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April 2011

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Vote of the week, royal wedding edition: Should Mickey and Minnie Mouse get married?

By Robert Niles
Published: April 28, 2011 at 7:11 PM
Here's a vote of the week in honor of the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Elizabeth 'Kate' Middleton (royal title TBA as of the time of writing - Update: It's the Duchess of Cambridge).

First, let's note that a royal wedding provides a stunning example of themed entertainment, a topic near to our hearts here at Theme Park Insider. At this point, thankfully, there's not much left for the British royal family to do except to provide inspiration and entertainment for their nation. The theme here is a celebration of English patriotism, for Britons and Anglophiles around the world. (And if you'd like to celebrate the occasion with party supplies from a certain UK company, I'm sure the bride's family would appreciate that. My gratitude to readers who get that joke, BTW.)

Hundreds of thousands [will gather/are gathering/gathered - pick a conjugation, based on when you are reading this] on the route between Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace to greet the future king and queen of England. It might be/have been the largest gathering of Britons since the opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. (I kid, I kid.)

At this point, many of you might be sick of the hype. But I can think of one other celebrity marriage that would stir up enough buzz to make the marriage of Wills and Kate look as significant as a Vegas wedding chapel hook-up.

The wedding one of Mickey and Minnie Mouse.

Mr. and Mrs. Mouse?

For those of you who hadn't realized, the first couple of Disneydom aren't actually hitched. (Didn't you notice that they had separate homes in Toontown?) Disney managers have kicked around for decades the idea of marrying off Mick and Min. The company easily could stretch the occasion into another year-long festival at all its theme parks, highlighted by a worldwide media event for the actual wedding, followed by a daily "renewal of vows" ceremony for theme park visitors.

Imagine the merchandise. Imagine the hype. Imagine getting a FastPass for a wedding ceremony. (Thousands of Britons today are now nodding and grumbling to themselves.)

But should it happen? I can't imagine the legal fees for writing the pre-nup. And what about kids? Will Mickey and Minnie both be able to greet park guests if they have to haul the little ones off to soccer practice? Heck, is a marriage between two mice even legal in either California or Florida?

On the plus side, though, Minnie wouldn't have to change her name. ;^)

Let's put it up for a vote:

What do you think? The comments await.

Comments (28) | Archive Link

Universal and SeaWorld rumor round-up

By Robert Niles
Published: April 28, 2011 at 12:27 PM
Universal Orlando will announce its new attraction plans in a webcast on May 19. I'll post the details to Theme Park Insider and to our Twitter feed as soon as that happens, and Universal's providing hints on its Facebook page between now and then.

The consensus seems to be that the announcement will be that Despicable Me will replace the Jimmy Neutron ride at Universal Studios Florida. But a few sources have whispered that Avatar could be replacing the Terminator 2:3-D show, in either or both Orlando and Hollywood in the not-too-distant future, as well.

Speaking of Universal rides we know are coming soon, a source e-mailed me some concept photos of the new Transformers ride, opening later this year at Universal Studios Singapore. (Click that link for more photos.)

Transformers queue

Transformers is coming to Universal Studios Hollywood sometime in 2012, as well.

Finally, let's talk about a Universal Studios water park, shall we? Rumors are flying now that Universal has filed a trademark application for "WonderSea Island", described in the application as the name for a new water park.

For what it's worth, Universal's also filed a trademark for the word "Shoaster" under "amusement park services." I'm guessing that's a contraction of "show" and "disaster," or "show" and "coaster," depending upon how you pronounce it. But at first glance, I thought it looks a bit too much like "Shoah" to work as an effective attraction name. We'll see if anything comes of it.

Also on the trademark front, SeaWorld has filed for two trademark applications this month: Iceploration and Verbolten. The first is described as a show name and the second a ride. Could "Verbolten" be the name of the new launch coaster at Busch Gardens Williamsburg?

Comments (12) | Archive Link

Don't let the details overwhelm the big picture when rating theme park rides

By Robert Niles
Published: April 27, 2011 at 11:10 AM
Whenever I'm trying to think of what to write about a new theme park ride or show, Disneyland's Splash Mountain keeps me humble.

Disneyland's Splash Mountain

Why is that? Well, let me start by explaining how I see my role as a theme park critic: It's to help you better understand whether you might like a new ride or show, mostly by describing it in a way that places the new attraction within the context of ones you already know. How is it like, or unlike, other attractions?

Answering that question typically requires me to break down and look at individual elements within a new ride or show: What does the launch feel like on this roller coaster? Where have we heard songs or seen characters like these before? That sort of thing.

But I have to be careful when I do that. Sometimes, when you focus too closely on individual elements within a new attraction, you can lose sight of the wonder of the whole thing.

Consider Splash Mountain.

Here's what the 1989 Robert could have written about Disneyland's flume ride, when it debuted that year:

"Disney's Imagineers have told the company's magazine that the newly-renamed "Critter Country" represents the home of all the critters in the bayou south of New Orleans. Have you ever traveled south of New Orleans? The highest point down there would be the open cooler lid on the deck of your boat. Forget about finding any "mountain" down there.

"Setting aside the incongruity of the ride's thematic placement for a moment, one can't overlook the fact that this ride is, at heart, a rip-off. Nearly a turn-by-turn clone of Knott's Berry Farm's Log Ride, Southern Californians have been riding this flume since 1968. Sure, Disney's added music and animatronics, but many of those characters are refugees from Disneyland's closed by not-much-missed America Sings show, which was as out of place in Tomorrowland as Splash "Mountain" is next to New Orleans Square.

"You'll find most of the characters and music in the grand finale just before you exit the ride. Typically, the highlight of any flume is the drop, and Splash Mountain's impressed, with extra jets of water aimed at riders after the take the plunge. But instead of riding the adrenaline of that moment directly into the rousing musical finale, Splash Mountain forces riders to endure a long, slow drift back from the splashdown zone, all the way the length of the mountain to the unload area first.

"That's because Disney, understandably, wanted the mountain's drop to face the Rivers of America. But the show building for the finale needed to be hidden behind the mountain, to keep it from disrupting the area's skyline. That separation demanded the slow float from river's edge to the backside of the attraction, interrupting what should have been an awe-inspiring one-two punch that could have elevated this ride above the Knott's original which inspired it."

Which, of course, would have made me look like an idiot because Splash Mountain is one of the greatest theme park attractions anywhere, and one of my personal favorites. (You currently have it ranked number four overall in the world among themed rides.)

Splash Mountain provides the classic example of an attraction that's much more than the sum of its parts and inspiration. Yes, it started with a copy of another park's ride, but many theme park attractions have, too. Yes, it include parts from another attraction, but that's hardly uncommon, either. While the whole "south of New Orleans" thematic placement made no sense (and I've not seen Disney reference that in years), the physical placement of Splash Mountain on the Rivers of America opposite Big Thunder Mountain frames Tom Sawyer's Island perfectly, bringing design harmony to Disneyland's west side.

And frankly, when I'm riding with friends or family I don't notice the float back to the show building after the drop. We're too busy comparing how wet we got on the splashdown.

Don't mistake my post today as an indictment of all theme park criticism. Splash Mountain's flaws are real, which is why I don't rate it a 10 on Theme Park Insider. But they're minuscule compared with all the fun the ride provides. That's why I rate Splash Mountain a 9, which is a pretty darned fine theme park attraction.

I try to remember that whenever I start picking apart the details of any theme park attraction, or anything else, for that matter. Don't ever forget the big picture.

Comments (8) | Archive Link

What's new on the discussion board: Towers of Terror and Disneyland Paris debates

By Robert Niles
Published: April 26, 2011 at 11:37 AM
Melissa Faulkner asks for comments from Large riders on Expedition Everest.

Expedition Everest

Jane Williams isn't happy with Disneyland Paris and submits Another one on how DLP has declined.

Terri Pierce reports on Jurassic Park River Adventure Malfunctioning.

David L. has a few Magic Kingdom Questions (and questions about other Walt Disney World Resort theme parks, too.)

Caroline Davis asks you to help detail Tower of Terror - The differences.

Andrew Mooney wants to know other readers' experiences with Segway Tours at EPCOT

John jarvis laments Spaceship Earth the lost emotion.

Finally, Jeff Elliott tries a new feature, rounding up the week's news in Last week at your amusement park...April 25, 2011.

Archive Link

Disney to add new themed rooms to selected Disney World hotels, and here's why

By Robert Niles
Published: April 26, 2011 at 10:31 AM
The Walt Disney World Resort announced today that it soon will introduce new "health and wellness" and "royal"-themed hotel rooms at its Contemporary and Port Orleans hotels, respectively. The health and wellness rooms will include bamboo flooring, rainwater showers and in-room card equipment. The royal rooms will feature fiber-optic effects in the bed headboards and princess-themed art and decor in the rooms. The health and wellness suites will debut this fall at the Contemporary, with the royal rooms coming to the Port Orleans in March 2012.

No word yet on how much extra these upgrades will cost, over the current price of "regular" rooms in these hotels.

Royal Guest Room
Concept of the Royal Guest Room at Disney's Port Orleans

So that's what Disney is doing. Now let's take a look at the why.

Background: When Disney World opened its first two hotels in the early 1970s - the Contemporary and the Polynesian - they both targeted the same upper middle-class audience. (Disney World and Disneyland weren't the type of places where the rich frolicked back then. They were decidedly middle-class destinations.) But as a generation of American grew up with Disney theme parks, and income disparity widened, Disney began building hotels for wealthier visitors - the Grand Floridian, the Yacht and Beach Clubs, the Wilderness Lodge among them. And Disney also expanded into the middle class market it had left for off-property motels, building the All-Star Resorts, among others. Where Disney once had two hotels, now it had three tiers - Value, Moderate and Deluxe.

Disney's built dozens of hotels at the Walt Disney World Resort, and at some point it no longer makes sense to add overall room capacity to serve an increasingly divergent set of family incomes. (See the previous link for data showing that America's income disparity continues to grow.) So Disney's choosing to add new price points to its hotel offerings by upgrading some rooms, instead. With three tiers of hotels, along with multiple classes of rooms within each, Disney can make the most money from visitors ranging from middle-class, upper-middle-class, almost-wealthy and loaded all the way up to Lady Gaga rich.

So are these rooms a smart choice for you? Remember, if there's any ticket and reservation advice I can give you, it's that you don't vacation like you are richer than you are. Respect your budget. If these new themed rooms are within your budget and they appeal to you, go for it. You should get as much joy as you can from your vacation.

But if they appeal to you, and aren't in your budget, well, don't overlook other steps you can take to enjoy the appeal you want. For less than the upgrade cost of a royal room, you can buy a Disney princess doll before your trip, hide it in the luggage, then place it on your daughter's bed before she enters the hotel room. She'l be delighted with her "princess" bed, and can keep the doll as after the trip. Or I can drive my Prius up to an All-Star Resort room, bring in my reusable stainless steel water bottle and yoga mat, and experience a hotel visit where I am conserving energy, conserving the waste of plastic, conserving my health, and conserving about $400 bucks a night. Health and wellness, indeed.

Comments (9) | Archive Link

Decor rock falls on Disneyland Paris' Big Thunder Mountain roller coaster; five hurt

By Robert Niles
Published: April 25, 2011 at 10:10 AM
A report from France says that five riders were hurt today on Big Thunder Mountain at Disneyland Paris. A decorative rock fell from the mountain onto a train, hurting one guest seriously. That individual was taken to a local hospital with a head injury.

Big Thunder Mountain at Disneyland Paris
Big Thunder Mountain at Disneyland Paris occupies the place in the middle of the Rivers of America given to Tom Sawyer Island at the U.S. Magic Kingdom theme parks.

If you've not been on one of the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad roller coasters before (there are ones at Disneyland and Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, as well as at Tokyo Disneyland.), there is an effect on the final lift where the rocks from the mountain appear to be about to cave in on the train. I haven't been on the Paris version so I don't know it well enough to speculate where on the ride this incident could have happened.

Comments (13) | Archive Link

Vote of the week: A Brazilian pavilion for Epcot's World Showcase?*

By Flavio de Souza
Published: April 21, 2011 at 11:21 PM
Dora Kramer, an important journalist from O Estado de Sao Paulo, Brazil's second biggest newspaper, posted a note on her column, that Disney's executives had a meeting this week with Brazilian authorities to inform that they will build a Brazilian Pavilion at Epcot, and asked for input (an probably for official money) about the project.

It seems that after many years Disney will finally improve WS.

Update: Robert here, hijacking this post to make it our vote of the week. (By the way, here's the link to the original article, which is behind a paywall and in Portuguese. If neither of those stop you, read away!

I have to admit some skepticism, notwithstanding my personal history with Brazilian journalists. ;^) Talk is cheap. And it's not unusual for third parties looking for a development deal to throw around Disney's name. I hope that Disney expands World Showcase, but for all we know Disney could be talking to multiple countries, not just Brazil.

Which brings me to our question this week. Which country would you like to see Disney bring to Epcot? We have asked this question before. This time, I'm limiting the responses to the top countries which bring the most visitors to the United States, but that are not currently represented with an Epcot pavilion. (Plus, I'm adding Egypt, the winner of our last vote on this topic.)

Brazil leads that list, sending more than 1.7 million visitors to the United States last year, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce Office of Travel and Tourism Industries. South Korea follows, with 1.1 million visitors. The final two slots in our ballot go to Australia, which sends more than 830,000 visitors a year to the U.S., and India, with about 650,000 visitors.

For context, Brazil ranks seventh overall among countries sending visitors to the United States. Canada leads the way, with almost 20 million visitors coming to the U.S. in 2010. Mexico's next and the United Kingdom is third, sending more than 3.8 million visitors a year our way.

I'm not suggesting potential attractions for each of these pavilions. But do think about attraction, and restaurant, potential when voting. (Personally, I'd love to see a Brazilian churrascaria or a great Indian restaurant in Epcot.)

Let's vote:

I'd love to hear your attraction and restaurant ideas for these national pavilions, in the comments. As always, thanks for reading Theme Park Insider, and for spreading the word to your friends via Facebook and Twitter.

Update 2: We've got two new attraction openings happening today. The new Shamu show, One Ocean, debuted at SeaWorld Orlando, and the renovated Texas Giant opened to the public at Six Flags Over Texas. Those attraction's pages are now open for your reports, ratings and reviews.

Comments (44) | Archive Link

Mini-golf course on the way to Universal Orlando Resort?

By Robert Niles
Published: April 21, 2011 at 3:03 PM
A tipster tells me that Universal Orlando is working on an adventure mini golf course, which would be built just west of the CityWalk theaters, in between the theaters and Universal Boulevard.

A permit application (ENG2011-00237) for site work to prepare for the course is in the pipeline in the City of Orlando's planning office. (At least it was when I searched the office's online database today.) The designer of the course appears to be Adventure Golf Design & Development of Traverse City, Michigan. They're the folks behind the Congo Golf courses you might have seen around Central Florida.

No word on when construction might begin, or when the course would open.


Update, May 11: Confirmed, with details.

Comments (15) | Archive Link

How do you fix a theme park?

By Robert Niles
Published: April 20, 2011 at 3:11 PM
If you've not visited the Disney California Adventure theme park in Anaheim since it opened 10 years ago, you'd likely be surprised by how Disney's transformed this park.

Disney California Adventure's Paradise Pier

You might have heard about the billion-dollar transformation taking place at DCA. Even though the highlight of that makeover, the new Cars Land, is still a year from opening, California Adventure's already charged toward the upper reaches of the list of best-reviewed theme parks among Theme Park Insider readers.

How did this happen? How did the park so many of us loved to hate become one that many of us now love to visit?

The formula's simple, really: Close the bad stuff, and open more good stuff.

But as with most changes that are simple in concept, the real challenge lies in the execution. But Disney's nailed it with its changes to date at California Adventure, posting a batting average that would lift even the LA Dodgers into playoff contention.

Let's take a look at the changes:

SuperStar Limo became Monsters Inc.: Mike and Sulley to the Rescue

This has been California Adventure's biggest win to date. A truly awful ride, meant to be sarcastic but coming across as cynical, went away, to be replaced by a charming dark ride with a nice touch of personalization at the end.

Here's the lesson: Disney is culturally incapable of snark. Leave that to Universal. Whenever someone at Disney suggests a new ride or show using the adjectives "hip," "contemporary," "edgy" or "sarcastic," someone needs to walk that person from the building and e-mail his or her resume over to Universal Creative. They can pull off that stuff. Disney can't. So it should stop trying.

Disney Animation becomes Animation Academy

A series of small changes, including the addition of the interactive Turtle Talk with Crush, made this behind-the-scenes look at Disney animation more accessible to visitors, though it's not paid off in any larger crowds that I can see.

Seasons of the Vine becomes Blue Sky Cellar

Another solid hit: Disney replaced a boring promotional film with a Disney geek's dream - a look at blueprints, concept art, models and videos of upcoming attractions at the park. Sure, it's also a commercial, just like Seasons of the Vine was, but theme parks would rather see a commercial for a theme park than for a vineyard, wouldn't we?

Sun Wheel becomes Mickey's Fun Wheel

All Disney did here was change the logo on the side of the wheel. But having a 30-foot, old-school Mickey head in the park? Winning!

Orange Stinger becomes Silly Symphony Swings

I'll rate this the second biggest improvement for an attraction at California Adventure to date. By freeing this waveswinger from its orange peel shell, Disney's opened up some wonderful aerial views of the park. Look at the images at the top of the waveswinger, too. They're sequential animation from the Silly Symphony episode that inspired the make-over. That's a nice Disney touch. I love the classical music accompaniment, too.

Still to come:

  • Golden Dreams will become Voyage of the Little Mermaid on June 3
  • Mulholland Madness will become Goofy's Sky School later this summer

    Now let's take a look at the attractions Disney has added to California Adventure, the order of their debut:

  • Aladdin
  • Flik's Fun Fair
  • Twilight Zone Tower of Terror
  • Toy Story Midway Mania
  • World of Color
  • Disney Junior - Live on Stage (originally Playhouse Disney; that show changed last month.)
  • Still to come: Cars Land

    That's two world-class shows (Aladdin and World of Color, currently rated number two and three by TPI readers), two solid rides (Tower of Terror and Midway Mania) and just one flop (the Flik's Fun Fair collection of kiddie rides in A Bug's Land.)

    Over the years, Disney's removed the forgettable S.S. Rustworthy play area, as well as the flawed Maliboomer space shot ride. A space shot's not a bad idea in a theme park, but slapping plastic "scream shields" inches from people's faces makes what should be an exhilarating experience feel claustrophobic. Sneeze guards are for salad bars, not theme park rides.

    Disney also added, then removed, the Who Wants to be a Millionaire - Play It! game show after that fad played out.

    Even the food's improved at California Adventure, despite Disney closing more than half a dozen restaurants over the years. We'll see how the upcoming Boardwalk Pizza & Pasta and Paradise Garden Grill turn out. But California Adventure's current line-up of restaurants offers more variety than the sandwich-and-sweet-potato-fries combinations that seem to be everywhere across the esplanade at Disneyland Park.

    Add the Little Mermaid, Cars Land, and the two new restaurants to the mix, and it's possible that Disney California Adventure might approach, or even overtake, Universal's Islands of Adventure as Theme Park Insider readers' favorite theme park.

    This is how you fix a theme park.

    Comments (24) | Archive Link

  • Looks like Marvel is going to Disneyland

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 19, 2011 at 2:00 PM
    Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige is featured in the upcoming issue of Disney's fan club magazine, D23. In an excerpt from the piece, Feige talks about his excitement in bringing Marvel characters to the Disney theme parks:

    "The notion of walking into a theme park and going into Asgard or the X-Mansion—Disney does this better than anyone. That is why I've gone to Disney parks multiple times every year for my whole life. It's that next step in fully immersive storytelling, whether it's a dark ride, a stunt show, or a thrill ride. The options are endless when it comes to how Imagineers can turn our characters, our adventures, and our films into amazing experiences."

    We've talked before how Marvel's contract with Universal Orlando can keep the characters in that park there indefinitely, and out of Walt Disney World. (Unless the two sides cut a deal.) But the Disneyland Resort is wide open and available to Marvel. Feige's presence in D23 makes it all but assured that a Marvel attraction is coming to a Disney theme park, and that the announcement will be sooner rather than later.

    What would you like to see from Marvel, and where?

    (Thanks to TPI reader duncan henny for the link.)

    Comments (25) | Archive Link

    What's new on the discussion board: Don't cross the stroller mafia

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 19, 2011 at 1:52 PM
    Here's what we're talking about this week over on the Theme Park Insider Discussion Board. Please come join the conversation, won't you?

    Bryan Fear is going to wake up one day with a "My Little Pony" head in his bed after starting a thread on The Stroller Mafia.

    Photo illustration

    Andy Milio asks where you'd want to see a new Universal Studios theme park built If Universal Made a New US Park. He also asks your opinion on Would you want a Universal water park?

    Rob P brings up the topic of, uh, less-than-honest cast members in The Truth, The Whole Truth and Nothing But The Truth?

    Daniel Etcheberry takes more fire than Jack Sparrow stealing a ship with his claim that Pirates of the Caribbean East Coast version is as good as the West Coast version (my humble opinion). Daniel also asks Which is the most impressive theme park hotel?

    Joseph Catlett wants to hear your most Whacked Out Ride Ideas.

    T Rix and a crew of Australians need help planning US theme park holiday in July.

    Mike Saperstein is also looking for some trip-planning help, in WDW Hotel advice needed

    Annoyed by Facebook spam touting video to roller coaster accidents? So am I: Bogus interest in non-existent theme park accidents.

    Finally, Lauren Hayhurst asks for guidance in Combating the Florida Blues.

    Archive Link

    Planning board shoots down plans for new Orlando Thrill Park

    By Domenik Jost
    Published: April 19, 2011 at 12:05 PM
    The Orlando municipal planning board met today to vote on a proposed new Orlando Theme Park. The board unanimously voted to reject three zoning changes that would have been required to move forward with the plans to develop this park off of International Drive.

    Orlando Thrill Park Partners first proposed the plans to build the park next to the Tangelo Park neighborhood back in November of last year. It had plans to build a park with several coasters including one that was to be over 400 feet tall.

    Orlando Thrill Park Partners now have five days to appeal to the Orlando City Council over the planning board's rejection. WESH reports that the City Council is expected to either accept or reject the recommendations made by the planning board at its May 23rd meeting.

    Update: Here's an artist's concept of the proposed amusement park.

    Comments (3) | Archive Link

    Bad theme park jokes: They're not just for the Jungle anymore

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 19, 2011 at 9:37 AM
    "Look! It's an ore car!"

    Ore cars

    "Um, there are three of them, actually."

    "No, there's just one ore car."

    "Then what are the other two?"

    "The And car and the But car."


    "The And, But and Ore cars. We must be in Conjunction Junction!"

    Update: Trivia time: Where was the picture taken (i.e. where did this unfortunate exchange take place)?

    Comments (12) | Archive Link

    Next Walt Disney: Finale Voting

    By Andy Milio
    Published: April 18, 2011 at 5:35 PM
    It's time for you to pick your favorite contestant's park in Next Walt Disney's finale challenge. Voting runs a little different this time around:

    Instead of the poll deciding elimination, the poll will count for one "vote". I will contact our previous contestants and see whom they vote for. And of course, whoever gets the most votes wins! So, your vote still counts!

    I just want to say that I've had a blast with this competition, and I hope to host a season 2 based on Universal. I just want to give a special shout-out to Tim W for Theme Park Apprentice, my inspiration for NWD. Thanks a ton, Tim!

    Without further ado, I present the poll:

    Comments (1) | Archive Link

    Restaurant reviews: Eating our way around the Disneyland Resort

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 18, 2011 at 9:44 AM
    Let's talk theme park food, shall we? Here's a round-up of the food we enjoyed on our visit to the Disneyland Resort last week.

    World of Color picnics

    If you want to get access to the Paradise Paerk viewing area for Disney California Adventure's
    World of Color show, where you can best see the animation projections on the show's water mist screens, you've got three options:

    1) Book a room at Disney's Grand Californian Hotel, and get a Fastpass for that night's show an hour before the park opens.
    2) Arrive at park opening, then get a Fastpass for the show before they run out.
    3) Book a dining package that includes admission to the reserved viewing area.

    (I say "viewing area" instead of "seating area," because you'll be standing for the whole show. For some reason, Disney cast members are enforcing a "no sitting" policy, quite the opposite of what happens at Fantasmic!, across the esplanade in Disneyland, where everyone sits so that more people in back can see the show.)

    We had a room at the Grand Californian, but also reserved picnic meals so we could check them out.

    At $16 each ($13 with annual pass discount), the picnic meals are the cheapest of the three World of Color dining options. A three-course lunch is available at the Wine Country Trattoria for $30 for adults and $20 for children. A three-course dinner is available at Ariel's Grotto and Wine Country Trattoria for $40 adults and $21 for children. The other dining options get you into the "preferred" viewing area, while the picnics get you into the good, but not as great, "blue" viewing area.

    I selected the "Taste of Asia" picnic - cold miso-glazed salmon, with greens and soy dressing, ginger cucumber and radish slaw, soba noodles with vegetables in sesame dressing and a Mandarin orange cake. All the picnics also include a choice of bottled Coca-Cola products to drink. (I chose the water.) Rather than wait until dinner for our picnics, we chose to pick them up for lunch.

    Taste of Asia picnic

    I broke up the salmon and mixed it with the greens and dressing, creating an Asian salmon salad. Even though these are pre-packaged meals, everything on the plate tasted fresh. (Perhaps picking them up for lunch helped.) The portion of salmon wasn't huge, but it was enough to fill me, along with the sides. And the slaw offered a lightly sweet contrast to the slightly salty noodles. Though the meal was filling, nothing weighed me down. Even the cake was light, more whipped fruit-infused cream than cake.

    "This tastes so healthy, I feel perfectly justified stuffing myself with junk food for the rest of the day," my wife said as she finished her salmon. Indeed.

    The kids chose the Junior All-American Box, which included two small pieces of "honey-stung" cold fried chicken, Goldfish crackers, string cheese, apple slices, cupcake, choice of drink, and a World of Color light-up bracelet.

    Junior All-American Box

    I'm not a big fan cold fried chicken - the skin too often ends up rubbery, as was the case here. If you're going to serve fried chicken cold, you either need to skin the chicken before frying, or at least score the skin so that more of the fat renders while frying. Still, once you peeled the skin away, the chicken did offer a nice, touch-of-honey flavor. But "honey-stung"? Really, Disney, surely someone can come up with better promotional copy than that. I don't want to imagine a stinger poking my mouth when I bite into my food.

    Other picnic options include the European Antipasto (deli meats and cheeses), Mediterranean Vegetarian (veggie and hummus wrap), a grown-up sized All-American and a PB&J option on the kids' meal. You'll need to order the picnics online at least a day in advance.

    Naples Ristorante e Pizzeria

    Since we'd eaten our picnics for lunch, we headed to Downtown Disney for dinner. The kids were in the mood for pizza, and I've long been a fan of Patina Group's pizza restaurant, having also reviewed its Florida twin, Via Napoli, when it opened at Epcot last summer.

    Naples didn't have on the menu the fritto misto I enjoyed so much at Walt Disney World, so we skipped the appetizer in favor of the warm, freshly baked bread our waiter brought us when we sat. Do note that you'll have to ask for balsamic vinegar to go with the olive oil the waiter will pour for your bread. Our server explained that they now only offer the vinegar upon request, since so many people had complained about it.

    Reason #1,583,924 why some tourists are idiots.

    Naples' balsamic vinegar gives the oil the bittersweet kick it needs to flavor the bread. So go ahead, ask for the vinegar. Your request also will tell your server that you're not a culinary idiot. I swear our waiter seems relived, and even a bit encouraged, when we asked for it.

    Naples, and Via Napoli, often elicit "sticker shock" from visitors when they see the prices on the menu. But as I said before and our waiter explained here, an "individual" pizza easily serves two to three people. We chose to order two individual pizzas for the table, then shared.

    We started with an arugula salad, with shaved mushrooms, fennel, artichokes, shaved Parmesan, lemon vinaigrette ($11.00)

    Arugula salad

    The our pizzas arrived. The Pepperoni ($16.50)

    Pepperoni pizza

    And the Funghi (mushrooms - $17.00)

    Mushroom pizza

    Some of us were hungry?

    Both pizzas offered a crisp, blistered crust. But these aren't cracker-thin. Naples' pizza crusts yield a nice, light chew underneath that exterior crispiness, like a good crusty European bread.

    You can taste the bright tomatoes in this sauce and the milk in the mozzarella. If you've not had pizza like this before, you'll now understand why so many people dismiss the sauce on the big delivery chains' pizza as chemical and their cheese as rubbery. You want "better ingredients" on your pizza? Head to Naples.

    Cafe Orleans

    If you want Disneyland's famous Monte Cristo sandwich, but didn't think to make reservations in advance for the Blue Bayou, then walk across the pathway to Cafe Orleans instead.

    I've written about Cafe Orleans before, so I'll just note that the Monte Cristo ($17.49) can feed a family of four. The sandwich, serves in four segments, is so rich that no one in my family could finish more than one piece.

    My wife and I also tried two entrees neither of us had had before.

    I chose the Seafood Herb Crepe, with mahi-mahi, shrimp and scallops in a tomato-fennel sauce. ($17.49)

    Seafood Herb Crepe

    Laurie opted for the Mardi Gras chicken sandwich: a blackened chicken breast with avocado relish on a multigrain roll. ($17.49)

    Mardi Gras chicken sandwich

    Service was slow when we visited, just before noon. I noticed that the sauce on my crepe had developed a slight skin by the time it arrived at our table, suggesting that it had spent several moments under the heat lamp after plating. But the wait didn't affect the flavor. I love the taste of fennel and this sauce managed to impart that flavor to the seafood without weighing it down. This is pure protein on a plate, with the light crepe giving it just a bit more texture. The grilled asparagus provided a nice touch on the side, complementing the taste of the fennel/tomato sauce.

    My wife barely made it through half of her sandwich. As with just about everything else served at Disney, the blackened chicken wasn't too spicy, but the abundant avocado and thick multigrain roll added heaviness to the sandwich, making it too rich for her to finish alone. Thinking back, I can't remember the last sandwich I finished by myself at Disneyland. They're all so much.

    On that note, I've added some pictures and my comments to the review of the new Hungry Bear Restaurant that we've got on the Theme Park Insider discussion board, too.

    If you're new to the site, we've got plenty of reader reviews of the restaurants at Disneyland and Disney California Adventure. Just follow those links then click on the restaurant names toward the bottom of the pages to read the reviews, or add your own.

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    Abu Dhabi's Ferrari World sets standard for theme parks in the Gulf

    By Michael Owen
    Published: April 17, 2011 at 10:05 PM
    Abu Dhabi, UAE - The growth of the largest of the two United Arab Emirates, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, has seen the two cities produce some of the world’s most resounding modern tourism attractions.

    However throughout the near two decades of rapid expansion neither city has managed to develop a fully-fledged, world-class, theme park.

    Ferrari World, located on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, was intended to address that issue, combining the strong brand image of the Italian supercar manufacturer with a collection of innovative attractions.

    I managed to head to the park on Saturday April 16th using a very attractive buy-one-get one free offer provided by a local online discount site.

    The sight of the park from a distance can only be described as simply breath taking. Its huge curved red roof - which covers some 200,000 square meters and is designed to look like the side profile of a Ferrari GT - manages to stand out in an area littered with some of the best modern architecture in the world today.

    The interior doesn’t fail to impress, either, with the open plan park being well laid out in a hub and spoke system most commonly associated with Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, the most visited theme park on the planet.

    Upon arriving at the park a sign stated that neither Formula Rossa, the world’s fastest roller coaster, nor G-Force, the parks 200-foot centre piece drop tower, would be operated due to “Scheduled maintenance and upgrades” leaving guests, particularly tourists who wouldn’t be able to make a repeat visit, disappointed.

    The fact two of the headliner attractions were closed was even more disappointing given that Ferrari World, unlike most major theme parks around the world, already closes one day a week for maintenance and doesn’t open on normal operating days until midday.

    Heading in to the park (with a free ticket in hand as compensation for the closed attractions) the number of varied attractions was very good, with an even spread of thrill, family and kids rides which were well laid out across the park so as to avoid segregating the children’s attractions as many parks do.
    Fiorano GT Challenge, a Maurer Sohne dual-launched coaster, was the best of the thrill rides in operation whilst V-12, a log flume ride through the engine it takes its name from, was an fun, and very wet, experience that could be enjoyed by the whole family.

    Made in Maranello and Racing Legends, two dark rides using the same system, lacked the quality set by some of the other headline attractions whilst Driving with Champions, a simulator attraction provided some mild thrills but, as with the two dark rides, failed to immerse the guest in the story.

    The staff at Ferrari World were friendly and well trained, showcasing some of the standard practices used by staff at some of the best theme park resorts around the world. Attraction loading was a quick and smooth process though there was no real test for those working the rides and shows as the park was far from busy.

    Away from the attractions the dining and shopping experience, along with the many galleries and side shows, were exceptional, with dining options to please every taste and an expansive main store with everything from standard theme park fair to expensive unique items such as a Formula 1 steering wheel.

    At just over $60 (US) Ferrari World is reasonably priced, though with the park having only 20 attractions guests are certainly paying for quality over quantity, with the park probably falling in the half-day bracket for the standard family.

    Overall Ferrari World is a huge step forward for the theme park industry in the United Arab Emirates and is hopefully a sign of things to come in the future, with reports suggesting that some of the projects in the Dubailand area are set to resume after the economic crisis halted the progress of a number of theme parks in the area.

    Those who work at Ferrari say there’s no such thing as perfection in racing, only evolution, the same can be said for this theme park. There’s plenty thee to be proud of, but some problems need to be ironed out and investment needs to be continued in the long-term to ensure the park is ranked amongst the best in the world.

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    Vote of the week: Which Disneyland attractions should come to Walt Disney World?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 14, 2011 at 11:29 PM
    We took the kids this week on what's become our annual spring break overnight get-away to the Disneyland Resort. I try not to plan this visit too much, and instead let the kids drive the agenda, for a change. "I want to go on stuff we haven't done before," my daughter said after we arrived.

    That list is, uh, kinda short, given the number of times I've brought the kids to Disneyland over the years. But it did inspire this week's votes. Let's take a look at the Disneyland Resort attractions that theme park fans who've only been to Walt Disney World haven't done before. Which of these rides and shows would you most want to see come to the Walt Disney World Resort?

    Let's start with Disney California Adventure:

    California Screamin' and the Mickey's Fun Wheel

    You can find descriptions and reader ratings for each of these attractions on our California Adventure page, linked above. (Flik's Fun Fair is the collection of kiddie rides in the A Bug's Land section, and ElecTRONica is the nightly dance music and video game festival held in the Hollywood Studios Backlot before the World of Color show. I've left out Cars Land and Goofy's Sky School since they haven't opened yet.)

    Now, how about Disneyland?

    Matterhorn Bobsleds

    I've left out attractions that have siblings on the east coast, even if they aren't in the Magic Kingdom. (So no wishing for Disneyland's version of Pirates.) But I did include the holiday overlays for Haunted Mansion and It's a Small World.

    Let's hear your reasons for your picks, in the comments.

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    Location is the attraction at Disney's Grand Californian Hotel

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 14, 2011 at 12:54 PM
    At Disney's Grand Californian Hotel, you're paying for location.

    You're not simply paying for the hotel's ultra-convenient location within the Disneyland Resort, overlooking Disney California Adventure and the shops of Downtown Disney. You're also paying for the opportunity to experience the location of California, by staying in a truly grand example of Southern California architecture that challenges the Beach-Boys-and-Hollywood stereotype of the state too common among those who've never lived here.

    The Disneyland Resort's most expensive hotel earns that designation honestly - we paid $400 for a one-night, mid-week stay this week. I paid less last year to stay on the beach in Maui. But this isn't Maui. It's California, and rather unusually for a themed hotel, that's simply what the Grand Californian strives to represent - not some far-off destination.

    The Grand Californian Hotel reflects the craftsman architecture promoted by Pasadena architects Greene and Greene. My daughter last year volunteered as a docent at the Gamble House, Greene and Greene's most famous work. (You might remember it as Doc Brown's house in the "Back to the Future" films.) Upon walking into the Grand Californian's lobby, she said, "I feel like I should be giving a tour of this place."

    Disney's Grand Californian Lobby

    And, so, she did. She proceeded through the lobby, noting many of the details Disney included that matched with Greene and Greene's design philosophy: the use of threes in design motifs, the dark woods and natural materials, the Tiffany-style lamps and Stickley-inspired furniture. Walk into the lobby from the porte cochere and note the leaded art glass door, another detail inspired by the Gamble House. (The Gamble House's door depicts an oak tree with Ginko leaves, and not a theme park, of course.)

    Craftsman-inspired door to the Grand Californian Hotel

    This is Southern California. And Disney nailed it.

    Granted, craftsman architecture tends toward cozy, somewhat dark interiors, not the soaring, five-story atrium at the heart of the Grand Californian. But the craftsman motif allows even this large space to feel intimate and comfortable, when you take a moment to sit within it. Let the kids recover from a trip on Grizzly River Run by warming at the fireplace while you enjoy a drink from the Hearthstone Lounge. You're more likely to feel like a guest in the Gambles' living room than a customer staying in a theme park hotel. (A sense that's reaffirmed whenever you pick up the room phone, and hotel staff immediately address you by name.)

    The rooms, alas, are "cozy" too. I found them a bit small for the price, though well appointed, with high thread-count sheets, thick bath towels and, blessedly, free wireless Internet access. Craftsman touches continue in the rooms. Note the rose pattern along the top of the wallpaper, as well as the tree motif in the headboards.

    Guest room at the Grand Californian Hotel

    Guest room wallpaper detail

    And take a look at the wallpaper pattern in the bathroom. Notice anything?

    Bathroom wallpaper detail. See the hidden Mickeys?

    Yeah, you're at a Disney theme park hotel. And this might be the most conveniently located Disney theme park hotel in the United States - the only one to offer an entrance from the hotel's grounds directly into a park. (Even at the Magic Kingdom's hotels in Florida, you have to ride the monorail to get the park.) The Grand Californian's location within the Disneyland Resort allow easy breaks within your visit to Disneyland or Disney California Adventure, and the shops and restaurants of Downtown Disney are closer than your car, as well.

    So how much is location worth to you? That's the question for you to decide when considering the Grand Californian. Other high-quality hotels with excellent customer service and lower room rates, including a Sheraton and a Hyatt, stand within walking distance, though outside the resort. Budget alternatives are even closer.

    Staying at the Grand Californian (as well as the Disneyland Hotel and Disney's Paradise Pier) don't allow you as many admission perks as you'd find at other major theme park resorts' hotels. Disney offers Extra Magic Hours here, but only for one hour in the morning at Disneyland and not every day of the week, hardly the abundant Extra Magic Hours offered to Walt Disney World hotel guests in Florida. And forget about the front of the line privileges to almost all rides given to Universal Orlando's hotel guests. Staying at a Disneyland Resort hotel doesn't even get you an extra FastPass (though Grand Californian guests do get first shot at the day's World of Color FastPasses).

    No, it's location for which you're paying the premium here. Staying at the Grand Californian, you can ignore the outside world and dive into your stay the Disneyland Resort. Had enough of the parks? Retreat into the comfort of the Grand Californian to recharge, while not having to face a single outside traffic-snarled street or sidewalk. It's the opportunity to enjoy some of the best of being in California, without having to endure the hassle of being in California.

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    Tokyo Disneyland to reopen on Friday

    By Andrew Swanson
    Published: April 14, 2011 at 12:04 PM
    Oriental Land Company is reopening Tokyo Disneyland tomorrow, Friday, April 15, following a month-long closure due to the earthquake and tsunami on March 11. The park originally opened April 15, 1983, so this reopening date coincides with its 28th anniversary.

    To conserve electricity, they will only be open during daylight hours (from 8 am - 6pm). According to the park's website and Oriental Land Company's website, 300 yen from every park ticket purchased and 1000 yen from every hotel stay will be donated to the Japanese Red Cross. Guests can make additional contributions by purchasing wrist bands that say "We Are One." Cast Members will also be wearing these wrist bands and all proceeds from these sales will be donated. This is in addition to a donation of 200 million yen that OLC has already donated to the relief efforts.

    A reopening date for Tokyo DisneySea has not been announced but the resort's website did say that a minimum of three days notice would be given. This park was originally slated to start its 10th anniversary celebration on April 23rd, and there's no word on how the opening of the new Fantasmic and the related special events will be affected. The Tokyo DisneySea Hotel Miracosta is expected to reopen on the same day as the park.

    Finally it seems that the resort is being extremely accomodating with regards to guests holding ticket media affected by the closure. Expired single or multi day passports can be exchanged or refunded at the guest's choosing and annual passports will automatically have their expiration date extended by the number of days the park was closed.

    Bravo once again to the cast of Tokyo Disney Resort and the staff of the Oriental Land Company for handling this situation with upmost professionalism and for giving the people of Japan a much needed escape.

    Update, April 15: "Tokyo Disneyland opened earlier than its 8 a.m. schedule today as about 10,000 people lined up to visit the amusement park that had been shut for five weeks by the strongest earthquake on record to hit Japan." - From Bloomberg

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    What's new on the discussion board: Top rides at night and the best and worst at Disney World

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 12, 2011 at 9:48 PM
    The Theme Park Insider Discussion Board is the place for answers to your theme park questions. Here are this week's top new threads.

    Jack Maclaughlin asks you to pick the WDW best and worst!

    Terri Pierce wants to know your thoughts about Making the Most of your Money on a theme park trip.

    She also get a conversation going on which rides you must ride at night in Theme Parks after Dark.

    Anthony Murphy asks What Kind of Camera do you use at Theme Parks?

    Camille Kirk is looking for opinions on Busch Gardens Tampa or Williamsburg?

    Kirsteen Nakau asks a common question among first-time and first-in-a-long-time Disney visitors. FastPass: Need a good explanation.

    Comments (1) | Archive Link

    Which theme park resort am I?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 11, 2011 at 1:40 PM
    Which theme park resort am I?

    I am home to two of the top 10 most-attended theme parks in the United States.

    My two theme parks are located within short walking distance of one another.

    A large, popular festival marketplace, with movie theaters and themed restaurants, extends off to one side from the theme parks, occupying the space between the parks and their multi-level parking structure.

    There are three on-site hotels in my resort, including a luxury resort, a more moderately priced option and one in between.

    For years I was known by the name of the older of my two parks, which stood alone on this site for years, before the second park was built of the site of the first park's parking lot.

    The second theme park, with "Adventure" in its name, opened around the turn of the 21st century.

    That second theme park is being reinvigorated with the addition of a major new land, themed to a popular movie franchise.

    The most photographed, iconic building at my resort is a castle.

    Which theme park resort am I?

    Did you guess the Disneyland Resort?

    Sleeping Beauty's Castle at Disneyland

    Or the Universal Orlando Resort?

    Hogwarts Castle at Universal Orlando Resort

    Because, of course, either answer would be correct.

    And you thought Walt Disney World was Disneyland's east coast twin? ;^)

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    Vote of the week: Help pick the Theme Park Insider T-shirt slogan

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 8, 2011 at 1:29 PM
    Thank you to all the Theme Park Insider readers who have been suggesting slogans for our soon-to-debut Theme Park Insider T-shirts. Special thanks to Jorge Arnoldson, Jeff Elliott, Derek O Neill and Rob P, who suggested the slogans listed below.

    TPI logo

    The first batch of shirts will be going to Team TPI members. If you're planning to throw your hat in the ring and post something for the Team, please do so this week. I'll be sending the invites next week.

    As for the shirts, I'm looking for something that would grab the attention of people who saw somewhere wearing it in the parks. Of course, the slogan also should be something that would make you want to wear this shirt in the parks, too. After all, if no one wears the shirt, or no one notices it, what's the point of printing them up? We want the shirts to be something fun for Theme Park Insider readers.

    As always, thanks for reading. I'm looking forward to next week, when we'll have several new photo galleries and trip reports on the front page for you, with visits to Disneyland and to Knott's.

    Comments (21) | Archive Link

    Disney breaks ground on Shanghai Disneyland

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 8, 2011 at 7:14 AM
    The Walt Disney Company today broke ground and began construction on Shanghai Disneyland, a joint venture with the Chinese government.

    Concept art, from Disney

    Disney Parks chairman Tom Staggs said, "Scheduled to open in about five years, our new resort in Shanghai will include things that you know and love about a Disney theme park such as Disney characters, attractions and storytelling… but it will also feature all-new experiences and stories that were inspired by and created for the people of China."

    And that's about as much detail as Disney's publicly given. A look at the concept art doesn't reveal much: Disney will build the Florida/Tokyo version of its castle, rather than the Anaheim/Hong Kong version. It looks like there will be a carousel and a Dumbo-style ride, as well.

    A wider view concept art reveals the largest known detail about the new Magic Kingdom park:

    More concept art, from Disney

    It appears that there will not be a traditional Main Street USA, but rather a larger entry plaza to the park, featuring water elements and, presumably, some of the nods to Chinese culture to which Staggs referred.

    Remember, this will be the Walt Disney Company's second theme park in China. Andrew Kam, Managing Director of the Hong Kong park, issued a statement today about the Shanghai project, through Hong Kong Disneyland's Facebook page:

    "Asia, including China, is a growing market with a population of several billion, large enough to have more than one Disney resort. As we prepare to expand with 3 new themed areas, we look forward to growing together with Shanghai and capturing the significant growth of the Asian Leisure Travel market in the years to come."

    Of course, the role of Tokyo in that market is an issue, too.

    There will be much more to come in the next few years as this project moves into construction, designs are leaked and details revealed.

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    What features make a hotel room worth returning to?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 6, 2011 at 11:37 AM
    Since covering theme parks tends to land me in a lot of hotel rooms over the course of the year, I thought I'd let off a little steam by ranting a bit about what makes a hotel room one worth returning to someday. I hope that you'll jump in the comments, too, and add your thoughts about what's most valuable to you in selecting a place to stay on the road.

    Royal Pacific Hotel
    Inside the Loews Royal Pacific at Universal Orlando Resort, from last summer's roadtrip

    It should go without saying that a hotel should be fairly priced and provide a secure, immaculately clean facility with comfortable beds, as well as working plumbing and climate control in each room. Rooms also should have adequate water pressure and places to store one's clothes. And you shouldn't have to hear the goings on in adjacent rooms, either.

    Beyond that, though, here are some of the must-have "extras" a modern hotel that wants my business also should provide:

    Free WiFi at broadband speeds: Internet connectivity has become a basic utility in modern life, as essential as the telephone. Business travelers demand the ability to connect back to their network at office speeds, and even leisure visitors expect to be able to connect with the broadband capability many of us have back at home.

    Unfortunately, at the last few hotels where I've stayed this year, the WiFi connection crawled at speeds I haven't endured since I last had a dial-up connection. Hotels must accept that Internet connectivity isn't a fad, and add capacity to support a full house of guests at broadband speed. The conspiracy theory holds that hotels are trying to protect their lucrative pay-per-view movie business by throttling WiFi connection speeds. The reasoning is that if you can't watch, um, a certain kind of video for free online, you'll give in and pay to watch it on your hotel TV.

    Please. How about quit trying to nickel-and-dime us? As cell phones killed hotels' lucrative phone-charge business, the Internet is eliminating the pay-TV profit center at hotels. Smart hoteliers should accept that, provide excellent WiFi service and price their rooms fairly, given the loss of phone and pay-TV and video-game revenue.

    High-definition televisions: Speaking of televisions, they've better be hi-def. When I see a standard-def TV in a hotel room now, I react the same way as I did when I was a kid and we pulled into a motel with black-and-white TVs. Not only is the picture so inferior to high-def, standard TVs take up too much space in a rooms where space is already at a premium. TVs have become markers for the overall quality of a hotel. If it hasn't upgraded its televisions, I wonder what else it hasn't fixed or improved recently.

    Free toiletries: Blame the FAA for this one. A decade ago, I would have said to ditch those little bottles of shampoo, to save a few bucks on the room. But now, personal-sized shampoo, conditioner and - ideally - toothpaste and mouthwash are essential for a traveler who flies with only a carry-on. (That's me.)

    A powerful hair dryer: This is the one "essential extra" that I don't need, but my wife demands it. And not some skimpy, underpowered hair dryer that shorts out as soon as you turn it on, either. Again, this is a great element to check to see if a hotel is paying attention to its details.

    Available electrical outlets: We're traveling with cell phones and laptops these days, and need places to plug them in. Unfortunately, older hotel rooms hide their electrical outlets, since at one time they were needed only for the room's built-in lamps and appliances. Today, a King room should offer at least four open and accessible outlets. A two-bed room should include at least six. And two of those outlets should be located on, or next to, the table top.

    Now, let's talk about the amenities that aren't essential, but that I still find nice to have in a hotel:

    Free breakfast: I hate having to go out to eat for breakfast, if I don't have to. Having breakfast ready to go at the hotel helps me get a great start to the day. Free breakfast set-ups speed me along since I don't have to wait for service - just hit the buffet, get your food, fit a seat, then clean up and go.

    Space to dry clothes: Doing laundry in your room is the traveler's secret to packing lightly. (Again, no matter how far I travel, it's with only a carry-on.) But even people who travel with their entire closets need a place to dry a swimsuit now and then. Yet, it is surprising how many hotels are designed in such a way as to make hanging wet clothes to dry nearly impossible. (I hate those shower rods that curve outside the tub!)

    Free in-room refrigerator: Minibars don't count. It's nice to have a place to chill water bottles for the next day, or stash a leftover sandwich for a later meal. But for families traveling with infants, or people who need refrigerated medications, the in-room fridge moves up to the "essential" list.

    Swimming pool/fitness center: Again, not a deal-killer, but after a long day in the car or on a plane, man, is it ever nice to be able to stretch and get your muscles moving in a pool or gym.

    Large window with a pleasant view: I wish more hotel companies would think harder about siting when building their hotels. No, all hotels can't offer views of the ocean or the mountains. But did you really have to place a wing of rooms so that they all overlooked trash bins?

    Finally, here are four things I'd love to see hotels eliminate, as they work to add the features listed above:

    Minibars: Again, quit nickel-and-diming us in the room. I endorse the current trend to replace in-room minibars with lobby pantries. With a central location for food serving the entire hotel, you're less likely to be stuck with stale items that have been sitting in your room for weeks. Getting rid of the minibars also allows housekeeping to focus on cleaning your room, instead of stocking and policing the minibar. No minibars also means less costly theft and fraud disputes for the hotel, too.

    Water bottles for sale in the room: Ditto.

    Newspapers: We get our news online now. Delivering an unread newspaper to every room wastes an enormous amount of paper. If anyone really wants a paper, make them available for sale in the lobby.

    Resort fees, or any other mandatory fees or surcharges, outside the room rate and taxes. For that matter, hotels ought to do better by including applicable taxes when quoting rates on their websites. Give us the real cost, upfront, and disclose any additional fees (such as daily parking rates) where we can see them.

    What do you think? What's most important to you when deciding where to stay on the road?

    Comments (40) | Archive Link

    What's new on the discussion board: Hungry Bear review and T-shirt slogans

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 5, 2011 at 9:53 AM
    Here are this week's top new threads on the Theme Park Insider Discussion Board:

    Studio Tour at Universal Hollywood

    Joseph Catlett posts the news Universal Studios Hollywood announced Jimmy Fallon new host of Tram Tour, and also offers us his take on A Visit to Club 33 at Disneyland.

    Tyler Stover visits the most-recently-refurbed restaurant at Disneyland and offers a Review: New Hungry Bear Menu.

    Wayne Berry takes a look at some favorite overlooked places at Busch Gardens Williamsburg in Secret Gardens.

    Brian Emery keeps the speculation going over the soon-to-be-released report on Theme Park Attendance for 2010?

    Finally, I ask What should be Theme Park Insider's t-shirt slogan?

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    Tournament final: Dollywood's Smoky Mountain Christmas vs. Universal Studios Florida's Halloween Horror Nights

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 4, 2011 at 8:59 AM
    Here we are: the finals of the 2011 Theme Park Insider Tournament. For the past few weeks, we've been voting our way down to the final two as we select America's best theme park event. Today, we'll pick our winner.

    The finalists are:

    Dollywood's Smoky Mountain Christmas

    Readers have raved about the Pigeon Forge, Tennessee theme park bathing itself in lights and holiday decor for this annual holiday festival. Dollywood's known for its musical productions, and Smoky Mountain Christmas continues that tradition, with specially-themed shows for the season. The cold mountain weather's a great fit for the season, too, and readers say they appreciate Dollywood's embrace of religious symbolism in its Christmas celebration, instead of secularizing the holiday, as some other theme parks do with their Christmas events.

    Universal Studios Florida's Halloween Horror Nights

    USF didn't create the first theme park Halloween event. (Knott's Berry Farm in California earned that honor.) But Universal Orlando's taken Halloween to a new level, building an unparalleled event in terms of scope, popularity and economic impact. With its aggressive online social networking, Halloween Horror Nights has become almost a 12-month experience for its fans, rather than a one-night deal in October. Sure, fans rave about the scares and the haunts. But it's the overwhelming social camaraderie that builds in a great Halloween event such as this, as people come together in laughter or screams in response to the park's scareactors, that makes this event so beloved by its many fans.

    These events are here because they have built strong emotional connections with their fans - connections that these parks have maintained through social media and used to drive votes in this tournament. Your fellow readers have spoken. If you've not checked out these events, you should.

    But, as they say, only one can be the champion. It's time to vote.

    Polls are open for just 24 hours, closing at noon Eastern on Tuesday.

    I'd like to thank everyone for participating in this year's tournament. And I'd like to invite our new visitors to click around and take a closer look at the Theme Park Insider website. As dedicated fans of your favorite theme park, you've got some great insider experience and tips that I'm sure other readers around here would love to hear about. So, please, feel welcome to jump in on the discussion forum, tips page or park review pages to leave your ratings and reviews of the attractions you've experienced. We're just fans helping fans here, and we'd love to have you join us, too.

    Update - Polls closed: And congratulations to Dollywood for its victory in the final, as Smoky Mountain Christmas has won the 2011 Theme Park Insider Tournament title as the Best Theme Park Event in America.

    Thanks, again, to everyone who participated in this year's tournament!

    Comments (37) | Archive Link

    Mickey Mouse moves into his new home at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 2, 2011 at 11:32 AM
    Theme Park Insider reader TH Creative sent along some photos from the newly opened Town Square Theater meet n' greet at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom.


    The Town Square Theater, which reopened yesterday, is Mickey Mouse's new home at the Magic Kingdom, following the closure of Mickey's Toontown Fair earlier this year. You probably should try to get a FastPass for this one, but when you arrive, you'll see more than just the Big Guy - like at his old Toontown digs, you'll get to see his dressing room, and a few interactive surprises, too.

    Mickey's suit

    Magic trunk

    Mickey and Minnie

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    Epcot's Le Cellier Restaurant Undergoes Changes, But Not Nearly Enough

    By Scott Joseph
    Published: April 1, 2011 at 5:22 PM
    Walt Disney World's culinears have elevated Canada's Le Cellier steakhouse to "signature" dining status, which puts it on the same level as California Grill and Flying Fish Cafe. Sadly, the food doesn't reach that level, although the prices certainly do. Here's a link to my full review.

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    The top theme park news stories from the first three months of 2011

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 1, 2011 at 10:44 AM
    Yeah, it's April Fool's Day, but instead of whipping up some fake story for you I thought I'd instead share with you links to the top 10 stories from the first quarter of the year.

    To me, that's the biggest surprise of April Fool's Day, the recognition that the year is already one-fourth over. Wow. Anyway, here are the top 10 stories on Theme Park Insider from the first three months of the year, based on reader traffic during those three months:

    Six Flags New Orleans tickets, scattered

    1. A photo tour of the abandoned Six Flags New Orleans
    2. Fire at Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure; Ripsaw Falls evacuated
    3. Disney employee killed in accident at Animal Kingdom
    4. Disneyland changes 2Fer deal for 2011
    5. How to have a horrible theme park vacation
    6. Walt Disney World unveils the new 'new Fantasyland' plans
    7. What will change at the Tokyo Disney Resort when it reopens?
    8. Earthquake strands thousands at Tokyo Disney theme parks
    9. The 2011 Rose Parade, in photos
    10. Universal Orlando raises annual pass prices, expands blockout dates to Islands of Adventure

    Here's hoping for a more positive mix of top stories in the next three months.

    Comments (3) | Archive Link

    Tournament semifinal: Universal Studios Hollywood's Halloween Horror Nights vs. Universal Studios Florida's Halloween Horror Nights

    By Robert Niles
    Published: April 1, 2011 at 9:00 AM
    Now we come to the inevitable battle in the 2011 Theme Park Insider Tournament. When I placed both of Universal Studios' Halloween Horror Nights in the field to determine America's best theme park event, I figured there was a strong chance that both the Orlando and Hollywood events would face off against each other. And pretty late in the game, too.

    And so it is, today.

    So as you are deciding between Universal Studios Hollywood's Halloween Horror Nights and Universal Studios Florida's Halloween Horror Nights, please consider a few things: Which event is better executed, considering production quality and the entertainment experience? Which event provides the better value for the money you pay? Which one would you consider indispensable, should you be able to visit only one of the two ever again for the rest of your life?

    Or, since we're talking Halloween events here: Which one scares the heck out of you more?

    I'll concede that relatively few of you have experienced both events, so I understand that this might just reduce to a popularity contest. If you've been to both, please jump in with a comment evaluating to two relative to each other. And I hope that other readers will consider those comments. Let's put it to a vote:

    Polls close at noon ET on Saturday. Get out the vote.

    Comments (2) | Archive Link

    Keep reading: March 2011 Archive

    Stories from a Theme Park Insider

    Stories from a Theme Park Insider

    What's it like to work in a theme park? Stories from a Theme Park Insider takes you inside the famous tunnels and backstage at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom for a look at how theme parks really work, sharing the funny moments and embarrassments that can happen when your job is someone else's vacation.
    Order now: Kindle | iBooks | Paperback | Kindle (UK)