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December 2009

2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: Six Flags Magic Mountain's Goliath

By Robert Niles
Published: December 31, 2009 at 2:05 PM

Let's wrap up the year with a roller coaster, shall we? Six Flags Magic Mountain's Goliath joins the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction tournament as the 14th seed in the Best Roller Coaster bracket.

Six Flags Magic Mountain's  Goliath

This Giovanola Mega coaster opened February 11, 2000. Its then-record 255-foot drop was soon topped by Cedar Point's Millennium Force, when that Intamin Giga opened in May of that year.

With a top speed of 85 miles per hour, Goliath is all about speed... and Gs. After that initial record-setting drop, Goliath flies through its turns, culminating in a high-G helix, which is either loved or loathed, depending upon whom you ask.

The helix element on Goliath is so extreme, some riders have reported blacking out on that section of the ride. Others love it for the body-crushing rush it provides at the end of a high-speed adventure.

This is the only coaster is this year's tournament from Giovanola, a Swiss manufacturer that went defunct in the mid-2000s. The other Mega coaster from Giovanola is Titan at Six Flags Over Texas. Will Goliath's fans vote the coaster to a first-round upset, or will the helix haters come out for whatever ride Goliath faces? We'll find out in March, when voting begins in the Best Theme Park Attraction tournament. In the meantime, let's hear your thoughts about Goliath and Titan, in the comments.

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Vote of the week: Which was the best decade for theme parks?

By Robert Niles
Published: December 31, 2009 at 10:37 AM

Today is not only the last day of 2009, it's the last day of a decade that we seem to be having the hardest time naming. The Oughts? The 2000s? The Voldemorts? (i.e. "The decade-that-shall-not-be-named"?)

Don't get me started on the "decade doesn't end until next year" thing, either. I'll agree that the first decade of the 21st century runs from 2001-2010. But the whatever-it-is decade runs from 2000-2009. Just like the '90s ran from 1990-1999. Saying that the "90s" ran from 1991-2000 makes no sense. The year 2000 isn't a "90." So there.

Anyway... how did the Voldemorts compare with previous decades, as far as theme parks are concerned? Let's take a look at some of the major parks we've covered on Theme Park Insider, and sort them into the decades when they were founded.

Some of these were tough calls, as parks such as Cedar Point evolved over the years. In that case, I put Cedar Point in the 1940s because that's when its oldest surviving rides were built. In other cases, such as Hersheypark and Dollywood, I put the parks into the decades when they were redeveloped into their current forms.

1940s

  • Cedar Point (oldest existing rides installed then)
  • Knott's Berry Farm (Ghost Town started)

1950s

  • Busch Gardens Tampa
  • Disneyland

1960s

  • SeaWorld San Diego
  • Silver Dollar City
  • Six Flags Over Georgia
  • Six Flags Over Texas

1970s

  • Busch Gardens Williamsburg
  • Enchanted Forest (now Six Flags Great Adventure)
  • Hersheypark (redeveloped from original Hershey Park in 1971)
  • Kings Dominion
  • Kings Island
  • Magic Mountain (now Six Flags Magic Mountain)
  • Marriott's Great America (now Six Flags Great America)
  • SeaWorld Orlando
  • Six Flags Over Mid-America (now Six Flags St. Louis)
  • Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

1980s

  • Canada's Wonderland
  • Disney-MGM Studios (now Disney's Hollywood Studios)
  • Dollywood (expanded in 1986 from original Rebel Railroad/Silver Dollar City Tennessee)
  • Holiday World (expanded from Santa Claus Land in 1984)
  • Epcot
  • SeaWorld San Antonio
  • Tokyo Disneyland

1990s

  • Disney's Animal Kingdom
  • Disneyland Paris
  • Legoland California
  • Universal Studios Florida
  • Universal's Islands of Adventure

2000s

  • Disney's California Adventure
  • Hard Rock Park (now Freestyle Music Park)
  • Hong Kong Disneyland
  • Tokyo DisneySea
  • Universal Studios Japan
  • Walt Disney Studios Paris

Which brings us to our question for the week:

Tell us which is your favorite group of parks, and why, in the comments. And be sure to check back tomorrow, as Theme Park Insider brings you its annual coverage of the Rose Parade, from our home here in Pasadena, California. Happy New Year, everyone!

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2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

By Robert Niles
Published: December 30, 2009 at 4:27 PM

Today's spotlight nominee in the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction tournament may have been the toughest to place. Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom joins the field as the 14th seed in the Best Movie or Animated School bracket.

Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor

Is this an animated show, or a live one? Like a theme park version of actors in the movie "Avatar," Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor blurs the line between live action and digital animation. You're watching a cast of characters from Monsters, Inc. (the company from the Pixar film of the same name) on screen in the theater as they use jokes to elicit the laughs they need from your to power their city.

toring the audience's laughter
Storing the audience's laughter....

But it's not a traditional, scripted film. Audience members can text jokes from the pre-show waiting area. Cameras target audience members for on-screen gags. And performers off stage voice the on-screen monsters. I went back and forth several times between placing this in the Live Show or Animated Show brackets. Ultimately, I decided, since the show would get a better seed in the Animated bracket, to place it here.

Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor opened April 2, 2007, replacing The Time-Keeper in Tomorrowland's CircleVision theater. Reviews for the show have been inconsistent due, I think, to its interactive nature. Get a "hot" crowd, with fun audience members who play along, and you're watching a great show. Wander into a half-empty theater late on a slow day in the park, and you might be stuck with a yawner.

So which fans will show up when tournament voting begins in March? Will there be enough fans to power Monsters, Inc. to a first round upset? Please share your thoughts about Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor, in the comments.

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2010's new year's resolutions for theme park fans

By Robert Niles
Published: December 30, 2009 at 1:04 PM

I'd like to repeat a list of new year's resolutions that I first ran one year ago today. For those who read it then, how many did you keep?

  1. To spend a day at a theme park we've not visited within the past 10 years, or ever.
  2. To go on at least one old attraction we've never been on at a park we've visited many times.
  3. To walk an uninterrupted lap around the park at some point on every visit -- not to get anywhere, but just for the sights and the exercise.
  4. To let the other folks go first when we get to the queue entrance at the same time.
  5. To start a conversation in a queue with another visitor we don't know.
  6. To start a conversation with a park employee whom we don't know.
  7. To give a lost visitor directions.
  8. To ask for directions when we are lost.
  9. To go to a park's guest services desk on our way out of the park and compliment the work of a specific park employee.
  10. After each visit, to post more attraction, restaurant and hotel reviews to ThemeParkInsider.com. ;-)

I'm happy to say that I kept most of these - including spending a day this year at four theme parks I'd not visited in a long time, or ever: Holiday World, Kings Island, Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Dollywood.

I think that this list holds up well. What are your new year's resolutions, as a theme park fan? What would you like to see as a resolution from your favorite theme park?

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2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges at Universal's Islands of Adventure

By Robert Niles
Published: December 29, 2009 at 10:35 PM

Bring a change of dry clothes: Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges from Universal' Islands of Adventure joins the Best Theme Park Attraction tournament as the 14th seed in the Best Themed Ride bracket.

Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges

Step into the floating tub for a ride through these cartoon rapids. Our nemesis, Bluto, throws a switch and, sure enough, mayhem ensues as we float down the wrong stream with cartoon cliches hurtling toward us, spewing and gushing water at the raft. The kids playing on the Olive ship playground aim their water cannons at us, too, soaking whomever manages to slip through the rapids undrenched.

The Bilge-Rat Barges opened with Islands of Adventure in 1999 and remain a visitor favorite, as one of the nation's most elaborately themed versions of this staple attraction. But, seriously, unless it's 90+ degrees with the sun remaining high in a clear sky when you visit, you really should have a change of clothes ready. Smart visitors hit Popeye & Bluto's back-to-back with the nearby Dudley Do-Right's flume ride, to get thoroughly soaked before hitting the lockers (or hotel room) for fresh, dry clothes.

Here's a promotional snippet:

Will readers vote Bilge-Rat Barges into the second round? We'll find out when voting begins in the Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament, in March. In the meantime, please share your thoughts about Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges, in the comments.

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Wildcats, sloths and pigskins...

By Robert Niles
Published: December 29, 2009 at 3:03 PM

Lots of theme parks host college football teams and their fans during bowl season. (I live in Pasadena, California, so trust me, I know all about bowl games....) The parks all stage made-for-the-camera events, designed to get fans back home thinking about the park in question.

So how does this affect you, the knowledgeable theme park fan? It doesn't. But I went to Northwestern, and I continue to be so tickled by my Wildcats making bowl games that you better believe I'm going run a picture of a Northwestern player here.

Here's Northwestern senior defensive tackle Marshall Thomas meeting a sloth at Busch Gardens Tampa yesterday:

Marshall Thomas and... friend?

Northwestern plays Auburn in the Outback Bowl in Tampa on New Year's Day.

This makes two years in a row that I've run a post on an NU bowl game. Here's hoping this becomes a beloved TPI holiday tradition.... ;-)

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2009 in review: The top theme park news posts of the year

By Robert Niles
Published: December 29, 2009 at 11:52 AM

Yesterday, we talked about what I thought was the biggest overall story of the year in theme parks - the financial deals that involved all of the top U.S. chains. But were the most read individual stories on the Blog Flume in 2009?

Here are the top 10, by page views: (Note that I am not including tournament or voting posts in this list)

  1. Six Flags Over Georgia flooded
  2. Baby otters at SeaWorld Orlando
  3. Worldwide Disney Parks updates from Imagineering
  4. Disneyland debuts changes to 'It's a Small World' [with video]
  5. Kings Island closes Son of Beast
  6. Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit lights up the night at Universal Orlando
  7. Obama's Inauguration, in Legos
  8. Soft opening for Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit this weekend?
  9. Universal Orlando giving away 300,000 free 7-day tickets
  10. Disney offers free passes to active and retired U.S. military

Given that many frequent Theme Park Insider visitors read our pieces on the front page of the site, this list skews toward pieces popular with folks more likely to visit the article pages directly - typically, infrequent or first-time visitors who come to the site via a search engine query or link from another website.

I suspect that a list of the most-commented articles might provide a more accurate glimpse at what stories regular Theme Park Insider readers found most compelling in 2009. Here is that top 10: (Again, not including tournament or voting posts)

  1. Disney to acquire Marvel; problems for Islands of Adventure?
  2. What are the most overrated theme park attractions in America?
  3. No big surprises as Disney announces theme park expansions at D23
  4. Blackstone Group buys the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens theme park chain for $2.3 billion+
  5. Should theme parks build kids' lands?
  6. Announcing Theme Park Insider's 2009 Summer Roadtrip
  7. Harry Potter and the quest for your entertainment dollar
  8. What's the most underrated theme park attraction?
  9. Two monorails collide at Walt Disney World, killing driver
  10. Disney stops serving all-beef hot dogs

Curiously, there was no overlap between the lists, though several of the most-commented stories placed between 11-30 among the most viewed. Given that the Disney purchase of Marvel topped this list, as well as yesterday's reader vote, I'm going to go ahead and declare that, in the view of Theme Park Insider readers, that acquisition was the biggest individual story of the year in the theme park business.

Next year, as always it seems, I suspect we'll see even bigger stories, including the opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal's Islands of Adventure in Orlando.

And, of course, we'll probably see a few more cute pictures on the site, too:

Baby otters at SeaWorld

Please share you thoughts about the year past, in the comments.

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2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: Finding Nemo - The Musical at Disney's Animal Kingdom

By Robert Niles
Published: December 28, 2009 at 3:54 PM

We're back, profiling each of the 64 nominees in this year's Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament. Today, we're taking a look at the 14th seed in the Best Live Show bracket, Finding Nemo - The Musical from Disney's Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World.

Finding Nemo - The Musical at Disney's Animal Kingdom

Staged by Tony Award winners and featuring puppetry in the spirit of Disney's hyper-successful "The Lion King" musical, "Finding Nemo - The Musical" features an original song score from the composer of "Avenue Q," Robert Lopez, and his wife, Kristen Anderson-Lopez.

Bruce and the Sharks

Clocking in at little over 35 minutes, the show recaps the plot of the Academy Award-winning Pixar animated feature, using lighting and props to create an "underwater" environment.

In the aquarium with Nemo

"Finding Nemo - The Musical" plays daily in the Theater in the Wild at Disney's Animal Kingdom.

Marlin and Dory with the Sea Turtles

Frankly, I am bit surprised to see Nemo in the lower half of the bracket, but the Best Live Show bracket is turning out to be quite a bit more competitive than I expected when I first started going through your collective reader ratings to seed the tournament. Will enough Disney/Pixar fans show up to propel Nemo to a first-round upset? We'll find out when voting begins in March for the Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament. In the meantime, please share your thoughts about Nemo, in the comments.

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2009 in review: The year of the theme park deal

By Robert Niles
Published: December 28, 2009 at 10:16 AM

No, I'm not talking about discounts for customers, though those certainly were available in 2009. This was the year that all five of the top U.S. theme and amusement park chains were involved in a major financial deal.

  • The Walt Disney Company bought Marvel Comics, creating a potentially sticky situation for Universal, which has hosted the Marvel characters in its Islands of Adventure theme park, a deal that Universal says would keep those Marvel characters out of Walt Disney World.

  • Vivendi sold its stake in NBC Universal, clearing the way for Comcast to buy controlling interest in the owner of the Universal Studios theme parks.

  • Six Flags filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, which it is now trying to emerge from by ceding much of the ownership of the company to its debt holders.

  • Anheuser-Busch InBev sold the Busch Entertainment Corp. theme parks to Blackstone Group, which then renamed the chain SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment.

  • Finally, Cedar Fair, owner of Knott's Berry Farm, Cedar Point, Kings Island and other parks, found a white knight in Apollo Management LP, which agreed to buy the debt-strapped amusement park chain.

    So, which was the biggest deal of the year?

    Let's hear your thoughts about these stories, in the comments.

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    Theme park cast member stories: The most money I ever made working at Disney

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 28, 2009 at 9:19 AM

    A quick note before I get into this week's story: I've seen that some folks are copying and pasting these weekly stories to discussion forums on various Disney fan sites. To the folks doing that - you're welcomed to continue doing so, but could you please at least mention where you got the story? I'd appreciate your crediting these stories to ThemeParkInsider.com and linking back to the original URLs. Thanks.

    Seven hours before, I had been crushed within a swarm of tens of thousands of people, watching explosions fill the sky around us. Many in the swarm tried to hug the friends and family who surrounded them, but failed - those friends and family stood so close few could raise their arms. Limbs useless, people used their voices instead, screaming "Happy New Year" until enough people on the periphery of the swarm had moved, giving us somewhere to go.

    Seven hours later, I stood yards away from that place, and alone.

    No voices. No explosions. And all the room I needed to spread my arms as wide as I could stretch them. Alone, driving a raft around the Rivers of America in the country's most popular theme park - now empty, just hours after the moment during the year when it is most filled.

    I wasn't supposed to be the opening lead at Tom Sawyer Island on that New Year's morning. A) I hadn't been selected or trained as a lead yet, and, B) My last shift had ended less than six hours ago, meaning that I should have been kept off the clock for at least another couple of hours. By putting me into this shift, the supervisors who approved it had violated heaven-only-knows how many company regulations, and placed themselves in jeopardy of at least a verbal reprimand.

    Of course, all but one of those supervisors were at that moment unconscious, with blood alcohol levels that would have landed them multiple court dates had they been behind the wheel of a car, and not crashed on various beds, couches and floors around the Orlando metro area. Also sleeping it off that morning were dozens of other Magic Kingdom West leads and operators, including every lead trained to drive the Tom Sawyer Island rafts.

    And thus, I got the gig.

    My wife insists that violins retain a physical memory of the music that's been played upon them. Her thoughts prompted me to wonder if theme parks don't in some way retain a similar energy from the crowds who visit. Certainly, there's an energy to the design of parks, one that's intended to infuse visitors with anticipation and excitement.

    With no one else in sight on an early morning, all that energy flows through just one person - you. You might think that being alone in a theme park would leave you with a feeling of calm, even serenity.

    Nope, with all that energy flowing toward me, and me alone... well, I felt giddier than I ever had before in the Magic Kingdom.

    Of course, the math I was doing in my head at that moment probably added to my excitement. As a full-time employee, I was earning pay for a full eight-hour shift that holiday whether I worked or not. And since I was working a lead shift, I was earning an extra $2.50 a hour for the eight hours I would be working that day.

    But that wasn't the best part. Since less than six hours had passed between the end of my Parade Audience Control shift at 1:30 that morning and the start of my leads shift at 7 am, I started the day on the same pay rate which I'd ended the shift before. And since I'd picked up the extra PAC shift after my scheduled TSI shift yesterday... I was earning double-time.

    Lead double-time.

    With holiday pay.

    Meaning that I was earning almost four times my normal hourly pay, to drive a raft around Tom Sawyer Island in an empty Magic Kingdom, as the creatures and characters of my beloved Rivers of America staged a private show, just for me.

    A very happy new year, indeed.

    You can read the complete archive of Robert's stories about working in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, at http://www.themeparkinsider.com/stories.

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    Vote of the week: Have you ever spent Christmas at a theme park?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 24, 2009 at 11:11 AM

    It's Christmas Eve, and on behalf of all the employees here at Theme Park Insider (okay, well, on behalf of me, then), I'd like to wish everyone reading the site a very happy holiday season, and to thank you for your support over the past year.

    Main Street USA at Walt Disney World, Christmas 1982
    Thanks to Theme Park Insider reader TH Creative for sending along this photo of Main Street U.S.A. at Walt Disney World, Christmas 1982.

    Typically, I run the vote of the week on Friday, but since that's Christmas Day this year, I figured no one would read it. So it's coming at ya a day early this week.

    And while we're on the topic of what people do - or don't do - on Christmas Day...

    For those of you who have spent Christmas Day at a theme park, please share a favorite story about that experience, in the comments. And everyone else, heck, just tell us what you'll be up to this year (spend the day at home with family; spend the day at a airport or roadside shelter, watching the blizzard; movies and Chinese food; etc.).

    And, again, thanks for reading Theme Park Insider. Be sure to join us next week, as we recap the year, and the decade, in theme parks. Merry Christmas, everyone!

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    2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: Soarin' Over California at Disney's California Adventure

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 24, 2009 at 10:47 AM

    Soarin' Over California from Disney's California Adventure joins the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction tournament as the 15th seed in the Best Themed Ride bracket.

    Soarin' Over California at Disney's Californi Adventure

    This was one of those judgment calls I faced in filling out the brackets: Should Soarin' Over California go in with the rides, or the shows? Essentially a travelogue, SOC continues a long theme park industry tradition with postcard-like visuals fillings an oversized screen for the entertainment of a vacationing audience. So put it in with the films, right?

    But previous theme park films like America the Beautiful didn't strap people into flying hang-glider-like seats and suspend them in front of an IMAX-sized screen. Indeed, in talking with people and reading readers' reviews, it became clear that Soarin' Over California's ride element was the unique factor which distinguished it from other film attractions. So I am putting it in with the rides.

    Soarin' Over California opened with the rest of Disney's California Adventure in January 2001. While the rest of the park opened to scathing reviews, most of them included some variation of "...except for Soarin' Over California. Now that was pretty cool."

    The ride's popularity convinced Disney to install a duplicate at the Land pavilion in Epcot (called simply Soarin'). Even though that version stands in Florida, it retains it California theme, with the explanation that you are flying to California for your tour.

    Visitors sit in long suspended benches, decorated with canopies that suggest hang gliders. When the show starts, the benches lift into the air, in front of a giant curved screen. The seats move vertically in coordination with the film, and scents pumped into the theater (orange blossoms, evergreen, etc.) complement the sensory illusion of traveling around the state.

    A musical score by film composer Jerry Goldsmith accompanies the film, which, unlike other theme park travelogues, never comes in for a close-up of people of events, due to the conceit of viewers flying in the air on the hang gliders. But viewers do swoop down toward the ground from time to time, buzzing rafters on Redwood Creek as well as golfers at PGA West in La Quinta.

    The film closes on a bit of an ironic note, with a fireworks display over Disneyland's Sleeping Beauty's Castle, making Soarin' Over California perhaps the only attraction to have as its emotional climax... a scene from another theme park.

    As a 15-seed, SOC faces a tough road to the title. We'll see how it fares when voting begins in the Best Theme Park Attraction tournament in March. Please share your thoughts about Soarin' Over California, in the comments.

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    Another Dubailand Update

    By Michael Owen
    Published: December 23, 2009 at 4:38 PM

    Well I'm sure you've all heard the recent media reports about Dubai's current financial problems and how it's going to effect development plans for the city in the near future.

    With Dubailand being such a huge project I'd imagine building would have all but stopped but on my visit yesterday lots of development was still going on.

    F1-X, the indoor theme park based around popular racing franchise Formula 1, is progressing well, with the outside of the building nearly complete. Will it meet its target to open someime in 2010? Who knows, but at least it's getting built.

    Whilst there seems to be lots of buildings popping up in the Dubailand area there's nothing else to mention in the way of theme parks but with Motor City, one section of the project, shooting up fast I'm sure we'll see continued development of the area, even if it is slower than expected.

    In other Middle-Eastern news Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi looks set to open in the first part of 2010, boasting over 20 attractions in an indoor setting including the world's fastest roller-caster believed to be an Intamin Launch coaster.

    I'll post more updates if and when I get them over the next two weeks whilst I'm here. But for the moment my evaluation is to keep your eye on what's happening in Abu Dhabi as progress in Dubai seems to be pretty slow.

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    2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: SeaWorld Orlando's Believe

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 23, 2009 at 1:39 PM

    SeaWorld Orlando's Believe joins the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction in America tournament field as the 15th seed in the Best Live Show bracket.

    Shamu in SeaWorld Orlando's Believe

    Believe debuted in 2006, the latest version of SeaWorld's killer whale show. The show blends video footage and audio narration with the in-pool performance by SeaWorld's killer whales and their trainers... and, yes, everyone sitting down close usually gets soaked. (The show also runs at the SeaWorld theme parks in San Diego and San Antonio.) Here are some highlights, courtesy SeaWorld:

    I got to spend some time with the killer whale trainers in San Diego a year ago, and watched some of the backstage preparation with the whales (none of which actually are named "Shamu," by the way.) Personally, I've always gotten a kick out of TH Creative's description of what I also consider the most impressive moment in the show:

    There's that point in the show where a trainer goes under water and and one of the [killer whales] comes up behind him and they burst through the surface with the trainer perched on the animal's nose. The trainer goes into the air and dives back into the water.

    Okay, to complete that manuever the trainer [first] goes underwater and at one point has to look back over his shoulder and see this creature the size of a bus coming right up behind him.

    How exactly does Sea World reprogram that trainer's most primal DNA to make certain that when he is flying through the air he is not screaming like an eight-year old girl?

    The big knock on the current version of the show, which might explain its position in the bottom half of the draw, is that it doesn't offer the same percentage of whale tricks as previous shows. The narrative overlay about pursuing one's dreams, some readers claim, distracts from the spectacle of watching killer whales spin and flip like a cocker spaniel, drenching the audience in turn.

    Recent SeaWorld shows seem to have followed a similar path, scaling back animal tricks in favor of trainers delivering messages about the importance of conservation and animal care. Some see that as a knock, others as a step forward. Either way, we'll find out if "Shamu" can swamp his competition when voting begins in the tournament, in March.

    Please share your thoughts about Believe, in the comments.

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    The scaffolding comes down at Wizarding World of Harry Potter

    By Mitchell Botwin
    Published: December 23, 2009 at 10:26 AM

    The scaffolding has come down on Hogwarts. The Orlando Sentinel has a photo montage of the status of the Wizarding World.

    Comments (5) | Archive Link

    2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: Epcot's O Canada!

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 22, 2009 at 11:41 AM

    Epcot's O Canada! joins the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction tournament field as the 15th seed in the Best Movie or Animated Show bracket.

    Epcot's Canada pavilion
    Epcot's Canada pavilion. Photo courtesy Disney

    Named for the Canadian national anthem, this 18-minute, Circle-Vision 360 movie takes visitors on a tour of North America's largest country (by area). Updated in 2007, the new version of the presentation is narrated by Canadian Martin Short. Here's a taste:

    Circle-Vision films used to be a staple in Disney parks, but Disney has converted many of its former Circle-Vision theaters to other uses. (Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor at the Magic Kingdom and Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters at Disneyland both used to be Circle-Vision theaters.) IMAX seems to have become the preferred format for immersive visual presentations, leaving Circle-Vision behind. And the standing-room-only theaters used for Circle-Vision shows don't win over many weary theme park visitors.

    But still... that's some pretty scenery. Great visuals, good music and a few funny gags - that's the prescription for a winning theme park movie. While O Canada! might not have earned a place in the top half of this year's draw, we'll see if it has enough fans to pull an upset or two. Voting begins in the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction tournament in March.

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    Disney violated manufacturer's SOP on monorails

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 22, 2009 at 10:31 AM

    Jason Garcia at the Orlando Sentinel got his hands on the SOP [standard operating procedures] manual that Bombardier Inc. wrote for Disney's monorail system and found that Disney violated those procedures during the incident last July that led to a crash which cost the life of monorail driver Austin Wuennenberg.

    According to the SOP, Disney is supposed to have a spotter watching any monorail train when it is operating in reverse. Disney's didn't have a spotter on the platform in July, one who could have seen that a track switch wasn't in the position that the drivers thought it was in.

    Disney is enforcing that policy strictly now, demanding under threat of disciplinary action that a spotter watch any monorail in reverse, no matter how short the distance.

    I believe that we are still awaiting the NTSB report on the incident. Someone please correct me if I am wrong about that.

    Update (2009/12/23): OSHA hits Disney with $44,000 in fines over the monorail crash, and other incidents. Compared with other OSHA actions, the fine seems light, given that an employee death was involved.

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    2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: SeaWorld Orlando's Kraken

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 21, 2009 at 3:05 PM

    SeaWorld Orlando's Kraken joins the Best Theme Park Attraction tournament field as the 15th seed in the Best Roller Coaster bracket.

    SeaWorld's Kraken
    An aerial view of SeaWorld's Kraken

    This Bolliger & Mabillard Floorless model features a 144-foot drop, as well as two loops, a dive loop, a zero-G roll, a cobra roll and a corkscrew.

    And did we mention the underground trench? Let's take a virtual ride, thanks to this on-ride video prepared by SeaWorld for Theme Park Insider:

    Themed to a legendary sea serpent kept by ocean god Poseidon, Kraken the coaster got a bit of an unlikely publicity boost from a theme park rival when Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" featured the legendary Kraken the sea beast throughout.

    Other popular B&M Floorless coasters include Six Flags Great Adventure's Bizarro, Six Flags Magic Mountain's Scream and Kings Dominion's Dominator. We'll find out how Kraken fares when voting begins in the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction tournament in March.

    Let's hear your thoughts about Kraken, in the comments.

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    Carowinds completes track on its Intimidator

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 21, 2009 at 12:49 PM

    Carowinds announced today that it has completed the track for its Intimidator roller coaster, the Dale Earnhardt-themed Bolliger & Mabillard Hyper that it will debut in Spring 2010.

    Intimidator
    Photo from Carowinds

    Sister park Kings Dominion is building an Earnhardt-themed coaster for 2010, as well. Its Intimidator 305, an Intamin Giga, topped out earlier this month. Track construction continues there.

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    Theme park cast member stories: My Christmas morning at Walt Disney World

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 21, 2009 at 11:04 AM

    The two kids flew by me, running through the Pirates of the Caribbean turnstiles, moments after seven in the morning.

    Dad, with his newly-bought coffee in hand, lingered in the plaza. The morning air felt bitterly cold, after the snow earlier that week.

    "Merry Christmas," I told him, the first of many such greetings I'd be offering that day.

    "Merry Christmas," he replied, stamping his feet. Few tourists had brought the right clothes for the cold snap. "Wow, it must be tough working Christmas morning."

    I laughed.

    "Actually," I said, "several of us were just wondering if we'd find anyone out here coming to Disney World first thing on Christmas morning."

    To be honest, I think the exact words another Pirates cast member had used moments before the park opened were something like "I cannot believe that anyone in their right mind would come to Disney World instead of spending Christmas morning opening presents." But I didn't tell the Dad that.

    He laughed.

    "Yeah, you'd think that we'd be opening presents somewhere, right?"

    The guy reads minds, I guessed. Another family walked into the plaza, shivering as they pushed through the turnstiles.

    "Well, obviously I'm skipping that, too," I said with a grin. Of course, I'd be opening presents with my family before Christmas dinner that afternoon, after my shift, so it wasn't like I wasn't going to be celebrating the day. I wondered if they'd be doing something similar, too, later in the day at whatever hotel where they were staying.

    The Dad's focus shifted; he turned his eyes from me toward the passageway his kids had run into.

    "The kids said they really wanted to go to Disney World for Christmas," he said. "Their mom and I told them that we couldn't afford that, with other presents, too."

    He sipped his coffee.

    "So the kids said, 'Fine, let's skip the other presents and all give each other a trip to Disney World, instead,'" he continued.

    The Dad brought his eyes back to me, and I could see a misty look in them, one that may well not have had anything to do with the cold.

    "So I guess they're opening their presents now, after all."

    He stood, silently now, with a silly grin on his face, his eyes drifting back down the passageway.

    I let him have the moment, then spoke.

    "They'll be exiting through the shops over to your right, sir," I said.

    "Oh... yes. Thanks."

    "Sir?"

    He looked back at me, as he walked across the plaza.

    "Merry Christmas," I said.

    Read more of Robert's stories about working in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom.

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    Looking for last-minute gifts for theme park fans?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 21, 2009 at 9:59 AM

    For those of you who were snowed in last weekend and today are looking frantically for presents for fellow theme park fans, here are links to the inexpensive "Christmas gifts for theme park fans" suggestions we offered last month:

    We'd also suggested

    but those appear now to be out of stock.

    And, of course, theme park tickets always make a good gift, though it appears that many of you are not going there this season. Here are a few convenient links to buy gift tickets:

    If anyone on your list is a music fan, our sister site - Violinist.com - offers a huge list of gift suggestions for music fans, too.

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    2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: SeaWorld Orlando's Journey to Atlantis

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 18, 2009 at 3:40 PM

    SeaWorld Orlando's Journey to Atlantis joins the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction tournament as the 16th seed in the Best Themed Ride bracket.

    SeaWorld Orlando's Journey to Atlantis

    This Mack water coaster debuted in 1998, as SeaWorld's first thrill ride. It's SeaWorld, where park rules dictate that you have to get wet, so it shouldn't have surprised anyone when the park's first roller coaster kicked off with a soaking flume-ride drop.

    After boarding, riders proceed through a short dark ride sequence when the Siren beckons riders into the mythical city of Atlantis. But soon, the siren transforms into a demon and riders are expelled from the temple down the ride's signature waterfall.

    After a turnaround, riders return to the temple for a final encounter with the siren/demon, in a short roller coaster segment leading to a final splashdown... and thorough soaking.

    Here's a highlight video that SeaWorld prepared for Theme Park Insider:

    Orlando's Journey to Atlantis was an immediate hit with crowds and has spawned two other versions in following decade. San Diego's drops the dark ride element, but substitutes a longer coaster and a unique indoor elevator lift. San Antonio's is essentially a basic shoot-the-chutes ride, with 360-degree turntables at the top of the lift and before the drop.

    Over the years, riders have complained that the show elements have muddied, and that the whole ride building could use a sharp rehab. But JTA remains popular enough to win a place in this year's tournament. Whether it can beat the top seed in its bracket, however, won't be known until voting for the Best Theme Park Attraction tournament begins in March.

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    Captain EO return confirmed

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 18, 2009 at 12:34 PM

    Disneyland just sent out the word: Captain EO is returning to Tomorrowland's Magic Eye Theater in February 2010.

    (Several of us at the Mr. Lincoln premiere yesterday suspected that we'd get this news then, but company reps told us that there would be no further announcements yesterday.)

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    Vote of the week: Are you buying theme park tickets as Christmas presents?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 18, 2009 at 11:15 AM

    Theme parks have been filling my e-mail in box over the past few weeks with offers hawking season passes and tickets as Christmas gifts. Six Flags and the Cedar Fair theme parks seem to have been hitting the pitches especially hard, trying to build a large base of visitors for what looks like another tough season in 2010.

    Here's my question: Are you buying? Are you buying theme or amusement park passes this holiday season - for yourself, or for family or friends?

    Or maybe you're buying for yourself and for family and friends. If so, the industry sends you its thanks. ;-)

    Tell us what theme park-related gifts you've been buying (or asking for) this year. And if you're not, tell us why not - whether it's because of cost, quality, selection... whatever.

    Thanks again for reading Theme Park Insider. And please keep reading next week and in the weeks ahead as we continue our series looking at all 64 nominees in the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction tournament.

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    2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: Lights! Motors! Action! at Disney's Hollywood Studios

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 17, 2009 at 10:36 PM

    Lights! Motors! Action! enters the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction tournament as the 16th seed in the Best Live Show bracket. This "Extreme Stunt Show" is Disney's second stunt-centered performance at the Disney's Hollywood Studios theme park in Walt Disney World, after the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular. Like Indy, Lights! Motors! Action! mixes thrills with "behind-the-scenes" segments designed to show what goes into creating stunts for action films.

    Featuring an armada of stunt-modified Opel cars, the show takes place within a 6.5-acre area, including a Mediterranean-themed set, vehicle garage and 5,000-seat stadium. Stunt coordinators put the cars, motorcycles and even Jet Skis through a series of chases and vehicle choreography, leading up to a montage of the performed stunts being played on the outdoor theater's video screen.

    The show was the first import from Paris' Walt Disney Studios theme park, where the "Moteurs... Action! Stunt Show Spectacular" debuted with that park in 2002. The Florida version debuted March 14, 2005 and remains popular with crowds today.

    But will it prove popular enough to pull what would be a huge first-round upset against this brackets top seed? We will find out when voting begins in March for the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction in America tournament, here on Theme Park Insider.

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    Disneyland's Mr. Lincoln debuts Disney's next generation of animatronic storytelling

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 17, 2009 at 5:05 PM

    Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln returns tomorrow to Disneyland's Main Street Opera House, as Disney replaces the world's first audio-animatronic human character with the first of its next generation of animatronic figures.

    Main Street Opera House at Disneyland

    This new Mr. Lincoln is based not upon the hydraulic technology that powered all animatronic figures from the original Mr. Lincoln through today's characters. Instead, it's based on a new electronic model, one that allows Disney's Imagineers to construct more realistic human forms from the skeletal level, explained Disney Imagineering Executive Vice President Scott Trowbridge.

    Lincoln animatronic at Disneyland
    Image courtesy Disney

    I asked Trowbridge and Imagineering Senior VP Tony Baxter to explain what this new technology will allow Disney to do with theme park storytelling. (Your new buzzword is "autonomatronics." And don't miss Baxter's wish to see a new generation Indy in the Indiana Jones Adventure ride, either.)

    As for Mr. Lincoln himself, the newly designed show jettisons the binaural gimmickry of the 2001 version, which was replaced in 2005 by the "Disneyland: The First 50 Magical Years" film, with Steve Martin. We're back to a modified version of the pre-2001 Mr. Lincoln show, with narration by Paul Frees and Lincoln's voice again performed by Royal Dano.

    In doing research for the show, Imagineers found forgotten studio recordings of Dano's vocal performance, allowing them to replace the previous audio track with a much cleaner version, Baxter said. Indeed, the audio in the show sounds crisper than I've ever heard it. A new digital projection system also displays the filmed prologue to Mr. Lincoln's appearance in vivid color and sharp contrast.

    Imagineers have better captured the asymmetry of Lincoln's face and body in this newest figure. Lincoln furrows his brow, wrinkling the skin above his nose. His eyes twitch and eyelids droop. As Baxter and Trowbridge promised, this new Lincoln offers a greater range of facial expression than ever accomplished before with an animatronic figure.

    Not yet realized, though, is convincingly lifelike oral articulation. No, a deaf person could not read Lincoln's lips. The lip and tongue movement that would allow that level of detail appear to remain a step beyond current technology. Yet Lincoln remains the strongest step yet toward the ideal of a full articulated human replica.

    And let's not forget to celebrate the return of this poignant take on Lincoln's life and the American Civil War. Buddy Baker's score, incorporating music from both previous versions of the show and Epcot's American Adventure, musically sets the stage for Lincoln's appearance, animating the still photos and paintings that precede him.

    Epcot's Circle of Life definitely would not have made the Best Theme Park Attraction nominees this year had Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln debuted in time to make the field. Here's looking forward to another long run for Mr. Lincoln at Disneyland.

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    Cedar Fair sale in works, for $700m - plus $1.6b in debt

    By Mike K
    Published: December 16, 2009 at 7:33 PM

    The Wall Street Journal and Sandusky Register are reporting the potential sale of Cedar Fair to Apollo Management LP for $700 million.

    The sale would also have Apollo Management take responsibility for the $1.6 billion in debt Cedar Fair current holds. The owner of Cedar Point, Kings Island, Knott's Berry Farm and other regional amusement parks, Cedar Fair has increasingly struggled to management its debt load over the past year. An official announcement is expected within the next couple of days.

    So far, this is the only public article on the net is at sanduskyregister.com.

    Update from Robert: Deal's done. Add the cash and the debt and you get about $2.3 billion.

    Does that number sound familiar? It should. That's the amount that Blackstone paid InBev to obtain the Busch Entertainment Corp. theme parks, now rebranded as SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. (InBev's got an option on an additional $400 million in SeaWorld revenue, so the final price could go as high as $2.7 billion.)

    Given that the latest TEA/ERA report has the former BEC parks attracting 23 million in 2008 attendance, and Cedar Fair doing 22.7 million, it wouldn't be surprising that the two chains would fetch very similar prices. I wonder if Apollo didn't look at the BEC sale price, subtract the Cedar Fair debt and say, "hmm, $700 million sounds about right." (FWIW, I think that SeaWorld Parks should be worth more than Cedar Fair, given the value of the company's stronger brand names and better park locations.)

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    2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: Epcot's Circle of Life

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 16, 2009 at 3:25 PM

    Circle of Life: An Environmental Fable enters the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction tournament as the 16th seed in the Best Movie or Animated Show bracket.

    Epcot's Circle of Life
    Image courtesy Disney

    Playing in Epcot's Land pavilion at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, Circle of Life opened in the Harvest Theater on January 21, 1995, as the Walt Disney Co. looked to capitalize on the recent overwhelming success of its animated movie musical, The Lion King. The film replaced Symbiosis, a film about human damage to the environment that provided some footage that was recycled in Circle of Life.

    Recycling - how environmentally friendly! ;-)

    Circle of Life follows The Lion King's Timon and Pumbaa, as the two dam local rivers to create a lake for their planned Hakuna Matata Lakeside Village. Simba points out that their actions are robbing other animals downstream of the water they need to survive. Then he really rubs it in by telling Timon and Pumbaa that they're acting like a bunch of human beings.

    Timon and Pumbaa learn the lesson and remove the dam, restoring the environment for all the downstream animals. And the audience learns a lesson.

    You know who also learned a lesson from Circle of Life? The writers of "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa," who used the same device (a dam in Africa threatening downstream life) as a major plot point in that Dreamworks animated film.

    As a 16-seed, Circle of Life faces the toughest road to the title in this bracket. We will find out how this film performs when voting begins in March.

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    Roy Disney's death, today at 79, silences passionate advocate for animation arts

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 16, 2009 at 12:59 PM

    Roy E. Disney really did help save Disney.

    Roy E. DisneyAt a crucial moment in the history of the Walt Disney Company, Walt's nephew stepped forward to demand a change in leadership, one that ultimately led to a new management team and promising new creative initiatives.

    Roy Disney died today in Newport Beach, at the age 79, after a battle with stomach cancer.

    A passionate friend of Disney's animation division, Roy served the company as a director and internal advocate. He left active work within the company in the mid-1970s, to be brought back into the fold when Michael Eisner arrived as CEO in the early 1980s. Focusing on the animation division, his push for resources paid off as the company turned out a string of hits in the late 80s and early 1990s.

    Eventually, his relationship with Eisner soured, and after Disney management didn't list him for renomination to the company's board, Roy in 2003 joined the PR war against the Eisner administration.

    In the early years of this decade, online fans and critics were railing against the Eisner administration, following cutbacks in show quality, attraction development and staffing at the Disney theme parks. Two fatal accidents at Disneyland, the first to be the fault of the company, also brought severe criticism.

    Still, many Disney fans continued to lap up whatever the company served, and a bubble-inflated economy fattened Disney's bottom-line. But with Walt's nephew now joining the critics, some institutional investors began to question the company's leadership. Eventually, Eisner left the company, handing leadership to Robert Iger, Eisner's designated successor.

    Roy fought the Iger appointment, but later returned to the company. Despite Roy's initial opposition to the Iger appointment, I think Roy deserves credit for helping force the series of events that led to it. Eisner's departure cleared much of the internal acrimony that was sapping the company's progress. And under Iger's leadership, the Walt Disney Company repaired its fractured relationship with Pixar and brought Pixar's John Lasseter into Disney's leadership, which revived Roy's beloved animation division.

    Roy also advocated Disney's recent return to nature films, and served as a long-time supporter of Walt's beloved Cal Arts. Without Roy's actions in 2003-5, I believe that the Eisner administration would have held on longer, with more damage to the company's reputation, internal talent development and long-term creative direction, as a result.

    On a selfish note, though I never had the pleasure of meeting Roy individually, he was a good friend to Theme Park Insider, including it among the nine websites linked from the original "Save Disney" website. That helped raise TPI's profile among theme park critics at the time, connecting us with several friends are as passionate about promoting high quality and great value in the industry as we are.

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    2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: Cedar Point's Raptor

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 15, 2009 at 3:44 PM

    The 16th seed in the Best Roller Coaster bracket of the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction tournament, Cedar Point's Raptor, opened on May 7, 1994. This Bolliger & Mabillard Inverted Coaster features a top speed of 57 miles per hour, a 119-foot drop... and six inversions, including a vertical loop, zero-G-roll, cobra roll and two corkscrews.

    Raptor
    Photo submitted by TPI reader Tom Faraci

    Other top B&M Inverteds include Busch Gardens Tampa's Montu, Busch Gardens Williamsburg's Alpengeist, Knott's Berry Farm's Silver Bullet, Six Flags' Batman The Ride and Dueling Dragons at Universal's Islands of Adventure (soon to become the Dragon Challenge in the park's Wizarding World of Harry Potter).

    Let's hop aboard for the ride...

    As you can see, the view from the front is... intense. But some fans (okay, like me) knock inverted coasters for obstructed views on all other rows of the train. (I called my trip on Alpengeist last summer "like riding in a blender." Not that that's necessarily a bad thing.) Will enough fans of the B&M Inverted turn out to help Raptor to what would be a huge first-round upset? We'll find out when voting begins in March.

    Please use the comments to share your thoughts about Cedar Point's Raptor.

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    Theme Park Insider vacation makeover: A roller coaster trip across America

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 15, 2009 at 11:17 AM

    This week's makeover candidate hails from Sydney, Australia wants to plan a roller coaster trip across America - riding 40 of the nation's top roller coasters for her 40th birthday. She's only been to California and Nevada before, so this will be her first trip to most of the country.

    I have narrowed down the list of themeparks my partner and I want to go to and am in the process of planning the traveling around the parks and their locations, however I am still waiting for opening hours in 2010 for a few places - especially those parks in the northern part of the US. Therefore we are anticipating traveling for 4 - 5 weeks in May to June.

    The current themeparks on my 'dream' rollercoaster tour are:
    Cedar Point, Ohio
    Kings Island, Ohio
    Six Flags Magic Mountain, California
    Six Flags Great Adventure, New Jersey
    Six Flags Over Georgia
    Hersheypark, Pennsylvania
    Dollywood, Tennessee
    Busch Gardens, Virgina
    Circus Circus, Las Vegas

    I am also starting my rollercoaster tour on the Gold Coast in Queensland Australia to ride the Tower of Terror at Dreamworld (and add some local flavour!

    I'm going to lean on you folks, Theme Park Insider's readers, for this one, especially tips on hotels, side trips and money saving tips around the parks. Here are the coasters I would pick for this trip, in the order in which I would drive to the parks. Note that I'm dropping Six Flags Over Georgia from the list, since its coasters are pretty much redundant to what you'll have found elsewhere on the trip. But I am adding three Orlando parks, thanks to some top-quality original coasters at Universal Orlando. (See update below.) I've also skipped Adventuredome at Circus Circus in Las Vegas because it really only has the one coaster, Canyon Blaster, and I'd try to avoid any park where I could bag only one top coaster.

    Also, rather than simply flying to LA and renting a car (which might be difficult, if not impossible, given the number of states and distance covered during this trip), I'm suggesting flying to three U.S. cities, then hitting parks in those regions of the country. This would be a three-stop "open jaw" itinerary, so check with a travel agent in Australia for help in booking the best airline deal.

    The other option might be simply to buy an inexpensive used car in L.A. and use it to drive across the country and back, then selling it back to a dealer at the end of the trip. You'd need to do some research on reliability of various used U.S. car models first, though, as you wouldn't want to be caught paying for expensive repairs during your trip. (Or, finally, you could simply agree to take along a Theme Park Insider reader who'd be willing to drive you across in the country in exchange for being invited on this trip!)

    Riddler's Revenge at Six Flags Magic Mountain
    Riddler's Revenge at Six Flags Magic Mountain

    1. Fly to LA

    Six Flags Magic Mountain

    • Déjà Vu
    • Goliath
    • Tatsu
    • Terminator: Salvation
    • Riddler's Revenge
    • X2
    Knott's Berry Farm
    • Ghostrider
    • Silver Bullet
    • Xcelerator

    2. Fly to Washington, D.C. (You could try Baltimore of Philadelphia, as well, to find the best deal from LA)

    Six Flags Great Adventure

    • Bizarro
    • El Toro
    • Kingda Ka
    • Nitro
    • Superman: Ultimate Flight
    Hersheypark
    • Lightning Racer
    • Fahrenheit
    • Storm Runner: Vertical Horsepower!
    Cedar Point
    • Magnum XL-200
    • Maverick
    • Millennium Force
    • Raptor
    • Top Thrill Dragster
    Kings Island
    • The Beast
    • Diamondback
    • Firehawk
    • Flight of Fear
    • Vortex
    Dollywood
    • Mystery Mine
    • Tennessee Tornado
    • Thunderhead
    Busch Gardens Williamsburg
    • Alpengeist
    • Apollo's Chariot
    • Griffon
    • Loch Ness Monster

    3. Fly to Orlando

    SeaWorld Orlando

    • Kraken
    • Manta
    Universal's Islands of Adventure
    • Dragon Challenge
    • Incredible Hulk Coaster
    Universal Studios Florida
    • Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit
    • Revenge of the Mummy

    As for park tickets, buy a Play Pass for $54.99 online for Six Flags Magic Mountain. That will also get you in to Great Adventure in New Jersey, for no additional fee.

    Consider buying a Platinum Pass to Knott's Berry Farm online for $160. This will get you into Knott's, Cedar Point and Kings Island, with free parking at each. That works out to about $53 per park. With the parking fee, if you can find one-day ticket deals online under $40 for each park, you might go with those instead of the Platinum Pass.

    I wouldn't bother with the Platinum pass for the Busch and SeaWorld parks. At nearly $300 for the two-year pass, it's cheaper to buy one-day tickets for the two parks on this itinerary.

    Get the online $99 7-day/2-park ticket for Universal Orlando, though.

    Okay, it's your turn: Additions, suggestions and thoughts in the comments, please.

    Update: Much better suggestions in the comments. In fact, I'm now suggested dumping the Orlando leg in favor of adding Holiday World and Kings Dominion to the midwest/mid-Atlantic leg of the trip. Read the comments for more.

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    What is the best theme park attraction in America?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 14, 2009 at 3:52 PM

    It is with great pleasure that today I let you know about next year's Best Theme Park Attraction tournament.

    That's right. Instead of honoring the best ride in America, as we did for the tournament's first two years, we're opening it up to all theme park attractions in 2010, including rides and shows.

    Not only that, we're going to be running four tournaments in one. We're breaking the 2010 tournament into four brackets:

    • Best Themed Ride
    • Best Roller Coaster
    • Best Live Show
    • Best Movie or Animated Show

    Revenge of the Mummy at Universal Studios Florida
    Last year's winner: Revenge of the Mummy at Universal Studios Florida

    Sixteen top attractions will compete in each bracket, for those respective titles. Then, the Best Themed Ride and Best Roller Coaster will face off for the title of Best Theme Park Ride, and the Best Live Show and Best Movie or Animated Show winners will compete for Best Theme Park Show.

    Finally, those two winners will match up in the tournament final, for the title of Best Theme Park Attraction in America.

    Other changes this year? Instead of keeping voting open all day, as we did in the past, we're treating these match-ups just like the games in the sports tournaments that inspired it. Each match-up in the Best Theme Park Attraction tournament will last two hours, and only one match-up will run at a time on the Theme Park Insider website. (I'm working on a new voting tool for this year's tournament, too.)

    I'll post reminders at the start of each match-up to Theme Park Insider's Twitter page, as well as sending a schedule of each day's match-ups to Theme Park Insider's e-mail subscribers, so if you haven't yet signed up for one of those services, they'll be great ways to keep up with the voting.

    So what attractions will be in this year's tournament? Well, you've already decided. I tallied the ratings submitted by Theme Park Insider readers over the past 12 months to select the participating attractions and to seed the tournament. Filling the brackets did require a few judgment calls, though, and I'd like to explain those now.

  • The biggest judgment call came in the roller coaster tournament. From the way you've rated them, you folks love Bolliger & Mabillard Mega coasters. But I can't see the fun in having multiple match-ups in the roller coaster bracket devoted to splitting hairs over whether Apollo's Chariot is a better ride than Diamondback or Goliath or Nitro or Raging Bull. (I listed those alphabetically, so don't infer anything from that order.) Especially when the majority of readers on the site haven't ridden them all.

    So I've made this call - there will be only one representative of any model of coaster in the tournament. That means one Bolliger & Mabillard Mega, one Intamin Giga, one B&M Dive, etc. This way, if you haven't ridden the coaster in the draw, but have ridden one of the same model elsewhere, you'll be encouraged to consider that experience when deciding which coaster to support. The representative that was selected was the one with the highest reader rating on the site when I seeded the tournament.

  • A handful of roller coasters with strong show elements were seeded in the best themed ride bracket, instead of best roller coaster. I'm not revealing any participants yet, but you probably can guess a few rides that may be officially "roller coasters" but have far more in common with their dark ride neighbors than the free-standing B&M and Intamin tracks you'd find at a regional amusement park.

  • Only rides that have been opened by now, and will remain open under the same name and in the same location in 2010, are eligible. We'll hand out a Theme Park Insider Award on July 4, 2010 to the best new attraction opened between June 1, 2009 and May 31, 2010. But attractions that opened after November 1, 2009 won't be eligible for the 2010 Best Attraction tournament. Nor will attractions that will have closed or moved before March 2010.

    The big effect of this decision? No Dueling Dragons. Those Islands of Adventure coasters will have closed by March 2010, to be rethemed as Dragon Challenge for the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter, expected to open later that spring. (Frankly, it'd be kinda pathetic to award the title of Best Attraction to a ride that technically no longer exists.) There will be a Bolliger & Mabillard Inverted in the tournament, however, so fans of the Dragons will have a coaster to root for.

  • The difference between "live shows" and "movie and animated shows" was a bit of a judgment call, too. I understand that some of what we'll be calling "live" shows are, in fact, prerecorded. And that at least one of the "movie and animated show" nominees uses live input at each show. The difference, to me, was the presence of live performers (people or animals - not to give too much away) visible on stage during the performance. If a show had that, it went into the live show category. If not, then it went into movies and animated shows.

    The tournament will start on March 18, 2010, with the tournament final on April 5, 2010. So why I am telling you all this so early? Because, starting tomorrow, and then on each weekday between now and March 12, we'll be profiling one of the tournament entrants here in the Blog Flume.

    That means 64 days celebrating the best of the best of the theme park industry - 16 each of the best roller coasters, themed rides, live shows and movies and animated shows that America's theme and amusement parks have to offer. We'll include attraction descriptions, reviews, photos and videos (when we have them) and encourage each of you to submit your thoughts and experiences on these attractions as well.

    What better way to get through the cold winter months? (Well, for those of you who don't live in Southern California or Florida....) I hope that you'll all vote in this year's tournament, and enjoy the build-up over these next few months as we experience some of these great attractions here on Theme Park Insider.

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    December's Wizarding World of Harry Potter update

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 14, 2009 at 12:09 PM

    Excuse my spacing out, but I realized that I haven't been keeping you up-to-date on what I'm hearing about the progress of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure.

    I'm not on the scene, since I live in the Los Angeles area, but my sources on the scene in Orlando are feeding me some good information. Here's what I know:

  • The physical interior construction of Hogwarts is almost complete. Scenery and decorating crews are moving in, transforming the rooms from a bare building into the castle we know from the films and books.

  • The Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey track is installed and the ride vehicles are cycling. Work is proceeding now on installing ride effects and timing. The Forbidden Journey is using Kuka robot-arm ride vehicles, so the ride timing for this involves many more variables that a traditional Omnimover-style dark ride.

  • Most of the familiar sights from within Hogwarts castle will be found not in the Forbidden Journey ride, as many initially suspected, but in the queue for Dragon Challenge (the former Dueling Dragons roller coasters.) You'll walk through Hogwarts for the Dragon Challenge queue, proceeding through at least one of the house common rooms, as well as the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom and Dumbledore's office.

    Despite the complexity of the decorating and programming work that needs to be done, my sources are confident that Universal will have Harry Potter ready for a May debut. Having major construction finished by Christmas was an important milestone for the project, and Universal appears to have beaten that.

    Universal Orlando has promoted to its grad night attendees that they will be able to walk through the area in during that event, in late April. It's not off the table that at least one of the attractions could be soft-opened for them at that time, as well, though no one feels confident enough to guarantee that. (Given everyone's experience with Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit last year, no one associated with Universal is in any mood to guarantee any specific opening dates for anything anymore.)

    In all, I'd have to say that this is good news for the project. Word from the inside is that Universal is throwing every resource it has toward getting this done right, and on time. Promotion for the Wizarding World in national media has been somewhat light for a project of this magnitude, but if Universal's decided to under-promise and over-deliver this time, I think that many fans, ultimately, will be pleased.

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    Theme park cast member stories: The company Christmas party

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 14, 2009 at 9:38 AM

    We hosted our annual family holiday party yesterday, which, of course, raises the subject of... holiday parties.

    Having been in the workforce now for a couple of decades, I've watched companies' holiday parties deteriorate from expensive blow-outs to family dinners to workplace luncheons to... nothing. The first newspaper where I had a full-time gig rented the largest hotel ballroom in town for its event, serving a prime-rib dinner and hiring a live band. By the time I left the newspaper industry, the company Christmas party was reduced to a pitch-in luncheon in a staff meeting room.

    Okay, the newspaper industry is dying, but businesses across the economy have cut back over the years. I don't know what Walt Disney World does for a company Christmas party these days (am I sure that a current cast member will fill us in...), but it used to be that Walt Disney World would rent out, well, Walt Disney World for the evening.

    Specifically, the Magic Kingdom, where I worked. Today, of course, you know this event as Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party. So many people in the Orlando area were angling for invites to the party from cast members they knew that Disney realized there was a market for this kind of event, and converted the cast party into an after-hours hard-ticket event.

    I never went to the party, opting to work each night of the event instead. (Hey, someone had to!) I loved working the cast Christmas party, because they were the easiest "busy" shifts of the year.

    First, you got to ignore a whole slew of rules about what you could, and couldn't do, on stage. The company figured that even though you were working the event, the party was for you, too. So you could buy the discounted food or go get one of the freebie goodies and eat it stage. Want to sit down on a bench in Frontierland and chat with a friend on break? Or sneak in a trip on your favorite ride?

    Go ahead.

    Since the whole crowd was cast members and their family or friends, you got almost no grief from anyone, despite the large crowd. Working parade and need to clear a crosswalk? You felt like Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea - wave your arms, and they're gone. Trying to load the theater in Country Bear Jamboree? You didn't need to spiel for folks to slide all the way down to the end of each row. They knew, and did it.

    These were park pros, just like you.

    Frankly, the Walt Disney World cast Christmas party spoiled me forever on company Christmas parties. Even though I appreciated that first newspaper prime-rib bash, it didn't awe me.

    I mean, it's not like we got a free ride on the Haunted Mansion or anything....

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

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    Vote of the week: Which ride most needs a refurb?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 11, 2009 at 8:27 AM

    Our discussions about the most overrated and underrated theme park attractions revealed one bit of consensus:

    Several of what could be the nation's top theme park attractions really could use some TLC. Poor show quality is ruining what could be some fabulous rides. But which is the most egregious example? What's the top show maintenance problem at a major U.S. theme park attraction?

    Fixing the light levels on Animal Kingdom's Dinosaur?

    Getting the Yeti fully functional on Animal Kingdom's Expedition Everest?

    Restoring all the show effects on Disneyland's Indiana Jones Adventure?

    Repairing the audio and restoring the decor on SeaWorld Orlando's Journey to Atlantis?

    Smoothing the ride and freshening the theme of Disney Hollywood Studios' Rock n' Roller Coaster?

    You tell us:

    Let's hear your argument, in the comments. And, as always, have a great weekend and thanks for reading Theme Park Insider!

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    What are the most underrated theme park attractions in America?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 10, 2009 at 10:24 AM

    Yesterday, we talked about the most overrated theme park attractions in America. (And did you ever have plenty to say!)

    So, predictably, I suppose, today let's take on the flip side: What are the most underrated theme park attractions in the country?

    Here's my list. Again, these aren't my necessarily my favorite attraction, or the ones I think best in a park (though a few are). They're the rides and shows that I think don't get enough credit from the wider audience of theme park fans. And if I don't list a park, it's because either I haven't visited it in the park year or so, or if I did, I didn't consider any of its attractions to be especially underrated.

    In some cases I mention an attraction here because of a single element or quality that I think too often overlooked. In other cases, the attraction presents a complete package, but for some reason, perhaps age or the presence of even better attractions nearby, people don't rave about it as much as they should.

    Busch Gardens Williamsburg: Loch Ness Monster
    This Arrow classic stands up better than just about any other coaster its age. Frankly, of the (now) four coasters at Busch Gardens Williamsburg, this remains my favorite ride.

    Disney's Animal Kingdom: Finding Nemo - The Musical
    This mix of puppetry, love actors and original music evokes the Broadway version of "The Lion King" and delivers what I think is the most delightful musical running in a theme park, anywhere. But, man, do they ever need to install more comfortable seats.

    Disney's California Adventure: Monsters, Inc: Mike and Sulley to the Rescue
    A classic dark ride, with a fun interactive twist at the end. Parks need more of these.

    Disneyland: The Enchanted Tiki Room
    See my article from last month on this gem.

    Dollywood: Sha-Kon-O-Hey!
    This show is underrated mostly because I failed to list it on the site when it first opened. But it deserve fans' praise as an engaging, Broadway-quality musical with the best original song score in a theme park attraction.

    Epcot: Impressions de France
    Okay, you've heard this from me before.

    Knott's Berry Farm: Mystery Lodge
    The most "Disney"-like of Knott's attractions, this pre-dates the current, Cedar Fair regime and is a product of the same crew that produced "Impressions de France."

    Legoland California: Fun Town Fire Academy
    More than any theme park attraction I've experienced, Fun Town Fire Academy enables (even requires) families to work together, providing few minutes of good, bonding fun. For that reason, because family vacations are supposed to be about family time, this is my pick as the most underrated theme park attraction in America.

    SeaWorld Orlando: Clyde and Seamore Take Pirate Island
    I'm giving them this because of the pre-show mime. Yes, I am a bad person for writing this. But, c'mon, he is funny.

    SeaWorld San Diego: Rocky Point Preserve
    An engaging interactive experience, and the original SeaWorld park gets extra points for the lovably cute sea otters.

    Six Flags Magic Mountain: Riddler's Revenge
    No matter what I do when I visit Magic Mountain, I always make time for a ride on this B&M stand-up, and always end up enjoying it as much as any other coaster in the park. So why doesn't it get the attention as a top national coaster that others do?

    Universal Studios Hollywood: Jurassic Park - The Ride
    Hollywood's version of this Universal staple cranked up the soak factor a while back, making this an even more enjoyable splashfest. Still, it seems to me overshadowed by the Orlando version, which I don't enjoy as much.

    Universal's Islands of Adventure: Flying Unicorn/Flight of the Hippogriff
    This installation of a Vekoma Junior Coaster remains the best "family" coaster I've ridden, with just enough thrill to tempt a youngster, without so much as to turn them off coasters.

    Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom: Tom Sawyer Island
    I thought about giving this to Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor, but, c'mon, you know me by now, right?

    Okay, let's see your lists. To the comments!

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    What are the most overrated theme park attractions in America?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 9, 2009 at 1:12 PM

    About.com's Arthur Levine this morning offered his list of the most overrated roller coasters in America, which inspired me to respond.

    First, I decided to look beyond roller coasters, and instead offer the most overrated attraction at each of the parks I've visited in the past year or so. If I've not listed a park, it's either because I haven't visited it recently, or I didn't feel like slapping the "overrated" label on anything there.

    Now, to me, to be "overrated" a ride must be highly rated by many in the first place. There's no point I see in declaring reviled coasters such as "Son of Beast" overrated, as Arthur does. They're hated, as they should be. "Worst" attractions would be a different list. These are simply the attractions I consider not as good as many people say. Some of them are fine rides, otherwise.

    Disney's Dinosaur

    Disney's Animal Kingdom: Dinosaur
    Sorry, but every time I've ridden this it's been too dark for me to see much of anything, making it a far less exciting show than it should be.

    Disney's Hollywood Studios: Rock n' Roller Coaster
    Nice launch, but then this ride coasts through a faux LA that reminds me of DCA's un-missed Superstar Limo.

    Disney's California Adventure: Soarin' Over California
    The conceit of the ride traps the camera in the air, robbing it of connecting with detail on the ground. A forgettable soundtrack doesn't help.

    Disneyland: Indiana Jones Adventure
    Once great, now so poorly maintained that many effects are missing and you notice your headache more than the narrative on the ride.

    Dollywood: Mystery Mine
    Whatever you do, don't actually keep your head back against the rest on this often slow and awkward ride. Ouch.

    Kings Island: The Beast
    Ditto what Arthur said. The most overrated coaster in America.

    Knott's Berry Farm: Montezooma's Revenge
    Another one-trick pony, undeserving of its high rating. All I can say is that it's better than its neighbor, the useless Jaguar.

    SeaWorld Orlando: Journey to Atlantis
    Loved it when it first opened, but it isn't holding up. Please, Blackstone, pay for the rehab this attraction desperately needs.

    SeaWorld San Diego: Journey to Atlantis
    At least Orlando still has the dark ride element in its version of the ride.

    Six Flags Magic Mountain: Scream
    Nice when it first opened, but the unforgiving and aesthetically oppressive parking lot setting has rendered this the roughest B&M coaster I've ridden.

    Universal Studios Hollywood: Revenge of the Mummy
    Such an abridged version of the Florida 'Mummy,' you can't ride this one without coming away disappointed, if you've ridden the east coast version.

    Universal's Islands of Adventure: Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls
    Themeing gaps within the mountain claim the title for what's probably the best ride on this list, otherwise.

    Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom: Pirates of the Caribbean
    Again, another abridged version of an audience favorite. This time, it's the east coast fans who suffer.

    * Update: If I'm listing overrated attractions today, you can pretty much guess what I'll be listing tomorrow, right? :-)

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    Theme Park Insider vacation makeover: Orlando, with roller coasters

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 8, 2009 at 11:15 PM

    It's time for another theme park vacation makeover. This time, our reader is a teen boy in a family of three, looking to fly from Salt Lake City to Orlando for a week (or more?) at the Central Florida theme parks. Let's meet the family:

    Me: 14- Love theme parks and roller coasters as well as shows and unique attractions.
    Sister: 12- Loves roller coasters but also the beach and other attractions outside theme parks.
    Mom: 49- Not big on theme parks, has interest in other attractions, and absolutely has to stay on property of one of the theme parks.

    Budget: $5,000. "Also, we don't settle for the motel or Holiday Inn-types but prefer more of the Grand Californian, Wilderness Lodge, or any other luxury hotel type that is ON PROPERTY."

    With the kids' love for roller coasters, plus less-than-a-park-lover mom's want for a top-service on-site hotel, my choice for this family would be to stay at the Universal Orlando Resort.

    Incredible Hulk Coaster

    Typically, I recommend that Orlando visitors who aren't experts at visiting the area theme parks choose between a week at Walt Disney World or a week combining Universal and SeaWorld. You can't see all of Orlando on one trip, anyway, and it's so much easier and generally cost effective for most visitors who want to see Disney just to spend the week focused there, and not try to work in the competing parks.

    But when the kids say that they love roller coasters, it's hard for me not to opt instead for the Universal/SeaWorld combo, with Rip, Ride, Rockit, Revenge of the Mummy, Incredible Hulk and Manta, among the dozens of other great attractions at these parks.

    That said, if you're simply looking for value, 2010 would be the year to opt for Disney. With the Wizarding World of Harry Potter debuting at Universal's Islands of Adventure in spring, and nothing new on the schedule for Disney in 2010, I suspect that the crowds will be moving up I-4 this summer, leaving deals aplenty at the Mouse House. Disney's priced aggressively over the past two years, and with the economy remaining stagnant through 2010, I expect Disney to continue cutting vacation package deals next year. Disney's also planning a substantial redesign of the Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland for 2013, which will lead some Disney fans to put off trips until then. (And construction likely won't start until 2011, so you won't have to deal with those hassles next summer, either.)

    But a discount's no deal if it isn't what you want to do.

    From personal experience, I can vouch that a Universal Orlando vacation offers excellent value for the money - having unlimited front of the line access to all attractions fundamentally changes the theme park vacation experience, making it a joy even for people who aren't hard-core theme park fans. (Such as Mom, perhaps?) I know that the 40-something mom in my family had the most fun she's ever had on one of our Orlando trips when we stayed at Universal's Loews Royal Pacific Resort.

    So here's what I recommend:

    Airfare: Looking at around $400-$500 roundtrip per person, flying SLC to MCO on Delta, or connecting through Denver on Frontier.
    Car: Around $250 for a weekly rental - economy or compact car.
    Hotel: Loews Royal Pacific Resort. Nightly rates for a two Queen room range from $215 in the early months of the year, rising to about $304 a night in summer, dropping back to $274 in mid-August and beyond. Rates are higher in April and May, around when folks are expecting Harry Potter to open.
    Tickets: Seven-day, two-park tickets to Universal Orlando remain online for $99 each. A one-day ticket to SeaWorld's available online for $68.95, and that will get you in a second day free, if you redeem that option while inside the park on your first day.
    Food, etc.: You should be able to get by between $40-60 per person per day in the parks without economizing too much. If you do, you can get by on less.

    What extras could you add, to make this a more interesting Orlando-area vacation?

    Visit natural Florida: If I had an extra $200-300 per person, I'd definitely set aside a day for the dolphin interaction program at Discovery Cove, to get close to some delightful animals and Florida, uh, flora. But with a more limited budget, hop in the car and drive 45 minutes north for a more authentic (and far less expensive) experience renting a canoe at Wekiwa Springs State Park. ($15/hr for canoe rental, plus $6/car for park entry. Guided canoe tour for $35/person.)

    Enzian Theater: This might not be the best option for kids and teens, unless they're film freaks, but Orlando's got one of the nation's most trendsetting independent theaters. Featuring top indie films, along with food and drink service inside the theater, the Enzian Theater in Maitland (just north of downtown Orlando) also screens a variety of cult classics and runs a summer camp for middle school kids who want to try filmmaking.

    The Beach to the east: Spend a day a Cocoa Beach, and maybe a night, adding a second day at the Kennedy Space Center. (Tickets $38 ea.)

    The Beach to the west: Or, head the other direction, spending the day at Clearwater Beach, adding another day riding more roller coasters at Busch Gardens Tampa. (Add $40 to your SeaWorld ticket, and you get seven days' unlimited visits to the two parks.)

    The budget's tight at $5,000, staying at a top-quality on-site property. Check Universal Orlando's hot deals page for offers through the winter, as well as Bing.com's Faretracker to see when airfares come down on the SLC-MCO route.

    If you're willing to go off-property, you can score a much cheaper hotel rate while keeping comparable room quality (and probably doing a bit better). But you'd lose the front-of-the-line access, which I suspect will prove essential to enjoying Universal Orlando many weeks during next summer, once Harry Potter's open. You'd find a better deal at Disney, in terms of spending less cash, but you'd lose roller coaster airtime, as well as the chance to be among the first to visit the Wizarding World.

    Readers, what's your call here? What would you suggest for this Orlando-area vacation?

    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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    Last call for Habitat volunteers

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 8, 2009 at 9:22 AM

    If you volunteered to join Theme Park Insider readers in building homes for Habitat for Humanity in Orlando on December 19, please contact Gareth H ASAP so he can pass your name and contact information to the organization. (The button to e-mail him is at the bottom of his profile page.)

    And if you haven't volunteered, and would like to join us in this worthy holiday endeavor, please contact Gareth right away. If any of the folks who'd previously stepped up fail to get in touch with Gareth for these final instructions, we'll have openings on the crew.

    Thank you, again, for supporting this cause!

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    An Old-Time Christmas at Silver Dollar City

    By James Rao
    Published: December 7, 2009 at 7:02 PM

    The following is an abridged account of my family's recent visit to Silver Dollar City (SDC) during its annual Christmas Festival. In order to keep the report to a shorter length (by my standards, anyway), I am going to squeeze our two-day visit into a one day report. Please note that I have taken liberties with the time line in order to fit everything into an abridged report – despite the fact that there is no way to accomplish everything detailed in this report in a single day's visit.

    I first want to note that the temperature during our visit was generally in the upper twenties to lower thirties, so 90% of the "rides" were closed, something folks need to consider when visiting a theme park in December. The only rides open (with few exceptions) were indoor attractions such as Fire-In-The-Hole, Flooded Mine, Grandfather's Mansion, and the Marvel Cave tour (where it is 60 degrees year round).

    However, we did not venture to SDC during the park's Christmas festival ("An Old Time Christmas") for thrill rides. As season pass holders, we've visited the park countless times and ridden all the featured attractions. This visit was to be the starting point of our Christmas season, and our only goal was to experience and embrace the yuletide spirit.

    Moving along....

    The park is beautifully arranged for the holidays with amazing decorative touches and over four million lights spread throughout, with the main focal point being a 5-story tall Christmas tree shining like a yuletide beacon in the center of Main Street. It is quite an amazing sight and a featured part of the night's jubilant Christmas festivities (more about those later). At any rate, outside of Orlando, I do not think I've seen anything quite as dressed up for the holidays as SDC. Wow!

    We began our visit by purchasing SDC's signature hot chocolate to wet our appetite for Christmas joy. This rich delicacy is filled with marshmallows, whipped topping, chocolate chips, and candy canes, which melt in the beverage and provide a warm, pepperminty aftertaste. Yummy. At $1.75 a pop (in a refillable mug we bought on our very first visit in 2009), this decadent joy is not too expensive on the wallet, yet very easy on the palate, and in 30 degree coldness, quite warming to the heart! I would venture to guess my family consumed over a dozen refills during our visit. The other beverage of choice featured during the holidays is Wassail, a hot, spiced punch often associated with Christmas. It too was quite delicious and graced our second refillable mug most of our trip

    Hot chocolate and Wassail in hand, we waited for the rope drop and headed for the park's featured Christmas show, "A Dickens' Christmas Carol", an original musical adaptation of the famous classic by Charles Dickens. We had great seats in the crowded Opera House Theater and sat in warm comfort for about 30 minutes awaiting the first performance of the day.

    SDC does a great job with the shows they feature. Quite often I have been very impressed with the quality of the actors, script writers, band members, and overall direction of each show. I am curious how the park is passed over every year on Amusement Today's voting for best shows. I understand Dollywood's place at the top the heap, but I must admit I would really like to go to Six Flags Fiesta Texas some time and see what all the fuss is about. I can scarcely imagine a better collection of shows at any Six Flags theme park than those featured at SDC.

    Despite my high expectations, I was very impressed with just how wonderful "A Dickens' Christmas Carol" turned out to be. It was quite possibly the best hour I have ever spent at a show in any theme park. We are talking Broadway quality production here, folks... a show that is honestly worth the price of park admission. I am not a professional critic by any means, but I can find no fault with this musical production, only the highest praise possible. It was simply amazing. Funny, heart warming, life affirming, and jaw-droppingly well imagined, SDC's signature Christmas show is a not to be missed event.

    After a tremendous standing ovation and extended curtain call, we headed out of the theater with glad tidings of good cheer on our hearts! We then rode one of the few rides we visited on this trip, Fire-In-The-Hole, a classic dark ride that never gets old. Even this attraction was decked out for the holidays which added some nice touches to the narrative.

    We then visited the Silver Dollar Saloon to see "Frontier Fa-La-La Follies" a Christmas infused vaudeville style show with singing, dancing, and broad, pie-in-your-face comedy. If you visit the park on a regular basis, the Saloon show is worth an occasional visit, but is not a must do on every trip. However, the Christmas version of the show is exemplary and something I highly recommend. The cast is surprisingly good and the mixture of big laughs with sentimental good cheer is unmatched.

    Next up we took a tour of the Marvel Cave, which is included with your park admission. These cave tours depart approximately every hour and last 60 minutes, with most of that time spent traversing nearly 600 stairs. A trained cave guide hosts the journey and provides visitors with anecdotes of historical or geological importance. A cable train takes cave visitors up the half mile, 1070-foot climb back to the surface once the tour is complete. Interestingly enough, I have taken this tour four times this year, and each time I have learned something new. Additionally, the beautiful Cathedral Room (one of the largest cave entrance rooms in the United States) was fully decked out with Christmas lights that formed a gigantic Christmas tree when viewed from the floor of the chamber. It was a breathtaking illumination to say the least.

    After visiting the Cave it was time for lunch (one should never eat a full meal before embarking on the Marvel Cave tour, I assure you!). We ate a Christmas buffet at Reunion Hall, a restaurant near the front of the park. The food was hot, good, and the service was fantastic. I am not a big fan of buffets, but on this occasion, I was quite pleased with the results.

    Bellies full and temperatures dropping, we headed out to ride Thunderation, the park's oldest roller coaster and the only real thrill ride still open in 33 degree weather. This Arrow mine train is a very fun family attraction, but with biting winds the only option was to ride in the backwards facing seats to keep the chill wind off our faces. We had a blast, and since we were the only visitors stupid enough to ride an outdoor coaster in the frigid cold, we were able to ride about four times in a row before the chill was too much to take. The ride closed down shortly after our last ride, as the temperature dropped below freezing.

    A quick visit to the Flooded Mine, an indoor shooter like Buzz Lightyear on-a-budget, helped take the chill out of our bones and prepped us for the Main Street festivities set to begin at 5:30.

    In the center of Main Street, overshadowing the Gazebo Stage, is a 5-story tall Christmas tree completely decked out with decorations and lights. At 5:30 each operating night during the holiday season the tree comes to life with a synchronized light and music production. The dancing lights of the tree are quite impressive alone, but when they are combined with rest of the Main Street lights, a veritable feast of sights and sounds envelops the crowd. Again, I am not sure I have seen anything quite as impressive at a theme park outside of Disney. Once the show is complete, the entire park is awash in over 4 million lights dancing and sparkling in the darkness.

    About fifteen minutes later the "Gift of Christmas Holiday Light Parade" works its way through the park. About a dozen floats travel slowly past featuring notable Christmas favorites like Santa, Frosty, and the like. The parade ends fittingly for this very Christian-oriented park with a float featuring the Nativity scene. Emblazoned in over 100,000 lights, the parade is short but imminently entertaining.

    After the parade we headed up to the Grand Exposition area to see "The Living Nativity" (a 15-minute musical recounting of the birth of Christ) at the Red Gold Heritage Hall. The show is well presented and well acted, however the flat seating arrangement makes it tough for anyone not seated in the front row to witness all the action. It was a good show, but not a must visit.

    Finally, we headed over to the Frisco Sing-Along Steam Train. Normally, this train attraction provides a 20-minute ride through the Ozark countryside. Midway through the excursion (while the train builds up steam for the last leg of the trip) train robbers briefly interrupt your ride with some mildly amusing antics. The Christmas version of the ride replaces the train robber scene with a grandfatherly story about the true meaning of Christmas. Furthermore, the entire route is decked out with Christmas lights and decorations, and you are encouraged to participate in a Christmas Carol sing-along during the ride. It was a wonderful excursion, with beautiful tunnels of Christmas lights, fun songs, and a warm presentation of the Christmas Story. The trip was the perfect exclamation point for a great park visit.

    Overall, "An Old Time Christmas" at Silver Dollar City is an amazing experience. If you are the kind of theme park visitor who is mostly interested in g-forces and 200 foot drops, this event is probably not for you. However, if you enjoy a strong narrative theme, beautiful decorations, delicious food, and overt sentimentality, then by all means make plans to visit SDC at your earliest convenience. Honestly, the Herschend family does a phenomenal job with this park year round, but their presentation at Christmas is nothing short of astonishing.

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    Universal Orlando to reveal more Harry Potter details on Blu-ray/DVD release

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 7, 2009 at 1:02 PM

    Universal Orlando next Tuesday will reveal (officially, at least) more details about its Wizarding World of Harry Potter attractions, which open in Islands of Adventure next spring. The reveal will happen in the bonus extras on certain editions of the Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince DVD and Blu-ray discs, which drop tomorrow, Dec. 8.

    Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey concept art

    From Universal's press release:

    The Blu-ray combo pack and 2-Disc Special Edition DVD includes a special 11-minute video that reveals more about the The Wizarding World of Harry Potter than has been announced to-date. The sneak peek featurette includes interviews shot on location with stars Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint and more – with each sharing new details and their excitement about The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

    Also included are clips of the film series producers David Heyman and David Barron and the art directors working closely with the Universal Orlando Resort Creative team to create the magical experience that is The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

    Never-before-seen footage includes:
    • Glimpses into the ride experiences of Flight of the Hippogriff, Dragon Challenge and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
    • A first-look at some of the delectable foods and drinks, including Cauldron Cakes, treacle fudge and Butterbeer
    • Universal Orlando Creative team members meeting with J.K. Rowling and the filmmakers

    The buildings are topped out now, and work continues on interiors and ride programming, I am told from inside (and very unofficial) sources. The consensus seems to be for a May opening, rather than earlier in the spring, with grad night participants in April being allowed to at least walk through the area, if not ride rides on soft openings.

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    Theme park cast member stories: The day it snowed at Disney World

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 7, 2009 at 10:57 AM

    Even in December, the weather in Central Florida remains pleasant most days. But once a decade or so, a nasty cold front penetrates the state, freezing orange trees, tourists and even residents.

    The morning of December 23, 1989 brought one of those fronts. With the forecast calling for temperatures to fall into the 30s that day, I put aside my Florida pride and hauled my "Northwestern" winter coat from the back of the hall closet. (That was the heavy winter coat I had worn as a student at Northwestern, just north of Chicago.) Good that I did, too. Watching other opening-shift cast members shiver in their jean jackets and sweatshirts that morning made me glad that I could put aside that I now lived in Florida, at least for this day, and dress like someone should for near-freezing temperatures.

    My shift that day was to open at Tom Sawyer Island. We didn't expect much of a crowd on that Saturday, two days before Christmas. Most folks coming down for the holidays would be traveling that day, making it a tough day at the airport, but not at Walt Disney World. (Certainly no local would be fool enough to come out in this weather.)

    A freeze doesn't come to Central Florida the way it arrives up north. There's no weeks-long gradual cooling into the 30s and 20s, turning the leaves and pulling warmth from the ground. Arctic air blows sharply into Florida, shrouding the still-warm waters and soil. So the Rivers of America surrounding Tom Sawyer Island weren't cooled to near-freezing temperatures. They remained in their winter upper-60s.

    So what happens when you drop a blanket of Yankee winter air on top of warm Florida water?

    You get fog. Lots and lots of dense fog.

    Actually, the morning's fog wasn't too bad when I arrived. In fact, I could drive the Aunt Polly's crew over to the island on the raft without hassle. No, you couldn't see to the Country Bear Jamboree from the middle of the river, like you could on a clear day, but you could see from the dock on one bank to the other, which was all you really needed.

    So we opened the island to a small cluster of shivering guests, stuffed into the winter coats that they also hadn't expected to be wearing in Florida. Everyone wore their shoulders around their ears that morning.

    And then temperature kept dropping, down through the 30s on their way to the day's low in the mid-20s. The fog thickened. As I docked on the mainland side after my second or third crossing, I heard the riverboat's whistle. I turned to signal the riverboat clear... and couldn't see it. Nor could I see across the river to the island dock.

    Lake Buena Vista, we've got a problem.

    My lead called a supervisor to let them know we were going down, and learned that we weren't the only ones making the same call. Big Thunder Mountain couldn't open at all since the ride's trains kept speeding over the frozen track. The fog enveloping Tom Sawyer Island had also covered the Seven Seas Lagoon, taking down the ferryboats and forcing all guests to access the Magic Kingdom via monorail. The Jungle Cruise was down, too. As was People Mover, Dumbo and just about every other outdoor ride in the park.

    But we still had about a dozen guests on the island. So the riverboat would have to dock while I ferried over a security guard to help the rest of the TSI crew clear the island. Frankly, they seemed happy to go. Half of them already had gathered on the dock for the return trip. The rest we found huddled in one of the caves, trying to stay warm.

    No one stepped up to relive me of driving duties. (Gee, I wonder why?) So I got to sail blind through the muck on that final trip back to the mainland. Cocky raft drivers say that they can make the trip with their eyes closed. I got to prove it, in effect.

    When we arrived, two of my friends from other attractions were waiting for me. With half the rides in the park closed, leads were giving any CM who wanted one an early release. Rather than spend the day shivering at the entrance to the TSI queue, letting people who didn't care know that they couldn't visit an island they could no longer see, I took one too.

    We decided we'd go play in the park, but some place inside. So we chose the Land pavilion at Epcot, which, we would later discover, had become the most popular destination in all of Walt Disney World that day, with crowds thicker than the TSI fog.

    On my over to the tunnels to change clothes and clock out, I felt something fly into my eye. I blinked, instinctually, and my brought my hand to my eye to wipe away whatever it was. But I felt the offending speck melt to water instead. Standing in the middle of Frontierland, I looked to the sky and saw... snowflakes.

    It was snowing... at Walt Disney World.

    For more stories about working at Walt Disney World, please visit Robert's Disney World cast member stories archive.

    Comments (9) | Archive Link

    Bocuse d'Or Will Not Return To Epcot

    By Scott Joseph
    Published: December 4, 2009 at 12:48 PM

    Jerome Bocuse, son of legendary chef Paul Bocuse and head of his father's operations at Chefs de France in Epcot, was a guest judge on this week's Top Chef (the episode will be rebroadcast tonight at 7). The episode's winner won a chance to compete in the US finals for the prestigious Bocuse d'Or, a biennial culinary competition. The last US finals were held as part of Epcot's International Food & Wine Festival. A subtle reference on the program to the next competition was a huge blow to Epcot -- it isn't coming back next year. Here's the full story

    Comments (2) | Archive Link

    Vote of the week: The Comcast/NBC Universal deal - good or bad for the theme parks?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 4, 2009 at 8:21 AM

    The big news this week has been cable TV operator Comcast's purchase of 51 percent of NBC Universal, with an option to buy the rest of the company from GE in a few years.

    NBC Universal is the full or part owner of the several Universal theme parks, including parks in Orlando, Los Angeles, Japan and soon, Singapore. How will this latest change in ownership (GE bought Universal from French water company Vivendi just six years ago) will affect Universal and its theme parks remains to be seen. I offered my two cents earlier this week.

    Now let's hear from you:

    Tell us in the comments why you voted the way you did. Although the current NBC Universal and theme park managers will remain in place, tell us what, specifically, are you looking for from Comcast in its management of the Universal theme parks over the long term.

    And thanks for reading Theme Park Insider.

    Comments (6) | Archive Link

    Demon Drop does a detour

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 2, 2009 at 11:39 AM

    I've been a bit occupied with preparing for this year's tournament project, and missed reporting several tweets I saw over the long weekend from folks who'd noticed pieces from the disassembled Demon Drop showing up at Dorney Park in Pennsylvania.

    Well, Cedar Fair has confirmed it - Demon Drop is going to Dorney Park, not Knott's Berry Farm, as originally announced.

    Comments (12) | Archive Link

    Comcast purchase of NBC Universal said to be done deal now

    By Robert Niles
    Published: December 1, 2009 at 5:20 PM

    Sources are now saying that the deal for Comcast to buy 51 percent of NBC/Universal is now done.

    What this means? See this post from earlier.

    Or this one, if you're feeling cynical (or sarcastic) about the whole thing. ;-)

    Update, Dec. 3: And here's your official announcement. Sale price for 51 percent: $13.75 billion - $6.5 billion in cash and the rest in the value of Comcast's cable networks that will become part of the new NBC/Uni (E!, Versus, Golf Channel and 10 regional sports channels). Jeff Zucker remains your NBC/Uni CEO.

    Comments (6) | Archive Link

    Busch Entertainment Corp. is now SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment

    By Mitchell Botwin
    Published: December 1, 2009 at 10:43 AM

    The Blackstone Group this morning closed its $2.3+ billion purchase of the now-former Busch Entertainment Corp. theme parks. Which means that the chain now has a new name: SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment.

    Added by Robert: The Busch Gardens theme parks in Williamsburg, Virginia and Tampa, Florida will retain their names, although they are now officially "owned by SeaWorld." Which is a flip from the SeaWorld parks being "owned by Busch."

    Here is the obligatory press release quote:

    The new name reflects the prominence of the SeaWorld brand in both the family travel industry and among the company’s portfolio of parks.

    “It is one of the world’s most widely recognized and respected family travel brands,” said Jim Atchison, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment President. “SeaWorld has been a brand associated with quality family entertainment since SeaWorld San Diego opened its gates for the first time in March 1964.”

    Translation: The name with the higher attendance total wins.

    Comments (6) | Archive Link

    Keep reading: November 2009 Archive



    Stories from a Theme Park Insider

    Stories from a Theme Park Insider

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