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February 2011

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Cheetah Hunt coaster trains arrive at Busch Gardens Tampa

By Robert Niles
Published: February 28, 2011 at 12:23 PM
Busch Gardens Tampa just sent out photos giving us our first look at the new coaster trains for Cheetah Hunt:

Cheetah Hunt trains

The Intamin launch coaster will debut May 27, and each of the five trains will include four four-passenger cars, with a nose piece crafted to look like a cheetah's head. (No photo of that yet, unfortunately.)

Previously: Busch Gardens' Cheetah Hunt coaster nears completion

Comments (2) | Archive Link

Universal Orlando starts repainting the Incredible Hulk Coaster

By Robert Niles
Published: February 28, 2011 at 11:01 AM
Universal Orlando just tweeted some good news for its roller coaster fans:

The Incredible Hulk is getting greener! Our long-planned re-finishing project is underway. How many gallons of paint do you think we'll use?

Incredible hulk Coaster

The Incredible Hulk Coaster is getting its new coat of paint in shifts, overnight, so there's no planned downtime.

Fans have been complaining that the rest of the Islands of Adventure theme park needs some love, now that the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is open and hauling in the cash for the park. What would you like to see next?

Comments (11) | Archive Link

Theme park cast member stories: When to evacuate a ride?

By Robert Niles
Published: February 28, 2011 at 10:55 AM
When do you have to evacuate a theme park ride?

This isn't a question for theme park visitors. (Or, at least, it shouldn't be.) But it's an essential question for theme park attraction operators. At what point is a ride so compromised that you need to order an evacuation? Or, as they say now, an "in-show exit"?

Evacuations aren't always a big deal. One of the reasons why folks came up with the term "in-show exit" was the silliness in calling some things an evacuation. But, technically, that's what it was when you stopped the Country Bear show and asked everyone to leave because Henry peed his pants and couldn't continue. (Those temperamental animatronics!)

On rides like Pirates of the Caribbean and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, though, evacuations are a much, much bigger deal. Evacuating Thunder, for example, requires sending two ride operators to every train left out on the tracks, helping people one-by-one out of the trains, then escorting them back through the mountain to the unload area.

And that's a relatively easy ride to evacuate. I've heard some of the stories about evacuating rides such as Space Mountain and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which can require deploying special equipment to reach and retrieve visitors. At Pirates, we had to shut down the water pumps that pushed the boats through the attraction, then put cast members into the water to push the boats to the nearest safe exit point.

Obviously, if you can avoid these hassles, you do. But how long do you keep trying to get stopped ride vehicles moving before you throw in the towel and call for the evac? If you can get the ride going swiftly, you avoid the hassle of the evacuation, and get people on their way. But if you wait too long, you're just adding to the wait and frustration of stuck guests.

The first thing a conscientious ride operator should do during a downtime is shut off the ride music and animation. Being stuck inside Pirates for five extra minutes is one thing. Being stuck for those five extra minutes while listening to "Yo Ho, A Pirate's Life for Me" on infinite loop is quite another.

You also want to acknowledge to the guests that you're aware of the problem and working on it, by getting on the loudspeakers and talking to them. It's the uncertainty that unnerves people most. If they know that people "out there" recognize they are stuck and working to get things moving again, you've bought some time and goodwill.

But at some point, you need to make the call: Is this ride going to get moving, or not? As soon as you take one person off a ride, you have to take them all off. Safety demands that if even one person is exiting the ride mid-way through, you must power down the ride, turn on their interior lighting and provide an escort to show the person safely back to the station. Decency demands that don't keep other people waiting through that process only to leave them still stuck on the ride.

Ride operators need to have a good relationship with the maintenance crew assigned to their attraction. If they talk to each other with honesty, ride ops can make a quick and well-informed decision about whether to evacuate. An evacuation looks bad on maintenance's performance record, so I always wanted to give them a chance to make things right. But I didn't want to keep my guests waiting, either. Maintenance got one shot - usually five minutes - to either get the ride moving or tell me that they couldn't. After that, I was calling the ride down and ordering the evac.

At Thunder Mountain, the ride would shut down several times a week not due to any maintenance problem, but because of guests. If people couldn't get into or out of the the train quickly enough, we couldn't dispatch it from the station. That meant the train behind it on the ride would have to wait on the course outside the station. And that meant the train behind *it* would have to wait on the last lift, and so on - shutting down the ride. (There's no "pause" button on a roller coaster - either you're running, or you're not.)

Once we cleared the people out of the train and sent it back to storage to clear space in the station, we restarted the ride by bringing those waiting trains back into the station, one at a time. First the one just outside the station, then the one on the last lift (the "C" lift), then the "B" lift train, and finally the "A" lift train.

Bringing the trains in one at a time got everyone off the ride more quickly than if we evacuated, so that was our preferred way to clear the ride after a downtime. But if just one person insisted on getting off their stuck train, we had to evacuate them all. Which is why Thunder operators tried their best to be chipper and upbeat when they went out to a lift to restart it during a downtime. We wanted to reassure everyone on that train that they were better off staying on board and going through the rest of the ride than getting out and walking back to the station.

Of course, sometimes things didn't go as planned. When Thunder went down, the ride system played a recorded spiel we called the "Old Man": "Sorry for the hold-up, folks. There seems to be a slow-moving train up ahead, so, we gotta sit here for a spell. You just remain seated and we'll be riiiiight with ya!" I got sent to the "A" lift this time, the position many of us dreaded, since it meant waiting the longest time with increasing anxious guests as the trains ahead of them were sent back into the station.

That night, I had an especially anxious guest on the train. I smiled my widest and explained the entire process to everyone on the train, trying my best to make that one guest feel as safe and comfortable as I could. And it worked. She agreed to ride it out. A minute later, I got the call to push the button to restart the lift and send my train on its way.

I turned to walk back down the lift and back to the station. But as I got to the bottom, the lift chain stopped.

"Sorry for the hold-up, folks..."

The ride had gone down, again. The train hadn't made it back to the station. It'd stopped in the safety brake in front of the "B" lift. There'd be no avoiding an evacuation now. Discouraged, I slunk back into the station, and told the lead, "I guess we'd better ask guest relations out here. That train's not going to be happy."

We'd tried our best. But it'd be free tickets for everyone that night.

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

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Disneyland sets opening dates for Little Mermaid, Star Tours 2

By Robert Niles
Published: February 25, 2011 at 3:41 PM
Disneyland Resort announced today that the new Little Mermaid: Ariel's Undersea Adventure ride at Disney California Adventure and Star Tours: The Adventures Continue at Disneyland both will debut on June 3.

Little Mermaid ride at Disney California Adventure
Construction continues on Disney California Adventure's Little Mermaid ride

This follows the news from Walt Disney World that the Disney's Hollywood Studios version of Star Tours 2 will open May 20. An east-coast version of the Little Mermaid ride will open with the rest of the Fantasyland expansion in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom in 2013.

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Vote of the week: What will be 2011's top new roller coaster?

By Robert Niles
Published: February 25, 2011 at 8:01 AM
We've got four major new (or substantially rebuilt) roller coasters set to debut this spring across the United States. Which one are you most looking forward to riding, either this summer or some day?

Our candidates are:

  • Busch Gardens Tampa's Cheetah Hunt (Intamin Launch)
  • Six Flags Over Georgia's Dare Devil Dive (Gerstlauer Euro-Fighter)
  • Six Flags Magic Mountain's Green Lantern (Intamin ZacSpin)
  • Six Flags Over Texas' Texas Giant (Rocky Mountain Construction Iron Horse Coaster)


For a list of all the other rides and shows currently in development at major parks around the world, please visit our What's Under Construction at Top Theme Parks page.

Thanks for reading, and please don't forget to let your friends and family who love theme parks know about Theme Park Insider!

Comments (19) | Archive Link

Busch Gardens' Cheetah Hunt coaster nears completion

By Robert Niles
Published: February 24, 2011 at 7:23 PM
Busch Gardens Tampa has just released some new construction video for its upcoming roller coaster, Cheetah Hunt:

We've also got some additional construction photos, which were posted by Theme Park Insider reader Rachel Pitts:

Cheetah Hunt launch

Cheetah Hunt will open May 27, the Friday of Memorial Day weekend.

Update: Rachel also just submitted this great insider video look at the construction:

Comments (3) | Archive Link

SeaWorld to allow whale trainers back in the water

By Domenik Jost
Published: February 23, 2011 at 7:15 PM
SeaWorld just announced that it will soon allow whale trainers back in the water, for the first time since the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau last year. According to Orlando television station WESH, trainers will begin slowly interacting with orcas in medical pools equipped with movable bottoms that can be lifted out of the water.

Orca at SeaWorld Orlando

SeaWorld also reportedly plans on spending millions of dollars on safety upgrades for the facilities at its three locations.

Comments (9) | Archive Link

Next Walt Disney: Challenge 4 Voting

By Andy Milio
Published: February 23, 2011 at 12:59 PM
Challenge 4 is done, and you guys get to vote again. Make sure you read the ideas before you vote for your favorites. There is elimination this week, as all of our contestants posted before the due date.

Comments (3) | Archive Link

We're cooking Cajun Gumbo with Universal Orlando Executive Chef Steven Jayson

By Domenik Jost
Published: February 22, 2011 at 2:33 PM
Fat Tuesday is just two weeks away and the Mardi Gras Celebration at Universal Orlando is in full swing. We got invited to learn how to make one of the famous cuisines being served at the celebration.

Executive Chef Steven Jayson gave us a cooking lesson on how to make Universal's Cajun Gumbo. It was quite an experience and honor to learn from one of the theme parks world's best cooks. I'll tell you what, the final product was delicious. Follow along with the recipe in hand [PDF] as you watch our full-length cooking lesson video with Steven Jayson and learn how to make some delicious Cajun Gumbo.

After we got done cooking up the delicious authentic N'awlins treat we got a chance to talk about theme park food with Chef Jayson. I also asked him if there will ever be a Universal Orlando Cookbook, and tried to pry out the recipe for Butterbeer.

Once we got done with tasting our creations and of course the prepared finished dish, we headed down to the French Quarter where all the food is located. There's everything from Jambalaya, to Gumbo, to Beignets, and all are delicious. In the French Quarter you'll also find bands straight from Louisiana performing and keeping you entertained.

If you get there early enough, you could also take part in the parade. To do that just show up in front of Fear Factor Live around 5:45 p.m. as they are always looking to fill gaps in the 250 float riders they need each night of the parade. We got to be on one of the floats and it is just a blast.

The mission is simple, get rid of all the beads that are on the float. Each and every year float riders will throw approximately two million strands of beads and to think our float was only responsible for 16,000 of those. That's a lot of beads!

To wrap up the fun we got to watch the B-52s perform on the Music Plaza Stage. For a full list of performers check out this January flume post.

The 2011 Mardi Gras celebration will continue on select nights through April 23. For more information visit UniversalOrlando.com.

Comments (2) | Archive Link

Disney to offer first FastPasses for a character meet and greet

By Robert Niles
Published: February 22, 2011 at 11:04 AM
Walt Disney World today announced that it will offer FastPass reservation times to meet Mickey Mouse in his new home at the Town Square Theater in the Magic Kingdom.

Town Square Theater at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

Mickey got "evicted" earlier this month when Disney closed his old home in Toontown Fair, to make room for the Fantasyland expansion. Instead of walking through a country home, guests visiting Mickey in Town Square will proceed through a Victorian-style theater, better keeping with the Main Street USA turn-of-the-20th-century theme.

From the Disney press release:

Guests arrive at a building befitting Mickey Mouse's stardom -- with a grand-Victorian-theater elevation, including a marquee that glistens with gold-leaf trim and sparkles with lights. Inside, there's a mosaic floor, lush curtains with gold rope tie-backs and polished-brass chandeliers. Imagineers are creating new elements and surprises for Magic Kingdom guests, including an interactive queue -- with an extra touch of Disney magic -- and highly themed retail shops.

The queue takes guests "backstage," where Mickey is waiting to greet them in a rehearsal-room environment amid posters, steamer trunks and stage props.

The Town Square theater also will host the Disney princesses while their new meet-and-greet location is under construction in Fantasyland.

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What's new on the discussion board: Parents' tips for visiting Universal Orlando

By Robert Niles
Published: February 22, 2011 at 9:52 AM
Got a question about an upcoming theme park vacation? The Theme Park Insider Discussion Board is the place to go for answers. Here are this week's top new threads:

Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls

After the New Year's Day fire, Rob Viala is looking for a Ripsaw Falls update?

Erin Maio is looking for some unique ideas for a Birthday Trip to IOA/Universal Orlando.

You'll find some great tips for parents navigating the two Universal Orlando theme parks in Betty Rohrer's thread, Which Universal park?

Andy Milio wants to know if you think Spider-Man Needs Refurbishing.

Alison Popielarski thinks it's time to do something to improve a certain Disney's Hollywood Studios show in Sounds Boring with Drew Carey.

Josh Morgra wants to know what one needs to study to get a job working for Disney Imagineering.

Daniel Etcheberry wants to know Which is your favorite theme park advertisement?

Comments (2) | Archive Link

Happy Presidents' Day

By Robert Niles
Published: February 21, 2011 at 10:38 AM
It's the Presidents' Day holiday in the United States today, so for those of you who aren't celebrating by waiting in line at the Orlando or Southern California theme parks, here's a promotional video from Walt Disney World, featuring Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin talking about her involvement with the current version of Disney World's Hall of Presidents:

What are you up to today?

Comments (4) | Archive Link

Vote of the week: The Tom Staggs plan for more advanced reservations at Disney theme parks

By Robert Niles
Published: February 17, 2011 at 11:26 PM
Disney Parks chairman Tom Staggs yesterday revealed to investors some of the details of what might be the "NextGen" project for theme parks that Disney's reportedly pouring $1 billion-plus into.

We are currently developing an innovative system that will, in essence, create a version of FASTPASS for their entire Disney vacations. Now we define the guest experience as beginning from the time a potential guest sits down at a computer or picks up a phone to make a reservation. Our new tools will help them better understand all that we have to offer and better plan their time with us. They’ll be able to create a personalized itinerary that gives them the exact Disney vacation they want.

Guests will be able to reserve times for their favorite attractions and character interactions... secure seats at our shows and spectaculars... make dining reservations... and pre-book many other favorite guest experiences – all before even leaving their house. We also plan to simplify the check-in process so that guests will arrive at the resort with room key in hand. They will be able to go straight to their room or a theme park – again, allowing them to get to the fun faster.

Fans already are cracking jokes about booking FastPasses for their unconceived children to visit Disney World in 2019. But what Staggs is talking about really isn't that revolutionary. I've already checked into hotels without having to stop at the front desk. Many all-inclusive resorts plan detailed guest itineraries before those guests leave their homes. And many Disney fans long have marked their calendars for six months before their arrival date to snag the priority reservations at their favorite Disney World restaurants.

The Staggs plan is simply the next iteration in this evolving development of the full-service family vacation. I can get an airline boarding pass on my cell phone right now; why not a hotel room key? If we can restaurant reservations online and book Broadway show tickets in advance, why shouldn't we be able to reserve boarding times on theme park rides or a photo appointment with Mickey Mouse as well?

Because if I can do all this in advance, with the resulting assurance that I won't miss I thing I really want to experience, wouldn't that make me more likely to book that vacation?

That's Disney's hope. Heck, every time I take the whole family to Orlando, we book at least one night at a Universal Orlando hotel because Universal's front-of-the-line pass for on-site hotel guests provides us the certainty of being able to see whatever we want without a wait.

But at Universal, we don't have to schedule our visit down to the minute. In fact, part of the reason why we like visiting Universal that way is because the front-of-the-line pass frees us from having to do any advance planning at all. We go where we want, when we want.

Which brings me to our vote of the week: Do you want the Staggs plan? If it were reality tomorrow, would you choose a vacation that you could pre-plan in advance to that level of detail, or not?


Personally, I don't see how Disney could pull off making advance ride reservations mandatory for all its guests. Theme park attractions don't operate with the up-time of restaurants and movie showings. If Thunder Mountain goes down for 20 minutes because of a crying child in the dispatch station, that could throw off the reservation plans of hundreds of guests, who couldn't be accommodated if all other ride times after them were booked for the day.

Any reservation system needs some "stand-by" option for these types of displaced guests, creating openings for walk-up visitors should those extra times not be used. Staggs' plan would not completely eliminate queues at the Walt Disney Resort, either. In his presentation, he talked of expanding interactive queue technology, signaling that on-site attraction waits will remain part of the Disney experience.

Let's hear your thoughts, in the comments. Obviously, anyone reading this website is interested in advance planning for a theme park vacation. (If you weren't, you wouldn't be here, would you?) But how much advance reservation work do you want to do? What could Disney (and other theme parks) do to improve your enjoyment of your visits with them?

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Reminder: Stay safe and comfortable at a theme park with our tips

By Robert Niles
Published: February 16, 2011 at 8:02 PM
With the President's Day weekend upon us, and spring break trips approaching behind it, I thought this a good time for our annual reminder about our theme park safety tips. We've listed 10 points of advice for parents or anyone else visiting a theme or amusement park, designed to help you keep yourself and your family safe during your trip.

Sure, some of it is obvious advice, when you stop to think about it. But that's the whole point - we want you to stop and think about it, if just for a moment before you leave on your trip. Too many people end up with bad days, ruined vacations, or, heaven forbid, worse, because they didn't think about taking proper care of themselves while away from home.

That doesn't have to happen to you. Please take a look at our tips and let us help you plan a great vacation.

Also, this week the rain has returned to Southern California. But you don't have to let rain interrupt your theme park plans. We've got a page with tips for enjoying a theme park in the rain, too.

Archive Link

Florida's governor rejects rail plan to link state's major theme parks

By Robert Niles
Published: February 16, 2011 at 9:25 AM
Florida's governor, Rick Scott, has scuttled the proposed high-speed rail line that would have connected the Orlando airport with Central Florida's theme parks, from Orlando to Tampa.

Disneyland Paris rail station
The French rail station just outside Disneyland Paris

The newly elected Republican governor is sending back $2.4 billion in federal money to build the rail line, the latest in a string of rejections of federal rail money by Republican governors around the country. The governors of Wisconsin and New Jersey recently rejected federal money for rail projects in their states.

Florida would have been required to put up $280 million in matching money to help pay for the project, but several contractors bidding for the construction work had expressed interest in refunding part of their fees to cover that, if they got the lucrative contract.

The elimination of the project will cost Florida several thousand construction jobs, as well as eliminating what could have been a popular way to move thousands of tourists each day between the airport and the state's major theme parks. Some initial plans for the line would have had it running from the airport to a stop near Universal Orlando and the Orlando convention center, stopping again at Walt Disney World, and continuing on to Tampa, where the line would have ended near Busch Gardens. A midway stop along the I-4 corridor, which would have been within a short bus ride of Legoland Florida, was under discussion, as well.

In a Theme Park Insider vote of the week last year, 46% of visitors to Central Florida who responded replied that they would like to switch to the high-speed train, instead of using rental cars or hotel shuttles to get to their destinations.

While rail isn't part of America's current car culture, intercity rail is popular in Europe. And with The Wizarding World of Harry Potter enticing even more Europeans to consider the already popular Orlando area theme parks, a well-designed rail line could help seal the deal with more European visitors who'd rather not drive American roads, and encourage them to extend their visit to more of the parks along the rail route.

Despite Gov. Scott's rejection, the federal rail money will be spent. Like the rejected New Jersey and Wisconsin money, the cash for the Florida project will go now to California, which is proceeding with its high-speed rail line linking the San Francisco Bay Area with Southern California, a line which eventually will include a stop within walking distance of... Disneyland.

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What's new on the discussion board: Disney trip reports and wedding planning on the cheap

By Robert Niles
Published: February 15, 2011 at 11:44 AM
You've got theme park questions, and you've got answers, too. Here are this week's top new threads on the Theme Park Insider Discussion Board:

Victoria Jurkowski submitted a great series of Walt Disney World trip reports: Day 1: Magic Kingdom, Day 2: Animal Kingdom, Day 3 part one: back to MK, Day 3 part two: Epcot

Epcot

Avie Silverman asks if there's any possibility of holding Free Weddings at Disney.

Andres henon asks a popular question among adult visitors to Walt Disney World: What are the zones I should avoid if I do not have children?

Erin Maio is planning at trip to Universal Orlando and writes, I want a photo with Doc Brown!

Joshua Counsil goes off the theme-park topic for a moment to ask for some summer road trip advice: Chicago or New Orleans?

Finally, Tyler Bell is thinking about Imagineering and asks What are good college choices for WDI?

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Inside the Disney Dream's galleys: An exclusive video tour

By Scott Joseph
Published: February 15, 2011 at 11:43 AM
When I sailed on the christening cruise of Disney's new cruise ship, the Dream, I was treated to an exclusive tour of the massive galleys aboard the Disney Dream. The kitchens occupy space on two decks, and are larger than most land-based kitchens because of the huge number of people who need to be fed within a relatively short period of time. Here's the video.

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Theme park cast member stories: Tempted by the smells of Adventureland

By Robert Niles
Published: February 14, 2011 at 11:50 AM
They'd warned me about the Treehouse.

Even before I started working in Adventureland attractions at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, I'd known about the Swiss Family Treehouse. I'd enjoyed climbing through the treehouse when I was a kid - especially on those rare occasions, late at night, when there wasn't a crowd pushing me like zombies from room to room. But I'd already figured that the treehouse wasn't going to be the most exciting place to work.

One cast member would stand at the treehouse turnstiles, holding the line from time to time so that the crowd wouldn't overload the bridge over the old Swan Boat channel. When the crowd got really large, you'd open up the queue that snaked back and forth in a little hut behind the turnstiles. Mostly, though, you just stood out front and told folks, no, this isn't the line for the Jungle Cruise. That's up ahead, on your left. Have a nice day.

So when other cast members warned me before my first shift working the treehouse, I expected another lecture about boredom, about the importance of keeping a positive attitude even as my brain began to rust from inactivity.

But that's not what everyone said.

"Try not to let the Egg Roll Wagon drive you crazy," they said.

The Egg Roll Wagon? That little food cart that set up next to the Treehouse queue? How would that drive me crazy? I couldn't remember it ever getting that long a line. Was there something strange about the foods person who worked it? Were they really bored, too, and going to attempt to deal that with by driving me nuts with mindless chit-chat?

I walked past the wagon on my way to the treehouse. The foods person didn't even glance at me. The wagon looked perfectly normal. Why would anyone warn me about this?

And, then, I inhaled.

That smell. Ahhh, I understood. Standing here for two hours at a time, unable to purchase, much less eat, that which I was smelling would be the worst torture imaginable at Disney World.

If you've walked past the Egg Roll Wagon recently, you might not understand what I'm talking about. But I worked the treehouse years ago, back when the Adventureland Egg Roll Wagon sold the most aromatic delight ever offered in a theme park.

The Egg Roll Dog.

It was a hot dog, bathed in cheese, wrapped in a won ton skin and deep fried, like an egg roll. Warming under the heat lamp, it let broadcast throughout the treehouse queue the aroma of spicy beef, cheese and crispy goodness that left any perpetually hungry, 20-something cast member drooling.

Disney made more than a few dollars off its cast members with that cart. After my shift, I raced through the tunnels to change into my street clothes, just so I could race back to Adventureland and buy one of those Bad Boys.

Warm in my hands, I raised the egg roll to my mouth, and bit into the crispy won ton wrapper, which shattered with my bite. Then, the egg roll unleased its flow of nuclear-hot liquid cheese, scorching my tongue so badly I had to let that precious first bite drop back into the napkin as I yelped in pain.

Which, of course, meant that I had to drop a few more bucks on a Dole Whip Float from the adjacent stand, to cool my blistered tongue. A few minutes later, my tongue had recovered and I finished the dog, washing it down with the pineapple juice from the float.

Fortunately, for my waistline and my bank account, I didn't work that many shifts that included stints at the treehouse. Instead, I spent many more days working safely away from the allure of the Egg Roll Wagon, pulling shifts in Frontierland.

Right next to the Turkey Leg Wagon.

You can read more of Robert's stories about working at Walt Disney World at themeparkinsider.com/stories.

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Vote of the week: Do you eat lunch early or late when visiting a theme park?

By Robert Niles
Published: February 11, 2011 at 8:14 AM
A long-standing piece of advice from Theme Park Insider readers has been to eat lunch in a theme park either early or late, in order to avoid the mealtime crowds and possibly take advantage of (slightly) shorter lines at the attractions as everyone else moves to the restaurants.

But which is it: Do you eat early, or late?

Monte Cristo at Cafe Orleans in Disneyland
A Disneyland lunch favorite: The Monte Cristo sandwich

That's this week's vote. I'd like to hear your best strategy for handling eating at mid-day. Do you eat early? Do you eat late? Do you not eat at all? Or do you insist on eating between noon and 1pm, no matter the crowds?

I understand that your strategy might depend upon the park you're visiting. So tell us what you do most often.


Personally, I always try to get to the park when it opens, so I usually go for the early lunch option. Even if I'm getting a reservation/priority seating at a table-service restaurant, I try to get one for around 11:30 am.

Yet if I'm just making it a half-day visit, I'll arrive at opening, ride through lunch, then go for a late lunch outside the park, after 1 or so. So I could go either way on this. Okay, forget I wrote anything. I'm a horrible source for this one. :^(

So let's hear some better advice from you, in the comments.

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Next Walt Disney: Challenge 3 Voting

By Andy Milio
Published: February 11, 2011 at 8:13 AM
Challenge 3 submissions are finally over, and it's time for you to vote. This week, we ARE having elimination, so the contestant with the lowest percent is eliminated. Make sure to read the submissions at the submission thread.

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Does a theme park owe you anything if you're left stuck on its rides?

By Robert Niles
Published: February 10, 2011 at 1:53 PM
The row over a disabled man suing Disneyland because he was stuck on the park's It's a Small World ride for 40 minutes prompts me to ask: What is fair compensation for being stuck on a theme park ride?

Before we get to that question, allow me to point out that the man is not suing because he got stuck on the ride. He's suing because he said that it took Disneyland 40 minutes to evacuate him, while persons without disabilities were taken off the ride much sooner. Federal law prohibits discrimination against the disabled, and making persons with disabilities wait significantly longer to get off a ride could qualify as a violation of the law. A jury will hear the facts then decide, unless the man and Disneyland reach a settlement first.

But what if you were stuck on It's a Small World, or some other theme park ride, for 40 minutes or more? What would you consider appropriate compensation for that inconvenience? Some folks might shrug it off and go on with their day. Others might consider listening to the Small World theme for 40 minutes a violation of anti-torture provisions in the Geneva Convention.

I'll kick off the discussion by saying that I do believe that people who are stuck on a ride for a significant amount of time are due something in return. If they didn't get to experience the ride in full before being taken off, at the very least, they should get a return pass to ride later in the day without having to wait again.

And if they get evacuated from a ride, I say they're owed at least a quick backstage tour on the way out. Don't pretend that we're not looking around. Ride ops should be friendly and accommodating, answering questions and explaining what's happening as they escort their guests from the ride. (A friendly attitude from park employees almost always turns potential complaints into compliments.)

But what about beyond that? How long would you think someone would have to be stuck in a ride to deserve a comp ticket or refund, in exchange for the day that was compromised by the long wait on the ride? How long would someone have to be stuck to deserve a comp day and a refund? Cash? Food? Accommodations? Are they ever justified as compensation for being stuck on a ride? I'm not talking about being injured - just being stuck.

Let's hear your personal experiences, and nightmare hypotheticals, in the comments. (FWIW, I don't think it's worth commenting specifically on the Disneyland case, since he's claiming discrimination, not a long wait time.)

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SeaWorld San Diego unveils its Manta roller coaster

By Robert Niles
Published: February 9, 2011 at 6:00 AM
SeaWorld San Diego this morning confirmed details for its version of the Manta roller coaster, which will debut at the Southern California theme park in 2012.

Artistic illustration of Manta at SeaWorld San Diego

This Manta will be a Mack Launch Coaster, smaller in size and intensity than the Bolliger & Mabillard Flying Coaster that shares the same name and theme in SeaWorld Orlando. Like its Orlando sibling, however, San Diego's Manta will incorporate underwater viewing of rays in its queue. The park will enhance its existing Forbidden Reef section, where visitors can touch and feed bat rays, and incorporate it as part of Manta, as well.

"We are delighted to bring energizing new attractions to our guests year after year," SeaWorld park president John Reilly said in a statement, "and Manta does just that, combining the thrill and excitement of a coaster, with the educational and entertaining value of an incredible marine-life exhibit."

San Diego's Manta will blast riders out of a launch tunnel within which larger-than-life images of rays will be projected onto a 270-degree screen, using a projection system that the park calls the first of its kind in the United States.

Despite the high-speed launch, don't expect a too-intense experience, though. This Manta's speed will top out at 43 mph and the biggest drop will be 54 feet. (The coaster's maximum height will be just 30 feet; tunnels will allow the coaster to drop farther.) Compare those stats with the 113-foot drop, 140-foot height, 56 mph top speed and multiple inversions for the Orlando Manta, which won the 2009 Theme Park Insider Award as the year's best new attraction.

Thoughts? Questions? How do you think this Manta will match up with other new attractions coming on line in 2012?

Update: Here's a (rough) concept video from SeaWorld. The train on the video doesn't have the promised manta ray decoration, nor do the surroundings match what's in the park at that location. Nor is the launch tunnel included. But it does give you a rough idea of what the track layout will be like.

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What's new on the discussion board: Rainy days and fun days

By Robert Niles
Published: February 8, 2011 at 10:18 AM
The Theme Park Insider Discussion Board is the place to ask your questions about planning theme park vacations. And to share the advice you've learned from previous trips. Here are this week's top new threads:

Mary Nikisher asks, on a Rainy day - which park is best? (By the way, don't forget to read our tips for enjoying a theme park in the rain.)

Disneyland in the rain

Lauren Hayhurst is coming to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter from the UK and asks Do you recommend a weekend or weekday?

Speaking of Harry Potter, Andy Milio wants to know Is the Forbidden Journey Bad For Roller Coaster Haters?

Claire French is planning a two-week visit to Orlando and wants to know Have I covered everything?

Terri Pierce is thinking ahead to summer and is looking for information about attraction closures due to Disney Construction.

And finally, today is the 10th anniversary of the official opening of Disney California Adventure, the theme park that bombed so badly at first that Disney's now spending $1 billion-plus to re-Imagineer it. Frankly, I'm much more interested in anticipating what looks like an exciting next 10 years for DCA than remembering the past 10 years of that park's history.

Thoughts?

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'Scott Joseph's Orlando Restaurant Guide' now an App

By Scott Joseph
Published: February 8, 2011 at 10:17 AM
I'm pleased to announce the immediate availability of the app version of Scott Joseph's Orlando Restaurant Guide. I think it will be a valuable guide to visitors looking for information on local restaurants as well as reviews of theme park eateries. Best of all, it's free!

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Theme park cast member stories: Doing the math behind theme park wait times

By Robert Niles
Published: February 7, 2011 at 12:32 PM
Theme park lines are heaven to a math geek like me.

No, I don't like waiting in them more than anyone else does. But I find the math behind theme park queues fascinating.

Hogwarts Castle at Universal Orlando
Crowds queue for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey at Universal's Islands of Adventure theme park

It seems simple, at first. If more people during any given hour get in line for an attraction than that attraction can handle in that hour, some of those people are going to have to wait.

And if you know how many people get in that line, as well as how many riders that attraction can handle per hour, you can do the math to figure out the average wait time.

[Math geek stuff: The average wait time for a theme park attraction equals the number of people who get in line during an hour minus the attraction's hourly capacity. Take that number and divide it by the hourly capacity. Then multiply that result by 60 - for minutes in the hour. The result is your average wait time during that hour. See, I told you it was simple! :^) ]

But experience theme park operators know that the physical shape and orientation of a attraction's queue can affect wait times, as well. I thought about these issues after reading a piece by John Seabrook in the New Yorker last week, about the dangers of waiting crowds.

Seabrook details some of the disasters that happened when organizers failed to plan properly how to queue waiting crowds: One dead at a Walt-Mart in New York, nine at a concert in Denmark, 95 people at a football match in England.

As a former theme park employee, I find it unconscionable that anyone would organize an event sure to draw a large crowd, and not plan for how those people will get into the event. Whether you create a physical queue or a virtual one (such as Disney's FastPass system, or advance reservations for restaurants or museum exhibits), organizers simply must have a plan for handling people while they wait their turn.

Experienced theme park operators have become masters of crowd control, and anyone planning a major event - from a rock concert to an after-Thanksgiving sale, would do well to learn from them.

First, you must create a space in which people can wait. Ideally, the space will be designed in such a way that the people who arrive first are admitted first. First come, first served.

The simplest way to do this is with what we call a serpentine queue. That's because it looks like a long snake, with people lines up single file, in queues that go up and down long parallel rows.

That queue works great if you are going to load people onto an attraction one at a time. But what happens when you need to load an entire theater of theme park guests? Filling a 500-seat theater by pulling people one at a time out of a serpentine queue would take 15-20 minutes, time enough to run one extra performance for most theme park shows. Remember, hourly capacity is everything in reducing wait times. If you're giving up half your performances every hour because you need that time to load the theater, you've cut your capacity in half, doubling everyone's wait time.

That's why theme park shows have pre-show waiting areas. It's just not to entertain you while you wait. It's so that operators can group you into a single mass, the size and shape of the theater, so that the crowd can slide from the pre-show area into the theater in less than five minutes.

Saving that 10-15 minutes every show cycle allows the park to run more performances per hour, reducing wait times and allowing park guests to enjoy more shows each day. But that wouldn't happen without efficient pre-show queue design. (And a fondness for doing the math!)

I encountered this challenge while working as lead on the Tom Sawyer's Island rafts. Our hourly counts were horrible at the beginning of that summer. Part of the problem was the amount of time it was taking us to load the rafts.

Guests would wait for rafts in fenced waiting areas. There was a gap in the fence through which people would walk onto the dock and then onto the raft. The trouble was, people would crowd around that gap, creating a much smaller version of that crushing effect that Seabrook detailed in his New Yorker article.

No one's health was a risk with such relatively small crowds. But it did slow down the flow of guests onto the raft, enough to cause us to take closer to 10 minutes for each round-trip cycle, instead of the five minutes we could do with more efficient loading.

So, with the help of a few of the raft drivers, we redesigned the waiting areas, moving benches around to narrow the area right in front of the raft to the width of the gap in the fence. Each raft's capacity was 55 people, so we moved enough benches in place to define a space that would hold about that many people. This way we could slide that group of 55 from the wait area and onto the raft like a pre-show crowd into a theater. Behind them, the size of the wait area opened up. But by keeping the "pinch point" behind the next group of riders, the crowding around it didn't slow the loading of the rafts, allowing us to move more rafts per hour and reduce the overall average wait time for everyone.

Anyone experienced working with crowds comes to learn that, in a large group, people become liquid. You know how a fire hose can pour a lot more water than a little garden hose? Theme park queues are that way, too. A wide queue, such as at Disney World's Pirates of the Caribbean, can handle a lot more volume through it that a single-file queue, such as Big Thunder Mountain.

But eventually, we'd need the crowd to narrow to single file as we assigned them into specific rows on the boat. Ever notice how on some wide Disney queues, such as Disneyland's Haunted Mansion and the left queue at Disney World's Pirates, there's a U-turn just before you arrive at the loading area? That U-turn functions as a funnel, narrowing the flow of guests to a single file and making life much easier for the cast or team member at the loading position.

Overlook at last detail, and multiple parties will crowd the loader at once, each appealing to go before the others, forcing the load operator to calm everyone down and, literally, straighten things out.

Which, of course, slows the flow of guests onto the ride, reducing the hourly capacity and increasing everyone's wait time.

The math behind this stuff can get heavy duty. In college, I took a math class at Northwestern's Kellogg Graduate School of Management that included a section on queuing problems as part of a discussion of what the instructor called "mechanism design theory." (The instructor went on to win a Nobel Prize for this stuff. Like I said, heavy duty.)

But you don't need to be a Nobel laureate, or even a math geek, to appreciate how a theme park can move thousands of people through dozens of queues every hour of every operating day of the year. Just get in line, keep up with the folks in front of you, and please, be nice to the folks around you as you wait your turn.

You can read more of Robert's stories about working at Walt Disney World at themeparkinsider.com/stories.

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Here's what's new at theme parks, and at Theme Park Insider

By Robert Niles
Published: February 6, 2011 at 1:03 PM
I'd like to thank Theme Park Insider reader David Robertson for designing the new "flag" that you see up at the top of every Theme Park Insider webpage. I love the way he incorporated scenes from many of the top theme parks we cover on the site.

Can you find them all? :^)

Thanks, again, David.

By the way, we've got lots of great stuff coming up on the site in the next few weeks as the calendar pushes forward to the start of the 2011 theme park season. Why not take a look at all of the new rides and attractions under construction to stoke your excitement for the upcoming year in theme parks?

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Vote of the week: Butterbeer or Dole Whip?

By Robert Niles
Published: February 3, 2011 at 9:18 PM
A huge thank-you this week to Theme Park Insider reader Amanda Jenkins, whose discussion board submission I've swiped to make the vote of the week.

Amanda wrote (and I added the links):

"I received an e-mail from Universal Studios letting me know that they recently sold their millionth Butterbeer. This got me wondering which people would rather have on a hot day.

"I know from recent discussions how passionately many feel about Magic Kingdom's Dole Whip, but it seems that Butterbeer is becoming very popular. I'm sad to say that I haven't tried either one. Each time I planned on having a Dole Whip, I either had my husband pulling me towards a ride, or my children demanding something else.

"So, on with the debate!"

ButterbeerDole Whip

Let's clarify the rules here: A vote for Butterbeer could be for either the regular or frozen version. And a vote for the Dole Whip could stand for either the whip itself, or the float. Okay?

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One Ocean to replace Believe at SeaWorld this spring

By Robert Niles
Published: February 3, 2011 at 10:19 AM
SeaWorld today revealed details about the new version of its iconic Shamu show, which will replace 'Believe' this spring.

One Ocean will premiere in April at SeaWorld Orlando, then follow at SeaWorld San Diego on Memorial Day weekend and SeaWorld San Antonio in June. Here's the scoop:

"Shamu's going to be the one to inspire us to connect to the ocean, to care about it," SeaWorld's director of animal training, Julie Scardina said in the video. The show will feature water fountains, as well as the traditional splashes provided by the park's orcas.

One Ocean at SeaWorld

What the show will not include, however, is trainers in the water with the orcas. SeaWorld's kept its trainers out of the water since Believe reopened following the death of a trainer in Orlando last February. Believe's had a five-year run, and in addition to freshening its orca show, SeaWorld appears to have created a show that designed from the beginning with the idea that trainers wouldn't be in the water.

Will One Ocean be a better show than Believe? We'll find out when the show debuts later this year.

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Travel tips: Don't forget the plastic snack bag

By Robert Niles
Published: February 2, 2011 at 1:17 PM
A simple plastic sandwich bag can be your best friend while on vacation.

Okay, it won't share a romantic meal with you at Epcot's Bistro de Paris, nor snap your photo in front of Hogwarts Castle. But it will make it possible for you to do those things.

How? By keeping your most essential travel tools safely dry.

Your plastic baggie, filled with travel essentials

I've become a big fan of using a money belt when I travel. Sure, it helps keep pickpockets' prying hands from my cash and credit cards. But I more prefer the money belt because it allows me to travel ultra-lightly. Sitting on a wallet's uncomfortable. There's no need to carry around everything in there on vacation, anyway. Do I need that yogurt store punchcard? A library card? All those grocery club cards?

All I really need is:

  • My driver's license (or passport, if I'm traveling out of the country and not driving)
  • My cell phone
  • A credit card
  • Cash
  • Theme park tickets (or equivalent)

Those fit easily inside my money belt, though I usually keep the cell phone and a small amount of cash in my pocket for easy access.

So what's up with the plastic bag, you might ask?

Easy. That's for the, well, sweat.

Money belts can get hot and sweaty, worn under my shirt and around my waist. Putting stuff inside a plastic bag ensures that they stay safely dry throughout the day.

Even if you're not wearing a money belt on vacation, a zippered plastic bag remains essential for a theme park trip.

Planning on riding that water flume? Drop your cash and cell phone into the bag before you board. Theme parks provide multiple opportunities to get soaking wet, so you need a convenient place to keep your valuables so that they stay dry. Why hassle with a locker when a plastic bag can do the trick?

For the best protection, I use a one-quart plastic freezer bag, which holds all I need without too much extra space, and protects better against the watery onslaught of Splash Mountain than a simple sandwich bag does.

Just make triple-certain that the bag is zipped up and fully sealed before you ride.

More: Theme park travel tips from Theme Park Insider

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Universal's Battlestar Galactica coasters to reopen Feb. 21

By Robert Niles
Published: February 2, 2011 at 9:28 AM
Universal Studios Singapore announced today that its Battlestar Galactica roller coasters will reopen February 21.

Battlestar Galactica at Universal Studios Singapore

The coasters closed soon after the park opened last winter, after cracks were discovered in the seat mounts on the trains. Battlestar Galactica features two roller coasters, both by Vekoma: "Human," a sit-down coaster, and "Cylon," an inverted coaster. We're still awaiting word on expected opening dates for the park's two other major attractions under construction: Madagascar: A Crate Adventure and Transformers.

Since some of our snow-bound readers have asked for more fair weather photos, I'll throw in a few more from Universal Studios and Singapore, where the forecast high today is 83 degrees:

Madagascar at Universal Studios Singapore

Singapore River

Singapore's Chinatown

The Merlion

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Stay warm with photos from the Disneyland theme parks

By Robert Niles
Published: February 1, 2011 at 11:08 AM
Here's some eye candy for our snowed-in friends, today: More photos from the Disneyland Resort.

Let's start at Disneyland:

Sleeping Beauty's Castle

The longest line in the park (posted 30 minutes) was for the new Tangled meet-'n-greet in Fantasyland:

Queue for Tangled meet-n-greet in Disneyland's Fanstasyland

But you could walk right on the wildest ride in the wilderness.

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad

Forget the Disney Dream, here are three of my favorites from the original Disney cruise line: The Sailing Ship Columbia, the Mark Twain and a Tom Sawyer's Island raft, cruising daily on the Rivers of America.

The Sailing Ship Columbia, the Mark Twain and a Tom Sawyer Island raft, at Disneyland

If you're looking for a more, uh, intense cruising experience, head over to Disney California Adventure for the Grizzly River Run.

Grizzly River Run

We continue to call our bought-long-ago Disney bear "Freddie," but he can find a slew of new clothes now, made for his identical cousin, Duffy.

Clothes for sale for Duffy the Disney Bear

Finally, a look at California's Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.

California Adventure's Twilight Zone Tower of Terror

Stay warm, everyone.

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What's new on the discussion board: Photos for a snowy day - from Blizzard Beach

By Robert Niles
Published: February 1, 2011 at 10:46 AM
For our many readers across the United States who are snowed in today, I'll kick off the weekly discussion board wrap-up with some reader photos - appropriately, from Walt Disney World's Blizzard Beach.

On the topic of Disney, Erin Fitzgerald is looking for some great (and not outlandishly expensive) Walt Disney World activities for girls.

amis ster wants to know your dream itinerary for 2 parks, 2 days: Orlando.

Kathryn Leigh has So many questions about the Universal Orlando Resort.

And Colton McLaughlin wants to know what you think about a Jurassic Park Expansion?

Finally, James Rao is making me hungry with his thread on Disneyland Resort - Your Favorite Foods.

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Visitor killed by fall from Tokyo roller coaster

By Gareth H
Published: February 1, 2011 at 10:41 AM
A 34-year-old man died Sunday afternoon when he fell about 7-8 meters (20-24 feet) to the ground at the Tokyo Dome City Attractions in Bunkyo Ward.

The Spinning Coaster Maihime, reaches a top speed of 39.6 kph (22.4 mph). Reports say that the man may have been ejected on a turn.

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Keep reading: January 2011 Archive