By Robert Niles
Over the past 12 months, I've had the good fortune to visit 10 of the 11 Disney theme parks around the world. (And, yes, that is just as much fun as it sounds!) So why not wrap up my Grand Tour de Disney with a blog post ranking the 10 parks I visited?
To rank the parks, I considered each of them head-to-head against each other, then ranked them in the order in which I'd most want to visit each of them for a full day. In doing that, I tried to consider each park on an equal basis - assuming a sunny, 78-degree day with an average crowd level, no rides down for refurbishment, and an equal amount of time since I'd last visited all the parks. In other words, on a perfect day. :^)
The weather factor is important, because, let's face it, if you've got one day in February to visit any Disney theme park in the world, you're probably going to pick Florida, simply because of the weather. But I wanted these rankings to reflect the quality of the parks themselves, and not where they sit on the globe.
Also, Hong Kong Disneyland's not on the list because it is the 11th park - the one I didn't visit this year. (FWIW, I'm thinking about a visit to HKDL in 2014, after the park finishes its current expansion next year.)
What I decided was that there was one clear winner at the top of the rankings, one clear loser at the bottom, and the eight other parks bunched pretty close together in between. But I nitpicked to get a 2 through 9 ranking for those, anyway.
So here it is: Robert's rankings of theme parks at Walt Disney World, Disneyland Resort, Tokyo Disney Resort, and Disneyland Paris Resort.
Theme Park Insider readers named DisneySea not just the best Disney park, but the best theme park in the world overall this year, and I wholeheartedly agree. By any standard I can imagine, Tokyo DisneySea offers the world's premiere theme park experience, with lushly decorated and immersively themed lands hosting some of the world's most engaging theme park attractions. The clear number one.
Now, we start the tough decisions. I think Theme Park Insider underrate Tokyo Disneyland - its attractions simply don't get many votes on the site, leaving it ineligible for consideration on our top parks and attractions lists. But I rate Tokyo Disneyland as the best of Disney's "Magic Kingdom" parks. Not only does it offer as many attractions as the original Disneyland in Anaheim, it offers what I think are the best versions of several classic Disney attractions, including Splash Mountain and my beloved Tom Sawyer Island. Tokyo's Pooh's Hunny Hunt (which was down for rehab when I visited) has won raves for its innovative ride system and clever setting, and I think Tokyo Disneyland offers the best staffing and food selection of any Magic Kingdom park, by far.
The original Disneyland's nearly as good as Tokyo Disneyland, but falls behind it on several details. The closed fort on Tom Sawyer's Island. Fewer cast members staffing queues. Food that's good, but too rarely great. Disneyland does have the new Star Tours and a better Tiki Room, but I loved the Monsters Inc. flashlight tag and the awesome Queen of Hearts restaurant in Japan, so I'm still giving the nod to Tokyo. But if I can't go to Japan, there's no other Disney parks I'd rather visit than the original.
You can't call DCA in the fourth slot a shocker, since Theme Park Insider readers have named it the third-best park in the world this year, after DisneySea and the original Disneyland. Cars Land gets so much of the recent attention, but I think it's Buena Vista Street that's elevated California Adventure to elite status, making this one of the most comfortable theme parks in the world to visit. It's just a fun place to hang out - and so many of the new rides, including Radiator Springs Racers, Toy Story Midway Mania and, yes, even Luigi's Flying Tires, are just awesome.
The next four spots might as well be ties, as far as I'm concerned. But I give the nod to Paris because of its best-in-the-world version of Big Thunder and Space Mountains, as well as its innovate takes on the Mansion and Pirates. (Of course, if you visit in winter, when Thunder and the Indiana Jones coasters are closed, Paris falls far in the rankings. But I said I wouldn't consider weather.) The mediocre counter service food almost cost Paris the fifth spot, but the wonderful Walt's kept Paris in the top half of all Disney parks for me. Plus, you gotta love a castle with a dragon in the basement.
It's really hard for me to rate this park right now, with the much-anticipated Fantasyland expansion nearing completion. The Magic Kingdom ties Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios among Walt Disney World Resort theme parks in our ratings for the number of highly-rated attractions, but the park's depth puts it in the lead among WDW parks for me. And the one-two combination of the fried chicken waffle sandwich and citrus swirl helps seal the deal, too.
With Kilimanjaro Safaris and Maharajah Jungle Trek, Animal Kingdom offers two of the better attractions that are unique to a single Disney theme park. And I love the Finding Nemo and Lion King live shows, as well. If Disney would just fix the damned Disco Yeti, Animal Kingdom would move into the number five spot on my list. And Avatar might push it even higher. But I refuse to move Animal Kingdom any higher until Disney fixes some of the troubling maintenance issues in the park, including the Yeti, the disintegrating Tree of Life, and the scummy waterways.
My first draft of this list placed Epcot much higher. But as I started looking at your attraction ratings, I realized that I love Epcot as a great place to spend a couple hours in the evening: Watch Impressions de France and eat at one of half a dozen great restaurants. But beyond that? Epcot's really fallen behind the other Disney parks - there's just not enough to do here. It's telling that Epcot's most popular attraction - Soarin' - is a dupe of an attraction that's not even among the top three at California Adventure.
So Hollywood Studios moves ahead of it by default, even though it still has some of the inherent theming flaws of a studio theme park. But DHS still has the world's best version of the Tower of Terror ride (though I continue to prefer DisneySea's theme and preshow) and great attractions in Toy Story Midway Mania and the new Star Tours.
And speaking of Tower of Terror, here's another big drop. ;^) I said all have I to say about this woeful theme park here.
Not rated - Hong Kong Disneyland
Hong Kong Disneyland opened with a fraction of the attractions we've come to expect from a Magic Kingdom park, but the park's in the midst of a major expansion that just added the Grizzly Peak land and will see a new Mystic Manor attraction next year.
I hope you'll notice that all of the Walt Disney World theme parks ended up in the bottom half of my list. And that's the message I'm hoping to send with this list: If you're a Disney theme park fan and the only Disney resort you ever visit is Walt Disney World, you're missing out on the best that Disney has to offer.
Yes, visiting Japan or France is expensive for Americans. But if you love theme parks, I think you'll be thankful one day if you do make the effort to plan a trip to one of the top Disney theme parks. Maybe it'll take 10 years put aside the money. Maybe you'll have to wait until after the kids are grown (and you won't have to pay the airfare to take them along). But if you get started planning now, you're bringing yourself closer to the day when you can walk into Tokyo DisneySea and enjoy the world's best theme park.
Even if Japan's out of reach now, perhaps it's time to consider a trip to Southern California, in the meantime. I think every American family ought to experience a cross-country roadtrip at least once in their lives. You can find good hotel rooms in Anaheim for the same price as in Orlando - and many of those rooms are within walking distance of the parks. The food's better and cheaper than Orlando, too. If you still need to stretch your vacation dollars, spend a day or two at one of Orange County's free beaches. (They're closer than any beach in Florida is to Disney World.) If you love Walt Disney World, I think you'll be amazed by what's happening now at the Disneyland Resort. And spending your dollars in Anaheim helps send a message to Disney that the public supports theme parks that get billion-dollar investments. :^) Maybe if a few Disney World fans switch to Disneyland, Disney will send some more love out Orlando's way to catch up. (And we'll get a better Avatar land out there, sooner rather than later.)
Great theme parks are waiting for you.
By Robert Niles
If our reports from Disneyland Paris last week have you thinking about visiting someday, here are some tips to help you plan a trip to the Disneyland Paris Resort.
Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
Paris' Charles de Gaulle International Airport tends to be one of the more expensive in Europe, so if you're thinking about including Disneyland Paris as part of a longer European vacation, I'd suggest flying into a different city. Looking at mid-week flights with a 30-day advance purchase, I'm seeing round-trip tickets to Paris from New York running about $900 now, and about $1,000 from Orlando or Los Angeles. You can find flights about $100 cheaper going into London, and $50 cheaper flying into Brussels - two cities connected directly to Disneyland Paris via the Eurostar train system.
We flew into London and stayed there for a week before taking to the Eurostar through the Chunnel to Paris. We visited Disneyland on our last day in Paris, treating it as a kind-of "halfway home" transition back to the United States. We took Paris' RER (pronounced "air-ee-air") train from the stop nearest our hotel in the city to the Disneyland Paris Resort, for about 7 euro per person. After our stay, we took the TGV bullet train from the Disneyland Paris station to Charles de Gaulle, from where we flew back to America.
There's a bus service connecting Disneyland to the airport, but it's your slowest and most expensive option. The TGV gets you from Disneyland to the airport (or vice versa) in just 10 minutes, and costs 17 euro a ticket. You can take the RER between the two, as well, but that requires a transfer in the city center of Paris and can take over an hour total. And that's still almost 17 euro once you buy your tickets from the airport to Paris and from Paris to Disneyland. So if you're going directly between the airport and Disneyland, take the TGV.
The Disneyland Paris train station is located right in the heart of the resort, right next to the bus stops connecting the parks to their on-site hotels and just steps from the security checkpoints.
A note about the security checkpoints: These aren't the simple "open your bag for the Disney cast member" tables that you might be familiar with in the United States. They're airport-style luggage scanners through which all your bags and purses have to pass. And don't be surprised when you see uniformed French army soldiers toting rifles and walking around the checkpoints, either.
Where to stay?
Prices for the on-site hotels at the Disneyland Paris resort are insane. We're talking $1,200+ per night for the Disneyland Hotel in the summer. And $500-950 a night for the other hotels, based on quality and distance from the park.
In comparison, you can spend about $400 a night in the summer and stay in the Grand Californian at Disneyland in Anaheim, our Theme Park Insider Award winner for world's best theme park hotel. If someone wants to make a case for staying in a Disney hotel in Paris, feel free to post in comments. I chose to stay at one of the much more affordable "partner" hotels instead.
We chose the Hotel L'Elysée Val d'Europe, spending about $200 a night. (I've seen this hotel going for less than $150 a night later this fall.) Our room at the Hotel L'Elysée offered two comfortable queen beds, a clean and well-appointed bathroom, and free WiFi, though the offered hot breakfast cost extra. (We skipped it.) It's located next to the immense Val d'Europe outlet mall and there's a free shuttle bus outside the hotel entrance that will take you directly to the Disneyland Paris train station.
A few things to know about the shuttle: It's free for hotel guests, but not for everyone else. So keep the bus schedule you'll get at check-in to show the driver to prove you're a hotel guest, if you're asked. The bus runs every 10-15 minutes around park open and close, but only every hour or so in the middle of the day, so plan accordingly.
Getting to the Hotel L'Elysée was a snap. We took the RER from Paris to the Val d'Europe station (one stop before Disneyland Paris), and just walked across the street to the hotel. The English-speaking front-desk clerk at the hotel also told us about the TGV and where to buy those tickets at the Disneyland station.
I used the Europe-focused booking.com to make our reservation, but found all the partner hotels on hotels.com as well. You can book through the Disneyland Paris website, but it defaults to packages that include park tickets for all days starting on your arrival day, through your check-out day. We stayed two nights, but only visited the parks for a single day, and there's no way to price that option on the Disneyland Paris website. (Do look at the DLP website to get the current list of partner hotels, though.)
There's also no way to make dining reservations online for Disneyland Paris, either. You'll need to call (011-33-01-60-30-40-50 from the United States or Canada), but Disneyland has English-speaking operators to help you. And once you make a reservation, you'll be noted in the system as an English-speaking party, which will get you an English-language menu and English-speaking waiter at your restaurant. (They might speak English as a second, or third, language, but that's still a help.)
If you're calling from the Los Angeles area (as I was), or from Orlando, the operators will ask if you're a cast member, too. I guess not very many non-CMs from LA go to Disneyland Paris. ;^)
Tickets and strategy
As always, buy your tickets in advance to save time at the gate and get the best deal. I paid $84 for a two-park ticket (a $22 savings over the gate price and a $3 savings over the gate price for a one-park ticket) by buying online. The only downside? Disneyland Paris doesn't exchange your print-at-home page for a paper ticket at the gate, as they do in the US, making it a bit of a pain to get Fastpasses later in the day. And they're strict about checking IDs with the print at home tickets, so don't forget to bring your passport to the park.
Unless you've got a goal of visiting every Disney theme park in the world and no plans ever to return to Paris, I'd strongly suggest skipping the Walt Disney Studios Park. Plan to spend all your time in Disneyland Paris instead. Walt Disney Studios Park simply isn't up to Disney standards for quality and value, and offers too few attractions you can't also find in other Disney parks to justify taking time away from visiting the adjacent Disneyland Park. If you'll likely visit Paris in the future, wait to see the Studios park until after the inevitable future visit by John Lasseter that results in his ordering a big-money rebuild of the park, just like at Disney California Adventure. If you must visit the Studios now, just to bag it for your list of Disney parks visited, go in the middle of the day, walk a quick lap, and see Cinemagique.
At Disneyland Paris, Fastpasses are available to Big Thunder Mountain, the Indiana Jones roller coaster, Peter Pan, Buzz Lightyear, Star Tours and Space Mountain. Unless you're hankering to see the old version of Star Tours, don't bother with that one. Fastpasses for Thunder go the fastest, followed by Indy and Pan. Space Mountain's intensity makes it a less popular ride here than in the U.S. Disneyland Paris offers Extra Magic Hours some mornings to on-site hotel guests, but only for selected attractions in Fantasyland and Discoveryland.
My must-see attractions for Disney fans from the U.S. would be:
Disneyland Paris offers a spectacular nighttime show called "Disney Dreams" that's earned raves from anyone who's seen it. Unfortunately, we didn't.
Here's a video of the performance, which blends "Magic, Memories and You"-type castle effects with "Fantasmic" and "World of Color"-like water screen animations and fireworks in a review of popular Disney musical moments, with special emphasis on those set in France.
Disney Dreams plays only at park close at 11pm in the summer. (It doesn't get dark until after 10pm in Paris in the summer.) And in trying to see two parks in one day on the final day of our visit, we were simply too exhausted to stay awake for the 11pm show, especially with a trans-Atlantic flight looming the next day. My bad with the planning fail. Learn from my mistake. ;^) So if you're visiting in the summer, staying up for Disney Dreams provides all the more reason to skip the Studios, arrive later at Disneyland Paris, or to take a break and pace yourself during the day. Or at least, don't plan anything important, such as flying out of the country, for the next morning after the show.
Counter service food in this park is the worst in the Disney chain. They're trying to "be American" and end up with a mediocre collection of places serving the same selection of burgers, pizza, chicken and weak BBQ. If you want something better, choose one of the table service restaurants, such as Walt's, or one of the all-you-can-eat buffets. Call in advance for reservations for table service and character meals (see number above).
Keep in mind that taxes are included in all the posted prices you'll see at Disneyland Paris. And tips are typically small in France, just round up a euro or so if you're paying in cash.
If you plan to use your credit card in Europe, you'll need to know that it won't work in many places. European credit cards use a "chip and PIN" system instead of the magnetic stripe used on US cards. In restaurants, servers will need to swipe your card through the reader, which is something many Europeans don't have much experience with. At Walt's, I ended up having to swipe the card, because no one on staff could get it to go the right away. When you're buying train tickets, you'll need to get tickets at a station with an attendant who can swipe your card, because it won't work in the automated machines. (All machines I saw also took cash, though.)
Dealing with people
The best piece of advice I got about visiting France? "Always remember, it's 'people before business.'"
That means the first word out of your mouth when entering a store or restaurant should be a greeting, not a question or a demand. Say "bonjour", or "bonsoir" (bon-swah) in the evening, before moving on to anything else. Forget to greet someone first and you can guarantee hostility in response. If you want to order something, say so with "Je voudrais…" (zhuh-vuh-dray, meaning "I would like…").
More than 200 years later, the French Revolution still reverberates. There is no surviving tradition of the "service class" in France, as there is in England, and even in America. No one "serves" anyone in France, so get over any expectation of that when you're in the country. Sure, the waiter's job is to bring your you meal, but it's not to denigrate himself or herself in "service" to you. If you want what Americans perceive as great service, appeal to your waiter's expertise, instead. Ask for suggestions and advice. (Then take them - you'll rarely regret it.) Finish your conversations by offering a thank-you ("Merci") and good-bye ("Au revoir" - ahv-wah).
If you must make what would be considered a menial demand or request, try to do it in French first. That shows respect. We stayed at a hotel in Paris where you had to leave the old-fashioned key at the front desk when you left the hotel. And every evening when we returned, we gave our room number in French. That's a menial request, asking for a key. But once we'd done that in French, the desk clerk was always happy show his expertise with suggestions on where to eat, in English.
In tourist areas such as Disneyland and the center of Paris, most people working in hotels, restaurants or retail will speak at least a little English and be happy to help you in that language - if you've shown the proper respect to them as a French-speaking individual first. Remember, people before business.
Also, take note that the French don't speak loudly in public, like too many Americans do. Loud talking at your table at dinner is another way to ensure hostile treatment from your waiter. On trains, some cars will be designated as "quiet cars," where you're not supposed to talk at all. In the others, people will speak in near-whispers. Keep your conversations to yourself. No one else wants to hear them.
Have you visited Disneyland Paris? We'd love to hear your best tips and advice, in the comments.
Tomorrow: Robert ranks the Disney theme parks worldwide, and talks more about planning trips to far-flung theme parks.
By Robert Niles
The final land on our tour of Disneyland Paris is the only one with a unique name among all Disney parks - Discoveryland, Paris' Jules Verne-inspired take on what other Disney parks call Tomorrowland.
The highlight in this land is Space Mountain: Mission 2, and I walked over in the mid-afternoon to pick up some Fastpasses for what might be Disney's most extreme roller coaster. Along the way, I snapped a few photos of other attractions in the land,
Including Star Tours (Paris runs the original version, although the update is said to be coming next year),
I found a rare Wall-E presence, too:
One of my frustrations with Disneyland Paris was its handling of Fastpass. Actually, it's a frustration with its handling of print at home tickets. At the US theme parks, you exchange your print at home ticket, upon your initial pass through the turnstiles, for a "traditional" magnetic stripe Disney admission ticket. But in Paris, you keep the page you printed at home and use it as your ticket throughout your visit, including at Fastpass machines.
So instead of inserting your card into the machine, you futilely wave the barcode printed on the bottom of the page in front of an infrared beam thingie on the somewhat dilapidated-looking Fastpass machines, hoping that it will spit out your return tickets.
I was one for six on my attempts. At Thunder Mountain earlier, the attractions cast member took quick pity upon me and the other guests in the same predicament, and used his secret key to crank out my return tickets. But at Space Mountain, the cast member stood slumped over the machine I was trying to use, watching me struggle to get the machine to read my ticket. Only after asking for help in French could he be bothered to push himself up off the machine, and override the machine to give me my two other tickets, which he did with an audible sigh and an eye roll before returning to lean over the back of the machine. Nice show there, pal.
But I had my Fastpasses! Oh, wait.
When I showed the tickets to my family, I expected them to share my disappointment, but their blank expressions simply said, "what's the big deal?" That's when I realized, sure, I've got Fastpasses with a 30-minute return window, for two different attractions, on opposite sides of the park. But I'm still going make it to both rides on time. Because that's how I roll. ;^)
So we presented ourselves at Thunder precisely at 6:55 pm, waiting in a 10-minute standby line for our ride. After exiting, when began our, uh, aggressive walk across the park to get back to Space Mountain by 7:25 pm.
We were making great time as we passed through the fort at the entrance to Frontierland, when I heard the music, and saw a throng of people stopped in front of us. No, that can't be.
It was. The 7:00 parade. On the hub in front of the castle. Blocking the entire parade route from Fantasyland to Town Square.
Degree of difficulty? Just jumped from about 5.5 to a solid 10.
I turned to Laurie and Natalie and actually laughed. Then together, we broke into a slow sprint around the outer hub, past the Adventureland entrance and up past the side of the castle. We've got this.
We reached the start of the parade route as the final float left Fantasyland. So we pushed through into the post-parade rush surging around the side of the hub into Tomorrowland. I'll spare you the details, but we did what we had to do. :^/
And at 7:20, we made it! We walked up to the Fastpass return entrance at Space Mountain, ready to ride...
And found the ride down.
(You knew that was coming, didn't you?)
Hey, we were here on time, and this was our final major ride of the day. So we weren't going anywhere, and simply waited the extra 15 minutes it took for the ride to come back up.
For those of you expecting a clone of the stateside Space Mountains, consider yourself warned. Paris' Space Mountain is a much more intense experience, with a high-speed launch up the side of the mountain leading into an immediate inversion, the first of three on the ride.
Space Mountain: Mission 2 offers some amazing visual effects - I especially like the red neon tunnel near the end. But this is not a smooth ride. And it's got those ear-hugging over-the-shoulder restraints that can leave your brain scrambled if you follow advice and keep your head back throughout the ride. At the same time, if you keep your head forward throughout, you risk a nasty case of whiplash.
The only solution is to have the experience with this sort of ride that helps guide you to when to lean forward and when to relax back. Riding in the dark you've got no visual queues telling you what to expect, so you've just got to react to physical inertia you feel.
I've ridden enough extreme coasters that I came off the ride feeling okay, and raving about the visuals. Natalie, however, came off holding her head, and Laurie looked like she'd like to find a bush into which to leave her lunch.
Experience also teaches me that the best solution for a developing headache is hydration. Here's another tip about Disneyland Paris: You can find cold bottled drinks for sale in all the merchandise stores. So instead of looking for an outdoor vending cart, I ducked into the nearest store and bought the last cold bottle of Vittel.
With the headache at bay for the moment, we decided to check out a much calmer attraction, the Les Mysteres du Nautilus walkthrough.
This is a walk through the Captain Nemo's Nautilus submarine from Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, starting with the captain's quarters.
The detail in this exhibit can keep an adventure geek occupied for a good while. Here's the Nautilus' course 20,000 leagues under the sea.
And a map of Vulcania, which also happens to the Mysterious Island at the heart of Tokyo DisneySea, the other Disney park that's devoted a land to work inspired by Verne.
The Nautilus' organ:
And, finally, an encounter with a giant octopus at the end of the exhibit.
Coming Monday: We talk about the logistics of planning a trip to Disneyland Paris. Then on Tuesday, Robert ranks the Disney parks around the world.
By Robert Niles
After our tour through Le Chateau de la Belle au Bois Dormant this morning, let's take a look at some other highlights in Fantasyland at Disneyland Paris.
We'll focus on your next-favorite sight in the land (according to Theme Park Insider reader ratings), and another attraction unique to Paris, Alice's Curious Labyrinth.
As you might expect, the directions through this maze are perfectly clear.
Though plenty of characters are here to greet you along the way.
Though some are less happy to see us, I suppose.
Don't miss the opportunity to climb up the tower.
You'll find some wonderful views up here.
Here's a great aerial view of the Disneyland Paris Resort from the tower in Alice's Curious Labyrinth. From left to right, you can see the Disneyland Hotel, the castle, the Tower of Terror, Big Thunder and the construction cranes for the Ratatouille ride at the Studios. (Click the image for a high-res version.)
Once you're back down on Earth, perhaps you'd fancy a bite to eat? I love the motto on Toad Hall Restaurant.
Fantasyland's Auberge de Cendrillon is the most expensive restaurant in Disneyland Paris (even more than Walt's). But if you want to dine with a princess, this is the place to go. "Cinderella's Inn" serves a 64 € Menu for adults that includes a cocktail (with actual alcohol!), amuse bouche, foie gras, choice of main course, and dessert. Not to mention visits from all the princesses. (The child's Menu is 29 € and, obviously, does not include the booze. Or the foie gras.)
Looking for something less expensive? Pizzeria Bella Notte serves the same menu as Colonel Hathi's Pizza Outpost, which we reviewed in our Adventureland tour. And Au Chalet de la Marionette is Pinocchio's, with the same old burger and hot dog menu.
Here are the rest of the Fantasyland attractions in Disneyland Paris. Click through the read other readers' ratings and reviews (or to submit your own):
By Robert Niles
I'm going to split our tour of Disneyland Paris' Fantasyland into two posts today, so that we can devote an entire post to the park's Le Chateau de la Belle au Bois Dormant.
Disneyland Paris' Sleeping Beauty's Castle includes two attractions - a second-floor walk-through retelling of the Sleeping Beauty story, in stained-glass windows and tapestries, as well as an animatronic dragon in the dungeon below.
Let's start upstairs.
The concept of this display should be familiar to anyone who's toured the original Sleeping Beauty's Castle at Disneyland in Anaheim. But where that display employs small dioramas in California's pint-sized castle, Paris' larger castle uses large stained-glass windows and floor-to-ceiling tapestries to tell Princess Aurora's tale.
The fairies present their gifts.
But someone wasn't invited to the party,
And she's not happy.
Faced with Maleficent's curse on his daughter Aurora, the king orders all the land's spinning wheels burned.
A spinning wheel burns in the fireplace, as the storybook tells of Aurora's move to the forest.
Take a look around - you'll find detail everywhere inside the castle.
Don't touch that spindle!
The fairies cast a sleeping spell over the kingdom.
Aurora awaits her hero,
Who battles Maleficent,
And awakens Aurora with a kiss,
So they lived happily ever after.
You can step out on the rear balcony and get a rare, up-close, second-floor view of a Disney castle. I liked being able to see some of the detail up close, but the castle walls looked a little plain so close, and the forced perspective is lost from up here.
Take a narrow spiral staircase back down, and you'll find plenty of spacious corridors surrounding this castle.
But don't forget to turn the corner and look for the dungeons.
That's where you'll find Merlin's dragon...
Who stirs from his slumber every few minutes. Take a look:
By Robert Niles
Ahoy there, mateys! Prepare to set sail for a distant land, where Pirates sack the Spanish Main, and a certain Capt. Jack Sparrow is nowhere to be found. That's right, there's still one version of Pirates of the Caribbean on this Earth that hasn't been altered to add Johnny Depp's character from the Disney films inspired by this ride.
Welcome to Adventureland at Disneyland Paris.
The lack of Captain Jack isn't the only difference distinguishing the Paris version of Pirates of the Caribbean from its siblings in Anaheim, Lake Buena Vista, and Tokyo. Imagine this the Christopher Nolan reboot of Pirates of the Caribbean. It's a Memento-like scramble of the timeline Pirates fans know from the U.S. versions.
The original version of Pirates, in Anaheim, offered a rare tragic narrative for a theme park attraction. Drifting through the Blue Bayou on a lazy summer evening, we're dropped into a world of lost treasure and battling pirates. Sailing through a grotto, we first see the cursed treasure that we'll then watch a crew of pirates battle to claim. They lay siege to a seaport, eventually setting it aflame. But fate will not reward these pirates. Drunk and careless, they battle in an armory as the flames they lit move closer igniting the fortress' powder supply. We return to our world just in time, escaping the inevitable conflagration.
In Paris, we walk through a Spanish fortress before emerging into a tree-lined loading area. Once on board our bateau, we drift past the Blue Lagoon restaurant, then on to a more ominous sight - a skeleton lying in a skiff, adorned with a pirate flag. We approach the fortress wall, where a lift awaits to haul us up into the next section of the ride.
I've never known what to make of the lift at the end of the Anaheim version of Pirates. Logistically, it's necessary to bring the boats back up to the same level that they dropped from at the beginning of the ride. (Flume rides aren't like roller coasters or track rides. You can't gradually raise the elevation level of water.) But I understand why Disney Imagineers chose to have riders in Florida and Tokyo exit before the lift. It just doesn't fit in with the rest of the ride. A waterfall - that works for a drop on a boat ride. But there's just not a good explanation for a lift chain. (I've longer wanted Disneyland to hide the final Pirates lift by enveloping it in a dry ice fog.)
Yet here in Paris, here's the lift again - and right up front before we hit any of the action in the ride. I have to admit - that put me off a bit, but the non-stop action that followed helped take my mind off that detail.
Inside the fortress, we hear the sounds of a naval battle, and, peering through a gap in the wall… hey, is that the Wicked Wench I see below? Gunshots echo inside the fortress, as do the sounds of swords clashing. Up ahead, we see the shadows of pirates battling. Then, duck! A pirate swings across the boat, just above our heads. We turn a corner, and see the familiar sight of pirates behind bars. Cells stand on either side of the boats, with the pirates in one cell trying in vain to coax a key-bearing dog to rescue them.
Just after we pass the dog, we plunge down the first of two waterfalls in the ride, straight into the Wicked Wench's siege of the port fortress. From that point, the next section of the ride plays out the same as the other versions of Pirates - the dunk scene, the auction, the chase, the burning city. The only significant difference? A pair of well-animated sword-fighting pirates replaces the final turntable in the chase scene.
But as we pass underneath the dirty foot of a drunken pirate at the end of the burning city scene, our next surprise awaits: another plunge, down the second waterfall. From there, we drift through the grottos that begin the ride in Anaheim and Tokyo - Hurricane Cove, the bedroom, the treasure scene, and the tavern.
And then, that's it. We turn and find ourselves back at the loading dock.
Whaaa? Quick, find a mirror. Did I write anything on myself before we started this ride?
At least in Paris, we start with live Pirates and end with dead ones, which makes for a somewhat simpler narrative. And I loved the adrenaline rush of those two waterwalls in the middle of the ride's action. Give Disney credit for not settling for a simple clone or condensed version of Pirates of the Caribbean, and instead finding a way to mix up the action in a way that doesn't harm the narrative of the ride, and might actually have helped improve it.
Your other attractions options in Adventureland include:
We ate dinner at Colonel Hathi's Pizza Outpost, a counter service restaurant that's been redone a couple of times since the park's opening.
I will forever remember Col. Hathi's, because this is the place where I managed to order a Pizza Royale menu (ham and olives) with tiramisu, a lasagne bolognese menu with panna cotta, a Coke, an ice tea and two bottle of water… entirely in French, from the "Bonsoir" to the "Au revoir" and with no pointing or pantomime involved.
Another moment of Disney magic. ;^)
Tomorrow: We tour Fantasyland, and an in-depth look at Disneyland Paris' castle and Alice in Wonderland maze.
By Robert Niles
Welcome to Frontierland at Disneyland Paris!
As you enter the land, you'll pass through a fort that looks a fair sight like the old Fort Sam Clemens that used to provide a play area on the north side of the Tom Sawyer's Islands in the United States.
Disney built the fort here at the land's entrance due to the fact that there is no Tom Sawyer's Island at Disneyland Paris. But we'll get back to that in a minute. For now, let's just note that we've entered the town of Thunder Mesa.
You can take a ride down the river on the Molly Brown.
Or visit the spooky Phantom Manor.
Phantom Manor is Disneyland Paris' version of the Haunted Mansion. Unlike the other Mansions, which are kept in (more or less) immaculate condition on their outsides, Phantom Manor's a decrepit old wreck of a house. It seems that the mansion itself was abandoned years ago, save for a lonely bride, who eternally awaits the arrival of her groom, who's hanging dead in the rafters.
Phantom Manor plays much like the Disneyland version of the ride, until we leave the ballroom scene. From there, we enter the bride's dressing room before leaving the manor and entering the graveyard. But that's not the end of the ride. Not even close.
Paris' Phantom Manor is easily the most gruesome of all the Haunted Mansions, with a skeleton-filled Phantom Canyon following the graveyard. This is the ghoulish land that Thunder Mesa became after an earthquake wrecked the town and a Phantom descended upon the manor, killing the bride's groom and cursing the surroundings.
It's said that the Phantom Canyon scenes represent some of the concept work for Marc Davis' never-built Western River Expedition dark ride at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. (That project was famously dumped when Disney decided to build an abbreviated version of Disneyland's hit Pirates of the Caribbean instead.)
The other major component of the Western River Expedition project that did get developed is the Big Thunder Mountain roller coaster. In Paris, Thunder is not placed on the riverbank, as it is in the other Magic Kingdoms. Here, it's dropped smack in the middle of the river, replacing Tom Sawyer Island.
You still board Paris' Thunder on the mainland, though, then ride your runaway train under the river through a tunnel before ascending the first lift. From there, this Big Thunder runs much like its siblings around the world, except for the addition of another trip back through the tunnel to return to the mainland station. The drop in elevation to get through the tunnel helps add speed to the ride, making this version of Thunder Mountain the longest and fastest in the world.
As on Main Street, there's spectacular detail awaiting in Frontierland, for anyone taking the time to notice. As a former resident of Colorado, I loved the reference not just to Molly Brown (see the riverboat above), but also to Baby Doe Tabor:
There's plenty to look at in the stores, too, up there above the merchandise racks.
Natalie appreciated Disneyland Paris remembering the French-set "Aristocats" with plenty of Marie and Duchess dolls for sale.
Curiously, although I saw plenty of Aristocats and Ratatouille-inspired merchandise, I saw nothing for Hunchback of Notre Dame. Does that tell us something about the French view of Disney movies set in their country?
All this shopping makes some folks hungry, so the ladies stopped for a handmade cotton candy:
Your more substantial food options in Frontierland include the table service Silver Spur Steakhouse:
And if you're looking for a show with your meal, drop in The Lucky Nugget Saloon:
Previously: A tour of Main Street USA
Tomorrow: We visit Adventureland, and Paris' Jack Sparrow-free version of Pirates of the Caribbean.
By Robert Niles
This week, we'll be taking a tour through Europe's most popular theme park: Disneyland Paris.
Opened in 1992 as EuroDisneyland, Disneyland Paris occupies 140 acres, making it the largest of the five "Magic Kingdom" parks around the world. (For comparison, Tokyo Disneyland is 115 acres, Florida's Magic Kingdom 107, and the original Disneyland 85 acres. Hong Kong Disneyland is the smallest, expanding to just 68 acres by next year.)
Disneyland Paris is easy to get to: We took a free shuttle from our hotel at the Val d'Europe development on the edge of the Disneyland Paris Resort property. But the park itself stands just a few yards away from its own train station, connecting the park to Paris and the rest of Europe via RER (the Paris regional rail line), TGV (France's high-speed "bullet train") and the Eurostar (the Chunnel train, connecting Disneyland Paris to London).
As you walk toward the park, look down. It appears that Disney got some Europeans to pay up for "Walk of Magical Memories" tiles, too.
Contrary to what you might have heard, you don't actually walk through the Disneyland Hotel to get into the park. The hotel straddles the entryway into the park, which is where you'll find the park's ticket booths. But, of course, you bought your tickets in advance, right? :^)
Once you're past the ticket booths, you'll come out into another small plaza before passing under the Main Street train station on your way into Disneyland Paris' Town Square.
Disneyland Paris is celebrating its 20th birthday this year.
Once in Town Square, you'll see Disneyland Paris' City Hall on your left.
And here's the view of the rest of the square, to your right. (That's where the park's parade route finishes.)
Take a look down Main Street from Town Square, to see Disneyland Paris' Le Chateau de la Belle au Bois Dormant (aka "Sleeping Beauty's Castle").
For the most part, Disneyland Paris' Main Street is pretty much the same conceptually as those found in the United States, though it is a bit larger, like the rest of the park. The biggest difference between the US Main Streets, though, is Paris' use of arcades on either side of the street.
You know how, on busy evenings, Disney sometimes opens up backstage routes along either side of Main Street in the Magic Kingdom, to allow the throngs of guests to get out of the park? There's no need for that here. In Paris (as in Tokyo), Disney wised up and created on-stage, themed alternate routes around the Main Street bottleneck. From here, you can get in and out of the back of almost all of Main Street's stores and restaurants.
Your other Main Street dining options include:
What? Their Gibson Girl Ice Cream Parlour serves Ben & Jerry's?
Disney uses period theming to sneak a billboard onto its Paris Main Street.
And another Main Street billboard might look awfully familiar to anyone who's also visited Tokyo DisneySea.
As much as I was disappointed in the cheap feel of the park's younger sibling, Walt Disney Studios Paris, I loved the extensive details to be found on Disneyland Paris' Main Street. Check out this piano in Victoria's.
And don't forget to look up to see the magnificent chandelier inside the Disneyana store on Main Street in Paris.
By the way, Paris gets a bad rep for inattentive, even rude, service. (I'll write about that in a future post.) But while I found at Disneyland Paris a few of the most indifferent attractions cast members I've ever met, at Disneyana we also met Mily, who impressed me with her friendliness, knowledge and eagerness to help. She might have been the best Disney merchandise cast member I've encountered around the world this year, and that includes visits to Orlando, Anaheim, and Tokyo. So don't believe the bad reputation - there are helpful people in Paris!
Tomorrow, we'll start hitting the parks' attractions with a tour through Disneyland Paris' Frontierland.
By Robert Niles
I hadn't planned on spending much time at Walt Disney Studios Paris. Not only is the 10-year-old park Disney's smallest and least-attended (drawing an estimated 4.7 million visitors a year, according to AECOM), it languishes at the bottom of all Disney parks in the Theme Park Insider readers' ratings. Given that lack of popularity, Walt Disney Studios Paris seems to have replaced the resurgent California Adventure as the runt of the Disney Parks litter.
Still, the discount Disneyland Paris ticket I bought online included both parks at no additional charge, so I figured I'd start my day at the Disneyland Paris Resort with a quick visit over at the Studios, to experience a couple of the park's unique attractions.
At the top of my list? Crush's Coaster, a Maurer Söhne spinning coaster/dark ride that opened in 2007 and still draws long lines at the park. Knowing this, I arrived at the park a little over 30 minutes before its posted opening, hoping to use my theme-park-power-walking skills to work my way to the front of the rope drop and into the queue before the line could build.
Busted. When I arrived, the Crush's Coaster queue already was filled to overflowing, spilling across the Toon Studio plaza. Had the park opened early? No. The rides weren't yet operational, but Disney allowed early arrivals to enter the park and fills its queues in advance of the park opening. I'd never seen nor heard of that happening in a Disney park before.
So when the opening spiel sounded, the ride's wait-time sign finally lit up: 120 minutes. After 20 minutes inching forward in the queue, I became convinced the sign was accurate. And there's no Fastpass or single rider option to lessen the time in line. We would be blowing 15 percent of our day at Disneyland Paris Resort waiting for one, five-year-old roller coaster with an 8 rating on the site.
The wait went down, a little, when I took this photo. Maybe because we bailed on the line?
No, thank you.
So instead we decided to take in the park's top-rated attraction, Cinemagique, which had its first showing of the day 40 minutes later. In the meantime, we wandered the park, taking photos and making comparisons to the other Disney parks we'd visited in the past year. Across the walkway from Crush's Coaster stands Disney Studios' little version of Cars Land.
It's home to just one ride - Cars Race Rally, a spinner that works a bit like Mater's Junkyard Jamboree.
Walt Disney Studios' newest land is Toy Story Playland, which also has been duplicated at Hong Kong Disneyland.
Toy Story Playland reminded me of the original Pixar-themed Disney Parks land: A Bug's Land at Disney California Adventure. It's aggressively decorated, but ultimately features just a handful of low-capacity carnival rides. In the case, a slow drop ride, a Himalaya, and a halfpipe.
Toy Soldiers Parachute Drop in Toy Story Playland
Slinky Dog Zig Zag Spin
Still, cranes looming over the land are working on building a new Ratatouille-themed dark ride, which might help provide some much needed capacity for this park.
Working our way around the park, we passed the park's Studio Tram Tour, which, like the one in Florida, offers a ride through Catastrophe Canyon though no working film or TV production studios.
The Tower of Terror here is a duplicate of the one in California - with the Twilight Zone theme and single drop shafts. No fourth dimension, as in Florida, or delightfully wicked Harrison Hightower, as in Tokyo.
Walt Disney Studios Paris also offers a couple of popular attractions also found at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Florida: Rock 'n Roller Coaster...
...And the original installation of the Motors, Action Stunt Show, though the show's been updated to feature Cars' Lightning McQueen.
There's an Armageddon-themed special effects show, too…
…but based on your reader ratings, we'd decided to opt instead to see Cinemagique.
It's a delightful show, starring Martin Short and France's Julie Delphy in a clever montage of scenes inspired by classic Hollywood films. The characters literally "break the fourth wall" on occasion, bringing the action off the screen and into the theater. It's charming and sweet, though I feel compelled to warn theme parks: Please stop making movie-based attractions featuring cell phones, unless you're willing to reshoot them every year to keep the film from looking pathetically dated. Short's clunk old Nokia just killed the narrative momentum every time it appeared on screen.
Once the film was over, we couldn't wait to get out of this park, and into the much more elaborately themed and enjoyable Disneyland Paris. A walk through the Disney Studio 1 building that serves as the park's "Main Street" illustrates the inherent problem with this - and other movie-studio themed parks.
At first glance, I was excited - They've got a Brown Derby restaurant? I didn't know that!
But a couple steps forward revealed that the Brown Derby exterior was just a flat facade, as were all the exteriors in the building. Behind the Brown Derby wall stood an ordinary counter-service restaurant, serving burgers and chicken.
Universal created the movie studio theme park with its Studio Tour in Hollywood. At Universal Studios Hollywood, the false fronts and flimsy finishing materials were genuine components of the film production that took place within the park's backlot. Years later, when Disney opened the Disney-MGM Studios in Florida and Universal created its Florida theme park, designers used those elements to create an impression of working studios. (As Disney did again, here in Paris.)
But when DVD and Blu-Ray extras spill the secrets of film production, and nine-year-olds are using Chroma key and After Effects to create professional-looking short films on YouTube, who cares about visiting a film studio? At least in Hollywood, you've got history, and the appeal of touring the sets where many classic movies were filmed. But at Walt Disney Studios Paris? Nothing's ever been filmed there - except what visitors are recording with their iPhones.
The irony? Universal - the company that created the studio theme park - doesn't even build them anymore. Take a look at Universal's latest theme park - Universal Studios Singapore - and you won't find ubiquitous false fronts and "we're filming a movie" conceits on its rides, as you did at Universal Studios Florida decades ago. Instead, in attractions based on Transformers, Madagascar, and Shrek, Universal's chosen in Singapore to immerse us in the narratives of movies themselves. They've ditched their old way of simply placing us into the process of creating those narratives.
Walt Disney Studios Paris, alas, does it the old way. Want an illustration? Take a look at the park's Aladdin-themed spinner ride, Flying Carpets over Agrabah:
Then compare that with the same ride in Tokyo DisneySea, where the ride is called Jasmine's Flying Carpets.
In Tokyo, you ride like royalty, in a lush environment that employs fine building materials and elaborate fountains. In Paris, you're riding atop a flat concrete floor, in front of a painted backdrop, while a minimally animated Genie barks orders at you. You're not royalty - you're a peon, an unpaid extra in an anonymous movie scene. This isn't an escapist fantasy. It's work.
And that's the inherent problem with studio themed parks. They don't whisk us away into the magic of great movie stories. They drop us into the somewhat ugly and tedious work of creating them. Who wants to visit a job site on vacation?
That's why Universal took a different approach in Singapore, and, using the rubric of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, it is transforming its other theme parks from the old, process-driven model to a narrative-driven one. In short, Universal stopped making Universal theme parks, and started making Disney ones instead.
At some point, if Walt Disney Studios is to become anything other than the worst of the Disney theme parks, it will need to make the same change.
Coming tomorrow: We start our week-long, land-by-land tour of Disneyland Paris!
By Robert Niles
Walt's at Disneyland Paris for years has lurked near the top of Theme Park Insider's reader ratings for the world's best theme park restaurants, but rarely passes the minimum-votes threshold to be considered for our annual award in that category. Still, those high marks a few of you have given Walt's encouraged me to book a reservation for lunch on the day of my first-ever visit to Disneyland Paris this week.
Walt's is located on Main Street USA in the Paris park, in same center-street, corner location as the newly-expanded Carnation Cafe in California's original Disneyland. But Walt's offers a seating amenity not available to guests on either Main Street in the American Disney parks - the chance to go upstairs and view Main Street from the second floor. (Okay, that's the "first floor" in Europe, but we're going to stick with the American vernacular here to preserve my sanity while writing.)
A view from inside Walt's
After confirming our reservation, the host in the Victorian-inspired lobby directed us up the stairs where we met another host, who led us to our table in the Grand Canyon room, overlooking Main Street.
Walt's serves American food… as envisioned by someone grounded in French technique. Selections are available a la carte, or in one of three multi-course menus, with three options presented for each course. On "The Classic Selection" menu (40.50 € or US$49.72), one option for each course is labeled "Walt's Gourmet Selection."
So, of course, that's what I selected, too.
Before we go any further, let's just note the hilarity of any food item ever being called "Walt's Gourmet" anything. This was a man who loved canned chili, and whose wife complained he was happier in a greasy spoon than eating in some fancy French restaurant. Nevertheless, in Disneyland Paris, Walt is honored with… a fancy French restaurant.
And yet, someone on Walt's staff seems to have understood this irony, for the main course on "Walt's Gourmet Selection" is… a hamburger. Okay, it's a hamburger topped with foie gras, but still, it's a burger. "Walt's Gourmet Burger" is served with sea-salt-topped, pan-fried, now-illegal-in-California foie gras, presented with a roasted red pepper, lettuce and raw sliced red onion on a three-seed bun. Waffle fries accompany the burger, which is available for 28.99 € a la carte.
The silky foie gras made the underlying burger taste a bit dry in comparison. I'd asked for mine cooked medium, but wish I'd gone with medium rare, to provide a little juicer patty to stand up to the foie gras. (If you've not had foie gras before, Walt's tastes a bit like really good farm-fresh eggs you'd whipped with cream and scrambled in loads of bacon grease, but with a consistency closer to a thick slice of good, silken tofu.)
For the appetizer (entree in French - and, yeah, that confuses the heck out of thousands of American visitors every year. Disney punts on the issue by opting for the term "starters"), Walt's Gourmet Selection offered a trio of crab tartar with sesame wafer, cold smoked salmon over carrots, and a cucumber-feta smoothie.
I could write about the salmon or the crab salad, but let's face it, you stopped reading at "cucumber-feta smoothie." There it is, over on the right, with a snippet of a cheap, plastic bendie straw sticking from it. (Perhaps Walt would have approved of that common-man touch. Or, "Walt's" had a moment of just going cheap.) The smoothie tasted just as you might suspect - like a cucumber blended with just enough feta to give it a creamy texture, without diluting the cucumber taste. There's a little cube of feta awaiting you at the bottom of the cup, too. Yeah, I finished it, but let's not forget that I'm from California. People routinely drink the produce section here.
Laurie and Natalie each opted for the slightly less expensive three-course Menu (33.99 € or US$41.72). Natalie chose the Caesar salad for her first course. Loaded with grilled chicken, boiled egg slices and cherry tomatoes, the salad (10.99 € a la carte) could work as the entire meal for many Disney visitors.
Laurie chose the green asparagus and arugula salad with peppers and tarragon vinaigrette, served with goat's cheese flavored with chorizo (also 10.99 € a la carte), which she declared her favorite course of the meal.
For the main courses, Natalie opted for the grilled sirloin steak with Béarnaise sauce and new potatoes, served with a side salad dressed with balsamic vinaigrette (23.99 € a la carte).
And Laurie chose the risotto with seasonal vegetables (19.99 € a la carte), which also happened to be the one and only "vegetarian selection" noted on the menu. (If you're a vegan thinking about a trip to Europe, well, I hope you really, really like bread.)
Natalie, filled up with salad, didn't eat much of her steak, and Laurie bailed on the risotto after several rich bites, opting to mix it up a bit by raiding Natalie's roasted potatoes. But everyone rallied when our desserts arrived.
There's Natalie's molten chocolate cake, served with brownie ice cream and a ganache-filled chocolate on the side (8.99 € a la carte).
And Laurie's French toast made with spice bread, served with a chocolate baton, spicy chocolate sauce, and cinnamon ice cream (also 8.99 € a la carte).
My "Walt's Gourmet Selection" was another sampler, with mini version of the chocolate cake, a fruit salad of mango, melon and kiwi served in a chocolate shell, a Crème brûlée, and my favorite touch - a peanut butter mini macaroon, served on a skewer with strawberries.
Yup, a French-ified PB&J.
Walt's Gourmet, indeed.
Reservations to Walt's, or any other Disneyland Paris table-service restaurant, are available by calling 011-33-01-60-30-40-50 from the United States or Canada. International rates apply. English-speaking operators are available to take your reservation.
By Robert Niles
Universal Studios Hollywood has given the public its first look at the studio and theme park's latest expansion plans. Local LA-area media are focusing on Universal dropping plans to develop homes on the edge of the property, but if you take a close look at the plans, you'll find plenty of teasers about new theme park attractions at USH.
Take a look at this map of the proposed development, paying close attention to the buildings in pink. Those are to be the new theme park/entertainment buildings. They include expanded parking garages, but also new attraction developments, as well. Then compare that with a current aerial-view Google Map of the property.
Here's what appears to be going away in the Universal Studios Hollywood plans, to be replaced by new development:
That doesn't necessarily mean that Universal won't rebuild some of these attractions. In fact, the plans explicitly call for a new, expanded tram tour stop down the hill, just above the current site of the Tokyo Drift segment. And the car graveyard next to that will be replaced by some sort of entertainment building. The plans are also consistent with what we've heard about the development of the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Hollywood, that it will be centered around the current site of the Gibson and of Waterworld.
There's lots of space devoted toward theme park expansion in these plans, something that got a bit shortchanged in previous plans. Coupled with the aggressive new development we're seeing in Orlando, Universal's new owners (Comcast) appear to have bought in to the idea that investing money in theme parks is a great way for NBCUniversal for earn new business down the road. That's great news for theme park fans. Now, we'll just have to wait and see what Universal does with these new plans.
And to speculate about them, of course. ;^)
By Robert Niles
PARIS - A new World of Disney store just opened this past week at the Disneyland Paris Resort, and it's clearly the place to shop in the resort's Disney Village.
Unlike the other stores in Paris' Disney Village - which comprise building materials and maintenance far below Disney's typical theme park standards - this World of Disney would fit right in at Disney's resorts in Anaheim, Orlando, or Tokyo.
There's even a welcomed place for family and friends to sit and rest while others shop.
But it's the murals surrounding the central rotunda that caught my eye. Appropriate for a store named "World of Disney," these 10 scenes depict famous Disney characters from settings around the world. We start in France, home of Ratatouille's Remy, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the Aristocats, who helped my daughter fall in love with France, when she watched the movie daily as a toddler.
By Robert Niles
PARIS - "Among gentle spirits of the air, my France awakens with the early dawn."
(Monet's garden, in Giverny)
Loyal Theme Park Insider readers will remember that I've called Epcot's Impressions de France the greatest theme park movie ever made. But until this week, that movie represented my closest encounter with the nation of France, as I'd never before visited Europe.
Except in a theme park. ;^)
But this month, I brought my wife and daughter to London and Paris for two weeks, and while in the Paris area, we just had to experience some of the sights we'd feel in love with thanks to Rick Harper's exquisite film.
"The majestic gardens of Versailles - the magic window into a golden age of kings."
(The Temple of Love in the gardens of the Petite Trianon at Versailles)
(The Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles. There were a few more people there when we visited than when the movie was filmed.)
(In the Gardens of Versailles)
"In distant towns, in quiet villages, within the heart of all my people dwells the secret heart of the vagabond."
So of course we had to take a bike tour through the French countryside. And a train ride to get there.
We booked a bike tour of Giverny to visit Claude Monet's home and gardens, through Fat Tire Bike Tours in Paris. This might have been my favorite experience in France - a great trip through the lovely French countryside, not hidden away inside some fortress-like tour bus, but pedaling and walking our way through a delightful part of the country. And, yes, we relived many Disney fans' favorite moment in the movie by shopping at a patisserie, to stock up for a picnic along the Seine.
Since we visited in July, we didn't get the chance to go skiing in the Alps. Nor did we venture too far away from Paris, to Mont Saint-Michel, the chalk cliffs of Normandy or "to the golden glow of the Riviera." Nor were we invited to a wedding in a French chapel. But Laurie did attend Mass at Notre Dame.
(Look for the hidden Mickeys!)
Just try to imagine that bridge filled with people releasing red, white and blue balloons.
Or the Garde Républicaine riding through the gates of the Louvre.
"Bastille Day. Nothing makes us prouder in all of France than to celebrate the birth of our Republic."
Even though we did visit Paris on Bastille Day, we skipped the crowds lining the Champs-Élysées for the annual parade to take advantage of another July 14 French tradition - free admission to Louvre. And with everyone out on the parade route, we waited just five minutes to get in.
(Cue the Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3, "Organ.")
"Paris. The City of Lights. The living symbol of every age, of every season, across my beloved France."
(Okay, we allowed ourselves some fun after walking the 700-plus steps to the second level of the tower.)
Thank you for visiting Robert's Impressions de France. Please gather all your personal belongings, and watch your step as you exit the blog post.
Tomorrow: We're visiting Disneyland Paris. Please follow Theme Park Insider on Twitter for updates through the day.
By Robert Niles
Construction cranes are transforming the Universal Studios Florida skyline, as the park's new attractions are beginning to take shape. The cranes went up within the last few days, and you can see photos and updates via the Orlando Sentinel and via Parkscope.
For those of you who haven't been following this closely, Universal closed its Jaws ride - and the surrounding Amity land - last January to make way for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Diagon Alley, which will feature a Gringotts-themed indoor roller coaster ride, as well as expanded Ollivander's Wand Shop and a Hogwarts Express train connecting the new Harry Potter land with the original over in Universal's Islands of Adventure. (BTW, I love how the Sentinel is calling this "The-Project-That-Must-Not-Be-Named.")
In addition, Universal's torn down the Soundstage 44, the empty building between Mel's and Twister that once housed the Murder, She Wrote and Xena attractions. That's going to be the home of the Orlando version of the Transformers 3D motion-base ride that recently debuted in Hollywood and Singapore.
Universal hasn't announced either of these developments, but we've seen the blueprints of the new Harry Potter land, and the public building permits for the Soundstage 44 replacement are consistent with the size and layout of the Transformers show building, and we've heard from at least two sources in Orlando who tells us that it's Transformers.
So I think we can move beyond speculation at the point and jump straight to anticipation. Let's make that our vote of the week. Which new attraction are you looking forward to most: Harry Potter, or Transformers? (And I'll throw in a couple of other options to cover readers who want another choice.)
Harry Potter. Transformers. Revenge of the Mummy. Despicable Me. The Simpsons Ride. Men in Black. That's a pretty formidable A-list of rides for a theme park, don't ya think? Tell us in the comments what you think about all the work going on at Universal Studios Florida.
By Robert Niles
PARIS - I've been in Europe for the past week, and my travels so far have left me so appreciative of those venues and destinations where the staff seems to genuinely welcome their guests' business.
We tried to enter the Wizarding World the original way - via Platform 9 3/4 at Kings Cross Station in London. (The Tube is wonderful, by the way, and the staff very helpful.)
I say "seems" because there's no real way for me to know whether someone truly wants me to be there, or not. But even if a person doesn't care for me, my presence or my money, if he or she can fake it and make believe I'm welcome - that's good enough for me.
That said, it pains me to see people cramming into tourist hotspots where the staff clearly isn't bothering to put on a show. They hate our guts, and aren't afraid to let that disdain show. They know that thousands more tourists will be by tomorrow, even if the ones they burn today never return.
Well, I say that as travel fans - we make those tourism employees' dreams come true. Let's resolve to speak up, and to listen to one another, so that we can make real the dream of tourists never again darkening the doorways of restaurants, museums, historic sites, attractions, and yes, even theme parks, where the staff can't be bothered even to pretend that we're welcome.
I'll name names at the end of my trip - not just of the places that shunned us, but the ones that welcomed us, too. In the meantime, though, let's use the comments to warn fellow Theme Park Insider readers of places you've visited where it seemed they'd rather you and your money went elsewhere.
By Domenik Jost
Christmas in July! I never thought it be possible either, but today Busch Gardens invited media and pass holders out to get a sneak preview at the new hard ticket event coming to Tampa this winter. What has already been a big success at Busch Gardens Tampa's sister park in Williamsburg is now finding it's way to the sunshine state. Busch Gardens Tampa beginning November 30th will invite visitors to come out and enjoy it's Christmas Town celebrations every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night from 6 to 11 p.m. through December 23rd. Christmas Town will include all new attractions, shows, and shopping opportunities.
The streets throughout the park will all be filled with thousands and thousands of Christmas lights.
First to greet visitors as they arrive are the rich, warm colors of Christmas in the Celebration Village. The sounds of local Choirs singing live will fill the air at the Marrakesh Theater and the shops will be full of holiday gifts.
The pathways in front of the Moroccan Palace will have sparkle and shimmer in the night as snowflakes fall down in front of the theater. Inside there will be a special performance of a new Christmas Town ice show(which will be different from the day time special Christmas ice show).
Next throughout the Nairobi area the trees will be lit with red and white twinkling lights in what will be called Candy Cane Lane. Next among the paths along the Stanleyville Bridge is "Miracle Way", which will allow guests to experience the humble magnificence of that first Christmas night with a representation of the Holy Nativity and illuminated angles. Even the Sesame Street area will include Elmo and his friends all dressed up for "Sesame Street Season of Fun". December in Florida is typically warm and Busch Gardens invites guests to celebrate a Floridian Christmas with a touch of the tropics in the "Enchanted Flamingo Valley". Here palm trees will be decorated with lights and a flock of festive flamingos will be created from thousands of twinkling pink lights.
In Busch Gardens fashion there will also be hundreds of traditional holiday flowers in what will be "Poinsettia Parkway". A pint-sized train designed especially for the young guests will be located in "Jingle Bell Junction" at the crossroads of Christmas Town in Gwazi Plaza.
Inside Gwazi Park, along the walkway, in what will be "Christmas Town Village", little tiny cabins will scent the air with seasonal treats like apple pies and strudels, gingerbread cookies, eggnog and roasting nuts, as well as a delicious array of flavored popcorns, roasted nuts, waffles with ice cream, fruit-filled crepes, rustic sandwiches, homemade potato chips and Starbucks coffees and hot chocolate. To top all the decorations and shops off, guests will be able to enjoy a white Christmas, in Florida of all places, in Christmas Town Park. There guests will get to play in real, frozen snowdrifts, meander among quaint cabin shops, and pose for pictures with strolling snowmen.
During Christmas Town, Busch Gardens' popular coasters including Cheetah Hunt, SheiKra, and Gwazi will all be open. There will also be some exclusive nighttime experiences, one of which is the Christmas Town Express. The Christmas Town Express will invite riders to join in on the biggest Christmas carol sing-a-long on wheel which will include traditional favorites like "Jingle Bells," "Frosty the Snowman," and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Another exclusive nighttime experience will be the "Welcome to Santa's House" attraction. Here you can take pictures with Santa himself as he takes some time out of his busy, busy schedule. And of course what kind of Busch Gardens Christmas would it be without some cute animal visitors from the South Pole.
The Christmas Town Penguins will only be there at night and can be seen at the penguin habitat located near the Candy Cane Lane in the Nairobi area. (The penguins take over the otter habitat during the event.)
Busch Gardens will continue it's traditional holiday shows like "Christmas on Ice," "Christmas from the Heart," and "Christmas Celebration" during the day. At night during the special Christmas Town event there will be new shows for guests to enjoy.
Busch Gardens' Crown Colony House restaurants will be center stage for "Carol of the Bells." The entire facade will be covered in tens of thousands of Christmas lights, which will all be choreographed to a selection of seasonal songs.
Inside the Moroccan Palace will be an all new Christmas show produced especially for Christmas Town by the creators of "Christmas on Ice" and "Icepolaration".
Each night in the Stanleyville Theater, Jimmy Osmond and his family will sing favorite Chrismas tunes and share special holiday memories in "Jimmy Osmond's Christmas Jukebox."
To top off each night, Grammy Award-winning contemporary Christian artists "Jars of Clay" will bring the night to an end with an uplifting exclusive concert in Gwazi Park. They will be performing both original hits and holiday favorites.
“When Christmas Town opens in November, it will be the beginning of a unique holiday tradition for Tampa Bay area,” says Jim Dean, Busch Gardens Tampa’s park president. “We are creating a season-long celebration for family and friends unlike any other event our guests have ever seen – the kind of Christmas fun only Busch Gardens can provide.”
Christmas Town will be a separate-ticketd night event, and regular daytime admission is not required or included. General admission with advanced purchase for Christmas Town is $29.99 for adults and $9.99 for Children (ages 3-9). The Night of the Event, General Admission tickets will be $39.99 for adults and $14.99 for Children (ages 3-9).
Busch Gardens will also be offering advanced reservations for "Mrs. Claus' Family Feast" which is a dining experience hosted by Mrs. Claus and some of her most entertaining elves. This dining experience includes front-of-line access to see Santa. Prices for these reservations are $20 for adults, and $14 for Children (ages 3-9).
Until the event starts, Busch Gardens will have it's Christmas Town preview center open inside the park. There as you walk in you'll be greeted with "Merry Christmas" and receive a free candy cane. You will also be able to purchase many different christmas ornaments, purchase a selection of the candy that will be offered at the event, and take a picture with Frosty the Snowman. Also you will be able to conveniently purchase tickets for the event right inside the preview center and for this week only, pass holders will be able to purchase a Christmas Town General Admission ticket for $10 inside the preview center.
For more information on the event visit seaworldparks.com/christmastown.
It sounds like it will be a nice event. Though a bit to my concern is that it is a hard ticket event while it's sister park, SeaWorld Orlando, pulls off a terrific Christmas event included in admission. I can however also see the advantage to just going at night and enjoying the event over paying the full day admission price. Would you pay to go to Busch Gardens Tampa's Christmas Town?
By Marc Kleinhenz
Universal has just announced a new hotel for their burgeoning Orlando empire. Normally, such proclamations are attended by celestial trumpets and rapturous masses that secretly scheme over how to pay for their next excursion to the theme park capital of the world.
This time, though… I can’t help but wince. Universal is overplaying their hand, I fear, and I don’t like where this is (inexorably?) heading.
Having a multiple-tiered hotel that not only offers (the standard array of) various room types but also various levels of access to the resort’s on-site benefits is a bit, well, much. First and foremost, it represents the very real possibility of shooting themselves in the foot. Early Park Admission for the “moderate-value” rooms but no Express Passes? The former may be icing on the theming cake for enthusiasts, but it’s the latter that really made the deal for most consumers – only by saving $70 per person per day can footing a $300-a-night hotel room be even slightly palatable. And the “valued-price” guest gets neither of these.
Yes, there’s still plenty Universal and Loews offer, including a hotel-key-card-turned-credit-card, priority seating at restaurants, free delivery of packages to one’s room, and, of course, the convenience of being on-property and the delight of staying in-theme. (Well, we’re pretty sure the “value” attendees will receive these perks, though we don’t know for certain yet, which is itself another problem for another discussion.) It’s just that Universal’s partner hotels offer many of these perks, plus a few others of their own – including, of course, the all-important early access to Harry Potter and his new friends, the Minions. This may have been a move to help reach some sort of loose parity with Disney World, but not even Disney actively takes anything away from its guests.
It really gets interesting, though, when taken in conjunction with a little tweaking to its ride reservation service that Universal made just the other month. As if having multiple levels of Express Passes wasn’t convoluted enough, there’s now the Q-bot system, which, of course, represents another mirroring of Disney’s policies (the much-debated FastPass service). The net effect, between different hotels and different parks with different hours of entry and different ways to stand in line, is mind-boggling to the average (read: non-obsessed) consumer. It almost demands Universal Orlando Resort 101, a lecture class, as a pre-requisite to stepping foot on the property.
My background is videogames, so I typically tend to view these things from behind this rather skewed prism. The fundamental reason that console systems – such as, say, the Sony PlayStation or the Nintendo Wii – were able to break away from and thoroughly dominate their PC brethren is due to their elegant simplicity. It’s Bill Clinton’s mantra for the digital class: “It’s simplicity, stupid.” Buy one magic little box that already contains everything you need, from the controller to a hard drive, and shove your game of choice into it. Plug and play, lock and load. Not even grandma, in her mad fervor to play Wii Bowling, can mess it up.
Now PCs, on the other hand, represent a nearly endless array of various configurations and components with which to drown. Just installing a game can be a nightmare, particularly if it’s Crysis and it melts your graphics card just by looking at it. Though the various PC manufacturers have come a long way from the Wild West that was DOS, it’s still an unbelievably daunting undertaking for the casual (read: non-obsessed) consumer and what primarily causes PC gaming to be an eternally walled-off ghetto.
Companies, though, tend to get self-involved, which leads to myopia, which, in turn, usually leads to humility. Microsoft and Sony are great cases in point, as they opted, for the first time in the industry’s 25-year modern history, to release multiple versions of their consoles, typically offering different HDD sizes or the occasional real difference, like built-in wi-fi as opposed to a forcibly-purchased peripheral. (Nintendo, meanwhile, offered just one system that even came with the same pack-in game. It, unsurprisingly, has the best-selling console this generation.)
Universal is most definitely heading down this primrose PlayStation path. When sitting down to help a friend and his fiancée plan their honeymoon to UOR just a few months ago, for instance, it took a little while to go through all their options with them, from normal to partner to on-property hotel, to Meal Deals (with or without the new summer dinning experiences), to Unlimited Express Passes to park-to-park to VIP tickets. Oh, then there’s Blue Man Group and the CityWalk pass and Early Park Admission – it was more than they were ever expecting. And this was before Q-bot and the Cabana Bay Beach Resort announcements!
The bottom line, I suppose, is this: Universal Orlando is an absolutely wonderful area that deserves multiple days in multiple visits to fully explore and experience and enjoy. It has one of the crown jewels of the theming world, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and just may be adding one or two more precious stones to the mix in very short order, if rumors are to be believed. Portofino Bay is easily one of the best hotel stays I’ve had in my entire life, offering up a level of service that is just short of what I found during my year-long sojourn in Japan.
But Walt Disney World it is not – nor is it likely ever to be, for better or worse. The best possible decision the company can make is to embrace this difference and develop a vision of its own, one that worships the Japanese-like elegance of simplicity rather than scoffs at it in the typically-condescending Western way. Otherwise, it’s going to end up like Microsoft to Disney’s Apple.
And God knows we could use a few more Googles in the theme park industry.
Marc N. Kleinhenz has written for 19 sites, including IGN, Gamasutra, and Orland Informer. He’s also the author of It Is Known: An Analysis of Thrones, Vol. I, which explores HBO’s Game of Thrones with such guests as Time magazine’s James Poniewozik.
By Michael Owen
Universal Orlando Resort is set to add another hotel option for its guests, it was revealed today.
The Central Florida theme park destination will once again team up with Loews Hotels and Resorts, who are also involved in the operations of Universal's current three on-site accommodations offerings.
The hotel will be named Cabana Bay Beach Resort and will be themed around classic American driving vacations of years gone by.
Concept art courtesy Universal
The resort will feature a total of 1800 rooms, 900 of which will be large family suites, capable of accommodating up to six people, with the other 900 being standard hotel rooms priced at a value to moderate level.
This is Universal's first major move towards providing value accommodation at the Orlando resort, and could be a move to try and lure tourists away from the increasing value offerings at Walt Disney world.
Whilst many of the amenities and perks offered in Universal's current hotels, including early park admission, will be available at the Cabana Bay Beach Resort, Universal's Unlimited Express Access will not be complementary.
“Our new hotel will give guests an affordable, incredibly themed on-site hotel experience unlike anything else at our resort,” Tom Williams, chairman and chief executive officer, Universal Parks & Resorts told Orlando Attractions Magazine.
“Our new family suites and family-value pricing will give our guests on-site options they’ve never had before.”
By Robert Niles
Disney's newest mountain roller coaster has opened for previews at Hong Kong Disneyland
The best way I can describe Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars is that it appears to be a mashup of Thunder Mountain and Expedition: Everest. You can see for yourself what the ride's like in this fan-filmed POV video:
(Disney's not announced any prohibition against filming while on this ride, so I'm going with this video. In fact, Disney seems to have become quite a bit more lenient about on-ride photography in recent years. There are no restrictions against photos and video on Radiator Springs Racers, for example. But that's another topic.)
Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars opens officially in five days, as a the centerpiece of the new Grizzly Gulch section of the theme park, the second of three new mini-lands being added to the Hong Kong park as part of its "whoops, Disney opened a too-small park, yet again" expansion. Toy Story Playland opened last year and Mystic Manor is slated for 2013.
By Tim W
Hello Theme Park Insider readers. We are now into the fifth week of Theme Park Apprentice season 4.
To recap, you will be voting on your favorite of the bottom three contestants. Two contestants will be saved, and one contestant will be eliminated. It is up to you, so use your vote wisely.
For this week, our contestants designed shows for a park of their choice. Each show had to be based of a movie where they could tie in the theme of environmental conservation. We had many 4-D and 3-D shows this week, along with one live show. Please be sure to vote for the contestant you would like to see saved.
By Robert Niles
How much do you care about the food when you visit a theme park?
For me, eating is one of the five senses that parks should be engaging with their themed environments. A theme park that ignores food does as poorly in my book as one that ignores its visual composition, sound palette, or physical thrills. I love to see parks go the extra mile and develop treats such as The Wizarding World of Harry Potter's Butterbeer, or a delightful French patisserie in Epcot's France.
Having eaten at a few Route 66 diners in my day, I welcomed the classic diner food at the new Flo's V8 Cafe in Cars Land at Disney California Adventure. Rather than go with the simplistic '50s-inspired hamburger drive-in that I suspect many guests might have anticipated, Disney's chefs created a menu that features homestyle "comfort food," including roast turkey and beef and dinners. These are the "blue plate specials" one might see served in mon-'n-pop diners along the mother road.
The citrus-marinated roast turkey breast, sliced thinly and served with turkey gravy, cranberry sauce and a roll. The two sides selected were mashed potatoes and a roasted corn medley. $11.49 at Flo's V8 Cafe in Cars Land at Disney California Adventure
But not every theme park visitor wants themed food. Some would prefer simpler, familiar fare, perhaps out of concern for picky eaters in the family. Just give them the burgers, chicken strips, and fries they're used to ordering when away from home. Other visitors don't want to spend a moment doing anything other than riding rides. For them, food is a superfluous part of their day, especially at iron parks where there's no pretense of themed environment anyway.
Finally, some theme park visitors simply can't - or won't - pay for what they consider over-priced, mediocre fare.
By Robert Niles
The timing of their debuts will forever link Universal's Transformers and Disney's Radiator Springs Racers. But while these two attractions also both illustrate the excellence in immersive theming that designers can create when they're turned loose with a big budget, they provide one of the industry's clearest contrasts on the issue of conflict in theme park narratives.
Transformers: The Ride in Universal Studios Singapore
In journalism school, one of my professors assigned me to read Jon Franklin's book "Writing for Story." Franklin describes what he called the "conflict/resolution" model for storytelling, suggesting that all great stories - fiction or nonfiction - describe a conflict and the quest for a resolution. We see this most clearly in theme parks with that beloved cliche, "and something goes terribly wrong", whether that be dinos running wild through Jurassic Park or Imperial troops interrupting our Star Tours.
Universal Creative designer Thierry Coup told me last December that such conflict drive the narratives that captivate audience. "It has to [go wrong]. It gives us a chance to be heroes, and to try to save the day."
Transformers at Universal Studios Hollywood
Universal's Transformers: The Ride embraces conflict from before we even board the ride. The evil Decepticons have found and attacked the NEST base we're visiting. They're after the Allspark that powers the Transformers, and it's up to us to help the good Autobot EVAC take it away to safety.
EVAC, our ride in Transformers
Unfortunately, "escape from the bad guys" is perhaps the hoariest cliche in theme park rides. I've lost count of the minimally decorated Six Flags roller coasters that use this conceit as their only acknowledgement of theme. It's especially weak when the ride upon which we're supposedly escaping unloads on the same platform where we board.
If attempted escape was all that Transformers: The Ride had offered, it likely wouldn't be resonating with visitors the way it is - winning our 2012 Theme Park Insider Award as the world's Best New Theme Park Attraction of the year. But Coup and his team at Universal Creative added a second conflict element to Transformers: The Ride, one that helped elevate the attraction to elite status.
After a wild romp through the battle between the Decepticons and Autobots, our host - EVAC - decides that he's had enough. When the Decepticon leader, Megatron, mocks us ("Cowards run. Heroes fight."), EVAC abandons our mission, breaks his orders and chooses to face Megatron instead. It's the classic "fight or flight" conflict, and as EVAC's passengers, we're in the middle of it. Thrust into battle as EVAC's accomplices, we resolve the second conflict by refusing the first. We refuse to escape and choose instead to fight back, defeating Megatron and returning to NEST as heroes.
Radiator Springs Racers in Cars Land at Disney California Advneture
While Transformers: The Ride relies on conflict to establish emotional stakes for its riders, Disney's Radiator Springs Racers takes the opposite approach. This might be the most emotionally comforting thrill ride ever created. It's the ride where nothing goes wrong. There's no substantial conflict here - just a good-natured race between cars at the end of the ride. But the ride's main characters, Lightning McQueen and Mater, reject the notion of that race as conflict by telling us as we leave that "everyone won" the race, "because we made friends."
Lightning McQueen and Mater congratulate us at the end of Radiator Springs Racers
Radiator Springs Racers' purpose is not to challenge us to become heroes, as on Transformers: The Ride. It's to reassure us - to provide a gentle, welcoming space where we can feel comfort and confidence making new friends. While Transformers ultimately makes us feel good by telling us we have within us the heroism to overcome life's challenges, Radiators Springs Racers makes us feel good by letting us spend a few moments in a life without challenges. It's the theme park equivalent of Mommy hugging us, telling us it's going to be all right, and setting up a playdate with a good friend.
And I love them both.
Together, Transformers: The Ride and Radiator Springs Racers illustrate the narrative range that theme park designers can inhabit in a mere few minutes of our time. Whether we want a complex, multi-level, conflict-drive narrative, or a character-driven experience that triggers our emotions, Universal's and Disney's designers have shown that theme parks can deliver an ever-widening variety of narrative experiences for their visitors.
By Robert Niles
Thinking about an Orlando theme park vacation? Let us help you get the best deal for your budget with some advice on picking the right Walt Disney World ticket package.
First, you're smart to be thinking about this decision before you travel to Orlando. Of all the potentially bad decisions you can make when buying a ticket to Disney World, the absolute worst to is to wait to get your tickets when you arrive at Disney. You'll waste time in a long line at the ticket booths, spend the highest possible price for you tickets, and probably end up making a rushed decision about all the available options, anyway.
Instead, do your research and buy your tickets in advance, so you can go straight into the park when it opens on your first morning in Orlando, allowing you to hit many of the most popular rides before lines build up later in day.
The Walt Disney World Resort includes four theme parks (none of them named "Disney World," by the way - the original park with the big castle is called "The Magic Kingdom"), two water parks, an outdoor shopping mall, golf courses, and a bunch of hotels. It sells theme park tickets good for one to up to 10 days, with a variety of extra options we'll explain below.
And Disney isn't the only theme park resort in Central Florida. Up the road in Orlando, you'll also find the Universal Orlando Resort, which is home to two theme parks, an outdoor shopping mall, three hotels and a nearby water park. Between Disney and Universal lies SeaWorld Orlando, which offers its eponymous theme park, a water park, and "Discovery Cove" - an exclusive animal encounter experience where you can swim with dolphins in between noshing on gourmet food.
So you've got a lot of choices!
The first question you should ask yourself when thinking about your theme park vacation is How long do you have to stay in Orlando? Once you make that decision, you can begin to think about how many of these options you reasonably can fit into your vacation. I wouldn't recommend trying to do more than one park per day on your first visit. And many visitors decided they need more than one day at some of the individual parks, in order to get to everything in those parks.
So if you want to see all the theme parks in the Orlando area, you'll need at least seven full days in Central Florida. Throw in the water parks, and now you're talking about 11 days. Most families don't have that amount of time for their vacation, so they choose to focus.
That brings us to the second question: Will you be visiting Universal and/or SeaWorld? If your family includes big Harry Potter fans, you'll likely want to include Universal Orlando on your trip, since that's the home of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. And if people in your family care more about seeing animals than going on rides, you'll want to include SeaWorld, too.
But if neither of those options really grabs you, you'll probably get the most value by restricting your visit to Disney. Disney prices its ticket packages in a way that makes it cheaper and cheaper to add each additional day to your visit. That often makes adding a fifth or sixth day at the Disney World theme parks less expensive that going over to Universal or SeaWorld.
Now, if your family really wants to see what's only available over at those parks, it's worth the extra money to include them on your vacation. But that's a decision you'll have to make as you plan.
Let's say that you've decided that you still want to include Walt Disney World on your vacation - and that you're not just going to opt for a Universal and/or SeaWorld-only vacation instead. The next question for you is Will you be staying "on property" in a Disney hotel, or not?
Staying in a Disney hotel gives you several additional benefits:
That said, Disney's hotels are often more expensive that comparable quality hotels "off property." And some of the Disney hotels (especially the less expensive ones) are miles away from the theme parks, requiring you to either drive your car or wait for a Disney bus ride to and from the parks - so you're not saving too much time compared with staying at nearby "off property" hotels.
If keeping your costs to an absolute minimum is important for you, you'll likely want to stay off-property. But if you're able to spend extra to get extra value, you might consider staying at one of Disney's hotels and buying a package deal that includes your theme park tickets. The Disney hotels are priced in three tiers - "value", "moderate" and "deluxe" - with room quality, available extra hotel services, and location relative to the parks all factoring in those designations. In other words, the more you pay, the more you get. Check Disney's special offers page to see what package discounts are available now, to help you get an idea about what you'd need to budget to stay on-site.
And if you choose to stay off property - remember that extra-hours benefit for staying in a Disney hotel? That's called "Extra Magic Hours" and if you're staying off-property, you'll want to avoid whichever parks have the Extra Magic Hours on a given day, since it'll be packed with Disney hotel guests. The best way to get value on your theme park vacation is to try to go where the crowds aren't.
A few more questions for you: Will you likely be returning to Disney World? Here's why this question is vital - Disney World tickets expire 14 days after you use the first day on your ticket. But you can buy a "no expire" option for your tickets, at additional cost, that keeps the unused days on your ticket good forever. That means you can go ahead and buy a 10-day ticket this year and keep all your unused days for a future visit, effectively locking in the lowest possible of today's prices, saving you the expense of Disney World's twice-annual ticket price increases in the future.
The "no expire" option makes each day of your ticket quite a bit more expensive, though - from $13-$28 a day more as of this writing. The real value in the "no expire" option is that it allows you to "buy in bulk." Since Disney lowers the per-day cost of your ticket the more days you buy, you get the best deal by buying a 10-day ticket. Adding the "no-expire" option allows you to buy the 10-day ticket even if you're not staying that long on this trip, locking in that price for your future visits, too.
As of this writing, a four-day Disney World base ticket - without the "no-expire" option - costs $64 a day for adults. But a 10-day ticket with the no-expire option costs $59.30 a day for adults. Throw in the fact that Disney typically raises per-day ticket prices a few bucks every year, and you can see how the "no-expire" option can help you save money in the future. This option works best for people who visit Orlando regularly but intend to visit Disney for fewer than four days on each visit. If you plan to spend five or more days at Disney theme parks on your Orlando visit, or aren't sure that you'll come back to Disney, it's better to stay away from the expensive "no expire" option.
Next question: Do you want to visit more than one park per day? For a flat extra charge of $57 (as of this writing) you can add a "park hopper" option for the all the days on your ticket, whether that's two days to 10. The "park hopper" allows you to visit as many of the Disney World theme parks as you want in a single day. Without it, you can visit only one park per day on your ticket.
If you're new to Disney World, and just getting a feel for the parks, I'd suggest spending a full day at each park and saving a few bucks by skipping the "park hopper" option. But adding it gives you enormous flexibility to get the most value from each day of your visit, allowing you to move from one park to another to take advantage of extended operating hours, or to move to a less crowded park as lines build up later in the day.
Finally, Will you be visiting a water park during your stay this time? Disney offers a "water park fun & more" option, also for a flat $57 per ticket, that allows you to use the resort's two water parks, mini golf courses, the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex, the DisneyQuest indoor game facility, and to play one round at Disney's Oak Trail golf course during your visit.
You get one visit to a "water park fun & more" location for each day on your ticket, though you can use them on different days - you don't have to go on the same days you visit the parks. (And to get the most from the ticket, you probably shouldn't.) Note that if you do buy a one-day ticket with the "water parks fun & more" option, you get two visits, not just one.* (This paragraph has been updated to reflect a change in Disney policy from past years, noted in the comments.)
The water park tickets, bought separately, cost $52 a day for adults, so if you're planning to visit a water park for a second day, or to use any of the other benefits, it's probably worth it to add the "water park fun & more" option. But if you're just sticking to the theme parks, this is an easy add-on to skip.
So there you go. Once you're started thinking about your answers to these questions, you're ready to visit Walt Disney World's ticket purchase pages and to start pricing your options to find the best choice for your family's needs and budget.
If you're thinking about staying on-property, look at Disney World's available vacation packages, too.
And if you're considering including a trip to Universal Orlando or to SeaWorld, follow the links to price Universal Orlando theme park tickets and vacation packages as well as SeaWorld tickets and packages. If none of these package options appeal to you, go ahead and start pricing off-property hotels in the area as an alternative, using a service such as Hotels.com.
If you still want more information about putting together the best deal on an Orlando theme park vacation for your family, please take a look at the Theme Park Insider Discussion Board, where our readers are asking and answering questions about theme parks and vacation planning. We'd be happy to help you, too!
Good luck, and we hope you end up having a wonderful time in Florida on your next vacation. I'd like to invite Theme Park Insider readers to share their best tips and strategies for buying Orlando theme park tickets, in the comments.
By Domenik Jost
The yellow carpet was rolled out today at Universal Studios Florida for the Grand Opening celebration of the final piece of the “Year To Be Here”, Despicable Me Minion Mayhem. On the yellow carpet making the way down the interview line were some familiar faces and some very familiar voices. Dana Gaier, Elsie Fisher, and Miranda Cosgrove who voice Gru’s three adopted girls Edith, Agnes, and Margo.
After a quick dance party with the Minions, Gru, and his girls, everyone counted down from ten and Despicable Me was officially opened.
The ride replaces the Jimmy Neutron's Nicktoon Blast. It utilizes the same ride system and the same 3D technology put into the recent Spiderman makeover including the same (restraining view) 3D glasses. The ride consists of two preshow rooms and the main ride auditorium.
In the first preshow room, which is Gru’s living room, he recruits you to be turned into Minions and the Minions show off the extreme durability of the 3D glasses! ;-) Which of course is in a very comical way. In the second preshow room, Gru makes sure that you aren’t sneaking in anything with his “high power laser” and the girls persuade him to allow them to train you. In the room Gru also has one of his inventions, which is a fart canon, and let’s just say the scent makes the Minions go “Bananas”. On to the main auditorium we go, and the girls take over training us. As with pretty much almost every great theme park ride there is the point where it all goes wrong, but of course in the end we’ll all be ok. To round off the ride Gru and the Minions invite you to take part in a dance party to none other than Boogie Fever just outside the main auditorium.
Overall the ride is a fun adventure and a good addition to Universal Studios Florida. Despicable Me Minion Mayhem is definitely a ride that I would put on my list to ride when visiting the park (unlike the skip that I had always put on Jimmy Neutron).
The store also has plenty of fun merchandise including many fun T-Shirts, key chains & mugs, and even Minion overalls for toddlers.
Oh and of course there are plenty of Stuffed Minions! It’s sooo fluffy!
By Robert Niles
It's Fourth of July Week, typically one of the busiest weeks of the year for theme parks in the United States, but that also means it is time to present the annual Theme Park Insider Awards. Can you believe it's the 11th annual Theme Park Insider Awards this year? Where does the time go?
Oh, yeah - as the cliche says, it flies when you're having this much fun!
Best Theme Park
We've changed the criteria for our Best Theme Park Award this year, moving from rewarding the park with the highest average rating for all attractions and restaurants to the one with the largest number of highly-rated attractions and table-service eateries. (That way, a large park with a huge number of attractions rated 8 and above on the site wouldn't be penalized for also keeping less-popular attractions open, as well.) But when we ran the numbers, the change didn't make a difference at the top, after all.
Tokyo DisneySea stood atop the Theme Park Insider reader ratings in 2012, no matter how you crunch the numbers. Led by Journey to the Center of the Earth, Tokyo DisneySea's impressive line-up of attractions drove the Japanese park to our top award in a year when the Tokyo Disney Resort recovered from the devastating tsunami and power crisis that crippled much of the country in 2011.
Disney also claimed the next two spots in our reader ratings, with Disneyland and its younger sibling, the recently rededicated Disney California Adventure, finishing a close 2 and 3 in this year's awards. With strong initial ratings for the attractions of Cars Land and the Carthay Circle Restaurant on Buena Vista Street, it will be interesting to see if California Adventure has a chance to move up the list in the years to come, challenging not only for the title of Best Theme Park in Southern California, but maybe for Best Theme Park in the World, too.
The Best New Attraction Award this year featured the closest battle in the 11-year history of the Theme Park Insider Awards. Universal's Transformers: The Ride and Disney's Radiator Springs Racers claimed two of the three highest initial average reader ratings since the site began in 1999. (Universal's Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey was the third.) But only one of the two could claim this year's honor.
And, by the margin of a 4K, 3D piece of animated shrapnel, the award goes to Transformers: The Ride. A classic good-vs.-evil battle helped power Universal Creative's next generation 3D motion-base thrill ride to the top honor. And yet, we must also recognize Radiator Springs Racers - Disney's highest rated new attraction in the history of Theme Park Insider - an amusing romp around the world Disney/Pixar's Cars movies, featuring some of the most impressive animatronics that Disney's Imagineers have ever created. (Also keep in mind that this award is for a single, individual attraction. But if theme parks keep creating wonderful new experiences such as Cars Land and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, maybe we'll have to create an award for Best New Themed Land some day.)
Due to the gap between Transformers and Radiator Springs Racers and the rest of the field, we've declined to name any other runners-up in this category this year.
Best Theme Park Hotel
The Grand California repeats this year, winning its second consecutive Theme Park Insider Award, and fourth overall. An inspired mash-up of the Greene and Greene Arts and Crafts architecture of Pasadena coupled with the grandeur of western National Park lodges, the Grand California offers top-level service and amenities (including free WiFi!), as well as an unsurpassed location overlooking the resurgent Disney California Adventure theme park, as well as Anaheim's Downtown Disney.
Theme Park Insider readers apparently value having their hotels be within walking distance of great theme parks, as the next two spots in the reader ratings were claimed by top-quality hotels located a short walk from popular theme parks. Disney's Beach Club hotel stands just steps away from Epcot's International Gateway entrance, while Universal's Portofino Bay lies close to the two parks of the Universal Orlando resort, where Portofino Bay guests can skip the lines at almost all of the attractions, thanks to Universal Orlando's Express benefit for on-site hotel guests.
Best Theme Park Restaurant
Epcot's Bistro de Paris wins its third consecutive Theme Park Insider Award this year, edging Epcot's Japanese steakhouse, Teppan Edo, by a knife's blade margin. Epcot's "upstairs" French restaurant continues to impress with its high level of service and French cuisine, claiming this year's award for best table-service restaurant located inside a theme park.
Thank you to all of Theme Park Insider's registered members and readers who voted on the attractions, restaurants and hotels they've visited in the past year. The Theme Park Insider Awards are determined entirely by the submitted ratings from Theme Park Insider's readers.
By Tim W
Hello Theme Park Insider readers. We are now into the fourth week of Theme Park Apprentice season 4.
To recap, you will be voting on your favorite of the bottom three contestants. Two contestants will be saved, and one contestant will be eliminated. It is up to you, so use your vote wisely.
For this week, our contestants designed environmental themed haunts for Universal Studios Florida. The haunts included walkthroughs, shows, and roller coasters. Please be sure to vote for the contestant you would like to see saved.
By Robert Niles
The Characters in Flight balloon ride in Walt Disney World's Downtown Disney has been removed following a crash of a similar balloon at Ocean Park in Hong Kong.
Characters in Flight at Walt Disney World, in 2010. Don't look for the balloon in Downtown Disney now. It's gone.
Company officials are inspecting the Character in Flight equipment, and there Is no word yet when the attraction might return.
Keep reading: June 2012 Archive
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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