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October 2009

2009 theme park Halloween event wrap-up

By Robert Niles
Published: October 31, 2009 at 10:57 PM

Well, this wraps up another Halloween season at the nation's theme parks. How'd it go?

Here are my questions for Theme Park Insider readers:

1) Which Halloween events did you attend this year?

2) What were your favorite mazes, shows or attraction over-lays?

3) Which were your least favorite?

4) What would you like to see changed or added for 2010?

Tell us your answers, and other observations about this year's season, in the comments.

Otherwise, I hope everyone had a great Halloween, and here's looking forward to some great times in the months to come!

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SeaWorld Orlando drops year-long pass price below one-day ticket

By Robert Niles
Published: October 30, 2009 at 5:10 PM

It's now cheaper for Florida residents to visit SeaWorld Orlando all year than it is to visit the Orlando theme park for a single day?

What, did Shamu invent a time warp?

Actually, all SeaWorld's done is increase the price of its "rack rate" one-day ticket to $78.95, following recent increases by Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando. But the price of the "Fun Card," which gets you in for the rest of the year, drops $5, to $69.95. You'll need to either buy the Fun Card online, at AAA or show your Florida ID and ask for the $69.95 price at the SeaWorld ticket windows.

(SeaWorld likely waited on its one-day ticket price increase until after announcing its parent's sale to Blackstone Group, rather than follow immediately the Disney and Universal announcements, which came in the middle of sale negotiations.)

Many theme parks have offered deals where one-day visitors can upgrade to a form of annual pass at no additional charge. But this is the first instance I know of where a park is charging less for what is essentially an annual pass.

Which just goes to show what a joke the one-day "rack rate" has become for the Orlando-area theme parks. Does anyone actually buy those tickets? With so many out-of-market visitors coming to Orlando for extended theme park stays, multi-day tickets are the norm. And locals long have been able to buy seasonal and annual passes at heavily discounted per-day prices.

SeaWorld's altered its ticket pricing last year to encourage multi-day visits. Today's change represents one more step toward actually beating people over the head with the message: "Don't buy a one-day ticket!"

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Vote of the week: Happy Halloween, Theme Park Insiders!

By Robert Niles
Published: October 30, 2009 at 7:13 AM

It's Halloween weekend!

Are you heading out to the parks for the final weekend of Halloween fun? Or are you simply dressing up, perhaps as a favorite Disney character (such as Mrs. Theme Park Insider here)?

Laurie as Minnie Mouse

Tell us, in the comments, what your plans are. Meanwhile, I leave you with our traditional Halloween vote of the week:

Have a great Halloween, Theme Park Insiders!

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The 'Old Man' is up, and your editor is asleep

By Robert Niles
Published: October 29, 2009 at 9:06 PM

Sorry for the hold-up, folks...

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad train at Disneyland

...there seems to be a slow-moving train up ahead. [Okay, not really. Just a slow-moving editor. Who's calling it a day and will see you in the morning.] So, we gotta sit here for a spell. You just remain seatedreading and we'll be riiiiight with ya!

Thanks, again, for reading Theme Park Insider. And for indulging this lame excuse for running another picture from my Disneyland trip last weekend.

Friday morning update: Howdy folks!

Please keep your hands and arms inside the train, and remain seated at all times. Now then, hang onto them hats and glasses, cause this here's the wildest ride in the wilderness!

We're back up. ;-)

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Disney Cruise Line announces details of new Disney Dream

By Robert Niles
Published: October 29, 2009 at 2:54 PM

The Disney Cruise Line (which rolls up under the parks in Disney's corporate structure) revealed details about its third cruise ship, the Disney Dream, in a live webcast today.

The notables? A "virtual porthole," i.e. a circular TV screen for inside cabins that will broadcast a video feed from outside the ship. But since it's Disney, animated characters will crawl by now and then, such as the sea creatures from "Finding Nemo."

Okay, not enough for you? How about a clear-tube "water coaster" slide over, around and off the side of the ship's top deck?

Disney Dream cruise ship water coaster
Artist's concept of the Disney Dream water coaster. Image courtesy Disney

The Disney Dream will sail on Bahamian cruises from Florida, starting in 2011.

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Legoland California can build its hotel... when it wants to

By Robert Niles
Published: October 29, 2009 at 9:27 AM

It looks like the new official, Lego-themed, on-site hotel for Legoland California is a go.

Whenever Legoland wants to build it.

Legoland California

The Carlsbad city council this week approved Legoland's petition to build the hotel. But Legoland officials haven't committed to a project start date, saying that they are waiting for a "rebound in the hotel market."

Gulp. That might, uh, be a while folks. The travel forecast for 2010 looks as dismal as 2009. Despite the official end of the recession, millions remain out of work and new foreclosure waves for residential and commercial real estate loom on the horizon.

Do you wait for the right opportunity? Or do you go out and make it? Allow me to suggest that the most successful businesses take the second option. Build the hotel, Legoland. (Officials say it'll take 18 months to finish once the dirt starts moving.) Price it aggressively and make your market.

Previously:

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Looking for the recipe for Epcot Food & Wine Festival's Fisherman's Pie?

By Scott Joseph
Published: October 29, 2009 at 9:14 AM

Fisherman's PieThe hit at this year's Epcot International Food & Wine Festival is the Lobster & Scallops Fisherman's Pie. But because it is new, it wasn't included in the cookbook of festival dishes for sale at the park.

But thanks to the generosity of executive chef Jens Dahlmann, I have the recipe on my site. It's fairly intricate -- nothing you throw together in an hour or two -- but for those who love a culinary challenge, the rewards should be satisfying. Here's a link to the recipe.

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A Percy Jackson and the Olympians theme park ride? What should it be?

By Robert Niles
Published: October 28, 2009 at 5:00 PM

After taking suggestions yesterday on new Tomorrowland attractions, let's try a new theme for a potential blockbuster attraction:

Percy Jackson & the Olympians

Publicity shot from Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief
Publicity photo from "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief." Image courtesy Fox.

Disney has the publishing rights to this popular five-volume series about a modern teen-age boy who's really the son of a Greek God. But Fox has the film rights to the characters and stories, potentially complicating its path to a theme park. (Did Disney retain theme park rights when it signed author Rick Riordan? Given that Disney's not producing the film, I'm guessing no. But with Universal invested in Harry Potter and Disney on a buying spree, I'm going to assume that Disney would be the most likely theme park home for the Half-Bloods.)

So here's my question for your discussion: What would make a great Percy Jackson-themed theme park attraction? Tell us what scene or setting from which book you'd use as the theme for the ride (or show), and what ride system or show mechanism you'd use for the attraction.

I thought about a new Disney "mountain" for Disney's California Adventure, San Francisco's Mount Tamalpais from "The Titan's Curse" book. But I got stumped on what ride system would best fit with the action at the end of that book.

Ultimately, I'm going with a 3D version of a Kuka robocoaster track ride, based upon "The Battle of the Labyrinth." You're given the quest of finding Daedalus's laboratory inside the labyrinth, with an explosive volcano eruption at the end.

What's not to love about that?

Percy Jackson fans, let's hear your suggestions in the comments.

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Check out Theme Park Insider's new Twitter lists

By Robert Niles
Published: October 28, 2009 at 12:14 PM

I've just started using Twitter's new lists feature, which allows Twitter users to create a special webpage displaying updates from selected Twitter users.

It's like your personal Twitter home page, expect that you can create any number of them and they can be viewed by anyone. Think of this as a way to organize the Twitterers you follow by topic, location, etc.

I've created two lists so far:

Unfortunately, it appears that not only do you have to be a Twitter user to see these lists, but you also have to be one of those invited to be part of the lists beta release. But just in case anyone is, I wanted to get the links to these lists out there for you, because I think they'll be great resources for theme park fans.

(At some point, when there's a clean way to do this automatically, I'll create a widget that pulls updates from these feeds onto ThemeParkInsider.com, the way that we currently pull the updates from our Twitter feed into the right-side column on most interior pages of the site.)

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Nickelodeon New Orleans theme park misses key deadline

By Robert Niles
Published: October 28, 2009 at 8:46 AM

The developers of the proposed Nickelodeon theme park at the old Six Flags New Orleans site missed their deadline this week to put up half a million dollars in "good faith" money to apply for $100 million in government bonds that the project needs to go forward.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune has the report: Southern Star Amusement Co. had until Monday to put the cash in an escrow account, but didn't. So the bond application is off the table, as is the project.

For now.

Company officials say that they are raising the needed cash, and plan to be back before the state bond commission on Nov. 18, to reapply for the state aid.

Previously:

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What's your dream Tomorrowland attraction?

By Robert Niles
Published: October 27, 2009 at 4:00 PM

Let's talk about Tomorrowland, shall we?

Tomorrowland at Disneyland in California

One of the original lands in Walt Disney's original theme park, Disneyland, Tomorrowland has changed more than any other land in the park over its more than half a century. Tomorrows have their way of becoming yesterdays, and any land devoted to the future must change frequently to avoid becoming a relic of the past.

Disney ditched the land in Paris, crafting a "Discoveryland" based on the then-futuristic fiction of Frenchman Jules Verne instead. And today's Tomorrowlands at Disneyland and Walt Disney World increasingly are becoming "Science Fiction Cartoon" lands, with attractions such as the Buzz Lightyear shoot-'em-ups.

Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters

Changes are coming to Tomorrowland. Walt Disney World's getting a refreshed Space Mountain and a new Star Tours is on its way to Disneyland.

R2D2 and C-3PO in Star Tours at Disneyland

But what would you like to see? What's your dream Tomorrowland attraction?

Don't forget that tomorrow-becomes-yesterday problem. Your dream for a $100 million extravaganza ain't gonna fly if it's gonna look out of date in a decade. Keep that in mind as you craft your idea.

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A photo tour of Disneyland's new Disney Gallery

By Robert Niles
Published: October 27, 2009 at 11:19 AM

Tuesday Park Visit: When Disney opened its "Dream Suite" at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, it converted space in the Cinderella's Castle that previously hadn't been finished or opened to the public into a lavish apartment for use by a lucky (and randomly selected) few.

But Disneyland's castle was far too small for an apartment, so the west coast Dream Suite went into the New Orleans Square space occupied by the Disney Gallery. Great for the lucky few who won a night in the suite; too bad for the rest of us theme park fans who enjoyed lingering with great work by Disney's artists and Imagineers.

At last, Disney's reopened its Gallery - not in its old home over New Orleans Square, but in an even more convenient space in the old Bank of Main Street building. Flowing into the old Walt Disney Story space next to what will soon again be Mr. Lincoln's theater, the new Disney Gallery gives theme park and Disney fans renewed access to some great concept art and models of classic Disney attractions.

Disney Gallery

A concept model of Disneyland at its opening dominates the far wall of the main room.

Model of Disneyland

But I found myself drawn to the models of Sleeping Beauty's Castle...

Model of Disneyland's Castle

...and Splash Mountain.

Model of Splash Mountain

Models provide a more intimate way to study, and enjoy, an attraction's architecture. They are small enough for your eye to capture both scope and detail, while also allowing you a private moment with the design. There aren't hundreds of other guests milling around here, getting between you and the attraction.

Every visitor over age 35 or so lingered over the display case of old admission books, with their A through E tickets.

Disneyland E Tickets

After explaining the tickets to my kids ("What, are they like old FastPasses or something?" "Uh, no, kids...."), I retreated to the smaller studies, to spend some time with the original concept art on display.

Here's Mary Blair's background study for England in It's a Small World:

Mary Blair's design of It's a Small World

Bob Gurr and John Hench's thrilling vision of the Mark I monorails:

Disneyland monorails

Sam McKim's proposed enhancements to Schweitzer Falls on the Jungle Cruise:

Concept art of Disney's Jungle Cruise

And, finally, Marc Davis' concept of a Giant Squid attacking a Killer Whale on Disneyland's Submarine Voyage:

Concept art from Disneyland's Submarine Voyage

Who says that Disney doesn't lay down a little smack on its rivals now and then?

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Walt Disney World changes restaurant reservation window... again

By Robert Niles
Published: October 27, 2009 at 7:41 AM

Today's the day when Walt Disney World changes the reservation window for its many theme park and resort restaurants from 90 days back to 180. (Disney had changed the window from 180 days down to 90 earlier this year.)

So if you are planning a trip to Disney World anytime in the next six months and wanting to eat at a top table-service restaurant, such as Le Cellier or the Theme Park Insider Award-winning Les Chefs de France, you'd better hit the phone or click to the website today to get your reservations.

The number to call for Walt Disney World restaurant reservations is 407-WDW-DINE. And the Web address is http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/restaurants/. (The online system was down when I checked this morning - so the telephone number is usually your best option.)

Update: As you probably could have guessed, the system's swamped this morning, online and phone, as three months plus one day of visitors whose windows opened this morning try to make reservations at once.

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New Scarezone added this week at HHN Orlando

By Domenik Jost
Published: October 26, 2009 at 3:18 PM

Universal Orlando today announced on its Universal's Halloween Horror Nights - Orlando (OFFICIAL) Facebook page that they will be adding a brand new scarezone this week.

Here is what Universal said: "An all-new terrifying scarezone will emerge from the shadows this week at HHN. Guests who are brave enough to walk the ominous NY alley will have the chance to inspire elements of next year’s 20th anniversary, telling HHN creators what scares them the most."

It sounds like Universal is putting some new elements for next years theme to the test. Rumors have it we might be seeing a wedding theme next year for the 20th anniversary. "Till Death Do Us Part"

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Keeping your hands free with theme parks' package check services

By Robert Niles
Published: October 26, 2009 at 2:56 PM

Tomorrow on Theme Park Insider I'll take you on a photo tour of the new Disney Gallery, located in the Bank of Main Street building at Disneyland. But for now, I want to remind readers about a handy service offered by several stores at the Disneyland Resort.

What does that have to do with the Disney Gallery? Well, that's where I blew most of the cash from my Birthday Fun Card. Since my birthday fell on a day not blocked out by my annual pass, I didn't need the free admission offered by Disney. So I got to choose from three options:

  • A Fastpass for everyone in my group (up to five people) for each of the rides at Disneyland which offers FastPass
  • A free one-day, one-park ticket good for any day between now and my next birthday
  • A $72 Birthday Fun Card, good for merchandise, photos, guided tours or an annual pass upgrade.

I chose the Fun Card. (Why? I didn't want the ticket, since I visit the park enough on the days when my AP gets me in. I thought about the FastPasses, but figured that we'd be able to ride all we wanted to ride without them. Why give up $72 in Disney stuff to save an hour or so to ride a few extra C- and D-tickets?)

I suspect that many people have selected the Fun Card and used it for annual pass upgrades, potentially allowing tens of thousands of SoCal Select annual passholders to upgrade to the Southern California AP (which also get you in the parks most Sundays). This way, the "get in on your birthday free" promotion turns into a "get in free on Sundays for the next 12 months" for thousands of Disneyland Resort visitors, driving Disneyland attendance through the roof (and even bumping up California Adventure attendance from what it would have been, too).

Remember that when the TEA/ERA annual attendance report comes out next spring, and Disneyland Park has added more new visits in 2009 than any other theme park in the country.

Anyway, back to the Gallery. That's where I found lovely matted attraction posters from some of my favorite attractions. At $35 each, I could afford two. And if you can't guess which two I selected, well, allow me to suggest that you haven't been reading this site very long.... ;-)

Also, for recently renewing my annual pass, Disney sent me a 20%-off coupon for any merchandise purchase over $50. I used that here, to take care of the tax and knock my total purchase price for the matted posters to $60.90. (I later bought a box of Disney dark chocolates for $10.95, bringing my total spent on the $72 card to $71.85. How's that for coming close to the price without going over, Mr. Barker?)

So now I had two coveted posters, and a half hour until I could use my FastPasses for Haunted Mansion Holiday and Space Mountain Ghost Galaxy. I didn't want to haul my nice posters around the park. What could I do?

I knew, but the cast members at the gallery didn't hesitate to make the suggestion anyway: Just take your bag to the Newsstand shop, next to the front gate, and check the posters there.

Disney offers package check service at Newsstand, Star Trader (in Tomorrowland) and Pioneer Mercantile (in Frontierland). Just hand over your packages, show your receipt and fill out a short form. The CM will hand back a copy of your form and store your stuff until an hour after the park closes. You pick up your packages at the same location simply by showing the copy of the form that you were given.

(If you forget to pick up your packages, Disney will ship them to address you put on the form, though it'll be at your expense.)

You can't use the package check as a free locker service - Disney wants to see the receipts for what you are storing. (Though, frankly, if you quietly slipped in your jacket with your just-bought T-shirts, I don't think anyone would care.) No storing leftovers from the Blue Bayou, either. Disney won't accept food in package check.

So, with my hands now free, the kids and I hit our final two rides of the day, stopping for a moment on our way out of the park to pick up the goodies I'd quickly and conveniently stashed right there.

Disneyland attraction posters

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Theme park restaurant review: Disneyland's Cafe Orleans

By Robert Niles
Published: October 26, 2009 at 9:48 AM

The kids took me to Disneyland yesterday for my birthday, and I'll be posting photos and comments about the trip over the next couple of days here at Theme Park Insider.

First up: a lunch review. We ate at New Orleans Square's Cafe Orleans, which after years as a slide-tray cafeteria now serves as the table-service go-to destination for Disneyland's renowned Monte Cristo sandwich.

So, of course we ordered one.

Monte Cristo sandwich at Disneyland

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Without the NFL, Disneyland is what people in Los Angeles and Orange Counties do on Sundays in the fall. Disneyland was using queues yesterday that I haven't seen filled in years. The park was packed. We waited 30 minutes for a table at Cafe Orleans, shortly after noon - our longest line of the day. (We FastPassed the two special Halloween attractions: Space Mountain Ghost Galaxy and Haunted Mansion Holiday.)

As we looked over the menu, just outside the front door, Natalie inhaled as a hungry look came over her face.

"What's that smell?" she asked.

Scanning the menu, I replied: It's the garlic in the french fries.

"We have GOT to get that."

So, 30 minutes later, when we were seated, we did.

Garlic french fries at Disneyland's Cafe Orleans

Natalie and I tore into them right away. Tangy but not fiery, the garlic added flavor to the crispy fries without overpowering them. And at $5, they ended up being nearly free once I applied my annual pass discount to the meal.

The kids split the $16 Monte Cristo (six bucks cheaper than across the way at the Blue Bayou), and still couldn't finish it. They barely made their way through one piece of the sandwich, each. Then they pulled the ham and turkey from the other pieces, finishing the meat by itself. They left the remaining hunks of fried bread and cheese on their plates.

I can't blame them. This sandwich is rich, a calorie- and fat-laden bomb of tasty goodness that drives most palates into submission after a few bites. Incredibly, Disney offers a non-meat version of the Monte Cristo, filled instead with Swiss, mozzarella and double-creme Brie cheeses.

Just stick a needle in my vein and inject the fat, please.

Trying to be a good boy, I opted for the $16 Crescent City Salmon Salad, a mix of spinach and baby greens, topped with seared Atlantic salmon and an orange vinaigrette.

Crescent City Salmon Salad at Disneyland

I love salmon and salads, and the fish and greens here did not disappoint. Too bad the vinaigrette drowned them in citrusy sweetness. The dressing was so overpowering that I found myself loading the accompanying candied pecans on my fork to cut the sweetness.

Next time, I think I might try one of the crepes, either the Seafood Herb crepe, in a Mornay sauce, or the Chicken Gumbo crepe, with chicken, sausage and ham. Frankly, I can't bring the concepts "crepe" and "gumbo" together in my mind, so I'm curious to see how that dish comes off.

With a birthday cake waiting at home, we skipped the desserts. But the kids loved their half of the Monte Cristo, as well as the fries. And I enjoyed my salad, though the dressing kept me from loving it. Service was infrequent, given the large crowd in the restaurant, but eager and friendly when you could draw attention.

I'd love to hear from other Disneyland diners what they think of Cafe Orleans.

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Theme park cast member stories: Losing the Canoe Races of the World

By Robert Niles
Published: October 26, 2009 at 8:48 AM

The moments before dawn may be the only truly comfortable moments on a Central Florida summer day. The sun's emergence from behind the horizon will trip a signal somewhere in the atmosphere, ratcheting the humidity to inhuman levels. Even if the heat has yet to build, the day will already feel... sticky.

Not so in the pre-dawn darkness. The air remains crisp, not yet stifling. Eight hours of the dark has acted as a natural air conditioner, making the outdoors bearable, if only for a short while.

Of course, it's 5 AM out, too, so only people who are absolutely nuts choose to get up at that unholy hour.

What better time, then, for Disney's cast members to drive to the Magic Kingdom for their annual ritual of workplace masochism? The morning twilight provides just enough daylight for the Disney's annual Canoes Races of the World - a cast competition that pits teams of CMs at Walt Disney World (and Disneyland) against one another, to see which department can paddle a canoe around the Rivers of America most quickly.

You'd think that the cast members of Magic Kingdom West would have a huge "home river" advantage here. After all, this was the department which long included the canoe attraction, and its legion of full-time canoe paddlers. The Tom Sawyer Island raft drivers and riverboat pilots sail this river everyday, knowing every inch and shortcut around the way.

Canoes at Disneyland
Civilians paddle a canoe down the Rivers of America at Disneyland

And yet... we stank up the joint like an overflowing A-VAC.

Allow me to describe the pain of the CROW. No one sits on the canoe's bench seats. Everyone kneels inside the canoe, in order to lean farther forward, to carry the most momentum through each stroke. And the pace of the trip picks up considerable from those lazy, guest-powered trips around the island.

Within seconds of getting the go sign, your arms burn from pulling hundreds of gallons of water with your paddle. Several dozen of those gallons, it seems, have jumped into the canoe, soaking your face, arms and body. Your ears ring from the constant screaming of your team leader, usually a long-time CM who's using this as the opportunity to work out years of frustration at being passed over for various promotions.

A couple minutes later, it is over. You gulp air like a fat tourist given free tub of Coke and unlimited refills. And, if you were like my team, way back when, maybe you beat a crew of 16-year-old girls from Fantasyland foods.

The races, it seemed, always belonged to the maintenance guys - the electricians and carpenters who spent the past few weeks working dumbbells instead of your maintenance requests, so that they could humiliate you and the rest of the company on stage.

Which... they did.

So with dripping shirts and burning arms, the MK West team trudged back into the tunnel, hopes of victory dashed, wondering how we just got whipped on our own attraction... and why the heck we volunteered to come into work at 5 AM.

Here's the archive of Robert's stories about working in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom.

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The search continues for a site for Legoland's second U.S. theme park

By Robert Niles
Published: October 23, 2009 at 8:18 AM

This week, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Merlin Entertainment representatives have chatted up Illinois officials about getting tax breaks to bring a Legoland theme park to Glen Carbon, a St. Louis suburb located east of the Mississippi, along I-270.

Previously, Merlin's looked at several sites in suburban Kansas City as well as at Columbia, Illinois, another St. Louis suburb.

Merlin executives announced in 2006 that the company would build another Legoland within 3-5 years. That window's closing fast, as no site's yet been secured for the new park. Clearly, Merlin has its eyes set on a building a seasonal park in suburban location somewhere in the Midwest. And they favor the I-70 corridor, as all potential sites mentioned to date have lied within a few minutes' drive from that highway. Merlin's blown through Kansas City and now is working St. Louis.

Hey, Indianapolis, get ready. ;-)

Update: There was a flurry of reports Friday about a Merlin IPO, based on this Financial Times report. But it is old news - The Independent had that report last month.

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Vote of the week: Should Disneyland trim its trees?

By Robert Niles
Published: October 23, 2009 at 6:12 AM

Werner Weiss' recent photo essays at his outstanding Yesterland website have reminded me of a question that's been bugging me for some time now:

Should Disneyland cut down some of its trees?

Take a look here and here, where Weiss documents the visual changes in Disneyland Park over the past five decades. To me, the biggest differences in these photos are the size of the trees.

Main Street Street U.S.A. at Disneyland during Halloween

Take a look at this photo I shot earlier this month. The trees tower over the castle, in the background. And trees obscure the view of the Main Street shops from even Town Square.

Much of Disneyland, including Sleeping Beauty's Castle was built using forced perspective. That is, upper floors were built to progressively smaller scales, allowing relatively small buildings to create a visual illusion of greater size.

But when trees next to these buildings grow over 10 feet tall, the forced perspective is compromised, then lost. Disneyland becomes Lilliputian Land, with small buildings dwarfed by the towering trees.

In some places, the greenery is needed, such as behind City Hall, where the tall trees now block the view of show buildings behind it. But in other places, trees obscure what could be welcomed views.

I believe that many more kids would want to venture over to Tom Sawyer's Island if they could see the many play areas on the island from the mainland. Now, however, trees obscure everything on the island, creating an immense green "blank space" in the middle of the Rivers of America.

Clearly, I'm in the camp which believes that Disney needs to either prune back or cut down many of the trees in the park, to return to the park's greenery to the scale it had in the 1960s. (Early Disneyland was too bare, IMO.) I'm sure that others will disagree. So let's put it out there: Should Disneyland cut back its trees?

Discuss in the comments. And thanks again for reading Theme Park Insider!

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This month's top tips for theme park visitors

By Robert Niles
Published: October 22, 2009 at 1:35 PM

Here are some of the more popular tips for visiting theme parks that readers have submitted to our tips page. Click the links following each tip to cast your "yes" or "no" vote on whether you think it's good advice for other theme park visitors.

Disneyland: If you want a Dole Whip, go inside the Tiki Room waiting area and order from that side. There's almost never a wait. Link

All parks: Want to avoid the big crowds? Try going when the kids are in school on a weekday if you're able to. Families tend to come on weekend and when the kids are out of school. Link

All parks: Drink plenty of fluids on a hot day! The last thing you want is to become dehydrated. Try to stay in the shade as much as possible as well. Link

All parks: Freeze water bottles the night before and they will offer cold water for a few hours as they melt. Link

Universal Orlando: Show your AAA card whenever you buy food or merchandise. Even though a sign may not be displayed, it's an automatic 10% discount. Link

Disney parks: Disney raises ticket prices every August. If you are planning a trip for the back half of the year, buy before Aug to lock in the lower rate. Link

Holiday World: Ride the coasters after 1:00 PM. Lines are almost non existent on most days at that time. Link

Walt Disney World: If you want to rent a stroller and arrive after noon, just hang out by the stroller return and buy one for a few bucks off someone returning it. Much cheaper that way. Link

Remember, you if have some great advice you don't see on the tips page, scroll down to the bottom and click the button to submit your own tip!

Update: This is an open thread for any breaking news, or anything else anyone wants to discuss, in the comments.

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Is there any free parking left at Disneyland and Walt Disney World?

By Robert Niles
Published: October 22, 2009 at 9:38 AM

With the recent increase in parking fees at the Disneyland and Walt Disney World Resorts (form $12 a day to $14), I thought it time to review a couple strategies that folks have used to get around paying those fees.

Entrance to Walt Disney World
The tollbooths are coming! The tollbooths are coming! (At Walt Disney World)

At the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California, if you park in the Downtown Disney lot, your first three hours are free. You can get an additional two hours free if you get a validation stamp from the movie theater or one of the table service restaurants. The parking rate is $6 an hour after that.

(Note: Anaheim's Downtown Disney is located within easy walking distance of Disneyland and California Adventure. If you are a Walt Disney World veteran and haven't been to the Disneyland Resort recently, the layout there is much like the layout at Universal Orlando - a parking garage, a central shopping area and two theme parks at the end of the shopping area.)

Given that you'll pay $14 to park in the Mickey and Friends garage at the Disneyland Resort, you're money ahead by parking in Downtown Disney if...

  • You are staying less than five hours and 20 minutes, or
  • Are staying less than seven hours and 20 minutes, and eat in one of the Downtown Disney restaurants.

I know of some annual passholders who have opted not to pay the extra $79 for the "free" parking option on their annual passes, opting instead to use the Downtown Disney lots for short visits. [Update: Forgot to mention that there's no extra charge for parking on the $429 Premium Annual Pass.]

At Walt Disney World, Disney's eliminated most of the loopholes in the system that allowed folks who aren't staying on site to park at the resort's hotels or Downtown Disney and use Disney shuttles to get into the theme parks without paying for parking.

But one loophole remains, or, at least, it did last time I was at WDW. It's a "back door" way into the Magic Kingdom parking lot, accessed from Vista Blvd. You can get to Vista Blvd. by one of two ways:

  1. Take State Road 535 (Apopka Vineland Rd) north from I-4. Turn left on Winter Garden Vineland Rd (also SR 535), then continue northeast to Vista Blvd.
  2. From Buena Vista Drive, turn north on Bonnet Creek Parkway (like you are going to Port Orleans), continue on Bonnet Creek north to Vista Blvd, and turn left.

Once on Vista Blvd., continue until it merges onto northbound World Drive. You'll see the parking lots on your left. Turn left at Seven Seas Drive (the first intersection). This will take you past the TTC and the Polynesian. That road will dead end into Floridian Way, on the other side of the parking lots. Stay in the far left lane and proceed south on Floridian Way, past the parking lots and the "Mickyard" speedway, until you come to the "Parking Return" sign, just before passing the tollbooths, which will be immediately ahead on the left. Make that hard left turn and blend into the traffic heading into the parking lots.

People staying at any of Walt Disney World's on-site hotels get free parking at the theme parks, but now have to pay $10 a day if they choose to use the valet parking option at their hotel.

My plan? Whenever I visit Orlando, my family stays with Grandma and Grandpa, who live in Celebration. So we just get them to drop us off at the parks, if they won't be joining us. :-) All of the Walt Disney World theme parks have free guest drop-off and pick-up zones, for which no parking fee is required.

What's your strategy for parking at a Disney theme park?

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Flying to Disneyland? Some Los Angeles officials would like you to switch airports

By Robert Niles
Published: October 22, 2009 at 7:40 AM

A consultant hired by the Los Angeles-area airport authority is floating a plan to encourage more Disneyland visitors to fly into the LA area using the Ontario, California airport, instead of LAX.

On Monday Peggy Ducey pitched a suggestion to offer discounted theme park tickets and/or hotel and airfare rebates to visitors who flew through Ontario, which is located about 40 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, on the I-10 freeway.

LAX is waaay overcrowded at times, and in desperate need of an overhaul. At the same time, passenger volume is dropping in Ontario, which is a relatively new and efficiently designed airport. (Both airports are controlled by the same authority.)

Ducey's plan isn't anywhere near happening, though. A Disneyland spokesperson acknowledged the suggestion, but reacted cooly to the pitch.

"We were pleased to listen to Los Angeles World Airports’ regional plan and we are always interested opportunities that might benefit our Guests," Disneyland spokesperson Suzi Brown replied to me in an e-mail. "However, we have made no commitments and it would be extremely premature to discuss any details."

The majority of Disneyland visitors these days are locals, with an estimated 800,000 annual passholders in the Southern California area. Disneyland does not release attendance data, but airline visitors are thought to make up only a small percentage of Disneyland visitors. And most of those visit a variety of other attractions in the Los Angeles area, many of which are on the city's west side, far away from Ontario.

How far is Ontario? This week, the Los Angeles Lakers played an exhibition game in the new arena there, located across the freeway from the airport. It took the Lakers two and a half hours to get there by bus from their practice facility on the west side.

If air travelers are looking for a more convenient option for visiting Disneyland, Orange County's John Wayne airport would seem the more logical choice, being only 14 miles from the "Happiest Place on Earth."

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Where in the world will Robert be?

By Robert Niles
Published: October 21, 2009 at 8:32 PM

The kids are looking forward to my birthday party on Sunday. Guess where we'll be going?

Disneyland's hub

Okay, that was too easy. Enjoy this open thread for any breaking theme park news overnight or Thursday morning. (Post what you hear or see to the comments, please.)

Or, if there's no news, post your Disneyland photo requests. I'll put up a photo gallery on Monday morning. Thanks again for reading Theme Park Insider!

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What do you think about Walt Disney World's new 'weekdays during the school year' annual pass?

By Robert Niles
Published: October 21, 2009 at 10:30 AM

Walt Disney World is offering a new annual pass to Florida residents, one that is good for 180 weekdays - basically, Mondays through Fridays during the school year. Think of it as the east coast equivalent of Disneyland's highly popular "Southern California Select" AP.

That Disneyland AP is $144 for 179 days, and the new Disney World version is $169 for 180 days. (But you do get double the number of theme parks.)

On the plus side, Disney World is offering a kids' version of the pass, for $149. Disneyland does not offer kids' prices on annual passes.

On the negative side, Disney World is not offering a parking add-on, as Disneyland does. So you're stuck paying $14 to park each day you visit using this pass. (Disneyland's parking option on the AP costs an additional $79, so it pays for itself on the sixth visit.)

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Advice for families flying to Orlando's airport: An interview with Christopher Elliott

By Robert Niles
Published: October 21, 2009 at 9:46 AM

Guest Q&A: Christopher Elliott is one of the nation's top travel writers, appearing on the MSNBC website, in National Geographic Traveler magazine, and in dozens of U.S. newspapers. He's also an Orlando resident. As both, Chris is the best expert on flying into and out of what is the world's top airport for theme park vacationers.

Christopher ElliottChris asked me to do a Q&A for his website a few months ago. Today, we're switching places and I'm asking the questions, specifically, on advice he has - as a travel pro and consumer advocate - for families flying to Orlando for a theme park vacation.

Robert: If I've got a choice (and based upon where I live, I might not have much of one), which are the best airlines, in your opinion, to fly with in and out of Orlando?

Chris: Orlando is one of the easiest airport in the world to use. There's no bad -- only varying degrees of good. I think the discount airlines, like Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways, are particularly easy to use at Orlando International Airport. But that's not to take away from legacy airlines like Delta Air Lines and Continental Airlines. Even the international carriers are a breeze to use. If I had one piece of advice, it would be to avoid the regional jets, which are smaller, more cramped and frequently delayed.

Robert: When I travel by myself, I like to cram everything into one carry-on, to avoid airline baggage fees. But when I'm flying with the kids, I prefer to minimize my carry-ons, since schlepping them through the airport gets tougher with the kids in tow. What's the best strategy for packing to visit Orlando with kids? At what age can I reasonably expect a child to be able to handle his or her own carry-on in the airport?

Chris: I have three kids and we travel through Orlando all the time. I observe the same rule you do. When I'm flying solo, I have no checked luggage. When I'm traveling with kids, we try to stay away from the airlines that charge for the first checked back -- so we tend to use JetBlue or Southwest. Our oldest started carrying his own bag when he was about four, maybe three. It was important to him to have his own luggage, because he felt like he was a real traveler. Our middle child, who is now four, can handle a regular-size, carry-on rollaboard. Our daughter, who is almost three, has her own backpack. I probably wouldn't entrust a carry-on to a child younger than three. If they still use a stroller, they're probably not ready to carry -- or roll -- a bag.

Robert: What should I be sure to pack when visiting Orlando that many folks forget?

Chris: Sunblock and an umbrella. It rains all the time here. Not for long, but long enough to get really wet. And sun protection... that's how you tell the tourists from the natives. The tourists look like lobsters.

Oh, and contrary to what you might read in a tourism brochure, Orlando does have a winter. You will want to pack warm clothes if you're coming here between November and March. At least a sweater and long pants, if not a light jacket.

Robert: And what should I leave out?

Chris: Unless you're catching a cruise at Port Canaveral or dining at Victoria & Albert's, leave the formal wear at home. Orlando is pretty casual.

Robert: What's your opinion on bringing your own car seats, as opposed to renting ones with the car? How old does a child have to be in Florida to not need a car seat?

Chris: I would bring your own. I believe the law is that under three, you are required to have your own integrated seat and under 5, you're required to have your own seat. [Florida seat belt/child seat laws - Robert] We have seats for all of ours. Airlines don't charge you for the seats, and there's one other benefit, which is that your child is sitting in a familiar seat when they're in the rental car. That can make a huge difference.

Robert: How can I enlist the help of gate agents and attendants, instead of their scorn? What I can expect (or hope) that they can do to help me when I'm flying with kids?

Chris: I think the trick is to prepare your children for a flight. Tell them what to expect. Remind them how they are expected to behave -- for example, that they should keep their seatbelt on at all times. Give yourself a lot of time at the airport. I would take the minimums that are posted on your airline website and double them if you're traveling with kids. I think that well-behaved, relaxed children are far less likely to incur the scorn of an agent. Also, use the child-friendly TSA checkpoints at Orlando. They really work.

But you should know this: The good people working at Orlando airport know how to handle children. It is what they do. So even if your kids misbehave and throw a wild tantrum, you can be reasonably sure that it isn't the first time these folks have seen it. Nor will it be the last.

Robert: My favorite tip when traveling with kids on a plane is to take off their shoes when we get to our seats. Kids seem more comfortable in just their socks and - this is the biggie - they're far less likely to kick the seat in front of them. (Kicking hard plastic hurts your toes when you don't have shoes!) Do you have a favorite go-to trick you recommend for parents flying with kids?

Chris: For our kids, it's all about the food. If you can give them a familiar treat while they're flying, they're far less likely to have a cow. Remember that airlines serve almost no food on domestic flights, so the snack is very, very, important. Games are key to keeping the kids happy, too. Puzzles, coloring books, video games -- you name it.

Robert: What's the thing that's most likely to confuse or frustrate first-time visitors to the Orlando Airport? What can visitors do to avoid confusion at the airport?

Chris: It's easy to get confused between Terminal A and B, especially when you're going to pick up your luggage. [Here's a terminal map - Robert.] Just follow everyone else. They know where they're going.

Robert: One thing that many visitors to the Orlando area might not know about is the toll roads. Is it worth buying the little toll box thingie that some car rental companies try to sell you when you visit Orlando? Or should I just plan on paying as I go on the toll roads? If I'm going to do that, how much change should I have on hand when I leave the airport?

Chris: Yes, by all means. You can get them at the grocery store and some car rental companies also offer them. They're worth it.

Robert: How can I avoid getting ripped off on my rental car in Orlando?

Chris: Try to negotiate a pre-paid price that includes taxes and all fees. You can do that at sites like Priceline and Hotwire. Resist the upsell at the airport -- the upgrade to a larger vehicle, the insurance, the navigation system, the fuel-purchase option. All of those can add to the cost of your wheels.

Robert: Typically, how long does it take to get through security at the Orlando Airport, when I'm ready to fly home with my family?

The TSA publishes average times on its site. [Here's the link, but it is currently down. - Robert] It normally takes us about 10 minutes, if that. They're very efficient.

Robert: Let's say my return flight is delayed, and now I've got an hour - or more - to kill with the kids in the Orlando Airport. Where should we go and what should we do?

Chris: Ah, well, you're in luck. They have a whole shopping mall at the airport, with some specialty shops you can't find anywhere else. I would head for the food court between the terminals and then explore both sides. It's really incredible. Just a word of warning, though: The mall isn't in a secured area, so you will have to give yourself some time to get screened again.

Robert: Any other tips for Orlando visitors, especially first-timers or those who haven't been in a while?

Chris: Give yourself an extra day and try to get out of the tourist trap areas around the attractions and I-Drive. Orlando has a lot to offer, including great museums, parks, restaurants, local beaches, and, of course, the Kennedy Space Center.

Thanks to Chris for answering our questions. You can read more great advice from Christopher Elliott at elliott.org.

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What about free tickets and discounts for employees?

By Robert Niles
Published: October 21, 2009 at 6:30 AM

A Theme Park Insider reader e-mailed me after reading yesterday's story on Universal Orlando's financial report:

Just a comment about Universal numbers.

I actually find it amusing that UO attendance is down. Maybe if they gave NBC/Universal employees some incentive to visit, we'd go there instead of Walt Disney World! NBC/Universal employees only get a small price break for a one-day pass. We pay the same as the public for multi-day tickets.

No wonder most employees skip Universal Orlando when taking their families to Orlando.

Honestly, I look around at my location and can see countless employees who have gone to Disney in the past year or two and NOT gone to Universal. Looks like our own company would bribe us to go with a free employee ticket... then we'd buy tickets for our family members along with food, merchandise, etc. Oh well.

My mother, my sister and I have worked for Disney in the past, and I recall generous employee and guest sign-in privileges at the theme parks. It surprises me to hear that Universal doesn't offer the same.

Which prompts me to ask... what's the policy at other companies that own theme parks? (And I don't mean just parks employees, but also employees in other divisions of companies that own parks.) Do NBC/Universal employees get a better deal in Hollywood, since there's no joint ownership of that park? What about Anheuser Busch employees? (I suspect whatever benefit they got will soon change, with the sale to Blackstone.)

And if you do get into parks free, based on your employment or a family members, how much do you end up spending on those parks anyway, as a result? Is free employee admission a loss or a loss leader for the parks?

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Knott's Berry Farm causes jaws to drop with Demon Drop deal

By Robert Niles
Published: October 20, 2009 at 12:19 PM

Here is today's "you've got to be kidding me" story: Cedar Fair is moving the Demon Drop ride from Cedar Point to Knott's Berry Farm.

Demon Drop at Cedar Point

Seriously. Forget "Demon Drop." Let's call this the "Jaw Drop," 'cause folks are stunned that Knott's is even trying this.

Screamscape picked up the news (scroll down) from a City of Buena Park newsletter, and the LA Times openly mocked it early today.

California Adventure's getting a billion-dollar makeover. Six Flags Magic Mountain has bulked up its kiddie lands and is adding a new coaster, reclaiming the nation's "most coasters" crown (for whatever that's worth). Universal Hollywood's bringing in a major new Transformers attraction, plus a new high-tech King Kong. Even Legoland is expanding, with a new hotel and water park.

And this is what Cedar Fair brings to the table to compete in the Southern California theme park market?

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Attendance continues down at Universal Orlando

By Robert Niles
Published: October 20, 2009 at 11:41 AM

Lots of interesting stuff in Universal Orlando's third-quarter report, released today by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Universal Studios Florida

  • Attendance declined 11 percent in the third quarter (July-September) of 2009 versus the same three-month period in 2008, from 3,262,000 turnstile admissions to 2,958,000. Visitors, on average, paid about 90 cents more per visit to get into the park, but spent about 9 percent less on food, beverages and merchandise per visit than the same time last year.

    Overall, ticket revenue was down 9 percent, food and beverage down 16 percent and merchandise revenue was down almost 19 percent. Universal noted that the attendance decline was greater among international visitors than domestic ones.

    For the first nine months of 2009, attendance is down nearly 13 percent from 2008, from 8,838,000 admissions to 7,705,000.
    Harry Potter can't open soon enough.

    (By the way, I'm hearing from inside sources that Universal is opening the checkbook wide to get Harry Potter open on time. Happy times for some contractors in the Orlando area!)

  • It looks like Universal Orlando is off the hook for buying out Steven Spielberg for another seven years. The film director currently gets a cut off Universal Orlando's gross revenue, a deal that continue forever. But Spielberg has an option for a buy-out, which would pay him a substantial amount (potentially hundreds of millions of dollars) up front, in exchange for terminating the percentage deal. Buried about halfway down the report is the news that Spielberg has agreed to delay that option date from April 2010 to 2017.

    Since exercising the buy-out would "affect the company's liquidity" (in other words, completely screw Universal's bank account), the looming buy-out date was making investors nervous about refinancing the theme parks' debt. Moving that date back will help the company get the refinancing it needs, since investors will know that big hit can't possibly come before 2017. (If it ever comes at all.)

    Please feel free to click to the report and post in the comments if you find anything else of interest.

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    Planning a stay at a Walt Disney World, Disneyland or Universal Orlando hotel soon?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 20, 2009 at 10:53 AM

    Are you planning to stay at any of these 10 on-site theme park hotels between now and next Memorial Day (May 31, 2010)?

    Walt Disney World

    Universal Orlando

    Disneyland Resort

    If so, please contact me, using the "Contact the Editor" link at the bottom of the page. I am looking for some folks to do in-depth write-ups of their stay at one of these resorts (with photos). I can provide a checklist of what I'm looking for in these write-ups, and will pay $50 for each write-up which follows that checklist. I know that's not much, but it is nice pocket change for the day in the parks.

    If more than one person claims dibs on a particular hotel, I'll go with whomever shows me that they've been around the site for a while and gets what Theme Park Insider readers are looking for (i.e. sharp, skeptical reporting; no sucking up to a hotel just because it is from Disney or Universal, etc.)

    Thanks.

    [Update: Hotels with a line through their names have been claimed.]

    Comments (12) | Archive Link

    More theme park cuteness: Baby giraffes at Walt Disney World

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 19, 2009 at 4:18 PM

    Walt Disney World announced today the birth of two baby giraffes at Disney's Animal Kingdom. Bolo was born to Big Girl on Oct. 12 and Bruehler was born to Aibuni on Oct. 5. Both calves stand about six feet tall, about a third of the height they could reach as grown-ups.

    Baby giraffe at Walt Disney World

    Here's Bolo and Mom, in a photo released by Disney. No word on when the giraffes will be on public display.

    Comments (2) | Archive Link

    Habitat for Humanity, Orlando Build - Sign up now!

    By Gareth H
    Published: October 19, 2009 at 11:38 AM

    I brought it up right here on Theme Park Insider a few months back, and after some arrangement with Robert Niles and Habitat, it is done, we are signed up and ready to help: We're asking for up to 15 Theme Park Insider readers to join us in spending a day working for Habitat for Humanity in the Orlando area.

    Building homes for Habitat for Humanity

    Here are the details:

    When? - Saturday December 19th

    Where? - Orlando. Final location will be given within 2 weeks of the scheduled date.

    What will we be doing? - This will be advised within 2 weeks of the date and is subject to change for weather, project delays, etc.

    What do I need to bring? - Closed-toe shoes, comfortable clothing that you don't mind getting dirty & lunch. A lunch truck also visit the site, a typical plate runs at only about $4. Water and Gatorade is provided.

    Also, should anyone have safety googles and gloves, please bring them along. There are some available, but they are well worn.

    Please be advised that we cannot have anyone on the jobsite that is under 16 years of age. Waiver forms will need to be completed. I can email these to you in advance to print and complete, or they will be available on site.

    CHECK IN begins at 8am. I will be there to sign you in at 8.30, but the build begins at 8.30, so please arrive by 8.15. Directions to the site will be emailed as far as advance as follow, as well as a Google Map link.

    Space is limited to 15 participants, so please reply to this thread, or email me via the contact link on my profile page, to advise of your intent to attend. Because of the limited space and interest shown before, please only show interest if you can attend.

    For anyone staying in Orlando over night, we are looking to arrange a get together the following day at one of the local parks.

    Suggestions for this are welcome in the comments thread. Please also post any questions you may have and I will answer them as they come up.

    [Note from Robert: I'll be sending Theme Park Insider T-shirts to the participants, via Gareth, so please send him your T-shirt size, too. This is a great project, and I hope that many of our Central Florida readers will participate. And huge thanks to Gareth for organizing this project, too!]

    Update: We have a thread going on the Theme Park Insider discussion board, for when the comments cut off on this page. Please post there if you'd like to participate, or if you have questions!

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    Theme park cast member stories: When I didn't keep my hands and arms inside the boat at all times

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 19, 2009 at 8:40 AM

    One of a lead's duties when I worked attractions at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom was to check the "show quality" of your attraction. The opening lead would do a ride through (or walk through) the attraction, to see if all the major animation elements were working properly and that the show scenery was in good condition.

    On busy rides such as Pirates of the Caribbean, the lead would take a ride during the middle of the day as well, often in response to a specific guest complaint about something not working on the ride. So that's why I came to be sitting alone in the back row of a Pirates boat one summer afternoon. Someone had said that Carlos wasn't taking his little swim and the end of his rope, so I rode through to check him out.

    Pirates of the Caribbean at Walt Disney World

    Once on board I had to ride the full 10 minutes all the way around to unload, like everyone else. But even that ride-through would take less time than walking all the way down and around the lower show building to watch Carlos from the opposite flume bank.

    Carlos was fine, and I counted through my mental checklist as I floated through the rest of the ride: Auctioneer, turntables, singing trio, burning city. Check, check, check and check.

    Halfway through the burning city, our boat bumped into the line of stalled boats, backed up from unload. "That's not good," I thought to myself, wondering if a wheelchair party had boarded several boats in front me, slowing down the unload line.

    Slow is one thing. Stopped another. After a minute, we hadn't budged, and rascals and scoundrels and really bad eggs really were beginning to rattle my nerves.

    And then... the music stopped. Really not good. I knew what was coming next: the spiel.

    "Ahoy there, mateys. Please remain seated. Your voyage will resume in a few moments."

    Great. My ride just went down... with me on it.

    This happened in a year before everyone had cell phones, back when only supervisors and parade leads in WDW Attractions carried two-way radios. I had no way to talk to tower, and no other trained leads in the rotation. I needed to get back into tower, and quickly.

    Unfortunately, I was stuck in the burning city, a scene in the ride with no exit point - no easy place to hop out of the boat and walk backstage to the tower. So I did something that you're never, ever supposed to do.

    I reached over the side of the boat, grabbed the metal flume wall under the water and began pulling my boat back toward the singing trio and the nearest exit point.

    By this time, of course, several more boats had backed up behind mine. So I as pulled back my boat, I'd have to push the weight of those boats, as well. This made it a two-handed task. Hold with one hand, then reach over with the other and pull. Repeat. Meanwhile, everyone around me is wondering just what the heck this guy in a pirate suit is doing, hanging half-way out of the back of a boat and dunking his hands underwater.

    Ignoring the confused looks (hey, what was I gonna do?), it didn't take me more than about a minute to back my way close enough to the bridge, where I could jump off. That point is also the exit from the main course flume into the boat storage flume, so there's a intercom phone hidden behind some of the scenery.

    As I jumped off, I turned back toward the folks in the boats and asked them to remain seated, promising that someone would be with them very soon. I grabbed the phone, called up to tower, and let the operator know I was on my way.

    A belt had failed at unload, and, sure enough, we had to evacuate. With the house lights on and the ride pumps off, we soon had other "pirates" in the water, pushing boats to the various unload points. Within 10 minutes, the attraction was clear and maintenance working to repair the belt.

    But that remains the one and only time I ever had to evacuate myself from Pirates of the Caribbean.

    Here's the archive of Robert's stories about working in the Magic Kingdom.

    Comments (5) | Archive Link

    New on the site: Silver Dollar City

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 18, 2009 at 9:15 PM

    We've added the attraction and dining line-ups for Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri, so you can start submitting ratings and reviews for that Herschend theme park.

    Silver Dollar City

    The listings are courtesy of Theme Park Insider reader James Rao, who inputted them into the system over the weekend. Regular readers may remember that James filed a detailed trip report from Silver Dollar City last April.

    While we welcome trip reports and discussion threads on all theme and amusement parks, regardless of size, we've limited the number of parks that we do full listings for in the ratings and reviews pages. Typically, U.S. theme parks need to do about 2.5 million visitors a year to be included in the ratings. But we do make exceptions for smaller parks of exceptional quality, such as Legoland California, Dollywood and Holiday World.

    James' reports about Dollywood's sister park convinced me that Silver Dollar City deserved inclusion as well, so now it's in the listings. So if you're visited the park in the past year or two, please click over to its new listing page and submit your ratings for the attractions and restaurants that you experienced when you visited. Thanks to James, and thanks to all Theme Park Insider readers for their ratings and reviews.

    Comments (4) | Archive Link

    Vote of the week: Which theme park company should build a new park in Orlando?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 16, 2009 at 9:52 AM

    I realized that I was a bit heavy with California posts this week, writing about theme parks in the rain and hard ticket parties at Disneyland. So I'll offer a Florida-focused question as the Vote of the Week.

    Central Florida is, as Theme Park Insider readers know, the world's top market for theme parks. Disney, Universal and Busch are three of the biggest theme park chains in the world due in large part to the success of their Orlando-area properties.

    But not every big chain is in Orlando. Which one of those should be? That's our vote of the week.

    Here are the candidates, along with some of their other, notable U.S. theme, amusement or water parks:

    • Cedar Fair: Cedar Point, Knott's Berry Farm, Kings Island
    • Herschend: Dollywood, Silver Dollar City, Wild Adventures
    • Legoland: Legoland California
    • Parques Reunidos: Kennywood, Idlewild, Raging Waters
    • Six Flags: Six Flags Great Adventure, Six Flags Great America, Six Flags Magic Mountain

    Tell us in the comments why you voted for your pick. What kind of park do you wish your pick would build in Central Florida, and where?

    Comments (45) | Archive Link

    Up, up and away....

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 15, 2009 at 8:46 PM

    Questions I ponder this evening:

  • Did three pre-pubescent boys in Colorado just pull off the greatest American prank since Orson Welles?

  • How much aluminum foil will Brian need to go as "Balloon Boy" for Halloween?

  • How many sheriff's deputies does it take to find a six-year-old in a single-family house?

  • How many Disney execs spent the afternoon hoping, wishing and begging that no one on TV would mention the movie "Up"?

  • How much work could I have gotten done this afternoon if I hadn't been watching TV?

    Well, Theme Park Insider readers, welcome back from Balloon Boy Day. This is an open thread, so lemme hear in the comments what's on your mind or in your ears.

  • Comments (8) | Archive Link

    2010 will be another 'put-up-or-shut-up' year for theme parks

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 15, 2009 at 12:34 PM

    A travel consultant group is forecasting that 10% fewer passengers will depart on flights from U.S. airports in 2010. And that's on top of a 9% annual decline in departures this year.

    What does this mean for theme parks? Less air travel strongly correlates with a weaken economy. If businesses can't afford to send folks on the road (or, I guess, in the air), then that usually means those businesses aren't doing that well. That means fewer folks with raises and bonuses to spend on lavish family vacations.

    It also means that many families will be switching from air travel to car travel... or to no travel at all. Add it all up, and it looks like another tough year for theme parks in 2010.

    Obviously, the Orlando-area theme parks (Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando) are most dependent upon air travel, especially for the international visitors who crowd the parks during summers in boom years. But the Orlando parks can draw millions of visitors over the road, from the east coast and midwest of the United States.

    The key, as always, is value. Expect the same story next year as this year: Parks that offer fresh new attractions and/or strong discounts will have the best chance to keep their attendance steady, or even up a bit. Parks that offer no new rides or shows and the same discounts as always - or that don't aggressively promote what they are offering via advertising and marketing - will continue to suffer declining attendance and revenue.

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    Universal Studios Florida worker falls on Revenge of the Mummy ride

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 15, 2009 at 7:11 AM

    A Universal Studios Florida employee fell from a ladder on Revenge of the Mummy after the ride had closed for the evening Wednesday night. The worker, who has not been identified, fell from the ride building's third story to its second.

    The worker was taken to a local hospital, but was not believed to have suffered major or life-threatening injuries. Update: The Sentinel reports that the worker was treated at the scene.

    (Thanks to Theme Park Insider reader David Graham for the tip, in last night's open thread.)

    Archive Link

    Theme park news open thread: Wrapping up the evening with dessert

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 14, 2009 at 7:53 PM

    Living in Southern California, sushi is practically its own food group. Just about everyone I know out here loves sushi.

    Except my kids.

    My children swore off sushi one dinner when Brian was not yet two. He eagerly grabbed a tuna roll from my plate. Just before popping it into his mouth, he declared, triumphantly, "Cake!"

    Um, no. Brian eyes grew wide with panic and he sprayed the roll across the table, nearly hitting his big sister, who immediately declared, "I will never eat that stuff!"

    Well, to be fair, they did find one sushi roll which they'll eat:

    'Sushi'

    Anyone recognize it? ;-)

    Have a great evening and please be sure to post any breaking theme park news or rumors in the comments.

    Comments (4) | Archive Link

    Walt Disney World unveils new ride at Epcot

    By Mitchell Botwin
    Published: October 14, 2009 at 11:49 AM

    The 'Sum of All Thrills' uses similar robot-arm technology that Universal Orlando is using for its new Harry Potter ride. Guests design their own thrill ride using math and science principles, and then ride the robot arm.

    The ride is located in Innoventions. The attraction was underwritten by Raytheon. Another good use of military technology.

    Details are released in the Orlando Sentinel story.

    Update from Robert: Kuka arms might be new in Orlando, but west coast theme park fans have had access to Knight's Tournament at Legoland California.

    Knights' Tournament

    Like the Sum of All Thrills ride, Legoland's Kuka arm is interactive, and allows riders to select intensity levels from 1-5. Here's more that I wrote about the ride in blog comment late last year:

    Two cycles before Laurie and Natalie rode [on level 2, above], an older teen girl rode on the arm right next to the bridge, where I was standing. She did level 5. At first, she yelled with excitement, but by the middle of the ride you could here fear creeping into her shouts. And toward the end, she was muttering pleas for mercy ("please, please make it stop.")

    Level 4 is not for the timid. Level 5 is tough on the strong.

    By the way, when the young lady got off the ride, she paused over her shoes for a good while (you have to take them off on the robocoaster), then regained her composure (and balance). By the time she got back to her friends, she was all trash talk. ("Oh, yeah. That was great. No problem.")

    Comments (1) | Archive Link

    Six tips for enjoying a theme park in the rain

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 14, 2009 at 11:00 AM

    The rain season has returned to Southern California, after its annual six-month hiatus. Rain is soaking the area, clearing the skies, slicking the streets - and prompting thousands of would-be visitors to put off trips to Disneyland and other area theme parks.

    They shouldn't. With the right stuff, and attitude, a rainy day can be a perfect day to visit a theme park - one when you can enjoy rides and attractions without the crowds that can pack a park in better weather. If you are visiting a park when a summer thunderstorm hits, these tips can help you continue to enjoy the park when the rain is pounding, while others waste time cowering in shops and restaurants.

    Disneyland poncho patrol

    Here are my top tips for enjoying a theme park visit on a rainy day:

    Bring the right jacket: Don't rely on a poncho bought in the park to keep you dry. Come prepared with an appropriate rain jacket. This jacket should:

    • Be waterproof
    • Not be too thick (unless you are visiting in the cooler winter months)
    • Have a hood
    • Cover your rear end

    That last point is vital. You'll be sitting on wet seats all day, on roller coasters and outdoor rides. You'll want a jacket that comes down far enough to keep your rear dry.

    Wear waterproof shoes, with good tread: If your feet get wet, you'll be miserable. And rain-slicked walks trip up hundreds of visitors each year. Good, dry shoes with a solid tread will help you walk through a rainy park in comfort.

    Don't bring an umbrella: Why not? You can't bring an umbrella on any rides, so it can't keep you dry there. You'll need the jacket I described above for when you ride, so what's the point of having the umbrella, too? It's just one more thing that you'll have to store whenever you ride, and it's a nuisance to others walking around you on the pathways. Ditch it.

    Make advance reservations for your meals: You'll want a dry place to eat for lunch and/or dinner. So will everyone else in the park. Phone ahead, and have your reservations in hand before you leave and you'll avoid the hassle of waiting around for a table in an inside restaurant. Here are some numbers to know:

    • For Walt Disney World: 407-WDW-DINE
    • For Universal Orlando: 407-224-4012
    • For Disneyland: 714-781-DINE

    Use the package delivery service: You won't want to carry an umbrella around the park, and you certainly won't want to be carrying around bags of souvenirs, either. Fortunately, many parks offer a package delivery service, where souvenirs you buy anywhere in the park can be delivered to the front gate for you to pick up at the end of the day. (If you are staying on-site, you might even have them delivered to your room!) Take advantage.

    If it's open, ride it: The great advantage of visiting a theme park in the rain is smaller crowds. Don't negate that advantage by hitting all the indoor attractions first, in the hopes that the weather will clear later, when you can do the outdoor rides. That's just what everyone else is thinking. Follow that plan, and you'll have the worst of both worlds - rain... and crowds.

    Instead, stick to your tour plan and ride whatever is open. Heck, do the outdoor rides first, if you must vary from the plan. With the right jacket and shoes, and with nothing to carry, you can ride in (relative) comfort and enjoy a unique experience.

    With little or no wait.

    Got another tip for visiting a theme park in the rain? Please share it in the comments.

    Comments (11) | Archive Link

    News on a possible Universal Studios sale could come as early as tomorrow

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 13, 2009 at 2:01 PM

    My former co-worker Staci Kramer offers the best explanation to date of where GE and Vivendi stand on a possible sale of NBC Universal to Comcast.

    The Vivendi board meets tomorrow to discuss the proposed sale of its share to GE, though it could delay a decision on that sale until later this year.

    "Sources say both Comcast and GE are prepared for Vivendi to go into November and possibly into December before it makes its decision known," Staci wrote.

    As Staci describes it, GE would buy out Vivendi's 20% stake, then merge NBC Universal with Comcast. GE would retain a stake in NBC/Universal/Comcast, though it could eventually sell that stake to Comcast, which would give the cable giant complete control over NBC/Uni.

    NBC Universal, in any case, would retain its ownership of Universal Studios Hollywood and 50% stake in Universal Orlando. (The other 50%, of course, being owned by Blackstone Group, which last week bought the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens parks in a separate deal.)

    Comments (7) | Archive Link

    Should Disney bring hard-ticket holiday parties to Disneyland Park?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 13, 2009 at 10:55 AM

    HalloweenTime at Disneyland's become a huge success, making parking at and entering the resort area on weekend evenings a nightmare for many Southern California theme park fans. Al Lutz at MiceAge today details the mess that I also tweeted last weekend: Annual Passholders are flooding into the parking areas on Friday evenings and Saturdays, forcing Disneyland to close the parks to all visitors. It used to be that main gate shut-downs only happened during the ultra-busy week between Christmas and New Year's. Now, it's a weekly occurrence in October (and December, too, but I'll get to that in a few minutes.)

    Haunted Mansion Holiday
    HalloweenTime at Disneyland

    Disneyland's cut off sign-in privileges for cast members on Fridays in October, and will probably use this as an excuse for yet another price increase on annual passes. But I believe that there is a much more elegant, effective... and, frankly, lucrative, solution that Disneyland's missing:

    Disneyland needs to go "hard-ticket" on Friday and Saturday evenings in October.

    Close the park at 5 pm on those days, then reopen at 7 pm for "Mickey's HalloweenTime Party." Bring the trick-or-treating over from Disney's California Adventure, sell great Halloween-themed street food throughout the park, run Fantasmic! at 8 and 10, blast the special Halloween fireworks at 9 and - here's the highlight - stage an all-new "Disney's Villains Parade" at 10 or 11.

    Sell 25,000 tickets per night, priced at $55 for adults and $45 for kids, and this would become yet another cash cow for the Disneyland Resort. (If the parties don't sell out immediately, Disney could give APs a $10 discount. Trust me, at $45/$35 this event definitely would sell out.)

    Disney sells thousands of tickets for its trick-or-treating event at DCA, but nowhere near as many as it could sell for this event at Disneyland. In addition, AP are far more likely to drive out to visit Disneyland than DCA, if given a choice. Having the hard ticket event at DCA simply overloads Disneyland on weekend evenings, as we are seeing now. Switching the hard ticket event to the original park not only makes the company more money, it helps eliminate the traffic flow problems that now plague the resort.

    Right now, APs are drifting into the resort throughout the afternoon and early evening, making it hard for Disneyland parking staff to efficiently pack the resort's parking areas, as Lutz described. With a hard ticket event at Disneyland, there is a much smaller "after work" crowd showing up to the resort between 3 and 6. The evening crowd comes in a wave before the party begins at 7. And most of the day-time crowd will have left the resort early, clearing space for those evening party-goers.

    A hard-ticket event allows Disney to limit the number of attendees without turning away APs or employees sign-ins, whose passes would not get them into the event anyway. It also maximizes the ticket revenue in a crowded Disneyland, replacing APs with ticket-buying visitors (who very well might be APs, but they had to buy an extra ticket to get in).

    So what's it this for theme park fans? A more orderly crowd, easier entry into the park, free candy for the kids, a cool new parade and a "special event" feel that Disneyland deserves during a holiday season. To me, that would be worth the extra charge, Heck, hundreds of thousands of visitors pay that at Walt Disney World in October and December.

    Magic Kingdom at Christmas
    Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party at Walt Disney World

    To that end, I'd bring "Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party" to Anaheim, as well. We're going to see the same parking and crowd-control problems in Anaheim on weekend evenings in December as we are seeing now. A hard-ticket event will be the best way to handle that then, as well.

    The holiday overlay attractions - Haunted Mansion, Space Mountain and It's a Small World, would continue to be open to day-time guests, who also would enjoy the park's holiday decor. So the addition of these hard-ticket parties would in no way diminish the enjoyment of the season for Disneyland guests who visit during the day. But they would provide wonderful new creative challenges for Disney's entertainment, foods and Imagineering teams, funded by a lucrative new source of revenue for the resort.

    It's rare when theme park fans suggest that parks to charge them more money. But in this case, I think that hard-ticket Halloween and Christmas events at Disneyland Park would benefit fans as well as the park.

    What do you think?

    Comments (16) | Archive Link

    Who's in the mood for some barbecue?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 13, 2009 at 9:24 AM

    A little lunch-time photo gallery for Theme Park Insider readers today. Who's in the mood for a big plate of barbecue?

    Trapper's Smokehouse
    Trapper's Smokehouse at Busch Gardens Williamsburg

    Das Festhaus
    Das Festhaus at Busch Gardens Williamsburg

    Colonial Williamsburg
    Chowning's Tavern in Colonial Williamsburg

    Knight's Table
    Knight's Table at Legoland California

    Big Thunder Barbecue
    Celebration Barbecue at Big Thunder Ranch in Disneyland

    Comments (2) | Archive Link

    Why did some theme parks succeed this year, while so many others failed?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 12, 2009 at 4:15 PM

    Holiday World spokesperson Paula Werne revealed in a Blog Flume comment today that the Southern Indiana park set an attendance record this year, despite the weak economy that depressed attendance at most parks around the country.

    Laurie and Santa and Holiday World
    Santa Claus with TPI's Laurie Niles, at Holiday World this summer

    We already knew that Disneyland also saw an attendance increase this year, fueled in large part by free birthday admissions and other promotions. SeaWorld also announced this week that its Orlando park had a "very, very strong performance" due to the debut of its Theme Park Insider Award-winning Manta roller coaster and aquarium.

    Which got me thinking, how did these three parks manage to increase attendance when so many others welcomed fewer visitors this year? What do these three parks have in common?

    Why, of course: They all were on this year's Theme Park Insider Summer Roadtrip!

    Nah, that couldn't be mere coincidence. Obviously, the simple inclusion of these parks on the roadtrip itinerary pushed them to succeed while the rest of the industry failed. Therefore, theme parks are now welcomed to e-mail me their bids to be included in my 2010 roadtrip, as a hedge against what looks like another lousy year for the economy.

    (I would suggest taking a moment now to wipe the dripping sarcasm from your computer screen.)

    I'm sure that TPI readers have, uh, better theories on why some parks did well this year, as others tanked. Let's hear 'em in the comments.

    Comments (7) | Archive Link

    Epcot's International Food & Wine Festival's Party for the Senses features some changes this year

    By Scott Joseph
    Published: October 12, 2009 at 4:08 PM

    The Epcot International Food & Wine Festivals Party for the Senses has some changes this year, not the least of which is a $75 upgrade to an area with private seating fenced off from the common people who paid only $135.

    Worth it? I found plenty of good seating outside the fence. As for the food, I have a review of last Saturday's South American themed party (the themes are another change) plus a video of the sights and sounds (you'll just have to imagine the aromas). Here's my full report.

    Comments (1) | Archive Link

    Disney hotel veteran George Kalogridis tapped as new President of Disneyland

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 12, 2009 at 2:50 PM

    George KalogridisThe Disneyland Resort today named George Kalogridis, the COO of Disneyland Paris, as its new President. Kalogridis replaced Ed Grier, who resigned last week and was last seen as a finalist to be dean of the business school at Virginia Commonwealth University.

    Kalogridis has worked at Disneyland before. He was senior VP for resort operations during the opening of Disney's California Adventure, leaving in 2002.

    Kalogridis came up through the hotel side at Disney, working on the opening crew at the Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World in 1971. (He was a busboy.) He did five years as GM at the Grand Floridian and has worked as the park VP for Epcot.

    Comments (1) | Archive Link

    Theme park cast member stories: The lightning capital of America

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 12, 2009 at 10:25 AM

    Lightning pummels Central Florida. The stretch from Tampa to Orlando is America's Lightning Capital, with more than 90 thunderstorms a year, on average, and more than 15 strikes per square kilometer. (Here's a map showing how much more lightning Florida gets than rest of the nation.) Tampa named its pro hockey team after it. And it shuts down many theme park attractions most days during the summer.

    I've been nearly hit by lightning twice in my life, and both incidents happened in Central Florida. The most recent was on an AirTran flight from Orlando to Atlanta, where the plane was hit not too long after takeoff. It was a 7 am flight, and I was dozing, but a loud crack and blinding flash brought me to full consciousness. All I remember seeing was the red of my eyelids, which squeezed shut with the flash.

    The first happened years ago, when I was working a shift on Tom Sawyer's Island in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. Fortunately, this time I'd gotten my raft in dock before the rain hit. (That wasn't always the case.) And I was waiting with the guests who'd sought shelter in the TSI waiting area.

    The roof over the wait area slopes down beyond it, covering a bit of the TSI dock. That's where I waited, on the east side of the dock, toward what we called "Duck Island." That was a small island, barely large enough for a couple trees, but it was inconveniently located - we had to push the bow of the raft away from the mainland dock every time we cast off, in order to avoid running aground on it. And while the island was small, the trees on it at the time were not. I worked at TSI before Disney built Splash Mountain, so the trees of Duck Island were then the tallest point between Pecos Bill and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.

    I was chatting with another TSI host and a few guests, who were waiting inside the queue. For some reason, I turned toward Duck Island, and felt every hair on my arms rise. Sportcasters abuse the phrase "there's electricity in the air," but if you've ever literally felt that, the memory of that sensation never will leave you.

    My brain had no time to process what was happening before the crushing blast. It's funny, but looking back upon the strike, you feel like you anticipated it. That's because your brain sends out the command to "Get down: NOW!" before it passes along to your consciousness the news of the incoming crack and flash which elicited that command.

    So there I was, curled up in a ball under the queue rail on the TSI dock, before I knew what had almost hit me.

    A charcoal smell hit my nose, forcing open my eyes. The guests we'd been speaking with were on their knees, and the ones behind them stood, faces frozen, staring toward Duck Island. A child cried. I looked toward the island, and saw a tree's arm, severed to the ground, bridging the water between the island and the dock's exit pathway. The cooling rain returned. No one was hurt and nothing was damaged.

    Save the tree, of course, whose fallen branches maintenance crews soon cleared.

    Please share your personal lightning stories in the comments. And check out the archive of theme park cast member stories.

    Comments (3) | Archive Link

    Vote of the week: The emerging Blackstone theme park empire

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 9, 2009 at 10:13 AM

    The week's big news was Blackstone Group finally announcing its deal to buy the Busch Entertainment Corp. theme parks, including SeaWorld and Busch Gardens. In separate investments, Blackstone holds a major interest in the Universal Orlando theme parks, as well a majority control of Legoland California. Essentially, with this deal, Blackstone's now got its money in just about every top-quality, high-budget theme park in the United States not owned by Disney.

    My questions for the week are about your experience with and opinion of the parks now owned (wholly or in part) by Blackstone.

    What would you like to see Blackstone do with the Busch theme parks? Post your suggestions in the comments, please. Have a great weekend, and thanks for reading Theme Park Insider!

    Update: At around the 400-vote mark, I crunched the numbers a bit. Here's a ranking of the parks, dividing the number of people who claimed each park as their favorite by the number of people who voted that they'd visited that park in the past five years:

    1. Busch Gardens Williamsburg - 70% of visitors claim as favorite
    2. Universal's Islands of Adventure - 38%
    3. Legoland California - 25%
    4. SeaWorld San Diego - 21%
    5. Universal Studios Florida - 15%
    6. SeaWorld Orlando - 14%
    7. Busch Gardens Tampa - 14%
    8. SeaWorld San Antonio - 12%
    9. Sesame Place - 9%

    This is an open thread for theme park news that happens over the weekend. Please post it in the comments.

    Comments (17) | Archive Link

    Disney giving free movie tickets to theme park guests

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 9, 2009 at 9:30 AM

    Disney's trying to pump up interest in its new traditionally animated film, "The Princess and the Frog," by giving U.S. theme park visitors vouchers for child tickets to the film.

    Only adults (which, in Disney's world, is anyone age 10 and older) can claim the vouchers. And there's just one voucher per adult theme park ticket. The vouchers are worth only up to $8, too, just in case you were thinking about using one for premium seating at the El Capitan.

    Just go to one of the participating theme park merchandise locations at Walt Disney World or the Disneyland Resort, show your ticket, and you get the voucher. The participating locations are usually the ones nearest the entrance, such as the Emporium. Multi-day tickets get only one voucher, so you can't come back and get a second the next day. The offer's good through Nov. 22. Full details on the film's website. (Click the "Movie Offer" link at the bottom right.)

    Obviously, the hook is that if Mom and Dad pick up vouchers for two kids, they still have to pay for themselves. So I don't know how much additional business this promotion will drum up. (I'm sure that families that were going to go anyway will appreciate the discount.) At the very least, the deal will help raise visibility among theme park guests, if the princess appearances and riverboat cruises didn't do that trick.

    Comments (4) | Archive Link

    Good morning, theme park fans!

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 8, 2009 at 10:25 PM

    I thought I'd leave out a little breakfast for our east coast readers:

    Scrambled eggs and English muffin

    Keep the late-night/early-morning conversation flowing in this open thread. If anything interesting happens, please post.

    Comments (8) | Archive Link

    New Orleans' Nickelodeon park moves closer to reality. But what about success?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 8, 2009 at 9:21 PM

    New Orleans's proposed Nickelodeon theme park took one more step closer to becoming reality today when a federal bankruptcy judge in Delware approved a settlement over Six Flags' lease of the property where it has run the now-closed Six Flags New Orleans.

    That park never reopened after Hurrican Katrina in 2005. A start-up called Southern Star Amusements wants to renovate the property, opening a Nick-themed park. Theme Park Insider readers (including yours truly) have expressed skepticism about the proposal.

    But let's take a closer look at the numbers. The last two major U.S. theme park chain sales established the price per annual visitor at about $100. Given Nickelodeon Park's estimated budget of $165 million, that would suggest that the park would need to attract about 1.65 million visitors a year for the pricing formula to hold.

    Six Flags New Orleans, in its best year, did about 1 million annual visitors, according to the old Amusement Business/ERA reports. Would this rehab, plus the Nick branding, be enough to attraction an additional 650,000 visitors a year? Using 1 million as the baseline is probably optimistic, given the extensive emigration from the immediate area after Katrina. And a kid-focused theme park doesn't mesh well with New Orleans' more adult image, so it probably won't draw much from the existing out-of-area tourist market in the city.

    Still, with that kid focus, you're likely not looking at the expense of B&M coasters. Or tech-heavy dark rides. Really, the Nick park may very well end up looking like an expanded version of Kings Island's Nick Universe. No, that wouldn't be on par with Universal or Busch (much less Disney) attractions, but Nick Universe drew its share of fans from throughout the Midwest. I'm not the expert (calling Dave Cobb!), but it seems to me something on that scale could be done on the budget Southern Star's discussing.

    Is an expanded Nick Universe enough of a draw to bring 650,000-1 million extra visitors to eastern New Orleans? Ultimately, that's the public's call. What do you say?

    Comments (4) | Archive Link

    Pecos Bill and the Prisoner's Dilemma

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 8, 2009 at 12:07 PM

    I tweeted this the other day, but didn't have a moment to raise the issue here on the blog, due to the Blackstone/Busch story sucking up nearly all my time. So let's give it a go today.

    Walt Disney World is testing a new seating policy for some of its counter service restaurants, including the wildly popular (i.e. crowded) Pecos Bill in the Magic Kingdom. Under the new test, people can't send some of their group to save a table while the others queue to order. Instead, a group must wait until they have their food, then a Disney cast member will find and show them to an available table.

    Every Disney visitor has witnessed this scene before: Dozens of families circling a dining area, heavy trays in hand, searching for an empty table. Meanwhile, a near-majority of tables are occupied, not by diners, but by other families waiting for their food.

    Indulge me slipping back into geek mode here, because this is precisely the sort of social dilemma I studied in college. It's a theme park variation on the classic Prisoner's Dilemma: everyone acting in his own self interest creates a situation in which everyone is screwed.

    One family figures out that if they send some folks ahead to save a table, they'll be guaranteed a place to sit in the busy restaurant when they emerge from the food queue. But taking that table forces another family, with food, to wait. Seeing people waiting for a place to sit, more families entering the restaurant send folks ahead to save tables. So more people with food end up having to wait.

    Eventually, you've got a restaurant of people without food sitting at tables and people with food walking around, looking for a place to sit.

    The solution is to keep people without food from claiming tables. That doesn't guarantee every family emerging from the food window an immediate place to sit, but it does guarantee "maximum seating efficiency" - that all the tables with be filled with people who are actually eating.

    A few months ago, I submitted a tip that people should wait until they have their food before sitting, but readers soon voted it off the page. Which is understandable. Any individual who opts to behave this way is just putting herself at a disadvantage. Her family will be waiting longer with food, because every other family will have sent someone ahead.

    No, the only way to make this system work is to have some outside agent enforce it, so no one can claim a table early. (Ultimately, these social dilemmas are why societies need occasional government regulation.) So Disney's now done that.

    The trick, of course, is having cast members who can swiftly identify empty tables and move people toward them, while keeping "cheaters" out of the way. If Disney's CMs fail, then complaints will grow, and Disney likely will return to the old "land rush" system. But if they can, this should be a more efficient system in terms of keeping tables filled with actual diners.

    Thoughts?

    Comments (22) | Archive Link

    Disney, Busch launch new sites for theme park fans

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 8, 2009 at 9:07 AM

    Now that the Blackstone deal's out of the way, Busch Entertainment Corp. is publicizing its new blog for its "Worlds of Discovery" theme parks: http://www.worldsofdiscoveryblog.com.

    The blog includes videos and notes as well as a link to follow Shamu on Twitter. (He's back posting now, BTW, after yesterday's absence.) Oh, and you might find some of the posts vaguely familiar. (FWIW, I didn't know they were going to do that, but I'm cool with it in this case.)

    I know I gave Disney a bit of tongue-in-cheek grief for its new blog a few days ago. But no one's making a living running Busch-only fan websites (and if anyone is, my hat is off to you. Either you've pulled off a commercial miracle, or you've learned to live off $10 a day). And, hey, I think that most independent theme park news websites would rather that parks take our content than our audience. ;-)

    Universal extended its Halloween Horror Nights franchise online, creating a wildly successful website and community. Now Disney's making a move to create its own Halloween-themed Web destination.

    Disney's Haunted Holidays

    Disney's Haunted Holidays creates a virtual space where fans can explore games and videos from several Disney film and theme park franchises:

    • Tales of Two Cities
    • Nightmare Before Christmas
    • Christmas Carol
    • The Muppets
    • Pirates of the Caribbean
    • Snow White
    • Haunted Mansion

    You'll find the links in tabs on left when you click from attic. I had to tilt my head to read them, and missed them at first.

    Update: I read the first comment below and, sure enough, got the video commercial popping up and auto-starting within the Flash on the Haunted Mansion page.

    I didn't get it when I clicked to the Tale of Two Cities page from the attic. There are no labels in attic, so you just have to click around.

    Yeah, this is a colossal FAIL for Disney. Sorry I brought your attention to it. Never mind.

    Update 2: Universal Orlando officially has launched the new version of its website.

    Comments (4) | Archive Link

    Just how good was the Busch deal for Blackstone?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 7, 2009 at 9:53 PM

    How good of a deal did Blackstone Group get in buying the Busch theme parks from Anheuser-Busch InBev today?

    Let's compare the Blackstone/Busch deal to the most recent sale of a major theme park chain: Cedar Fair's purchase of the Paramount Parks from Viacom in 2006.

    Paramount Parks

    • sold for $1.24 billion
    • $423 million revenue (2005)
    • 12.2 million attendance (2005)

    Busch Entertainment Corp.

    • sold for $2.3 billion (with A-B eligible for an additional $400 million in BEC revenue)
    • $1.37 billion revenue (2008)
    • 23 million attendance (2008)

    The Busch deal also includes significant branding: The Paramount Parks had to drop "Paramount's" from their names; the Busch Gardens parks will retain their names.

    The Busch deal also includes the value "Shamu" brand, as well as a licensing deal with Sesame Workshop, so no attractions will be lost or have their names changed (save the already-shuttered Brewmasters' Clubs and the Clydesdales). The Paramount sale included no iconic character, forced Cedar Fair to rename immediately dozens of Paramount/Viacom-themed attractions and left Nickelodeon branding for certain kids areas for only three more years.

    Let's not forget that the Busch theme parks almost certainly enjoy much higher per-guest spending than the former Paramount Parks.

    So for double the price, Blackstone is getting double the attendance that Cedar Fair got, plus triple the income revenue and valuable "intellectual property" assets. And that's comparing BEC's attendance and revenue during a global recession with Paramount's during the peak year of the recent financial bubble.

    For the industry, the Paramount Parks deal consolidated the field, resulting in the loss of Paramount Parks' attraction design team and leaving theme park fans with one fewer choice for theme parks. The Busch deal leaves the existing BEC management in place, resulting in no loss of options for fans.

    A common downside? Debt. Cedar Fair took on $2 billion in debt to finance the Paramount Parks acquisition, as well as to pay down previous debt. And BEC will take on about $1.3 billion in debt to fund this deal (with Blackstone providing the additional $1 billion).

    But even on that count, BEC crushes Cedar Fair, with BEC taking on a debt burden roughly equal to its annual revenue, while Cedar Fair took on debt about double the annual revenue of the combined old Cedar Fair and Paramount parks.

    Open thread: This is the overnight/early-morning open thread, for any news and rumors you've just got to share before your editor rejoins you in the LA AM.

    Comments (13) | Archive Link

    Blackstone Group buys the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens theme park chain for $2.3 billion+

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 7, 2009 at 9:17 AM

    Busch Entertainment Corp., owner of the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens theme parks, announced this morning that it had completed a deal to be bought by the Blackstone Group - the world's largest private equity group, for $2.3 billion in cash, plus up to $400 million in additional considerations.

    I'll be speaking with BEC chief Jim Atchison in just a few minutes and will update soon.

    *Update: Just got off the phone with Atchison, and he said that Blackstone bought 100% of the parks (me - FAIL on that prediction), but that the parks would be operating "business as usual." Atchison and the entire management team has been retained to run the new company, which will continue to go by the name Busch Entertainment Corp. (though he said that they might start using the alternate name "Worlds of Discovery" more going forward).

    The Busch Gardens parks will retain that name, and A-B will continue to have the pouring rights in the parks, thanks to a long-term sponsorship deal. The only change? Say good-bye to the Clydesdales. (Although, Atchison phrased it much more diplomatically than my blunt paraphrase.)

    Quotes coming; give me a few minutes to transcribe.

    Oh, and he declined to spill anything about a new ride in Williamsburg.

    *Update 2: Jim Atchison "This change is really a change in our corporate ownership, but it is very much a business as usual approach for BEC. The existing leadership team within BEC is all being retained and will be in their same roles moving forward," Atchison said.

    "At the end of the day, the brands, the quality, the brands, the commitment to the parks and guest service and new attractions will remain as high as ever."

    The Sesame Workshop and Anheuser-Busch brands are among those that will remain in the parks, he said. Busch beer brands will continue to be poured at the parks, and the Busch Gardens name will remain on the parks in Tampa, Fla. and Williamsburg, Va., as they were sold to Blackstone as part of the deal.

    "The sponsorship agreement [with Anheuser-Busch/InBev] allows us to maintain that formal sponsor feel in the parks, but there will be changes moving forward," Atchison said.

    Probably one of the more notable changes, he said, will be that the iconic Clydesdale horses will be moved from the parks, and instead go on tour to promote their A-B brands. Atchison said that A-B's "Here's to the Heroes" promotion offering free admission to military personnel will continue in the BEC parks for 2010.

    I did get one prediction correct, though: The was a stand-alone deal, not related to Blackstone's investments in Merlin or Universal Orlando. So don't look for any new ticket or vacation deals between those parks, or for Busch to change its policies regarding animal care. Blackstone owns 80% of Merlin Entertainments, which has a somewhat different policy toward animals in its parks than does Busch.

    "Policies, practices, customs at any other Blackstone entity really are different and apart from BEC," Atchison said. "I think we have set the industry standard and hold the bar higher than anyone in the world with respect to the care and quality of our husbandry, our veterinary team, our animal training. We're very, very proud of the work we do."

    Atchison denied that having the parks up for sale for so long prompted Busch theme park management to delay or defer any new projects.

    "We have been very focused to executing at the highest level in our parks. We haven't been distracted," Atchison said. But he declined to offer any specifics on new projects that might be coming, including a replacement for the recently closed Big Bad Wolf coaster at Busch Gardens Williamsburg.

    "We are always looking at new attraction concepts within our parks and certainly Williamsburg is no different. We have some great concepts and ideas that are in various stages of development, either from the drawing board or even further along. We're not prepared to talk about the Wolf site - yet - but I understand full and well that people miss that ride," Atchison said.

    "Blackstone is committed to support the business, maintaining all the things that have made the business unique and helped create our DNA. That involves, among many other things, ongoing capital investment in the parks. They have made to me very clear commitments to that. They are focused on continuing to keep the parks at the high level of quality that they are, and that involved having new attractions. They are committed to growing the business, something that I'm obviously equally committed to," Atchison said.

    "Anheuser-Busch certainly made their fair share of investments and Blackstone is looking to continue that level of support."

    Comments (45) | Archive Link

    Theme park T-shirt of the day

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 6, 2009 at 3:51 PM

    A person I follow on Twitter just sent out the message: "'People make plans and God laughs at them.' I bet He is cracking up today."

    Seems an appropriate sentiment for a day in which my coverage plan blew up like a Michael Bay movie.

    Or perhaps I should draw my inspiration from a T-shirt:

    Boldly going nowhere

    Sure, it's from Universal Orlando. But given that that park's half-owner is party to the deal that refuses to happen so I can't cover it, I'm gonna go with it. Sums up my feelings for the day, that's for sure.

    Anyone else have any favorite theme park T-shirts they'd like to describe?

    Comments (7) | Archive Link

    Fright Fest at Six Flags Great America

    By Anthony Murphy
    Published: October 6, 2009 at 6:22 AM

    Tuesday Park Visit: On last Sunday, I decided to go with my friends to experience Fright Fest at Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, Illinois. Since I have been to their Fright Fest in the past, we came with very high expectations. Also, since it appears to be one of the more successful of the Six Flags parks, we were expecting the best that Six Flags has to offer.

    Buried Alive

    One important item that I have found that has served me well over the years is a Six Flags Season Pass. It’s usually around $70 and allows you to go to any of the Six Flags Park whenever you want, including Fright Fest which usually costs around $54 per person. DO NOT buy tickets from scalpers around the front of the park ever. My one friend tried to do that and was sent to "Six Flags Jail" for about 20 minutes for questioning. Luckily, he was able to enter the park, but he learned his lesson. As for the trip report, I will break it down based upon subject matter:

    Front Gate

    BREAKDOWN OF TIMING

    Great America, like many other theme parks, has many ages to think of when creating a Halloween event. Disney, for example, usually goes a little more frightfully family fun versus Universal, which goes full-out to scare everybody. Great America, however, tries to cater to both camps of guests by having events for everybody. During the day, when the sun is out, the park is a little more family-friendly. No ghouls, monsters, or zombies, but instead the Wiggles, Mr. Six, and the Wiggles. Younger guests can sing and Dance with Mr. Six and the Wiggles and go Trick or Treating with the Looney Toons Characters. Then at about 4 pm, the monsters make their way out during a parade and everybody is fair game. This is also around the time the haunted houses are open.

    Zombie Cook

    SHOWS

    Besides the Wiggles and Mr. Six Show mentioned above, Fright Fest has its very own grouping of shows. The nice thing is they finally have returning acts that are almost like an annual event. The two best, in my opinion, is Love at First Fright and Susan Rosen: Mistress of Mesmerism. Love at First Fright is a Halloween musical with two teens having to stay in a cemetery on a dare and you can guess who or what comes to visit. It’s a pretty light-hearted show and a multiple winner of the IAAPA Big E! Award which shows with the best singing and dancing found in Great America. Susan Rosen is a great hypnotist that actually allows the entire audience to attempt to be hypnotized so any unbelievers take her up on her offer. Her show is very funny, very clean, and a lot of fun to see or be a part of the audience. The Human Freak show has two gentlemen that, well, do freakish things with fire eating, nails in nose, you get the gross picture. They are really amazing, but very graphic. Probably the least exciting show is Dead Man’s Party in which has zombies sing and dance to relatively modern songs. I think there was something wrong with the microphones because it all just sounded awful and you can barely hear them sing. It was in the restaurant we were eating (Moose Burger Lodge) so we got a meal out of it! There is, of course, an ending parade which acts as the scare actor’s curtain call.

    Rosen

    THEMED AREAS/SCARE ZONES

    Great America has many Themed Areas/Scare Zones throughout the park. Almost every "land" in the park is transformed into a new scary area. This also includes the rides in which some actually change names (Like the classic Whizzer is now known as the "Swamp Thing"). The Chubusco (teacups) and the Bumper Cars were placed in the dark with fog and lighting as well. However, not every part was themed like last year. Some rides just kept their old names instead of changing over such as the Iron Wolf, which used to be called the "Predator."

    Swamp Thing

    Some of the scare actors in areas included killer clowns, alien/human military, pirates, werewolves, vampires and, a new addition, characters representing the Seven Deadly Sins (gluttony, greed, rage, etc). Probably the most overly themed area which also had the most scare actors was Necropolis which was almost similar to a haunted wooded area. To get to the Haunted House, Mausoleum of Terror, guests had to walk past the citizens of Necropolis including living bushes, and many zombies. In front of the other haunted house, Studio 13, were former stars now dead including a greaser, zombie bride, zombie socialite, and an undead football player that plays with a human foot. This year, they were much better than before and I actually recognized a couple of the characters from the years before including the very famous and unofficial mascot of Fright Fest, the Mayor of Necropolis. They have perfected their characters and it’s a joy to see individuals take pride in their work!

    Necropolis

    HAUNTED HOUSES/SCARE WALKS

    There are four "scare attractions" at Fright Fest in which you must pay for entrance. However, Great America has a couple of great deals, especially if you go into the houses before 5 pm or buy all the tickets in advance. I also scare easily so they really didn’t have to work too hard for their paycheck.

    The scariest house, in my opinion, was Studio 13 in which we are supposed to live out our movie fears. Last year, it had the guests walk into some of the scariest movie scenes including the Exorcist, the Ring, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. However, they did not get the rights this year so all the rooms were generic horror scenes (toxic spill, hillbilly cannibals, creepy children, etc). It has the most scare actors and some really do surprise you, but it was much better last year with the movie theme. The "Director" and his "Leading Lady" giving the rules of the house was cool though!

    The other house is called Mausoleum of the Dead which is in the Necropolis section. This house has more or less stayed the same showing the dead in graveyards, executions, forest areas, and part of the dead city. I seemed to have liked this house better because they put more lights so you could see what was going on and it’s in the picnic area which gives designers more room to be overly detailed (which they are) and cause one last scare in which Jason or Leatherface chase you through a meat packing room after you think it’s all over outside!

    The two walks, Path of the Demon and Cell Block A are more or less the same with Demons or Army Surgeons hiding behind walls of chain linked fence and jumping out. The cool part about these two is that there were only about four actors in each, but each of them, through back ways in the mazes, tried to scare you at least twice. I really got caught off guard at Cell Block A. Boy, did I scream!

    Skeleton dinner

    In closing, Fright Fest was fun once again and I recommend anybody out there to try it out at your local Six Flags Park. It looks like there have been some budget cutbacks, but I probably would have never noticed it if I did not come last year. If you are in the Chicagoland area, come to Six Flags Great America. The Mayor of Necropolis is always looking for another victim... um... voter to allow him to stay in office!

    Me and the Mayor

    Comments (5) | Archive Link

    What's up with the Blackstone/Busch Entertainment deal?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 5, 2009 at 8:42 PM

    Here's my prediction for the Blackstone Group/Busch Entertainment Corp. deal, involving the sale of the Busch Gardens and SeaWorld theme parks. Keep in mind that this a prediction, offered Monday night, when nothing yet has been announced. Read the comments through the night for news of any official announcement.

    The prediction: A deal will be announced between midnight and noon (Eastern Time) on Tuesday. The deal will be for the purchase of a majority stake in the Busch Entertainment Corp. by Blackstone (70-80%). InBev will retain a minority stake. The Busch family might purchase a small stake, as well. Neither Merlin nor any other Blackstone holding will be part of the deal.

    BEC will be privately held going forward and current BEC management will remain in place, as will the names of the parks. InBev will retain pouring rights within the parks for its alcoholic beverages, reflecting its minority stake in the company.

    No replacement for Big Bad Wolf will be named. ;-)

    This is an open thread, for news of the BEC deal, or any other theme park-related news. If nothing's happening, feel free to jump into the comments with your predictions, as well. If there's any wagering involved, remember, the house gets a taste of all action.

    As always, thanks for reading Theme Park Insider!

    Update: [9:22 PDT AM Tuesday] Well, noon has come and gone on the east coast, and nothing yet. So either I am an idiot or the announcement will come after the close of trading today.

    Or both.

    Comments (27) | Archive Link

    Ed Grier out as President at Disneyland

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 5, 2009 at 2:18 PM

    Disneyland President Ed Grier resigned today, effective Friday. The resignation took many in and around the company by surprise.

    Grier wasn't much of a public leader, rarely being seen in the parks. But under his watch, Disneyland has prospered the past three years, with Disneyland Park winning the Theme Park Insider Award as the world's best theme park in 2009 and 2008.

    Disneyland hasn't named a replacement. Here's more, and some background from the OC Register.

    Update: [Oct. 7] Seems that Grier has applied, and named a finalist, to be the dean of a business school in Virginia.

    Comments (2) | Archive Link

    How the new government rules on consumer news reporting will affect Theme Park Insider

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 5, 2009 at 1:06 PM

    If you spend a lot of time in the blogosphere or on Twitter, you might have heard that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission today announced sweeping new rules on what journalists and advertisers must disclose about products and services they report upon or present.

    The new rules are here. [Massive PDF file. Link doesn't work in some browsers.]

    Essentially, these new rules will not affect Theme Park Insider, as we've had strict rules for submitting content to the site for many years. But I'd like to remind folks of those rules, and ask that you give them a fresh look, if you haven't for a while.

    The outrageous thing about all this, though, is that while many of the new rules apply to people who write online, they do not apply to writers who work in print or on TV. A Theme Park Insider correspondent who covers a press event at a theme park must disclose that he got into the park for free, under the new rules. But a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel who covers the same event does not have to note the free admission.

    Similarly, a blogger who gets a CD from a music company for review must disclose getting the free advance copy, but a critic for a magazine does not.

    In fact, a music blogger would have to disclose getting a free 99-cent iTunes download for review, but a travel magazine writer would not have to disclose getting $5,000 Disney Cruise for free.

    Which is why, I guess, online media is about to become much more credible and honest than print or broadcast reporting. If it isn't that way already. ;-)

    Comments (6) | Archive Link

    Theme park cast member stories: The end-of-the-season shopping spree

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 5, 2009 at 9:21 AM

    When I worked merchandise at the old Mickey's Mart in Walt Disney World's Tomorrowland back in the late 1980s, those of us who worked seasonally all celebrated our final shift of the summer the same way.

    We went shopping.

    Ringing up customers all summer long, you develop strong opinions on just about everything sold at your shop. You know the T-shirts you like, and the ones that you hate. You smile extra wide at the people buying the cool plush and keychains, and force a grin at the ones taking home the lame stuff. All the time, you're building a mental list of the items that you most wish you could have.

    So... on your final shift of the season (which is the final evening you'd have that sweet employee discounts, if the lead snagged your ID at check-out)... you get them.

    Since I went to college at Northwestern, which started its school year in mid-September, I was among the last to leave for the season. So I got to see dozens of my co-workers do this. The process was always the same. Whoever was leaving after that night would squirrel away a pile of their favorite items during their break. Some people set aside a shirt and a keychain. Others cleaned out entire shelves.

    Then, at the end of the shift, another cast member would ring them up and check them out. Most would leave the tunnels that night loaded down with multiple Walt Disney World shopping bags, but much lighter in the purse or wallet.

    Yeah, it was an expensive way to finish the summer. (Even more expensive that getting loaded at Jungle Jim's. Heck, with drinking, after a while you become too incapacitated to spend any more. That doesn't happen with shopping.) But how could you walk away without that 15-Year commemorative sweatshirt you'd been admiring all summer long? Or that cool Lucite keychain you'd been wanting in your pocket? Or the ridiculous, multicolored 6-inch lollipop you'd all been joking about for two months?

    Yeah, looking back, I guess that working merchandise can make you crazy about that sort of thing.

    So what did I buy? The sweatshirt, the keychain, the lollipop and a few other things, I guess. To be honest, I can't really remember. After all, 20 years later, I no longer have anything I bought that summer. And I never went on any shopping sprees when I finished the summer working in attractions.

    Was this just a Mickey's Mart thing, or do other theme park merchandise employees do the same? Any current or former souvenir shop workers care to share a story?

    Update: Whoops. Forgot the link to the cast member stories archive.

    Comments (5) | Archive Link

    2009 Busch Gardens Williamsburg Howl-O-Scream Review

    By Russell Meyer
    Published: October 5, 2009 at 6:35 AM


    Busch Gardens Williamsburg has been in the Halloween business for over 10 years now, and it seems that they’re hitting their stride this year with numerous intense mazes, scare zones throughout the park, and several high energy live shows. We had an opportunity to visit the park early in the Halloween season this year, and will provide a full rundown of all of this year’s Howl-O-Scream attractions.


    Let’s start off with the shows. Jack is Back is little changed from its first appearance at Howl-O-Scream. This is an outdoor singing and dancing show, featuring the famous Jack of the Lantern himself. Jack acts as your emcee through a show of popular dance hits of the 70s and 80s. Scarecrow stilt walkers and pumpkin dancers boogie down to the music and get the crowd involved. The show has a street party vibe and is family friendly- it is just a tiny bit scary at the beginning and end. A big improvement this year is the addition of a designated walkway around the show and through the lobby of the Abbey Stone theater, allowing people to get through towards France and not be trapped until the show was over. This show is a lot of fun, but could probably use an upgrade or revamp in the near future.


    Next, Frankenrock in Da Haus. This is a big departure from previous shows that have been in the Festhaus, with a live band backing Frankenstein and his gang of guys and ghouls. While the show includes seasonal favorites like the Monster Mash, Thriller and Time Warp, it also includes some strange selections from the 90s and early 2000s, like Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time”, Spice Girls “Wannabe’, Ricky Martin’s “Living la Vida Loca”, and Aqua’s “Barbie Girl”. The cast is strong in singing and dancing, but it’s difficult to perform in the round, as is required by the setup of the stage in the Festhaus. Try to sit in the front if you choose to see this show. The live band gives the show a better feel than one where singers are performing with a backing track, but there’s only so much you can do with the songs that were chosen. This show is worth checking out earlier in the day if you happen to be in the area, but not worth making time to see, unless you need something to occupy the kids for a while.


    Monster Stomp Revamped has taken up residence in the Abbey Stone theater, an improvement over its old location in New France. This show features a large troupe of dancers, singers and percussionists. This is hands-down the best show in the park, as evidenced by the long line outside 45 minutes prior to the show. Both the male and female lead singers were very impressive, belting out difficult rock songs like Heart’s “Barracuda” and Guns and Roses “Welcome to the Jungle”. There are numerous dance numbers, including a really impressive black light skeleton dance, and the best tap-dancing werewolves I’ve ever seen. However, the stars of the show by far are the incredible percussionists. From standard marching-band drums to high tech percussion sets to cleavers and knives on boards, these guys put on one heck of a show. Even in its second week, this show is drawing the biggest crowds, so get in line early for this one.


    Other Halloween entertainment offerings include a themed version of the Sesame Street show, and Movies of the Macabre – a selection of silent movies being shown in Italy’s Teatro de San Marco.

    Busch Gardens has changed up the scare zones somewhat this year. The one thing that’s a little disappointing now is that it’s impossible to walk around the park without walking through a scare zone. For anyone who really doesn’t want to be scared, there doesn’t seem to be a safe route around the park that doesn’t include an encounter with a roving ghoul. Perhaps a clear “no-scare” path could be provided for those who simply want to ride the coasters at night and aren’t interested in the Halloween activities.

    The first scare zone in the park, The Moors, is between England and Ireland, and is inhabited by large gentlemen in kilts, with wooden shields and swords, prepared to chase you out of Heatherdowns and into Ireland.

    The second scare zone, Mischief and Mayhem, is located in Jack Hannah’s Wild Reserve, between Ireland and France. It features scareactors in ghillie suits, who jump out of the bushes to startle passers-by. In New France, the Watchers has a scareactor on bungee cords, which let him jump out at people walking by and scare them. A few roving ghouls help to hurry people along towards the bridge to Germany.

    At the entrance to Octoberfest, the Werewolves scare zone features, what else, werewolves. There appeared to be an additional walkway next to the main path for use by scareactors, but it did not seem to be in use presently. Harvest Hollow is the scariest advertised scare zone, and it is located after the two mazes in Festhaus Park. It feels like you are walking through the movie Children of the Corn, with scarecrows around every turn.


    This scare zone had the largest number of scareactors, with at least 7 along a 100 ft path. If the haunted houses didn’t scare you, this scare zone should send a shiver down your spine.

    Finally, as you exit Festhaus Park, you encounter Strangers Beware, which gives a final group of scareactors one last chance to scare you before your final escape from the area. The scare zone Spell Bound, along the path from Festa Italia to Pompeii, did not appear to be in use- no scareactors were visible, though a recording of blood-curdling screams from the bridge area occurred every so often to scare bridge crossers.

    This year Busch Gardens has opened some mazes earlier in the day. One is family friendly during the day: Revenge of Pompeii. Before 6 pm, the maze is treated like an archeological museum, and does not feature the scareactors and additional effects that are turned on after 6 to make this a more intense experience at night. This is a clever idea for parents with kids who aren’t sure how they will react to a “real” haunted house, or are curious about the interior of the mazes. With all the lights on, kids can see what’s inside. Consider this an introductory haunted maze, but be forewarned that when the sun goes down, it is no longer recommended for kids. After dark, the archeologists who took you on a tour during the day are now out to scare you. As in previous years, this maze relies on a lot of mechanical/automated effects and scares. However, there do seem to be more human scareactors stationed through the maze than in years past, which is a definite improvement.

    One of the newest mazes, the Cavern of Darkness, is located in and through the Corkscrew Hill attraction. The maze actually takes you across the ride, through the pre-show area, and out the entry queue. Due to its newness, this maze still has some kinks to work out, like lighting issues, especially when entering the maze during the day (this maze opens at noon). However, it shows a lot of promise, in particular the scareactors at the end, who are well camouflaged with the rocky walls of the queue.

    The Catacombs is located below the stage of the Royal Palace Theater in France. This maze had the best set design of all the mazes in the park, with corridors that really made you feel like you were in the sewers under Paris. Scareactors lurk around every corner, and potentially may pop out of any hole that you might see in the walls.

    A pair of mazes awaits in Festhaus park, with Bitten coming first, followed by the Hunted. Bitten, as expected, is themed around bloodsucking vampires, while the Hunted is themed around werewolves. Bitten features an interesting element I’ve never seen before – namely, the ending hallway floor covered in sand. This promotes a feeling of fear, since you feel that you can’t run away from the vampires fast enough. The Hunted has another interesting element, consisting of floor boards that tilted as you walked on them. This caused a feeling of insecurity, like trick track on a rollercoaster. As soon as you feel like you have a secure footing, a scareactor is waiting around the next corner to scare your pants off.

    Cursed is another new maze, located behind Roman Rapids (not in the queue area as in previous years). This location provides one of the largest areas for any of the mazes, and felt more like three mazes in one, with a number of indoor and outdoor sections. Witches inhabit this maze, cackling and startling maze goers. There is a lot of potential in this maze, but it seems like it may take some time for the scareactors to figure out good hiding places. As well, it could use some more scareactors due to its large size.

    Through the generosity of Busch Gardens, not only were we provided with Quick Queue passes, which eliminated lines for a number of the mazes, but we were also given an opportunity to experience the Halloween incarnation of the Dine with Elmo dinner show: Count von Count’s Halloween Spooktacular.


    This show is intended for families with young children, although anyone is welcome. It features an all-you-can-eat buffet, consisting of a selection of foods ranging from hot dogs and chicken fingers to pit ham and beef fajitas. The show features all of your kids’ favorite Sesame Street characters, like Big Bird, the Count, Elmo, Oscar, Grover, Zoe and Abby Caddaby. There is lots of singing and dancing, and most importantly, lots of interaction between the characters and the audience. There are ample photo opportunities during the hour long experience. The meal is finished off with tasty chocolate chip cookies and Elmo/Cookie Monster cupcakes. This experience is an excellent value - if you have kids who love the Sesame Street characters. The character interaction is on par with Disney character dining, which can be attributed to the excellent character to audience ratio.

    With years of experience under their belt, Busch Gardens continues to improve on their Halloween showing. As Howl-O-Scream becomes even more popular, Busch Gardens continues to up the ante with more mazes, scare zones, improved live shows and more intense scares, bringing the Virginia experience a little closer to the extreme scares found in the Florida and California “scream parks”.

    Comments (9) | Archive Link

    Weekend open thread: More theme park Halloween events

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 2, 2009 at 4:28 PM

    As I mentioned earlier, Universal Studios Hollywood opens its version of Halloween Horror Nights tonight (Friday). I'm about to board a plane from San Francisco back to Los Angeles, so I won't be able to make tonight's event.

    Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood
    A scareactor from the 2007 HHN event

    Please use the comments for this open thread to post your weekend trip reports from Halloween Horror Nights, both in Hollywood and Orlando, as well as from other theme park events around the country. (I believe that several Six Flags' Fright Fests are getting under way, as well.)

    Post any other breaking news from the theme park world, too. Thanks again for reading Theme Park Insider and have a great weekend!

    Comments (7) | Archive Link

    WSJ: Busch/Blackstone deal near

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 2, 2009 at 2:21 PM

    The Wall Street Journal is reporting that a $2.5 billion to $3 billion deal for Blackstone Group to buy Busch Entertainment Corp., owner of the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens theme parks, from InBev is near and might be announced next week.

    Comments (14) | Archive Link

    Vote of the week: A 'Treehouse of Horror' ride at Universal's theme parks?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 2, 2009 at 7:14 AM

    Orlando-area theme park fans have been enjoying Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Florida for a week now, but the west coast version kicks off tonight at Universal Studios Hollywood.

    I visited Disneyland's Halloween event earlier this week, which got me thinking about holiday overlays for popular theme park attractions, like Disney has created with Haunted Mansion Holiday. So I offer this question for you this morning:

    Why doesn't Universal do a "Treehouse of Horror" overlay for The Simpsons Ride each year?

    Kang and Kodos

    Sure, it's take a lot of work - a new film would have to be edited, or even written and shot. The queue would have to be redecorated. And Universal might have to renegotiate its licensing deal. But Disney made the investment for Haunted Mansion and It's a Small World, with wildly popular results. Universal could do the same. A Treehouse of Horror ride also would extend the Halloween theme into the park's regular operating hours in mid-September through early November, something I am certain many fans, especially those with kids a bit too young for HHN, would welcome.

    Is there a downside, beside the expense? Perhaps that some HHN fans consider comedy a spice, one that in moderation helps flavor the event but that applied too heavily would change its character.

    What do you think?

    Add your thoughts in the comments, please.

    Comments (14) | Archive Link

    Disney World revives free hotel/ticket offer

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 1, 2009 at 12:43 PM

    As expected, Walt Disney World this week brought back its "buy four nights/get three nights free" hotel and theme park ticket offer, which it had offered earlier this year. Details are available on Disney World's special offers page.

    The deal's tweaked a bit this time. It's available on select rooms at the Moderate, Deluxe and Deluxe Villa hotels only. If click through, you find that you can get two nights free with a five-day purchase on the Value hotels (All-Stars, etc.).

    FWIW, the free dining deal is over now, replaced by this deal. The free nights/day deal is good for travel through March 27, with holiday weeks blocked out.

    Archive Link

    Top new attractions at a Comcast-owned Universal theme park

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 1, 2009 at 11:24 AM

    C'mon, you knew that this snark was coming, after last night's rumor news:

    Comcast/Universal's House of Horror
    Step into a darkened theater and slip on a pair of binaural headphones for this terrifying experience. You'll listen, in crystal wrap-around stereo sound, as real Comcast customers beg for the mortal lives, desperately pleading for a repair representative to visit their homes, sometime this year.

    Jurassic Tech

    Jurassic Tech

    Travel to a lost Pacific island with a mad scientist who wanted to recreate a lost world, where all electronic communication travels via coaxial cable. But, of course, something goes terribly wrong and a velociraptor eats a network cabinet.

    Revenge of the Mommy
    Board a Comcast "cable car" and try to flee the city, as an enraged mother who's children couldn't watch "The Madagascar Penguins" due to a cable outage chases you through the Los Angeles area.

    Men in Black: Piracy Attack
    You and the rest of your cable tech crew drive around the city, looking for people who are stealing cable TV connections. Shoot down the illegal cable lines wherever you find them! High score wins the polyester double-knit "jumpsuit."

    I.T. Adventure
    Grab a handful of Reese's Pieces and try to lure an alien to your workplace, in the hopes that an alien can decipher the Comcast technical manual explaining how to use the cable provider for the office's Internet connectivity.

    Got any other suggestions? See you in the comments.

    Comments (7) | Archive Link

    Happy 38th birthday, Walt Disney World!

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 1, 2009 at 10:24 AM

    On October 1, 1971, the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World opened officially, as Walt's brother Roy brought the first Disney theme park to the east coast. Here's the famous Life magazine photo from the opening:

    Life photo of Walt Disney World, via Google Images

    Disneyland was my first theme park, and one of my home parks now. But Walt Disney World was where I worked, and where I found a home for five years. I don't know if WDW still is celebrating its birthdays with free cupcakes for cast and guests, but if it is, someone please enjoy one for me today.

    Cinderella's Castle
    The castle, during Christmas celebrations last year

    Here's looking forward to a great 40th birthday in two Octobers!

    Comments (7) | Archive Link

    Keep reading: September 2009 Archive