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April 2012

Universal Orlando adds two new dining and entertainment packages

By Robert Niles
Published: April 30, 2012 at 2:35 PM

Universal Orlando is offering two new meal packages for visitors who want VIP seating for its new summer shows.

Universal's Cinematic Spectacular

Universal's Cinematic Dining Experience will include dinner at Lombard's Seafood Grille in Universal Studios Florida, as well as dessert on the restaurant's waterside boardwalk area, where diners can watch the new Universal's Cinematic Spectacular show. Universal's Superstar Character Breakfast will include breakfast (*update: the restaurant isn't specified) with characters from the new Universal's Superstar Parade, including SpongeBob SquarePants, Dora the Explorer and the Despicable Me Minions, as well as admission to a reserved viewing area for the day's parade.

Both packages will be available only as add-ons to Universal Orlando vacation packages, which are arranged through Universal's website. The dinner package will be $44.99 per adult and $12.99 per child and will begin June 1. The breakfast package $26.99 per adult and $10.99 per child and will begin June 15.

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NextGen takes its next step at Walt Disney World this week

By Robert Niles
Published: April 30, 2012 at 10:06 AM

NextGen takes its next step this week at the Walt Disney World Resort, as Imagineers and attractions workers begin testing the next generation ride reservation system at the Disney World theme parks.

Fastpasses and resort cards
All these would merge as a single card or wristband, under NextGen

Guests who have been invited in advance will be testing new "Fastpass" cards with embedded RFID chips. Participants will have pre-scheduled Fastpass return times at several attractions, and will use the RFID cards to check in at those attractions during their one-hour return time windows.

Disney's ultimate goal here is to use RFID technology to enable a single card or wristband to do everything for a guest - to be a hotel room card, theme park admission ticket, charge card, Photo Pass card, Fastpass ticket, and Priority Seating reservation card. Disney doesn't need RFID to do all of those things - indeed, current resort cards can do fulfill many of those functions. But Disney also wants its NextGen media to be able to trigger interactive animation at selected locations around the resort. Eventually, your card or wristband will be the ticket to an individual narrative experience that follows you around your vacation - think of a much more robust "Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom"-type experience that's overlaid on top of whatever else you choose to do at the resort. It doesn't have to be a game, like Sorcerers. It could be any type of narrative experience you'd want to add to your vacation. As I wrote two weeks ago, theme park lands in NextGen will no longer just be settings for attractions, but become platforms for them.

Disney's introducing RFID room cards this month at the Art of Animation hotel. This week's test begins the process of bringing the Fastpass system into the fold. And Disney's quietly begun work to create interactive animations in the Magic Kingdom that can be triggered by RFID-enabled media. Eventually, Disney will put the various pieces together, and we'll have our NextGen experience in the Walt Disney World theme parks.

The challenge, beyond simply getting the tech to work, is load balancing guest capacity across the parks. Ideally, NextGen would allow Disney to do a better job of spreading crowds throughout the park, as it would give Disney the capability of more actively managing where guests go, and when.

I'm reminded of how One More Disney Day went at Disneyland on Feb. 29, before California Adventure closed for the day at 8 pm and the after-work crowd swarmed the resort. Since the park was filled that day with experienced Disney fans, many of whom were trying to do everything in the park in that one day, the crowds dispersed nicely, spreading throughout the park and keeping wait times next to zero on most attractions, even though tens of thousands of people were in the park. NextGen could allow a next generation ride reservation system to better distribute guests throughout the park, the way that the daytime Disneyland fans did on their own during daylight hours on Feb. 29.

The flip side of all this is the capacity problems inherent in creating individual interactive experiences throughout the parks. Consider the wait time we're already seeing at some Sorcerers portals. Imagine if every Disney hotel guest has a NextGen wristband, and they all were trying to trigger little animations and go on individual quests around the parks. The standby lines at Soarin' might seem quick by comparison.

So a huge part of the NextGen testing won't just be making sure that the cards let you on the ride or trigger an animation when you tap them at the check-in station. It will be developing the mathematical models to determine how many pre-determined ride reservations the "average" guest should get in one day. And how many individual interactive experiences Disney can support for each guest each day, without making the wait times for those experiences intolerable.

That's a lot of math.

Until then, if you see a component of NextGen being installed or tested "in the wild," let us know in the comments, or on the discussion board.

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'Stories from a Theme Park Insider' now available in paperback

By Robert Niles
Published: April 28, 2012 at 2:35 PM

Don't have a Kindle? Or a Nook? Or an iPad? No problem! Our popular eBook of Disney cast member stories - "Stories from a Theme Park Insider" - is now available in paperback.

Stories from a Theme Park InsiderReaders have called Stories from a Theme Park Insider "a must read for Disney fans," and "a great book, I was laughing and smiling through the whole thing."

Despite the title, these aren't "stories" in any formal sense - they're short scenes, incidents, vignettes, and gags. They're the quick anecdotes that cast members tell each other in a break room (or bar) after their shifts for a laugh. They're silly, funny, frustrating, and even sometimes touching.

Most of all, I hope that you find them entertaining.

Many readers asked for a paperback edition since we first offered the eBook last year, and I've found an affordable way to get them printed, so the paperback version is now on sale at Amazon.com for just $7.99. (The Kindle eBook edition remains $2.99.) For those of you who have bought the eBook, the paperback edition makes a fun gift for any other theme park fan, and I've added an extra story exclusively for the paperback edition, as well.

The paperback version also is available through local bookstores, so if you don't want to shop at Amazon, just ask for it at your local bookstore, and they should be able to order a copy for you.

Now you don't have to put down "Stories from a Theme Park Insider" during takeoff and landing on your next flight to Orlando, or face getting busted on the runway like Alec Baldwin. Just order the paperback copy! ;^)

Seriously, though, thank you to all the readers who have supported the book and the website, and I hope that the paperback edition will help attract more fans into the Theme Park Insider community. Thank you for helping to spread the word.

Stories from a Theme Park Insider is $7.99 in paperback and $2.99 in eBook format, both from Amazon.com.

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TurtleTrek opens at SeaWorld Orlando

By Domenik Jost
Published: April 27, 2012 at 5:32 PM

This morning, SeaWorld Orlando reached a new milestone by opening the TurtleTrek attraction. TurtleTrek is the world's first 360-degree 3D dome theater.

The 3D film follows the journey that every sea turtle goes through from hatching and finding its way to the sea, to coming back to the beach it was born on to lay its eggs.

The presentation, while it might not be the world's most realistic 3D, the full experience of being enveloped by the 360-degree dome screen and watching the 3D film is unique. You can look all around and visually explore the area surrounding you.

In the film we encountered everything from a small crab to a large great white shark, and got to explore the open ocean, a coral reef, a ship wreck, and even see the SeaWorld rescue team back at the beach. The film gives great insight into what sea turtles have to deal with throughout their lifespan, and its quite an inspiring story.

And since this 360 degree experience is in 3D, it really feels like you are in the film. Sea creatures float right above you and it looks like they graze the top of people's heads. With 3D always comes the challenge of the 3D glasses, but SeaWorld went with the simple 3D plastic glasses (think the old Spiderman 3D glasses). Yet unlike the simple, old 3D plastic glasses, these are designed to allow you to see more of your peripheral vision with the lenses wrapping around the sides. Most importantly for me the glasses fit perfectly over my prescription glasses so I was able to enjoy the full experience. The colors of the 3D are vibrant and you don't loose any noticeable brightness with the glasses. TurtleTrek is definitely a unique experience and I would recommend checking it out.

Here are some fun facts about TurtleTrek:
-Each frame of the film has approximately 26 million individual pixels (more than 13 times what is considered “high-def”)
-The six-minute film takes up 950GB
-34 projectors have a combined total of 368,800 lumens of light output; more than 15 times a typical digital movie theater projection system.
-The sound system includes 22 discrete audio channels that have all been mixed on-site. This allows for 3-D sound and pinpoint placement of audio effects.

Of course it would not be SeaWorld if there was not live animals to view. There are two tanks which you can view from both above ground and underwater. One features the Manatees, and the other the Sea Turtles. The Sea Turtles under viewing area is the pre-show to the TurtleTrek 3D film. There are several sea turtles in the tank as well as many different fish making for a very colorful experience. After watching the TurtleTrek show you exit towards the above ground viewing areas. There you can find two game stations set up that allow four people per station to take up the sea turtles journey to the beach.

The game controllers are made to look like turtles and by simply tilting the controller up, down, left, and right you control your turtle. Of course there are educators all around to help answer any questions you may have.

We also got a chance to talk with SeaWorld Orlando Creative Director, Brian Morrow, and he gave us some insight into what it took to create TurtleTrek including a tip of where it is best seen from as well as talking a little bit about the new Antarctica attraction which opens up in 2013.

Update from Robert: BTW, Domenik told me that Brian said he loves all the wrong information that is out there about Antarctica, and that we were close, but "trackless ride" is not quite the correct description for Antarctica's ride system.

Next guess? ;^)

Also, here is the video from TurtleTrek's opening ceremony:

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Vote of the week: Would you stay at a hotel on its opening day?

By Robert Niles
Published: April 27, 2012 at 11:30 AM

Disney's been showing off its soon-to-open Art of Animation Resort at Walt Disney World, posting several new publicity photos to its Facebook page, and hosting tours for the press.

Art of Animation Resort

The first wing of this new "value" resort (the bottom tier of Disney World's on-site hotels) will open May 31, with additional wings to follow throughout the summer. But that raises an interesting question, at least, I think it's interesting.

Would you stay at a hotel on the day it opened?

The upside? It's a brand new hotel. Tons of corporate suits will be there, paying attention to every detail, ready to swoop in and make things right. You know everything is clean, new and fresh. Germaphobes can rest assured that no one's ever slept on that bed before.

The downside? It's a brand new hotel. Tons of corporate suits are there, getting in the workers' way, and keeping them from doing their jobs. Everything is new and untested. Who knows if all the stuff in your room and the facilities will actually work?

And, oh yeah, new carpet smell. All over the place.

So it's your call. Perhaps some of you have made reservations for Art of Animation's opening days this summer. Or have stayed at a newly-opened hotel in the past. I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Thanks again for reading Theme Park Insider, and stay tuned for our report on the opening of SeaWorld Orlando's Turtle Trek, coming later today.

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Disney World confirms opening dates for new Fantasyland attractions (sort of)

By Robert Niles
Published: April 27, 2012 at 7:27 AM

Walt Disney World this morning confirmed (sort of) some opening dates for the remaining new attractions in its ongoing Fantasyland refurbishment.

The second carousel on the new Dumbo (the one relocated from its old site), and the Casey Jr. sprayground will open this July.

The new Dumbo
The new carousel of the "Dueling Dumbos," now open in The Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland in Florida

The Little Mermaid ride and Be Our Guest restaurant will open this "holiday season," presumably sometime between mid-November and mid-December.

The Beast's Castle
The Beast's Castle, home to the Be Our Guest restaurant, under construction in Fantasyland

The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train roller coaster will not open until 2014.

In addition, Disney confirmed that the track and physical ride will not change on the revamped Test Track, which will open on an unspecified date later this year. All of the ride's show scenes will change, however, and some of the new scenes will be digital, in addition to traditional, physical show scenes.

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Four reasons for 2012 to be the last year for Universal's Terminator 2: 3D

By Robert Niles
Published: April 26, 2012 at 3:08 PM

We've known for some time now that Terminator 2: 3D's days are numbered at Universal Studios Hollywood (and perhaps in Florida, as well). So after we rode Transformers: The Ride 3D last weekend, I took my film-geek son, Brian, up to T2 so he could experience the attraction at least once before it goes away.

Terminator 2: 3D at Universal Studios Hollywood

There's no official word on when T2 might close, but after seeing this show again for the first time in years, I'm convinced that the sooner it closes, the better. T2's time is past, and its presence in the park at this point actually has become a liability. Universal can't get going with installing a replacement quickly enough.

Here's why T2's become a liability for the park:

Californians hate Arnold Schwarzenegger now

Forget Jack Dawson. In 1990s Hollywood, Schwarzenegger was the King of the World. But that was before Schwarzenegger trashed his reputation among Californians by serving seven dysfunctional years as governor, leaving office as the most unpopular governor in California history.

Sure, it's The Terminator up there on screen, but the people hissing when he appeared in T2: 3D were booing the man who played him. Californians don't want to be reminded of the Schwarzenegger administration.

It's embarrassing to watch Cyberdyne Systems' vision of the future that's already here, or past

Any attraction that portrays the near future, as T2: 3D did when it opened in 1996, runs the risk of becoming laughably outdated if it's not refreshed within a few years of opening. T2 hasn't been, and now some of its pre-show "predictions of the future" are unintentionally, and embarrassingly, hilarious.

Video chat? Tablet computers? A grandmother will have 5,000 channels of television, and if she can't decide what to watch, the TV will decide for her?

We're not laughing with you, T2: 3D. We're laughing at you. Worse, though, are the kids who aren't laughing at all. They can't understand why we're supposed to care about the lame versions of iPads and TiVos that Cyberdyne is showing us during the pre-show. Apathy is death for a theme park attraction.

The 3D projection looks terrible next to Transformers and Kong

At one point during the show, I took off my 3D glasses and asked Brian, "Are you seeing this in 3D?" He chuckled, shook his head and replied, "No, it's all out of synch."

At very few times did the images on screen "pop" out into space as they should in a 3D film. Instead, as is too often the case with years-old 3D projections, I saw plenty of double or ghost images in 2D instead. T2 is worse now than Disneyland's Captain EO for inferior projection. Next to the sharp, stunning, world-class 3D imagery of King Kong and Transformers, T2's 3D seems especially inferior.

The story setting still doesn't work

T2's always had great in-theater effects, and USH's performers typically give great performances. But it's always bothered me that we start the presentation inside a Cyberdyne auditorium, then somehow end up outside the theater - in the future - around and inside the SkyNet headquarters. Okay, so I guess the entire theater-full of people were transported along with John Connor and The Terminator when they busted out of Cyberdyne - and no one in the future battle ever sees us there.

But even if we accept that, a big narrative setting problem remains. When Connor goes through the portal to return to the present time, we don't go with him. We stay behind to watch The Terminator battle the T-1,000,000. When SkyNet's destroyed, the portal goes with it. How do we survive and get back, when the Terminator doesn't? Heck, he's a lot stronger and more durable than we are.

The great in-theater effects, performances and (at the time awesome) 3D easily overcame these weaknesses back in the 1990s. But this is far from Universal Creative's best work today. Here's hoping Universal pulls the plug quickly and greenlights a better attraction for its fans and guests in Southern California.

So what could that be?

The hot rumor of the moment is Universal will duplicate Orlando's upcoming Despicable Me show for the T2 theater in Hollywood. But it's fun to imagine another couple possibilities as well.

What if Universal moved Shrek 4D over to the T2 theater, then rebuilt its exterior to become a Singapore-like Far, Far Away castle? That'd allow Universal to raze the existing Shrek theater to clear space for an expanded Hogsmeade for its version of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Shrek would fit better thematically in front of the European facades near the current T2 theater anyway.

What if we wanted a fresh attraction in the space, rather than a relocation or Orlando import? How about a new 4D show featuring Dr. Seuss characters and stories? Universal Studios Hollywood lacks anything from the Seuss Landing land in Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure. A new Seuss 4D show would add a welcomed family-focused attraction in the park, and if Universal threw in a Caro-Seuss-El on the site of the Coke Soak, that'd be a solid mini-land for the park. (Coke Soak could go to the site of the old Stunt Show theater if there's an ongoing contractual obligation to maintain it.)

What do you think about T2: 3D and its future, both in Hollywood and Orlando? The comments await your thoughts.

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Theme park wayback machine: Original promotional cards from Pirates of the Caribbean

By Robert Niles
Published: April 26, 2012 at 9:34 AM

I want to thank Theme Park Insider reader Richard Croft, who submitted photos of these 1966 promotional cards for Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean, which were released before the ride opened. What a fun look back at one of my favorite attractions!

Card 1

Card 2

Card 3

Card 4

Card 5

Card 6

Pirates was the first ride I ever kept my mother from riding. When the ride opened in early 1967, my parents visited Disneyland to go on it. But back in those days, pregnant women were not allowed to ride, and since I was due in October of that year, well, I kept my mom from going on Pirates until my first Disneyland visit, a couple years later.

Any other old timers care to share an early memory of Pirates?

If you have some fun and interesting items of theme park memorabilia (old maps, tickets, photos, etc.), let me know and we'll feature them on Theme Park Insider's home page.

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SeaWorld drops plastic shopping bags (and we use that as an excuse to offer our souvenir shopping tips)

By Robert Niles
Published: April 25, 2012 at 12:37 PM

SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment announced today that it is getting rid of plastic shopping bags at all of its theme parks. SeaWorld San Diego's been under the plastic bag ban since last year, but today's move will extend that policy to all of the chain's theme parks, including SeaWorld Orlando, the Busch Gardens parks and Sesame Place.

SeaWorld paper shopping bag
Close-up of a SeaWorld paper shopping bag. Photo courtesy SeaWorld.

Bag bans are becoming more common across the country, as states and communities look to reduce waste. In my part of Los Angeles County, for example, local groceries and pharmacies don't give out any free bags - plastic or paper. You have to bring your own. (SeaWorld will be using 100% recycled paper bags in its shops, as well as selling reusable bags.)

SeaWorld's policy shift provides a handy excuse to review some of our tips for souvenir shopping at theme parks.

Don't buy any non-food item inside a theme park that you can buy outside the park

The mark-up for medicine, sunscreen, pens to collect autographs and other staples will drain your bank account. So bring what you know you'll need with you, keeping it in the car if you must. Save your in-park purchases for food and unique items that you can't get anywhere else.

Visit the online store before you visit the theme park

Many parks have online stores where you can buy park souvenirs at home. Click to the online store for the park you're visiting before you go, if for no other reason than just to find out what is available online, and for how much. With that information in hand, you can restrict your in-park purchases to items you can't get online, or that are less expensive in the park.

Here are a few theme park online stores:

Save your shopping for just before you leave the park

Minimize the amount of time you'll be carrying around the items you purchase by waiting to shop until just before you leave the park. Here's the one exception to this rule, though. Don't wait until closing time to shop at the store nearest the park's exit/entrance. It'll be slammed at that hour.

Better to shop just before you leave the park for a mid-day break. (Theme Park Insider's advice is to arrive at the park before opening, ride the most popular attractions before lines build up, then leave the park for a mid-day break at the hotel - to nap or swim, or just relax - before returning in the evening, when the lines are getting smaller again.)

If you must shop during the day, use the park's package delivery/pick-up service

If you find some unique item you must have in a store near the back of the park, and you don't want to run back at closing time to get it, you don't have to do that. Ask about the park's package pick-up or delivery options. Many times, you can make your purchase right away, and the park will hold the item for you. If you're staying at an on-site hotel, you often can arrange to have the park deliver the item to your room! Whatever option is available, if it's free and keeps you from having to carry your purchases around the park all day, it's worth it.

Use your own bag, if you can

If package delivery isn't an option, and you don't want to run back to the store later to make your purchase, you usually don't have to take an extra, wasted bag if you can fit the item into your backpack, or into a bag you've already collected from a previous purchase. Just tell the cashier "I already have a bag," and ask for just the receipt instead.

A final tip for parents

To save on whining and arguments over souvenirs with your children, either give - or better yet, have them earn - a shopping allowance before you go. That way, anything they want to buy during the trip is coming out of their wallet. (Or their money that you keep in your wallet.) It's a great way to give a child a real-world lesson in budgeting and money management, as well as to avoid the begging that too often happens when you walk by a theme park souvenir shop.

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New details released on SeaWorld's Antarctica penguin ride and exhibit

By Robert Niles
Published: April 24, 2012 at 3:33 PM

SeaWorld Orlando today revealed some more detail about its new ride for 2013: Antarctica - Empire of the Penguin. First, there's a new promotional poster:

Antarctica - Empire of the Penguin

But let's take a closer look at that ride vehicle.

Antarctica - Empire of the Penguin detail

SeaWorld said in a press release today that "Antarctica – Empire of the Penguin will include a first-of-its-kind family adventure ride that utilizes new technology for an experience that can change from visit to visit. Designers also revealed that guests will be able to choose the level of thrill they experience on the ride."

Hmmm. Could these be some sort of motion-base cars on a trackless ride system? Groups could select how much the cars move ("choose the level of thrill they experience") and the path through the ride building could vary from trip to trip ("an experience that can change from visit to visit"), in the spirit of Tokyo Disneyland's Winnie the Pooh ride. It's one explanation (and the one I'd love to ride). I don't have any insider scoop here - just looking at the image and release and applying that to what I know is out there as current ride technology.

The attraction will include not just the ride, but also an up-close viewing area, restaurant and gift shop. I'm guessing that the people depicted alongside the ride reference the viewing area in the new ride. SeaWorld said:

"Antarctica – Empire of the Penguin will get SeaWorld’s guests closer than ever - and out among - its colony of penguins including gentoos, rockhoppers, adelies and kings. How close has yet to be detailed, but designers consider the guests’ encounters with the penguins to be the first of their kind in any theme park or zoo in the world."

And yes, it's going to be chilly in there: "Immersing guests in a colony of penguins means Antarctica – Empire of the Penguin will be the coldest theme park attraction in the world. Designers have declined comment on the engineering it will take to place SeaWorld guests among a colony of penguins whose habitat must stay in the low 30 degrees for comfort."

By the way, I love the "hidden penguin" in the image, too. Take a close look at that snow-covered rock work in the top middle of the image.


Update: To clarify, the images above conceptual "photo illustrations" provided by SeaWorld. They are not photos of the actual ride or exhibit, which hasn't been completed yet.

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What do you want to see added to your theme park hotel room?

By Robert Niles
Published: April 24, 2012 at 11:14 AM

What's included in the perfect hotel room? Theme Park Insider reader Joshua Counsil revived that topic on our discussion board this week, with a post about a great room he found in New York. In his post, Joshua referenced a Blog Flume entry I posted last year, where I listed the features I want to see in a hotel room when I travel.

Grand Californian Hotel room
A pretty nice, feature-filled room at Disney's Grand Californian Hotel at Disneyland

It looks like Disney's been asking its guests about their wish lists for in-room features, too. This week in the Orlando Sentinel, Jason Garcia reports some of the changes Walt Disney World is making to its hotel rooms as a result of its surveys.

Topping its list is the same thing that topped ours: free WiFi. The on-site hotels at Disneyland have had free WiFi for some time now, but the survey's prompted Disney to accelerate the roll-out of free WiFi in rooms and common areas at the WDW hotels, as well.

Perhaps its not surprising that Disney's hotel guests collectively had different priorities, based on whether they stayed at Value, Moderate or Deluxe hotels on property. The Value hotel guests most wanted in-room mini-fridges, while the Moderate hotel guests most valued getting an extra bed into their rooms.

So Disney's putting mini-fridges in all 8,500 on-property Value hotel rooms, and it's testing Murphy-style extra beds, hidden in armoires, at the Port Orleans Resort for a potential roll-out to other Moderate resorts.

Jason's article didn't mention what the extra features Deluxe hotel guests most wanted after the free WiFi. I'd love to hear from Theme Park Insider readers what you'd have liked to see added to the on-property theme park hotel rooms you've stayed at recently.

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What's new on the discussion board: Coming soon to a theme park near you

By Robert Niles
Published: April 24, 2012 at 9:27 AM

New attractions are opening and are being planned all over the place, and we're talking about some of them on the Theme Park Insider discussion board. Here's the weekly round-up of our top new discussions.

Domenik Jost gets the conversation started about Universal's Cinematic Spectacular: 100 Years of Movie Memories in Universal Orlando offers first look at new night time lagoon show.

Universal's Cinematic Spectacular

Brian silvestre stays on the topic of Universal, but shifts the focus to Universal Studios Hollywood's plans for new rides and shows in New attraction 2013.

Back to Disney, David Graham wants to know What about Ratatouille Dark Ride in Epcot's France?

And Jack Curley asks for your suggestions for A Coaster More Rockin' than Aerosmith.

Daniel Etcheberry asks Does being a good neighbor hotel mean good quality?

James Rao kicks off our coverage of regional amusement parks with an early-season, photo-laden trip report: A Visit to Silver Dollar City (Spring 2012).

Finally, Nathan Alexander submits his entry to the Spring Video Contest with Spring 2012 Video Contest: Warner Brothers Movie World, Australia.

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Ride review - Transformers: The Ride at Universal Studios Hollywood

By Robert Niles
Published: April 23, 2012 at 10:13 AM

Sunday afternoon I completed the Singapore/Hollywood double by getting my first chance to ride Transformers: The Ride 3D at Universal Studios Hollywood.

Transformers: The Ride 3D entrance

The ride's the same as Transformers at Universal Studios Singapore, which I reviewed when it opened in December. Here's what I said then, and it stands for this version, too:

Imagine if you could cram all the action of a Transformers movie into one five-minute, 3-D package. If you tried, you wouldn't do better than Transformers: The Ride….

Transformers: The Ride is, at its core, the same type of ride as [Universal Orlando's The Amazing Adventures of] 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.

You can read the whole thing if you want more on the ride itself. And if you're looking for spoilers, look no further than my interview with the man who designed the ride (as well as Spider-Man and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey), Universal Creative's Thierry Coup.

But long-time readers of Theme Park Insider have read all that before. Let's get to the fresh question: How does Transformers: The Ride 3D fit in Universal Studios Hollywood?

Transformers essentially replaces Backdraft, a fire effects show that long ago had ceased being an effective attendance draw for the park. The Lower Lot soundstage that houses Transformers also used to be home to Special Effects Stages, but that show's found new life in a much-improved form in the Castle Theater on the Upper Lot, so the additional of Transformers to the park turned out to be a plus for that show, as well.

With Transformers, Universal Studios Hollywood now offers two of the world's best 3D attractions, joining the Studio Tour's King Kong 360:3-D. Personally, Transformers is my third-favorite ride in the world at this point, behind Harry Potter and Tokyo DisneySea's Journey to the Center of the Earth. Yes, that makes Transformers my favorite ride in Southern California right now, the first time I've said that about any ride outside the Disneyland Resort.

If there's a knock to be made on Transformers, it's that it continues USH's tradition of stranding its attractions without themed lands to "set the stage" for these shows. The fix to that problem is one of the many things I loved about Universal Studios Singapore. There, Universal created themed environments for each of its attractions: a well-themed, immersive Egypt for Revenge of the Mummy and a Far, Far Away for Shrek, in addition to full lands for Madagascar and Jurassic Park.

The Singapore Transformers calls Sci-Fi City home. That urban setting works as the hidden-in-plain-sight NEST headquarters, tucked inside the corner on a city street. In Hollywood, there's no attempt at setting the stage for this show. There's a huge soundstage at the end of the street. Walk in, and boom, you're in NEST. My son, who's a huge Transformers fan, said that even though he loved the ride, he still prefers Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey as his all-time favorite ride - simply because of the far better exterior set-up for that attraction. I agree.

Note that in Hollywood, where the ride is announced with a giant, two-dimensional mural, Universal's appended the "3D" to the title of the ride. It doesn't that extra "3D" on the sign in Singapore, where a three-dimensional Bumblebee greets visitors from atop the ride's marquee. As they say in journalism school - show, don't tell.

Bumblebee, atop Universal Studios Singapore's Transformers ride

But that's nit-picking. That we're discussion Transformers' place among the very top rides in the world should say it all. Once you're on board, the ride's the same in both Hollywood and Singapore, and equally amazing (sorry to borrow your word, Spidey) in each. And a 20-minute drive sure beats a 20-hour flight when I want to experience it again.

So let's talk business. Universal's the third-most popular park in Southern California, trailing Disneyland and Disney's California Adventure. Can Transformers help Universal close that gap?

From the time I've spent in each of the three parks, my impression is that USH relies on a higher percentage of foreign and out-of-town visitors than either of the Disney theme parks, which have a huge local base of hundreds of thousands of annual passholders. It's not the Universal hasn't tried to court locals. It's "buy a day, get the year free" plan nets Southern California residents an annual pass for just $77 - $122 less than Disney's cheapest annual pass, and with 147 fewer blockout days. (Universal's pass is good only until the end of 2012, and not for a full 12 months, but that Universal pass bought today still gets you in the park for more days than Disney's ticket.)

Universal had offered to let local bloggers in for a preview day on Transformers, but then said that it would leave preview tickets at Will Call on a day of our choosing instead. When I showed up Sunday morning, no one at Will Call knew what the heck I was talking about, so I went ahead bought the $77 annual pass tickets for me and my son instead. The ride was in "technical rehearsal" (i.e. soft opening), so we got on anyway, with no wait. And then, we went around and got on again.

The last time I bought the "buy a day, get the year free" deal, I have to fess up that I never came back for the second day. Once I'd done everything in the park on my first day, I just didn't feel the need to come back and experience anything again that year (outside of covering media events at the park, of course).

But now, with Transformers in the mix? Brian's already asking when we can come back again. And I can't wait to ride again, either. With these tickets in hand, Transformers might help make Universal Studios Hollywood the best theme park deal in Southern California.

Transformers: The Ride 3D opens officially on May 25. For more coverage of Transformers: The Ride, take a look at

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Starbucks is coming to the Disneyland and Walt Disney World theme parks

By Robert Niles
Published: April 23, 2012 at 9:34 AM

Disney announced today that it's closed its deal with Starbucks to bring the popular coffee shops into the Disney theme parks.

StarbucksDon't freak out about seeing your cookie-cutter, neighborhood Starbucks on Main Street USA just yet, though. Disney says that the 'Bucks locations will be themed to their settings, with the first one coming to the new Buena Vista Street in Disney California Adventure, which opens June 15.

So, essentially, this is a vendor swap, with Starbucks training, menu, and products replacing current coffee products in select locations in the six U.S. Disney theme parks. The Fiddler, Fifer and Practical Cafe location that will be the first Starbucks in California Adventure also will sell additional Disney food items, so it's more like a Disney restaurant that sells Starbucks than a straight-up Starbucks location. And it's not like Disney hasn't had branded coffee houses in its parks before.

All that said, do you like this move, or not? Are you happy with Disney's current coffee, or would you rather see some other brand of coffee (Seattle's Best, Peet's, Peaberry, etc.) come into the parks?

If you selected the "other brand" option, tell us in the comments which one you'd like to see at Disney.

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Vote of the week: Which theme parks outside the US would you most want to visit?

By Robert Niles
Published: April 20, 2012 at 9:17 AM

I've been working to increase our coverage of major theme parks outside the United States, and late last year we posted in-depth looks at Universal Studios Singapore and the Tokyo Disney Resort. This summer, I'm pleased to announce, we're planning to add an in-depth look at Disneyland Paris to the mix.

So today, I'd like to get your feedback on international theme parks. Which of the Disney and Universal theme parks outside the United States would you most like to visit some day? (Eventually, I'd like to increase coverage of other non-US parks that attract at least two-million-plus English-speaking visitors a year, but we're starting with the Disney and Universal parks because they have the largest existing following on the site.)

We've got five choices today. In making your decision, let's ignore cost. Yeah, I know that's the big barrier to actually visiting these parks, but let's look at this as an opportunity for American readers to send a message about what kind of attractions, development and experiences you'd most like to see replicated in the U.S. theme parks.

Here are our candidates:

Disneyland Paris includes two theme parks, Disneyland Paris and Walt Disney Studios. Like all multi-theme park resorts not named "Walt Disney World," the parks are located within easy walking distance of each other, a shopping plaza, and several on-site themed hotels.

Phantom Manor

Hong Kong Disneyland is Disney's newest theme park, and in the middle of a major expansion plan, with a Toy Story land opening last year, a Frontierland-style "Grizzly Gulch" land opening this year, and "Mystic Point," featuring a Haunted Mansion-type dark ride, debuting next year.


Tokyo Disney Resort, located on Tokyo Bay, includes Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea, the only non-US theme park to the win the Theme Park Insider Award for Best Theme Park.

Fortress Explorations

Universal Studios Japan is located in Osaka, in the southern part of the country, and is the last place on Earth where you can still ride Back to the Future and a stand-alone Jaws ride. And there's the trippy Space Fantasy indoor roller coaster, too.

Back to the Future

Universal Studios Singapore is part of the Resorts World Sentosa development, standing just a few yards away from one of the world's most popular casinos, and includes several attractions not found in Universal's parks in the US.


Time to vote!

I'd love to hear your thoughts about these parks (especially if you have visited), as well as take questions you might have about them. The comments are open (for the next few days, at least....) As always, thank you for reading Theme Park Insider and have a great weekend!

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On Magical Hats, Sorcerers and the 'NextGen' of theme park storytelling

By Robert Niles
Published: April 19, 2012 at 2:39 PM

Looking back, I missed something important last December when I visited Tokyo DisneySea.

The theme park was celebrating its 10th anniversary, and DisneySea had placed a "Magical Hat" in each of the theme park's lands to mark the occasion. But these hats weren't designed just to look "magical." They did things - if you could find the correct trigger on, or near, each hat. Perhaps it was a sound effect, or a light display. But the displays were enough to attract queues of eager visitors, waiting their turns to trigger the magic.

Magical Hat in Arabian Coast at Tokyo DisneySea
The 'Magical Hat' above the entrance to the Arabian Coast in Tokyo DisneySea. There's an interactive Aladdin's lamp next to the walkway below.

I was too busy trying to get to, ride, and photograph all the top-rated attractions at Tokyo DisneySea to give these Magical Hats more than a quick glance. But after playing Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World last month, I wish that I'd paid more attention to what Disney had done in Tokyo. Because, together, these additions to the Disney theme parks help draw a line toward the future of Disney's vaunted "NextGen" project.

Ultimately, NextGen is about redefining the attraction experience beyond the physical limits of specific rides and shows to involve the entire theme park. It's a natural extension of the immersive environments that define "theme" parks. Not only should these environments look the part, they should play it, too.

Think of theme park lands in NextGen not just as settings for attractions, but as platforms for them. Imagine props throughout the land that interact with you, responding to your touch, or instructions. The Magical Hats were a small step toward that end. They took a few of the gimmicks found in places such as Disneyland's Indiana Jones and the Magic Kingdom's Haunted Mansion queues and released them out into the park.

Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom takes another step. This interactive game brings story into the mix, and requires a higher level of interaction from guests to participate. You've got to make decisions now, in choosing which cards to hold up to the magic portals to defeat the Disney villains you battle there. Sorcerers connects the various interactions throughout the park into defined narrative quests, as well.

This concept isn't new - the Kim Possible game did something similar at Epcot. Heck, even some of the old kids' arts and crafts projects around Epcot gave you the chance to follow an agenda around the park and do something creative at each station. But viewed in the context of Tokyo and the new interactive queue at the Haunted Mansion, Sorcerers shows a direction that Walt Disney Imagineering is going.

The next step is what I call "passive customization." Instead of you making a decision about what card to hold up to a Sorcerers portal, for example, the next step in NextGen is to have the prop in the park make the decision. This will require individualized RFID-enabled room-key or admission cards (or wristbands), with your personal information embedded. Touch it to a prop in the park, and the prop can respond based on your data. (Disney's implementing RFID room keys and NextGen technology at its new Art of Animation hotel, opening in May.)

A simple implementation? Touch the prop with your wristband and boys get a pirate emerging from behind it; girls get a princess. Or grown-ups get simulated pyro, and little kids get a cute cartoon character popping up. Expect simple gimmicks at first, perhaps without much customization. But as Disney gains experience with the technology (and more importantly, with how guests interact with the technology), Imagineers can begin to use this technology to tell truly interactive stories - custom "choose your adventure" narratives that could be unique to each guest.

You thought Tower of Terror's multiple ride profiles had repeat-ride appeal? This technology could help make Walt Disney World visits even more addictive for certain theme park fans.

Of course, not every guests wants a customized interactive adventure. When I told my wife about this technology, her face turned green.

"I don't have the energy for that," she said. A simpler vacation's more relaxing for her. If Disney's smart, this element of NextGen won't be imposed on guests anymore than a ride to Pirates of the Caribbean is today - it's there if you want it, but if you want to skip it in favor of something else, well, that's fine, too.

But the more options - and, let's face it, price points - that a theme park resort can offer, the more consumers it might attract. Frankly, before I played Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, all this NextGen talk really didn't do much for me. I skimmed by it, as I did the Magical Hats in Tokyo, because I've always been more interested in theme parks' story-driven narratives, and not so much the story-less tech gimmicks. I see now how story can play into and with in-park interactive technology, however.

More interactive "props in the park" are coming to Walt Disney World. And they're bringing some questions with them: What stories will these installations enable Disney to tell? Will Disney follow through and develop these stories? And will these interactive experiences engage guests the way traditional attractions have for generations?

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Theme park wayback machine: Admission tickets from Disneyland's opening day

By Robert Niles
Published: April 18, 2012 at 9:58 AM

Last week, we set the wayback machine to 1990 for the preview of Universal Studios Florida. This week, let's head back an additional 35 years for the debut of an even more popular theme park.


Of course, to get into Disneyland on July 17, 1955, you'll need one of these:

Press preview ticket to Disneyland

And since Walt's new park is located way out in the country - amid the orange groves of Anaheim, you'll need to place to park once you get there.

Press parking pass to Disneyland's opening day

Remember, this isn't just a preview day for you - it's a preview for the millions of television viewers who will be watching around the country. Disneyland's making this preview day into a live television show.

And thanks to the wonders of YouTube, you can watch it right here, right now. Say good-bye to the next hour and 13 minutes of your day:

I love this show not just for the views of the barren "Anaheim" beyond the berm, or the nearly treeless park. Don't miss the delicious commentary, such as: "There's Tomorrowland - the time is 1986 and the place is the city of the future, where a trip to the moon is an everyday thing."

Speaking of 1986, I wonder what that broadcast host on Main Street will be doing then….

Hey, if you missed the preview day, no worries. Just get there early the next day for the public opening. But you won't be able to get there early enough to buy the very first Disneyland ticket. That's already been sold - to Roy O. Disney, Walt's brother and the chairman of Walt Disney Productions.

Disneyland ticket number one

I'd like to offer our thanks to Dave Smith and the Walt Disney Archives for allowing me in to look at and photograph these pieces of Disney history.

Robert Niles and Dave Smith

If you have some fun and interesting items of theme park memorabilia (old maps, tickets, photos, etc.), let me know and we'll feature them on Theme Park Insider's home page.

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What's new on the discussion board: The Voices of Trivia

By Robert Niles
Published: April 17, 2012 at 9:48 AM

Don't get caught by surprise on your next vacation. If you've got questions, we've got answers over on the Theme Park Insider Discussion Board. Here are some of this week's top new discussion threads:

Add one more thing opening at the Disneyland Resort on June 15. In addition to Cars Land, Buena Vista Street, the Carthay Circle Restaurant, and the return of the Matterhorn, the Voices of Liberty are coming to Disneyland!

Opera House
The Voices pf Liberty will perform in the Main Street Opera House at Disneyland

We're having some fun pointing out goofs and sharing trivia about the way Hollywood portrays theme parks in Welcome to Six Flags Lima.

Karly Tenney asks What is the first theme park visit you remember?

We have two entries in the Theme Park Insider video contest this week: Jake Mappes' The Attractions of Islands of Adventure and Thomas tskogg's A Decade of Disney (and Universal) 2001-2011. Don't forget to submit your video before May 24 to enter.

Finally, Jeff Elliott brings us home with his From the Trenches of Amusement……April 16, 2012.

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The Orange Bird is Back!

By Skipper Adam
Published: April 17, 2012 at 9:33 AM

I was excited with the hidden tribute to the Orange Bird behind the Sunshine Tree Terrace. Now I'm freaking out with the return of the ORIGINAL restored Orange Bird.

The Orange Bird was an character that was made specifically for WDW to promote the Florida Citrus Growers Commission. He was the mascot for the Enchanted Tiki room for a decade as well as fresh oranges from Florida. Would sit and swing on the Sunshine Tree and could only think orange thoughts. You could meet him too, around the Sunshine Tree Terrace, and he might steal your Citrus Swirl! There was even an album featuring songs written by the Sherman brothers telling the story of the adorable bird.

Here's the link to the Armchair Archivist episode covering the cute little bird. I've also had the pleasure to work with Steve a few times on the Jungle Cruise before he landed his amazing job at the archives.

On another note, the torches above the counter at the Sunshine Tree Terrace are working again! This too makes me very happy. Could they be bringing back all the amazing torches that filled the land with real firelight at night? At this point, I might believe it.

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What will close at Universal Studios Hollywood to make way for Harry Potter?

By Robert Niles
Published: April 16, 2012 at 12:06 PM

A little over a year ago, we talked about how we'd fit a Wizarding World of Harry Potter into Universal Studios Hollywood. Now that we know it's going to happen, let's revisit the topic to see what exactly is going to have to make way for this new attraction.

I've heard from enough second-hand sources that I'm pretty well sold that the Hollywood version of the Wizarding World is going in on the east side of the park, around Waterworld. But what will have to be removed to make way for Harry Potter? Here's an aerial view of the Orlando Wizarding World:

Orlando Wizarding World of Harry Potter

And here, to the same scale, is an aerial view of the east side of Universal Studios Hollywood (images via Google Maps):

Site of the Hollywood Wizarding World of Harry Potter

In the upper image, that big building to the lower left is the show building for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. Since we've been told that Hogwarts is coming to Hollywood, let's assume that's the same building that's providing the centerpiece of the Hollywood version. So we have to fit that building somewhere into the space shown in the lower photograph.

In the lower image (Hollywood), the large, white semicircle is the Gibson Amphitheatre. The blue area below and to the left of the amphitheatre is the Waterworld show. The grey area to the direct left of the amphitheatre is the Shrek-4D theater.

To my eye, there's no way to make the Hogwarts building and Hogsmeade street fit in the Hollywood site without removing both the amphitheatre and Waterworld. Maybe there might be space to fit in the Flying Hippogriff coaster, too, depending upon how buildings align on the site.

Perhaps Universal could fit the Hogwarts building onto the site of the Waterworld theater, and run an abbreviated Hogsmeade street toward it, which would save the amphitheatre. But Hogsmeade is such a potential cash cow, which all the merchandise, food and Butterbeer revenue it brings to the table, that I think Universal might be better off financially with an expanded Hogsmeade than it would with the amphitheatre.

The Gibson faces competition from long-standing rivals, the Greek Theater and the Hollywood Bowl, in addition to new competition from the Nokia theater downtown and the former Kodak theater in Hollywood, neither of which existed when the Universal Amphitheater was expanded and covered in the 1980s. But the nearest Harry Potter attraction is in Orlando, more than 2,500 miles away.

I haven't see Universal's financials on the amphitheatre, but as a fan, I would gladly trade the loss of one more concert site near downtown LA for the expansion of Hogsmeade and a larger Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

By the way, I tried to look up the building permits for the Wizarding World project, but that portion of Universal Studios Hollywood lies in unincorporated Los Angeles County, which doesn't list building and construction permits online. To see them, I'd have to visit the LA County Department of Public Works Building and Safety office that covers Universal Studios.

Inconveniently enough, that office is located… inside a trailer on the backlot of Universal Studios. Universal has its own County Building and Safety office. It's almost like Reedy Creek!

So let's throw this open for discussion again: What would you like to see Universal do to fit Harry Potter into Hollywood?

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Vote of the week: Are you more a Disney fan or a theme park fan?

By Robert Niles
Published: April 13, 2012 at 2:23 PM

When people ask me who reads Theme Park Insider, I usually respond that this is a site for theme park fans who aren't necessarily just Disney fans. And who aren't simply roller coaster fans, either.

Theme park crowd
Fans lining up to visit a theme park that isn't Disney's.

A lot of the millions of people who visit the Disney theme park each year do so because they're Disney fans - they love the company's movies, TV shows and theme parks. But they don't necessarily care about anyone else's theme parks, and many Disney fans never visit them.

At the other end of the fan spectrum, perhaps, are the roller coaster fans - people who value thrill over theme and who travel the country in search of airtime. For them, a trip to a Disney park is a rare occasion, more a favor to other family members who wanted to go than a chance to increase their coaster count.

Theme Park Insider exists, at least in my mind, for those of us in the middle - people who enjoy and value themed attractions but aren't beholden just to Disney. We enjoy Universal, SeaWorld and the best of other companies' parks, as well as Disney. Sure, we enjoy roller coaster rides now and then, just as we go see Disney movies when they look good. But the world's best and most popular theme parks are our focus.

Hey, that's what I think. Today's vote is about what you think. I figure it's time to put my assumption to the test and to ask you, the Theme Park Insider community, where your loyalties lie.

Rather than pushing you toward one extreme or the other, I've given you five choices. Here are the options for this weekend's vote, with explanations for each. Please pick the option that best describes you.

I'm a Disney fan. Period - You care only about the Disney theme parks, and have no interest in reading about, much less visiting, anyone else's parks. You're here today only because this post included the word "Disney." A lot.

I'm mostly a Disney fan, but like other parks, too - You're primarily a Disney fan, but sometimes visit other companies' theme and amusement parks, even though you devote most of your trips to Disney.

I'm equally a Disney fan and a theme park fan - You're a fan both of Disney and of theme parks. You visit the Disney parks, but care just as much about Universal, SeaWorld or other parks, as well, and visit them just as often. But you've got some Disney collectibles at home and consider yourself a fan of all things Disney.

I'm mostly a theme park fan, but like the Disney parks, too - You're primarily a theme park fan. You visit and like to read about Walt Disney World or Disneyland in addition to other parks, but don't especially care for the rest of what Disney offers any more than the stuff from other movie studios or entertainment companies.

I'm a theme park fan who doesn't care about Disney - You're a theme park fan who doesn't care about Disney at all. You visit only other companies' parks and look forward to spring, when we start writing more about those parks instead of all this Disney stuff.

Time to vote.

As always, thank you for reading Theme Park Insider. Whatever your reasons. ;^)

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A behind-the-scenes walk through Transformers: The Ride - 3D at Universal Studios Hollywood

By Robert Niles
Published: April 13, 2012 at 11:12 AM

You can't get on Transformers: The Ride 3D officially until it opens on May 25. But if you follow along with me, we can walk through the new Universal Studios Hollywood attraction right here.

Transformers: The Ride 3D entrance

Universal Creative show producer Chick Russell greeted me, along with three other writers, before dawn this morning for a tour of the new 3D motion-base ride, which stands on the site of the old Backdraft and Special Effects Stages soundstages on Universal's lower lot.

Walking thorough the show building

Russell walked us through the 60,000-square foot show building twice, once with the work lights on, and then a second time with the work lights off and the 14 embedded film screens activated.

Having already ridden Transformers in Singapore, walking through the identical show building in Hollywood was a revelation. This perspective showed me some of the tricks that Universal Creative and Industrial Light and Magic artists employed to create the illusion of a real-life battle between the good-guy Autobots and bad-guy Decepticons - where where you're taken along for the ride.

Blank 3D screen
The opening screen in Transformers, as seen during our construction walk-through.

"The ride is a series of magic tricks," Russell said. "We use the vehicle like a director uses camera angles and cuts to focus your attention."

The vehicle in question is EVAC, which is a Transformer himself, assigned to move the all-important Allspark to a safer location after its home at the NEST compound comes under Decepticon attack.

Your ride vehicle
A front view of the EVAC ride vehicle

Side view of the EVAC
A side view of EVAC

If you're unfamiliar with the Transformers story and terms, don't worry. They'll all be explained to you in the ride's queue. And if you can't wait for that, take a look at our December interview with Universal Creative's Thierry Coup, where he explains the ride in great (spoiler-laden) detail.

The short version is, you're a visitor to the top-secret NEST military compound, enlisted into service to help battle-rookie EVAC get out of town safely, with the powerful Allspark in hand.

Site of a Transformers battle scene
The screen where Autobot Bumblebee and Decepticon Sideswipe fight for the Allspark. The prop helicopter in the foreground will blend with additional helicopters on the screen.

Universal manages to seamlessly blend the action on screen with the physical setting along the track. Only by walking the track could I effectively see where film action ended and physical props began.

Final scene in Transformers The Ride
Near the end of the ride, after you crash through a roadway, you'll end up here.

Even as the movement of the ride vehicle focuses your attention to the various screens, Universal's filled the periphery with physical detail, including props and scenery that all but the most dedicated repeat visitors likely will miss noticing consciously. But its presence helps sell the veracity of the experience, even subconsiously.

Wreckage in Transformers The Ride
Here's more of the wreckage detail from the final scene - detail most riders will miss as their attention turns to the screen with Optimus Prime on the other side of the track.

Ceiling detail
Additional detail on the ceiling of the ride as you approach the unload station - detail perhaps only best seen when on an invite-only, pre-construction walk with the lights on. ;^)

Do be sure to look up after Optimus Prime bids you farewell, though. You won't want to miss the most impressive physical prop in the ride.

The one tactile Decepticon in the ride - the remains of Megatron, hanging horizontally above the track. Watch his eyes when you're on the ride.

But it's standing inside the ride while the film clips are running that you best appreciate how film and physical space intersect on Transformers. Universal and ILM have taken great care to synchronize the film with the motion-base vehicles' movements, so effectively that you don't really notice that you are watching short clips of films on 14 different screens when you're on the ride.

Standing still within the ride, you can see how the point of view depicted on the screen changes, to match the movement of the ride vehicles in front of it. The angle of the walls begins to slide to one side, as the ride vehicles move relative to it. The backside of an otherwise incomplete prop vehicle appears on the screen, as the EVAC ride vehicle moves to the side so you can "see" it.

As Russell explained, each rotation of the ride vehicles serves as a cut, redirecting your attention to the various screens and props inside the ride. But it's all so well coordinated that to you, the rider, the entire experience seems like one continuous "take."

Notice the physical props in front of this particular scene. Russell explained that Universal had to employ a rear projection 3D screen here so that the props would not cast shadows on the screen. That's the attention to detail that helps make the "magic tricks" in the ride so convincing.

Megatron vs. Optimus Prime
Megatron battles Optimus Prime, in one of the climactic scenes of Transformers: The Ride. (Universal projected this image in 2D for us to take still photographs.)

More than once, I had to remind myself that the concrete plinth upon which I was standing wasn't actually moving, as the illusion of motion on the screen was so convincing. Add in the ride vehicle motion, and you'll easily believe you're hurtling down a city street at more than 60 miles per hour.

And I had to laugh at myself while watching one rooftop scene, as I instinctively walked to one side to get a better view of a building in the background. "You dummy," I quickly realized. This is a movie. The point of view is the same no matter where you stand. But the quality of the high-definition 3D projection was so convincing I'd forgotten that.

The one element I missed in today's walkthrough? Sound. The ride's audio is contained on board the EVAC vehicles, which deliver 5,000 watts of sound from a 14-channel audio system. By keeping the audio on-board, Russell explained, Universal avoids the inevitable audio bleed that would happen between scenes if the sound were projected from speakers on the track.

As impressive as the visuals might be in Transformers, it's the audio that brings this story to life. EVAC talks with us throughout, and we hear directly from Megatron, Optimus Prime, and the other Transformers (voiced by their original film actors), as we engage with them in battle. It's those conversations that make us feel like characters within this story, as opposed to theme park tourists along for a ride.

But to hear that sound and have that full experience, we'll have to wait a few more weeks.

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Last chances approaching for Carnation Gardens, Test Track, and Snow White

By Robert Niles
Published: April 12, 2012 at 8:58 PM

Get ready to say good-bye to the Carnation Plaza Gardens stage at Disneyland Park. We've known since D23 last summer that Disney would be closing the performance stage to make room for the new installation of the park's Fantasy Faire princess meet and greet, which is moving over from the old Videopolis/Fantasyland theater next year. But we didn't have an official closing date for Carnation Plaza Gardens until now - it's April 30.

That means there will be just three more Saturday swing dance parties at the stage, before the weekly event is moved to the westside stage in Downtown Disney. Some Disney fans on Twitter are upset with the end of this tradition, but I think it's a smart crowd-balancing move. Disneyland isn't the only thing in the resort anymore, and with the crowds choking the park most evenings, something's got to give. I'm happy that Disney's keeping the dance event on property, and I'd be happier if Disney used the move into Downtown Disney as an excuse to start offering more evening dance events there, as Orlando's Downtown Disney often does.

I'm more concerned with what will happen to the Magic Music Days student musical performances that have happened on that stage. While I believe the dance parties will find success in Downtown Disney, performing in the outdoor mall doesn't have the same allure for young music students as performing inside Disneyland. Disney's youth music pages still list Carnation Plaza Gardens as a performance venue, and I haven't yet heard if another venue inside the park will be taking its place.

We've got a couple other Disney closings approaching, too. This Sunday, April 15, is the final day to ride Test Track at Epcot before that ride goes down for an extended redesign and refurbishment. Expect to see the new version this fall.

And on May 31, Snow White's Scary Adventures come to a close in the Magic Kingdom for the final time, as that ride closes permanently to make way for a new princess meet and greet. Snow White and the Dwarfs will return in the Seven Dwarfs Mine Ride in Fantasyland sometime in 2013. If you want to ride the original Scary Adventures ride after May 31, Disney fans will have to make the trip to Anaheim.

Back in Anaheim, Disney announced today that you now can make dining reservations for Disneyland Resort table service restaurants via email, in addition to by phone. Just email dine@disneyland.com with the name of the restaurant you'd like to book, the date and time, and the size of your party. Include your name and phone number, too. If the table's available, Disney will send you a confirmation. If you'd prefer an immediate response, though, go with the phone: 714-781-DINE.

Disney also notes that it's not yet taking reservations for the new Carthay Circle Restaurant at Disney California Adventure, so don't even try. Remember that California Adventure will be closed all day on June 14, in preparation for the debut of Cars Land and the new Buena Vista Street entry plaza, including the Carthay Circle, the next day.

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Universal Studios Russia - will it happen?

By Robert Niles
Published: April 12, 2012 at 11:26 AM

Universal Parks & Resorts is slated to build a 37-acre indoor theme park (its first) as part of a planned new entertainment development in Moscow.

The Orlando Sentinel's Jason Garcia has what few details are available about the plan - which includes a water park and CityWalk-like shopping complex. At 37 acres, the theme park portion would be the smallest of the Universal theme parks, 12 acres smaller than Universal Studios Singapore, which is part of the Resort World Sentosa development in that southeast Asia nation.

No details yet on what will or will not be in the park, through Garcia reports construction could begin in 2014 with an opening in 2018.

Universal now has traditional, outdoor parks in Hollywood, Orlando and Osaka, Japan, as well as in Singapore. Universal's been part of announcements for theme parks at two other sites in recent years, in Dubai and South Korea, but both project seem now to be stalled, at best.

So if the Russia park happens, it would be Universal Studios' first second* theme park in Europe (*update: Universal used to own a stake in Spain's Port Aventura), a market that's been led by Disney and Merlin Entertainments theme parks in recent years.

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Theme park wayback machine: Universal Studios Florida brochure from 1990

By Robert Niles
Published: April 11, 2012 at 9:40 PM

Let's fire up the wayback machine, set your time circuits, and get on the bus with Ms. Frizzle. It's time to take a theme park trip into the past.

How about we set our sights 22 years in the past, and pay a visit to the corner of Kirkman Road and Major Boulevard in Orlando, Florida? A new theme park just opened up in Central Florida, and we're among the first to go in.

Here's a copy of the park brochure we can pick up at the front gate. This guide map is a tri-fold: The front cover is the right third and the back cover is the middle third. The left third appears when you open the map. (Click on each of the images for larger versions.)

Cover of the 1990 Universal Studios Florida theme park guide map

Unfold that page and you can see the full park map inside. Count the number of attractions!

Inside of the 1990 USF theme park guide map

That's right. On this particular "sneak preview" soft-open day in May 1990, Universal Studios Florida offered just three attractions - the Animal Actors show, the Horror Make-up Show, and the Murder, She Wrote post-production show. You can find the day's showtimes on this handy insert:

Daily show times insert for the 1990 USF theme park guide map

Note the last paragraph. That was the "studio tour," a guided walk-through the empty soundstages that would eventually become the Florida home to Nickelodeon Studios, and eventually make way for the Blue Man Group's theater.

Hope you had fun on your day at Universal Studios Florida. No matter whether you did or not through, no worries - because every day you visit all this summer the park will give you a free one-day ticket to come back another day, when more rides are operating.

How good a deal is that?

Got some old theme park goodies you'd like to show off? Send a scan to Theme Park Insider editor Robert Niles, and we'll feature it on the site.

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What's new on the discussion board: 'Monorail, monorail, monorail!'

By Robert Niles
Published: April 10, 2012 at 10:37 AM

Got a question about theme parks, or vacation planning? Your fellow Theme Park Insider readers have answers, over on the Theme Park Insider Discussion Board. Here are the week's top new threads, on those and other topics.

Jason Kwan submitted the first entry in our Theme Park Insider Spring Video Contest with The Florida Project [Video about Walt Disney World]. Submit your in-park videos to the discussion board this month to enter.

Karly Tenney kicks off what's turning into a detailed discussion of Marvel at Disney, especially what Disney can and can't do because of the preexisting contract between Marvel and Universal Orlando.

Avengers monorail overlay

Following from that topic, Skipper Adam addresses the Avengerail in asking for Monorail Opinions? Share Your thoughts.

If that's not enough monorail talk for you, Mark Fairleigh serves up a Possible Monorail expansion at Disney World, too.

Mark also asks, if you could stay overnight in one of the parks, Where in Disney would you camp? Or, in Universal?

Melissa Donahue gets us talking about the new paid ride reservation system at the Cedar Fair theme parks, in Fast Lane at Cedar Point.

Finally, Mike Gallagher offers his opening day trip report from Six Flags Great Adventure.

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Follow the best of Theme Park Insider's photos on Pinterest

By Robert Niles
Published: April 9, 2012 at 11:06 AM

We've got a new way for you to stay connected with Theme Park Insider - Pinterest.

Tokyo Disneyland on Pinterest

I've just created a Theme Park Insider account on Pinterest, and you are welcomed to follow us there, too. I'll be featuring some of our best photography on our Pinterest account - so far, I've added boards for Theme Park Castles, Theme Park Food and Roller Coasters.

In addition, you'll now find "Pin This" buttons underneath the photos on all our or attraction and park photo gallery pages. Just click the "See All Photo" link on any attraction or park listing page for the gallery. You're invited to use those buttons to pin Theme Park Insider photos to any of your boards, too.

Also, I've got a profile set up over on Goodreads, too, if anyone's interested in sharing reviews on books you're reading over there. I'm thinking about setting up a shelf of good fiction books about or set in theme parks, if anyone would like to recommend some title for that. Just give me a follow over there to keep in touch.

On that note, I'll make another plug to new Theme Park Insider visitors for our eBook, Stories from a Theme Park Insider, which remains available for just $2.99 on Amazon. It's a fun, light read of stories about working in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, supplemented with the best comments from Theme Park Insider readers who've also worked in the parks. I hope you'll give it a look, if you haven't already.

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Floating Restaurant Reviews: the Dining Venues Aboard the Disney Fantasy

By Scott Joseph
Published: April 9, 2012 at 11:04 AM

The Disney Fantasy just completed its inaugural run. I sailed on an annotated cruise a couple of weeks ago and had a chance to sample most of the dining venues. Here's a look at what I found, along with some recommendations: http://goo.gl/V6rLm

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Announcing the Spring 2012 Theme Park Insider Video Contest

By Robert Niles
Published: April 8, 2012 at 3:12 PM

Who's up for a video contest?

Starting today, we'll be accepting entries in our Theme Park Insider Spring 2012 Video Contest. Here's what you can do to enter:

Taking pictures

Record a video inside a theme park or theme parks. Upload it to YouTube or Vimeo or some other online video service. Then create a new thread on the Theme Park Insider discussion board, with your video embedded. All videos submitted this way between now and May 24 will be eligible.

My panel of judges and I will select the five best videos and put them up for a reader vote over Memorial Day weekend: May 25-28. The winner of the vote is the winner of the contest, receiving bragging rights and a Theme Park Insider T-shirt.

Here are the rules:

1) No videos that include content created in violation of park rules. That means no POV from rides where cameras are not allowed, "backstage" footage or other footage of rule-breaking.

2) It's got to be safe for work. Watch your language, sailor.

3) Please use the words "Spring 2012 Video Contest: " in front of your video title when submitting the headline for your discussion post. And when you are getting the embed code for your video, please select a custom video width of 450 pixels. This is important, as using a wider embed code will "blow out" the design of the discussion post page. (Obviously, you need to enable your video for embedding when submitting it to YouTube or whenever you're uploading it.)

That's it. Your video can be legal ride or show POV, a hosted tour of the park, or even a fictional short film set in a park. It's entirely up to you. The judges will be looking for videos that we want to watch again and send to our friends. There's no other criterion than that.

You'll be uploading your video to your own YouTube or Vimeo channel, so you retain ownership and all "monetization" revenue from your video, getting sweet, sweet traffic in return from Theme Park Insider readers. But remember that your video needs to stay up for the duration of the contest to be eligible. If you violate someone's copyright and get taken down, you're out of the contest (obviously).

Videos do not need to be recorded between now and May 24 to be eligible - you can submit an older video or a new video of your existing footage, if you'd like. But it has to be your video, not someone else's. And if this goes well, and we get entries that people like, we'll do a summer video contest, too, with a final vote over Labor Day weekend in September. So you're not out if you're not planning a theme park visit until June or later.

I'll be heavily influenced by the comments people submit on these threads, so if you like a particular video, say so! Campaign for it.

Thanks in advance to all the participants, and I can't wait to see what you do!

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Vote of the week: Which new ride are you looking forward to most?

By Robert Niles
Published: April 6, 2012 at 12:27 PM

We're just a few weeks away from the opening of several eagerly-awaited new attractions this spring. But which one are you most looking forward to hearing about, then riding one day?

That's our vote of the week this week.

Robert at Transformers
That's me, outside Universal's new Transformers ride, in Singapore. Which new ride are you looking forward to this spring?

Here are our top candidates:

Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem - Opening date TBA at Universal Studios Florida.

Radiator Springs Racers - Opens June 15 at Disney California Adventure, as part of the new Cars Land addition to the park.

Transformers: The Ride 3D - Opens sometime in May at Universal Studios Hollywood. (We saw the ride when it opened in Singapore in December, and talked with designer Thierry Coup about ride - Warning: multiple spoilers in that link!)

Verbolten - Opens May 18 at Busch Gardens Williamsburg.

We're listing those four in the vote today, but if you prefer another, just select "Other" and tell us about it in the comments. Other new rides and shows this spring include Manta at SeaWorld San Diego, Turtle Trek at SeaWorld Orlando, X-Flight at Six Flags Great America, Lex Luthor Drop of Doom at Six Flags Magic Mountain, Skyrush at Hersheypark, and Wild Eagle at Dollywood - which has opened already but most readers haven't yet had the chance to ride.

Thanks for reading Theme Park Insider, and have a great weekend!

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Busch Gardens' Verbolten drops (and drops) on May 18

By Robert Niles
Published: April 5, 2012 at 8:53 AM

Busch Gardens Williamsburg just put out the word. Verbolten will open on Friday, May 18.

Verbolten train
Verbolten's coaster train. Photo by TPI member Tom Rigg

The Virginia theme park's Zierer drop coaster will be the nation's first, featuring a free-fall drop inside a show building in addition to familiar elements borrowed from its predecessor, Big Bad Wolf.

We're planning to be on site for Verbolten's media day next month so keep reading Theme Park Insider for reviews, photos and video when the coaster opens.

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Magic Mornings coming to California Adventure?

By Robert Niles
Published: April 4, 2012 at 11:24 AM

Al Lutz reports that Disney will extend Magic Mornings (the west coast equivalent to Disney World's Extra Magic Hours) to Disney California Adventure this summer. Disney's expecting huge crowds at Anaheim's second gate this summer, thanks to the opening of Cars Land and the park's new Buena Vista Street entrance plaza. Lutz is also reporting that DCA will operate on an 8am-11pm everyday this summer, with Magic Mornings starting at 7am three days a week.

Cars Land
A view down Route 66 into the new Cars Land, under construction at Disney California Adventure

Magic Morning admissions at Disneyland traditionally have been available to guests staying at one of the three Disneyland Resort hotels, as well as guests who buy a multi-day ticket with Magic Mornings eligibility. In addition to the new Magic Mornings at California Adventure, Magic Mornings will continue to run at Disneyland the other four mornings each week this summer.

But that's not all. For the first time, Lutz reports, Disney will extend Magic Mornings admission to annual passholders. They won't get in early into Disneyland, or to California Adventure on its three "regular" Magic Mornings days. But APs would be admitted at 7am to California Adventure on the four days a week when the "regular" Magic Morning is at Disneyland.

That means that California Adventure would be open at 7am for selected guests seven days a week. So a "regular" guest - one who's not staying at a Disneyland hotel, doesn't have an annual pass, and doesn't have a Magic Mornings-eligible multi-day ticket - wouldn't have any day when he or she could be first in line at one of the Cars Land attractions, including the new Radiator Springs Racers. More incentive from Disney to stay at its hotels?

It reminds me of the situation at Universal's Islands of Adventure, where Universal Orlando hotel guests get first crack at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter every day. (Of course, this wouldn't be the first similarity between the Disneyland and Universal Orlando resorts.)

Cars Land and Buena Vista Street open on June 15, when California Adventure will celebrate its "Grand Reopening," including renaming of most of the lands throughout the park. Disney California Adventure will be closed to the public on June 14 for a media preview day, but we're planning to be there, so keep following Theme Park Insider on Facebook and Twitter for all the details on the "new" DCA.

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Tornado at Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington

By Brandon Mendoza
Published: April 4, 2012 at 11:18 AM

The park was reported to be hit around 2pm to 2:30pm yesterday, although there haven't been reports of significant damage.

Updates can be found here: KVUE.com and here: accuweather.com

Note from Robert: We hope all our readers in Texas are doing well today. Updates and reports welcomed in the comments.

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Universal Studios Florida parade and night show to debut May 8

By Robert Niles
Published: April 3, 2012 at 12:07 PM

We've got an official opening date for the Universal's Superstar Parade and Universal's Cinematic Spectacular at Universal Studios Florida this fall:

Tuesday, May 8.

Lagoon show

Universal revealed details about these shows earlier this year. So who's planning to go?

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What's new on the discussion board: From snack time to show time

By Robert Niles
Published: April 3, 2012 at 11:15 AM

Here's what's new and notable on the Theme Park Insider Discussion Board this week:

Ben Reeves asks for your thoughts on the Dole Whip & Citrus Swirl.

Citrus Swirl

And I embed an anime TV commercial for Tokyo Disney, and ask for your reaction. (Mine? It's all kinds of win.)

Robyn A. is hitting Islands of Adventure, but asks what to do next in Need ideas for half day in Orlando.

Here's a good one for a debate: What makes Universal Orlando & Islands of Adventure a better park than Busch Gardens Tampa?

Daniel Etcheberry has a question that applies to many East Coast theme park fans making the trip out to California: World of Color or Fantasmic?

Finally, Jeff Elliott makes a triumphant return in From the Trenches of Amusement……March 30, 2012.

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How to make travel an affordable part of your life

By Robert Niles
Published: April 2, 2012 at 2:09 PM

Want to get the most out of your family vacation this year? The decisions you make during those other 51 weeks of the year will go a long way toward influencing what kind of vacation you can enjoy during that 52nd week.

So if you want to travel, and travel well, during your vacations, you should think about the decisions you make during the rest of the year. Make the right choices, and you make travel more attainable and affordable.

At the Magic Kingdom

Here are a few of my tips:

Buy a car with best gas mileage you can afford

Bad gas mileage not only costs you money throughout the year, it kills your desire to get in the car and travel, even when you do have the chance. Roadtrips can be the easiest way to travel - just hop in the car and go. No need to worry about flight schedules, TSA searches, or whether you can get a seat. Your only expenses are gas and time.

A high-mileage car can help you save big money on the gas. We have a Prius, and gas prices are never a concern for us when we think about taking a trip. By getting 45 miles per gallon, we can easily cut corners elsewhere if gas prices go up so much that they squeeze our budget.


Then do the scheduled maintenance on your car

Trust me, you'll save money in the long run. You have two options: Pay the maintenance bill now, or pay a significantly larger repair bill later. There is no third option. You especially do not want to be paying that big repair bill to a shop you don't know in strange town on the road. Get an oil change (and whatever service you'll need in the next month or two) before you hit the road. Few things kill vacation plans like unexpected repair bills. Avoid them by keeping your car in shape. Save money elsewhere if you need to cut corners.

Learn to live lightly

It's a lot easier to live with a high-mileage car if each person in your family can learn to live out of a small backpack or duffel when you're on the road. Learning how to pack lightly is an essential skill for air travel, too, as it saves you on ridiculous bag-check fees. Pack lightly enough, and you won't even have to worry about getting scarce overhead bin space, either.

Last year, I took a week-long trip to Asia packing nothing more than this backpack.


I took clothes for two climates, toiletries, my SLR camera, and MacBook Air and fit it all under the seat in front of me. Pick one pair of shoes (which you'll wear), then select thin but warm clothes that you can mix, match and layer as needed during your trip. If you buy this type of clothes throughout the year, you won't need to buy a special travel wardrobe for your vacation, and you'll be in the habit of dressing for travel already.

Get a miles/reward credit card and use it for everything you can… provided you pay it off in full. Every month

Travel rewards programs can help you save big money on vacation, but the Catch-22 always has been that you have to travel frequently in order to get those rewards.

The solution is to get and use a credit card that pays you points or miles every time you use it, from the grocery to the mall. Which one to pick? That's up to you. I'd start by looking into the card from the airline that has the most flights where you want to go from the airport nearest you. But don't forget to consider annual fees when deciding which card offers you the best deal.

And whatever you do, do not fail to pay off your card each month. Interest charges will cancel out whatever savings you get from those rewards. Avoid them by paying your bill in full each month.

Make choices to save cash

Do you really need cable TV? A landline telephone? Newspaper? Magazines? If you can make due without these extras, cancel them and set aside the money you save for your next vacation.

If you do really need these services, when was the last time you called and threatened to cancel? If it's been 12 months since you've started your service or since you called you get a better deal, make a note today to make that call. Many TV, phone companies and publishers will give their long-time customers a discount "introductory" rate to keep you from walking away. Why pay money you don't need to be paying? Call and get a better deal.

Now, what else can you cut back on to save money for your dream destination? Tickets to sports events? Going out to the movies? "Retail therapy"? Try it and see if it sticks. If it doesn't, no sweat. You gave it a go. But if it does? Well, you've just saved some money for your next trip!

Learn to split meals when dining out

Many restaurants serve you way more calories than you need in a single meal. Start splitting your meals when you dine out, both to save money and save calories. That'll get you in the habit of splitting meals when you're on the road, when you're watching expenses and taking home leftovers isn't an option.

Use social media to renew or develop your long-distance relationships

Having friends around the country and around the world inspires you to hit the road to go see them. Having access to a local's insight also helps you get the most from a vacation, by helping you find the best places to eat and visit. Not only that, but having allies to help you plan your vacation makes trip-planning more enjoyable and efficient. So get active on sites such as ThemeParkInsider.com and start building the connections that can help you make travel a regular part of your life.

Additional tips and advice, as always, are welcome in the comments.

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Keep reading: March 2012 Archive

Theme Park Insider: Orlando 2014

Theme Park Insider: Orlando 2014

Get all of Theme Park Insider's reader ratings, tips, and advice for planning a trip to Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, or SeaWorld, in our new 2014 Orlando guidebook! It's more than 200 pages of well-tested, insider information that will help you get the most from your vacation.
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