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August 2010

What's new on the discussion board: Disney World rumors and a Fantasmic rant

By Robert Niles
Published: August 31, 2010 at 3:33 PM

Here are some of the top new threads this week on the Theme Park Insider Discussion Board:

Dan S asks for your picks as the Best/Worst Thrill rides at Walt Disney World?

Tim W reviews some of the recent Rumors for WDW and asks which ones you'd like to see happen.

Joe Brown's considering a trip to Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party and wants to know if it is worth the money.

Nick Markham wonders about California Adventure Expansion: Phase 2

Kylie Bee asks Where to stay in Anaheim for Disneyland trip?

Michael Smith celebrates that Poseidon's Fury has its favorite feature restored!

Javi Badillo wants to know Which Universal Classic Ride Do You Miss the Most?

Victoria Jurkowski is looking for some Suggestions for a Labor Day trip?

Alex Gamso takes a look at recent changes and wonders if Cedar Fair is turning into Six Flags?

Rob P asks Theme Park Insider readers to Remember Your First Time On A Ride.

We'll close with a rant from Andrew Holden - Fantasmic: What's Up Guys?

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Think about value, not just cost, when planning your theme park vacation

By Robert Niles
Published: August 31, 2010 at 9:19 AM

The real question you ought to be asking as you plan your family's next vacation isn't "Can I afford this?" - it's "Am I getting value from this?"

U.S. moneyFocusing on value instead of cost sharpens your thinking about spending. Too often, people get caught up looking for discounts instead of thinking about what they're getting for their money. It's not really a discount if what you get isn't worth even the cheaper price, now is it?

So let's keep a few questions in mind as you start thinking about your next theme park vacation:

  1. Is the experience unique? Is this something you can do anywhere, anytime, or is it something that's available only one place on Earth?
  2. Does this vacation engage your passion? Does the idea of visiting this destination get you excited? Or does it leave you feeling a bit more "ho-hum"?
  3. Will this visit help you forge a connection with others? Will it give you the opportunity to spend more time and do more things with your family or friends?
  4. Will you get something lasting from this trip? This can be tangible, such as unique souvenirs or photos, or intangible, such as lasting memories of something truly special.
  5. What's my time investment? Think about the ratio of the time you'll spend doing what you want to do at your destination versus the amount of time you'll spend getting there, coming back and waiting around while you are there. Don't forget that the time you spend arranging the trip is part of your time investment, too!

Now comes the tricky part: You've got to balance those options with the money you have available. In business schools, instructors often present a simple challenge to students, to get them thinking about cost trade-offs. They give you three options:

  • Good
  • Fast
  • Cheap
And tell you to pick two. Because you can't have all three.

Well, you could have a unique experience that fully engages your passions, brings you together with all your friends and loved ones, leaves you with lasting tangible reminders of the trip and wastes none of your time along the way - the trip's even planned for you!

But you're going to pay - a lot - for that vacation!

We've talked before about making a budget for your vacation: Ultimately, the best way to do that is to start thinking about value in everything that you buy. Do you need that cup of take-out coffee? Do you need that pre-prepared meal? What are you getting from that night at the movies?

Balance the value of those smaller expenditures throughout the year versus the value that you want to get from your family vacation. Thinking this way can help you justify spending less on things that really don't deliver you that much value, so you can have that money available for things which do.

Then, after a few weeks of saving, when you have an idea how much you'll have available for a vacation, you can start balancing your goals. For example, if you're willing to invest more time in your vacation planning, you'll be able to find better deals on more unique opportunities than you would if you decided to hit the road with no advance planning. (And some folks find planning the vacation a fun part of the experience, too!) The farther you're willing to travel, the more likely you might be to find a unique experience, but maybe that prevents you from bringing along as many friends or family members.

It's always a trade-off. But focus on the value you get from each of those options, and weigh what's more important to you.

I've met a few wealthy people in my life, and had wondered how they approached spending money: Did they just buy whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted it, with no advance planning? After all, they didn't need to budget their money. What I found was that the wealthy people I know spend even more time thinking about this stuff. But they don't think about the amount of money they're spending. They think about the value that they're getting for that money. Ultimately, that's how rich people stay rich: By never wasting money on anything that doesn't bring them value.

That's a great lesson for the rest of us, too: Plan your vacation like a rich person would: Focus on value instead of simply looking for the cheapest discount, and you'll end up with a vacation that you both can afford and will enjoy.

Please share some of your value-building vacation-planning tricks and tips, in the comments:

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Theme park cast member stories: When to cut off the line?

By Robert Niles
Published: August 30, 2010 at 11:10 AM

I've mentioned before that the most difficult thing a theme park attractions cast member has to do on a daily basis is to ask women if they are pregnant. But here's the second-worst thing I had to do when I worked at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom: Cutting the line and telling people they were going to have to keep waiting for the next show.

Cutting the line creates a moment of conflict that can escalate into a day-ruining (or at least a moment-ruining) experience. In effect, you're doing what you are not supposed to do as a park employee: You're telling someone "no."

Yet I've found most theme park fans to be smart, friendly people - when given the chance to be. If there's a line snaking outside a show building, you understand that there's a good chance that not everyone's getting into the next show. And that someone's going to be the last one into the next show, meaning that the person behind that person is going to have to keep waiting.

Of course, given the choice, folks would rather be the last one into that next show. :-)

Cutting the line isn't a big deal at rides, such as Pirates of the Caribbean or Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. If someone doesn't get on the current boat or train, no big deal. There's another one coming down, right away. Anyone can wait a few extra seconds. Cutting the line only creates scenes at shows, where if you don't get into the next theater, you're stuck waiting for that show to finish and the theater to clear before you can come in and take a seat.

On the Magic Kingdom's west side, we ran three shows. I never worked the Hall of Presidents, and the next full show at the Tiki Room might be the first in a generation. But we had to cut the line frequently at the Country Bear Jamboree.

At "Bear Band," as cast members called the show, we had a pre-show waiting area that supposedly held as many people (standing) as would be able to fit (sitting) inside the theater. And we had a back-and-forth queue that snaked around our porch and the sidewalk area in front of the Country Bear theater building to hold the overflow that wouldn't fit inside the pre-show.

Knowing that, the logical thing to do might seem to be to fill the pre-show area with folks for the next show, then hold the people for the show after that at the turnstiles, backing into the queue. In fact, the turnstiles could be set to admit just the number of people who'd fit into the next show. As you came close to that number, a red light would illuminate on top of the turnstiles, and when you hit that number, the turnstile would lock, preventing anyone else from entering.

Seems simple, right? Well, simple isn't exactly comfortable when you're standing at the turnstiles position next to the unlucky folks whom you've just told to wait for an extra 18 to 20 minutes. Since the pre-show area typically takes less 10 minutes to fill, that group will be standing there next you in front of locked turnstiles for 10 minutes, often giving you the stink eye the whole time.

So I quickly learned two rules about cutting the line:

  • Don't put the spotlight on the unlucky party
  • Under-promise and over-deliver

No one wants to be the person standing there at a locked turnstiles for 10 minutes. It's bad enough having to wait an extra show; let's not pile on the humiliation of the "velvet rope syndrome," where you're left standing watching everyone else who is getting in, with that cold metal barrier keeping you out.

Instead, I would cut the flow of guests into the pre-show area before the red light came on. First, why pack this relatively small pre-show area like a can of salmon? Cutting the line early gives everyone a little extra space. Sure, that means that some people will be held in the queue, rather than inside the building, but I'd rather be lined up in a queue on the porch than packed into that pre-show area, with its low ceiling.

After a while, I got a feel for how many people were in the room, and didn't need to wait for the red light to tell me that we were close. So I'd cut the flow of guests into the pre-show a couple of dozen folks short of filling the room. That way, I could tell the people waiting at the turnstiles that they would be getting into the next show, but that we didn't want to overcrowd the pre-show area.

When I phrased it this way, everyone around me was happy. The folks inside the pre-show area were happy that I wasn't jamming more folks in around them, and the people at the turnstiles were happy that they'd make the next show.

When the current show was ending, and after I'd done my pre-show spiel, I'd reopen the turnstiles and let that next party in. Then I'd start asking the folks behind them how many were in their party, using my loudest stage voice, so that people behind them in the queue could hear. By this time, the folks on the porch had figured that they weren't getting into the next show, but they could see that I was letting in a few "extra" guests.

So the party that, ultimately, would have to wait for the next show wasn't too disappointed, as they'd figured before that they weren't getting in anyway. And by the time I'd told them this, the folks in the pre-show area were moving into the theater for the next show. So I'd simply hold the folks at the turnstiles for a few seconds while I closed the door to the theater. After that, the "unlucky" party simply blended into the rest of the crowd coming into the pre-show, instead of having to wait for 10 minutes at the turnstiles, feeling like some spotlight was on them.

Even more importantly, I always made to sure to watch the wait time we had posted at the end of the queue. I'd note how many minutes until the show were left when I cut the flow of guests into the pre-show area. Then I posted a wait time 20 minutes more than that. So if there were 10 minutes to go before the next show when I stopped people coming into the pre-show area, I'd post a 30-minute wait. If the line of waiting quests extended outside of our "normal" queue when I held the line at turnstiles, meaning that folks at the back of the line would have to wait two shows to get in, then I added another 20 minutes on to that.

This way, I'd be posting the wait time for that "unlucky" family who'd have to wait the longest period to see the show. For the folks immediately in front of them, though, the wait would be about 20 minutes less. That made the cut-off go even more smoothly, as I wasn't adding 20 minutes onto the "unlucky" family's wait time by making them wait. All I was doing was letting them know that they'd hadn't gotten lucky enough to get a wait time 20 minutes less than they'd expected.

To this day, I get steamed whenever I have to wait for an attraction longer than the wait time posted. But I never get upset when I have to wait that amount of time, or less. Even when I'm the one who gets "cut off" in the line.

For more stories about working in theme parks, visit themeparkinsider.com/stories.

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Vote of the week: Would you take your kids out of school for a family theme park vacation?

By Robert Niles
Published: August 26, 2010 at 9:07 PM

Schools are back in session in Florida, and crowds should begin thinning in the Orlando-area theme parks, as a result.

Summer vacation continues in Southern California though, which, coupled with the end of summer blockouts for seasonal annual passholders, traditionally makes late August one of the more crowded times of the year at the Disneyland Resort. But Los Angeles-area and Orange County schools will return within the next month, leaving all of the nation's year-round theme parks to face another off-season. Which, as savvy fans know, can be a great time to visit theme parks.

With kids in school, parks don't stay open as late, or offer as much extra entertainment, but even the most popular attractions often are available with little or no wait. A swift visitor can ride nearly everything in park, even with the shorter operating hours.

You don't need to stay on-site or pay extra for that easy, front-of-line access to rides, either. Even if you do wish to stay on-site, resorts typically offer some of their best deals of the year when schools are in session. Universal Orlando just sent out an e-mail offering 30 percent off mid-week rates at its hotels, and Walt Disney World's re-upped its free Disney Dining plan offer for hotel visitors, too.

The combination of short lines with strong deals might tempt more than a few parents to consider taking their kids out of school to enjoy a lower-cost, lower-hassle vacation. But would you do it? As a child, did you do it? Let's make these our votes of the week.

What do you think about taking children out of school for family vacations? Is it ever acceptable? If so, when and for what? I'd love to hear your thoughts, and experiences, in the comments.

And, as always, thank you for reading Theme Park Insider. Please let your friends and family know about the site, if they're not reading it already!

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What's the deal with some Disney theme park fans and Universal?

By Robert Niles
Published: August 26, 2010 at 1:02 PM

What's the deal with some Disney fans and Universal?

It seems to me that no matter what Universal rolls out, some Disney fans will dismiss it. Take a look at the reaction to Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Theme Park Insider readers love the new land, and its top ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, voting that attraction the best new attraction for 2010. Universal Creative's work has amazed attraction designers throughout the industry - even folks within Walt Disney Imagineering have (very privately) expressed admiration for the project.

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey drew one million riders faster than any ride in Universal history, while helping increase attendance at Islands of Adventure this summer, even as attendance at other Orlando-area theme parks (including the Walt Disney World parks) fell.

Honeydukes at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando's Islands of Adventure theme park
The kids, in front Honeydukes at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure theme park

I understand that Harry Potter doesn't connect with some theme park fans. No theme or franchise will wow everyone. Even Disney's most popular franchises leave some visitors cold. I get that.

But beyond folks who just don't care for Harry Potter, by no objective standard can one consider The Wizarding World of Harry Potter an inferior creative work than what is available today at the Walt Disney World theme parks. I'm not insisting that Universal's Harry Potter is better than everything at the Walt Disney World Resort, just that it is ridiculous to claim that it's worse than the Disney average.

Yet that's what a few Disney fans continue to insist. On online message boards, and overheard around the Walt Disney World Resort, these fans (many of whom I assume have yet to visit the Wizarding World), bad-mouth Universal's work.

"The opening was a disaster." "A flop." (This argument reminds me of the old Yogi Berra line: "No one goes there anymore; It's too crowded.")

"Harry Potter won't last." "It's just a fad." (With more than $5 billion in movie ticket sales and more than 400 million books sold to date, this franchise isn't fading out anytime soon.)

"It's not that impressive." "Disney could have done better." (The Wizarding World is "not that impressive" only to people unwilling to consider it. And if Disney could do better, well, I would love for WDI to accept that challenge and brew up something new which tops it!)

Not all Disney fans think this way, of course. I personally know dozens of Disney-lovers who can't wait to visit the Wizarding World, or who have visited and think the new land delightful. But I also couldn't miss overhearing a few others trash Harry Potter, while I was in Orlando. (FWIW, I heard not one negative comment about the new land while on Universal property. Only while at Disney.)

Here's my theory: It's insecurity. Some fans see their love for Disney as an affirmation of their good taste. As consumers, they've invested heavily in what's widely considered the best in the business (Disney), so that must mean they're smart customers.

But what if another company comes up with something better than (or even just as good as) Disney? What does that say about those fans' financial investment in being a Disney fan? Does that mean they don't have the great taste and smarts that they thought they did?

The easy solution, then, for these folks would be to dismiss the possibility that anyone other than Disney can ever do anything as well as Disney does.

That's just silly, though. If you've dropped thousands of dollars on a DVC membership, or annual trips to Walt Disney World - great. You've gotten a delightful entertainment experience for your money. (Or, at least, I hope that you have.) But entertainment isn't a zero-sum game. A wonderful new attraction at Universal doesn't diminish your Disney experience.

If anything, it can enhance it. Go ahead, spend a day or two up the road at Universal during your next Disney World vacation, and enjoy it. Or even if you don't, just wait to see what Walt Disney Imagineering comes up with as it tries to wrest the industry "buzz" back from Universal.

Trust me, WDI has the ears of Disney management now (especially John Lasseter) and they are playing to Disney's corporate pride. I continue to believe that's part of the reason why Disney's revisiting its plans for the Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland expansion and why so many attractions at Disneyland in California are getting some much-needed love. Lasseter, Tony Baxter and others at Disney have no intention of letting Mark Woodbury and Thierry Coup at Universal Creative hog the industry spotlight for long.

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey's been great for Central Florida tourism - and for the theme park industry. As we've noted before on this site, what's good for Central Florida and the theme park business is good for Disney, too.

So, to those few Disney fans who are dismissing it, you don't need to knock The Wizarding World of Harry Potter to prove your credibility as a Disney fan. Enjoy it, celebrate it, and wait with us to see (and, we hope, enjoy) Disney's inevitable response.

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Halloween Horror Nights XX at Universal Studios Florida in Orlando revealed

By Domenik Jost
Published: August 26, 2010 at 12:49 PM

This morning, Universal Orlando revealed more details for Halloween Horror Nights XX at Universal Studios Florida. The official Halloween Horror Nights website now features a very freaky intro which foreshadows this year's event, which is about Fear himself. He is the Master of everything Halloween Horror Nights has ever been and will become. His weapons: Chaos, Death, Sacrifice, Mythos, Vengeance. His pawns: a clown, a storyteller, a caretaker, a director, an usher...and you.

"Everything we have done for the past 19 years, everything we have learned, leads to this moment," said Jim Timon, senior vice president of entertainment for Universal Orlando Resort. "This year's Halloween Horror Nights is not about the past. It is about the future." As much as the number 20 signifies an anniversary year, this years Halloween Horror Nights is not an anniversary event.

Mike Aiello, Show Director of Universal Orlando Resort gives us a glimpse at this year's event and the future of it:

This year's event will feature eight new haunted houses and six new scarezones, plus two live shows.

The eight all-new haunted houses are:

  • Horror Nights: The Hallow'd Past: Halloween Horror Nights. The name brings with it millions of tales, each filled with thousands of screams. Now, you have the opportunity to travel into a realm where Horror Nights isn't just an event, but a reality.
  • The Orfanage: Ashes to Ashes: Ashes to ashes, forever now dust. For years she has existed in the shadows, never getting her due. Misunderstood by all around her, she has had enough of her playthings at the Good Harvest Orphanage - now is the time for vengeance. This burnt-out shell contains the souls of the forgotten and the lost who all scream one name: Cindy.
  • Hades: The Gates of Ruin: Hades bids you welcome. Make your way into the Underworld, and come face to face with the most terrifying creatures of legend as you cross through the Gates of Ruin.
  • Psychoscarepy: Echoes of Shadybrook: The truth, as they say, is far stranger than fiction, and in this instance they happen to be correct. Although Shadybrook's doors have indeed been closed for the last 15 years, the place is still very much alive with all of the criminally insane souls that have ever walked its halls.
  • Havoc: Dogs of War: Ten years ago, the Shadowcreek Enterprise was tasked with developing an elite corp of soldiers. They succeeded. Through an inhalant that includes a compound of testosterone, adrenaline, and other anesthetics, Shadow Creek's latest run of volunteer test subjects are ready for inspection. The project name: HAVOC. The subjects are known simply as the Dogs of War.
  • Catacombs: Black Death Rising: During a plague of Paris and Marseilles in 1534, thousands died due to an undisclosed viral outbreak. A group of doctors took it upon themselves to quarantine the most infected citizens of the city. They had no way of knowing that the townspeople would betray them, sealing them into their doom. They have been unable to escape for almost 500 years. Now that the dead inside have found a way out, they are rising to take their centuries old vengeance on any living being that dares to enter the Catacombs.
  • Zombiegeddon: The United States government has re-taken the continental United States, and is actively engaged in clearing the remaining infested pockets of Canada. The government also licenses and sanctions private companies to capture "un-live" subjects and use them as practical targets during these training sessions. Dozens of independent training consultant "companies" spring up, promising the best training that money can buy...and then there's ZAP...The Zombie Awareness Program.
  • Legendary Truth: The Wyandot Estate: The Spirit Seekers have come up with a machine that actually gathers spirits toward it. The group has decided to do a live broadcast from inside one of the most reportedly "haunted" sites in the entire United States, The Wyandot Estate, built in the 1920s in Carey, Ohio by the entrepreneur Malcolm Wyandot and his wife Lydia. The house has been rumored to be haunted since Malcolm brutally killed 13 dinner guests and his wife Lydia before committing suicide on October 30, 1929. The team is about to get more than they bargained for as the murdered hear their call and answer with terrible violence.

The six new scare zones are:

  • HHN: 20 Years of Fear: Step into the shadows of the last Twenty Years of Fear. Move toward the lantern, and encounter the most frightening characters of Halloween Horror Nights past.
  • Fear Revealed: The souls of Chaos, Death, Sacrifice, Mythos and Vengeance - He created them and gave them terror. Each with a part to play, they fulfilled their tasks. Their malice provided him bone, their rage gave him blood, and their terror fulfilled his soul. What has been 19 cycles for some have been eons for him. He's waited patiently for the final piece, and now on the 20th cycle... he is revealed.
  • Zombie Gras: This Mardi Gras parade has gone severely off course. Infected by the North American zombie infestation, the undead walk among us, searching for their next meal.
  • Esqueleto Muerte: Revel in the seductive taunts of Death as you wind through a glowing skeletal nightmare.
  • Saws 'n Steam: Enormous trenches in the earth's crust have opened below its vast oceans, exposing them to intense heat. Steam power is essential to the inhabitants of New Yorkshire, but diminishing oceans have put the city in jeopardy, forcing the citizens to evil lengths. Beware upon entering the city, as the water in your body is now a coveted resource. And the citizens will stop at nothing to get it.
  • The Coven: The Cult of the Raven has unsettled spirits, and its Sirens are screaming throughout the witches' realm. As you creep past their obelisk, beware their spells. For those who don't believe will be condemned to death.

And the two live shows are:

  • Bill & Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure: Party on as those two most excellent dudes return to skewer the biggest names in entertainment and pop culture.
  • Brian Brushwood: Menace and Malice: Experience two realms of bizarre magic by one of the country's most outrageous illusionists.

Halloween Horror Nights runs September 24-25, September 30-October 1-3, 7-10, 14-17, 20-24 and 27-31. Tickets are now on sale for $74.99 plus tax. Florida residents can save up to $35 with advance online purchase. For tickets and event information, visit www.HalloweenHorrorNights.com/Orlando.

Also if you missed it, last week we revealed details about Busch Gardens Tampa's Howl-O-Scream 2010 event. Don't forget to keep up to date on the latest developments regarding the Central Florida Halloween events by following my special Twitter @CFL_Halloween and of course checking back here on Theme Park Insider.

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'Scott Joseph's Orlando Restaurant Guide' available in paperback

By Scott Joseph
Published: August 25, 2010 at 9:57 PM

I’m proud to announce the release of “Scott Joseph’s Orlando Restaurant Guide” -- the paperback. It’s a solution for those who like to have a real, live book in their hands to dog-ear, make notes in and carry about.

Scott Joseph Orlando Restaurant GuideIt features more than 250 restaurant listings with all the pertinent details, including a short review for each, plus lists of special features, such as where you can take your dog while you dine, which restaurants have great wine lists, where to find entertainment, or who offers a quiet, romantic dining experience.

In a way, it’s taken me 23 years to write this book. If you took all the reviews I wrote while at the Orlando Sentinel -- a couple of thousand, by my count -- and put them in book form, you’d have a tome several thousand pages long, even with tiny, tiny print. (Of course, if you left out the restaurants that are no longer open, you’d have a smaller book, but you get my point.) Those 23 years of analyzing, critiquing and observing the local scene have gone into compiling this guide.

I’ve not included every restaurant that I’ve ever reviewed, not even all those that are still open. Those I chose to include are mostly those I can recommend to you -- not all of them: there are some I’ve included that I feel necessary to steer readers away from, or at least offer a caveat; you’ll know them when you see them. The restaurants are those I can recommend to Orlando-area locals and visitors alike.

The book retails for $14.95, although if you hurry to the listing on Amazon.com, it's available for $10.76. Plus - or minus as the case may be - I'd like to offer 10 percent off the purchase to Theme Park Insiders. When you check out, type HLPDBNVA into the box that asks for a promotional code and Amazon will take 10 percent off the total.

Hope you enjoy the guide.

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It's time for theme park industry to end the locker scam

By Robert Niles
Published: August 25, 2010 at 10:30 AM

Listen, I'm all for protecting the safety of visitors on theme park rides. On certain types of theme park rides, there's just no safe way for visitors to bring along their purses, backpacks and other personal items. I get that.

But charging people to use a locker to store the items that they can't bring on a roller coaster or other thrill ride? That's just a cheap way for theme and amusement parks to make an extra buck. Worse, it makes me mad.

What am I supposed to do? Leave someone in my family behind, not to ride but to hold all our stuff instead? Skip the ride myself? Or pay yet another extra fee, leaving me feeling nickel-and-dimed as I try to enjoy my day in the park?

The whole point of spending money to visit a theme park is so that I can have a good time. So if I'm not having a good time, then what's the point of visiting a theme park? Every incident that diminishes my enjoyment of the day provides me one more reason to stay at home next time I consider a theme park visit, and to keep my cards and cash in my wallet.

It's time for theme park industry to end the locker scam.

If a ride can't accommodate visitors bringing along purses, backpacks or cameras, then the park needs to provide a free storage option for those visitors while they ride. It's unreasonable to expect people to come to the parks without a camera, water bottle or rain jacket. And any park that wants to earn money from in-park sales certainly doesn't want to discourage visitors from bringing their purses and wallets!

The worst offender among the major chains has been Six Flags - home of the nickel-and-dime day in the parks. At Great America this summer, we had to spend a couple extra bucks to rent a locker to store Natalie's purse while we rode Superman and The Dark Knight.

I understand why purses can't be taken on Flying Coasters such as Superman. But why not on a Wild Mouse such as The Dark Knight? Requiring the use of paid lockers on a ride that doesn't go upside down, or even drop more than a few feet, feels like a shake-down. I understand that Dark Knight whips from side-to-side, creating lateral force, but I've seen plenty of folks take purses and backpacks on other Wild Mouse rides, such as Disney California Adventure's Mulholland Madness, without losing them.

Even on Superman, why can't Six Flags do as other parks, and allow people to leave their personal items at the unload platform? At Holiday World and most rides at Cedar Point, that's what we did, placing our backpack, camera and Natalie's purse in a storage bin while we rode.

Still, not every ride has enough space on its unload platform to accommodate storage bins. And on some rides, such as Cedar Point's Millennium Force, you don't exit at the same station where you boarded. So, sometimes, lockers need to be the only option for storage.

In those cases, I prefer parks do as Universal Orlando does with Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, and make lockers available free of charge while visitors are on the ride. The lockers at Harry Potter provide 75 minutes of use without charge, more then enough time when the ride's in normal operation. But I'll give Universal bonus credit here. When the ride went down while we were waiting on our last visit, leaving us in the castle queue for more than 90 minutes, Universal "turned off the clock" on the lockers, so we weren't charged when we retrieved our items, even though the 75-minute limit was long past. That's good customer service.

I understand the need for time limits on lockers. To keep lockers available and accessible, parks need some way to ensure that people clear their possessions after they ride, and not use the lockers for all-day storage. So a charge for "going over" seems reasonable to me, so long as parks do as Universal Orlando did, and "turn off the clock" whenever visitors are stuck in the queue for longer than designated amount of time.

Theme parks looking to make money from their visitors. They're a business. And I have no problem with that. But visitors are looking for value in return. Extra charges to store your purse while riding remind people that they're not getting that value with their purchase of an admission ticket - that they're having to pay for every "service" as they go along in the park.

Let's end this. Let's not go the way of the hated airline industry and "debundle" theme park admissions to the point where we return to separate tickets for every ride and extra charges for everything else inside the park, from lockers to character meet-'n-greets. (One thing I never want to hear in a theme park: "I'm sorry, young lady, but if you want to say hello to Cinderella, your parents will have to pay an extra $8." Ugh.)

To theme parks: Here's one step you can take to earn more loyalty and goodwill from your visitors. (Which, as you should know, translate to extra revenue down the road). Stop forcing people to use pay lockers when riding thrill rides - and start offering a free storage option on all your rides, instead.

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How to stay cool at theme parks during heat warnings

By Robert Niles
Published: August 24, 2010 at 4:27 PM

We've got an "excessive heat warning" throughout Southern California today and tomorrow, with temperatures well over 100 degrees in much of the metro area.

That means an exceptionally hot day for folks visiting Disneyland, Universal Studios or any of the other theme parks in the area.

So I'd like to remind everyone to follow our advice for staying safe at theme parks, which includes some excellent advice on staying cool.

Adding to that, I'd like to remind everyone to choose indoor attractions and restaurants whenever possible, to give you extra moments to cool down. Usually, I'm not a huge fan of going in and out of the heat; I find that temperature consistency helps me feel more comfortable. But when the air is *this* hot, you need relief.

Also, on days like these it is especially important to take our long-standing advice to arrive at the park early - when it opens - then ditch in the middle of the day if you can, and return later in the evening. We give that advice as strategy to avoid the longest lines in the parks, but it also provides a great way for you to avoid the worst of the mid-day heat.

If you choose to take a break with a swim or visit to a water park, remember that the sun's rays can get you underwater, too. Keep that sunscreen on throughout the day.

Finally, here's my rule for strollers (and cars, if you can manage it): *Always* park in the shade.

So, please, stay safe, stay cool, and enjoy your day at your favorite theme park. Additional tips welcomed, in the comments.

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Cedar Fair parks to debut Windseeker for 2011

By Robert Niles
Published: August 24, 2010 at 1:21 PM

Four Three Cedar Fair amusement parks - Cedar Point, Kings Island and Knott's Berry Farm and Canada's Wonderland - today all announced the addition of the same new ride for 2011, Windseeker.

Think of a two-seater waveswinger ride, mounted on a 300-foot tower. That's Windseeker, a $5 million ride from Dutch manufacturer Mondial.

Here's computer simulation video, from Cedar Point, so you can see the ride for yourself:

Cedar Point's Windseeker will replace Ocean Motion, which the park has listed for sale and will disassemble at the end of this season. Kings Island's Windseeker will go into the Coney Mall section of the park. Knott's Berry Farm's Windseeker will replace the Knott’s Sky Cabin.

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What's new on the discussion board: Long waits and character meals

By Robert Niles
Published: August 24, 2010 at 10:06 AM

Here are some of the top new threads on the Theme Park Insider Discussion Board. I'd like to invite our lurkers - you know who you are - to jump in and share a comment or two:

Noah Villaverde asks How do I get chosen for the Ollivander's Wand Shop experience?

Dawn Francis is visiting Universal Orlando in October as is concerned about Rides closed due to Halloween Horror Nights?

Bob Miller wants you to Tell me the roughest roller coaster you've been on.

I'd also like to bring your attention to a thread on on-ride videos, in which I review some of our policies here on Theme Park Insider.

Daniel Etcheberry asks what is the Longest time you've spent in a ride queue?

Javi Badillo kicks off a discussion: Hollywood Studios or Animal Kingdom: Which park should get revamped?

M. Ryan Traylor brings us the news about the idiot Guest Who Climbs Over Queue Railing and Falls on Tower of Terror at Disney's California Adventure.

Rob P asks your opinions on new Theme Ideas For Universal Studios.

Tim W wants to know which is the best Character Dining in Walt Disney World.

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Federal ruling might mean the end of trainers swimming with orcas at SeaWorld parks

By Robert Niles
Published: August 23, 2010 at 10:52 AM

Will SeaWorld's trainers ever get to swim with orcas again?

The U.S. federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration today fined SeaWorld Orlando $75,000 for violations found in an investigation following the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau last February. The park's six-ton Tilikum whale attacked and drowned Brancheau when she was lying on a shallow ledge along the edge of the orca tank in Orlando.

From OSHA's press release:

In addition to the history with this whale, the OSHA investigation revealed that SeaWorld trainers had an extensive history of unexpected and potentially dangerous incidents involving killer whales at its various facilities, including its location in Orlando. Despite this record, management failed to make meaningful changes to improve the safety of the work environment for its employees.

"All employers are obligated to assess potential risks to the safety and health of their employees and take actions to mitigate those risks," said Les Grove, OSHA's area director in Tampa, Fla. "In facilities that house wild animals, employers need to assess the animals under their care and to minimize human-animal interaction if there is no safe way to reliably predict animal behavior under all conditions."

The fine is a pittance for a multi-billion-dollar business such as SeaWorld. But OSHA's also imposing new work restrictions on SeaWorld trainers. No more contact with Tilikum, unless separated by a physical barrier. And no more in-pool contact with the other orcas, either, unless SeaWorld devises some system to protect trainers from attacks.

Perhaps not surprisingly, SeaWorld's contesting the citation:

The tragic accident on February 24, 2010 inspired an internal review of our whale program that has been unprecedented in scope. The findings of that review have been presented to an independent committee made up of some of the world’s most respected marine mammal experts. Their conclusions, drawn from decades of experience caring for marine mammals, are in stark contrast to OSHA’s.

Unless SeaWorld prevails, this would mean the end to that iconic moment at SeaWorld parks when trainers launch off the nose of a killer whale, out of the pool and into the air.

Trainer and killer whale at SeaWorld

Theme Park Insider readers were skeptical in a vote last winter that SeaWorld would stop using completely marine mammals in live performances. But today's citation will change the way that SeaWorld interacts with those animals, at least for the next several months.

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New details for Halloween events at Universal Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa

By Domenik Jost
Published: August 20, 2010 at 8:06 PM

Universal Orlando released this teaser video for this year's Halloween Horror Nights:

They have also updated the official website with "Behind the Screams" pictures as well as the 'Legendary Truth: The Collective' investigation website.

* * *

Busch Gardens Tampa has released new details about the 11th season of its Howl-O-Scream event and there are some interesting ideas on the map.

This year's event revolves around a dead beat band named My X and its lead singer, Sylvie. The new icon is wrapped up in a few controversies regarding her human finger necklace, the murder of a California nightclub visitor who had his finger cut off, along with the disappearance of her boyfriend who had previously been the lead singer of the band y X (now My X). The set up to this years event is tingling those Halloween senses.

Now on to the groundbreaking, revolutionary, new idea that Busch Gardens is putting on the haunting table. This year will feature an all-new way for guests to experience a haunted attraction. This house is called 'Alone'. As the name might have already hinted, you are going to be 'Alone' walking through this house (or are you?) and must find your way out on your own.

The story has it that the deranged Master Alexander Daedalus has stored his collection of "cultural" remains in the Minotaur Storage. But now his obsession with collecting such "remains" has turned into more than the ordinary hobby as he is rumored to now be stockpiling people. This unique, new haunting experience will come at a separate up-charge in addition to the Howl-O-Scream admission and will cost $24.95 if purchased in advance online, or $34.95 if purchased at the park.

Question to all Theme Park Insider readers. What do you think of the concept behind 'Alone' and are you willing to pay extra to experience this unique haunted attraction?

Also new this year to the list of houses is 'My X: Revenge Rocks' where you will take a sneak backstage where you are to be met with the disturbing truth behind the bands lyrics and will by dying to get out.

Busch Gardens Tampa is really showing off its abilities to keep up with attention to detail and ability to create an intriguing, twisted new icon like its Orlando competition at Universal Halloween Horror Nights is known for.

Here is the commercial set to hype you up for this years Howl-O-Scream event:

This years event will run for 18 select nights in September and October. For more behind the scenes footage and a music video check out the Howl-O-Scream Tampa's website at www.myxrocks.com.

Also keep up to date on the latest developments regarding the Central Florida Halloween events by following my special Twitter @CFL_Halloween and of course checking back here on Theme Park Insider.

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Vote of the week: What kind of shoes do you wear when you visit a theme park?

By Robert Niles
Published: August 19, 2010 at 8:13 PM

What's on your feet when you visit a theme park?

There's no common answer in my family. My daughter steps out in her flip-flops, to the disbelief of her mother, who carefully dons white socks and sturdy athletic shoes before each theme park visit. Laurie often gets a nasty heat rash on her lower legs and ankles when she spends too much time walking around a park, so she always covers up now, in an attempt to prevent that.

Brian and I typically opt for sandals, though if I'm working at the park, covering a press event, I'll usually wear more business-like attire, such as my old "Disney look" black leather dress shoes and long pants.

A bad choice for footwear can ruin a day in the parks, since you're spending so much of your time on your feet. You want something that helps your feet to feel comfortable. But while some people need the support of athletic shoes, others prefer more lightweight and cooler options.

So what do you wear? Let's restrict the voting to what was on your feet on your most recent visit, instead of what you think you typically wear. And if your most recent trip to a park involved, working, select the character/dress shoe options (unless you get to wear sneakers or sandals at your workplace - I got to wear sneakers on Tom Sawyer Island, one of the reasons why I liked working there so much!)

If you've got any interesting, funny or horrific stories about shoes and theme parks, please share 'em in the comments. And thanks, again, for reading Theme Park Insider!

Update: Are Crocs sandals or flip-flops? I don't know! If that's what you wear, though, pick which of these categories you feel best describes that footwear.

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How much longer should Universal stick with Marvel and Toon Lagoon at Islands of Adventure?

By Robert Niles
Published: August 18, 2010 at 8:35 PM

ORLANDO, Florida - You can win with theming; you can lose with theming.

A great theme is bringing great success to Universal's Islands of Adventure this summer, as Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey has welcomed more than one million riders within its first two months of operation, winning this year's Theme Park Insider Award for Best New Attraction, as well. Universal Orlando's scored a huge hit with its Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which is driving attendance gains for the Universal Orlando Resort, even as arch-rival Walt Disney World deals with a year-over-year attendance decrease.

Hogwarts Castle at Universal;'s Islands of Adventure

You'd face a tough challenge to name a stronger entertainment theme in 2010 than Harry Potter. This is the franchise that encouraged a generation of your people, derided for a short attention span, to read 800-page books cover-to-cover. The six Harry Potter films have, to date, grossed more than $5 billion worldwide.

But as some themes draw fans to parks, other themes lose traction over time.

On the other side of Islands of Adventure from Harry Potter, you can see this flip side of theming - twice.

Islands of Adventure's Marvel Super Hero Island continues to draw visitors for its outstanding Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man ride and Incredible Hulk roller coaster. Marvel's lost no popularity with its millions of fans across the country and around the world. So that's not the problem threatening this land.

The problem is... Marvel's now the property of arch-rival Disney, which last year bought the comic-book publisher and its characters. Universal's retains the rights to keep the Marvel characters in Islands of Adventure, but Disney's got the rights to the characters everywhere else.

And, according to several sources, Universal can't add any new Marvel characters to its land, beyond the ones it's using already. Nor can Marvel incorporate fresh designs and plot elements from new Marvel movies, books or comics. Simply, the land's stagnant, with little legal room for thematic or narrative improvement.

If we've learned anything about the theme park business over the years, it's that you have to stay fresh, renovating and updating attractions to keep them relevant to new generations of visitors. Even Disneyland's classic dark rides, Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion, have seen multiple changes and upgrades over the years. Creating revisions that work is tough enough without having to run your ideas past legal to make sure that you have the contractual right to do that.

Spider-Man remains one of the world's most engaging theme park attractions - a 4-D dark ride romp through Spidey's New York. But like many other rides developed a decade or more ago that us film technology, it needs an upgrade to high-definition. Today's 3-D shames the 3-D used for Spidey, whose images suffer in comparison to the sharp new Harry Potter images featured in Forbidden Journey.

Universal does have a fresh "2.0" version of its Spider-Man ride in the pipeline, though - but one based on the Transformers franchise, not Spider-Man. That ride will debut in Singapore next year, coming to Universal Studios Hollywood in 2012.

Could Universal bring Transformers to IOA as a replacement for Spider-Man? The Hulk coaster could be rethemed with relative ease, as could the other two rides in Marvel Super Hero Island - the Doctor Doom space shot ride and the Storm Force spinner.

Sure, all that could be done, I anticipate some of you saying, but why would Universal voluntarily surrender the rights to the Marvel characters, especially when they remain so popular?

Here's why: To elicit a multi-million dollar buy-out from Disney, that's why. Think about it: A top-to-bottom refurbishment of Marvel Super Hero Island, to another theme, one that would allow Universal the complete creative control it can't have with Marvel. And paid for by a budget funded entirely (or at least almost so) by the Walt Disney Company.

Tantalizing, isn't it?

A payday from Disney for the Orlando theme park rights to Marvel becomes even more compelling when you consider that Universal will need to renovate not one, but two lands in IOA. Around the bend from Marvel Super Hero Island stand an even more thematically-troubled land, Toon Lagoon.

Toon Lagoon's top two attractions, Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges and Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls, remain popular with fans. Both enjoy a relatively strong history in television and movies, despite the lack of recent, successful works. But take a look at Toon Lagoon's main drag:

Toon Lagoon at Universal's Islands of Adventure

Comic strips. It's all comic strips - a medium that is dying as surely as the daily print newspapers which published these strips. Take a look at the characters in that photo. How many of them enjoy any traction with visitors under 20? Or 30? Or 40? Beetle Bailey? Hagar the Horrible? Shoe? Blondie?

Give me a break.

Theme park attractions can overcome weak or dying source material. Universal's Waterworld show connects with audiences more effectively than the Kevin Coaster flick it's based upon ever did. Disney's revived Brer Rabbit, et al, as characters in its Splash Mountain ride, even as it keeps their original source, Song of the South, buried in the Disney archives, with private promises never to release it again.

But can Universal do anything to revive a gallery of newspaper comic strips that haven't connected with anyone nearly a generation? And even if it could, should it try?

Dudley Do-Right needs some love: Too much of its flume isn't themed, and badly cries for some decor, even within its visually minimalist Jay Ward style. While I love Ward's work and the snarky humor of Dudley (the "Duck Crossing/Double Crossing" gag made me laugh just now, simply thinking about it), I could accept a new theme for this ride if it that's what it took to get Universal to fill in all the ride's empty spaces.

While Universal's done a reasonable job of maintaining the main walkways through Toon Lagoon, some of the areas off the main path need substantial renovation. Too many of the seats and tables in the land's eateries are chipped, scratched or broken. Universal's going to have to refresh this area if it is to protect the reputation that Harry Potter is building for this park.

But why throw good money after bad? Why renovate an area with a dying theme, when you could spend the money to change to a more engaging theme instead?

What would that theme be? That's a challenge for Universal Creative. As a theme park fan and critic, though, simply allow me to suggest that Universals going need to make a change here, because newspaper comic strip characters from generations ago aren't convincing anyone to visit the Universal Orlando Resort.

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The good, and very bad, food at Walt Disney World

By Robert Niles
Published: August 17, 2010 at 8:51 AM

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Florida - What's going on with food at the Walt Disney World resort?

During my trip to Epcot this weekend, I enjoyed one of the better meals I've had in a theme park - a great corvina en mole verde at the Mexico pavilion's San Angel Inn. Yet at lunch in The Land pavilion's Sunshine Seasons food court, my wife and I were served two disappointing chicken dishes.

My wife ordered a chicken Caesar salad ($8.99),

Chicken salad

while I chose the cashew chicken ($9.99).

Cashew chicken

I was disappointed to find, when I got to my seat, that the cashew chicken was all dark meat, and not the white breast meat that I usually find when I order this dish at Chinese restaurants. Had this been high-quality dark meat, I could have made do, though for ten bucks, this really should have been all-white meat. But this tasted like the cheapest, factory-farmed, chemical-laden chicken that you'd find marked down to bargain price in your grocery freezer case.

My wife and I choose free-range, vegetarian-fed chicken at the store because we like our chicken to taste like, well, chicken. But I expect to find cheap chicken when I eat out in fast-food or counter-service restaurants. Most places cover the bland taste with heavy spices or flavorings, but the weak sauce on the Sunshine Seasons chicken couldn't overcome the plastic flavor of this dark meat. I ended up picking out the cashews, and eating them with the accompanying rice and broccoli. The chicken stayed on the plate, until it went into the trash.

Laurie reported, however, that the white meat on her salad was every worse. With a stale flavor that she described as "chemical" and a "slimy" texture, the chicken remained on her plate, too. Ugh.

But that wasn't the worst experience we had at a Disney restaurant over the weekend. Earlier, at the Whispering Canyon Cafe in the Wilderness Lodge, my daughter was served a chicken kids' meal with... two long black hairs in it. (My daughter, for the record, has light brown hair that she had tied back in a ponytail.)

Hey, it happens. It shouldn't, but it does. But instead of whisking away the plate immediately, the server seemed confused when we told her of the problem. And the offending plate remained in front of my daughter for over five minutes (I timed it), until a manager appeared to ask what the problem was. He then removed the plate and brought another (four minutes later), but by that time, my daughter was so grossed out that she couldn't take a bite.

Disney didn't remove the kids' meal from the bill, either.

(I understand that the schtick of the Whispering Canyon Cafe is the "bad" service. But at some point, you need to be able to break character and actually take care of your customers.)

In contrast to the more reasonable portions at Universal Orlando, the kids' meals at Disney World's table-service restaurants tended to be huge, more than any child with a reasonable appetite possibly could finish in one sitting. The only kids' meal my children liked (and finished) was, ironically, at the Sunshine Season food court, where they each had a reasonably-sized sub sandwich, along with pre-packaged pudding and carrot sticks.

It's not like Disney can't do a great meal - my wife ordered the chicken salad at Epcot in part because the one she'd had the previous week at the Port Orleans food court was so good, with freshly prepared chicken that tasted like, well, chicken.

And the food we order at the Disneyland Resort in California is, consistently, excellent. Writing this piece reminds me how much I want to get a curried tofu with rice at California Adventure when I get home.

Ordering food shouldn't be a gamble. Disney can deliver high-quality food, and it should, for every guest. But it doesn't.

My first thought is to blame the Disney Dining Program. By locking so many of its guests into a pre-paid meal plan, Disney increases the volume of food that it sells. But it also eliminates the need to "sell" that food to its visitors. They've paid for it, so they're going to order it - whether it's good or not. And, at the same time, since visitors have paid for their food, there's less incentive for Disney to offer something spectacular in an effort to entice visitors to open their wallets and pay for that meal, as opposed to getting by on snacks or eating later off-property.

No matter what the reason, Walt Disney World's food wasn't good enough for us, on a consistent basis, for us to plan many in-park meals on our next visit. Unless we hear of some changes in food management at Disney World, next time we visit the parks, we'll try to stick to those restaurants run by outside vendors (such as many in Epcot's World Showcase), where the odds of getting a great meal remain much better.

If you've visited Walt Disney World recently, what's been your experience with Disney's food? How does it compare with the past at Disney, or with the present at other theme park resorts?

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Theme Park Insider Summer Roadtrip: Epcot

By Robert Niles
Published: August 16, 2010 at 11:13 AM

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Florida - After more than six weeks, two countries and several thousand miles on the road, we wrapped up the theme park visits on our annual family roadtrip with a visit to Laurie's home park, Walt Disney World's Epcot.

This is where Laurie played in the old Disney All-American College Orchestra back in 19*cough**cough*. And it's the Disney park I miss most, living on the West Coast. Sorry about that vote a couple weeks ago, folks, but there really isn't any doubt in our minds that whenever my family visits just one Disney theme park in Florida, it's going to be Epcot.

Epcot's the third-most popular theme park in the country, behind the two Magic Kingdoms. But it remains in form more the permanent World's Fair it was designed to evoke when it opened in 1980 than what most folks envision when they think of a theme park. I can't think of another park I've visited that lacks a roller coaster, or even a single carnival-style spinner ride. But Epcot, still, offers neither.

In tribute to my favorite Epcot attraction, I offer these Impressions de Epcot:

Narrative story-telling at its finest

Imagine this seemingly impossible task: To tell the story of America's history, in less than 30 minutes. Don't make it a whitewash - you've got to address slavery, Native American genocide and the fight for women's suffrage. You'll need to cover the Civil War, too, and don't forget that this show will play in one of the states of the former Confederacy, the side that lost that war. And, by the way, this is for a theme park attraction, so you've got to leave viewers feeling upbeat and entertained.

Disney's American Adventure nails it.

American Adventure at Epcot

The animatronic detail in this show remains stunning (watch Mark Twain's cigar tip light up with every inhalation), even as the end-of-show video montage grows longer. As we exited, I noted that the final clip had to summarize 30 years of U.S. history when it debuted in 1980. Today, it covers 60 years. Yikes, I feel old now.

By the way, we also started up a rousing game of "which celebrities will be cut from the film on the next edit?" as well as "who will be added?" My vote? Bye-bye, Tiger Woods; Hello, Barack Obama. (I'd love to read your picks, too, in the comments.)

Stunning visual design

How can you not take a picture of Spaceship Earth?

Spaceship Earth and the fountains at night

The park's iconic geosphere commands your attention from throughout the park. Its clean, uniform design looks great from every angle, unlike some other theme parks' visual "weenies." (I love Hogwarts Castle, but as one TPI reader has pointed out in an e-mail to me, the forced perspective really doesn't work when you approach it from the Jurassic Park side.)

Epcot's Spaceship Earth, with rainbow

Okay, double rainbow jokes commence in 3, 2, 1....

Food, wonderful food

Some folks drink their way around the world. My family eats. The highlight of my visit yesterday?

Corvina en mole verde at San Angel Inn in Epcot

The corvina en mole verde ($26) at San Angel Inn. Corvina's a saltwater fish, similar to sea bass (in fact, it's sometimes sold under that name). San Angel Inn's presentation was served on top of addictively rich Mexican creme rice, and topped with a thin slice of serrano ham. It's listed under "Chef's Recommendations" on the menu, and well keeps that promise.

I should note, though, that as much as I enjoyed the food in World Showcase, my wife and I found two chicken dishes at The Land food court in Future World absolutely inedible - I'll follow up on that and other Disney food experiences from the week in a post tomorrow.

Impressions de France remains the greatest theme park movie ever filmed

So there. You might prefer other films, but I'll always remain a fan.

The French pavilion at Epcot

We had the misfortune of sitting in front of a group of, uh, rather intoxicated ladies yesterday, who were eager to rip the show apart, making fun of the theater, the host and other guests sitting around them as the film began. But Saint-Saens' melodies and director Rick Harper's visuals soon silenced them. No, they weren't asleep. By the end of the movie, all I heard from the row behind me was a single "wow," then applause.

Thanks, Epcot. Until next time.

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Disney Legend Harrison 'Buzz' Price passes away at age 89

By Robert Niles
Published: August 16, 2010 at 4:09 AM

Just got word of the passing of Disney Legend Harrison 'Buzz' Price, the consultant who helped select the sites for Disneyland, Walt Disney World and who contributed to just about every other major theme park project in industry history.

Buzz Price

Harrison Price was born May 17, 1921 in Oregon City, Oregon. He graduated from CalTech in 1942 and earned his MBA from Stanford in 1951. He began his career with Standard Research that same year, eventually working with Walt Disney on many Economic Feasibility Studies, including the ones that would lead Walt to site Disneyland in Anaheim and Walt Disney World just south of Orlando, Florida.

"In 1961, after rejecting some other alternatives, Walt asked us to look at the rest of Florida and figure out where the park should be," Price wrote. "Late in 1963, we studied in-depth a location in central Florida. The key conclusion was that central Florida, (not Miami as most people expected it would be) was the main point of maximum interception of Florida tourism, and that Orlando, centrally located, was the point of maximum access to the southerly flow of Florida tourism from both the east and west shores of the state."

At Walt's suggestion, Price launched Economic Research Associates [ERA] in 1958, which he sold in 1969. (Fans will know that firm as the folks behind the annual theme park attendance report.)

Walt Disney, with CV Wood and Buzz Price
Walt Disney, C.V. Wood, Jr. and Harrison “Buzz” Price share plans for what would become Disneyland in Anaheim, California.

Price also worked with Universal, SeaWorld, Six Flags and Busch Gardens theme parks over years, conducting an estimated 3,000 feasibility studies for his clients. He was named a Disney Legend by the company in 2003, despite not having worked for the company as an employee.

In addition to assisting in theme park planning and development, Price took a leading role in the creation and management of Walt's school, California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), which opened in Valencia three years after Walt's death. Price eventually served as Chairman of the Board at the school.

"Few people have created the opportunities for learning and training young talent in the arts as Buzz Price did," Marty Sklar, retired Vice-Chairman of Walt Disney Imagineering, said in a statement. "Whether we are film, theatre or theme park fans, we should all thank our lucky stars that Walt Disney had a 'numbers man' who loved music, art and poetry."

"When we formed Ryman Arts 20 years ago to honor Herb Ryman," Sklar (also president of Ryman Arts) continued, "our co-founders were Walt’s daughter Sharon Disney Lund, Herb’s sister Lucille Ryman Carroll, and Buzz and Anne [Price, Buzz's wife]– the true rocks in the Foundation’s foundation. Their wisdom and experience – and passion for growing young artists, as they had their own children – all four working artists – were indispensable, So many people, so many projects, so many organizations owe these selfless role models so very much."

I met Price in person at the IAAPA convention last fall. (That's where I took the photo at the top of this post.) I'd studied statistics in college and eagerly lapped up his autobiography, with its detail on the feasibility studies used to set the direction of so many great theme park developments over the years. (He was spot-on about Six Flags' problems over the past decade, too. PR people and executives might spin a tale, but if you can get down to the numbers, they never lie.) My favorite Price quote to live by? "Guessing is dysfunctional. Ignoring prior experience is denial. Using valid numbers to project performance is rational."

Price died at 5:25 pm Sunday in Pomona, California. He is survived by his wife, four children, nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Here's a video on Buzz Price's work, sent to me by a representative from BRC Imagination Arts, the design firm run by Buzz's friend Bob Rogers:

Here's more Theme Park Insider coverage of Buzz Price:

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A Theme Park Insider's advice to Six Flags' new CEO

By Robert Niles
Published: August 13, 2010 at 10:00 AM

Here's some unsolicited advice from a long-time theme park fan and industry observer, to new Six Flags CEO/President James Reid-Anderson:

1. The main focus of any business manager needs to be the "pain," the previously unmet need that the business is trying to meet for its customers. In Six Flags' case, your customers are theme park fans. Their "pain" is a need for a creative entertainment experience. Industry history has shown that the more creative that experience, the more customers will pay.

Six Flags, unlike its competitors Disney, Universal and SeaWorld, has no executive or division in charge of creative attraction design. Your predecessor didn't see this as a need for Six Flags, and the company failed to connect with the lucrative family travel market as a result.

Your first task, as President/CEO, should be to create a new division within the company, Six Flags Creative, and to hire a veteran attraction designer as corporate Chief Creative Officer [CCO] to oversee it. This individual should have experience with either Disney Imagineering or Universal Creative (or with both) and a proven record as a project manager.

Six Flags Creative should be charged with all attraction selection, design and installation at all Six Flags theme parks. It should oversee all entertainment development at the parks, as well as park site design and maintenance. The CCO also should have final say on all park advertising and promotional campaign. Six Flags' CCO and Six Flags Creative should be creating a strong brand identity for Six Flags, one that is expressed through advertising, marketing and the in-park entertainment and attraction experiences.

2. You are not yet Disney. Six Flags is not the market leader in theme parks, and as a result, cannot thrive at any price point higher than that offered by Disney. Simply, you can't charge more than Disney for admission, for parking, for souvenirs or for food and not drive away your customers. While Six Flags' previous management cut admission prices to win market share, it jacked up parking and food prices, charging more than either Disney or Universal in many cases. You can't keep doing this. Your customers hated you for that. Parking and food prices must come down to sub-Disney levels.

3. Six Flags must make up its lost revenue from lowering parking and food prices by increasing the number of high-spending guests visiting its parks. Long-term, the work of the CCO will increase attendance at Six Flags by making the parks a more attractive vacation destination. Short-term, Six Flags should market lower food prices in an attempt to increase sales volume. An "all-day dining" pass, which includes drinks, would help drive increased sales volume, as well.

4. Your predecessor did a great job in improving the in-park experience for your customers, with the exception of those food prices. The parks are cleaner, run by friendlier staff and attractions are operating full-time, instead of many remaining closed several days a week to save on maintenance costs. Don't cut back on cleaning or operations expenses, or you'll suffer further loss of customers. Study what Premier Parks did with Six Flags - then do the opposite.

5. If it's not yet clear, you've inherited a company that's cut costs to the bone. There's nothing to be saved here in operational expenses. With Chapter 11 behind you, most of your financial expenses have been written off as well. Six Flags' only hope is to increase investment in creative development in order to build a more attractive vacation destination for free-spending customers. If you're unwilling to do that - and choose instead to "create shareholder value" through "operational efficiencies" and spending cuts, I guarantee that within three years, we'll be writing here on Theme Park Insider about the end of your term running Six Flags.

Just as we've written about the demise of the many management teams which preceded you.

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Six Flags names new President/CEO

By Robert Niles
Published: August 13, 2010 at 7:30 AM

Six Flags announced today that it has hired James Reid-Anderson as the company's new Chairman, CEO and President, effective immediately. He replaces interim CEO Al Weber, the former Paramount Parks executive, who served for six months following the sacking of Six Flags' previous management team, led by Dan Snyder and Mark Shapiro.

If you go way back on TPI, you know that Snyder, widely known as the owner of the Washington NFL franchise, took control of Six Flags back in 2005, after the former Premier Parks management nearly sank the company by amassing too much debt during and immediately after its takeover of the chain from Time Warner.

Like Snyder and Shapiro, Reid-Anderson has no experience in the theme or amusement park industry, having worked as CEO of the Siemens AG Healthcare Diagnostics Division. (So, I suppose, if you get hurt at a Six Flags park, the company will now be able to find even more creative ways to bill your insurance company?)

Here's the first quote from the press release:

"Jim is an exceptional CEO, and he brings to Six Flags an outstanding track record of shareholder value creation," said Usman Nabi, Executive Chairman of the Board of Six Flags and Senior Partner at H Partners. "As past investors in Dade Behring, we understand the value Jim delivers to shareholders, and the Board is confident that he will repeat this success at Six Flags."

Notice anything missing there? Like, well, you, the park visitor?

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Vote of the week: What's the worst intersection in Orlando?

By Robert Niles
Published: August 12, 2010 at 7:45 PM

ORLANDO, Florida - Driving around Central Florida this week has reminded me of one of my least favorite parts of visiting the Orlando-area theme parks: Nasty traffic.

You can avoid much of the hassle by staying on-property at Walt Disney World or the Universal Orlando Resort, and never venturing away from the parks. But for more most visitors, getting stuck in one of the Orlando area's notorious intersections has become part of the vacation experience.

Remember that Florida's just a thin crust of rock, floating on the ocean. Sinkholes abound, forming lakes that make it impossible to maintain any sort of coherent street grid. So traffic flows along meandering arterial routes that intersect with nasty jams at certain times of day.

We've been talking on the discussion board about a few of the worst. So here are our nominees for worst intersection in the Orlando-area theme park zone:

State Road 535, between Apopka Vineland and Hotel Plaza Blvd. - This is a "double intersection": Both were nominated, but it's impossible to separate the two, since each contributes to the other's problem. If you've ever tried to drive to the Crossroads shopping plaza, or the Hotel Plaza, you've been stuck in this mess.

International Drive and Sand Lake Road - Sand Lake separates the older, north end of I-Drive from the southern end. (It's where the Perkins is.) And all I-Drive traffic seems to get collected at this intersection at some point. (And that's a lot of traffic!)

Sand Lake Road and Turkey Lake Road - This is the intersection on Sand Lake on the other side of I-4. Once a simple intersection, the "back way" into Universal Orlando to the north and a Whole Foods/Walmart development to the south made this intersection a nightmare approaching its twin to the east.

International Drive and Universal Blvd. - On the northern end of I-Drive, this intersection's the home of Wet n' Wild, plus a huge amount of traffic heading into the Universal Orlando Resort. Unfortunately, Universal Express won't allow you to skip this line.

International Drive and Central Florida Pkwy. - On the southern end of I-Drive, this entrance to the SeaWorld theme parks also collects a lot of north-bound traffic heading into the Orange County Convention Center. And if there's an accident on I-4, everyone bails out here, clogging this intersection.

So, what's your pick? Tell us your traffic horror stories, in the comments.

And thank you for reading Theme Park Insider!

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Scott Joseph's Review of Via Napoli at Epcot's Italy Pavilion

By Scott Joseph
Published: August 12, 2010 at 7:44 PM

You'd think the most important thing about a good pizza would be the flour, or the sauce, or the cheese and toppings. Not at Via Napoli, the new pizzeria at Epcot's Italy pavilion. Nope, it's the water. And it's imported, but not from where you'd expect. Read my full review -- and see a video of the pizza ovens in action -- at http://tinyurl.com/362k65g

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Attention to detail, at Walt Disney World

By Robert Niles
Published: August 12, 2010 at 9:06 AM

ORLANDO, Florida - Here's a detail which illustrates to me why so many folks adore Walt Disney World. It's Mickey and Minnie Mouse from the Via Napoli opening at Epcot last week:

Mickey and Minnie Mouse arrive at Via Napoli

Here's another look, as they help cut the ribbon for the park's new Italian restaurant:

Grand opening of Via Napoli

Other theme parks always have their mascots show up for grand openings within the park. But at Disney, Mick and Min not only show up, they appear in traditional Italian attire.

That's attention to detail!

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Reasonable portions at reasonable prices? Universal's Mythos sets an example for theme park dining

By Robert Niles
Published: August 12, 2010 at 7:45 AM

ORLANDO, Florida - As Universal is fond of reminding you, Islands of Adventure's Mythos won Theme Park Insider's award as the theme park industry's top restaurant for six years in a row. But they don't mention that Mythos has fallen short of the top spot for the past two years. Our friend Scott Joseph's been a bit wistful about the place, writing that "Mythos today is somewhat different than the restaurant it started out to be."

Inside Mythos
Part of the elaborate interior inside Mythos

But something significant is happening at Mythos, still. No, the restaurant can't match the Theme Park Insider Award-winners from the past two years (Epcot's French restaurants) for culinary ambition and quality. Yet Mythos offers what might be the best value in theme park dining, and that's worth celebrating.

Entrees at this year's winner, Bistro de Paris, run from $33-$42. At Mythos? From $10-$19. Laurie and I looked at the menu, and noted a filet with truffle butter, mashed potatoes, asparagus and fried onions for... $15.95?

Bistro Filet

What? Aren't we inside a theme park?

We figured, at that price, the filet couldn't be USDA Prime, and it wasn't. Nor could the portion size be huge, and it wasn't either. But it was filling, more than enough for Laurie.

What's the use of serving oversized portions to vacationers? We can't take the leftovers home. Smart travelers have learned to split entrees, but what if everyone wants something different? We've got an obesity epidemic in this country. Shouldn't restaurants get back to serving normal portions, at normal prices?

At Mythos, Universal and its Executive Chef Steve Jayson are doing just that, and allow me to stand up and applaud them for it.

I ordered the Cedar Planked Bay of Fundy Salmon, with citrus butter and the same mashed-potato-and-asparagus presentation as came with the filet.


A reasonable portion, at a reasonable price, given the setting and quality. (At $18.95, it's the most expensive item on the menu.) Maybe they don't need to bring the charred cedar plank to the table, to prove how it was cooked, but I can see how some visitors would appreciate the fussiness. Still, chef de cuisine Mark Wachowiak and the kitchen hit this perfectly. Firm texture, without being overcooked. A slightly smoky flavor to enhance the mild flavor of salmon. An addictive sauce. I'm only sorry that the asparagus was treated as a garnish. With its grilled flavor, I could have eaten a plateful of these spears.

On the kids' menu, you can get a hand-tossed cheese pizza here ($5.99) for 80 cents less than off the cafeteria line at Circus McGurkus Cafe Stoo-pendous down the street. There's no table-service markup here.


Simple, but well-executed, the blend of tomato and mozzarella atop a wood-fired crust marked a welcomed improvement over the misguided mozzarella-and-cheddar "Dueling Dragons" pizza that Mythos served before the Harry Potter makeover made that version irrelevant.

The only item we ordered that missed was the kids' grilled cheese.

Grilled Cheese

Served something like a panini, under crusty bread, the grilled cheese ($4.99, with fries and corn-on-the-cob) didn't offer much taste at all. My daughter thought the cheese bland, but I think it might have been the fault of the bread. A more simple presentation, with a nice cheddar on good sourdough, would have worked better.

Mythos' menu points out that the french fries served here, as well as throughout the Universal Orlando Resort, are fried in trans-fat-free oil. Universal was one of the early leaders in the theme park industry in banning trans fats, and I find the food throughout the parks to be of high quality. I regret that I seem to be developing some significant food sensitivities as I enter my 40s, and am planning a trip to an allergist when I return to LA. But I should also note that my day at Universal was one of the few on our trip when I felt I could eat anything, without a negative reaction. I don't know why, but to me, the food here just tastes... fresh.

We'd already loaded up with bags of sweets from Honeydukes, so we passed on dessert. The Warm Chocolate Banana Gooey Cake, with peanut butter ice cream, remains on the menu, as does the Rice Krispy "Sushi" Treats, which our kids adored on our last visit. Mythos was the first place I encountered "dessert shots" many years ago, and they remain on the menu, too - a pleasant after-dinner sweet at a reasonable $1.75 each.

Okay, so ultra luxe fine-dining didn't fly at Mythos. But thank heavens that Universal's found a way to make a statement with its restaurants nevertheless: Theme park visitors deserve reasonable portions of good-quality food, at reasonable table-service prices. For that, Mythos continues to deliver.

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Theme Park Insider Summer Roadtrip: Islands of Adventure

By Robert Niles
Published: August 11, 2010 at 7:50 AM

ORLANDO, Florida - Greetings from the Universal Orlando Resort.

Islands of Adventure

Universal's Islands of Adventure is the place to be in the theme park world this summer, with The Wizarding World of Harry Potter drawing hundreds of thousands of extra fans to the park in the two months it's been open.

Hogwarts Castle at Universal Orlando

Knowing this, I planned to attack IOA by booking a room at one of Universal's on-site hotels the night before our visit, even though we are staying with the kids' grandparents in Celebration. Staying on-site at Universal not only gets you what I consider the best perk in the theme park business, free front-of-line access at almost all Universal Orlando attractions, it also gives you a one-hour early entry to the Wizarding World. (Front-of-line access does not apply to Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, nor does it apply to Pteranodon Flyers or Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit at the Studios theme park.)

We chose the Loews Royal Pacific Hotel, which at $280/night, was the least expensive option. We've stayed at the Royal Pacific before and loved it. This trip, we found it the most comfortable bed we've slept in all trip.

Inside the Royal Pacific

And the kids loved the Royal Pacific's pool and grounds, where they played Monday evening before our planned Tuesday trip to Islands of Adventure.

Lagoon pool at the Royal Pacific

Given the extra access within the parks, plus the quality of the room and hotel grounds, I consider the Royal Pacific the best value of any hotel we've stayed in all summer, despite the price. Sure, you choose from plenty rooms in Orlando for under $100, but I'd rather take a short, scenic walk from my room to the park, skip the lines while I'm there, and enjoy an overall four-star experience on my vacation, thankyouverymuch.

So how was the Wizarding World? Well, I'll take this excuse to re-run my video tour of the land, taken during its premiere in June, and refer you to my review of Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey:

We arrived at Hogwarts Castle at 8 am yesterday, to find that the ride wasn't operating. But we queued in the castle anyway, figuring that we'd at least be among the first to ride when it did open.

The ride started running around 9:15, so we ended up waiting the same amount of time as folks later in the day. (Forbidden Journey posted wait times between 60-90 minutes throughout the day.) But we spent most of our time not winding through the queue, but sacked out in the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom. The kids joked that now we can say we've slept through a class at Hogwarts, just like Harry and Ron. (Though not Hermione, of course.) I countered that I would have preferred to just go ahead with the first hour of Professor Binn's lecture, while we were waiting. (That's an inside joke for those who've gone on the ride.)

The ride stalled for a moment just before we reached the dragon scene, but otherwise proceeded without problems. I found all the effects working, including the Whomping Willow, though the Dementor's Kiss scene picked up only my face and Laurie's, missing the kids'.

After Forbidden Journey, we walked over to the Hog's Head, so that Laurie and the kids could have their first Butterbeers.

Brian and Natalie, with their Butterbeers

Big thumbs up all around, though I disagreed with the kids with my preference for the regular Butterbeer over the frozen. I found the frozen way too sweet ("That's a problem?" my daughter responded, incredulously) and preferred the temperature and consistency of the warmer brew.

We then toured the shops in the Wizarding World, before rides on Flight of the Hippogriff and Dragon Challenge, then lunch at the Three Broomsticks. We ordered fish n' chips, shepards pie and chicken for the table, and unanimously voted for the fish n' chips as the best of the lot. Be sure to eat early, though, as we did, to avoid the lines that queue up by noon.

After lunch, we were ready to move on and experience the rest of the park, starting with Seuss Landing and working our way clockwise. With our room keys working as Universal Express passes, we rode Poseidon's Fury (*added), High In The Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride, Cat in the Hat, the Incredible Hulk Coaster, Doctor Doom's Fearfall, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls and Jurassic Park River Adventure, walking past lines of guests who were waiting up to two hours for those rides. Having visited Universal Orlando during summer twice now with this plan, I can't imagine visiting these theme parks during a busy season any other way.

By four, we were back in the Wizarding World, which we walked through on our way to an early dinner at Mythos. We didn't see any queue to get into the land from either direction at that point, but lines had formed outside each of the shops and the Three Broomsticks, which persisted until at least early evening, when we left for the night.

I'll post my review of Mythos tomorrow, but I'll tease it here by noting my surprise at the prices on the menu. No, they weren't high: what shocked me was how low they were. A kids' hand-tossed pizza for $5.99? Steak for $16? I'll have more to say tomorrow, but let's say for now that I'm even more frustrated with the ridiculous food prices we found earlier this summer at Six Flags.

Later this week, I'll also write more about the south side of Islands of Adventure, on the opposite side of the park from the Wizarding World, and some of the challenges that Universal faces there.

And, for what it's worth, I've never heard such a high percentage of English accents when visiting a theme park before. It seems that Harry Potter's drawing the whole lot of the British Isles to Orlando this summer. The Wizarding World is beginning to draw back some of the millions of potential visitors who'd postponed a trip to Universal Orlando over the past few years, waiting for Harry Potter's debut. And it's bringing in thousands of visitors who'd never visited Universal before, as well. That adds up to huge crowds, but ones that you can easily avoid... if stay at the right place.

* Update: I forgot to add that we visited Poseidon's Fury. I hadn't seen that show since Universal revamped it a while back. We all loved the actor who played the tour guide - the narration was a hoot, and much easier to follow than the muddled sound and storyline I remember before. The performer played his part well, really selling it to the audience.

That said, without the water vortex, too many effects in the show disappoint. There's one great effect toward the end of the show (which is repeated, in reverse), but the climatic battle reminded my kids of a bad Power Rangers episode. With an Express Pass, it's great way to get out of the heat (well, until the fire effects start!), but Universal would need to restore the water vortex and reshoot a higher-def version of the final battle scene to bring this show up to its potential.

Which brings up a larger point. With HD video and Blu-Ray, not to mention James Cameron redefining the 3D film experience with Avatar, what looked great in theme park films 10 years ago looks almost amateurish now. Even Spider-Man's video elements look clunky, even cheesy, after watching Avatar on Blu-Ray and the sharp imagery of Forbidden Journey in the Wizarding World. This is presenting a substantial challenge for theme parks that have invested in attractions with filmed elements, and want to continuing wowing audiences with them in the future.

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What's new on the discussion board: The best and worst at Disney, Universal... and Orlando intersections

By Robert Niles
Published: August 10, 2010 at 7:09 PM

I apologize for not filing this post last week, so without further delay here are the top new threads from the past two weeks on the Theme Park Insider Discussion Board. As always, your experience, wisdom - and two-bit opinions - are welcomed. :-)

Daniel Etcheberry asks which you think is the better theme park: Busch Gardens Tampa Bay vs Busch Gardens Williamsburg. He also asks about your favorite/least favorite Theme park attraction songs.

Ciaran Grewar asks for your nominations of great Unsung Theme Parks.

Jennie Lea gets a discussion going on everyone's favorite Walt Disney World Characters.

Javi Badillo asks: In 10 years, which is going to be better, Islands of Adventure or Magic Kingdom? And he follows up with another thread asking for your picks as the Best and Worst of Walt Disney World.

Katie White then responds with a request for your picks as The Best and Worst of Universal Orlando.

Jay Glenn brings up Theme Park Insider readers' least favorite Magic Kingdom attraction in asking What can replace Stitch?

Kylie Bee asks an unusual question: Putting both on the same trip, How many days would you spend at Disneyland and Walt Disney World?

Charles Reichley wants to know What Time of Day for Harry Potter's Wizarding World.

Formula 40 re-opens the debate over roller coaster manufacturers: Intamin AG / Bolliger & Mabillard.

Sara M has some specific questions and is looking for Disney Planning Advice.

Finally, in preparation for this weekend's vote, I'm Taking nominations for worst intersection in Orlando.

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Theme park cast member stories: Why you have to be 40 inches tall to ride Disney's Big Thunder Mountain

By Robert Niles
Published: August 9, 2010 at 9:36 AM

You can't possibly think of a new way to get around a roller coaster's height requirement that theme park employees haven't seen before.

Lifts in the shoes? Seen it.

Spiked up hair? Nope, not gonna get ya through.

Standing on your tippie toes? Um, feet flat on the ground, please.

Begging, pleading, crying? Actually, we are the ones trying to help your child here.

That's because, as theme park employees working a roller coaster, we know what can happen when a too-short child rides a coaster.

Now, I'm start with a confession. In normal operation, we could take an infant on Walt Disney World's Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and no harm would come to the baby. I worked with cast members who could eat a bowl of cereal while riding a test train on Thunder in the morning and not spill a drop of milk. So they clearly knew the ride well enough to hold a baby securely throughout. I don't doubt that some Disney fans could do the same.

But theme parks don't establish height requirements based on a ride's normal operation. They put those in place to protect riders in case of something going wrong on the ride.

By that, I don't mean a mechanical breakdown. I mean that something happens, usually because of a guest's actions, which disrupts the normal flow of operation on the ride. What happens when a child starts crying in a train, which prevents us from dispatching it from the loading station?

With no room in the station, the train behind on the track has no place to go. So it stops out on the course, on the final block brake. And with a train on that block brake, the train behind it has to stop on the third lift. And so on.

Those "cascade" stops happen in orderly manner, and probably wouldn't make an experienced rider spill his milk (or drop a child). But what happens when a guest panics, and tries to jump out of a train while it's on a lift? It's happened, and I've seen it.

In cases like that, the operator in the coaster's control tower does a "power disconnect," shutting down power to the entire track. Any train on a lift will stop immediately. But trains that have crested their lifts will continue running, propelled simply by the free fall of gravity along the track.

To keep those trains from running into one that might be stuck on the next lift, ride designers have installed what's called a "safety brake" in front of each lift. And that is what you do not want to hit if you are shorter than 40 inches tall, or pregnant, or have a back, neck or heart condition. A safety brake can take a train running nearly 30 miles per hour to stopped in about eight feet. It's a hard, hard stop.

After the ride shut down with trains on the track, no one ever wanted to be the one assigned to go check on the guests who'd been stopped in a safety brake. Only the most experienced Thunder operators were assigned that task, and even though I worked that location for a year, I never had enough seniority to draw that thankless assignment. (I always got sent to people stuck on a lift, instead.) But I heard reports from those who did about the sore, shocked and sometimes angry guests who had to endure the misfortune of hitting the safety brakes.

Still, I never knew anyone to be hurt from hitting a safety brake, as unpleasant as that experience must have been. To me, that's testimony to the effectiveness of Disney's boarding restrictions.

So next time a cast member, team member or theme park employee stops a too-short child from getting on a ride, don't criticism him or her, okay? Don't make them the bad guys. The more you know about how roller coasters work, the more you might appreciate the important work that the folks at the front of the queue do everyday.

For more stories about working in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, visit Stories from a Theme Park Insider.

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Universal Orlando raises ticket prices, too

By Robert Niles
Published: August 6, 2010 at 1:44 PM

Universal Orlando will raise ticket prices, matching Walt Disney World's price increase earlier this week.

One-day, one-park passes rise $3, from $79 to $82, just like Disney's. Two-, three- and four-day tickets will increase $5. The "park-to-park" ticket (Universal's version of the park hopper, for those of you who speak only Disney) prices will increase $3 for the one-day ticket and $5 for the three- and four-day tickets. The two-day, park-to-park ticket will remain at $144.99.

The price increase goes into effect tomorrow, so buy today if you're considering a trip to Universal. You can get a $10 discount on multi-day tickets by buying online, too.

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Vote of the week: Which park to pick at Walt Disney World?

By Robert Niles
Published: August 5, 2010 at 6:23 PM

ORLANDO, Florida - So we've finally made it to Orlando on our 2010 Summer Roadtrip, with plans to hit up Universal Orlando's Wizarding World of Harry Potter next week.

But after that?

Well, we're going to have to find time for Walt Disney World, of course. (My little trip to Epcot today doesn't count, and besides, the rest of the family's a bit jealous that I chowed down on fancy pizza without them. So I'll need to spend some time at Disney with them next week.)

But where to go? What to do?

Hey, this sounds like a fun vote of the week!

Let's make this the question - you've got one day, and one day only, to spend at Walt Disney World, with no park-hopper ticket at your disposal. Which park do you pick, and why? Does a specific attraction lead you to one park? A place to eat? Is there one park you feel works better than the others as a one-day destination?

For example, as Los Angeles residents, we'd be more inclined to pick Epcot or Animal Kingdom in this vote, since the Magic Kingdom's so like Disneyland and Hollywood Studios includes many elements that we can find in Disneyland and California Adventure, or just driving around L.A.

What about you? Please vote below, and tell us in the comments why you made your pick. (Update: To clarify, this would be the park you most want to visit, not the one you think I should.)

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

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Disney, Patina Group debut Via Napoli at Epcot's Italy pavilion

By Robert Niles
Published: August 5, 2010 at 2:01 PM

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Florida - Walt Disney World and the Patina Restaurant Group officially opened Epcot's newest restaurant this morning, Via Napoli, the second restaurant in the theme park's Italy pavilion.

Mickey and Minnie help cut the ribbon to open Via Napoli

Via Napoli will be familiar to west-coast Disney fans, as it might be considered a sibling to the Anaheim Downtown Disney's Naples Ristorante e Pizzeria, also a production of Los Angeles' Patina Group. But Via Napoli occupies a much grander space, with a soaring wood ceiling and long communal table anchoring the room.

Interior of Via Napoli

Executive Chef Charlie Restivo has developed a menu that showcases the work of the restaurant's trio of wooden-fired ovens. Pizza Napoletana is the focus of this table-service restaurant, which will also offer a selection of salads, pasta and appetizers.

Executive Chef Charlie Restivo
Via Napoli Executive Chef Charlie Restivo

Don't expect typically Americanized pizza here. You won't be ordering a large, thick crust with pepperoni, sausage and mushrooms. You won't be selecting personalized toppings at all. Via Napoli offers nine selections of its thin-crust pizza:

  • Margherita (tomato, mozzarella and basil)
  • Quattro Stagioni (eggplant, artichokes, parma cotto, mushrooms)
  • Pepperoni (pepperoni, tomato, mozzarella)
  • Calamari (Fried calamari, arugula, fennel)
  • Ortolano (Tomato, mozzarella, vegetables)
  • Piccante (Italian spicy sausage, broccoli rabe, tomato, mozzarella)
  • Carciofi (Artichoke, pecorino, mozzarella, truffle oil)
  • Prosciutto e Melone (Fontina, mozzarella, pecorino, prosciutto, canteloupe)
  • Quattro Formaggi (Mozzarella, parmesan, fontina, provolone)

Margherita pizza
A server shows off a large Margherita pizza.

I fear that misconceptions will sink this restaurant before many fans give it a chance. Neither the selections, nor the prices, are in line with what most Americans consider when thinking about a pizzeria. But if you accept Via Napoli on its own terms, as a fine-dining spin on authentic Italian pizza from Naples, then you'll find this a welcome new option in Epcot.

My advice? Share! The food was presented at this morning's media event by servers walking the room, carrying plates from which we could sample the various menu items. Frankly, that's the ideal way to enjoy this cuisine, which relies on fresh ingredients, presented simply, but with flawless cooking technique.

Joachim SplichalPatina Group master chef Joachim Splichal samples the artichoke-and-truffle-oil pizza.

Unfortunately, noshing at a reception won't be an option when you visit. So select a pizza or two, add a salad or the fritto misto, and share among all at the table. The "individual" pizzas run $16, but can serve two easily. A large ($27) would serve a family of four and the "'1/2 meter' to share" ($36) would best be "shared" by your entire softball team.

The worst mistake you could make here would be for each person in your family to order his or her own entree, and then attempt to eat just that. The simple flavors here will grow tedious by the time you get a third of the way through your entree, and no one will finish. Why waste food and money? Via Napoli, like the best Italian restaurants, is best experienced by a large group that's willing to pass their plates around the table.

Fritto misto
A sample of the fritto misto, with asparagus and calamari

I'd recommend ordering the fritto misto ($24 - again, more than enough to share), a great test of a kitchen's technique. The heat of cooking can enhance a food's flavor, but not if much of that flavor is lost to the cooking medium, as often happens in boiling or sauteing. Fritto misto, by protecting each vegetable in a light batter, allows the vegetable to be heated without losing its flavor to the oil, or losing its moisture to the heat of an oven.

Done well, as it is here, asparagus becomes a revelation, with the fresh taste of the spear enhanced by a slight bite of saltiness. Done poorly, however, as it is most other places I've tried fritto misto, you end up with a veggie in lost in a greasy batter. The fritto misto at Via Napoli includes an assortment of asparagus, zucchini and artichokes, as well as calamari and Arancini (fried balls of risotto, mozzerella and meat ragu).

For dessert, Via Napoli offers tiramisu ($8), a gelato soda ($9), a gelato sundae ($10) and sorbet ($7). The speciality (which I didn't see available to sample) is Zeppole di Caterina ($10), ricotta cheese fritters served with whipped cream and chocolate sauce.

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Disney theme parks announce ticket price increases

By Robert Niles
Published: August 3, 2010 at 2:37 PM

Here's a round-up on today's price increases at Disney theme parks, announced today:

Walt Disney World, one-day/one-park: Old - $79; New - $82
Disneyland, one-day/one-park: Old - $72; New - $76

Walt Disney World, five-day park-hopper: Old - $228; New - $237
Disneyland, three-day park-hopper: Old - $204; New - $206

Walt Disney World Premium Annual Pass: Old - $619; New - $629
Disneyland Premium Annual Pass: Old - $439; New - $459

The price increases take effect on Thursday, rather than immediately, giving you an extra day to go online and buy tickets at the "old" prices. Parking, stroller, wheelchair and scooter prices will be increasing, as well, typically a dollar or two a day.

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Theme Park Insider Summer Roadtrip, 2010: Holiday World

By Robert Niles
Published: August 3, 2010 at 10:45 AM

SANTA CLAUS, Indiana - We hadn't planned to visit Holiday World during this year's roadtrip. We'd loved our trip last summer to the southern Indiana theme park (turning 46 64 years old today, BTW!), but I'd planned not to repeat any parks from last year's trip.

But when one of my good high school friends from Indianapolis suggested meeting him and his son at Holiday World for the day instead of in Indy, the immediate cheers from the rest of my family made my response a quick "Yes!"

I'll defer to last year's trip report for a broader overview of the park. But I wanted to add a few notes from this year's trip:

The Raven at Holiday World

The day started on a sour note, when we arrived 20 minutes after park opening to find the queue for The Raven already posted at one hour and 15 minutes, along with a note that the coaster would be running only one train all day. That's a Six Flags-circa-2002 move. Ugh.

But we got through the queue in just 55 minutes, and 10-year-old Brian, who's just warming up to roller coasters, declared it "the best ride I've ever been on." I found the ride as exhilarating as last year, a delightful romp through the woods, with the tunnels and trees amplifying the sense of speed. Laurie, who's not a wooden coaster fan, complained of a rough ride, but I found the coaster among the smoother woodies I've ridden over the past two years.

All that said, though, when we walked past The Raven later in the day, around 2:30, the ride was a walk-on. When visiting Holiday World, keep in mind that the Splashin' Safari water park side opens one hour after the Holiday World side, pulling many people away from the thrill rides and over to the water slides. Also, The Raven seems to function here much like Spaceship Earth does at Epcot - it's the weenie that draws in everyone as they enter the park, leading to huge lines in the morning, but little to no line later in the day.

I'm a huge fan of riding the Holiday World coasters in size and chronological order: The Raven, The Legend, then The Voyage. But unless you're among the very first people through the gate in the morning, go do something else in the park until lunchtime, then hit the coasters. In my - admittedly limited - experience, you'll find shorter waits. Throughout the theme park side, we found short-to-nonexistent waits during the afternoon, as so many people headed over to the water park.

The Voyage

Oh, Voyage, what has happened to you? The much-anticipated new Timberliner coaster trains remain MIA; when I visited yesterday, The Voyage was running two trains, one a familiar blue train with the gold and red trim that I remember riding last summer. The second was a red train that looked much like the train from The Raven.

Which made me wonder, did they take a train from The Raven and run it on The Voyage? (Now that I think of it, that might explain why there was only one train available on The Raven. *Update: Yup. See comments.) Whatever the red train's origin, it provided the roughest ride I've ever experienced on a roller coaster. Gone was the smooth, swift ride I enjoyed on The Voyage last summer. This time, I felt like I was riding a train that might at any moment leap from the tracks. Lemme use a racing analogy: The red train carried all of the speed that I expect on The Voyage, but none of the downforce. The train felt loose, whipping me around every curve instead of driving me through them. It's an edge-of-control experience - one, frankly, that appealed to the thrill freak within me. But if you don't know how to ride a "loose" attraction (relax your muscles and go with the flow - like you're riding a horse), it can leave you with a skull-ringing headache.

My friends rode the blue train, though, and said that the ride felt as smooth as ever to them. Go figure. I'd love to hear some other readers' reports.

Turkey dinner at Plymouth Rock Cafe

The Plymouth Rock Cafe remains, for the money, the best counter-service restaurant in the theme park business. Roast turkey and gravy with a roll and three sides for $8.99? With unlimited drinks included? Really? Throughout the park, we continued to find Holiday World's food tasty and reasonably priced. Not only that, Holiday World's employees will do whatever they can to accommodate your needs and requests.

Brian looked longingly at the caramel apples behind the counter at Mrs. Claus' Kitchen. But what he really wanted, he said, was a cut-up, plain apple, with a side of caramel sauce. So we asked, and the employees behind the counter whipped that up for Brian. It's what you can do when you've got a candy store where people actually make the candy, as opposed to retailing something shipped in from a central kitchen. More importantly, it's what you can do when you've create a culture that values customer service over mindlessly following some procedure or script.

Caramel and apples are nice, but Holiday World also creates custom meals for people with food allergies, too. Just ask at the park's main restaurants, and with an hour's notice, they can whip up a meal that avoids up to eight common allergens, including gluten, eggs, nuts or wheat.

Of course, Holiday World offers plenty of guilty-pleasure snacks, as well. Which brings me to the fried Oreos.

Fried Oreos

Frying changes the Oreos' texture, softening the hard cookies to a cake-like texture. Enveloped in batter, the fried Oreo tasted like a combination of funnel cake wrapped around a thin slice of chocolate cake. (FTW!) We spent the extra 90 cents to gild the lilly and slather the whole thing in hot fudge sauce, too. Still, four Oreos in sauce ran only $3.95, and provided more rich, gooey awesomeness than the six of us could eat.

A final note on service. When we returned to our car, we were frustrated to discover that we'd failed to throw away the coffee and smoothie cups that we'd picked up during our morning drive, which were now stinking up the car. But what to do with them now? No one wants to walk all the way back to the park.

Then we looked up, and what did we see next to our car?

Trash can

Yep, Holiday World's got the details covered.

Next: Universal's Islands of Adventure and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. In other words, Robert finally gets more butterbeer.

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Dollywood announces Barnstormer, a new pendulum ride for 2011

By Robert Niles
Published: August 2, 2010 at 7:08 PM

Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee has announced its new ride for 2011, Barnstormer, a pendulum ride that will be built next to the Mountain Slidewinder. Barnstormer will seat 32 riders on two pendulum arms, which will swing to 81 feet in the air, at a top speed of 45 mph.

Barnstormer at Dollywood

The new ride will open in March 2011. Here's the complete press release.

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Busch Gardens Tampa teases its new attraction for 2011

By Robert Niles
Published: August 2, 2010 at 6:41 PM

Busch Gardens Tampa's dropping some hints about its as-yet-unnamed new attraction* for 2011.

Here's a video from President Jim Dean:


* Update: I pulled SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment's trademark applications for this year, and that all but officially confirms that the ride will be named Cheetaka, so I've gone ahead and renamed the listing page for this project.

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Alton Towers bans a certain type of thrill ride

By Derek Potter
Published: August 2, 2010 at 6:27 PM

Some odd news [a.k.a. brilliant PR hype - Editor] from United Kingdom theme park Alton Towers via The Sun.

It seems that there have been some "reports" of extra-loud couples, uh, going at it in Alton Towers hotel rooms, to the point that enough guests supposedly are complaining that their kids are overhearing it.

In response, Alton Towers management has designated certain wings of their hotels as "family friendly." To put it simply, if you want to get it on at Alton Towers, you have to stay in the adults only wing. I wonder how they will enforce such an ordinance. The simple solution would be to insulate the walls, but that wouldn't make headlines now would it?

I've stayed in enough hotels over the years to have a few stories, and I'm sure other travelers, and those in the hospitality industry have some dandies too. The peanut gallery is open.

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Theme park cast member stories: Classmates as cast members

By Robert Niles
Published: August 1, 2010 at 6:18 PM

The Mike Fink Keelboat driver walked up behind me.

"What are you doing here?" he asked.

Normally, a Tom Sawyer Island raft driver wouldn't be in the Riverboat lead's office, but I'd been ask to swap out some stanchions for the afternoon parade route.

"Just getting some stanchions for the parade," I said, without looking up.

"No," he said again. "What are you doing here? At Disney World?"

Huh? What kind of question was that? I wheeled around, and saw... Mark, who lived around the corner from me in Allison Hall the year before at Northwestern.

I stood there, mouth agape.

"Since when have you worked here?" Mark asked.

"That's funny, 'cause I was about to ask the same question to you," I replied.

That was my first summer working attractions, and my second summer overall at the Magic Kingdom. Mark also had started at Disney the year before, though he'd been working in attractions the whole time.

Later that year, when working at the Country Bear Jamboree, I met Margaret, a music major was two years behind me at Northwestern. Several other Northwestern musicians also worked at Disney, including my future wife, Laurie, who played in the All-American College Orchestra at Epcot.

Walt Disney World employees tens of thousands of employees, including thousands of seasonal workers - usually college students who come down (or return home) to Florida during school breaks to pick up some extra money. With so many seasonal employees, odds are you'll find someone from your school, sooner or later.

Still, Northwestern's not the largest school, just 7,000 or so undergraduates, and its student body includes many people who, well, let's just say that they didn't need to pick up any extra spending money during the summer. Northwestern also didn't participate in the Walt Disney World College Program - which brings students down to work at Disney for college credit - either, making it less likely to find NU students in the Disney World cast.

Yet there we were, anyway, a hearty group that endured winters in Chicago, with the searing wind blowing off Lake Michigan, then summers in Orlando, wilting in the sauna-like heat. Actually, compared with walking across Northwestern's lakefront campus in an 80-below wind chill, Orlando's ubiquitous 98 degrees and 90-percent humidity actually felt refreshing.

So when I'd see a fellow Northwestern student on the Magic Kingdom parade route, I'd often offer the same greeting:

"Keepin' warm?"

"You bet," came the reply.

If you've ever run into any college classmates while working in a theme park, please share your story in the comments.

For more of Robert's stories about working in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, visit http://www.themeparkinsider.com/stories. Or listen to Cosmic Reid's Starlight Cafe Mondays at 1pm Eastern.

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Keep reading: July 2010 Archive