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November 2009

My $.02 on Comcast's purchase of NBC/Universal

By Robert Niles
Published: November 30, 2009 at 10:56 PM

The long-rumored Comcast takeover of NBC/Universal now appears imminent, thanks to GE buying out Vivendi's remaining 20% stake in the company for a reported US$5.8 billion. With former Universal owner Vivendi out of the way, GE is now free to bring in Comcast as a co-owner, with an option to buy the whole thing. (The Vivendi deal was necessary because (a) Vivendi wanted out and (b) it effectively put a price on the company. Vivendi's 20% was worth $, therefore the whole thing's worth US$29 billion.)

We've had some fun with the idea of Comcast, a cable TV company, owning NBC/Universal. But what will this deal really mean for the owner of the Universal theme parks? (Okay, co-owner of Universal Orlando.)

Having lived through the collapse of the newspaper industry, I say with certainty that any business whose model is based on controlling a medium of distribution for content is dead. If not now, soon.

I also believe that the folks who run Comcast understand this. That's why they are making a play for a content business. Comcast needs NBC/Universal not to support its cable television business, but to replace its cable television business. Comcast must convert itself from a distribution company to a content company, and buying NBC/Universal provides the swiftest way to do that.

Comcast's COO is Steve Burke, an ex-Disney guy who once served as President of the holding company that runs Disneyland Paris. Remember, Comcast tried to get its hands of Disney a few years back, when the Eisner administration was floundering. And then it even made a play for Universal back then, too. So Comcast has been looking to buy content assets for some time.

Yeah, the content business is tough. With hundreds of thousands of viable, ad-supported websites now online, competition for ad dollars stands at an all-time high. But I'd still rather be in the content business than the distribution business. Internet distribution is about to make the cable provider as obsolete as it is now making the daily, printed, home-delivered newspaper. And theme parks, while only a small portion of the NBC/Universal balance sheet, can be a great cash cow, especially with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter coming online in Orlando.

Comcast is making a smart move... for Comcast. Whether this will be a smart move for NBC/Universal remains to be seen. At least under Comcast, NBC/Universal would be owned by a company that not only values entertainment content, but that sees it as the company's future. That ought to beat being owned by an appliance maker/defense contractor.

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Theme park cast member stories: Getting out early for happy hour

By Robert Niles
Published: November 30, 2009 at 10:20 AM

A friendly theme-park shout-out to Theme Park Insider readers today... all five of you, or whoever's left reading the site during these slowest weeks of the year for the theme park business.

Working in the Magic Kingdom, even the nation's busiest theme park was slooooow during the early days of December. The park itself closed at times between 5pm and 7pm, creating an unusual situation where the "closers" were coming into work just as the park was opening on some days. Heck, working the Magic Kingdom in early December started to feel like a "normal" job with typical office hours.

With the early close, cast members could go out after work and be around... other people who'd gone out after work. For whatever reason, there seemed to be a taboo on going out with fellow cast members while the park was still open. I don't recall ever hanging out with other Disney employees after a shift that ended more than two hours before the park closed for the night. The attitude seemed to be - Hey, if you want to hang out with your co-workers... extend.

That left cast member gatherings for late evening, or more typically, early morning hours. When we went out, we knew we'd be surrounded by other cast members, too, (or employees of other theme parks and tourist joints). Folks with office jobs and other 9-to-5 gigs would be long asleep by then.

But in early December, walking two hours before park close left you plenty of time to hit a "normal" person's (gasp!) happy hour.

So we did.

The bar at a Casa Gallardo
Someone else's photo of a Casa Gallardo bar

Several of us from Magic Kingdom West attractions liked to hit the old Casa Gallardo on South International Drive. The main appeal of the happy hour wasn't the drinks, believe it or not, it was the cheap food. Pushing and pull the tiller on a Tom Sawyer Island raft, or walking miles on the Haunted Mansion load and unload belts, really burns off the calories. So MK attractions employees can put the food away.

But a cast member's salary doesn't enable you to hit off-property table-service restaurants very often. That's why we loved the cheap food in the bar. A plate of chicken nachos, or a couple of tacos, for a couple bucks - yeah, that'll do. And it was a tasty step up for our usual Mexican restaurant, El Taco Bell.

College had already taught me the value of happy hour discounts. Every Friday afternoon, I'd hit up a bar near campus that set up a steam table with build-your-own tacos. Just tell the bartender you're a designated driver, and you'd be good to go with free Cokes, too.

Yeah, I did it. Call me cheap; I don't care.

With the early close time at Disney in December, you'd think that cast members would have had so much more time to party. But I can't recall nearly as many people getting hammered and doing stupid things as they did after midnight closes, when people had a scant hour or two to drink before the bars closed for the evening.

Part of this was due to the lack of college students and temporary employees during the first weeks of December. Only the full-timers worked those weeks, and we were an older, and ever-so-slightly more sedate, crowd.

But I'd attribute a lot of our reticence to the clock. Getting off work at six o'clock, you just felt too, well, normal, to party like a cast member. So we trudged off to happy hour like a bunch of office workers, instead.

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Christmas gifts for theme park fans: 'The Disney Theme Park Songbook'

By Robert Niles
Published: November 27, 2009 at 11:36 AM

Disney Theme Park Songbook Here's another of my picks, for those of you doing your holiday shopping online: Disney fans can play and sing along with favorite music from Disney theme park attractions with The Disney Theme Park Songbook: Remember the Magic [$17.95 from Amazon. $9.77 and up from resellers.] The book features piano/vocal arrangements of top Sherman Brothers songs such as "It's a Small World" and "The Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room" as well as other theme park classics, including "Yo Ho, A Pirate's Life for Me."

Previous holiday gift suggestions for theme park fans:

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Vote of the week: Which coaster company are you most thankful for?

By Robert Niles
Published: November 27, 2009 at 9:21 AM

Theme park fans give thanks for a great many things this time of year: family, friends, vacation time... and, of course, the folks who bring up some of our favorite rides.

Here are 10 top companies that were on the show floor at the IAAPA expo last week. Which is your favorite?

Tell us why, in the comments.

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Christmas gifts for theme park fans: Make-your-own churros

By Robert Niles
Published: November 27, 2009 at 8:52 AM

Churro mix C'mon, you know you want a hot, sugary churro right now, don'cha?

You'd have some Christmas morning with this stock-stuffer Churros Mix. [$3.50 from Amazon] It even promises a pastry bag with tip in the box, for easy churro frying at home.

But if you've got a serious churro fan in the house, skip the flimsy bag and buy 'em this heavy-duty Churro Maker and pack it with a copy of this easy churro recipe. (Make sure you have these staples on hand, too, so you can make them right away!)

Previous holiday gift suggestions for theme park fans:

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Christmas gifts for theme park fans: Carl Hiaasen's 'Native Tongue'

By Robert Niles
Published: November 26, 2009 at 9:46 PM

Native Tongue If you're from Florida, and have a snarky sense of humor, you probably already own every book by Carl Hiaasen. But if you aren't familiar with the funniest man from Miami (sorry, Dave Barry), then Carl Hiaasen's Native Tongue [$11.99 on Amazon] is a great book to start with. This is Hiaasen's take-down of the Florida theme park industry - not Disney and the big boys in Orlando, but the jealous competitors in Miami and around the state who want to get a taste of Mickey's action.

Taking place at the fictional Amazing Kingom of Thrills, Hiaasen tracks his usual cast of misfits and grifters, with hilarious and completely family-unfriendly results. Hiaasen offers a sharp balance to the cloying sweetness of the season's holiday commercials and TV specials. He's not for everyone, but I love his work.

Previous holiday gift suggestions for theme park fans:

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Happy Thanksgiving!

By Robert Niles
Published: November 25, 2009 at 6:50 PM

I's like to wish a very happy Thanksgiving holiday to all our United States readers on Thursday. (And a very happy day, though not a holiday, to readers around the world.)

Due to the holiday, I'm planning to be offline for the remainder of the evening, as well as the day Thursday, though I will hop back on if any news breaks. In case that happens, please feel free to use this as an open thread and post what you know in the comments.

I welcome folks' reports from the parks in the comments, as well!

Friday, I'll be back with more posts suggesting Christmas gifts for theme parks fans. Have a great night, and a great day, and thanks for reading Theme Park Insider!

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Quote of the day...

By Robert Niles
Published: November 25, 2009 at 1:17 PM

"There are certain days that remind me of why I ran for this office. And there are moments like this, when I pardon a turkey and send it to Disneyland." - President Barack Obama

"Thanks to interventions of Malia and Sasha, because I was planning to eat this sucker, [this turkey] will also be spared this terrible, and delicious, fate," the President said.

You can see "Courage," the pardoned Thanksgiving turkey, at Disneyland Park tomorrow, when it serves as Grand Marshal of the park's afternoon parade. After that, Courage and its alternate, Carolina, will move to Big Thunder Ranch.

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Six Flags Great America Purchases Little Dipper from now closed Kiddieland Amusement Park

By Anthony Murphy
Published: November 25, 2009 at 10:28 AM

Today, Six Flags Great America announced that they have purchased the Little Dipper Wooden Roller Coaster from the now closed Kiddieland.

The Little Dipper, Kiddieland's signature family wooden roller coaster, was built into the park in 1950 and features a three story tall lift hill, a figure eight track and a track which runs 700 feet in length. It has won many awards from local groups over the years and one of the highlights for children visiting the amusement park.

“The Little Dipper has been a fond family tradition for over 50 years,” said Hank Salemi, Six Flags Great America’s park president. “We wanted to preserve this important piece of Chicago history for families to experience for many more years to come.”

The Roller Coaster will retain its own name and should be in the park for opening in 2010. This addition would be coaster number 14 for the park and would put it into being one of the oldest attractions in Six Flags Great America, which opened in 1976.

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Theme Park Insider vacation makeover: D.C., Philly and Hersheypark

By Robert Niles
Published: November 24, 2009 at 1:10 PM

Our first Theme Park Insider vacation makeover request comes from a reader in the Seattle, Washington area. She's looking for an 11-day mid-June trip to Washington, D.C., with a side trip through Philadelphia, Gettysburg and Hersheypark in Pennsylvania.

Washington Monument in Washington, D.C.

It's a family of four, with 13-year-old boys, and she's aiming for a budget of $5,000.

So let's put together some specifics, shall we? Here's the format for vacation makeovers: I start with a tentative itinerary, then throw it open to you in the comments to suggest your additions and improvements. Think something I've suggested won't work? Suggest a better plan. Live in the area and got a great tip? Share it in the comments.

Now then, let's get to it:

Anyone planning a trip to D.C. must start by contacting one of their members of Congress. Some tours, such as the White House, must be arranged through a member of Congress, and Congressional staff can make many other reservations for you, saving you time and getting you better access to some sites than you could get on your own.

Which member of Congress to contact? Your choices are your two Senators and your Representative. Ideally, you want to pick the Democrat with the most seniority. Seniority, as well as being a member of the party in power, brings connections and perks in Washington, so you might as well put them to your advantage. You can make contact with your Representative through www.house.gov and your Senators through www.senate.gov. Each one has a staff member assigned to helping constituents who are visiting D.C., so they'll know what to do when you ask.

How to get to D.C.? You want to leave on a Saturday, and I found round-trip airfare between Seattle-Tacoma airport and Reagan National in Washington, D.C. for under $250 (with taxes) on Frontier, with a connection through Denver.

With the extended trip through Pennsylvania on the itinerary, you'll be needing a rental car, but we're not going to get it right away. Washington's got a great, clean, efficient subway system and finding affordable convenient parking in the district is nasty. So we'll going to wait on picking up the car until you're to ready to hit the road to Philly.

But without a car, you'll need to stay at a hotel within easy walking distance of a Metro stop. The Holiday Inn Rosslyn at Key Bridge is located next door to the Rosslyn station on Metro's Orange and Blue lines. And the rate of $158 per night shouldn't break the budget. You can wheel your carry-on bags to the Metro stop at Reagan National and take the Blue line to your hotel.

You are taking carry-ons only, right? Don't worry about packing toiletries. You can pick some up either at the hotel or one of the stores in the area on the evening of your arrival. That's cheaper than paying the bag fees on the airlines. Plus, you won't want to be hauling around more than four bags on the roadtrip leg of this trip, either.

I visited D.C. this summer and my second piece of advice (after the Metro) would be to not plan too much into each day. The temptation is to treat D.C. like a theme park, and pack many attractions into each day. You can't - well, not without feeling cranky, spent and frustrated by the end of the day. Pick one or two destinations each day, and explore those fully. You can't hope to see all of D.C. in a single trip, so don't try. But you can have a complete experience at a few, selected sites.

The next day, take the Blue line one stop to Arlington National Cemetery, where you can walk the grounds, visit many famous grave sites, including the Tomb of the Unknowns, and tour the Arlington House (a.k.a. Custis-Lee Mansion).

On Monday, take the Orange line into the District to visit the National Archives and Ford's Theater. The movie National Treasure made the Archives even more of a must-see, so lines are long. Arrive early (the Archives open at 10 am), or pay $1.50 per person and make advance reservations. We waited 90 minutes to get into the archives last August, so I'd definitely recommend the reservations. You'll need advance reservations for Ford's Theater, too.

Tuesday morning's your time for visiting the White House. Do note that you'll have to leave your purses, backpacks and cameras behind when going to the White House. After visiting the White House, stroll down the Mall and check out whichever Smithsonian museum you most want to see. Wherever you go, however, make sure that you have either lunch at the Mitsitam Native Foods Café at the National Museum of the American Indian. This is the best place to eat in D.C., period.

Wednesday, get your rental car from the Enterprise location near your hotel. I found a midsize car for a weekly rate just under $250 from that locaton. You can save about $20 by going back to the airport to pick up the car from Dollar or Thifty, but I don't think that's worth the cost or hassle of making that extra trip.

With your car now packed, it's time to check out and hit the road to Philly.

Diana Day of BeTwinned.com says that the Reading Terminal Market is a must for Philadelphia visitors. ("Try out a cookie at Famous 4th Street Deli. Lots of people like to get cheesesteaks at Jim's at 4th and South (good steaks, but touristy), but I imagine that the cheesesteaks at the Reading Terminal Market will suffice nicely.") There are several hotels in that area, and it's within eight blocks or so to Independence Hall and the core historic area, so let's make that our hotel destination.

Your options under $200/night are the Hampton Inn, on the far side of the Convention Center (away from the market and historic core) for around $140 a night (plus $20/night parking) or the Hilton Garden Inn for $180/night (plus $25/night parking).

Spend Thursday with a visit to Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. (An advance reservation is required for Independence Hall, unless you are Nicolas Cage, of course....)

On Friday, either hang out in the area, or take Diana's suggestion and make the short drive out to Laurel Hill, one of the city's historic cemeteries and gardens. Set along the Schuylkill River, many key folks from Philadelphia's early history are buried there under fabulous and unique tombstones. Diana says that a tour guide is well worth the trouble, and there is also a cell phone tour available.

On Saturday, you'll make the two-hour drive to Gettysburg to visit the historic battlefield and cemetery. You can save a dollar a ticket by buying your park admission and included Cyclorama ticket online. A variety of hotels are in the area for between $100 and $150 for the one night, including a Days Inn and a Courtyard.

Sunday's another travel day, as you drive an hour and a half north to Hershey and Hersheypark.

Hersheypark

It's too early for discounts on tickets and accommodations in the area, so I'd hold off until booking anything until next spring, at the earliest. But right now, the Hershey Lodge is offering a $250 a night rack rate, which will include a one-hour early admission to the park. Hersheypark hasn't set its ticket prices for 2010 yet, but they've run about $50 a person in the past, with discounts available at local groceries and at the hotels.

After you arrive on Sunday, hit up the free Great American Chocolate Tour outside the park. In the evening, Hersheypark's offered free admission during the last two and half hours the park is open to people who hold a ticket for the next day. If that's available in 2010, take advantage to knock off a few popular rides when lines go down at the end of the day.

On Monday, hit the park during early admission and get your rides on the top-rated Lightning Racer and Storm Runner roller coasters, before the rest of the crowd arrives. Since I've not been to Hersheypark before, I'll defer to Theme Park Insider readers for a more detailed tour plan for the park.

Tuesday, it's time to head home. Get up early for the drive back to D.C., where you'll drop you car back at Enterprise, then hop the Metro for the ride back to Reagan National, where you'll board your evening flight back to Seattle.

Airfare, hotels, rental car and admissions will run you about $3,400 for the trip, at today's prices, leaving about $145 a day for food, gas, Metro tickets and souvenirs. You could save $200 by opting for another hotel instead of Hershey Lodge, though you'd lose early admission to Hersheypark. I'd simply hold off on booking the Hershey part of the trip until later, to see what deals develop there.

Other cost saving tips? I recommend splitting all meals while on the road. You'll save money, and calories. Remember, you can't take home doggie bags on vacation, after all. And you can always order more, if anyone's really still hungry.

Readers, it's your turn. Wanna fill in the holes? Got a better idea on places to stay or ways to get there? Let's hear your suggestions for this trip, in the comments.

Want to have your vacation plans made over? E-mail Theme Park Insider editor Robert Niles at themeparkinsider - at - gmail.com with where you want to go, when, a budget and how many people are traveling.

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Save the date: Best Theme Park Attraction in America tournament details coming soon....

By Robert Niles
Published: November 23, 2009 at 4:27 PM

Mark your calendars: On Dec. 14, I'll be announcing details of the 2010 Best Attraction in America tournament.

That's right; it's the best "attraction" in America this year, instead of simply the best "ride" as it has been for the tournament's first two years. We're opening the competition to the very best shows that play at the nation's top theme parks.

I hope that folks will approve of the other changes that will be coming in this year's tournament, too. Why the early announcement? Well, that will make sense on the 14th, as well.

Details, as I said, to come.... ;-)

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Universal rung up for $3K+ over Dueling Dragons collision

By Robert Niles
Published: November 23, 2009 at 4:16 PM

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration levied a piddling fine on Universal Orlando today for a "serious" safety violation that resulted in the injury of a park employee last July.

The worker was struck by a roller coaster train on the Dueling Dragons rideat Universal's Islands of Adventure when conducting a routine inspection before the park opened for the day. Coaster trains come within a few feet from the ground in those areas, making walking through them unsafe while the coaster is in operation.

The agency ordered Universal to install additional fencing around any area under the tracks where coaster trains come within seven feet of the ground. The fences must be in place by Dec. 24. The ride is currently soon to go [corrected - see comments] down for rehab and retheming and will reopen in the spring as the Dragon Challenge in the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter land.

Universal will pay just $3,750 for the violation, which sent the worker to the hospital. Universal negotiated the fine down from the agency's proposed $5,000. Hmmm... neither my wife nor I have ever been able to get a government agency to negotiate fines for traffic or parking tickets before. Funny how that works, isn't it?

I haven't heard what happened to the employee, either, and would appreciate any tips from Universal insiders who care to comment or e-mail. Obviously, we hope that there was a full recovery, but we would like to know, regardless.

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Christmas gifts for theme park fans: 'The Imagineering Way'

By Robert Niles
Published: November 23, 2009 at 12:08 PM

imagineering-way.jpg During the Disney Legends panel I covered at the IAAPA Attractions Expo last week, former Disney Imagineering President Marty Sklar quoted a few words from the book, The Imagineering Way, a collection of essays from theme park designers at the Walt Disney Company.

(I noticed that Sklar's copy of the book included what looked like several dozen green stickies marking various pages on the book, so, clearly, it contained much that Sklar thought worth sharing with the audience, even if he didn't get to every note.)

I mention this book as a potential holiday gift for theme parks fans also because Amazon is offering the paperback version for the stocking-stuffer-cheap price of $1.84. As of this writing, only a few copies appears to be left at that price, so click quickly if you're interested.

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Theme park cast member stories: Working Thanksgiving at the Magic Kingdom

By Robert Niles
Published: November 23, 2009 at 11:02 AM

Folks typically want to spend their Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays with family. The pull toward family on these holidays is so strong that many business that otherwise open each day of the year close for one, or both, of these holidays.

Theme parks provide an exception. Indeed, Thanksgiving and Christmas bring some of the year's larger crowds to year-'round theme parks at Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and Disneyland. That creates a bit of a dilemma for theme park employees:

Take the day off and stay home with family... or come into work and pick up hours and hours of overtime?

As a single guy in his early 20s when I worked at Walt Disney World, I had no trouble with that decision - show me the money, baby!

While the promise of extra cash lured me into working my first holiday shift, the experience kept me coming back. Ultimately, family holidays mark a celebration of community. And isn't working in a crowded theme park an ultimate communal experience?

I found working the Thanksgiving holiday especially interesting. Unlike Christmas, which is celebrated around the world, the late November Thanksgiving is an American holiday and brings an almost exclusively American crowd to the parks.

When I worked Thanksgiving at the Magic Kingdom, that meant that even though we'd set up extended queues, they were filled with people who...

  • were used to a culture of queueing,
  • who knew English, so they could understand our instructions,
  • and who were celebrating a family holiday, so they were in a positive, cooperative mood.

Okay, if Disney were like that every day, the experience of working there would end up as bland as the taste of grocery-bought turkey breast. But for one day a year, it put into sharp contrast the blend of visitors' cultures and languages you can come to take for granted working at an international tourist destination.

Nor can I stress enough the great vibe the crowd generates on a community-focused holiday, whether it be Thanksgiving, Christmas or even Halloween. The one Thanksgiving I worked at Big Thunder Mountain, we put through the highest hourly guest counts I'd ever seen. The queues flew and we suffered no downtimes all day. Even with the extended queues set up, I don't think anyone waited more than 45 minutes to ride.

Cool weather and clear skies helped keep the crowd happy and attentive, as well. The forecast in Orlando for this Thanksgiving weekend is partly cloudy skies with highs ranging from the upper-60s to mid-70s. Just gorgeous. With typically great weather and friendly crowds, I recommend that if you have to visit a theme park on a crowded holiday, pick Thanksgiving.

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New HD video of Cedar Point's Millennium Force

By Robert Niles
Published: November 20, 2009 at 11:00 AM

Cedar Point has released its official, high definition, point-of-view video of its Intamin Giga roller coaster, Millennium Force:

Update: I just updated the Raptor and Top Thrill Dragster pages with new POV videos from Cedar Point.

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Vote of the week: Holiday traditions and cranberry sauce

By Robert Niles
Published: November 20, 2009 at 10:30 AM

Next week brings the Thanksgiving holiday to the United States. More than any other time of year, it seems, the holiday period between Thanksgiving and New Year's causes people to fall back into family and personal traditions.

One tradition now seems to be jumping the gun. Most theme parks that remain open for the holiday season already have put up their Christmas trees and holiday lights. But no one seems to mind. Crowds pack the parks during the holiday season, encouraging some regional parks to reopen for these weeks, such as Busch Gardens Williamsburg, which will run its Christmastown event this season.

Individuals have their traditions, too. One for me is a particular reader vote that I run every year on the Friday before Thanksgiving. (Long-time readers will recognize it, I am sure.) This tradition is so old that, this year, it has outlived the publication where I began it. Denver's Rocky Mountain News, on whose website I worked in the late 1990s, folded last winter. (If you hail from the Denver area and are missing the more popular Thanksgiving tradition from that newspaper, here's a link to Gene Amole's stuffing recipe.)

So here it is:

From a can, or from the stove top? You tell me, in the comments.

By the way, notice something missing from this picture?

Turkey dinner at Holiday World

Consider this an escalation of my campaign to persuade Holiday World to add cranberry sauce to the turkey meals at Plymouth Rock Cafe. Whether you prefer cranberries from the can or the bag, I hope you'll agree that cranberry sauce makes a great addition to a Thanksgiving meal.

Have a great weekend, and I'm thankful for you reading Theme Park Insider!

Update: Holiday World tweets: "Sorry, dear, you're in the minority on that one. Haven't offered cranberry sauce since '07. Just didn't move. Happy Thanksgiving!"

Nooooo! I need a black-market source for cranberry sauce next time I'm in Santa Claus, then. Help!

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Disney Legends recall Walt Disney and the 'Yes, if....' way of management

By Robert Niles
Published: November 19, 2009 at 4:53 PM

LAS VEGAS - Walt Disney didn't create or build the theme park industry, contrary to what some folks have claimed over the years. What he did, veteran attraction designer Bob Rogers said, was to create and manage the team that built the theme park industry.

With that, Rogers introduced a panel of five Disney legends who were part of that team: Sculptor Blaine Gibson, Engineer Bob Gurr, Consultant Harrison "Buzz" Price, Composer Richard Sherman and Imagineer Marty Sklar.

Disney legends
From left, Marty Sklar, Blaine Gibson, Bob Gurr, Richard Sherman, Buzz Price and Bob Rogers

Combined, these five men possess more than a quarter millennium of experience and wisdom in the theme park industry, Rogers said. Rogers, founder and CEO of BRC Imagination Arts and a former THEA Lifetime Achievement Award winner, brought together these colleagues of Walt Disney at the 2009 IAAPA Attractions Expo to talk about what made Walt's management style so effective, and what today's managers might learn from the way Walt did it.

Working with Walt, Gurr said, "you're going to leave the room more inspired than when you came in it. To me, that's leadership."

Walt hated negativity, Sherman added. He was a very positive man who focused on making improvements, rather than laying blame. Sherman told of one Disney co-worker who criticized a gag in a film the group was working on.

Walt erupted.

"'I don't care if you don't like it,' Walt said. 'Tell me what we can do to make it better'," Sherman recalled.

What an amazing statement. I've worked for my share of graduates of the Marquis de Sade School of Management. (I'm sure that some of you have, too.) These sadists seem to think that managing demands laying blame for every slip-up or missed opportunity - as if the threat of criticism alone will inspire employees to work better.

Walt found a way to push improvement without laying blame. Take a look at what he said - he's not glossing over a problem with the gag. He implicitly acknowledges it could be better. But rather than indulge an employee's criticism of another worker, he demands a positive, forward-thinking attitude - "what we can do to make it better."

All the panelists told stories about how Walt kept employees engaged and contributing by not shooting down suggestions, but instead steering employees toward improving their ideas.

Price described Walt's approach to suggestions as the difference between responding "'Yes, if...' or 'No, because...'."

Harrison 'Buzz' Price
Harrison 'Buzz' Price

Nor did Walt offer his employees empty praise.

"There were no 'attaboys' from Walt," Gurr said.

"All we ever heard was "'Hmm. That'll work'," Sherman said.

But that didn't mean Walt couldn't be effusive with praise. He'd walk down the hall and gush about an employee's ideas to co-workers, who'd then head back up the hall to see what that employee was doing and to congratulate him, Gurr said.

"You had to get [praise] second-hand," Gurr said. "That way, no one got a puffy head."

"He knew how to use one employee's word to stimulate another," Gibson added.

"Walt was the greatest casting director who ever lived," Sklar said. "He knew not to pigeon-hole anyone. You never know what you might find when you give someone an opportunity."

Marty Sklar, left, and Blaine Gibson
Marty Sklar, left, and Blaine Gibson

Indeed, Sklar joined the company as a UCLA journalism student in 1955, hired to write a tabloid newspaper for Main Street U.S.A. He went on to write for Walt for 10 years, and eventually ended up as president of Walt Disney Imagineering. Gibson joined the movie studio as an animator and ended up as the lead sculptor for WDI. Bob Gurr holds a degree not in engineering, but in design.

"Bob never engineered anything... except everything at Disneyland," Sklar quipped.

To drive home the point, Rogers turned to the audience and asked for a show of hands: "Think back to what you studied in school. Now, how many of you are doing something fundamentally different?"

The majority of the audience raised their hands.

The key to sticking with Walt was never to tell him 'no,' but instead find a way to rise to the challenges that he gave you, Sherman said.

Gurr told about being hired to design the shells of Disneyland's Autopia cars, then being asked by Walt to design the rest of the cars, too. When the ride opened, it ran 40 cars. By the end of its first week, only two still worked, Gurr said.

"That was a pretty good invitation that you needed to learn more," Gurr said of his experience. He said that Walt asked him what he needed to make the cars work more reliably.

"Well, a couple of mechanics to work here and keep the cars repaired," Gurr replied. Within hours, workers showed up at the Autopia site to build a garage.

"Walt could see a need and fix it," Gurr said. "But he didn't criticize the situation you found yourself in."

"Enthusiasm was one of [Walt's] greatest assets in teaching," Gibson said.

Ultimately, that enthusiasm paid off.

"One thing that [Walt] never let is forget was it is all about the audience," Sklar said. "Do something that people would like."

Something theme park audiences have loved over the years has been the music of the Sherman Brothers. Richard Sherman closed the session by spending 10 minutes on the piano, recalling the circumstances under which he and his brother wrote some of the Disney theme parks' most beloved music, including "In the Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room," "There's a Great, Big Beautiful Tomorrow" and, of course, "It's a Small World."

Richard Sherman
Richard Sherman

My audio recording of Sherman's performance is available at this link.

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From the show floor at the 2009 IAAPA Attractions Expo

By Robert Niles
Published: November 18, 2009 at 3:34 PM

LAS VEGAS - [*Updated throughout with photos and additional detail.] Scenes from the 2009 IAAPA Attractions Expo:

  • I bumped into Six Flags CEO Mark Shapiro this morning, and he's trying to manage expectations for Magic Mountain's new roller coaster. We've known it will be a family coaster, bur Shapiro said to think even smaller than that.

    Terminator Jr., anyone?

  • Six Flags' bigger news, which I didn't get to ask Shapiro about, is that the chain will install an attraction from 5D International in Spring 2011. No word yet on which park, but I talked with the folks at 5D and the tech seems impressive. (Think 4D show inside a ride.)

  • If you're mourning the loss of Big Bad Wolf and other suspended coasters, keep your eyes open for the new Free Fly Coaster from S&S. It's two four-seat verticle benches, swinging freely on either side of a coaster track. It reminds me of a milder version of X2, with a suspended coaster feel.

    A prototype ran this summer in Sweden, and an S&S rep boasted that it didn't suffer any downtime. Yet she said that while several US parks have expressed interest, the economy seems to be stronger in Europe, prompting more serious interest there.

  • The Gravity Group was showing off its new Timberliner train cars, which will be installed on The Voyage at Holiday World this spring.

  • If you're going to ride a kiddie car ride, why not ride in style?

    Chance Morgan was showing off this Ferrari ride vehicle, which will be features at the new Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi next year. Middle Eastern parks are a bit beyond my radar, but Arthur Levine has been keeping track of what will be in the new park.

  • Mack has blended the Splash Battle and the classic Teacup spinner in its new Twist 'N' Splash shoot-'em-up soaker:

  • Finally, because I knew someone would ask, here is the Bolliger & Mabillard booth. Not much action in the coaster leader's exhibit this year, but they did bring along a B&M Mega coaster car:

    Later today, I will post a write-up of the afternoon session with five Disney theme park legends: Blaine Gibson, Bob Gurr, Harrison "Buzz" Price, Richard Sherman and Marty Sklar.

  • The IAAPA Attractions Expo isn't held for theme park fans. It's an industry gig, where you can find vendors hawking everything from greaseless frying machines to light-up cotton candy cones.

    Need thatching for a tiki hut? Non-skid surface material for walkways or rubbery pebble material for playgrounds? Tons and tons of carnival prize plush, at low wholesale prices? Someone on the IAAPA show floor can hook you up.

    I enjoyed checking out the new trends in food options. Based on what I saw on the floor, look for crepes to make a bigger presence in theme parks in the year ahead. I also was intrigued by potato chips on a stick.

    But the wildest food exhibit has to be one that Bob Rogers tipped to me: A vendor who combined a restaurant lobster tank with a carnival "claw" prize game. For $2 a pull, you can try to extract a live lobster from the tank.

    One one hand... ewww. On the other, how did it take someone this long to combine those concepts?

    Yeah, that's the IAAPA show floor.

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    Disney's Victoria & Albert's awarded AAA's 5 Diamond rating 10th year in a row

    By Scott Joseph
    Published: November 18, 2009 at 12:30 PM

    Walt Disney World's Victoria & Albert's restaurant has been awarded AAA's coveted 5 Diamond rating for the 10th consecutive year. Only 52 restaurants out of 60,000 rated in North America achieve the ultimate rating. Read more about the guidelines at http://tinyurl.com/yfnb3bc

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    On the road to Las Vegas

    By Robert Niles
    Published: November 18, 2009 at 6:57 AM

    I am on the road to Las Vegas this morning, for the annual IAAPA Attractions Expo. I'll be posting to Twitter while I am there, as well as trying to make a couple posts here to the Blog Flume.

    A full write-up will follow here on the Flume, either later tonight or tomorrow (depending upon when I get back in LA).

    Have a great day, and... Vegas, baby, Vegas!

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    Christmas gifts for theme park fans: 'Buzz' Price's memoir about the founders of the theme park industry

    By Robert Niles
    Published: November 17, 2009 at 3:54 PM

    If someone you know has any interest in the topic of how the world's top theme parks came to be, you've got to get them this book - Walt's Revolution!: By the Numbers by Harrison "Buzz" Price. I was given a copy of this book last year by Buzz's friend Bob Rogers, and couldn't put it down once I started.

    Walt's Revolution!: By the Numbers I wrote a bit about this book earlier this month in a post about Walt Disney's Mineral King ski resort, which the company abandoned after Walt's death. Price was the consultant who helped select the site for Mineral King, as well as for Disneyland, Walt Disney World and many other popular theme parks.

    Yeah, I'm a stats geek in addition to being a theme park fan. So I found fascinating Buzz's look into the numbers behind the decisions to build and expand theme parks. Although there's a fair amount of data in the book, at its heart, it is a personal story, with dozens of vignettes about working with Walt, as well as with SeaWorld's George Millay, Six Flags' Angus Wynne and Universal's Lew Wasserman.

    The book's not easy to find - generally unavailable in bookstore. But it is on Amazon from several resellers. I can't recommend it enough.

    On a related note, tomorrow I will be at the IAAPA [International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions] Expo in Las Vegas. (Industry insiders, if you're there and see me, please say hi!) During the day, I'm planning on attending what sounds like a dream panel with Bob and Buzz, as well as Disney's Marty Sklar and Richard Sherman. I'll post updates throughout the day to Theme Park Insider's Twitter feed, then post a write-up here on the Blog Flume.

    So please follow TPI on Twitter if you haven't already and keep reading the Flume for more features from the show.

    Update: Wow, we seem to have pretty much cleared out Amazon's stock of the book, as no new copies appear available under $100. But some used copies remain available, so keep checking the link above. Oh, and here's the link to that IAAPA panel with Price, Marty Sklar, Richard Sherman and other Disney legends.

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    Disney releases video of new Lincoln animatronic

    By Robert Niles
    Published: November 17, 2009 at 12:47 PM

    Disney today released a new promotional video, providing a first look at the most life-like facial expressions yet created for a Disney animatronic. It's the new Abraham Lincoln for the soon-to-reopen Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln at Disneyland.

    The close-up of the new Lincoln's face is at the end of the video. Wow.

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    Is Mickey Mouse a Red Sox fan?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: November 17, 2009 at 10:16 AM

    Or does he just not like A-Rod?

    TH Creative, do you have inside info on Mickey's thoughts on sports? :-)

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    How to save money for your theme park family vacation: An interview with Liz Pulliam Weston

    By Robert Niles
    Published: November 17, 2009 at 8:17 AM

    Guest Q&A: Early November might be the most important time of the year for theme park fans.

    Huh? I hear you asking. Most parks are closed for the winter. Even the year-round parks are having their lowest attendance of the year. Most parks already have announced their new ride for the 2010. How can this time of year be so important?

    Liz Pulliam WestonBecause it is the time of year that can make or break your financial ability to go on the theme park vacation you want next year. Spend foolishly now, and holiday bills will sap your bank account throughout 2010, leaving you unable to afford the vacation you want.

    But save wisely now, and you'll be enjoying a stress-free theme park visit in 2010 - paid for by money in the bank.

    How can you make that happen? I've enlisted the help of the Web's premier personal finance expert, Liz Pulliam Weston, who joins us on Theme Park Insider for our Guest Q&A today.

    I worked with Liz for a short time when we were both at the Los Angeles Times. She, of course, went on to bigger and better things. Today, Liz Pulliam Weston is the Internet's most-read personal finance columnist and the author of "Your Credit Score: Your Money and What's at Stake." You can find her online at MSN as well as on her personal finance blog.

    Robert: We've long advised our readers to save in advance for their vacations, rather than borrowing the money by paying with credit cards. (Cards are okay, especially if you are earning points, but only if you pay the balance immediately.) But *how* should people save? Their regular bank account? A special account? A jar in the kitchen? (Hey, seeing that jar everyday would provide motivation....)

    Liz: Indeed it would, although I’m thinking of that sequence in the movie “Up” where they keep breaking into their jar to pay for life’s various setbacks! Any time you put money aside, you’ll be tempted to spend it, especially if it’s right under your nose.

    So set up the jar for the occasional small family contributions. But also set up an automatic transfer from your checking account to a savings account. I’m a big fan of online banks’ savings accounts. They tend not to have minimum account balances or monthly fees, so your money is left alone to grow. It’s really easy to set up a transfer from your regular checking account, and it’s a little bit “out of sight, out of mind,” since you’re not seeing the balance every time you check your regular bank accounts.

    Robert: What are a few, relatively simple things that readers can do to save a few extra bucks each day, money that they can then save for a vacation, or whatever other goals we have?

    Liz: There are lots of things you can do to trim your budget, including stuff that you might not want to do forever, but you can do for a short time because you know it’s getting you closer to your goal.

    The typical family spends thousands of dollars a year on eating out. Anything you can do to trim that bill will help. We’re all busy, so one of the easy ways to cut the food bill is to make double portions when you cook and freeze the excess for a later meal. Also, shop using the weekly ads. The items featured on the first page are often the store’s loss leaders. Plan your meals around those cheaper items, have one meatless meal a week, pack lunches, snacks and drinks and you’ll save a ton of cash. Sites like CouponMom.com can help alert you to the really big sales and show you which coupons to use to get the maximum discounts.

    You can save a small fortune by giving up a habit. Some are easier to shed than others. If your family drinks a lot of soda, switch to tap water. If you’re a drinker of alcoholic beverages, cut back there. If you’re a smoker, ditto. Keep a picture that represents your vacation on your fridge so you can remind yourself why you’re making this sacrifice.

    Wizarding World of Harry Potter
    What we're saving for in the Niles household....

    Another big money-sucker is your television. Most people pay for cable or satellite and many pay for extras, such as premium channels and movies on demand. But unplugging the tube for a few months can save you money in other ways, since you’re not constantly bombarded with ads that are expertly crafted to make you want to buy more stuff you don’t need.

    Whatever expense you trim, it’s really important that you divert the money you save into your savings account. If you don’t, it will just get spent on something else.

    Robert: What are the biggest rip-offs in travel expenses these days? (Unnecessary fees and charges that too many people end up paying for?) How can we avoid them?

    Liz: We could write a whole book about that, couldn’t we?

    People really get clobbered on fees when they’re not prepared. Some don’t realize that most airlines charge for the first checked bag now. Others don’t weigh their luggage before they go and get smacked with overweight fees. Or they think they can still get a drink or a snack on the plane, not realizing they could blow their whole food budget for the day before they ever get to their destination.

    My advice these days is to expect to pay for everything (except maybe to use the bathroom, although that may change). Make sure you bring your own meals, snacks, entertainment system and headphones. These items are helpful for any mode of travel, but especially airplanes, which charge for almost everything that used to be free.

    And prepare for the worst. I always stash a few Zone bars in my purse and carryon, in addition to whatever food we’re carrying, in case the trip takes longer than we think. If you’ve got a baby, bring four times the number of diapers you think you’ll need. Just think about those folks trapped on airport tarmacs for 9 hours.

    The rental car counter is the place where some of the most outrageous fleecing takes place. You can’t do much about the various taxes they pile on (although it’s awful that visitors get tapped to pay for facilities that benefit locals far more, such as stadiums). But if you have a gold or platinum credit card and decent auto insurance, you can waive the add-on insurance. The up-sell can be relentless at the counter, so try to figure out in advance what you need for your trip and resist the efforts to get you to spend more.

    Robert: Okay, the flip side: Are there any seemingly extra expenses associated with vacations that many people skip but really shouldn't?

    Liz: The whole flying experience has become so grim that sometimes it’s worth paying a few fees to have a better experience. If you’re traveling with family, for example, pay to check your bags. It’s so much better than trying to drag everything through security and then find space on the plane.

    Because I travel a lot, I also think it’s worth investing in a pass to an airport lounge. I can use it to get business stuff done when I’m traveling on my own and it provides a little sanctuary when traveling with my family.

    I’d also budget for at least one meal out a day, even if you’re making food the rest of the time in your room. Chances are it’s Mom making all those meals, and she could use a break.

    Robert: What's the better "bang for the buck"? A single, big vacation during the year, or several, shorter "mini vacations"?

    Liz: I’m a big fan of little get-aways, because coordinating more time off is tough with our family schedule. But we still try to get in one longer vacation at least once a year. You need more time to really get relaxed. And I think we should try for one really “big” trip—either a foreign locale or a trip that takes more than two weeks—every few years if we possibly can. Those big trips create lasting memories and can give you a whole new perspective on your life.

    Robert: Is there any difference between using a credit card or a debit card on vacation? If so, which should vacationers use?

    Liz: The only time I pull out a debit card on vacation is to use it at a bank ATM to get cash for tips and taxis. Everything else goes on the credit card.

    A debit card helps keep you from overspending, but it’s tied directly to your checking account. If a bad guy gets hold of the card or the number, your account can be drained in seconds, and it can take days if not weeks to get the money back.

    That’s a huge contrast to a credit card. If your credit card is compromised, you don’t have to pay the charges. You’re issued a new card and life goes on.

    Also, the credit card serves as a middleman if there are any problems or disputes with what you buy on the card. Things can go wrong on vacation and I like that extra layer of security knowing I have a “court of appeals” if I don’t get what I paid for.

    Robert: How can readers motivate their kids to become savers in advance of a family vacation?

    Liz: The coin jar/piggy bank approach works really well. I think kids should have an allowance as soon as they understand money buys stuff, and we can encourage them to set a portion of that allowance aside for the trip.

    But I’d also encourage them to raise money for their vacations. Have a lemonade stand, walk the neighbor’s dogs, mow lawns, whatever. That gives them experience in being entrepreneurs and shows them that if they want something, they can create the money to get it.

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    Christmas gifts for theme park fans: Funnel cake starter kit

    By Robert Niles
    Published: November 16, 2009 at 1:42 PM

    Every now and then, between now and Christmas, I'll be posting links to cool stuff I see on the Web that might be of interest to theme park fans.

    Hey, if you're like me, and you're someone who goes completely blank when trying to devise a holiday shopping list, maybe these links will help.

    And I'll try to keep the prices reasonable. I mean, who wouldn't love a first-class ticket to Tokyo and a week at Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea? Ain't gonna happen for me, though. :-(

    First up: The Funnel Cake Starter Kit: A handy pitcher with built-in funnel, a fry ring and batter mix. Just supply your own skillet and oil, and you're good to go.

    Funnel cake
    Okay, this is a professionally-made funnel cake. But ya gotta have goals in life.

    Now you can keep in "theme park shape" during those long winter months when you might otherwise eat a vegetable or something.

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    Theme park cast member stories: The castaway kid

    By Robert Niles
    Published: November 16, 2009 at 8:02 AM

    Face it, when you see a supervisor striding toward you, eyes locked on yours, mouth drawn tight - any pleasant thought occupying your brain flees like a third-grader told to clean his room.

    I wondered if I could find a hiding place, too, as the supe bore down toward me. What could I possibly have done? I was working a parade audience control shift at the Magic Kingdom, for heaven's sake. And the parade wasn't starting for another hour. We hadn't even rolled out the route yet - I was just killing time pretending to keep people from mobbing the turkey leg stand.

    "We need you on the rafts, Robert."

    Tom Sawyer Island rafts
    Bringing a load of guests back from Tom Sawyer Island

    What? Tom Sawyer Island closed nearly half an hour ago. I could see the mainland and maintenance docks - all four rafts are tied up and shut down for the night. Why on Earth would we need a TSI raft for now? To film the back of the crowd during the parade?

    I followed the supe down the exit path toward the TSI dock. Ahead, flying in from 9 o'clock, I saw two security guards, the area supervisor and, gulp!, the park duty manager all closing in.

    Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot? I'd never seen this many high-level managers without Diamond Horseshoe girls present. And everyone was walking waaaay too fast for this to be good news, whatever it is.

    What was up?

    I turned my head, to look back across the water, and I saw him. Not more than 10 years old, maybe 8 or 9 - a boy, standing on the TSI dock.

    The island-side dock.

    It's really happened! We'd always talked about it, those of us who worked the island. But I'd dismissed it as an urban legend, something that never actually occurred.

    Did you hear about the kid who got left on the island, after it closed for the night?

    This kid had done it. With an effort that Tom Sawyer himself surely would have approved of, he'd evaded the security guards who sweep the island each evening at dusk. Somehow, he'd found a way to hide, to stay the night on Tom Sawyer Island.

    This boy was my hero. The suits kept grim expressions on their faces as I cast off to drive them across the river and pick up our castaway. But my face held a smile as wide as the river itself. Well played, Tom Jr.

    I steered the raft along a wide left turn toward the island-side dock, drawing close enough to make eye contact with Tom Jr. for the first time. My smile melted immediately when I saw the fear choking his attempts at breath. Scared, exhausted, this kid didn't care about paying homage to Tom and Huck. He wasn't playing a game. He wanted off this island. Now. The supe hollered at him to stay put when it looked like he might jump from the dock onto the raft, as soon as we sailed near.

    I tied up quickly, as the child dashed onto the raft. Safe now; breath came, fueling the sobs he finally could let free. A cast member working a souvenir stand across the river had seen the boy waving for help. With five minutes, managers across the park had been notified, with one charged to find the nearest available raft driver. Which just had happened to be me.

    The boy had seen the security guard on his closing rounds and had thought it fun to try to hide. He hadn't thought past that.

    He'd run around the island, looking for the bridge or pathway back to the parade route, where he was supposed to meet his family. Alone, with no way off the island, he'd returned to the dock and started yelling for help.

    As I drove back toward the mainland, more slowly this time, the color returned to the boy's face. Just as it drained from the face of the security supervisor who was taking the report. His guy had blown it - calling the island clear, when it wasn't. And hours of paperwork, and a certain reprimand, would be the price.

    We reached the dock and my eyes caught the boy's again. The smile returned to my face as I tried to tell him, with only a look, that everything was now all right. Hey, maybe, months or years from now, when the fear no longer hurt so much, he'd have a cool story to tell.

    Did you hear about the kid who got left on the island, after it closed for the night?

    More: Robert's cast member stories archive.

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    Vote of the week: Was Jay Rasulo a success or failure at the Disney theme parks?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: November 13, 2009 at 8:55 AM

    Following yesterday's news that Thomas Staggs would replace Jay Rasulo as head of the Walt Disney Company's theme parks, it's time to evaluate the job that Jay did during his time. (Rasulo will take Staggs' old job as Disney's Chief Financial Officer, so he's not leaving the company.)

    Ultimately, this is a question about how the Disney theme parks, overall, did over the past four years. I see three criteria:

    Financial performance: Did the theme parks make money for their corporate parent, and its shareholders?

    Market share: Did the parks provide enough value - entertainment and customer service at a fair price - to keep and win over a growing number of visitors?

    Creativity: Theme parks are, ultimately, a performing art. Did the Walt Disney theme parks serve and advance that art over the past four years? Yes, that's ultimately Imagineering's responsibility, but as Imagineering's "customer," if you will, Rasulo ultimately determined what Imagineering would be enabled to do in the parks. Remember as well, we're judging Rasulo's tenure as much for what as ordered as what was installed under his watch.

    You might have your own criteria - ignoring some of mine, or adding others. Regardless, please tell us in the comments why you voted the way you did.

    And, yes, I'm pushing the leaners here. No wishy, washy, "well, he was okay in this, but not in that" answers. Success or failure. You tell us.

    Have a great weekend, and thanks again for reading Theme Park Insider!

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    Reminder: Submit your travel plans for a vacation makeover

    By Robert Niles
    Published: November 12, 2009 at 10:51 PM

    Just a reminder that we are looking for readers who would like their 2010 vacation plans to get a Theme Park Insider Vacation Makeover.

    E-mail me what you'd like to do, and how much you're able to spend, and we'll put vacation experts on the case, finding you a fresh itinerary that fits your budget and will wow your family. Then we'll turn it over to Theme Park Insider readers to add their feedback, further polishing your vacation plans.

    Even if you don't think you'll be able to afford a vacation in 2010, send us an e-mail anyway. You might be surprised to find what is affordable, with a little expert advice.

    Also, I'm looking for more experts to help me with the makeovers. If you're an industry pro, or even a customer with years of expertise in a particular destination, please get in touch. This is a great way to get a link and a mention of your business, website or service, if you're a travel pro. (E-mail is themeparkinsider @ gmail.com.)

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    Revenue, guest spending down at Walt Disney theme parks

    By Robert Niles
    Published: November 12, 2009 at 3:13 PM

    The Walt Disney Company has released its financial results for the past quarter and fiscal year. Overall, the numbers are a bit grim:
    • Annual revenue: $10.67 billion in the 12-month period ending Oct. 3, 2009, down from $11.50 billion in year ending Sept. 27, 2008.
    • Quarterly revenue: $2.84 billion in the three months ending Oct. 3, 2009, down from $2.97 billion in the same period in 2008.

    Here is the section on theme park performance from Disney's earnings report:

    Parks and Resorts revenues for the year decreased 7% to $10.7 billion and segment operating income decreased 25% to $1.4 billion. For the quarter, revenues decreased 4% to $2.8 billion and segment operating income decreased 17% to $344 million. Results for the year and quarter reflected decreases at our domestic operations and at Disneyland Paris.

    For the year, lower operating income at our domestic operations was driven by decreased guest spending, principally at our domestic parks and resorts, and lower gains on securitized sales of ownership interests at Disney Vacation Club, partially offset by lower costs at Walt Disney World Resort.

    Decreased guest spending at the domestic parks and resorts was due to lower average ticket prices, lower average daily hotel room rates and decreased merchandise spending. Lower costs at Walt Disney World Resort reflected savings from cost mitigation activities, partially offset by labor and other cost inflation.

    The decrease at Disneyland Paris was due to decreased guest spending and lower hotel occupancy, partially offset by lower costs. Decreased guest spending reflected lower average ticket prices, decreased merchandise spending and lower average daily hotel room rates. Lower costs were driven by savings from cost mitigation activities, partially offset by labor and other cost inflation.

    For the quarter, lower operating income at our domestic operations reflected decreased guest spending and increased costs, partially offset by higher attendance, which was driven by the benefit of the additional week of operations, and increased revenue recognition at Disney Vacation Club in connection with the completion of vacation club properties. Decreased guest spending was due to lower average ticket prices, decreased merchandise, food and beverage spending and lower average daily hotel room rates. Higher costs reflected the additional week of operations in the current quarter and labor and other cost inflation, partially offset by cost mitigation activities.

    Lower operating income at Disneyland Paris reflected decreased guest spending due to lower average ticket prices and lower average daily hotel room rates, partially offset by lower costs driven by cost mitigation activities and a favorable claim settlement.

    Interesting that attendance is trending up (see, everyone, discounts and heavy advertising do work!) - that's a troublesome development for Disney's competition. While the Mouse's income might be down, it is building market share and keeping people in the habit of visiting Disney theme parks.

    So guess at which theme parks those people will be spending their money once they've got a bit more in their wallets?

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    Rasulo out as Disney theme parks chief; Staggs to replace

    By Robert Niles
    Published: November 12, 2009 at 11:12 AM

    Jay RasuloHollywood alpha gossip Nikki Finke is reporting that Disney theme parks chairman Jay Rasulo is swapping jobs with Walt Disney Co. chief financial officer Tom Staggs.

    Finke reports in an update that the move is a step in grooming Staggs for the COO post at Disney. Park cynics have said that Rasulo's always seemed more comfortable around spreadsheets than inside the parks, so it's a good switch for him, too. ;-)

    Here's is Disney's corporate bio on Thomas Staggs.

    Reaction? Ultimately, Rasulo's greatest legacy as Disney theme park chairman may have been, simply, that he wasn't Paul Pressler. That was enough to be judged a success. Pressler, Rasulo's predecessor, was reviled for the decline Disneyland suffered under his watch. Disneyland fans started a website to get Pressler promoted anywhere away from Disneyland, but, ironically, he ended up in charge of all the company's theme parks.

    Staggs worked on the Pixar acquisition, which raises questions about how much more closely he might work with John Lasseter, chief creative officer of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios and principal creative advisor at Walt Disney Imagineering. Lasseter is the de facto creative force driving decisions at the Disneyland Resort now, and having someone he's closer to in charge of all Disney theme parks might extend his influence in Orlando and around the world. (That would be a very, very good thing, IMHO.)

    I don't know details how how well Lasseter and Staggs have worked together. But Lasseter and Rasulo weren't known for a close relationship.

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    Just how much money is Busch making from the Busch theme parks?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: November 12, 2009 at 10:57 AM

    Anheuser-Busch InBev, the soon-to-be-former owners of the Busch Gardens and SeaWorld theme parks, reported its third quarter earnings this morning, which prompted me to take another look back at last month's sale of the parks to Blackstone Group.

    Busch Entertainment Corp., the subsidiary which runs the theme parks, reported revenue of $480 million for the third quarter of 2009, and $1.06 billion in revenue for the first nine months of the year. That's down from the same periods last year, but at least the rate of decline seems to be slowing over the past three months.

    SeaWorld Orlando

    Blackstone bought BEC for $2.3 billion last month, also giving Anheuser-Busch InBev up to $400 million in future BEC revenue. But this was not the first time that BEC's parks have been sold.

    Old-timers, like me, might remember that BEC bought the SeaWorld theme parks from textbook publisher Harcourt Brace Jovanovich back in 1990. Busch paid $1.1 billion for six parks then - SeaWorld San Diego, SeaWorld Orlando and SeaWorld San Antonio, as well as the now-closed SeaWorld Ohio, Cypress Gardens and Boardwalk and Baseball, in Haines City Fla.

    Busch sold SeaWorld Ohio for $110 million to Six Flags in 2001. Six Flags combined the park with the old Geauga Lake to form Six Flags Worlds of Adventure. (Six Flags eventually sold the park to Cedar Fair, which closed it, leaving only a water park.) Busch also sold Cypress Gardens for an undisclosed amount in 1995 to a group of company executives. That park changed hands twice more before closing again this year.

    The $1.1 billion that BEC paid HBJ is now worth $1.8 billion, in today's dollars. So Busch really didn't make much on the sale to Blackstone, given that the sale also included the two Busch Gardens theme parks, the Sesame Place park, Discovery Cove and several water parks.

    Contrast that with HBJ, which bought the original three SeaWorld parks (San Diego, Ohio and Orlando) in 1976 - for just $65 million. HBJ came in as a white knight when SeaWorld's original owners and developers were fighting off a proposed $45 million takeover from MCA, the owner of... Universal Studios.

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    More top tips for theme park visitors

    By Robert Niles
    Published: November 12, 2009 at 8:40 AM

    We've got several new tips on our top tips for visiting theme parks page, in case you're not stopping by that page on a regular basis:

    All parks: Never try to make a crying child go on a theme park ride. Vote

    All parks: Never close your eyes when riding a roller coaster. That will just make you dizzier, as your eyes help your sense of balance adjust. Vote

    All parks: Get a bit of motion sickness? Try Ginger Gum! It's natural and tasty, too. (Just don't chew them on rides.) Vote

    All parks: Use parks' free package check services to store what you buy in the park and keep your hands free while you ride. Vote

    All parks: Try ordering items from the kids menu. You will be surprised how full you get and you'll save a lot of money. Vote

    You can vote yes or no on these and other tips for visiting theme parks, as well as read the current Top 20 tips, by clicking over to http://www.themeparkinsider.com/tips. Thanks again for reading Theme Park Insider!

    Comments (2) | Archive Link

    Will an admission tax raise ticket prices at Kings Island next year?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: November 11, 2009 at 10:14 AM

    The Mason, Ohio town council will vote Nov. 23 on enacting an admission tax that would add 3 percent to Kings Island tickets and 5 percent to parking fees at the Cedar Fair-owned amusement park.

    Kings Island

    The council member who is proposing the tax said that it will raise an unspecified number of "millions of dollars" to pay for infrastructure repairs and improvements. The park said that it will depress attendance and cause it to lay off employees and cut back charitable contributions to the community.

    According to the latest TEA/ERA report, Kings Island attracted 3,126,000 visitors in 2008 (2009 data is not yet available). Cedar Fair reported to the SEC that its average guest spent $39.73 per visit in admission, parking, food and merchandise in 2009. Cedar Fair also reported that admissions represented 56 percent of its revenue to date in 2009, so let's take $22 per visit as a very rough estimate of Kings Island's attendance revenue.

    Cedar Fair also reported at 6 percent decline in attendance at its parks in 2009. Using that same figure for Kings Island, that gives the park an estimated 2,938,440 in attendance this year. Multiply that by the $22 per visit, and you've got $64.6 million in admission revenue. Three percent of that is about $1.9 million. Figure about three people per car and a $10 parking fee, and you're looking at about another half-million bucks for the parking tax.

    That's about $2.4 million total from the proposed tax.

    Is it worth it?

    My view is that cities responsible for providing roads, sewers, utilities, security, planning and inspections at and immediately around a theme park absolutely should tax the park and its visitors for those services. If pay for park employees isn't sufficient to cover their basic living expenses and health care, then taxes from the park should help pay for public assistance to those employees as well. Local taxpayers shouldn't have to subsidize the expense of having that park in the community. (If they choose to do so, as an inducement to get a park to locate there, fine, but that's their choice. They shouldn't have to do it, though.)

    At the same time, visitors to the park shouldn't be soaked to cover the costs of a community's other expenses, such as infrastructure elsewhere in the community, schools and public assistance to people not employed by the park. (So, Florida, quit soaking your tourists for basic state expenses and enact your own state income tax.)

    I don't know what the Mason council envisions doing with this money, or how much it currently gets from Kings Island and its visitors. But I thought that some calculations might be helpful in letting the public know just how much money we're talking about here. Thoughts?

    Comments (12) | Archive Link

    Introducing Theme Park Insider's Vacation Makeovers

    By Robert Niles
    Published: November 11, 2009 at 8:53 AM

    Thinking about next year's vacation, and wondering how you're going to be able to make it happen? Worried about getting a great vacation for the amount you'll be able to spend? Tired of the same-old, same-old and looking to do something fresh?

    Let your friends in the Theme Park Insider community help.

    Today, we're starting a new weekly feature - Theme Park Insider Vacation Makeovers. You send us some information about where you are and when you want to go, and we'll respond with tips, itineraries and reviews that will help you have a better vacation, for less money.

    Brian in Utah's Castle Valley
    On our summer roadtrip this year

    Here's how it will work: E-mail your vacation makeover request to me via themeparkinsider @ gmail.com. Here's what I'll need to know:

    • How many of you will be going on the trip and their ages
    • Your hometown (where you'll be starting from)
    • The maximum amount of time you can spend on the trip, and when you want to go (You don't need to have specific dates.)
    • Anything that you must include in the trip (e.g. a visit to Grandma's in Tampa for one night, etc.)
    • Your tastes - What you'd like to do on the trip, and what you've liked on trips in the past
    • How much you estimate you can spend on the trip

    I'll pick one request a week, and enlist some experts to help me devise a great itinerary for your trip that stays within your budget. Then we'll "crowdsource" this, and turn it over to Theme Park Insider readers to offer their suggestions in the comments.

    We'll keep it going each week so long as we have requests.

    So... are you a family of roller coaster and sports fans who'd like advice on planning a summer roadtrip through the Midwest that allows you to see all the best coasters and ballparks? Or Disney World veterans looking for a less expense alternate to how you'd visited Orlando in the past? Maybe you've got some kids in elementary school and you're looking for a low-cost vacation that blends visits to historic sites with a great theme park or two?

    E-mail me your request and we'll get the power of the Theme Park Insider community (with thousands of readers a day, even in this off-season) working to make your 2010 vacation not just possible, but one of the best your family's ever had.

    You don't need to be a registered member of Theme Park Insider to participate. And we can keep your name anonymous if you request. So, please, e-mail your makeover requests to themeparkinsider @ gmail.com!

    Comments (10) | Archive Link

    In honor of Veterans Day....

    By Robert Niles
    Published: November 10, 2009 at 10:07 PM

    In honor of Veterans' Day, here are current theme park discounts and free ticket offers currently available to members of the U.S. military and their families.

    Walt Disney World

    Disney is offering military personnel up to 40% off hotel rooms at the Walt Disney World Resort, through Dec. 23. In addition, active duty personnel may receive a free 5-day park-hopper theme park ticket, also through Dec. 23. You can purchase up to five companion tickets for $99 each.

    The tickets are available with military ID at WDW ticket windows, or through military base ticket office. For more information, and for hotel discounts, visit http://www.disneyworld.com/military.

    Busch Gardens and SeaWorld

    Through 2010, Busch Gardens and SeaWorld parks are offering free one-day admission to military personnel and up to three family members.

    You can pick the tickets with a military ID at park ticket windows, or register in advance at http://www.herosalute.com

    Universal Orlando

    Universal offers military personnel a free two-park unlimited admission ticket, good for six days from its first use. Companion tickets available for $90.

    You can pick up or buy these tickets only at military base ticket offices. They are not available at Universal Orlando parks' front gates. For more information visit the Universal website [link is to a PDF file].

    Comments (2) | Archive Link

    A parents' guide to helping your kids learn to love roller coasters

    By Robert Niles
    Published: November 10, 2009 at 10:04 AM

    As we move into the off season for theme park fans who don't happen to live in Central Florida or Southern California, I'll be writing more pieces about planning for next year's theme park visits and vacations.

    Let's talk to the parents today. How many of you are in this situation? You're a roller coaster fan, but your kids, who are elementary-age, look at roller coasters like they would a live dinosaur - they're awesome, but terrifying enough to fuel parent-waking nightmares for weeks to come.

    Not much of a choice there, eh? Skip your beloved coasters, or welcome the bawling kids into your bed every night at 1 am. How do you get your kids to share your love for roller coasters?

    Roller

    Ultimately, all my advice reduces to one suggestion: patience. Push your kids to try a ride they're not ready for, and you're just asking for a hysterical child who will demand to be taken home right now - no matter that you paid $70 per person for those theme park tickets.

    1) Stay positive

    You can suggest rides, but the ultimate decision to ride must be your child's. Whatever decision they make, it's the right one. If they say no to something, don't try to talk them into it; offer a suggestion. If they say they want to go on a specific ride, work it into the itinerary and tell them what a great idea they had.

    You want the entire visit to become a positive experience. A) It's the best way to ensure that your kids keep wanting to come to theme parks, and B) that's the surest way to ensure that you get your money's worth.

    Remember, the point of the visit is not to bag the largest number of rides - it is to have a good time. And if your kids aren't having a good time, trust me, they will ensure that you aren't, either. If that means letting your third-grader crawl around the kiddie playground, so be it. Fun = value.

    Don't get passive-aggressive, either, overly complimenting older siblings who agree to join you on coasters or thrill rides, while not doing the same for younger kids' choices. The younger kids will read that as criticism of their choices, as they should. And they'll soon be taking you on a side trip into Miseryland.

    On our summer roadtrip, my 12-year-old fell in love with coasters. But my nine-year-old wasn't ready yet. That's fine. He became my go-to critic on 4-D shows (which he loved), as well as my assistant photographer, snapping some great shots that I later used in several TPI reports, while Natalie and I or Natalie and her mother rode the coasters.

    2) Start small

    When you were a kid, theme parks didn't have floorless dive coasters. Or inverted coasters with seven loops. You didn't fall in love with coasters riding those behemoths. And your kids likely won't, either.

    Start smaller. Don't introduce your kids to roller coasters by adding a day at Universal's Islands of Adventure on next Orlando trip. The child who rides Incredible Hulk or Dueling Dragons as his first coaster is a person who will never again utter the phrase "roller coaster" without preceding it with the word "emotional."

    Your kids are keeping a list of everything you make them do which ticks them off. And payback's coming when they hit puberty. :-) No need to add roller coasters to that list.

    Let your kids decide when they are ready for the kiddie coasters, and ride with them without complaint. In fact, praise their bravery each time. Again, stay positive.

    3) Work your way up

    Let your kids see you riding bigger coasters, and having a great time on them. But also let them see you having just as good a time riding on attractions with which they're comfortable.

    When they express interest in riding with you on the bigger rides, be careful which ones you ride with them on first. I steered my daughter along a deliberate procession:

  • First, we moved up in size, going from Junior Coasters like Gadget's Go-Coaster and the Flying Unicorn to larger wooden coasters such as Ghostrider. My idea was to get her used to gradually larger drops and longer rides, without having to worry about inversions or funky cars or track layouts. Ultimately, we moved up to Bolliger & Mabillard hypers, riding Diamondback at Kings Island and Apollo's Chariot at Busch Gardens Williamsburg.

  • Next, I introduced her to inversions, riding the first looping coaster I experienced as a child, Loch Ness Monster at Busch Gardens Williamsburg. It's a great first looping coaster, because it has two loops - one at the beginning of the ride and the second toward the end - and both are over relatively quickly. I prefer a two-loop coaster for a first time "upside down" rider, because the second loop really allows you to build your confidence, while a third might overwhelm many inversion rookies.

  • Finally, it's time to move on to different trains and tracks. After Loch Ness, we rode the now-shuttered Big Bad Wolf, a suspended coaster that introduced Natalie to the idea that roller coasters don't have to be traditional cars sitting atop a track. From there, we moved onto inverted and floorless coasters, with Natalie embracing each new experience along the way. Personally, I'd leave head-scrambling inverted coasters and 4-D coasters for last. (She still hasn't ridden X2 yet.)

    4) Did I mention staying positive?

    Remember, sometimes kids regress, and decided they want to move back down to smaller rides for a while. Again, that's a great idea! Even if you kid decides to bail out at the load platform, after an hour-long wait, stay positive. Sometimes a few minutes watching trains go from the child swap wait area is enough to allow a kid to build up the confidence to go. But if not, that's great, there's plenty of fun stuff to do elsewhere in the park. Look forward toward that, not backward at the hour wait.

    The more positive and comfortable you make kids' days, they more likely they are to catch your love for theme parks... and thrill rides.

  • Comments (11) | Archive Link

    Disney gives its fans a taste of the new Space Mountain at the Magic Kingdom

    By Anthony Murphy
    Published: November 10, 2009 at 10:03 AM

    Disney has released a couple of photos of the almost completed Space Mountain.

    Queue games inside Disney World's Space Mountain
    Image courtesy Disney

    It looks pretty exciting and Disney seems to be putting some games in line to pass the time. Seems like a new pattern and it looks like they are expecting big lines.

    I wonder if this is a start of a new Tomorrowland theme. Its looking a bit more retro than the steampunk-ish version.

    Comments (4) | Archive Link

    Who had November 9, 2009 in the pool?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: November 9, 2009 at 6:07 PM

    New Orleans' proposed Nickelodeon Theme Park is done.

    Nickelodeon today cut off its licensing deal with Southern Star, the park's developer, citing stuff like this.

    Here's more and more previous skepticism from Theme Park Insider readers about the project.

    Open thread: The anticipated Comcast/NBC Universal deal seems to be moving closer toward happening. We'll start another open thread overnight vigil for breaking news about that, or anything else of interest to theme parks fans that might happen before your editor gets his rear out of bed (in California) on Tuesday morning.

    Archive Link

    Ohio official blasts Kings Island over Son of Beast roller coaster

    By Robert Niles
    Published: November 9, 2009 at 4:57 PM

    An Ohio state ride inspector blames Kings Island management for negligent construction and design practices on the park's troubled - and widely panned - Son of Beast roller coaster.

    Son of Beast roller coaster at Kings Island

    The coaster, the first wooden roller coaster to feature an inversion -which was removed in 2007, closed earlier this year following yet another injury accident involving a rider. The ride also closed for the months in 2006 following a busted timber that led to a wreck which sent two dozen people to local hospitals.

    Rick Schmizze of the Ohio Department of Agriculture (which inspects amusement rides in the state) testified in a case brought by one of the injured riders in that 2006 accident. In a videotaped deposition reviewed by a local newspaper, Schmizze detailed a list of failures by the park's managers over the years, including the use of inferior wood and a failure to develop computer models to test load stress on the track and its supports. Those failures led to a structure that swayed too much, loosening bolts even in areas which did not fail in the 2006 accident.

    Son of Beast was built by Roller Coaster Company of Ohio, which then-owner Paramount Parks fired before the ride was completed. Kings Island, along with the rest of the Paramount Parks chain, was sold to Cedar Fair two months before the 2006 wreck. Schmizze testified that he urged Cedar Fair to develop a computer model to test the track and make repairs, but that was not done, to his knowledge.

    When it was open, Son of Beast ranked among the lowest rated attractions in Theme Park Insider's listings, with riders criticizing the coaster for a "rough ride" and "headsplitting" experience. Kings Island's overall rating on Theme Park Insider jumped up significantly when the ride closed, as the negative ratings against Son of Beast were dropped from the voting.

    And yet... Kings Island has not yet confirmed that Son of Beast is closed for good. (Double entendre intended.)

    Comments (13) | Archive Link

    Holiday World will install new trains on The Voyage coaster for 2010

    By Robert Niles
    Published: November 9, 2009 at 4:21 PM

    Holiday World announced today that it will install new Timberliner trains on its top roller coaster, The Voyage, for 2010.

    The Voyage at Holiday World

    From the Santa Claus, Indiana park's press release:

    [Holiday World president Will] Koch says the Timberliner’s wheels are engineered to steer through curves as they move along the coaster track, creating a smoother ride and less wear and tear on the track. The seats are ergonomically designed for greater comfort, including an exclusive seat-suspension design. The padded seats will also accommodate wider-hipped and longer-legged riders.

    Concept art of the new Timberliner trains for Holiday World's The Voyage
    Concept art of the Timberliner trains. Image courtesy Holiday World

    The new trains were designed by The Gravity Group, the Cincinnati design firm that created the coaster. They were tested at the park last spring.

    Comments (5) | Archive Link

    Theme park cast member stories: A white-knuckle ride on Disney's Body Wars

    By Robert Niles
    Published: November 9, 2009 at 12:41 PM

    One of the great perks of working in a theme park is the opportunity to be among the first to ride its new attractions. I took advantage the few times I had that opportunity, starting with the opening of Body Wars in the old Wonders of Life pavilion at Epcot in 1989.

    Body Wars at Epcot

    With so many simulator rides now in theme parks, museums and even shopping malls, it might be hard for some to remember what a big deal they were back in the 1980s. Star Tours debuted at Disneyland in 1987, and it was such an immediate hit that the park stayed open for 60 hours straight to move through the crowds.

    The simulator was the most revolutionary new ride experience for theme parks since the introduction of roller coaster inversions in the 1970s. Body Wars was to be the Orlando area's first simulator ride. (The east coast version of Star Tours would not open at the then-Disney-MGM Studios for another few months.) So of course I switched a shift in order to be at Epcot the first afternoon the ride was open to cast member previews.

    To my delight, I found that Body Wars was, thematically, a souped-up version of my beloved "Adventures Through Inner Space," the long-closed attraction that was my one "must ride" whenever I visited Disneyland as a child. We'd be shrunk down to the size of a blood cell, zipping through the circulation system on our way to save a patient.

    Cool.

    So I walked into the simulator, took the seat in the far back corner, and buckled in.

    Way cool.

    The cabin lights dimmed, and the theater itself began to buck forward.

    Inexplicably way cool.

    And, then, as the theater whipped to the side and we began our chase, my seatbelt unfastened.

    Not cool.

    At that moment, I first understood the origin of the phrase "white knuckle ride." The blood drained from my fingers as I pressed my hands into the armrests, trying to get enough leverage to push my back into the seat as the Body Wars theater treated me like a wet pair of jeans in a dryer spin cycle.

    I tried to refasten the belt, but though better when the ride whipped to the side as I began take my hand off the armrest. Nope, I'd have to hold on for this flight.

    And, remember, I'd never been on a simulator ride before. Today, if the same thing were to happen, I'd know how the ride would behave and better be able to react. But then, I had no clue.

    Pitch. Yaw. Roll.

    Clutch. Press. Pray.

    Later, once I was safely off the ride and the nausea finally had gone away, I learned that the back corner seats typically get the widest range of motion on simulator rides. (If you're a newbie and want to take it easy, try to get a seat in the middle of the theater. And, oh yeah, they fixed the thing with the seatbelts.) A maintenance tech also later told me that Body Wars ran on its highest motion levels those first couple days of cast member testing, and that Disney dialed down the range of motion substantially before the ride opened to the public.

    I don't know if he was feeding me a line. But I do know that I've never has as much of a thrill on a simulator attraction as I did on that very first ride, on Body Wars.

    Check the archive of Robert's stories about working at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. Or, tell us about your experience as a theme park guinea pig, in the comments!

    Comments (9) | Archive Link

    Vote of the week: Will you be visiting a theme park for the holidays?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: November 6, 2009 at 12:05 PM

    Now that Halloween's over for another year, the nation's top theme parks are turning their attention toward Christmas.

    Osborne Family Christmas Lights at Disney's Hollywood Studios

    Sure, the year-round parks will enjoy a crush of visitors around Thanksgiving weekend, and parks near college bowl games will stay filled through New Year's, but Christmas provides the focus for the next two months at the nation's top theme parks.

    But will you be going?

    That's the question that parks are wondering now, and the we are asking in this week's vote. The industry's financial performance this year has been dismal, matching much of the rest of the economy, and park managers fear that even if visitors do show up, they won't spend like in years past.

    So what are your holiday travel plans? Tell us the details in the comments, please. Will you be visiting a theme park between now and New Year's? If you won't, why not? If you will, where will you be going and how will your trip compare with previous years'?

    Thanks, again, for reading Theme Park Insider, and have a great weekend!

    Comments (22) | Archive Link

    Why Disneyland's Enchanted Tiki Room is the best animatronic show ever made

    By Robert Niles
    Published: November 6, 2009 at 10:54 AM

    As gentle as the Hawaiian air, and refreshing like a trip to Ka'anapali Beach, Disneyland's Enchanted Tiki Room was the first Audio-Animatronic show ever built, debuting in 1961. Nearly 50 years later, it remains the best, a under-rated attraction that plays to the strength of the animatronic medium.

    Jose and the singing flowers in Disneyland's Enchanted Tiki Room

    The Tiki Room gets a bad rap from folks who want their theme parks to provide all action, all the time. Disney did tweak the show many years back, removing an Offenbach number that, frankly, did burden the show's pace. A poorly-received revamp of the show at Walt Disney World further hurt the Tiki Room's reputation.

    But at Disneyland, when properly maintained and without the Offenbach slowing it, the Enchanted Tiki Room shines.

    The Tiki Room's Birdmobile

    Unlike later animatronic shows such as the Country Bear Jamboree and the Hall of Presidents, the Tiki Room plays in an intimate, and truly immersive, theater. There's no stage upon which the action is trapped. The Tiki Room shows happens all around you, with birds, flowers and totems animating the ceiling and the walls. I sold my nine-year-old son on the Tiki Room be telling him that the Tiki Room is to a theater what the Transformers are to cars and trucks - it makes an inanimate object come alive.

    Walt Disney developed Audio-Animatronic not simply as a theme park attraction, but as a film special effect. (Remember the scene in Mary Poppins where Mary sings to the bird outside the Banks' window?) Advances in computer-generated imagery have rendered the animatronic almost extinct as a movie effect, and CGI-driven 4-D movies have crowded animatronic shows from theme parks, too.

    But animatronics retain one great advantage over CGI - tactility. Even 3D CGI images exist only in the mind's eye, a trick of optics that create the illusion of substance. Animatronics exist is real space, however. They invite your touch. But that advantage diminishes, then disappears, with distance. An animatronic show, to be most effective, must play in an intimate theater, where the characters and other animatronics work not too far from arms' reach.

    Alone among animatronic shows, the Tiki Room satisfies that need. You sit immersed in a garden of singing flowers, talking birds and chanting totems. Children can get up, then dance, in front of the center fountain. More than a few visitors have leaned against the corner totems, only to be startled when they come to life.

    The Sherman Brothers' songs delight, as well - pleasing you with a sweet bite of musical sugar. The rhythm quickens and the tempo swells to a thunderous climax, before a gentle rain washes the moment away, refreshing the scene for a winsome finale.

    Now, "best" does not mean "perfect." The cliched ethnic accents of the four host birds grate on 21st-century ears. And when the show's run too long between needed maintenance breaks, too much of the charming detail in sound and motion is lost.

    Other attractions have used animatronics to impressive effect, as well. The American Adventure at Epcot raises a lump in my throat every time, but much of its power derives from its effective use of film, in addition to its animatronics. Expedition Everest's Yeti awed riders of the Animal Kingdom roller coaster, but how important is that animatronic to the overall experience of that attraction, really, given that Disney continue to operate the ride even though the Yeti hasn't worked properly for years?

    The Tiki Room relies on its animatronics alone. If the animatronic show ever returns as a theme park staple, it will have to employ the Tiki Room's template - a small, immersive theater where visitors can feel engaged with the performers. And the action should not be limited to identifiable characters. The walls and the ceiling, heck, even the chairs and the floors must come to life. Like a truck transforming into Optimus Prime, an animatronic show theater must transform into a living, giving performance, as well.

    Just like the Enchanted Tiki Room.

    Related: Why 'Impressions de France' is the best movie ever made for a theme park

    Comments (12) | Archive Link

    What's the most underrated theme park attraction?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: November 5, 2009 at 9:55 PM

    In preparation for a piece I'll be running tomorrow, this evening I asked Theme Park Insider's Twitter followers: What do *you* think is the most underrated theme park attraction?

    Here are a few of the replies:

    "American Eagle, still the tallest & fastest racing coaster in the world with a drop only 7 feet shorter than voyage's"

    "Mine is Tomorrowland Transit in Disney MK. Very relaxing."
    [Two other people voted for TTA, as well.]

    "The Villain and The Big Dipper at Geauga Lake were VERY underrated"

    "I think the most underrated theme park attraction is Dinosaur at Animal Kingdom"

    "I'll say World of Motion. I miss that one! :) "

    "Carousel of Progress by far!"
    [A second person also voted for Carousel of Progress.]

    "Mr. Toads Wild Ride WDW"

    "The Mean Streak at Cedar Point gets no love. It's one of my favorite coasters, but everyone either hates it or is unaware of it."
    [This was retweeted once, as well.]

    "Kings Island. The Vortex!"

    "Shows are very underrated. Lots of great talented singers and dancers. Lots of celebs got their start that way."

    So now I'll ask you: What's your pick as the most underrated theme park attraction? Tell us in the comments, and keep reading tomorrow, when I share one of my selections.

    Comments (39) | Archive Link

    Trip report from Epcot's 2009 Food and Wine Festival

    By Anthony Murphy
    Published: November 5, 2009 at 10:25 AM

    I was lucky enough to be able to check out Epcot's Food and Wine Festival at Walt Disney World this year for five days in October. I was extremely excited to go since my parents were able to go last year and made extremely high expectations for this festival. Most of the comparisons are based on their views from last year and what I read from others, but I pretty much went into the festival with high hopes a hearty appetite.

    For the most part, the Food and Wine Festival was set up with various stands representing different cities from around the world. Unlike last year, this year's setups of stands were done in geographical order (meaning Ireland was near United Kingdom, South American Stands by Mexico, etc). For the most part, you got a "taste" portion of some of the most popular foods from that country to share with others. There were about three kinds of foods (two entrees, one dessert) and three alcohol selections (usually two wines and a beer).

    One thing that I noticed is that all countries in the world share a few things in common: Alcohol and a dumpling dish of some sort. The food, of course, was delicious and I really can't think of anything that I had that I thought was awful. Sure, there were some things that I did not like too much, but it was well cooked and prepared. A few of my favorites at the Food and Wine Festival Stands was, of course, the Canadian Cheddar Cheese Soup, Kerrygold Cheese Selections, the Empanadas, and the raisin less New Orleans Bread Pudding. Probably this section of the Food and Wine Festival impressed me the most because the stands were all unique and seemed to be well built meaning not some kind of temporary stand. You could do some serious cooking in a few of them. Below is a movie that I made of all the stands. I thought it would be too much for the trip report to put them all here!

    Another major part of the Food and Wine Festival at Epcot is the tastings and food demonstrations. About 90% of the events of this kind take place in the Welcome Center, aka Wonders of Life Pavilion. While I greatly still miss Cranium Command and the other Wonders of Life stuff, they did a pretty good job at setting up the events in the space. There were two temporary stages constructed for the paid events and they used the Anatomical Players Stage and Making of Me Theater for the free events and wine making movie respectfully. On the temporary stages, one was constructed for cooking demonstrations and the other for wine tastings.

    A new feature this year was the charging for the cooking demonstrations and wine tastings. In the past, both used to be free, causing individuals to have to wait in line hours ahead of time for a seat. With the payment for tickets, you can come about 15 minutes before and be guaranteed a seat. It cost $5 ahead of time and $8 at the door. This is really not bad considering you are getting a small meal with alcohol at the cooking demonstrations and three half-glasses of wine at the tastings. The other positive about tickets is that many if not most wine tastings were followed by a cooking demonstration in which the wine was paired with some big chef's food so if you really liked the drink, you could have it again with some fine food.

    Personally for me, the cooking demonstrations were much better due to you getting many of the wines from the tasting areas and the chefs were a little bit more interesting going though their dishes than the wine people. I got to see the Hearty Boys of Food Network Fame (and Chicago fame), many pastry chefs of Disney, and, my favorite, Celina Tio, who opened up Julian's in Kansas City.

    She had to have been one of the nicest chefs and my father, who is an extremely picky eater, loved everything she made (she was also at Party for the Senses mentioned below). For the demonstration, she made Breakfast for Dinner which was an over easy egg with panko crumbs over a handmade sausage patty on top of a Mickey Waffle. It sounds really weird, but I loved it. So if you are in or around KC, check out Julian's stat!

    My favorite wine was a fruit wine made right there in Florida which includes a Mango Wine, Pineapple Wine, and my personal favorite, the Hurricane Wine which was a mix of their five most popular wines. Outside of the Welcome Center, they have other events such as the Tequila tasting in Mexico (which I did) and some free events such as Sam Adams beer tasting in the American Adventure (which I also did).

    While the changes were for the better it seems, there were some weaknesses in the new plan that I am going to hope they will fix for 2010. First of all, you have to reserve in August to get the $5 rate and guaranteed a seat. Here on TPI, we were given a warning on when that would be, but there were still guests that did not understand or were willing to commit to those particular days. The other problem with this is that you have no idea what the chef is going to do or make which becomes an issue if you have allergies or restrictions on foods. For example, with our fine tequila at the Mexico bar, they gave us a selection of foods to sample with our tequila. However, one of the three foods was completely made of crab which my mother is extremely allergic to if she takes a bite. Of course, in Disney fashion, they were able to accommodate her, but especially for the cooking demonstrations in which its one dish, one drink, Muslims, Jewish, and Hindus might have an issue with the pork or beef dishes.

    Our other issue with the tickets was much bigger. When reserving all of our cooking demonstrations, we attempted to get the famous Robert Irvine of Cooking Impossible session. My family, who really probably should have their own house on Main Street USA, was not able to get them online. I feel sorry for others who really had no idea what we were doing. So we asked a couple of days in advance if there were any extra tickets for the Irvine event. We were told yes, but they would only sell them the day of the event which was no problem for us.

    So, on Sunday we got up really early, left our resort, the Boardwalk, and walked though the back of World Showcase to be stopped near the fountain in Future World. Epcot was not open yet so we understood why we were kept there. They have a very nice opening Epcot show with the characters that pick a family to ride as the "pace car" in a Test Track Vehicle to open the park. Very nice stuff! Anyway, they told us that they were going to drop the rope and not to move until the characters are gone and not to run anywhere because there are a bunch of cast members in the corridors leading to the Future World Pavilions to welcome you all. We could see, obviously, that the people who came from the front gate of Epcot across from us by the pin trading area. Well, they had a countdown and when we hit 2, some bald man just took off from across the way climbing over potted plants and took off towards Wonders of Life pavilion. I, being in the front of the World Showcase line, picked up my walking pace when they finally told us to go and made it to the ticketed area of Wonders of Life as number 8 in line (bald man was 2). Anyway, there were about 30 tickets left for the event. Person 1 bought four tickets and the bald man (who was 2 and alone) bought 20 tickets and began to sell it to people 11-20 in line). Thus, after person number 4, they told us all the tickets were sold out. Many people, including myself, demanded to see the manager which she came out. Mind you, I am cast member in the Disney Store so I know that management is a thankless job, but this manager was extremely combative and basically told us that we could not prove that he was selling tickets. However, all the individuals who companied, which was about 10 including myself and my mother who came with me to get the tickets, were either DVC or Annual Pass holders who obviously spend lots of time at Disney and know more than the average tourist. Anyway, the manager gave us front of the line access at Robert Irvine's book signing, but we did not get to taste his great green peppercorn steak. Robert Irvine, by the way, found out about this problem and actually personally apologized to us even though he really had no control over it. So, in the future, I hope that Disney limits the amount of tickets one individual can buy at the time to like 4 per person. I only wanted three.

    What I consider to be the "big bang" climax of the entire festival is the Party for the Senses, which brings many of the chefs and wineries from around Disney and the country for tastings and demonstrations. They decided to do it a little differently this year by having each of the Party of the Senses be themed, since they happen every Saturday during the Festival. While we were there, the party was Asian themed, which, on the outside, does not sound too bad, but my family, especially my father, are not big fish eaters and about 80% of the food was fish. That was a bit of a turn-off to my family.

    I understand that there is a lot of seafood in Asian cooking, but there were only a handful of dishes that had beef and none with chicken (there was duck). There was also only one place that had potstickers and they were part of a very tasty soup. Robert Irvine was there, but made some kind of bass, as was Celina Tao from Julian's, who made short ribs in a fried slaw which was probably the best thing there. My father shook her hand since that's about all he ate. The beauty of the Party for the Senses though is all you can eat and drink so, like my father with Tio's short ribs and my mother with her Florida wines, you can go back for more and more. In drink category, I had a fantastic strawberry balsamic martini made with Chopin premium potato vodka and a selection of wines from Lasseter Wineries made by, yes, Mr. Pixar, John Lasseter. His wife was pouring for the guests and was very down to earth and nice. For over $100 a person, it's a pretty hefty tag, but you can get your worth of food and drink instantly. The other nice thing is after awhile, people start slowing down and you can have conversations with the various chefs. I just think next time, we will try to come for Italian night!

    For the most part, Epcot's Food and Wine Festival was the best theme park events I have ever been too. They need to fix a couple of loopholes so that people are not accidently eating something they are allergic to or one man can't buy nearly all of the tickets to a highly sought cooking demonstration. This event brought together two of my loves: Epcot and food! So join me next year for an Empanada and tequila!

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    First look at the theme park map for Universal Studios Singapore

    By Robert Niles
    Published: November 5, 2009 at 8:21 AM

    A reader e-mailed me the park map for Universal Studios Singapore, which opens next year.

    Universal Singapore theme park map
    Click for larger version

    It's a "greatest hits" of the Universal theme parks, with a blend of rides and shows from Universal Studios Hollywood, Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Japan. The only ride I'd add, to make it perfect? Men in Black. But that's me.

    Thoughts?

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    Will Disney bring back an old-school Mickey Mouse?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: November 4, 2009 at 8:56 PM

    200For tonight's open thread, I'll leave you with this article from the New York Times, revealing some of the ways that the Walt Disney Company is looking to revitalize its icon, Mickey Mouse.

    Over the decades, Mickey's ossified into a corporate symbol - far from his origin as the "Bart Simpson of his day," as the NYT put it. Heck, even the original Animation tour film at the then-Disney-MGM Studios gently mocked Mickey's corporate status.

    I also enjoyed the reveal that the famous "Oswald for Al Michaels" deal wasn't some last-minute, face-saving throw-in, but a calculated move by Disney to regain rights for a character it needed for next year's "Epic Mickey" video game, the first step in the company's re-envisioning of the Main Mouse.

    Whaddya think?

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    What do you want to see from Six Flags Magic Mountain's new family roller coaster?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: November 4, 2009 at 3:45 PM

    Six Flags Magic Mountain is expected within the next few days to announce the name and design for its new family roller coaster, which will debut in 2010. (Given when past roller coasters have debuted at Magic Mountain, I'd expect around Memorial Day weekend.)

    Since we're talking about a family coaster here, my first thought is a Vekoma, which has a wide line of family coasters. But Magic Mountain's only Vekoma is Deja Vu, which hasn't had the greatest track record - in terms of up-time or popularity - during its run at the park. Does that lead Magic Mountain to look toward a different manufacturer? Heck if I know.

    So let's speculate. What would you like to see from Magic Mountain when it makes its announcement later this month? The LA Times reported that the site will be between Deja Vu and Johnny Rockets, but that seems a really tight fit to me.

    Give me names; give me models. I'm going to go out on a limb, to start the discussion, by guessing that the name will not be "OMG".

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    What if... Walt Disney had built his skiing 'theme park'?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: November 4, 2009 at 12:38 PM

    What if Walt Disney had done for ski resorts what he did for the amusement park business with Disneyland?

    Walt DisneyIt almost happened. At the same time in the 1960s that Walt secretly was buying land for a new theme park resort in Florida, his associates were scouting locations for an ambitious new Disney ski resort in California. One of them, Harrison "Buzz" Price tells the story in his remarkable book, Walt's Revolution! By the Numbers.

    Buzz Price, for those who have not heard the name, is to the theme park industry what Forrest Gump was to Baby Boomers' idealized vision of their childhood - he was everywhere. Price worked for Walt Disney in selecting the site for Disneyland, with Lew Wasserman on the development of Universal City, and with George Millay on the feasibility of SeaWorld Orlando and Magic Mountain as well as on theme park feasibility studies for Six Flags and Marriott. If you're a theme park fan, you've almost certainly visited a park that Price played some role in developing.

    Price writes that Walt was taken with the Swiss village of Zermatt (home to Walt's favorite mountain), and wanted to build a resort like it in America. He sent Price and other associates to look for potential locations throughout California.

    They strongly considered Mt. Gorgonio, east of Los Angeles, and even cut a deal for Walt to buy Mammoth Mountain. But Mammoth Mountain's family owner backed out in a Burbank meeting with Walt which would have closed that deal.

    Upon the advice of the U.S. Forest Service's west coast director, Price turned his attention to a large parcel located near Sequoia National Park, known as Mineral King.

    Mineral King Valley

    Late in 1964, under Walt's instruction, we began the assembly of private acreage holdings on the floor of the Mineral King valley, a 26-acre site essential for the project base village. One of our group, Robert Hicks, who later was hired by Walt to manage ski resort project development, succeeded in buying out the Forest Service leaseholder positions of 18 families. It was something of a miracle, but Bob had grown up in Visalia and he talked the local language in a polite, quiet non-threatening way. I paid for the property rights and the Disney Company reimbursed me. The Forest Service then asked us to submit work plans, which would be dealt with on a negotiated basis.

    As we began preparing the work plans, a well-known actress, Janet Leigh, and her husband, Robert Brandt prevailed on the Forest Service to open the process for competitive bidding. Disney prepared a stunning presentation and won the competition hand down.

    The WED plans for the site envisioned six ski areas, with a combined daily capacity of 20,000 skiers, set around a Swiss-style base village. Disney had a deal with California Governor Pat Brown for $35 million in road improvements leading to the site.

    So what happened? After Walt's death in 1966, Disney management decided that it couldn't handle two major projects in Walt's absence. So instead of building Mineral King, it chose to develop the other grand project Walt had been working on... Walt Disney World.

    Mineral King eventually became property of the National Park Service and is now, undeveloped, part of Sequoia National Park.

    In the weeks ahead, I'll be telling other stories from Price's book. But I want to throw this question out there for Theme Park Insider readers... what if Disney had built Mineral King Resort?

    Put another way - What lessons could have been brought over from the theme park business to improve the ski business? I tried skiing once, and immediately blew out my knee. My wife loves skiiing and is eager to go again, but we'd be more likely to book a trip if there were more to do at a place like Mammoth Mountain than simply ski. (The kids and I aren't at the level where we can go all day yet - but we don't want just to sit around a condo.)

    The Disney Company's genius in developing theme parks has been to provide a variety of experiences, from thrills to story-telling to playgrounds to shows, giving everyone in the family something to do. How could ski areas provide a more comprehensive winter entertainment experience, without "dumbing-down" the skiing? And how could they handle, crowds, service and their overall customer experience in a more "Disney" way?

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    Advice for families taking a cruise vacation: An interview with Luisa Frey

    By Robert Niles
    Published: November 4, 2009 at 10:48 AM

    Guest Q&A: Disney's big news in the past week has been the announcement of its new cruise ship, the Disney Dream. I am not a cruise expert - heck, I don't like boats unless I am sailing them. But I know that many theme park fans either have taken family cruises, or might be considering one.

    Luisa FreySo I asked a family cruise expert to answer some questions for us at Theme Park Insider. Luisa Frey has been writing about family cruising and family land travel for the past 15 years. She is the founder of www.teentraveltalk.com, a travel blog written by teens for their peers and parents. She also is the family cruise editor for www.cruisemates.com and moderates the site's family cruise message boards. And her family travel articles have appeared on Budgettravel.com, CNN.com, Fodors.com, Momlogic.com and USAToday.com and in FamilyFun magazine.

    Many thanks to Luisa for taking the time to answer our questions!

    Robert: What will families who've vacationed at theme parks before like most about going on a cruise? And what would be the biggest adjustment or difference from a typical theme park vacation?

    Luisa: I highly recommend taking your cruise AFTER your theme park visit. Theme park vacations typically involve a lot of running around as you and your kids try to pack a lot in a short time. While there is plenty to do on cruise ships these days, cruises inherently are more laid back in atmosphere and give you welcomed time to relax before heading home. The relaxation part is what parents like most about going on a family cruise.

    The biggest difference between a theme park vacation and cruise ship vacation is that on a cruise, parents and kids get time apart and time together. Conversely, at a theme park, parents have to always keep kids under close, watchful eyes. All ships leaving Port Canaveral have youth and teen programs and thus, parents get to pamper themselves a bit while their little ones are being entertained and supervised by well-trained youth counselors. Your child might love the kids' program so much that you may have to lay down the rules that they must spend a few hours a day with you –be it at the pool or sharing a leisurely dinner together!

    Robert: In addition to the Disney Cruise Line, what are some other family-friendly options for theme park fans who might be interested in adding a cruise to their summer or holiday vacation in 2010?

    Luisa: Just to clarify, Port Canaveral is less than a one-hour drive from the Orlando theme parks. Many cruise lines offer pre-and post-cruise packages to the theme parks which include bus transfers. See the websites of the below cruise lines for complete details.

    This winter, Disney Cruise Line once again offers 3- and 4-night cruises aboard Disney Wonder from Port Canaveral. Additionally, the Disney Magic sails alternating 7-night Eastern and Western Caribbean itineraries from the port. Check directly with Disney Cruise Line for complete sailing schedules because their deployment changes in summer 2010.

    Similarly, at present, both Royal Caribbean International and Carnival Cruise Lines feature 3-and 4-night cruises as well as 7-night cruises from Port Canaveral. In the 3- and 4-night cruise options, Royal Caribbean's Monarch of the Seas is an older, tighter ship as is Carnival's Sensation, so I recommend the Disney Wonder.

    All the 7-night ships – Carnival Glory and Carnival Dream; Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas; and Disney Magic – are all excellent, roomy ships for families and offer a plethora of family-friendly facilities and programming. You can't go wrong on any of them.

    My suggestion is to avoid booking a 3-night cruise because it's just too short to get into the relaxing rhythm of cruising. Running around theme parks is exciting yet tiring. Why participate in a similar scenario aboard ship when you can instead cruise four or seven nights in a more relaxing environment?

    Robert: How should I pack for a cruise? Is there anything different that I need to bring - or leave home - versus going on an Orlando theme park trip?

    Luisa: Yes, you will have to bring nicer clothes than on an Orlando theme park trip. Most cruise lines have a formal night, albeit formal nights are not as formal as they used to be. Men can get away with a suit (tuxes are not necessary) and boys with khakis and button down shirt. Ladies and girls do tend to still wear nice cocktail dresses. Ladies also need to bring a light sweater or jacket for evenings since the ships tend to be very air-conditioned and cool. Other evenings are less formal but most cruise lines do not allow shorts in their dining rooms for dinner. There are casual options though which usually include buffets and pizzerias for dinner.

    Robert: Okay, here's the big fear: How can I keep my kids from getting seasick? And what can I do if I - I mean the kids - do get sick?

    Luisa: After over 30 cruises with my 16 year old and about 10 with my eight-year-old, I've learned that the most important thing to pack are seabands. You can get them at any major drugstore chain or in the ships' shops. They are tight wristbands that have a pressure point on them that help relieve nausea. What's great is that there is no medication involved, which makes them perfect for kids.

    That said, I do also carry children's Dramamine or bonine for if seas get really rough. That scenario is more the exception than the rule, but I prefer to be prepared. If they do get seasick, try to reassure them it'll stop as soon as you get to the next port and also purchase ginger cookies to help ease their tummies next time.

    My teen daughter has only gotten seasick on smaller, more expedition-type ships and not the mega-liners that leave from Port Canaveral.

    Robert: Are there particular activities that are best for kids and parents to do on the first day? Which ones are better saved for the end of the trip?

    Luisa: After boarding your ship and checking out your cabin, if you want a spa treatment, have your spouse or adult traveling companion take your kids to the buffet for lunch and get in line at the spa to make your appointment. These appointments usually go fast so do it on embarkation day.

    Similarly make any reservations for alternative restaurants on the day you board. (Alternative restaurants are more exclusive and charge approximately $15 to $25 per person for dinner.) After that, explore the ship's public areas, including the deck and pool areas, outdoor sports areas (basketball courts, mini-golf, rock walls, etc.) and eating options.

    Make sure you and your kids attend the youth counselors' "welcome to the youth program" session usually held the first evening. You can sign your children up for the free youth programming that night.

    If you have a teen, it is imperative that they check out the teen activities and programming the first night and following first full day. Teens tend to make friends on those days and then they'll often hang out together for the rest of the cruise. When my daughter was first old enough to attend the teen programs aboard ship, she "missed the boat" by not checking out the teen program the first day. By the time she got there, all the teens had formed their groups and she felt left out. You can get more advice directly from teens about traveling with teens at teentraveltalk.com.

    As for the last full day – which is often, but not always, a sea day – I like to walk around the ship in the morning with my kids and camera. We take photographs of them at their favorite spots around ship.

    Robert: How do I keep from losing track of my kids on a cruise?

    Luisa: Walkie-talkies are the best way to keep track of your kids. Get a good pair from an electronics store and bring them on the cruise. While certain parts of ships do not transmit walkie talkie signals, most do and it saves parents a lot of running around and "angst" from wondering where their child is. Most youth programs allow kids 10 years and older to sign themselves out of the youth program, with parental permission. Thus, walkie-talkies are helpful for you to track where your child is at any given time they are not with you.

    Robert: How do I keep from getting ripped off or nickel-and-dimed, either when booking a cruise or on the cruise itself?

    Luisa: Do your homework ahead of time! I find the area that families overspend most on a cruise is the shore excursions. The cruise lines all offer shore excursions which are over-priced, especially if you are paying for four people in your family to take that excursion. Once you multiply what you would spend per family member times the number of ports, you'll see how it really can add up.

    Instead, research online or in a guidebook as to activities your family can do independently in the ports you're calling at. It's much cheaper to pay for one taxi to take your family to a nearby beach for the day than pay for a cruise line excursion, per person, to the beach. I often ask my waiter or crew their recommendations for local beaches or attractions. The shore excursions personnel are knowledgeable but prefer to sell you one of the line's tours. I've written a number of articles regarding what families can do independently in ports all over North America for www.cruisemates.com's family cruise section, which can prove helpful.

    In addition, you may want to give your kids a budget for the ship's arcade so that they do not accrue a huge bill. Similarly, you might want to give yourself a budget beforehand in regards to how much you can spend on alcoholic beverages and gambling, if you partake in either of these activities.

    Robert: What new ships or itineraries are coming that families should be looking for in 2010 and beyond?

    Luisa: On November 18, 2009 Carnival Cruise Lines is adding its newest ship Carnival Dream to the roster of ships homeporting in Port Canaveral. The itinerary includes seven-day sailings alternating between the Eastern and Western Caribbean. Camp Carnival carries more kids at sea than any other cruise line so parents can be assured that there will be plenty of kids on board for theirs to play with.

    Norwegian Cruise Line is homeporting in Port Canaveral for the first time in October, 2010. The 1,936-passenger Norwegian Sun will offer seven-day Eastern and Western Caribbean cruises annually from October through April.

    Disney Dream is the big news hitting the Port Canaveral market in January 2011. This is Disney's newest addition since it launched its fleet a decade ago and the ship will have lots of bells and whistles for families. A prominent one includes Aqua Ducks, which is a water roller coaster that transports passengers in inflatable tubes up hill and down. What's most unique is that the structure is made of translucent material so that passengers can see where they are going, which includes through the funnel and OVER the side of the ship, providing ocean views right below them!

    Any other Theme Park Insider cruise veterans want to share their advice? Let's hear you in the comments....

    Comments (4) | Archive Link

    Disney announces one more bureaucratic hurdle cleared in building Shanghai Disneyland

    By Robert Niles
    Published: November 3, 2009 at 6:03 PM

    The Walt Disney Company announced today that it has approval from the Chinese government to go ahead and make a final agreement with its partners in Shanghai to build and operate a Magic Kingdom theme park in the Chinese city.

    Shanghai Disneyland has been tipped for a 2014 debut, though no official opening date or attraction line-up has been announced.

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    Attendance, spending, revenue down at Cedar Fair and Six Flags theme parks*

    By Robert Niles
    Published: November 3, 2009 at 10:50 AM

    Cedar Fair, the company that owns Cedar Point, Kings Island and Knott's Berry Farm, among other theme parks, is going into cash conservation mode next year, as guest attendance and spending continues to decline across the chain.

    Cedar Fair announced that it will not pay cash distributions to its limited partner units next year, as it seeks to conserve cash to pay down its debt. (Cedar Fair paid $1.2 billion to buy Paramount Parks in 2006.)

    Cash distributions to limited partner units are roughly the equivalent of a corporation paying dividends to its stockholders. Cedar Fair is a limited partnership (hence, "Cedar Fair, L.P."), and the holders of its limited partnership units are typically paid a proportionate share of the business's income each quarter.

    That amount worked out to $1.10 per unit for the first nine months of 2009, compared with $1.12 per unit for the same period in 2008.

    According to the company's press release (here is the version from the SEC, complete with spreadsheet for you number-crunchers), attendance at the company's parks was down from 20 million in the first nine months of 2008 to 18.8 million during the same period this year. (That's not counting the Star Trek Experience in Las Vegas, which the company closed late last year.) In-park guest spending was down from $40.28 to $39.73.

    "The decrease in attendance was the result of a sharp decline in group sales business, which continues to be negatively affected by the poor economy and spending cuts at many businesses, schools and organizations," Cedar Fair CEO Dick Kinzel said in the statement. "Our attendance figures were also negatively impacted by a decrease in season pass visits resulting from a decline in total pass sales, and by poor weather, particularly cooler than normal temperatures throughout much of the season at our northern and southern region parks."

    * Update: And here are the results for Six Flags:

    • Attendance down 1 million, from 22.2 in the first nine months of 2008, to 21.2 million over the same period in 2009.
    • Per guest in-park spending was down from $38.58 in 2008 to $36.72 in 2009.
    • A $74.8 million loss for the first nine months of 2009, compared with a $147.3 million profit in the same period in 2008.

    Six Flags also blamed the drop in attendance to lower group sales and fewer free tickets, but did say that sales of single-day and individual season pass tickets were up from 2008. That's a good sign for the company, at least.

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    Disneyland theme parks offer new service for visually-impaired visitors

    By Robert Niles
    Published: November 2, 2009 at 6:46 PM

    Disneyland and California Adventure today introduced a new service for visually-impaired visitors: Audio Descriptions are new option on Disney's custom wireless handheld device that the theme parks offer to visitors with disabilities.

    Disney's handheld device
    A visitor uses Disney's handheld device for visitors with disabilities. Photo provided by Disney.

    With audio descriptions, the device provides an audio narrative of what's happening on a particular ride or show. According to a Disney spokesperson, on the Haunted Mansion, for example, the audio description would say, "Our doom buggy rotates and we face backward. To our left, a knight’s armor guards an endless hallway. On our right, wilted flower arrangements surround a coffin. An eerie light escapes as bony hands push up the lid."

    Other options on the handheld device include Assistive Listening, which provides amplified audio in selected attractions, and Handheld Captions (the flip side of Audio Descriptions, if you will, for hearing-impaired visitors), which displays text on the device screen in selected attractions.

    Disney has added the audio descriptions today to the following attractions:

    • Disneyland Railroad
    • Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Pinocchio, Small World, Snow White, Storybook Land and Toad in Fantasyland
    • Buzz Lightyear, Finding Nemo and Honey, I Shrunk the Audience in Tomorrowland
    • Tiki Room in Adventureland
    • Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean in New Orleans Square
    • Winnie the Pooh in Critter Country
    • Monsters Inc., MuppetVision, Tough to be a Bug and Turtle Talk in Disney's California Adventure

    The devices are available at Guest Relations desks in Disney theme parks. Although there is no charge, a refundable deposit is required.

    If any readers have feedback on services for visitors with disabilities offered by Disney or other theme parks, the comments await your input.

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    OMG - Is it something new at Six Flags?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: November 2, 2009 at 3:46 PM

    Searching around the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office database today, I found this little nugget, which I had not seen reported before.

    Six Flags has filed a trademark application on the term "OMG"

    I'm sure that if someone else has the info on this, a sharp reader will point out in the comments just what an idiot I am for bringing it up now. But if not, and this is new, that sounds like a heckuva name for a thrill ride, doesn't it?

    Others have filed applications for OMG, as well, but the USPTO has allowed multiple companies to use the same word as a trademark, if they are in different businesses. The application is relatively fresh, too, and, as far as I can tell, hasn't gotten to the point where it has been filed for opposition yet. (A step where others can dispute that the applicant should get the trademark.)

    Any Six Flags sources or fans want to chime in?

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    Theme park cast member stories: Phantom of the Hoedown

    By Robert Niles
    Published: November 1, 2009 at 9:45 PM

    If you've just been wishing 'bout going fishing and you're still on the shore
    Grab your cap and gear and meet us right here
    We've got all kinds of fun in store
    It's time for a vacation, for some rest and relaxation.
    Forget your cares, and join us bears
    In the great outdoors...

    The Five Bear Rugs, in the Country Bear Vacation Hoedown

    Hey! This is great. I couldn't have spent more than 20 minutes in the rotation so far. Ten minutes pushing strollers and another five in pre-show, and now I'm in theater. Heck, I didn't even have to spiel! At this rate, I'll get an extra break before lunch, easily. And maybe a second extra break before I go home.

    If you've just been wishing 'bout going fishing and you're still on the shore
    Grab your cap and gear and meet us right here
    We've got all kinds of fun in store
    It's time for a vacation, for some rest and relaxation.
    Forget your cares, and join us bears
    In the great outdoors...

    Okay. Theater's loaded and the show's running. It's so cool here in the darkened theater, with a nice place to sit - heck, it almost makes me feel sorry that the rotation's moving so fast.

    If you've just been wishing 'bout going fishing and you're still on the shore
    Grab your cap and gear and meet us right here
    We've got all kinds of fun in store
    It's time for a vacation, for some rest and relaxation.
    Forget your cares, and join us bears
    In the great outdoors...

    Eh, okay. So I had to sit through another show and load the theater again. Hey, at least the rotation froze while I was in theater, instead of out there in the Central Florida summer sun, pushing strollers around Frontierland.

    If you've just been wishing 'bout going fishing and you're still on the shore
    Grab your cap and gear and meet us right here
    We've got all kinds of fun in store
    It's time for a vacation, for some rest and relaxation.
    Forget your cares, and join us bears
    In the great outdoors...

    Um... okay. Four shows of Country Bear Vacation Hoedown? In a row? Really?

    If you've just been wishing 'bout going fishing and you're still on the shore
    Grab your cap and gear and meet us right here
    We've got all kinds of fun in store
    It's time for a vacation, for some rest and relaxation.
    Forget your cares, and join us bears
    In the great outdoors...

    Great. Now I'm going to be late getting my lunch. Ugh! Make the singing stop!

    If you've just been wishing 'bout going fishing and you're still on the shore
    Grab your cap and gear and meet us right here
    We've got all kinds of fun in store
    It's time for a vacation, for some rest and relaxation.
    Forget your cares, and join us bears
    In the great outdoors...

    Fishing? Yeah, right. Just once, I'd like to see some mutant bass jump out of the river and drag one of you sorry bears under for good.

    If you've just been wishing 'bout going fishing and you're still on the shore
    Grab your cap and gear and meet us right here
    We've got all kinds of fun in store
    It's time for a vacation, for some rest and relaxation.
    Forget your cares, and join us bears
    In the great outdoors...

    Five Bear Rugs? That's what you ought to be, you miserable singing animatronics. Five stinkin' rugs on some Imagineer's floor, instead of the glorified the Chuck E. Cheese's floorshow that you are here in "Dante's Frontierland."

    If you've just been wishing 'bout going fishing and you're still on the shore
    Grab your cap and gear and meet us right here
    We've got all kinds of fun in store
    It's time for a vacation, for some rest and relaxation.
    Forget your cares, and join us bears
    In the great outdoors...

    Make. It. Stop. Please. For the love of God, just make it stop.

    If you've just been wishing 'bout going fishing and you're still on the shore
    Grab your cap and gear and meet us right here
    We've got all kinds of fun in store
    It's time for a vacation, for some rest and relaxation.
    Forget your cares, and join us bears
    In the great outdoors...

    I'm sorry. I'm so sorry for thinking bad things about the bears. I love them. I really do. I... uh... I'd just like to, well... I'd just like to see daylight again. Once. Before I die. I promise that I'll never say, or think, anything bad about any Disney animatronic character again. Please?

    If you've just been wishing 'bout going fishing and you're still on the shore
    Grab your cap and gear and meet us right here
    We've got all kinds of fun in store
    It's time for a vacation, for some rest and relaxation.
    Forget your cares, and join us bears
    In the great outdoors...

    Softly, deftly music shall caress you
    Hear it, feel it secretly possess you
    Open up you mind let your fantasies unwind
    In this darkness which you know you cannot fight
    The darkness of the music of the night....

    If you've just been wishing 'bout going fishing and you're still on the shore
    Grab your cap and gear and meet us right here
    We've got all kinds of fun in store
    It's time for a vacation, for some rest and relaxation.
    Forget your cares, and join us bears
    In the great outdoors...

    "Hey, Robert. Sorry about that. The rotation kinda... got messed up. You can go on lunch now.

    "Uh... Robert?"

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

    Comments (12) | Archive Link

    Keep reading: October 2009 Archive



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