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December 2011

Plans for Harry Potter at Universal Studios Florida revealed

By Robert Niles
Published: December 31, 2011 at 4:03 PM

For our final post of 2011, I leave you with a little holiday present: The plans for the new Harry Potter land in Universal Studios Florida.

A source was kind enough to allow me a look at the plans - and they do appear spectacular. Before I get into the details, though, let me clarify a few points.

First, these are labeled "Concept," and dated last month (November 2011). There's no sign that these plans have been revised, or approved by engineers, so I am assuming that they are initial concept plans. Even though they are quite detailed, they are far from final, and anyone who's been involved in attraction development can tell you that much can change in the development process.

Second, I've seen only detailed plans for the main attraction in the new land, which appears to be set in Gringotts Bank. I've seen rough detail of the rest of the new land, though, and picked out a few details here and there.

Third, every page is stamped "Confidential," so I'm not supposed to be looking at them or telling you about them, and I'm certainly not going to tell you where I got access to them, so don't even bother asking.

So let's get to it, shall we?

The plans occupy the space between the Fear Factor Live theater and the Disaster! show building on the northwest corner of the Universal Studios Florida property - basically all the land now occupied by the Jaws attraction and surrounding Amity carnival games and shops. The northernmost section of the plot - almost half the land within it - is planned for a massive show building, which will house the Gringotts ride.

On the southeastern portion of the plot, a second attraction is designated. I can't tell from the plans what this attraction will be, but its position is consistent with the rumor of a Hogwarts Express ride connecting the two Harry Potter land, as this attraction points into the back-of-house access road that runs straight into the rear of Sindbad theater where the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is expanding into in Islands of Adventure.

For pedestrians in Universal Studios Florida, there appears to be a single point of entry into the new Harry Potter land, one that requires walking around a center obstacle inside what appears to be an enclosed space. This would fit with being a "secret entrance" to Diagon Alley, from the Harry Potter books and films. There also is what appears to be labeled an 8,900-square-foot restaurant building located immediately to the left of the entrance to the land. Could this be the Leaky Cauldron?

From the entry, there is a street that proceeds straight back to the rounded entrance facade of the Gringotts building.

Gringotts exterior
The Gringotts Bank exterior, from the Harry Potter films.

Diagon Alley and Gringotts exterior
Diagon Alley, looking down toward Gringotts, from Pottermore.

Besides the restaurant to the left, I can't tell from the plans I saw what will occupy the other spaces in the buildings along the sides of this main street, which I presume to be Diagon Alley. There is a small, 500-square-foot "walk-through attraction" listed on a spur street to the left of the Gringotts entry, a spur that leads to the entrance to the second attraction. (Another Ollivander's? Your guess is as good as mine.)

Now let's get to that Gringotts ride.

It looks like we can expect another elaborately themed walk-through queue tour, along the lines of what we got with Hogwarts Castle in the original Wizarding World of Harry Potter. From the "Entry Hall," the queue appears to leave the building into shaded, then covered, areas before re-entering into the large "Bankers Hall." The next room in the queue is "Vault Display," then the "Reading Room." From there it's into what's labelled "Office Hallway" before we reach "Bill Weasley's Office." The next feature is labelled "Elevators," which take us up a level in order to cross over the ride tracks to access the center load island.

There are two load channels for the ride, with loading on the center island, and unloading off to the outsides. The ride vehicles are twin, 12-person, open-air cars, arranged in three rows of four. Each row is placed slightly higher than the row in front of it, in a "stadium seating" effect. The look of the cars is very Victorian, with individual lap bars and six Dolby speakers per seat for on-ride audio.

Front view

Rear view

After the load platform, the two load channels merge to the south, then bearing to the left and entering Scene 1: "Turntable." In this scene, you'll face a brick wall, with two tunnel entrances, to the left and right. But before you proceed, the track below the first of the twin cars will drop from underneath that car. The track will come to rest at a 40-degree angle. Then, the track under the trailing car will begin to rise, matching the 40-degree angle of the leading car.

At that point, the two cars will drop in tandem into a third tunnel, below the tunnel on the right. Basically, we've just ridden a teeter-totter-like vertical track switch, attaching to the roller coaster track for our initial drop.

From there, we drop into Scene 2: "Dark Tunnel," a kinetic ride section with a small bunny hop and a hard right turn before we hit a block brake in preparation for Scene 3: "Ledge."

The Gringotts ride won't be a traditional roller coaster. It appears to be a hybrid roller coaster and motion-base ride, a la Spider-Man and Transformers. There are 3D projection screens throughout the ride, embedded in the rockwork of the tunnel walls, creating an illusion of open space, within which we'll watch battles taking place.

The first is in the Ledge scene, where some concept art shows a battle with wizards and giant-like creatures. The plans detail a shaker table under the track, and there's a waterfall effect at the end of the scene, including a fogscreen and water spritzers.

There's a slight free drop and turn to the left as we proceed through the waterfall, leading us into Scene 4: "Thief's Downfall." There are wind and heat effects in this scene, along with our first look at a dragon. Meanwhile, the ride's making a chicane-type turn to the left, then the right.

That leads us immediately into Scene 5: "Sirius Black's Vault." We hit a fog blast before entering the vault, where we see illuminated treasure ahead. The car makes a turn to the right, where the physical show scenery opens up a bit, with a large vault area with a flat 3D projection screen along the far wall. We then bear to the left, turning into Scene 6: "Ruins."

We're curving to the right through the rubble of what looks like a collapsed tunnel in this scene, which leads us into Scene 7: "Chasm." We're inside a large projection cone for this scene, which appears to involve Harry, Ron, Hermoine and… could it be? Voldemort? (The concept art I saw wasn't clear - it almost never is.) I do see a heat curtain and cold-air blast noted in this scene, though. (Shades of Revenge of the Mummy?)

From there, we launch into another dark tunnel (Scene 8), which banks up and around to the left, taking us into Scene 9: "Passage," our finale, where Harry and company bid us farewell before we return to the load/unload platform.

And yes, we do exit through a retail shop.

That's all I've got from these initial concept plans. They lack any information about the narrative of the ride or the imagery we'll see on those projection scenes. But the plans do detail a unique hybrid ride system that takes us through scenes that set up a potentially ambitious narrative.

So, what do you think?

Me? I can't wait to ride.

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Theme Park Insider's 2011 Year In Review - September

By Jeff Elliott
Published: December 31, 2011 at 12:45 PM

Note: The editor of these articles has insisted that I make the soon to be obvious point that while there may be some real news in here, the key to these articles is a sense of humor. While your own blah of these blah may be a little blah than what is blah below, your blah is quite possibly closer to blah. While it was blah that I keep to the blah, I blah blah quite quickly in this process that 1) I don't think anyone really reads this part and 2) I what would happen if I just skipped this?

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September, the month of Smurfs and ride exchanges where Six Flags introduced the concept of "new to you but not really new" rides. Very little happened this month, so we could almost skip this, but as my duty to you, I should probably mention the one or two things that did take place.

The captain has just jumped out of the back of the plane with a parachute and two armloads of hot ladies. Mayday! Mayday! Is there a pilot on board? How about anyone that plays flight simulator games? Anyone? Maybe someone who always dreamed of flying?

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Theme Park Insider's Year In Review – September

Disney's Animal Kingdom – The park announced that they had secured the rights to 10 foot tall blue creatures that hate humans when they unveil that they had signed a deal to bring Avatar to Animal Kingdom. This is kind of a confusing choice in many respects. The movie of Avatar and even the word avatar means people controlling different bodies, that, and war… brutal bloody war… using large unforgiving machines against the plucky courage of a native tribe trying to save their own planet. The story of one human using an avatar to become a one point of bright light that tips the balance of the war against the humans. It is also about death. Such subject matters seem to go against the grain of what is otherwise an animal park with rides that attempt to teach conservation and the love of all living things while holding them in tiny cells. Do you see a mixed message here or is it just me?

I understand that Avatar is the highest grossing movie ever… by a lot… and there are at least two more of these movies on the way. Also in consideration here is the fact that James Cameron really didn't spend a whole lot of time on the story, in his eyes this was a showcase for special effects and nothing else. Even many months later, there have been no details leaked as to what is going to happen in this land, most likely it is because they took this idea to the Imagineers who are all sitting around an empty design pad with WTF looks on their faces. The fact that so little time was spent on crafting a story on the original movie is very apparent. If you have helicopters that are armored and can carry missiles and machine guns, shoot the lizards that are flying around first and then the rest of it is a turkey shoot. And, really, what is up with the military personnel who act like complete morons, your base camp is not being overrun, therefore you have all the time in the world to negotiate with the indigenous people. And even if that tree is sitting right on top of where you want your mine, the minerals are underground, so burrow into it sideways… we have the technology… poor, poor Imagineers.

Busch Gardens Williamsburg – This month, the park announced that the replacement of the Big Bad Wolf roller coaster is going to be called Verbolten, which is German for "Did we really lose a classic coaster for this piece of ^&^$?" Verbolten features a similar track layout to the Big Bad Wolf and in many cases, used the same footers as the old coaster. What this new coaster also features is a large building with tight corners and a surprise like we have not seen in the United States, although Alton Towers already has it. But, as unoriginal as this is, at least you are not hunting cheetahs.

Dollywood – The park confirmed this month that their new roller coaster is going to be called Wild Eagle. This looks like a strong entry in the category of best new roller coaster. It has size, speed, beautiful scenery and landscaping all around it and two oversized hills, just like Dolly herself. In most cases, to keep the noise down, coaster track tubes are filled with sand, but this coaster is going for something unique and is planning on filling the coaster tubes with silicone.

Six Flags – The company decided that instead of buying new hardware, they would just shift everything around a bit. Six Flags Great America gets a new coaster after they ship one off to Six Flags America. Six Flags Magic Mountain gets a Velcro drop tower attached to the side of Superman: The Escape after shipping a coaster off to Six Flags New England. Six Flags Discovery Kingdom gets a new launched coaster after they ship off a coaster to Six Flags Mexico. In a way, I guess this all makes sense. Buy two new coasters and shuffle all of the other ones around so all of your customers think that they have new stuff. It's almost as if they expect us to act collectively like my golden retriever; when you hold up a ball, she goes nuts, you throw it, she brings it back, and as if it were a new toy or a new game, you hold the ball up and she goes nuts again. I refuse to be excited about Six Flags going through the trash of different parks and presenting it as new stuff in other parks.

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So there you have it: August. If you don't remember the month like I do, please set a monkey-boy straight in the discussion below.

All monkey pictures have been lovingly borrowed from the amazing artist Frank Cho and his long deceased comic strip Liberty Meadows. Monkeys were harmed during the production of this article… oh, yes… definitely harmed…

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A tour of Tokyo DisneySea: Port Discovery

By Robert Niles
Published: December 31, 2011 at 12:26 PM

If Disneyland has a Tomorrowland, then why shouldn't DisneySea have a TomorrowSea section? Actually, it kinda does, but Disney's spared you that mouthful by calling this land Port Discovery instead.

You'll find the same retro-futuristic look here, but - fitting an aquatic park, I guess - it's bathed in splashes of color.

Outside the StormRider building

That's the home of StormRider, a simulator ride that takes you inside a massive hurricane (typhoon) that you're supposed to destroy.

Here's the backstory: Scientists have developed a "storm diffuser" - a giant missile that can cause typhoons to dissipate harmlessly instead of slamming the port. You'll be flying in a StormRider airship, escorting the one carrying the storm diffuser. There will be a massive explosion when the diffuser fires, but "you'll be miles away by then." What possibly could go wrong?

Indeed.

Enter our pilot, Captain Davies, who appears to have graduated the same flight school as Star Tours's old Captain Rex. The very American-looking Capt. Davies appears on screen in the pre-show, chomping a sandwich instead of inspecting his plane - allowing the Japanese crowd to chuckle at the obvious buffoon. (As the only other caucasian in the room, I gotta admit I winced a little at the stereotype. Fuel for someone's sociology dissertation, I suppose.)

We enter our theater StormRider and take off, skimming the water and buzzing boats and dolphins before pulling up to fly into the gathering storm. Sure enough, plenty then goes terribly wrong. Lightning hits the main StormRider, wind blows everyone off course, and we end up getting a much more "up-close" look at that missile than anyone had planned. Put away your camera and cell phone - you'll even get a little wet.

And that's not just from crying because you just rode yet another fun, thrilling Disney attraction that most American theme park fans will never get to see.

You might catch a few drops on Aquatopia, too - a spinning boat ride that uses a similar local positioning system to Pooh's Hunny Hunt over in Tokyo Disneyland.

Aquatopia

Your boats spin here and there as they meander forward and backward around the Port Discovery lagoon, dodging fountains and whirlpools along the way.

Aquatopia

It's a fun little ride, a bit like a bumper car where you don't actually hit anything.

We've gone too long without talking about popcorn, so I should note that Port Discovery is home to what turned out to be my favorite flavor of Tokyo Disney popcorn - strawberry.

The strawberry popcorn stand in Port Discovery

Strawberry popcorn

Imagine a box of warm, fluffy popcorn, sprinkled in sugary strawberry Nesquik powder that had melted into a glaze. (I will now stop to wipe the drool off my keyboard as I remember the taste.) Give me the curry popcorn as the best of the savory flavors, and I'll take the strawberry as the best of the sweet options. For the most part, though, you won't go wrong with any of the flavors.

Except for milk tea (found at Duffy's popcorn stand in the American Waterfront). Milk tea popcorn tasted disgusting to me - it was the only flavor where I didn't want even a second bite.

Speaking of the American Waterfront, that's the final land on our tour of Tokyo DisneySea, so let's head over there now. We'll take the DisneySea Electric Railway, which travels back and forth between American Waterfront and Port Discovery.

The Port Discovery station on the DisneySea Electric Railway

Come aboard with me for the trip!

Also on the tour: History, layout and introduction, Mysterious Island, Mermaid Lagoon, Arabian Coast, Lost River Delta

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Theme Park Insider's 2011 Year In Review - August

By Jeff Elliott
Published: December 31, 2011 at 9:29 AM

Note: The editor of these articles has insisted that I make the soon to be obvious point that while there may be some real news in here, the key to these articles is a sense of humor. While your own recollection of these stories may be a little different than what is presented below, your recollection is quite possibly closer to truth. While it was requested that I keep to the facts, I realized quite quickly in this process that 1) Running gags are hard to write after a while and 2) blah blah blah insert something funny here.

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August, the month of major announcements and earth cleansing. I don't remember much about this month, so apparently very little happened. It is funny when you think about it, Disney opened a new resort and "new" attraction, but it was not nearly as thrilling as it sounds.

The captain is carousing with the stewardesses in the back of the plane but the autopilot is on, so no big deal. Please feel free to carouse with the captain if you are extremely good looking. Keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times. And if anyone has any Barry White on their iPod, crank that *%^& up!

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Theme Park Insider's Year In Review – August

Disney Company – Diversification (noun) – a concept that says you should get away from your core competencies in order to survive downturns in the marketplace. This would be like having Robert Niles running this website and at the same time running some other bizarre website like, I don't know, people playing a violin. In order to diversify their holdings, the Walt Disney Company decided to sink major bucks into building a resort in Hawaii that doesn't have any rides or anything that sets it out differently or above the other resorts in the area….and then they wonder why the bookings are falling below expectations. Maybe they should hire a couple of Universal people to explain it to them. I got an idea, why not open a Walt Disney Casino & Hotel, or the Walt Disney Strip Club, or the Walt Disney Human Trafficking Exchange. The company will never ever earn their money back on this one… not until they start adding rides.

Leavesden Studios (UK) – Months after Warner Brothers bought Leavesden Studios, the place where all of the Harry Potter movies were made, they announced that the studio would soon be opening up to the public to do tours of the Harry Potter sets and props from the movies.

East Coast – The world attempted to do a scrub and rinse cycle on the East Coast of the United States this month in an effort to clean off the people that live there. With a 5.8 earthquake followed by Hurricane Irene, this one-two punch shut down many of the parks on the East Coast twice over the course of this month. It didn't work very well, however, and the people of the East Coast bounced right back. Next time try bulldozers and fire. Or a region wide coffee and bagel embargo.

Six Flags Magic Mountain – Not content to have such a crappy park named the Coaster Capital of the World, the Déjà Vu ride, in the middle of the night, dismantled itself, and shipped itself off to a different park. Rumors also stated that in its old home, the Déjà Vu roller coaster didn't get along with the other nearby rides and had been heard have screaming matches with the neighbors until late into the night.

Cedar Fair – In a shocking announcement, Cedar Fair stated that Canada's Wonderland was going to get the latest massive roller coaster and not Cedar Point. After Cedar Point's obligatory tantrum and threats about moving out of their parent's house to live with their friends, a Dinosaurs Alive attraction was given to Cedar Point. I can't wait to see the look on Cedar Point's face when they finally get their new attraction… It is going to be like getting a massive radio control toy and no batteries.

Disney's Magic Kingdom – In a move that no one really noticed, the Mouse finally rebuilt and reopened the Tiki Room. I wonder if they are still running that $20 sledgehammer special?

Islands of Adventure – In what has got to be the most irritating news of the year, the Islands has announced that the Dragon Challenge will no longer duel. If you remember, this is because people started getting hurt at the point that the two coasters hurl right at each other. What this does is negate the best part of this roller coaster. Since they are no longer dueling, why not just sell them and ship them off to different parks and call them both Batman, that space could then be used by something much better that is unique and special. It would have made much more sense to buy a security system that records the riders through the entire ride, then, if something happens, you pull out the tapes and prosecute whoever did it to the fullest extent of the law, and also have ride videos to sell to guests… a win-win situation.

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So there you have it: August. If you don't remember the month like I do, please set a monkey-boy straight in the discussion below.

All monkey pictures have been lovingly borrowed from the amazing artist Frank Cho and his long deceased comic strip Liberty Meadows. I don't think any monkeys were harmed during the production of this article, but they escaped out the back and over the fence about halfway through writing this article.

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Theme Park Insider's 2011 Year In Review - July

By Jeff Elliott
Published: December 30, 2011 at 8:15 PM

Note: The editor of these articles has insisted that I make the soon to be obvious point that while there may be some real news in here, the key to these articles is a sense of humor. While your own recollection of these stories may be a little different than what is presented below, your recollection is quite possibly closer to truth. While it was requested that I keep to the facts, I realized quite quickly in this process that 1) I need to get sober before agreeing to writing a ridiculous long article series and 2) I agreed to do twelve of these?? Was I insane??

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July, the month of extraordinarily perplexing events. With the theme park season at its peak, very disturbing things started happening. Among many other disturbing events, this was the month that I found out that I was going to be a daddy. After several unsuccessful tries, my wife finally asked me really nicely to stop pushing her down the stairs. So now I have to be a daddy… Once the kiddo starts crying and keeping me awake at night, the good humored person that writes these articles will go away to be replaced by the irritable, clueless, and disconnected parent that I had when I was growing up, so you now know that you are on notice. And after all of that, not much else happened in the news.

The captain has turned on the no-morels sign… my room number is 214. Please feel free to take a random room key out of the punch bowl. Keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times. And those things in the other punch bowl are not balloons, use them and we won't have any additional surprises in nine months.

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Theme Park Insider's Year In Review – July

Thorpe Park – After a very odd viral campaign claiming that the world was ending filmed of nut jobs roaming through the park carrying large signs, the speculation finally came to an end as Thorpe Park put the first shovels in the ground for this new coaster. No offence, but if the world were to end, would it really start near London? I can completely understand New York or Washington DC, even the deep south of the United States makes sense to me, but not London. I mean if you really want to put a specific occurrence to the beginning of the end of the world it will be when Paris Hilton gets her own TV show. Wait, what? That already happened? Ok… What about if Paris Hilton opens a retail store? Hmmm… that too, huh? Well, that just about confirms it, the world is over… I'm going down to the pub and see if I can hold off the raging zombie hordes from there.

California Adventure – While construction continues on the rest of the park, California Adventure opened its new entrance designed to make it look older than Disneyland. The design was based on a building that was so old that it burned down years ago, but some design genius buried deep in the Imagineering underground bunker still thought that this was a great idea. Hopefully the old disguise will allow the park to buy beer, the only reason why you would have want to look older than what you really are.

Hersheypark – After what it wished were a successful viral campaign, Hersheypark finally decided to let the cat out of the bag on their newest roller coaster, Skyrush. At over 200 feet tall, this new coaster will be a nice new addition to their coaster fleet. And yes, this is a theme park; it is themed to and smells like chocolate.

Tokyo DisneySea, while being one of the most spectacular parks in the world, did something very odd this month. They spent $22 million on a suped-up Dumbo ride. For the life of me, I have no idea where they spent that money. The ride system itself could only by half to three quarters of a million even if they spend the extra money to have an overbuilt model. Assuming that the ride was surrounded by a themed land and themed restaurant and themed trees and themed benches and the like, that may come out to a little over 2-3 million. So then what happened to the other $20 million dollars? If this happens much more, I am going to take my single share of Disney stock to the stockholders meeting and raise a holy stink about this if it continues. It is expensive enough to run a theme park without $20 million running out the door like a redneck when confronted with soap.

Darien Lake – For those of you who don't remember, one of the more traumatic events happened this month when an Iraqi War veteran who had lost both of his legs to a roadside bomb fell out of the Ride of Steel and was killed.

Luna Park (Australia) – Despite the Australian education system scoring very well against most other nations, it turns out that their young people are just as stupid as people in other nations. What led to this conclusion was when 17 members of the staff at Luna Park were fired over an ATM machine that was giving out $50 bills instead of $20 bills. Once news of this had spread around the park, these 17 staff members proceeded to go down to this ATM and empty their accounts, while the ATM machine happily took pictures of the whole thing. Not very bright… but it doesn't matter a whole lot, Australian girls are hot so it balances out.

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So there you have it: July. If you don't remember the month like I do, please set a monkey-boy straight in the discussion below.

All monkey pictures have been lovingly borrowed from the amazing artist Frank Cho and his long deceased comic strip Liberty Meadows. No monkeys were harmed during the production of this article, but if I get my hands on them, it will be over… do you hear me?? OVER!

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A tour of Tokyo DisneySea: Lost River Delta

By Robert Niles
Published: December 30, 2011 at 3:49 AM

Lost River Delta stretches the aquatic theme of Tokyo DisneySea, moving inland a bit from the sea coast setting of the park's other land to an Amazon-like South American river setting. This is where you'll find the park's Indiana Jones attraction and… its copy of an Indiana Jones attraction.

The copy is Raging Spirits, a recreation of the Indiana Jones and the Temple of Peril roller coaster from Disneyland Paris. There's no explicit Jones connection here, but we are still at an archeological expedition, uncovering the a lost temple of well, raging spirits who rather be left alone, it seems.

Raging Spirits

This coaster might seem relatively tame…

Raging Spirits

…But it packs a tight loop deep in the middle of this "excavation site."

Raging Spirits

I loved how the Japanese crew at the load platform dispatched every train with a rousing "Adios, Amigos!" Of course, being the smartmouth I am, I returned the farewell with a hearty "Muchas Gracias!," drawing stares as blank as mine was every time someone said something to me in Japanese.

Raging Spirits

This fun little trip might be a good first looping coaster for a thrill-ride rookie. The track's not too far up in the air, so the height won't intimidate anyone. The ride offers some nice airtime, but nothing that floats your gut into your throat, and the whole thing's over pretty quickly. I liked the fire and fog effects, too. Bring a 100-yen coin for the lockers, but you'll get it refunded when you return.

The centerpiece of the land, though, is Indiana Jones - Temple of the Crystal Skull. Before you get concerned, allow me to reassure you that there are no aliens involved in this ride, which was named and opened before the alleged fourth Indiana Jones movie - that I insist never really happened - was filmed.

Indiana Jones - Temple of the Crystal Skull

The Temple of the Crystal Skull

Another view of The Temple of the Crystal Skull

As in the Disneyland original, the queue is packed with interesting sights of its own, though I didn't find any interactive elements.

Part of the temple excavation

Is this a Hidden Mickey? The stuff off to the right seems like some strange Mickey-like hand signals to me, too. Or is it just the flavored popcorn, finally getting to me?

Is this a Hidden Mickey, in the queue?

Detail of Dr. Jones' desk, in the queue

After passing Dr. Jones' desk, it's on to the ride, which is the same motion-base ride as in Anaheim, except that Indy's looking for the Fountain of Youth and it's the Crystal Skull you're not supposed to look at, and that then sends you off toward your doom.

Along the way, you dodge the mummies, snakes, poison darts and, of course, that giant boulder at the end. It's all too much to take in visually on a single visit - but I can't imagine riding the jiggle Jeep too many times in one day. Your mileage might vary.

I hate to mention food after a ride like this, but many fans swear by the roasted meats at the Yucatan Base Camp Grill in Lost River Delta. If you're in the mood for tacos, try Miguel's El Dorado Cantina, but be warned - these are tacos for Asian tastes. Who's up for a teriyaki taco?

Give a bonus point to the Lost River Cookhouse, though, for its smoked chicken legs. As much as I love those turkey legs in the Disney theme parks, they're just too darned big. A chicken leg though (and these are on the large size), is just the right size for a hearty snack.

Tomorrow, like Pocahontas, we're going just around the river bend… to Port Discovery.

Also on the tour: History, layout and introduction, Mysterious Island, Mermaid Lagoon, Arabian Coast, American Waterfront

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Theme Park Insider's 2011 Year In Review - June

By Jeff Elliott
Published: December 29, 2011 at 7:47 PM

Note: The editor of these articles has insisted that I make the soon to be obvious point that while there may be some real news in here, the key to these articles is a sense of humor. While your own recollection of these stories may be a little different than what is presented below, your recollection is quite possibly closer to truth. While it was requested that I keep to the facts, I realized quite quickly in this process that 1) Who needs facts when made up stuff is much fun to write and 2) Scribbling incoherent thoughts is very calming.

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June, the month where instead of making announcements or building things, those of us theme park geeks can actually get off the couch and make an appearance out our favorite theme park before heading home and deriding it in a public forum on the internet for the perceived lack of quality and attention to detail. Since we are all out there doing instead of speculating or reporting, there is very little going on this month.

The captain has turned off the no-fooling-around sign. Please feel from to move about the cabin and fool around to the greatest extent of your abilities. Keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times. And if a window gets broken again while we are at altitude, I am going to be very upset….again…...

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Theme Park Insider's Year In Review – June

Nothing helps you deal with the current press of visitors like looking at last year's attendance figures. This month, the TEA/AECOM Global Attractions Report was released that showed anything even remotely associated with Harry Potter garnered huge attendance gains even if the attraction wasn't at that specific park. Anything associated with Disney held fairly steady at the top of the food chain. And everything associated with Killer Whales and Sea Lions, dropped off sharply. What we can extrapolate from this report is that SeaWorld needs to dump the whole sea creature thing and start building attractions based on pimply faced kids that know how to shake their wands, and, no, Perry Otter and the six foot mice is not going to cut it. What is also interesting is that among the seasonal parks, Cedar Fair is standing tall well above the Six Flags parks, which of course happens when every single Six Flags park has the same exact rides. You know, now that I am looking at the figures a second time, what I find is that the parks with major fires in the last year are the ones that did the best, so therefore a good conclusion would be to build attractions with tissue paper, purchase motors that heat up excessively, use poor and low grade electrical wiring, and the old standby of free matches for kids.

Cedar Fair – Matt Ouimet, the savior of the Disney parks, was hired by Cedar Fair to take over leadership duties after Dick Kinzel was caught trying to load the free gift hyper-toaster into the back of his pickup truck. When the executives questioned him about it, Mr. Kinzel stated that he had ordered an additional 27 WindSeekers in order to get another free hyper-toaster to replace the one he was taking. The police were called. The additional WindSeeker orders were cancelled. Now a Disney guy is in charge of a company that prides itself on not being Disney. Within days of being hired, Matt Ouimet was seen strolling through the different parks in the chain, muttering under his breath, “What the %^&%$*^ am I going to do with this %$^&%$*^ mess??”

Kentucky Kingdom – Here is a trivia question for you. If Walt Disney were to suddenly show up alive in the mid 1980's and say, “Hrrmmm, I don't think this is being run according to the original plan, let me fix it up for you and get this thing back on track,” would you A) Welcome him back with open arms B) Wonder why he is alive and call the National Enquirer C) Let him spend $5 million of his own money to fix up the parks, or D) Kick him to the curb because you know far more than he does, even though you are running the thing into the ground? Well, Kentucky Kingdom, that had been closed since Six Flags had dumped and walked away from the park, did C & D to the original creator of Kentucky Kingdom. Unwilling to spend the money that it would take to get a return on their investment, the municipality that owns the site kicked Ed Hart to the curb after he had already spend close to $5 million of his own money securing the site and working toward getting it reopened. You should have been there; the look on the commission's faces was priceless when they found out that Ed Hart then turned around and sued them to get his money back. Let's hope that Ed Hart takes over one of the other standing but not operating parks, like Ghost Town in the Sky, Hard Rock Park, or Six Flags New Orleans. In fact he would make much more sense than putting a Disney guy in charge of Cedar Fair…hint hint….

Disney's California Adventure – They promised us it was only temporary. They promised us that it would go away eventually. They promised us that it would be replaced by something up to traditional Disney standards. They lied to us. This month, Goofy's Sky School opened, replacing Mulholland Madness with a coat of paint and a couple of signs. Seems to me with that kind of mindset, they should have just left the Timon and Pumba parking lot as it was.

Six Flags Magic Mountain – Since I had the report open, I checked out an interesting fact. All of the amusement parks that have the most rides actually have the highest attendance of among the non-themed parks. But nowhere on the list is Six Flags Magic Mountain, even though it is tied for most roller coasters. Six Flags Great Adventure and Six Flags Great America are on the list down at the bottom, which is interesting because both of these are seasonal parks whereas Magic Mountain stays open year round on weekends. So with that many roller coasters and that many extra days in its season, you would expect it to be a higher attendance park, but it is not. To make matters worse, Magic Mountain this month opened Green Lantern, the first ZacSpin roller coaster in the country, with an hourly guest capacity of about 10 people. I don't know about you, but I would only plan to go back to Magic Mountain after someone else was running the park. How about Bernie Madoff? Or Keith Richards? Or Robert Niles?

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So there you have it: June. If you don't remember the month like I do, please set a monkey-boy straight in the discussion below.

All monkey pictures have been lovingly borrowed from the amazing artist Frank Cho and his long deceased comic strip Liberty Meadows. Monkeys were harmed during the production of this article, but they really enjoyed… trust me….

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A tour of Tokyo DisneySea: Arabian Coast

By Robert Niles
Published: December 29, 2011 at 9:01 AM

Today, we're touring Arabian Coast, as part of our in-depth look at Tokyo DisneySea.

Arabian Coast

Let's step inside the land, which like most Tokyo DisneySea lands, is decorated for the park's 10th anniversary this year.

Entering Arabian Coast

Earlier this year, to celebrate the anniversary, DisneySea debuted Jasmine's Flying Carpets, a $22 million spinner ride. Why would a park spend that kind of coin on a Dumbo-clone, readers asked.

Jasmine's Flying Carpets

Having seen the ride - and the land in which it resides - I now can answer confidently. DisneySea spent that much money because if it had spent any less decorating the ride, it would have stood out like Betty White on an episode of TMZ. Let's take a look around, shall we?

Arabian Coast

This isn't part of any attraction or restaurant - it's just street theming.

Just part of the scenery in Arabian Coast

And so is this - though immediately after I took this picture, a queue of children formed to climb on Cammie's back and get their photos taken, too.

More of the scenery in Arabian Coast

The biggest ride in Arabian Coast is , a indoor boat ride in the tradition of It's a Small World and Epcot's Gran Fiesta Tour.

Sindbad's Storybook Voyage

You are floating along watching Sindbad make his famous journey, as previewed here on a map in the queue.

A map in the queue showing Sindbad's voyages

You'll start in Sindbad's home port, then sail to Mermaid Rocks, to Rukh Island and the Cave of the Giant…

The Giant

…then it's off to the Palace of the Sultan, Land of the Monkeys, Whale Straits and back home. Here's a POV:

Almost all of the major rides at DisneySea have corporate sponsors (which helps keep the park in such immaculate condition, no doubt). And there's a plaque in the exit area of each of these rides with a message from that sponsor, fitting that particular ride.

Sponsor's sign at the end of the ride

Arabian Coast's other main attraction is The Magic Lamp Theater, which, like Terminator 2:3D at the Universal parks, blends live action with a 3D movie. That mix never quite works for my eyes, but this is a cute magic show, focusing on a harried Aladdin-like sorcerer's apprentice who ultimately gets his revenge, with some help from our favorite Genie.

The Magic Lamp Theater

On the opposite end of Arabian Coast from Jasmine's Flying Carpets you'll find another kiddie ride, the two-level Caravan Carousel.

Caravan Carousel

Caravan Carousel
Photo by reader Robynn Gille

If you're hungry, try the Casbah Food Court.

Outside Casbah Food Court

You'll find curries and tandoori chicken at the counter-service stations in this spacious food court.

Inside Casbah Food Court

Snack options in Arabian Coast include Sultan's Oasis and Open Sesame.

Tomorrow, we'll visit Indiana Jones in the Lost River Delta.

Also on the tour: History, layout and introduction, Mysterious Island, Mermaid Lagoon, Port Discovery, American Waterfront

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Theme Park Insider's 2011 Year In Review - May

By Jeff Elliott
Published: December 29, 2011 at 7:41 AM

Note: The editor of these articles has insisted that I make the soon to be obvious point that while there may be some real news in here, the key to these articles is a sense of humor. While your own recollection of these stories may be a little different than what is presented below, your recollection is quite possibly closer to truth. While it was requested that I keep to the facts, I realized quite quickly in this process that 1) I am unlicensed in most states and 2) I could really use a breath mint.

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May, the start of the season while the bratty little young'uns are still stuck in school. Finally, at long last, we get a stinkin' day off from work, but unfortunately, so does everyone else, so getting out to the parks is really not much of an option…. It would be more fun to stand in front of your TV for three hours at a time, watching infomercials pausing for two minutes for to do the greatest thing in the world and the back to standing in front of the infomercials again. Oh, and nothing really happens in May.

The captain has turned on the no Jihad sign. Please be sure to pull down firmly on the overhead restraints so our ride ops can more easily come in right behind you and give the restraint the one last click that pinches your junk. Keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times. And feel free to hum along with the robotic dolls when the ride breaks down.

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Theme Park Insider's Year In Review - May

Universal Studios Singapore – Language is a strange thing, while they do speak English in Singapore, apparently some of the words they use don't quite match up to what they mean in the other English-speaking nations (although let me take a moment and un-include Texas in this discussion, I can't understand anything they say). Apparently the term "grand opening" means a date that is nearly a year after the park really opens when management no longer needs an excuse for why certain rides are not working. (But even the word birthday is one that I have problems with… you only have one birthday, and getting trashed on it may stunt your later development; although like many of my later "birthdays", I don't remember much of it. What most people call their yearly birthday is actually your birth anniversary. So let's try to get this right.) Without further delving into a linguistic symposium, Universal Studios Singapore held its grand opening that they had been rehearsing for a year. But you know how it is trying to get everyone's schedules to line up….apparently the executive assistant tasked with finding a day that everyone was available for the grand opening was unable to find room between all of those important donut and coffee meetings until they had looked an entire year into the future. To go along with their grand opening/reopening the park opened its Madagascar ride. The Madagascar ride should be a case study of what can go wrong with a ride system, since the attraction was originally supposed to be a two story attraction, but they were unable to keep the second story from leaking water everywhere and had to redesign the attraction mid-build.

Cedar Fair – Drinking at the corporate offices is officially banned. No champagne, no beer after work with co-workers, no Irish cream in the coffee, no wine at the corporate dinners. This ban came shortly after a very impressive toaster showed up at the company headquarters, the free gift for purchasing 27 WindSeekers. The toaster has 35 special functions, can be preloaded with 6 different types of bread, auto detects the level of toastiness, can be programed for the preferences of 150 different users, automatically smears your bread with your choice of 14 different jellies or 18 different cream cheeses, and communicates wirelessly with the coffee maker to make sure that both items are timed to be completed at the same time. The WindSeeker, however, just spins around. I wonder if the queue line for the toaster is themed…

Six Flags – This park chain opened the new season by graduating up from ridiculously high parking fees to just committing armed robbery as people pull through the front gate.

Universal Orlando – In a major announcement that the park had been hinting at for nearly a month, the park confirms that Despicable Me is going to replace Jimmy Neutron, completely disappointing people like yours truly who had gone so far as to plan for shutting down most of the park and installing How To Train Your Dragon, Lord of the Rings, more Harry Potter stuff, Avatar, Madagascar, and an innovative attraction built around crappy comedy romance movies.

Disney Company – On both coasts, the Disney Company opened Star Tours: The Adventure Continues, an innovative attraction that allows the simulator to randomly play different sections each time you ride it. I am personally a fan of the combination of Jiggle – Shake – Vomit – Shake pt2 – Vomit pt2 & pt3 & pt4.

Busch Gardens Tampa – Cheetah Season opened with their new launched roller coaster, Cheetah Hunt. After taking a ride on this new thrill machine, I went over to the Cheetah Meat and Pelt Company for lunch and found that cheetah does taste quite a bit like chicken.

Disney's California Adventure – After having nearly the entire park closed for construction, the park finally decided to open the Little Mermaid ride that had been in the design stages for nearly 15 years. Like many nostalgic things, within minutes of the ride opening up, people realized how old and boring the Little Mermaid was.

Notable openings also include the Dare Devil Dive at Six Flags over Georgia and Dinosaurs Alive at Kings Island. Neither of which received much press here, because they are not in "theme parks." The Dinosaurs Alive attraction is one that I am particularly disgruntled with. Yes, it is an upcharge attraction with an additional upcharge movie that goes with it, but my real beef is with the name. If the name is Dinosaurs Alive, I want to see some actual dinosaurs that are actually alive. The name of the attraction is not Crappy Single Pivot Point Robotic Dinosaurs that Sound Like a Dog Fight Through a Rubber Tube, but that seems to be what we got. I would not expect crappy robotic zebras if the attraction was called Zebras Alive.

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So there you have it: May. If you don't remember the month like I do, please set a monkey-boy straight in the discussion below.

All monkey pictures have been lovingly borrowed from the amazing artist Frank Cho and his long-deceased comic strip Liberty Meadows. No monkeys were harmed during the production of this article, but monkey boy did get mentally traumatized with the press of post-holiday shoppers last night after he was able to chew through the chains keeping him at his writing desk.

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Theme Park Insider's 2011 Year In Review - April

By Jeff Elliott
Published: December 28, 2011 at 5:59 PM

Note: The editor of these articles has insisted that I make the soon to be obvious point that while there may be some real news in here, the key to these articles is a sense of humor. While your own recollection of these stories may be a little different than what is presented below, your recollection is quite possibly closer to truth. While it was requested that I keep to the facts, I realized quite quickly in this process that 1) I should not be considered a good source of factual information and 2) You should know better by now.

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April, the bull-rush of trying to get last minute details fixed up so that you can open your seasonal theme park on time. The last of a two month sprint of no holidays (unless you get spring break). Being that it is so early in the season, now is the perfect time to visit your nearby seasonal park, where there won't be any lines… because they are not quite open yet. Since this is crunch time, there is surprising little in the news.

The captain has turned on the no obscene scratching sign. In the case of an emergency landing, please place your head between your knees to better facilitate kissing your butt goodbye. Keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times. The inflight movie is Mrs. Doubtfire played over and over and over and over again. Enjoy!

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Theme Park Insider's Year In Review - April

Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom – The lawyers have done their thing. The judge has presided. The jury has received many free lunches while being paid less than minimum wage. The judgment has been passed down. Mickey and Minnie's eviction from their houses in Toontown stands. The neighbors were completely within their rights to throw the couple out of the neighborhood for all of the late night screaming matches, fist fights, dog neglect, broken windows, and beer bottles thrown into other neighbor's yards. The verdict also read that Mickey was well within his rights to have, as he puts it, "The whole &$#%^^% neighborhood torn down and replaced by a whole herd of flying elephants that do nothing but crap in your begonias." According to the citations on the restraining order, Mickey is allowed to move into a new place on Main Street near the fire station where officials can keep an eye on him.

Disney Company – After sensing a great greenness in the Force, Disney decides to break ground on what will eventually become Shanghai Disneyland in order to bleed that economy dry too; which is very odd, since Disney had not that long ago opened up Hong Kong Disneyland in China only to have everyone ignore that park. This park will need to be the most spectacular and attraction heavy Disney park ever build to get people over their jaded feelings toward the Hong Kong park. While the local residents are still unaware that a Disney park is going into the neighborhood, other more enterprising people have already copied it and sold it on the black market.

Tokyo Disneyland – After a long search, Mickey and Minnie were located and returned to Tokyo Disneyland. Apparently the rats abandoning ship thing applies to 6 foot tall mice as well who had stowed away on a cargo ship getting the heck out of Japan. Found under the assumed names of Rupert and Glenna McFinkle and hiding in a large crate of counterfeit Duffy dolls, Rupert and Glenna were finally returned to the park nearly a month later where they were positively identified as 6 foot tall mice. Tokyo Disneyland was reopened the following day, although a report did hint that the park opened without the Three Little Pigs who had last been seen heading cross country in the general direction of the failed nuclear reactors, singing, "I build my house of…." Days later the world was taken over by a new aggressive egg-stealing breed of green pigs.

Orlando Thrill Park – What started off as an argument in a bar that somehow escalated into a business proposal, was shut down by community planning commission. The argument was started when someone said through a Budweiser haze that a true thrill style amusement park could kick the crap out of the Disney parks. Weeks later a proposal, still on the original beer stained napkins, were in front of the county planning commission. The neighbors, who had already received a fair amount of renegade beer bottles tossed over their fences while the group scouted out the area, were quick to point out the many evils of having an amusement park within vomiting distance of their houses and looming over the top of it like some dread cloud. In a unanimous decision, the planning commission denied the permit and sent the entrepreneurs back to the bar to discuss other get rich quick schemes, like genetically engineered dinosaurs that are bred to function as garbage cans and sink disposals. Which, of course, goes to show that if you want to beat someone, it is a good idea to pay to have the planning commission filled with your own people.

Six Flags Over Texas – There are different kinds of bets in the world. There are stupid bets (I bet you a dollar you won't give me that ticket, officer), drunk bets (I bet my eyebrows won't catch on fire), lucrative bets (I bet you a million dollars that after starting the season with 1 win and 4 losses, the Denver Broncos will never be able to make the playoffs), well-thought-through bets (I bet you the sun will come up tomorrow), not-well-thought-through bets (I bet you a dollar that you can't get me to gamble), surprise bets (It's a Boy!), and of course many others. Six Flags Over Texas made one of those risky bets, using an untried company, untried concept, untried manufacturing, untried engineers, etc. etc., but it sure paid off. With the opening of the New Texas Giant this month, Six Flags Over Texas did an "all in" with their classic, yet aging wooden roller coaster and hit the jackpot. Swiss and German designers for years have been figuring out that what people really want on a roller coaster is airtime and the New Texas Giant delivers that and more with horns on it. Now if we could just get them to go and fix Son of Beast.

Coney Island – In a scene straight out of the movie "Field of Dreams," someone figured out "if you build it, they will come." The new Scream Zone at Luna Park on Coney Island put up the first two roller coasters in Coney Island in over 50 years and then stood back in amazement as people showed up by the subway full. I really hate to harp on this point, but it seems like an absolute no-brainer that if you want to increase attendance at your park without discounting the entrance fees to where you barely break even, put up a new ride every year, and a major ride every second or third year. Oh, and it wouldn't hurt to license Harry Potter….

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So there you have it: April. If you don't remember the month like I do, please set a monkey-boy straight in the discussion below.

All monkey pictures have been lovingly borrowed from the amazing artist Frank Cho and his long deceased comic strip Liberty Meadows. No monkeys were harmed during the production of this article, but strong words were exchanged….

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A tour of Tokyo DisneySea: Mermaid Lagoon

By Robert Niles
Published: December 28, 2011 at 7:19 AM

Today, we continue our look at Tokyo DisneySea with a visit to Mermaid Lagoon.

Approaching Mermaid Lagoon from Mysterious Island, I saw another impressive mountain-like facade, inspired by King Tritron's undersea kingdom from the film that revived Disney's animated film division: "The Little Mermaid."

Ariel and Flounder, at the entrance to Mermaid Lagoon.

All I knew about Mermaid Lagoon before visiting Tokyo was that one of its rides - Jumpin' Jellyfish - was also at California Adventure, and it was one of my daughter's favorite rides when she was younger. So when I saw the facade for Mermaid Lagoon, I expected to walk through it and see another California Adventure-like outdoor setting for Jumpin' Jellyfish and its accompanying rides.

Not even close.

Immediately inside the passageway stands King Triton, on his way to a royal proclamation:

Triton's royal proclamation in Mermaid Lagoon, with a Christmas twist.

And just in case you didn't yet know where you were heading, a sign proclaims:

Sign at the entrance to Triton's Kingdom at Mermaid Lagoon.

Triton's Kingdom isn't just some kiddie land. It's a wildly themed underwater world. That's right - a complete indoor theme park land.

Inside Triton's Kingdom at Mermaid Lagoon.

Take a look at the ceiling detail.

Ceiling detail in Triton's Kingdom at Mermaid Lagoon.

The rides inside Triton's Kingdom are kiddie fare, sure. But in such an imaginative setting, who cares? Go for a spin in The Whirlpool:

The Whirlpool

Or fly by in the Blowfish Balloon Race:

Blowfish Balloon Race

And, of course, you can't forget a ride on the Jumpin' Jellyfish:

Jumpin' Jellyfish

If your kids want to burn off some excess energy after waiting in line for those rides, take them to Ariel's Playground:

Ariel's Playground

For grown-ups, the only attraction beyond watching your children play is the Mermaid Lagoon Theater, featuring Ariel and friends in "Under the Sea."

Mermaid Lagoon Theater

I'd mistakenly thought that this would be similar to the Little Mermaid show at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Florida. Wrong again. Tokyo's Little Mermaid show replaces Florida's puppets with a Cirque du Soleil-style aerial acrobatic show, performing popular tunes from "The Little Mermaid." Here's a clip I found after I spaced recording the show:

Hungry yet? Given that The Little Mermaid features one of Disney's best songs about food ("Les Poissons," second only to "Be My Guest," I'd vote), you'd expect a themed restaurant down here, and - as usual - Tokyo DisneySea delivers. But it's not Chef Louis' restaurant, it's Sebastian's Calypso Kitchen:

Sebastian's Calypso Kitchen

Sebastian's Calypso Kitchen

As far as I could see, the Seafood Pizza does not appear to include crab. Sebastian is safe! :^)

Mermaid Lagoon extends "above water," outside Triton's Kingdom, with Flounder's Flying Fish Coaster and the Himalaya-like Scuttle's Scooters, though - let's face it - darling it's better down where it's wetter, under the sea.

Tomorrow, we'll cross the water again, over to Arabian Coast.

Also on the tour: History, layout and Mediterranean Harbor, Mysterious Island, Lost River Delta, Port Discovery, American Waterfront

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Theme Park Insider's 2011 Year In Review - March

By Jeff Elliott
Published: December 28, 2011 at 7:13 AM

Note: The editor of these articles has insisted that I make the soon to be obvious point that while there may be some real news in here, the key to these articles is a sense of humor. While your own recollection of these stories may be a little different than what is presented below, your recollection is quite possibly closer to truth. While it was requested that I keep to the facts, I realized quite quickly in this process that 1) My library card was taken from me years ago and 2) There is little research to be found in One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish….

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March is the beginning of Spring, unless you live high up in the backwoods mountains or Canada, aka the other backwoods of the United States. The meaningless hockey season is starting to come to an end and all of the teams get to start over in the playoffs. There was not much going on this month other than the near-ending of life on this planet.

The captain has turned on the no-yodeling sign. Please look around the cabin and identify the pregnant women, because in case of a water landing, they will float. Keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times. And remember that we are watching you through the duration of our flight.

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Japan – Never one to be outdone by those crazy Floridians, Japan tried to one up Universal's Dudley Do-Right and Disney's Tiki Room by attempting to take out an entire nation and almost the whole world. With an 8.9 earthquake and following 30-foot tsunami, what was meant to merely do a little bit of damage to the theme park quickly escalated into a full fledge disaster as the tsunami took out a nuclear power plant, flooded the airport and the parking lot at Tokyo Disneyland and generally did bad things to the whole area. While the result was the Disney Theme Parks shut down for a month, not enough damage was done to ever get an insurance company payout. You get an A for effort, but the follow through just wasn't there. Remember: Give the kids matches and you are halfway there.

Islands of Adventure – With the world's sympathies going with the people of Japan, the Islands quietly picked up its Dudley Do-Right ride, dusted it off, wiped away the tears, and reopened.

Universal Studios Florida – An announcement was made that the Jimmy Neutron is going to close. Both people who liked this ride were and still are very upset.

Walt Disney World – After reading a column on this website by Robert Niles, Disney cancels Grad night and makes a formal apology to its cast members. With such a huge loss to the social lives of young people, high school students are forced to go back to having illicit sex in cars like everyone else.

Universal Orlando – With their stock price as high as it had ever been, Blackstone decides to cash out of Universal Orlando, forcing Comcast to either cough up the cash to buy their share or to also sell. Comcast proves once again that our cable rates are too high when they are able to come up with the billions out of the seat cushions in their corporate lobby, even after they had just bought NBCUniversal.

Six Flags Magic Mountain – In a sure case of fuzzy math that would make Enron and Arthur Andersen proud, Magic Mountain opens up a new ride, Superman: Escape from Krypton, on the track of an old ride, with the same vehicles as the old ride, but somehow it is new. Odd that. But the key here is that the new ride goes backward. Well, I can do this crap too, therefore, if I were to say: Snorom gnikaerf fo hcnub a era srengised sgalf xis, I could claim that I just created a new language.

Disney's Magic Kingdom – In order to dress up the queue line of the recipient of the worse attraction name contest for the 20th year in a row, the Imagineers put some crap… excuse me… interactive elements… out in the queue line of the Haunted Mansion to keep the people standing in line from killing each other after hearing the loop of the music for the 70th time. Honestly, I don't see why the attraction doesn't get derided more for such a crappy name. When Elitch's opened up "The Flying Coaster," I thought it was a tremendous lack of vision and creativity, but everyone has been singing the praises of the Haunted Mansion for years and yet it is a functional title and not so much a name. When you are done with the Haunted Mansion be sure to check out the Singing Dolls Boat Ride, the Slavery-Themed Log Ride, and the Space-Themed Rollercoaster.

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So there you have it: March. If you don't remember the month like I do, please set a monkey-boy straight in the discussion below.

All monkey pictures have been lovingly borrowed from the amazing artist Frank Cho and his long deceased comic strip Liberty Meadows. No monkeys were harmed during the production of this article, but monkey boy's dog did get in the way of his stumbling around the house and a tail was trodden upon….

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Theme Park Insider's 2011 Year In Review - February

By Jeff Elliott
Published: December 27, 2011 at 6:27 PM

Note: The editor of these articles has insisted that I make the soon to be obvious point that while there may be some real news in here, the key to these articles is a sense of humor. While your own recollection of these stories may be a little different than what is presented below, your recollection is quite possibly closer to truth. While it was requested that I keep to the facts, I realized quite quickly in this process that 1) Facts are negotiable (just ask my wife) and 2) I am hung over….

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February, the month of long-dead presidents' birthdays. The month of the long, slow letdown after you have already played with and broken all of your Christmas presents. Yes, we get the Super Bowl commercials, but we still have to deal with the crappy weather outside. The good news is that this is a very short month. As the hangover month, there is surprisingly little to talk about… definitely a work-in-progress kind of month.

The captain has turned on the no-vomiting sign. Please return your tray table to the upright and locked position. Keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times. And try to stay awake while the flight attendants show you how to work a seatbelt.

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Theme Park Insider's Year In Review - February

Busch Gardens Tampa – Cheetah Hunt, the unfortunately named ride where you are on a simulated run to kill vicious rouge cheetahs that have been attacking and dismembering baby otters, is nearing completion. The late this month the roller coaster trains arrived and work was started on the system to quickly reload the ammunition on the coaster cars while guests are boarding the trains. Busch Gardens has also put an order in to the rest of the zoos in the country to have the up production of cheetahs just in case some of the riders get off a couple of lucky shots. The Cheetah Meat and Pelt Company is also finishing up construction nearby, so those of you with bleeding hearts can be assured that the carcasses will not go to waste.

Islands of Adventure – After nearly having a support rust away and fall off the Hulk ride, Universal decided to paint the support into place. After seeing that the one support was sticking out with the new paint job, they grudgingly decided to paint the rest of the ride as well. After that, the workers at Universal went back to fawning over how cool Harry Potter Land is.

SeaWorld – The theme park chain decided to let trainers back into the water with the killer whales in new meat suits designed by Lady Gaga. Much like the way farmers use coyote and wolf urine to keep rabbits out of their crops, the new meat suits will be made to taste like something that the killer whales will not attack. There are currently several versions being tested, environmentalist flavor, politician flavor, lawyer flavor, and lunchlady flavor. As a distraction while testing continues, SeaWorld announced a new ride for their San Diego park designed to dive bomb and terrorize all of their other animals, called Manta. Knowing how slow SeaWorld is with their construction, this will probably be ready to go by 2034.

Disney – After a notorious run in with the Jonas Brothers, Mickey Mouse is only meeting with people who have an appointment. Get your Fastpasses early for this, the Mouse has a really short fuse.

Universal Singapore – After learning about the joys of Gorilla Tape, Universal Singapore was finally able to repair and reopen their Battlestar Galactica dueling coasters. It would have been better if Vekoma had designed a coaster that wasn’t so rough, but, you know, sometimes the lowest bidder is the lowest quality.

Orlando – The rail line that has been in the planning stages for nearly 30 years now that would connect all of the parks with the airport, was officially rejected by the governor of Florida. Looks like they need to go back to the planning stages and spend a couple tens of millions of dollars coming up with a better plan.

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So there you have it: February. If you don’t remember the month like I do, please set a monkey-boy straight in the discussion below.

All monkey pictures have been lovingly borrowed from the amazing artist Frank Cho and his long deceased comic strip Liberty Meadows. No monkeys were harmed during the production of this article, but monkey boy did get a nasty paper cut while doing his research….

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Theme Park Insider's 2011 Year In Review - January

By Jeff Elliott
Published: December 27, 2011 at 12:53 PM

Note: The editor of these articles has insisted that I make the soon to be obvious point that while there may be some real news in here, the key to these articles is a sense of humor. While your own recollection of these stories may be a little different than what is presented below, your recollection is quite possibly closer to truth. While it was requested that I keep to the facts, I realized quite quickly in this process that 1) Facts have to be researched and 2) I am lazy….

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If you are like me, when someone asks you what you did last weekend, you typically default to an, "I don't know, not much," unless you just returned from your latest vacation at some eyeball-searing billion-dollar theme park. In my case it is particularly bad, and if someone were to ask me what I had for dinner last night or for breakfast this morning, I would probably say, "I don't know… um… food of some sort?" It is not as if I don't remember things, I can name the manufacturers, height, speed, and year opened for most rides I have been on as well as some unique trivia bit about each one…..but after that there seems to be little left over for what I consider to be a moving target of garbage knowledge. I mean, who really cares if you can remember your kid's names? "Hey, you" works just fine.

This leads me to our actual topic today: the news. I think we would all be stuck on the answer of "nothing much" if we were to ask about what happened during the last year, but as the resident news person around here, I have to say that a ton of things happened this year. In fact two tons, maybe even three. This has been a fantastic news year for theme parks, started off with a fire on New Year's Day and it only got better after that. As a public service to everyone who reads this site, I will go over the last year in news, split down into the different months, recounting what was so great about this year, so that when someone asks you what happened over the year, we don't give them the, "I don't know, not much".

The captain has turned on the no smoking sign. Please fasten your seat belts. Keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times. And try not to feel sorry for the poor bullet filled hippo.

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Theme Park Insider's Year In Review - January

Islands of Adventure – On New Year's Day and several weeks before finalizing the sale of Universal Studios to Comcast, the departing executives tried one last ditch effort to cash out with the insurance companies and tried to burn down Islands of Adventure starting with Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls. What we found out much later was that the fire was meant to spread all of the way into Jurassic Park on one side, keeping Universal from having to break the news to Spielberg that they were going to knock down one of his rides again to expand the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. On the other side, the fire was supposed to spread all of the way down to Spiderman and thoroughly gut that ride as well, so that Universal could get out of the Marvel contract that Disney now owns, while at the same time getting all of the insurance money that they needed to start over from scratch with Transformers. Much to the relief of log ride fans across the world, Dudley Do-Right's Horse was able to put out the fire by urinating on it after having been held over on a long shift without a break. Realizing the size of crowds drawn by something burning, Universal raises their admission fees and passes out free books of matches to all guests under 10 years of age.

Magic Kingdom – Not to be outdone by Universal, Disney attempts to burn down the Tiki Room: Under New Management, but even a fire couldn't stand being in that place longer than a couple of minutes and puts itself out of its own misery. Citing "smoke damage," Disney charges cast members $20 a swing to take sledge hammers to everything the fire didn't quite get to. While most cast members were tentative about trashing something that Walt built, after turning the show on, they suddenly had a line stretching into Tomorrowland.

Islands of Adventure – After a mere seven months of being open, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter sold it one-millionth Butterbeer and increased attendance at the park by 30% with a single new ride and a themed mini-mall. After scratching their collective heads for several months, Disney responded by closing down Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland to have the whole thing replaced by a gigantic themed mini-mall and dueling Dumbo rides.

Disneyland and Magic Kingdom – Within weeks of each other, the two parks started broadcasting TV on their castles instead of the traditional fireworks. While the concept started out to be a gimmick to show maybe 15 people of the 50,000 that are at the parks on any given day, they quickly realized that cute kids really don't keep the ratings up. They then decided to take a page out of their own show, America's Funniest Home Videos, and show people falling, cutting in line, fist fights, pouring drinks down themselves or others, and many similar type videos. After being threatened with a lawsuit for publicly airing these videos, the two parks have decided to just project reruns of Dancing with the Stars and The Bachelor on the side of the castle.

Disney California Adventure - In an attempt to get more people to actually enter the park, California Adventure decided to take down its most popular attraction: the letters spelling California out in front of the park. This was also in response to many guest complaints about not having all of the other letters of the alphabet. In other news, the steel structure that will eventually become the wraparound mountain range for Cars Land has gone up. RIP: Timon and Pumbaa parking lot… we hardly knew thee…. I don't quite understand why when they want to make a land about cars, they rip up the parking lot. It would seem to me that the parking lot would be a perfect place to run into a bunch of cars….

Wallet Disney's Animal Kingdom – As if just doing the Jungle Cruise or the Kilimanjaro Safari wasn't good enough, guests who want to get closer to the animals while at the same time wasting three hours of their paid admission, can cough up and extra three digits to go on a VIP tour of the park. Highlights include being trampled by wildebeests, stepping across a stream on the backs of crocodiles, and becoming the afternoon snack of the lions.

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So there you have it: January. If you don't remember the month like I do, please set a monkey-boy straight in the discussion below.

All monkey pictures have been lovingly borrowed from the amazing artist Frank Cho and his long deceased comic strip Liberty Meadows. No monkeys were harmed during the production of this article, but we think that it may be a good idea if monkey boy doesn't start writing these things a bit faster….

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A tour of Tokyo DisneySea: Mysterious Island

By Robert Niles
Published: December 27, 2011 at 10:36 AM

Mysterious Island is Steampunk heaven.

Set within the confines of Mount Prometheus, Mysterious Island pays tribute three classic Jules Verne novels in a richly detailed setting. Step behind the mountain walls that guard Mysterious Island from the rest of Tokyo DisneySea, and you'll enter a nineteenth century vision of futuristic technology, where ingenuity and willpower can take you anywhere, including to the bottom of the sea and the center of the Earth.

Outside Mysterious Island

Inside Mysterious Island

Inside Mysterious Island

Looking down at 20K

In Jules Verne's world, Mysterious Island is the final port of the Nautilus, and we see it here, moored in the lagoon at the center of the island. But the Nautilus' retirement does not mean the end of our adventure 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Instead of riding the Nautilus on a submarine ride as we did years ago at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, here we descend in four-passenger diving bells to explore Verne's undersea world.

Inside 20K
Inside the 20K diving bell. Photo by reader Madeline Kimmich.

Your trip begins innocently, though underwater farms and a ship's graveyard. But a narrow escape from a giant squid sends you to depths unknown, where you discover the ruins of Atlantis. And who is that living in Atlantis now?

Turn the joystick in front of your seat to direct the spotlight as you travel "underwater." Really, the bubble effect is just in your window - this is otherwise a traditional, tracked dark ride. But I preferred it to the old Magic Kingdom sub ride, since you could feel elevation changes here - drops and rises that never physically happened on Disney World's Florida-flat submarine track. I tried to record the ride for you, but while having a single spotlight to illuminate the sights helped reinforce the feeling of traveling in the deepest, darkest seas, it made for video way too dim to see well.

As much as I enjoyed 20K, it's far from the highlight in the land. That honor goes to Journey to the Center of the Earth. Imagine if the ride from Epcot's Test Track weren't trapped inside a car commercial, but instead liberated with a classic science fiction narrative, and a truly awesome villain from which you narrowly escaped in an exhilarating finale.

That's Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Entrance to Journey of the Center of the Earth

Your journey begins ever before you enter the queue, as you see Captain Nemo's giant drilling machine boring its way through Mount Prometheus, from outside the ride.

The drillig machine

As with many attractions at Tokyo DisneySea, the queue itself also provides many of the ride's delights. Lava bubbles up from the depths,

Lava bubbles

Nemo's laboratories await inspection,

Laboratory equipment

but the most engaging sights, for me, were the drawn illustrations of Nemo's journeys - here depicting a tunnel of the winds, the grand cathedral, and the lake of fire.

Illustrations

I wish that Disney's merchandise team would cool its Duffy obsession long enough to print and sell some of these illustrations as posters - or at least as a book of postcards. I would have made space in my backpack to bring these home.

Once through the queue, you board one of several mine-shaft elevators to take you down to the mine cars for your journey.

Boarding the mine shaft elevators

Boarding the mine cars

On the ride, you begin with a leisurely drive through the Crystal Caverns, then into the Giant Mushroom Forest. Of course, then something goes terribly wrong - a cave-in prevents you from continuing along the tour course, and your car blasts through a red warning light on its way into restricted areas. Lightning crackles around you as you dive further into the Earth, driving past lakes of fire. And then… the monster.

This might be the most impressive animatronic I've ever seen - nearly 20 feet tall, looking like some unholy offspring of Harry Potter's dragon and the alien from "Super 8." My thanks to Theme Park Insider reader Madeline Kimmich for capturing this close-up photo.

The monster

The creature roars and it's the moment for your escape. Your car accelerates, rising back toward the surface before blasting through the fog out the side of Mount Prometheus.

Blasting out of the mountain

Yes, you even get airtime as your car hops the crest before plunging back into the depths for a run around the island and your return to Nemo's station. While the ride itself is short, it impressed me more than anything else I rode at Tokyo Disney Resort. As soon as I exited, I ran for the FastPass machines to pick up a return time for a re-ride.

After riding Journey to the Center of the Earth, you'll also better understand the architecture of Mysterious Island. The mountain walls surrounding the lagoon are, in fact, the track of the Journey ride, where you take that final, high-speed spin before returning to the station.

While Mysterious Island has just two rides, there is a third major attraction here.

The Gyoza Dog.

Gyoza Dog

Tokyo DisneySea's signature snack item is on sale only at the Refreshment Station in Mysterious Island, on the side exiting toward Mermaid Lagoon.

Refreshment Station

For 420 yen ($5.40), you get a mild, uncased sausage, stuffed with cabbage, green onion and mushroom into a steamed bun. Don't be intimidated. The bun tastes like a fresh white bread with an airy, almost spongy texture, but without the browned crust.

Biting into the Gyoza dog

The bun's neutral flavor keeps the focus on the filling, which offers a spicier kick than a traditional hot dog. Think of a giant bratwurst potsticker and you'd be close to what the Gyoza sausage tastes like.

If you're hungry for something else while visiting Mysterious Island, you have two other counter-service options: Vulcania Restaurant, serving Chinese meals, and Nautilus Galley, a small eatery serving turkey legs and beer, down on the surface of the lagoon.

Tomorrow, we'll step next door to visit Mermaid Lagoon.

Also on the tour: History, layout and Mediterranean Harbor, Arabian Coast, Lost River Delta, Port Discovery, American Waterfront

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A tour of Tokyo DisneySea: History, layout and Mediterranean Harbor

By Robert Niles
Published: December 26, 2011 at 10:15 AM

DisneySea was the second park that Disneyland fans could have had, instead of California Adventure.

Tokyo DisneySea

Let me explain by taking you back to 1988. That year, the Walt Disney Company bought the parent company of the Disneyland Hotel, which it had been trying to acquire for many years. Walt could barely raise enough money to build the Disneyland park back in the 1950s, so he had left development of the hotel to Hollywood producer Jack Wrather, best known for The Lone Ranger and Lassie TV series. By 1988, Wrather Corporation has acquired the lease for the Queen Mary in Long Beach, too, so when Disney finally got the Disneyland Hotel, it also got the Queen Mary.

But what to do with it? In buying the Disneyland Hotel, Disney also acquired a lot of its surrounding land - including the land on which the Mickey and Friends parking structure now stands. Throw in the land surrounding the Queen Mary in Long Beach, and Disney now had not just one, but two, options for the expanding to add the second theme park that it wanted for Southern California. It could build a second park in Anaheim, or build in Long Beach.

Disney Imagineers' initial concept for Anaheim was to bring Walt Disney World's second theme park west. "Westcot" would have been a scaled-down version of the EPCOT Center theme park, built on Disneyland's parking lot. It would have had a golden geosphere, surrounded by the nations of World Showcase, but with no space-consuming World Showcase lagoon, given the tighter quarters in Anaheim.

The Long Beach option was a nautical-themed park with the Queen Mary as a centerpiece - a "Disneysea" to Anaheim's Disneyland. But building in Long Beach would have required an expensive monorail expansion to link the two parks, as well as living with the uncertainty of building on land that the company was leasing, and didn't own.

So Disney stepped away from the Long Beach plan, eventually dropping the Queen Mary lease. And after EuroDisneyland opened in 1992 as a giant money pit, the company ditched the Westcot plans, too, opting instead for a less-expensive California-themed park - which became Disney's California Adventure.

But Disney's Imagineers are perhaps the world's greatest recyclers - they never throw anything away. When the Oriental Land Co., the Japanese firm that owns Tokyo Disneyland, decided in 1988 it wanted to add a second park to that resort, initially it considered a version of the Studios theme park then under development at Walt Disney World. After kicking around that idea for a few years, Imagineers convinced Oriental Land to develop the Disneysea plans from Long Beach instead.

S.S. Columbia

While Disney beancounters kept California Adventure (v1.0) focused on retail and lightly-themed attractions, they had no say over what Imagineering could do in Tokyo. Bound by its licensing deal with Disney, Oriental Land agreed to a much larger budget for DisneySea than Disney had for California Adventure - about $4.5 billion to about $1 billion for DCA.

So while American theme park fans derided California Adventure, on September 4, 2001, the Oriental Land Company opened Tokyo DisneySea, the most elaborately detailed theme park in the world.

The American Waterfront

The earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in March 2011 caused Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea to be closed for the first extended period in the park's history. But today, neither park shows any sign of damage, and if the lingering effects of the disasters are harming attendance at the parks, well, I can't imagine them being more popular that they appear today.

I arrived at one of the park's two entry plaza 45 minutes before opening, and found several hundred people waiting. By the tine the park opened at nine, I estimated nearly 9,000 people were queued to enter, by my old journalism school crowd-estimation tricks. There's no soft open to allow people to fill the entry plaza before a rope drop - just a flood unleashed through the turnstiles at nine.

Disney smartly tried to distract a few of the early entrants with Mickey and Minnie.

Mickey and Minnie

But for the most part, visitors simply sprinted into the park. Honestly, that entry was one of the few times I've ever felt fear in a theme park - hundreds of people in a full-speed-ahead run, flowing in front two entry plazas, as cast members simply smiled and bowed toward them, making no attempt to slow anyone. My first reaction was to tense and brace for an inevitable impact, then I noticed that even with so many people running so fast, no one was colliding. The crowd simply was moving as one, at breakneck speed. So this is what Pamplona is like. You're gonna run with the bulls, baby, 'cause you don't want see what it's like to stop.

So I ran.

Entering the park

Tokyo DisneySea is laid out in the familiar circular pattern, with a central body of water between the many themed lands.

Tokyo DisneySea map
The map of Tokyo DisneySea, available from the Tokyo Disney website.

You enter through the Mediterranean Harbor, walking under Disney's Hotel Mira Costa and past the many shops and restaurants in this entry land.

Hotel Mira Costa

Then, to the left is the American Waterfront, dominated by the Tower of Terror and life-sized S.S. Columbia (which looks to be a dead ringer for the Queen Mary. Sigh.) Beyond that, in order, come the futuristic Port Discovery, the Amazon-themed Lost River Delta, Arabian Coast, Mermaid Lagoon and Mysterious Island.

Mysterious Island

But before we rush off to Mysterious Island, let me say a few words about the merchandise available at Tokyo DisneySea, and give you links to our restaurant listings for the places to eat in Mediterranean Harbor.

I'd hoped to pick up a couple of nice Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea T-shirts on my visit, but found that if Tokyo Disney sells T-shirts, they don't have them available in December. Instead, I found plenty of winter headwear,

Winter headgear

sweets,

Sweets display

and Duffy.

Acres of Duffy

And that's it. In fact, Duffy commanded an overwhelming majority of character display space in stores throughout DisneySea. Oh, and Duffy has a girlfriend, too: ShellieMay.

Shellie the Disney Bear

I understand now why Disney seems so keen on pushing Duffy to its American theme park fans. Because Disney is printing money with Duffy in Japan: Duffy dolls, Duffy purses, Duffy hats, Duffy keychains, Duffy lanyards, and, yes, Duffy popcorn buckets.

Duffy popcorn buckets at Tokyo DisneySea

Tokyo visitors queue deep to buy them all. Is it any wonder why Disney wouldn't try to clone this cash cow in America?

If wading your way through Duffydom has left you hungry, you've got several dining choices along the Mediterranean Harbor - so long as you like Italian.

Venice canals

  • Ristorante di Canaletto is a table service restaurant along the canals of Venice.
  • Cafe Portofino is a counter-service location on the other side of Mediterranean Harbor, specializing in Italian food tweaked toward Japanese tastes.
  • Zambini Brothers Ristorante stands next to Cafe Portofino, but serves more traditional Italian fare.

Tomorrow, we'll continue our virtual trip around Tokyo DisneySea with a look inside Mysterious Island, home to what's become my favorite Disney attraction anywhere, Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Also on the tour: Mermaid Lagoon, Arabian Coast, Lost River Delta, Port Discovery, American Waterfront

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Merry Christmas from Theme Park Insider

By Robert Niles
Published: December 23, 2011 at 3:36 PM

As we head into the cold, snowy north to visit the in-laws for the next week, I'd like to take a moment to wish all Theme Park Insider readers a merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, kwazy Kwanzaa, a tip-top Tet, and a solemn, dignified Ramadan*. (*Obligatory Simpsons reference.) To further celebrate the moment, here are a few of the Christmas-wishes videos being sent out by top theme parks.

A Visit from St. Nicholas, from Disney Parks:

How the Grinch Stole Christmas, from Universal Studios Hollywood:

Santa forgets the SeaWorld animals:

Santa's elves on Alpengeist, from Busch Gardens Williamsburg:

Happy holidays, from Legoland California:

Merry Christmas, from Holiday World:

Remember, we begin Tokyo DisneySea week on Monday, and the annual Theme Park Insider tournament starts on January 4. And if you know (or are) a theme park fan who's getting a Kindle, iPad or Nook for Christmas, remember that Stories from a Theme Park Insider makes for a fun way to break in a new eReader on Christmas afternoon. :^)

Have fun watching the Disney parade on Christmas morning, and if you are visiting a park this weekend, don't sleep in, arrive super-early and don't forget that we always welcome Christmas theme-park-visit trip reports on the discussion board! Take care, and as always, thank you for reading Theme Park Insider.

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The tournament returns

By Robert Niles
Published: December 23, 2011 at 9:01 AM

The Theme Park Insider 'Best Attraction' Tournament is coming back!

In response to popular demand, I'm bringing back our ride tournament, and making some widely requested changes to help ensure that everyone who wants to gets a chance to participate. The biggest change is that we'll be having just one vote per day, with the polls open for a full 24 hours each time. That means we're going to back up the start of the tournament from its traditional March tip-off, to make room for all the votes.

So the 2012 tournament will begin on… January 4. (What a way to start the New Year!)

The Voyage at Holiday World
Our most recent ride tournament champion was The Voyage at Indiana's Holiday World.

Hey, we've got a lot of attractions participating in this year's tournament - I've slotted 140 rides and shows into this year's bracket. So many that we're not going to start with traditional head-to-head match-ups in the first round.

Tweaking an idea from the roller coaster bracket from two years ago, I've selected up to five top-rated examples in various categories of rides and shows, and we'll be voting on which one of those attractions will represent that ride or show category in head-to-head matches with other attractions, starting in round two.

Categories in round one will include: best shoot-'em-up ride, best single-screen simulator ride, best themed coaster, best flume ride, best boat ride, best animal exhibit, best playground, best 3D movie, best animatronic show, best nighttime spectacular, best wooden coaster, best B&M Mega/Giga, and more. I'll post the round one line-ups on Jan. 3.

Once round one is completed, I'll be publishing a match-up bracket based on the number of votes cast in each first-round poll. (Most votes gets top seed, and on down from there.) The attractions will be competing in four classes: Best Themed Ride, Best Live Show, Best Automated Show and Best Roller Coaster. The winners will be crowned the final week in March.

Voting will be open to anyone, though we'll be limiting each reader to one vote per poll. Just like with our votes of the week, you won't need to register to vote. There won't be any preview posts, as we've done in the past, either. We'll detail the contestants and ask you to vote in the same post.

I hope you'll have as much fun voting in and following this tournament as I've had putting it together over the past few weeks. And the best part? When the tournament is complete, the 2012 theme park season will be here!

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Planning a trip to Singapore to see Universal Studios

By Robert Niles
Published: December 22, 2011 at 11:21 PM

So should you think about visiting Singapore to see Universal Studios Singapore?

Universal globe

Hey, if you've got the money and can afford it, why not? You're a theme park fan, aren't you? And Universal Singapore is one of the world's great theme parks.

Okay, so that's the real question, I suppose: Can you afford the trip to Singapore? Well, I don't know your financial situation, but I can lay out the costs (and benefits) for you, and let you make that decision.

If you live on the U.S. west coast, getting to Asia can be easier and more affordable than flying to Europe, so if you're looking to try an international theme park, the Universal and Disney theme parks in Asia might be better options for you than the European parks. (Conversely, if you live on the East Coast, I think Europe's probably an easier bet for you than Asia.)

Let's start with the time commitment. Flying from the United States, it's going to take you two days to fly to Singapore, since you'll be crossing the International Date Line. Good news is, though, you'll be getting that day back when you return to the U.S.

How's that? A Los Angeles-to-Singapore flight takes about 19 hours in the air, plus an hour and a half or so in Tokyo for refueling. Thanks to the jet stream, it's only about 17 hours (plus the Tokyo stop) coming back. Singapore's 16 hours ahead of LA during the winter (15 hours during Daylight Savings Time, which Singapore doesn't observe), so you're adding that to your travel time on the way there, and subtracting it on the way back. That puts you into Singapore about 37 hours after you leave LA, but back in LA only about three hours after you leave Singapore.

While in Singapore, Universal Studios is a one-day park for theme park insiders like you. ;^) But you can find many other attractions in this city-state to fill as many additional days as you'd care to spend there. Universal Studios Singapore is part of the Resorts World Sentosa development, which includes one of the world's most popular casinos, as well as high-end retail and dining. Outside Resorts World, Sentosa Island also includes beaches, golf courses and other tourist attractions, including observation towers, gondola cars and a zipline park.

Highlights elsewhere in Singapore include Chinatown (Need a suit? About 20 tailors will offer to make you one as you walk by), the Orchard Road shopping area, and the Singapore Zoo, especially its Night Safari - said to be the inspiration for the Kilimanjaro Safaris at Disney's Animal Kingdom.

The biggest tourist attraction in Singapore, though, is the food. If you have any doubt whether you should try something, don't worry - go for it! Singapore's cleaner than any city I've visited in the United States, and the food is spectacular. Go to one of the "hawker centers" (basically, giant food courts) in or near Chinatown and dig in. On the subject of cleanliness, though, I should note that you shouldn't even think about chewing gum or spitting on the ground or sidewalk while in Singapore. They're both illegal, and you do not want to break the law while in Singapore. Trust me.

Merlion
The Merlion is the symbol of Singapore. This one is on Sentosa Island.

Otherwise, don't worry about fitting in. Singapore is Asia for Beginners. English is an official language and the all prices are in "dollars," though the Singapore dollar is worth about 77 US cents. You will not need and should not rent a car while in Singapore. Take a cab from the airport. The MRT train system and affordable taxis can get you anywhere you need to go beyond walking range once you're in the city. And depending upon where you choose to stay, you'll be able to walk to quite a bit. (If you stay in the city, take the MRT to the Vivo City shopping center, then transfer to the Resorts World Sentosa shuttle bus there, to go to Universal Studios Singapore. The bus will drop you at the casino entrance. Just take the escalator upstairs to the plaza level to get to Universal.)

I've found flights from Los Angeles to Singapore starting around $800-$1,000 round-trip, depending upon when you fly. Flying on Singapore Airlines, I've found round-trip economy class prices range from $1,100 to $1,800. (I use Orbitz to track airfares to Singapore.) ANA, which is a Star Alliance partner with Singapore Airlines and the U.S.'s United Airlines, tends to have the lowest rates to Singapore, in my experience watching these fares. But I think that Singapore Airlines is well worth its fares, for the high level of service, excellent food and in-cabin comfort they provide. Economy class on Singapore Airlines feels like first class on U.S. domestic flights - and gets you to Singapore and back for less than the cost of many of those domestic first-class tickets.

As for hotels, I find excellent rooms (clean, modern, with available WiFi and in-house restaurants) widely available for US$150-$250 a night, using Expedia. You can find rooms for less than that, but getting what you're used to in an American hotel room - including an English-speaking staff - at that price point isn't always assured. If you want to stay in Resorts World Sentosa, its hotel rooms typically run between US$220-$460 a night. But that puts you within walking distance of Universal, and all of the other attractions in Resorts World. (It's like the Disneyland Resort in California for walkability.) The Festive Hotel is the least expensive, with the Hard Rock in the middle and the Hotel Michael - which is the most luxurious and closest to the park - fetching the highest rates. The Resorts World Sentosa hotels are not on Expedia, so use the RWS website to check rates. (Use xe.com to figure out exchange rates between Singapore and U.S. dollars.)

Of course, Resorts World Sentosa also offers package deals, which vary by season. You can find the current deals on the Resorts World Sentosa website. Those can be great deals if you're planning to spend almost all your time on Sentosa Island.

And when you are pricing hotel rooms, meals and attraction tickets in Singapore, if you see "nett" after a price, that means the price includes taxes, tips and fees. If you see "++" after the price, that means you'll have to pay taxes and tip on top of the price, just like in America.

No matter where you stay, you should book your Universal tickets in advance, to assure admittance and avoid a wait at the gate. Note that your tickets will be for a specific day, and can't be changed. Universal Studios Singapore varies its admission price, charging S$74 (US$57.23) on busier days, and S$68 (US$52.60) on slower days. (Here's a day-by-day pricing chart.)

Universal Express passes also are available for S$30-50 (US$23.20-$38.67), but I don't think you'll need them. USS has nine major attractions, plus the kiddie rides and spinners - 10 if you ride both sides of Battlestar Galactica. Any frequent Theme Park Insider reader should be able to handle this park with minimal wait and without having to resort to Express passes. Just ride Transformers when it opens in the morning, then go with the flow from there. If you miss the park opening, wait to ride Transformers until later in the day, when the lines diminish somewhat. Or go single rider.

You won't need a visa to visit Singapore from the United States, but as with any trip outside the country, you will need a valid passport that won't expire for at least the next six months. Have that and a printout of your hotel reservation ready when you get to the customs line at the Singapore airport, and you should be good to go. Taxis are readily available at the airport, and don't freak out when you see the steering wheel on the "wrong" side of the car, and your driver heads for the left side of the road. English driving rules apply here, in this former U.K. colony.

One more thing to consider: Bundling a trip to Singapore with other destinations in Asia. I found I could save a couple hundred bucks on my airfare to Singapore if I laid over in Tokyo for a few days, so I added in a trip to Tokyo Disney. Singapore's positioned itself as a travel hub for Asia, so if you take the time to explore some creative options, you might be able to find one that allows you to merge two dream trips into one, and maybe even for a lower price. So use the "multiple cities" option when researching airfares, and see if a Singapore/Tokyo, or Singapore/Hong Kong trip works for you.

If you have any questions, please post them to the comments. And if you have experience traveling to (or living in) Singapore, I'm sure other readers would love to hear from you in the comments, too.

Our land-by-land look at Universal Studios Singapore: Hollywood & New York, Sci Fi City, Egypt, The Lost World, Far, Far Away, and Madagascar

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Universal Studios Hollywood commits to May opening date for Transformers

By Robert Niles
Published: December 22, 2011 at 12:35 PM

Universal Studios Hollywood today released a new teaser video for Transformers: The Ride 3D, in which it commits to a May opening for the new motion-base ride. We'd previously heard an April-May window, but still not a specific date.

The video includes several seconds of footage from the ride, including Bumblebee throwing us the Allspark shard, as well as the wonderful scene when we go crashing through an office building.

The 2D YouTube clip still doesn't give you a true sense of the ride's speed and non-stop action, though. If you haven't read them already, please take a look at my review of Transformers: The Ride when it debuted in Singapore earlier this month (Hollywood is getting the exact same ride), and read my exclusive interview with ride designer Thierry Coup, who describes in great detail what to expect on the ride.

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Top 10 reasons why going to a theme park is better than going to a football game

By Tim Hillman
Published: December 22, 2011 at 12:04 PM

I’ve been thinking. The cost to get into a football game and a theme park are about the same. I love going to both, but which is better? As it turns out, theme parks win in a landslide, and here’s why.

Mickey Mouse and Aaron Rodgers. Photo courtesy Disney

Theme parks are better than football games because:

1. You can wear a Disney shirt to a Universal park and vice versa without getting beer dumped on you or beaten in the parking lot.

2. If you want front row seating you don’t have to pay a higher price for your ticket all you have to do is wait a little longer in line.

3. Disney and Universal aren’t going to pack up and move out of town if the taxpayers don’t fund a new theme park.

4. You can use your season tickets to the theme park more than eight times a year.

5. You don’t have to stand in line to use the bathroom.

6. The pig snouts you will see in a theme park most likely will be on Hay, Sticks, and Bricks or Ham rather than 300 lb men wearing dresses.

7. There are no TV timeouts in theme parks.

8. A roller coaster ride is a great experience and not a season description.

9. Fantasyland is a section of the park instead of a state of mind for all of the wannabe Uncle Ricos sitting in the stands. (Coach woulda put me in fourth quarter, we would've been state champions. No doubt. No doubt in my mind.)

10. Dumbo is a ride and not the beer-swilling, gas-passing, jumbo-sized person crammed into the seat in front of you.

These are just a few of the thoughts that came to me. Anybody else have any?

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A tour of Universal Studios Singapore: Madagascar

By Robert Niles
Published: December 22, 2011 at 10:00 AM

Welcome to Madagascar, a land based entirely on the DreamWorks Animation films, and that's completely unique to Universal Studios Singapore.

Welcome to Madagascar!

Madagascar, as viewed from across the lagoon
Madagascar, as viewed from across the lagoon

The land's signature attraction is Madagascar: A Crate Adventure, an indoor animatronic boat ride that was delayed for nearly a year, helping push back the entire park's official opening.

Madagascar: A Crate Adventure

With an immense, life-sized cargo ship facade and Internet reports of a Pirates-of-the-Caribbean-style drop and two-level show building, expectations for Madagascar ran sky high.

Madagascar boats

But when the ride finally opened earlier this year, the drop was nowhere to be found and the consensus seemed to be that the ride put the "Meh" into "Melman."

Drink
Can't… get… this… drink… off the front of… the boat…

Yet I loved Madagascar: A Crate Adventure. Despite the popularity of rides such as Pirates and It's a Small World, there just aren't that many water-based dark rides out there. Heck, this is Universal's first. The only other non-Disney indoor animatronic boat ride I can remember riding was the old Enchanted Voyage ride at Kings Island.

Beware of Foosa

Let's judge Madagascar: A Crate Adventure not for what it could have been, but for what it is - a charming seven-minute dark ride through the main events of the first Madagascar film, with some fun effects (flinging monkey poo!) and a catchy tune. (Reel 2 Real's "I Like to Move It" is played ubiquitously throughout the land.) And even if they're not fans of Madagascar, visitors to steamy Singapore at least should appreciate seven-plus cool minutes floating in the dark, with air conditioning. What's not to like?

Take a video tour:

If you didn't get enough of "I Like to Move It," climb aboard King Julien's Beach Party-Go-Round, an elaborately-themed carousel featuring Alex, Gloria, Melman and Marty, as well as the Penguins and many of the other Madagascar characters.

King Julien's Beach Party-Go-Round

Alex and Melman
Alex, Melman, and the Penguins

Marty
Marty

When you're ready for something to eat, there's Casa Del Wild, serving chicken satay, roasted chicken and beef rendang.

Casa Del Wild

Or Gloria's Snack Shack, with bento boxes, chicken yakitori, grilled prawns, and vegetable tempura.

Gloria's Snack Shack

From there, you're just a few steps from completing the circuit around the lagoon, and returning to Hollywood.

That wraps up on in-park tour of Universal Studios Singapore. If you missed it, here are our looks at the other lands in the park: Sci Fi City, Egypt, The Lost World, and Far, Far Away.

Tomorrow, I'll post some details about and advice for planning a trip to Singapore to visit Universal. Then on Monday, we'll start Tokyo DisneySea week here on Theme Park Insider.

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Disney releases ride test video for Mater's Junkyard Jamboree in Cars Land

By Robert Niles
Published: December 21, 2011 at 12:39 PM

Disneyland today released a video snippet of ride testing for Mater's Junkyard Jamboree, one of the three new rides coming to Cars Land at Disney California Adventure this spring/summer.

As you can see from the video, Mater's really appears to be a basic spinner ride, with some whipping action. How much action will it get? I suppose that will depend upon the weight in each car.

Mater's Junkyard Jamboree looks to be a fairly low capacity attraction, putting through a few hundred people per hour, at best. But the big attraction in the Cars Land will be the much higher capacity Radiator Springs Racers - and if it turns out anything like Journey to the Center of the Earth at Tokyo DisneySea, which uses the same ride system, expect Radiator Springs Racers to be a huge, huge it. I'll write more about Radiator Springs Racers during Tokyo DisneySea Week on Theme Park Insider, starting Monday.

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A tour of Universal Studios Singapore: Far, Far Away

By Robert Niles
Published: December 21, 2011 at 10:49 AM

Welcome to the land of Far, Far Away, where a fairy tale castle lies over the rainbow.

Welcome to Far, Far Away

Castle over the rainbow

That's a real photo - not a Photoshop job, BTW. Universal Studios Singapore park vice president John Hallenbeck told me during our conversation in the park that Asian tourists love high-end cameras, which is one of the reasons why Universal packed its Singapore theme park with so many ridiculously photogenic sites.

Such as King Harold's castle, which is the home to the Shrek 4-D film at Universal Studios Singapore.

King Harold's Castle

Castle and Far, Far Away gate

Here are hand (and hoof) prints of the Shrek characters, Grauman's Chinese Theater-style, in front of the castle.

Footprints

And a statue of King Harold.

King Harold from Shrek

Here's Far, Far Away from, well, far, far away:

Far, Far Away at Universal Studios Singapore

I've seen the Shrek 4-D show many, many times so I was more looking forward to riding the Enchanted Airways roller coaster while in Far, Far Away.

Enchanted Airways entrance

Enchanted Airways is a familiar Vekoma Junior Coaster (the same basic model as Flight of the Hippogriff at Islands of Adventure, the Great Goofini at Disney World and the Dragon at Legoland California). Its dips and twists carry enough speed to give a beginning coaster rider a sweet first taste of thrill, without giving them so much that they get sick of the experience.

Here, you're riding on the back of the "D380" (a cute riff on Singapore Airlines' heavily-hyped A380).

D380 poster

On the Enchanted Airways roller coaster

But before you ride, you've got to go to the ticket booth, of course.

Ticket booth

Whoops. Looks like our ticket agent, Gingy, has been hitting whatever's in that thimble pretty hard.

Drunk Gingy

FWIW, that was my single favorite photo from the entire Asian trip. Good, solid Universal snark. It makes me laugh every time I look at it. This ride is filled with little touches like that, including Pinocchio's nose growing when he talks about Enchanted Airways' safety record, and the Three Pigs sacking out instead of working on the loading station's roof.

Far, Far Away also offers two other attractions: the Donkey Live show, as well as a small Ferris Wheel in the Fairy Godmother's Potion Shop called Magic Potion Spin. Your dining options include two counter service locations: Goldilocks, which serves fried chicken, and Friar's, which offers wrap sandwiches. Unfortunately, I couldn't find anything deep fried and covered in chocolate.

Tomorrow, we'll make the final stop on our Universal Studios Singapore tour, in Madagascar.

Also on the tour: Hollywood & New York, Sci Fi City, Egypt, The Lost World

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A tour of Universal Studios Singapore: The Lost World

By Robert Niles
Published: December 21, 2011 at 10:03 AM

Beyond Egypt at Universal Studios Singapore lies The Lost World.

The Lost World

The Lost World is home to the park's three Jurassic Park-themed rides, plus two restaurants. The highlight among them is the Jurassic Park Rapids Adventure.

Down for refurbishment

Which was down for refurbishment.

And not just for a clean-and-tweak refurbishment, either. Universal's reportedly building a new lift within the ride, to help improve its average hourly capacity and reduce its wait times. The Singapore version of the Jurassic Park ride differs from the U.S. versions in that it's a tub-style rapids ride rather than the "dinosaur Jungle Cruise" found at Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Hollywood. Here's a look at the ride in operation, from a Theme Park Insider reader:

Jurassic Park Rapids Adventure

And a view of the ride's unique load area:

Jurassic Park Rapids Adventure load area

Beyond the Rapids Adventure, The Lost World offers two rides aimed mainly at kids: First, Canopy Flyer, a suspended flying swing ride around The Lost World, very similar to Pteranodon Flyers at Island of Adventure, but without the themed seats.

Canopy Flyer

Second is Dino-Soarin', a basic up-and-down, round-and-round spinner ride.

Dino-Soarin'

With no Rapids Adventure to ride and no real desire to look like a creeper by hitting up the kiddie rides, I retreated to the Discovery Food Court for lunch.

Discovery Food Court

The Discovery Food Court serves noodles, laksa (noodles topped with shrimp) and the Singaporean favorite, chicken rice.

Dinosaur skeleton, inside the food court
Apparently, there's a rumor going around that this guy tasted just like chicken, too.

So I chose the chicken rice, though I whiffed by going with the roasted chicken option (S$10.50 - about $8 US), instead of the steamed Hainanese version.

Roasted chicken rice set

The rice had a nice chicken flavor to it, but the chicken was, well, chicken. Apparently, what I should have done - had I really been dining like a local - is go for the Hainanese version and smother it with the accompanying hot sauce packet. Live and learn.

If you're looking for something to grab and go, The Lost World's other restaurant, Fossil Fuels serves hot dogs and bratwurst.

Since today's entry was kinda short, I'll be back later today with a longer look at Far, Far Away - Shrek's Singapore home.

Also on the tour: Hollywood & New York, Sci Fi City, Egypt, Madagascar

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Disney announces opening date for Toy Story ride at Tokyo DisneySea

By Robert Niles
Published: December 20, 2011 at 10:45 PM

Disney announced on its blog today that Toy Story Midway Mania will open on July 9.

I saw the site for the new ride when I visited the theme park earlier this month:

Toy Story ride site at Tokyo DisneySea

There were no signs advertising the upcoming attraction, but I recognized Hamm and Rex up there on the columns. The ride will be going into a new "Toyville Trolley Park" section of the American Waterfront land in Tokyo DisneySea, just a few steps down the street from Tower of Terror.

Expect the same ride as in Orlando and Anaheim, but Tokyo's Toy Story will feature a massive Woody head, through which visitors will enter the queue. (Shades of Krusty on Universal's The Simpsons Ride?)

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A tour of Universal Studios Singapore: Egypt

By Robert Niles
Published: December 20, 2011 at 10:30 AM

Universal Studios Singapore didn't skimp on the facade for its version of the popular indoor roller coaster, Revenge of the Mummy.

Approaching the Revenge of the Mummy ride

Entrance to Revenge of the Mummy

Revenge of the Mummy provides the centerpiece for the park's Egypt section, bringing us half-way around the park on our week-long virtual tour of Universal Studios Singapore.

Egypt

The two U.S. versions of Revenge of the Mummy differ from one another, and this version's different from those two, as well. While Hollywood's version of the ride allows you to triumph over the undead fiend Imhotep and Orlando's puts your triumph in doubt, there's no question who wins on this version of Mummy.

And it ain't you.

Inside the queue
Inside the queue

Singapore's Mummy confronts you with the macabre immediately, as you start the ride with a scene of an explorer being mummified alive. He warns you to find the Book of the Living, for it is the key to defeating Imhotep. You are then immediately whisked into the treasure chamber, where Imhotep tempts you with the riches for pledging your souls to him, before giving you the "or else." Guards descend from the ceiling, as you are turned toward a crypt of scarab beetles. The coaster then darts backward and turns as Imhotep taunts you another time.

From there, your train launches up and forward into the darkened roller coaster segment of the ride. After several twists, dips and hops, you emerge into the final show scene, where you see the Book of Living, just before Imhotep comes to claim you. In a final fiery display, you descend into Hell, as Imhotep taunts you again with the warning "Death is just the beginning."

Uplifting, eh? Singapore's Revenge of the Mummy is a much darker ride than its U.S. siblings, in the tradition of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, Efteling's Fata Morgana and Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean (before Disney added Johnny Depp to the ride). While it's theme park convention for "something to go terribly wrong," that convention can stay fresh only if we're given a change of pace now and then - the chance to experience a ride where the good guys don't triumph, and we all end up going to Hell as a result.

If you're looking more for child-size thrills on your visit to Egypt, try the Treasure Hunters ride across the street from Mummy.

Treasure Hunters entrance

Treasure Hunters is a simple outdoor Jeep ride through an Egyptian excavation, with a few mild surprises along the way. Let the youngest in your group take the wheel and pretend to drive - they'll love the ride just for that.

Riding on Treasure Hunters

Egypt's restaurant is the counter-service Oasis Spice Cafe, serving a variety of Middle Eastern and Indian cuisine.

Oasis Spice Cafe

I ate at the Cafe for a working press dinner during the Transformers premiere and especially enjoyed the Tandoori chicken, biryani rice and samosas.

Dinner at the Oasis Spice Cafe

Join us tomorrow as we continue our tour by entering The Lost World of Jurassic Park.

Also on the tour: Hollywood & New York, Sci Fi City, Far, Far Away, Madagascar

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A tour of Universal Studios Singapore: Sci Fi City

By Robert Niles
Published: December 19, 2011 at 12:27 PM

Welcome to Day Two of Universal Studios Singapore Week here on Theme Park Insider. Today, we're continuing our way around the park into Sci Fi City.

This is where you'll find Universal's next-generation 3D motion-base thrill ride, Transformers: The Ride.

Transformers the Ride in Singapore

You gotta love a ride whose warning sign starts with the phrase, "This ride takes place on a high-speed robotic vehicle trying to escape destruction by giant alien robots." Yeah, that happens to me all the time. Thanks for that heads-up. ;^)

Transformers warning sign

Transformers is just like Universal Orlando's Spider-Man… but with clearer visuals, better motion coordination and much faster, wilder effects. That's helping make Transformers by far the most popular attraction in Universal Studios Singapore, and driving this nearly-two-year-old park to its highest monthly attendance totals.

Optimus Prime battling Megatron
On-ride image of Optimus Prime battling Megatron.

I reviewed Transformers earlier this month, and if you'd like to hear a detailed description of the ride from its designer, I also spent some time talking with Universal Creative's Thierry Coup while I was in Singapore.

Optimus Prime

U.S. theme park fans will be getting their own (identical) version of Transformers in April, when the ride opens at Universal Studios Hollywood. And Orlando theme park fans won't miss out entirely. Coup said that Universal Creative is applying what it developed on Transformers to creating a new, all-digital version of Spider-Man for installation later this year.

Just up the street from Transformers, you'll find an attraction that should be familiar to Islands of Adventure fans:

Accelerator

Except that Universal's spinner ride is simply called Accelerator here, dropping the "Storm Force" theme, since Universal no longer owns the theme park rights to the Marvel characters outside Orlando.

Standing over Accelerator, though, is the world's tallest dueling coaster: Battlestar Galactica.

Battlestar Galactica

Dueling coasters on Battlestar Galactica

Problems with the seat mounts on the coaster trains delayed Battlestar Galactica's opening for nearly a year, but the ride seemed to me to be operating flawlessly while I visited. Battlestar Galactica offers two unique experiences: A "Human" side that's a sit-down coaster with no inversions, and the "Cylon" side, which is an inverted coaster with multiple loops and flips.

Frequent Theme Park Insider readers might know that I'm no fan of inverted coasters, so I chose to ride on the Human side. Hey, I like to ride with the good guys, too. On that note, I absolutely loved this T-shirt in the gift shop at the ride's exit:

Battlestar Galactica T-shirt
"Remember, anyone could be a Cylon." Though, mostly, it seems that they're really hot blonde women in cut-out dresses.

Universal's done a nice job of decorating the Human trains with the nose piece and engine bells from a colonial Viper. The ride itself is just a delight, with great visuals of both the park and the dueling Cylon train, which makes multiple passes on this tight track layout. But the ride never hits you hard with lateral G forces. Instead, you feel a whippy speed, with a welcomed breeze providing relief from the Singapore heat. And with Transformers drawing so many of the park's thrill-seekers, the wait time's reasonable, too - peaking at 20 minutes mid-day during my trip. (Transformers maxed out at 150 minutes.)

Up until Transformers' opening, Sci-Fi City was the only land in the park without a restaurant. That's changed now, as Starbot Cafe opened the same day as Transformers.

Starbot Cafe

Starbot Cafe serves assorted sushi, as appetizers and entrees including poached salmon, teriyaki chicken and vegetarian fried rice in a counter-service setting with plenty of indoor seating.

Tomorrow, we'll continue our tour into Egypt, and take a ride on Universal Studios Singapore's Revenge of the Mummy.

Also on the tour: Hollywood & New York, The Lost World, Far, Far Away, Madagascar

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A tour of Universal Studios Singapore: Hollywood and New York

By Robert Niles
Published: December 18, 2011 at 7:21 PM

Welcome to Universal Studios Singapore Week here on Theme Park Insider. Each day this week, we'll be taking an in-depth look at the themed lands in Universal's newest theme park - which is part of the Resorts World Sentosa mega-resort in Singapore. Imagine Las Vegas without any of the cheese or tackiness - just plenty of luxe hotels, Michelin-starred dining, high-end retail and casino, in a compact, easily-walkable resort… with a Universal Studios theme park thrown in for good measure. That's Resorts World Sentosa.

Universal Studios Singapore entrance

I flew to Singapore on Singapore Airlines, which is an attraction unto itself. It was my first time on the A380, the world's largest passenger airliner. But on Singapore Airlines, you never feel crowded. The A380 on Singapore Airlines features 19-inch-wide seats, the widest economy class seats in the world, according to SeatGuru.com. Each seat comes with its own TV with on-demand movies, video games and audio. And a USB port in case you want to use your TV as a computer monitor. And an AC outlet for charging your electronics in-flight. (No WiFi, though.)

Don't forget the food, either, which is included in your airfare. On the LA-to-Tokyo leg of my flight to Singapore, we were served a lunch,

a dinner,

and dessert,

Cherry Garcia

as well as free wine, beer and Singapore Sling cocktails, if you're into that sort of thing.

Once you arrive in Singapore, Resorts World Sentosa, like everything else in this 272-square-mile city-state, is a short taxi ride from Changi Airport, which is consistently rated among the top five airports in the world by travel magazines. If you choose to stay elsewhere in Singapore, you can either take a cab to the park or ride the MRT train to the Vivo City shopping center, from where you can catch a bus or monorail to Sentosa Island or just walk across the causeway. (Don't even think of renting a car in Singapore.)

Sentosa monorail
The Sentosa Island monorail

Today, we'll take a look at Hollywood, which is the entrance plaza to Universal Studios Singapore, as well as the New York section of the park.

Universal Studios Singapore turnstiles

Here's the view, once you pass through the turnstiles and under the monorail track into the park.

Hollywood Boulevard

Universal Studios Store
The Universal Studios store, fashioned after the Beverly Wilshire hotel.

Hollywood Boulevard
The Darkroom photo store, a familiar site to anyone who's been to Orlando's studio theme parks, or who visited the Miracle Mile in Los Angeles in the mid-20th century.

Christmas tree
The Christmas tree at the end of Hollywood Boulevard

Both the Hollywood and New York sections of the park are partially covered by translucent roofs, providing some relief from Singapore's frequent thunderstorms. Located just one degree north of the equator, Singapore "enjoys" Orlando's mid-summer weather year-'round.

Otherwise, the design of Universal Studios Singapore is most like Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure, but much smaller - just 49 acres to IOA's 110. But both are organized around a central lagoon, with themed lands surrounding. If you make a right when you come to the end of Hollywood Boulevard, on your way to New York, you'll see USS's version of Hollywood's Pantages Theater, home to the Monster Rock show.

Monster Rock

Here's the story: Computer geek Henry Preston Jekyll III has brought the classic Universal Monsters back to life, and transformed them into modern rock-'n-roll stars. Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, the Bride of Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Phantom of the Opera and the Wolfman (joined by a She-Wolf) join young Dr. Jekyll for a 15-minute medley of rock and pop tunes… with lyrics cleaned up for the family-friendly park, of course. Still, there is a touch of grown-up humor now and then, such as when Dracula rejects the advances of the played-to-be-gay Phantom of the Opera with the dismissal, "You're not my blood type."

On stage at Monster Rock

Exiting the Pantages, you're just steps away from New York...

New York

Which is home to the Lights! Camera! Action! Hosted by Steven Spielberg special effects show.

Lights, Camera, Action

This reminded me of the old Backdraft show at Universal Studios Hollywood. There's a short preshow where Steven Spielberg comes on screen to tell us a little about movie special effects, with examples from popular Universal films from over the years. Then, he sets up the next scene: We'll be walking into a stage set where we'll watch the filming of a scene inside a boat house while a Category 5 hurricane hits New York City.

Predictably, when we get to the part of the scene when the TV newscaster tells us that all is under control, you know that's when all heck's going to break loose. And much does break loose from the ceiling, and from the walls, and from the fuel tanks surrounding the boat house.

On set

Oh, and the show's not over until a nice little "kick" at the end.

Your highest-profile restaurant in the park is Mel's Drive-In, which is located alongside the Lagoon at the end of Hollywood Boulevard.

Mel's Drive-In

Keeping with my theory that you should always order the special when trying a new restaurant, I decided to go with the "Shiok Burger."

Shiok Burger poster

The Shiok (which is "Singlish" for really great taste) includes lettuce, tomato, cheese, guacamole, turkey bacon, an onion ring, and something called "spiced chicken floss." Here's what the burger looks like in real life:

Shiok Burger real life

I think I would have liked the chicken floss in another dish - it's basically chicken that's been chopped to a thread-like consistency, spiced with sugar, soy, ginger and Asian five-spice powder. Yet on a guacamole bacon cheeseburger, the whole mix just left my mouth feeling confused. But the fries were awesome, crispy on the outside and fluffy in the middle.

Your other food options in Hollywood are:

  • Hollywood China Bistro, offering dim sum and a large menu of Cantonese fare in a table-service setting, including sets for two to 10 people.
  • Celebrity Cafe & Bakery, a counter-service restaurant serving breakfast sets, including bacon and eggs, waffles and muffins. Later in the day, you'll find sandwiches, coffee drinks and desserts.

And in New York, there's

  • KT's Grill, a New York-style steak house offering rib-eyes, Wagyu burgers, rotisserie chicken and a chilled seafood platter.
  • Loui's NY Pizza Parlor, a conter-service eatery with thin-crust pizza by the slice or while pie, as well as pasta, wings, grilled chicken subs and Caesar salad.

Tomorrow: We'll continue our tour of Universal Studios Singapore with a look at Sci Fi City, home to the new Transformers ride, as well as the world's tallest dueling coaster: Battlestar Galactica.

Also on the tour: Egypt, The Lost World, Far, Far Away, Madagascar

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A tour of Tokyo Disneyland: Tomorrowland

By Robert Niles
Published: December 17, 2011 at 12:46 PM

We wrap up our Tokyo Disneyland week today with a look at Tomorrow…land.

Tomorrowland entrance from the Hub

Tomorrowland entrance from Fantasyland

Tokyo Disneyland's Tomorrowland retains many of the classic attractions familiar to fans of the Disney theme parks in the United States, including Space Mountain (As always, you may click the attraction links for reader reviews.)

Space Mountain

StarJets

StarJets

Buzz Lightyear (here called Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters)

Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters

Grand Circuit Raceway

Grand Circuit Raceway

(With Cars 2 taking place - in part - in Tokyo, Disney's been promoting the movie with a Lightning McQueen outside at the Grand Circuit Raceway entrance.)

Lightning McQueen

Captain EO

Captain EO

and the original version of Star Tours (no "The Adventures Continue" version here… yet)

Star Tours

The one attraction in Tomorrowland that's unique to Tokyo Disneyland is Monsters Inc. Ride and Go Seek.

Monsters Inc. Ride and Go Seek entrance

Both the building exterior and interior queue are faithfully recreations of the Monsters Inc. headquarters from the Pixar film.

Monsters Inc. Ride and Go Seek queue

The ride is similar in concept and structure to California Adventure's Monsters Inc. Mike and Sulley to the Rescue, with a major twist. Instead of passively riding through Monstropolis, this time we're playing a massive game of "Flashlight tag" while we try to find just where Boo has run off to.

Flashlight tag sign

Randall's back, too, trying to catch Boo first to make her scream. But Mike, through more of his characteristic bumbling than actual skill, manages to, uh, take care of Randall and save the day.

Many riders won't notice the plot, though, as they shine their handheld flashlights at Monsters Inc. logos throughout the ride. Each "hit" triggers an animation element in the ride, usually a character popping up or turning around. (Kinda like the Frontierland Shooting Gallery, but with better tech.) Unlike Buzz Lightyear, there's no score kept here, so there's no competitive element. Just the gentle fun of trying to make the ride react to your "tags."

If you're getting hungry while in Tomorrowland, your most whimsical restaurant option in Tomorrowland has to be the Pan Galactic Pizza Port, serving the ubiquitous seafood pizzas - snow crab and a shrimp and mushroom - along with a double-sausage pizza.

Pan Galactic Pizza Port

Other restaurant options include

  • Plaza Restaurant, serving a seafood and rice au gratin, pork curry over rice, beef and vegetables over rice, chicken and scrambled eggs over rice, and fried chicken on a Chinese bun.
  • Tomorrowland Terrace, which offers hamburgers, cheeseburgers, a bacon double burger, chicken teriyaki sandwiches and shrimp cutlet sandwiches.

Also on the tour: World Bazaar, Adventureland, Westernland & Critter Country, Fantasyland, Toontown

I hope you've enjoyed our land-by-land look at Tokyo Disneyland. Tomorrow, we start our in-depth look at Universal Studios Singapore. And on December 26, we begin Tokyo DisneySea week, with another land-by-land tour of that park. After we finish Tokyo DisneySea week, I'll offer a post with details on how you can plan a Tokyo Disney visit, if you're interested in seeing Disney's most popular theme parks outside the United States.

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Vote of the week: Would more flavors encourage you to spend more money on Disney popcorn?

By Robert Niles
Published: December 16, 2011 at 10:23 AM

Disney theme parks sell a lot of popcorn.

But for as fans at Disneyland and Walt Disney World like the snack, popcorn is an obsession at the Tokyo Disney Resort. Visitors there pay up to $40 for souvenir buckets they wear around their necks, paying about $6.50 a shot for refills of the various flavors offered at Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea.

In addition to the traditional salt-sprinkled or caramel popcorn, Tokyo Disney also offers chocolate, strawberry, honey, milk tea, soy sauce, black pepper and curry flavors. And cranberry, too, during the holidays.

Duffy popcorn
That's right: Duffy popcorn buckets, with milk tea popcorn, at Tokyo DisneySea.

Don't dismiss the unusual (to Americans) popcorn flavors. The curry popcorn, for example, was awesome - far tastier than the bland salted popcorn served in America. Hey, if we can have countless flavors of tortilla and potato chips, why shouldn't we get more flavors of popcorn, too?

But Disney's not going to serve anything if people won't buy it. Some of the people who've been following our daily looks at the various lands around Tokyo Disneyland have expressed their wish that Disney offer some of those extra flavors here in the United States. But is that an accurate sample of theme park fans? Would money people spend more money on popcorn if they had more flavors from which to choose?

Let's put it to a vote.


Please tell us in the comments what you think about popcorn in the Disney parks, and what options you'd like to see. And thanks again, as always, for reading Theme Park Insider. Tokyo Disneyland week wraps up tomorrow, with Universal Studios Singapore week starting Sunday, and Tokyo DisneySea week starting Dec. 26.

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A tour of Tokyo Disneyland: Toontown

By Robert Niles
Published: December 16, 2011 at 10:00 AM

Toontown opened in Tokyo Disneyland in 1996, three years after the original debuted at Disneyland in California. The Tokyo Toontown is essentially the same as Disneyland's, but flipped in a mirror image.

Toontown

Okay, by that I mean that everything that's to the right in California is off to the left in Japan, and vice versa. It's not literally a mirror image, where everything is backward, although that would be awesome.

Still, since this is Toontown, there's plenty that's mixed up and confused around here.

Toontown skool

The two big attractions in Toontown are Roger Rabbit's Car Toon Spin, the dark ride inspired by "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"

Roger Rabbit's Car Toon Spin

and Mickey's House, which is the one place in the park where you're guaranteed to meet Mickey. If you're willing to wait, of course.

Mickey's House

Minnie's got her own house - and meet and greet - as well. (You did know that they aren't married, right?)

Minnie's House

Goofy's got a house in Toontown, too. But it was down for refurbishment during my visit.

Goofy's House

While Mickey, Minnie and Goofy have houses, Donald's got himself a boat (with a tribute to Daisy - nice touch):

Donald's Boat

Donald's nephews, Huey, Dewey and Louie, have the food concession in Toontown, with a counter service restaurant:

Huey, Dewey and Louie's Goof Time Cafe

…that serves Mickey pizza and Donald's (shrimp) burger.

Menu selections at Huey, Dewey and Louie's

Toontown also offers two other kids-only attractions: Gadget's Go-Coaster

Gadget's Go-Coaster

and Chip and Dale's Treehouse.

Chip and Dale's Treehouse

Finally, I leave you with this photo, in honor of all my fellow former Walt Disney World cast members who gave back way too much money to the company on Thursday nights (pay day) at Pleasure Island all those years ago.

Fireworks Factory

Tomorrow we'll wrap up our Tokyo Disneyland week with a visit to... Tomorrowland.

Also on the tour: World Bazaar, Adventureland, Westernland & Critter Country, Fantasyland

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Comedy Warehouse Special coming to Disney's Hollywood Studios for Limited Run, and Sounds Dangerous is Going

By Dominick D
Published: December 15, 2011 at 4:16 PM

You remember that old Pleasuree Island skit The Comedy Warehouse Special, right? Well good news; The Disney Parks Blog announced today it's coming back to Disney's Hollywood Studios December 25-31 at the ABC Sound Studio (Sounds Dangerous). They will be taking suggestions from the audience for skits. The showtimes (subject to change) are 11:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 1:30 p.m., 3:45 p.m., 4:45 p.m. and 5:45 p.m. Now, you heard me say that it will be in Sounds Dangerous, and that is correct. Screamscape reports that on May 18, 2012 (The first Star Wars Weekends of the year), it will be removed from the park map. Now, the attraction is rated 3 on TPI, so I doubt anyone will miss it, just like Narnia. What do you think about it?

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A tour of Tokyo Disneyland: Fantasyland

By Robert Niles
Published: December 15, 2011 at 12:39 PM

We're continuing Tokyo Disneyland week with an in-depth look at the heart of any Magic Kingdom park: Fantasyland.

Fantasyland

And today we come to the biggest disappointment of my Tokyo trip: Pooh's Hunny Hunt.

Pooh's down for refurbishment

Every theme park trip involves some trade-offs. It's hard to find a time of year when no rides are down for refurbishment - unless you want to visit in the middle of the high season, when the huge crowds will keep you from visiting everything, anyway. So while I was disappointed that Pooh - which uses an innovative "trackless" ride system where vehicles are sent on unique ride paths in real time - would be closed during the time when I could visit, I had plenty remaining on my to-do list for the two days I would be at the Tokyo Disney Resort.

And the honey popcorn stand was open, too.

Honey popcorn

On top of my Fantasyland to-do list was lunch at Queen of Hearts Banquet Hall, an elaborately themed buffeteria featuring the characters from the animated Alice in Wonderland.

Queen of Hearts Banquet Hall

Like most Tokyo Disneyland restaurants, you have to wait outside before you even get into the building. But once inside, wow!

Inside the hall

You can see samples of the available entrees here in the Banquet Hall kitchen, but those rotisserie chickens in the back caught my eye.

The kitchen

Then again, I think the real appeal of the Queen of Hearts Banquet Hall might be the desserts.

Desserts

By the way, buffeteria lines are the best when you don't speak the language. Just point at what you want, and smile. Once I made my selections, a helpful host lead me into the elaborately-themed seating area. No need to camp out for seats, or to wander around, tray in hand, looking for a place to sit. Tokyo's cast members eliminate those hassles.

Seating area

Here's my lunch: The rotisserie chicken with garlic sauce (1,340 yen - about $17.20). I inhaled every morsel of the chicken, though I was looking for a little more kick of garlic, which I wouldn't have noticed had Disney not labeled it on the menu.

Chicken plate

And here's a close-up of my dessert, the blueberry roll cake, with souvenir plate (600 yen - about $7.70). The plate's wrapped up and on its way to my five-year-old niece as a Christmas present. (Don't tell!) The blueberry cream and sponge cake roll was delightful, a sweet finish to the meal without being too heavy.

Blueberry roll

On my way over to the Banquet Hall from Westernland, the Haunted Mansion caught my eye.

Haunted Mansion

Wait a minute, the Haunted Mansion? In Fantasyland? Yep, that's its home in Tokyo. Not only that, while this Mansion looks like its Florida sibling, it's got California's "Nightmare Before Christmas" holiday overlay:

Holiday Nightmare

So if you ever wanted to know what Florida's Mansion would look like with the Haunted Mansion Holiday treatment, all you have to do is hop a flight to Tokyo to find out. (Short answer: It is spectacular!)

Haunted Mansion Holiday Tokyo

The rest of Fantasyland includes the line-up of attractions that will be familiar to U.S. Disney theme park fans, in their same versions as in the states (click through for photos and reader ratings):

Alice's Tea Party

The one difference? Cinderella's Fairy Tale Hall, a walkthrough attraction in the castle, featuring art and artifacts telling the story of Cinderella. But the posted hour-plus wait was way too long for a walk-through, so I skipped it.

Cinderella's Fairy Tale Hall

FWIW, the other restaurant in Fantasyland is Captain Hook's Galley, which you might miss since it's around the corner from Peter Pan, facing Westernland.

Captain Hook's Galley

The Galley features a popular option I found again and again in Tokyo and Singapore: Seafood pizza. Captain Hook's is available in a "set," with a beverage and cup of mini cream puffs.

Menu selections at Captain Hook's

Tomorrow: We visit Toontown.

Other lands on our tour: World Bazaar, Adventureland, Westernland & Critter Country, Tomorrowland.

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A tour of Tokyo Disneyland: Westernland and Critter Country

By Robert Niles
Published: December 14, 2011 at 1:30 PM

Today, we'll take a look at Tokyo Disneyland's Westernland and Critter Country.

Westernland

Westernland is just Tokyo Disney's name for what American Disney theme park fans know as Frontierland. Critter Country was a later addition to the park, debuting in 1992 as the new home for Splash Mountain.

Splash Mountain

Keeping with the theme that Tokyo is a blend of California's Disneyland and Florida's Walt Disney World, Critter Country is the name of the land where Splash Mountain is found at Disneyland, but Tokyo's version of the ride is essentially identical to Disney World's.

Splash Mountain wasn't high on my priority list on a chilly December morning, so I lingered a bit on the Frontierland Westernland street...

...Noticing some of the details up above, including this tribute to Walt. (Elias was his middle name. The 1883, I presume, is a tribute to the opening year of the park - 1983 - minus 100.)

Elias Hotel

And the details down below. Yes, that's a vending machine, hidden in the side of a Westernland building.

Westernland vending machine

One element of the park that I can't show you here is the smell, which is amazing. Every few yards in the park, you'll pass a popcorn wagon. But unlike in the U.S. theme parks, where Disney serves only traditional buttered popcorn with an occasional caramel corn now and then, Tokyo Disney raises popcorn to an art form, serving at least six different flavors in Tokyo Disneyland alone.

So I paid my 300 yen (about $3.85) and tried a box of the curry popcorn.

Curry popcorn

Thank goodness Disney doesn't sell this in Anaheim, because it is crack. Yeah, it's got a spicy kick, as you'd expect from curry, but it tastes, well, the only way I can describe it is cleaner than the spicy dust you'd find on tortilla or corn chips in a U.S. snack aisle. There's no chemical aftertaste, just the warmth of the curry on your tongue.

I also loved the soy sauce popcorn, which had the salty flavor of traditional buttered popcorn, but with an almost umami savoriness to it that American popcorn lacks. (I'll write about the sweet popcorn flavors when we get to Tokyo DisneySea.)

Since I'm a former Tom Sawyer Island raft driver, I knew that I'd have to make my way over to the Rivers of America at some point. But I was stunned to see that Tokyo Disneyland actually publicly labels the River with its name, unlike Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom (*Update: The MK has a sign now. See the comments).

Rivers of America

After riding the Western River Railroad earlier in the day, I couldn't wait to get over to Tom Sawyer Island. I'd seen on the railroad trip around the river that the burning settler's cabin was actually burning, an effect that hasn't worked in Anaheim in years. What else would be working over on Tokyo's version of the island?

TSI sign

What's this? A free map of the island for the taking at the dock? You better believe I grabbed one - which will soon be framed in my office.

Map

Here's Harper's Mill. With the wheels turning, thank you very much.

Grist mill

And… could this be? Fort Sam Clemens is open?

Fort Sam Clemens

Not only that, but the snack bar is open in the fort, too, and serving milkshakes as well as cheese-and-banana-stuffed Mickey pastries.

Fort Clemens snack bar

Behind the fort, you'll find an accessible Indian village to explore. (Though in my shock at seeing the fort open, I'm ashamed to admit that I forgot to try to go upstairs and see if there were working rifles, too. It's probably for the best, though. If I'd found those, too, the shock would have killed me.)

Indian Village

I spent waaaaay too much time on the island for someone over the age of 12, but as I waited for my return raft to the mainland, I couldn't help but watching the ducks paddle by. It occurred to me, as one munched on a popcorn kernel, that these ducks aren't just munching on regular old popcorn. They're eating curry popcorn. Or soy sauce popcorn. Could these ducks be flavoring themselves with all this savory popcorn? What a deliciously evil thought.

Duck

I also noticed that the Explorer Canoes cast members don't wear coonskin caps - they wear red bandanas. How very Japanese?

Canoes

If you're looking for a less intense trip around the river, there's always the Mark Twain Riverboat.

Mark Twain, with canoes and Splash Mountain

Not only has Tokyo Disneyland kept all the show elements working on its version of Tom Sawyer Island, it's kept all the seasonal versions of the Country Bear show running, too. So I headed over to the Country Bear Theater to watch the Christmas show I hadn't seen in years, here called the "Jingle Bell Jamboree."

Country Bear Theater

I tried recording some of the show, but for the life of me I can't find the file now. My apologies. But it's the same Christmas show I remember from my years working Bear Band in Orlando, save for the fact that the dialogue's all in Japanese and they've substituted "Jingle Bells" for "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas." Still, it's nice to see the holiday show again, even if seeing it reminded me how much I wish Disney World would bring it back each year. I'm told that Tokyo also runs the Vacation Hoedown show in rotation with the original Country Bear Jamboree. (The Tokyo Country Bear Theater has two theaters, just like the old Country Bear Playhouse in Disneyland did.)

Don't worry, roller coaster fans, I haven't forgotten about Big Thunder Mountain.

Big Thunder Mountain

I saved my ride on Thunder for after dinner, when the park had gotten dark and, I think, rides on Thunder are the best.

Thunder at night

Tokyo's version is essentially the same as Orlando's, except that the ghost town is replaced by a longer tunnel (a la Disneyland) and there's another tunnel and a U-turn after the final drop and run past the dinosaur bones. But the goat trick still works. ;^)

Tomorrow, we'll visit Fantasyland, which is the home of Tokyo's Haunted Mansion, believe it or not.

Previously: Adventureland, World Bazaar

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Theme park reader mailbag: Tokyo Disney and Universal Studios Singapore

By Robert Niles
Published: December 13, 2011 at 3:24 PM

Thanks to everyone who emailed questions this week. Let's open up the mailbag!

Q: I'm sure nearly every U.S.-based Disney Park fan has wondered this at some point…is a trip to the Tokyo Disney Resort truly worth the logistical (language barriers, public transportation, etc.) and financial (airfare, hotels, etc.) hurdles it takes to get there? I am strongly considering a trip this upcoming May or June. I have been thinking this over for some time and I would like to know that it is something I should commit to doing as a lifelong Disney Park fan. - Tim

Minnie Mouse
Minnie Mouse welcomes you to Tokyo DisneySea.

A: Well, I went through the hassle and booked a trip, so I guess that's my answer there: Yes, it's worth it. Now if I weren't a Disney fan, but just someone who wanted to see a Disney theme park, I wouldn't go all the way to Japan just to do that - I'd pick the ones closest to home, despite all that's available in the Tokyo parks. But travel can be a huge reward in itself, and I think it's just neat to say that you've been someplace like Japan. Walking into the park on Sunday morning, I gotta admit, I got a little emotional as I said to myself, "Hey, this is Tokyo Disneyland!"

Q: Hi Robert! Thanks for the great pictures from your trip. Quick question - my husband wanted to surprise me with a trip to Tokyo Disneyland for my birthday but I suggested waiting a little longer for Japan to bounce back after the earthquake/tsunami because I'd also want to spend time exploring Japan. You chose to go now though - are things back to normal now or is it worth waiting? Thanks! - Pam

A: I saw no signs of the earthquake or tsunami while I was in Tokyo, beyond ever-present appeals to support charities trying to help people in the northern part of the country, which was devastated by flooding. So if you're planning to restrict your trip to the Tokyo area and parts south (including Universal Studios Japan in Osaka), I'd go now, before demand comes back and drives up prices even more.

Now if you really wanted to see the northern part of the country, or, say, take a tour of coastal nuclear power plants, yeah, then I'd wait a while before booking.

Q: I've always wondered about the makeup of the crowds in Asia. Do the parks tend to draw from local/regional residents, or are they mainly destination spots, drawing from afar? What would you estimate as the percentage of attendees that are coming from outside the host country? My other question: What's something that made you say to yourself, "WOW. This is NOT my usual Disney park..."? :) - KJ

A: During my day at Tokyo DisneySea, I counted two other groups of non-Asians. One was a group of friends in their 20s from Britain and the other was a family from Australia. (I saw them each at least a couple of times while walking around the park.) So, yeah, the Tokyo parks draw almost exclusively from Japan, with a few tourists from Korea thrown in. Universal Studios Singapore drew a more diverse crowd, including visitors from New Zealand, Australia, the Middle East and Britain, as well as multiple countries in Southeast Asia.

What stunned me most in Tokyo, in comparison with the US Disney parks, was the huge number of cast members working greeter positions. I counted nine people working greeter at the Haunted Mansion while I waited. And that wasn't because of some lightning-fast rotation. That was nine greeters at the same time. A kernel of popcorn couldn't fall to the ground before someone swooped in to grab it and throw it away. It was impossible to stand in front of an attraction at Tokyo Disney for even a moment without a cast member approaching to offer help. That doesn't happen nearly as consistently in the U.S. parks, and it's not because we have less friendly or less service-oriented cast members. We simply don't have as many cast members working here.

That's a general conclusion that I'd draw after visiting Japan and Singapore. It's so much easier for an employee to offer excellent service when that employee isn't burdened with having to do four people's jobs, like so many service industry employees do in the U.S.

Q: I understand that the Tokyo Disney parks are much more crowded than what we typically see in the Disney parks in the states. Are there strategies for touring the parks and avoiding the crowds? Or does one just have to give oneself extra days to visit the parks and see the highlights, or see the rides and attractions you want to see? Thanks - Michael

A: OMG, you thought getting to the park at opening was important in the U.S.? It is essential in Asia. Using my journalism school crowd-counting tricks, I estimated that there were about 9,000 people lined up at the front gates at Tokyo DisneySea when the park opened. On a Monday. In early December. I am not kidding. Nine thousand.

The day before, I wondered why all the FastPass machines at Tokyo Disneyland were closed at 11 am. At first, I thought that they must not offer FastPass during the "off" season. But then I saw people streaming into FastPass return lines. I still couldn't figure it out, though, because my brain couldn't wrap itself around the seemingly impossible idea that all the FastPasses were gone for the day. Still, the longest wait I had all day was 1 hour and 15 minutes for Monsters Inc. Ride and Go Seek (which I'll write about on Friday), so the park handles its crowds well. And I didn't wait longer than 30 minutes for anything at Tokyo DisneySea. I'll write more about strategies in the days to come.

Q: Robert, Did you find that the roof over World Bazaar detracted from the environment? I just figure that Disney works so hard to create complete and total environments that the roof might be a bit jarring compared to our Main Street USA's in the US parks. - Tom

A: It's definitely jarring because it's different. Ultimately, World Bazaar just felt claustrophobic to me - not a place that I wanted to spend much of my time. I'd love to hear what Sam Gennawey would have to say about the design of World Bazaar, because it didn't evoke the same comfortable feeling that I get when walking down Disneyland's Main Street USA. Maybe it was the roof. Maybe it was the oversized second-stories. Or maybe it was just the massive crowd.

Q: I have always heard that DisneySea is the best theme park in the world? Is this true? What makes it the best? From what I see as far as rides go, they don't have too much? I've seen pics from over there and the park looks beautiful, but is it worth the flight all the way over there? I've been to all of the major theme parks here in the United States and I'm thinking about traveling international for the first time. Would Disneyland Tokyo be a good first start going outside the U.S.? - Dustin

A: Tokyo DisneySea left me feeling awed and amazed… and then really hacked off. You mean we could have had this park in Long Beach? Sorry, but I have to go outside and scream now.

Okay, I'm back. Yeah, DisneySea leaves you feeling mad that Disney is capable of designing something this impressive, with attractions this fun, and instead we got Dinoland and the old California Adventure. Sheesh. I'll get into the detail of what makes the park great when we start Tokyo DisneySea week on December 26.

If I had to pick one place in Asia for a first visit outside the U.S., I'd go with Singapore over Tokyo for the ease of communication (English is the official language) and transportation (Changi is the best airport in the world, and many attractions are clustered within walking distance of one another throughout the city.) Now, if you're looking for adventure instead of ease of travel, that changes things a bit. But visiting any Disney or Universal theme park outside the U.S. should be a snap for an American familiar with the U.S. versions of those parks. (Buffeterias are wonderful in a foreign country, by the way. Just point at what you want. No need to say a word.)

Q: Hey Robert, Hope you had a great trip. How good is the Pooh ride at TDL as I've heard it is phenomenal. Does USS's Mummy ride and Jurassic Park ride match up to Orlando's? How do the themed lands(just the theme overall) in TDL compare to MK or the original DL? Thanks - David

A: The great regret of my trip was that Pooh's Hunny Hunt was down for refurbishment during my visit. So I didn't get to ride what consensus says is the best attraction at Tokyo Disneyland. As for the Singapore rides, I'll go into greater detail during Universal Studios Singapore week next week, but USS's Mummy is a much darker ride than then U.S. versions. (And Jurassic Park is down for an extended rebuild now, so I missed that one, too.)

Q: I have a 12-hour layover (landing to take off) in Hong Kong and want to see Disneyland. Do I have enough time to make it worth the trip and be back with enough time for my international flight back home? Can you give a quick rundown of how to get there (taxi vs public transport) and top things to see? We land at 6am and park typically opens at 10? So I might have time in the am to sit and eat breakfast and explore the hotels. Where do you suggest I eat Breakfast/lunch? Does anywhere have vegetarian food? Can't seem to find menus or photos of menus anywhere. Let me know if you can help! Thanks :) - Daniel

A: Assuming you have to be back at the airport two hours before departure, and that you lose a little less than an hour each way traveling between the airport and the park (the MTR trains runs from the airport to the park, with one change of train required - take it instead of a more-expensive taxi). That gives you about eight hours to enjoy Hong Kong Disneyland, assuming no hassles in immigration at the airport. If you want to go nuts, book the character breakfast at the Disneyland Hotel before the park opens, then go hit some favorites in the park before you have to catch your train back to the airport. And finding vegetarian options is easier in Asia than anywhere else in the world. Here's the restaurant page for the Hong Kong Disneyland Hotel. We definitely want to read a trip report if you pull off this one. Have fun!

If you still have questions, I'll still find an answer. Please send your questions about Tokyo Disney, Universal Singapore or theme park travel in general to themeparkinsider@gmail.com.

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A tour of Tokyo Disneyland: Adventureland

By Robert Niles
Published: December 13, 2011 at 11:51 AM

Yeah, go ahead, make fun of me. I traveled halfway across the world to a Disney theme park I'd never seen before - the most popular Disney theme park outside the United States - and what was the first attraction I visited?

Adventureland
We're visiting Adventureland on Day Two of Tokyo Disneyland week at ThemeParkInsider.com.

The Tiki Room.

Enchanted Tiki Room

Hey, it's not what you think. Tokyo Disneyland doesn't have the same old Tiki Room show we know from Disneyland, and now, Walt Disney World. It's a new show, which stars a popular Disney animated movie character who takes over the classic Tiki show.

Uh, I'm not making things any better, am I?

My big goal for the day while visiting Tokyo Disneyland was to see the unique attractions in the park - the ones that either didn't exist in the United States or that were enough unlike their stateside counterparts to be interesting to a Disney veteran (like me, and, I suspect, many of you). So my to-do list included The Enchanted Tiki Room: Stitch Presents 'Aloha E Komo Mai!'.

That's right. This version of the Tiki Room isn't the dreadful "Under New Management" version with Iago and crew. While I continue to prefer Disneyland's original version of the Tiki Room, if Disney's going to add a cartoon character to the mix, let it be Stitch, whose Hawaiian backstory actually fits the Tiki Room theme.

In this version, Stitch is trying to force his way into the Tiki Room show, like Lucy trying to weasel her way into one of Ricky's Tropicana Club shows. But the birds think it's the Big Kahuna that's interrupting their show. They ultimately discover that it's Stitch, whom they let in the show if he agrees to behave. Which he does... just before he spits on the audience. Here's a sample - though, as with all Tokyo Disneyland shows, the narration is in Japanese:

Tokyo Disneyland's Adventureland feels two me like two lands mashed together. On the upper (south) side of the land stands the Tiki Room, with the Swiss Family Treehouse to the right and the Western River Railroad and Jungle Cruise to the left.

Jungle Cruise and Western River Railroad

Walk back toward the park's entrance (to the north) and you enter what will look to any Southern Californian like New Orleans Square, though Tokyo Disneyland doesn't call it that.

New Orleans section of Tokyo Disneyland's Adventureland

Here's where you will find Pirates of the Caribbean, the Blue Bayou and Cafe Orleans. Pirates here is much the same ride as you'd find back in Anaheim, with a few tweaks. First, the ride's queue is almost entirely inside Laffite's Manor. And there's only one drop into the grotto after you leave the Blue Bayou. But the biggest difference is at the end. Instead of riding the lift back up to the loading area, as you do in Anaheim, you disembark immediately after the final treasure scene, as in Anaheim, and ride a speedramp back up to the street level.

Captain Jack Sparrow

That allows Pirates to end with a bang, rather than the slow return of the original version. My only quibble with this version of the ride was the sound mix. I started hearing X Atencio's "Yo Ho" theme from the Burning City as early as the dunk scene, muddling the audio for the middle scenes of the ride. Still, Pirates is Pirates, and I'm happy to check off one more version of this classic that I've had the good fortune to enjoy.

Since my knowledge of Japanese is limited to overhearing my wife teaching Suzuki violin lessons ("Konnichiwa," "Sayonara," "Arigato"), I decided to skip the Jungle Cruise, figuring the jokes would be lost on me. (Sorry, TH.) But I chose to hop aboard the Western River Railroad instead. And I'm glad I did.

As I mentioned yesterday, Tokyo Disneyland doesn't have a railroad chugging around the park, as the other Magic Kingdoms do. Its railroad travels only around the Adventureland and Westernland sections of the park. But the Western River Railroad offers some wonderful views of Tokyo's Rivers of America and Big Thunder Mountain, and includes the Primeval World dinosaur scenes so popular at Disneyland. Here's a video tour of the train ride:

(Keep your eyes open for the burning settler's cabin that's actually burning! I'll write more tomorrow about Tokyo Disneyland's superior maintenance and service, compared with Disney's US theme parks.)

Tokyo Disneyland's Adventureland offers more food options than any other land in the park. While I chose to have lunch at the Queen of Hearts Banquet Hall in Fantasyland (coming Thursday!), I did have a light dinner at The Gazebo in the "New Orleans Square" half of Adventureland.

Scallop chowder at The Gazebo in Tokyo Disneyland

The Scallop Chowder was excellent - creamy, with moist bits of scallop and a salty sea flavor, accompanied by what might have been the best piece of bread I've ever eaten. I'd never imagine Japan would have outstanding bread, but this qualified - a warm, airy, yeasty interior with a rich crust so crisp it crackled when I bit into it. But if bread and soup aren't what you're craving, Adventureland offers other options:

Tomorrow, we visit Critter Country and Westernland (aka Frontierland).

Also: World Bazaar, Westernland and Critter Country, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland

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A tour of Tokyo Disneyland: World Bazaar

By Robert Niles
Published: December 12, 2011 at 9:12 AM

Last Sunday morning, I woke up as Mount Fuji appeared in my window.

Mount Fuji

Two hours later, I'd be on the ground in Tokyo, stepping off a bus just outside the gates of Tokyo Disneyland.

Approaching the entrance to Tokyo Disneyland

Tokyo Disneyland was the first Disney theme park built outside the United States, opening in 1983. But the park closed for a month earlier this year after the devastating earthquake and tsunami crippled power supplies and transit routes in much of Japan. Today, there's no obvious sign of damage or disruption at Tokyo Disneyland, which remains one of the world's top theme park destinations.

Cinderella's Castle at Tokyo Disneyland

And for good reason. Visiting Tokyo Disneyland is like visiting the best of Disneyland and Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom - at the same time. There's Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean, and Disney World's Haunted Mansion. There's the immense Cinderella's Castle, just like at Disney World, but there's an attraction inside it, too, just like at Disneyland.

But Tokyo Disneyland takes it U.S. counterparts one better, preserving elements long gone from the American Magic Kingdoms. Want to see the Country Bear Christmas show? Or visit Fort Sam Clemens on Tom Sawyer Island? Better catch a flight to Tokyo, because this is the only place where those attractions still exist. At 115 acres, Tokyo Disneyland is larger than the Magic Kingdom (107 acres) and Disneyland (85 acres), too.

All this week, we'll explore the lands of Tokyo Disneyland. So let's start with the beginning: Main Street USA.

Whoops, I meant World Bazaar.

The Main Street USA name isn't the only thing missing from Tokyo Disney's entry land. There's no railroad station, either. (Tokyo Disneyland's railroad is called the Western River Railroad, and circles just Adventureland. We'll visit that tomorrow.) With no train station to go around, you simply pass under a short portico, and you're there.

Entering Tokyo Disneyland

But Tokyo Disneyland's World Bazaar trades that train station for... a roof.

Inside World Bazaar

The glass roof that spans World Bazaar provides shelter from Japan's occasionally inclement weather, though the rest of the park remains exposed to the elements. World Bazaar's also unique among Disney entrance plazas in other ways, too.

World Bazaaar at Tokyo Disneyland
The Christmas decor is up in World Bazaar

Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom follow essentially the same layout: Main Street leading to the "Hub" - a circular plaza from which extends "spokes" to the main lands in the park, including Adventureland, Frontierland/Liberty Square, Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. An outer wheel connects the land, but it doesn't go all the way around. The only way back to Main Street is via the Hub. Here's a rough sketch:

Hub sketch

Tokyo Disneyland follows a different basic layout. The biggest difference is that the outer "wheel" completes the circuit. It goes all the way around, meeting in the middle of World Bazaar. That means that the land has two streets, the Main Street running north/south, and a complete Center Street running east/west. (In Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom, Center Street's just a stub on either side of the middle of Main Street.)

Tokyo hub sketch

World Bazaar also doesn't go all the way to the main hub in the park. Instead, it terminates at the Partners statue of Walt and Mickey, which stands in a "mini-Hub" that precedes the main hub.

Here's the park map:

Part of the Tokyo Disneyland park map

Also, when you walk into Tokyo Disneyland, you are facing south, as opposed to when you walk into either Disneyland or the Magic Kingdom, where you are facing north. (Which makes photographing the park difficult, as I was facing into the low December sun when I faced the castle.)

Partners at Tokyo Disneyland

Another difference? Many of World Bazaar's restaurants and storefronts include public second floors. In the US parks, the second floors are simply facades in front of upper-level office space. And Disney Imagineers use a forced perspective effect on those facades, to make the structures seem larger than they really are.

In Tokyo, there is no forced perspective. The second floors are actual sized, with a roof on top of them. The forced perspective effect used in the United States is missing, making World Bazaar seem a bit... top-heavy to my eye, which is used to the scale of the US Main Streets.

The Emporium at Tokyo Disneyland's World Bazaar

With no railroad of Main Street vehicles, there are no attractions in Tokyo Disneyland's World Bazaar. But there are six (yep, six) restaurants. (Click through for more photos, full descriptions with menu selections, and reader ratings.)

  • Eastside Cafe, a table service restaurant serving Italian pastas, grilled sirloin and fish. Priority seating reservations are available and highly recommended.
  • Restaurant Hokusai, a table service restaurant featuring Japanese fare, including tempura, chicken teriyaki and udon. Priority seating reservations are available.
  • Center Street Coffeehouse, a table service restaurant serving soup, salad and mid-prices entrees, including a seafood rice au gratin, fried shrimp and a chicken curry.
  • Refreshment Corner, a quick service location serving hot dogs, footlongs, fries, Cokes and cupcakes for dessert.
  • Great American Waffle Co, a counter service location serving Mickey waffles with four sauce or topping options.
  • Sweetheart Cafe, a counter service bakery offering serveral varieties of breads and sweet desserts, including muffins and Mickey-shaped pastries.

Pasta course at the Eastside Cafe
Most of the restaurants offer plastic displays of their selections, such as this pasta course from the Eastside Cafe.

World Bazaar, from the Hub
Looking back into World Bazaar from the Hub, with Refreshment Corner on the right

World Bazaar at night
World Bazaar at night, with the Christmas tree at the intersection of Main and Center streets

Ready for some rides? Join us tomorrow, when we'll continue our trip around Tokyo Disneyland with a look at Adventureland. Also: Westernland and Critter Country, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland.

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Vote of the week: What should replace Jaws at Universal Orlando?

By Robert Niles
Published: December 9, 2011 at 4:00 PM

We've been having a great conversation on what will replace Jaws at Universal Studios Florida. Go take a look at that post if you haven't yet, because we're going to put some of those options up for a vote.

Jaws
Last bite's on January 2, 2012, so ride now if you don't want to miss it.

Here are our four top options (IMHO):

Harry Potter's London: The hot Internet rumor. A Google Map analysis shows a straight shot from the Jaws site through Universal's backstage area to the current Harry Potter expansion zone, which will consume the Sindbad theater in Islands of Adventure. Guests could travel from the London-themed Harry Potter zone in USF to the Hogsmeade zone in IOA via "Hogwarts Express" trains that would be fitted with electronic "windows" projecting countryside scenes, freeing Universal from the expensive proposition of razing and theming its backstage areas.

Madagascar: A Crate Adventure: This would bring the family-friendly, high-capacity boat ride from Singapore to the United States, taking advantage of the water infrastructure already in place for the Jaws ride. There'd still have to be signficant flume and show building construction to make this happen.

Skull Island boat ride, with King Kong 360:3D Orlando-area fans have been wanting their own version of the new Kong ever since it opened on the USH Studio Tour last year. At one minute, it's too short to be a stand-alone attraction, but it'd make a great highlight within a Skull Island-themed boat ride, using the Jaws infrastructure.

Transformers: The Ride Like Harry Potter, this wouldn't use any of the Jaws infrastructure, but would keep Orlando from being left out from enjoying Singapore and Hollywood's new toy. Universal Creative's Thierry Coup's ruled this out for Orlando, given its similarity to Spider-Man, but left the door open for popular demand to change Universal's mind.

So, which option would you like to see? And if you've got a write-in candidate, please describe it in the comments.


Thank you, again, for reading Theme Park Insider, and have a great weekend!

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Taking questions for a reader mailbag on Tokyo Disney, Universal Singapore

By Robert Niles
Published: December 9, 2011 at 3:39 PM

Hi, I wanted to let you know that I'm planning a reader mailbag post next week. So if you have any questions you've ever wanted answered about the Tokyo Disney Resort (Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea), Universal Studios Singapore or international theme park travel in general, please send them to themeparkinsider@gmail.com.

And, remember, we're starting Tokyo Disneyland week on Theme Park Insider on Monday. We'll be taking a look at a land a day, with photos, descriptions and video from my trip to Disney's first theme park outside the United States.

Update: And here's the mailbag, with your questions and my answers.

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What will Harry Potter mean for Universal Studios Hollywood?

By Robert Niles
Published: December 9, 2011 at 3:17 PM

Now that we know for sure that the Wizarding World of Harry Potter will be coming to Universal Studios Hollywood, what does that mean for Universal's original theme park?

Universal Studios Hollywood

Ticket prices are going up

Remember that fabulous $99-for-seven-days steal of a ticket deal at the Universal Orlando theme parks? Yeah, that went away when Harry Potter arrived. So I'm guessing that we should get ready to say goodbye to Universal Studios Hollywood's annual buy-a-day, get-the-year-free annual pass deal within the next couple of years, too.

No one else in my family has an annual pass to a local theme park. But that's going to change when Butterbeer is available 15 minutes down the road. And I expect that thousands of other Southern Californians will make the same decision. With all those new customers looking to buy annual passes, Universal Studios Hollywood won't have to (essentially) give them away any longer. Universal learned in Florida that Harry Potter allows it to raise ticket prices and still see attendance jump. Expect the same in Los Angeles.

Parking is going to get tough, unless…

Universal Studios Hollywood is the only major theme park I know of that does not offer unlimited free parking to its annual passholders. (Free parking is available only if you enter the garage before 5pm.) That's because the popularity of its original CityWalk as a night-time entertainment destination helps fills Universal's parking lots in the evenings, with plenty of people paying $10-15 a car to park.

Add in thousands of new annual passholders, and things are going to get tight. If Universal further restricts parking for annual passholders, that will hold down the number of people who buy passes, cutting into Universal's Butterbeer and merchandise sales, and hurting the return on their Harry Potter investment. If anything, Universal needs to start offering unlimited free parking with its APs, to encourage even more people to buy more expensive annual passes.

But the only way to do that is to either increase the size of the parking garages (incredibly expensive), or get rid of something that's hogging a lot of the parking spaces in the evening.

Score one more reason to get rid of the Gibson Amphitheater.

WWDD?

That's right - What Will Disney Do?

Harry Potter has been Universal's first real hit on Disney in Orlando since the resort opened in 1990. Will Potter have the same impact on Disneyland?

Disneyland's rarely faced any significant challenges in the Southern California theme park market. Magic Mountain, with its emphasis on thrill rides, appeals to a different segment of the market. Knott's is moving more and more toward Magic Mountain's thrill seekers, and so far as it still appeals to families, hits a different price point than Disneyland, appealing most to families who can't afford Disney.

SeaWorld's too far away to be significant competition. I think Legoland's the only park that's ever hit Disney in its core market, but it's only really peeled off families with elementary-aged children in San Diego County - that's not a huge percentage of Disneyland's market. And those families come back to Disneyland when their kids hit puberty, anyway.

Universal's been a one-day diversion for visitors from outside the LA area. It's never had the repeat-visit appeal to locals that Disneyland has had. Harry Potter changes that, though. Especially following the introduction of Transformers, which is coming in April. The addition of Transformers and Harry Potter can make Universal an appealing alternative for hundreds of thousands of Disney passholders who live in Los Angeles County. (Disneyland is located south of LA, in Orange County.) I can't believe that Disneyland would let that happen without a response.

Leading us to…

This is just step one

And as we've learned from Orlando, when Disney responds to Universal (New Fantasyland, Avatar), Harry Potter has given Universal the resources to respond right back (Harry Potter expansion). Frankly, as a theme park fan in SoCal, I get giddy thinking about all the wonderful new attractions as Disney/Universal theme park war might deliver.

Bring it on.

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Introducing the TPI Interviews page

By Robert Niles
Published: December 8, 2011 at 9:30 AM

Just wanted to let you know that I've created a new page on the site that archives all of the interviews with ride designers and travel experts that I've done over the years.

You'll find our archive of Theme Park Insider Interviews at http://www.themeparkinsider.com/interviews.

There are some real goodies in there, including a few interviews I'd forgotten about. (And I did them!) I hope you'll take a look. It's a great way to pass the time on a December day at work, or wherever else you read the Internet.

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Some thoughts on what might replace Jaws at Universal Studios Florida

By Robert Niles
Published: December 7, 2011 at 4:51 PM

The Interwebs have been burning with rumors that Universal Orlando will expand its Wizarding World of Harry Potter by building new Harry Potter-themed attractions and shops on the site of the soon-to-be closed Jaws ride in Universal Studios Florida.

But before anyone goes connecting this week's announcements about the Jaws closure and the Harry Potter expansion, let's also keep a few other facts in mind.

First, the next stage of the Orlando Harry Potter expansion is taking place inside Islands of Adventure, right next to the existing Wizarding World, to the east. I've heard that they're talking just new shops at the moment, but that at least one new additional attraction is planned for the Orlando Wizarding World, even though it might not come in this next phase of expansion.

As for Jaws, well, let's remember that Universal doesn't have a track record of tearing down old attractions to the ground and building something entirely different on the site. If you look at all the new attractions that have been installed at the Universal Orlando Resort since it's opening, all were either built on undeveloped sites, or within existing structures. The Simpsons Ride went into the Back to the Future building. Shrek 4D took over the Alfred Hitchcock show. Revenge of the Mummy took Kong's space. Despicable Me is going in the old Jimmy Neutron building, which went into the old Hanna Barbera building. The only building I've known Universal to tear down to the ground was the old Hard Rock Cafe.

So when we're speculating about what might replace Jaws, I think it's smart to keep in mind concepts that would make use of the existing infrastructure on that site. After all, Universal chose to close Jaws, as opposed to two other adjacent attractions with relatively similar footprints and less fan devotion than Jaws - Disaster! and the Fear Factor theater.

Fortunately, Google Maps has an aerial view of the Jaws site that was taken during a refurbishment, when the water channel was drained, allowing us to see what's under the water:

Aerial view of the Jaws lagoon at Universal Studios Florida

You can see that the Jaws lagoon is not uniformly deep throughout, but just a single cut channel, with deeper cuts for show elements. That would reduce the cost of infill if Universal wanted to build on a blank site, but let's not forget that Universal probably has a significant infrastructure under the site to support pumping and draining all this water.

So if we're trying to figure out what Universal would build here, if it wanted to add a new water-based attraction, this would be the site where to build it.

Even if Universal didn't want to use water, presumably it would choose the Jaws over Disaster only if it either didn't need a show building, or needed a show building of substantially different dimensions than the Disaster building. Also, I think the selection of Jaws over the Fear Factor theater suggests that whatever the new experience will be, it won't be a show that would have fit in a modified Fear Factor theater.

I don't have any first-hand information about what will be replacing Jaws, but I think that keeping a broader view of Universal's history and what's now on that site, as opposed to others in the park, can help us better focus any speculation on the site's future.

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The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is coming to Universal Studios Hollywood, but when?

By Laurie Niles
Published: December 6, 2011 at 4:01 PM

Universal Studios Hollywood officially announced this morning the arrival of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in California, though park officials provided few details of when and what that might be.

One fact is confirmed, though: USH's Wizarding World will include Hogwarts Castle, and there's more to come at the original Wizarding World in Orlando, too.

"We have brought the world of themed entertainment to a new level with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter," said Tom Williams, Chairman and CEO of Universal Parks and Resorts. He said that the Wizarding World would be "greatly expanded" in Orlando, "We're going to build upon the fantastic experience we have there."

Butterbeer toast

Williams joined California Governor Jerry Brown, Universal Studios President Ron Meyer, Warner Bros. Chairman Barry Meyer and Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky in a Butterbeer toast to the new land. The Weasley twins from the Harry Potter films, James and Oliver Phelps also were on hand for the announcement.

Weasley twins

"The Harry Potter books and films are among the most powerful stories of our time," said Ron Meyer. "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando is setting a new standard -- We'll take the same approach as we bring Hogwarts to Hollywood."

Gov. Jerry Brown

Governor Brown said that California is a "mythical place" and that "we have some tough times, but the movie industry gives us hope. We are truly a 'state' of imagination, and this Harry Potter project pushes us just further down that uncertain road where California is going."

Speaking of uncertainty, there were no question from the press during the scripted event so several questions remain unanswered about the project at this point:
- When will it open?
- What rides, shows, shops and restaurants will it include?
- What will it replace in the current Universal Studios Hollywood theme park?

Given that a Hogwarts Castle will be the centerpiece of the new development, it's hard to imagine that Universal would build the Wizarding World on the Lower Lot of the park. (Why put a castle in a valley?) So that would suggest that the Wizarding World would go somewhere on the park's Upper Lot, such as replacing either the Gibson Amphitheater or Terminator 2: 3-D attraction, as Robert suggested in a post earlier this year.

Update: Here are video highlights of the announcement:

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Universal two-fer: Transformers Singapore and Harry Potter Hollywood press conferences

By Robert Niles
Published: December 5, 2011 at 4:15 PM

Here's the video of the press conference at Universal Studios Singapore, where Transformers director Michael Bay, Universal Creartive's Thierry Coup and Universal Studios Singapore's John Hallenbeck talk about the making of Transformers The Ride.

I chuckled a bit when Thierry Coup visibly winced when Michael Bay mentioned the "D" word. There's some good stuff here, so please watch, then take a look at our private interview with Coup and Hallenbeck, if you haven't seen it already.

Harry Potter is going Hollywood: I'll be on the approach pattern to LAX, but Laurie will be there at Universal Studios Hollywood tomorrow morning when California Governor Jerry Brown joins Universal and Warner Bros. managers for a "Butterbeer toast" to announce the west coast version of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

We'll post the details here to Theme Park Insider (as well as on our Twitter feed) right after the event.

In case you want to guess where it will go, here's our post from March with an aerial view of Universal Studios Hollywood, along with a break-down on where Harry Potter might fit within it.

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Welcome to Tokyo

By Robert Niles
Published: December 4, 2011 at 3:00 PM

TOKYO - I've done back-to-back theme park visits on consecutive days before.

But never in different countries.

A rainbow over Far, Far Away in Universal Studios Singapore
Saturday at Universal Studios Singapore

Cinderella's Castle at Tokyo Disneyland
Sunday at Tokyo Disneyland

After spending Friday and Saturday at Universal Studios Singapore, I hopped on a Singapore Airlines red-eye flight and slept while flying to Tokyo's Narita Airport. (A neck pillow is a must, I've found, to sleep on an airplane.) With literally less than a minute to spare, I cleared immigration and caught the 8am bus from Narita to Tokyo Disney Resort, where I spent Sunday at Tokyo Disneyland.

Robert at Tokyo Disneyland

I'll have a week's worth of in-depth looks at the lands of Tokyo Disneyland later in December, but for now, I'll say this: Visiting Tokyo Disneyland is like being at Disneyland and Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom at the same time: You see Cinderella's Castle. And New Orleans Square. The Magic Kingdom-style Haunted Mansion. With the Haunted Mansion Holiday overlay. Pirates starts with the Blue Bayou. And ends with the exit before the lift ramp. It goes on, and on, the ways that Tokyo Disneyland blends elements from both parks.

Visiting here also is like going back in time, to visit a Magic Kingdom before maintenance labor cutbacks. Fort Sam Clemens is open! So are the canoes. At every attraction, not only are there still cast members working greeter and queue positions, often you'll find three or more. At Mansion, I counted nine cast members working greeter! Popcorn couldn't fall to the ground before someone snatched it up and threw it away.

Oh, and popcorn. People are obsessed with that here. Again, I'll have more detail to post later, but for now, it's time to head over to Tokyo DisneySea!

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Inside the making of Transformers: The Ride - Theme Park Insider interview with Thierry Coup and John Hallenbeck

By Robert Niles
Published: December 3, 2011 at 2:44 AM

SINGAPORE - After getting my turn on Transformers: The Ride Friday morning, I got the chance to sit down with Universal Creative ride designer Thierry Coup (the man behind Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, as well as Transformers) and Universal Studios Singapore Vice President for Operations John Hallenbeck, to talk about the ride and where it fits within Universal Studios Singapore.

Thierry Coup
Universal Creative's Thierry Coup

During our conversation, Thierry described the ride in great detail (skip over his first two answers if you don't want to read spoilers), then got into some of the ways that Universal builds detail into rides, not only to make them creatively engaging, but operationally functional, as well.

I also asked Thierry if Transformers would come to Orlando. At a press conference immediately before our conversation, Thierry denied that there were any plans to bring the Wizarding World of Harry Potter to Singapore. (I'll be posting a video of that press conference, which included Transformers film director Michael Bay, later.) But he demurred on that topic regarding Hollywood, saying only that Universal has "great plans for that park."

Robert: Set up the ride for a new visitor. What can they expect?

Thierry: The premise is that the guests are coming into the NEST facility. NEST stands for Nonbiological Extraterrestrial Species Treaty - it's an alliance with the Autobots and the government to protect the Earth from Decepticons. They really are protecting the Allspark shard, which is the remain of the Cube, which is the source of power for the Transformers. Autobots are the good guys; Decepticons are the bad guys.

So we're coming in, as guests, to be recruits, and we make our way deeper and deeper into the NEST facility. First, we meet General Morshower from the films, who welcomes us to the facility and tells us what our orientation is going to be about, that we'll be meeting some of the Autobots, then we'll be introduced to the Decepticons through monitors and then see control rooms and the Allspark shard, which is housed in an incredible chamber.

Eventually, we find out as we are getting deeper into our orientation that Decepticons are coming and they are about to break into the NEST facility. So our orientation is cut short and we have to be recruited to go on the mission to take the Allspark to safety. We find there is an Autobot named EVAC, which has been designed to take military personnel and equipment to safety. It's a very fast robot, with weapons. We meet him on the monitors and see that he can transform into three modes: He can be a robot, and he can be a car in regular mode, or in hybrid mode - hybrid mode is fully weaponized, with all these incredible weapons.

[EVAC] welcomes us and says that he wants us to come along with him on this mission because we are new recruits. He's new to battle, too, so it's kind of nice that we have that connection with him. We're new. He's new. He's asking us to be part of his team, to go take the Allspark to safety.

We see him transform on the monitor, and when we come around the corner, we see him in the station, at the loading dock, and we get on board and take off on our mission.

Robert: And then, in great theme park tradition, something goes terribly wrong.

Thierry: Yeah, it has to. It gives us a chance to be heroes, and to try to save the day.

So we end up running into Ravage, one of the Decepticons, who steals the Allspark just as we're about to retrieve it. Bumblebee stops him, takes the Allspark and hands it to us. Our Autobot, EVAC, takes it in and we take off. We're then chased by some of the meanest Decepticons. We face Megatron multiple times. Optimus Prime saves us a few times and eventually we're caught into Devastator's vortex, who takes us into his body through this giant vacuum, inside his guts, and we're spit out the back. We survive this because of our battle shield around EVAC, which saves us from being completely crushed.

Then, Starscream [grabs us and] takes us for a ride above the buildings, above the city, and we end up crashing into a building. Then there's a final battle between Optimus Prime and Megatron. We think that Optimus is left for dead, and it's just us and Megatron. Then suddenly, Optimus comes back, he's not dead, but it's our turn to take charge and say, this time, we've had it. We end up inserting the Allspark into Megatron's stomach, as it was done in the first film. Megatron blows up, but pulls us on his way down, falling off the building.

We have this giant fall down, aiming for the street. At the last second, when we think we're going to crash, Bumblebee comes to the rescue to save us. He catches us in his arms, but we crash through the street down into a lower level, though we survive.

Optimus thanks us. Basically, it's the farewell from Optimus, and we get so close to him, you can really feel his breath right there, right in his face, and he's thanking us for making the world a safer place.

And then we're off to our wonderful retail store, which has incredible merchandise. (Laughs.)

Robert: What were a few of those little details in the ride that maybe aren't part of the main narrative, the little things on the side that you're particularly proud of?

Thierry: People can ride 10 times, and you'll find something new each time. If you start looking to the side of the main character, the sweet spot on the screen, you'll see there's other characters. Where Devastator first appears, at one side you'll see Ratchet shooting at Devastator. Down below, when the train track collapses, on the left side you'll see Ironhide, one of the other Autobots, telling us where to go, pointing the way for us to escape. So there's a ton of stuff like that. It's fun because you discover new things every time you ride.

In scene three, for example, which is when Bumblebee comes, Sideswipe comes in through the door and attacks Bumblebee in the back. In the back of this broken door, there's Michael Bay's airplane. A lot of Michael Bay's favorite numbers are in the ride, like E7, which is something that Michael Bay loves. In all the films he's done, he's put E7 in as numbering for warehouses for vehicles, so we have some E7s placed in the ride.

For the team that worked on the attraction, we always try to place [their] names in the sets. As you travel through the city, a lot of the theaters, the hotels, some of the stores, have some team members' names on them. It's a nice little reward for the ones who worked really hard on this attraction, so they can say "Hey, I'm in that scene with the characters."

I'm also glad that we were able to bring a lot of the real voice actors to this film - Peter Cullen, Frank Welker - it all contributes to making this richer and more real. It's the pattern we've been following - to go back to the source and work with the creators to bring the original cast on board to make the experience true and authentic.

Robert: My favorite moment was when we go crashing into the office building, just because of the contrast of being outside, and then - boom - you're inside, flying past the desks, which are right there next to you. It makes it feel so much faster than when you're outside where objects are farther away.

Thierry: (Smiles) You know who's idea that was? Steven Spielberg's.

Robert: Really?

Thierry: Yes, he's been our creative consultant for all the parks. When we first had a chance to talk with him about the concept, he said wouldn't it be cool to go through a building? So, that was a perfect opportunity for us, because Michael Bay was shooting an office interior [for Transformers 3] - so we'll use the same office interior that's in the last film. That same office where Witwicky and the others were in the building that was collapsing? That's the same office we're in.

Robert: So Spielberg and Bay were involved in making this attraction? That's a lot of Hollywood big hitters there.

Thierry: Absolutely. And having the ability to work with ILM [Industrial Light and Magic] was a real treat - the same animators, the same cinema effects guys, the digital effects supervisor who was on the films, they all worked with us on this. We were able to be in complete synch with Michael Bay and what he was going to do with the last film.

Robert: One of the things that impressed me in the ride was the way you were able to create this sense of speed. In comparing it with Spider-Man, this is like Spider-Man times 100 - just fast, fast, fast.

Thierry: It's by adding little cues that make you feel like you're moving very fast. First of all, being able to be photo-realistic, so you have a better sense of the reality of how fast real objects are moving past you. On Spider-Man, being comic-book-style, there's less detail in the environments, so it's harder to get a sense of what is real and how fast you're really going. And the new generation of vehicles we have in this ride allow us to have much better cues for giving you a sense of acceleration. They're much more precise.

In Spider-Man, we started to develop the media - we locked in our camera moves - three years before we opened the attraction, which got us stuck with some camera moves we didn't want to use in the end. They weren't ideal to give us the proper motion. But we're about to change that, too, because we're working on re-doing the Spider-Man attraction. What we've learned from Transformers, we're applying to Spider-Man now.

It [Transformers] is the most action-packed ride experience we're ever created with the visuals, but it's easy to ride. With the technology available to us, we can create a much smoother ride experience that really supports what's going on in the visuals. It's still limited to 42 inches because of the safety restraints, but its very comfortable. You can ride it multiple times and it's a real pleasure.

John: A nice thing for us, as the operators, is that Universal Creative always has the operators in early to help work on that. The way I look at it is, you can have the greatest, coolest thing in the world, but if only 10 people per hour can see it, it's never going to get built. We start out, from the beginning - we know what we want to do as far as capacity; we know how to make that happen. And then they let us come in and poke holes in it: How will this not work? How can we not get 2,000 people per hour - what are the things that would prohibit that, and then they work with us on [fixing] those parameters. To get a commitment from upper management to put a lot of money out for an attraction, it's got to get a lot of people through and sell a lot of tickets.

John Hallenbeck
Universal Studios Singapore's John Hallenbeck

My entire career in theme parks has been with Universal and I'm really happy that we've been allowed to do that. I've not worked for other companies, but I've heard that operations is kind of an afterthought in a lot of different places, and it has never been that way here. From queue design to graphic design, we have a voice.

A good example of that? In Asia, people are more predisposed to have motion sickness. It's just something that we've noticed. So we sat down, months before everything was finished, and we went through the ride profile and Thierry's group said, will this work? It ended up that this is the profile they're using everywhere and it does work here - it's been proven in the few weeks we've been in technical rehearsal. You don't want this great thing, then everyone's getting off the ride and not feeling well. It turns out we were successful in doing that then and making it what it is now.

Robert: The top question I've gotten about Transformers from my readers is: Is this coming to Orlando? And for a broader question, which gets to the recent rumors is, how do you decide what moves from one park to another park? Is there a drive to make all the Universal parks be the same, or do you want things that are unique to specific parks that never go someplace else?

Thierry: First, we look at market studies to see if certain properties do well. If Transformers was not a popular property in Asia, we would not have tried it here. Then each park has a different need - a park might have a sufficient amount of high-thrill attractions, of coasters, or of live shows. So we see where there is a need, based on feedback from operations, from marketing and others, and we start looking at, okay, for this type of attraction, these are the properties that would fit well in that market and that's kind of how we decide.

We don't want things to be too similar next to each other, obviously. There are multiple factors that come into play, but having the same attraction in Orlando and in LA is not going to hurt us because they are far enough away. But something as a fully immersive 3-D ride, we have Spider-Man [already] in Orlando. They don't have Spider-Man in LA, so why not put Transformers there? So far, no plans to have Transformers in Orlando. It doesn't mean that it may not happen if there's high demand for it, but.... (shakes head).

Robert: Talking about meeting needs in a park, looking five years, 10 years down the road, where do you see the needs for this particular park? What kind of attractions do you need to be looking at for the long term?

John: I think it's really looking at the demographics of this region, again, family is a huge thing. Asia is very family-driven. Any attraction that we can get more from the youngsters to the grandparents is going to be more of a blockbuster for us.

We've seen our front gate. We have a lot of larger groups - almost 20 percent of our attendance are groups of eight people or more. And that's not a tour group. That's a family. That's grandma, grandpa, maybe an aunt and uncle, maybe mom and dad, a couple of kids. They travel together in [extended] families here a lot. So that's something we definitely need to take into consideration.

We opened Battlestar Galactica, the world's tallest dueling steel roller coasters and they are popular, but there's a segment of people who look at it here in Asia and go, "No way I'm going to ride that thing." So it's taking all the pieces we have and really looking at, as Thierry said, where that next need is for us. It's not always going to be a huge, blockbuster attraction that's going to drive the business. It could be something like parades, which we're going open at New Year's Eve - our Hollywood Dreams parade is going to start here. So it's taking pieces of that to put the puzzle together, long-term.

Robert: So Thierry, what are you getting excited about moving on to next?

Thierry: Finishing the one in LA. I just can't wait for that one to open as well. It's going to be really fun - LA has not seen anything like it. The market there is pretty savvy. They've been to other parks, they've seen a lot, so it'll be great for them to finally see a ride like this.

I've posted video of the opening ceremony for Transformers: The Ride, which followed our interview Friday night. Just click over to Theme Park Insider's Facebook page to see the video, which includes one heck of an entrance by Michael Bay.

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Jaws ride closing forever at Universal Orlando

By Domenik Jost
Published: December 2, 2011 at 12:42 PM

It’s official! The Jaws attraction at Universal Studios Florida is closing. Universal Orlando announced to its Facebook fans this morning that Jaws will officially close on January 2, 2012.

Now, the question is left, what could be put in the space that Jaws currently occupies? What new ride? Maybe Transformers? And with a new ride coming, what would the area around it be re-themed to?

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Ride review - Transformers: The Ride at Universal Studios Singapore

By Robert Niles
Published: December 1, 2011 at 11:51 PM

SINGAPORE - Imagine if you could cram all the action of a Transformers movie into one five-minute, 3-D package.

Bumblebee

If you tried, you wouldn't do better than Transformers: The Ride, which officially opens to the public tomorrow morning, Saturday, December 3, at Universal Studios Singapore. I got the chance to ride during a media preview today.

EVAC the Autobot robot

That's me with EVAC, a new Autobot Transformers character created especially for the new ride. EVAC's speciality is transporting personnel and classified materials at high speeds. He can take the form of a robot (above), a hybrid battle vehicle and a street vehicle.

And when he does that, he looks pretty much like this:

EVAC the ride vehicle

If you think EVAC looks a bit like SCOOP from The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, I wouldn't disagree. Transformers: The Ride is, at its core, the same type of ride as Spider-Man - motion-base ride vehicles moving through a show building where you watch action heros battle bad guys on 3-D screens embedded into the show scenes.

But Transformers takes the experience to new levels - with action that's faster, wilder and more three-dimensional than Spider-Man. When I say "three-dimensional," I don't just mean in the sense of stuff popping off the screen in front of you. I mean that Transformers makes more effective use of three-dimensional space. It's not just robots moving back and forth and side-to-side. Riding Transformers, you really get a sense of height, and the vertical scale of these multi-story Autobots and Decepticons fighting in front you.

My favorite moment? When you're swooping through a skyscraper canyon, then suddenly whipped into an office building. The transition from outdoors to indoors as you crash through the building's glass wall amplifies your sense of speed. Flying indoors you're just inches away from the objects hurtling past you, instead of yards away from obstacles as you were outdoors a split second ago. Transformers: The Ride is filled with moments like that, when your senses of speed, direction and even touch turn instantly. (Watch for water, steam and heat effects, in addition to the visual mayhem.)

The story is set up in the queue, where you're recruited to join NEST - the military command that assists the Autobots in their battle to defend Earth from the Decepticons. Borrowing from the main story arc of the Transformers movies, your job is to help protect the Allspark, the last remaining core source of energy for the Transformers, and to keep it away from the Decepticons.

The Allspark

EVAC's going to help us, the riders, do that by taking us and the Allspark out of the city and away from the battle. Frankly, when I heard this twist in the story, my heart sank. I've railed so many times against the whole "we're evacuating you from a battle" storyline that shows up so often in Six Flags roller coasters that it depressed me to see Universal Creative going to the same well. But Transformers' design team, led by Thierry Coup, wisely reject that lame conceit.

"Cowards run. Heroes fight," Megatron mocks us as the ride's battle focuses on its climax. But EVAC won't let us down. We stop running away. We fight back. We get to be heroes. And Universal transforms what could have been a tired narrative into something worth cheering for again.

For Theme Park Insider readers not in position to make the trip to Singapore anytime soon, Transformers: The Ride also debuts at Universal Studios Hollywood next spring.

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2015 – Harry Potter Goes to Hollywood

By Jeff Elliott
Published: December 1, 2011 at 2:13 PM

Update: (Dec. 5) Universal Studios Hollywood has announced a press event for 11 am, Tuesday, Dec. 6 to make the announcement. Governor Jerry Brown will be there with pretty much all of Universal, Warner Bros. and Universal Orlando and Universal Studios Hollywood management to have a "Butterbeer toast."

2015 is shaping up to be an incredible year for theme parks. Of the parks that receive regular mention on this site, the current list is Shanghai Disneyland and Avatar Land at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

What we are currently hearing from very reputable news sources is that a new Harry Potter Land is going to open at Universal Studios Hollywood in 2015 in a deal that should be finalized in the next couple of weeks.

The biggest questions are where is it going to go and what is it going to include. To answer those questions, I must point out that this is a very fluid situation that has yet to be officially announced, but what we are hearing is that it will be somewhat similar to the Harry Potter Land at Islands of Adventure. Whether that means that Hollywood is getting robotic arms and dueling coasters is anyone’s guess. The only thing that we can bank on at this point is an immersive village where they serve Butterbeer someplace.

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Your thoughts?

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Keep reading: December 2011 Archive



Stories from a Theme Park Insider

Stories from a Theme Park Insider

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