Lodge, the Log Flume and the Mine Ride (three attractions that, not coincidentally, precede Cedar Fair ownership). Natalie and I hit a few coasters and Brian, too old now for Camp Snoopy, was bored out of his mind.

    Kiddie rides can enhance theme parks. Built to a smaller scale, they don't overwhelm toddlers they way that even all-ages Omnimover and flume rides can. And schlepping strollers around an entire theme park is a pain. As a parent, I appreciated when parks concentrated their toddler attractions in one section of the park.

    Parks need to find a sweet spot that accommodates stroller-friendly toddler attractions without consigning them to a ghetto within what is otherwise an iron park. I liked the way that Busch Gardens Williamsburg pulled this off. BGW offers a Sesame Street-themed kids' area for toddlers, but it also built kiddie versions of some of its larger rides, next to their bigger siblings. That way, the youngest visitors has their own land, but the younger elementary kids weren't confined to their own section of the park. They could roam the rest of the property with their parents and older siblings, enjoying their own versions of several rides, right next door. And BGW didn't skimp on shows and rides that folks who don't like coasters could enjoy, as well.

    Disneyland and Universal's Islands of Adventure provide even better models. With Fantasyland and Seuss Landing, both parks have created collections of rides that appeal to toddlers and young children, while accommodating older kids and parents, as well. As kids grow up, they easily can transition into other attractions in those parks, such as Tom Sawyer's Island and Camp Jurassic. And everyone in the family, even non-coaster fans, can enjoy a wide variety of shows and rides in either park.

    On the Caro-Seuss-el at Islands of Adventure's Seuss Landing

    Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the three parks I've cited for handling kids well - Disneyland, Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Islands of Adventure - were the top three theme parks in this year's Theme Park Insider Awards.

    Slapping a kids' land at the side of your theme park doesn't make that park "family friendly." Nor does it put your park in position to maximize its audience. Only a more integrated approach, one that focuses on meeting the needs of a wide range of visitors, from toddlers to thrill fans and everyone in between, puts you in position to offer a truly great theme park, one that will endure any economic downturn with turnstiles spinning throughout.

    Check in tomorrow, when we talk about themes for kid-focused attractions: what works... and what won't any longer.

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    Universal Orlando's show director talks Halloween Horror Nights

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 8, 2009 at 1:59 PM
    Michael RoddyI was on a group call this afternoon with Michael Roddy, Show Director for Universal Orlando, who talked about this year's Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Florida, which starts later this month.

    In the audio clip below, Roddy talks about the movie-driven theme of this year's event; describes three of the soundstages devoted to Universal's classic monsters - Frankenstein's Monster, Dracula and Wolfman; addresses the challenge of creating "movie" sets and mazes that people will walk through, instead of just being used for filming; and talks about how Universal addresses the challenge of creating enough attraction capacity to accommodate the growing crowds at Halloween Horror Nights:

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    Last day for Busch Gardens' Big Bad Wolf

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 7, 2009 at 11:21 AM
    Good-bye, Big Bad Wolf. Busch Gardens Williamsburg's suspended coaster closes today, to be replaced with an as-yet unannounced new ride.

    Recent photos, from Theme Park Insider readers:

    Big Bad Wolf entrance

    Big Bad Wolf train

    Big Bad Wolf over the river

    Big Bad Wolf in action

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    Theme park cast member stories: Happy Labor Day

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 7, 2009 at 9:42 AM
    Today is Labor Day in the United States, where we celebrate the many contributions of working men and women in our country by... giving them the day off.

    Or, at least, by paying the rest of them overtime.

    We've been taking Mondays all summer long to celebrate the people who work in theme parks - the cast members, team members, crew members or whatever else the parks chooses to call their employees.

    Too often, park visitors don't notice the best theme park employees - the ride ops who keep the line moving so fast that you don't have time to stop and look at their nametags; the maintenance crews that keep the rides working so smoothly you never need see them "on stage" during operating hours; the custodians who put down and sweep up the Vo-Ban so swiftly you never get a whiff of that regurgitated corn dog.

    All you do notice, perhaps, is the pleasant feeling you get at the park, in part because so many of those employees are always smiling at you.

    So, today, let's say "thank you." Let's smile back, listen to the spiels and put away our own trash. Heck, let's keep doing those things after today, as well.

    As we thank all the people who do or have helped make the magic happen by working in a theme park, let's also honor the memories of Austin Wuennenberg, Mark Priest and Anislav Varbanov, the three Walt Disney World employees killed while working at the parks this summer. My Labor Day wish is that government and industry officials, across the country, this year do the labor necessary to ensure that no theme park employee every again loses his or her life while doing his or her job.

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    Merlin looking to raise $3+ billion in IPO. Hmmm... what could it spend that on?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 6, 2009 at 2:38 PM
    How's this for a juicy tidbit to whet your appetite for speculation?

    A British newspaper reported today that Legoland owner Merlin Entertainments Group, is planning an initial public offering [IPO] on the London stock exchange, one that could earn the company more than 2 billion pounds (in excess of $3 billion).

    Merlin's current largest shareholder is Blackstone Group, which also partners with NBC Universal in the Universal Orlando Resort. Blackstone, possibly via Merlin, has been tipped as a potential bidder for the up-for-sale Busch Entertainment Corp. theme parks, which include SeaWorld and Busch Gardens.

    An IPO would raise a chunk of the cash necessary for that deal quite nicely, plus make the resulting company even more attractive to potential investors. And if Merlin does not pursue or acquire the BEC theme parks, it would have a pile of cash on hand to either build or buy new properties.

    So what will it do?

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    Legoland California to add a third gate

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 4, 2009 at 11:13 PM
    Quick, what will soon be the largest theme park resort in California, in terms of the most paid gates?

    Disneyland? Nope. Universal? SeaWorld? No.

    Try Legoland California (okay, I gave it away in the headline), which will be adding its third gate next year, with the opening of a new Legoland Waterworks water park. (Legoland's second gate is the SeaLife Aquarium.)

    Legoland submitted a planning application to the City of Carlsbad last week. Sept. 16 is Carlsbad's public hearing on Legoland's planned 254-room hotel, restaurant and shopping area, to built on part of its current parking lot.

    Update: The LA Times adds that the park will be 5.5 acres and gets a short quote from the park's PR director.

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    Vote of the week: Paying extra for premium parking at a theme park?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 4, 2009 at 2:35 PM
    Several theme parks, including the closest to my home, Universal Studios Hollywood, now offer a premium parking option, available for an extra charge.

    Universal Hollywood's premium parking puts you in a surface lot just steps from the park's entrance, instead of in the parking garages on the other side of CityWalk. It can be a good deal on days that aren't so sunny that you need to park in the shade... and if you are going to the theme park. (Obviously, you'll want to park in the CityWalk garages if you're going to CityWalk.)

    Some parks offer premium parking to their top-level annual passholders, too. Let's talk about these options today. Would you spend the extra cash for a better parking option, whether that be a one-day upgrade or for a higher-priced annual pass?

    Tell us in the comments about the best and worst parking experiences you've had at a theme park. And have a great weekend!

    Comments (24) | Archive Link

    Theme park photo caption game

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 3, 2009 at 3:30 PM
    Long-time Theme Park Insider readers with sharp eyes and memories might remember this photo, which, yes, was taken inside a theme park:


    And if not, no big deal. In the comments, come up with your best caption for the photo. Funny encouraged. Accuracy... meh. Enjoy!

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    Cedar Point's new ride ain't Whyte Lightning, it's 'Shoot the Rapids'

    By Nick Markham
    Published: September 3, 2009 at 7:40 AM
    For 2010, Cedar Point has announced it will open a new water ride named Shoot the Rapids for the 2010 season.

    From the park's press release:

    "The feudin's been goin' on fer decades. Now, climb aboard and immerse yourself in one of the wildest water expeditions this side of the Appalachians!

    You'll board your boat inside the Crystal Rock Bottling Company and travel through rivers, around an illegal moonshine still and encounter some wild feudin' and fightin'. We still have no clue what they're fightin' over (it could be Whyte Lightnin'), but yer sure to be a part of it!"

    This $10.5 million Intaride shoot-the-chutes ride will feature two drops, of 85 and 49 feet, with 10 10-person boats on the circuit for the approximately two-minute ride.

    "Shoot the Rapids will instantly become a family favorite," John Hildebrandt, vice president and general manager of Cedar Point, said in a statement. "Our guests wanted another option to cool off on warm summer days. We listened, and Shoot the Rapids will deliver the perfect combination of refreshment, thrills and new memories at Cedar Point."

    Shoot the Rapids will open on opening day for Cedar Point in 2010.

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    Happy 30th birthday to Disneyland's Big Thunder Mountain

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 2, 2009 at 10:13 AM
    Please join me in wishing Disneyland's Big Thunder Mountain Railroad a happy 30th birthday. Disney's third "mountain" (following Matterhorn and Space) debuted on September 2, 1979 at the Anaheim park, though a version of the ride earlier had been designed for Walt Disney World. Disney World's Thunder ultimately opened just over a year later, on September 23, 1980.

    Let's celebrated with some photos of Thunder, taken by Theme Park Insider readers:

    Big Thunder Mountain Railroad

    Big Thunder Mountain Railroad

    Big Thunder Mountain Railroad

    And here is one of Walt Disney World's version, which I took when I worked there... long, long ago:

    Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Disney World

    I would be remiss if I failed to note on this birthday that not all's been fun times on Thunder Mountain. Friday will be the sixth anniversary of the wreck that killed 22-year-old Marcello Torres. The tragedy helped prompt some significant management shake-ups within Disneyland, ones that ultimately led to the park's current renaissance.

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    The new Disney afternoon parade...

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 1, 2009 at 3:28 PM
    ...at Universal's Islands of Adventure!

    Marvel characters at Islands of Adventure

    (To be fair, the photo was taken June 2008.)

    Comments (10) | Archive Link

    Tuesday theme park news round-up*

    By Robert Niles
    Published: September 1, 2009 at 11:52 AM
    A few items and links of note for you today, after yesterday's Disney-Marvel blowout:

  • Cedar Point will release the details Thursday morning at 9 AM on what its new Whyte Lightning attraction actually will be. Theme Park Insider readers are betting it is an Intamin Aqua Trax (combo roller coaster/flume ride). [Update: Close, but no. The ride is an IntaRide two-drop shoot-the-chutes called "Shoot the Rapids."]

    Whatever it turns out to be, the details will be revealed on what is now Cedar Point's teaser website for the attraction.

  • If you didn't get enough about Disney and Marvel, Hollywood insider Nikki Finke has the most extensive review yet of the details in those contracts between Marvel and Universal, and how they will affect Disney's ability to bring Marvel characters into the various Disney theme parks. It reaffirms much of what we've been circling around in our thread on this news from yesterday.

    Just for laughs, check out the Twitter feed of @lawcomic, who published some of the best jokes about what will happen to various Disney and Marvel characters under this deal. I liked "Walt Disney's frozen head to be brought to life due to gamma radiation mishap." And "Stan Lee to make pointless cameo at the Magic Kingdom on a daily basis".

  • SeaWorld San Diego will present the final performances of its Dolphin Discovery show on Labor Day. The show is closing to make room for a new version of Blue Horizons, which will debut next spring.

    If you follow Theme Park Insider's Twitter feed (and you should!), you might know that @shamu and I have had a running, uh, conversation about my daughter Natalie's love of otters. Well, looks like I'll be making the drive down to San Diego sometime during the week of Sept. 27 through Oct. 3. That's because it will be "Sea Otter Awareness Week" at SeaWorld. The park will offer presentations, Q&As with animal care specialists and kids' craft projects at the Otter Outlook at Rocky Point Preserve. The park's O.P. Otter character will be walking around for photos, too.

  • * One more: Universal Orlando has released a couple photos from the Saw maze at this year's Halloween Horror Nights

    Saw Maze at HHN
    Jigsaw's Lair at HHN 2009. Image courtesy Universal Orlando.

    Saw Maze at HHN
    Billy. Image courtesy Universal Orlando.

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  • Keep reading: August 2009 Archive