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January 2011

Universal Hollywood offers weeknight date-night discount deal

By Robert Niles
Published: January 31, 2011 at 1:31 PM

Universal Studios Hollywood is offering a new promotion to attract couples to the Hollywood CityWalk on weeknights.

The "Awesome Date" deal includes valet parking, dinner for two at participating CityWalk restaurants, and two movies tickets to the CityWalk theaters for $50. The dinners include a shared appetizer and two entrees selected from a special menu, plus soft drinks, coffee or tea. Participating restaurants include the Hard Rock Cafe, Wolfgang Puck Bistro, Buca di Beppo and Karl Strauss Brewing Company, plus five others. (You can see what menu items are included by clicking the restaurant logos on the offer's website.)

Given that valet parking by itself will set you back $25 and adult movie tickets are $12 each, the deal essentially gets you dinner for free. (If you want to see a 3D movie, there's a $10 upcharge - $5 per person - for that.) The deal's good Monday through Thursdays.

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Theme park cast member stories: Grad Night Police of the Caribbean

By Robert Niles
Published: January 31, 2011 at 10:32 AM

Crouched behind a fake rock, I watched the boats pass, one by one. My eyes had adjusted to the lack of light. The flashlight in my hand? I carried it not to help me see, but so that I could be seen.

When the time came.

I smelled the boat before I saw it. As the crew of teenagers rounded corner of Hurricane Cove, I waited for, then saw, the glowing tip of the joint. Row four.

Flashlight on. Panic.

As my flashlight illuminated the boat of Grad Night partiers, it also shone directly into the security camera mounted on the wall directly behind them. The cast member in tower would see the light, and deploy the boat stop that would trap the passengers in front of me.

The boat hit the stop, and the passengers lurched forward. The kid dropped his joint. His girlfriend shrieked, then slapped him across the shoulder. I doubt he felt it, or even heard her. His eyes opened, wide, toward me.

His friend, sitting on his other side, craned his neck forward a touch. He squinted at me. Many he was trying to lighten the moment with a joke.

"Dude" (I swear he actually said "Dude"), "that pirate looks so real."

Or maybe he really was just stoned.

Many veteran Walt Disney World cast members avoid working Grad Nights. They don't like the late-night hours, or the hassle of enforcing order among tens of thousands of only-theoretically supervised teenagers.

Me? Not yet a year out of college, I couldn't wait for the opportunity to scare the living excrement out of some high school kids.

On Grad Nights, we'd not only station extra cast members to work "audience control" along parade routes and in attraction queues. We also stationed cast members inside some of the longer, slower rides, including Pirates of the Caribbean. We'd learned from experience that many kids thought they weren't being watched while on the ride, so that provided their best chance to get away with smoking/drinking/uh, whatever.

So we waited for them. Flashlights in hand. Ready to use the most awesome weapon imaginable to destroy a teenager.

Embarrassment.

"Hand it over."

The girlfriend yanked on Smokey McPuff's arm, glaring at him, which also served to turn her face away from me. Smokey pulled a small plastic sandwich bag from his pocket. Two kids from the front row handed up a flask. I hadn't even seen them. Bonus. I dragged my flashlight across each row, to see what else I could find.

No one would make eye contact with me. Except for Smokey and his buddy, who still seemed to be trying to figure out if I was real. Not wanting to hold up the ride too long, I waved my flashlight forward, signaling tower to release the stop and drop the boat down the waterfall.

The empty sandwich bag and half-empty flask would end up with Magic Kingdom security, which over the course of the evening would collect enough contraband to fill the limo of a rock star on his way to check into "Celebrity Rehab."

The rest of the night, I tried to fight the boredom as boat after boat after boat of normal, perfectly well-behaved kids floated past. After a while, what I was doing reminded me of fishing. Hour after hour, you sit there, staring at the water. You learn every detail of the place. You notice every ripple in the water, every reed on the bank.

Every last blasted verse of "Yo Ho, A Pirate's Life for Me."

But every once in a long while, the line snaps... and you catch something.

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

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NBC/Comcast deal will mean more NBC employees visiting the Universal theme parks

By Robert Niles
Published: January 30, 2011 at 5:51 PM

Now that the NBC Universal/Comcast deal has closed, what will the merger of the parent of the Universal Studios theme parks with the nation's largest cable company mean for those parks?

Well, at least initially, it's going to mean a lot more company employees will be coming through the gates.

When employees of the new NBCUniversal (Hey, it's a merger, let's… get rid of the space!), gathered at site meetings Friday to learn about their new cable TV overlords corporate siblings, the full-time employees were all given $600 worth of Comcast stock, plus four free one-day passes to the Universal theme parks.

Unlike Disney, which showers its employees with theme park tickets, under the old Universal management, NBC employees spent fewer days free in their own theme parks than Charlie Sheen's spent sober. Perhaps the new management is wising up and realizing what Disney's long known, that employees can be the best advocates for your company's products, and that free theme park tickets help make happier, more enthusiastic employees.

One NBCUniversal employee wrote to me. Forget about the free stock, he said, "trust me, what has everyone talking is the free ticket to the theme parks."

Harry Potter, here they come!

Earlier: Here's what I wrote in 2009 about the NBC/Comcast deal. And here are some attraction ideas you had, inspired by a cable TV company owning a chain of theme parks. Feel free to add more, in the comments.

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Next Walt Disney: Challenge 2 Voting

By Andy Milio
Published: January 29, 2011 at 11:22 PM

Challenge 2 (designing a shop) has concluded, and you guys get to pick the winner. Since we had another drop out, we will not have elimination again. Before you vote, make sure you check out the submission thread.

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Vote of the week: The best of the animated Best Picture nominees

By Robert Niles
Published: January 27, 2011 at 10:33 PM

This week, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the nominees for the 83rd annual Academy Awards. For just the third time, an animated feature film was nominated for the Best Picture award, Disney/Pixar's Toy Story 3.

Scene from Toy Story 3

Since the animated film industry is so closely tied to the theme park business, I thought the nominations a good choice for this week's vote. No, I'm not asking you to pick the winner for this year's Best Picture. (I suspect that the Disney fans among us would skew that vote heavily toward Woody and the gang). But I am going to ask you to pick your favorite among the three animated Best Picture nominees.

In addition to Toy Story 3 (the highest-rated of these three by Rotten Tomatoes' Top Critics survey, earning a perfect score), the two previous Best Picture nominees are:

Up (2009) - Cynics might claim that Up made the cut only because the Academy expanded the Best Picture field to 10 last year. But I defy anyone to watch for the first time the nearly five-minute, wordless recounting of Carl and Ellie's life together without breaking into tears. I still can't do it, and I've lost count how many times I've seen this film.

Beauty and the Beast (1991) - It's hard now to watch the first animated film to win a Best Picture nod and not think of Shrek's hilarious spoof of its ending. (For what it's worth, I've heard from many folks - including some Hollywood insiders - who insist that the Academy created the Best Animated Feature award in 2001 specifically to prevent Shrek from claiming a Best Picture nomination that year.)

But let's not overlook Beauty and the Beast's place in history. Watch "The Mob Song" - a great metaphor for public rejection of the different - and remember that the lyricist (Howard Ashman) was a gay man, dying of AIDS in the late 1980s, who would pass away before the movie premiered.

We don't like
What we do not understand
In fact it scares us
And this monster is mysterious at least
Bring your guns
Bring your knives
Save your children and your wives
We'll save our village and our lives
We'll kill the Beast!

Cast your vote, and please tell us in the comments why you think your choice is the best of the three.

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'Magic, Memories and You' digital projection show debuts at Disneyland

By Robert Niles
Published: January 27, 2011 at 5:12 PM

Tonight, Disneyland unveils its version of the "Magic, Memories and You" show that we first saw last week projected upon Cinderella's Castle at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom.

Sleeping Beauty's Castle at Disneyland doesn't provide much space upon which to project these high-def images, so this show will play upon the facade of It's a Small World. Here's a sneak peek from Disney:

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Summer road trip stories: Long days on the road

By Robert Niles
Published: January 27, 2011 at 11:39 AM

What's the longest you've ever driven on one day of a road trip?

We set the Niles family record last summer, with a one-day haul from suburban Cincinnati to Celebration, Florida. The trip took 15 and a half hours and covered 915 miles. But that's still not my personal best. I covered 1,000 miles from Orlando to just beyond Houston in one day during a epic three-day drive from Walt Disney World to Disneyland in the 1990s.

But driving solo's much easier to make great time and rack up the miles than driving with a family of four. Especially when you've instituted a no-meals-in-the-car rule. (Four people eating in a car gets nasty, fast.) Traveling with three others, people talk during meals. Which is nice, of course, but adds 10-20 minutes to your mealtime "pit stops." And as much as you might hope for it, four people rarely all need to go to the bathroom at the same time.

Driving a Prius, we stopped for gas just twice on the road between northern Kentucky and Central Florida. And the second stop - at the entrance to the Florida Turnpike - could have been a "splash and go" had we cared about shaving every possible second from our trip time.

I love getting an early start on long-haul road days. If the sun's up before I'm on the road, I consider myself having started too late. Knocking down 10, 50 or even 100 miles before dawn leaves me feeling like I'm ahead of schedule and able to relax for the rest of the day. The anticipation of a long road trip gives me an adrenaline rush, too, so I might as well spend that by hitting the road ASAP.

So I set the alarm for 4:30 am and had the family in the car with wheels rolling by 5 for our trip to Orlando. While I was awake and ready to roll, the rest of the family merely did the zombie shuffle from their beds to waiting blankets and pillows in the car, which we'd packed the night before. Laurie stirred around 7 and by 8, we stopped in Jellico, Tennessee for her coffee and our breakfast at a Starbucks.

We ate lunch in suburban Atlanta, enjoying our first Chick-fil-A's of the trip. (There are none anywhere near us in LA.) We filled the gas tank and Laurie took the wheel for our drive through Georgia.

While I've done up to 1,000 miles in the driver's seat in one day, having someone else take the wheel for a spell helps keep me from going to a very weird place once I get out of the car. On my three-day trip from Disney to Disney, I remember the most vivid and bizarre dreams I've ever had during my brief nightly hotel stays. My brain couldn't simply turn off from the hyper-vigilance it needs while driving super-long stretches.

With Laurie driving, I didn't sleep, but I could let my attention wander and my concentration evaporate, giving my eyes and brain a welcomed rest. A little bit before 5pm, we were crossing the state line into Florida, on our way to arrive in the Orlando area as the sun set.

Florida sunset

Please share your story about favorite (or at least memorable) long day on the road, in the comments.

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Universal Creative promotes Thierry Coup, creative director on Potter, Spider-Man

By Robert Niles
Published: January 27, 2011 at 11:10 AM

Lead the design crew for two of the greatest rides in theme park history, and you get a promotion. Makes sense to me.

Thierry CoupUniversal announced today that it has named Thierry Coup Senior Vice President of the Creative Studio at Universal Creative. The 10-year-veteran at Universal Creative most recently worked as Creative Director for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, winner of the 2010 Theme Park Insider Award as the best new attraction of the year.

Before Potter, Coup worked on The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, the Islands of Adventure favorite that Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey displaced as the top-rated attraction by Theme Park Insider readers. Right now, Coup is heading the creative team for the new Transformers ride that's going into Universal Studios Singapore and Universal Studios Hollywood.

"Thierry has a tremendous reputation of delivering unparalleled attractions and experiences for our guests," Universal Creative president Mark Woodbury said in a statement. "He is an industry leader and continues to bring strength to our team with his creativity and vision."

Couldn't agree more.

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Skip the sausage at Disneyland's new Village Haus Restaurant

By Robert Niles
Published: January 26, 2011 at 8:27 PM

The Village Haus Restaurant in Disneyland's Fantasyland recently debuted a new menu, so I stopped by to give it a try during my visit to the park this afternoon.

Disneyland's Village Haus

The Village Haus is themed to Pinocchio - set high in the Dolomites, where Italy meets Germany. The menu reflects this mix of German and Italian: Choose a pepperoni pizza for your lunch, and an apple strudel for dessert.

Apple Strudel
Apple Strudel with Vanilla Sauce ($4.99)

For my entree, I chose instead the chicken sausage topped with sauerkraut on a pretzel roll ($8.49). I chose fries over a fruit cup for my side (neither German nor Italian, but still.)

Chicken sausage with sauerkraut on pretzel roll

I was expecting a German-style sausage, but got instead what tasted to me like a very mild sweet Italian sausage instead. However German and Italian cuisine might blend, an Italian sausage on pretzel bread, topped with sauerkraut, doesn't qualify.

Italian spices just don't get along with pickled cabbage. Nor do they sit well with the doughy saltiness of pretzel bread. They need the lighter, crispier crust of a pizza instead. And let's not talk about adding mustard to the mix, as I'd heartily recommend on a brat-like sausage.

The lesson? Always go with the special. At Disney's counter-service restaurants, stick with the options presented in a fancy bordered box on the menu board. At the Village Haus, those three options are:

  • An Angus 1/3 lb. Pastrami Cheeseburger ($10.49)
  • A "BLT" Flatbread Pizza ($9.49)
  • An Apple & Cheddar Salad ($7.49)
I'd skipped those because I was looking for something that fit the theme of place a bit better. A pastrami burger is as LA as food gets. A BLT on a pizza is another American combo, to be sure. And I'm not a big fan of Cheddar, especially on a salad.

But Disney's usually got those options in the boxes for a reason, and it's not just to steer you toward the higher-prices selections. Those are the items that location focuses on, and presumably does best.

So I'm not ready to judge the Village Haus until a return and give one of those entrees a try. Until then, though, I can recommend that you skip the sausage.

The strudel, however, is well worth a taste. I felt a twinge of disappointment when the lady at the counter brought me my strudel, as I eyed the spectacular Black Forest cupcakes in a cooler behind her. Topped with billowing whipped cream and chocolate shavings, the cupcakes shamed my ordinary-looking strudel.

"The cupcakes are good," another lady behind the counter said, noticing my expression. "But, honestly, the strudel tastes better."

I can't speak of the cupcake, but the strudel lived up the billing, with sweet apple flavor and a vanilla dip that tasted like great vanilla-bean ice cream, reduced to a sauce.

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Dining on the Disney Dream

By Scott Joseph
Published: January 26, 2011 at 8:26 PM

As promised, I've published a video of the various dining rooms available on the just-launched Disney Dream. The video, Dining on the Disney Dream, has peeks inside Enchanted Garden, Royal Palace and Animator's Palate, where Crush, the talking turtle, swims up to your table (in a fashion). Here's a link

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Disneyland Resort grows its Enchanted Forest of Construction Walls

By Robert Niles
Published: January 26, 2011 at 3:51 PM

The kids are in school and crowds are light at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California - making plenty of space for the construction crews to move in and get to work.

There's no longer any "California" in front of Disney California Adventure. Nor is the old sun icon standing behind the Golden Gate bridge, either.

Plaza construction at Disney California Adventure

Disney's put the letters into storage and torn down the middle third of the entry turnstiles as it remakes the front entrance of the park.

Concept art of the new California Adventure entry

Hmm, do you think that artist concept of the new Disney California Adventure entry plaza that looks a bit like the entry to Disney's Hollywood Studios in Walt Disney World?

I like what Disney's done with this construction wall, though, evoking the new 1930s theme for the entry plaza by featuring many of Disney's original toons, including Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and Mortimer Mouse. (It gives the park an "Epic Mickey" spin, as Imagineering effectively erases much of the park to recreate it.)

Disney toons

Inside the park, construction's broken the circuit around the lagoon, at the site of the now-removed Maliboomer.

DCA construction wall

The new Little Mermaid show building is almost complete, preparing for an expected soft opening in April.

The DCA Little Mermaid show building under construction

Little Mermaid construction

And work's coming along on Cars Land, set to debut sometime next year.

Cars Land construction

The Playhouse Disney show is gone now, soon to be replaced with Disney Junior: Live on Stage.

Disney Junior construction wall

And the Red Car Trolley tracks are ready to go in the Hollywood Pictures Backlot. But they'll have to wait for the new front entry plaza to be complete before we see trolleys on those tracks.

Red Car Trolley track

Across the esplanade at Disneyland, the Enchanted Forest of Construction Walls grows, as well.

Town Square

Behind some walls, we'll eventually find new attractions, such as the new version of Star Tours, set to debut in May.

Star Tours construction wall

Behind others, we await the completion of more traditional refurbs, such as that happening now to Splash Mountain.

Splash Mountain refurb

Not only is Splash down, Disney's shuttered the entire Critter Country land for refurbishment. It's been ages since I remember Disney closing an entire land.

Critter Country construction wall

Yet, if you can find your way around the walls, most of the rest of Disney's top attractions remain open (Pirates, Indy, Thunder, Subs, etc.), with the shortest wait times of the year.

Disneyland wait times on Jan. 26, 2011

Later today, I'll post my review of the new menu at Fantasyland's Village Haus Restaurant.

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Travel tips: How to eat on vacation

By Robert Niles
Published: January 25, 2011 at 10:25 PM

Eating while on vacation should provide as much enjoyment as any other part of your trip. Choose wisely, and a vacation can expose you to delightful new food and wonderful meals with family and friends.

Brian enjoys a chili dog on vacation at Six Flags

Choose poorly, and your vacation eating could leave you sick, fat and broke.

Here's my top tip for eating while on vacation, whether you're visiting a theme park or some other vacation destination.

Share.

Restaurant portion sizes in America typically vary between the enormous and the obscene. When you're dining close to home, you can stick the leftovers in a box or bag to take home and enjoy an extra meal for no extra charge the next day. On the road, you might not have access to a full kitchen, making leftovers impossible to use.

So why order the excess? Split an entree with one of your traveling companions. You'll not only save waste, but calories and money as well.

But what if you're still hungry?

Simple: Order more. I've yet to find a restaurant that wouldn't let me order more food after my first round. Sometimes, I find that I'm really not still hungry by the time a server comes around to take my extra order, or by the time I get up and get back to the head of the line.

But even if I am still wanting more, splitting orders allows me to sample more dishes that the single entree I'd get if I were ordering alone. Vacations ought to be a time for new experiences. Noshing on a variety of dishes, rather than one entree per meal, fits perfectly with the vacation experience. My family four typically orders two meals and splits them, but if we're felling hungry, we'll get a third and pass them around.

Same with desserts, too. :^)

Which brings me to my second tip: Sit down to eat.

To truly enjoy your food, you first must notice your food. That's tough to do when you're walking or driving around. No matter how busy your vacation schedule, block out the time to sit down whenever you put food in your mouth. Rest. Enjoy. Notice what you're eating: How it tastes and whether you truly enjoy it or not. No sense in ordering again something you didn't really like. But you've got to notice that first.

Food should recharge you. Sitting to eat helps you rest and recover for the remainder of your day as you get the nutrition you need.

Whether you choose to indulge in a Michelin-starred chef's organic creation or the warm gooeyness of something stuffed and deep-fried, my advice is the same: Split and share. Sit and enjoy.

That's how to eat on vacation.

Want more? Check out our other travel tips.

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What's new on the discussion board: Buying a piece of theme parks

By Robert Niles
Published: January 25, 2011 at 10:38 AM

Here are this week's top new discussion threads on the Theme Park Insider Discussion Board:

Joshua Counsil is looking for some investment advice. What's your take on Theme Park Stocks?

Walt Disney Company stock certificate

Victoria Jurkowski wants to know about the Pop Century resort because she's Leaving Saturday for Disney World.

Bobbie Voegeli asks for help in deciding between Epcot Center or Animal Kingdom?

Mary Nikisher is planning a Long Weekend - 5 theme parks - do you think my itinerary is okay?

Terri Pierce is looking ahead to next winter and wants to know if Disney World's Very Merry Christmas is worth the cost?

She also kicks off some discussion about the new roller coaster in Fantasyland:
I had a dream about the new Seven Dwarfs coaster…

Andrew Mooney wants to know how big a Disney hotel can, or should, get in Disney Mega-Resorts?

Finally, Brad Jackson is seeking Trip Advice - top parks in the Penn/Va area to visit?

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Germany's Europa Park gets ready for 2011

By Robert Niles
Published: January 24, 2011 at 1:55 PM

Europe's second-most popular theme park (behind Disneyland Paris), Germany's Europa Park just released its promotional video for the 2011 season. Enjoy the sounds of Europop as you check out scenes from a park that's high on my to-do list.

A couple of points: I know they're filming these shots for a promo video, but flags on roller coasters? Seriously?

And second, a little advice to the guys. If you're looking to get close with your girl, the teacups might seem like a good idea - centrifugal force pushing her into you and all. But the impending nausea is not something you want her to associate with dating you. Find yourself a cozy little dark ride instead.

Any Europa Park visitors want to jump into the comments with some thoughts, tips or advice about this theme park?

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Disney Dream Christening Ceremony

By Scott Joseph
Published: January 24, 2011 at 9:25 AM

Disney Cruise Lines christened its newest and biggest ship, the Disney Dream, in a spectacular port-side show for dignitaries and assemble media. As two giant video screens parted to reveal the ship, anchored off shore for the show, a cast of hundreds of dancers, singers, marching bands and Disney characters, led by Mickey Mouse, filled a 16-foot champagne bottle with wishes and dreams. Once filled, the bottle was lifted by helicopter and “broken” over the port-side bow in a splash of fireworks and sparklers. Here is a video of some of the highlights

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Theme park cast member stories: Yes, we have no bananas in the Treehouse today

By Robert Niles
Published: January 24, 2011 at 8:56 AM

A recent story in the New Yorker detailed why bananas might soon be disappearing from store shelves. Which reminded me of the time a bunch of bananas did a Disney disappearing act.

Have you ever taken the time to look closely at the lush plants you'll find growing throughout the Walt Disney World Resort? Standing next to the turnstiles at the Swiss Family Treehouse, you've got a lot of time to notice the abundant flora in the Magic Kingdom's Adventureland. (I also nearly went crazy from the smell of the nearby egg roll cart, too, but that's another story.)

I'm no horticulture expert. But I know a thing or two about food. So I did a double-take when I stepped across the queue bridge to the treehouse steps on my pre-opening walk-through one morning.

Swiss Family Treehouse

"Are those... bananas?"

Sure enough, a bunch of very green, somewhat small bananas was growing in what had always looked to me like a nondescript bush next to the big fake Banyan tree trunk that supported the Robinsons' home.

I mentioned it to the lead when I came back to the Tiki Room office for my break, lacking anything else interesting talk about after an hour watching disoriented guests plod through the treehouse queue, 90 percent of them thinking they were in line for the Jungle Cruise next door.

"You're kidding," he said, jumping from his chair. "I want to see."

As you can tell, it's an exciting life at the Tiki Room.

By the end of the day, word spread to the rest of the six of us, and we'd concocted quite a plan for the bananas. We'd wait until just before they were ripe, then go in and grab 'em for the Tiki Room and Treehouse crew. A day or two later, when they were soft and yellow, it's be BananaFest behind the Tiki Room. Someone would bake some banana bread. We'd bring in ice cream for banana splits. We'd have all the bananas we could eat. I anticipated half the crew calling sick from Potassium poisoning.

Our excitement backfired, though, and with something to look forward to (after all this time!), the days passed even more slowly in the Treehouse queue. You say a watched pot never boils? Well, a watched banana takes its sweet time growing up and getting ripe, too.

A couple weeks later, we couldn't wait any longer. The decision was made - tomorrow morning, we're going in. Someone volunteered to bring a saw from home, to cut loose the bunch. Operation BananaFest was ready to commence.

(You're way ahead of me on this one, aren't you?)

I arrived for my shift the next morning to find a even more depressed Tiki and Treehouse crew waiting for me. The bananas were gone. Third-shift maintenance must have done the deed, someone said. Others had had their eyes on our bananas.

Our lead got into an argument with a maintenance lead, accusing them of swiping the bananas. The maintenance techs denied it. (We were all operating in a gray legal area here, since the bananas were Disney property, after all.) The bananas were gone, and we couldn't report it without looking like we'd been planning to steal them all along.

There was noting we could do. So we all just tried putting it out of our mind. (Mind-numbing was a skill one needed to master working the treehouse queue. And we had.)

We'd done a pretty good job of it, too. Until the two mornings later, when we saw two maintenance techs responding to a pre-opening call at the Jungle. As they walked by, we could see that they were eating... bananas.

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

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Review of Remy, the high-end restaurant on the Disney Dream

By Scott Joseph
Published: January 22, 2011 at 8:46 AM

The Disney Dream, the newest ship in the Disney Cruise Line fleet, is loaded with restaurants. With a passenger capacity of 4000, the ship has a lot of people to feed. I’ll tell you about some of the other restaurants in another review, but the restaurant that is generating the most buzz among potential passengers is Remy, and not just because it’s named after a rat. It also carries a $75 supplement fee (another $99 for the wine pairing). Worth it? Here's my review.

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Vote of the week: Journey of the Little Mermaid vs. Seven Dwarfs Mine Train

By Robert Niles
Published: January 21, 2011 at 12:08 AM

Which of the two headlining rides planned for Walt Disney World's new Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom interests you more? That's our vote of the week.

Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid and The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train stand one next to the other in that concept art for the New Fantasyland - the Little Mermaid dark ride at the top and the Seven Dwarfs roller coaster at the bottom.

This week, Disney released a behind-the-scenes look at the California Adventure version of the Little Mermaid ride, which will debut in Anaheim this spring:

We've also got two pieces of concept art for the Snow White-themed roller coaster, which will be unique to the Florida park and feature mine cars that sway around the turns on the twisted track.

Seven Dwarfs Mine Train exterior concept art

The ride's also said to feature a musical soundtrack and animatronic characters throughout, making it a blend of traditional Disney dark ride and family roller coaster experience.

Seven Dwarfs Mine Train interior concept art

So, after taking a look at all this, let's put it to a vote:


Let's continue the discussion in the comments about these two rides, and whether they're enough to convince more families to book a trip to Orlando.

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Summer road trip stories: Discovering tasty local restaurants

By Robert Niles
Published: January 20, 2011 at 12:27 PM

(We're enduring the winter with thoughts of summer, with occasional posts on last summer's family road trip across America.)

One of the fun parts of any road trip is having the chance to try a wide variety of local restaurants around different parts of the country.

I have already written about Burgerville, the local chain around the Portland, Oregon area that we loved on our family road trip vacation last summer.

But Burgerville was just one of many different local and regional chains that we sampled on our trip.

When we drove across the Great Plains, we stopped in at Runza, a Nebraska-based chain that specializes in the Russian/German ground-beef-and-cabbage-filled stuffed sandwich from which the chain takes its name. (It also serves pretty good burgers and fries, too.) The kids were a bit perplexed when they were given their kids' meals, only to be told that they had to return to the counter to claim the "prize" after finishing their lunch. They figured at first it was a cheap way for the chain to get out of giving those cheap plastic toys to every child who ordered - since some kids might not come back up.

But when they discovered that the "prize" was actually soft-serve ice cream cones, they became big fans. And I did, too. A fast-food place that makes the kids eat their meals before getting dessert? Give them a parent point from me.

Ice cream at Runza, in Nebraska

In Evanston, Illinois, Laurie and I took the kids to one of our favorites places to eat when we were undergraduates at Northwestern: Buffalo Joe's. I fell in love with buffalo wings, thanks to Joe. But in the years since I graduated, my enthusiasm for the ubiquitous game-time munchie has waned. But, what the heck, let's give it a go for old times sake, right?

A few minutes later, after Laurie and I demolished two baskets of wings, we'd realized that it wasn't just buffalo wings that we'd loved. It's Buffalo Joe's buffalo wings. I haven't a clue what makes these so much more edible than any other wings I've tried. They just are.

Buffalo Joe's

We felt obligated to introduce the kids to Chicago stuffed pizza, too, so we stopped for dinner at Giordano's, just south of campus. (We insisted on the spinach-stuffed pie, to puzzled looks from our kids. They tried, but still don't get it. Sigh.)

Giordano's spinach stuffed pizza

In Indiana last year, we took the family to our all-time favorite pizza place, Mother Bear's. Driving across the Indiana Toll Road, we were surprised to find an outlet from our second-favorite, Noble Roman's. That chain's been through several owners and formats over the years, and now's found mostly inside food courts, convenience stores, bowling alleys and the like. But we found a stand-alone store in South Bend, thanks to a tip from my sister. The pizza was good, but the big attraction at Noble Roman's is the fluffy breadsticks served with spicy cheese (think nacho) for dipping.

Noble Roman's breadsticks with spicy cheese

Laurie's family moved to Cincinnati while she was at Northwestern, but she's learned enough about the city to know that if you want ice cream, you go to Graeter's.

Laurie with a cone of Graeter's ice crierm

We're split on Cincinnati's cinnamon-spiced Skyline Chili, though. Laurie likes their coney dogs, but I think it might be possible that they have too much cheese:

Skyline chili coneys

What's your favorite local or regional restaurant chain? Tell us in the comments.

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Walt Disney World debuts new castle video show, starring park guests

By Robert Niles
Published: January 20, 2011 at 10:10 AM

Walt Disney World's started the nightly photo-projection display on the Magic Kingdom's Cinderella Castle, which it had promised as part of 2011's "Let the Memories Begin" promotional campaign.

Here's a video clip, from Disney:

Perhaps it's because I don't know any of the park visitors featured in the clips. Or perhaps it's because I'm just a cold-hearted tech geek. But the element of the presentation which impressed me most wasn't the images of the children on the castle. It was the spectacular, "Inception"-like video projections that played with the castle's form itself.

The effects color the castle like a kindergartener's crayon picture, crumble the castle's walls in a pixelated dissolve and shoot fireworks streaming across the castle, which then continue as real pyrotechnics in the sky behind. Color me... impressed.

Update: Here's a video of the complete show, sent along by our friend Scott Joseph:

Scott writes: "This is so much more than a slide show on the walls. At times the castle seems to fall into a pile of dust, or go up in flames, or seem to launch one of its turrets into space. I gotta tell you, I'm pretty jaded about this sort of thing, and it blew me away."

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Six Flags Unveils a Payment Plan for Season Passes

By Anthony Murphy
Published: January 19, 2011 at 11:16 PM

Not to be left behind in ticket deals, Six Flags is offering a payment plan for their season tickets this upcoming season.

Starting now for a limited time, guests can spread the payment for their season pass over three months with 1/3 of the cost paid up front, 1/3 a month after purchase, and 1/3 two months after purchase.

Prices differ based upon which park you are purchasing, but for Six Flags Great America, one of the more expensive parks (and the home park of this TPI writer) the prices are $74.99 for an individual pass or $64.99 when you buy four or more season passes.

Season passes, as usual, come with a book of discounts, free tickets for friends, and entry to any Six Flags Park in America and Fright Fest, Six Flags' annual Halloween Party.

More information can be found here. What do you think?

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Travel tips: How to meet and greet a theme park character

By Robert Niles
Published: January 19, 2011 at 12:21 PM

For many parents, the highlight of their theme park visit is to snap a picture of their children with Mickey Mouse, Spider-Man or some other theme park character.

Mickey and Minnie Mouse, with the TPI kids

As soon as a character emerges from behind backstage wall at any theme park, a crowd inevitably will materialize, as parents gather to queue for their chance to get that keepsake photo.

But character meet and greets can turn ugly when certain parents and children fail to show the proper manners. I've spoken with several "good friends" of Mickey Mouse, Goofy and other theme park characters, and am happy to share their advice on how to meet and greet their "friends."

  1. Wait your turn.

  2. Don't be mad if a character is leaving. Generally that character will be back in five minutes.

  3. Have cameras, autograph books and pens ready. Not just because it moves the line but it gives your family more quality time with your favorite character.

  4. Stay in the character's field of vision (never approach from side or behind - if the character is on the street ahead of you, go around to approach it from front. You can try calling their name to get their attention, but still will have to go around if he doesn't stop and turn around.)

  5. Follow the character's cues. Watch for it to motion where to stand, etc. The characters know what it takes to get a good photo. Follow their lead.

  6. Talk politely to the character, and politely direct your child if he or she seems intimidated or confused.

  7. Don't touch the character. If you want to shake hands or hive five, put out your hand and let character touch it.

  8. Say thank you when done.

Where are some of your favorite places to meet characters in the parks? Tell us in the comments.

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Disney Vacation Club changes rules on booking theme park hotel rooms

By Robert Niles
Published: January 18, 2011 at 9:02 PM

The Disney Vacation Club is making a change that will make it harder for thousands of Disney fans to visit the company's theme parks this year.

Of course, the change might make it easier for thousands of other fans to visit Walt Disney World and Disneyland, too.

Old Key West Resort at Walt Disney World

How so? Disney's barring Disney Vacation Club members from using points that they buy from other DVC members to book nights at Walt Disney World and Disneyland hotels. If you want to book at a Disney World or Disneyland hotel, you have to use points that you bought from DVC, Disney's time-share arm. (Though, of course, Disney will never, ever call it that.)

DVC members can continue to use points bought on the secondary market to book DVC properties at Disney World, as well as vacations at non-theme park DVC properties, such as Disney's Vero Beach facility. And they can book at other properties that participate in DVC's time-share exchange network.

But by taking the "regular" hotel rooms out of the DVC pool, Disney will make it harder for members using "after-market" points to book WDW vacations. They'll have to compete with fellow members for only the rooms available at the DVC resorts, while members using Disney-bought points can book either at the DVC properties or the regular Disney World hotels.

Why would people buy points from other DVC members? 'Cause they're cheaper, that's why. With the collapse of the housing bubble, thousands of DVC members not longer have the home equity cash to spend on stuff like DVC vacations. Others have lost jobs or income, cutting into vacation funds. So they try to recoup a few extra bucks selling their leftover points to others.

If you're wondering, Disney can't ban the resale to others of DVC assets like it can theme park tickets, due to various state real estate laws. But it does give itself the right of first refusal on point resales. And it appears to be within its rights to change the terms under which members can use resold points. (Though I wouldn't be surprised to see someone sue.)

Any DVC members want to comment?

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Walt Disney World unveils the new 'new Fantasyland' plans

By Robert Niles
Published: January 18, 2011 at 1:29 PM

Walt Disney World today announces its next version of its next version of Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom.

After announcing plans in 2009 for (let's face it) its response to Universal Orlando's Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Disney's changed the new Fantasyland attraction line-up to broaden the land's appeal beyond Disney Princesses.

The Pixie Hollow character greeting area is gone, as are separate themed areas for Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. Instead, all the princesses will be gathered in the "Princess Fairytale Hall," which will take the place of Snow White's Scary Adventures.

Snow White and her dwarfs aren't being evicted however. Disney's chosen to go ahead and actually build what might be the most-suggested ride in theme park history: The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, an indoor family coaster themed to Disney's first feature-length animated film.

Concept art courtesy Disney

The "Beauty and the Beast"-themed Be Our Guest restaurant remains, as does the circus-themed section featuring an expanded Dumbo ride (*and the Little Mermaid ride). Goofy's Barnstormer be retained from the soon-to-close Mickey's Toontown, as expected, but be renamed "The Great Goofini," to keep with the circus theme of this part of the new development.

What do you think? Is the de-emphasis on the princesses a plus, or minus, for your family? Is the addition of an indoor family roller coaster enough to make you think about a visit, if you weren't before?

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What's new on the discussion board: Disney, Universal and Busch Gardens tips

By Robert Niles
Published: January 18, 2011 at 11:01 AM

Your fellow Theme Park Insider readers have the answers to your vacation planning questions on the Theme Park Insider Discussion Board. Here are this week's top new threads:

Michele Kolier wants to hear your advice on the Best Days to Visit Harry Potter World - Presidents Week.

Hogwarts Castle

Amy Treat is looking for help planning an April vacation trip to Busch Gardens, VA.

Shari Lockyer would like to know the difference between Universal Orlando's Express pass vs. On-site hotel access

Universal Orlando's Hermione Potter takes a trip over to Walt Disney World and offers her Norway Princess Dinner Review.

Daniel Cernuschi asks Where to visit first - WDW or Universal?

Brady Allen is planning a trip to Disney World and asks for Saratoga villas advice?

Julie Zimmerman challenges Theme Park Insider readers to devise the best tour plan for One day at MK. What's yours?

Tim W starts a, uh, flame war (pun very much intended) in asking about Tiki Room: The Future?

Daniel Etcheberry wants to hear your plans for remaking Tomorrowland in How to make Magic Kingdom's future world more exciting?

Karen Kuebler asks for your Help for 1st timers going to Busch Gardens Williamsburg

Terri Pierce is curious about how long you can get away with using theme park Souvenir Cups.

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Next Walt Disney: Challenge 1 Voting

By Andy Milio
Published: January 17, 2011 at 2:23 PM

Challenge 1 of Next Walt Disney has concluded, and now it's time to pick your favorite. Make sure you check out the submissions before you vote. This poll ends in 2 days and remember, nobody is eliminated today.

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Wild Africa Trek VIP tour debuts at Disney's Animal Kingdom

By Robert Niles
Published: January 17, 2011 at 11:37 AM

This weekend, Walt Disney World debuted a new extra-charge tour for visitors to Disney's Animal Kingdom.

The Wild Africa Trek is a new three-hour-tour (insert Gilligan's Island joke here) that takes visitors into remote areas of the park's safari habitat, previously open only to Disney cast members. Disney's built a new series of rope bridges and observation decks to accommodate tour guests.


Video courtesy Walt Disney World

The tour is an extra charge on top of your theme park ticket. (I was quoted a $129 per person price, and told it was an "introductory" offer.) For a list of other tours, check out our Insider's guide to VIP and backstage tours at Walt Disney World.

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Summer road trip stories: Crossing the U.S./Canadian border

By Robert Niles
Published: January 17, 2011 at 11:25 AM

(We're keeping warm this winter by remembering scenes our most recent family summer road trip.)

Like many Americans, I was born with a big ego and a lot of pride in my country. Which is why I felt so depressed at the Peace Arch border crossing last summer, going into and coming out of Canada.

Leaving the United States and entering Canada was like driving into a Disney theme park - a beautifully landscaped building that looked like a ski lodge flanked a long row of booths, staffed with customs agents who moved the queue of waiting cars swiftly.

Peace Arch border crossing into Canada

And few days later, returning to America, the road narrowed to a couple of lanes that crept through a construction zone, guarded by a hand-written sign that read "No Public Access."

Peace Arch border crossing into the United States

The world's most popular theme parks spend so much on creating impressive entrances for a reason - they make visitors feel welcomed and comfortable. (Which, in turn, encourages them to spend money.) Canada's entrance did that. America's did not. And, as an America, that frustrated me. My country ought to be better than that.

Yes, I know that we're in the process of building a new Port of Entry at Peace Arch. But why did we let ours get in such bad shape in the first place? Canada got its new facility built in plenty of time for the Olympics last year. We should have, too.

Too often in America, we think in terms of what kind of country we can afford instead of what kind of country we want to be. Trust me, Walt Disney didn't create Disneyland thinking first about only what he could afford. He thought of what he wanted his theme park to be, then found a way to pay for it.

In that respect, I wish that we Americans thought more often about our country the way Walt thought about his theme park. Why shouldn't we always strive for the best, and instead of settling for the cheap?

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Theme Park Apprentice 2: And the Winner Is...

By Tim W
Published: January 14, 2011 at 5:48 PM

The Winner of Theme Park Apprentice 2 is Dan Babbitt. Congratulations Dan on the victory this season! Thank you to everyone who has participated in this season, including the apprentices, the voters, and our sitemaster, Robert Niles.

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Vote of the week: What is the worst theme park attraction in America?

By Robert Niles
Published: January 13, 2011 at 10:22 PM

Props once again to the folks at Walt Disney World, for so quickly and efficiently responding to the fire at the Magic Kingdom's The Enchanted Tiki Room this week. That no one was hurt and no major damage done has allowed folks to crack many a joke about this, uh, less-than-popular version of Walt Disney's classic Tiki Room attraction:

The Enchanted Tiki Room: Under New Management

"Just heard that the fire at Disney World's Tiki Room that Reedy Creek put out today actually started last week. No one had noticed."

"Guests were told there was no major damage to the Tiki Room, which caused 100 of them to walk immediately to City Hall and complain."

The jokes inspire me to ask a very important question for this week's vote: What is the worst theme park attraction in America?

Here are our candidates, the five major attractions which have pulled the lowest average reader scores in our Theme Park Insider ratings:

As Jeff Probst would say, "It's time to vote." If only the one with the most votes in this tally were voted off the theme park island....


Tell us, in the comments, why you voted for the one you did. And thank you, again, for reading Theme Park Insider.

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Summer road trip stories: The Olympic trivia games

By Robert Niles
Published: January 13, 2011 at 9:33 PM

Winter weather getting you down? Warm up with thoughts of summer as we recount a family summer road trip.

On our road trip this summer, we visited the latest two cities in North America to host the Olympic Games - Salt Lake City and Vancouver.

And there am I (with my back to the camera) next to Vancouver's Olympic Torch, with my kids - several months too late to see any action.

Vancouver Olympic torch

I don't know if your family does this, but one of my tricks to pass time in the car between cities is to challenge everyone to trivia questions about our various destinations. After noting that we'd just visited two Winter Olympic cities, I told them that over the past two summer we'd also driven through the three U.S. cities which had hosted a Summer Olympics.

But what were they?

My wife answered Atlanta almost immediately.

After a couple moments and a forehead slap or two, they figured out Los Angeles (where we live, duh).

But no one guessed the third city.

Can you? (The answer is in the comments.)

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Busch Gardens Tampa offers freebies to first riders on new Gwazi roller coaster trains

By Robert Niles
Published: January 13, 2011 at 9:01 PM

Busch Gardens Tampa will re-open its Gwazi wooden roller coaster on Saturday January 22, with new Millennium Flyer trains on the dual tracks.


Here's Gwazi, with the old trains

To celebrate the re-opening of the coaster, visitors who ride Gwazi on the 22nd will receive a coupon good for 30 percent off at any food location in the park, including restaurants and snack carts. In addition, anyone who rides on that day while riding a Gwazi or American Coaster Enthusiasts T-shirt will get a free ride photo.

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Universal Orlando Mardi Gras 2011 concert lineup announced

By Domenik Jost
Published: January 13, 2011 at 5:52 PM

Throw me something mister! It's that time of year again. The Mardi Gras celebration returns to Universal Studios Florida. This morning around 11am Universal Orlando announced the 2011 Mardi Gras lineup. 

2/12 Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons; 2/19 The B-52s; 2/20 KC & The Sunshine Band; 2/26 Pitbull; 3/5 Lynyrd Skynyrd; 3/12 Foreigner; 3/18 Neon Trees; 3/25 OneRepublic; 3/26 Blake Shelton; 4/1 Sean Kingston; 4/2 Ne-Yo; 4/9 Lifehouse; 4/16 The Beach Boys; 4/23 Thirty Seconds To Mars

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Fire at the Tiki Room attraction inside Disney's Magic Kingdom

By Domenik Jost
Published: January 12, 2011 at 10:52 PM

While the rest of the country is having snow problems, Central Florida theme parks are having some problems with fires. Just less than two weeks ago a fire broke out at Universal's Islands of Adventure and today we got the news that a fire broke out in The Enchanted Tiki Room Under New Management attraction at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom.

According to the Reedy Creek Fire Department, fire crews were called to the attraction at around 5:30 p.m. tonight. The relatively small fire was said to have started in the attic of the attraction and was stopped from spreading to the rest of the attraction by the buildings fire sprinklers. The area around the Adventureland section of the park was briefly evacuated until firefighters were certain that the fire was completely doused. As of 8 p.m. RCFD spokesman Bo Jones said that the Enchanted Tiki Room was closed to park guests as crews worked toward clearing out the excess sprinkler water. The cause of the fire is still under investigation and crews are still working to determine the amount of damage this fire caused to the attraction. It is unclear when it will reopen at this time.

I do think both Disney and Universal deserve a round of applause for the way keeping up safety standards and handeling these situations very well with no guests and employees being injured.

Both local news station WESH and the Orlando Sentinel reported on the fire.

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Summer road trip stories: Taking silly vacation pictures

By Robert Niles
Published: January 12, 2011 at 8:53 PM

We're getting through the winter by remembering some warm thoughts of summer. Travel with us on a family road trip vacation.

One great part of the fun of a road trip is finding excuses to take silly pictures. See a goofy sign? An inexplicable sculpture? Stop the car and get out the camera. Hey, it breaks up the monotony of the road and gives everyone a chance to stretch their legs, and their smiles.

So we had to take a picture of... this, outside Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon.

Kinetic sculpture in Portland, Oregon
Apologies if this is supposed to be something profoundly serious. We didn't find a plaque, and the kids simply decided to have fun with it.

Speaking of Powell's, if you love reading as I and my family do, try to schedule a visit to the world's largest independent book store some day.

Powell's Books

With the store filling an entire city block, you might want to invest in a loaf of bread to drop a trail of crumbs to find your way back once Powell's one-million-plus volumes lure you deep within.

If any Portland visitors or residents want to chime in about Powell's, the comments await. Otherwise, I'd love to hear about your favorite wacky vacation photo stories.

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Travel tips: How to ride a roller coaster

By Robert Niles
Published: January 12, 2011 at 1:01 PM

Many regular readers of Theme Park Insider are roller coaster veterans: folks who've learned how to ride even the scariest, fastest and most stomach-churning roller coasters without fear.

This post is for the rest of us.

The Voyage

What do you do when you're visiting a theme or amusement park and everyone else wants to ride the Big Coaster but you're, well... ? I'm just gonna say it:

Afraid.

If you really want to ride a roller coaster, there is a way to overcome your fear, concern or worry and do it. You don't have to spend part of your day at a theme park watching everyone else's bags and purses. You don't have to kill time in the shops or on a bench while the rest of your family and friends have fun. You can learn how to ride a roller coaster.

And, even, to enjoy it.

First, allow me to assure you that if you follow the park's safety rules, the odds are overwhelming that you won't get hurt riding a roller coaster. I've been tracking theme park accidents for more than a decade now, and know that millions of people ride roller coasters every year without incident. Now, I won't lie to you - some people get injured, or even die, on roller coasters. But of those who have died, almost every one of them either had a health problem that should have kept them from riding or did something colossally stupid that put themselves in grave risk. And even that number of incidents represents a tiny fraction of a fraction of the total number of roller coaster rides in this country.

You're taking a far, far greater chance getting in a car to drive to the amusement park than you are by getting on a roller coaster. So if you're cool getting into an automobile, you ought to be okay with climbing into a roller coaster seat.

Of course, riding a roller coaster doesn't feel like riding a car. (And if it does, you need to find a better driver - or a better roller coaster.) Let's acknowledge what happens to your body on a coaster. The dips, jumps, twists and speed will subject you to a variety of gravitational forces. Those forces are part of what make a coaster fun to fans: the pressure of a high-G turn, followed by the liberation of zero-G "air time" as the coaster crests a hill at high speed.

Those forces are why parks prohibit people with certain health conditions from riding. If you are pregnant, or have any heart, neck or back problems, you're not supposed to ride, and you shouldn't.

If you're overweight or out of shape, a park won't keep you from riding its coasters (assuming you'll fit in the seat), but I'll tell you from personal experience that you'll have a much better time on the coaster if you drop some pounds and get in shape. Why not consider an upcoming theme park trip as incentive? You'll not only feel better flying down a coaster track at 60 mph, you'll feel better every moment of your life.

Comfort's important. If you're uncomfortable sitting in your seat in the coaster's loading station, you're gonna be uncomfortable out on the ride. Many parks now put a couple coaster seats at the queue entrance for their roller coasters, so visitors can sit down and give them a try before investing the time to wait for a ride. Different roller coasters have different seats, so don't assume that just because you were comfortable on one type of roller coaster, you'll feel fine on all others. Give the seats a try before getting in line.

If the seat works for you, take a moment to find the "grab bar." This is a metal handle or pair of handles that you can hold while you're riding. I've found that many coaster newbies feel more secure when they've got their hands on the grab bar during the ride. If the coaster is one with "over the shoulder" restraints, you'll usually find the grab bars there, at about chest level, on either side of the restraint. If you're in a more traditional "mine car"-type coaster seat, you'll find the grab bar on the side or front of the car.

Once you're comfortably seated with your hands, reassuringly, on the grab bar, be sure to keep your eyes open as you leave the station, and throughout the ride. Don't give in to the temptation to close your eyes.

Your eyes tell your body what's coming next on the ride, allowing you to subconsciously adjust to every change on the track ahead. That's why coaster designers up the thrill factor on relatively tame coasters by building them inside and running them in the dark. If you can't see the track ahead, and your body can't prepare, that makes the ride feel wilder than it really is.

You're trying to make the ride feel more manageable, not out-of-control. Keep those eyes open.

Here's the best tip I can give a roller coaster rookie: If you're over 16 and have a driver's license, just pretend you're driving the coaster. As you go down the first hill, or launch out of the station, mash your right foot forward like you're pressing the gas pedal. If you feel like the coaster's going too fast, slam that accelerator harder. Gas it. Steer the thing with the grab bar. Put yourself in control.

(If you're not a driver, think about a video game controller instead. Push that acceleration button hard!)

This is driver's ed. Just as you needed practice to learn how to drive a car well, you'll need practice to learn how to ride a roller coaster. Don't give up after one ride. Get back on that same coaster and try to drive it better this time. And again, until you feel like the IndyCar champion of that track.

Then try other coasters. Be the world champion race car driver on one. The Air Force stunt pilot on another. Or, a broom-riding Quidditch player, too. The more your mind and imagination is actively engaged in the ride, the more comfortable and in control you will feel.

Ultimately, if you get really good at this, you'll change to doing things to make yourself feel less in control, such as closing your eyes, or looking at something behind you on the track to divert your attention. (Google "goat trick" for an example.) Whatever you do, though, never break a park's safety rules. They are there to protect you.

I hope that this encourages a few folks with roller coaster phobia to give one a try. For the rest of you, the roller coaster pros, why not help your fellow readers by offering a few tips of your own, in the comments?

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Summer road trip stories: Taking a trip to Burgerville

By Robert Niles
Published: January 11, 2011 at 3:11 PM

We're getting through the winter by reliving summer, with a daily look back at an epic family vacation road trip. Share your story, in the comments.

Where do you stop to eat when you're on the road?

Whenever we take a road trip, we try to find local restaurants for lunches and dinners. Whether it's an independent restaurant or a local chain, we choose to avoid the McDonalds of the world (I haven't eaten in one since, well, the 20th century) in favor of something unique to the area we're visiting.

Before our trips, I hit up sites such as Eat Well Guide and Roadfood to find popular, locally-owned and operated restaurants along our route. Eat Well Guide looks for places serving organic and locally-produced food while Roadfood devotes more attention to down-home greasy spoons. Find a restaurant well-recommended on both websites and, chances are, you've discovered a winner.

So when lunchtime rolled around on the second day of our road trip, we pulled over to try Oregon's Burgerville.

Burgerville sign

We're devoted In-N-Out fans in our household. We love the simplicity of its fresh ingredients, well-prepared. But Burgerville's menu of burgers, salads, seafood and the occasional deep-fried local organic vegetable has me craving another trip to the Pacific Northwest.

Milkshakes
Natalie decides to try a combination chocolate, vanilla and strawberry ice-cream milkshake.

The kids scarfed their burgers while I chose a salad with fresh greens, smoked salmon and Oregon hazelnuts in a vinaigrette dressing. Yum. If you don't like fish, it's only because you haven't tastes salmon like this. It was so meaty, I thought for a moment that someone had messed up and thrown diced Virginia ham into my salad. But then I remember that I was in the Pacific Northwest and that seafood here hasn't spent hours on a plane and days in a warehouse before hitting my plate.

There's a reason why the word "fishy" has come to mean "suspect." If fish tastes, well, fishy, that's because it's not fresh. Well-handled and prepared seafood avoids any hint of "fishiness" and allows you to taste instead the fish's true flavor. After that first bite of salad, there was no mistaking this for ham. It was salmon, in its rich, meaty glory.

And I wanted more. So from Portland up the coast to Canada, I binged on some of the tastiest seafood dishes I've ever enjoyed.

Tomorrow, we'll continue our Oregon road trip with a visit to Powell's Books.

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What's new on the discussion board: Cheetah Hunt construction photos and what kids think of Disney 'magic'

By Robert Niles
Published: January 11, 2011 at 11:54 AM

Got a question about theme parks? Got a trip report to share or a suggestion to offer? Then head over to the Theme Park Insider Discussion Board. Here are the top new threads of the week:

We start with reader Tony Duda offering some new construction photos of Busch Gardens Tampa's new launch coaster Cheetah Hunt.

Cheetah Hunt, under construction

On the topic of Busch Gardens in Florida, brian lochridge wants to know: Busch Guided Adventure Tour, is it worth it?

And on the subject of roller coasters, Andrew Holden is back from Universal Studios Florida, and credits the park for Rockit: Miracle Makeover!

Rob P wonders which theme park attractions you'd like to rename in What's in a name?

Laura Melville offers us a Trip Report - Universal Singapore.

Meow Mix lets us know How we paid only $99 per night on-site at Universal Orlando.

Finally, Derek Morse kicks off a "magical" debate in Kids these days and Disney World.

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Theme Park Apprentice 2: The Final

By Tim W
Published: January 10, 2011 at 10:36 PM

We've arrived at the final challenge of Theme Park Apprentice 2, where the remaining contestants submit their designs for a complete theme park. Please read their pitches, then vote for your favorite:

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Universal Studios Hollywood offers two discounts to locals in 2011

By Robert Niles
Published: January 10, 2011 at 3:59 PM

Universal Studios Hollywood is bringing back its buy-a-day, get-the-year-free deal for Southern California residents.

Entrance to Universal Studios Hollywood

For the $74.99 - the same price as a non-discounted one-day admission ticket, SoCal residents can get an annual pass to the movie studio/theme park. The pass is not valid for 12 blockout days, but you can buy the pass for first use on one of those days. (A no-blockout annual pass is available online for $94.99.)

Universal's also offering a discount to teachers and other school employees. California K-12 school employees can get 50 percent off the cost of up to four one-day tickets to Universal Studios Hollywood in 2011. Just show your school employment ID at a USH ticket window to get the discount. You can fid the fine print for this deal on on Universal's website.

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Summer road trip stories: A volcano's not your average mountain

By Robert Niles
Published: January 10, 2011 at 12:23 PM

Stuck at work or home and daydreaming about the fun of a summer vacation? Then come with us over the next few weeks as we relive an epic family road trip.

Google map of the Niles family 2010 summer road trip

On TPI here, we'll be re-hitting the road from Los Angeles up to Vancouver, then into the Rocky Mountains to visit Salt Lake City. From Utah, we'll cut across the country to Chicago and Cleveland, before turning south. We'll visit Cincinnati on our way to Orlando, where we'll turn back west for a final cross-country leg, returning us to Los Angeles.

In all, we traveled six weeks and more than 8,000 miles on our trip.

Along the way on the blog, I'll point out some of the interesting sights from that road trip last summer, and talk about what makes travel so special and rewarding. And I'll invite you to share your road trip stories, too.

The Niles family always begins its road trips before dawn. A pre-dawn start allows you to beat the morning rush hour out of town and spend the day on the road thinking "wow, we're making great time" instead of "oh, no, we have to speed up or we'll never get anywhere." Plus, who can sleep in the day of exciting road trip? Not us.

And so we piled into the Prius for our trip up Interstate 5 last summer. The sun had just began to peek over the San Gabriel Mountains as we passed the roller coasters of Six Flags Magic Mountain on our way north. Once you're past the Grapevine, I-5 provides the least scenic route up California, but allows you to make wicked fast time without all that coastal scenery, mountain views or even towns to slow you. What better time to drive this road that the first morning of a road trip, when adrenaline and an iPod filled with new songs you're not sick of yet can carry you along the way?

After lunch outside of Sacramento (365 miles north of home), we pushed on, into the Cascades.

Laurie and I adore mountains. We can't imagine living back east again, where we wouldn't be able to see our beloved western mountains on a daily basis. But the Rocky Mountains Laurie grew up with are a very different mountain range than the Cascades. Save for a trip to Hawaii, Laurie had never seen a volcano in person before.

In Hawaii, the volcano is the island. It's hard to get far enough away from the mountain to appreciate its mass and height, unless you set sail into the ocean or grab the correct window seat for your flight. But on Interstate 5, driving north, Mount Shasta grabs your attention like a James Harrison hit on a Cleveland wide receiver.

Mount Shasta

Laurie couldn't stop taking pictures of this mountain, though she'd seen so many others so many times before. A volcano is an awesome thing - standing above and beyond other mountains, hogging attention for itself. Farther up the coast we'd see Mount Hood and Mount Ranier, and we'd eagerly point our cameras and cell phones at those, too.

Looking at the map you might think "Meh, mountains. We've seen those." But the mountains we'd seen were nothing like the mountains that the Pacific Northwest has in store for us.

That's one reason why we keep hitting the road - to find those sights we've not seen before.

Tomorrow we'll continue up the 5 for our first trip into Oregon - foodie paradise.

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Vote of the week: Are you a theme park pin trader?

By Robert Niles
Published: January 7, 2011 at 12:12 PM

It's hard to find a Disney theme park stores that doesn't sell those cloisonné or hard enamel pins. Disney started actively encouraging pin trading in its theme parks back in the 1990s, if I recall correctly, after media buzz about the popularity of pin trading at the Olympic games.

Cast member pin-trading lanyard
Photo courtesy Disney

Of course, pin trading's a huge business for Disney now because, in order to trade, you need pins. And Disney sells them by the truckload.

At first, there were pins for the various attractions and characters in the parks. Now it seems that there are pins for just about every event, season and mood change by anyone or anything associated with the parks. I just got the 2011 D23 pin in the mail. And I have in my desk drawer somewhere a Walt Disney World News pin that the media relations department sent out a few years back.

And, to show that other theme park companies can play in this space, I have a Hedwig pin on a Wizarding World of Harry Potter media-day lanyard stashed in the same drawer.

Other than that, though, I don't do pins. But many of you do, I suspect. So let's put it up for a vote:


I'd love to hear, in the comments, what you think about pin trading. If you don't do it, why not? If you do, what would you say to encourage others to start?

As always, have a great weekend, and thanks for reading Theme Park Insider!

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Influential Knott's Berry Farm ride designer passes away

By Robert Niles
Published: January 6, 2011 at 6:18 PM

Theme park fans might not know the name of Bud Hurlbut, but the Knott's Berry Farm ride designer might have been one of the more influential people in shaping the theme park industry.

Hurlbut, who died yesterday at the age 92 according to a Knott's statement, created the park's iconic Timber Mountain Log Ride and Calico Mine Ride.

Timber Mountain Log Ride at Knott's

Built 20 years before Disneyland opened Splash Mountain, Knott's Log Ride set the standard for log flume rides around the world, by incorporating a basic flume ride within a full-sized mountain, complete with theme, scenery and storytelling.

Hurlbut's Calico Mine Ride also helped establish Knott's bona fides as a world-class theme park and not simply a collection of standard amusement thrill rides.

Of course, some will argue that Knott's current owners - Cedar Fair - have moved away from the park's original model and more toward standard amusement rides. But that should in no way diminish Hurlbut's work, which has influenced and inspired designers at Disney, Universal and throughout the theme park industry.

More from the Orange County Register

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Star Wars is coming to Legoland California's Miniland

By Robert Niles
Published: January 6, 2011 at 2:33 PM

Legoland California announced new attractions for 2011 today, headlined by the first fictional section of its iconic Miniland attraction.

Lego Millennium Falcon
Master builders work on the Millennium Falcon model for Legoland's Star Wars Miniland. Photo courtesy Legoland California

Star Wars Miniland will debut March 31, 2011. This new section of Miniland will depict in Lego bricks scenes and scenery from the six Star Wars films plus the Clone Wars animated series. Until now, Miniland has depicted scenes from famous tourist sites around the world, though with sometimes fanciful spin. Legoland California will be the first to get the Star Wars Miniland, which is actually being built at the Legoland in Germany. That Legoland, along with the original in Denmark, will get copies of the Star Wars Miniland later this year.

Legoland California's also tweaking its popular Fun Town Fire Academy.

Fun Town Police and Fire Academy

On April 12, the ride will become "Police and Fire Academy" and half the teams competing will be rushing to knock down robbers with their water pumps, rather than put out fires. The switch should help encourage re-rides of an attraction that was already popular for multiple visits, given its competitive nature.

Legoland's also adding a new Duplo Zoo-themed toddler area to its adjacent water park. That will open May 26.

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Universal Orlando sells its millionth Butterbeer: Did you buy one?

By Robert Niles
Published: January 6, 2011 at 11:38 AM

Universal Orlando this morning announced that it had sold its one-millionth Butterbeer at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. And to celebrate, Islands of Adventure gave away 1,000 free Butterbeers to morning visitors in the Wizarding World.

A really big Butterbeer toast
Photo courtesy Universal

Now, wait a minute. Universal announced its one-millionth rider on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey several months ago. And the attendance gains at Universal Orlando make clear that several million people have visited the Wizarding World since it opened. So today's announcement seems to confirm that many visitors to the new Harry Potter "theme park" have chosen not to buy a Butterbeer when they visit.

As someone who's consumed, uh, several of those one-million Butterbeers to date, what the heck? This stuff is awesome. It's liquid candy crack.

Okay, then, maybe the folks who chose not to imbibe a Butterbeer were the smart ones. They don't have to live with the addiction that causes me to drool onto my keyboard now when I see photos like this. And don't tell me I can make one at home. I've tried, but it just doesn't taste the same as when I'm sitting in the Hog's Head Pub. (By the way, if you are visiting the Wizarding World, don't queue to buy your Butterbeer at the cart. Slip into the pub for your drink, instead.)

Let's put it to a vote:


Butterbeer discussion - in the comments.

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Current discount offers from Walt Disney World and Disneyland, in video

By Robert Niles
Published: January 6, 2011 at 11:19 AM

Walt Disney World is back with its Jungle Cruise ad (we talked about it last year, too), promoting its 2011 deal for Florida residents: Four days at the four theme parks for $119. Here's the video:

Here's the Disneyland version, which is $99 for two days at the two parks:

And here's a 3-day park-hopper for $169 offer from Disneyland, too:

That deal is not restricted to Southern California residents, BTW.

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What will 2010's top 10 for theme park attendance look like?

By Robert Niles
Published: January 6, 2011 at 10:06 AM

With 2010 in the history books, I'm curious what Theme Park Insider readers think the annual U.S. Top 10 list for theme park attendance will look like. Last year, TEA/AECOM released their report for 2009 in April. What's your guess for what that Top 10 list will look like this year?

Cinderella's Castle
Last year's U.S. theme park champion

We've got clues aplenty, as individual parks and companies have released attendance data in federal SEC reports and press releases. We know that Universal Orlando's attendance is way up, and that Walt Disney World's attendance likely was down. Disneyland increased a bit, and California Adventure was up a lot. But we need to put it all together.

Will this be the year that Disneyland reclaims the attendance crown from its younger sibling, Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom?

It seems a given, at this point, that - thanks to Harry Potter - Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure will be the first Orlando-area park to beat a Walt Disney World park in attendance. But can it pass even Epcot to become the number two park in Orlando, behind the Magic Kingdom?

Can Universal Studios Florida ride IOA's coat-tails to beat Disney's Animal Kingdom, traditionally the least-attended Walt Disney World park? Or could World of Color boost California Adventure to beating one of its Disney World sister parks?

Will we see just a reshuffling of the Top 10, or will another park knock out Universal Studios Hollywood or SeaWorld Orlando to enter the list?

My best guess?

1. Disneyland
2. Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom
3. Epcot
4. Disney's Hollywood Studios
5. Universal's Islands of Adventure
6. Disney's Animal Kingdom
7. Disney California Adventure
8. Universal Studios Florida
9. SeaWorld Orlando
10. Universal Studios Hollywood

But remember, I'm an idiot when it comes to predictions. Please submit your guess for the 2010 U.S./North America theme park attendance leaders in the comments and we'll see who can pick the Top 10 better than I can.

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'Next Walt Disney' Game: Contestants Wanted

By Andy Milio
Published: January 6, 2011 at 12:21 AM

"Next Walt Disney," a continuation of the ever-popular "Theme Park Apprentice" game played on the Theme Park Insider Discussion Board, is currently looking for contestants.

If you are interested in playing along, see the sign-up thread on the discussion board. Thanks, and we're looking forward to some great ideas!

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Travel tips: How to avoid jet lag

By Robert Niles
Published: January 5, 2011 at 11:31 AM

Each Wednesday, for the next several weeks, I'll be devoting a post to some of my favorite travel tips. Today, we'll kick off the series by talking about how to fight jet lag.

Jet lag's cause is mental. Your mind is telling your body what time it thinks it is - but it's wrong. So the key to fighting jet lag is to convince your mind to communicate the correct time to your body.

Jetway

Here's what I do: When I walk down the jetway to my flight, I think of myself walking into a time machine. When I step into that plane, the time magically shifts to the time at my destination. I change my watch, my cell phone and my computer to my destination's time zone, and put out of my mind any thought that it could be any other time.

Your mind takes time to adjust to a new situation. Better to make that adjustment within the (relative) sensory deprivation chamber of an airplane than at your destination, where you're supposed to be enjoying a vacation.

So if it is time to sleep when you get on the place, sleep. If it is time to eat, eat. If it's time to stay awake and work, stay awake and work.

This is a big deal on some overnight flights from the U.S. to Europe, where you might get a meal service after take-off, even though it's close to midnight (or later) at your destination. Skip that meal, and prepare for sleep instead.

Much of what feels like jet lag on (and after) a trip is actually exhaustion. Travel can drain your energy. Few of us ever get any decent sleep on an airplane. So support your effort to fight jet lag by getting rest before you leave.

Make the 24 hours before your flight departs your quiet time. Finish packing before then. Don't schedule any errands, meetings or deadlines during that time. Get all that done before the 24-hour period before your vacation starts. Don't plan any parties or dates then, either. Make your last 24 hours before the flight a quiet time at home. Get to bed at a reasonable hour, but don't sleep in on your travel day.

If you'll be trying to sleep soon after boarding your flight, be sure to eat your "dinner" before you get on the plane. Whether you eat at home or the airport depends upon what time it will be at your destination when you walk onto the plane.

Other than switching your final pre-trip dinner time if needed, I'm no fan of trying to slowly adjust your mental clock to your destination time zone in the days leading up to your vacation. All that's doing is substituting jet lag at your destination for jet "lag" at home.

Help yourself to stay comfortable on the plane by avoiding alcohol in the day leading to and during your flight, but drinking all the water you can. (If you're afraid that you'll get hungry on the plane because you skipped the meal service, ask for orange juice when the drink cart comes by.)

Take your shoes off when you board, too. That really helps your comfort level on board. Don't stress out if you can't sleep when you're supposed to on the plane, either. Just pull down the window shade, get under your blanket and be quiet. Read a book or listen to some calming music if you need something to occupy your mind. Get what sleep you can and don't worry about it. Like I said, few of us get decent sleep on a plane.

When you reach your destination, stay with that local time. I try to plan a lot of outdoor walking for my first day in a far-away destination, to reaffirm to my body what the correct "day time" is. Sunlight (even on a cloudy day) resets your mind and body clock better than any other stimulus.

Finally, don't forget to do the same thing when you're ready to come home. Too many travelers forget to stick with their anti-jet lag strategy for the return leg, and end up spending their first several days back home in a mental fog. Make the final 24 hours of your vacation a quiet time, too. And set those clocks to your home time when you step down the jetway for your flight back.

Do you have a jet lag horror story? Or success story? Please share your jet lag story, in the comments.

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What's new on the discussion board: How to deal with allergies, and crowded theme parks

By Robert Niles
Published: January 4, 2011 at 10:44 AM

We've got lots of great conversations going on now on the Theme Park Insider Discussion Board. Here are the top new threads from the past week:

Cori Meck's daughter has a peanut allergy: How allergy friendly is Disneyland?

Cori also asks a follow-up question about Concierge Level at Disneyland Paradise Pier Hotel.

Disney Paradise Pier Hotel

Deena McCulloch wants to know your best guess for the size of Universal Orlando crowds in March.

Daniel Etcheberry brings up two new high-speed rail projects in California and Central Florida: Will high speed trains bring more tourists to the Disney parks?

Rod Whitenack comes up with what might be one of the few extra-revenue opportunities that Disney hasn't tried yet in Has Anyone Ever Been Allowed To Spend the Night on Tom Sawyer Island?

Does a theme park owe guests refunds when the park gets too crowded? Can a park be too crowded? Those are the issues under debate in Jim Unger's Universal's Islands of Adventure Too Crowded, but will not issue refund.

Finally, Brad W wants to know which Las Vegas Attractions are worth the time and money.

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Theme Park Insider debuts its new YouTube channel

By Robert Niles
Published: January 3, 2011 at 4:14 PM

I'm pleased to announce that we have a new YouTube channel for Theme Park Insider. It's our first "official" home on YouTube since our old YouTube group from eons ago. We'll be uploading plenty of new videos to the channel this year, so I hope that you'll subscribe to it, in addition to checking here on the TPI Blog Flume.

We've got several of our older theme park tours, on-ride videos, show videos and interviews already on the channel, if you'll follow the links on the right side of the channel page.

We're kicking off the channel today with a look at what's new in theme park attractions for 2011:

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Universal Orlando raises annual pass prices, expands blockout dates to Islands of Adventure

By Robert Niles
Published: January 3, 2011 at 3:55 PM

Universal Orlando's significantly expanded blackout dates in 2011 for annual passholders who want to visit its Islands of Adventure theme park. Compare the 2010 Power Pass blackout dates with the 2011 Power Pass blackout dates.

Hogwarts Castle at Universal's Islands of Adventure theme park

Clearly, Universal's trying to hold down crowds at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the popular new land in Islands of Adventure with the expanded blackout dates on its least expensive annual pass.

The number of blackout days drops from 26 days to just 7 days for visits to the Universal Studios Florida theme park. However, Islands of Adventure is blocked out in 2011 on an additional 59 days, for 66 blockout dates total. The blockouts include the entire month of July, plus the first two weeks of August and last two weeks of April. The price of the Power Pass jumps $20, too, from $139.99 to $159.99 for Florida residents.

Annual passholders can get into the park on those blackout dates without buying a regular ticket by opting for the more expensive Preferred or Premier Passes, neither of which have blackout dates. The Preferred Pass remains $219.99 ($229.99 for non-Florida residents), but the cost of the Premier Pass is going up, from $289.99 to $349.99, an increase of $60. The Premier Pass includes free valet parking and front-of-line Express pass privileges after 4 pm, as well as other in-park discounts. No changes to renewal prices have been announced yet.

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The 2011 list of New Year's resolutions for theme park fans

By Robert Niles
Published: January 2, 2011 at 4:15 PM

It's time for our annual New Year's resolutions for theme park fans. There are a few tweaks from last year's list, thanks to readers' suggestions.

Disneyland's Monte Cristo sandwich
My resolutions probably ought to include eating fewer of these...

Salmon salad at Disneyland
...and choosing more of these, instead.

As theme park fans, let's resolve in 2011 to:

  • Start the day with a smile on your face, and work to see how many other faces you can get to share that smile before you lose yours.
  • Let the other folks go first when you both get to the queue entrance at the same time.
  • Start a friendly conversation in a queue with a visitor you don't know.
  • Offer a lost visitor directions.
  • Not linger at a restaurant table when others are waiting with food, trying to find a seat.
  • Ask a park employee for his or her advice on finding a special experience in the park that most visitors miss.
  • Say 'thank you' to the attendant every time you get on or off a ride.
  • Thank a member of the custodial staff and compliment the appearance of the park, during every theme park visit.
  • Go to a park's guest services desk on your way out of the park and compliment the work of a specific park employee.
  • Finally, if you're not having a good time, don't compound your bad experience by arguing with someone. Simply take your business elsewhere. That's the most effective form of complaint.

    I also hope that all Theme Park Insider readers will resolve to "give something back" to the community by posting at least one blog comment, discussion response or attraction rating and review in 2011, especially those lurkers who've not posted to the site before.

    Happy New Year 2011, everyone, and thanks for reading Theme Park Insider!

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    Disneyland changes 2Fer deal for 2011

    By Robert Niles
    Published: January 2, 2011 at 11:57 AM

    Disneyland has changed its popular 2Fer discount deal for Southern California residents this year.

    No longer will Disney offer two one-day tickets to Disneyland and Disney California Adventure to locals in the winter and spring for the price of a one-day, one-park ticket. This year's version of the 2Fer ticket - officially a "Southern California Resident 2-Day 1-Park per Day Ticket" will cost more: $99. A one-day, one-park ticket sells for $76.

    Disneyland's Fantasyland

    The upside? The second day no longer must be used with 30 days if the first. You've got until May 14 to use the tickets. (Tickets will be sold until April 14.) And you can use both days at the same park, if you wish. You also could buy a 2-day park-hopper version of the ticket for $109 - just $8 more than the one-day park-hopper.

    Tickets are available online at Disneyland.com. There are no blockout days on these tickets.

    Many of us expected Disneyland to either tweak, or eliminate, the 2Fer deal, given the popularity of the World of Color show at California Adventure, which has been helping to fill that park with actual paying customers since last summer. The old 2Fer was designed to pad Disney California Adventure attendance by essentially giving locals a free day at DCA when they bought a one-day Disneyland ticket.

    The new deal continues to offer locals a discount on Disney tickets, with more flexibility in exchange for the higher list price - which might make it a better deal for some, since many 2Fer buyers in the past never bothered to return for their "free" day at California Adventure. It's unlikely that anyone who buys this version of the 2-day discount ticket won't return for the second day.

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    Fire at Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure; Ripsaw Falls evacuated

    By Domenik Jost
    Published: January 1, 2011 at 4:59 PM

    This evening around 5:30pm a major fire broke out at Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls in the Universal's Islands of Adventure theme park. The Orlando Sentinel reported that there were no injuries and that the entire Toon Lagoon island area was evacuated.

    Smoke billowed above the area and was visible from throughout Universal Orlando Resort. This comes just after the busiest week Islands of Adventure has seen since its debut year. More from the Sentinel.

    Update from the comments: Universal Studios spokesman Tom Schroder said the attraction would be closed for several weeks while workers repair the fire damage and perform additional seasonal maintenance.

    Also, here's a photo from Brian J. Smith:

    Islands of Adventure fire

    From Robert: This looks to me like it was taken from a backstage area. The fire clearly looks to be on the mountain itself. *Or maybe not, based on other views. Any other eyewitnesses out there?

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    The 2011 Rose Parade, in photos

    By Robert Niles
    Published: January 1, 2011 at 12:28 PM

    Happy New Year from Pasadena, where we kicked off 2011 with the 122nd annual Tournament of Roses parade!

    The Food Network's Paula Deen led the Rose Parade as this year's Grand Marshal.

    Paula Deen at the Rose Parade

    Perhaps some float designers love Disney theme parks? Castles were a recurring theme in this year's Rose Parade. Here, parade sponsor Honda makes a show for the TV cameras.

    Honda's 2011 Rose Parade float

    Look closely and you might see Honda's ASIMO robot, in flowers, peeking out from under one of those castle arches.

    The Honda castle

    Bayer Advanced also chose a fairy-tale castle theme.

    Bayer Advanced's 2011 Rose Parade castle

    Close-up of the castle

    Dole won the Sweepstakes Trophy for Most Beautiful Entry.

    Dole's 2011 Rose Parade float

    The Trader Joe's float won the Animation Trophy:

    The Three Little Pigs also appeared in this year's parade. (Courtesy a building supply company, of course.)

    One little pig

    Check out the detail in all the various organic material used to create this Native American on the RFD-TV float.

    RFD-TV Rose float

    Here's a final look at that Rose Bowl-in-flowers close-up, which I first showed you in our preview earlier this week:

    The Rose Bowl in the Rose Parade

    I found one more (very small) theme park reference in this year's parade. That's supposed to the Universal Studios arch, on the City of Los Angeles' float.

    Hollywood, in flowers

    Here's something I've been wanting for years in the Rose Parade: a video game-themed float. Okay, it's for the 30th anniversary of Pac-Man, so it's not exactly cutting-edge. But it's a start.

    Pac Man in the Rose Parade

    Pac Man

    Finally, here are your Rose Bowl team marching bands in action. First, from the University of Wisconsin:

    And TCU:

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