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January 2010

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2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: Disneyland's Space Mountain

By Robert Niles
Published: January 29, 2010 at 7:01 PM
Theme Park Insider readers have voted Disneyland's Space Mountain as the ninth seed in the Best Themed Ride bracket of the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament.

Disneyland's Space Mountain

Okay, I can hear some of you asking, "Wait a minute; Space Mountain is a roller coaster. What is it doing in the themed ride bracket, and not the roller coaster bracket?"

This was one of those judgment calls I had to make when deciding which bracket to seed several hybrid attractions. Think about Space Mountain for a moment. As a roller coaster, Space Mountain is absurdly simple: a basic wild mouse coaster in the dark. So why is it so highly rated and beloved?

Because the roller coaster provides just one element within the overall attraction here: the walk through the spaceport, the blast-off into space, the on-ride music, the ride through the star field. And the Disneyland installation has featured multiple themes in recent years, including the recent "Ghost Galaxy" overlay at Halloween. Let's face it, the reason that Space Mountain has the average reader rating it does is for its value as a themed ride, not as a roller coaster.

So that's why Space Mountain is in this bracket. (Two other rides listed as roller coasters here on Theme Park Insider also will be joining Space Mountain in the Best Themed Ride bracket, if anyone would like to speculate on which ones they will be....)

This nomination is for the Disneyland installation of the Space Mountain, which this past fall saw a major refurbishment for its Walt Disney World version. You'll also find Space Mountain at Tokyo Disneyland and a Jules Verne-inspired "reboot" of the ride at Disneyland Paris.

This wraps up the lower half of the draw for the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament. Starting Monday, we'll be shining the daily spotlight on the rides and shows in the upper half of each bracket. As a result, we'll start to see specific first-round match-ups, as we approach the start of tournament voting in March.

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

Comments (17) | Archive Link

Vote of the week: Will you use Orlando's high-speed train to get from the airport to the theme parks?

By Robert Niles
Published: January 29, 2010 at 3:38 PM
I'd like to get a feel for how popular President Obama's proposed high-speed rail line in Central Florida might be with Orlando visitors.

The proposed route would run from the Orlando International Airport over to the Orange County Convention Center, then down I-4 to Tampa. The route would take the train past all the Central Florida theme park resorts, though you'd need to take shuttles from the various stops to the parks and their nearby hotels. (The longest haul would be from the Lakeland stop to Legoland Florida - which would likely be 30 minutes or more. Then again, I've been stuck in International Drive traffic before that's made the trip from the Convention Center to Universal nearly that long....)

How do you get to your destination from the airport when you visit Orlando? And would you be likely to switch to the high-speed train once it's available? Proponents estimate that the trip from the airport to Tampa would take 45-50 minutes, if that gives you a feel for the travel time involved. Let's leave cost out of the equation for the moment; assume that the fare would be reasonable for the service provided.

If you now use hotel or park shuttles, such as Disney's Magical Express, and would likely continue using that in the future, select that option. If you're a rental car customer and plan to stay that way, pick that. But if you're willing to switch from those options, let us know. (I've added a fifth option for folks who live in Orlando, or have family or friends who pick them up at the airport. Update: forgot about those who drive down. Those can pick the fifth option, or sit this one out. Readers who don't visit Orlando can sit this vote out.)

The rail line's going in because (a) Obama needs to get unemployment down and construction projects such as this employ a lot of people, (b) the I-4 corridor has been a key swing vote region in the past two Presidential elections and is getting hammered by unemployment in this recession, and (c) the area's flooded with tourists in rental cars and if you're trying to get people to switch from cars to rail, it's a lot easier to get someone to give up a rental car for a week on vacation than to get them to stop driving their personal cars to and from work everyday.

The numbers for the first and second options in the vote should give us a sense, at least among Theme Park Insider readers, how many are willing to make that switch. The third and fourth numbers will show us how much people might switch from existing road-based mass transit to rail.

Let's hear in the comments what you would like to see from this project, and how parks should work with it, if at all.

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

Comments (19) | Archive Link

New Dining Room at Victoria & Albert's Will Offer Chef's Table Menu

By Scott Joseph
Published: January 29, 2010 at 3:11 PM
It's one of the best dining experiences in the Southeast United States, let alone Walt Disney World. The chef's table at Victoria & Albert's is a four-hour-plus food orgy of 13 or more courses. It's also one of the hardest tables to book. But the number of tables available for the chef's table menu is about to quadruple with the opening of a new dining area called the Queen Victoria Room. Also, Vicky & Al's will get it's own, independent Web site -- a Disney first? -- and a direct reservation line. Details: New dining room at Victoria & Albert's will offer more people a chance to experience the chef's table menu. Also, a new Web site is launching soon. More information

Comments (1) | Archive Link

Flying broomsticks for Universal's Harry Potter ride? Super Bowl TV ad gives clue

By Robert Niles
Published: January 29, 2010 at 11:40 AM
Universal Orlando announced today that it has bought airtime for a TV ad during the first half of this year's Super Bowl. (Featuring, of course, my Indianapolis Colts, playing the heel for a change, against the pretty much universally beloved New Orleans Saints.)

Last year, Universal ran an ad that kicked off its million ticket giveaway promotion. This year's commercial will promote the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal's Islands of Adventure, though it will also promote the resort in general. But what caught my attention was the screen grab Universal released from the ad:

Harry Potter Super Bowl TV ad

Broomsticks? Where in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter will theme park visitors be riding broomsticks? Will that be the theme of the Kuka arm ride vehicles on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, or will the B&M Inverted Coaster seats on Dragon Challenge be themed to broomsticks? (We already know what the ride vehicles look like on the Flight of the Hippogriff family roller coaster.)

Update (Feb. 2): Here is the ad:

Discussion at this thread.

Comments (9) | Archive Link

Busch Gardens Williamsburg announces new show, new ride, new summer night event

By Robert Niles
Published: January 28, 2010 at 10:32 PM
Here's Busch Gardens Williamsburg's GM John Reilly, announcing a new ride and two new shows at the park, which will open for the season on March 26, 2010.

The new ride is Europe in the Air, a new simulator ride that replaces Corkscrew Hill and features, as the name implies, a high-definition aerial tour of Europe's top landmarks.

The new shows are a night-time show called "IllumiNights: A Busch Gardens Encore." (Wow, did someone go to Epcot?) According to the park's press release, "Different areas of the park will celebrate IllumiNights in its own way, culminating in a park-wide pyrotechnics extravaganza." IllumiNights opens in June.

The second new show is a replacement for Emerald Beat. The as-yet-unnamed show will again feature Irish dancing and music. (FWIW, I didn't know that Emerald Beat was closing, and, uh, this just screwed up the Best Live Show bracket for the Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament. Emerald Beat was going to be the number two seed in that bracket. My bad.)

(Hat tip to TPI reader Jason Jackson for first posting the video.)

Comments (8) | Archive Link

2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: SeaWorld San Diego's Cirque de la Mer

By Robert Niles
Published: January 28, 2010 at 8:44 PM
SeaWorld San Diego's Cirque de la Mer joins the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament as the ninth seed in the Best Live show bracket.

SeaWorld San Diego's Cirque de la Mer

Hey, that name sounds familiar! Well, it's SeaWorld's take on the famous Cirque du Soleil ("circus of the sun"); this "circus of the sea" features clowns, acrobats and watercraft stunts in an abstract show that plays each summer in the waterfront stadium on San Diego's Mission Bay. As with Cirque du Soleil shows, the pace of Cirque de la Mer varies from frenzied to measured and elegant. TPI Kid Natalie summed it up more simply, however: "That's so good, it's freaky!"

Personally, I like Cirque de la Mer because it features the best ongoing "audience volunteer" gag ever.

And by "best," I mean, of course, "just unspeakably cruel." :-)

Here's an excerpt. The guy in the life-jacket was just selected from the audience and brought onto the JetSki:

You can watch the rest of the show here. For what it's worth, I haven't gotten an on-the-record confirmation of it, but the "volunteer" has gotta be a plant.

East coast theme park fans, please don't be confused. A show with same name played for a few years in Orlando's SeaWorld park, but it was nothing like the San Diego show. Orlando's Cirque de la Mer played in an indoor theater and offered nowhere near the grand scope of San Diego's show.

What's your take on Cirque de la Mer? How far can it go in this year's tournament? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Comments (1) | Archive Link

A new, 3D view of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

By Robert Niles
Published: January 28, 2010 at 1:44 PM
USA Today is running a map of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in today's newspaper - one that you can view in 3D via an online webcam.

Wizarding World of Harry Potter Map

The instructions are in today's article taking a look at what fans can expect in the new land at Universal's Islands of Adventure theme park, opening this spring. (Gotta love their choices for outside theme park experts to quote....) There's also a link to a PDF version of the map [7.4 MB], if you don't have a copy of the newspaper.

I couldn't get the 3-D version to work; I got an error from the www.harrypotter3d.com site when I launched it that the server was inaccessible. Maybe too many folks are trying to look at the map, or maybe it just doesn't work on my Mac. Anyway, I'd still suggest downloading the map; it's a fun souvenir. (Seriously, though, USA Today and Universal Orlando really should have put their logos on the downloadable map. Lost promotional opportunity there, ya think?)

Anyone else get in to the 3D version? From the preview video on USA Today's website, the map itself looks like a more detailed version of the map that was first revealed in the video that I embedded at the bottom of our preview post on the Wizarding World last fall.

Update: Universal Orlando today also sent out a press release with additional details about Hogsmeade Village (which appears to include locations from Diagon Alley in London, alas....)

“When guests visit Ollivanders, they will instantly feel like they’re in the shop from the films. It’s an intimate, single-windowed building, with the same signs, colors and other details read about in the books and seen in the films,” said Alan Gilmore, art director of the Harry Potter films and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. “But more importantly, visitors to Ollivanders will experience for themselves the magical moment that forever changed Harry’s life.”

Inside Ollivanders, visitors will be surrounded by thousands of multi-colored dusty wand boxes stacked on shelves from floor to ceiling. They will be welcomed by an inquisitive Wandkeeper, who will guide them through an enchanting experience to find their very own wand. First the Wandkeeper will ask the guest a few special questions and then select the first wand for them to try. Just like Harry, the guest will be prompted by the Wandkeeper to give the wand a wave, and a series of magical mishaps will occur until the right fit is found.

In addition to the magic featured in Ollivanders, guests will experience many other magical happenings at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, including a Howler featured in the Owl Post shop front window whose ranting can be heard by guests as they pass by; The Monster Book of Monsters in Dervish and Banges that will snarl and growl at anyone who tries to get too close, and the Hog’s Head which can be seen puffing his jowls at visitors who visit the Hog’s Head pub.

Thoughts?

Comments (7) | Archive Link

President announces Disney-to-Legoland-to-Busch Gardens train

By Robert Niles
Published: January 27, 2010 at 10:09 PM
Well, that's the essence of what President Obama will announce Thursday in Tampa: More than a billion dollars for a high-speed train route linking Orlando and Tampa.

The interesting part for theme park fans is the route that the train is initially designed to take. It would start at the Orlando International Airport, then make stops at the Orlando Convention Center (a short bus hop to SeaWorld and Universal Orlando), Walt Disney World (near the end of World Drive, by Celebration), near Lakeland (not too far from Legoland Florida), and finally in Ybor City (a straight shot down the street from Busch Gardens Tampa).

Call this the Theme Park Express.

No word tonight on when the project would be completed, or if it is built in segments, when the first segments would be open.

Thoughts?

Comments (20) | Archive Link

2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: Epcot's Reflections of China

By Robert Niles
Published: January 27, 2010 at 5:25 PM
Theme Park Insider readers have voted Epcot's Reflections of China into the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament as the ninth seed in the Best Movie or Animated Show bracket.

Epcot's Reflections of China

This 13-minute, CircleVision 360 movie plays in a theater housed in recreation of Beijing's historic Temple of Heaven. We follow Li Bai, an ancient Chinese poet, as he leads us through an on-screen tour of Chinese landmarks and historical sites, from the Great Wall of China to Beijing's Forbidden City.

Reflections of China replaced the Epcot China pavilion's original CircleVision film, Wonders of China, in May 2003. Fans laud the current film for its beautiful cinematography, but, as is typical for CircleVision films, a few knock the lack of seating. ("Please do not sit or stand your children on the handrails, as they were not designed to support your weight, or that of your children.")

What's your favorite moment from Reflections of China? How does it compare with Wonders of China? Do you think Reflections of China can pull an upset and make a run in this year's tournament? Please tell us your thoughts about this Disney travelogue, in the comments.

Comments (3) | Archive Link

Our new page for theme park ticket-buying and vacation planning advice

By Robert Niles
Published: January 27, 2010 at 2:26 PM
Sorry to be so scarce for the past day. But I've been working on a new page here on Theme Park Insider that collects all our best ticket and vacation budgeting advice in one place.

You also can visit http://www.themeparkinsider.com/tickets for links to all the special offers and local resident discount pages, as well as online ticket stores, for the country's most popular theme parks, including Walt Disney World, Disneyland, Universal Orlando, Six Flags, SeaWorld and Busch Gardens. You can find the page under the "Tickets" link on the navigation bar at the top of all TPI pages, too.

Let's consider this an on-going work in progress, so if you have any thoughts, corrections or suggested additions to the page, please let me know.

Thanks, as always, for reading Theme Park Insider!

Comments (5) | Archive Link

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

By Robert Niles
Published: January 26, 2010 at 10:18 AM
Enough with the Orlando parks, okay? Today, let's turn the spotlight back north to America's Roller Coast, as Cedar Point's Maverick joins the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament as the ninth seed in the Best Roller Coaster bracket.

Cedar Point's Maverick

This Intamin AG custom coaster opened in 2007, sporting a 100-foot, 95-degree initial drop. When the coaster began testing, it also featured a heartline roll after the tunnel, but high stress on the trains at that point ultimately led to the element's removal. (There's just a section of straight track in that place now.)

I'll turn things over to TPI reader Erin B, who offers this great comment on Maverick: "While Maverick may look tame to some, due to its small size, the ride is anything but. This coaster packs some nice speed and surprising elements into a tiny package. Take a ride in the very last seat if you really want to get whipped around. Also, I'd recommend holding on during this ride. My first few rides with my arms in the air left me with bruises for the next few days."

Take a (video) ride for yourself and judge:

What's your take on Maverick? Is the coaster good enough to make a deep run in this year's tournament? Let's hear your thoughts in the comments.

Comments (11) | Archive Link

Hogwarts castle exterior complete at Universal's Islands of Adventure

By Robert Niles
Published: January 25, 2010 at 2:21 PM
Universal Orlando sent along a photo of the now-completed exterior of Hogwarts Castle in Islands of Adventure:

Hogwarts castle at Universal's Islands of Adventure

The castle will be the home of the new Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter land that will open at the park this spring.

Comments (19) | Archive Link

2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: SeaWorld Orlando's Clyde and Seamore Take Pirate Island

By Robert Niles
Published: January 25, 2010 at 1:00 PM
Sure, theme parks remain closed for the season in most parts of the United States, but here on Theme Park Insider, we're enjoying the best of the best that the industry has to offer. Based on your reader ratings submitted over the past 12 months, I've seeded 64 of the best rides and shows in the theme park industry into the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament, and we're profiling one of those attractions each weekday up until the tournament begins in March.

Today, we shine the spotlight on SeaWorld Orlando's Clyde and Seamore Take Pirate Island, which joins the field as the 10th seed in the Best Live Show bracket.

SeaWorld Orlando's Clyde and Seamore Take Pirate Island

Playing in SeaWorld's Sea Lion and Otter Stadium, the show features - you guessed it - sea lions and otters (and a walrus). The current version, Clyde and Seamore Take Pirate Island, tells the story of lost treasure, pirates, and shipwreck... oh, who cares, really? The animals and trainers are going to mug for the audience, at some point, the trainer's going into the drink, and everyone sitting in the first few rows of the stadium is gonna get wet.

Sure, it's a formula, but when one works as well as this one, why mess with it? Take a look:

(You can watch part two and part three, as well.)

Many fans advise arriving early for the show, not only to snag good seats (inside or outside the splash zone is your choice), but to watch the mime who gets big laughs mocking late arrivals as they enter the stadium. Here's a life tip, folks: If you walk into a theater or stadium and see a mime in the aisle with you... walk away, as quietly and drawing as little attention to yourself as you can.

SeaWorld San Diego's "Clyde and Seamore" show is Sea Lions Live, which spoofs current TV shows, and San Antonio's show is Clyde and Seamore's Cannery Row Caper, where the crew tries to solve the mystery of missing fish at a local cannery. (Longtime readers might remember that I had a tiny walk-on role in a Clyde and Seamore show in San Diego in 2008.)

Let's hear your thoughts about Clyde and Seamore, in the comments.

Comments (11) | Archive Link

Theme park cast member stories: Drowning under short-term thinking

By Robert Niles
Published: January 25, 2010 at 11:58 AM
Standard operating procedure for Walt Disney World's Tom Sawyer Island rafts dictated that the maximum number of people one should load on a raft is 55.

The most I ever packed onto a raft? 90.

Hey, why not pack on more? You're docked and folks have been waiting 10-15 minutes, or more, to get on a raft. So long as there's space, why not have a few more folks board?

If you can ask folks to push in tighter, to allow a few more people to get across on this raft, why not? After all, the more people you get on a raft, the more people you can get out of the line, and the shorter everyone's wait will be, right?

One of the great things about working in a theme park is how you learn that what seems obvious in the short term turns out to become a really bad decision on a grand scale. It seemed like a good idea to pack people into our rafts like a Kardashian in a cocktail dress. Sure, it might be uncomfortable for that minute or two crossing the river, but it's keeping the line down, right?

Actually, it doesn't. What happens when you put almost twice as many people on a Tom Sawyer Island raft than it was designed to carry? Well, it sinks.

Not all the way (at least not while I was driving). But it does start to take on water, to the point where people riding up front started climbing up the rails on the side of the raft to keep their feet from being submerged.

Heck, we even had a hand signal that cast members working the river attractions could use to tell a TSI raft driver that his front end was taking on water. (Hold you hand over your head, palm down, and pass the hand back and forth over your head.) When you saw the signal, you were supposed to slow down. At full speed, the water coming over the front created additional downforce on the front of the raft, causing it to take on even more water. Slow down, and some of that water would slide over the sides; the raft could straighten out a bit, and you could crawl across the river with less water rushing onto the raft.

See the problem now? With more people on the raft, we had to drive across the river much more slowly than we could have with a properly loaded raft.

Eventually, the light bulb turned on in my brain, and I decided to run an experiment when was I working as a lead. For one hour, we counted the people coming onto the rafts, and cut the load at 55 people. (This required stopping folks at around 45-50 and then asking for party counts, so that we didn't go over 55.) Then, we'd go back to the old way the next hour, then see how many people we put through each hour.

The results stunned me. We put through almost 40 percent more people running the lighter loads.

Why? Not only could we cross the river more quickly because we were running lighter rafts and not having to slow down for water, we were spending far less time in dock, since we weren't spending time asking people to pack themselves in to get a full (over)load. It was just load and go. Even though we were carrying fewer people per raft, we were able to make so many more crossings that our overall numbers were way up.

And no one got his or her feet wet.

It reminded me of a math problem I'd studied in college called the Prisoner's Dilemma. Most folks look at the Prisoner's Dilemma as a lesson in the futility of cartels. But it also teaches an important lesson about the costs of short-term thinking.

A few times during our experiment, the family with person number 56 would complain - pointing out a bit of extra space on the raft and asking why they couldn't cram aboard, too? When we held to our new policy, responding with a smile and a "the next raft will be here in just a minute," while casting off, the numbers stayed up. But when we acquiesced, then the person behind that party wanted on, too, and soon we were back to waiting extra minutes in dock to overload rafts... and slow crossings with wet feet.

So, as long as I was lead, we stuck with the "light load" policy. That summer, the Magic Kingdom West supervisors were running a content among the area's attractions - the one with the best performance in guest counts, guest compliments and "secret shopper" evaluations would win. When we were loading the rafts the old way, Tom Sawyer Island stood in last place among the attractions on our side of the park.

After changing our load policy, we soon moved into first place, and we ultimately won the competition.

For what it's worth, that summer on TSI was the end of my years as a libertarian: If someone isn't thinking about the big picture and the long run, and everyone's just doing what they want for the short term, we're all just going to end up on a drowning raft.

Be sure to check out the archive of Robert's stories about working at Walt Disney World

Comments (3) | Archive Link

2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: Carousel of Progress at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

By Robert Niles
Published: January 22, 2010 at 4:54 PM
Now is the time. Now is the best time. Now is the best time to profile the Carousel of Progress at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, the 10th seed in the Best Movie or Animated Show bracket of Theme Park Insider's 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament.

Carousel of Progress at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

The Carousel of Progress was one of three Disney attractions that debuted not in a Disney theme park, but at the 1964 World's Fair in New York. (The other were Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln and It's a Small World, both now playing at Disneyland in Anaheim, California.) In 1975, the show moved to the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, and now Disney boasts that the show has had "more performances than any other stage show in history."

It's not always been the same show, though. When the show moved from its post-fair home at Disneyland to Walt Disney World, the Sherman Brothers wrote a new theme song for the show, "The Best Time of Your Life (Now is the Time)" replacing their original "There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow." Rumor had it that the show's sponsor, General Electric, wanted people buying appliances today, not tomorrow. But one also could make a solid case that Disney needed to freshen a show that's been playing at Disneyland for nearly a decade, and also had played on the east coast once before.

In 1994, General Electric bowed out as sponsor, and Disney revamped the show again, return the original "There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" theme.

Carousel of Progress remains a visitor favorite, in large due to the Sherman Brothers' songs, not to mention being one of those welcomed cool, dark places to sit on a blistering Florida summer day. As for the show itself, the stages representing the life 1900s, 20s and 40s might have worked for audiences in the mid-60s, but audiences in the 2010s contain too few visitors who have any memory of those times and the sets just don't seem all that different from one another. And the fourth set, "Christmas in 2000," seems almost cringe-worthy as a mid-1990s vision of what life was going to be like 10 years ago.

I mean, 10 years ago from now, or six years in the future from then. (Quick, someone fetch me Dr. Dan Streetmentioner's "Time Traveler's Handbook of 1001 Tense Formations.")

Anyway, here's a look at the show:

Any Carousel of Progress fans out there? Haters? Let's hear your thoughts about the show, in the comments.

Comments (27) | Archive Link

Vote of the week: For when are you planning your next trip to Orlando?

By Robert Niles
Published: January 22, 2010 at 9:57 AM
There's much good stuff a-comin' to the Orlando area theme parks:

So... when are you planning your next visit to the area? That's our vote of the week.

Given that the economy, well, stinks again this year, some folks might choose to wait for Legoland or Fantasyland before making their next trip. Or others might be happy with the parks in their neck of the woods and not be planning a trip to the Orlando area at all. We'd love to hear what you're thinking about for your next trip to Central Florida: When, and where, or not at all?

Tell us the details, in the comments. And thanks, again, for reading Theme Park Insider, and for spreading the word about the site to your family and friends.

Comments (13) | Archive Link

2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: Toy Story Midway Mania at Disney's California Adventure

By Robert Niles
Published: January 21, 2010 at 8:23 PM
Today, we welcome Toy Story Midway Mania at Disney's California Adventure to the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament, as the 10th seed in the Best Themed Ride bracket.

Toy Story Midway Mania at Disney's California Adventure

Disney's popular 3D shoot-'em-up game plays at both California Adventure and Disney's Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World in Florida, where it remains the most popular ride in the park. It's even now spawned its own play-at-home version on Nintendo Wii.

We talked with Walt Disney Imagineering designers when Midway Mania opened at Disney World in May 2008 and explored some of the many Easter eggs in Toy Story Midway Mania last year.

Played on giant video screens, Midway Mania feels more like a video game than other theme park shoot-'em-ups. But its "pull string" firing action gives the game a unique feel (as well as serious work for elbow and wrist muscles among expert players). This is also a game that rewards cooperation between players, as some of its high-scoring Easter eggs can't be unlocked unless both players in a car work to clear certain targets off the screen in time.

With so many options for scoring in this game, coupled with the enduring popularity of the Toy Story crew, Midway Mania boasts a high re-rideability factor, helping it become one of the more popular themed rides in the country in a relatively short period of time. But will its popularity drive Midway Mania into the second round. We'll find out in March, when tournament voting begins. In the meantime, please share your thoughts (and scoring tips!) in the comments.

Comments (6) | Archive Link

Who wins, and who loses, with Legoland in Florida?

By Robert Niles
Published: January 21, 2010 at 2:28 PM
Today's announcement that Legoland Florida will open in late 2011 should get Central Florida theme park officials and fans thinking about how a new park in the area will play out for existing theme park attractions.

Legoland Florida announcement
Legoland's John Jakobsen at today's press conference, as the park's first 100,000 Lego bricks are dropped to the ground. Photo courtesy Legoland Florida.

Is this a net "win" for evereyone? Or will Legoland Florida change visitation patterns, potentially siphoning visitors from other theme parks?

Let's start with Busch Gardens Tampa. Will having a new theme park south of the Orlando area encourage more visitors to make the drive down on I-4, potentially drawing more toward Busch Gardens' Tampa location? Or will visitors who would have been okay anyway with driving down simply choose Legoland instead of Busch Gardens on their next trip, instead of devoting an extra day for south-of-Orlando parks?

Walt Disney World's worked hard at creating ticket and hotel packages that encourage visitors to spend their entire week at Disney. If those visitors can "sneak away" to other parks only for a day or two - will Legoland take traffic away from Universal Orlando or SeaWorld?

Or... will Legoland entice more families with elementary-age kids to visit Orlando, increasing the overall market for Disney, as well as Universal and the SeaWorld parks?

I dunno. That's why I'm kicking all these questions to you. Let's hear your thoughts about how Legoland Florida will affect other Central Florida theme parks, in the comments.

Update: For what it's worth, the backdrop behind the lectern at today's press conference included images of these attractions:

  • Aquazone Wave Racers
  • A Clutch Powers 4-D Adventure
  • The Dragon
  • Driving School
  • Fun Town Fire Academy
  • Lost Kingdom Adventure
  • Miniland
  • Technic Coaster

(You can find write-ups and reviews of these rides on our Legoland California page.)

Legoland Florida has not yet announced an attraction line-up, but I'll presume that these are on the initial list.

Comments (24) | Archive Link

2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: Six Flags Magic Mountain's X2

By Robert Niles
Published: January 20, 2010 at 8:07 PM
Our daily attraction spotlight turns today to Six Flags Magic Mountain's Arrow 4D coaster X2, which joins the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament at the 10th seed in the Best Roller Coaster bracket.

We might have written more on Theme Park Insider over the years about X2 - and its initial version, X - than any other roller coaster. X opened to great expectations in 2002, only to suffer repeated downtimes that eventually closed the ride and helped sink its manufacturer. In 2008, Magic Mountain tried again, installing new, lighter trains with on-ride music and renaming the ride X2.

Perhaps the most popular coaster at Magic Mountain (and still with often-nasty wait-times, as a result), X2 plays like a "best of" reel from a variety of coasters. You start with a dive coaster's 200-foot, face-down drop, then your seat rotates, heels over head, through turns, twists and inversions, creating far more effects than one would think possible on X2's 3,600-foot track. At one moment, you're riding forward, then - boom - you're riding backward.

Take a ride with me:

The seat rotation is coordinated with track elements, so it's not like you're spinning in a blender here. But the variety of elements here can be too much for some riders... and roller coaster heaven for others.

Which side are you on? Tell us your thoughts about X2, in the comments. Voting begins for the Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament in March.

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Legoland Florida confirmed

By Robert Niles
Published: January 20, 2010 at 11:17 AM
Polk County (Florida) tourism officials Merlin Entertainments e-mailed a county commissioner in advance of tomorrow's announcement, confirming that Merlin would convert the old Cypress Gardens amusement park that it bought into a Legoland theme park.

E-mails to public officials in Florida are public records, so The Ledger newspaper in Lakeland (just up the road from Cypress Gardens) got a copy:

Helpful Facts: Confidential until Thursday.

1. LEGOLAND Florida will be the fifth LEGOLAND attraction worldwide (CA, Denmark, England, and Germany).

2. Merlin is the second largest attraction company in the world, second only behind Disney.

3. Merlin's massive research in the area already indicated that; the LEGOLAND brand already has high recognition and a 90% intention to visit by families in their target market.

4. LEGOLAND, CA, is the fastest growing theme park in the U.S., realizing an astounding 6% growth in 2009. The park was also recognized by Amusement Today as the country's best theme park for children for the sixth consecutive year.

5. Check out Merlin's website (www.merlinentertainments.biz.) for a broad overview of their operations.

Okay, let's break this down. Will Legoland Florida succeed in a location where so many other park management teams and concepts have failed?

Let's hear your thoughts in the comments.

Update: Reminder to new Theme Park Insider readers that you can visit our Legoland California page to get a feel for what types of attractions might be coming to Legoland Florida.

Update 2, Jan. 21: Live coverage of the press conference, in the comments. Photos to come.

Update 3: Who wins, and who loses, with Legoland in Florida?

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2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: Universal Studios Florida's Men in Black Alien Attack

By Robert Niles
Published: January 19, 2010 at 7:00 PM
Do you know when to hit the red button? Do you know where to find Frank the Pug? Do you have "the suit"?

Answer "yes" to these questions and you can ride with us on Universal Studios Florida's Men in Black Alien Attack, which steps into today's attraction spotlight as the 11th seed in the Best Themed Ride bracket joins of the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament.

Universal Creative's shoot-'em-up debuted in 2000, based on the hit films starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. You ride with five other shooters in your car, competing with each of them as all six of you, as a team, compete with another car on the dual track. Guns in hand, you try to zap aliens attacking the city to earn "the suit" that will make you one of the Men in Black.

Otherwise, you're gonna face the Neuralizer and forget the whole thing.

You can learn everything you ever wanted to know about Men in Black Alien Attack and its development from our interview last year with ride creative director Dave Cobb. Dave offers some great scoring tips, too:

Most importantly, stay on one target at a time. If you hit something, hit it again. And again. In quick succession. In fact, stay on a single target and hit it as many times as you can before you have to move to another one. Don't waste time targeting when you could be shooting and scoring.

Properly executed, a shoot-'em-up becomes an immersive, 3D video game, one that sucks visitors into wanting to ride again, and again, and again. For many Theme Park Insider readers, Men in Black Alien Attack delivers exactly that experience, which is why they've voted it into the tournament this year by their ratings.

But can the Men in Black shoot their way into the second round? We'll find out when the tournament gets under way in March. In the meantime, let's hear your thoughts about Universal Studios Florida's Men in Black Alien Attack, in the comments.

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Do theme parks want visitors to post photos and video online?

By Robert Niles
Published: January 19, 2010 at 1:19 PM
Travel writer Christopher Elliott earlier today tweeted a link to a story that raised fears that theme parks might sue visitors who posted photos or videos of their trips online.

As it turns out, corporate lawyers for theme parks have every right to come down on you like a ton of bricks for posting videos of their client's lucrative creations, including banjo-playing bears or live versions of Beauty and the Beast. Indeed, you could theoretically get sued for posting a video of your daughter's first ride on Peter Pan's Flight and sharing it with everyone you know.

"In instances when uploaded video violates our intellectual property rights we have options to protect it," said a spokesperson for Disney Parks when asked about the company's policy on video sharing.

The author of the story tried to pin down spokespersons from Disney and other theme park chains on exactly when they would go after someone for posting park video online, but couldn't get an answer.

Here's why: Because there's no way a theme park is going to sue a paying customer for promoting its product.

Roller coaster tracks
Promoting Busch Gardens' roller coasters

Yeah, the fine print on ticket media says that you can't take pictures and video for commercial purposes. And parks' contracts with owners of various characters and movie franchises limit their ability to use images of those characters and scenes in promotional material. So, when asked in an official capacity, park spokespeople have to toe the corporate line about how they have the right to keep someone from posting certain material online.

But talk to these folks privately, and I have (with reps from every chain out there), and they all say the same thing: They absolutely love viral promotion from their guests. SeaWorld has built its websites around photos from its visitors. Many parks are now offering visitors the option of uploading coaster videos directly to YouTube.

This isn't to say that online video and photos don't concern park management. But the folks who run theme parks are more worried about what you are doing when you shoot video or photos than where you post them after you leave the park. When paparazzi have overrun Disneyland in the past, the park has issued blanket bans on guests bringing "professional" quality cameras into the park. (In practice, this means long lenses and tri- or monopods.) Sure, Disney loves the publicity of having photos from Disneyland in the tabs. But it doesn't like photographers harassing, blocking or endangering its other paying customers. That's the reason for the occasional crack-downs.

Nor do parks want photographers endangering themselves or others. That's led to the biggest dilemma for theme parks: How to respond to visitors' online POV [point of view] roller coaster videos. This is the one subject in this area that park reps don't like talking about even off the record. Every park I know of bans the use of recording equipment on high-speed rides, including roller coasters. But I've also yet to see any park send cease-and-desist letters to websites which host and encourage reader POV videos. (For the record, Theme Park Insider does not embed video taken in violation of parks' safety policies.)

Smart parks, such as Cedar Point and Holiday World, are feeding viewers' demand for POV video by creating their own YouTube channels with park-produced POV (filmed with cameras securely attached to coaster trains). You'll find those ride videos embedded on Theme Park Insider attraction listing pages for those parks.

Perhaps if someone got hurt by a visitor's camera on a roller coaster, that might inspire a crackdown against guest video. (Especially if the owner of the camera used the plethora of online POV as a defense - proof of parks' acceptance of the practice.) But that hasn't happened to date.

The only time a theme park is going to try to shut down a video is if it violates the park's copyright or safety rules and portrays the park in a negative light. Remember the video from the Xcelerator accident at Knott's last summer? That went away quickly.

But videos of Peter Pan or Small World in normal operation? Please. Why scare readers by even raising the possibility?

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Universal Studios Korea now set for 2014 opening

By Robert Niles
Published: January 19, 2010 at 10:48 AM
Universal and its Korean partners today revived plans for Universal Studios Korea, the South Korean park that Universal had first announced in 2007, but that got shelved - along with many other theme park developments - due to the global financial crisis.

Universal is partnering with Lotte Group, a South Korean conglomerate involved in "production, sale, and distribution of sweets and foodstuffs; tourism and services; heavy chemicals; finance business; etc." (Hey, just quoting their website there.) Devoted theme park fans might also know the name as the company behind the Lotte World theme park in South Korea.

The complex will include what's being billed as the largest Universal Studios theme park, along with a CityWalk shopping and entertainment area, a water park, hotels and convention facilities. There's no word yet on specific rides and shows that will be built in Universal Studios Korea.

When first announced, the park was to be opening in 2012. Now, Universal's announced that construction will begin next year, for opening in "early" 2014.

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2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: Universal Studios Hollywood's Waterworld

By Robert Niles
Published: January 18, 2010 at 10:12 PM
Can a lousy movie inspire a great theme park attraction?

Exhibit A in this debate always seems to be Universal Studios Hollywood's Waterworld, the 11th seed in the Best Live Show bracket in the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament.

Universal Studios Hollywood's Waterworld

It seemed like a sure-fire hit at the time. Academy Award winner Kevin Coster, fresh from a string of hits including Dances with Wolves and JFK, would star in an action thriller set in the future, after global warming had melted the Earth's ice caps, submerging the world's land. Rather than waiting to see if the movie would be a hit, Universal Studios Hollywood would debut a stunt show based on the film that same fall (in 1995), to take advantage of what would surely be the movie's immense popularity.

Thank goodness that Universal didn't wait, for if it had, we likely wouldn't have what's turned out to become one of the most popular theme park shows ever produced. Waterworld, the movie, turned out to be a dud, earning less than half its production cost in its initial release. But Waterworld, the theme park show, continues to thrill audiences with its 16 minutes of JetSki stunts, fistfights and explosions, including an audacious finale where a full-sized plane crashes into the water, just a few feet in front of the audience.

The show takes place after the events of the film. Helen returns from Dryland to save her friends, when the evil Smokers attack. But the Mariner soon returns to save the day. Here's a YouTube clip from the show:

Waterworld also plays at Universal Studios Japan and also will run in Singapore when that park debuts later this year. (And yet, there's no Waterworld show at Universal Orlando, Universal's most popular theme park resort.)

What do you think about Universal Studios Hollywood's Waterworld? Waterworld pulled one upset, by outshining the film upon which it was based. Can it advance in this year's tournament? We'll find out when voting begins in March.

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SeaWorld San Diego to close Manatee Rescue

By Robert Niles
Published: January 18, 2010 at 12:57 PM
SeaWorld San Diego confirmed today that it will be closing its Manatee Rescue exhibit.

SeaWorld San Diego's Manatee Rescue

In a post of its Facebook page SeaWorld noted that it does not own the manatees that live at the park - they remain under the custody of the US Fish & Wildlife Service. And the Service has asked SeaWorld to transfer the manatees to Florida.

One of the San Diego manatees, Webster, has made the move already, in preparation for release back into the wild. The other two manatees at the park, Eddie and Vail, will be moved at a later - as yet announced - date. They will not be released back into the wild, but when they leave San Diego the Manatee Rescue exhibit will close.

No word yet on what will take its place.

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Theme park cast member stories: A very unwanted souvenir

By Robert Niles
Published: January 18, 2010 at 10:55 AM
How'd you like a job where you do nothing but stand in front of a closed attraction all day?

That happens when theme park attractions go down for their regular refurbishments. When I worked at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, the employees who typically worked a closed attraction would be reassigned to other attractions in the same area. (Almost everyone was trained on multiple attractions.) But there's be one person assigned as a "greeter" at the closed attraction, whose job was simply to confirm to guests that, yes indeed, that attraction was closed.

You were supposed to be nice about and offer suggestions of other stuff to do and answer questions about the park, so the gig wasn't as boring as it might seem. Especially for cast members like me who enjoyed talking with guests.

But some locations offered more chance to talk with folks than others. Right now, Disneyland's drained the Rivers of America for its regular cleaning and repair, closing Tom Sawyer Island, the riverboat and canoes. When I worked at Disney World, we had the same thing, except that Disney also was building a pedestrian bridge across a corner of the river, to accommodate Splash Mountain, which was then under construction.

As a result, there was a construction wall around the entire perimeter of the River, as well as another construction wall on the other side of the pathway, where Splash was going up. This created a narrow walled pathway heading to up Thunder Mountain, through which everyone going to, and coming from, Thunder had to pass.

This is also where they stuck the poor CM from Tom Sawyer Island. Usually when an attraction is down for rehab, you can still tell that the ride is there: The front door's just closed and queue blocked. But with the construction walls blocking all views of the river, there was no sign that TSI had ever existed. By the time anyone had walked up to where the TSI entrance had been, it should have been abundantly obvious to them that the attraction was gone.

And yet, we kept people out there to reaffirm the obvious. Unfortunately, the TSI entrance, where were supposed to stand, was at the narrowest pinch point along that now-walled path. So you really didn't want to stop people there to engage in any friendly conversation about the park, and what they could be seeing instead.

So we drifted down the path a bit, toward Frontierland. Unfortunately, that moved us closer to Pecos Bill's restaurants and the Turkey Leg wagon. One thing we quickly discovered after draining the river was that hundreds of Disney World guests had chucked the turkey leg bones they'd been gnawing on not into one of the many trash cans provided, but into the river itself.

With the water drained, that exposed enough turkey bones to make the river bed look like a Jurassic fossil dig. The gamy muck also attracted every seagull between Jacksonville and Miami.

You can see where this is going now, can't you? :-)

Unfortunately, the day it happened to me, I couldn't. All I knew is that I was standing at the corner of the river, trying to keep traffic moving to and from Thunder when I felt someone nail me hard in the shoulder with a rock.

I wasn't standing underneath anything, so I knew that nothing could have fallen down on me. Maybe some overeager worker mucking out the river had hurled something over the wall? All I knew is that my shoulder hurt like heck. And... was I bleeding? It felt like something was seeping around where I'd ben hit.

I jerked my head to the left to look at my shoulder... and found a dime-sized glop of bird poop.

How could something that small hurt so much? Slowly, as the stink filled my nose, Physics 101 returned to my brain and I remembered that even small mass could pack a lot of force if it were moving fast enough. So I guess Stinky McSeagull relieved himself pretty high up above me.

But what to do now? A quick trip down into the Magic Kingdom tunnels and to the wardrobe department for a fresh shirt. I guess I was lucky that the only time I've ever been nailed by a bird, I was working at Walt Disney World, where a costume department was standing ready to provide me a new shirt immediately and wash the gunk off the old one. (Though I was told afterward by a park old-timer that it wasn't unheard of for wardrobe to clean a guest's shirt in the same situation if a supervisor took pity, though most folks in that situation just bought a new T-shirt and dumped the fouled shirt.)

Anyone else ever get a "souvenir" from park wildlife? Feel free to share your embarrassment in the comments.

Read more of Robert's stories about working at Walt Disney World.

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Legoland owner buys Cypress Gardens

By Robert Niles
Published: January 15, 2010 at 1:18 PM
It looks like Merlin Entertainments Group, the owner of Legoland California and a slew of parks thoughout Europe, has bought the defunct Cypress Gardens park in Florida.

What this means? Your guess is as good as mine. Stuck in a lousy location away from Florida's major highways, Cypress Gardens has never had great success, though its won fans during its various incarnations over the years.

Some folks seem to hope that Cypress Gardens could become the site of a new Legoland Florida. Merlin's been rebuffed so far in its attempts to find a site for a second U.S. Legoland in the Midwest. And Legoland did select Carlsbad in Southern California for its first U.S. park, rather than building in more traditional tourist areas near Anaheim, San Diego or Los Angeles.

But Merlin owns many brand names, so there's no reason why the company couldn't try to give a Cypress Gardens-branded amusement park a go.

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Vote of the week: Will you visit Universal Orlando's Harry Potter theme park land in 2010?

By Robert Niles
Published: January 15, 2010 at 7:51 AM
This is the time of year when I like to start looking ahead to all the new attractions that will debuting at theme parks around the country this year. But this year, really, there's one new attraction that sucking all the attention from everything else:

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal's Islands of Adventure

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal's Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Florida.

The Kuka robot-arm-driven dark ride through Hogwart's Castle (and, via Floo Network elsewhere in the Wizarding World) promises to be most unique ride system debuting this year, not to mention being the first U.S. attraction based upon the biggest book-and-movie franchise in the world this decade. Obviously interest is high, not just among the regular theme park fans and Harry Potter devotees. This is one of those occasional theme park openings that draws attention from folks who don't normally pay much attention to theme parks.

Which provides a huge opportunity for Universal Orlando to win new customers and build market share. (Universal's already raising some ticket prices, in an effort to ensure visitors stay longer than just a day or two this year.)

But as we wait for Universal to reach out to the general public, what about the industry's most loyal fans? What about you? Are you planning to make a trip to Universal Orlando this year?

That's our vote of the week:

Tell us why, or why not, in the comments. And, as always, thank you for reading Theme Park Insider!

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2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: Universal Studios Florida's Shrek 4-D

By Robert Niles
Published: January 15, 2010 at 7:47 AM
Universal Studios Florida's Shrek 4-D joins the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament as the 11th seed in the Best Movie or Animated Show bracket.

Universal Studios Florida's Shrek 4-D

Not to be confused with "Shrek Forever After" (the upcoming theatrical Shrek 4, which will be in 3-D), Shrek 4-D, the theme park attraction, was directed by Simon J. Smith, who went on to direct the movie Shrek 2.

Confused yet? It gets worse: A home version of the film, minus in the in-theater effects, was sold on DVD as Shrek 3-D. Yikes.

Anyway... Shrek 4-D takes place after the action of the original feature film. Shrek and Fiona are on their way to their honeymoon, only to be waylaid by the ghost of Lord Farquaad. One thing leads to another (being chucked at the audience), and our heroes eventually go plunging over the edge of a waterfall. But, of course, everything turns out okay in the end.

Except for Tinkerbell, of course. Hey, it's a Universal show. Ya gotta take a shot at Disney, right?

Shrek 4-D plays at Universal Studios in Florida, Hollywood and Japan, and will soon debut in Singapore. The attraction also plays at Warner Bros. Movie World in Gold Coast, Australia and at a theme park in Germany.

Four-D movies were all the rage in the theme park business in the early 2000s. Relatively inexpensive to produce, 4-D films offered more "ride-like" action than traditional movies and a better on-screen experience than many guests could find in their local theaters at the time. But with newer 3-D movies, such as Avatar, providing visual thrill rides in neighborhood movie houses, the appeal of 4-D movies in theme parks has diminished somewhat.

Yet, a fun story remains a fun story. And Theme Park Insider readers have rated Shrek 4-D among the best in the industry. But will they vote it beyond the first round of this year's tournament?

We'll find out when the tournament starts in March. In the meantime, let's hear what you think about Shrek 4-D, in the comments.

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Universal Step Up Advertising in the U.K

By Michael Owen
Published: January 15, 2010 at 7:44 AM
Universal Orlando are beginning to promote the soon-to-open Wizarding World of Harry Potter in the United Kingdom.

Over the course of the next week the Daily Telegraph will be offering its readers a number of exclusive promotional gifts as well as s behind-the-scene's look at the new land set to open at Islands of Adventure later this year.

Despite U.K consumers cutting down considerably on travel and tourism based spending over the last two years many Brits are beginning to look at booking a vacation in 2010. Both Universal and Disney are advertising heavily in the U.K media in an attempt to get Brits flocking back to Orlando.

Here's the link to the what the Daily Telegraph has in store.

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Restaurant Review: Epcot's San Angel Inn

By Scott Joseph
Published: January 14, 2010 at 2:03 PM
San Angel Inn, the restaurant at the Mexico pavilion at Epcot, has a great ambience -- a festive village in a perennially nighttime setting near Mayan ruins and a smoldering volcano. It would be a great place to dine if... the food weren't so disappointing.

Here's my full review.

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Ten top theme park travel tips for 2010

By Robert Niles
Published: January 14, 2010 at 12:27 PM
I waited a couple weeks to run this because I didn't want it to get lost in the New Year's rush. Plus, I wanted to remind Theme Park Insider readers that we've got a great travel tips section where you can vote on (and submit) tips such as these.

If you've found these tips helpful, vote in favor of them. If you don't work for you, vote no. That way, the best of these tips will make it to the top of the list, where they belong.

So... here are 10 of my favorite travel tips that I hope Theme Park Insider readers will find useful during their vacations and week-end getaways this year:

1. Travel lightly - pack no more than one bag per person. If you are flying, make it a carry-on. If you are driving, make it a soft-sided bag, such as a duffel, so that you can fit it in the trunk more easily. (We did a 33-day road trip last summer holding to this standard, so surely you can do it for a one-week vacation!)

2. Have everyone in your family take off their shoes on an airplane. (Wear socks, though!) You'll all be more comfortable sitting in the pressurized cabin and your kids won't kick any seatbacks without their shoes on, either. (Vote on this tip.)

3. Bring plastic grocery bags to use as trash sacks in the car on road trips. (Vote on this tip.)

4. Eat in local restaurants, avoiding national chains whenever you can. It will help make your vacation a more special experience. Use rating services such as Yelp or ask on the Theme Park Insider discussion board for names of good restaurants around the theme parks you'll be visiting.

5. Two people can split most meals on vacation. You'll save money, avoid leftovers and save calories, too! (Vote on this tip.)

6. Always buy your attraction tickets and print them in advance. You can shop for the best deal online, and avoid lines at the front gate. (Vote on this tip.)

7. Give kids a fixed amount of spending money before going to a park. (Or have them earn it.) This way, you'll avoid whining and begging over souvenirs. (Vote on this tip.)

8. Take a photo of where you park (at either the airport or the theme park) with your cell phone or digital camera. That way you won't forget where your car is. (Vote on this tip.)

9. If you buy souvenirs before the end of the day, many parks offer a free package check service to store what you buy, without having to rent a locker. That way you can keep riding without having to worry about your stuff. (Vote on this tip.)

10. If you decide that you want to come back to the park you're visiting, look into upgrading your ticket to a multi-day or annual pass before you leave. Almost all parks will allow you to apply the cost of that day's ticket to the new pass. (Vote on this tip.)

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

By Robert Niles
Published: January 14, 2010 at 11:16 AM
It's a bird! It's a plane!

No, actually, it's a flying... fish?

SeaWorld Orlando's Manta represents the Bolliger & Mabillard Flying Coasters as the 11th seed in the Best Roller Coaster bracket of the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament.

SeaWorld Orlando's Manta

Manta offers a 113-foot drop and four inversions - hardly awesome specs, absent context. But the exhilarating experience of the flying coaster's unique "seating" arrangement - riding prone, suspended underneath the track - coupled with the lush tropical setting of this installation helped earn Manta last year's Theme Park Insider Award as the 2009's Best New Attraction.

Here's Theme Park Insider reader Gareth H at the opening of Manta last year:

The original Bolliger & Mabillard Flying Coaster, Alton Towers' Air, opened in 2002, followed by Superman - Ultimate Flight at Six Flags Over Georgia, Six Flags Great Adventure and Six Flags Great America, Tatsu at Six Flags Magic Mountain and then Manta.

What's your take on Manta? Do you think it can pull the upset and advance into the second round? We'll find out when voting for the Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament begins in March. In the meantime, let's take the speculation into the comments.

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Six Flags offering deep discounts on Play Passes to open 2010

By Robert Niles
Published: January 13, 2010 at 1:29 PM
I'm on a conference call with Six Flags CEO Mark Shapiro right now, and he's making the point that Six Flags is offering deeply discounted Play Passes for many of its theme parks early this year, in an effort to hold on to market share in a tough U.S. economy.

At Six Flags Magic Mountain, for example, visitors can buy a Play Pass, which admits them to the park every day it's open in 2010, for $54.99 - the same price as a one-day ticket. (The Play Pass differs from Six Flags' annual pass at some parks, though not at Magic Mountain, in that it does not include the coupon book, free tickets or other perks of the SP. Both the Play Passes and the Season Passes include admission to all other Six Flags parks.)

But Shapiro said that the discounts will not last through the season, and the Six Flags anticipates raising ticket prices by as much as $20 as the summer progresses. Shapiro did offer some wiggle room, saying that if the economy did not improve and the market did not support increases, Six Flags would stay put.

But he encouraged visitors to buy now to lock in the discounted prices, which makes sense for a company trying to hold on to market share. Get those folks to buy now - instead of giving them any reason to wait, when they might decided not to buy.

Thoughts?

Update: FWIW, Shapiro said that Six Flags has a deal to bring Mrs. Fields into the parks this year. More calories! :-) He continued that he'd like to add more outdoor cooking options, like those offered at Dollywood, but that local restrictions at some parks preclude that. But they will add where they can, in the future.

He also said in response to my question that he doesn't anticipate creating an in-house attraction design team, a la Disney's Imagineers and Universal Creative, at any time in the near future, though he paid them great credit for what they do.

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2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: Universal Studios Florida's Universal Horror Make-up Show

By Robert Niles
Published: January 13, 2010 at 12:47 PM
We continue our daily "off season" tributes to the best of the best in the theme park industry with a shout-out to the Universal Horror Make-up Show at Universal Studios Florida, the 12th seed in the Best Live Show bracket of the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament.

Universal Studios Florida's Universal Horror Make-up Show

The Make-up Show was one of the original attractions at Universal Studios Florida when the park opened in 1990. In fact, the show was one of the few of the park's attractions that you could count on opening every day during that difficult first summer. Over the years, Universal's tweaked the show, but it retains its aggressive, irreverent humor, making it a favorite with many visitors.

Sure, you'll learn a few insiders' tips about how prop masters and make-up artists create effects for the screen, but mostly you'll laugh at the hosts placing audience "volunteers" in a variety of, uh, uncomfortable positions.

Here's a YouTube clip that gives you a taste of the flavor of the show's humor:

What do you think of the Universal Horror Make-up Show? Tell us your thoughts, in the comments. Voting in the tournament begins in March.

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What do you think about Walt Disney World's new TV commercial?

By Robert Niles
Published: January 12, 2010 at 3:07 PM
Lots of folks in Florida are talking about this TV commercial from Walt Disney World, promoting the resort's $99 four-day, four-park ticket for Florida residents:

The debate is open, in the comments....

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2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: Disneyland's Enchanted Tiki Room

By Robert Niles
Published: January 12, 2010 at 11:38 AM
Two months ago, I argued that Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room was, and is, the best animatronic show ever made: an "under-rated attraction that plays to the strength of the animatronic medium."

Well, some of you seem to agree with me that the Tiki Room's a good show because Disneyland's Enchanted Tiki Room has made the field for the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament. However, perhaps justifying my call that the Tiki Room is under-rated, my pick as the best animatronic show comes in as only the 12th seed in the Best Movie or Animated Show bracket. (Or, maybe, you just think the show is good, but not that good.)

Disneyland's Enchanted Tiki Room

The Enchanted Tiki Room opened in June 1963, as the Walt Disney Company's first-ever Audio-Animatronic attraction. Set in a relatively small, but immersive room, where singing birds and flowers hang from the ceiling and the walls themselves become part of the show, the Enchanted Tiki Room show takes place all around and above visitors. Most folks under 40 will miss the dated vocal references to 1950s and '60s celebrities such as Maurice Chevalier, Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong, but kids will enjoy the colorful birds and flowers, not to mention the singing tikis and totems.

Here's a great YouTube video which includes the pre-show, as well as the entire Tiki Room performance:

Can the Tiki Room pull the famed "12 versus 5" upset and move on to the next round? We'll find out when voting begins in March for the Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament. In the meantime, please share in the comments your thoughts about the Enchanted Tiki Room, and its place within the industry.

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Universal raises multi-day pass prices in advance of Harry Potter

By Robert Niles
Published: January 11, 2010 at 12:45 PM
I suppose that this shouldn't come as a surprise, but Universal Orlando has raised the price on its $99 two-park, seven-day pass to $170, a nearly 72 percent increase.

The increase is part of a restructuring of Universal Orlando's theme park tickets, to what the resort is now calling Universal's Select. Much like Walt Disney World's "Magic Your Way" ticket packages, the new pricing structure is designed to get people to opt for longer stays at the resort: The price per day decreases the more days you buy.

Of course, the old online-only $99 deal might have been the best deal going in Orlando. But at that price, one could argue that it was *too* cheap - many folks bought the pass and used it only for a day or two, as it was cheaper than buying a one-day, two-park Universal Orlando pass at the gate, and the same price as buying it online. Charging more might convince some visitors to spend more time at the parks, to "get back the value" from their purchase.

Now, Universal charges between $79 for a one-day, one-park ticket and $170 for a seven-day, two-park ticket. (Those are adult prices. Prices for kids ages 3-9 run $10-$20 less.)

These tickets also expire within 14 days of first use, a restriction that prevents visitors from buying tickets now for use on future vacations. (The old $99, seven-day ticket expired after seven days, but some other unused Universal tickets did not expire.)

The changes come just in time for the opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter this spring. Will this price increase reduce the number of fans slamming the park for its opening? Is it a smart move by Universal to increase revenue at the one park almost certain to post at attendance gain this year? Neither, or both?

Let's hear your thoughts, in the comments.

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2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: Kilimanjaro Safaris at Disney's Animal Kingdom

By Robert Niles
Published: January 11, 2010 at 12:39 PM
What would have happened had Walt Disney actually used real animals for his Disneyland Jungle Cruise, instead of the animatronics that logistics forced him to use?

More than 40 years after the Jungle Cruise's debut, we finally got a look at a live Disney safari, with the opening of Kilimanjaro Safaris at Disney's Animal Kingdom in 1998. Kilimanjaro Safaris joins the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament as the 12th seed in the Best Themed Ride bracket.

Kilimanjaro Safaris at Disney's Animal Kingdom

Hop aboard the Simba 1 for your two-week safari through Africa's Harambe Wildlife Reserve. If you're lucky, you'll see a wide variety of lions, hippos, giraffes and other African wildlife on your tour.

But, this being a theme park, something goes terribly wrong and you'll soon be on the trail of poachers, trying to stop the killers and save a baby elephant at the same time.

Kilimanjaro Safaris turns out to be a 20-minute drive around the savannah and other wildlife areas of Disney's Animal Kingdom, guided by your driver. Every trip's a bit different, given the unpredictability of live animals - especially ones that prefer to spend the day snoozing.

With live animals commanding more respect than animatronics, Disney's ditched the yuk-yuk corniness of the Jungle Cruise for a more respectful tone here, adding a pro-conservation message with its pursuit of those poachers. (Though this element of the story has been played down over the years.) Here's a two-part YouTube video of a trip through the Harambe Wildlife Reserve:

How will Kilimanjaro Safaris fare against readers' other favorite themed rides? We'll find out in March, when voting begins in the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament. In the meantime, please share your thoughts about Kilimanjaro Safaris, in the comments.

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Theme park cast member stories: Here's to the folks who keep the workers warm

By Robert Niles
Published: January 11, 2010 at 7:20 AM
With the record cold weather in the Orlando area this week, I thought I'd use this week's cast member story to give a shout out to the people who try to keep Disney's cast members warm in this frigid air - the folks in Disney's costuming department.

Most weeks of the year, Disney cast members don their standard costumes. But when temperatures head south (or, uh, north?), the wardrobe crew brings out an assortment of cold weather gear.

I was a big fan of a grey, long-sleeved undershirt that I wore underneath both my Tom Sawyer Island and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad shirts. Both those were short-sleeved shirts, so having thick cotton long sleeves to keep the cold air off my arms was a must.

My favorite single cold-weather item was the Disney blue pea coat, which I wore while working Tom Sawyer Island. A lined, thick woolen coat, the pea coat felt absolutely luxurious compared with every other item I ever wore at Disney. No cold I encountered in Florida could penetrate the Disney pea coat, and I retreated within it on every crossing of the Rivers of America during those cold snaps.

Other cold weather items, well, didn't fare so well. Disney issued us black cotton gloves, which worked nicely while working Country Bear Jamboree or even Thunder Mountain. But at TSI, the gloves were a total fail. Even the suggestion of water rendered those gloves worthless. And if you did manage to keep the gloves dry, you still couldn't use them while driving a raft - the cotton slipped over the fiberglass tiller, keeping you from getting a decent grip on it so you could steer. After the first day, I turned in my gloves without replacement, and just shoved my hands into that toasty pea coat to keep them warm.

Fortunately, once the temperature sank below 50 degrees, supervisors ceased caring about the "bad show" of cast members putting their hands in their pockets, so we could get away with that.

The worst winter costumes were those from Pirates of the Caribbean. From the waist up, you rocked - a turtleneck underneath the flimsy shirt kept you warm and the winter pirate jackets may have been the most spectacular costume piece in Magic Kingdom West attractions - a thick, cropped jacket with flared cuffs. But from the waist down... shiver me timbers. Just your same old flared knee pants, with thin, striped knee-high socks. Brrr.

At least you got to spend most of your shift indoors. Pirate CMs send to work turnstile or the queue tried not to venture past the front doors.

For toasty warmness overall, though, you couldn't beat the Thunder Mountain gear: a green corduroy vest over your pale red (okay, pink) shirt, topped with a fake-fur-lined heavy brown jacket. The Disney-issued cowboy boots kept your feet warm and the hat was one of the few issued by Disney that you didn't mind wearing, even if the temperature climbed up into the 60s. They certainly beat those awful straw hats they issued us for TSI.

(FWIW, the Haunted Mansion had some awesome winter great coats, but I never worked Mansion, save a few greeter shifts during the summer.)

Add everything up, though, and you're talking two time, maybe even three times, as many costume pieces as you'd wear on a normal day. That's two to three times as many pieces to check in, launder, sort, hang and then check back out again as usual.

So that's why the costuming crew deserves a thank you on weeks like these. Ultimately, everyone working in a theme park works as a team. And without folks in wardrobe, that'd be quite the chilly team this week.

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2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: Cedar Point's Top Thrill Dragster

By Robert Niles
Published: January 8, 2010 at 6:22 PM
Got a need for speed? Then hop aboard today's spotlight attraction, Cedar Point's Top Thrill Dragster, the 12th seed in the Best Roller Coster bracket in the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament.

This Intamin AG Accelerator was the world's tallest and fastest coaster when it debuted in May 2003. It's since been "topped" by other coasters, but remains Theme Park Insider readers' favorite "top hat" accelerator coaster, earning it its place in the tournament.

Cedar Point's Top Thrill Dragster

The ride on Top Thrill Dragster is straight-forward, literally. You launch from zero to 120+ miles per hour, then scrub off that speed as you travel up a 400-foot tower. You pick up the speed again as you plunge straight back down, finally hitting the brakes for a turn-around back in to the station. No dips, wide sweeping turns, or inversions. Just speed, baby, speed.

And, oh yeah, an awesome view of the entire Cedar Point at the top. If you have your eyes open, that is.

What do you think of Top Thrill Dragster? Tell us in the comments. Then be ready to vote when the Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament gets started in March.

Update: I forgot to mention the other Intamin Accelerators out there: Six Flags Great Adventure's Kingda Ka, of course, followed Top Thrill Dragster and beat its height and speed records, though not its view. Xcelerator at Knott's Berry Farm preceded Top Thrill Dragster, though the California version is just half the height and speed of its Ohio sibling, offering similar specs to Hersheypark's Storm Runner.

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Legoland California announces Water Park details, new 4D movie

By Robert Niles
Published: January 8, 2010 at 6:06 PM
Legoland California today revealed details about its new water park, which will open to the public this June 10. In addition, the park announced that it will debut a new 4D movie in its Lego Show Place theater, replacing the long-running Racers 4D show.

The new Legoland Water Park will be a $10 add-on for Legoland visitors, although admission to the park will be included free of charge to annual passholders. Park-hopper tickets, including the Sea Life aquarium, also will be available. The water park's entrance will be in the Fun Town section of the park, next to the Adventurer's Club. (There's be a rock climbing wall in that area, in the past.)

The five-and-a-half-acre water park will feature a five-story Lego tower, from which visitors can ride a six-person raft slide or single-person tube and body slides. There also will be a waterfall, a lazy river and a toddler play area.

Model of the Legoland Water Park
Legoland Master Builder and Project Designer Bill Vollbrecht looks at his scale model for the Legoland Water Park. Photo courtesy Legoland.

Lazy river riders will be able to "build" their own Lego rafts, selecting large, soft Lego-style "bricks" to attach to their rafts.

Artist concept of the Legoland Water Park
Artist's concept of the Legoland Water Park. Photo courtesy Legoland.

Premiering March 19, 2010, the 10-minute A Clutch Powers 4-D Adventure film introduces Clutch Powers, a new Lego character who is "the best builder and explorer in the Lego universe," according to Legoland's press release. The film will replace Racers 4-D in the rotation at the Lego Show Place theater, playing daily in rotation with Spellbreaker 4-D and Bob the Builder In 4-D: Bob the Builder and the Roller Coaster.

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Vote of the week: How cold is too cold to visit a theme park?

By Robert Niles
Published: January 8, 2010 at 6:56 AM
With arctic cold enveloping much of the United States this week, pushing freezing temperatures all the way down into the theme parks of Central Florida, perhaps this is the week to ask... how cold is too cold to visit a theme park?

Before some of you reflexively answer "it's never too cold!," let's think about this for a minute. You want to get the full value from your theme park trip, right? And when temperatures drop below the comfort of the 70s, water rides begin to look a bit less attractive. So they're out. Roller coasters don't run when temperatures drop too low. Waiting around outside gets miserable when there's no snow to play with, and crowding into limited indoor spaces within a park doesn't sound like much fun, either.

So what's the tipping point here, for you? At what temperature do you say, "to heck with it, let's do something else"? Let's also assume for a moment here that saying to heck with it is an option - that you're not locked into visiting on a specific day due to long-distance travel, as is the case with many Orlando-area visitors.

Tell us your rationale for your vote, in the comments. As always, thank you for reading Theme Park Insider... and keep warm, east coast readers!

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2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: SeaWorld Orlando's Blue Horizons

By Robert Niles
Published: January 7, 2010 at 9:11 PM
Today, we highlight SeaWorld Orlando's Blue Horizons, the 13th seed in the Best Live Show bracket of the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament.

SeaWorld Orlando's Blue Horizons

Blue Horizons debuted in 2005, in the park's Whale and Dolphin Theater. Unlike past dolphin shows, Blue Horizons blends Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatics with a musical narrative to complement these marine mammals. Here a clip of the show's finale, which I recorded when I visited SeaWorld Orlando this summer:

SeaWorld will bring Blue Horizons to SeaWorld San Diego this summer, extending the parks' recent trend toward replacing animal-driven shows with more robust entertainment spectacles that happen to include animals in prominent roles.

Does Blue Horizons' inclusion of acrobats, divers and a fanciful narrative enhance or detract from watching the dolphins and other animals do their tricks? A few readers have criticized the show on that count, but the majority of Theme Park Insider readers who've seen the show stand behind it, rating it highly enough to make this year's tournament field.

Tell us in the comments what you think of Blue Horizons. You'll get your chance to vote on whether Blue Horizons advances when the Best Theme Park Attraction tournament gets under way in March.

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Flo Rida, Sheryl Crow and 3 Doors Down highlight Universal Orlando's 2010 Mardi Gras line-up

By Robert Niles
Published: January 7, 2010 at 11:49 AM
Universal Studios Florida has announced the band line-ups for its 2010 Mardi Gras concert series.

Mardi Gras
Event Dates
Headliners
(Performances at The Music Plaza)
New Orleans Band
(Performances in French Quarter)
Saturday, February 6KC and the Sunshine Band Bryan Lee & the Blues Power Band
Saturday, February 13Heart Lil Malcolm & the House Rockers
Sunday, February 14 Kool & the Gang Lil Malcolm & the House Rockers
Saturday, February 20 Blondie Mem Shannon & the Membership
Saturday, February 27 Dierks Bentley Chris Klein & The Boulevards
Saturday, March 6Akon Honey Island Swamp Band
Saturday, March 13Aretha Franklin Big Red & The Zydeco Playmakers
Saturday, March 20 Miranda LambertRockin' Jake
Saturday, March 273 Doors Down Soul Project
Saturday, April 3 Beach Boys JJ Callier & the Zydeco Knockouts
Friday, April 9Sheryl CrowLil' Brian & the Zydeco Travelers
Saturday, April 10 Flo RidaLil' Brian & the Zydeco Travelers
Saturday, April 17ChicagoDaddy Mac Blues Band

Mardi Gras is included in admission to Universal Studios Florida. More information, including specific concert start times, is available on Universal's website.

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Are you volunteering to get a free ticket to Disneyland or Walt Disney World?

By Robert Niles
Published: January 7, 2010 at 11:30 AM
With Disney retiring its "get in free on your birthday" promotion, folks are turning their attention to volunteer opportunities to get a free ticket to Disneyland or Walt Disney World.

The "Give a Day, Get a Disney Day" promotion started on Jan. 1, and the promotion's website promptly crumpled under the volume of searches from people looking for qualifying volunteer opportunities. The first one million people who sign up on the Disney website and complete a qualifying volunteer task will get a free one-day, one-park ticket to a U.S. Disney theme park.

More than 4,000 people have signed up to give blood in Tampa. A Theme Park Insider reader wrote me about an opportunity he found on the Disney site to disassemble Rose Parade floats.

And at least one other business is hopping on Disney's coat-tails. Four of the Best Western hotels around Disneyland, in Anaheim, California, are offering a third night free after a two-night stay to visitors who present a Certificate of Completion from the Disney volunteer effort.

Have you signed up for a volunteer gig yet? Are you planning to? Tell us what you think of the program, in the comments.

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2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: Dollywood's Mystery Mine

By Robert Niles
Published: January 6, 2010 at 3:42 PM
Dollywood's Mystery Mine joins the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament field as the 13th seed in the Best Roller Coster bracket.

Dollywood's Mystery Mine

The Gerstlauer Euro-fighter coaster in the United States, Mystery Mine blends a next-generation roller coaster track with an old-school mine theme, including dark interior sections and fire elements. Featuring 90-degree lifts and multiple inversions, Mystery Mine feels less like a free-flying roller coaster and more like an intricate gymnastics routine ("Look at me nail the dismount from the top of the elevator shaft!")

Mystery Mine won raves when it opened in 2007, winning the Theme Park Insider Award for Best New Attraction that year. Since then, a few critics have knocked the ride for a rough start, but the consensus is that Mystery Mine delivers a uniquely enjoyable experience among roller coasters, standing out in a field where too many rides just seem to blend together.

So how good is Mystery Mine, compared with the best roller coasters in America? Theme Park Insider readers will get a chance to decide with their votes when the Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament begins in March. In the meantime, share your opinion about Dollywood's Mystery Mine, in the comments.

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Is it too late for Harry Potter to become a profitable franchise for Universal Orlando?

By Michael Owen
Published: January 6, 2010 at 6:57 AM
Possibly the most eagerly anticipated theme park expansion of 2010, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, set to debut at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, will more than likely attract millions of fanatics of the boy wizard over the next year.

Wizarding World of Harry Potter

The addition of the Potter themed land, based around Hogwarts and the surrounding area, represents Universal’s first major expansion of their Islands of Adventure theme park which opened in 1999. Whilst the attractions are all set to be of the same high standard set around the rest of the park many industry experts have questioned just how long guests will remain spellbound by a series of movies nearing its end.

Of course, these concerns are all valid, just ask Mattel, the company who own the rights to produce the Harry Potter based toys. After the release of the first movie in the series, Harry Potter and the Philosophers (that was the UK book title) Sorcerer's Stone, Mattel couldn’t get the Potter toys on the shelves fast enough, selling around $160m worth in 2001 alone. However, the year following the release of the second instalment, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the value of sales was estimated to be around $130m according to The Economist, a fall of $30m.

Similar trends were seen in the release of the Harry Potter video games, all of which have been developed by Electronic Arts. Since the release of the original game all sales of the Potter-based games have declined. Seemingly even the most budding magicians, witches and of course wizards can get too much Harry Potter magic.

It has to be said that it isn’t all downward spirals for the billion Dollar franchise, book sales, for example, have increased over time, with J.K Rowling’s seventh instalment of the series ‘The Deathly Hallows’ being the best selling of them all. The same can also be said of the movies, more and more people seem to become fans of this tale of courage, integrity and friendship as Warner Brothers premiere’s each new movie. This has to be primarily attributed to the promotion of the books and movies as for all ages. No longer are these best-selling novels regarded as simple children’s stories, they’re aimed not only at the young but the young at heart.

Theme parks are a whole different ball game as we know. If you ask many kids these days if they’ve ever seen an episode of classic Sci-Fi series ‘The Twilight Zone’ they’ll most likely give you a confusing stare, not knowing exactly what you’re talking about. Despite this ‘The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror’ at Disney’s Hollywood Studios is arguably Walt Disney World’s most popular and most loved attraction. At the same time when ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ appeared at the same park it was at the height of its popularity, yet visitors didn’t take to the attraction and the interactive quiz lost popularity along with the show it takes its name from.

There are of course other movie franchises in theme parks. As much as I hate to use the same park as an example over and over I have to go back to Disney’s Hollywood Studios. The movie park as hosted the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular since opening and Star Tours for over a decade. Both attractions have passed the test of time and are still favourites today. Yes, both are in need of some changes but the main thing is the theme based around two huge movie franchises still holds strong, even though the last Star Wars movie was released several years ago.

So, franchises can last for a considerable number of years in a theme park. As long as the theme is backed up by quality attractions then I’d bet that any half decent movie series could last over a decade in the park. Having a big name movie franchise at one of your theme parks is great for drawing crowds but what will keep them coming back are great rides and shows, regardless of the theme. If something is good people will ride it over and over again, even if the movie it’s based around is a little passed its sell-by-date.

Universal are taking precautionary and notably smart steps when it comes to ensuring the Potter theme stands the test of time. Rather than going down normal routes to revenue Universal are adopting a more unique approach. The Wizarding World will offer more than just rides and shows, unique products such as Butterbeer taken from the books will be sold in outlets around the land. This product and many more will be unique to the Potter themed land and it’s likely to be much more profitable than the traditional Potter products sold outside of the theme parks gates.

If I was asked to say now if The Wizarding World would be a success I’d say yes. The plans look simply amazing and if the rides and shows are kept up to scratch then Universal will have no problem selling millions of tickets for years to come just to people who want to experience some magic outside of Walt Disney World. However, if Universal is expecting to make a ton from merchandise as they do at many other themed areas, most notably Marvel Superhero Island, they may be in for a shock. Mattel’s figures don’t lie, there’s seemingly only so much Potter stuff one would-be wizard can have and that’s something Universal will have to deal with in years to come.

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2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: Hall of Presidents at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

By Robert Niles
Published: January 5, 2010 at 2:26 PM
Today's attraction spotlight is the Hall of Presidents at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, the 13th seed in the Best Movie or Animated Show bracket of the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament.

The Hall of Presidents at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

Disney's Hall of Presidents opened with the rest of the Magic Kingdom theme park in October 1971. But the original idea for the attraction came years earlier, when Walt Disney envisioned a similar attraction in a "Liberty Street" next to Main Street USA in Disneyland. Ultimately, Disney and his imagineers developed an Audio-Animatronic Abraham Lincoln for the 1964 World's Fair, which later came to Disneyland as Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.

With a functioning human animatronic at last, Disney Imagineers recognized Walt's vision by designing the Hall of Presidents for the Magic Kingdom's Liberty Square. In the original show, only Lincoln spoke, reprising his "Great Moments" speech, following a roll call of presidents, who mostly just nodded in acknowledgment as their names were called by a recorded narrator.

Starting in 1993, the current president has recorded a speech for the show. Today's version features Barack Obama:

The show includes a filmed introduction that reviews major conflicts and accomplishments in American history, leading to the presidential roll call.

What do you think of Disney's Hall of Presidents? Please share your thoughts in the comments. Voting begins in the tournament this March.

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Disneyland's 2fer deal is back for 2010

By Robert Niles
Published: January 5, 2010 at 11:58 AM
It's a new year, so it is time for Disneyland's 2fer deal once again.

If you've not taken advantage in the past, Southern California residents can buy a one-day, one-park ticket to either Disneyland or Disney's California Adventure for $72 and get a free one-day, one-park ticket to the other park. That ticket must be used within 30 days of purchase.

Tickets must be bought by April 12, 2010. If you buy within 30 days of April 12, you still have a full 30 days to use your second ticket. Kids' tickets, for ages 3-9, are $62. Tickets are available on the Disneyland website.

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How the cold weather affects Orlando-area theme parks

By Robert Niles
Published: January 5, 2010 at 11:28 AM
My mother has a theory that whenever it's a bit chilly in Southern California (and "a bit chilly" here means temps in the 50 or 60s), then it's hot and sunny in Orlando. And vice versa.

Well, I probably don't need to tell our Central Florida readers that it's a gorgeous 80 degrees here in the Los Angeles area this morning.

Orlando, along with much of the east coast is freezing its *ahem* off this week. When I worked at Walt Disney World during a cold snap in 1990, we lost an entire morning on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, as the ride's computer control system wouldn't let us start up the roller coaster. With temperature in the 30s, the coaster's track had become so cold that trains were slogging through their block zones, causing the control system to shut down the ride since it couldn't "see" the trains hitting their marks at the correct time. We had to wait until the sun emerged from the clouds around noon, warming the track to the point where we could get a test train all the way around.

I've been getting notes from readers this week, asking why rides such as SeaWorld's Manta have been down, as temperatures have been dipping into the 20s and 30s overnight and early mornings. With highs expected in the 40s throughout the week, I dropped an e-mail to Tim Carrier, SeaWorld Orlando's operations director, to ask about how the cold weather affects theme park attractions.

Typically, cold weather's not a big deal at theme parks, as parks outside of usually-warm Southern California and Central Florida operate on a seasonal basis, shutting in colder weather. (Or, if they open for Christmas, the operate only a limited slate of rides and shows.) But arctic air does blast into the Orlando area every few years.

Robert: How does the cold affect theme park rides, such as roller coasters?

Tim: There's nothing more important than the safety of our guests and employees, so everything we do is with that in mind, even on the rare cold morning in Orlando. Our safety and ride experts know that below certain temperatures, or even in strong winds, even the best coasters like Manta can't maintain what we've established as a minimum speed, so the ride teams will wait for the temperature to rise or the winds to calm before testing again. During testing, they're looking at many things, including the ride's speed and how long it takes each train to complete the ride and return to the station or what we call the "cycle time." Only when all requirements have been met will we open a ride. Interestingly, hot weather can make coasters faster, so during the hotter days, we may use different wheels on the trains to slow the cars down a bit.

Robert: How cold does the temperature have to be to shut down rides?

Tim: It's rare in Florida to close a ride during the day because the temperature has dropped. But if it should happen, around 40 degrees is when we'd look at closing the ride and running those tests.

Robert: What happens when the temperatures climb back above those levels? Do affected rides reopen immediately, or does it take some time to get them back up?

Tim: If the ride's been open previously that day, we have re-opening procedures to make sure everything meets our safety requirements, so it does take a little time. If the ride's not yet been open, we have a very extensive opening checklist. It's called "green tagging" a ride. But when our guests take that first drop on Manta, it's all been worth the wait.

Robert: How about animal attractions and shows? How are those affected by colder temperatures?

Tim: There are no bigger fans of cooler weather than our whales, dolphins and sea lions! At Shamu Stadium, for example, our whales and trainers are performing in 50-degree water, so cold weather isn't a concern. We might give our guests a few extra reminders about our splash sections, though.

Robert: What's your advice for visitors on cold mornings? Where should they visit first, both to get a full experience and to avoid crowds?

Tim: I do have a few insider tips. If it's nippy, know that you can always warm up at indoor rides and shows. At SeaWorld Orlando, you can do that at Wild Arctic or Pets Ahoy, for example. Grab a cup of hot chocolate and shake off the chill at an indoor restaurant, like our Sharks Underwater Grill. The best time to hit our rides is when a big show is on, like Believe, our killer whale show. And for all the shows, always arrive early, especially to check out the mime at our sea lion show -- not to be missed. Our parks take on a certain sense of adventure when it's cool and even chilly. Plus you're at SeaWorld Orlando and you're probably on vacation, so go for it!

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Baby penguins at SeaWorld San Diego

By Robert Niles
Published: January 5, 2010 at 6:54 AM
I thought I'd pass along this morning pick-me-up, from the folks at SeaWorld San Diego:

Penguin chicks, from SeaWorld San Diego

That's two of the 12 macaroni penguin chicks born at SeaWorld San Diego this breeding season, the most ever at the park. SeaWorld's hatched nine other baby penguins this season, including Adélie and gentoo chicks. Since 1980, more than 500 penguins have been hatched and raised at the park's Penguin Encounter exhibit.

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2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: Busch Gardens Williamsburg's Curse of DarKastle

By Robert Niles
Published: January 4, 2010 at 9:30 PM
Every weekday through early March, we're honoring one theme park attraction a day, leading up to our 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament. For readers who don't live in Central Florida or Southern California, it's a great way to re-experience the best of the theme park industry, as we await the start of the 2010 season.

Today, the spotlight falls on the 13th seed in the Best Themed Ride bracket, Curse of DarKastle from Busch Gardens Williamsburg.

Busch Gardens Williamsburg's Curse of DarKastle

Come aboard your "golden sleigh" for an encounter with King Ludwig (and his, uh, "mommy issues") in this 3-D adventure. Your sleigh will pitch and rotate through the 40,000-square-foot show building, as you ride through the Ludwig's castle and the woods around it. Here's a highlight reel, prepared by Busch Gardens:

This Falcons Treehouse-designed attraction opened on May 1, 2005 and immediately won raves from theme park fans, winning Theme Park Insider's Best New Attraction Award that year. Curse of DarKastle's closest theme park cousin is The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man at Universal's Islands of Adventure in Orlando. DarKastle's debut at Busch Gardens helped draw attention to the Williamsburg park from some Disney and Universal fans, who weren't accustomed to seeing such immersively themed dark rides from regional theme parks.

But is Curse of DarKastle the best themed ride in the country? You'll get your chance to vote in March, when the Best Theme Park Attraction tournament begins. Until then, share your thoughts about Curse of DarKastle, in the comments.

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Theme park cast member stories: Walt Disney World's ultimate weight-loss plan

By Robert Niles
Published: January 4, 2010 at 11:04 AM
Year after year, people list "losing weight" among their top new year's resolutions. For theme park fans who are looking to do that in 2010, allow me introduce you to the most effective weight loss plan I've ever encountered.

The Tom Sawyer Island Plan.

Step one - drive (or fly) to the Walt Disney World Casting Center. (You can use the west coast version of this plan by going to Disneyland's casting center, but you won't sweat off nearly as much weight working in Anaheim as you will working the summer in Orlando.)

Step two - apply for and get a job driving the Tom Sawyer Island rafts. (Having freckles can be a big advantage here. Apparently, Disney casting reps really want to find the people most likely to fry in the sun.)

Step three - spend six to eight hours a day, standing up, driving shadeless rafts and walking up and down the paths on Tom Sawyer Island. Moving the raft tiller will work the upper body, providing your strength training, while walking the island gives you lower-body and cardio workouts.

Step three - continue work into the summer, when Orlando's heat and humidity turn each shift into a six-to-eight-hour sauna, complementing your workout. (Bonus: If you can score an old-school polyester double-knit TSI costume, you'll sweat like a high school wrestler in a rubber suit, trying to make weight.)

Step four - take your fitness to the next level by extending to work the roll-out crew for Parade Audience Control. Clipping parade route ropes together provides a high-tension resistance workout, while rolling the parade rope from a 40-lb. spool strapped to your chest is the ultimate in Disney attractions weight training.

(Advanced students who find that the Tom Sawyer Island Plan no longer delivers desired results may choose at this time to transfer to entertainment and don a full-body character suit. Ideally one with a ginormous, heavy head. This not only doubles the sauna effect, but also develops your balance and ESP, as you attempt to identify little kids who'll pull your tail, before they actually do.)

After just three months on this plan, you'll often find yourself in the Disney cast cafeteria, scarfing down a 5,000-calorie basket of nachos... while still losing weight.

Some folks might try to sell you on the Haunted Mansion Plan, with its miles and miles of walking the load and unload belts. And while that plan is a great choice for people who want a long-distance cardio workout, the Mansion's indoor setting will rob you of the outdoor sauna effect. In addition, you won't get the same upper body work as you will wrestling the TSI rafts.

Unfortunately, Disney has discontinued its sadistic "Mike Fink Keelboats Plan," which provided all the benefits of the Tom Sawyer Island Plan, while forcing you to balance on a rickety keelboat while also spieling - doubling the cardio work and forcing you into in a yoga-like level of breath control.

See your Disney casting rep to sign up today! ;-)

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Happy New Year! 2010 Rose Parade photos from Pasadena

By Robert Niles
Published: January 1, 2010 at 11:50 AM
Happy New Year, from Pasadena, California!

The herald trumpets announce the beginning of Pasadena's 2010 Rose Parade:

Openig float in 2010 Rose Parade

Here's your Grand Marshall for the 121st Tournament of Roses parade, US Airways Flight 1549 hero, Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger:

Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger

That is one big musician, kicking off this parade:

Farmers' Salute to the Bands

Jack in the Box brought a Samba band, in tribute to Rio's Carnival:

Jack in the Box float

Rain Bird brings spectacular floats to the Rose Parade every year. This year's entry won the Sweepstakes Award as the most beautiful entry in the parade. And yes, Busch Gardens fans, that's Jack Hanna on the front of the float.

Rain Bird Rose Parade float with Jack Hanna

Here comes the marching band from the Big Ten champs, The Ohio State University:

And here are the Oregon Ducks:

The City of Burbank won the animation award for this biplane in flight.

Burbank's biplane

The City of West Covina honored the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II:

Tuskegee airmen float in the 2010 Rose Parade

Several of these surviving American heroes rode on the float:

Tuskegee airmen veterans

That's one big fish up there, flying above the Trader Joe's Rose Parade float.

Trader Joe's Rose Parade float

That's Dick Van Patten riding at the front of his Natural Balance Pet Foods float.

Dick Van Patten

Tillman the bulldog goes for a snowboard run:

Tillman the Bulldog, snowboarding

The City of Anaheim hosts the Major League Baseball All-Star Game this summer, so the Angels are riding on this year's Rose Parade float.

Los Angeles Angels on the City Anaheim's Rose Parade float

Pepe Le Pew makes his move, again, on New Mexico's 2010 Rose Parade float.

Pepe Le Pew

The former owners of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, Anheuser-Busch, paid tribute to America's Winter Olympic athletes on its Rose Parade float.

Anheuser-Busch Clydesdales and float


There's Olympic gold medalists Dan Jansen, with this year's short-track speedskater Katherine Reutter.

Katherine Reutter and Dan Jansen

Happy new year, everyone! Here's looking forward to another great year of theme park news, trip planning advice and trip reports on ThemeParkInsider.com.

Update: By request, here are a couple photos of Tournament of Roses equestrian units from today's parade:

Equestrians in the Rose Parade

Lariat tricks

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Keep reading: December 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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