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April 2010

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Vote of the week: What do you do when severe weather strikes a theme park?

By Robert Niles
Published: April 29, 2010 at 10:00 PM
Thanks to Theme Park Insider reader Ben James for suggesting this week's vote.

Spring brings the opening of seasonal theme parks across the country, but it also delivers unpredictable weather. Most theme park veterans have waited out a thunderstorm or two. (Or more....) But what about more severe weather? Hail? A tornado warning? Hurricane-force winds?

Lightning

It's not weather, but what about an earthquake? A recent quake prompted thousands of visitors to flee Disneyland, leaving the park nearly empty later that evening for those who chose to stay.

You could run for the front gate, and try to drive to the safety of home or hotel. Or you could duck into a shop or waiting area. Or you could say 'to heck with the danger' and take advantage by trying to bag as many rides as remain open while everyone else flees.

What's your pick? What have you seen others do? Share your best "theme parks in natural disasters" story in the comments, please!

Comments (17) | Archive Link

What would you do? Where's the best site in America for a new theme park?

By Robert Niles
Published: April 29, 2010 at 11:59 AM
A few weeks ago, we looked at the challenge of finding a site for a new attraction within an existing theme park. Today, I'd like to challenge you with a larger task:

Where would you build a new theme park?

While dozens of parks add new attractions each year, a new park comes along in the United States only a handful of times each decade, if that. Choose the wrong site, and your multi-million-dollar capital investment may be doomed. And at the very best, you're drawing fewer visitors and making less money than you would have with a better site.

But what is a good site for a theme park? Answering that question is the challenge I present today.

I've been reading Chad Emerson's Project Future: The Inside Story Behind the Creation of Disney World, which tells in a clear and focused narrative the story of the Disney Company's decision in the 1960s to build in the Orlando area. I've also long been a fan of Harrison 'Buzz' Price's Walt's Revolution!: By the Numbers (hard to find), which digs deeper into the numbers and economics behind selecting attraction sites. Both books examine the factors that influence decisions on where to build a theme park - population, transportation, weather and existing tourist infrastructure (roads, airports, hotels, competition).

But a decision often rests on how you weigh those various factors.

Population: A large local population offers a large potential market for your park. But placing your park in a big city creates risk, as well. Advertising will be more expensive to buy. There likely will be other major entertainment options already for people in the area, against which you'll have to compete. Labor costs might be higher. And land almost certainly will be more expensive to purchase.

Transportation: Having a lot of people around is of no help if they can't get to your park. Disney put Disney World near Orlando because it was conveniently located near the junction of Interstate 4 and the Florida's Turnpike. Plus, Orlando had an airport (though it later would be rebuilt to accommodate Disney-driven crowds). You'll want to consider the location of Interstate highways and airports in deciding where to put your dream theme park. But easy access can overwhelm parks that aren't built up to handle large crowds.

Weather: Few people want to visit a theme park in the snow. Or on a cold or rainy day. Temperatures in the 70s and 80s (F), plus sunny skies, equal high theme park attendance. Unless you're going to build a very expensive dome over your park, a location with poor weather most of the year won't allow you to recoup your investment.

Tourism infrastructure: You'll make more money at your park if it is part of a multi-day vacation than if it's simply a day trip. But for people to make a visit part of a longer visit, they'll need places to stay - hotels, vacation rentals and campgrounds. You'll need to locate near restaurants, gas stations and other attractions (man-made or natural) that might entice people to stay for longer. But you don't want to be lost among the competition, either.

What's the right call? Move into a big metro area with temperate (not cold, but not too hot or humid) climate? Sure, but in the United States that means Southern California, and it already has seven theme parks competing for locals' business. Or Hawaii, but high air transportation costs make that a tough sell for many potential visitors.

So how much are you willing to trade off ideal weather for other factors? The Seattle area is large, growing and without a major theme park. But frequent rain makes visiting outdoor attractions such as roller coasters and shows less than appealing. It's dry in Phoenix, but the summer heat is oppressive. Miami? Similar weather to Orlando, but has Central Florida taken all potential theme park visitors away?

What about smaller, more out-of-the-way locations? There are plenty of Interstate junctions with decent tourist infrastructure, and no major themed park attractions. What about something near Albuquerque, New Mexico? Or Memphis, Tennessee?

Or do you build close to the Southern California or Central Florida clusters, and hope to divert some business from those parks? After all, the most likely visitors to a theme park are people who already enjoy and frequent parks. Why not go where they are already?

Again - everything's a trade-off. But developers who find the right mix, who do as Buzz Price and his team did a generation ago and weigh the various factors appropriately to determine which site would make the most money, can enjoy solid returns in this business.

So what would you do? Where do you think is the best site in America for a theme park?

Comments (38) | Archive Link

Busch Gardens Williamsburg files application for new ride

By Jason Jackson
Published: April 28, 2010 at 7:50 PM
According to the Daily Press, Busch Gardens Williamsburg has filed an application with the James City County Board of Supervisors for a height variance for a tall ride structure.

Here's the story from the Daily Press.

Update from Robert: And here's the application on the James City County website. It's called "Busch Gardens Germany Attraction" and the comment is "Application requests a waiver to height restrictions and proposes a 'thrill attraction of a single tower not to exceed 260 feet above ground level.'"

Comments (9) | Archive Link

An insider's look at the new world's fair: Shanghai World Expo 2010

By Robert Niles
Published: April 28, 2010 at 1:46 PM
The next "world's fair," Shanghai's World Expo 2010, opens on Saturday (May 1, 2010) and Bob Rogers, the award-winning theme park attraction designer who leads BRC Imagination Arts, the design team behind the USA pavilion, took a few moments last week to answer some questions for Theme Park Insider about the process of creating a World Expo pavilion.

It used to be that we described Walt Disney World's Epcot as a "permanent world's fair," but I find that I now often describe Expos as "temporary Epcots," with their international and corporate pavilions. Expos long have provided a type of sandbox for theme park designers; several popular Disney attractions - It's a Small World, Carousel of Progress and Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln - first saw light as exhibits at the 1964 Expo in New York.

The USA Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo 2010 takes visitors on a virtual trip to the United States through four show spaces. A pre-show welcome overture leads visitors into a three-screen film presentation on "The Spirit of America." From there, visitors enter the third show space, "The Garden," where they'll watch an "urban fairy tale" about a girl transforming an empty lot into a garden. This 4-D show show with in-theater special effects is projected onto five 30-foot-tall tower screens that visually transform into a variety of buildings and settings. The final space offers four themed areas where visitors can explore corporate displays on cooperation, sustainable development, health and nutrition, and high technology.


On the set of the USA Pavilion film, Creative Leader Greg Lombardo, USA Pavilion Commissioner General Jose Villarreal, actress Rain Spencer, and Bob Rogers. Photo courtesy BRC Imagination Arts.

Theme Park Insider: What are some of the differences between designing for a World Expo and for a theme park?

Bob Rogers: The first big difference between a theme park and an expo is like the difference between a textbook and a blog. One must last; the other is completely now. A theme park attraction or major museum must stand 10, 15 or 20 years without requiring much of an update. Examples: BRC's Mystery Lodge at Knott's Berry Farm has been deeply resonating with guests for 16 years now. You achieve this by focusing on deep human issues that never get old. On the other hand a world expo pavilion plays for only six months. As a result you can be much more in the moment and immediately contemporary in thought and style.

Another big difference is that theme park attractions must be big fun and often do not have to be more. On the other hand, a pavilion at an expo must be big fun, but it must also have a touch of inspiration, education and humanity that leaves their guests intellectually and emotionally enriched while still delivering big fun. A great theme part attraction often does both. BRC Imagination Arts always tries to do both, regardless of the venue.

Theme Park Insider: What were some of the design challenges and opportunities involved with this particular Expo, versus others in the past?

Bob Rogers: BRC Imagination Arts has now conceived, designed, created and produced 11 pavilion shows and consulted on a dozen or so more all over the world. That experience has taught us that every expo is different but there are recurring aspects. Like every expo, Expo 2010 has had its own unique challenges. The USA Pavilion got off to an impossibly late start with a low budget. Lots of doomsayers claimed it could not be done in time. A year ago we proved to ourselves on paper that it could not be done in time. So, in an American tradition worthy of the USA Pavilion, we said "Damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead!" Impossible or not, we decided to get it open on time anyway. It has been an amazing come-from-behind story that plays out right up until a few moments before the ribbon cutting.

Another fascinating and unique thing unique about this expo is that this is China. What an exciting time to be in China! The cultural experience and the energy here have been amazing.

Theme Park Insider: How much are you finding that changes in technology over the years are affecting how you tell stories with your designs? Or are tech changes mostly affecting stuff in the background, and not the storytelling itself?

Bob Rogers: The principles of storytelling are timeless. The tools for delivering stories are ever-changing. Fresh delivery technology brings new energy to everything we do.

First example: At this expo programmable LED lighting and high definition projection are not new but they have fully arrived and are having tremendous impact all over the expo site. In the USA Pavilion we are mixing the two (programmable LED lighting and high definition projection) in an amazing new way. Our story, The Garden presents a heart-warming story about a girl (played by Rain Spencer) who has an innovative idea to replace a trash filled vacant lot with a community garden. By her optimistic determination, she wins the collaboration of her community. At the end of The Garden, a city that was once tired and gray becomes a magical vision of what can happen when optimism, innovation and collaboration come together.

The Garden unfolds around us on five "screen towers." These are five giant high definition screens, each over 10 meters (30 feet) tall, turned sideways (portrait style) so they stand upright, projected using state-of-the-art 2K digital high-definition. The screens are fancifully shaped like tall buildings. By projecting different images and graphic patterns on them, the screen towers become buildings, windows, bus stops, traditional movie screens or anything else one might imagine. Four-dimensional effects like real wind, rain and vibration in the theater add a sensory dimension, immersing the audience in an experience that is both emotional and visually stunning. Adding to the story, a contemporary music score plays through a multi-channel, 360-degree surround audio dynamic array. Additional low-frequency effects create rumbling and audio-layering, enhancing the impact of the story.

Concept art for The Garden

Here's where the LED's come in: An "out-glow" of LED lighting trims each of the screens, allowing us to change the color of the out-glow and turn it on/off or fade it scene by scene, shot by shot and cut by cut. Using about 100 programmed lighting cues PER MINUTE, the experience becomes a high-tech programmed light show worthy of a rock concert.

And in a timeless touch, this story is told without a word of dialogue, through moving images, music and sound effects. No translation is required. The Garden speaks to everyone, no matter what language they speak.

Second example: BRC Imagination Arts is also creating and producing the Information and Communications Pavilion sponsored by China Mobile and China Telecom. Here BRC is again using some amazing new high definition screen configurations (in one place up to 33 high definition screens above, around and surrounding the audience) but also something new: There is an additional active hand-held touch screen (The ICT Mobile Device) in the hands of every guest in the audience. So, when 500 people are in the 33 screen theater, there are actually 533 active screens.

Concept art of the  Information and Communications Pavilion

This BRC-designed ICT Mobile Device is all new, created only for this pavilion. (ICT stands for Information Communications Technology.) Every visitor to the Pavilion gets to borrow their own device which accompanies them throughout the various stages of the Pavilion exhibits and shows, allowing them to personalize their experience and to interact with what they see. In some areas guests personalize their experience by making selections using the touch screen. In other areas of the pavilion, as users see things that interest them, they swipe the device over the target and it collects that dream so they can learn more about it later at home. Or they take a picture. When the guest returns their device at the exit, their experience is downloaded and is transformed into a personal Web page for each guest which the guest can later access to retrieve their photos and to interact with other visitors who share their dreams. (In case you were wondering, no personal information is collected. Guests make-up a username and a numeric password to later access their individual page.)

The ICT device


The technology needed to do this is only just now available. In order to keep pace with the huge flow of traffic into the Pavilion – about 2,600 visitors an hour, and 30,000 per day – there will be 8,000 ICT Mobile Devices on hand at the Pavilion, with 2,600 simultaneously active at any given time.

This is another example of amplifying classic, timeless storytelling through the new possibilities of emerging technology. The device brings the story and its messages to life, allowing huge numbers of visitors to take part in the show while receiving information in real time about what interests them most. This is mass-customization applied to experience design. The result is a magical experience that combines the most state-of-the-art ICT technology with a spellbinding story that will stay in the visitors' hearts long after they have left the Pavilion. That's a combination that we always look for at BRC.

Oh, and of course the device also does the other things you would expect, such as deliver the presentation in Chinese, English, Japanese and Korean.

Theme Park Insider: What are some of the other pavilions at the Expo that you've been looking forward to seeing, as a visitor?

Bob Rogers: I look forward to the entire expo. A world's fair is an advance laboratory of creative and technical ideas for our industry. Expo pavilions try things. Some work, some fail but they all give you great ideas for your next project.

Theme Park Insider: Let's say a theme park fan is thinking about making the trip to China for this Expo. What are some of the other sights in the region that theme park fans also should be sure to see?

Bob Rogers: First, I would plan to spend at least a week seeing all of Expo. A world's fair is here today and then gone forever. After that, there are theme parks here. But China itself is at the dawn of a golden era. See China.

Update from Robert: Here's a new photo of The Garden theater, just released by the USA Pavilion:

The Garden theater at the Shanghai Expo

Bob also sent along this photo of Gate 8 at the Expo.

Expo entrance gate

And I thought the Magic Kingdom entrance gates were big! And this is just one of the entry gates. How big will the Expo be? Bob wrote: "On the last Sunday before opening they had over 300,000 people on site – just a very 'light crowd' to help them test for Soft Opening. I am told that for Grand Opening (May 1) they plan to limit the crowd to between 500,000 and 600,000 guests, just to play it safe."

Comments (4) | Archive Link

Let's be careful out there: How to stay safe at a theme park, and what happens when you don't

By Robert Niles
Published: April 28, 2010 at 10:40 AM
Two safety-related stories hit the news this week:

First, the State of California faulted Knott's Berry Farm and Intamin this week for the cable snap on Knott's Xcelerator launch roller coaster last fall. Essentially, the state knocked Intamin for confusing maintenance instructions and Knott's for not inspecting and repairing the cable often enough. The cable shredded during a launch last year, a moment that was captured in a YouTube video that the park swiftly had taken down. With the report filed, repairs made and a new maintenance schedule in place, the ride's now reopened for visitors.

Another water sprite has collided with the ferryboat at Walt Disney World. In an incident last Thursday, a man drove the small boat in which he and his wife were riding too close to the ferry. He tried to swerve, but didn't have enough room. The ferryboat driver switched to reverse, but the wife was pinned against the ferry, suffering chest injuries.

Authorities might press charges against the sprite driver, for reckless boating. If the circumstance warrant, bravo, I say. If the park is a fault in an incident (as with Xcelerator), then the state should take action against the park. But if a park visitor is at fault, and violates a law in doing so, then appropriate charges should be on the table against the park visitor, as well. (In this case, I would keep in mind that the wife's injuries are punishment enough, so any appropriate charge should be pretty light.)

Since so many of the incidents that result in people getting hurt in theme parks can be prevented, we've put together a list of Top 10 Theme Park Safety Tips. I hope that all Theme Park Insider readers will take a look at that list before visiting the parks this year.

Comments (9) | Archive Link

What's new on the discussion board: Discovery Island, Legoland and roadtrips

By Robert Niles
Published: April 28, 2010 at 9:36 AM
Here are the top new threads this week on the Theme Park Insider Discussion Board:

Melissa Faulkner asks What else to do in Anaheim, other than Disneyland?

Which is the water park to visit, Tim Casagrande asks: Blizzard Beach, Typhoon lagoon, or Wet n Wild?

hannah caller asks What should be done with Disney's Discovery Island

hannah caller also wonders Will YOU visit Legoland Florida?

Mitch Miller is looking for information about visiting Busch Gardens [Tampa] in October

Switching focus to the seasonal parls, Iyanna Wilson is looking for the best Cedar Point Amusement Park Hotel(s) Rates?

Tom Walljasper and family are Newcomers to Kings Island and looking for tips.

And, finally, Stewart Leach is visiting from the UK and asks for Help Needed for a Theme Park tour of USA!

Archive Link

Visiting Disney in Hollywood, at Disney's Soda Fountain and Studio Store

By Robert Niles
Published: April 27, 2010 at 2:42 PM
With my parents in town this past week, we took that as an excuse to play tourist, and visit parks of Los Angeles that we rarely visit as residents. Natalie wanted to take pictures in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre, so we drove down to Hollywood for the afternoon.

What's the theme park angle, you ask? Well, the kids wanted a snack, so we walked across the street to Disney's Soda Fountain and Studio Store.

Disney's Soda Fountain and Studio Store

Think the Main Street Ice Cream Parlor, but on Hollywood Boulevard. Take a moment to look down as you enter, so that you don't miss a certain theme park's "star" on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Disneyland's start on the Walk of Fame

The store's located next to Disney's El Capitan Theater (now showing "Oceans"), but it's a separate facility, offering table service soda, sundaes and sandwiches on one side, and a small selection of Disney souvenirs on the other. (The store does, however, offer a healthy selection of Disney Blu-Ray and DVDs.)

Inside Disney's Soda Fountain and Studio Store

Laurie ordered a junior hot fudge peppermint sundae ($5.95):

Peppermint Sundae

And I went for the non-dairy Strawberry Ice ($2.95):

Strawberry Ice

Ultimately, though, we ended up polishing off the kids' chocolate malt ($6.50):

Chocolate malt

We also ordered a Coke Float ($4.95). A variety of sandwiches are also available, as are cupcakes and a few over-the-top treats, such as a "Mickey's Masterpiece" sundae with eight scoops of ice cream, hot fudge, caramel and marshmallow, served in a Sorcerer's hat ($29.95).

The Soda Fountain's a convenient stop when visiting the tourist sites in Hollywood, located across the street from Grauman's, the Kodak Theater (home of the Academy Awards) and Hollywood and Highland shopping center, and next door to the El Capitan and the Jimmy Kimmel Live theater. Park under Hollywood and Highland ($2 for four hours with validation from any store in the mall - the Disney Soda Fountain, across the street, doesn't count). Or take the LA Metro Red Line, which has a stop right on the corner.

Comments (4) | Archive Link

The making of Busch Gardens' 'Europe in the Air'

By Robert Niles
Published: April 27, 2010 at 1:17 PM
Busch Gardens Williamsburg has released a 90-second "behind the scenes" short on the making of its new motion simulator travelogue, Europe in the Air. In the clip, show producer Scott Helmstedter explains how the crew captured aerial shots of major European attractions:

Europe in the Air premieres this Friday (April 30, 2010) at the Virginia theme park.

Update (Apr. 28): Busch Gardens has uploaded a new version of the video, if you'd like to give it another look.

Comments (8) | Archive Link

Walt Disney theme parks dominate theme park attendance in 2009

By Robert Niles
Published: April 26, 2010 at 9:30 PM
The Themed Entertainment Association, along with AECOM Economics, has issued the 2009 theme park attendance report. [PDF file]

Here are the Top 20 United States theme parks for 2009:

1. Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom: 17.2 million +1.0%
2. Disneyland: 15.9 million +8.0%
3. Epcot: 11.0 million +0.5%
4. Disney's Hollywood Studios: 9.7 million +1.0%
5. Disney's Animal Kingdom: 9.6 million +0.5%
6. Disney's California Adventure: 6.1 million +9.5%
7. SeaWorld Orlando: 5.8 million -6.8%
8. Universal Studios Florida: 5.4 million -12.0%
9. Islands of Adventure: 4.5 million -13.8%
10. Universal Studios Hollywood: 4.3 million -6.0%
11. SeaWorld San Diego: 4.2 million -12.6%
12. Busch Gardens Tampa: 4.1 million -12.3%
13. Knott's Berry Farm: 3.3 million -6.5%
14. Canada's Wonderland: 3.2 million -6.5%
15. Kings Island: 3.0 million -4.0%
16. Cedar Point : 2.9 million -8.0%
17. Busch Gardens Williamsburg: 2.9 million +3.7%
18. Hersheypark: 2.8 million -1.2%
19. Six Flags Great Adventure: 2.6 million -4.6%
20. Six Flags Magic Mountain: 2.5 million -2.5%
(tie) Six Flags Great America: 2.5 million -6.3%

And the Top 20 theme park worldwide:

1. Magic Kingdom
2. Disneyland
3. Tokyo Disneyland: 13.6 million -4.5%
4. Disneyland Paris: 12.7 million +0.4%
5. Tokyo DisneySea: 12 million -4.0%
6. Epcot
7. Disney's Hollywood Studios
8. Disney's Animal Kingdom
9. Universal Studios Japan: 8.0 million -3.6%
10. Everland (South Korea): 6.2 million -6.5%
11. Disney's California Adventure
12. SeaWorld Orlando
13. Universal Studios Florida
14. Ocean Park (Hong Kong): 4.8 million -4.6%
15. Nagashima Spa Land (Japan): 4.7 million +1.1%
16. Hong Kong Disneyland: 4.6 million +2.0%
17. Islands of Adventure
(tie) Yokohama Hakkeijima Spa Paradise: 4.5 million -0.7%
19. Universal Studios Hollywood
20. Lotte World (South Korea): 4.3 million +0.6%

Analysis? The global economic recession battered everyone in 2009 - except Disney, which rode a brilliant get-in-free-on-your-birthday promotion to attendance gains at all six of its U.S. theme parks last year. Only one non-Disney park in the U.S. Top 20 managed to increase its attendance in 2009: Hats off to Busch Gardens Williamsburg for pulling off that impossible-for-everyone-else feat.

The worst attendance losses were at the non-Disney theme parks in Orlando, especially at the Universal parks. Islands of Adventure suffered the worst drop-off among the top 20 in 2009, which I will attribute to IOA fans holding off last year, waiting instead to visit in 2010, when The Wizarding World of Harry Potter debuts. Throw in the delayed opening of Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit at Universal Studios Florida, and many Universal Orlando fans clearly chose to sit out 2009.

Finally, should we quit calling Cedar Point the flagship of the Cedar Fair chain, now that the Sandusky, Ohio theme park is fourth in that chain for annual attendance? Heck, Cedar Point's no longer the most popular Cedar Fair park in the state of Ohio, as Kings Island rode the debut of its Diamondback coaster to pass its northern neighbor last year. (Actually, a better way to describe that would be to say that, thanks to Diamondback, Kings Island lost fewer visitors than Cedar Point did in 2009.)

Thoughts?

Comments (23) | Archive Link

SeaWorld parks offer kids' admission ticket for $5

By Robert Niles
Published: April 26, 2010 at 3:25 PM
The three SeaWorld theme parks announced today that they are cutting the price of children's tickets to $5 for the remainder of 2010... and donating that money to wildlife conservation.

The offer's good for kids 12 and under, but you must purchase a full-price adult ticket for each $5 kid ticket.

From SeaWorld's press release:

Through the SeaWorld Cares offer, now through Dec. 31, with each full-paid, SeaWorld single-day, adult admission purchased online, any child age 12 and under gets a $5 admission, all of which goes to fund non-profit organizations that are working right now on wildlife conservation projects.  The offer is good for SeaWorld San Diego, as well as SeaWorld parks in Orlando, Fla. and San Antonio.  Families even can choose which wildlife conservation effort receives their donation.  Complete details are available at www.SeaWorldCares.com.

Comments (5) | Archive Link

Theme Park Apprentice Challenge 2: Create a Dark Ride

By Robert Niles
Published: April 26, 2010 at 8:59 AM
It's time to eliminate another contestant as we play round two of Theme Park Apprentice. The second challenge is to create a theme park dark ride. Here are the contestants, in the order that they pitched their ideas on the Challenge 2 thread. Please click to that thread to read the proposals in detail.

  • Anthony Murphy's Ride with the Incredibles
  • David L.'s Willow
  • Joshua Counsil's ABC Presents: Breaking News!
  • Kevin Smith's Down To Earth With Wall-E
  • Dan Babbitt's Phineas and Ferb Summer Vacation
  • Amanda Jenkins' Disney's The Thrill of The Chase
  • Wok Creative's Mary Go Round
  • Nick Markham's Alice in Wonderland The Ride

Voting closes Thursday morning. Check the Theme Park Insider Discussion Board for Challenge 3, when it begins.

Comments (16) | Archive Link

Vote of the week: Where do you prefer to stay when visiting a theme park?

By Robert Niles
Published: April 22, 2010 at 9:24 PM
I'm going to hope that most of you know that Theme Park Insider has hundreds of pages on the site where you can rate and comment on theme park attractions and restaurants. But I suspect that some of you might not know that we also have a section where you can rate and review theme park area hotels.

I'd like to encourage you to click over to our hotels section and to submit a rating and comment on any of the hotels listed there which you've stayed at in the last couple of years. I'll be profiling a few of the more popular hotels in the weeks ahead, as we move into the summer season. (In case anyone's wondering why we've listed the hotels we have... those are the parks that have elicited the most comment and conversations about hotels here on the site. At one point, we tried listing many more hotels, but when almost no one had anything to say, I just dropped those listings from the site.)

Keeping on the topic of places to stay, where do you like to stay when you make an overnight visit to a theme park? That's our vote of the week.

Before we get to the votes, and comments, allow me to offer a few definitions:

On-property hotels: Located within or next to a theme park, run by or affiliated with the park itself.
Off-property resort hotels: Hotels with a variety of features, including on-site table-service dining, recreation facilities and bell staff.
Off-property budget hotels: Hotels more focused on providing a place to sleep. There's no bell staff, limited dining and no room service. Recreation facilities typically are no more than a pool and a small exercise room.

And by "prefer to stay," I mean what is your first choice, given your budget. If your choice is different at different parks, pick the answer for the park(s) you visit most often.

(Update: Editor Fail for forgetting timeshares/rentals as an option. If that's the way you roll, please select the option that best describes the timeshare or rental that you use. If it's on-property - such as DVC - select that. If it's a resort-type rental, with services, go for resort hotel. If it's a more basic condo, without daily service, pick budget hotel. I'm gonna assume that no one's got a time-share campground, but, frankly, I'm amazed that no one's worked that concept in this industry yet. I'm sure that if someone has, you'll let me know in the comments.)

Please tell us in the comments about your favorite places to stay when visiting theme parks. And thanks again for reading Theme Park Insider!

Comments (17) | Archive Link

What's your earliest theme park memory?

By Robert Niles
Published: April 22, 2010 at 11:40 AM
What is your earliest memory of visiting a theme park?

Here's mine:

Robert at It's a Small World

That's me, at the bottom of the photo, chowing down on the ice cream bar my mom is holding. My grandfather is to the left, and I will leave to the reader to determine the park and attraction we just visited. (Degree of difficulty: 0.2)

Actually, that's not the exact moment I remember. My only memory of that first trip to Disneyland (darn, gave it away!) was later that night, walking under the monorail beam in the old parking lot as my grandfather carried me and my parents tried to remember where the car was parked.

To humiliate myself in the hopes of sparking a few more memories among TPI readers, here I am, decked out in my Disney finest, a few years later.

Robert in Disneyland  gear

Not to leave out the regional parks, here's a mid-1970s view of Kings Island (anyone recognize the rides in the background?), as I chow down again, this time on cotton candy.

Robert at Kings Island

What's your first theme park memory?

Comments (33) | Archive Link

What would you do? Shamu, part two

By Robert Niles
Published: April 21, 2010 at 1:17 PM
SeaWorld might be considering resuming its Twitter feed from iconic whale Shamu. This week, SeaWorld Orlando posted to its Facebook page a link to this article from the Miami Herald, which asked the question.

SeaWorld stopped posting to its Shamu feed after the death of a trainer in Shamu Stadium in Orlando in February. I wrote last month about the dilemma facing SeaWorld in marketing its Shamu character.

For SeaWorld's benefit, let's revisit that discussion now that the park seems ready to consider it.

Comments below, please.

Comments (8) | Archive Link

Who'll be the the first to try the Platform 9 3/4 gag at Harry Potter?

By Robert Niles
Published: April 20, 2010 at 10:55 PM
I'm wondering at what point this conversation - or something like it - takes place at Universal Orlando's Wizarding World of Harry Potter:

Perhaps it will be a frustrated Universal employee who inflicts this on an especially annoying or clueless visitor. Or maybe an older brother or sister, with a sick sense of humor, trying to convince a gullible younger sibling.

"Hey, how do we get to Harry Potter?"

"Oh, it's easy. You get there the same way as they did in the films. Platform 9 3/4"

"What?"

"Platform 9 3/4. You know, like to get to the Hogwarts Express? It's a really cool effect - it was really expensive to produce and that's why it took them so long to open. You have to get a running start, then run through that brick wall over there."

Platform 9 3/4
Platform 9 3/4 at Kings Cross Station in London

"You're kidding me."

"No! I'm totally serious. Just run at the wall there, then it will open and you'll be on the ride."

I know, it's evil. ;-) But I will bet you a galleon that someone tries to pull this gag not long after the new land opens.

Update: Now that I think more about it, I think the most logical candidate to really, really want to try this gag might be a frustrated Disney cast member, after being asked about Harry Potter one too many times this summer.

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What's new on the discussion board: Visiting Orlando during a holiday, and the view from Cedar Point

By Robert Niles
Published: April 20, 2010 at 2:24 PM
Here are the top new threads on the Theme Park Insider Discussion Board from the past week:

David L. asks which is better, the Disneyland version or the Walt Disney World one, in Haunted Mansion Vs. Haunted Mansion

Nancy Owens asks if Can you see Canada from Cedar Point?

Derek Morse asks about expected crowds during Memorial Day weekend at Disney World.

Elissa Dick asks which is the best park for celebrating the 4th of July in Orlando.

Joe Brown asks about visiting Disney World on Black Friday (i.e. the day after Thanksgiving).

Alvaro Reyes wants to know if Cirque du Soleil La Nouba [is] worth the money?

Candice Rose is planning at trip to Universal Orlando and asks about whether she should Upgrade a Hard Rock Room.

On the topic of Universal Orlando, Tyler Bell keeps our recent series of "What I Learned" threads going with What I Learned from Universal Orlando Resort.

Caroline Davis is looking to compile a list of Single Rider Lines in Florida Theme Parks.

Dan Babbitt get a discussion on theme park safety and park liability going as Disney's Tower of Terror goes to trial.

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This week's Theme Park Apprentice vote: Themed restaurants

By Robert Niles
Published: April 20, 2010 at 10:34 AM
Theme Park Insider reader Tim W has started up a game for other readers, on our Discussion Board. This one's called Theme Park Apprentice, and the format should be familiar to anyone who's seen a particular TV show. :-)

Several readers have submitted concepts in response to the first challenge, and now it is time for you to select a winner. Or, more accurately, to pick a loser who'll be voted off "the team."

This week's challenge is to create a theme restaurant. Here are your contestants (you can read their full proposals on the discussion board - scroll down):

Anthony Murphy: Tiana's at Disney's Hollywood Studios

Amanda Jenkins: Country Side at the American Adventure Pavilion in Epcot's World Showcase

David L.: Dinner at Broadway at DHS or Disney's California Adventure

Nick Markham: Shrek the Musical Dinner Show in the Castle Theater at Universal Studios Hollywood

Dan Babbitt: Sunset Grande Ballroom Restaurant inside the Tower of Terror at DHS

Kevin Smith: Seven Seas Dining Experience at Walt Disney World

Wok Creative: TV Dinner - Live at DHS and DCA

Let's vote. The person with the fewest votes will be eliminated from the competition. Or maybe s/he will get a pardon this week, thanks to a no-show.

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A look into the Queen Victoria Room at Walt Disney World's Victoria & Albert's

By Scott Joseph
Published: April 19, 2010 at 9:37 PM
Victoria & Albert's at Walt Disney World's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa is arguably one of the finest restaurants in the country. It's chef's table is one of the most sought-after reservations.

Now Disney is offering a third option: the Queen Victoria Room, a four-hour dining extravaganza that offers the chef's table menu in a quiet, semi-private dining room. There's a lot of tableside preparation, and a little Disney magic. Is it worth $200 per person plus $95 for wine pairing (tax and gratuity extra)? It's a bargain.

Here's a full review, plus a video of the experience.

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Theme park cast member stories: The Walt Disney World stroller police

By Robert Niles
Published: April 19, 2010 at 9:33 AM
Ever leave a stroller outside a Walt Disney World attraction, only to find it in a different place when you returned?

You might have been a target of the Disney Stroller Police.

Yeah, I served on the force. People curse our work, but trust me, you don't want to try walking through a theme park without Stroller Police there to clear the way.

When you work at a theme park attraction, one of your responsibilities is to keep the area around the entrance clean and orderly. So when folks pull their kids from their strollers before coming inside, we follow behind to move those strollers into neat lines.

Once we get the stroller parking zone established in the morning, most folks follow along, parking their strollers at the end of the rows, or filling a space left empty by a previous visitor.

But some folks never do get the hint. They just leave the stroller wherever the kid got out, with no concern that it be blocking a pathway, an exit door, or even someone else's stroller. So we stroller cops would have to grab that stroller and push it into place.

Funny thing, though, is that most of those folks never complained. I always suspected that they had no idea where they'd left the stroller, nor did they care. They just came to assume that they'd find it somewhere in the line-up of the strollers in front of the attraction when they exited. To them, the stroller police were more like the stroller valets.

Let's talk about the real stroller felons, though:

The pack rats
These folks pack for a day at Disney World like they were hauling their kid across the Arctic tundra. The over-worn wheels of their top-heavy strollers barely roll as you try to wrestle the mess into place. I can understand why you might need to bring half the contents of your child's bedroom with you to occupy the kid if you were spending the afternoon waiting in line at the DMV. But this is Disney World, people. We've got plenty of stuff here to keep your children entertained.

Stinky McStroller
Disney World is not a wilderness campsite. You don't need to pack out everything you brought in. So, really, it's okay to dump your soiled diapers in the bathroom someplace. You don't need to haul them around the park with you all day. Okay?

I couldn't afford a Ferrari, so I bought this stroller instead
Dad - and it is always Dad - charges toward the nearest cast member, pointing at his Deluxe, Top-of-the-Line Stroller Machine: "Hey, this is a very expensive stroller," he always says. "I know that you guys are supposed to move the strollers around, but we parked it in an okay place, and really don't want anyone touching it, okay?" Then he storms off, running after the rest of the family, who have hurried into the attraction queue early to enjoy a moment or two away from the presence of Daddy-with-issues. Of course, half the time Mr. Wonderful hasn't parked the stroller in "an okay place." But even if he did, for his performance, I guarantee that we will decide that next to his precious Ferrari substitute is the perfect place to relocate... Stinky McStroller (see above).

And the worst of the stroller felons?

The lockers
Incredibly, some people are so afraid of their strollers being stolen, or even relocated, that they lock them to stanchions, lampposts or fences. Do this far enough away from the attraction, and maybe we won't notice. But when the Stroller Police see a locked stroller blocking an exit door or pathway next to an attraction, we call out the Stroller SWAT Team.

I only saw the Stroller SWAT Team in action once. Someone had locked a pack-rat stroller (ooh, a multiple offender!) to a lamppost outside Frontier Mercantile, blocking the breezeway to Adventureland that runs next to the Country Bear queue. The Bear Band host called the lead for advice. She delivered her response with a steely eye: "Call Security. Tell them to bring bolt cutters."

And they did. One snip, and the Stroller Police were free to relocate the offender... right next to a Stinky McStroller on the other side of the queue.

A few of us lingered to see who would claim it. A mom carrying a baby and dad lugging a toddler stopped short in front it, exchanged shocked glances to find their stroller not where they'd left it, and wheeled around to find a cast member to chew out. They saw us; Mom's eyes narrowed.... Then they noticed the 6'-2" security guard standing next to us, who stared right back at them, with a wry hint of smile on his face.

Mom and Dad immediately cast their eyes down into the stroller, where they laid the baby. Then they pushed away, turning their heads and keeping their eyes away from us.

Yeah, we're the Stroller Police. Don't mess with us.

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

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When will Europe start flying again?

By Robert Niles
Published: April 17, 2010 at 3:09 PM
Updates below as we try to find help for European visitors stranded in Orlando.

The big travel news from the past week continues to be the grounding of air traffic across Europe, the longest and largest disruption of air traffic in history.

The eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull (and we fought over how to pronounce "Caribbean") volcano in Iceland has blanketed much of Europe with high-altitude volcanic ash that can choke and disable jet engines. So airlines have cancelled tens of thousands of flights, from Thursday through today and into Monday.

British glaciologist Dr. Matthew Roberts explained to the BBC what's made this eruption (which is happening underneath a glacier) so unusual:

"It's the interaction of the molten rock, the magma, and the glacial ice which is causing the magma to cool very quickly and to be pulverised into tiny fragments of rock. And these updrafts of fine volcanic ash are being lifted into the sky by the enormous steam plumes that have been created by the vast quantities of ice that's been melted."

No air travel means no European tourists coming to the Orlando theme parks, or people from around the world visiting Europe. (And with Europeans who would have been flying crowding trains and highways instead, the tougher it's become for anyone who is on the continent to get around it.) The longer flights remain grounded, the longer it will take for airlines to sort out the resulting logistical mess, as some people wait for flights back home and others reconsider or reschedule spring and summer travel plans.

It's too early to tell how long the planes will remain grounded. But it's not too early to wonder if this disruption might be causing European theme park fans to rethink trips to America. (And folks around the world to reconsider visiting Europe.)

When 9/11 grounded flights in the United States, and made millions of Americans fearful of air travel, the theme parks in Southern California actually did better, as millions of Southern Californians stayed close to home and took trips to Disneyland, rather than fly off to Hawaii, Mexico or elsewhere, offsetting the loss of tourists coming in from abroad. Could the same thing happen in Europe if this lasts much longer?

I'd like to ask our European readers how this eruption has affected your travel plans, or if you think that it might. And I'd like to ask any other Theme Park Insider readers to add their thoughts about how this might affect the industry.

Update: Here's one way the flight cancellations are affecting the theme park industry already: SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa are offering free one-day admission to any European visitors stranded in the U.S.

The offer is valid starting Saturday, April 17, 2010 at SeaWorld Orlando, Aquatica in Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay.

Stranded tourists must present to the parks' front gate Guest Services window a valid return airline ticket from Wednesday, April 14, 2010 through Wednesday, April 21, 2010 or until normal flight schedules resume.

One ticket will be offered at each park for each return flight ticket presented. Children under age 3 are free.

Further information is available by calling 1-888-800-5447.

Update 2: TPI reader calls with concerns that European friends visiting Orlando are now running short of funds, and looking for places to stay (and places to eat) while they await a way back home. The free day at SeaWorld is nice, but for people who came to the U.S. on a budget, and have now spent that, more immediate needs for food and shelter take precedence.

So I'm putting this out there: Does anyone in Central Florida know of any relief efforts for stranded Europeans? If so, please post to the comments. Thanks.

Update 3: Disney's now offering free tickets and the Orlando Convention & Visitors Bureau has compiled a list of relief offers.

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Vote of the week: 'Hidden' hotel fees

By Robert Niles
Published: April 15, 2010 at 10:55 PM
Even though I live in the Los Angeles area, when my family and I visited the Disneyland Resort earlier this week, we decided to stay two nights in Anaheim, to make the trip feel more like a vacation.

Since I'm a member of the Starwood Preferred Guest program, I selected the Sheraton Park Hotel in Anaheim.

Sheraton Anaheim

I could have found less expensive hotels (we ended up paying $150 a night, once all taxes and fees were included), but I'm as addicted to SPG points as George Clooney's character was to American Airlines miles in "Up in the Air." Still, though I ended up paying $150 a night, the rate the SPG website quoted me when I booked was just $115 a night.

Why the difference? The local hotel tax was not included in the rate I was quoted, though the amount was noted later when I clicked through to the booking page. But nowhere on the Starwood website did I find that I would be charged $9.99 for Internet access while staying at the hotel, nor $14 a night for self-parking. (I double-checked as I was writing this, too - Nope. Nowhere.)

Now, I stay at hotels somewhat frequently, and expected to be charged both for Internet access and for parking, so I wasn't to steamed by these charges. But I easily could see how less experienced travelers would be. And, frankly, I think both charges are ridiculous. The Internet access charges was actually a bit on the low side, compared to what I've been charged recently. But many hotels now offer this service for free.

And $14 a night for parking in Anaheim is steep, especially given the Sheraton's spacious (and those nights, half-empty) parking lot. I suspect that the Sheraton simply matched Disneyland's parking fee for its guests. But at least Disneyland provides a free continuous shuttle from its parking lots to the theme parks.

Now, I love Sheraton. And I think that the Anaheim hotel delivers a nice experience. But a free market can't work efficiently if consumers don't have complete information about the true cost of their choices.

With all this in mind, if I were in Congress, here's the bill I would propose to require better hotel fee disclosure:

1. All applicable room taxes must be included in the initial rate quoted on booking websites

The hotel knows what these charges are going to be, and there's no way to avoid them, so why shouldn't they be included in the rate you quote us up-front?

2. Fees incurred on more than 50 percent of room bills in the past 30 days must be included in the initial rate quoted on booking websites

This likely would include the parking fee at places such as the Sheraton in Anaheim, where almost everyone drives to the hotel, instead of arriving via taxis, airport shuttles or local mass transit. I suspect that it might also include Internet access, as well. It'd definitely include the "Resort Fee" that's become common at popular tourist hotels. (Most of the hotels I checked in Hawaii are charging them these days.)

Again, if the majority of people paying at a hotel are paying these fees, why shouldn't they be included in the prices we see first on a website - so that we can make an "apples-to-apples" comparison when looking at the list of prices for area hotels?

If this puts hotels that charge "resort fees" and for Internet access at a competitive disadvantage against hotels that don't... well, that's the point. We shouldn't have to wait until check-in to discover the true cost of staying at a particular hotel.

(*Update: To clarify, if you happen to be among the minority who didn't use something for which the majority is charged a fee at a particular hotel, such as parking or Internet access, you wouldn't be charged those fees when you checked out. In those cases, your check-out cost would be less than the price you were quoted up front.)

3. A list of all fees incurred on more than 10 percent of room bills in the past 30 days - and their average amounts - must be displayed to prospective customers before they book.

Do more than 10 percent of rooms at a hotel use a roll-away bed? Then that hotel has to show me the roll-away fee before I book. (This was the one fee that the Sheraton displayed on its site.) Same goes for business center or fitness room fees, the bottled water that many hotels place by the bed or the charge for bringing a pool towel back to the room.

Now, if fewer than 10 percent of rooms get charged for something, then it doesn't have to be on the website. (I'm sure that there's probably a fee to have the tailor at the Ritz fix the cuffs on Mr. Gates' tuxedo pants, but we don't need to see that clogging up the webpage.) But if there's a reasonable chance that I might have to pay extra for something, I want to know in advance of booking. Consider this the "menu" of potential fees that some visitors, but not a majority, pay. But let's list it along with other details about the room when I'm selecting a hotel to book.

Ultimately, by having to disclose fees up front, hotels could no longer pretend that they offer better deals than they actually do. And hotels that don't bait-and-switch their guests would no longer be put at a disadvantage when potential visitors shop for the best deal.

So let's get to the vote, shall we? I'd like to hear from you which "optional" fees you've paid during a hotel stay during the past 12 months. (If you've not paid any of these fees, or if you've not stayed in a hotel during that time, we've got options for you in this list, as well.) Some of these fees, such as the energy surcharge and resort fee, get slipped onto bills without much notice, so do watch for them whenever you check out.

What do you think about hotels' disclosure of extra fees? What's been your experience? Do you like my proposal, or would you rather see something else? Let's hear what you have to say, in the comments.

And thanks again for reading Theme Park Insider!

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Harry Potter filmmakers talk about Universal Orlando's new 'Wizarding World' land

By Robert Niles
Published: April 15, 2010 at 12:53 PM
Universal Orlando's released its latest promotional video for the The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which opens to the public on June 18. In this video, producers and designers from the Warner Bors. film series talk about the development of The Wizarding World at Universal's Islands of Adventure.

This also provides an excuse for me to tell you that I've created a special The Wizarding World of Harry Potter page on Theme Park Insider, which includes several of our top Blog Flume posts about the new land and its attractions.

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Disneyland dining review: 'Yes' on the chowder and curry, 'No' on the barbecue

By Robert Niles
Published: April 15, 2010 at 10:33 AM
I've got a couple of new recommendations for you on places to eat when you visit the Disneyland Resort.

I took the family down to Anaheim this week during the kids' Spring Break and we spent a day each at Disneyland and Disney's California Adventure. (Well, a half-day at California Adventure.) I already posted some photos of the ongoing construction at DCA, and today I want to talk about the food.

First, the pleasant surprises. I've not been a fan of the food in California Adventure, finding it mostly nondescript. Living in Southern California, if I want a fast-food hamburger, I'll go to In-N-Out, so I'm not going to waste the fat, calories (and theme park prices!) on a burger that's not as good. Show me something more special when I'm in the parks.

This time, with the kids in tow and not looking forward to yet another full-price, table-service meal, we decided to give the counter service eateries in the Golden State section of the park another shot.

Disney's upgraded these restaurants over the past few years, and they now impress. Natalie opted for the Monterey Clam Chowder ($8.99) at the Pacific Wharf Cafe and Laurie and I tried the Thai Coconut Curry from the Lucky Fortune Cookery ($9.49 - Laurie opted for chicken, and I for tofu).

The clam chowder delivered far more flavor than we've been come to expect from bread-bowl soups. Natalie declared it second only to the razor clam stew she'd had in Washington, D.C. last summer. There's not much heat in the curry, which I expected given the theme park audience. But the flavors of the sauce and veggies blended well and I scarfed down my serving in no time. (I also appreciated that the tofu wasn't fried, as is the case at too many restaurants.)

I'd definitely put both of these options on my "recommended" list for visitors to DCA. Laurie and I had tried the Wine County Trattoria last year, and while I like the Chicken Panini ($10.29) over there, the Coconut Curry offers better flavor and better value.

Over at Disneyland, the Chicken Fusilli ($8.99) at Redd Rockett's Pizza Port continues to be our go-to meal for taste and value. Laurie enjoyed her Starfield of Greens ($7.49) salad, with blue cheese, candied walnuts and cranberries, but not as much as her bite of Natalie's Fusilli. Give the pizzas a pass, though. Disney's thick-crust pies remain tasteless globs of crust and cheese, not worth the $6-a-slice price (50 cents to a buck more for one with toppings).

Based on our good experience there last year, Laurie and I took the kids to the Big Thunder Ranch Barbecue for dinner. Disney's made some changes to this all-you-can-eat meal in an effort to draw more customers (including dropping the "Celebration Roundup" name), and I regret that all the changes have been for the worse.

Last year, Laurie and I paid $28.99 for the family-style lunch, which included barbecue chicken and ribs, cole slaw, corn, baked beans, cornbread, drinks and dessert. This time, we paid $24.99 for the dinner version, which added sausages but now no longer includes drinks ($3 each) or dessert (from $5 - we passed).

The new lunch price is $19.99, but that version of the meal does not come with the sausages served at dinner and now has dropped the corn, too, in addition to the drinks and dessert.

Kids can eat much more cheaply, for just $9.99 - down from $12.99 when we dined last year (and drinks are included in the kids' meal, but still, no dessert). Unfortunately, Disney only counts children 9 and under as "kids." Ten-year-olds pay the $28.99 adult price. Disney really needs a "tween" price on a meal such as this, for kids ages 10-14, who aren't going to eat anywhere near an adult portion, but who still would eat more than a smaller child.

Ultimately, much of what the kids are getting for the price here is the show. But Disney's gutted that, too. Toy Story's Woody, Jessie and Bullseye are gone from the scene. Tex Tumbleweed's still roaming the crowd, playing for and chatting with guests, but Miss Chris is just up on the stage now, for a short set with a piano player.

Without the characters and with the new pricing, Big Thunder Barbecue simply doesn't deliver the value it did last year. And for families with kids older than nine, the meal's simply a rip-off. My advice? Avoid the Big Thunder Barbecue and let's hope Disney shutters this concept in favor of one that offers some value again.

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Looking for a job in a theme park?

By Robert Niles
Published: April 14, 2010 at 8:12 PM
Many seasonal parks already have had their big job fairs for 2010, but hiring continues at the year-'round parks in Orlando and Southern California.

Universal Studios Hollywood announced that it is holding a casting call for Studio Tour Guides on Monday, April 19 from 2:00pm to 5:00pm. Universal's looking for approximately 40 guides, including ones who speak Spanish in addition to English. Parking is available in the Frankenstein parking structure and the casting call is in the USH VIP Lounge, near the entrance to the theme park. More info is available at ushjobs.com.

Walt Disney World is running an online job fair, now until Sunday, April 18. You can apply online for a variety of open positions at the resort, without having to come down in person first.

My tips for in-person theme park interviews: Cut and style your hair like the people you see working in the parks now. Then walk into the facility wearing a big smile and don't stop being friendly at any point. Even the employees whom you don't think are interviewing you might still be evaluating you. Friendliness - smiles, eye contact and clear speaking - gets you hired at theme parks.

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What would you do? Staging a new production for Universal Hollywood's Castle Theater

By Robert Niles
Published: April 14, 2010 at 10:58 AM
Theme Park Insider reader Manny Barron reports today on the Discussion Board that Universal Studios Hollywood has now closed the Backdraft and Special Effects Stages attractions, to make room for the construction of the park's new Transformers ride, which will debut in 2012. (Another installations of Transformers will debut at Universal Studios Singapore next year.)

Backdraft - a fire effects show based on the 1991 Ron Howard film - is gone for good. But Special Effects Stages will reappear later this summer, in a different form, in the park's Castle Theater. For folks who've visited Universal in Florida, but not California, the just-closed Special Effects Stages included elements Florida visitors might have seen in USF's Horror Make-up Show, as well as the old Xena/Murder She Wrote shows.

I took a look at Backdraft and Special Effects Stages last summer, before plans for the upcoming King Kong encounter pushed back Transformers a year, allowing the two shows to stay open a few more months.

Special Effects Stages at Universal Studios Hollywood

I've questions whether or not Universal needs a show like Special Effects Stages, since DVD extras now have "pulled back the curtain" on filmmaking techniques for millions of home viewers. Ultimately, I think there's still great entertainment value in seeing Foley and make-up effects happen live in front of you, instead of on a screen, but I'm interested in hearing what you think.

Universal's Castle Theater has hosted several productions over the past few years, none of which has caught on with audiences to the point where Universal felt the need to keep it around. The Conan the Barbarian show enjoyed a long run in the 1980s, followed by Beetlejuice' Graveyard Revue in the 1990s. But since then, the theater's hosted Spider-Man Rocks, Fear Factor Live and, for last summer, the panned-by-everyone-but-me Creature From The Black Lagoon: The Musical.

So... this brings us to this week's "What Would You Do?" Would you put Special Effects Stages into the Castle Theater? Or should something else go into this Upper Lot venue?

Given the continuing popularity of Florida's Horror Make-up Show, should that show come to Hollywood in its entirety, instead of Special Effects Stages?

Beetlejuice still draws fans in Florida, too. If Disneyland can revive Captain EO, perhaps Universal Studios Hollywood could bring back Beetlejuice, as well?

Universal's hottest property right now is, of course, Harry Potter. But the Wizarding World is only coming to Universal Orlando. If Universal could swing the rights (and that's a HUGE if, I know), wouldn't it be nice to get at least a taste of Potter's world in a Castle Theater show? The theater itself could be made to look like a Hogwarts classroom without many structural changes.

So what would you do? What would you like to see in USH's Castle Theater - an option that would keep you coming back to the park (and the show) for years?

We'll vote in a poll, then please pitch your best idea in the comments.

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Fans petition Busch Gardens to return the tunnel effects to the Loch Ness Monster coaster

By Robert Niles
Published: April 13, 2010 at 10:06 PM
Before I took Natalie on Loch Ness Monster at Busch Gardens Williamsburg last summer, I described for her my first time on the ride (30-some years ago!). I told her about woods surrounding the track, the interlocking loops over the river, and an encounter with "Nessie" inside the high-speed tunnel.

Loch Ness Monster at Busch Gardens Williamsburg

When we finished the ride, she'd loved it - and everything had been exactly as I described it... except for that tunnel. I could have sworn that there were lights in it. Had I remembered that wrongly?

Nope. I was right, as Theme Park Insider reader Caleb Phillips reminded me when he wrote me a few days ago. Caleb, it turns out, is trying to organize an online effort to convince Busch Gardens to bring back the in-tunnel effects on the Loch Ness Monster. He's set up an online petition, which you can sign:

Several years ago Busch Gardens Williamsburg's Loch Ness Monster had special effects in the tunnel portion of the ride. These Special effects included flashes of light, mist, and also a large illuminated sea serpent (the Loch Ness Monster). Upon signing this petition you are stating your belief that the removal of these features have resulted in degradation of the overall ride expierience and would like to see such features be reinstated in the ride program.

Again, here is the link to sign the petition. Please, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, can your fans have this favor? Let's turn on the lights again in the Loch Ness Monster tunnel!

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Disney's California Adventure - April 2010 construction update

By Robert Niles
Published: April 13, 2010 at 4:16 PM
The kids and I took a trip down to Anaheim over the past couple of days, so I thought it a good time to bring you up to date on the construction at Disney's California Adventure.

If you're unfamiliar with the project, here's what California Adventure will look like in two years:

Concept art for Disney's California Adventure

Note the Disney's Hollywood Studios-style front gate, as well as the new Pixar-themed Cars Land standing between Tower of Terror and Paradise Pier, in the space that used to be a parking lot.

Here's a picture of what that area looks like now, looking from the south north toward the park. (You can see Grizzly Peak and the Grand Californian Hotel in the background.) If you look to the left in the photo, you can see the steel skeleton of a show building, while just above the palm trees you can see what sure looked to me like a banked track, already taking shape.

Cars Land under construction

Radiator Springs Racers, a high-speed "Cars"-themed track ride, debuts in 2012.

In 2011, California Adventure will debut a new family dark ride, The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Adventure. Construction's just begun on the show building, which you can see emerging behind the construction wall.

The Little Mermaid ride, under construction

The "Palace of Fine Arts" entryway to the old Golden Dreams show remains, and will be part of The Little Mermaid building's facade, as seen in this concept art:

Concept art for The Little Mermaid Ride

Here's more concept art, of the Paradise Garden Grill and Boardwalk Pizza & Pasta restaurants that will debut later this year. (I don't know about the "Spring" date mentioned in the caption.)

Concept art for new Paradise Pier restaurants

The concept art shows that the Jumping Jellyfish and Golden Zephyr rides will survive the park's makeover. But I have yet to see the Maliboomer on any concept art, seemingly confirming the widespread rumors that the space shot ride's days are numbered. (FWIW, Mulholland Madness will be rethemed as Goofy's Sky School.)

Finally, I leave you with this shot of the soon-to-open Mickey's Silly Symphony Swings, which I caught at night. The sky seemed appropriately turbulent for this tornado-themed waveswinger ride....

Mickey's Silly Symphony Swings, at night

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What's new on the discussion board: SoCal vs. Orlando, plus The Onion's new Six Flags roller coaster

By Robert Niles
Published: April 13, 2010 at 2:17 PM
Here are this week's top new threads on the Theme Park Insider Discussion Board. Please click through and add your tips, thoughts and advice!

Tim W is looking for readers to play a game of Theme Park Apprentice

Krissi Tummons is looking for Tips for the last week of May for an Orlando visit.

Steve Ward wants to know When is the best month to go to Orlando?

Meanwhile, Isaac M. asks California or Florida for this Summer?

Derek Morse focuses that conversation by asking about Disneyland, CA for a Florida resident?

Meagan Evanoff is planning a Wedding at Cedar Point is looking for advice.

Melissa Donahue is looking for tips on a First trip to Holiday World...

...And Mike Bianucci asks Why aren't there more hotels in Santa Claus, Indiana?

Rob P asks What Are The Oldest Existing Attractions?

Elissa Dick wants to know about paying for parking in advance when visiting a theme park.

Michael Smith asks if ET -Universal Orlando is the most under-rated dark ride ever?

Finally, here's a look at Six Flags' new roller coaster... according to The Onion.

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Theme park cast member stories: An unexpected gift

By Robert Niles
Published: April 11, 2010 at 11:43 PM
If you pressed me to name my favorite perk I earned working at Walt Disney World, I'd have to say... the free tickets. When I worked full-time at the Mouse House, I had a pass that I could use to sign in a certain number of family and friends 12 times a year. But even working seasonally, Disney issued us free tickets twice a year - around Christmas and the Fourth of July.

As a single person with no kids (back then), I got two tickets each time. But these were no ordinary free tickets. They were one-day park-hoppers, then unavailable to the general public. And not only were they good at all the Walt Disney World theme parks, they were good at Disneyland, as well. (Which prompted just about everyone to wonder if we could run around to all the Disney World parks in the morning, drive to Orlando International, hop a flight to LA and bag Disneyland the same day, on the same ticket. Of course, we figured, anyone who could afford the plane ticket probably could have afforded their own Disney tickets anyway.)

I hoarded these tickets, amassing a decent pile over the summer and winter holidays I worked while in college and graduate school. They came in handy for a broke journalism graduate student, too, as they made excellent wedding presents for the many friends who got hitched when I was in my mid-20s and had no extra cash to buy decent presents.

But one of my fellow cast members didn't wait to make a gift of her tickets. She was in school, too, and had collected quite a few free tickets as she'd been working at Disney since high school. After our shifts had ended in the Magic Kingdom one July day, we'd ridden the monorail over to Epcot for a cast-discount dinner at Epcot's Le Cellier Restaurant. (This was back in the days before Priority Seating, when it was possible to get a table at Le Cellier without weeks of advance notice.)

On our way back, she'd struck up a conversation with a couple of kids about their day at Disney. They were having a great time, and were gushing to my co-worker about everything they'd seen. After a few moments, they started pestering their mother if they could stay another day.

"No, kids," the mother explained patiently. "Our tickets are up today, and we're going to go to the beach tomorrow."

As she said this, I saw my co-worker reach into her purse. She pulled out the free tickets she'd just gotten and - to my shock - handed them over to the mom.

"I work in the Magic Kingdom," my co-worker explained. "And Disney gives us free tickets every now and then. I don't need them - I can get into the park for free whenever I want - and it seems like your kids are having such a good time. Here - I want you to have them."

The mother looked stunned. "No, I..." was all she could get out.

"I insist," my co-worker said, as the kids squealed.

The monorail arrived at the Magic Kingdom, and my co-worker got up to exit before the mom could refuse. "Thank you," the mom said to my co-worker, who simply smiled in return. I collected my jaw from the floor and ran after my co-worker.

I was going to ask, "Why?" but when I saw the smile on her face and the joy she exuded... I had my answer.

Sometimes, you find the greatest joy not in what you get or what you achieve, but in what you do for other people. Even people you do not know, and who never would have expected it.

Read more of Robert's cast member stories at themeparkinsider.com/stories.

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The approaching Orlando tourism renaissance

By TH Creative
Published: April 11, 2010 at 11:10 PM
When traveling the southbound lane of International Drive, near Wonderworks and Pointe Orlando, a break in the trees on the center median provides a dramatic view of an extraordinary new landmark. Rising 32-stories, the Peabody tower commands attention. Still under construction, with an opening scheduled for November 2010, the enormous hotel – supported by a new 250,000-square-foot convention center – will likely be counted among the most prestigious resort destinations in Orlando.

Peabody

A few miles away, at Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park, the much anticipated Wizarding World of Harry Potter will soon celebrate its grand opening. Developed by Universal Creative (the organization behind the groundbreaking ‘Amazing Adventures of Spider Man’ and ‘Men in Black: Alien Attack’) it seems a certainty that the attractions based upon the world’s most successful film franchise will be extraordinary additions to the popular theme park.

These two developments – the Peabody and Potter – are among a wave of expansive resorts and state-of-the-art attractions that have or will soon become a part of the Orlando tourist industry. This level of investment and innovation seem a harbinger of an approaching renaissance within Central Florida tourism.

This perfect storm (of sorts) is not lost upon Orlando tourism veterans. On March 30th, Orlando hotelier Harris Rosen addressed a breakfast gathering of the Central Florida chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors. Having been on the opening management teams of the Walt Disney World Contemporary and Polynesian resorts, Mr. Rosen has more than 40 years of experience in the Orlando tourism industry. During a question and answer period following his speech Mr. Rosen was asked for his assessment on the future of Orlando tourism. Mr. Rosen responded, “In my heart of hearts, I am certain Central Florida tourism is going to come back with a vengeance.”

Clearly Mr. Rosen’s assertion already has some momentum. The Peabody is not the only resort project that has or will be built in Orlando. Over the past five years Hilton has opened three sizable properties – including the expansive Hilton at Bonnet Creek. The internationally famous Four Seasons Hotels, Inc. had enough confidence in the future of Central Florida tourism to have purchased 298 acres on Walt Disney World property. The company intends to use the property to open a luxury golf resort. Meanwhile Walt Disney World is now moving to complete its own Pop Century Resort, even as the company continues to seek financing for a retail, entertainment and resort development on the western edge of its property.

As the community of hotels grows so too has activity related to the region’s theme parks. In 2011, less than a year after Universal Orlando opens the ‘Wizarding World of Harry Potter,’ Walt Disney World will celebrate its 40th anniversary. In the fall of that year Disney Hollywood Studios will unveil Star Tours II – a revamped version of the original attraction using high definition 3D images and improved motion simulator technology. By 2013 Walt Disney World will welcome guests to the new Fantasyland -- the largest expansion in the history of the Magic Kingdom. It seems likely that the new addition will boast some of the interactive technology being developed as a part of Disney’s top secret, billion dollar “NextGen” project.

Of course, when it comes to investment in Central Florida’s theme parks Disney and Universal are not alone. This past January, Merlin Entertainment announced its intention to open a Florida edition of the Legoland franchise by the end of 2011. What’s more Merlin’s parent company, the Blackstone Group, was confident enough in Central Florida tourism to buy Busch Entertainment – the owner of Orlando’s Sea World, Aquatica and Discovery Cove parks.

While Central Florida is no stranger to sizable hotel and attraction development, the level of investment described herein is certainly exceptional. Considering the economic uncertainty that has gripped the nation (and indeed the planet) it is noteworthy that substantial quantities of corporate dollars continue to flow into Orlando’s tourist industry

Orlando tourism’s renaissance has begun. Over the next thirty-six months Central Florida will (once again) be home to something extraordinary.

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Vote of the week: What's on your funnel cake?

By Robert Niles
Published: April 8, 2010 at 9:17 PM
Yeah, I'm on a food kick this week on Theme Park Insider, with our discussion about improving the food at Six Flags and all.

But even as I urge parks to offer better table-service dining options, I hope that parks never abandon the pinnacle of theme park dining:

Funnel cake, with powdered sugar

The wonderful funnel cake.

This one's topped with the classic powdered sugar crown. Others might prefer strawberries and whipped cream. But let me throw three more options at you. How about...

...apples and caramel sauce?
...or bananas and Nutella?
...or maybe peanut butter and jelly?

This is our vote of the week:


Tell us in the comments why you voted the way you did. (And if you know of any parks that actually *do* serve any of the three extra options I listed above, please tell us!) Feel free to suggest other combinations you want to see on a funnel cake this summer, too.

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

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New video of Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter

By Robert Niles
Published: April 8, 2010 at 2:50 PM
Universal Orlando today released a new video of Universal Creative's Mark Woodbury walking through Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, opening officially on June 18 and soft-opening who-knows-when:

Comments?

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The 2000s were the decade of the roller coaster. Can dark rides come back in the 2010s?

By Robert Niles
Published: April 8, 2010 at 2:04 PM
It wasn't until I dug into the numbers from this year's Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament that I really understood how much more exciting the roller coaster side of the theme and amusement park industry has been than the dark ride side over the past decade. (Hey, I am a numbers geek; I need numbers to fully understand things.)

Let's take a look at the attractions that you nominated for this year's Best Attraction Tournament, by your high average reader ratings. Except let's restrict this list to attractions that debuted in a year that started with the number "2."

We had nine 10 rides from the 2000s among the top 16 in the Best Roller Coaster bracket. That's about one new great coaster every year over the past decade:

1. Cedar Point's Millennium Force [Intamin Giga/Mega] *(whoops - forgot this one initially)
3. Six Flags Great Adventure's El Toro [Intamin Wooden]
4. Dollywood's Thunderhead [Great Coasters International]
5. Holiday World's The Voyage [The Gravity Group]
6. Busch Gardens Williamsburg's Griffon [Bolliger & Mabillard Dive]
9. Cedar Point's Maverick [Intamin AG Custom]
10. Six Flags Magic Mountain's X2 [Arrow 4D]
11. SeaWorld Orlando's Manta [Bolliger & Mabillard Flying]
12. Cedar Point's Top Thrill Dragster [Intamin AG Accelerator]
13. Dollywood's Mystery Mine [Gerstlauer Euro-Fighter]

But only six dark rides from the 2000s made that bracket. That averages about one ride every other year:

3. Universal Studios Florida's Revenge of the Mummy
4. Expedition Everest at Disney's Animal Kingdom
10. Toy Story Midway Mania at Disney's California Adventure
11. Universal Studios Florida's Men in Black Alien Attack
13. Busch Gardens Williamsburg's Curse of DarKastle
15. Soarin' Over California at Disney's California Adventure

Take a closer look, and picture becomes even more lopsided. The top two of the recent rides in the Best Themed Ride bracket are based on roller coaster ride systems. They were included in the Themed Ride bracket due to their animation and story elements, but each has been criticized for non-functioning animation elements. And in the case of Everest, the non-functioning element is the Yeti that's supposed to be the heart of the ride. Not good times.

DarKastle's taken lumps for occasional break-downs, as well, even as uptime on roller coasters has been increasing over the decade, at least according to what I've heard from people in the industry. (The highly popular Bolliger & Mabillard models have outstanding uptime records.)

So what's left on the dark ride side?

Soarin' Over California - an IMAX-style movie with a mild ride element to move viewers into place in front of the screen.

Toy Story Midway Mania - a fun 3-D video game, but one that reduces to a spinning cart moving you from one giant TV set to the next.

Men in Black Alien Attack - a truly immersive, interactive dark ride, but that hits its 10th birthday this year.

Sure, we've got some fun rides here, but, frankly, I'm not surprised that they failed to generate the excitement that their roller coaster cousins delivered. Perhaps that's why the winner on the Best Themed Ride side was a 40-year-old Omnimover ride (Disney's Haunted Mansion). And that ride got slaughtered by Holiday World's The Voyage, which endured much tougher battles in the roller coaster bracket than it did with Mansion or the winner from the Show side of the tournament (Disney's Fantasmic!)

What's a dark ride fan to do? Well, like many of us, I'm looking longingly at the impending opening of Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey at Universal's Islands of Adventure, hoping that its blend of an immersive walk-through, Kuka robot arm technology and high-definition film-making will reinvigorate the dark ride side of the industry, inspiring more companies to invest in this form of theme park storytelling.

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
Our savior?

Help might be on the way from Disney, too, as the company invests in major new dark rides at Disney's California Adventure, including The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Adventure and Radiator Springs Racers in the park's new Cars Land.

Let's face it - the 2000s were an underwhelming decade for themed dark ride fans. Here's hoping that the 2010s turn out much, much better.

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Looking for tips to plan a great theme park vacation?

By Robert Niles
Published: April 8, 2010 at 10:27 AM
We've got quite a few new readers on the site, thanks to the recent tournament, so I wanted to take a moment to point out to everyone that we've got several places on the site where your fellow readers have submitted some great, easy tips to help you plan a better, more affordable theme park vacation.

Start first on our How to get the best deals on theme park tickets page, which also includes several tips on trip-planning. Saving money and getting a good deal involves much more than just buying the cheapest ticket - it takes good planning and making sure that you're getting value for the money you spend.

Even the best-planned theme park vacation won't be a pleasant one if you or someone in your family gets hurt. So, please, take a moment to read our Top 10 Theme Park Safety Tips before you leave home, too.

Finally, the number-one source for vacation tips on Theme Park Insider is our Travel tips for visiting theme parks. There, Theme Park Insider readers like you submit and rate short tips on specific parks, or travel in general. Vote "yes" if you like the tip, and think it useful; vote "no" if you don't.

We give each tips a point for a yes vote and take a point away for a no one. The tips with the most points go to the top of the list. In addition to the overall tips page, we also have park-specific tips pages, which you can see if you click the park names on themeparkinsider.com/tips.

Here are some recently-submitted tips to our list. Just click the link at the end of each tip to vote on it. (You do not need to be a registered member of the site to vote.)

All parks: When traveling to a park by air, have everyone wear slip-on shoes, to go through the security line faster. Link (Vote)

All parks: Ask someone to take a picture of your entire family/group on your cell phone, in case someone gets lost, you can show the pic and ask for specific help finding them. Link (Vote)

All parks: Have kids wear bright colors so theyll stand out if they happen to get lost and you are looking for them. Link (Vote)

All parks: Re-apply sunscreen every couple of hours. Your skin will thank you! Re-apply even more often if you sweat a lot or get soaked. Make sure there's coverage of both UVA & UVB Link (Vote)

All parks: Flying to a city during peak travel times? (For example, holiday weekends.) Give yourself an extra day to get there. If a flight gets overbooked, they'll ask for volunteers to take a seat on the next flight. You'll get a free ticket for your next trip! Link (Vote)

All parks: Make sure you always choose a place to meet in case someone from your family gets lost. Link (Vote)

Disneyland: If you are buying your tickets online with the option to print it at home, allow at least a day for it to arrive in your email. Don't do this if your planning to go at the same day you are buying the tickets online. Link (Vote)

Disneyland: As soon as you get to the park, get a fastpass for your favorite ride, then go ride your second favorite ride, and then go back to your favorite ride and use your fastpass! Link (Vote)

Walt Disney World: Buy the Disney Dining Plan! It is well worth it! Snacks, and water are even included! Dont feel like using them? You can carry them over to another day! Link (Vote)

Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom: If there is a long wait at a ride, wait until the fireworks show to go. There is no wait at these times. Link (Vote)

You can submit your own favorite tip at themeparkinsider.com/tips.

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DCL's Disney Dream will feature restaurant Remy with menu by dream team of international chefs

By Scott Joseph
Published: April 8, 2010 at 8:05 AM
At a dinner at New York City's Le Bernadin restaurant that was prepared by chefs Scott Hunnel (Victoria & Albert's) and Arnaud Lallement (l'Assiette Champenoise, Reims, France), Disney Cruise Lines announced that the upcoming ship Disney Dream will feature a fine-dining restaurant called Remy, with a menu designed by the two chefs.

Full report

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What would you do? Creating a new restaurant for the Six Flags theme parks

By Robert Niles
Published: April 7, 2010 at 11:50 AM
How do you increase guest spending inside a theme park, without those visitors feeling fleeced? That's one of the great challenges in the theme park industry. Obtaining a new customer for your park can be incredibly expensive - so maximizing the amount of money you make from each guest who does walk through the front gate is often the most cost-effective way to build a park's income.

Food? Drinks? Games? Souvenirs? Guided tours? Ride reservations? Pay-per-use attractions, such as rock-wall climbs and bungees? You've probably lightened your wallet (or fattened your credit card statement) with many of these in-park revenue options over the years.

Today, I'm going to talk about the Six Flags theme parks and suggest one way that it can increase its in-park guest spending, which averaged $36.72 in 2009, according to U.S. federal SEC documents.

Of all the stuff for which people spend money in a theme park, food might be the most popular. Many folks can pass by the souvenirs, skip paid reservations or tours and stay away from the "not free" attractions. But almost everyone buys something to eat or drink inside the park.

So offering a more expensive food option can be a powerful way to earn more money from each visitor. But how to do that without leaving people feeling fleeced? You've got to offer a more expensive dining option that delivers even more value - a truly unique experience that people want, as opposed to a food option that people merely endure to fuel up in the middle of the day.

Think Disneyland's Blue Bayou. Epcot's restaurants. Or even Miss Lillian's fried chicken at Dollywood. Other theme parks can get visitors to pay a higher per-ticket meal cost by offering unique meals in unique environments. How could Six Flags create a new option to do that?

Miss Lillian, at Dollywood
Miss Lillian, welcoming diners at "her" fried chicken buffet at Dollywood. Could Six Flags do something new like this to increase guest spending in its parks?

This is our "What would you do?" challenge for the week: What new restaurant should Six Flags introduce?

Most food options at Six Flags parks could be found outside the parks - Papa John's pizza, Panda Express. Even the park's sit-down burger place, Johnny Rockets, is a chain widely available in visitors' home towns. A few parks offer a Mooseburger Lodge restaurant/buffet, but we need an option that will increase current average guest spending - something that's going to rise above that standard.

Now, you might make the argument that Six Flags' clientele isn't interested in a premium dining experince - that the chain appeals to younger visitors and roller coaster fans for whom a restaurant meal means sitting down in the McDonald's instead of using the drive-through.

I'm going to take Six Flags CEO Mark Shapiro at his words here, though, and proceed under the assumption that the chain is trying to draw more families, the type of visitors who also consider Disney and SeaWorld parks, and who would jump at the chance to splurge for a sit-down meal in one of those parks, if they could get the reservation.

In envisioning such a restaurant, we need two things:

  1. A unique setting, that fits within the theme of its location within the park
  2. At least one signature food item which can't easily be found outside the park.

Remember that Monte Cristo picture I posted yesterday? That's the go-to signature item at Disneyland's Blue Bayou. How many restaurants have you seen outside Disneyland which offer a Monte Cristo like that?

Or consider the risottos at Mythos in Universal's Islands of Adventure. Sure, you can find risotto at fine-dining Italian restaurants in bigger cities, but it's a rare find at the chain sit-down restaurants that most consumers frequent.

As for theme, Six Flags continues to develop its children's play areas, with Thomas the Tank Engine and Wiggles themes, in addition to Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes. But, long term, I think the company does best by developing a theme that's not licensed from another. While its "premium" restaurant should be family-friendly, it shouldn't be exclusively focused to children, either. (None of Disney's table-service restaurants are, for example.)

How about a Roller Coaster Cafe, built around a coaster track, so that the trains run through the restaurant itself? (I'm thinking the coaster runs through a clear tube, or above diners' heads along a wall, for safety and sound reasons.) Or maybe Six Flags needs to develop its own character, like Dollywood's Miss Lillian, and build the concept around that.

Now, let's think fun comfort foods that you don't find in places like Olive Garden or Applebee's - I'm thinking fancy grilled cheeses, souffles, fondues. Help me out here, folks. (Cheese doesn't have to be a primary ingredient, of course, but I do have that Monte Cristo stuck in my mind right now....)

Ultimately, the concept, the setting and the food have to provide enough to make you - Six Flags' prime audience - want to come to a Six Flags park, make a reservation and sit down for a meal in the middle of the day.

What would do that for you? Let's hear your ideas, in the comments.

Previously on "What would you do?"

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Canada's largest water park to debut June 7

By Joshua Counsil
Published: April 7, 2010 at 9:12 AM
Canada's largest, long-anticipated water park, Calypso Waterpark, is set to debut on June 7, according to the Ottawa Citizen.

Located in Limoges, Ontario, just 20 minutes east of Ottawa, the $45-million dollar park has already sold more than 6,000 annual passes.

The park features an array of attractions, including 80-foot long speed slides, a half-kilometer jungle river winding past a 52,000-square-foot wave pool, a beach, and two play areas for children.

Park owner Guy Drouin states that one innovative park feature for guests is the ability to make purchases with their fingerprint.

“When you are with a bathing suit, you cannot carry a wallet or money. It’s hard to do that. If you want to buy anything you have to go back to your locker, take some money, buy something, and go back to your locker. That’s a long trip,” Drouin told the Citizen.

The park was originally set to debut in 2009 as SunnyLand Amusement Resort, according to the Ottawa Sun, but construction was delayed due to inclement weather. The name was changed to ease bilingualism concerns.

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Getting hungry for theme parks?

By Robert Niles
Published: April 6, 2010 at 2:34 PM
Now that's a lunch!

Monte Cristo at Disneyland

Just thought I'd put this out there for our northern theme park fans, awakening from their winter-long, no-theme-parks slumber.

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What's new on the discussion board: Summer trip planning, plus Intimidator vs. Intimidator 305

By Robert Niles
Published: April 6, 2010 at 9:18 AM
Here's what's new on the Theme Park Insider Discussion Board this week. The season's just getting started, so we're heavy with people asking for trip-planning advice. Park veterans, click the links and help 'em out!

Leslie DeGroat is looking for some help to plan a Cedar Point Trip this June!

Gary Brown asks for Advice on visit days SFMM / DISNEY / KBF

Ruth Honor is looking for Busch Gardens Williamsburg advice on quick queue and hotels

And Tammy Schlievert wants to know if the Busch Gardens Meal tickets are worth the price.

Kristi Pickeral is looking for help on an Orlando trip in First-timer needs some guidance for a quick trip to the parks!

Tim W asks what's your favorite Pizza of Disney World?

Lolly Allen starts a discussion on Timing the Water Park visit, to avoid lines.

Anthony Murphy continues the on-going series with Things I learned at Disney's Hollywood Studios as well as What I Learned at Animal Kingdom.

When riding roller coasters, Mike Gallagher asks How Many is Too Many?

Mark Fairleigh breaks down the Celebrity Apprentice...Universal and Wizard World episode.

Sticking with Islands of Adventure's PR blitz, did anyone see Ellen at Universal: First look at Harry Potter?

Finally, following Russell Meyer's reviews of both coasters last week (here, for Intimidator and here, for Intimidator 305), the inevitable discussion: I305 vs. Intimidator.

Archive Link

Cedar Fair ends buyout deal

By Bob Boyer
Published: April 6, 2010 at 7:45 AM
Cedar Fair and Apollo formally pulled their buyout deal today. Apollo gets $6.5MM for their trouble and FUN is right back where it was before. Credit markets are much better now, so they have quite a bit more flexibility. Management added a "rights offering" meant to protect the little guy shareholder (or unitholder in this case). But it's really just management and the Board trying to protect their jobs.

Cedar Point

And the largest stockholder in FUN said they have had talks with the guys buying Six Flags about a merger, but nothing imminent there either. The saga continues...

Update from Robert: Here's a write-up from the Plain Dealer, with some numbers for your crunching pleasure.

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Theme park cast member stories: The sickest place on Earth

By Robert Niles
Published: April 5, 2010 at 10:19 AM
Note from Robert: I'm reading some of my favorite stories each Monday on Cosmic Reid's Starlight Cafe, which airs at 1pm Eastern each week on MagicalMouseRadio.com. I hope you'll tune in.

If you can't afford to travel the world, working at a theme park - especially in Orlando - provides a great way to meet people from around the globe anyway.

In my time working at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, I met folks from the United Kingdom, France, Brazil and dozens of other countries. Taking time to chat with folks - even if just in a crude pantomime - immerses you in accents, attitudes and cultures unlike anything you'd find in most any other "normal" workplace.

It also, unfortunately, immerses you in the world's wide variety of nasty cold and flu strains. Working in Orlando in the summer, you're welcoming thousands of South American visitors who are escaping their winter. Unfortunately, many also are bringing their winter colds and flu with them.

Perhaps after working several years at Disney World, you develop the immune system of a veteran kindergarten teacher - exposed to the worst germs the world has to offer, you develop immunities that keep you healthy year-'round.

But in your first couple years at Disney, you're like that rookie kindergarten teacher - coming down with every illness brought into the classroom by your germy students.

And so it was that the sickest I've ever been in my life was during my time working at Walt Disney World. I remember the moment the illness hit me. I was getting my hair cut when an icy blast penetrated my entire body, but from within. My body shook, then immediately I felt the cold melt away and I broke into a drenching sweat. As soon as the barber finished, I tried to rise from the chair, but my legs buckled. I had to stop again and sit by the front door for a few moments to gather my strength to walk 10 yards out to my car.

Foolishly, I went ahead and drove into work. It was a six-hour closing shift, and I just parked myself in the County Bear Vacation Hoedown theater. Normally, I wouldn't feel too excited about watching show after show, but in my state, I was happy for a place to sit in the dark and quietly count the hours until the end of my shift.

Eventually, midnight came and I dragged myself through the tunnels and to the bus which would take me to my waiting car. I almost made it all the way home, too. But along the way, the second phase of the illness hit, and, uh, well, there's no delicate way to say this. Twice, I had to pull over to, well, return my lunch.

Fortunately, I had the next day off, so I could stay in my bed and sleep - dead to my family and the outside world. And the day after that? Well, as quickly as the illness had hit me, it went away - like a South American tourist blasting into town for a whirlwind visit, then catching the next flight back to Rio.

Ever take ill at a theme park? Share the (not so) gruesome details, in the comments. Be sure to check out the archive of Robert's cast member stories, too.

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2010 Best Theme Park Attraction final: Fantasmic! vs The Voyage

By Robert Niles
Published: April 5, 2010 at 7:57 AM
Okay, we've said just about everything there is to be said about these attractions. So, after 62 votes, it's time to pick an overall winner. Here are your 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament finalists:

Fantasmic! at Disneyland and Disney's Hollywood Studios [Best Live Show]
vs.
The Voyage at Holiday World [Best Roller Coaster]


To the comments! (Voting continues until 7pm Eastern, 4 pm Pacific today.)

I'd like to invite all our guests today to take a look around the site and consider sticking around for the great reviews, money-saving advice, discussion and tips we offer here on Theme Park Insider. Becoming a Facebook fan or following our Twitter feed provide two great ways to stay in touch with our community. Thank you for participating in this year's tournament.

Update: Congratulations to our 2010 overall champion: The Voyage, from Holiday World and The Gravity Group.

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Wrapping up the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament

By Robert Niles
Published: April 4, 2010 at 9:56 PM
So... what to make of this year's Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament?

I've heard the complaints from some readers: That this year's tournament is diminished because The Voyage, a roller coaster from Holiday World in Santa Claus, Indiana, has made the finals and, given its strong support from fans coming to the site from Facebook and Twitter, might win the whole thing.

And those critics have a point. I mean, come on, a 5-seed from a tiny location in Indiana shouldn't possibly hope to make the finals of the 64-team tournament, to face in the finals a 1-seed from the biggest name in the field, representing an institution that starts with the letter "D"?

That never happens in real life, right? ;-)

Maybe this *is* destiny. Maybe "Hoosier Hysteria" lives again.

Or maybe this tournament represents something a bit more fundamental than that. Let's not discount what Holiday World's fans are saying here. Let's listen to them, instead.

First, let's set aside the idea that The Voyage got this far simply because Holiday World's PR person rallied its fans via Facebook and Twitter. Other parks, with larger social media fan bases, tried the same and didn't get past The Voyage.

Holiday World's fans turned out not only because The Voyage is a great ride (I rode it last summer and instantly became a fan, too), but also because of the relationship that Holiday World and its fans have with each other.

In all the fuss we make about storytelling, setting and ride systems, we must not forget that theme parks are first in the hospitality business. When we enter a theme park, we want first to be made to feel welcomed. We want whatever experience we encounter within that park to provide good value for our money.

Holiday World excels at hospitality. We've mentioned many times on this site the park's free parking, free soft drinks and free sunscreen - expenses that, together, will set you back $30 or more at most other parks. But Holiday World extends its hospitality to its guests beyond the park gates.

Plenty of theme parks have Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. But few will retweet or acknowledge posts from fans and independent websites, such as this site. Count Holiday World among those. Not only that, Paula Werne, Holiday World's PR person, posts here on Theme Park Insider in response to readers' questions about her park. To Holiday World, social media are actually, well, social - a conversation between the park, its fans and the people who cover the park - and not just another one-dimensional channel to distribute the park's PR, as it is for Disney and Universal.

Because readers feel part of that conversation with Holiday World, when the park asks them to rally for one of its attractions, they respond. But let's not forget that Holiday World established the foundation for that conversation by providing great value and strong in-park hospitality, as well as three world-class roller coasters, with The Voyage the highlight.

When fans cast the votes for The Voyage, I'm hearing a message that goes beyond their enthusiasm for this individual ride. I'm hearing people express their support for a park that values their business. For a park that doesn't nickel-and-dime them at every opportunity. For a park that treats them as *people* online and not simply as prospective sales.

And I'm hearing fans that crave an opportunity to let other people around the country, and the world, know those things. Disney fan sites don't cover Holiday World, or provide an easy channel for its fans be heard. Roller coaster sites too often segregate discussions into steel vs. wood, pigeon-holing Holiday World as a "woodie" park, and not enabling its fans appeal to a broader audience.

At Theme Park Insider, I don't care which company builds or runs a theme park. I don't care whether a roller coaster is steel, wood or a hybrid. All, I care about is whether a park provides a great experience, at great value, for its guests.

Let's not forget that Disney does that. Fantasmic! is one of my favorite shows, and would be a worthy champion for this tournament. I'm not counting it out, and no fan should. (The final vote is Monday from 11am-7pm ET, 8am-4pm PT.) But this tournament provided a forum for Holiday World's fans to draw your attention to their beloved park... and they took it.

And I couldn't be happier. No, Holiday World isn't a Disney clone. Its park lacks the immersive detail of a Disney park. But it's wonderful fun, with thrilling attractions, tasty food and great value. Located outside any metro area, you won't find it filled with locals who hang around simply for convenience. Holiday World instead draws a delightful crowd of knowledgeable theme and amusement park fans, who had to make the effort to drive out to Southern Indiana to visit.

If this tournament convinces a few more such folks to discover Holiday World, or any of the other great themed attractions that don't get the attention that Disney and Universal enjoy, then I will consider this tournament to have been a great success.

Oh, and by the way... Go Butler!

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The 2010 Best Theme Park Ride and the Best Theme Park Show in America

By Robert Niles
Published: April 2, 2010 at 7:21 AM
Now that we have our four bracket winners, let's go ahead and vote for the Best Theme Park Ride and Best Theme Park Show in America.

I've decided to combine the two votes into one thread, to better encourage our visitors from other sites to participate in both votes. If you haven't experienced all the attractions up for vote today, just click on their names below for full descriptions, photos, video and extensive comments from Theme Park Insider regulars.

Here are your competitors:

For Best Theme Park Ride:

For Best Theme Park Show:

Let's get to the votes then, shall we?



Voting concludes at 7pm Eastern, 4pm Pacific. As always, please tell us in the comments why you voted the way you did.

Have a great weekend, and we'll see you back here on Monday as today's winners face off for the Best Theme Park Attraction title.

Update: Congratulations to our winners, and thanks to everyone for voting and welcome to all those visiting the site for the first time. If you're new around here, don't miss Russell Meyer's great write-up of Intimidator 305, below (if you're reading this on the home page. Otherwise, click the link). We'll see you on Monday.

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Intimidator 305 debuts at Kings Dominion

By Russell Meyer
Published: April 2, 2010 at 7:07 AM
"Gentlemen... Start your engines!"

Those are the last four words riders of Kings Dominion's newest roller coaster, Intimidator 305, will hear before they are taken on one of the most intense, incredible, extreme rides on the planet. [Editor's note from Robert: As an IndyCar fan, I hate that NASCAR's stolen our most famous phrase.] The Intamin AG creation was previewed Thursday by the Doswell, Virginia theme park for dignitaries and coaster aficionados alike. It is definitely the most anticipated new roller coaster opening in 2010, and quite possibly the best coaster to take its first spin around the track in years.

Kerry and Taylor Earnhardt and representatives from Dale Earnhardt Incorporated along with Cedar Fair CEO Dick Kinzel and Virginia Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling were all on hand to open the coaster, the park's 14th.

Even Duff Goldman and Food Network's "Ace of Cakes" staff drove down from their Charm City Cakes store in Baltimore, MD to commemorate the opening of the ride with their own interpretation of one of the East Coast's tallest and fastest roller coasters.

The name Intimidator 305 - similar to Carowinds' Intimidator, which took its first official rides last week – may fool visitors into thinking that the two rides are very similar. After all, Kings Dominion's monster new machine has theming elements nearly identical to Carowinds' marvelous B&M hypercoaster. From the famous black Monte Carlo in the entrance plaza, to the plaques commemorating Dale Earnhardt's Hall of Fame career, to the NASCAR replica front end on the coaster trains, if you weren't looking at the coaster tracks themselves, one might assume the two are pretty much the same.

The style, an Intamin giga-coaster, might convince others that this coaster is just a slightly smaller copy of the famed Millennium Force at Cedar Point. Millennium Force, one of the world's highest rated roller coasters, features the same incredibly fast and efficient cable lift system, 300-foot first drop, sweeping turns and massive airtime hills as Intimidator 305. So what about this new coaster is going to make coaster fans sit up and take notice?

Basically, you need to experience this coaster to believe it. As you leave the station, the cable lift system speeds you up the 305-foot lift hill. Before you even have time to catch your breath, you're dropping 300 feet down at 85 degrees. Once the train negotiates the paralyzing first drop, it enters a sweeping, somewhat benign-looking right turn. Those familiar with Superman: Ride of Steel at nearby Six Flags America might think this 270-degree banked turn would be pretty similar to Superman's two helix elements, which are exciting but not earth-shattering. At 94 MPH, though, this turn is incredibly intense. Unless you happen to be an experienced fighter pilot, plan to experience a near-blackout/greyout sensation just before the train lifts up into the second 150-foot tall airtime hill. Let this be a warning to all who take on this ride, because this turn WILL be one of the most intense positive G experiences on a coaster you will find without somehow coaxing Six Flags Magic Mountain personnel to turn off the mid-course brakes on Goliath.

After a great shot of air over the second hill, the train enters a not-nearly-as-intense left turn, a couple of quick crossovers, and another sweeping right turn before entering another huge airtime hill. This third big hill features magnetic trim fins, which slow the train just a bit, making passengers in the front few rows feel like the train is going to fly off the track.

Another quick shot of air follows the third big hill, and then the train goes through a couple of quick turns with a crossover in between and a strange over-banked left turn before entering the final brake run.

Intimidator 305 features Intamin's 2nd generation trains, with over-the-shoulder restraints similar to Six Flags Great Adventure's Kingda Ka and Cedar Point's Maverick. Larger riders that have been unable to ride older Intamin trains featuring T-bars and seat belts should be accommodated by the significantly improved restraint system on this coaster. However, the restraints and high-sided trains do not offer the same freedom or open-air feeling found on a B&M hyper. Some guests may also be frustrated by the shoulder pads that can be rough on riders' neck and shoulders as the train races around the 5,100 feet of track and insanely wicked crossovers. Guests with earrings would be wise to remove them, lest they be removed for them by Intimidator 305.

This coaster is not for the casual theme park goer, and that goes for the average-run-of-the-mill NASCAR fan as well. This is somewhat unfortunate, given the proximity of this ride to Richmond International Raceway, and a large local contingent of motorsports enthusiasts. Rather, Intimidator 305 is a coaster that will be known for speed and intensity- perhaps more intensity than even the most seasoned coaster fan is accustomed to experiencing. As well, the high speed, head-jarring crossovers will catch many first-time riders by surprise. Hands-up may only be a mantra for repeat riders, and enthusiasts might find their ride experience enhanced by actually holding on to the hand bars!

Intimidator 305 represents a $25 million investment by Kings Dominion, the largest in the park's 35-year history, but for whatever reason, all that money could not buy a nearby restroom. Given the long lines that come with a new roller coaster, be forewarned - it is a lengthy walk from Intimidator 305 to the Congo and the nearest facilities. Still, if the biggest complaints about Intimidator 305 are that it might be too intense for some people and that there is an overly long walk to the nearest restroom, that says a lot about what kind of coaster it really is. Here's the bottom line: this is a potential top-5 roller coaster just waiting for people to ride it!

Let's take a ride:

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Congratulations to 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction bracket winners

By Robert Niles
Published: April 1, 2010 at 5:01 PM
You've voted over the past two weeks, and now we have the winners in the four brackets of the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament:

Congratulations to the creative and operations teams behind these wonderful attractions, as well as all the ones selected for this year's tournament.

Comments (16) | Archive Link

Another bus incident at Walt Disney World

By Mike K
Published: April 1, 2010 at 12:52 PM
A 10 9-year-old boy was hit and killed by a Walt Disney World bus this afternoon at the Fort Wilderness Lodge. The boy was riding a bike and wearing a helmet. This is the third incident this year involving a Walt Disney World bus, and the fourth incident involved in the Walt Disney World Transportation system.

Update: From the Sentinel - The boy was 9, and from St. Petersburg. He was riding with a girl, 11, who was not hurt. "The boy apparently crossed into the road and struck the side of the bus. He was pulled under the vehicle and run over by the right rear tire," the Sentinel report said.

Comments (8) | Archive Link

2010 Best Themed Ride in America: Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean vs. Disneyland's Haunted Mansion

By Robert Niles
Published: April 1, 2010 at 10:44 AM
You've voted in the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament, and now it's time to pick the Best Themed Ride in America.

Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean

Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean

Disneyland's Haunted Mansion

Disneyland's Haunted Mansion

Want to know why Disneyland's been named the Best Theme Park in America by Theme Park Insider readers the past two years? Here are a couple of strong reasons. These Disneyland neighbors, located just a few yards from one another in the park's New Orleans Square, continue to elicit the fan passion needed to move them through the tournament bracket - even four decades after their debuts.

So which of these classics is the best of the best? That's for you to decide.


Please tell us in the comments why you voted the way you did.

Tomorrow, we'll put the winners against each other to select the Best Ride and Best Theme Park Show in America.

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2010 Best Theme Park Live Show in America: Fantasmic! vs. Festival of the Lion King

By Robert Niles
Published: April 1, 2010 at 9:59 AM
You've voted in the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament, and now it's time to pick the Best Theme Park Live Show in America.

Fantasmic! at Disney's Hollywood Studios and Disneyland

Fantasmic!

Playing at Disney's Hollywood Studios, with the original at California's Disneyland, Fantasmic! draws packed houses almost every night. That popularity's been shown in tournament results to date, with Fantasmic! winning each round with a minimum of 78% of the vote.

Festival of the Lion King at Disney's Animal Kingdom

Festival of the Lion King

Unlike many other Disney theme park shows, Festival of the Lion King makes no attempt to retell the story of the Lion King (Disney had a rather successful Broadway show which did that just fine, thank you.) Instead, Animal Kingdom's Festival celebrates the characters and songs from the hit animated movie with this musical review in the round.


Please tell us in the comments why you voted the way you did.

Next up: Best Themed Ride in America: Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean vs. Disneyland's Haunted Mansion

Comments (7) | Archive Link

2010 Best Theme Park Movie in America: Mickey's PhilharMagic vs. It's Tough to be a Bug!

By Robert Niles
Published: April 1, 2010 at 8:49 AM
You've voted in the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament, and now it's time to pick the Best Theme Park Movie in America.

Mickey's PhilharMagic at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

Mickey's PhilharMagic at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

The number-one seed in this bracket, Mickey's PhilharMagic has rolled through the tournament so far, winning its match-ups by an average 63-point margin.

It's Tough to be a Bug! at Disney's Animal Kingdom and Disney's California Adventure

It's Tough to be a Bug!

Playing at both Animal Kingdom and California Adventure, Disney's 4D movie based on Pixar's "A Bug's Life" knocked off the well-regarded Carousel of Progress and Terminator 2: 3D on its way to the final. Can it pull one more upset?


Please tell us in the comments why you voted the way you did.

Next up: The Best Theme Park Live Show in America, Fantasmic! vs. Festival of the Lion King

Comments (12) | Archive Link

2010 Best Roller Coaster in America: Apollo's Chariot [Bolliger & Mabillard Mega] vs. The Voyage [The Gravity Group]

By Robert Niles
Published: April 1, 2010 at 7:27 AM
You've voted in the 2010 Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament, and now it's time to pick the Best Roller Coaster in America.

Apollo's Chariot at Busch Gardens Williamsburg

Apollo's Chariot at Busch Gardens Williamsburg

Apollo's Chariot represents the Mega Coaster model from Swiss coaster masters Bolliger & Mabillard. Debuting in 1999 in an infamous manner, Apollo's Chariot won praise throughout the tournament for its smooth ride, speed, visuals and airtime.

The Voyage at Holiday World

The Voyage at Holiday World

Holiday World's The Voyage comes from The Gravity Group, a relatively new Cincinnati-based wooden coaster company that's winning praise for its innovative blending of wooden and steel coaster technology.


Please tell us in the comments why you voted the way you did.

Next up: The Best Theme Park Movie in America, Mickey's PhilharMagic vs. It's Tough to be a Bug!

Comments (57) | Archive Link

Keep reading: March 2010 Archive



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