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August 2011

Planning a visit to Hawaii? Disney opens Aulani on Oahu

By Robert Niles
Published: August 31, 2011 at 12:27 PM

Planning a visit to Hawaii soon?

If you are, and you're a Disney fan, you've probably looked into Aulani, the new Disney resort that opened this week on Oahu.

Aulani is a Disney Vacation Club resort, joining Vero Beach and Hilton Head as DVC locations outside Disney's theme park resorts. If the prospect of a Hawaiian vacation is tipping the scales to get you to finally join DVC, hold on. You can't buy into Aulani right now, as Disney stopped selling into the resort while it sorts out the mess allegedly made by its former DVC management team. (But if you already are a DVC member, I understand that you still can use your points to get into Aulani.)

You don't need to be a DVC member to book a stay at Aulani - it's a regular hotel, too. (Though a pricey one - rooms start at $400 a night.) Here's a look at the resort's pool and one of its typical hotel rooms, in photos provided by Disney. (As you might have guessed, I haven't been. The ol' Theme Park Insider travel budget ain't that big yet.)

Given that Disney isn't selling the resort while it's getting the publicity the opening will generate (the official ceremony is next month), I wonder how Disney will try to grab attention when sales open up again. Perhaps we can expect a "very special episode" of some Disney Channel or ABC sitcom, where the characters just happen to decide to take a trip to Aulani?

Site unseen, what's your verdict? Planning a trip to Aulani? Thinking about a trip? Would rather stay elsewhere if you ever visit Hawaii? Personally, I remain partial to Ka'anapali Beach on Maui, where Laurie and I stayed when we visited a couple years back. (Aulani's located in Ko Olina, on the western shore of Oahu.) But I'd love to hear any island experts' take on Aulani's site.

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Universal Orlando Halloween Horror Nights 21 revealed

By Domenik Jost
Published: August 30, 2011 at 9:05 PM

The time has come, after countless teaser pictures via Universal Orlando's new Twitter account and Facebook, Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights 21 is finally revealed. So here is what's coming this year to Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights 21.

The event will include eight all-new houses:

  • Nevermore: The Madness of Poe - The madness of Edgar Allen Poe’s greatest works has come to life. Step into the mind of the iconic writer, where every turn of the page takes you closer to the brink of insanity.
  • The Forsaken - The Forsaken Four ships began Columbus’ fateful voyage, only three became legend. Condemned to a watery grave, the mutinous and cursed crew of that 4th ship has returned with a vengeance. For within the walls of a spanish fort, a maelstrom has brought from the depths…..death itself.
  • H.R. Bloodengutz Presents: Holidays of Horror - Join creature feature host, H.R. Bloodengutz, in his final televised broadcast as he presents a holiday SCARE-athon guaranteed to cleave you screaming for more.
  • The Thing - Paranoia spreads like an epidemic among a group of researchers in an isolated Antarctic outpost as they’re infected, one by one, by a horrifying creature from another planet. In a place where ther eis nothing, they found something.
  • Saws N' Steam: Into The Machine - Spinning blades and massive, crushing pistons await you around every corner as you are forced deeper into the bowels of a mechanical nightmare. Give yourself to "The Machine."
  • The In-Between - An ominous portal reveals another dimension where all is not what it seems: A realm where our world and another collide. Surrounded by fiendish creatures, your eyes will deceive you with every step through this phantasm of terror.
  • Winter's Night: The Haunting of Hawthorne Cemetery - As snow falls on this normally serene gothic cemetery, the deceased souls that occupy its confines have their sights set upon you. Insuring that the chill you feel up your spine is more than just the cold of night.
  • Nightingale's: Blood Prey - Within every war, the Nightingales have appeared. Able to transform themselves to fit any setting, these savage banshees feed on the weak and the helpless. Patrolling WW1 era trenches, you discover that you are more than just at war…you're being hunted.

And six all-new scarezones:

  • Acid Assault - For decades now the city has been degrading from the effects of acid rain that still falls today. Those that have lived and survived the blistering decay are all alone in the city. Survivors have stripped the city of all life to sustain their own…dare to enter the ACID ASSAULT!
  • Canyon of Dark Souls - Upon entering into the Canyon of Dark Souls, you will feel like a small spec of humanity as the overwhelming sense of death surrounds you. Creatures that dwell within the canyon are not welcoming so walk slowly as to not disturb them!
  • Grown Evil - Enter, if you dare, into our garden where Evil grows. Nature has taken this once well-manicured sanctuary back from the humans who once kept it. Now the creatures that inhabit the garden are making any human that enters their prey!
  • Nightmaze - Journey through the ever-changing maze of darkness! This all black maze will morph and change as you walk through it!!! You will not be scared the same way twice!
  • 7 - As daylight shines upon our Temptresses, their appearance, though evil, allows you the spectacle of beauty. As night falls, these 7 temptresses will show their true colors and take on their true Fatal Evil forms. Beware of your own temptations.
  • Your Luck Just Ran Out - Enter if you dare into the lair of the LUCKY! Your Choices will determine if you make it out alive! Witness lucks deadly wrath. WIll she choose you to be her next victim?!

And will include two shows:

  • Death Drums new - A seductive, hard-hitting and raw, extremem drumming experience. Don't just see 1 show as there are 3 different shows nightly.
  • Bill and Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure - Party on as those two most excellent dudes return to skewer the biggest names in entertainment and pop culture.

Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nigths 21 will run select nights from September 23-October 31. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit halloweenhorrornights.com/orlando.

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What's new on the discussion board: What to expect (at Disney World) when you're expecting

By Robert Niles
Published: August 30, 2011 at 11:54 AM

We're asking and answering reader's questions about theme parks - as well as just wasting time having some fun - over on the Theme Park Insider Discussion Board. Here are some of the top new threads submitted in the past week.

Cinderella's Castle at the Magic Kingdom

Nick Dakuginow offers a unique Walt Disney World trip report in Birthday in the Magic Kingdom with my Pregnant Wife - August 28, 2011.

Jenny Rees reminds us that reports from Europe are always welcomed on the site, too, with her Alton Towers Trip Report.

Zach Nelson is looking for Military Discounts at WDW.

Daniel Etcheberry wants to hear some of your funniest Crazy ideas for rides and attractions.

I posted a couple of news notes this week: Arnold Palmer takes over management of Walt Disney World golf courses and Hidden Rip, Ride, Rockit track codes for Rock the Universe 2011.

Finally, Jeff Elliott is Working on the next "Epic" Trivia Challenge and sums up the rest of the week's news in Last Week At Your Amusement Park......August 29.

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Putting two of Disney's peanut butter treats to the taste test

By Robert Niles
Published: August 28, 2011 at 10:53 PM

Last week when I was visiting Disney California Adventure, I decided to feed my peanut butter addiction by trying a couple of PB treats from DCA's Candy Shoppe.

Peanut butter cookie and the peanut butter sandwich

Have I mentioned that I'm a peanut butter addict? Well, specifically, I'm a peanut butter confection addict. Sure, I enjoy that first sniff when you rip the cover off a new jar of peanut butter, but it's when you mix the stuff with candy or cookies that the real magic happens.

For reference, I consider Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups the standard for addressing a peanut butter craving. Given a choice, I'll always opt for a good dark chocolate over the weaker tasting milk variety. And the TJ's cups make a great one-bite snack, unlike the standard-sized Reese's, which are a two-bite treat for me.

But what does Disney have to offer? After my lunch at Boardwalk Pizza & Pasta, I tried two options from the refrigerated case at the Candy Shoppe - the peanut butter cookie (above, left - $3.95) and the chocolate-covered peanut butter sandwich (above, right - also $3.95).

The refrigerated candy case at California Adventure's Candy Shoppe

Don't be fooled by the name of the second treat - it's not really two pieces of bread with peanut butter in the middle and chocolate draped around. Disney's "peanut butter sandwich" actually is a thick graham cracker topped with peanut butter and smothered in milk chocolate.

There doesn't seem to be any heat-resistant wax in this chocolate coating. As soon as I placed it on a sun-drenched table to photograph it, the chocolate started to run, making this a messy mid-day treat. (Beware any chocolate that doesn't melt on a 90-degree day. Anything put in a chocolate bar to keep it from melting also keeps it from tasting like, well, chocolate.) Better to choose this sandwich for an after-dinner dessert, paired with a cup of coffee or hot chocolate, or save it for a cooler day.

Even as the chocolate ran off the "sandwich" and onto my hands and face, the graham cracker foundation kept the treat from falling apart in my hands. Ironically, while providing strength to the sandwich, the graham crust added lightness, as well. A solid bar of chocolate-covered peanut butter this size would be too rich for more than a few bites - forget about finishing it. With the graham crust in every bite, you still taste that great peanut butter flavor, but don't feel like you're taking as heavy and fat-laden a bite as you would if it were all peanut butter. I thought the peanut butter and graham cracker a perfect combination for this snack. Now if I could get my hands on a dark chocolate version….

As for the cookie? Imagine a thick sugar cookie with lumps of sugary peanut butter in every bite. Eating this cookie reminded my of the Peanut Butter Space Food Sticks I devoured as a child. (For those of you under the age 35, this is a good thing.) I probably would have enjoyed this cookie more if I hadn't just tried the awesome graham/PB/chocolate combination of the "peanut butter sandwich."

Obviously, if I had to choose between the two, I'd opt for the sandwich. But the cookie is a better alternative on a hot afternoon like we've been having here in Southern California this week, when you've got a peanut butter craving, but don't feel like dealing with rapidly melting chocolate smearing all over your face and hands.

Note: If you'd like to try either of these treats, you can find them at major candy shops in several of the Disney theme parks, including on Main Street in Disneyland. The Candy Shoppe in California Adventure is located on Sunshine Plaza, which is closing as Disney transforms it into Buena Vista Street. That means that visitors to California Adventure will be diverted along a pathway behind and to the west of Soarin' Over California when they enter the park through the new turnstiles starting this week, instead of heading straight into the now-closed Sunshine Plaza. Visitors will be using this detour to get in and out of the park until Buena Vista Street opens in late spring next year.

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Hurricane Irene open thread

By Robert Niles
Published: August 26, 2011 at 11:40 PM

Hurricane Irene missed Florida, but it's closed several theme parks for the weekend, including Busch Gardens Williamsburg, Kings Dominion and Six Flags Great Adventure.

With luck, the storm will keep bearing east and its worst winds and storm surges will miss populated areas. Until then, though, East Coast readers, please feel free to comment with any eyewitness reports, or just to kill time while you're using the WiFi in whatever hotel room you've evacuated to.

Out here in the west, we'll continue baking in the 100+ heat we're expecting again this weekend.

Whatever happens, let's hope that the outcome is better than this example of a theme park that closed for an impending hurricane.

Stay safe, everyone.

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Vote of the week: Knowing the secrets of theme park design

By Robert Niles
Published: August 26, 2011 at 12:13 PM

Yeah, I'm a geek about theme parks. I love learning the tricks of how attractions work. As editor of Theme Park Insider, I've been fortunate to have the opportunity to talk with many theme park attraction designers over the years, including Walt Disney Imagineers and designers from Universal Creative and SeaWorld.

Scale model of the New Fantasyland
The scale model of the New Fantasyland at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, on display at the Disney Parks and Recreation "Carousel of Projects" pavilion presented by Walt Disney Imagineers at the D23 Expo in Anaheim this month.

Yet as curious as I am about the details of so many theme park attractions, I can't get these pros to give up their secrets. It's an extension of the magicians' code: They're not going to "break the magic" by telling you how its done.

But is that really necessary? Is it always true that if someone knows the secret of a trick, he's less impressed with it?

Personally, I don't think so. I've spent plenty of time backstage at the Magic Kingdom, and that experience didn't cause me to love theme parks any less. My work at Walt Disney World actually intensified my love of the parks. Seeing the inner workings of Audio Animatronics and ride systems didn't break the spell for me - they cast a spell that's led me to spend so much time visiting and reporting on theme parks.

I do know people who feel the opposite, though. They know don't want to know how things work; they just want to enjoy the show. So I thought this would make for a great Vote of the Week discussion.

Over the long term, do you think you'd like theme park attractions more, or less, if you knew more about the technology and tricks that made them work? Do the tech details turn you off, or turn you on - making you feel more connected to the ride or show and the people who produced it?

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Please, if you've been a long-time lurker and have an opinion on this, consider this your invitation to jump in and leave a comment. And, as always, thanks for reading Theme Park Insider.

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Where to eat? Lunch at the Boardwalk Pizza & Pasta at Disney California Adventure

By Robert Niles
Published: August 25, 2011 at 4:27 PM

Today was my first chance to try one of the two new restaurants that opened at Disney California Adventure this summer.

Paradise Garden Grill

Paradise Garden Grill is a counter service restaurant serving Mediterranean skewers and Greek salads. You can choose from steak, chicken, beef kefka or veggie/tofu skewers and pair the skewer with a Moroccan chili, chimichurri, spiced yogurt or tzatziki sauce. Desserts are baklava or a chocolate brownie and strawberry skewer with caramel and chocolate sauces and mini-marshmallows.

The restaurant shares a shaded outdoor dining area with the adjacent Boardwalk Pizza & Pasta, which is where I chose to eat today.

Exterior of Boardwalk Pizza

The serving area of Boardwalk Pizza & Pasta is indoors and features station service, with pizza, salad and pasta choices.

Inside Boardwalk Pizza & Pasta

I'm not a fan of Disney's counter-service pizzas - their thick, doughy crusts make the pizza taste too much like sauce and cheese sitting on half a loaf of white bread. But Boardwalk Pizza & Pasta serves flatbread pizzas, on a thin, almost cracker-like crust, so I gave the Portobello Mushroom and Spinach pizza ($8.99) a try.

Mushroom pizza at Disney California Adventure

This is a fussy pizza, with a herbed marinara sauce, artichokes, pesto and ricotta in addition to the mushrooms (plentiful) and spinach (not so much). But the flavors came together for me, allowing me to taste plenty of spice, but not weighing me down with an overabundance of cheese or sauce. I like veggie pizzas when I'm visiting a park because they don't leave me with a post-meal meat hangover, where I'm spending all my energy digesting instead of hitting the park.

While I didn't love the flatbread crust at Boardwalk Pizza & Pasta nearly as much as the delightfully airy and crispy crust at Downtown Disney's Naples Ristorante e Pizzeria (or its Disney World sibling, Epcot's Via Napoli), I'll come back to Boardwalk Pizza & Pasta next time I'm in the mood for a quick pizza inside the parks.

Other choices at Boardwalk Pizza & Pasta include cheese, pepperoni and barbecue chicken pizzas, spaghetti with meatballs, a five-cheese ravioli and a chicken pasta in a sun-dried tomato cream sauce, and chicken caesar, field greens and Italian chef salads. The Italian chef salad includes cured meats, roasted peppers and mozzarella in a red wine vinaigrette. Give Disney points for serving the pasta dishes on actual china, instead of paper plates, to keep the sauces warm and for offering real silverware rather than plastic utensils. Both are welcome upgrades from most counter-services theme park eateries and I hope that those touches endure.

I also love the well-shaded dining area in front of the two restaurants, lining the Paradise Pier promenade. I found a seat under one of the many trees in the area, and enjoyed a live musical performance by Rumba y Cajon while eating my lunch.

Rumba y Cajon perform at DCA

Construction update:

Just a couple new photos from the ongoing work at Disney California Adventure. The new, Pan Pacific Auditorium-inspired front gate is open.

New DCA entrance

And construction's topped out on the Carthay Circle restaurant that will stand at the end of the new Buena Vista Street entry plaza.

Carthay Circle Theater construction

The pathway between the entry plaza and Paradise Pier remains closed, so visitors must continue around Grizzly River Run to get to the back side of the park.

Grizzly River Run

Remember, you also can cut through A Bug's Land to reach Pacific Wharf and Paradise Pier from Tower of Terror and the Hollywood Pictures Backlot.

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Legoland California announces its Legoland Hotel

By Robert Niles
Published: August 25, 2011 at 9:49 AM

Legoland California this morning announced the first Legoland Hotel in the United States, to open in summer 2013.

Legoland Hotel accouncement
Legoland California General Manager Peter Ronchetti, left, looks on for the Legoland press conference tradition of dropping the bricks.

Legoland currently has a hotel at its original Denmark park, and a hotel opening at its Windsor, England park next year.

Construction is scheduled to begin in October on the three-story, 250-room hotel, which will be built on the site of the current bus parking lot, to the right of the park's entrance.

The hotel, which will be operated by Legoland and not an outside hotel company, will feature Lego brick decor, as well as a pool area and restaurant. Legoland California General Manager Peter Ronchetti told me that the details are still to be worked out, but that hotel visitors will be able to expect special in-park privileges for staying at the Legoland Hotel, possibly including early or extra ride time in the park.

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A new Harry Potter attraction debuts next spring in the UK

By Robert Niles
Published: August 24, 2011 at 10:34 PM

For Harry Potter fans in Europe who haven't had the chance to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando (or even for those who have), a new Harry Potter experience is opening next spring in the United Kingdom.

Warner Bros. Studio Tour London

The Warner Bros. Studio Tour London will open next spring at the Warner Bros. Studios in Leavesden. Tour visitors will get to go on the sets used in the filming of the Harry Potter movies, see the costumes and props used in the films and watch demonstrations of some of the technology used in the movies.

The Thinkwell Group is involved in designing and producing the project. Tickets on sale October 13 and can be booked online at www.wbstudiotour.co.uk. Tickets will be £28 for adults and £21 for children.

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East coast earthquake shuts theme park attractions

By Robert Niles
Published: August 23, 2011 at 12:30 PM

What's shakin', east coast theme park fans?

(Sorry, but we in California feel it our duty to make fun of people on the east coast when they freak out after a quake. Welcome to our world, kiddos!)

Seriously, today's 5.8 earthquake in Virginia was felt on most of the east coast and has shut down attractions at Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Kings Dominion, the theme park closest to the quake's epicenter.

Busch Gardens says it has reopened the slides at Water Country, but we're still awaiting word about ride inspections in the theme park. Neither park reports any injuries at this time, to visitors or employees.

Please post your observations in the comments.

Update, 3:27 pm ET: Kings Dominion just announced "Hurler, Dominator, Flat rides and waterpark have re-opened."

Update, 4:41 pm ET: Everything's back up at Busch Gardens.

Update, 6 pm ET: Kings Dominion says "Most of the rides are back up, only a handful remain."

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Think Disney didn't announce anything significant at D23? Think again

By Robert Niles
Published: August 23, 2011 at 11:28 AM

Disney might not have announced any huge new theme park projects at this year's D23 Expo, but don't be fooled into thinking that Disney didn't announce anything significant.

Tom Staggs at D23

Disney Parks Chairman Tom Staggs all but apologized to fans for the lack of fresh news at the Expo, in an update to his blog post on the Disney website. In that update, Staggs hinted at upcoming announcements from Disney, including news about the future of Downtown Disney in Orlando.

But what Disney did announce at the Expo - and what the company's been developing over the past few years - marks a very significant development for the company, one that fans shouldn't overlook in their zeal to hear about the next big land or ride.

Let's review what we did see or learn about at this year's D23:

  • A live, public showing of Talking Mickey
  • A Lumiere Audio Animatronic at the Magic Kingdom, using what sounds like microtechnology
  • An interactive queue for The Little Mermaid in Florida
  • New "special experiences" at Disneyland, including dinners with Imagineers and other special events themed to now-closed attractions
  • Confirmation of either a new club or expansion of Club 33 at the Disneyland Resort
  • Fantasy Faire, a new meet and greet area in the old Carnation Gardens at Disneyland
  • Details on several new experiences in Shanghai Disneyland's upcoming Enchanted Storybook Castle, including restaurants, shops and attractions

We also heard more details about Cars Land, the New Fantasyland and the Buena Vista Street entry plaza for Disney California Adventure. But look at the other news in the Disney Parks' D23 Expo presentation, and a pattern emerges: Disney is working on a variety of projects to make the theme park experience more interactive, more personal and more intimate than theme park attractions traditionally have been in the past.

As fans, we're almost programmed to be impressed by announcements of The Next Big Thing. But let's not overlook very important announcements of the next little things, too. When executed well, details often become the factors that distinguish great vacations.

One of the reasons why Universal Orlando's Harry Potter has been so wildly successful is that it provides a tangible place for fans to feel the emotional connection that they have with the Harry Potter universe. But it is Universal's faithful attention to recreating detail in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter that makes those connections flow.

Disney's pouring a billion dollars into its "NextGen" project, for which Disney - again - has been reticent on providing details, to the great frustration of its most dedicated fans. But whatever its forms turns out to be, NextGen is about the use of technology to create detail that forges connections.

The projects that Disney announced at D23 reflect that spirit. Even a character meet and greet - which many of us have derided as a cheap alternative to fixed attractions - can become much more emotionally engaging for the guests involved when its taken from a random pathway into am initimate themed setting, appropriate for the character being met.

Obviously, Disney needs big blockbuster attractions, too. But let's not forget that a generation of fans raised on video games looks for interactivity and individuated experiences in entertainment. Disney's turning a battleship in moving from traditional mass-experience theme park attractions to attractions that better support those individual, interactive experiences.

That's a significant change. Again, we'll have to see how well Disney pulls it off. But I don't want fans to overlook the significance of what Disney is doing, either.

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What's new on the discussion board: Farewell Jimmy and, please, no kissing

By Robert Niles
Published: August 23, 2011 at 9:03 AM

It's time for our weekly round-up of the top new discussion topics on the Theme Park Insider Discussion Board:

Fans of the late Jimmy Neutron ride at Universal Studios Florida have been saying good-bye in All right, I'll start it... Farewell Jimmy.

Jimmy Neutron's Nicktoon Blast

But that's not enough for some Universal Studios and Nick fans, who are talking about a Petition to bring back Nickelodeon Studios!

Moving down the road a bit, Daniel Etcheberry thinks that Sea World Orlando should try to be like Disney Sea if it wants to compete with Disney and Universal.

Chris S asks a common question about visiting Central Florida in Planning Orlando Vacation Part 1: Rent a car or not? What do you think?

Roger Shurp shares a disappointing experience: Rip Rocket Ride at Universal . . . Music stopped

It looks like Cedar Point has backed into reclaiming a share of the coaster crown, now that Magic Mountain's Deja Vu is moving to Six Flags New England.

Tim Hillman asks Has Getting Older Changed the Type of Rides You Choose at Theme Parks?

And several readers have a request: Please, no kissing at theme parks

Finally, get your snark on with Last Week At Your Amusement Park......August 22.

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Alton Towers set to crown winner of its 'King of Coasters' competition, 100 free tickets up for grabs

By Michael Owen
Published: August 23, 2011 at 8:41 AM

Alton Towers is set to crown the winner of its King of Coasters competition on Monday August 29th, a bank holiday in Great Britain.

Fans can vote for Alton Towers 'King of Coasters' up until Sunday August 28th and every voter will be entitled to purchase a discounted £25 ticket for the day of the event, which is set to feature "a red carpet and other majestic shenanigans" according to an Alton Towers press release.

Over 300,000 people have voted for the coaster they consider their favourite at the park, with Nemesis, Air, Thirteen, Oblivion and Rita all in contention to be crowed the 'King of Coasters' at the Staffordshire resort.

As an added incentive to visit the park, the first one hundred guests who turn up wearing a crown will be allowed into the park for free for the whole day.

Votes for the competition can still be cast on the Alton Towers official website or in park.

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Universal Studios Singapore launches teaser campaign for Transformers: The Ride

By Robert Niles
Published: August 22, 2011 at 9:59 PM

Universal Studios Singapore has made official that Transformers: The Ride will open in December 2011. To build anticipation for the new ride, the park's also started a new blog, promising updates and teasers for the 3D motion ride.

Here's the first video clip:

Universal Creative president Mark Woodbury gave us a few details about the new ride in his recent interview with Theme Park Insider. And U.S. fans will get to see the same ride in 2012, when Transformers debuts at Universal Studios Hollywood.

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Disney's Jungle Cruise contest: Find Disney/Pixar's John Lasseter

By Ben James
Published: August 22, 2011 at 8:18 PM

This is one contest sure to excite TH Creative.

Disney has announced a contest that is sure to bring back memories of old and share them with memories yet to come.

In late 1977 through early 1978 John Lasseter (Current Disney Chief Creative Officer) skippered many a guest on the Jungle Cruise Adventure. Now Disney is on the hunt to find irrefutable evidence that John was a skipper. So far their hunt has turned up nothing, but your old family heirloom could be the key to a trip for 4 to the GRAND OPENING of Cars Land at Disney's California Adventure in Summer 2012.

So dust off those old trunk in your attic and see what photos you can dig up. Visit The Jungle Cruise Hunt here to learn more about how to submit.

Oh, and bonus points on TPI (from me. No effect on Disney's contest) if you get one posted with a young TH Creative or Robert Niles on the same ship. Just Kidding!

Good Luck Skippers!

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Time to start paying attention to the weather - Irene is heading toward Florida

By Robert Niles
Published: August 22, 2011 at 12:29 PM

Thinking of heading to Florida this weekend? A hurricane might be there to greet you.

Hurricane Irene forecast map

Hurricane Irene appears to be the first of the season to target Florida. The National Hurricane Center is forecasting that the storm will sweep north just off the Atlantic coast of the state, arriving due east of Port Canaveral Friday morning. The forecast "cone" of where the storm could show up includes much of the state, however. Cruise lines already are altering their itineraries.

At this point, Irene's not that strong yet, having just achieved hurricane status. If the NHC's forecast holds, Irene's sustained winds will build to over 110 mph by Thursday, and the storm is predicted to hit South Carolina on Saturday morning.

Florida residents, you know the drill by now. But if you're planning a visit to the state's theme parks between now and the weekend, start paying attention to the weather forecasts.

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Will Talking Mickey change the way people react to theme park characters?

By Robert Niles
Published: August 22, 2011 at 12:13 PM

One of the highlights of last weekend's Disney D23 Expo in Anaheim was getting to see Talking Mickey in person for the first time.

Talking Mickey shared the stage with Disney Parks Chairman Tom Staggs during the Disney Parks presentation on Friday, then made appearances on the show floor on Saturday. Here's a look at Mickey's banter with Staggs:

Talking Mickey's certainly convincing, with mouth movement in synch with his speech and eye blinks that reinforce the illusion of liveliness. But adding speech to Mickey's repertoire fundamentally changes the way that this icon interacts with his audience.

Without speech, Mickey relies on elaborate pantomime to communicate. But if Mickey's to become a full-time talking character, he won't be able to move and gesticulate in exactly the same way. It'd be too much. A talking Mickey has to tone down his movements to avoid coming across as Manic Mouse instead.

In the presentation with Staggs, I though Mickey was trying to find a balance - reacting with mime while Staggs was talking, then calming his movements a touch when he spoke. After all, the current Talking Mickey isn't always taking. He uses speech as a change of pace, an attention-grabbing interlude to his physical communication.

I couldn't help comparing this Talking Mickey with the (silent) Mickey we met in Orlando last month. We visited the new Town Square meet and greet in the Magic Kingdom, where Mickey and Minnie greeted us in their green room. Minnie spied the "Happy Anniversary" buttons that my sister and her husband were wearing, and moved in. She grabbed my sister by the wrist of her left hand, then dragged her over to Mickey. (My sister willingly played along.) Minnie pulled my sister's left hand up toward Mickey's face, pointing to the diamond ring on my sister's finger. She seemed to glare at Mickey, tapping her foot in apparent frustration, as Mickey shrank, took two steps back and shrugged his shoulders.

It was brilliant mime acting. And completely hilarious.

But how does that scene play with Mickey being able to speak?

Obviously, it wouldn't be fair to have a talking Mickey appear with a non-talking Minnie, or other characters who aren't officially mute. We'd lose the fun of such scenes if Mickey were greeting us alone. But if Mickey and Minnie both could speak, how would the meeting have changed? Would the characters have been as physically engaged with us? If they'd tried, would we have let them?

Would little children find a talking Disney character more intimidating, and potentially frightening, or less?

I don't know. All I know is that speech changes the social dynamic between a theme park character and the guests he's meeting. I'd love to hear what you think about this, and especially to hear from anyone who has played a character in a theme park. I think it's fascinating to think about how guests (especially little kids) will change their reactions in response to a talking theme park character.

Your thoughts?

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Mach Tower opens At Busch Gardens Williamsburg

By Russell Meyer
Published: August 21, 2011 at 8:19 PM

After months of waiting and controversy, Mach Tower quietly opened this past weekend at Busch Gardens Williamsburg. The 240-foot tall drop tower from Moser was originally slated to open just before Memorial Day, but due to delays, the nature of which have yet to be confirmed by the park, the ride’s first day (Friday, August 19, 2011) barely beat the official end of summer, Labor Day.

The tower represents the initial phase in a revamp of the park’s popular Oktoberfest area, which will feature an as-yet-unnamed multi-launch roller coaster in 2012. Mach Tower literally towers over the park as guests can see the pinnacle of the ride from virtually everywhere inside the park, and just about anywhere within a 1-mile radius of the park.

Mach Tower

The tower does indeed look like a giant maypole scraping the sky with riders spinning around the spire before plummeting back to Earth. The park did an excellent job with the themeing, as Busch Parks typically do, with lovely artistry on display around and on the ride itself.

Mach Tower

However, was the ride worth the wait? My family and I had already planned a trip to the park before Busch Gardens announced Mach Tower’s opening on Friday, so my presence in the park was mere coincidence, but I was figuring the ride would open soon based on recent reports of testing over the past couple of weeks. We arrived in the park on Saturday night, and as expected, the park was packed. The line for Mach Tower was consistently 1 hour or more all evening, so I was only able to get one ride on the first night. On Sunday, the crowds were far more manageable, with wait times less than 10 minutes through most of the morning and early afternoon.

The loading procedure for the attraction is very organized as guests are prearranged into four groups of seven and given color-coded cards reminding them which of the taped boxes to stand in as they prepare to load. Once split up into groups, riders then are moved into the pre-load area where they are given final instructions before riding. As soon as the previous cycle ends, guests are directed to seats that have color coded symbols above the restraints and after checking restraints, the ride is ready to begin. Guests will find rather uncomfortable molded plastic seats (probably even more uncomfortable than Huss seats) and restraints that I foresee having some serious issues. The over-the-shoulder restraints feature retractable safety belts that are a redundant system to the lock shoulder bars, which are great for accommodating larger guests. However, the retraction system is mounted on the restraint, not on or below the seat, which puts a moving part within arm’s reach of the riders while riding. Hint to Moser: Guests should not be able to touch critical safety devices that contain mechanics or moving parts while riding. It’s inevitable that seats will be taken out of service because guests mess with the belt retractors, so I hope the park bought plenty of spares.

Once everything is ready to go, the carriage starts the slow (and I mean S-L-O-W) and twisting assent up the tower. Guests rotate around the tower two full revolutions before reaching the top, while music that sounds like it was recorded 30 years ago and played on an antique phonograph serenades them. After the carriage reaches the top, it holds there for a few seconds, then “shakes” (more like a heavy vibration) before riders drop back to the ground.

Mach Tower

So, after months of waiting, how was the ride? I’d have to say the ride is a bit of a disappointment. As expected, the ride looks great, is well themed, and is well operated to achieve maximum capacity. The turning around the tower on the way up was a cool “twist” to the standard drop ride. However, the long ride up accompanied by the low quality audio is more annoying than tension-building. Also, the vibration at the top hints to riders when the carriage is going to drop, deterring from the anticipation. To top everything off, the magnetic brakes start slowing the ride down less than 2 seconds after the drop begins, negating the massive height of the attraction. I’ve ridden on a number of drop rides from Intamin and S&S not even over 200 feet that were better than the 240-foot tall Mach Tower. It just seemed lame to take such a long time to get to the top of a ride that doesn’t give riders a true freefall for more than a hundred feet before the brakes slow things down. Drop Tower at nearby Kings Dominion (305 feet tall) has a drop that is intense and seems never ending until the brakes kick in at the last possible second to bring the carriage to a halt. Even Tower of Doom at Six Flags America (140 feet tall) seems like it has a longer duration freefall than Mach Tower.

In the end, Busch Gardens did add a much needed flat ride, granted they could have used one with a slightly high capacity. However, for the size and all of the trouble that the park has experienced with the ride to date, it just wasn’t worth the wait. At least a new roller coaster is on the way in 2012, just across the path from Mach Tower. Hopefully that ride will live up to expectations.

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Theme Park Apprentice 3: And the Winner is...

By Tim W
Published: August 21, 2011 at 8:11 PM

The winner of Theme Park Apprentice 3 is Jeff Elliott! Congratulations Jeff, and to our other finalist James Koehl! And a big thanks to everyone else who participated in the competition by reading and voting.

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New Fantasy Faire development coming to Disneyland

By Robert Niles
Published: August 19, 2011 at 4:59 PM

Greetings from the 2011 D23 Expo in Anaheim, California!

D23 Expo entrance

It looks like Disney will bring a major new princess meet and greet to Disneyland, too. Fantasy Faire will replace Carnation Gardens, as announced by Disney Parks Chairman Tom Staggs and and Disneyland Resort President George Kalogridis during the Disney Parks & Resorts presentation at the D23 Expo today.

Tangled Tower at Fantasy Faire

Fantasy Faire will include the Tangled Tower, where visitors can meet the various Disney princesses. There will be new dining and merchandise in this Fantasyland expansion, as well as a Maypole-like ribbon dance in the afternoons, where guests will join the princesses.

A new performance stage will be included, which will continue to host Carnation Gardens' popular swing dancing in the evenings, Staggs said. No opening date was given for the project, nor was there a closing date announced for Carnation Gardens.

Just before announcing Fantasy Faire, Kalogridis and Staggs also teased new "special experiences" for guests at Disneyland Park, including dinners with Imagineers inside the Haunted Mansion, drinking a Tahitian Punch at the old Tahitian Terrace in Adventureland and reliving a showing of "America the Beautiful" in CircleVision 360.

Neither followed up with any details about these teases, but let me take a guess - Disneyland's working on more limited admission, hard-ticket events for the resort, and will be drawing upon former attractions for the themes of some of these events.

Beyond Fantasy Faire, the other somewhat big news at the Expo was the reveal of a few new details about the upcoming Shanghai Disneyland. Staggs and Bob Weis from Walt Disney Imagineering played a video simulation of the new Enchanted Storybook Castle that will stand in the center of the park - the first Disney castle not themed to an individual princess.

The multi-level castle will include a walk-through attraction (like Disneyland), a table-service restaurant (like Disney World), a princess meet and greet, and a Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique on the first floor.

The castle's basement also will be the final scene in an as-yet unnamed boat ride that will float through the rest of Fantasyland.

Boat ride at Shanghai Disneyland

Staggs and Weis said that Disney's Chinese partner is doing site prep work now, and that Disney won't actually begin its construction on the park until next spring. From Weis' comment that "we're well into the blue sky phase of development" on Shanghai Disneyland, it's clear that design work on the park continues, which is why we're not hearing more details about attractions in the park.

Beyond the princess meet and greet, of course.

The seemingly-ubiquitous major princess meet and greet is one of the major features of the New Fantasyland project at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, which was the centerpiece announcement during the first D23 Expo, in 2009. Disney also revealed some fresh details about that project today, specifically about the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train Coaster, which has been added to the New Fantasyland project since the 2009 D23 Expo announcement. Here's a computer POV simulation of the new ride:

We've known that the mine train cars will swing as they circle the ride's track. But we got our first look at them in action in a video in the Disney Parks & Resorts pavilion on the D23 Expo show floor:

Here's a mock-up of the train car:

Seven Dwarfs Mine Train car mock-up

And here's a look a model of the Mine Train ride, on display in the pavilion:

Model of the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train attraction exterior

You can get a fuller look at the New Fantasyland model in this video from Disney:

In addition, we heard that Disney Imagineering has developed a Lumiere animatronic for the Belle meet and greet location, which WDI's Bruce Vaughn called "one of toughest animatronics we've ever worked on." Vaughn also revealed that there will be an interacrive element in the queue for the Florida version of The Little Mermaid ride, a scavenger hunt with Scuttle, where visitors are invited to help find whosits and whatsits.

Staggs also reviewed the ongoing construction at Disney California Adventure at the Aulani resort in Hawaii, though we didn't hear anything that we didn't hear at the "What's Next" presentation inside Cars Land last June. We did see a fresh construction photo of the Route 66 section of the Cars Land site:

Construction photo of Cars Land, from D23

And I snapped a couple photos of the ride vehicles for Radiator Springs Racers and Mater's Junkyard Jamboree, on display in the Disney Parks pavilion:

Radiator Springs Racers ride vehicle

Mater's Junkyard Jamboree ride vehicle

Disney also today has released the video fly-through of the new Buena Vista Street entrance to California Adventure:

Chef Andrew Sutton of the acclaimed Napa Rose restaurant in the Theme Park Insider Award-winning Disney's Grand Californian Hotel is developing the new table-service restaurant that will be going into the Carthay Circle Theater that anchors Buena Vista Street. And Staggs and Kalogridis teased a 2012 announcement of the expansion of Club 33-like membership club opportunities at the Disneyland Resort, which could mean a club inside the Carthay Circle, too.

Update: Saturday's news was that Disney will be adding a new Walt and Mickey statue to Buena Vista Street, one that depicts an young Walt and early Mickey to match the 1920s theme of the street. Here's a Disney publicity photo of the model for the statue:

Walt and Mickey statue model for DCA

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Cedar Point Copycats Kings Island in 2012

By James Rao
Published: August 19, 2011 at 2:27 PM

Today Cedar Point officials announced that the new addition for 2012 will be....Dinosaurs Alive on Adventure Island. Eerily similar to the underwhelming $5 upcharge attraction added to Kings Island in 2011, this walkthru exhibit will be located on the wooded island currently encircled by the Paddlewheel Excursions boat cruise (which will, incidentally, be retired from the park at season end).

Furthermore, Soak City, Cedar Point's sister water park, will be adding a new mat-racer complex.

See the park's Official Announcement for more details.

Pleased? Disappointed? Thoroughly disgusted? Feel free to offer your opinion in the comments section.

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Busch Gardens Tampa reveals Howl-O-Scream 2011

By Domenik Jost
Published: August 19, 2011 at 11:20 AM

It's that time of the year again. With the haunting season right around the corner the details about the haunts are starting to surface. A few weeks ago Universal Orlando released it's first Halloween Horror Nights 21 house, today Busch Gardens Tampa released details of it's upcoming haunting season.

This year Busch Gardens Tampa will reveal "The Dark Side Of the Gardens" at Howl-O-Scream 2011. The event will run on 17 select nights and will be overgrown with all new haunted houses, new live shows, and will see the return of Alone.

This year, the all new houses include:

  • Nevermore - Beating hearts, swinging pendulums and a raven’s cries haunt the manor of Lenore, creating a demented and twisted nightmare. Step inside to experience the gothic terror that maddens the lord of the house. and feel delusion overcome reality. Find your way out of this horror story before paranoia authors your final chapter.
  • Zombie Mortuary - No one remembers how the epidemic started, but now, zombies live here. The undead that infest this small town funeral home feed on the fresh flesh and brains of mortuary mourners to satisfy their insatiable hunger. Avoid the walking dead or you may find yourself deeper than six feet under.
  • Ultimate Gamble: Vampire Casino - Fanged fiends entice you to test your luck in this sultry hangout straight from Sin City. The seductive games and high-stake thrills at Reviver Casino are sure to get your blood pumping, but will you escape before your luck gets drained? Just stay away from the killer All-THEY-Can-Eat buffet.

In addition, we will see the return of Nightshade Toy Factory, Death Row Vengeance: Fear the Dead, Deconstruction: The Doctor Is Out of Control, and Alone… (A personal experience in horror).

The Dark Side of the Garden will also feature two live shows.

  • Midnight Hour new - The music industry can be a devilish business to break into, especially when your road to fame leads to the Hellfire Club. Don’t believe the club’s shadowy owner when he promises his panel of sinister celebrity pop-culture coaches will help make you a star! Performing nightly at the Desert Grill
  • Fiends - Is there a doctor in the house? These captivating creatures of the night will infect you with dance fever and keep your pulse pounding with their deranged dance party. But when Dr. Freakenstein’s naughty nurses start operating, the diagnosis is always “code pink.” Performing nightly at the Stanleyville Theater.

For those over 21, Howl-o-Scream will have Club Virus where you can enjoy non-stop music, premium signature cocktails, drink specials and exclusive appearances by Howl-O-Scream's most terrifying personalities.

Busch Gardens is also bringing back it's all inclusive VIP Packages, which include event admission and a tour guide. There are three levels of special VIP treatment available: Super, Mega and Ultimate. The Super experience is a three-hour group tour of haunted houses that includes front-of-the-line access. The five-hour Mega experience adds reserved show seating, front-of-the-line access to several roller coasters and preferred parking, and the Ultimate experience adds the Fright Feast dinner buffet, meet and greet with the Howl-O-Scream creative team and a $5 games card. All tours include commemorative photos, merchandise discounts and complimentary beverages. Packages start at $79, and Passport Member discounts are available.

For those who would rather be their own tour guide Howl-O-Scream also offers two front-of-line passes. The Front Line Fear pass for $35, which grants no-wait access to all houses, excluding Alone. The Front Line Fear Extreme pass ups the access and also lets guests skip the line at five of Busch Gardens coasters for $50.

Two more great offerings include the Thrills & Chills Weekend Pass which includes unlimited access (Thursday through Sunday) to Busch Gardens by day and Howl-O-Scream by night for $79.99. And my personal recommendation, Fright Feast which includes a buffet of monstrous main courses and devilish desserts, plus and exclusive performance of The Midnight Hour, and to top it off you get a half-hour early access to all the haunted houses plus front-of-line privileges until 8:30 p.m. all for just $25 per person (group rates and discounts for Passport and Fun Card members available). From my experience last year you can get most of the houses done within that time frame, and it truly is in my opinion the best bang for your buck deal if you can't splurge for the VIP treatment.

The event runs Thursday through Saturday nights, Sept. 29-Oct. 1, 6-8, 13-15, 20-22 and 27-29. Freaky Preview lets those who cannot wait to face the darkness experience the event a week early on Sept. 23-24 for discounted rates as low as $32.99. Operating hours are 7:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. during Freaky Preview and on Thursday nights. Friday and Saturday hours are 7:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. For more information visit TheDarkSideOfTheGardens.com.

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Vote of the week: The Disney Dining Plan

By Robert Niles
Published: August 18, 2011 at 11:38 PM

As the kids head back to school, our thoughts move from this summer's theme park visits to… planning our next theme park visits. On that note, this is the time of year when Walt Disney World offers its Disney Dining Plan for free to visitors who book hotel packages for what passes as the "off" season at the Walt Disney World Resort. (The "off" season as a Disney World park still attracts more visitors that the high season at many regional amusement parks.)

So let's talk today about the Disney Dining Plan. Have you used it? Thought about it? What do you think?

Pot roast
Pot Roast at the Liberty Tree Tavern

Personally, I've never used it. I love many of Disney's sit-down restaurants, so a Quick-Serve Dining Plan wouldn't be a good fit for me. But when I look at the amount of food included on a Deluxe or up plan - an appetizer, entree and dessert for three meals a day? That's just too much for me. My family always splits entrees when we visit theme parks, anyway. Throw in the fact that the only time I can visit WDW with my school-age children is during one of the high seasons, such as summer, when the Dining Plan isn't a freebie, and I've just decided to do without.

Is that the right call? I don't know. You tell me. I know that different visitors have different circumstances and I'm sure we'll hear from some readers who are fans of the Dining Plan, as well as others who've found other ways to get the most for their food dollars while visiting the parks.

I'd love to hear your thoughts, in the comments. Thanks again for reading Theme Park Insider, and stay tuned for my coverage from the Disney D23 Expo later today and through the weekend.

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Theme Park Apprentice: The Finale Voting

By Tim W
Published: August 18, 2011 at 11:34 PM

Well here it is everyone, the finale of Theme Park Apprentice 3. In this challenge, our two contestants created theme parks for Dubailand. Only one can come out victorious, so make your vote count!

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Canada's Wonderland to debut Leviathan - tallest & fastest B&M yet

By Nick Markham
Published: August 18, 2011 at 11:20 PM

Canada’s Wonderland has announced its new roller coaster for 2012 - a $28 million Bolliger & Mabillard giga coaster named Leviathan.

Leviathan’s first lift hill will climb to 306 feet (93.3M), followed by an 80-degree drop. The coaster will reach a top speed of 92 mph (148 kph) and run on 5,486 feet (1,672M) of track, including camelback hills of up to 180 feet (54.9M). The signature feature on the coaster might be its 115-degree overbanked hammerhead turn that will cross above the park’s front gate at 147 feet (44.8M) high.

Here's your POV rendering:

"Leviathan will be our 16th coaster and now positions Canada's Wonderland as one of the top three coaster destinations in the world," said Raffi Kaprelyan, Vice President and General Manager, Canada’s Wonderland in a statement. "We will go higher, longer, and faster than ever before when we launch Leviathan in 2012."

The opening is slated for May 2012. Canada's Wonderland is updating construction progress on its website at leviathan.canadaswonderland.com

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SeaWorld Orlando offers free dining and front-of-line access to draw hotel visitors

By Robert Niles
Published: August 18, 2011 at 10:29 AM

If you can't decide between the free front-of-the-line ride access offered by the Universal Orlando hotels or the free dining plan offered at Walt Disney World, SeaWorld Orlando would like to offer you... both.

Shamu at SeaWorld Orlando

SeaWorld's new vacation packages include both the All-Day Dining Deal and QuickQueue Unlimited for vacation packages booked at one of the park's six "on site" hotels:

  • Doubletree by Hilton Orlando at SeaWorld
  • Fairfield Inn & Suites Orlando at SeaWorld
  • Hilton Garden Inn Orlando at SeaWorld
  • Hilton Grand Vacations at SeaWorld
  • Renaissance Orlando at SeaWorld
  • SpringHill Suites Orlando at SeaWorld

The packages also include free transportation to SeaWorld, Aquatica, Discovery Cove and the Universal Orlando theme parks. (No free transportation to Disney, though.) SeaWorld's also offering a third night free on a two-night hotel stay, along with the free dining, for packages booked at several other partner hotels.

SeaWorld's facing the toughest market right now, among the Orlando-area theme parks. Disney's got four decades of inertia as the market leader behind it and Universal's got the momentum of Harry Potter. SeaWorld has... a rethemed Shamu show (with the trainers still out of the water) and some evening entertainment and drink festivals. Nice, but hardly enough to compete with Disney and Universal without discounting. So SeaWorld's combined the best of its competitors' hotel discounts in the hope that will draw some Orlando visitors to its parks.

As I mentioned above, Walt Disney World is continuing again this year its late summer tradition of offering free Disney Dining plans to visitors who book on-site hotel packages for the fall. You can find details about that and other deals on the Disney World special offers page.

And, as always, you can find a link to that page, as well as to other theme parks' special offers pages, on our Theme Park Insider tickets deals page.

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Disneyland Resort update: New bakery, new award and new money

By Robert Niles
Published: August 17, 2011 at 10:56 AM

Lots of news from the west coast Mouse House today, as the Disneyland Resort also gets ready to welcome the D23 Expo to Anaheim (which I'll be attending this weekend).

First up, Disneyland has announced that it will finally be restoring the old Plaza Pavilion as a food location. In January, the Pavilion will return as the Jolly Holiday Bakery Cafe, a Mary Poppins-themed counter-service bakery that will replace the Blue Ribbon Bakery on Main Street USA.

With the Blue Ribbon bakery closing, its space will be divided by the adjacent Carnation Cafe and the Gibson Girl Ice Cream Parlor. This means that the Carnation Cafe will be getting back some indoor seating, which it hasn't had for many years. And that the wait for a table at the ice cream parlor might just be a few minutes less on a busy spring evening.

Disneyland Hotel

Also, Disneyland announced today that the Disneyland Hotel has won a four-diamond rating from AAA, joining the Grand Californian as a four-diamond winner. The Disneyland Hotel's been undergoing a massive renovation over the past few years, upgrading rooms throughout the property, including adding several attention-grabbing themed suites.

Trivia question: What is the highest AAA-diamond rating ever give to a hotel at the Disneyland Resort? (I'll post the answer in the comments if no one gets it first.)

Finally, Disney is today selling a reported $500 million in bonds, to raise money for "general corporate purposes." Disney's sitting on a significant chunk of cash these days, but borrowing costs are dirt-cheap in the markets these days, so Disney's taking advantage. (By the way, don't fall for media hype about a "debt crisis." Borrowing costs next to nothing these days. The only problem is that so many households are drowning in real estates debt that they don't have any ability to take on more debt. Which is why the bond markets are slashing borrowing costs - cause there's relatively little demand.)

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Universal is making changes to Dragon Challenge

By Domenik Jost
Published: August 17, 2011 at 10:53 AM

Universal Orlando is making changes in response to a second guest being injured on the Dragon Challenge coaster within the last two weeks. Both incidents occurred during the part of the ride where both trains are going head on toward one another into the inverted loop.

Dragon Challenge

Local 6 News reports that Jon Wilson, a 19 year old from Ohio, said that something had hit him in the foot, arm, and face. He recollects saying that his sister was sitting next to him and when he told her he got hit she at first thought it might be a bug until she looked over to see his hands covered in blood.

In response, Universal Orlando has now changed the ride by having the trains run staggered so they won't pass near one another at the intersecting dueling points of the coaster. Universal Spokesman Tom Schroder told Local 6, "as we continue to study these incidents, we will operate both coasters as separate experiences without their usual intersect points."

This was the second incident in just over two weeks following another guest, Carlos Montalvo, being struck in the right eye leaving him blind in that eye.

It is not unheard of guests loosing personal belongings on an attraction. In the case of coasters in particular dueling coasters these items can become dangerous projectiles. I would speculate that both of these incidents were caused by lost items. I myself am guilty of having lost my glasses on the wooden coaster Gwazi before. They were in my pocket and got rattled loose during the ride and were lost. Thankfully though I have never been hit by any loose items. Have you ever lost something on a ride or been hit by another guests lost personal belongings during a ride?

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Lightning strikes at SeaWorld's Discovery Cove

By Robert Niles
Published: August 16, 2011 at 8:35 PM

A lightning strike at Discovery Cove sent several people to Dr. Phillips Hospital in Orlando Tuesday. Three guests and up to five employees were affected by the strike, though none appear to have been hit directly.

Two employees are said to be at the hospital Tuesday night. The other individuals, all adults, have been released.

Lightning strikes are a daily occurrence in Orlando, and strike inside theme parks are not unknown, though strikes tend to hit high points on buildings, rarely affecting visitors or employees.

Update: Getting reports now of another visitor at Universal's Islands of Adventure being injured by being struck by something while riding Dragon Challenge. Details to come.

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What's new on the discussion board: National roller coaster day, plus buying theme park tickets online

By Robert Niles
Published: August 16, 2011 at 9:53 AM

It's Tuesday, which means it is time to recap the week's top new threads on the Theme Park Insider Discussion Board:

Mike Gallagher wishes everyone a National Roller Coaster Day in Guess What Today Is? Let's celebrate with an on-ride video of Theme Park Insider readers' favorite roller coaster:

Zackiel Marsh asks your opinion on Which Disney Park needs the most fixing?

Daniel Etcheberry thinks Transformers should open at Universal Orlando, too!

He also asks you which you think will be more popular: Bowling (Downtown Disney) vs mini golf (Universal's City Walk)?

Eric G gets a thread going on this year's Halloween Horror Nights 21.

Finally, Kelly Muggleton wants to hear your tips on buying Online Tickets.

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Introducing Disney's Fastpass Club

By Robert Niles
Published: August 15, 2011 at 12:49 PM

Following the recent sacking of the head of the Disney Vacation Club, as well as rumors of flowing red ink at the DVC, I did a little snooping and found this upcoming Disney press release. Looks like Disney's trying to save DVC by merging it with another of the company's theme park programs.

Have you heard Disney's next best-kept secret?

Sharing the secret!

Disney's Fastpass Club is a ride reservations program that's not only flexible and affordable, it's a convenient and cost-effective way for you and your family to enjoy Disney's world-class theme park attractions - now and for years to come!

Disney Fastpass Club is based on an Attraction Points system. As a Member, you receive an annual allotment of Attraction Points - based on the size of your real estate interest - to use toward reserving ride and show times on attractions at the Walt Disney World and Disneyland Resort. Not only that, but you can use your Attraction Points to reserve ride times at other participating theme parks, when you buy your points through Disney!*

(*Offer not good on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey or anything else at the Theme Park Which Must Not Be Named. As if.)

Here are just a few examples of how you can use your Attraction Points in 2012:

  1. 47 Attraction Points gets you on Stitch's Great Escape… in October.
  2. 117 Attraction Points gets you a meet-and-greet with a Tier 2 Disney Princess.
  3. 120 Attraction Points gets you on Star Tours at Disney's Hollywood Studios.
  4. 160 Attraction Points gets you on Star Tours at Disneyland.
  5. 196 Attraction Points gets you on Toy Story Midway Mania, along with a cheat sheet and a College Program intern to buy you a Disney ice cream novelty while you ride. (Actual purchase of ice cream novelty extra.)

The Disney difference is present in every aspect of Disney Fastpass Club — from the wonderful Disney destinations to the high level of service. Find out if a Disney Fastpass Club Membership is right for you!

And stay tuned in 2012, when we'll debut the Disney Dining Vacation Club, for Disney fans who still think we haven't made theme park vacations complicated enough.

(Yes, in case it wasn't obvious by now, this post is a spoof.)

Update: But if you want to get serious for a moment, man, it looks like Disney really messed up some important details with DVC's Aulani Resort, which is why the DVC president got sacked.

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The Enchanted Tiki Room opens at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

By Robert Niles
Published: August 14, 2011 at 7:22 PM

The Enchanted Tiki Room has reopened at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom.

After fate struck down the wretched "Under New Management" version earlier this year, Disney's wisely brought the Disneyland version of the show to the Magic Kingdom, allowing Florida visitors to enjoy the abbreviated version of Walt's original Audio Animatronic show that California visitors have been enjoying for years.

Jose at the Enchanted Tiki Room
Jose in the Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland

The central fountain's still missing from the Magic Kingdom's tiki room, meaning that the show opening today isn't exactly a duplicate of the version playing at Disneyland. For fans of the Magic Kingdom's first version of the Tiki Room show, "Tropical Serenade," this version also lacks the Offenbach number, the lull in the show that prompted thousands of visitors to flee the theater over the years.

The Magic Kingdom's Enhanted Tiki Room now plays at a tight 10 minutes, with the Sherman Brothers' "The Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room" kicking off the show, followed by "Let's All Sing Like the Birdies Sing," the luau, the storm and the finale.

Your hosts are the same quartet of ethic stereotypes - Jose, Pierre, Michael and Fritz - spouting the same tired one-liners from the 1963 script. Few under age 50 will catch the vocal references to Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong ad Maurice Chevalier as the birdmobile perfoms.

But who cares? This version of Enchanted Tiki Room restores the earnest charm of Disney showmanship to this corner of Adventureland, replacing the attempt at Universal-like sarcasm that Disney dreadfully failed to pull off in "Under New Management."

Let's all sing like the birdies sing? Sure.

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Vote of the week: The Walt Disney Co. vs. Wall Street

By Robert Niles
Published: August 11, 2011 at 8:44 PM

The Walt Disney Company's stock was one of the biggies driving Wall Street into the dirt this week, in large part due to analysts' skepticism that the company's theme parks can keep revenues up during a bad economy.

Cinderella's Castle in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World

That makes me wonder just how much analysis Wall Street analysts actually do.

First, the Disneyland Resort in California traditionally does better when the economy tanks, keeping millions of Southern Californians closer to home for their vacations. When a tight family budget puts Hawaii or Mexican resorts out of the question, it's "I'm going to Disneyland!" time for those of us who live in Southern California.

Second, I've noticed that changes in the economy tend to do more to change the make-up of visitors to the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida than it does to reduce the number of those visitors, as opposed to the regional amusement parks, which can get killed in a bad economy. Disney's made huge moves in recent years to add upscale services and accommodations at Disney World, making the resort more attractive to wealthy visitors who are immune to economic downturns. Walt Disney World is no longer exclusively a middle-class destination, and anyone who believes that hasn't been paying attention for the past 15 years. Sure, a flush economy will bring more middle-class visitors as the wealthy tourists jet off to Europe. But a poor economy brings the wealthy and upper middle class back to Disney even as many working-class visitors stay home. Either way, tens of millions of visitors keep coming to Walt Disney World each year.

I don't want to deny that a bad economy could cause Disney World attendance and revenue to dip in 2012. But Disney theme parks have proven themselves quite resilient during the latest downturn - outperforming the rest of the industry up until Harry Potter's debut powered Universal Orlando to even higher percentage growth. (If there's an ongoing threat to Disney in Florida, it's not the economy - it's Potter stealing visitors off Disney property and over to Universal Orlando.)

Ultimately, though, it's you who will decide Disney's financial fate. Not me. And not Wall Street analysts. So tell us what you're planning in 2012. Are you planning to visit Disney's theme parks more often, or less, than you did this year?

Do you or have you owned Disney stock? If so, what's your attitude toward Disney shares these days? As always, thank you for reading Theme Park Insider and sharing your experiences with this community.

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Two Florida theme park attractions to close within the month

By Robert Niles
Published: August 11, 2011 at 3:38 PM

It's your last chance to experience a couple of Central Florida theme park attractions. Universal Orlando has confirmed that Jimmy Neutron at Universal Studios Florida will close for good next Wednesday. The ride will be revamped into a Despicable Me attraction that will debut next year.

Over in Tampa, the Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy show at Busch Gardens will close September 3. No word yet on a replacement.

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Interview with Universal Creative's Mark Woodbury: On Harry Potter, King Kong and Transformers

By Robert Niles
Published: August 10, 2011 at 11:38 AM

When I was in Orlando, I had a chance to sit down one-on-one with Universal Creative president Mark Woodbury, who talked with me about theme park attraction design, as well as three of the top projects Universal Creative's worked on recently: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, King Kong 360/3D and the upcoming Transformers ride.

Mark Woodbury

Listening to Mark provides theme park fans a delightful opportunity to peek inside one of the minds of the designers who dream up and then make real some of the world's best theme park attractions.

Theme park attractions, obviously, are a different medium than movies, stage or architecture. But creating an attraction prompts designers to draw upon similar skills as creators in other media, Woodbury said.

"From a development standpoint, the process is quite similar. You try to understand the parameters, you try to understand the property, you try to understand what you want the end result to be, and you start to craft the roadmap to get you there."

Designing great theme park attractions requires balancing the various media elements that come together to create a unique experience, he said.

"I look at what story are we trying to tell, what visceral experience are we trying to create, and what immersive experience are we trying to create and how do we bring all of those together so that they are all pointing in the same direction," Woodbury said. "That, to me, is the trickiest part of what we're doing, to get the story and the visceral experience and the immersive experience all to line up.

"You can shoot someone in the air in a roller coaster and that's a great experience - you go upside down and you create some really great Gs and you do all that stuff - but to find the right fit of that visceral experience to a story, or vice versa - a story that you're trying to find the right technology to - that's really a tricky piece of business."

Unfortunately, as a relatively new medium with few new creative works each year, theme park designers don't have a long history or huge repertoire to draw upon for inspiration and guidance.

"I guess we've kind of created our own history, and I don't mean that to sound self-congratulatory," Woodbury said. "We don't spend a lot of time looking around. We look at the evolution of the things that we've done, and in each case we try to create some revolution in what we're doing next.

"What I mean by that is, we started with these big epic prototypical experiences going way back to Jaws and King Kong and employing all kinds of different technology to create big, major immersive experiences," he said. "Each time we do it, we're building on the evolution of the things that we've done before it, and finding in that process what's going to take it to the next level: What's the revolutionary part of the experience we're trying to create?"

"In the brainstorming process, if you're really good at it, it's a very open forum and ideas are thrown about like nobody's business. And the crazier, the better. Occasionally, someone will throw out an idea and it'll just silence the crowd for a moment, and everyone will be like, 'Wait a minute. That's not just an idea. That's genius.' That happens quite often in the process, and it's this volleying back and forth of ideas coming from all different directions, and some totally irrelevant to the topic we're on. If the process is working really well, even the craziest ideas become a stepping-stone to build on."

"That happens by creating an open forum and a body of talent that is really important to that process. When we do it, it's not just a bunch of Creative folks sitting around. We have creative folks, we have engineering, we have project managers, who knows? We'll even have people from our legal team, our marketing team - a lot of people will participate in some of those early brainstorming ideas. And it's really great to see where some of the best ideas come from. They may come from the least expected person in the room. When your finance guy throws in a really great idea, or your lawyer, and you're like, 'Darn it, why didn't I think of that?'"

On Harry Potter

"Potter was one of the best examples of trying to find a way in which we could really bring the iconic fiction to life. How are you going to fly with Harry Potter? When we started thinking about Forbidden Journey, that was one of the big things we thought about. What technology would be employed that would give us the variety of experience we wanted to create in one single ride?"

"Before Potter was a seven-book, eight-film franchise, we already knew that it was going to be a great theme park. That was after just the first book. On one hand, you'd like to know that you have this proven franchise, with tremendous box office results, but in the case of Potter that really wasn't it. We knew it had the makings of a great theme park experience because of the characters, because of the action, because of the magical places that Jo Rowling created."

"Oftentimes you go down a path technologically to tell a story and you get to a point when they're not quite lining up. You might have this really cool visceral experience and you might have this really cool story, but they're not necessarily building on each other. And there comes a moment in time when you have to make some hard decisions."

"There was some of that on Forbidden Journey. When we were doing Forbidden Journey, we knew that the technology we were going to use to tell the story was the right technology, but there's nuance to that, there's subsets to the technological challenge, part of that has to do with dispatching and all that stuff. Because we were using a really small, four-passenger vehicle, we're dispatching very quickly, but we wanted to make sure that we had an individual experience. We didn't want to see a lot of the vehicles going around. At the same time, we wanted to spend a lot of time with the characters.

"So we had to find a way - and this was a revelation way later in the process than we would have liked (laughs) - but we came to a point in time where we were not spending enough time with the characters, and we knew how important that was to the experience and to the storytelling. So we abandoned the direction we were going and created a new direction."

"We were struggling and struggling with how we can to solve this problem and the more we worked on it, the more evident the problem became - that we kept coming up to the same wall. Finally, somebody broke through and said, 'What if we do this?' We pretty much dropped everything we were doing and built a mock-up to see if we could pull off the interface of this vehicle and those media moments. And the reason to do that was to get more time on screen, more time with the vehicle and the characters together in order to really bring the story to life and give you the opportunity to fly alongside Harry and Ron and do all that stuff. Figuring out how to create that interface happened way later in the process - it was a totally different ride experience before, and then we hit that, and we were like, 'That's it.'"

On King Kong

"We did a great King Kong attraction in California. There was a case where we had an opportunity - it was by virtue of a disaster that the opportunity arose - but it clearly was a moment in time when we thought, 'Gee, Kong is gone, what are we going to replace it with?' And that moment lasted, in my mind, about 10 seconds. I was, 'We gotta bring Kong back.' What better thing to do than to bring Kong back from the ashes of a historic attraction and create an opportunity to really bring it back in a completely different way? Then it gets into, 'How are we going to go about that?' Certainly, the only way to go about it in that case was to collaborate with Peter Jackson. It's kind of an interesting process, how that all comes together, and it's different every time we do it."

So will we see Kong in another Universal theme park?

"Of course, one of the first things we thought [afterward] of was 'where else can we do that?' Because of the uniqueness of that site [on the Universal Studios Hollywood Studio Tour], there are not a lot of places you can take that particular experience. What you can take away from that experience, though, is this really wonderful fully immersive, multi-dimensional [technology] that Kong created."

"What was a revolution is now part of our evolution, and we can continue to build upon it, because it really was a stunning experience when you are fully surrounded by 3D and that whole world comes to life in a totally different level of immersion."

On Transformers

"We're doing this really spectacular Transformers attraction right now [under construction in Hollywood and in Singapore]. And there were a couple of [breakthrough problem-solving] moments there. We have a very limited piece of real estate and we wanted to tell a really big story, so we devised a way that we would be able to create a vertical experience.

"The adversity was that we didn't have enough real estate. The idea that we could go vertical created an opportunity to create a media silo, a 60-foot-high silo that we would really be able to explore the full scale of the characters. So we solved the technical problem of real estate by creating a double-decker, or two-story, attraction."

"The technical problem leads to creative challenge, because here we have a 28-foot robot and how are we going to get this guy to unfold in a single-story space? Well, we created a volume of space that enabled us to do that as well as solve the technical problem of the real estate."

"We had tight real estate in Hollywood and we had tight real estate in Singapore, so the solution was beneficial in both locations, and it's exactly the same building [in both theme parks]."

Woodbury said that Transformers is on schedule to open later this year in Singapore and in 2012 in Hollywood.

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What's new on the discussion board: Food & Wine pros and cons, plus a fan video contest?

By Robert Niles
Published: August 9, 2011 at 6:30 AM

The start of school is approaching around the country, but we never call an end to the theme park season here on Theme Park Insider. Here are thos week's top new threads on the Theme Park Insider discussion board:

Thunderhead at Dollywood

David L. offers up Dollywood: A Comparison and Trip Report.

Dominick D wants to know: Ever meet a Celebrity in a theme park?

Bob Miller asks What coasters opened around the time you were born?

Lauren Hayhurst is looking for your lists of EPCOT's Food & Wine Festival - pros and cons.

I've got some invites if you'd like to follow Theme Park Insider on Google Plus.

I'm also mulling TH Creative's great idea for a Theme Park Insider video contest. Let's continue that discussion, and watch a fun Harry Potter fan video from my son, in An invitation to Hogwarts.

Jeff Elliott wraps it up with Last Week At Your Amusement Park......August 8.

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More 'Stories from a Theme Park Insider': Running aground on Tom Sawyer's Island

By Robert Niles
Published: August 7, 2011 at 5:40 PM

Many Disney theme park cast members use horror stories to scare the people they train into doing their jobs right. Just tell the new hires about a few epic screw-ups and maybe they'll be too scared to let their attention drift on the job.

Here's the horror story that left Tom Sawyer's Island raft drivers either waking up in the middle of the night, or... laughing hysterically at the stupid noob.

Suspension bridge on Tom Sawyer's Island
The suspension bridge on Tom Sawyer's Island, with Big Thunder Mountain in the background.

Typically, Tom Sawyer's Island cast members drive visitors on one or two rafts that cycle between the attraction's entrance and the main dock on the island. But there is a second dock on the island, a few yards north of the first, that can be used if a third and fourth raft are needed to move the crowds.

The only times I ever used the second dock were in post-parade rushes during the summer or the Christmas holidays, when thousands of people descended upon that corner of Frontierland following the afternoon parade. We'd put a third raft into rotation to move people out of our growing queue and quickly onto the island. Then we'd sometimes add a fourth raft 30 minutes later to bring them off the island without forcing the crowds to wait there too long.

We only had four rafts at Tom Sawyer's Island, so if one of them was being refurbished, we couldn't use the full line-up. And there was one raft we tried to avoid using even if it was available. Ironically, that raft was the one named "Tom Sawyer."

The "Becky Thatcher" was our favorite raft. The Becky could fly across the water like, well, a JV swim team member with a mild cramp. And it turned like minivan with a distracted soccer mom behind the wheel. But compared with the Tom, the Becky was a Ferrari Enzo. The Tom's throttle was as responsive as a groomsman the morning after the bachelor party. Turning its heavy tiller felt like paddling through mud. To make a turn, the Tom needed more space than a teenager after a bad break-up.

So you knew the line was getting long at Tom Sawyer's Island if we fired up the Tom.

When the line for the rafts backed up into the line of guests waiting to get on Thunder Mountain one summer afternoon, the raft crew knew that it'd have to bring on the Tom. Since no one wanted to drive that cow, the newest raft driver got stuck with it. Let the newbie suffer.

Driving from the main dock over to the island's second dock isn't that big of a deal. Just start your turn earlier and drive a little longer to get to that dock, which is located farther up the river than the main dock. Getting back, though, is the trick. The river narrows significantly between the second dock and the suspension bridge over to the northern half of the island. Plus, you've got the canoe dock directly across the river, with canoes cutting across your path back.

An experienced driver on the Becky can make the required sharp turn back to the Frontierland side, without too much effort. But Newbie, on the Tom? Yeah, maybe that wasn't the best idea, looking back.

Newbie cast off from the island, just as a canoe paddled away from the dock. Rather than stop and wait for the canoe to pass, Newbie decided instead to drive parallel to it for a bit, up toward the suspension bridge, where the river widened.

That's where Newbie started to make his turn back toward the Tom Sawyer's Island Frontierland dock. But Newbie didn't know how to coax a sharp turn out of the Tom, and drifted even farther up the river as he turned.

"Gee, that tree's getting kinda close. Maybe I need to back up and try again," Newbie thought. He shifted the throttle into reverse and...


Newbie had run the Tom into the bank. Right in front of Thunder Mountain.

As Newbie hopped off the raft to give it a push back into the river, he heard a tape-recorded spiel start playing on the loudspeakers near the roller coaster track: "Sorry for the hold-up folks..."

Thunder Mountain was down. "Oh, great," Newbie thought. That meant more people would be coming to Tom Sawyer Island, with Thunder next door closed temporarily.

What Newbie didn't know is that when he hopped off the raft and onto the bank, he'd tripped the electronic "fence" that ran around the perimeter of the Thunder's track, automatically shutting the roller coaster.

Nor did he know that by running around at that exact spot in the river, he was blocking the canoes from exiting their dock.

Nor did he know that by blocking the canoes from exiting their dock, the arriving canoes were backing up into the space between the Tom Sawyer's Island Frontierland dock and the main island dock, preventing any of the other rafts from cycling back and forth.

Nor did he know that with the canoes blocking the rafts, they were also blocking the keelboats and the riverboat, which would have to shut down until the traffic jam was cleared.

So, by missing one turn on the river, Newbie had taken down five Walt Disney World attractions: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, the Davy Crockett Explorer Canoes, the Tom Sawyer's Island rafts, the Mike Fink Keelboats and the Liberty Square Riverboat.

Heckuva job, Newbie.

For more: You can read 40 of Robert's stories about working at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom in "Stories from a Theme Park Insider", available for just $3.99 from Amazon.com, Apple's iBookstore, BarnesandNoble.com, and Google Books.

And finally... if you've read the book, and are a fan, please consider submitting a review of the book using one of the links above, or becoming a fan of the book on Facebook. Thank you!

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Vote of the week: What would convince you to visit more in 2012?

By Robert Niles
Published: August 5, 2011 at 10:33 PM

This week's chaos in the stock market illustrates how unsure even the rich folks in America feel about the economy. That's troubling news for anyone who runs a business, including the people running the nation's theme parks. When incomes get lean, vacations are among the first expenses cut from and the last restored to family budgets.

But... for the right experience at the right price, theme park fans will continue to find ways to afford visits to their favorite parks. What would it take for your favorite theme or amusement park to convince you to make a visit (or to visit more often) in 2012?

Star Tours 2 at Disneyland
The new Star Tours drew visitors to Disneyland this summer, and won the Theme Park Insider Award for Best New Attraction.

That's our vote of the week. I'm giving you three options. They boil down to quantity, quality and price. Which of the three is the single most important factor that drives you to make a theme park visit, even when a family vacation's a stretch for you?

Theme Park Insider readers collectively spend about $3 billion a year on theme park visits, according to a survey I did a year or so ago. So you've got buying power, and you've got the ear of major park executives. Tell them what you want to see in 2012 and the future to win your business, even in a tough economy.

Do you want to see more attractions in their parks? Or are you okay with the number of options in the park, but want to see the parks eliminate some of the weaken alternatives in favor of new or improved attractions of higher quality? Or are you okay with the number and quality of attractions in the parks, you just need a better break on the price?

Pick one:

Then let's get specific in the comments. Address your comment to your favorite park, and tell us what you'd like the management do to win more of your business.

And, on behalf of the management around here (okay, that's me), thanks again for reading Theme Park Insider!

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Head into the wilderness for a stay in Disney World's cabins

By Robert Niles
Published: August 5, 2011 at 8:48 AM

Last week, we stayed for two nights at the Cabins at the Fort Wilderness Resort, giving us the chance to experience once of the classic overnight destinations inside the Walt Disney World Resort.

Welcome to Fort Wilderness

Fort Wilderness is known to many as Disney World's campground, but Fort Wilderness also offers dozens of fully-equipped cabins. (They're officially a "Moderate Resort Hotel" in Disney lingo, listing from $275-405 a night.)

Now when I say "cabins," don't start thinking about rough-hewn log rooms with packed dirt floors - the type of structure where you'd find a young Abe Lincoln out front, splitting logs for the night's fire. These are modern cabins, much like those you'd find up in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada or the Smokies.

I hesitate to say this because of the connotation some people have with the phrase, but, essentially, they're mobile homes.

The Cabins at Fort Wilderness

Spectacularly well-decorated mobile homes, I must say.


living room


Wood paneling throughout makes the place feel like a wilderness cabin, and quilts and artwork on the walls brighten the room. You'll find a well-equipped full kitchen, but be sure to bring your own coffee filters (and food, of course.)

The need to stock the kitchen makes this a tough destination to rely on the free Disney's Magical Express service from and to the Orlando Airport. And if you're not going to use the kitchen or the grill out front of the cabin, what's the point of paying for them? Fort Wilderness is a more popular destination for people who drive to the Walt Disney World Resort.

A Fort Wilderness cabin can sleep a large family, too. You've got two bunk beds and a double bed in the bedroom, a double, Murphy bed in the living room, plus a couch that could sleep another child.

Unfortunately, the double bed in the bedroom gave me my worst night's sleep in years - the matress felt like a giant vat of lumpy rice pudding. I switched to the Murphy bed the next night and found it much more comfortable.

Don't neglect to check the entertainment schedule during a stay at Fort Wilderness. The kids enjoyed the free singalong and campfire, as well as games at the pool. Be sure to pick up fixins for s'mores at the grocery before you arrive, as well as something to use as sticks at the campfire.

Sing along

staying cool at the pool

We didn't splurge for tickets to the resort's popular Hoop-De-Doo-Revue on this trip, but if your budget allows, do. Just remember to do it when you book your stay - tickets go fast.

Instead, we ate at the adjacent Trail's End Restaurant - a hearty buffet that's serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. Service was friendly and everyone enjoyed the food, but a few days later I'm struggling to think of anything remarkable to say about it.

A final tip: Spend the extra money and book a golf cart to use during your stay. The only places to park your car are at the front desk and next to your cabin. Nothing else around the resort, including the restaurants, boat launch to the Magic Kingdom or the pools is within reasonable walking distance so without a cart, you'll be waiting for buses to get around throughout your stay.

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Theme Park Apprentice 3 Challenge 9 Vote

By Tim W
Published: August 5, 2011 at 4:53 AM

This week, our contestants created a new type of Disney "land" for the upcoming Shanghai Disneyland park. Check them out before voting.

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Freestyle Park Purchased in Foreclosure, May Re-Open in 2012

By Mark Mitchell
Published: August 4, 2011 at 11:33 AM

Freestyle Music Park (Myrtle Beach, SC) was purchased out of foreclosure this week. New owners say park could re-open in 2012. Freestyle Music Park started life as the Hard Rock Park in 2008 and closed after one year. It was later purchased for a modest amount and operated one season (2009) as Freestyle Music Park. It has been closed for 2010 and 2011.

Here is a link to an article in The Sun News of Myrtle Beach.

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What do you get in a VIP Tour at the Walt Disney World Resort?

By Robert Niles
Published: August 3, 2011 at 10:11 AM

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - During our Orlando visit this month, my family and I got our first VIP tour of the Walt Disney World resort.

This wasn't some special perk for me because I publish Theme Park Insider. Our tour was arranged by a family member, who got it through her job. In fact, Disney's VIP tours are open to the public... for a price, of course. Starting at $175 an hour, with a six hour minimum, you can hire a Disney Guest Relations host to escort you and your family or group around the park. That's just for the tour guide, though - you have to provide your own park admissions in addition to the tour cost.

Brian at Disney's Hollywood Studios
We started our day at Disney's Hollywood Studios

What do you get for that price?

For experienced Disney World visitors, the VIP host essentially serves as an unlimited FastPass for your entire group. The VIP host can escort you into any FastPass line at any time, regardless of when the posted return time is or if the ride's FastPasses are all distributed for the day.

For less experienced visitors, the VIP host also serves as a knowledgable guide to the Walt Disney World Resort. He or she can answer almost any question you have about the theme parks, and suggest options or strategies for visiting the parks that best reflect your group and its interests.

If you have park-hopper tickets, the VIP host can take you to as many parks as you care to visit during your tour time. And don't worry about parking and long walks into the parks. Your VIP host will meet you at your hotel, then drive you to backstage parking areas that put you close to the action in all the parks. (For your first park of the day, you'll first have to walk back to the park's entrance and exit the park, then re-enter through the gates to activate your tickets. But for subsequent parks during the day, your VIP host will hold your tickets and scan them at each parks' guest services for you while you ride.)

The VIP tour we booked still wasn't the top-of-the-line experience that Disney offers. We had to go through FastPass entrances to rides - not the backdoor VIP corridors that are available any several attractions. And if a ride or show didn't have FastPass, we had to wait in line like everyone else. Pay more per hour, and you can skip even those lines.

While we made strong use of the unlimited FastPass, I thought the best feature of the VIP tour was the reserved seating for the Magic Kingdom parade. With a VIP tour, you sit in a designated area on the Liberty Square bridge. There, you have no other guests around you, and no one sitting on the opposite side of the parade route. That means that the parade characters are giving you their undivided attention, allowing the kids in your group to get handshakes from dozens of Disney characters.

Here are a few looks at the views I had from our VIP parade seats.

Pinocchio float

Meeting Captain Hook

Character flood

Belle says hello

So what did we do in our six-hour tour? We started the day at Disney's Hollywood Studios, where all of us rode Toy Story Midway Mania. (The posted FastPass return time was 4:05 pm when we rode at 10:30 am.) After that, three of us rode Twilight Zone Tower of Terror before we all walked back to the van that was waiting for us behind Rock 'n' Roller Coaster. From there, we drove to the Magic Kingdom, where we parked behind Main Street. After visiting Mickey Mouse in his new digs, we walked over to Liberty Tree Tavern for lunch.

I chose the turkey dinner, with stuffing, mashed potatoes and some yummy green beans.

After lunch, we split up. My daughter and I walked over to ride the Haunted Mansion and my sister, her husband and daughter went with my mother over to Dumbo while our VIP host took my son and wife to Frontierland to ride Big Thunder Mountain. Then we all met up and the VIP host took several of us onto Winnie the Pooh before we walked over to Tomorrowland and split again. My son and I rode Space Mountain while the rest of the group went on Buzz Lightyear. After that, we returned to Liberty Square to claim our front-row seats for the parade.

Is a VIP Tour worth the cost? That's for you to decide. We could have been much more aggressive with packing extra rides into our time. But my family is a bunch of Disney theme park veterans. We've ridden everything before, and welcomed the chance to revisit some of our favorites on a busy summer day at a pace we otherwise would have to wait until the park was empty in early November to enjoy.

We also used part of our tour time for a leisurely lunch with our guide, chatting her up about the parks and planning the rest of our day. FWIW, you don't have to pay for your host's lunch (he or she will get a separate check), but it's a bit foolish (and even rude) not to invite your host to join you for the meal. It's such a great opportunity to talk and plan with a real theme park expert.

What would build into a six-hour VIP Tour itinerary? Even if this is something you'd never consider actually buying, I think it's fun to imagine what you'd do to get the most value from the experience. Please feel welcomed to share your VIP tour plan in the comments.

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What's new on the discussion board: The world's worst ride makeover ideas

By Robert Niles
Published: August 3, 2011 at 7:01 AM

Here are this week's top new discussion topics on our Theme Park Insider Discussion Board. Remember, the board's the place to ask the questions you have about theme park vacations, as well as to share what you've learned on past trips by answering questions and submitting trip reports.

amy lockland wonders if she's actually been inside Walt's Disneyland Apartment.

Disneyland fire station

Mark Fairleigh revives one of our favorite on-going topics: Which franchise deserves its day in a park?

Bob Miller's got one for the roller coaster fans on the site. Which are worse: Boomerangs or SLCs?

Dominick D asks you to share your opinions on the Best Seats to sit on Rides?

Daniel Etcheberry gets a conversation going on Theme parks vs national parks.

Thomas Crain sets up our daily does of snark by challenging you to Ruin a Classic Attraction with the most cynical, cash-grabbing make-over you can imagine.

And to balance that thread, N B asks you to share moments of Kindness at a theme park?

We kick around some ideas for new hard-ticket events at theme parks in Update on the Harry Potter weekend and annual passholders.

Jeff Elliott wraps it up with his weekly theme park news round-up: Last Week At Your Amusement Park......August 1

Update: We have an answer to the "What will Holiday World build?" question: Holiday World announces Mammoth, the world's largest water coaster.

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Hersheypark Announces SkyRush, Carowinds Buys 62 Acres of Land

By Nick Markham
Published: August 2, 2011 at 1:06 PM

Two big announcements today from Hersheypark and Carowinds.

In an interesting announcement by Carowinds which was expected to be about their new attraction for 2012, they have purchased 62 acres of land which sits between their parking lot and the freeway, a good expansion area for more parking lot if the park expands into the present lot, or a new hotel possibly in the future.

And then later today, Hersheypark announced it's brand new addition for 2012 on its Facebook page: Skyrush.

Skyrush will be a 200 ft. tall Intamin giga Coaster, but it will be unlike any other that exists today. Skyrush features unique vehicles which have four-across rows, the two inner-seats having a floor, but the two outer-seats being floorless. With five airtime hills, four banked turns, a 50 degree and 80 degree descent, this ride will be the star attraction at Hersheypark, come 2012.

Hersheypark released this video announcement as well:

Visit www.hersheypark.com for more information.

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New Fantasyland construction photos, plus more from the Mansion queue

By Robert Niles
Published: August 2, 2011 at 5:53 AM

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - I spent a few hours at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom this weekend and wanted to share with you some photos of the ongoing construction of the park's new Fantasyland.

You can see the emerging Beast's Castle as you approach from the direction of It's a Small World.

Fantasyland construction

Keep walking, just behind Dumbo, and a fuller picture of the new "Be Our Guest" restaurant site emerges.

Be our Guest restaurant construction

Disney's tried to obscure much of the construction with trees, in addition to the construction wall. But the wall continues to promise a "2012" opening date for the project.

Fantasyland construction wall

Continuing down the path toward the teacups, you can see more of the Little Mermaid ride's facade.

Little Mermaid ride construction

In addition to the Fantasyland construction, I got my first in-person look at the new additions to the Haunted Mansion queue.

Interactive Haunted Mansion queue

I liked the detail of the skulls and bones on the xylophone, not to mention how your touch elicits sounds from this musical crypt.

Mansion organ

But take a closer look at the nameplate on that organ keyboard around the corner:


"Ravenscroft." A nice tribute to the voice of the Haunted Mansion.

Master Gracey's grave

I got a kick out of Master Gracey's grave.

Madame Leota's grave

As well as Madame Leota's. "Dear Sweet Leota, Beloved by All. In Regions Beyond Now, But Having a Ball." Nice touch.

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More 'Stories from a Theme Park Insider': Getting fired from the Haunted Mansion

By Robert Niles
Published: August 1, 2011 at 5:17 PM

We've talked about how important it is to smile if you want to work at a theme park. But smiling isn't always the way to advance in the theme park business.

My sister had been stuck working the Tiki Room for months. Every day, the same thing. Escort a small group of somewhat confused visitors into the dark, air-conditioned theater. Then start the show and "wake up" Jose, the animatronic bird, by tapping his perch with a stick. Then have a seat and wait… to start escorting the desperately bored visitors out of the dark, air-conditioned theater into the preferable, Tiki-bird-free Florida heat and sunshine.

Then repeat. Again, and again, and again.

So when my sister got word that she'd be cross-trained on the Haunted Mansion, she was ecstatic. After nearly a year of wearing the horrible polyester floral print of the Tiki room costume, she'd be donning the luxuriant green polyester of the Haunted Mansion witches. Complete with the lace-trimmed "bat hat."

Haunted Mansion at the Magic Kingdom

Training took several days, during which she was paired with an experienced Mansion hostess, who showed her how to operate the attraction. She learned how to time her steps as she walked the moving sidewalks at the loading and unloading areas, directing visitors into and out of their "Doom Buggy" ride vehicles. She learned how to slow and stop the walkway, to assist visitors in wheelchairs, and to assist anyone else who needed a little extra time to board and exit.

She learned the names of every scene in the ride, the characters that appeared throughout, and the history of the attraction, in case a visitor ever asked. (She had learned the same at the Tiki Room, but no one ever had asked about that show.)

She even learned something she'd never had to deal with at the Tiki Room - how to evacuate the ride. If something were to go wrong, and the Doom Buggies couldn't cycle around the building to drop off their passengers, Haunted Mansion hosts and hostesses would have to scatter throughout the ride, carefully helping visitors out of their vehicles and then walking them back through the show building to the ride's exit.

These were the most exciting days my sister ever had enjoyed working at the Magic Kingdom. Finally, something different! And at an attraction that people loved!

But despite all this training, Haunted Mansion hosts and hostesses aren't known for their ability to walk the moving sidewalks, or their evacuation prowess, or even their knowledge of Mansion trivia. Cast members who work the Haunted Mansion are best known for their roles at the beginning of the ride - their performances in the "stretch" room.

In Disney lingo, any moment a cast member spends out in the park is a moment "on stage." But working the stretch room really does feel like a performance. For a moment, all eyes are on you as you command the visitors into the "dead" center of the room. Here, cast members can get their goth on - the creepier the better. The best of the Mansion hosts and hostesses treat their stretch room visitors with an icy, almost haughty indifference.

As far as they're concerned, you're "dead" to them.

Unfortunately, my sister did care. Very much. She was so thrilled to be here, away from the Tiki Room and working one of the most popular theme park attractions at the world, that she could not bury her enthusiasm like it the the body of the Mansion's 999th ghost.

"Hello," she exclaimed as she bounded from the entry foyer, opening the attraction doors to her first group of waiting guests. "Welcome to the Haunted Mansion," she said, with her brightest, widest Disney casting center smile.

Behind her, my sister's trainer rolled her eyes and stifled a groan.

After that group of guests exited the stretch room into the loading area, the trainer spoke to my sister in the now-empty stretch room.

"Um, next time," she said. "Could you, uh, try to be a little bit, well, witch-y?"

"Sure," my sister said, hiding that she really didn't know what to do.

So with the next group of guests, my sister threw open the doors and proclaimed, in her deepest alto voice, "Welcome to the Haunted Mansion!"

For the rest of the morning, my sister kept trying to change the pitch of her voice and, eventually, the expression on her face. But it never lasted. She was just too happy. She couldn't stop smiling at the Haunted Mansion.

The next morning, as she bounded out of the tunnels and across Liberty Square toward the Mansion, the attraction's lead stopped her.

"Uh, I'm sorry," he told her. "It's not working out. We're sending you back to the Tiki Room. You're just too happy to work here."

Only that could finally wipe the smile from my sister's face at the Haunted Mansion.

For more: You can read 40 of Robert's stories about working at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom in Stories from a Theme Park Insider, available for just $3.99 from Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, and Apple's iBookstore.

Update: Great news! "Stories from a Theme Park Insider" has cracked the Top 10 in the Travel category of the iBooks Store! Thank you to everyone for supporting the book, and please keep spreading the word!

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