By Domenik Jost
Editor's note: Domenik sent in several photos of the Hollywood Drive-In Golf mini-golf under construction at Universal Orlando's CityWalk. The facility will feature two 1950's B-movie-themed courses, "Invaders From Planet Putt" and "The Haunting of Ghostly Greens," and is scheduled to be open in "early 2012."
By Robert Niles
Time again for our weekly round-up of the best new threads on our Theme Park Insider Discussion Board, the place to ask and answer questions about theme park vacations.
We'll kick this off this week with a couple of very positive threads. First, Brandon Mendoza asks you to share your Favorite aspects of different Theme Parks?
Some of your editor's favorite things in a theme park
Next, Ashleigh Noad asks what you've found to be the Best customer service at theme parks?
Tony Duda switches us to an event cover with his short review of Busch Gardens Tampa Christmas Shows.
Giovanny Cruz wants to know what you think: Are the annual passes worth it?
Hollis Burks also asks for opinions on the value of buying an additional ticket for Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party.
Matt Babiak wishes for More family friendly attractions at WWOHP?
Samantha de alba asks Has anyone had their stroller stolen while parking in a designated area?
As always, we wrap up the round-up with Jeff Elliott's Last Week At Your Amusement Park......November 28.
'Hidden Mickeys: A Field Guide to Disney's Best Kept Secrets' - a Theme Park Insider interview with Steve Barrett
By Robert Niles
Long before theme park designers were adding games to attraction queues, or techies were building iPhone apps to help you kill time while waiting in line, Disney fans had a unique game to play whenever they visited a Disney theme park - find the Hidden Mickey.
Hidden Mickeys are those images of Mickey Mouse, or even the three-circle Mickey head logo, that can be found tucked into the detail of many Walt Disney World and Disneyland attractions. And the go-to source for all things Hidden Mickey is Steve Barrett, "The Hidden Mickey Guy" and author of the Hidden Mickey field guides.
I spoke with Steve over the phone earlier this month about his guidebooks, and how he got started on the hunt for Mickey.
Robert: What made you so interested in Hidden Mickeys that you started writing books about them?
Steve: I feel in love with Walt Disney World when I came here on a conference. I lived in Oklahoma at the time and was a professor, writing articles about research, journal articles, that sort of thing. So I started reading everything I could on Disney and started making trips to Disney World whenever I could. Over time, I became somewhat knowledgeable about how to navigate the parks. So my first book about Disney World was a guidebook. I found a travel publisher and they asked me after a few years if I had any other ideas for a Disney book.
And I said, well, I've been collecting these "Hidden Mickey" sightings over the years. I had a large file of Hidden Mickeys, and I organized it into a book. What helped me with the first Hidden Mickeys book was that I already had a knowledge of how to tour Disney World, so I organized the Hidden Mickeys into scavenger hunts, as opposed to just a list. I wanted to make the book for the guests so that if they really wanted to spend the day looking for Hidden Mickeys at the Magic Kingdom or at Epcot, they would have a plan for doing that so that they could maximize their efficiency, as opposed to waiting in long lines all the time. So the scavenger hunts are basically organized for efficiency.
So that's how the book was originally put together. I started writing it in 2002 and it took me about six months to put it together, and that first edition came out in 2003. Of course, Disneyland was the natural follow-up and the first book there came out in 2007.
It's interesting, I've been writing about Hidden Mickeys since 2002, and I was commenting to my publisher the other day that it's almost a physical law of the Hidden Mickey universe that new ones appear and old ones are lost at a constant rate - about every two years the amount of new Hidden Mickeys and lost ones make a new book reasonable. So new editions, for Disney World and for Disneyland, have been coming out every two years. It really is a constant evolution of the Hidden Mickey game.
Robert: Do you remember the first Hidden Mickey you found?
Steve: Back in the 1990s, when I was first getting into the Hidden Mickey game, it was the early days of websites, right? And the first website I knew of that talked about Hidden Mickeys was put together by some college students at Stetson University. I remember studying their site and the first one that really stuck in my head as "wow, that's pretty cool" was in Snow White's Scary Adventures at the Magic Kingdom. In the queue, there's a mural and Snow White is standing near a house and there's a chimney right near her and there's some rocks on the chimney that are arranged as a three-circle, or what I call as a classic Hidden Mickey. I think that was the first one that really made an impression on me.
At that time I was wrestling with - and I still do - what is a decorative Hidden Mickey that's too obvious and what is really a Hidden Mickey? The one on Snow White is definitely a Hidden Mickey. It doesn't jump out at you - you have to sort of study it.
Robert: You mention the classic and the decorative Mickey. What are all the categories?
Steve: That's the first decision I make when I cast member tells me about an image or when people write me about Hidden Mickeys - is it decorative, or is it hidden? And that's a difficult decision to make because some are right sort on the borderline. For example, one important factor in my mind is to whether it is hidden or not is how inventive it is and whether people are going to stumble across it immediately or do they have to look for it? If it is decorative, I don't put it in the book or on the website.
The most common image is the three circle, or tri-circle, or as we say classic Hidden Mickey. There are other compelling images that the Disney Imagineers and artists put in place. For example, a side profile of Mickey, or a silhouette of his body, or even other characters. There are Hidden Minnies or Hidden Goofys or Hidden Donalds. Now when you are talking about Hidden Minnies or Goofys or Donalds, obviously, you're talking about their profile or their face that you can recognize. The classic, three-circle, image only applies to Mickey.
Sometimes you see his handprints, or his shoes. If they are hidden and it appears that the artist put it there to be hidden, then that counts as a Hidden Mickey.
Robert: What are some of your favorite examples of Hidden Mickeys in the parks?
Steve: In the books, I have my Top 10 favorites in each park. At Disneyland, my favorite Hidden Mickey there, since the first edition, has been a Hidden Mickey image at the Grand Californian Hotel on the front counter. There's a subtle image of almost a full-body Mickey as a conductor. He has a [baton] in his hand and he's standing between two bears. That's not a classic Hidden Mickey - that's a full side profile image of his face and body. It's very subtle though, it's in the design of the front counter. It's just wonderful. I love those types of Hidden Mickeys.
The ones I like the best are the ones that the artists and Imagineers spent time with, to make it unique and hard to find. Disney World has a similar one that's been my favorite for a while. It's at the Garden Grill Restaurant at The Land pavilion and it's on the mural inside the restaurant. There's a Mickey image behind the fern. Again, it's hard to see. It took my wife a whole year before she could spot it. It's almost like a hologram effect - a a Steamboat Willie image of Mickey behind the fern, looking to the left. I think it's a brilliant example of what the artists can do to hide Mickey.
Robert: Even with your book in hand as a field guide, you still have to invest some time and effort to find the Mickeys.
Steve: I award points to the hard ones to find. Five-pointers is what they're called. The one- or two-pointers are a lot easier to find. When I find an image like that, it makes me ecstatic. I just really appreciate what the artists can do with this game.
Robert: You mentioned that as new Hidden Mickeys appear, usually in new attractions, some of them go away. What are some of your favorite Hidden Mickeys that are no longer with us?
Steve: My favorite Hidden Mickey in any park used to be in the Wonders of Life pavilion at Epcot. As you know, that attraction closed a number of years ago and above the Body Wars entrance was a mural with a fantastic drawing of a full-body Mickey hidden in some nerve tissue. That has been my favorite one, and it's lost. I keep hoping it will reappear some day, but I'm afraid that it's lost forever.
A Hidden Mickey in the Body Wars mural. Can you spot it?
Some really compelling Mickey images are maintained by cast members, and I certainly appreciate that. One that comes to mind is in the Japan pavilion at Epcot. There are three rocks that are placed in a clearing, near a bush. Most people walk right by and never ever see it but if you look in the clearing, you'll see those three rocks there and they are arranged as Mickey.
Well, they were lost a few years ago and when something like that is lost, obviously I worry that they can be gone forever, but this one came back and apparently the cast members maintain that one. I check it all the time for the last few years, and it's been in place.
There's another one in Spaceship Earth that a lot of people wrote me about several years ago when Spaceship Earth was refurbished. There was a Mickey image on a coffee mug in the big computer room - on a table on the right side of your vehicle. About a year or so ago, it disappeared. Well, there's another lost Hidden Mickey. But it reappeared a few months ago. Evidently, one of the managers of that area or one of the cast members, thankfully, decided to maintain that one.
This lost ones tend to occur when an attraction goes away or is changed. Those Hidden Mickeys tend to be lost forever.
Robert: Are there any examples of, I guess I'd call them "urban legend" Hidden Mickeys - ones that people say are Hidden Mickeys but that really aren't?
Steve: There are images we debate on. On my website, I have a "Questionable" section that people can go to to vote. There are some images that are marginal, that people send me. Over the years, I've been very happy with the voters. I side with them 99% of the time when they an image is a Hidden Mickey or not.
I only put Mickey images into the book that guests can see. For example, when I first wrote about Test Track Hidden Mickeys, it look me like 12 times to spot all the Hidden Mickeys on that ride, and there are probably one or two there that I've never even seen. So some of the images you would only spot if the ride breaks down and you get to walk through the attraction. There's one in the Dinosaur ride in Disney's Animal Kingdom that supposedly there's a Hidden Mickey on the forehead of the first Carnataurus that comes at you from the left and the cast members say it's there but I cannot see the thing.
As for Mickeys that might be hidden or not? There's the obvious one on I-4 in the electrical wiring, near the Celebration exit. That's a huge Mickey. Everybody driving down I-4 can see that. But it's so compelling, and such a beautiful image that I call it a Hidden Mickey because I want to put it in my book!
I even talked once to somebody who was on the electrical team putting up those poles at the time, and they were told by Disney management, yeah, we'd like you to make a Mickey image here. That requires some engineering know-how to do that, That's not a typical way to run wiring, you know?
Robert: With so many people enjoying the "hunt" for Hidden Mickeys, adding them seems like a smart way for Disney to "plus" attractions, and make them even more rewarding for visitors.
Steve: It took Disney a while to recognize this. It presumably started when Epcot was being built and Disney management back in the early '80s wanted to keep the characters in the Magic Kingdom because Walt himself had envisioned Epcot to be a more adult [destination]. So the Imagineers began hiding Mickey in the construction of Epcot. The cast members picked up on this as the 80s went by. Arlen Miller, who lives here in Orlando, sent me the article he wrote in 1989 in the Eyes and Ears newsletter for the cast members where talked about the Hidden Mickey images at Epcot.
I think Disney realized early on that this was kinda fun for the artists and fun for the guests to find. It's great game that keeps people occupied, especially in queues, waiting in line.
I talked with some Imagineers, and the issue of Hidden Mickeys and hidden images comes up in planning sessions. Recently I talked with one of the Imagineers developing the new Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom and he said yes, it is a topic and we do put some thought into it. It's in their interest to have the Hidden Mickey images compelling, and to make them fun to find.
Disney has embraced this game, but that wasn't always the case five, 10 years ago. It was rather a hush-hush thing because Disney management wanted guests to be more enveloped by the environment they were in. If you were in the Indiana Jones queue in Disneyland, they wanted you to feel that kind of experience, not look for Hidden Mickeys. But now they know that guests have fun finding them. It just adds to the Disney experience.
Steve Barrett's "Hidden Mickeys: A Field Guide to Walt Disney World's Best Kept Secrets" is available from Amazon for $8.99 in paperback and for $7.19 for Kindle. "Disneyland's Hidden Mickeys: A Field Guide to the Disneyland Resort's Best-Kept Secrets" is also available for $9.95 in paperback from Amazon.
Coming this weekend: Interviews with Michael Bay and Universal Creative's Thierry Coup about "Transformers: The Ride," debuting Friday at Universal Studios Singapore.
By Robert Niles
Looking for a Christmas gift for a fellow theme park fan? Or need some links to drop to your friends and family as a hint? Here are some suggestions:
THEME PARK BOOKS
If you're a Disney fan who loves reading about the history of Walt Disney World, as I am, be sure to ask for "Walt and the Promise of Progress City" by Sam Gennawey. [$19.99 from Amazon, or $9.99 for Kindle] We talked with Sam earlier this month about the book, which walks us through what Disney World would have been like, had Walt lived to build it his way.
Later today, we'll be posting our interview with Steve Barrett, "The Hidden Mickey Guy," talking about his latest Disney guidebook: "Disneyland's Hidden Mickeys: A Field Guide to the Disneyland Resort's Best-Kept Secrets." [$9.95 from Amazon]. Steve discovered Hidden Mickeys soon after falling in love with Walt Disney World as a tourist two decades ago. In addition to the new Disneyland guide, Steve also offers a Walt Disney World Hidden Mickey guide, as well. [$8.99 from Amazon, and $7.19 for Kindle] Update: And here's the interview!
If you're looking for some laughs, or some fun, warm moments to keep you in the mood between Disney World visits, be sure you include "Stories from a Theme Park Insider" [$2.99 for Kindle] on your holiday shopping list. That's our first official TPI eBook, and it's a must-read for any Disney or theme park fan.
I've included several links to Kindle editions, since many readers are choosing to read eBook versions these days. Now, you can read eBooks on an iPad or smartphone using various apps, but if you want to put a Kindle on your holiday wish list, or click now to buy one for a reader on your gift list, here are several Kindle readers to consider, from a basic reader at $79, up to the new Kindle Fire tablet at $199.
THEME PARK MERCHANDISE
You don't have to go to the park to buy souvenirs any longer. Disney, Universal and SeaWorld Parks each have set up online stores to sell their previously in-park-only merchandise. Here are the links:
And if you can't decide among all these other selections, you also can buy gift cards from Universal Orlando and Disney. The Disney cards also are valid at all Disney Stores, in addition to participating in-park merchandise stores.
Happy holidays... and happy shopping!
Update: By the way, if you didn't know, you can send an eBook as a gift via Amazon. Just click the "Give as Gift" link. (You'll just need to know the recipient's email address.)
Also, the folks at Holiday World nicely asked me to throw in a link to their HoliShop, which includes a fun selection of items from the park.
If you would like to request additional links, please let me know in the comments, and I'll track 'em down for ya.
By Robert Niles
One week from now, you'll be following along on a theme park trip of a lifetime.
Madagascar: A Crate Adventure at Universal Studios Singapore
We'll be starting Friday in Singapore, where we'll be on hand for the media premiere of Transformers: The Ride at Universal Studios Singapore. We'll have interviews with Transformers film director Michael Bay, who served as a creative consultant on the ride, and lead designer Thierry Coup of Universal Creative - not to mention our first look at this newest creation from the team that put together The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.
From there, on Saturday we'll be taking a look at the rest of Universal Studios Singapore, visiting many of the other rides and shows at Universal's newest theme park. I'll be grabbing all the photos and video I can, and taking notes for a week-long, in-depth look at this park, to be featured on the Theme Park Insider Blog Flume later in December.
But the trip's just getting started.
Saturday night, I'll be boarding a red-eye flight on Singapore Airlines for a trip to Tokyo, where on Sunday morning I'll be visiting Tokyo Disneyland. I've been taking notes on Disney's first theme park outside the United States and am looking forward to spending the day at a park that mixes much of the best of Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom with the best of the original Disneyland.
Monday morning, we're heading over to Tokyo DisneySea, for a day at the only theme park outside the US to be named the winner of the Theme Park Insider Award for World's Best Theme Park. In addition to riding many of the park's unique attractions, we'll also be trying some of the unique food items found only in the park. (Yep, we're finally going to try the Gyoza Dog!)
But with only two days in Tokyo, I can't try everything. So I'll leave a couple of the decisions up to you. The Tokyo Disney theme parks are known for the wide variety of popcorn flavors sold in the parks, far beyond the salt and occasional caramel flavors available in US theme parks. Let's choose one flavor of each:
I've enjoyed reading your many requests for what to cover on the trip, and eagerly await any other requests in the comments. Thank you again for reading Theme Park Insider!
By Robert Niles
As a theme park fan, I am thankful for...
- Advance sale, print at home tickets
- Free parking, drinks and sunscreen at Holiday World
These turkeys are having a much better Thanksgiving than most….
- Free WiFi at the Disneyland hotels and Six Flags Cyber Cafes (everyone else in the industry, do you hear this?)
- "My France…"
- Hitting the flashing red button first
- Real, metal utensils with theme park meals
- That the Tiki Room is no longer "Under New Management"
- Catching a flying biscuit from Miss Lillian
- That I no longer have to wear a "Randy" nametag in the presence of elderly English ladies
- Butterbeer (and I would be even more thankful if I actually had a Butterbeer right now)
- Popcorn lights on Main Street at sundown
- Every time a cast member/team member/employee looks a guest in the eyes and smiles
- Every time a guest returns the smile
- And, of course, readers!
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! (And feel free to keep the list going in the comments.)
By Robert Niles
It's Christmas time at Disneyland!
And that means more than snow on the castle and trees in Town Square. Christmas at Disneyland means special holiday food, too. So last week, I stopped at the Rancho del Zocalo for lunch.
Rancho del Zocalo has put tamales on the menu for the holidays, offering a tamale platter ($9.99), as well as a carne asada and tamale combination platter (pictured above). For $11.99, you get a chicken tamale, along with about a quarter pound of sliced carne asada steak, accompanied by refried beans, rice, sour cream, guacamole and pico de gallo. You also get two, plastic-wrapped flour tortillas for the steak.
I wondered why Disney had cluttered the plate with the plastic wrap for the tortillas. But when a puff of steam hit my face as I opened them, I realized that the plastic wrap was keeping my tortillas piping hot until I was ready to eat. Disney also presents the tamale out of its corn husk for easy eating.
The tamale comes with a green sauce and cojita cheese, which helps liven up the corn masa surrounding the chicken. I wish Disney had spiced up the marinade for the carne asada, though. The steak was a bit chewy and on the bland side, for my taste. I understand why Disney plays to middle-of-the-road tastes at its counter service locations, but Southern Californians are used to some spice in their Mexican food. (The carne asada is available year-round in the red chile enchilada combination platter, also for $11.99.)
Still, it's a pretty impressive platter for a theme park at this price. Even though I didn't finish the steak, the tamale, rice, beans and tortillas more than filled me up.
So much so that I didn't have room for dessert.
Disneyland's Holiday Demitasse Dessert is a peppermint chocolate pot de crème inside that festive Mickey mug, served with butter cookies on side for $6.99. The special holiday selections at Rancho del Zocalo and other Disneyland restaurants (including, among other selections, gingerbread beignets with eggnog anglaise at Cafe Orleans) will be available through the end of the year.
Part two of 'Walt and the Promise of Progress City' - a Theme Park Insider interview with Sam Gennawey
By Robert Niles
We're continuing our conversation with Sam Gennawey, author of "Walt and the Promise of Progress City" [$17.77 from Amazon and $9.99 for Kindle]. Disney fans might know Sam from his Samland columns on MiceChat, but he's also an urban planner by trade and training, allowing him a unique insight on Walt's dream of a city of tomorrow.
(Here's part one of the interview with Sam Gennawey, in case you missed it.)
Robert: Thinking about Progress City - this idea of a theme park-driven resort, where you park your car on the periphery and you take transportation into a central, walkable area - the thing that popped into my head was "you know, this doesn't sound at all like what Disney World became, but it sure sounds like what Disneyland is now." Walt went to Florida to create this thing, but ironically, it ended up coming closer to evolving in Anaheim.
Sam: That's interesting. Yeah, I think you're right. It's weird to say, because I have all the respect for the people who got Disney World built once Walt had passed away. At least the initial run was right: Theme park in the north. Epcot in the middle. Connect them with a monorail. And then they stopped. And when they stopped, that's actually causing Disney a lot of problems today, because what they've got right now is a huge resort that economically is not sustainable. You cannot have enough buses driving around, moving people the way that they have it, with 63,000 people who work there, too, and ever expect to make it work [efficiently].
And then to really make it worse: the whole Golden Oak ranch that they're building there is gotta be the biggest slap in the face - to try to take Walt's mythology and put it on a super-rich subdivision that is so car-oriented, it's just horrible.
Disneyland celebrates the fact that it truly is an urban theme park now. Sure, it has a berm and it does protect you, especially now with the Cars Land "wall" going up. You're in the middle of an urban area, but it doesn't say that you're not in this urban mix, [just that] we're just going to take you on the other side of the door for a little while. I love it. You park once at Disneyland. You never have to get into your car for days.
Robert: It's the same way with Universal Orlando, too. In fact, we did a blog post a while back comparing the two.
Sam: I agree. I would say that Universal Orlando is closer to what Walt was trying to accomplish with Progress City than Disney World. Because [Walt Disney World] is so spread out, they haven't made the infrastructure investments. That's the Achilles tendon that ultimately is going to end up hurting Walt Disney World. They look at the monorail and say it's really, really expensive in the short term. But if they were to have made the monorail be the connector to all the resorts, that would have cost them a lot of money [at first], but they would be saving the money right now. You've gotta think it costs them a whole lot of money to run that many buses - and they're not natural gas buses, they use old-fashioned diesel. All the drivers. The liability. The amount of time. The amount of infrastructure to manage all those buses going around. And it takes you out of the vacation experience.
I love going on the buses in Florida, because it teaches me what people who don't use public transportation think of buses. They don't know how to use them. They all wait for the people to get out of the front of the bus, instead of going out the back. As soon as they enter, they all sit down right at the front instead of moving toward the back. You just want to start slapping people around, and tell them "No, this is how you use public transportation!"
Robert: I think the thing with Disneyland is that it shows what you can accomplish with influence, rather than control. Control dies with you - Walt's control died with him, but his influence can persist into the future. It's hard for people who go to Disneyland now to understand why Walt was so upset with Anaheim in the 1950s and 60s, because Harbor Boulevard has been cleaned up so much over the years. But the Disney company eventually found a way to use its influence to make that happen, even if it didn't have the control it has in Florida. I think it shows that you can get things done with influence even if you don't have strict legal control.
Sam: And look at everything else that they've built now. Anaheim has become a compact resort. Paris is a compact resort. Hong Kong is a compact resort. Tokyo is a compact resort. So in every other case, they did learn the lesson. They had the blessing of size [with Walt Disney World], but they didn't really sit and think about how to utilize it.
One of my favorite parts of the book was the speculative walk through EPCOT. I wanted to take the reader and walk them through what it would have been like to live in EPCOT, to work in EPCOT, to go and play in EPCOT, and what that experience would have been. By the time to read that chapter, you recognize that there was nothing that was terribly weird.
Robert: It sounded completely natural. It wasn't some utopian thing.
Sam: I went at the Blue Sky Cellar [the other day], and I'm thinking, Walt would be really insulted by this. Walt actually uses the words "Blue Sky" as a negative, and I'm wondering where that transition came that that could be a positive.
Robert: EPCOT didn't get built, but Celebration did. You note in the book that while Celebration has this "New Urbanism" reputation, it really isn't New Urbanism. I think there's a lot of confusion among the public now about what New Urbanism really means because that label got attached to Celebration. So what is a New Urbanism community? And what was the ideal that Walt was going for with Progress City?
Sam: The hardest thing for us to understand today about Walt's vision for EPCOT is that we live in a post-modern world and this was designed at a time when it was a modern world. There's a whole psychology that we can't get back into. Celebration is very much a post-modern structure and this [EPCOT] is not. This was designed to be pure function. I think the line Victor Gruen had in the beginning of "The Heart of the City" was that he was on a cruise ship and he recognized that a cruise ship was the most efficient city possible - all in one spot, and that that's what cities should be.
This is definitely not a New Urbanist development in any way, shape or form. This is a purely modernist thought. This is something that we, in this post-modern age, could not understand how to build if we wanted to. Celebration was a case where the Bass brothers (who were big Disney stockholders at the time) were pushing [then-Disney CEO Michael] Eisner to make some money off the property. They tried to get New Urbanists to come in, and there was a big battle between Andres Duany and the guys who ultimately designed the thing, and in the end Duany was right.
You [have] this wonderful little town - the central core, you have to admit, is beautiful - but the offices are way over there, and the school is way over there and the hospital is way over there, and that's where it all falls apart. If it were truly a New Urbanist community, the offices would have been in the downtown to create the critical mass of users during the day that would have kept the store alive.
I know that for the longest time, the Disney people were saying that Celebration was not supposed to be EPCOT, but at the last moment, Eisner came in and said "We're fulfilling Walt's dream." Walt would have kicked him in the shins. [Celebration] wasn't built off empirical data. It was designed to look really good in the drawings and it was designed to look really good in a model, but it wasn't designed to replicate the human scale that people desire, which is something that Duany does do, that is something that Walt wanted to do and has demonstrated that he has done. It's something that Christopher Alexander is all about.
Robert: As an animator, Walt liked to start with a blank sheet of paper. But from an urban planning perspective, you don't get to start with a blank sheet of land anymore. Transportation costs make it prohibitive to move out to the hinterlands where there's no development for fresh, blank-sheet exurbia. Most planning now is dealing with some existing development. Maybe you erase it all, to make the space blank, but that comes with its own set of problems. What can we learn from what Walt was trying to do and apply it to existing developments and theme park resorts?
Sam: That's the difference between the modernist thought and the post-modernist thought. The modernist thought is that whatever was there before, we just get rid of the past and we just start all over. Post-modern thought is that there is a respect or understanding or appreciation of the past and that the future should be rooted in the past - at least, when post-modernism is done well.
There are a lot of really good, small-scale things that happen in the Disney parks, design-wise, that can be retrofitted. I go really in-depth with the Wizard of Bras porch. I love that space. Every time I take anyone on there, I can't get them off the porch - they just like sitting there and watching people go by.
The "Wizard of Bras" porch on Main Street at Disneyland, named for the lingerie shop that originally occupied the space. (It was being repainted on my most recent visit.) Sam details the design considerations of this porch in one chapter of his book.
It's the small, little scale of stuff. In that sense, that's where Walt's background as an animator really comes in handy. He knows that he has complete control of absolutely everything on the screen. And if something is missing, it is missing either because you were ignorant and didn't put it in or you purposely didn't put it in. You deal in the small details.
If you are trying to rebuild a walkable community from a car-centric community, it's the small, little things. You want to make sure that there are no gap-teethed storefronts - that you're not walking by blank spaces, because that makes the walk feel longer and makes the walk less safe. You want to have facades that are broken down [like on Main Street], so you get that whole rhythm and pattern and because it makes you psychologically be able to walk a lot farther and not be tired. There are the idea of the weenies, or the icons, that give people destinations to go to.
When people come into a space, you have to give them the ability to pause and gather and be able to observe their surroundings to figure out where they need to go next. You can do that in real cities, as well.
In a theme park, there's onstage and there's backstage. In New Urbanism, there's public realm and functional realm. They are very similar. Now, if I tell this to a New Urbanist, he's going to argue and argue and argue with me, but by the end of the day, it's the same thing. One of the things that Walt did is say I want to tightly control the public realm, reduce the visual contradiction so that people can feel secure in their surroundings - those are lessons that we can learn. Old Pasadena is a great example. Visual contradictions have been ironed out because there is uniform signage and all that kind of stuff. And that's a very successful retail area. They've done that with Harbor Boulevard, too.
There's a lot of things you can learn from a theme park. The key is not to get them confused and to realize that the real world is not a theme park. If you get rid of all the visual contradictions in the real world, what you come up with is... Irvive. You come up with places that are beautiful, but they are lifeless and soulless.
In fact, you just mentioned one: Celebration. You go to Celebration - Celebration is really pretty. It seems to be well laid-out. It seems to be well organized. It seems to have no real life. It seems like a stage set. Even the theme parks tend have a bit more feel of life to them than Celebration. That's when worlds collide, between theme parks and the real world, you learn a lot of the wrong lessons as well.
Robert: Some planners forget that theme parks have tens of thousands of people in them, and the people the visual disruption. If you could get 10,000 people to come to downtown Celebration, it would look a lot livelier.
Sam: That's why if you had put the offices down there, and if you have the hospital down there and you have travel destinations [there]. Buzz Price was very big about this with EPCOT - the thing itself wouldn't have brought people in. It had to have an attraction of its own.
I'll give you a real-world example of how these worlds collide: The Grove in Los Angeles - the most successful shopping mall in the last 10 years in Los Angeles. No one can tell me that isn't a pretty, well-designed shopping mall. It has become the neighborhood place. Well, you know why it works? It's not the stuff the [developer Rick] Caruso built. What Caruso and his guys built was wonderful. But it would have failed if it weren't for having the real, authentic Farmers' Market in the corner. The Farmers' Market also was an invented place - it was the mid-1930s when someone came up with this thing. But it's porous. It bleeds out to the street and it allows people to have a lot of different ways to access.
The Grove, on the other hand, had a 750-foot blank wall on one side. And I think even Rick Caruso has admitted that wasn't really the right thing to do. And he tried to make up for it with Americana at Brand, which it gets closer. And Hassan Haghani, the development director, says it wasn't exactly where they wanted to go, but it was much closer and better than The Grove in that regard, because it is porous.
Those are lessons that can be learned - this idea of being porous, of getting the scale right, making the buildings and everything pedestrian-friendly. One of the [other] lessons from Walt Disney and Disneyland that got applied to The Grove was the quality of materials on the ground floor - that if it is a surface that you are walking by and that you can touch, put the extra money into it. That's a really old concept. It's the old Chicago School of architecture concept. If you look at Chicago architecture buildings from the turn of the last century, the ground floors are sumptuous. The offices were just crap upstairs, but ground floor of the buildings and the edges and the top were really beautifully done.
Robert: I think that's the big distinction between going to a Disney theme park and going to someplace like Knott's or Six Flags. A lot of parks have tried to do the same old-timey, turn of the 20th century street, but at Disneyland, it's that high quality of materials that makes the theme convincing.
Sam: And Knott's the ultimate example - Ghost Town is just neat. It just feels like it has been there forever, and it has been there for along time. The rest of the park just falls apart. You look at Universal Studios in Florida, and you look at Islands of Adventure - Islands of Adventure gets close, it's about 90 percent there. It tends to fall short a little bit, until you get to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is the one area where they out-Disney Disney. They made sure the the quality of the materials everywhere - every wall that you touch, every window that you touch feels just right. It feels like it should be there. There is just one part of that whole facility that falls apart for me. When you're in the line for the Forbidden Journey and you're in the little garden area that's there, and you've got the building on one side and you've got the white show building - it's a big modern building that's right there and it's just a big wall. That's where they failed. But everything else about it works, and that's one reason why people love it. They really believe in it. And I hope that's the future trend.
Coming next Monday: An interview with "The Hidden Mickey Guy," Steve Barrett, who talks about his newest edition of "Disneyland's Hidden Mickeys: A Field Guide to Disneyland Resort's Best Kept Secrets."
By Robert Niles
It's one of the more popular destinations at any theme park, yet theme parks never advertise it. Sure, you'll find a mention of it on the park map, but people never brag about visiting. You'll find one at almost every park - whether it be a regional iron park or a world-class themed resort. But you almost never read any online discussions about them.
What is this ubiquitous, yet often-ignored theme park staple?
It's the first aid station.
The first time I ever visited a theme park first aid station was as a cast member at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. And I wasn't escorting a sick guest. Nope, I was the patient. Being young, foolish and short on time, I'd skipped eating before my shift in Tomorrowland merchandise one afternoon. I hadn't had enough water that day, either, and eventually the Florida heat got to me. On my way off the sales floor, I passed out on my way to the break room. My leads drove me through the tunnel to first aid, where the nurse there gave me both a huge bottle of water and a needed lecture on taking care of my Yankee self in Florida during the summer.
With two children now, I've been back to various first aid stations over the years more times than I care to admit. Yet I can't say that I've ever had a bad experience in a theme park first aid station. I've found the staff members there consistently kind, attentive and effective in addressing whatever ailment brings us in. In fact, I've had better luck in theme park first aid stations than with doctors at home. And no insurance or billing hassles! At times I wonder if I could use a theme park first aid station for an annual check-up. :^)
My best experience was my most recent. Somehow, my youngest ended up doing a bellyflop on our way into Disney's Animal Kingdom last summer. I walked him over to the park's first aid station to get his bloodied knee bandaged. The nurse there (who's name I wrote down but cannot find now, to my frustration because she deserved a guest compliment), smiled and joked with Brian, looked at his wound, then swabbed out every last speck of dirt more swiftly than I'd ever seen. She dabbed on antibiotic gel, then sent us away with fresh spare bandages and instructions to change them at the end of the day.
I think Brian liked that nurse more than any other character he met in the park.
By Robert Niles
The Disney Gallery at Disneyland has opened a new exhibit, displaying some of the concept art for "The Trains of Disney."
The display includes not just art and mementos from the steam trains that circle the park, but from several of the other train-based attractions in Disney history.
Want to take a ride in the VIP car on the Disneyland Railroad? You'll need one of these tickets to the Lilly Belle.
Here's Disney Legend Bob Gurr's concept of the Viewliner train, powered by a Corvette engine, which ran in the park in 1957-8.
The park's first roller coaster was supposed to be Casey's Jr. Circus Train, but when a car tipped over during testing, that was the end of Casey Jr. as a thrill ride.
Mine Train through Nature's Wonderland took guests around Frontierland, years before Thunder Mountain was built on its former site. Here's a view of the ride, from Marc Davis.
And here's Clem Hall's concept art of Thunder Mesa at Walt Disney World, including what became Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.
Finally, it really did all start with the Disneyland Railroad. Here's a look at the Main Street Station at Disneyland Paris:
By Andrew Mooney
On Disney's YouTube channel, they have been showing off some new Augmented Reality technology gracing the front of their Times Square flagship store. As you can see, guests are able to surf with Stitch, have a dance off against Donald and interact with their favourite characters via Augmented Reality.
I personally think this has a place at Downtown Disney, probably positioned on the blue, barren box known as Disney Quest. This weenie would allow guests to see what Disney Quest symbolises, which would help lure in some traffic. So what do you think? Does this technology belong in the theme parks or at Downtown Disney? Let me know in the comment section below.
By Robert Niles
Hong Kong Disneyland opened the next phase in its expansion with the public debut of Toy Story Land today.
Photos courtesy Hong Kong Disneyland
Toy Story Land features three new kids' rides:
The Toy Story Parachute Drop, with the RC Racer in the background to the left and the Slinky Dog Spin below and to the right.
The land also features an interactive Toy Soldier Boot Camp (think Jedi Training Academy, but with Andy's plastic soldiers leading the show), a meet-and-greet area with the Toy Story characters and "Cubot," which Disney describes as " a living, spinning block toy with multiple faces and voices."
Spin Cubot's blocks to make a mix-and-match, crazy character like you have never seen before. What would a toy with the head of a Princess, the body of an Astronaut and the feet of a Cowboy look and sound like? If you don't know the answer, then come and ask Cubot! He'll be waiting for you in Andy's backyard and can't wait to play a game with you.
By Robert Niles
What if Walt Disney had lived to build Disney World the way he had intended? Could the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow really have worked?
That's the question Sam Gennawey explores in "Walt and the Promise of Progress City" [$17.77 from Amazon and $9.99 for Kindle]. Disney fans might know Sam from his Samland columns on MiceChat, but he's also an urban planner by trade and training, allowing him a unique insight on Walt's dream of a city of tomorrow.
If you're not familiar with the history of what became the Epcot theme park, Walt's original vision for EPCOT was Progress City - a real, functioning community where people would live, work and play. Cars and monorails would enter the city from underground, where a resort hotel skyscraper would be built over top of a central transportation hub. Immediately surrounding the hotel would be themed entertainment areas with indoor attractions, much like New Orleans Square in Disneyland (which was built as a prototype of an EPCOT block, according to Sam). Beyond that would be a ring of offices and apartment buildings. This central area would be covered by a dome or canopies, providing climate control in Central Florida's harsh summers. An outdoor greenbelt, filled with parks and schools, would surround this walkable core and single-family homes would fill the outer ring around the greenbelt, with PeopleMovers connecting all parts of the city.
Earlier this month, I walked a few blocks to my neighborhood coffeeshop to meet with Sam earlier and talk about his book - and the reality of EPCOT. We'll run part one of the interview today, with part two following next Monday.
Robert: So why a book about EPCOT?
Sam: I'm an urban planner by background, by training. So the environmental design elements of the Disney theme parks have always been fascinating to me.
When I was a small child - I'm as old as the Matterhorn - my Mom used to drive us to Disneyland. This was the day when you could buy a general admission ticket and it was pretty inexpensive. As long as you didn't buy tickets for the rides and you didn't buy food, it was actually a pretty cheap place to go and I think that was Walt's intent. He wanted people to be able to vary their trips from a walk through the park to being engaged in all the immersive experiences. We didn't go on the rides very often, (except for) the free rides. As a kid I got to see Lincoln all the time, because that was free.
One of my favorites was Carousel of Progress. We would go on that every single time and I just loved it. I thought that was the most glorious ride because by the time you got to the final scene you got to see this really rich family living it up with their VCRs and all that kind of stuff. As a little boy in that age range, the whole technology of the ride and the technology they were talking about - it was really quite appealing.
As I kept going to it, I would run upstairs where they had the Progress City model. And I would linger the whole time until they kicked me out for the next group. I don't think people appreciate just how wonderful this model was, because they see that small segment in the TTA in Florida and they don't realize just how big it was, and how animated it was. There was actually furniture inside a lot of the buildings. As a little kid, I kept looking at it and asking "I wonder if they could ever build this? I wonder if this could really happen?"
So as I grew up and moved over into urban planning, I kept asking myself "I wonder if Progress City could actually have worked?" And then, I had the chance to sit down and think, let's just look at it from an urban planning point of view, as if you were doing a feasibility study. You had this concept of EPCOT, and everyone kept saying that this is a fanciful concept, that it's just a dream, that it could never really happen, or it only would have happened it Walt could have pushed the thing through. I was trying to think to myself, "Is that really true?"
We as urban planners are able to dissect a project to determine its feasibility. So I started working backward, gathering all the information that I could that was available in the public realm, and I started pulling the project apart.
Let me stop for a moment and give you a filter. The filter that I use is Christopher Alexander, who wrote the book "A Pattern Language." He is one of the most influential urban planners - he's very influential in computers, as well, object oriented programming was his. He's informed my way of looking at this environment. So I worked on pulling the whole thing apart, trying to figure out which parts were fanciful, and which of the parts were do-able. As I kept doing that, I kept realizing that there was no part of EPCOT that was truly fanciful, that had never, ever been done before.
I made this realization that all of us who follow Walt recognize that the guy never invented anything. What he did was, he was the great synthesizer. He would take what was already out there, understand the best way to apply that technology and then apply the technology. It's the same sort of thing with Steve Jobs. The vision isn't that he was inventing anything. The visionary (aspect) was that he was taking what was out there and creating something new from it that you didn't know you already wanted.
I was on a D23 tour of the Disney Archives and I had a chance to meet Dave Smith. And I wrote Dave a note asking what were the urban planning books Walt was reading just prior to his death. And he said "The Heart of Our Cities" by Victor Gruen. I had friends who worked in Victor Gruen's office, so I was able to get into Victor Gruen's archives. I discovered through this research a 1959 proposal for what was supposed to be for the 1964 World's Fair in Washington, DC that Victor Gruen had done with the intent of having a city built along his cellular development concept.
As I started going back and researching Walt's life, everything clicked together. In about mid-1959, Walt was talking with John MacArthur to build a theme park in Palm Beach (Florida) on about 6,000-12,000 acres. He was going to give Walt 400 acres to build a theme park but he told Walt, "You know, I just don't want you to build a theme park. I want you to build a city to go around it." This was just at the time where the ragged edges around Disneyland really started to show, and Walt was really upset. So to him, that was the one problem he had - those ragged edges. And you're going to solve that problem for me? You're going to let me build the city that surrounds the thing? And MacArthur's like yeah, you get to do that.
So that made me go, ooh, something happened there. And all this got confirmed in an interview with Buzz Price, just before his death. Buzz told me at the end of that meeting that when Walt walked out of there he turned to Buzz and said, "Look, you guys know what I want for Disneyland - I want to get the audioanimatronics going, we already built the monorail, we built the Matterhorn, we built the submarines. You know the quality that I want. I want to build a city. You guys keep working on Disneyland. I'm changing my attention." So he started absorbing everything that he could.
Unfortunately, between that time in 1959 and May of 1960, the deal fell apart. But Walt's head was already into "I want to build a city," so he was studying everything he possibly could. He read an article by Ada Louise Huxtable that talked about the Victor Gruen city. By that time, the fair was going to go to New York, and this was a lament of "Gee, I wish we could have done this post-war city." I can't get inside Walt head, but my guess is that he was disappointed he couldn't build a city, but then he read about how to build this city and wanted to learn everything more than he could. And if you are looking at the Victor Gruen drawings and you look in the archives - you look at what (Walt) wanted to build for EPCOT - and they are exactly the same thing. There are some differences, of course. One for for 100,000 people, and Walt wanted to cut it down to about 20,000 people. Victor Gruen was very big on multi-family housing on the outside edge - connected housing with three or four units sharing open space. Walt wanted to put single-family homes on the edge, because Buzz Price told me he wanted a place for his friends to live.
So as a kid I saw this model, and as an adult I grew up still wanting to understand if it could happen. Then I got into the profession and came up with the objective tools to help me decided it would work. I wanted to write the book because I am throughly under the belief that EPCOT, as the way that Walt Disney proposed it, would have worked. It would have a huge success. It would have been a huge financial risk (initially), but the risk actually was relatively small because when you break down the components, every component was a money-maker.
We all know that the center hotel could have been built - it's just a resort hotel. We all know that it could have been packed with great rides like Country Bear Jamboree, because that's the kind of thing they were working on for Mineral King, so we know they knew how to do that. In fact, with the whole St. Louis indoor theme park project, he already knew how to do that. He knew how to build an indoor recreational center. They built specifically New Orleans Square as a one-acre test of creating an immersive themed environment, as a practice run of what the themed environments would be in here. It's pretty well documented that most of the 1967 version of Tomorrowland was designed to be a prototype for EPCOT. The PeopleMover was specifically designed for EPCOT, using the technology of the Matterhorn, combined with what they used at the Ford Pavilion in 1964. He knew the monorail was going to work because he's already been running it for years and years.
So the hotel would have worked. The themed environment was basically Disneyland. The distance from the transportation center to the outer edge of the dome was less than 1,500 feet, which is two to three large city blocks - an easy, easy walk. Along the outer edges, he was going to create a critical mass of offices and companies would have bellied up and put offices there just to be close to the Disney magic. Surrounded by that was apartments. So on a three-block walk was the critical mass of tourists in the center, full-time residents on the side and they all have to pass through each other. It is exactly what one wants when you want to build a city.
Robert: One of the things I like about the book was how you detailed specifically how Walt created what you called public spaces that connect emotionally with guests. It might seem accidental to people, and they don't know why it works, but there's a lot of intent behind the design of those spaces. Tell me a little more about how Walt made that happen.
Sam: Whenever you talk with Imagineers, it's all about story - story, story, story. If read interviews with Marc Davis, or any of the original Imagineers, story doesn't come into it at all. The original intent of Disneyland was to create a set where you, the actor, can walk onto the stage and fulfill your own fantasies. Remember, on the original versions of the dark rides, you were Snow White, for example, and people didn't quite get that, so then they had to put a Snow White in there.
I think that Christopher Alexander and Walt Disney are very similar to each other because they are both believers in empirical data. They are both believers that you can sit and observe and absorb and you take the best elements of what exists and you piece them together in patterns, then bring the patterns together to create meaningful and functional spaces.
I do a process I call collaborative planning, where you assume that the people who live work and play in a space are the true experts in the space. What you've got to do (as a planner) is get inside their heads and ask them a lot of questions. Walt had his crew going absolutely everywhere. This guy would have gotten arrested today by how often his was hanging out in little kid amusement parks and just going up and talking with children. But they're both big believers that if you sit and you observe and you watch long enough, you will learn what works and what doesn't.
Walt would see a street that he thought felt "right," and he would measure how big the street was. And that's why the width of Main Street is the width that the street is. The whole thing with the trash cans, too. They're spaced at certain distances because he figured that's how long it took to eat a hot dog and then you have to throw the (wrapper) away.
He drew upon extraordinary examples (such as) Tivoli Gardens - clean popcorn lights all over the buildings, fireworks at night, music, a beautiful place where everyone can sit. He saw the good, the bad and the ugly, and he kept through empirical data recording what worked and where people said "I really like that" and "the place feels really good to me." So that's it. It's empirical data.
What I want my readers to do is I want them to be able to walk away, look at the world and pull the little patterns apart so that they can see why things work.
I'll give a quick example: I asked a lot of people, if you were on the hub at Disneyland and you were on the hub of Main Street on the Magic Kingdom, which one would you like better, and why? And, to a person, it's Disneyland's Main Street. It's because of the scale, the intimacy, the ability to see the gateways from one position and they're not too far away. The castle might not be as big and impressive, but it actually fits in the context of everything else. And everyone thought it was more huggable, and intimate and much more a special place.
Come back Monday for Part Two of our interview, when Sam talks more about Disneyland vs. Walt Disney World, why Celebration isn't at all what Walt intended, and more about the little details that make or break a desirable community... or a theme park.
By Robert Niles
Answers to potentially hypothetical questions, from the day in theme park news:
- Do you want to see what the Manta trains will look like for next year's new coaster at SeaWorld San Diego?
It's on the IAAPA show floor:
- The Orlando theme parks are getting decked out for Christmas. Will the new kid on the block, Legoland Florida, have a Christmas celebration?
Of course. "Christmas Bricktacular" kicks off with a ceremony to light the park's 30-foot Lego Christmas tree, built with 270,000 bricks. Santa will be available for pictures in the botanical gardens and holiday decorations and nightly tree lightings will continue from Dec. 8 - 31. The final day will be Kids' New Year's Eve, with a countdown and fireworks at midnight, Kid Standard Time, which also happens to be 7 pm Eastern.
- Is it true that Tokyo Disneyland still has the old version of Star Tours?
Until next April 1. The park's owners announced today that the park will install the new 3D version of the ride for spring 2013.
While on the topic of Tokyo Disney, I'll be visiting Tokyo next month, on my way back from the Transformers premiere at Universal Studios Singapore. I'll be visiting both Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea, and am taking requests for what you'd like to see reviewed in my trip reports here on Theme Park Insider.
By Robert Niles
For animal "rights" activists attacking SeaWorld, I have a message:
Be careful what you wish for, in case you one day get it.
SeaWorld is back in court this week, facing charges from OSHA resulting from the death of orca trainer Dawn Brancheau in Orlando in 2010. Yesterday, two trainers from SeaWorld San Diego took the stand to testify about SeaWorld's procedures. One of the trainers, Ken Peters, will be familiar to Theme Park Insider readers who remember when he showed me around SeaWorld's training facilities in 2008.
Me, with Ken Peters and Corky at SeaWorld San Diego in 2008.
I'm not nearly qualified to pass judgment on what's happening in the Orlando courtroom, but I think it is worth noting that the number of trainers killed by orcas at SeaWorld is equal to the number of drivers killed by monorails at Walt Disney World. (One at each, by my count of incidents since I started this site in 1999.) No one has suggested that Disney remove its monorails, but Disney has had to make several changes in monorail operation to help ensure that such an incident does not happen again. I hope that the process now ongoing in Orlando also results in something that protects SeaWorld's trainers, as well as its animals and SeaWorld's efforts to engage and educate its audience.
That third element is one that's ignored by the animal rights activists who have seized upon this case in their ongoing public relations battle against SeaWorld.
Anyone who truly cares about protecting animals cares about conserving and protecting their natural habitats. Human impact upon the environment is global. For many species, protecting natural habitat requires human beings to make changes in the ways we travel, live and do business.
I believe that most peoples' willingness to protect - and advocate for the protection of - a species' native habitat is proportional to the direct contact that person has had with that species. Sorry, news stories and TV specials don't cut it. Just look at the depressingly large number of people who don't immunize their children, or who deny that global warming is happening, or who believe that human beings were created in their current form a few thousand years ago. Too many Americans choose to remain blissfully ignorant of science, even zoology. If you want to motivate people to act to protect orcas, you've got to have a killer whale splash them in the face.
It's impossible to visit a SeaWorld show and not be hit with a message about conservation. But it's the direct contact with the animals - whether that be through sight, touch or splash - that motivates more people to listen to, and - for a few of them, perhaps - act upon those messages.
In an ideal world, we wouldn't need zoos and animal parks such as SeaWorld, because people would be able to travel the world easily, inexpensively and with no environmental impact, experiencing animals in their native habitats. But that's not the world we live in. Until people can apparate to Puget Sound or Antarctica to see oracs and penguins, we need places like SeaWorld. We need places where people can see live animals from other parts of the world and not only learn about protecting global wildlife habitats - but become motivated to do it.
That's what we will lose if the animal rights activists get their way and force SeaWorld to abandon its animals, starting with the orcas. Personally, I don't think PETA's leadership gives a damn about animal survival. They're concerned only with changing human behavior. I suspect that PETA's leadership wouldn't care about catastrophic loss of habitat and widespread species extinction, so long as every human being was a vegan and zoos were outlawed.
Fortunately, people in the zoological fields do care about protecting habitat and preventing extinctions. And they recognize the importance of educating and motivating the public. I don't want to live in a world where even more people ignore and deny the need to take better care of our environment because they've never seen a wild animal, even in a zoo or SeaWorld park.
What's new on the discussion board: Best Disney mountain, best roller coaster bands and best reader guesses
By Robert Niles
Here's what's happening on the Theme Park Insider Discussion Board this week:
Matt Babiak asks you to declare which is the Best mountain in the kingdom?
Submitted, for your approval….
Manny Rodriguez wants to know What band would you like to see incorporated into roller coaster?
Jeff Elliott launches Where Am I? A New Type of Trivia Challenge.
And Jeff's also got the weekly news roundup; Last Week At Your Amusement Park......November 14.
Planning a theme park vacation? Thinking about one? Ask the experts (or at least, people who play expert on the Internet) for help, by submitting your trip-planning questions to the board.
Update: By the way, I'm not at the IAAPA theme park industry convention in Orlando this year, since I was saving my pennies for TPI's trip to Singapore and Tokyo next month. But I wanted to pass along the news that Disney Imagineer Joe Rohde won the Buzz Price Lifetime Achievement Award from the Themed Entertainment Association this year. (Disney's Kim Irvine won last year.)
By Robert Niles
What's the most expensive Disney theme park ticket ever?
I don't know the answer, but we have a new candidate for that honor(?). Disneyland is offering its Annual Passholders the chance to buy admission to a special Candlelight Processional event.
For $2,500. (And if you didn't get the invitation email, apparently, you're not invited.)
Okay, it's not just to see the processional, which anyone with a Disneyland admission can stake out a place to watch. This ticket's actually a two-person package that includes (among other perks) reserved seating at the processional, a reception at the Grand Californian hotel, one night's stay at the Grand Californian and breakfast in the park the next morning, followed by a guided tour of the park with Disney Legends, such as Bob Gurr.
You'll even get the chance to visit inside Walt's Main Street apartment.
Outside Walt's apartment
I know more than a few Disney fans who would cough up the two grand just for the chance to get inside the apartment, so they might see the rest of the package as gravy. Clearly, this is one of those "special experiences" that Disney Parks chairman Tom Staggs talked about at D23 last summer.
But will people go for it? Would you?
By Skipper Adam
At Epcot Disney is testing one of the new elements of the NextGen program. No more turnstiles, no more magnetic ticket scanners, or bar codes! Using RFID technology, guest simply hold their ticket up to a sphere with a Mickey head on it, scan their thumb and walk in.
There are no actual turnstiles, just open space. And there is one Cast Member for every four RFID scanners.
The big questions are 1. How do they prevent people from walking right on in and 2. How to they lock up the park?
I don't have all the info, but the best article I've seen so far is this one from the Examiner.
Also, the article has concept art for future uses of the RFID system. The NextGen project has cost and estimated 3 billion, and has included the Real Life Character Initiative, which has brought us Turtle Talk with Crush, Monster Inc. Laugh Floor, the Kim Possible World Schowcase adventure and the talking, blinking Mickey. But the other half of the program is based on the RFID wristband system.
Each guest will get a wristband instead of a ticket. Where ever guest go, scanners will pick up info on the guest, making an location interactive. This has uses from new Fastpass machines, to waitstaff at restaurants knowing about allergies without asking, to personalized messages on rides and hidden around the park. Before arriving at Disney, guest will enter information like, age, allergies, favorite characters, birthdays or other celebrations, ride preference etc.
As far as anyone knows, Disney is the only company who has invest time and money into this kind of technology, and whenever it is fully implemented, Disney parks will have gone in a completely revolutionary direction, technology and experience wise.
By Robert Niles
So, when you visit Walt Disney World or Disneyland, do you ever buy yourself a pair of these?
Mouseketeer ears might be the most well-known of all Disney theme park souvenirs. When Laurie and I made an impromptu roadtrip from Bloomington, Indiana to Orlando while in graduate school, we brought back mouseketeer ears for our friends to prove we'd really made the trip. (This was back in the day when embroidered names were free, so we made sure to have the ears personalized, too.)
And when Universal wanted to smack Disney with its then-new Jurassic Park ride, it included a pair of floating mouseketeer ears in the splashdown pool. With a dino-bite out of one ear, of course.
But not everyone loves the Mickey Mouse ears. Let's face it, it's not like a branded baseball or knit cap. If you're rocking the mouse ears, you're trying to draw attention to yourself in a way that "normal" hats never deliver.
So are you a mouse ears person, or not?
By Robert Niles
Universal Studios Singapore today released its latest promotional video for the upcoming Transformers: The Ride. In it, we hear from Universal Creative's Thierry Coup and learn a little more about the Autobot EVAC, who will be a major character in the ride.
Transformers: The Ride debuts on December 3, and here's the big news: Theme Park Insider will be in Singapore, live, covering the grand opening to the press the day before. I'll be talking with Transformers director Michael Bay about the ride and his role in developing it, as well as being among the first to experience the ride - which I'll be bringing to you with photos and videos here on ThemeParkInsider.com.
Are you ready? I know I am!
By Skipper Adam
Texas is not one to be ignored. It might not have the biggest coasters or the most (it's third behind California and Florida with 38 coasters). But it used to have four theme parks (if you ever counted Astroworld as much of anything), and construction has begun on another park, called Earthquest Adventures. If that puppy ever opens, it will be a complex larger than Universal Orlando. And on Galveston Island there is a plan to build a park on one of the old piers.
We have coaster gems here and there like The Boardwalks Bullet or the new Texas Giant - which is now my favorite steel/wood/hybrid however you want to categorize it.
Our state fair, (well the main state fair out of the three) is not one to be ignored in the ride world. There resides the Texas Star, the tallest Ferris wheel in the Americas, at 212 feet. From there you can see both the downtown of Dallas and Fort Worth (and, yes, they are two separate cities). There have been, over the years, several propositions to build a taller wheel in America, but nothing has come of it yet.
Celebrating 200 years of Texas Independence, and 150th Fair, over the years it has become known for its icons, such as Big Tex, the Cotton Bowl, the leader in unusual fried foods (starting with the corn dog, we’ve been the leader in dipping stuff in stuff and frying it) and the art deco fair grounds and one of the largest car shows in the world and largest midway in America.
To finally get to the point, The State Fair of Texas is building the world’s tallest ride called the Top of Texas Tower. It will be an observation tower carrying 100 guest at a time up to 500 ft. The cost of the tower is an estimated $11 million.
The tower will open next summer at a semi-permanent Midway. Already there is a permanent log flume and gondola ride as well as the Texas Star. Other permanent rides are being looked at as well, and we might be seeing a formation of a new, albeit strange, amusement park.
By Robert Niles
Time again for our weekly Theme Park Insider Discussion Board round-up.
First, I wanted to note a New rule for writers on Theme Park Insider, one that we hope will encourage more professional theme park designers and managers to lurk on the site.
Not that I'm offering an answer to the question below....
Daniel Etcheberry wants to know Which dark ride or movie has the best gotcha?
Zackiel Marsh is looking for your Funniest Theme Park Stories.
Dominick D shares plans for The Three Parks in One Day Journey.
Tom Rigg wants to get rid of some Eyesore Roller Coasters, and is taking nominations.
On the flip side of that, what are your Favorite Rides Outside of Theme Parks?
And Jeff Elliott scours YouTube for some funny clips in Last Week At Your Amusement Park......November 7.
By Robert Niles
SeaWorld Orlando confirmed the rumors this morning with an announcement of a major new expansion at the theme park.
Antarctica - Empire of the Penguin will beSeaWorld Orlando’s biggest-ever attraction expansion, opening spring 2013.
The expansion of the park's Penguin Encounter will involve live animal exhibits along with an interactive indoor ride through Antarctica from a penguin's point of view.
TurtleTrek will open in spring 2012 and will feature two animal habitats, one with manatees and the other with sea turtles. The highlight of the exhibit will be a 360-degree, 3D theater which will show a movie about sea turtles in their natural habitat.
It sounds like TurtleTrek might be east coast theme park fans' first chance to experience the 360/3D experience that fans on the west coast first saw at Universal Studios Hollywood's King Kong 360/3-D.
Here's the full announcement from SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, along with news of a new otter encounter at Discovery Cove.
Update: So here's the question: Do SeaWorld's new attractions, coupled with Harry Potter and everything else at Universal Orlando, move more theme park fans to consider a Disney-free Orlando vacation? If not, what more do SeaWorld and Universal need to add?
By Skipper Adam
Now, fall and winter might seem like a strange time to bring up gardening. But if you'll notice, this time of year, between Halloween and Christmas, the parks go under the most dramatic changes. Not just with decorations, but over the course of several nights, flower beds and gardens will change from fall colors to a palette of red and white, featuring hundreds of thousands in-house-grown poinsettias. Right now, Disney parks across the globe are working in the biggest landscaping transition of the year, preparing for the winter.
Disney parks are like botanical gardens. It's pretty obvious when you notice the lush landscaping that permeates in all the lands. Most commonly noted is the famous Disney topiaries and parterres (a parterre is a bed of flowers that make a pattern or shape, like the Mickey heads in front of every Main Street train Sstation). The expertise of Disney landscaping is a long and proud tradition started by Bill Evans who landscaped Disneyland on a shoestring budget for it's opening day.
Disney parks have a diverse landscape of themes, which demands a wide theme of landscaping. The Magic Kingdom and Disneyland alone have drastically different sections, from frontier to lush tropical jungles to quaint European village. Disneyland's Fantasyland features some of the most unique landscaping, from the long term hard to do topiaries outside of it's a small world to the bonsai style landscapes of Storybook Land. Magic Kingdom's Frontierland features tumbleweed desert landscapes, which are a challenge with Florida's rainfall that will easily kill such plants. Disneyland's Tomorrowland's landscaping looks to the future with function and style as all plants there feature edible parts. One of my favorite things is the Liberty Tree in Liberty Square at the Magic Kingdom. As a Texan, I have a love for great oak trees, and this tree is a crowning jewel. It is actually two trees grafted together, and while it looks nodded and natural, the tree was trained to it's beautiful shape. The tree is also the oldest thing in the park, estimated to be well over 150 years old.
Walt Disney World uses massive amounts of plants. Disney World has a vast system of green houses and experimental gardens hidden on property. Disneyland too has it's own greenhouses. What's more unique is Disneyland and Walt Disney World share plants. They ship plants back and forth, not wanting to waste perfect specimens. Disney World's horticulturist produce 10,000 hanging flower baskets a year, each with 10 or more in house grown plants. So imagine the number of plants they have to grow for the flower beds! Do you know how many seeds Disney buys a year? The answer is zero. Disney buys clippings of genetically ideal plants and grows those to form their plants. So next time you look at the American Rose garden in front of Cinderella Castle, remember those roses are genetically identical, sharing the exact same DNA.
Epcot is an exceptionally challenging park to landscape. Future World has it's own style with flowing beds and massive peterres. Living with the land features futuristic greenhouses where real research on growing techniques like aeropondics and hydroponics. To make it all the more amazing, all the produce grown is featured in the restaurants in the Land Pavilion, a theme park one of a kind experience. As cool as that is, World Showcase is a beast of it's own kind. From Asian bamboo rainforest, Norwegian sod roofs, to English tea gardens to French formal gardens, all these exotic places must flow from one to another, making each country unique but all part of the message unity. It's no wonder that Walt Disney World features over 300,000 species of plants from all around the world.
Another unique challenge is Animal Kingdom. Disney has done jungles before, so that was not a problem, but landscaping the animal habitats were. The horticulturist for the first time had to consider things like something actually consuming their plants and what is toxic to the different animals. On top of that, they had to find plants to fit in the cages that matched the theming that could survive Florida weather and need little attention, because most horticulturist were not fond of going in places like the tiger habitat.
The pinnacle of Disney's horticulture is the Flower and Garden Festival, which is as much a celebration of the artistic genius and know how of the 650 professional horticulturist employed by Disney as it is the beauty of nature. Epcot's already visually stunning landscaping that flows so well with the park is enhanced will little effort with brilliant exhibits on landscaping. People from around the globe travel to this plant paradise, looking to learn from the best of the best.
So next time you are at Disney, take a break from the rush to ride or eat or beating hte crowd and take time to stop and smell the flowers. Or at least to look at them.
By Robert Niles
I spoke today with someone who, let's just say he has an interest in Knott's Berry Farm. We talked a bit about the park's history and my recollections of the park as a child in Southern California in the late 1960s and early 70s. He noted many of Disney's future Imagineers had grown up with the park, and found inspiration from Knott's rides such as the Log Flume and Calico Mine Ride. It was a beloved place, back in those days.
Southern California's other theme parks have left Knott's behind. In 1983, Knott's opened the theme park industry's first dedicated kids' land - Camp Snoopy. But today, if I'm looking for a great theme park experience made just for kids, I'm driving down the road to the much better Legoland California instead.
Knott's was once known for wilder thrill rides than neighboring Disneyland, but today, if I want to ride a great collection of roller coasters, I'll find a better time up at Six Flags Magic Mountain. My kids' friends even like California Screamin' at Disney California Adventure better than any coaster at Knott's.
Knott's trademark used to be fried chicken dinners - the best in Southern California. But the last time I visited Knott's, I had the fried chicken at Ghost Town Grill. It was inedible. The chicken's better in Mrs. Knott's original restaurant, but not enough to justify a trip to Buena Park. The best fried chicken in Southern California today is at Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles. I will fight people over this, BTW. ;^)
It looked better than it tasted.
So what's the "comparative advantage," as the business students say, that draws people to Knott's? Sad to say, today it's simply price. Knott's is the place local people and school groups go when they can't afford a day at Disneyland.
That's not enough to make people fall in love with a theme park.
How can Knott's recapture the hearts of theme park fans? Well, that's a question I'm going to pose to you today. You are invited to share your ideas for the park, or simply to share your thoughts on what makes you love visiting other parks. Is there anything Knott's could change, today, that would make it a more desirable place to visit? What sort of things would you like to see the park do, add, change or eliminate in the future?
First up, let me state again for the record that whenever I post an idea for a theme park on Theme Park Insider, I'm abandoning any ownership of the idea. Theme parks are welcome to take and implement any suggestion I make on this site, without compensation. I hate that creative designers at theme parks feel that they can't read fan discussions on the Internet for fear of being sued should they do something similar to what a fan suggested. So here's the rule at Theme Park Insider: Take our ideas, please. If you use something we suggest and want to be nice, I'm sure any of us would welcome a trip to the grand opening. But you don't need to do even that. We suggest things because we want to see them happen, not because we want to get paid. (And if you're not cool with that condition, just go ahead and keep your ideas to yourself then.)
Here's my suggestion: Knott's need to own food again. Make Knott's Berry Farm the best theme park for food in Southern California. The park should start by renovating Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant with the goal of making it be the best chicken dinner experience in the world.
And in doing that, Knott's needs to move the chicken dinner restaurant inside the park gates. Leave the takeaway window outside the park if it must, but Knott's needs to hold its signature attraction inside its theme park. That would not only encourage more park visits, it would reward people who do visit the park with a opportunity for a world-class dining experience they couldn't experience otherwise.
Knott's management needs to go back and talk with people who have worked the chicken restaurant over the years to make sure that the park will be using the best recipes and best practices for Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinners going forward. Don't let past lessons be forgotten.
While I love Roscoe's, the best chicken I ever tasted was a baked chicken at Spago in Beverly Hills. (I went for lunch - prices are much more reasonable then, FYI for any SoCal tourists. And I did get to meet Wolfgang Puck!) The chicken wasn't prepared in any fancy way - it was simply an amazing chicken. It reminded me that while there are some chickens out there that taste like chicken, there are a hell of a lot of chickens out there that taste like plastic, instead.
I'm not asking Knott's to hire Wolfgang Puck. (That didn't work out so well for California Adventure, after all.) But I will ask Knott's to ensure that it's buying the best quality, best-tasting chicken it can afford for its signature restaurant. If that means slightly higher prices, so be it. Focus on delivering value for the money paid, rather than simply providing something for the lowest possible price. (Low-ball pricing is Knott's current mistake, IMHO.) Southern California grows some of the best food in the world. Great Southern California restaurants should celebrate that, not truck in frozen crud from a low bidder elsewhere in the country.
I also wouldn't rebuild Mrs. Knott's restaurant on its current site. As I mentioned before, I would bring it inside the park. Two reasons: first, if Knott's rebuilt on the current site it would either have to close the restaurant for an extended period or subject diners to a noisy, unpleasant renovation. Second, by building a new restaurant, Knott's could employ a better, more comfortable and rewarding design that could signal a change in direction for the entire park.
Imagine a large 1930's, white clapboard farmhouse, with large windows opening into inviting dining rooms, where diners gather around polished wooden tables, sitting on well-upholstered chairs, enjoying dinners served on simple, buy high-quality servingware. This isn't the worn interior of current Knott's buildings. While the theme is a simple country farmhouse, it is built and appointed with the finest, most durable construction material available so that every inch of every surface always looks and feels sturdy, warm, comfortable and immaculately clean.
Nor is this a museum of Knott's history. The theme is a 1930s farmhouse, and when you step inside, it's the 1930s. Mrs. Knott herself is unseen in the kitchen, frying your chicken and baking your pie, while her friends bring it out to you and yours. That's the story, and they're sticking to it. The costumes, the decor and the employees themselves all must support this theming.
Serve us the best chicken we've ever tasted in this wonderful, inviting room and give Knott's a highlight no other theme park can duplicate.
I've got more, but let's give you your chance to speak. What advice do you have for Knott's?
By Skipper Adam
I personally love things that are reprogrammable and easily changed for Holidays, say like the Haunted Mansion Holidays.
The newest change for Holidays will be the still young The Magic, The Memories and You. Scheduled to premier on November 8, the new show will feature ribbons, candy canes and wrapping paper. Sounds whimsical like a castle birthday cake, but gaudy for only moments. Not many details have been released except the date and a few details to Cast Members, who are keeping mum pretty well.
For those who don't know of The Memories, The Magic and You is a complicated show using an army of powerful projectors, to project Photopass and other pictures on WDW's castle and DL's it's a small world. What's cool about the show is that in the computer, they built virtual copies of the building, then animated the surface of that. Using projectors around the building, projecting the digital building on the real building. Doing this, they can create 3D effects and make the building look like it's morphing, or burning or yawning.
The interesting part, in my opinion, is how it will look with the beautiful fishnet lights. Almost invisible during the day, projecting images on them might not look so good and ruin the effects. Like I described earlier, the castle was modeled to match perfectly, but the fish nets will blur that.
Only time will tell how it turns out.
By Robert Niles
Who's in the mood for cute baby animal photos?
Today's come from Busch Gardens Tampa, which is noting the September 21 birth of a female Cape buffalo calf to mother Semara.
The calf weighed 45 pounds at birth, and today runs around at 75 pounds. (A fully grown Cafe buffalo can weight 2,000 pounds.) Visitors can see the baby on the Serengeti Express Railway, Rhino Rally or the extra-fee Serengeti Safari.
By Robert Niles
The Talking Mickey character that debuted at Disneyland last year finally has made his way east, to Town Square Theater at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom.
Word on the [Main] Street (at least out here on the west coast) is that the Talking Mickey actually requires two cast members, one in the suit and another in an audio/video booth to do the voice. (Think Turtle Talk With Crush but with a walking Mickey character, I'm told.) This limits Talking Mickey to established indoor meet and greet locations, such as Toontown at Disneyland or a defined D23 meet area (the only other places we've seen him until this week in Orlando). That means Talking Mickey costs a lot more on tech and labor costs for the company to put out there than a "regular" Mickey.
But if that makes a visit with Mickey a more popular attraction for Disney guests and would-be Disney guests, Talking Mickey would be more than worth the extra investment.
Now we sit back and wait for the inevitable YouTube of Mickey verbally smacking down some hecklers....
By Robert Niles
I hope you had a happy Halloween and that the sugar crash hasn't hit your home too badly. Since it's Tuesday now, that means it's time for the weekly Theme Park Insider Discussion Board round-up:
Andy Milito starts us off by asking, Why Hasn't Universal Utilized The Bourne Movies?
On the topic of Universal, Daniel Etcheberry suggests that Universal Studios Florida's Twister should be changed for Madagascar a Crate Adventure.
Manny Rodriguez wants to know Did you get picked for the Ollivander's shop experience?
Zach Nelson offers us a Trip planning spreadsheet for Orlando theme parks.
Brian Emery takes a moment to note the The Generosity of Sea World.
Tim W wants to hear your Theme Park Wishlist.
Skipper Adam asks which ones you consider to be the Best Disney/ Universal Guidebooks.
Apparently, I am the new writer of our Jeff Elliott's weekly feature: Last Week At Your Amusement Park......Halloween.
Keep reading: October 2011 Archive
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