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September 2011

16th Epcot International Food & Wine Festival Under Way

By Scott Joseph
Published: September 30, 2011 at 1:19 PM
The 16th annual Epcot International Food & Wine Festival got underway with the First Bites Opening Reception (featuring napkins labeled 15th annual). Was it worth the $175 fee, plus tax, parking and admission to the park? Also, some of the new food kiosks and what to sample on your way around the World Showcase.

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Vote of the week: Which original Walt Disney World attraction do you miss most?

By Robert Niles
Published: September 29, 2011 at 9:00 PM
Forty years is a lot of time, but most of the attraction you would have found at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom on that opening day in 1971 are still operating today.

Obviously, the park's added many more attractions over the years - including Pirates of the Caribbean, Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain and Splash Mountain. But with 22 more acres to work with that the original Disneyland (107 acres to 85), the Magic Kingdom's not had to close that many attractions over the years to make room for new adventures.

In fact, there are just five rides from Disney World's opening month that you won't find today in the Magic Kingdom (according to this opening-day map from Disney).

Davy Crockett Explorer Canoes - Paddle your canoe around the Rivers of America on a guided tour around Tom Sawyer's Island. You'll do the work, while your guides crack the jokes. My favorite? "Over yonder you'll see a popular sight - Fort Sam Clemens. Can anyone tell me the connection between Fort Sam Clemens and Tom Sawyer's Island?" The canoe host will pause for a moment while some literate guest explains pen names and such, then stare incredulously at him/her before replying: "No, you library-loving city slicker. The connection is a bridge!"

The Mike Fink Keelboats - Another trip around the Rivers of America, except this time you don't need to "stroke, stroke, stroke." You'll ride on the Bertha Mae or Gullywhumper while your host points out the highlights around the river, often telling many of the same jokes you might hear on the canoes. The ride closed in 1997, after the Gullywhumper capsized at Disneyland.

Mr. Toad's Wild Ride - This is one of two rides you can still experience at Disneyland in California. (The canoes is the other.) Based on the classic "The Wind in the Willows," Mr. Toad's Wild Ride earned the love of a generation of somewhat sarcastic fans for being a Disney ride in which you, literally, ended up in Hell.

Skyway to Fantasyland and Tomorrowland - The "sky buckets" provided high-in-the-sky aerial views of the Magic Kingdom, but Disney closed all of its skyways in the 1990s, a decade in which cost-cutting claimed many older rides around the Disney empire. The Magic Kingdom's closure in 1999 came months after a fatal accident claimed the life of a park maintenance worker.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea - Walt Disney World's version of Disneyland's submarine ride put the Anaheim original to creative shame. Instead of unthemed subs on an expedition to the North Pole, here you rode with Captain Nemo in a scaled-down recreation of the Nautilus itself, visiting not just the Pole but what might have been the lost continent of Atlantis, in a much more detailed storyline. Today, the old 20K sub lagoon's been filled in and is the work site of the new Fantasyland expansion.

In addition to those rides, two of the parks' opening-day shows are no longer part of the park - The Mickey Mouse Revue, which was shipped off to Tokyo Disneyland, and the Diamond Horseshoe Jamboree, which fell victim to 1990s cost-cutting. (The Main Street Cinema's gone now, too.)

Many other attractions have come and gone during the past four decades, including the Swan Boats, Magic Journeys, Legend of the Lion King, Mission to Mars, Alien Encounter, If You Had Wings/Could Fly, Delta Dreamflight, several CircleVision movies, Timekeeper and the entire Mickey's Birthdayland/Starland/Toontown Fair. Several others have changed their names. (A great source for a virtual revisit to the Disney World of yesteryear is Widen Your World. Check it out sometime... when you've got hours to spare. You'll need them.)

But which one, of those now-gone original five rides, do you miss most? Or, if you never experienced them, which one sounds like the one you'd most wish for the chance to ride?

I'm sorry that I can't be in Florida tomorrow for the 40th anniversary of the opening of Walt Disney World. (Perhaps ironically, I'll be at Disneyland that day instead. Disney's throwing a big Halloween media event that day, and since I live in California I'm going to stick close to home. How strange would it be if Disney's largest media event on the day of WDW's 40th birthday actually turns out to be at Disneyland?)

If you visit the Magic Kingdom on Saturday, I'd love to see your photos and trip reports. If you email them to me at themeparkinsider@gmail.com, I'll share them with the rest of the Theme Park Insider community in a post this weekend.

Finally, if you - like me - can't make it to Orlando for the birthday this weekend, but are still in the mood for a Disney fix, might I suggest downloading a copy of "Stories from a Theme Park Insider"? Our eBook includes 40 stories about life working inside the Magic Kingdom, from me and other Theme Park Insider readers. Stories from a Theme Park InsiderAt just $3.99 for Amazon Kindle or Apple iPad it's a "fantastic read for a WDW fan," according to reader reviews.

Unlike some other books in this genre, "Stories from a Theme Park Insider" doesn't dwell on life outside the parks, or wallow in the debauchery of 20-something cast members. Sure, there are some embarrassing moments (I will never again wear a "Randy" nametag), but the book is really just a fun celebration of life working in a wonderful theme park.

So, in that spirit of celebration: Happy birthday, Disney World!

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What's your first memory of visiting Walt Disney World?

By Robert Niles
Published: September 29, 2011 at 11:26 AM
I woke up in the back seat of my parents' car, around 7 in the morning or so, opening my eyes to see a line of cars parked behind us. We were staying with my grandparents, who lived in St. Petersburg, and must have gotten a pre-dawn start. How I got from the bed to the backseat of the car, I don't know.

But there we were on the road to Disney World. And on a Monday! Back when we lived in Los Angeles, we'd visited Disneyland plenty of times, but the park was never open on Mondays. Not only was Walt Disney World bigger than Disneyland ("You could fit all if Disneyland in our parking lot!" we'd hear on the tram later that morning), you could visit it seven days a week!

Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, under construction. Video courtesy Disney.

We weren't going to be visiting anything for a while, though. The line if cars queued up for the parking lot toll booths stretched almost all the way back to Interstate 4. Walt Disney World had been open for six years then, but with only one theme park, everyone was heading in the same direction that spring break morning.

It seemed like hours before we made to into the park. First, there was the long line to get into the lot. Then, we had to wait for a tram. Where's the castle? They said it was bigger than Disneyland's, but I can't even see it from here. Then, the ticket lines. (No online ordering in the 1970s, kids. Heck, there was no online anything back then.) All this waiting, waiting, waiting. This was nothing like Disneyland.

I must have been pretty frustrated after waiting in three lines, so I'm sure that my parents weren't too happy with me when I discovered that we'd have to wait in a fourth - for the monorail that would take us (finally!) to the park. But cruising through the Grand Canyon Concourse of the Contemporary Hotel must have shut me up. This was nothing like Disneyland!

Waiting became the theme of the day. You know that candy shop next to the Country Bear Jamboree, Prairie Outpost and Supply? That used to be part of the Country Bear queue. We waited it in. We waited in queues that no longer exist for the Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean and Space Mountain. I missed not being able to sail through Monstro's mouth, or being shrunk by the Mighty, Mighty Microscope, but the singing bears were funny and the submarines looked just like Captain Nemo's, instead of those boring old subs back at Disneyland.

There were fireworks after dark, just like at Disneyland. And I remember the road sign pointing to Tampa just before I feel asleep. The next morning, I woke up at my grandparents. How I got into the bed, I don't know.

Walt Disney World celebrates its 40th birthday on Saturday. There will be a character parade up Main Street before 10am and a celebration in front of the castle. Like many years on October 1, guests who arrive early will get cupcakes. (Thank heavens Disney won't be decorating the castle to look like one this time.)

Disney isn't planning a year-long celebration for its 40th, the way it did for its "Tencennial" in 1981 (when I visited with my Boy Scout troop, then breathlessly returned home with the news that Disney was building a new theme park - EPCOT Center - and that you could buy a passport which meant you didn't need those A through E tickets anymore!). Or as it did for its 15th birthday, when I started working for Disney.


But the anniversary is enough to send many Disney fans down memory lane, recalling the first time that they visited what is now the world's most popular theme park.

What's your first memory of visiting Walt Disney World?

Update: If you're interested, I've just posted some pages from a 1988 Magic Kingdom guidebook (the oldest I still have) to the Theme Park Insider Facebook page.

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Review of Busch Gardens Tampa’s Howl-O-Scream 2011

By Domenik Jost
Published: September 28, 2011 at 8:38 AM
The 2011 Howl-O-Scream debuted this weekend at Busch Gardens Tampa. From the minute you walk up to the ticket booth and front gate area zombies begin their attack preying on unsuspecting guests. The theme for this year's Howl-O-Scream is the Dark Side of the Gardens.

Dark side of the Gardens

The entire park is one gigantic scare zone themed around the Dark Side of the Gardens; no place is safe from the zombies that have invaded. There are hundreds of zombiefied scare actors roaming the streets dressed up as regular park employees, clowns, cheerleaders, biker gangs, etc.. You don't know whom you can trust and whom you can't.

This year there were three new houses so I visited those first. Just like with my Universal Halloween Horror Nights review, this year I will give each house two ratings. The first will be for detail and eye-candy of the house design and costumes. The second will be for how scary the house is on the scare-meter.


First I went through Nevermore. This house, like the one of the same name at Universal, is based on Edgar Allen Poe's greatest works. Waiting in line you'll hear Poe's works recited all the way until he personally greets you from a tower high above.


Walking into the house feels the same as last year, as you have to make your way past a bunch of statues. Throughout the house you'll encounter ravens, cats, and even Poe himself. From room to room there are representations of the stories of Poe. The house utilizes quite a few effects including some really disorienting strobes. The house definitely has a lot of good corners and spots for scares. Overall the house feels too much like last year's DED house still even though a lot of it was re-themed for Poe's stories. I'd give this house a 2.5 for detail and a 4 out of 5 on the scare-meter.


Next I visited the Ultimate Gamble: Vampire Casino house. When you get up to the house the first thing you will notice is the grand casino façade and you get invited in for a visit. Inside the Vampire Casino you first walk through the floor area where a bunch of obvious mannequins are sitting at the slots gambling. I was kind of disappointed that there weren't any scare actors sitting on the chairs to blend in with the mannequins for a good scare. On the other side of the room with the slots is the bar, which would work well as a distraction but didn't get used in that way. Next you walk through a series of broken mirrors, which kind of reminded me of Bloody Mary. They do use a few clever mirror tricks in here. The remainder of the house you walk through the kitchen then move into a room filled with catering items. The catering room does offer several great scare opportunities that I was not expecting. In the end the house abruptly ends. This is a very well themed house with a few good scare spots. I'd give this house a 4 out of 5 for detail and a 3 out of 5 on the scare-meter.

Next up is the Zombie Mortuary. This house plays around a funeral home and cemetery. First walking into the house you walk into the small funeral home where the dead have come back to life. Inside you walk through a little chapel, a casket storage area, and finally end up walking six feet under ground. The walking dead come out of all sorts of hidden corners. You never know where they'll try to get to you next. This house is the perfect place for a great scare. The theme works perfectly for the re-used sections of the house from previous years. Overall this is a solid house and definitely the best at Howl-O-Scream this year. I'd give this house a 4 out of 5 for detail and a 5 out of 5 on the scare-meter.

After visiting the new houses I went through and revisited the houses that returned from last year's event. First I went through Deconstruction: The Doctor is Out of Control again. The house is the exact same as last year but it does have a few more scare actors in the first room. Next I went through Death Row Vengeance: Fear the Dead which as well is the exact same as last year. And the final house of the night was Nightshade Toy Factory. It also is the same as last year with one small change in the baby doll room. Instead of having the baby's on the wall sprinkle water on you there now is an actor with a baby in her hand and having that baby pee on you.


Also coming back is the upcharge, exclusive house, Alone that I reviewed last year.

Have a look at the inside of some of these houses:

Howl-O-Scream this year also has two terrific shows. Midnight Hour is a musical comedy that changes around some of the lyrics to some of todays top songs while making fun of today's pop culture. The entire show is based around a game show that has four judges, President Obama, Sarah Palin, Charlie Sheen, and Snooki. But one show making fun of todays pop culture is not enough, Howl-O-Scream also offers the hilarious Fiends. Dr. Freakenstein, his sidekick Igor, and his naughty nurses take over the stage in this funny, and exciting show. Both shows are solid shows and you should definitely make room to see them both.

Here are a few excerpts:

Also throughout the night you can ride the new Cheetah Hunt, Gwazi, Montu, Sand Serpent, Scorpion, and SheiKra.

Cheetah Hunt

Howl-O-Scream runs Thursday through Saturday nights, Sept. 29-Oct. 1, 6-8, 13-15, 20-22 and 27-29. Operating hours are 7:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. 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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What's new on the discussion board: Roller coaster memories, plus still more Avatar news

By Robert Niles
Published: September 27, 2011 at 9:31 AM
We're still talking about last week's Avatar news on the Theme Park Insider Discussion Board:

Daniel Etcheberry wants to hear your ideas on How to make an Avatar ride?

Mike Gallagher asks roller coaster fans on the site about Your First Looper?

Loch Ness Monster coaster
The Loch Ness Monster at Busch Gardens Williamsburg was my first looper. The coaster was design by Arrow's Ron Toomer, who died this week at age 81.

On the topic of roller coasters, M. Ryan Traylor celebrates his own 30 for 30.

Amy Smith would like to hear your Suggestions for a Floridian's First Trip to Disneyland.

Giovanny Cruz asks what are Your top 10 rides in Florida?

Dominick D invites readers to list some of their favorite Things to do in the Queue.

Jeff Elliott brings us home with all the week's theme park news in Last Week At Your Amusement Park......September 26. (Watch the video. It's worth your time. Trust me.)

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Noted roller coaster designer Ron Toomer dead at 81

By Mike Gallagher
Published: September 26, 2011 at 6:15 PM
Ron Toomer went to the great lift hill in the sky today. For those of you who may not know the name, you know his work with Arrow Dynamics. He was the designer and guiding force behind many of our favorites, including (but not limited to:)

Magnum, Mine Ride, Gemini, Corkscrew, and Iron Dragon at Cedar Point

Desperado at Buffalo Bills in Nevada

Python (Busch Tampa)

Big Bad Wolf, Drachen Fire, and Loch Ness Monster at Busch Gardens Williamsburg.

The first I ever heard of Ron Toomer, I had just returned from my virgin visit to Cedar Point in the early 90's, when I first was beginning to realize there were other parks besides GAdv, Dorney and a handful of others. I was watching TV and stumbled across an episode of NOVA on PBS, which opened with a magnificent shot of Magnum ascending the lift hill. An interview with Toomer was included, and he demonstrated how he sometimes conceived of his designs...with a wire hanger bent into seemingly impossible shapes.

Godspeed, Ron Toomer, and thanks for your legacy.

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Review of Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights 21

By Domenik Jost
Published: September 26, 2011 at 10:27 AM
This weekend was the beginning of the haunting season for many of the larger Halloween events held at parks across the country, including what is being called "the nations premiere Halloween event." Halloween Horror Nights 21 at Universal Studios Florida has finally begun its terror for the 2011 haunting season. On Wednesday I got a sneak peak and tweeted along about everything we saw that night. Friday night I got to see the houses again and am glad to report that there really are not any houses that I'd say to skip. As always, the detail in every single house is just astounding and Universal Creative really has outdone themselves.

Universal Orlando's strong point always has been its ability to create its own content and stories without having to borrow intellectual property. This year is no different with the exception of Universal Creative working together with Universal Pictures to bring the prequel of "The Thing" to life. So knowing the backstories to each house really helps make the experience that much better.

TJ Mannarino, Director of Art and Design, gave us a rundown of the stories behind each of the houses. Missing just one, H.R. Bloodengutz Presents: Holidays of Horror, but you can find out more about that one below.

So before I begin reviewing the houses, this year I will give each house two ratings. The first will be for detail and eye-candy of the house design and costumes. The second will be for how scary the house is on the scare-meter.


We started off the night with Nevermore: The Madness of Poe. It really pays off having read Edgar Allen Poe's greatest works because the house really brings those writings to life. Trust me, you'll appreciate the house a lot more if you are familiar with the works. Each scene in the house pays tribute to a different story. In the beginning, you see Poe starting on his drinking binge and beginning his works. As you continue through the house, the stories in each of the rooms get more intense as Poe gets crazier and more drunk. The detail and presentation in each room of this house were amazing. This is truthfully more of an eye candy, awe-inspiring house than it is scary. Though there are a few good spots for scares in the house, overall it is not that scary - unless, of course, your timing is perfect and you happen to grab the attention of all the scare actors in the house. I'd give this house a 4.5 out of 5 for detail and a 2 out of 5 on the scare-meter.

The Forsaken

Next up we visited The Forsaken. This house takes place when Columbus made his first voyage to America. We know only knew about three ships that made the journey until now. As we enter this house we discover the lost fourth ship that has been brought up from the bottom of the sea and thrown onto a Spanish fort. Walking through the house we discover that there is a war going on between the Spanish soldiers and the Forsaken crew. In the house we stroll through the captain's quarters, head into the ship's chapel, get to see the courtyard, and end up under deck of the ship. There were two scenes that I absolutely loved in this house. First was the gigantic recreation of a Spanish fort's courtyard and ship with its giant sail in the middle of the courtyard. The second one was the under-the-deck scene where you end up walking on a slanted path that makes you feel like you are truly under deck and testing your sea legs. A fun fact about the courtyard scene: The bell hanging in the bell tower is the same bell that hung in the schoolhouse a few years back. I'd give this house a 4 out of 5 for detail and a 3 out of 5 on the scare-meter.

The In-Between

Next we visited The In-Between. The In-Between involves a couple of college students, Louis and Bubba, who got their hands on a "supernatural" game. This house is done in 3D and is this year's fun house. The house is done in bright neon colors that pop off the wall and props that really make it feel like you are walking into another dimension, especially in the last room. This house is loaded with well-timed and cool effects that leave lots of openings for some great scares. Be on the lookout because the 3D... may feel 4D at times as strands of fishing line hanging from the ceiling graze across your face. I'd give this house a 4 out of 5 for detail and a 4 out of 5 on the scare-meter.

Winter's Night

Following those houses we headed to the houses near the front of the park, with the first house on the list: Winter's Night: The Haunting of Hawthorne Cemetery. Now one would think that after 20 years of running this event Universal would have done a house based on a haunted cemetery. It is surprising, but this is the first year that Universal Orlando has done a house like this. Winter's Night takes place on a cold, haunted cemetery. The dead have risen again in here and are coming out all around you. Be sure to pay attention to the names on the tombstones, you might recognize a few like the Brady Bunch and some of the creators of Halloween Horror Nights. I'd give this house a 4 out of 5 for detail and a 3.5 out of 5 on the scare-meter.

Next up is the house based on the upcoming prequel movie: The Thing. Universal Creative worked closely together with Universal Pictures to create this house and make it as accurate as possible to the movie. The creatures' molds are the exact same ones that were used to create the creatures for the film. Right as you walk into the house you can tell it is taking place at an isolated Antarctic outpost. In each room the creatures take over more of the scare actors in the house. The Thing house has lots of corners where creatures are hiding out to catch guests off guard. A little spoiler for the house and movie: the ending of the house gives away the ending of the prequel coming out on October 14. I'd give this house a 4.5 out of 5 for detail and a 4 out of 5 on the scare-meter.


Next house on our tour is Nightingales: Blood Prey. This house plays in World War I-era trenches and you are literally walking through those trenches. Nightingales have swamped the area and are lurking behind every corner. As you enter the house, you enter into the trenches. In this house be sure to look up. Nightingales will be coming from above you and from each side of you. The details in this house are amazing. The feeling that you are actually walking through theses trenches is astounding. The house design and detail lends itself to having lots of scare points. Nightingales is a very well rounded house. I'd give this house a 4.5 out of 5 on detail and a 4.5 out of 5 on the scare-meter.

Saws N'Steam

Next on the list we have Saws N'Steam: Into The Machine. This is another Universal Orlando first, a scare zone turned into a house. At the end of last year, Universal added a scare zone in the middle of the event and this year brought it back and expanded on the idea. In the beginning you are told the lie that you are about to enter a utopian society, the Horizon. It turns out that going into the Horizon really means you are going into the machine. The machine squeezes out every ounce of liquid out of its victims so they can turn that into steam to power the machine. This is a very wet house and you will get at least a little wet if not a little bit more. Everywhere you go inside this house there are machines that squeeze out liquid, cut up people, or create steam. Even though this house had lots of cool water effects, I was not the most impressed with it. I can only give it a 2.5 out of 5 on detail and a 2 on the scare-meter.

H.R. Bloodengutz

Lastly we visited H.R. Bloodengutz Presents: Holidays of Horror. In this house you join television host, H.R. Bloodengutz, in his final televised broadcast. You'll walk through many different holidays, but they weren't quite the way we remember them being. In here you will encounter the Feaster Bunny, Thankskilling, Valentines Day, Arbor Day, Christmas, and the Luck of the Irish. This is a an interesting house that is more funny and wrong than scary. Pay attention to the Thanksgiving meal, it's not a turkey, Gobble-Gobble, though I wonder what they used for a stuffing in this man-feast. I'd give this house a 3 out of 5 on detail and a 2.5 out of 5 on the scare-meter.

This year's scare zones offer a share of innovative ideas and great areas for scares.

Grown Evil

Grown Evil is a very fog heavy scare zone in which nature seems to play tricks on us, making trees and other creatures come to life. The haze in this area is so thick you can barely see in front of you, let alone see what's about scare the crap out of you. I'd give this scare zone a 4 out of 5 for detail and a 4 out of 5 on the scare-meter.

Canyon of Dark Souls

Canyon of Dark Souls makes you walk through a dark canyon filled with the dead. Adding to the canyon experience are the fire effects that go off high above your head to help create a feeling like you are about to visit Hell. I'd give this scare zone a 3.5 out of 5 for detail and a 4 out of 5 on the scare-meter.

Your Luck Just Ran Out is where you will run into Lady Luck. You will see her in both her normal form and her creepy, messed up form. This area presents a great opportunity to get your picture taken with the icon of the event. I'd give this scare zone a 3.5 out of 5 for detail and a 4.5 out of 5 on the scare-meter.

7 is where you will encounter seven temptresses that morph into their true colors as the night progresses. This is the first scare zone to transform as the night goes on. In the beginning of the night the seven temptresses will still be in all their beauty, but by the end of the night their true, evil, hideous colors are shining. I'd give this scare zone a 3.5 out of 5 for detail and a 3 out of 5 on the scare-meter.

Nightmaze is another innovative scare zone. This is the first scare zone that will shift as guests are walking through it. The set up is a simple, plain black maze with lighting effects and fog effects making it hard to see. As you walk through this maze the walls will shift and move. Every time you walk through it the maze will be set up differently. I'm not going to rate the detail for this scare zone since it is just plain black, but I'd give it a 3 out of 5 on the scare-meter.

Acid Assault is the most impressive innovative undertaking to date at Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights. In this apocalyptic looking scare zone, Universal is using building projection to make it appear as though acid rain is literally making the buildings crumble before your eyes. The effect is impressive and will definitely be a great distraction for guests leaving them vulnerable for some great scares. I'd give this scare zone a 4 out of 5 for detail and a 3.5 out of 5 on the scare-meter.

This year at Halloween Horror Nights there is a new show in the park called Death Drums. It is a seductive, hard-hitting and raw, extreme drumming experience that has three different shows each night of HHN. I do have to say the first performance I saw during Team Member preview was disappointing and seemed unorganized. Though after seeing them perform a different set on opening night, they seemed much more organized, the performance was energetic, interesting, and fun to watch.

A Halloween Horror Nights classic, those wild stallions are back again for the 20th annual Bill and Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure. Again making fun of this past year's pop culture, Bill and Ted's have a decent show this year. Though I did not like the choice of the main villain, I enjoyed the show still for the most part. After having seen the show twice now, once on preview night and once opening night, the show has definitely gotten better over the first time I saw it. I can't say it is the best Bill and Ted's show I have seen, but it is also definitely not the worst.

Here's some video from inside the Houses and scare zones:

Are you in?

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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Where to eat? Lunch at Paradise Garden Grill at Disney California Adventure

By Robert Niles
Published: September 26, 2011 at 9:51 AM
Last month, I had lunch at Boardwalk Pizza and Pasta, one of the two new counter service restaurants in the renovated Paradise Pier section of Disney California Adventure. On my trip last week to see the new Blue Sky Cellar exhibit, I dropped in for lunch at the Paradise Garden Grill.

Paradise Garden Grill sells skewer platters - you get to choose your meat (or tofu) and sauce, which are served on rice pilaf, with a pita and a side of cucumber salad ($10.99). Based on a recommendation from one of the cast members out front, I chose the vegetable and tofu skewer with the chimichurri sauce. (He also recommended the steak with tzatziki, but I wasn't in the mood for something that heavy on a relatively warm day.)

Vegetable skewer

And yes, that's real silverware there on the left and my lunch is setting on a real plate, not paper or styrofoam. Disney's newest restaurants are using real tableware instead of the flimsy plastic stuff you typically get at theme park counter service eateries. The hefty ceramic plate helps keep your food warm, and it's nice to eat with a real knife.

My skewer included two large pieces of tofu, two slices of zucchini and one of summer squash, plus some onion. The chimichurri gave the vegetables some zing, without overpowering them, but the combination wasn't so perfect that I wasn't curious to taste the yogurt or tzatziki options with the skewer sometime, too. Like at the Lucky Fortune Cookery across the park, the Paradise Garden Grill's tofu is not fried. It seems like every time I order something with tofu at Disneyland Resort, I get the steamed or sauteed version, but whenever I order something with tofu at Walt Disney World, it comes deep-fried. Perhaps some Florida visitors or residents can jump in with an observation on that.

I understand Disney's desire for uniform pricing, but it seemed to me that the veggie-and-tofu skewer was a couple bucks overpriced at $10.99. At other skewer places where I've eaten off-property, the all-veggie option is usually a buck less than the meat skewers. (And, FWIW, the seafood ones are a buck more than the meat ones, but there's no seafood option at Paradise Garden Grill.) Still, with an annual pass discount knocking a buck off the price of my skewer, I left satisfied enough to return again and give some of the other sauces a shot.

Have you eaten at DCA's Paradise Garden Grill? Share your impression in the comments, or cast your vote on our Paradise Garden Grill review page.

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Disney California Adventure update: Buena Vista Street takes center stage at the Blue Sky Cellar

By Robert Niles
Published: September 23, 2011 at 5:02 PM
We're at Disney California Adventure today for a look at the new exhibit in the Blue Sky Cellar, Walt Disney Imagineering's preview center for upcoming projects at the Disneyland Resort.

Blue Sky Cellar

The new exhibit shows off California Adventure's new entry land, Buena Vista Street, whose construction is forcing visitors along a detour around Soarin' Over California to enter and exit the park.

Temporary entrance to Disney California Adventure

Give Disney points for continuing the Streamline Moderne style of the park's new Pan Pacific Auditorium-inspired front gate along the construction walls. (Where you can see them behind the toy and plush displays, of course.)

Inside the Cellar (and by the way, let's take a moment to note the irony in the name "Blue Sky Cellar," shall we?), you can see the scale model of the new Walt and Mickey statue that will adorn Buena Vista Street when it opens early next summer.

Walt and Mickey statue

The Imagineering exhibit reviews many of the details that have been previously released in media events and at the D23 Expo last month. But it's nice for the public to be able to see these exhibits in person, and to linger over the details. I found myself spending several moments looking at these tile samples and concept drawings of the flooring in the Buena Vista Street shops. The 1920's-era tilework reminded me of the Bradbury Building in downtown Los Angeles, where I once worked. (Movie fans of a certain age might recognize the building from its appearances in Blade Runner and Chinatown.)

Flooring on Buena Vista Street

Here's a map showing the route the Red Car Trolley ride that will run up and down Buena Vista Street, continuing on to the Tower of Terror.

Red Car Trolley map at California Adventure

Concept art and visualization videos are great, but I find I most enjoy looking at scale models, which really draw me into a design in ways that 2D concept art can't. Here's the Carthay Circle that will stand at the end of Buena Vista Street. Note the Red Car Trolley wires running above the street.

Scale model of Disney's Buena Vista Street

Construction's coming along, for next summer's planned completion in late June. Here's a "real world" view of what the Carthay Circle theater looks like from that same angle, today.

Carthay Circle at DCA

And for those who are interested, here's a view from outside the Cellar, looking across the street at the emerging Cars Land. You can see the giant wingnut now topping the hubcap roof of Flo's V-8 Cafe.

Cars Land

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Vote of the week: After Disney's Avatar news, what should Universal Orlando do next?

By Robert Niles
Published: September 23, 2011 at 8:38 AM
Now that Disney's dropped the news that it is bringing Avatar to Disney's Animal Kingdom, how should Universal Orlando respond?

Universal Orlando Resort

I love when theme parks get aggressive competing with each other, whether it be on new attractions, price, service - or all of those. The winners in those battles are always the fans. Whether you like Avatar (the movie), or not, I hope that you'll at least get excited that Disney's optimistic enough about the future of its theme park business to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in a richly themed new land for one of its U.S. theme parks.

Avatar skeptics also should remember that theme park designers sometime out-do their source material. Universal's Waterworld show, for example, provides far more excitement than the Kevin Coster bomb of a movie it was based upon ever did.

I also hope that fans will be excited at the possibility that Universal Orlando won't just take this lying down, but accept Disney's challenge and come up with another blockbuster attraction to build upon the momentum it earned with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

But what, specifically, should Universal do? Should it announce a major new expansion of Harry Potter? Should Universal bring Transformers to Orlando? Or should it secure the rights to a major new franchise, such as Lord of the Rings? (Or Ice Age? Or Kung Fu Panda? Or whatever else you can imagine.)

That's our vote of the week.

In the comments, I'd love to hear some specifics about what new attractions you want to see from the Orlando theme parks. What are you most looking forward to, and what more do the Orlando-area theme parks need to offer to get you to plan another vacation?

Thanks for voting, and thanks for reading Theme Park Insider.

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Boeckling's Banquet serves a terrific beginning to Halloweekends at Cedar Point

By James Koehl
Published: September 22, 2011 at 11:17 AM
Halloweekends at Cedar Point has become one of the most popular autumn events in northern Ohio, and my family and a friend of ours was privileged to enjoy one special and unique part of it, Boeckling's Banquet. Special, because we enjoyed one of the best meals we have ever had at a theme park (including the Orlando parks), and unique, because I have never heard of any theme park offering a formal sit-down dinner in an on-site haunted house.

Some background first: G.A. Boeckling was a Sandusky, Ohio businessman who bought a struggling Lake Erie resort called Cedar Point and turned it into "the Queen of American Watering Places." The administration building he built in the center of the resort served as the headquarters for what became the Cedar Fair Corporation until a few years ago, when a new structure was built next to it.

The Boeckling house

Rather than tearing this historic structure down, Cedar Point has kept it and turned it into the Eerie Estate, a haunted house packed with an amazing collection of antique furniture, bizarre curios, evil portraits and the zombified servants of Mr. Boeckling.

Inside the house

Every day during Halloweekends, before the Estate is opened to the public as one of the 10 haunted houses and mazes at Cedar Point, it is opened to a limited number of special dinner guests. These guests are greeted at the door by two of Mr. Boeckling's recently reanimated servants: Lucious, the Butler, and Sara Piano, Mistress of the House,

Your hosts

who welcome the diners and invite them to explore the mansion on their way to the center of the Estate and the site of the Banquet, the main Dining Room.

Dining room

The beautiful antique dining table seats nine, four on each side and one at one end. The head of the table is reserved for the spirit of Mr. Boeckling. Other tables seating two diners each line the walls. The dining room walls are decorated with a painted pattern that, on closer examination, resembles evil eyes and screaming fang-like teeth.


Rotting floral arrangements covered with cobwebs decorate the table, and a low rumbling sound of evil provides appropriate background atmosphere. Piercing screams or a sudden pounding on the wall of the room keeps the diners entertained and occasionally startled. More zombie servants appear and assist guests in being seated, taking their orders for beverages and occasionally dust off a guest who sits still for too long.

Each meal starts with Boeckling's Salad, a wonderfully fresh salad of greens with strawberries, oranges and coconut and served with a delicious berry vinaigrette dressing (resembling a small vial of blood) on the side.


Freshly-baked dinner rolls and butter balls compliments this first course.

Dinner rolls

One surprised guest popped one of the butter balls into her mouth, thinking it was candy! She said that it was still delicious.

There are four entrees available, and they have to be ordered at the time reservations are made. Diners can choose from:

Crab Legs,

Crab legs

Lobster Tail and Petit Filet Mignon,

Surf and turf

Char-Grilled Filet Mignon,

Filet Mignon

Shrimp, Scallop and Lobster Alfredo.

Seafood Alfredo

Our group tried each of these entrees, and everyone agreed that they were cooked perfectly. My son is a crab leg connoisseur, and he raved about the quality and quantity of the crab meat.

Eating crab legs

The steaks were cooked to order and to perfection, and the seafood Alfredo was so good and such a large serving that my wife took more than half of it home for lunch the next day. My lobster tail was large enough that it by itself would have been sufficient for a meal, but the petite filet mignon it came with was too good to pass up.

Each was served with side dishes of twice-baked potatoes with a cheese wafer garnish (cooked perfectly), asparagus (which I don't normally like but I ate all of mine) and some had a garnish of absolutely flawless fresh fruit.

Side dishes

Beverages available were soft drinks (Pepsi products), beer and wine. The water goblets, which were shaped like skulls held in a skeleton's hand, were a souvenir to be taken home after the banquet.

Dessert this year was an incredible chocolate cake with a chocolate mousse filling, and decorated with chocolate sticks and a white chocolate medallion emblazoned with the Eerie Estate logo.

Chocolate cake

I must share with you last year's dessert, which was your choice of a chocolate skull or Frankenstein head filled with strawberry mousse and fresh strawberries.

2010 dessert

We could not decide which we liked better- both were wonderful!

I did not hear a single complaint from any of our fellow diners. My group all were in agreement that the meal was one of the best we have ever had anywhere, especially considering it was served by zombies in a haunted house in the middle of an amusement park! Chef Brian J. Poloski and his staff of zombies are to be commended for creating such a unique and enjoyable experience. Many people have made Boeckling's Banquet a regular part of their Halloween festivities, and our family intends to do so also.

The banquet is served every Friday night at 5:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 12:30 p.m. by reservation only (419-627-2242). Price is $68.95 per meal, which includes tax and gratuity. Yes, the price does seem steep, but considering that it includes tax and tip, the amazingly high quality of the meal and atmosphere, plus having private access to one of the best haunted houses at Cedar Point, made it completely reasonable.

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What's new on the discussion board: How will Avatar match up with other new theme park lands?

By Robert Niles
Published: September 21, 2011 at 1:47 PM
Yesterday's news about Disney bringing Avatar to Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World has sparked several new conversations on the Theme Park Insider discussion Board. (But first, thanks to WDWDads for posting this nightmare fuel image on Twitter.)

Andy Milito kicks it off with Disney Adding Avatar to Animal Kingdom. Your Reaction?

Dominick D sets up the battle royale in Orlando over the next decade: Avatar vs Transformers vs Fantasyland vs Despicable Me.

And David L follows by asking your thoughts on two other theme park mega projects: Carsland or the Wizarding World of Harry Potter?

Zackiel Marsh boils down to an essential question for many theme/amusement park fans: Theme vs Thrill

Daniel Etcheberry asks us to think back a bit and tell everyone Which is the ride that impressed you the most when you rode it the first time?

On that topic, Tim Hillman asks us - as theme parks - When Did You Know You Were Hooked?

I jumped in earlier this week to ask you to share some of your favorite backstories about theme park attractions in The 'bar brag' - what are your favorite theme park trivia stories?

Giovanny Cruz asks Is Legoland Florida going to be a competition for Universal and Disney?

Jeff Elliott notes last week's Golden Ticket Awards and several readers wonder just what the voters in those awards were thinking.

Finally, Jeff wraps up the week, pre-Avatar, with Last Week At Your Amusement Park......September 19.

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Disney bringing Avatar to Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World

By Robert Niles
Published: September 20, 2011 at 10:48 AM
Disney announced today that it has secured the theme park rights to James Cameron's Avatar - the number-one box office movie of all time - for a new land at Disney's Animal Kingdom.

Art from James Cameron's Avatar, coming to Disney's Animal Kingdom in 2016.

Construction will begin by 2013 for the new land, which will include multiple rides and other experiences (figure some shopping and dining, at least). The debut is scheduled for 2016 - five years from now. That construction timeframe roughly matches that of Cars Land at Disney California Adventure, which had a similar budget to what Disney expects to spend on Avatar. Walt Disney Imagineering is in the design phase now, and James Cameron is working with Imagineering on the project.

With its huge reservoir of intellectual property, Disney usually doesn't look outside the company for themes to new attractions, especially now that Pixar is part of the Disney family. But Disney has secured outside contracts before, most notably for Star Wars and Indiana Jones. And don't forget that Hollywood Studios was originally the Disney-MGM Studios. Avatar earned more money than any other motion picture in history (not adjusted for inflation), but it's only been one movie so far. It's not the franchise of multiple films and books that Star Wars and Harry Potter represent.

Ah, yes, Harry Potter. File this with Fantasyland and Star Wars and we now see Disney's answers to Universal's Potter development. But will Avatar have the emotional connection with visitors that Potter has demonstrated? It seems weird to ask this of a Disney project, but - will it have the "magic"?

We'll be waiting to see what Imagineering develops. But for now? Wow, what potential.

I'd love to hear your thoughts. What would you do with Disney's Avatar land?

Update: Disney CEO Bob Iger said that Avatar will be coming to other Disney parks after it debuts at Walt Disney World's Animal Kingdom. Where would it fit in Disneyland?

Update 2: Twitter followers have suggested that Middle Earth would have been a better get for Disney, as Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit have more dedicated fan bases and the franchise more storytelling potential. Let's throw that into the 'what do you think' mix for the comments.

Update 3: You know I love polls:

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Cedar Fair sells Great America for $70 million

By Robert Niles
Published: September 19, 2011 at 3:34 PM
[Update:Dec. 2011 Deal was cancelled. Not happening.]

The Cedar Fair amusement park chain announced today [PDF] that it will sell its Great America amusement park in Santa Clara, California for $70 million.

The new buyer is JMA Ventures, a real estate investment firm that manages several ski resorts and other properties, mostly in northern California. Great America is located in the southern part of the San Francisco Bay Area, better known to tech geeks as Silicon Valley.

So now new Cedar Fair president Matt Ouimet has $70 million to pay down debt, and one less park to maintain. Great America was not one of the top-attended parks in the Cedar Fair chain, operating seasonally in northern California in competition with a a Six Flags park, not to mention the many much larger and better developed theme parks operating a short plane flight or half-day drive away in Southern California.

And, by the way, for those of you who are wondering and weren't around the 1970s, yes, Great America used to be the sister park of Six Flags Great America, when both were Marriott theme parks. When the hotel company got out of the theme park business, it sold the Chicago-area park to Six Flags and the San Francisco-area park to (*edit) Kings Entertainment which then sold to Paramount, which years later sold its theme parks to Cedar Fair.

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Did Steven Spielberg say Transformers is coming to Universal Orlando?

By Robert Niles
Published: September 19, 2011 at 10:03 AM
Steven Spielberg spoke with the Orlando Sentinel's film critic over the weekend and insinuated that Transformers could be coming to Universal Orlando soon:

“I always like to hear that people are still coming to the attractions we already have in the park. I know everybody’s going to Harry Potter right now. But we think Transformers is going to pretty amazing. We’ve been working on that for about three years now. It should be ready soon. I don’t have an announcement, yet, but it should be coming there soon,” Spielberg said.

Transformers under construction at Universal Studios Hollywood

At first read, I wondered if Spielberg could be conflating his Universal Studios theme parks. Universal's been developing Transformers rides at its Hollywood and Singapore theme parks for the past three years or so. There's been no word yet on an Orlando version of the simulator ride, nor has Universal Orlando teased any indication that word might be forthcoming.

But if Spielberg means what he said, and Transformers is coming to Orlando, where would it be?

It might be tempting to see this as a replacement for Spider-Man, given the similarities in their ride systems. But Spider-Man's getting an expensive new facelift next year. And the building profile for Transformers is very different than Spider-Man's. Transformers is a vertical attraction that needs a tall building, though its footprint is relatively smaller for such a major attraction.

Thematically, Transformers would not fit in any of the existing Islands of Adventure. So I'd be inclined to guess it would go into Universal Studios HollywoodFlorida. My best guess? It'd go on the site of the Fear Factor stage.

What's yours?

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Busch Gardens Williamsburg confirms Verbolten for 2012

By Robert Niles
Published: September 18, 2011 at 2:27 PM
Busch Gardens Williamsburg confirmed this weekend what we told you in April: Verbolten will be the name for the new multi-launch coaster that the Virginia theme park will debut next year.

Park officials confirmed the news during the passholder preview for Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens on Saturday morning. Park visitors who scan in-park QR codes can get additional information about the coaster, which is tipped to be built by German manufacturer Zierer.

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Vote of the week: What's the best meal for character dining?

By Robert Niles
Published: September 16, 2011 at 12:44 PM
Character dining provides a great way to multitask on a theme park visit. Shell out the extra bucks for a character meal and you can take care of two tasks at once - eating a meal and seeing some of your favorite characters.

(I mean, your kids' favorite characters. Right.)

Character tea party at the Disney's Grand Floridian Hotel

But when to enjoy your character meal? Do you book a character breakfast, and ensure that you'll meet your favorite characters right away? Or does booking what might be the highlight of the day for some kids (or adults) make the rest of the day seem too anticlimactic?

What about dinner, then? But what happens if you meet those characters in the park earlier in the day? Does that make the character meal less special, and not worth the extra cost?

That leaves lunch. But do you really want to spend all that potential ride time stuck in a restaurant?

Let's put it up for a vote, then. And after you vote, please click the link to comment and tell us about your dream character experience. Who would the characters be? The restaurant? Would there be a show, or just walk-around characters? And if you've already been to a character meal that you'd consider perfect, let us know about that instead.

As always, thanks for reading Theme Park Insider. And if you enjoy the website, might I suggest helping us spread the word? Clicking the "Like" and "+1" buttons you see on the site helps spread the word via Facebook and Google, respectively. And we always appreciate good, old-fashioned just telling your friends and family in person about the site, too. Thanks again.

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Three theme park ticket options I would love to buy, but can't

By Robert Niles
Published: September 14, 2011 at 9:48 PM
With all the ticket options available to theme park visitors - park hoppers, City Pass, seasonal options, no expiration tickets - it might seem hard to believe that there remain some options that are not available to theme park fans. But there are.

Here are three ticket options I'd love to buy, but can't because their parks haven't made them available (yet):

Universal Studios Hollywood

1. An unlimited free parking option for annual passholders at Universal Studios Hollywood

USH is the closest theme park to my home, but most years I don't buy an annual pass. That's because I typically only end up visiting the park about once a year or so, outside press events. The park just doesn't have enough attractions for my family to want to make multiple visits a year. (Now, when Universal Studios Hollywood builds its version of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, that'll be a different story.) But we would love to go to CityWalk more often.

The $10 parking charge keeps up away, though. CityWalk-like developments such as Americana at Brand validate parking for several hours, allowing us to see a movie or eat a leisurely dinner without having to pay to park. Heck, even Anaheim's Downtown Disney offers several hours of free parking. I'd gladly upgrade to a USH annual pass just for the free parking at CityWalk (which I prefer to Americana). But USH's top AP's parking perk is only good if you arrive before 5 pm.

2. A no-expire option on multi-day tickets for Disneyland

A multi-day, no-expire ticket is a great option for someone who wants to visit a Disney theme park a few times a year, but not often enough to justify the cost of an annual pass. Disneyland offers a variety of annual passes, but all but the most expensive are blocked out on the weekends and school vacations when I can drive the family down from Pasadena.

I've got one of those seasonal annual passes, which I use to visit the park about once a month or so on a workday. But I'd love to get my kids a multi-day ticket as a Christmas present. Unfortunately, multi-day Disneyland Resort tickets expire 14 days after their first use. Unlike Walt Disney World, Disneyland does not offer a no-expire option.

A no-expire option also could be a good way to upsell out-of-town visitors to a longer Disneyland pass, helping ensure they return for a future visit. And yes, like the USH parking option, I would pay extra for this option.

3. A combined Universal Orlando/Universal Studios Hollywood annual pass

Now that Disney's offering a combo Disneyland/Disney World pass, Universal is the only major chain that does not offer any type of national chain-wide annual pass. I suspect the reason's been that, up until earlier this year, Universal Orlando was half-owned by another company, meaning that USH and UO technically had different owners, making a two-coast ticket a difficult cross-company arrangement.

But NBCUniversal's the sole owner of both theme park developments now. What better way to celebrate that acquisition than by introducing a UO/USH AP?

(Especially if that three-park pass also included free parking at Universal Studios Hollywood after 5pm....)

Is there a theme park ticket option you'd like to buy, but can't? I'd love to hear about it in the comments. Let's keep the discussion to new options that one company could introduce without the cooperation of another (so no requests for the not-gonna-happen Disney World/Universal Orlando park-hopper, please). And everyone knows we'd all love to see more discounts. So let's talk about just those options for which you'd be willing to pay extra.

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2011's kid-friendly theme park Halloween events

By Robert Niles
Published: September 13, 2011 at 3:51 PM
Love trick or treating? How would you like if Halloween came twice a year?

Or more?

If you've got the money, several top theme parks will be making Halloween happen dozens of times between now and Oct. 31. We're not talking about haunted mazes and scare zones of gouls and gore - other parks will have plenty of those. These are three of the best kid-friendly Halloween events at year-'round theme parks. Some offer everyone the chance to trick or treat - even the grown-ups.

Halloween candy
Mickey's Halloween Party at Walt Disney World begins tonight, believe it or not. Here's my haul from last year's Mickey's Halloween Party at Disneyland.

Mickey's Halloween Party

Dress up and line up to collect candy in any of the several "trick or treat zones" that Disney sets up during these five-hour "after hours" parties in the Magic Kingdoms. If candy's not your thing, or even if it is, you also can enjoy a Halloween-themed parade and a fireworks show, and meet many of the Disney characters who'll be decked out in Halloween garb.

At Disneyland, you'll also be able to ride special holiday-themed versions of the Haunted Mansion and Space Mountain. (Those versions are available to day guests during the Halloween party season, too.) Do note that not all theme park attractions will open during the party, and most food locations will be closed, so ward off the sugar high by getting dinner beforehand. I don't know about Florida, but at the Disneyland party, Halloween party ticket holders can enter Disneyland up to three hours before the party's official start time, at no additional charge. (Update: Yep, same deal at Walt Disney World.)

Halloween Spooktacular

SeaWorld's annual Halloween event gives costumed children the opportunity to "trick or treat" at stations marked throughout the park map. The park also offers a Halloween-themed Sesame Street show, and in San Diego, a Halloween themed version of the Clyde & Seamore show, too. In both parks, you can meet Penelope the Pumpkin Princess and walk through themed party zones.

Brick or Treat Party Nights

  • Saturday nights, Oct. 1 - 29 Legoland California ($25 for all nights, or included with park admission)

Selected park attractions are open during these four-hour "after hours" events, which feature special entertainers, shows and contests, as well as a fireworks show at the end of the evening. (Legoland's Brick-Or-Treat trick or treating trail is open after noon during regular park hours on weekends in October, but is not advertised as being open during the party nights.)

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What's new on the discussion board: Save the hippos?

By Robert Niles
Published: September 13, 2011 at 11:07 AM
Have you responded to a thread on the Theme Park Insider Discussion Forum? Here are the top threads from the past week:

Are you a Jungle Cruise fan? Do you know what happens deep inside the jungle? Steve Lee brings our attention to Important Charity Information - Save the Hippos!


Speaking of Disneyland, Eli Katzman has been looking for some California Trip Help.

Mark Fairleigh asks What's your dining philosophy at the parks?

Bob Miller wants to know what's the Slowest Moving Line you have been in?

Jeff Elliott wraps up the news from around the Web in Last Week At Your Amusement Park......September 12.

Finally, now that you've seen the emotional appeal, which will it be?

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What would you do? Finding Disney's answer to Butterbeer

By Robert Niles
Published: September 12, 2011 at 5:51 PM
Concept art of the upcoming Gaston's Tavern in the new Fantasyland expansion at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom is sparking rumors that Disney's working on its own version of Universal's wildly successful Butterbeer.

Concept art of Gaston's Tavern, courtesy Disney

Unless Disney's planning on losing its liquor license and getting a record fine from the state of Florida, I think we can assume that the kids in that picture ain't drinkin' beer.

From the picture, Gaston's Tavern looks, uh, heavily inspired by the Hog's Head Pub in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure. This would hardly be the first example of Disney knocking off a competitor's design or concept. (Take a ride on the Log Flume at Knott's Berry Farm sometime.) But should Disney go for a straight copy of Butterbeer, or try something a bit different?

That's my "what would you do?" question for you.

Splash Mountain won raves and an enduring fan base not because it copied Knott's Log Flume, but because it took that basic design and layout and fused it with "Song of the South" to create a unique narrative and musical experience. If Disney thinks that offering "Butterbrew," or whatever they call it, in the Magic Kingdom will be enough to keep potential visitors from heading up I-4 to Universal Orlando, I think Disney's underestimating its audience.

Butterbeer's a hit not just because it's a tasty drink (which it is). Fans love Butterbeer because it gives them a rare chance to experience a beloved theme using their sense of taste, as well as their eyes and ears. Butterbeer was part of the Harry Potter books and movies and by tasting it - and using that additional sense to do so - fans feel even more connected with that Wizarding World.

Beauty and the Beast doesn't offer any such imaginary food. That puts Disney is a bit of a bind. First, there's no unique food or drink from the movie that fans have been dying to try. (Though I'd love to sit down for that animated feast!) Second, since Butterbeer was imaginary, Universal was free to make it taste like something unusual - which it did. Despite the fears of some parents, Butterbeer tastes nothing like alcoholic beer. It's a sweet, butterscotch-like drink that has as much in common with alcohol beer as root beer does.

If Disney simply copies that, it won't be offering a unique taste, as Universal did, for Butterbeer now already exists. And if Disney simply tries to create a non-alcoholic version of beer for its kid visitors, well, O'Doul's already exists, too, doesn't? And does Disney really want to endure the potential parent backlash from hawking that to kids?

So either Disney just settles for copying Universal (boring!) or it needs to find some unique flavor and identity for its frothy mug beverage.

Personally, a creamy chocolate/peanut butter drink sounds absolutely delightful to me. If I were in Disney's test kitchen, I'd be looking to popular milkshake flavors for inspiration in trying to find a new flavor for a creamy-headed soft drink.

But what do you think?

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Vote of the week: What's your biggest expense when visiting a theme park?

By Robert Niles
Published: September 9, 2011 at 1:41 PM
People often complain about the price of theme park tickets, but what do you really end up sending the most money on when you visit a theme park?

Let's add it up. Think about the most recent day you spent in a theme park. Then add up all the money you spent for that day on...

The food and drinks:

Pizza at Naples

The souvenirs:

Silly theme park hat

And the tickets:

Disney theme park tickets

Don't count just your meals. Add in the money for snacks and drinks throughout the day. When you're figuring the cost of tickets, don't go with the "list" price, either. Count what you spent to visit just that day. So if you're on a multi-day ticket or seasonal or annual pass, divide the cost of that ticket by the number of days you used it to get the daily ticket price.

Then don't forget to add in the day's parking charge, too. We'll count that as part of the ticket price.

So which cost you the most? When I visit Epcot, I usually end up spending more on food than anything else. With a 10-day Walt Disney World park-hopper bought a few years back, I'm paying about $50 a day for my ticket. But I can easily spend more than that per day at Epcot if I do a couple meals at places such as Via Napoli, and chow down a snack, too.

Here at home, with a Disneyland annual pass, my per-day cost is probably $10 or so, but I often drop more than that buying souvenirs.

When I visit a local thrill ride park, such as Six Flags Magic Mountain or Knott's Berry Farm, I usually end up buying a discounted one-day ticket for about $40 or so, plus parking on top of that. But I don't buy much food, and almost never any merchandise. So ticket cost is my biggest expense there.

Because the answers can vary based on the place and time you visit, let's go with your most recent visit for your choice. Please tell us in the comments about how these costs break down for you. (And since we're talking about daily visits here, we're leaving those often substantial hotel and transportation costs off the table for this discussion.)

As always, thank you for reading Theme Park Insider. Have a great weekend!

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Floods in the east and blackouts in the west make it a tough day for theme parks

By Robert Niles
Published: September 8, 2011 at 9:13 PM
The remnants of Tropical Storm Lee are flooding communities from the Ohio Valley into upstate New York, including some popular theme parks.

Hersheypark will remain closed through the weekend, due to floodwaters that have inundated the park and surrounding community. The flooding at the adjacent ZooAmerica in Hershey has captured the most public attention, after zoo officials put down two bison that were trapped by the rising water. The incessant rain has flooded Knoebels amusement park in Pennsylvania as well.

Over here on the west coast, we're dealing with our own, though thankfully much more minor, disruption to some local theme parks. A massive power outage has cut electricity to more than a million people across San Diego and southern Orange Counties, affecting both Legoland and SeaWorld San Diego. Both parks remained open until the scheduled closing times this evening, though the had to evacuate riders when the power went out initially, and SeaWorld had to do without some of the technical effects at its early evening Shamu show. We'll have to see if power comes back by morning, and, if not, if that will affect the parks tomorrow. (Update: Open as usual.)

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Want to help a Theme Park Insider reader win a trip to Universal Studios Hollywood's Halloween Horror Nights?

By Robert Niles
Published: September 8, 2011 at 10:39 AM
Just go to 2011 Halloween Horror Nights Short Film Competition page and vote for "103," a short film created by Andy Kelemen. Watch Andy's film first, of course, as well as the other finalists - it's a great way to uh, "kill" a little time during the day. (Horrible pun, I know.) Language is potentially NSFW, so put on the earbuds. The carousel to select the other films for viewing is at the bottom of the page.

The winning filmmaker, selected by reader voting, will get two tickets to HHN, an invitation to the opening night "Eyegore Awards" ceremony and $1,000 cash.

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Iceploration to debut at Busch Gardens Tampa in February

By Robert Niles
Published: September 8, 2011 at 8:26 AM
If you've visited our Busch Gardens Tampa listing page in recent weeks, you might have noticed a listing for Iceploration, a new show that we'd tipped to replace Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy. This morning, Busch Gardens made it official: Iceploration will debut Feb. 2, 2012 in the park's Moroccan Palace theater.

Iceploration logo

Iceploration will be a 30-minute skating show that explores the four corners of the Earth, featuring Broadway-style costumes from a Tony Award-winning designer. The show will focus on a digital-savvy teenager and his grandfather, who urges the teen to explore the world in person, rather than simply through computer and smartphone screens.

From Busch Gardens' press release:

The adventure unfolds as they arrive in the African Serengeti. Here, larger-than-life puppets and spectacular set design bring elephants and other awe-inspiring animals to life at a watering hole. Solo and chorus skating performances accompanied by acrobatics tell an anecdote of an agile cheetah stalking graceful gazelles and meerkats.

Austin and Grandpa then dive into the Great Barrier Reef to explore the harmony of life on the ocean floor. An amazing black light transition and never-before-seen helium-filled puppets immerse the audience in the wonders of the sea, filled with parrotfish and lionfish, sea urchins, turtles and a moray eel.

In the Arctic, majestic skaters become striking snow flurries as a winter storm threatens the travelers. Austin and Grandpa witness even more beauty as they encounter the Aurora Borealis phenomenon, represented with theatrical lighting and projections. Then, they share the stage with amazing live animal stars, including a Siberian lynx and a sled of Siberian huskies as they continue to traverse the tundra.

Austin and Grandpa wrap up their adventure around the globe immersed in the lush, tropical Amazon Rainforest. Squirrel monkeys, sun conures and colorful macaws fill the air as playful frogs and a graceful dragonfly skate into the grand finale: a new signature song called "Meet the World."

Thoughts? Sound like something that would make it onto your to-do list?

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Go behind the scenes as Universal Studios Hollywood prepares for Halloween Horror Nights

By Robert Niles
Published: September 7, 2011 at 4:51 PM
Universal Studios Hollywood this morning invited local reporters backstage for a look at preparations for Halloween Horror Nights 2011. I talked with Creative Director John Murdy, who shared his thoughts about the enduring appeal of horror as a genre, and offered a comparison between the event in Los Angeles and its sibling at the Universal Orlando Resort.

While I spoke with John, my wife wandered the room, taking photos and speaking with some of the make-up artists whose work will help bring Halloween Horror Nights to life. Murdy reminded us that while movie make-up artists might take hours to prepare a single actor for scene, Universal Studios Hollywood has to apply make-up to hundreds of scareactors each night, forcing the creative team to find ways to streamline the design and application process for each scareactor, while retaining a movie-quality look.

Most people use makeup to detract from their bloodshot eyes, but here, the bloodier the better. Stacy Smith applies water-based red stage paint on Justin Delk's face to make him into "Scalped Jerry." His scalped head is sculpted silicone, which was made in a shop, well before the make-up process began. It takes 10 to 30 minutes to properly apply the "blood" to both his face and his silicone "hat."

Scalped Jerry

You know those pictures the dentist uses to scare you into brushing your teeth? That aesthetic -- call it "decorative dental decay" -- is the goal for Jenn Rose, Mask and Fabrication Supervisor, who paints blood and gore into the teeth. The actors don't have to wear the teeth in their mouths, instead, the teeth are secured into the masks. Halloween Horror nights requires about 150 masks, and they started making them at the end of June.

Decorative dental decay

Veronica Rodart paints a prosthetic mask, using alcohol-based paint. These masks are different from others, in that actors affix them straight onto their faces. Though they take much time and effort to make, these masks go in the trash after one use, as the edges can't survive being put on and taken off. This means a new mask every night, for every actor, for 20 nights! Rodart said they have to start in June in order to finish the some 1,800 prosthetics required for Halloween Horror Nights.

Prosthetic mask

Kris Kobzina transforms Minerva Mendez into La Llorona, the "Weeping Woman" from the Latin American legend about a mother who, abandoned by her lover, kills her own children by drowning them. Legend has it that she still wanders the earth as a ghost, bewailing their loss. "La Llorona" will roam Universal Studios Hollywood, as she did last year, during Halloween Horror Nights 2011.

La Llorona

The craziest wig that Anissa Salazar said she has made so far for Halloween Horror Nights was the "mud wig," which required mixing up cotton balls, acrylic paint and dirt into it to create a seriously messed-up mop.

Mud wig

Wig Mistress Salazar started in mid-spring on the 100 wigs for Halloween Horror Nights 2011. Her creations are based on artwork drawn for each character, and based on that she cuts, colors, curls, and adds to wigs to create the right look. The hair department also does all the beards and mustaches and creates back-up wigs.

For more: Universal's Halloween Horror Nights 2011 runs select nights between September 23 and October 31. Tickets are on sale from $37-$62 at Universal's website, including a Front of Line ticket option (priced between $69-$99, and includes event admission). Prices vary by night selected.

Laurie Niles contributed to this report.

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What's new on the discussion board: The top 10 attractions at Walt Disney World

By Robert Niles
Published: September 7, 2011 at 8:02 AM
Here are this week's top new topics on the Theme Park Insider Discussion Board:

Nick Dakuginow asks: What are Your Top Ten Favorite Attractions at Walt Disney World?

Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney's Hollywood Studios

If you're curious, here are the Top 10 attractions at the Walt Disney World Resort as rated by Theme Park Insider readers overall:

  1. Twilight Zone Tower of Terror
  2. Festival of the Lion King
  3. Mickey's PhilharMagic
  4. Impressions de France
  5. Haunted Mansion
  6. IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth
  7. Rock n' Roller Coaster
  8. Splash Mountain
  9. Toy Story Midway Mania
  10. Expedition Everest
How does your personal top 10 match up? Let us know in Nick's thread.

On the topic of your favorite places at Disney World, Katie White asks about Favorite WDW Hotels.

Lauren Hayhurst opens a thread for readers to share stories about Surprise Disney trips.

matt mornan Needs help planning a trip to WDW for 12 people.

Zackiel Marsh wants to know What is the best Central Florida Water Park?

And Jeff Elliott wraps up all the attraction opening announcements from the past several days in Last Week At Your Amusement Park......September 6.

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What's the one thing you would change to improve your favorite theme park?

By Robert Niles
Published: September 6, 2011 at 2:19 PM
What is one thing would you change if you were in charge of a theme park?

The Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World

Me? I would restore (or adopt!) the rule that costumes could not be taken off property. When I worked at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, the only costumed cast members who could wear a costume off property were guest relations tour guides and the Ambassadors, who would wear their costumes when they were making public appearances on behalf of the resort or ferrying VIP guests to and from the Orlando International Airport.

Everyone else got 20 paid minutes at the end of their shifts, when they could change from their costumes and exchange them for a fresh, clean costume to wear the next day (which they'd keep in an assigned locker). That meant no Disney cast members ever would be seen in their costumes off property, and that the costumes would be professional laundered and cared for by Disney staff, on site.

This policy does three things: First, I think costumes remain in better shape when they're cared for by a professional costuming department, and not laundered at home. That allows the company to improve the show while saving money on costume repair and replacement. Second, keeping costumes at the work site improves show quality for visitors and potential visitors by ensuring that the "fourth wall" isn't broken by seeing park employees in costume "off stage" and in public.

Third, and most important in my opinion, the policy improves show quality because it creates a clear division between work and home for the employees themselves. Take your costume home, and you're just another low-wage hourly employee working a retail job in funny clothes. Keep the costume in the park's costuming department, and when you put it on, you're a cast member in a major show. That attitude adjustment is crucial in promoting high quality guest service in the park, and a huge reason why Disney insisted upon this policy for decades.

What's the one change you'd make at your favorite theme park? And please don't list some capital improvement, such as building a $100 million new dark ride. Let's restrict this to realistic operational improvements. So... what's your one thing?

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Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom to debut at Walt Disney World

By Andrew Mooney
Published: September 6, 2011 at 2:17 PM
It has been announced today on the Disney Parks blog that the Magic Kingdom will experience quests, muck akin to EPCOT's Kim Possible attraction in the World Showcase:

"Today, we’re thrilled to share plans for a new role-playing adventure coming to Walt Disney World called Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom. This is going to be fun – and it’s all happening inside the park. Merlin the magician will recruit guests to become apprentice sorcerers and then help them with maps and clues that show where and how to defeat an army of Disney villains."

The quest will launch in 2012 and it looks to be based in Adventureland. So what's the thoughts on this? Have you played Kim Possible? I'm looking forward to this new way of experiencing the parks, and if it's anything like KP then I'm all aboard.

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Wait a minute - there's a Dole Whip store in LA now?

By Robert Niles
Published: September 6, 2011 at 8:14 AM
Are you a Dole Whip fan?

Now you don't need to go to a Disney theme park to get your frozen pineapple dessert fix. If you live in Los Angeles, there's a new Dole Whip store in West Hollywood.

House of Dolewhip

House of Dolewhip opened at the corner of Santa Monica and Fairfax last month and advertises that it serves the same Dole Whip as in the Disney theme parks and at the Dole plantation in Hawaii. In addition to the pineapple treats, the store offers soft-serve ice cream and says it will soon offer Hawaiian shave ice. It's even planning a shave ice/Dole Whip combo, which sounds to me like it might shatter world records for awesomeness.

I'm in Pasadena, so West Hollywood's a bit of a haul for me, but I've got this on my to-do list. I'd love to hear from any westsiders who've been: What's your verdict on a non-theme park Dole Whip?

Thanks to reader M. Ryan Traylor for the tip!

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Dollywood announces $20 million Wild Eagle wing coaster for 2012

By Robert Niles
Published: September 4, 2011 at 7:35 PM
Dollywood announced today its new $20 million ride for 2012 - Wild Eagle, a Bolliger & Mabillard wing coaster that will launch from the park's Wilderness Peak section, the highest point in the park.

Wild Eagle
Concept art of Wild Eagle, courtesy Dollywood

Experiencing the freedom of flight, the new coaster’s innovative floorless design positions riders seated four abreast in a forward-facing position, with two riders actually seated on the “wings” along either side of the coaster’s track with nothing but air above and below them.

“Wild Eagle celebrates not only the majestic bald eagle but also my beautiful Smoky Mountains which folks will get a bird’s eye view of as they soar high above Dollywood," Dolly Parton said at the announcement. "I’m just thrilled that Dollywood’s Wild Eagle is the only place in the entire country where folks can get their feathers ruffled on a coaster like this!”

Here's the teaser video:

Dollywood's announcing this as the country's first wing coaster, though it might not hold that honor for long. Six Flags last week announced its own wing coaster, to debut at Six Flags Great America next spring.

Dollywood's also running a contest to promote the coaster's announcement. Text WILD EAGLE to 87654 before 1 am ET Monday morning for a chance to win lifetime season passes for you and up to seven other people living at your address, plus a chance to meet Dolly Parton and get to be the first riders of Wild Eagle when it opens in March.

More: Check out the list of what's coming to theme parks around the world in 2012 and beyond on our What's Under Construction at Top Theme Parks page.

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Vote of the week: Cinderella's Royal Table or Le Cellier Steakhouse?

By Robert Niles
Published: September 2, 2011 at 2:15 PM
You walk into Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom or Epcot, and a cast member approaches you:

"Congratulations! You've been randomly selected to dine today at one of the two toughest Walt Disney World restaurants to get a priority seating time: Cinderella's Royal Table at the Magic Kingdom, or Le Cellier Steakhouse at Epcot.

Le Cellier Steakhouse
Le Cellier Steakhouse is located in Epcot's Canada pavilion.

Cinderella's Royal Table
Cinderella's Royal Table, upstairs in the castle at the Magic Kingdom

"You don't have to worry about getting a priority seating time. One will be reserved by Mickey Mouse himself, just for you and just for today. But Mickey's only making one reservation, so you will have to choose which restaurant you would like."

Okay, that's enough time in Fantasyland. ;^)

Cindy's and Le Cellier long have been two of the toughest tables to get at Walt Disney World, despite the fact that neither rank among the highest-rated restaurants in the Disney theme parks. (Epcot's Bistro de Paris won the Theme Park Insider Award for best theme park restaurant the past two years, and Epcot's Via Napoli was a runner-up this year. But Bistro de Paris' high price makes it a relatively easy table to book - few guests feel that can afford it.)

Le Cellier's appeal is steak - a fancy meaty meal in a handsome room, along with a killer Cheddar Cheese Soup appetizer. Cindy's appeal is simple - the chance to dine inside the castle, overlooking Fantasyland.

But which would you pick, if you were given the chance to pick one, and without having to go through the hassle of calling six months in advance to score a PST (priority seating time). That's our vote of the week. It's time for the ultimate priority seating showdown.

Please tell us in the comments why you picked the one you picked. (Registration is not necessary, but comments from unregistered readers are held for approval before publishing.) Have a great holiday weekend and thank you again for reading Theme Park Insider.

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When should someone by banned from a theme park?

By Robert Niles
Published: September 2, 2011 at 1:11 PM
When should someone by banned from a theme park?

That's the question running through a Chicago Tribune story about visitors who have been given lifetime bans by Six Flags Great America, outside Chicago. The story focuses on Brian Gill, who was banned from the park after an employee caught him trying to sneak into the parking lot without paying (earning a season-long ban) then trying to sneak back in later in the day (violating the season ban, and earning him the lifetime one).

Six Flags Great America
The entrance to Six Flags Great America

Let's get out of the way that Great America's $20 parking charge is ridiculous. Industry leader Disney charges $15 a day to park in a modern parking garage in urbanized Anaheim, where land use is much tighter than in sprawling Gurnee, Illinois. The parking fee is one way that Six Flags has been nickel-and-diming its customers to get back money after offering low up-front annual pass and day ticket prices.

But that doesn't give anyone the right to skip out of paying the fee. If you don't like it, take your business elsewhere. That's the fastest and best way to get Six Flags to change its ways. If Gill actually did try to sneak into the parking lot (in the story, he disputes Six Flags' version of what happened), then the park has every right to toss him from the premises and even to have him cited for attempted petty theft.

But banning him for life? The story notes that the park has banned people for other offenses, including assaulting park employees and sneaking into restricted areas where they could be hit by high-speed roller coaster trains. (A Six Flags visitor in Georgia was killed when he hopped a fence into a restricted area and was hit by the Batman coaster.)

I've got a couple of questions. First, how does a park enforce a lifetime ban? Walt Disney World, which requires a fingerprint screen to enter its theme parks, could do this pretty easily. But Six Flags, and other parks that don't do ID checks, wouldn't be able to stop someone from coming in the front gate and spending the day in the park anonymously. Maybe the park could flag that person's name if he or she tried to book a ticket online or used a credit card at a ticket booth, but that wouldn't stop him or her from coming in with someone else who paid for them. Essentially, the park's "lifetime ban" is just telling the person, "if we catch you doing something bad inside our park again, we're going to charge you with criminal trespass, on top of whatever else we catch you doing."

Personally, I think a stronger deterrent is to be aggressive with criminal charges. Prosecute those who get in fights inside the park, or put themselves and others at grave risk. Confiscate tickets and season passes, too. But unenforceable lifetime bans seem silly to me.

Are lifetime bans ever justified? If so, for what? I'd like to hear what you think, and I'd especially like to hear from current and past theme park employees.

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Tickets on sale for Universal Studios Hollywood's Halloween Horror Nights

By Robert Niles
Published: September 1, 2011 at 11:40 AM
Tickets are on sale for the west coast version of Halloween Horror Nights, at Universal Studios Hollywood.

Alice Cooper's Executioner at Universal Studios Hollywood's Halloween Horror Nights

This year's event features six mazes:

  • Eli Roth's Hostel: Hunting Season: with props cast from Roth's personal collection of original "Hostel" movie props
  • La Llorona: Villa De Almas Perdidas: Diego Luna helps reimagine the legend that has terrified Mexicans and Latin American children for generations.
  • The Thing: Assimilation: with a 3D sneak of the film
  • Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses: In 3D Zombievision
  • Alice Cooper: Welcome To My Nightmare
  • The Wolfman: The Curse of Talbot Hall

Hollywood's also got something that the older, larger Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando doesn't: Terror Tram: Scream 4 Your Life, a HHN overlay of the park's famed studio tram tour, based on the latest installment of Wes Craven's Scream film series and featuring "Ghostface Killer."

Tickets are on sale from $37-$62 at Universal's website, including a Front of Line ticket option (priced between $69-$99, and includes event admission), to beat the event's often-long lines for the mazes and tram tour. Prices vary by evening selected.

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Six Flags announces line-up of new rides for 2012

By Robert Niles
Published: September 1, 2011 at 6:18 AM
Jim Reid-Anderson, CEO of Six Flags, announced in a webcast today the new rides and shows for the amusement park chain's parks in 2012:

Here are some highlights:

X-Flight, Six Flags Great America, Chicago


Designed by Bolliger & Mabillard, X-Flight will take riders on a flight with no track above or below them. Riders sit in pairs, suspended on either side of the track with their feet dangling. The coaster will go speeds of up to 55mph through 3,000 feet of intense drops and five inversions, including a barrel roll and zero-g roll. One of the biggest features will be the near "key hole" fly through buildings.

X-Flight will replace Iron Wolf, which will be sent to Six Flags America and renamed Apocalypse.

The Lex Luthor: Drop of Doom, Six Flags Magic Mountain, Los Angeles


This 400-foot drop ride will be attached to the Superman: Escape from Krypton tower, and will be the world's tallest and fastest (85 mph) drop ride.

As previously announced, the inverted boomerang coaster Deja Vu will close this year, to be sent to Six Flags New England, where it will be renamed Goliath.

In addition, Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Northern California will get a 62-mph, 150-foot-tall Premier Rides launch coaster called Superman: Ultimate Flight. And Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey and Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio will get Sky Screamer swing rides (similar to the Windseeker rides going into so many Cedar Fair parks, including Carowinds and Kings Dominion for 2012).

Thanks to TPI reader Anthony Murphy for contributing to this report.

Update: Reader comment, FTW: "With all these Goliaths all over the place, I really want one one of those parks to build a junior coaster next to Goliath and call it David."

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Keep reading: August 2011 Archive

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