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February 2010

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Vote of the week: Will SeaWorld ever stop using marine mammals in live shows?

By Robert Niles
Published: February 28, 2010 at 6:30 PM
Shamu's back at SeaWorld. But for how long?

Last week's tragedy at SeaWorld Orlando amplifies questions about the use of non-domesticated animals in shows at not only SeaWorld, but all other parks which use them. Can people, even highly skilled trainers, share the water with, or even get close to, orcas and other wild animals?

Tillikum at SeaWorld Orlando

SeaWorld's safety record with animals is excellent. But excellent is not perfect, and when lack of perfection costs a life - human or animal - then folks are going to ask questions, and appropriately so.

Earlier this year, when investor Blackstone Group was making its bid to buy the SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment theme parks from Anheuser-Busch InBev, a Theme Park Insider reader pointed out that Blackstone's other theme park company - Merlin Entertainments - has a corporate policy that sharply restricts the use of marine mammals in performances.

Watching various SeaWorld shows over the years, I've also noticed a trend away from animal tricks and toward a more reverent treatment of the animals' "natural" behavior, turning instead toward human acrobatics and video or stage effects to juice up the theatrics of the show. (Just take a look at the current Believe and Blue Horizons shows and compare them with past orca and dolphin shows at the parks.)

So where does this trend lead? Do the SeaWorld parks, and other theme parks, eventually get to a point where they don't employ animals as performers in their shows at all? That doesn't mean that the animals would disappear from the parks - a show or attraction could be built around an animal's display habitat, much like SeaWorld's done with Wild Arctic.

(Yes, one also could ask whether certain species should be in captivity at all, but that's another question and I'm not going there today.)

Here's the question of the week: Will SeaWorld ever stop using marine mammals in live performances?

Notice that I'm not asking whether you think SeaWorld should stop using marine mammals in shows. I'm asking whether or not you think it will, and if so, whether that change will happen sooner, or later.

In the comments, let's take up that "should they" question, and also talk about the impact of this decision - not just on animals and the company, but also on your decisions about whether or not to visit SeaWorld.

Comments (23) | Archive Link

A Tribute to a Believer: Dawn Brancheau

By Domenik Jost
Published: February 27, 2010 at 3:07 PM
In memory of the late Dawn Brancheau, SeaWorld started the first of each of the Believe shows at each of the three SeaWorld Parks with a tribute.

One park guest by the name of Tina shared her thoughts on the SeaWorld's Blog Page:

"I just saw the tribute and show at Sea World Orlando and thought I should share my thoughts with those reading these blogs.

The Sea World flags at the front of the park are flying at half mast this morning. For a rainy day, the stadium was pretty full. Before the show, a young female trainer walked out Into the audience, stopping for a long hug with am attendent at the base of the stairs.

As they do before every show, the trainers emerge and cross the stairs on the platform. The women all have their hair tied up in buns this morning. They keep coming - more of them than usual. They are all here this morning. The audience is on their feet. A standing ovation for their strength and courage and for their fallen friend. The show hasn't yet begun. The tears have.

Before the show, a short slide show of Dawn, and a statement dedicating the show to her. Many people in the audience are tearing up - it's already an emotional show.

The show starts, and is a typical 'dry' show. The little girl from the audience is a local girl from Kissimmee. Her dream is to be a Shamu trainer... It feels like a new beginning.

The end of the show, and no Tilikum for splashing. There are 5 other whales doing the job he is so good at. As the show ends, you can see the emotion on the faces of some of the trainers faces. There is joy amongst the sadness - they are living their dreams too.

Another standing ovation, and more tears on the faces of those leaving the stadium. Things are moving on, but Dawn is surely missed and loved. They all are loved. There is a lot of love and support for the Sea world family today." - Tina

Check out the comments and SeaWorld's full blog here.

The Orlando Sentinel also reported that none of the trainers where in the water at the same time as the whales and will continue to be so until the investigation is completed.

As it has already been said many times before but can not be said enough, our thoughts and prayers are with her family and friends at this very difficult time.

Comments (6) | Archive Link

The Theme Park Insider's tour of Universal Studios Singapore

By Robert Niles
Published: February 26, 2010 at 6:25 AM
SINGAPORE - I told you that I had a surprise for you.

Greetings from Singapore, where I just completed a "sneak peek" tour of the soon-to-open Universal Studios Singapore.

Robert Niles at Universal Studios Singapore

At just 49 acres (20 hectacres), Universal Studios Singapore will be the smallest of Universal's theme parks (less than half the size of either of the Universal Orlando theme parks), but it is loaded. Though the park is not open yet, I was invited to take a 45-minute walk around the park while I was in Singapore for a few days.

(For those who might be asking, I was invited to be a keynote speaker at a World Association of Newspapers conference on journalism here in Singapore, since media criticism is one of my other gigs.)

Unfortunately, I was not allowed to take photos inside the theme park, as painting crews were still set up throughout. Not that it ultimately mattered much, as it poured rain for about 30 minutes of my visit, and I wouldn't have been able to get any decent shots anyway. However, the representative who guided me around the park has promised some additional hand-out photos, which I will post when I get them in a couple of days.

Universal Studios Singapore is part of the new Resorts World Sentosa development on Sentosa Island, south of the main Singapore Island. Despite its island location, Universal Studios Singapore might be the most easily accessible theme park I've ever visited. I took Singapore's MRT subway to the Harbourfront station, from where I took a short S$2 (a little more than US$1.50) bus ride to Resorts World Sentosa.

Don't want to ride the bus? You could also reach the island via monorail or gondola, and soon you'll be able to walk across on the now-under-construction boardwalk. Oh yeah, you could drive over, too, but with parking for just 3,500 vehicles in its parking garage, I'd stick with the public transport options.

That might sound like a lot of parking spaces, but the Universal Studios theme park shares those spaces with the Resorts World Sentosa's new, wildly popular casino, as well as its FestiveWalk shopping and dining area (think CityWalk, for those of you familiar with the U.S. Universal theme parks.)

Once inside the park, I started with a walk down its Hollywood main street, which looks a bit like the Hollywood section of Universal Studios Florida, except covered with a huge, translucent canopy, to keep tropical rainstorms at bay. (We hid underneath during today's downpour.)

At the end of the Holllywood "zone" lies the park's lagoon, from which you can see each of the other park zones surrounding it. I noticed what looked to me like pyro equipment mounted in the lagoon, but my guide didn't know of plans for a night-time fireworks show. The signs at the front of the park announced operating hours of 9 am - 6 pm, which would be too early a close for fireworks.

She did say, however, that the park would be open in the evenings, for diners and shoppers, who could enter without charge, though the attractions would no longer be operating for the day. That's a first I've heard of in the industry, and I'm interested to see if that helps build visitor loyalty to the park.

From Hollywood, we worked our way counter-clockise around the park, through New York, to Sci-Fi City, then to Ancient Egypt (you can see the impressive Revenge of the Mummy facade directly opposite Hollywood). To the left of Mummy stands The Lost World, then continuing counter-clockwise, we saw Far, Far Away, which is dominated by the castle from Shrek 2. Finally, we ended in Madgascar, which stands just to the left of Hollywood.

Map of Universal Studios Singapore
Image courtesy Universal Studios Singapore

I didn't get to see much in the New York zone, which featured detailed city street scene facades, just like the Orlando park. But I stopped to watch for several minutes as test trains cycled on the Battlestar Galactica twin coaster.

Battlestar Galactica at Universal Studios Singapore
Photo courtesy Universal Studios Singapore

This Vekoma coaster features two, intertwined tracks. On the Blue "Cylon" coaster, you're riding on an Inverted train, but on the Red "Human" track, you're on a sideless sit-down train. Water dummies occupied the seat on the red train as I watched it run (in the rain!) through several continuous cycles. This coaster looks ready to run.

The sign up front had posted a 5-minute wait time, prompting me to say only somewhat facetiously to the waiting greeter, "Hey, I'll take that!" No go, of course.

I noticed greeters in front of almost all the attractions, and heard ride attendant practicing spiels as vehicles cycled all over the park. I also noticed Universal Express entrances on most attractions. That queue-skipping service will be offered as a paid option to park visitors, I was told.

What drew my eye first after walking through Hollywood was the massive, richly detailed facade for Revenge of the Mummy. Now this is what a mummy's tomb is supposed to look like. No faux New York museum set, as in Orlando, or a couple of statues outside a studio sound stage, as in Hollywood.

Two massive Anubis stand guard in front of the tomb building, with others kneeling along the pathway that approaches.

Revenge of the Mummy at Universal Studios Singapore
Photo courtesy Universal Studios Singapore

The entire land, like the other zones in Universal Studios Singapore, is richly detailed. There's no pretense of being a movie studio in this park, freeing Universal Creative's designers from having to dilute thematic environments by exposing them as mere movie or TV sets.

Other notable sites: I saw two side-by-side flumes in the "Hydroelectric Plant" drop at the climax of Singapore's Jurassic Park Rapids Adventure, unlike the two Jurassic Park rides in the United States, which features single flumes throughout. The two flumes merged at the end of the drop in Singapore, making me wonder how that will work within the ride. (The flumes were dry, by the way, making Jurassic Park the only outdoor attraction I saw that was not cycling in test operation.)

Also, the theater hosting the WaterWorld stunt show offers color-coded bench seating. Sit on the upper brown benches, and you'll stay dry. Sit on the middle green benches, and you might get wet. Sit on the blue benches up front, however, and expect to be soaked.

As we walked into Far, Far Away, I ended up explaining some of the visual gags to my guide, who, like many folks not from Southern California, hadn't gotten all the references. Such as the "Welcome to Far, Far Away" sign, which is a take-off of the famous Beverly Hills welcome sign. Or the "Friar's" restaurant, which features the same signage type as Bob's Big Boy. The USS restaurant even has a Friar statue out front, posed in the same stance and with the same expression as the Big Boy statues.

We walked through a richly detailed Shrek merchandise shop in Far, Far Away, which includes a "Magic Potion Spin" ferris-wheel-like ride at one end. All the shelves were stocked and merchandise staff were on hand, training. I saw folks working some of the restaurants, too.

We finished the tour with a quick walk through Madagascar, which offers two new rides for fans of the Dreamworks animated films. King Julien's Beach-Party-Go-Round is a carousel that will offer fans the chance to ride many of the characters from the movies, including Alex and Marty. But the highlight will be Madagascar: A Crate Adventure, a boat ride that takes place within, ironically, a giant boat - the cargo ship from the first film, which towers over the park.

Based what I saw today, with painting touch-ups, testing and training, if this were a U.S. theme park, I'd say that the park would be good to go for a fully operational soft opening next week. But this is Singapore, a nation that I've now seen to well deserve its reputation for strict perfectionism. My guide said that park management will not open until it's convinced that everyone is completely ready to go. So I have no idea when the park will open.

But when it does, I'd love to see it again.

I'll post a bit more about my Singapore trip, including those additional photos and my advice to potential visitors, on Monday. Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend! (Due to my travel back to LA, the Vote of the Week will appear Saturday, instead of today. Or maybe Sunday, depending on how the whole jet lag thing goes...)

Update: Yep, there's gonna be a fireworks show. Here's a rehearsal:

Update 2: Universal Studios Singapore will open to the public on March 18, 2010.

Comments (16) | Archive Link

2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: SeaWorld San Diego's Pets Rule

By Robert Niles
Published: February 26, 2010 at 5:12 AM
SeaWorld San Diego's Pets Rule! joins the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament field as the fourth seed in the Best Live Show bracket.

SeaWorld San Diego's Pets Rule!

Pets Rule! gives the spotlight to dogs, cats and other domesticated animals. Personally, I haven't seen the show in a while, but here's what I wrote about it in 2002, when I reviewed its opening for the Los Angeles Times:

"Dogs jump and fetch, cats scramble, and pigs strut as their trainers engage them all in sometimes complex, but always amusing, choreography. Of course, this being a SeaWorld show, the folks sitting up front have to get wet. Without Shamu and a big water tank, a runaway hose does the trick here. It's the climax to a gag where the audience learns an important "pet rule": Always get the human giving you a bath wetter than they get you."

At SeaWorld Orlando, this show plays as Pets Ahoy!, with some variations in the script and stunts.

Having animals that many visitors know as pets and companions changes the dynamic from SeaWorld's usual fare. The awe-inspiring impression of seeing exotic animals is lost in this show, but it gains an emotional punch from the animal's familiarity. Audience members, kids especially, often have a stronger emotional connection with the Pets Rule! pets, especially within the context of seeing so many other exotic species during their day at SeaWorld. Throw in some fun stunts and tricks, and you've got the recipe for high reader ratings, pushing Pets Rule! to its top-four status.

But can it hang on in the tournament and avoid an upset? Tell us your thoughts, in the comments.

Comments (7) | Archive Link

Busch Gardens Tampa to offer free admission to preschoolers

By Robert Niles
Published: February 25, 2010 at 5:01 PM
Just got word today that Busch Gardens Tampa will be offering free season passes to Florida kids age 5 and under for 2010.

Theme parks typically don't charge visitors age 3 and under, so the offer extends the free admission to kids ages 4 and 5. But you can't just walk up to the gate and get in. Parents of pre-schoolers will need to sign up for the pass online at SesameStreetSafariofFun.com. (Click the "Free Preschool Pass" link. You'll need to bring a birth certificate to the park to activate the pass on your first visit.)

As you might guess from the URL, the deal is part of the park's promotion of its new Sesame Street Safari of Fun kids' area, which is opening this spring.

An added bonus: Busch Gardens is setting aside 44 spots in its preferred parking area for families with strollers, so that they can avoid having to deal with the parking lot tram. There's no extra charge for spots, either, but they're first-come, first-taken, and you'll have to ask for one at the parking booths.

Comments (3) | Archive Link

Six Flags Great America adds MagiQuest for spring 2010

By Anthony Murphy
Published: February 25, 2010 at 4:19 PM
Illinois' Six Flags Great America unveiled a new interactive attraction today called MagiQuest, a live action interactive game for the entire family. Each group will get a "magic wand" and will collect objects and befriend pixies to save a princess from a dragon.

This new addition comes in a quite busy offseason for Great America, which now has a new family roller coaster, the Little Dipper, from the now-gone Kiddieland Amusement park and Glow in the Park nighttime parade, along with this interactive attraction. Park President Hank Salemi said in a statement:

“We are thrilled to be adding MagiQuest to our lineup of new additions to the park for the 2010 season. We are the first theme park to launch an interactive educational family attraction of this type and are confident our guests will enjoy this new attraction the whole family can experience together.”

Expect to see MagiQuest in the County Fair area of the park, which is an area of high construction and expansion for the last couple of years.

What do you all think TPIers?

Comments (7) | Archive Link

Killer Whale attack at SeaWorld claims trainer

By Robert Niles
Published: February 24, 2010 at 1:33 PM
A SeaWorld killer whale attacked and killed a trainer after the Believe show (popularly known as the "Shamu" show) at SeaWorld Orlando today, according to multiple reports coming into Theme Park Insider.

The trainer was interacting with one of the whales after the show when when the attack occurred. The area was immediately evacuated and Orange County authorities called to the scene.

Please post additional details in the comments, if you were on the scene.

Update: The trainer was Dawn Brancheau, and we join with our readers and theme park fans everywhere in sending our condolences to her family. SeaWorld has closed the Believe and Dine With Shamu shows at SeaWorld Orlando and SeaWorld San Diego, pending an investigation.

The whale, Tillikum, has been connected with two other deaths, including the drowning of a trainer at Sealand of the Pacific in Canada in 1991 and the drowning of a SeaWorld trespasser in 1999. None of the trainers ever went into the water with Tillikum, given both his size and history, but that safeguard apparently was not enough to protect Dawn today.

Comments (90) | Archive Link

2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: Epcot's American Adventure

By Robert Niles
Published: February 24, 2010 at 8:02 AM
Today's attraction spotlight shines on Epcot's The American Adventure, the fourth seed in the Best Movie or Animated Show bracket of Theme Park Insider's 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament.

Epcot's The American Adventure

Yep, Ben Franklin and Mark Twain host this animatronic and filmed review of United States history. If the Hall of Presidents tells the story of America from the perspective of the Oval Office, the American Adventure offers a broader narrative on how the nation got to where it is today. (Or, where it was - more or less - around 1980, when Epcot opened.)

The show hits the highlights of any basic U.S. history course - the Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, the westward expansion - but it doesn't ignore the bitter moments in the nation's history, either, including slavery and the Native American genocide.

Personally, I love the show for its choice of hosts. There seems to be a movement today to paint the nation's founding fathers as pious men, motivated by religious calling. In Franklin and Twain, you couldn't find two more sarcastic, God(okay, Christian)-mocking examples to blow up that mistaken assumption about our nation's past. (True, you don't see anywhere near the full range of Franklin's and Twain's sharper attitudes written into in this show, but still, having them up there helps cut the cloying, rah-rah jingoism that threatens to bog down shows like this.)

Here's a clip from the middle of the show, which demonstrates that Disney was using the "Ken Burns effect" to animate still images long before Burns took over PBS pledge drive weeks. (Disney tech geeks should also note that this show offered the first example of an Audio Animatronic walking, too!)

What's your take on The American Adventure? We'd love to hear your thoughts, in the comments.

Comments (17) | Archive Link

2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: Expedition Everest at Disney's Animal Kingdom

By Robert Niles
Published: February 23, 2010 at 8:38 AM
Theme Park Insider readers have selected Expedition Everest at Disney's Animal Kingdom as the fourth seed in the Best Themed Ride bracket of the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament.

Expedition Everest at Disney's Animal Kingdom

Expedition Everest won the Theme Park Insider Award as the year's Best New Attraction when it debuted in 2006. Built upon a custom Vekoma track, Everest is not simply a roller coaster, but more a themed ride that happens to use a roller coaster track. (Thus, its inclusion in this bracket.)

You're set for a train expedition up the famed Mt. Everest, but what are those warnings you read in the queue? It seems that some folks who've been this way before tell of an unspeakable horror within the mountain - the feared Himalayan Yeti. Of course, your guides assure you that all is well, and you have nothing to fear.

So you board, climb up the mountain, and then... (say it with me now!) something goes horribly wrong.

Expedition Everest features a mid-track switch which simulates a derailment, sending you off in reverse through the mountain, before switching back again to forward motion. The highlight of the ride, during that plunge through the mountain, is supposed to be an encounter with the Yeti itself.

But, in a bit of an ironic twist, something really did go wrong with the attraction, and the Yeti has not operated in its fully animated mode for years. Instead, Disney's use stage lighting effects to "animate" the Yeti during your encounter.

Still, even with that one element subdued, with a strong theme and thrilling ride, Everest continues to draw some of the highest reader ratings among all attractions at the Walt Disney World Resort.

Let's hear your thoughts about Everest's chances in the tournament, in the comments.

Comments (24) | Archive Link

Who owns the Kentucky Kingdom rides: Six Flags... or Kentucky?

By Robert Niles
Published: February 22, 2010 at 3:08 PM
Now this is interesting.

Apparently, the Kentucky State Fair Board has gone to court to prevent Six Flags from moving the rides at the now-closed Kentucky Kingdom theme park to other Six Flags properties.

Kentucky is claiming that the rides are "fixtures" to the land they sit on, which is owned by the State Fair Board. Therefore, they are Kentucky property, and not Six Flags'.

The state says that it can find someone else to run the park with Six Flags now out of the picture, and apparently, wants to keep the rides to make that a sweeter deal for whatever management team it hopes to lure in.

Six Flags, as one would expect, isn't buying it and has filed a countersuit against the state. (The suits are being heard in bankruptcy court in Delaware, and not in Kentucky, due to Six Flags being in Chapter 11.)


Comments (12) | Archive Link

2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: Dollywood's Thunderhead

By Robert Niles
Published: February 22, 2010 at 8:31 AM
For the past two months, we've been featuring the nominees for Theme Park Insider's 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament, in part to help keep our readers in northern parts of the country fired up for the start of the 2010 season. Starting today, we'l be shining the daily spotlight on each of the top four seeds in the tournament's brackets, leading up to the start of the tournament next month.

For the fourth seed in the Best Roller Coaster bracket, Theme Park Insider readers have selected Dollywood's Thunderhead.

Dollywood's Thunderhead

This Great Coasters International wooden coaster burst onto the scene in 2004. Featuring's GCI's Millennium Flyer trains, Thunderhead grabbed folks' attention not only for its Smoky Mountain woodland setting, but also for it's first-ever high-speed station fly-through. The trains roar through the station in mid-ride, just feet over waiting riders' heads.

It's not just the sound, it's the physical feeling of the wooden track vibrating the station all around you that jump-starts the adrenaline in your body, hyping it up for the ride ahead.

On track, Thunderhead delivers, with a wicked set of sweeping drops and s-curves that create an illusion of speed exceeding its actual 54 miles per hour. Since Thunderhead's debut, GCI's duplicated much of the ride's layout, including the station fly-through with Terminator Salvation at Six Flags Magic Mountain. (Click that link for a reverse POV video of me on that coaster with Magic Mountain's park president.) You'll also find similarly lauded GCI coasters Evel Knievel at Six Flags St. Louis and Prowler at World of Fun.

Let's hear your thoughts about Dollywood's Thunderhead, relative to the other coasters in the tournament so far.

Comments (8) | Archive Link

Disneyland's Captain EO returns Feb. 23

By Robert Niles
Published: February 19, 2010 at 2:53 PM
Disneyland made it official today: Captain EO, the 3-D musical starring the late Michael Jackson (that's still weird to type), will return to Tomorrowland's Magic Eye Theater on Tuesday, Feb. 23 for an indefinite run.

The show replaces the now-closed Honey, I Shrunk the Audience.

Comments (5) | Archive Link

Vote of the week: When will the Wizarding World of Harry Potter open?

By Robert Niles
Published: February 19, 2010 at 1:14 AM
Universal Orlando's announcement Thursday that it is now selling travel packages to see its much-anticipated Wizarding World of Harry Potter starting May 28... but that May 28 isn't the opening date for the new land... raises the question:

When will the Wizarding World of Harry Potter open at Universal's Islands of Adventure?

Obviously, it will be open sometime before May 28. (I can't imagine Universal risking PR disaster as well as massive "make good" expenses by committing to the May 28 date if it were not certain the land would be ready by then.) And given the buzz coming out of Orlando now - contractors wrapping up work, new employees being hired - an opening could come weeks before the May 28 deadline.

And yet, all Universal's committed to is... "Spring 2010."

But there is a hint out there, a clue that might provide a bookend to the May 28 "latest possible opening" date.

It's been widely reported online that Dueling Dragons will be closed between Feb. 27 and March 16. This is the roller coaster that will be rethemed to Dragon Challenge in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Now, if that report is accurate, that means that Dragon Challenge would be opening on March 17, correct? I mean, Universal wouldn't take the ride down for rehab then reopen it as Dueling Dragons again, would it? What would be the point of that?

So if that rumor is correct, then we're talking Dragon Challenge being open on March 17. That, then, would be the "earliest possible opening" date for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Before people get their hopes up, let me say that I could see Universal opening the Harry Potter land in stages, with the highlight attraction, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey (the robocoaster dark ride inside Hogwarts Castle), opening last. But when would that be? While I can see the land opening in stages, I can't see taking two and a half months between opening Dragon Challenge and Forbidden Journey.

That said, Universal could do what Disney often does and run the ride for several weeks before doing a press event and declaring it officially "open" on the 27th or 28th. But given the secrecy around Forbidden Journey, and the fact that details will be published widely online within minutes of the first iPhone-carrying riders getting off the thing, I can't imagine that Universal wouldn't want to get the press coverage going pretty quickly after the ride was operational.

If I had to bet on this... well, I wouldn't. But I would throw this open to Theme Park Insider readers to take a guess, as a vote of the week. :-)

The dates given are the Fridays between March 17 and May 28. And by "open," let's say that we mean that Forbidden Journey is open to park visitors (not just employees or invited guests) when the rest of the park opens in the morning. Please explain your guess, in the comments.

Comments (21) | Archive Link

2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean

By Robert Niles
Published: February 19, 2010 at 1:10 AM
Theme Park Insider readers have voted Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean as the fifth seed in the Best Themed Ride bracket of the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament.

Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean

Pirates of the Caribbean debuted in the then-new New Orleans Square section of Disneyland in March 1967 and since then has spawned a multi-billion-dollar entertainment empire. The story of a pirate raid on a Spanish port has grown into three (soon to be four) movies, video games and theme park rides around the world.

Pirates takes riders on a 15-minute trip from New Orleans Square's Blue Bayou down two waterfalls into a misty realm where Davy Jones challenges you with a pirate's curse and "dead men tell no tales." Disney's Imagineers have tweaked the ride several times since its 1967 debut, most recently in 2007, with the addition of characters from the Pirates of the Caribbean films, including Davy Jones and Johnny Depp's Capt. Jack Sparrow.

The show's burning city finale features the rousing theme "Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Pirate's Life for Me" by X. Atencio and George Bruns, followed by a coda in the city's crumbling prison, where the pirates face their comeuppance. (Except for Jack Sparrow, of course.)

If you've ridden only the Walt Disney World version of this ride... you're missing quite a bit. With two waterfalls, a much longer lower grotto and a backstory that provided the backbone for the first movie, the Anaheim original easily outscores the Florida copy. You'll also find Pirates of the Caribbean rides at Tokyo Disneyland and Disneyland Paris.

Pirates of the Caribbean set a standard for theme park attractions that few other rides have been able to meet over the past 40-some years. We'll find out how far Pirates can go in this year's tournament when voting begins next month.

Comments (13) | Archive Link

Wizarding World of Harry Potter to be open May 28

By Robert Niles
Published: February 18, 2010 at 10:12 AM
Word's breaking that the Wizarding World of Harry Potter will open at Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure theme park on May 28.

I've gotten the word from a couple of sources, and a new vacation package that Universal's promoting for Harry Potter says that the offer is good for stays starting May 28.

That's the Friday that kicks off the Memorial Day weekend in the United States, which is a traditional opening date for theme park attractions in Orlando and Southern California. (Regional theme parks tend to debut their new rides when the park opens for the season.)

Keep in mind that this is the date when Universal's taking reservations for travel packages. I wouldn't be surprised to see the new land open before that date, at least on a "soft opening" basis. Universal previously announced that the new Harry Potter land would be open to at least walk through during Grad Nights in late April.

Update: Universal's really trying hard to cook some waffle into that opening date: From its press release:

The May 28 travel date was set to help consumers with vacation planning and does not represent the opening date for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort. Universal has announced that The Wizarding World of Harry Potter will open in Spring 2010. Specific opening information will come as soon as it is available.

I read that as it'll be open on May 28, but might be open sooner.

Comments (14) | Archive Link

Busch Gardens giving away two Platinum Passes to a Twitter follower on March 1

By Robert Niles
Published: February 18, 2010 at 10:07 AM
Now, here's a deal:

Busch Gardens Williamsburg is promoting its new Twitter feed (http://twitter.com/BuschGardens_VA) by giving away two Platinum Passes and a Southwest Airlines trip on March 1 to a randomly selected person who's following the park's feed. The Platinum Passes are the SeaWorld Parks' two-year passes that are good at all of the company's parks, including the three SeaWorlds, two Busch Gardens, Sesame Place and the water parks.

Park marketing VP Dan Dipiazzo explains the promotion in this YouTube video.

To follow the park's feed, you just sign up for Twitter, if you haven't already, then go to http://twitter.com/BuschGardens_VA and click the follow button.

While you are at it, please click to follow Theme Park Insider's Twitter feed, as well. I posted news about BGW's give-away last night, and often post breaking theme park news first to the Twitter feed, since it's such a quick and easy way to post fresh information, such as contests like this.

I also have a Twitter list of official theme park feeds that includes tweets from Busch Gardens, SeaWorld, Disney and Six Flags, among several other parks. You can click to follow that list, or pick individual feeds from among those listed to follow.

Comments (2) | Archive Link

2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: Holiday World's The Voyage

By Robert Niles
Published: February 18, 2010 at 9:52 AM
Today's attraction spotlight shines on the biggest roller coaster at the smallest park in this year's tournament: Holiday World's The Voyage joins the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament as the fifth seed in the Best Roller Coaster bracket.

Holiday World's The Voyage

This hybrid wooden coaster from The Gravity Group debuted at the Santa Claus, Indiana theme park in 2006, as the anchor of the park's Thanksgiving land. Themed to the Pilgrims' voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, The Voyage offers all the thrills that one would expect from a tempest-tossed ocean crossing.

This 1.2-mile coaster provides five underground tunnels, three 90-degree banked turns, dramatic drops, and multiple track crossovers at a maximum speed of 67 mph.

And did we mention the airtime? Oh, yes, lots and lots of airtime.

For 2010, Holiday World will install new, Timberliner trains on the coaster, with larger seats and adjusting wheels, designed to provide a smoother, faster ride, with less wear on the track.

Yeah, it's the off-season, and there's been a pile of snow on the ground in southern Indiana, but let's take a ride anyway, shall we?

Holiday World's been one of the few attendance success stories in recent years, with not only The Voyage but also the park's free parking and free soft drinks drawing fans from all over the Midwest. (And with Kentucky Kingdom closing, expect more people to visit Holiday World in 2010.) Even so, the park draws millions fewer fans that the Orlando and Southern California parks that are dominating the tournament. If The Voyage is going to make it into the later rounds, it will need its fans to make a strong case for it to other readers.

Here's your chance, in the comments.

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What to wear and when to ride: The theme park travel tips of the week

By Robert Niles
Published: February 17, 2010 at 12:14 PM
Here are three new tips from the Theme Park Insider Travel tips for visiting theme parks page.

Here's the deal, for those of you who might be unfamiliar with that page. Basically, any reader (including you!) can submit a short, one-line tip for visiting a particular theme park, or parks in general. Then, other readers vote on that tip - yes or no. A tip gets one point per yes vote and loses one for each no. The tips with the highest scores move to the top of the page. (You'll also find tips on each of the park listing pages.)

Click on the link icon after each tip to cast your vote - yes or no - on each of these tips.

- "On water rides, bring something to cover your clothes or they will get wet. This would not be the case during the summer. If necessary, bring extra clothes with you." Link

- "Ride rides during meal times." Link

- "Start at the back of the park." Link

And here are two more tips that I think deserve some extra consideration. First:

- "If you're going to get an annual pass, add parking to at least one pass (if it isn't included already). It seems expensive at first, but at more than $10 a pop for parking at most parks, it pays off in the end." Link

And second. I'll admit that this one is a little, well, harsh on our friends from the U.K. But it offers some excellent advice:

- "Don't look like some clueless, sun-fried British tourist. Wear sunscreen whenever you visit a theme park." Link

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2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: SeaWorld Orlando's Sea Lions Tonight

By Robert Niles
Published: February 17, 2010 at 11:29 AM
SeaWorld Orlando's Sea Lions Tonight joins the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament as the fifth seed in the Best Live Show bracket.

SeaWorld Orlando's Sea Lions Tonight

Sea Lions Tonight plays seasonally and parodies other shows and attractions in the SeaWorld parks. Anyone who follows "Shamu" on Twitter knows that the SeaWorld Parks can display a fair amount of sarcasm toward theme park convention. Sea Lions Tonight focuses that sharp attitude into one no-holds-barred take-down of its park neighbors.

Seeing a walrus perform a killer whale's tricks from "Believe," or an otter trot out a Budweiser wagon like a miniature Clydesdale (well, I guess that gag's out now) elicits easy laughs, but these gags also serve to place the differences between SeaWorld's animal performers in sharper relief. I've always thought that you could see more of a walrus' personality when he's plodding through a few of Shamu's tricks than when he's going through the moves designed for him in SeaWorld's regular sea lion and otter show, "Clyde and Seamore Take Pirate Island." Perhaps it's not a surprise, then, that Sea Lions Tonight earned a higher seeding in this year's tournament than the Pirate Island show.

Ultimately, though, as with all SeaWorld shows, the jokes aren't on the animals - they're on the trainers and the audience. Trainers who put themselves on the same level as the animals get taken down a notch and people in the audience... well, they get wet.

Here's a YouTube clip of Sea Lions Tonight's send-up of "Believe":

Sea Lions tonight also plays at SeaWorld San Diego and SeaWorld San Antonio, with tweaks for those parks' various shows and rides. What do you think about Sea Lions Tonight? Is this a show that can go far in the tournament? Let's hear your thoughts, in the comments.

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Walt Disney World now discounting summer hotel room rates

By Robert Niles
Published: February 16, 2010 at 11:33 AM
Walt Disney World announced today that it is expanding its spring discounts for Disney's on-property resorts into summer.

Here are the details. (Scroll down to "Summer Travel Dates Added!")

The discounts are good for "most nights" between June 4 and August 14. The discounts range from 25% off on Value Resorts to 40% off on Deluxe Villas.

I'll leave the business analysis to you, in the comments.

You can find the link to Walt Disney World's deal and discounts page, as well as discount pages from other theme parks and resorts, on Theme Park Insider's Guide to Buying Theme Park Tickets page.

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What's new on the discussion board: Rough coasters and 2010 vacation plans

By Robert Niles
Published: February 16, 2010 at 9:41 AM
Here's a look at some of the top discussions this week on the Theme Park Insider Discussion Forum:

  • Eugene Koh asks what's the roughest coaster you have ridden on?

  • Eugene also asks readers to post their 2010 trip plans. (And, yes, I'm heading out for another summer roadtrip this year. You'll find the parks I'm planning to visit in the thread.)

  • Another reader asks which attractions are included in the Universal Express Pass tickets for on-site hotel guests. (And James Rao provides the answer.)

  • Adam Nodjomian wants to know if anyone's participated in the Give a Day. Get a Disney Day free-ticket promotion yet. (And if you haven't, get with it. Disney's already given away dibs on [added] 600,000 of the one million tickets it allocated for the program.)

  • Eli Katzman is Disappointed in Updates for the official Intimidator websites, which he writes aren't being as updated as frequently as Cedar Fair updated the Diamondback website last winter.

  • Midge Bentley asks about the VIP Tours of Sea World Orlando, and gets two very different responses.

  • Finally, Amanda Jenkins wraps up her three-part trip report on her No Kids Disney Trip.

    Remember, you're always welcomed to post your trip reports, or to ask any questions you might have about theme park vacations, on the TPI discussion board!

    Comments (4) | Archive Link

  • 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: Walt Disney: One Man's Dream at Disney's Hollywood Studios

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 16, 2010 at 9:11 AM
    Today's attraction spotlight shines on Walt Disney: One Man's Dream at Disney's Hollywood Studios, voted by readers as the fifth seed in the Best Movie or Animated Show bracket of the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament.

    Walt Disney: One Man's Dream at Disney's Hollywood Studios

    Walt Disney: One Man's Dream opened in 2001 as part of the company-wide 100 Years of Magic celebration, marking the centennial of Walt's birth. The pre-show of this movie is as much the attraction as the film itself, featuring a museum of Disney artifacts, including Walt's office from the real Disney Studios (which used to be displayed at Disneyland), as well as Disney's Academy Awards for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (one regular-sized Oscar and seven miniatures) and Imagineering models of several attractions.

    One display within the exhibit also explains the development of the Disney Studio's innovative multiplane camera, which helped give certain shots within Disney's animated films a three-dimensional feel.

    Yet the centerpiece of the attraction remains the filmed biography of Walt, exploring his journey to Hollywood and life at the studio. It even includes rare footage of Walt talking about the creation of Mickey Mouse.

    Walt Disney: One Man's Dream got quite a bit of support in a recent Theme Park Insider discussion on the most underrated theme parks in America. Reader Thomas Caselli wrote: "Walt put his life into Disneyland and his brother Roy did the same with Walt Disney World and this attraction gives one a glimpse of what they went through to build the entertainment empire that is Disney."

    It might be hard to call an attraction that rates a five seed in the tournament "underrated," but Walt Disney: One Man's Dream is certainly beloved by its fans.

    Comments (11) | Archive Link

    Theme park cast member stories: The not-so-unbreakable vow

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 15, 2010 at 3:51 PM
    My final summer working at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, I spent pulling evening shifts on Parade Audience Control and weekends driving rafts to Tom Sawyer Island. That's because I had to keep my weekdays free, since I was also working as an intern in the newsroom at Orlando's WDBO-AM radio.

    My memories of that summer get a little hazy (working two jobs and seven days a week will do that to you), but I recall driving up to the station's studios for a 10am - 2pm shift each weekday. I'd edit audio tapes, take phone calls from tipsters (mostly about traffic snarls), and re-write wire service copy for the station's local news updates. (And, oh yeah, I'd spend most of my time listing to the syndicated radio show the station ran during my shift, some new guy they'd just started with... named Rush Limbaugh.)

    But as a journalism student, the big requirement for my internship was to make what we called a "voice check tape." Basically, this was a kind of audio resume, which included tape of me reporting a few stories. So I'd have to go "out in the field" to report a few.

    Of course, no decent station is going to send the intern out to report an important story. So I'd get fluff - including, one day, a story about some Soviet sailors visiting Walt Disney World.

    This was the final year of the Soviet Union, and as America's Cold War enemy was collapsing, people were crossing boundaries that'd never been crossed before, such as sending Soviet sailors to visit the U.S. Naval Training Base in Orlando (with a side visit to Disney, of course). I was sent to tag along with one sailor as he visited the Magic Kingdom. The sailor had a Disney Tour Guide escorting him, and, as a reporter, I had a Disney PR rep escorting me. Never mind that I was also a cast member; I was working as a reporter, so I had to have a rep with me at all times in the park.

    So there we were, the four of walking around the MK, with me fumbling a tape deck and a bulky microphone, trying to record any recognizable background sounds in between asking banal questions of a guy who looked as if he'd like nothing more than to ditch the three of us so he could have some fun.

    Eventually, the sailor announced that he wanted to ride a roller coaster. So it was off to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad for us.

    Unfortunately, neither the tour guide nor the PR rep knew how to "back door" a guest into Thunder, so we wouldn't have to wait in line. (This was not an uncommon occurrence, as regular Theme Park Insider readers might remember.) So I stepped up.

    "Just follow me," I said. This trip was taking way to long, and I still had to drive back up to the studio to edit my report in time for me to... drive back down to Disney for my parade shift that night.

    So I led us into the station through the exit, where I found one of my friends on the unload platform. At first, he barely glanced our way, but as he recognized me his head whipped back around and his jaw dropped. Tour guides and VIPs were regular arrivals at Thunder, but a fellow CM in a shirt and tie, carrying a radio station mic and recording gear, was not.

    Almost immediately, every other CM in the station was staring at me, too. Feeling more self-conscious by the second, I recorded the Old Man's spiel and shoved the mic at the sailor for a comment as he stepped onto the train. The PR rep asked if I wanted to ride with him.

    "Uh, no. I got enough. Let's go."

    And as my co-workers kept staring at me, we high-tailed it out of the station, while I vowed to myself that I would never do anything as awkward as reporting a story from a theme park again. ;-)

    For more of Robert's stories about working at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, visit www.themeparkinsider.com/stories.

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    2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: Dollywood's Sha-Kon-O-Hey

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 15, 2010 at 10:02 AM
    I mentioned earlier that the seedings for the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament were determined by the average of reader ratings submitted by Theme Park Insider readers over the past year... with one exception.

    Today, we get to that exception.

    Not many Theme Park Insider readers have rated Dollywood's Sha-Kon-O-Hey, but having seen the show myself last summer, I can't justify not including this musical among our list of the top live shows at U.S. theme parks. So I'm exercising my editor's privilege here and entering Sha-Kon-O-Hey into the tournament as the sixth seed in the Best Live Show bracket.

    The cast of Dollywood's Sha-Kon-O-Hey

    A phonetic transcription of the Cherokee word shaconage, the title means "Land of Blue Smoke," which we know today as the Great Smoky Mountains. The 45-minute musical, which premiered for the 2009 season, pays tribute to the history and people of the local area with eight original songs composed by Dolly Parton herself, not to mention a live bluegrass band accompaniment, as well as outstanding singing, dancing... and even acrobatics.

    Dancing and acrobatics in Dollywood's Sha-Kon-O-Hey

    The show tells the story of a Depression-era Smoky Mountain family packing up to move west, in pursuit of work. But the family's young boy doesn't want to go, and runs away to an old tree, where he wishes to stay.

    The boy's wish reveals an enchanted valley, where the spirits of generations past dwell. (And sing and dance, of course.) Eventually, he's joined there by his sister and grandmother, who'd come looking for him. The grandmother is the kids' bridge to the past, teaching them the "old ways" and the stories of her youth, but one of those old ways is that a child can't run away from his father.

    So the boy returns to the tree to change his wish. He and his sister will reunite with their father for the trip west, while grandmother will remain home, with the people and spirits of the Smokies.

    The finale of Dollywood's Sha-Kon-O-Hey

    I know that most of you haven't seen this show, but I'd like to encourage those of you who have to share your thoughts. Should other Theme Park Insider readers vote Sha-Kon-O-Hey into the next round of the tournament? Here's your chance to make a case, one way or the other.

    Update: I found this clip from the show's premiere performance. It includes about four minutes of clips from the show, as well as Dolly Parton greeting the audience and talking with the show's director after the show. Then she joins the cast to sing one of the songs from the show:

    Comments (8) | Archive Link

    Vote of the week: Dating in a theme park?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 12, 2010 at 8:28 AM
    We've got Valentine's Day and President's Day back-to-back in the United States this year, meaning that many folks might just decide to make this a romantic three-day weekend getaway.

    As those of us with kids will merely hope that we can get through the weekend and ship the kids back to school before they destroy the house in a sugar-induced frenzy. :-)

    Since this is a theme park website (duh!), I thought I'd honor Valentine's Day here by asking about dating and theme parks. Have you ever taken a date to a theme park? I'm talking about just the two of you, going to a theme park for a date, instead of to dinner and a movie or some other, more "traditional" date night activity.

    If you have, please take a moment to tell us in the comments about your most memorable theme park date.

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

    Comments (21) | Archive Link

    2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: Busch Gardens Williamsburg's Griffon

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 12, 2010 at 12:28 AM
    Theme Park Insider readers have voted Busch Gardens Williamsburg's Griffon as the sixth seed in the Best Roller Coaster bracket of the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament.

    Busch Gardens Williamsburg's Griffon

    This Bolliger & Mabillard floorless dive coaster debuted in May 2007 and features a 205-foot, 90-degree initial drop, followed by two Immelman loops (a simultaneous loop and roll), a second, 130-foot drop and a water "splashdown." Theme Park Insider's Russell Meyer was there on opening day, and filed this on-ride video account, which remains to this day the most-viewed video ever on ThemeParkInsider.com:

    Other B&M dive coasters include SheiKra at Busch Gardens Tampa (which was converted to floorless cars after Griffon opened) and Oblivion at Alton Towers in England.

    So let's dive into the comments, shall we? (Deepest apologies for the pun. Couldn't resist!)

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    Universal Studios Singapore to begin soft opening

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 11, 2010 at 9:41 PM
    Just got the news today that Universal Studios Singapore will begin public previews on Feb. 14.

    The park will be open between 5pm-9pm Feb. 14 through Feb. 21. Admission will be only S$10 (That's 10 Singapore dollars, or about US$7.) But you'll get a dining voucher for the same amount, so it works out to being a free preview.

    Universal Studios Singapore is part of the larger Resorts World Sentosa development, which also is debuting Singapore's first casino at the same time.

    A casino and a theme park within walking distance of each other? Somebody, get me a ticket to Singapore!

    Update [Feb. 12]: The tickets to all dates are now sold out.

    Comments (5) | Archive Link

    2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: Disneyland's Haunted Mansion

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 11, 2010 at 12:05 PM
    Welcome, foolish mortals, as Disneyland's Haunted Mansion joins the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament today as the sixth seed in the Best Themed Ride bracket.

    Disneyland's Haunted Mansion

    Opened in 1969, Disney's original Haunted Mansion takes visitors on a "Doom Buggy" tour through the home of "999 happy haunts." Th "Ghost Host" narrates your way through the ride, which takes you up a grand staircase, past Madame Leota's seance, and through a Grand Ballroom on your way to the attic.

    The ghostly bride in Disneyland's Haunted Mansion

    There, a ghostly bride greets you, before you exit a window, descending the Mansion roof into the haunted graveyard "outside." Finally, a ghost hitchhikes a ride in your buggy, before you exit and ride the "endless carpet" back up to New Orleans Square.

    Disney's Haunted Mansion also appears in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, Tokyo Disneyland and, as Phantom Manor, at Disneyland Paris. The exact backstory of the Mansion is the subject of much debate, and has been enhanced greatly over the years by Mansion cast members, far beyond that originally scripted by Disney's Imagineers.

    All that talk, though, just demonstrates how popular the Mansion has been, and remains, among park guests. Disneyland's version scores slightly higher among Theme Park Insider readers than Disney World's Mansion, which is why the Disneyland original gets the tournament slot. (Personally, I prefer the Disneyland version, if for no other reason that you get to enter through the front door in Anaheim, as opposed to entering through the basement - and instantly ending up in the foyer - as you do in Florida. I always wanted to go through that front door at Disney World!)

    My attempts to record the ride at the Mansion have failed, given the low light. So I instead offer you this video, plucked from YouTube:

    Can the Mansion win this bracket? Let's hear your thoughts, in the comments.

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    Great America joins in the Night Time Entertainment

    By Anthony Murphy
    Published: February 11, 2010 at 9:33 AM
    Move over Disney!

    Coming this season to Six Flags Great America is Glow in the Park Parade. It looks like Great America's version of the Main Street Electrical parade. According to Great America's website, it is the brainchild of Gary Goddard, a designer of many attractions in Las Vegas and aquariums. Music is composed by Benoit Jutras who also composes for Cirque du Soliel.

    Here is the link.

    So what do you think? Is this a good move for Great America or the Six Flags Brand itself?

    Comments (9) | Archive Link

    Disney brings Summer Nightastic promotion to Walt Disney World

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 10, 2010 at 3:57 PM
    Last summer, Disneyland promoted its night-time entertainment - Fantasmic! and fireworks at Disneyland and the Main Street Electrical Parade (now known as 'Disney's Electrical Parade') at Disney's California Adventure - under the "Summer Nightastic" banner.

    Disney's Electrical Parade
    It's 'Disney's Electrical Parade' at DCA, because there's no 'Main Street' at that park.

    Well, Walt Disney World fans, get ready for your own version, because Disney World President Meg Crofton announced today in Orlando that Disney World would adopt that promotion this year, too.

    As part of WDW's Summer Nightastic, the Main Street Electrical Parade will return to the Magic Kingdom, along with some new floats. There will also be a new fireworks show, as well as new effects at the Tower of Terror.

    Comments (12) | Archive Link

    Universal Orlando's latest hotel deal, plus the new travel tips of the week

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 10, 2010 at 2:39 PM
    Islands of AdventureUniversal Orlando has released deals of its latest 5-nights-for-the-price-of-3 deal: It's a 5-night hotel stay, plus a 4-day, 2-park Universal Orlando theme park ticket, transportation between the hotel and theme parks, plus early admission to Islands of Adventure. (That last perk is one I don't remember seeing before. Universal's answer to Extra Magic Hours?)

    The price runs $254 per person if you stay in one of Universal's off-site partner hotels and from $573 per person if you stay on-site at the Portofino Bay, Hard Rock or Royal Pacific. The big upside to staying on-site, beside the four-star hotels and walking-distance access to the parks, is getting the ability to skip almost all the lines in the theme parks. Here's the link for more information.

    Post more deals and discounts in the comments, if you have 'em.

    * * *

    Here are three new tips from the Theme Park Insider Travel tips for visiting theme parks page. Click on the link icon after each tip to cast your vote, yes or no, on each tip.

    - "Bring your own poncho if you don't like getting soaked on water rides. You can find them for less than $1 at stores like Wal-Mart. They often cost $8 in the park. Plus you don't feel obligated to have to carry them around when you are done with them." Link

    - "Use the single rider line for Expedition Everest and you will be able to ride without a wait of more then a few minutes. If you have other party members you can all do this and then just reconnect at the exit area to share your thoughts on the ride." Link

    - "Please treat the park employees as people. They do not personally see your 80 plus dollar admission. They are working usually for very little. Plus a little niceness goes along way." Link

    Update: Please take a look at some of the tips listed under "Other Tips for All Parks" on the Tips page. There are some good ones down there that deserve some more "yes" votes, to move up into the Top 20.

    And, of course, there are some others that deserve to be voted "no" into oblivion. But it's up to you to do that.


    Comments (1) | Archive Link

    Six Flags debuts new corporate blog

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 10, 2010 at 12:17 PM
    Six Flags today launched a new corporate blog, joining Disney and SeaWorld.

    Six Flags Blog

    And, since I hear you asking, here are some other "official" theme park company blogs:

    These blogs are written by the parks' corporate PR folks, so don't expect any dirt or insider tips or coverage that the parks might not want to promote. But some of them can be a fun read, and they are often the first place to get official photos, video and announcements of new attractions.

    If I've missed any big ones, lemme know in the comments (it's typo day here on TPI, BTW!). And FWIW, I don't know of any official non-Halloween blogs from Universal, which seems to be lagging other parks in the use of social media, despite stellar efforts on that front for Halloween Horror Nights. Go figure.

    Update: From the comments...

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    2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: MuppetVision 3D at Disney's Hollywood Studios

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 10, 2010 at 10:49 AM
    Theme Park Insider readers have voted MuppetVision 3D at the Disney's Hollywood Studios theme park in Walt Disney World as the sixth seed in the Best Movie or Animated Show bracket of the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament.

    MuppetVision 3D at Disney's Hollywood Studios

    Set in the "Muppet Show" theater, complete with Statler & Waldorf heckling from the balcony, MuppetVision 3D shows us the inside of Muppet Labs, where Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker have "perfected" 3-D technology. To show off their work, Dr. Honeydew introduces us to the first 3-D, computer generated Muppet, Waldo C. Graphic.

    Then, as you could probably guess, something goes terribly wrong, and Waldo runs amok throughout the show, ultimately crashing Sam the Eagle's attempt at a patriotic finale. The Swedish Chef even tries to shoot down Waldo, but just manages to destroy the theater in the process.

    In short, it's the mayhem you expect from the Muppets.

    MuppetVision 3D debuted at Walt Disney World in May 2001 1991, one year after the sudden death, at age 53, of Muppets creator Jim Henson. Henson in 1989 had agreed to sell his company to Disney, which led to the creation of the MuppetVision 3D show at the then-Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park. Henson's death ultimately scuttled the deal, but in 2004, Henson's heirs agreed to sell the rights to most of the non-Sesame Street Muppets to Disney.

    MuppetVision 3D also plays at Disney's California Adventure theme park in Anaheim.

    What's your take on MuppetVision 3D?

    Comments (13) | Archive Link

    Paris' Toy Story Playland price tag revealed

    By Michael Owen
    Published: February 9, 2010 at 9:43 PM
    Product integration vice-president at Disneyland Resort Paris Simon Opie revealed in an interview with British newspaper The Times that the new Toy Story Playland, set to open this year at Walt Disney Studios Park, came in at a cost of £60 million.

    The themed land based around popular Pixar movie franchise Toy Story will be situated near the Toon Studio area of the Studios Park and should be ready for visitors by the summer of this year, though a set date has yet to be announced.

    The opening of the land is set to coincide with the beginning of Disneyland Resort Paris’ new marketing campaign the ‘New Generation Festival’ based around more recent movie offerings from the Disney and Pixar animation studios.

    The interview with Simon represents the first time a price tag has been placed on the new land and many may be surprised by such a high investment in the resort when Euro Disney S.C.A only recently announced major losses for the last financial year.

    Many have been critical of the planned attractions in the Toy Story Playland area, claiming them to be more suited to a standard amusement park than a world-class Disney theme park. However no one can argue with the level of investment in the park. Even with the recent economic downturn Euro Disney S.C.A are investing a considerable sum in the land and that can only be seen as a good sign of things to come as economic recovery is becoming a realistic prospect in Central Europe.

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    2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: Incredible Hulk Coaster at Universal's Islands of Adventure

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 9, 2010 at 5:15 PM
    Today's attraction spotlight? Incredible Hulk Coaster at Universal's Islands of Adventure in Orlando - the seventh seed in the Best Roller Coaster bracket of the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament.

    Incredible Hulk Coaster at Universal's Islands of Adventure

    You've entered Bruce Banner's laboratory, as he's attempting another experiment to reverse his, uh, gamma ray problem - you know, the one that turns him into the Incredible Hulk.

    But as the experiment starts (c'mon, say it with me now), something goes horribly wrong and you explode from the gamma tube at 40 mph in coaster builder Bolliger & Mabillard's only launch start. Hulk gets right to business, throwing you into an immediate inversion, followed by a cobra roll and a loop, then plunging into a fog-filled tunnel at a top speed of 65 mph.

    Exiting the fog tunnel on Incredible Hulk Coaster

    From there, Hulk spins riders through a corkscrew, another loop, as well as a couple of over-banked turns and a final corkscrew.

    It's not anywhere near the tallest or fastest coaster out there, but in typical Bolliger & Mabillard fashion, Incredible Hulk Coaster blends speed and inversions into a delightful mix of roller coaster mayhem, one that leaves most riders exhilarated, rather than nauseated. Quite a feat, really, given the number and sequence of inversions involved here.

    But is it enough for Incredible Hulk Coaster to win the title as Best Roller Coaster, or Best Theme Park Attraction, in America? We'll find out when voting begins in the tournament, in March. In the meantime, let's hear your thoughts about Hulk, in the comments.

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    City council rejects Kings Island admission tax

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 9, 2010 at 8:34 AM
    The Mason, Ohio city council last night finally voted on that proposed ticket and parking tax for Kings Island, rejecting the proposal.

    The tax would have raised about $2.4 million (a number I figured out here) by adding 3 percent to the cost of tickets and passes and 5 percent to the parking fee.

    That's not much per ticket - it would have worked out to about a buck extra per ticket I bought last year, plus an extra 50 cents or so on the parking. And the councilman who proposed the tax increase said it would have gone toward improving roads the highway interchange and access road to the park. But Kings Island launched a PR blitz against the tax, e-mailing passholders to turn out in opposition.

    Looks like it worked.

    Comments (6) | Archive Link

    What's new on the discussion board: A new coaster at Busch Gardens Tampa?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 9, 2010 at 8:14 AM
    We've got some interesting observations and potentially fun conversations waiting for you over on the Theme Park Insider Discussion Board:

  • Andrew Holden has noticed survey stakes in the ground around Busch Gardens Tampa, perhaps the first sign of a rumored new launch roller coaster at the Florida park for 2011.

  • In the meantime, Is Busch Gardens Tampa worth visiting? another reader asks.

  • And on the subject of new roller coasters, another reader wonders if Cedar Point will be adding a new roller coaster anytime soon, in an effort to break the "coaster king" tie it will soon share with Six Flags Magic Mountain, when the California park debuts its 17th coaster in May.

  • Amanda Jenkins offers a trip report on a visit to Walt Disney World without the kids: Part one and part two

  • Anthony Murphy is participating in Six Flags' pediatric cancer fund-raiser, Walk in the Parks. You can learn more about the event, and click to contribute to Anthony's team by visiting his thread.

  • Finally, Steve Ward asks how best to go about complimenting a theme park employee, in a way that will give that employee some credit.

    I'm planning to do a better job this year of posting regular round-ups of new discussion threads, to keep blog readers up on what's happening over on the board, and, I hope, encourage more readers to head over there with their questions and observations on topics we don't cover here on the blog.

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  • 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: Busch Gardens Tampa's Katonga

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 8, 2010 at 10:25 AM
    We kick off another week here on Theme Park Insider by welcoming Busch Gardens Tampa's Katonga to the daily attraction spotlight. Katonga joins the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament as the seventh seed in the Best Live Show bracket.

    Busch Gardens Tampa's Katonga

    Set in the 1,200-seat Moroccan Palace Theater, this 35-minute musical show debuted in 2004 and follows a day in the lives of aspiring storytellers, called Griots, as they strive to become masters of their craft. To accomplish this rite of passage, the performers evoke traditional African stories to entertain the audience.

    I have to fess up that Katonga is one of the few nominees in this year's tournament that I have not experienced in person. So I'll turn it over to TPI reader Russell Meyer, who wrote: "I wasn't sure what to expect from Katonga, but I came out realizing that I had just watched the best theme park show I've ever seen. Many people will probably want to draw comparisons to Animal Kingdom's Festival of the Lion King, but I think Katonga's imaginative story and original score elevate it even higher than any of Disney's show offerings."

    And here's Joe Lane: "As our story begins, we meet Karume, a master storyteller, who calls together the best storytellers of Africa, called griots, and challenges them to tell the best stories they possibly can. One tells the story of Whirly, a young monkey who learns about being confident (to the tune of Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy"). Next, we have the song of Kipopo, a caterpillar struggling to find her place in the world of insects, follows with a story about Rok Rok, a bullfrog who's taught a lesson in living with others in harmony (accompanied by the Leslie Bricusse song "Talk With The Animals"). The finale is a story from about an African crowned crane named Kilinda and a great flood that threatens to wash away two lovers. The song "Celebrate the Light" is perhaps the true highlight of the production, uplifting and inspiring--and it's original, written by Tampa native Desmond Boone who has been writing music for BGT for 25 years."

    Busch Gardens visitors, what do you think about Katonga? If you haven't seen the show, here's a clip of "Celebrate the Light":

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    Theme park cast member stories: Finding what you didn't know you were looking for

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 8, 2010 at 8:16 AM
    As I was wrapping up my senior year at Northwestern, some of the folks I knew there were planning to head off to Europe for a while before settling down to their post-graduation jobs. I would have loved to go to Europe and see the world, too. But I went to school on a Pell Grant and more than once had to hunt coins on the floor to pay for a fast-food Sunday dinner (when the cafeterias were closed). No way could a lower-middle-class kid like me afford a European tour.

    Well, if I couldn't afford to go out and see the world, I knew where to get a job where the world would come see me. So as soon as my classes were over, I crammed my belongings into two pieces of luggage and couple cardboard boxes (those were the days before airlines charged you for luggage, thank goodness) and I hopped a flight for Orlando.

    I'd been working as a CT (seasonal) employee at Walt Disney World for the past two summers. And I'd worked the previous Christmas holidays, too. But now I'd be joining the Disney World cast full-time. My long-term plan was to go to graduate school in journalism, but I'd take a year away from school first to see the world.

    As the world came to see Disney, that is.

    So while my classmates were sitting in Northwestern's basketball arena a week later, collecting their diplomas, I was sitting in the theater at the Country Bear Vacation Hoedown, trying to elicit a rowdy "Howdy" from several platoons of Brazilian teen-agers. I'd, uh, enjoy several awkward moments with young Brazilians ladies over the next few months, as well as with some elderly British ones.

    Disney World introduced me to the first head of state I'd meet. When Michael Jackson died last year, and his funeral snarled traffic throughout LA, my kids were talking about whether they knew anyone who'd met Jackson. To their shock, I told them that I had. Jackson and his crew had boarded my boat at Pirates of the Caribbean.

    But the "regular" guests stand out as much as the celebrities. One day, while walking Tom Sawyer Island, I heard a whoop from two middle-aged British ladies. When I walked over to see what was the matter, they begged me to take their picture next to the "Cardiff Hill" sign on the island.

    They told me that they'd been trying to find a shortcut from Thunder Mountain to the Haunted Mansion. But they'd gotten themselves royally lost on what they still hadn't realized was an island. Yet their growing frustration had melted away and now they were thrilled. Why? They were from the city of Cardiff, in Wales, and were delighted to find a sign referencing their hometown in the Magic Kingdom.

    So I took their picture with the sign, shared a laugh and walked them back to the dock for a return trip to the mainland. (I told them how to get over to the Mansion, too.)

    Funny how things work out. They'd been looking for one thing, gotten themselves good and lost, and only then could they find that thing they hadn't known about, but that ended up making their trip. They traveled across an ocean to find a delightful reminder of home.

    And so it was to be with me, in a way. I thought that my year working at Disney World was a year off, a diversion from my future career in journalism. Little did I know at the time that within a generation, the newspaper industry would self-destruct. And that as hundreds of former colleagues have lost their jobs (and the paper I worked at in Denver closed), I would remain employed in journalism as... the editor of a website covering theme parks.

    So I didn't take a year off, after all. I was starting a career that I didn't yet know I'd have.

    Funny how things work out.

    Read more stories about working in Walt Disney World, at www.themeparkinsider.com/stories.

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    2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: It's Tough to be a Bug! at Disney's Animal Kingdom

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 5, 2010 at 3:50 PM
    Theme Park Insider readers have voted It's Tough to Be a Bug! in Disney's Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World as the seventh seed in the Best Movie or Animated Show bracket of the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament.

    It's Tough to Be a Bug! at Disney's Animal Kingdom

    It's Tough to be a Bug is somewhat unique among movie-themed attractions in that it debuted before the film upon which it was based. It's Tough to be a Bug debuted with the rest of the Animal Kingdom park on April 22, 1998. But Pixar's "A Bug's Life," which supplied the characters for It's Tough to be a Bug, didn't appear in theaters until November of that year.

    It's Tough to be a Bug was Disney's second "4-D," movie, following Honey, I Shrunk the Audience. Playing inside (okay, underneath) the park's iconic Tree of Life, the movie stars the ant Flik, who just wants to show everyone that insects should be people's friends. This being a 4-D flick, of course, that lesson is delivered along with a slew of bugs, gunk and other assorted items being chucked at the screen, along with other in-theater effects.

    The show can frighten small kids, but ends sweetly. Fans credit the show for its gags, though others complain that the gags don't hold up after several viewings. It's Tough to be a Bug also now plays at Disney's California Adventure, where it anchors the A Bug's Land section of the park.

    How do you think It's Tough to be a Big ranks among other theme park 3-D movies? Let's hear your thoughts, in the comments.

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    Vote of the week: It's party time!

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 5, 2010 at 12:09 AM
    I'm looking for a theme park angle to the Super Bowl for this week's vote....

    Hmmm, there's Holiday World in Indiana versus... well, Jazzland/Six Flags New Orleans closed after Hurricane Katrina. And the Nickelodeon Park idea doesn't seem to be panning out. So that's not gonna work.

    There's always New Orleans Square in Disneyland. And, hey, the Indiana Jones Adventure is right next door!

    Man, is that a stretch.

    Okay, I got nothing.

    Seeing as though I skipped a class period in high school to watch the Colts arrive in Indianapolis via those infamous Mayflower moving vans, I got Indy. But I understand that no one outside of Indiana's gonna be rooting for the Colts this time, not with New Orleans as the opponent. Still, I'm putting this up for a vote.

    If you haven't submitted a comment to the Blog Flume before, consider this your invitation to de-lurk. Introduce yourself and say a few words. It's time for a party this weekend, so we might as well get it started here. Thanks, as always, for reading Theme Park Insider!

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    Six Flags announces Kentucky Kingdom closure

    By steve lee
    Published: February 4, 2010 at 8:02 PM
    First they closed off a section of the park. Then they suddenly started taking down one of their most popular coasters to transfer elsewhere. Today Six Flags confirmed the final fate for Kentucky Kingdom. It's over.

    Here's the statement from Six Flags:

    Statement from Six Flags

    It wasn't a great park, but it was fun. I'm sorry to see it go.

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    Carowinds makes first test run for Intimidator roller coaster

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 4, 2010 at 5:22 PM
    Carowinds today conducted the first test run for its new Dale Earnhardt-themed Bolliger and Mabillard Hyper coaster, Intimidator.

    Here's the video:

    Intimidator appears to be on schedule for opening with the rest of the park for the 2010 season, on March 27.

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    February ticket and hotel deals at Knott's Berry Farm

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 4, 2010 at 3:52 PM
    Knott's Berry Farm is offering tickets this month for $25 each, provided you buy two or more. Knott's is calling this its "TwoGether is Better" promotion, in honor of Valentine's Day. If you're planning on visiting the park more than once this year, though, you probably should opt for Knott's Season Pass, which is still available for $59.99.

    FWIW, Knott's is also offering A Valentine's package at the Knott's Resort Hotel. The deal includes a one-night stay, in-room champagne, two tickets to Knott’s Berry Farm, a breakfast buffet, dinner for two and free parking... for $159. Call 866-752-2444 and ask for the Romance Package.

    That said, I don't know if Valentine's Day itself if the best time to take advantage of that deal. Knott's also is promoting that it will host more than 200 Civil War reenactors in an encampment next to Independence Hall on... Feb. 13 and 14. ("C'mon, honey, what's more romantic than a Civil War reenactment?") Hey, maybe you're into that..., if not, the deals are good all month.

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    2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: Disneyland's Indiana Jones Adventure

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 4, 2010 at 12:39 PM
    Today, the daily attraction spotlight returns to Disneyland, as the Indiana Jones Adventure joins the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament as the seventh seed in the Best Themed Ride bracket.

    Disneyland's Indiana Jones Adventure

    Disney brought the flight simulator to the attention of theme park fans in 1987, when it opened Star Tours at Disneyland. In 1995, Disney moved the industry forward the next step, blending simulator technology with a more traditional track ride in the Indiana Jones Adventure.

    Here's the story: Indiana Jones has just discovered an ancient, forgotten "Temple of the Forbidden Eye." As you approach the temple, clues are written in petroglyphs along the wall, describing the three treasures offered by the temple's goddess, Mara (money, eternal youth or the ability to see the future), as well as some of the nasty stuff that will happen to you if you break the temple's one rule. More on that in a minute.

    Trouble is, Indy ran out of money to explore the temple, so his buddy Sallah's been running Jeep tours of the temple to raise cash. Even worse, Indy's gone missing in the temple, so you're going on a tour to help find him.

    Buckle up, and don't forget that one rule: Whatever you do, don't look into the eye of Mara. (Because it's, like, you know, forbidden. Duh.)

    So what does everyone immediately do? ;-)

    Say it with me know, something goes terribly wrong and now the wrath of Mara is unleashed upon you for a wild ride through the temple. After a series of narrow escapes, you're ultimately rescued by Indiana Jones himself.

    With hundreds of effects elements in the ride, it's not surprising that some of them no longer work like they once did. At the recent premiere of the new Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln show, Disney Imagineer Tony Baxter revealed that he's been lobbying to install a next-generation Indiana Jones animatronic on this ride, as part of a major upgrade. But that hasn't kept this version of Indiana Jones from enduring as one of Disneyland's most popular rides, and a seed in the top half of this bracket.

    You can find another version of the Indiana Jones ride, Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Crystal Skull, at Tokyo DisneySea. And the ride system for Indiana Jones is quite similar to that of the Dinosaur ride in Disney's Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World.

    What do you think of Disneyland's Indiana Jones Adventure? Let's hear from you, in the comments.

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    Theme Parks and Technology: Review of the MouseWait iPhone Application

    By M. Ryan Traylor
    Published: February 3, 2010 at 9:19 PM
    In this day and age, having information immediately and fast breaking news seems to be the key. With many new fancy gadgets, our time has become less precious while we multi-task. And with MouseWait App for iPhone, you literally have time in your hands.

    I’ve been to Disneyland four times in the last month to try out this new app as it has been going through some programming adjustments. The basic concept of the app is to provide users with accurate wait times for rides. This is based off of user inputs (currently over 33,000 and growing by about 300 per day), historical data, and guest attendance. MouseWait has a central command that collects the data and verifies the information before computing an estimated time. (i.e. you can only input in 5-minute increments, but the results are not so limited)

    Unlike other wait time applications, MouseWait doesn’t just rely on users’ input. (There is one app that only displays the last user input as the wait time) MW differs from other apps in other ways too: they provide tips and suggestions, food and restaurant menus, park hours, and a message board. Some of this information simply links you to the Disneyland website, but there is no delay in navigating to another program. Other information is in-house like tips that helped me raise my Buzz score to 300,000. (Personal best today at 547,800, partly achieved because the ride stopped at the Zurg loop)

    MouseWait also claims that they are a social game, which just went through an overhaul according to MW. They give each registered user a “MouseRank”. The ultimate goal is to reach the highest rating of 10. The ranking is based on wait time inputs and message board postings. Wait times are given weight based on their importance. A wait time input given one minute after the previous input with the same time will be worth less than an input given an hour after the previous. It seems inputting a wait time after a ride re-opens scores the most points.

    In the recent trips I’ve become slightly obsessed with giving information, trying to raise my rating and provide a better experience for other users. However, my last trip I decided to finally start reading the wait times. At one point, in Disneyland, I saw that California Screamin’ had a wait time of 10 minutes. I walked straight over to that attraction, and it still had the 10-minute wait time. I also witnessed a 10-minute wait time for Toy Story Mania. Later on in Adventureland, Space Mountain was showing a 10 minute wait at around 2 p.m. I went Straight across the park, got in line and did not stop waking until I reached the loading platform.

    What could improve this program? Wait time predictions. My drive to Disneyland could be anywhere between 30 minutes and one and a half hours. Sometimes I feel like I wish I knew how crowded the park will be when I get there. Also, notices have been popping up asking users to not enter times unless they are in the park or have special permission. A GPS indicator could be added to insure that a user is actually in the park.

    Some additional thoughts:

    I still need to try this program out on a very busy day to see the results.

    Of course this app won’t be necessary for TPI readers during their first few hours in the park because you follow the rule of arriving early when the park opens and wait times will be at the minimum.

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    2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: Mystery Lodge at Knott's Berry Farm

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 3, 2010 at 3:53 PM
    Knott's Berry Farm's Mystery Lodge today joins the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament as the eighth seed in the Best Movie or Animated Show bracket.

    Knott's Berry Farm's Mystery Lodge
    Image courtesy BRC Imagination Arts

    Mystery Lodge opened in 1994, one of the last attractions added to Knott's Berry Farm before its sale to Cedar Fair in the mid-1990s. Created by Bob Rogers' BRC Imagination Arts, Mystery Lodge uses a "Holavision" system that Rogers had previously used in the similar "Spirit Lodge" show for the General Motors pavilion at Vancouver's Expo 86 world's fair.

    The show takes place in a theater that looks insider a Pacific Northwest Native American longhouse. An elderly storyteller greets you from inside the longhouse, where a fire burns in the middle of the room.

    As smoke from the fire twists into shapes, the storyteller believes to have seen an owl, a symbol of death. That prompts the man into a reflection upon his life, as he shares stories from his past, which collectively help illustrate the Pacific Northwest Native American experience.

    Presented with great reverence, not to mention the "how'd they do that" effects, Mystery Lodge surprises many Knott's visitors who stumble into the show looking only for a cool place to sit for a few moments. This is the sort of educational, yet effect-laden, show you'd expect to see someplace like Epcot, and not necessarily in what's become known as mostly an iron park.

    Still, enough fans have made their way to the back of the park to experience Mystery Lodge that the show's earned its place in this year's Best Theme Park Attraction field. I'd love to hear from other Theme Park Insider readers who've seen the show. Please share your thoughts, in the comments.

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    A look inside Disney's Expedition Everest

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 3, 2010 at 8:18 AM
    Several folks have pointed my attention to this fun piece in Popular Mechanics, where a writer from the magazine gets to walk the track at Expedition Everest with a Disney Imagineer, who shares a few anecdotes about the construction and operation of the Disney's Animal Kingdom roller coaster.

    Unfortunately, the writer completely ignores the controversy surrounding the disfunctional Yeti, but there's some good stuff in the piece nevertheless.


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    2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: Splash Mountain at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 2, 2010 at 6:10 PM
    If you've ever noticed the logo we have up there on the upper left corner of the Theme Park Insider website, you might guess that we have some log flume fans around here. So, it's with an extra helping of enthusiasm that we finally welcome a log flume ride to the daily "Best Attraction" spotlight. Splash Mountain at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom joins the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament as the eighth seed in the Best Themed Ride bracket.

    Splash Mountain at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

    We're giving the nod to the Walt Disney World version, though we should note that the Disneyland version scores only a fraction behind with Theme Park Insider readers. On the original Disneyland version, you have the more traditional single-file log boats, while at Disney World, you ride in two-person rows. Log flume purists might like the Disneyland design, but the Disney World Splash Mountain tends to put through many more visitors per hour, keeping average wait times shorter. (The Disney World version offers a better visual at the top of the drop, too, with Cinderella's Castle and Space Mountain in view.)

    Disney World's Splash Mountain opened in July 1992, three years after the Disneyland original. You also can find Splash Mountain at Tokyo Disneyland.

    Splash Mountain provided new life to the songs and Joel Chandler Harris "Uncle Remus" characters of Disney's "Song of the South." I don't want to get side-tracked into the running controversy over "Song of the South" except to note that Disney now treats the film, criticized for racial stereotyping, the same way George Lucas does his "Star Wars Christmas Special." In other words, don't look for it on Disney Blu-Ray ever in your lifetime.

    But in Splash Mountain, the characters and Academy-Award winning music for the film can continue to entertain new generations of fans... while also leaving many of them soaking wet. You're following Br'er Rabbit on the way to your "laughing place," when Br'er Fox traps him. Br'er Rabbit "outfoxes" the fox by pleading with him not to throw him into the Briar Patch, which, of course, the Fox does, sending you along with Br'er Rabbit, down a 50-foot waterfall.

    Of course, the Briar Patch is Br'er Rabbit's home, so, having safely escaped, everyone's treated to a rousing finale of Zip-A-Dee-Do-Dah.

    Okay, I can hear the Knott's Berry Farm fans grumbling that Splash Mountain's a rip-off of Knott's 1969 Log Ride, which includes much the same exterior look as well as the final waterfall down the mountain. But the music and narrative make the ride here - elevating Splash Mountain among the elite theme park attractions.

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

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    Here's the Harry Potter Super Bowl ad from Universal Orlando

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 2, 2010 at 10:32 AM
    AOL has posted Universal Orlando's Harry Potter Super Bowl commercial on its WalletPop website:

    It looks like the broomsticks are not for Dragon Challenge, as you see those ride vehicles, briefly, under the dragon's fire. Given that the commercial ends with Harry and the two kids flying into Hogwarts Castle, I now question whether the broomsticks are ride vehicles. Could be, but maybe not.

    Thoughts? More importantly, do you think that this commercial will inspire people to book trips? There's still no opening date announced, nor is there a "come on" or solicitation in the ad.

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    2010 Best Theme Park Attraction nominee: Kings Island's The Beast

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 1, 2010 at 12:28 PM
    Theme Park Insider readers have voted Kings Island's The Beast as the eighth seed in the Best Roller Coaster bracket of the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament.

    The Beast

    Built by Kings Island's in-house design team, led by Charlie Dinn, The Beast opened on April 14, 1979 and is the oldest ride in this year's Best Roller Coaster bracket.

    Dinn went on to form his own coaster design company, which built a dozen coasters, including Mean Streak at Cedar Point and the old Texas Giant at Six Flags Over Texas. His daughter, Denise Dinn Larrick, co-founded Custom Coasters International [CCI], which built some of the country's top wooden coasters, including The Raven and The Legend at Holiday World and GhostRider at Knott's Berry Farm.

    CCI went under in 2002 and Denise Larrick went on to create the wooden coaster division at S&S. Others at CCI went on to form Great Coasters International [GCI], builder of Dollywood's Thunderhead, and The Gravity Group, builder of Holiday World's The Voyage.

    So you can make a strong argument that The Beast is, literally, the father of all great modern wooden roller coasters in America.

    At more than 7,000 feet, The Beast is one loooong coaster. Noted for its tunnels and deep-woods setting, many consider The Beast a better ride at night, when a claustrophobia-inducing darkness envelops nearly every section of the track. If there's a knock on The Beast, it's that the ride lacks the airtime you'll find on newer woodies, though its helix and long runs give The Beast a unique ride.

    Fans and foes, here's your chance to share your thoughts about riding Kings Island's The Beast. Let's hear what you have to say about this classic wooden coaster, in the comments.

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    Theme park cast member stories: Smile if you want to work for a theme park

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 1, 2010 at 11:57 AM
    For nearly a year now, I've been sharing stories about my years working as a cast member in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. But I've not yet shared the story of how I got my job with Disney.

    My parents had moved to Orlando the previous fall, while I was attending Northwestern University, north of Chicago. Not having anywhere else to go for the summer, I followed them down to Orlando, hoping I would find a gig when I arrived.

    Northwestern runs on a quarter system, meaning its students break for the summer in mid-June, putting us at a significant disadvantage in landing summer jobs (most of the good ones being snapped up a month earlier by students whose schools run on semesters). My sister, who was still in high school, had gotten a job in the foods department in the Magic Kingdom, so I figured I'd give Disney a shot, too.

    The fact that I knew only one other employer in town probably influenced that decision, too. (So if I hadn't gotten the Disney job, my plan was to drive over to SeaWorld and try my luck there. Shamu, I could have worked for you!)

    Back then, Disney didn't have the huge casting center on I-4 in Downtown Disney. In fact, Downtown Disney didn't exist - it was simply the much smaller "Walt Disney World Shopping Village" back then. Casting occupied some trailers north of property, off Reams Road.

    I'd called for an appointment, but they told me to just come on it. So I did, filled out an application and waited my turn for an interview. Three of us were called into a back room, two girls about my age and me.

    Since this was Disney, and I'd been going to Disney theme parks (Walt Disney World and Disneyland) since I was, oh, fetal, I figured I should put on my chipper happy face. I walked in with a big smile and tried to be as enthusiastic as I possibly could about any job with Walt Disney World, all the while hoping that I wouldn't get stuck in foods like my little sister. Or worse, custodial.

    One of the two girls matched me, smile for smile. We shot each other looks whenever the interviewer looked down or turned to the other girl, and suppressed giggles as if to say "I cannot believe we're acting this silly." But we just ratcheted our enthusiasm up another notch each time.

    The second girl answered her questions politely, with pleasant expression. Now and then she'd look at the other two of us with just the faintest glimpse of disapproval, as if our exuberance were not professional enough.

    The first girl? I saw her again on our first day working as merchandise hosts at the old Mickey's Mart. (She turned out to be a relative of a famous Republican politician at the time, so she knew how to turn on the charm.)

    The second girl? I never saw her again.

    Years later, a person who's been around the theme park business for years told me about the interview form that the Herschend theme parks were said to use when people were applying for job at one of those parks. The applicant wouldn't be shown the form, which contained just six empty checkboxes. The interviewer would make up whatever questions he or she wanted to - the applicant's answers didn't matter. The interviewer would only check a box when the applicant smiled.

    If the applicant smiled six times before the interview was over, he or she got a job. Folks who didn't smile enough, didn't get hired - no matter how well qualified or experienced they might be.

    Walt Disney World, of course, hires thousands of new employees each year. As do the other Orlando theme parks. If you've ever thought about working for The Mouse, or any other park in the business, I have just one piece of advice for you....

    Smile. :-)

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    More debate about the best roller coasters in America

    By Robert Niles
    Published: February 1, 2010 at 12:41 AM
    The LA Times has been polling publishers of theme park news websites (including me), to compile a list of the 10 best steel and 10 best wooden roller coasters in the United States.

    I decided to give the Times my personal favorites, rather than the top ranked coasters on Theme Park Insider. (They gave me the option of either one.) Since we're about to have our own tournament for Best Roller Coaster, I didn't want to pre-empt that. FWIW, I ranked The Voyage at Holiday World as the top wooden coaster and Manta at SeaWorld Orlando as the best steel.

    Here are the lists from the LAT panel:

    Best Steel:
    1. Bizarro at Six Flags New England [Intamin Mega]
    2. Millennium Force at Cedar Point [Intamin Giga]
    3. Apollo's Chariot at Busch Gardens Williamsburg [Bolliger & Mabillard Mega]
    4. Montu at Busch Gardens Tampa [Bolliger & Mabillard Inverted]
    5. Goliath at Six Flags Over Georgia [Bolliger & Mabillard Mega]
    6. Incredible Hulk at Universal's Islands of Adventure [Bolliger & Mabillard Sitting]
    7. Diamondback at Kings Island [Bolliger & Mabillard Mega]
    8. Griffon at Busch Gardens Williamsburg [Bolliger & Mabillard Dive]
    9. Nitro at Six Flags Great Adventure [Bolliger & Mabillard Mega]
    10. Tatsu at Six Flags Magic Mountain [Bolliger & Mabillard Flying]

    Best wooden:
    1. The Voyage at Holiday World [Gravity Group]
    2. El Toro at Six Flags Great Adventure [Intamin]
    3. The Phoenix at Knoebels [Philadelphia Toboggan]
    4. Boulder Dash at Lake Compounce [CCI]
    5. Ravine Flyer II at Waldemeer [Gravity Group]
    6. The Beast at Kings Island [Charlie Dinn]
    7. The Raven at Holiday World [CCI]
    8. GhostRider at Knott's Berry Farm [CCI]
    9. Thunderhead at Dollywood [GCI]
    10. Lightning Racer at Hersheypark [GCI]

    Here's what stands out to me in reading these lists: Bolliger & Mabillard and Intamin are the best steel roller coaster builders in the world. And people love the Mega/Giga models, from either manufacturer. As for wooden coasters, The Gravity Group and GCI (which includes the remnants of the old CCI), are kings.

    Can't say that I'd argue with any of those conclusions.... :-)

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