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August 2012

Vote of the week: Story vs. sensation?

By Robert Niles
Published: August 31, 2012 at 7:17 PM

Yesterday's conference call with Six Flags managers yielded one particularly fascinating moment for me. Another reporter observed that none of the attractions Six Flags announced were based on the DC Comics or other characters that Six Flags has licensed to use in its theme parks. Six Flags' Al Weber responded that absence wasn't due to Six Flags' backing off the use of such characters - it's just "how the cards played" this particular year. The reporter followed up by asking how Six Flags determines when and where to use theming in rides.


That's where things got interesting. Weber responded by asking a question of his own: whether the reporter meant theming or IP (which is industry shorthand for "intellectual property," the use of licensed characters and stories).

That question stunned me. I think it surprised the reporter, as well, because a beat passed before he responded with the same point I would have made: Aren't those pretty much the same thing?

Weber then explained his point of view: Theming is the application of physical texture and context on and around rides, where IP is the use of a licensed character.

And with that, I got a clearer understanding of Six Flags and its management. To me, what Weber described as "theming," I'd call decoration. A "themed" attraction, to me, is one that tells a story, arising from a specific place, time, and set of characters that are, collectively, the attraction's "theme."

A park's IP provides the cast of characters from which park designers can select themes for the park's attractions. So (in this world view, at least), no matter how a ride might be decorated, if there are no characters and no story, the ride is unthemed.

The exchanged helped me understand why fans, and even people in the industry, sometimes end up talking past one another when discussing theming in the parks. It's hard to have a productive conversation about theming if the people talking have different definitions of what theming means.

That's why I made a mental note to start using the terms "storytelling" and "decor" more often. Perhaps they get closer to the issues we're talking about when so many of us use the word "theme."

That said, the exchange also got me thinking about the importance of storytelling in theme park attractions, versus physical sensation and thrill. Obviously, Six Flags goes after consumers who want a heavy helping of physical sensation when they visit a park. You won't find nearly the amount of or level of storytelling that fans find at Disney, Universal, or SeaWorld parks. But Disney, Universal and SeaWorld park occupy the top 12 spots for the most-attended parks in America. People love storytelling, as well as physical thrills.

So which one do you prefer? That's our vote of the week.

I know that the ideal answer is "both!" But let me push you to pick one over the other here.

Let's think of it this way: Assume you've got a choice between two theme park rides. One tells an exciting story with engaging characters, but the ride's a total snore. You're moving - barely - but if it weren't for the story and setting, it'd be the most boring few minutes you've ever spent. The other ride is pure physical fun. It's not so extreme that it makes you feel sick, or even uncomfortable. But it definitely gets your blood moving and your senses singing. Story? Sorry. If you weren't riding, and were just looking around, well, it'd be most boring few minutes you've ever spent.

Tell us in the comments about your choice. Thanks again for reading Theme Park Insider, and have a great weekend!

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Six Flags announces new rides for 2013 season

By Robert Niles
Published: August 30, 2012 at 7:00 AM

Six Flags Chairman, President and CEO Jim Reid-Anderson, and Six Flags Chief Operating Officer Al Weber, Jr. announced the chain's new rides for the 2013 season.

Here's the new line-up for Six Flags' top parks:

Magic Mountain:
Full Throttle, Billed the "World's Tallest and Fastest Looping Coaster," this triple-launch coaster will include a special effects tunnel, a backward section, and will run over the ride's signature loop, as well as looping through it.

Concept art of Full Throttle, courtesy Six Flags

Great America:
IgNIGHT - a new laser and pyrotechnics show

Great Adventure:
Safari Offroad Adventure - open-air vehicles go offroad through the park's safari section. There'll also be a zipline over the safari area.

Texas Sky Screamer (400 foot Star Flyer - tallest swing ride in the world)
(replacing Flashback and the Texas Chute-Out)

Fiesta Texas:
The Rattler will become the Iron Rattler, with a steel rail overlay on the wooden structure, a la Texas Giant. With four overbanked turns and a barrel roll. (Weber called it "a beast" on the conference call. Not the word I would have used in describing a wood track with an inversion...)

Sky Screamer

St. Louis:
Boomerang (it's the former Flashback from Six Flags Over Texas)

Reid-Anderson said the company is spending 9 percent of its annual revenue on capital each year, with 60-65% of that going for new rides and attractions. Doing the math, that's about $60 million annually across the chain for everything.

Reid-Anderson also said that while Six Flags hasn't announced any water-based attractions in its US theme parks this year, that doesn't mean the chain is keeping wet rides only on the Hurricane Harbor side in the future. And even dark rides might be on the traditionally-coaster-focused chain's agenda in the next few years.

"We are intently focused on all options, including dark ride options," he said. "It is on our radar."

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Who's ready for Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights 22?

By Robert Niles
Published: August 29, 2012 at 9:18 PM

Are you ready for Halloween yet?

Universal Orlando's has released its line-up for Halloween Horror Nights 22 at Universal Studios Florida. This year's houses include:

  • Alice Cooper: Welcome to my Nightmare
  • Welcome to Silent Hill
  • AMC's The Walking Dead
  • Penn & Teller: Newkd Las Vegas 3D
  • Dead End
  • Gothic
  • Universal's House of Horrors

And if that's not enough for you, Universal says via its Facebook page, "And we've got a completely reinvented street experience… They will find you and invade your personal space like never before. There will be no boundaries. The rules of the past will no longer apply. Roaming legions of menacing beasts, vampires, prisoners, warriors and more will inhabit every corner of the park. There is no escape."

Tickets to Halloween Horror Nights 22 are $88.99 per night, though add-ons to daytime park tickets start at $36.99 online, and you can get in every night during the first three weeks for just $69.99, using the "Rush of Fear" pass. Here's the ticket link.

Thoughts from our Halloween fans?

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Theme Park Apprentice 4: Finale Vote

By Tim W
Published: August 29, 2012 at 9:15 PM

Welcome to the Theme Park Apprentice 4 Finale Vote! The vote for the winner of theme Park Apprentice 4 will comprise of a sitewide vote, and 3 separate votes cast by myself, and the other two judges, Jim Koehl and Jeff Elliott. The contestant with the highest percentage of the sitewide poll will recieve one vote.

During the last challenge we encountered a tie, which led to having a 3 person finale. After two weeks of preparations, our final 3 contestants have designed fantastic theme parks that educate guests on the importance of protecting the environment. As always, please be sure to read the proposals before voting for your favorite contestant.

Thanks for reading and voting during this year's season of Theme Park Apprentice!

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What's new on the discussion board: The top coasters of 2012

By Robert Niles
Published: August 29, 2012 at 10:39 AM

So, we had a bunch of New coasters in 2012... How do you think they turned out?

Manta at SeaWorld San Diego
Your editor loved SeaWorld San Diego's Manta

That's our top new thread of the week on the Theme Park Insider Discussion Board. Here are some other highlight:

Why The Hate For The Hat? at the Disney's Hollywood Studios theme park.

Two weeks in Orlando - What to do, and when?

And, finally, a reader's looking for some advice on the best Dinner Shows in Orlando.

Coming up on Theme Park Insider over the next couple days, I'll be covering tomorrow morning's big announcement from Six Flags, detailing what it will be adding to each of its parks for the 2013 season. And on Friday evening, I'll be attending the opening of the Halloween Haunt museum at Knott's Berry Farm, looking back at 40 years of the world's original theme park Halloween event. Keep reading the front page Blog Flume for those reports, and more.

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Are you excited to ride Disney's new version of Test Track?

By Robert Niles
Published: August 27, 2012 at 9:30 PM

I tried. I really did. But I just can't get excited about Disney's Test Track.

Test Track
The new marquee for Epcot's updated Test Track, to debut in "late fall" of this year.

Disney today hosted an online chat with Imagineer Melissa Jeselnick about the new Test Track. Even though Disney screened the questions, it seemed to me that participants were having trouble understanding just would be different about this version of Epcot's ride through the process of designing a car.

Ultimately, from my reading of Jeselnick's responses, I think the answer is "nothing" - in terms of the ride itself. It'll be the same ride track, with the same ride vehicles as before. What will change is the show experience, and especially the pre-show experience, which Disney will infuse with a competitive video-game-like element.

In the queue, you'll use kiosks to design a digital version of a Chevrolet vehicle. Then, on the ride, your digital design will be tested and scored in four stations - for Capability, Efficiency, Responsiveness, and Power. The highlight of the ride will continue to be the 65 mph "speed test" around the outside of the Test Track building. And in the post-show, you'll get to see how your specific design fared.

Be warned, though. Although the ride will continue to have FastPass and single rider bypass lines, people using those lines will not get to customize their own vehicle design, according to today's chat. Instead, they'll simply get to choose from one of a number of pre-designed options to "test" during the ride.

It sounds as though much of the show within the ride will now be screen-based, mostly to reflect the increasingly digital nature of vehicle design. (Heck, attraction design's the same way.) But that will give Disney's Imagineers the opportunity to do some cool Tron-type visuals within the ride.

You can't truly judge a ride during the concept, design, or even the construction phase. Only when you ride will you know how well the attraction works, or doesn't. But nothing I've heard about Test Track excites me. Watching people test a digital prototype of a mass production car fojhe2djn1wejdedjn…

Sorry, I fell asleep just typing that.

People spend big bucks to go on vacation to escape their desk jobs - not to watch people do pretty much the same thing. What Disney's describing here sounds like a great attraction for a GM factory exhibition in Michigan. But Disney World ought to offer us something more exciting than that. If it must devote an attraction to car design, let it be for high-end, super-performance vehicles, such as IndyCars or Ferraris. Or if it wants to plug Chevrolet, let us ride a prototype Chevy (that changes every year) through a dream "roadtrip" across America of our choosing. (Like the "choose your adventure" option on the old Horizons, times 10!)

Test Track illustrates what frustrates me about Epcot. Instead of bringing us into epic tales of human discovery, with heroes and villains battling over human advancement, we get stuff like people designing mass-production cars, trying not to barf on a spaceflight simulator, and watching sitcom stars yuck their way through a trip back to the time of dinosaurs.

Okay, that's fun, but it's not epic. It's not the heart-tugging, lump in my throat, my heart's racing excitement that Disney can deliver. That's the stuff I can't wait to ride.

I hope Test Track turns out well, and that Disney surprises me with its execution of this concept. But I gotta admit, this isn't high on my list of attractions I'm eagerly awaiting. How about you?

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Busch Gardens Tampa closed Monday due to storm

By Robert Niles
Published: August 26, 2012 at 6:22 PM

Busch Gardens Tampa announced Sunday that it would be closed on Monday, August 27, due to the anticipated arrival in the area of storms associated with Tropical Storm Isaac.

Isaac's getting more than the usual level of attention for a Tropical Storm since arrival in the Gulf of Mexico coincides with the planned Republican Party political convention this week, also in Tampa.

Forecast cone

The current forecast cone for Isaac has the storm hitting land just east of New Orleans sometime later Tuesday or early Wednesday. But many parts of Florida will be getting tropical storm-force winds on Monday.* (Monday Update: Or not. But SeaWorld Orlando's announced that it's closing at 4 pm today, due to rain in Orlando.)

Busch Gardens says that it plans to reopen at 10 am on Tuesday. No other parks have announced any closures due to the storm. Florida residents and visitors are invited to check in, in the comments.

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Rules for wearing theme park T-shirts, in a theme park

By Robert Niles
Published: August 24, 2012 at 11:52 AM

Do you have any self-imposed rules on wearing theme park T-shirts to a theme park?

For all the parks I visit, I don't own very many theme park T-shirts. Perhaps that's because I've got what you might think are some strange rules about when and where I'll wear a theme park T-shirt.

Robert's theme park T-shirts

For example, I never wear a T-shirt to the same park (or resort) where I got it. Wearing a park's T-shirt in the park just seems weird to me. Perhaps it's conditioning from when I worked in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. If I'm in a park on my own time and my own dime, I don't want to be wearing anything that identifies me with the park.

(Not that this has succeed in keeping people from asking me for directions, to take photos for them, etc. Once you've got that "cast member stink" on you, it ain't ever wearing off.)

I also won't wear a shirt in a park if it's from a competing theme park company. That just strikes me as rude. No Disney shirts at Universal, and no Universal shirts at Disney.

So that leaves me with wearing T-shirts from the same company, but from a different resort within that company. Which turns out to be a lot of fun. Rock the Orange Bird shirt at Disneyland, and you're guaranteed to get a second look from devoted Disney fans. (But no one seemed to notice my Battlestar Galactica roller coaster shirt at Universal Studios Hollywood. I'll have to try it next time I'm in Orlando, I guess.)

I know that this entire topic is silly. But I wondered if other people had rules about where you'd wear your theme park shirts, too. Or at least some fun theme park T-shirt stories to tell. The comments await you!

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Disney said to be considering buyout of EuroDisney, taking control of Disneyland Paris Resort

By Robert Niles
Published: August 24, 2012 at 11:17 AM

Time magazine reported this morning that Disney is considering buying out its financial partners in EuroDisney SCA, the holding company that owns the Disneyland Paris Resort.

Disneyland Paris

Disney now owns about 40 percent of EuroDisney, but according to Time's math, the remaining 60 percent of the EuroDisney shares cost only about US$120 million. That would put the entire market value of the Disneyland Paris Resort at around $200 million. That's just one-fifth of what Disney spent upgrading California Adventure.

The Disneyland Paris has been a financial mess ever since it opened as the one-park EuroDisneyland in 1992. Too-optimistic assumptions about real estate development on the property led the company to borrow a ton of money it couldn't easily repay with just park revenues when the real estate deals didn't work out.

And once something's in heavy debt, the interest payments become a bigger and bigger expense, robbing the company of opportunities to spend its money in other ways - such as improving the underdeveloped Walt Disney Studios Park, or bringing the woeful Disney Village up to Disney's design and customer experience standards.

Disneyland Paris needs an infusion of cash to pay down its remaining debt and to build new attractions. But it's a much smarter business deal for Disney to make that investment if it gets 100% of the return back, instead of just 40%, as it would now with its current ownership stake. And heaven knows EuroDisney's other stockholders aren't going to want to throw more money into the company, after so many of them have taken a loss by buying into EuroDisney at a higher stock price than it's now worth.

So Disney's got two options: Let Disneyland Paris linger, making what the late Steve Jobs called a "brand withdrawal" on the Disney name as its facilities decline, or jump in and buy out the company.

At $120 million, that second option isn't just the right one - it's a relative bargain, too. Here's hoping that we'll soon be seeing some great improvements at the Disneyland Paris Resort.

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Disney's 'The Magic, the Memories, and You' to close Labor Day. New show to debut at WDW in November

By Robert Niles
Published: August 22, 2012 at 8:46 PM

If you're fan of Disney's The Magic, the Memories, and You show, you'd better hurry down to your local Magic Kingdom, because Disney's announced the show will be going away after this Labor Day, Sept. 3.

In Florida, Disney will replace the show with a new castle-projection show called "Celebrate the Magic." From the press release:

"'Celebrate the Magic' takes us on a journey to the heart of the most beloved Disney stories and characters," said Show Director Katy Harris. "This amazing show will magically transform Cinderella Castle with spectacular projection effects, choreographed to a new music soundtrack. The show will be full of emotion and storytelling, proving that, with imagination and magic in our hearts, anything is possible."

That sounds a bit like elements from the Disney Dreams show at Disneyland Paris, which also incorporates castle projections. What we do know the new show won't include, however, is the guest pictures which now make up a chunk of The Magic, the Memories, and You. So if you want your chance to see yourself on the castle or the Small World facade, you've got until Sept. 3. The new show will debut in November.

What about Disneyland, you might ask? West coast fans are out of luck on this one. Small World will get its holiday makeover in a couple months, but no new projection show. But, hey, we do get Glow with the Show ears, so there's that we've got over Orlando.

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Splash down!

By Robert Niles
Published: August 21, 2012 at 10:18 PM

It's been hotter than heck over the past week in Southern California, as it has been throughout the summer in many other parts of the country. So to help you think cool thoughts as we head into the new school year, back to work, or whatever else keeps you from getting soaked to the bone in a theme park, here are a few moments to remember:

Escape from Pompeii

Jurassic Park

Pilgrims Plunge


Jungle Cruise

One Ocean

Feeling better yet?

Update: Notice that I didn't mention where these pictures were taken. If you know, the comments await your expertise. :^)

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What's new on the discussion board: Trip reports, photo books, and a new challenge

By Robert Niles
Published: August 21, 2012 at 9:43 PM

Here's what's up this week on the Theme Park Insider Discussion Board:

Daniel Etcheberry starts us off this week with A Brief Trip Report of L.A.

Transformers: The Ride 3D at Universal Studios Hollywood

Joey Till offers a Six Flags Magic Mountain Trip Report, too.

In more LA-area theme park news, Luigi's Flying Tires Getting Rid of Beach Balls

Looking back at our summer vacations, have you ever made a photo book after your trip? (We make one every year, using iPhoto on our Macs.)

If you're eager to start thinking about your next vacation (and who isn't?), perhaps you have an opinion on What should be added to the four WDW parks?

Or maybe you think that Universal should add The Expendables Stunt Show?

Do you have a Wish List Of Rides You HAVEN'T Been On?

Finally, Hannah Caller writes, "Set me a challenge for my holiday to Orlando, be as inventive as possible!" Let's not let her down, folks.

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Monday theme park news: Orcas, Safaris, and a Grand Day Out in England

By Robert Niles
Published: August 20, 2012 at 9:50 PM

There's a new whale in town at SeaWorld San Diego. The park welcomed a new orca on Monday when the 19-year-old female, Shouka, arrived from Six Flags Discovery Kingdom.


Speaking of Six Flags parks and wildlife, Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey announced today that it will no longer allow visitors drive their cars through the park's Wild Safari exhibit, after this season. The park will announce on August 30 how the Wild Safari exhibit will operate in the future. (h/t Mike Gallagher)

Saving the best news for last, of course, Blackpool Pleasure Beach has confirmed that it will replace its old Gold Mine ride, which closed last year, with a Wallace & Gromit themed-ride: The Thrill-O-Matic.

"The four minute Thrill-O-Matic ride is set to open in 2013 and will feature many of the best know characters and scenes from A Grand Day Out, visit The Wrong Trousers, take A Close Shave and deal with A Matter of Loaf and Death. Wallace and Gromit creators Aardman features are working with Blackpool Pleasure Beach’s design and engineering team on the £5.25m ride."

Sounds like a good enough reason for a trip back to England for me!

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Fix this theme park: Disney's Hollywood Studios

By Robert Niles
Published: August 20, 2012 at 3:12 PM

Quick quiz: How many rides are there at the Disney's Hollywood Studios theme park?

Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney's Hollywood Studios theme park in Florida
Hint: Here's one

Time's up. Here's your answer:


That's right: Six. Tower of Terror, Rock n' Roller Coaster, Star Tours, Midway Mania, Great Movie Ride, and the Studio Backlot Tour. And of those, the Backlot Tour - a shell of its former self - probably needs to be put out of its misery and shut down for redevelopment.

Even so, those six rides give Disney's Hollywood Studios the fewest number of ride-based attractions at any Disney theme park in the world. It's the fewest number of rides at any major theme park in America.* (*Update: Okay, number two to Universal Studios Hollywood if you don't count 4D attractions as rides. But USH has at least one Potter ride coming, which would at least tie it with DHS.)

Sure, DHS has some great shows to go along with its rides. But when it comes to driving reader ratings to their highest levels, rides consistently outperform shows. And Disney's Hollywood Studios is alarmingly light on rides.

Last week, we talked about the need for improvements over at Walt Disney World's Epcot. Today, we're putting the spotlight on Hollywood Studios. DHS faces the same essential problem with studio-themed parks I described last month when writing about Walt Disney Studios Park in Paris:

"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?"

It's fine to use a movie theme as a catch-all to bring together great narratives from the world of motion pictures that don't fit well into another of the company's theme parks. But unless the theme park actually is a working film studio (see, Universal Studios Hollywood), the park's theme should provide no excuse to go cheap on construction, with flimsy-looking building materials and false-front "sets." Theme park designers should treat the eyes of its visitors as set designers treat the eyes of the cameras - everything should look real to them.

Film-studio theme-park pioneer Universal has learned that lesson, and is more and more building "Disney-style", fully-immersive themed environments in its parks, instead of the false-front, backlot looks that it used to create. With Buena Vista Street at Disney California Adventure, Disney's Imagineers have shown that they can create a richly-detailed, immersive 1920s Hollywood - a look that they first attempted at what's now the Hollywood Studios park in Florida. Disney would do well to charge new WDW Executive Producer Kathy Mangum to take what her colleague Lisa Girolami did with Buena Vista Street and apply that same level of design detail throughout the park, scrapping the false fronts and cheap, exposed-beam exteriors that plague many sections of DHS's southern end.

Oh, and lose the hat, already.

While those aesthetics matter, ultimately, Disney needs to design and develop more rides for DHS. While we started last week with Epcot, let's acknowledge that Epcot really doesn't face much direct competition - it's the world's only major "non-fiction" theme park, with no similar counterparts, save temporary world's fairs in far-flung cities.

That's not the case with Hollywood Studios which, more than any other park in the world, faces a direct thematic competitor only a short distance away. The only other case I can recall of two theme parks with the same theme in the same metro area is that of Six Flags Magic Mountain and Knott's Berry Farm in Southern California - two moderately-themed iron parks that nevertheless stand on opposite sides of the LA metro area, with several million people living in between them.

Disney's Hollywood Studios' direct competitor is Universal Studios Florida, located just 14 miles away. The parks are so similar in concept that accusations have flown for years that then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner lifted the plans for what was then the Disney-MGM Studios theme park from plans for Universal Studios Florida that he was said to have seen in the early 1980s, when he headed Paramount. (Eisner has denied seeing those plans.)

While Disney sits on its six rides at Hollywood Studios, Universal's got crews working around the clock building a third installation of the Transformers: The Ride, the attraction that beat out Disney's widely-lauded Radiator Springs Racers for the Theme Park Insider Award for Best New Attraction this year. And it's also building a new Wizarding World of Harry Potter land - bringing the single most successful theme park franchise in a generation to its studio theme park.

What's Disney going to do with Hollywood Studios to match that?

Unless Disney comes up with an answer - and fast - it's going to have to watch as its Hollywood Studios theme park gets its rear end kicked like no Disney theme park ever has by a non-Disney competitor before.

Here'a an action plan:

1. Ironically, start by sacrificing a ride. Scrap the Studio Backlot Tour to create space for a needed expansion of Pixar Place.

2. If Disney wants to move fast, it can use one of two existing designs for Monsters, Inc.-themed rides to build up Pixar Place - the Mike and Sulley to the Rescue dark ride from California Adventure, or the Ride and Go Seek "flashlight tag" ride from Tokyo Disneyland. The Finding Nemo-themed Crush's Coaster from Walt Disney Studios Paris also could be in play, but only if Disney can fix the operational difficulties that leave that ride with inexcusably long waits. Personally, I'd rather see a new attraction here, though, such as the rumored Monsters Inc. roller coaster, or a long-overdue Incredibles rides. Or, even better, both.

3. Gut the American Idol/Sounds Dangerous buildings and develop a new dark ride for that space. Marvel would be the perfect fit here, but if that deal's dead, perhaps a Narnia ride. Or maybe, National Treasure?

4. We need a something new for the Muppets. Muppets + Animatronic micro-technology = Potential awesomeness. Make this happen.

5. Time to get really aggressive. Disney needs to attack Universal's second-biggest cash cow (after Potter) and launch its own Halloween event. Let the kids have the Mickey party over at the Magic Kingdom. Disney needs to develop a scary Halloween event. Granted, Disney's intellectual properties doesn't include much (okay, anything) from the horror genre. But throw some money at Tim Burton (or, much better yet, Neil Gaiman), and develop a unique event that takes the market space between Universal's Halloween Horror Nights and Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween party. There's big money on the table at Halloween, and Disney needs to throw every punch it can at Universal if it wants to maintain its lead in the fight for the public's theme park business.

That's the start of one plan. What do you got? What would you like to see Disney do with its Hollywood Studios theme park?

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Vote of the week: Can 2013 top 2012 for theme parks?

By Robert Niles
Published: August 16, 2012 at 8:50 PM

My kids are getting ready to go back to school next week - we just took our high-school daughter to pick up her textbooks today. So as the beginning of a new school year approaches, another theme park season comes to a close.

Of course, the big parks in Orlando and Southern California will remain open (and crowded), and we'll keep covering them. But for them many theme park fans, whose attention turns away from parks for the next few weeks and months, this is a good time to take a look back at the past summer, while maybe beginning to think ahead to the next year.

Mickey Mouse on Buena Vista Street
Mickey Mouse welcomes us to the new Buena Vista Street at Disney California Adventure.

We had some huge debuts in 2012. In fact, this year saw two of the biggest ever - Cars Land, with its highlight, Radiator Springs Racers, at Disney California Adventure, and Transformers: The Ride 3D at Universal Studios Hollywood. Those attractions wowed so many fans this year that great new rides such as Leviathan at Canada's Wonderland and the new Manta at SeaWorld San Diego didn't get nearly the attention they would have in a "normal" year.

But as good as this year was, more's coming next year, too - as it always does. Perhaps by the end of 2013, we'll see a Transformers in Orlando at Universal Studios Florida. Silver Dollar City in Missouri is building what might be the world's most ambitious wooden roller coaster, Outlaw Run, which will feature 81-degree first drop, a 68-mph top speed and a double barrel roll inversion.

Cedar Point's finally getting a new coaster. The expansion at Hong Kong Disneyland will be complete. And SeaWorld Orlando will debut its massive new Antarctica pavilion, with what's promised to be an innovative major new dark ride, along with an up-close walk-through a penguin habitat.

So, what do you think? Will 2013 top 2012? Or was this summer a classic that next year won't be able to match?

Let's put it up for a vote.

What are your theme park vacation plans for the next 12-16 months? Will you be visiting parks more often, or less, than you have in the past year? Why? Tell us in the comments.

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Ready, set… dial!*

By Robert Niles
Published: August 16, 2012 at 2:05 PM

*Update: Note the time change below. Disney will begin taking reservations via phone next week for the new Be Our Guest Restaurant in the newly expanded Fantasyland at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. You can call 407-WDW-DINE for reservations starting at noon 7am* Eastern Time on Monday, August 20. Reservation times will begin with dinner on Monday, November 19, and you can reserve any time between then and up to 180 days from the day you call.

Be Our Guest, under construction

Remember that Be Our Guest, the "Beauty and the Beast"-themed restaurant that's the largest original development in the new Fantasyland to date, will accept reservations only for dinner. At lunch, the restaurant will be counter-service and first-come, first-served.

Disney announced the Be Our Guest menu in June, and it will feature French bistro fare, including steak, salmon, and ratatouille.

Reservations won't be available via Disney's online reservation service until Aug. 22, so if you want to get in for the first few days the restaurant is open, you'll need to call. (And I've got a free Theme Park Insider T-shirt and signed copy of "Stories from a Theme Park Insider" waiting for the first Theme Park Insider reader who posts a descriptive review of the new restaurant, with photos, after it opens November 19.)

Let's note that Disney's not announced any restrictions on who can make reservations for the 19th and the days leading up to the "official" opening of the expansion on December 6. Does this suggest that the expansion will have a public soft opening during that period, instead of the restricted soft openings we saw at Cars Land in California? We'll see.

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Get ready for more Disneyland crowds: Monday might be the busiest day yet at California Adventure

By Robert Niles
Published: August 15, 2012 at 4:39 PM

Planning a visit to the Disneyland Resort soon?

Whatever you do, try to avoid visit Disneyland or Disney California Adventure next Monday, Aug. 20. That's likely going to be the busiest day of the year at California Adventure, and might end up being the most-crowded day in that park's history.

Lines outside Radiator Springs Racers at Cars Land
Let's get ready to… wait!

How do we know? The answer lies in the most important webpage anyone should consult before planning a trip to Disneyland - the Annual Passport Blockout Calendar. Monday's the first day that "Southern California Select" annual passholders can visit the parks using their passes since before Cars Land and Buena Vista Street opened back in June. That means Monday will be the first chance to see these new lands for the hundreds of thousands of locals who hold those passes.

"Southern California" passholders got a few days to visit Cars Land before their summer blockouts kicked in, but they've been unable to visit using their passes since late June. Monday will be their first day back, too.

The Disneyland Resort lifts its summer blockouts in mid- to late-August despite the fact that many local school districts remain on vacation. The state's largest district, Los Angeles Unified, went back to class yesterday, but many of the other large districts in Los Angeles and Orange counties won't go back until after Aug. 20:

  • Santa Ana - Aug. 22
  • Anaheim - Aug. 27
  • Long Beach and Capistrano - Sept. 5
  • Garden Grove - Sept. 6

Visitors should always try to avoid days with the Disneyland Double-Whammy: No APs blocked out, and local kids out of school. That's what Disney visitors will be facing between Monday and the second week of September.

Disneyland has two other, more expensive AP levels that have been able to access the parks for most, if not all of the summer. "Premium" passholders are never blocked out, and "Deluxe" passholders are blocked only on Saturdays during the summer and some holiday periods. The Deluxe blockouts mean that if you do want to visit Disneyland within the next few weeks, this Saturday, Aug. 20 18, is probably your best best.

Typical theme park advice is to go to the parks on days when local schools are in session. And while those days at Disneyland are definitely preferable to "Double Whammy" days, visiting Disneyland during weekends or vacation periods when two or three levels of annual passholders are blocked out can be good choices, as well.

The visiting dynamic here is much different than at Walt Disney World in Florida, where the number of local visitors is relatively insignificant. At Disneyland, with its hundreds of thousands of annual passholders, the best days to visit are the ones when most of the locals are somewhere else.

Monday update (8/20): Weather to the rescue! It's freakin' hot in SoCal. Way too hot for many people to choose to visit Disneyland, or go out at all to anything other than an air-conditioned theater, or maybe the beach. That should hold down crowds a bit, and early reports from readers have said that the crowds today haven't surged above normal summer levels for the daytime.

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What's new on the discussion board: Roller coasters and park plans

By Robert Niles
Published: August 15, 2012 at 12:40 PM

Let's kick off this week's Theme Park Insider Discussion Board round-up with some news of a popular Walt Disney World show closing this winter: Festival of The Lion King to move January 2013.

Festival of The Lion King

Fans are talking about the current state of the world's most popular theme park resort in WDW Attendance/Bookings Down.

Looking ahead a couple months, what do you think about visiting Florida in October?

But summer's not over yet. Mike Gallagher checks in with a Six Flags Great Adventure Trip Report.

Speaking of Six Flags, what do you think is the Best way to spend a day at Six Flags Magic Mountain?

It's time for a coaster-by-coaster analysis, in Cedar Point vs. Magic Mountain Part 1

What are some Good names for coasters that have never been used?

Getting back to rides actually under construction, we're talking about Universal Studios Florida's newest in Transformers at Universal Orlando-Bad Idea?

And on the topic of Universal Orlando, What is Universal allowed to do to Marvel Island?

We're talking about another film franchise and its theme park future in 'Predators' and the theme park industry.

You seem to love stories about abandoned theme parks. Share your favorite in Where dreams don't come true.

We wrap up with the finals of our Theme Park Apprentice game. The remaining contestants are designing an "eco-friendly" theme park in Theme Park Apprentice 4: Challenge 11. Check 'em out.

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Fix this theme park: Epcot

By Robert Niles
Published: August 14, 2012 at 1:35 PM

Today, we're starting a short series looking at how a few popular theme parks could better achieve their potential. We're starting with Walt Disney World's Epcot, a park that's beloved by a few, but that's failed to earn the widespread praise that's needed to push more of its attractions toward the top of our reader ratings.

Epcot might be the world's most unique theme park. Its theme is nonfiction, after all - a Future World devoted to science and technology, and a World Showcase themed to several nations around the planet. But while this unique nonfiction approach creates enormous potential, that difference carries risk. Many visitors simply don't know what to make of a nonfiction theme park. And given the changes Disney's made to the park over the years, I suspect that, at times, Disney doesn't know what to make of it, either.

The people are the only lively things in this picture.

So how to fulfill Epcot's potential? What can be done to help more people love this park? I'd like to start this discussion by highlighting three fundamental problems I see with the park, and suggesting potential solutions.

1. The entrance looks like a mausoleum.

2. Xenophobia and opposition to science have become socially acceptable in America.

3. Disney can't predict the future, anyway.

I'll be writing about Future World today, because, to me, there's no major problem with World Showcase that a new country pavilion with a well-designed narrative ride wouldn't fix. (The xenophobe Disney fans whose "love" for America causes them to hate all things "foreign" can just shove it, as far as I'm concerned.)

So let's start our analysis of Future World, appropriately, with the entrance. The addition of Buena Vista Street to Disney California Adventure illustrates how a new entrance can reset the tone for an entire theme park. Unfortunately, the "Leave a Legacy" blocks Disney installed at the front of Epcot years ago left the park's entrance looking like a graveyard. Many fans have cracked jokes about the dark granite monuments being a tribute to "all the people who died" in the park.

Many of the people who do love Epcot love it because the park actually represents quite the opposite. At its best, Epcot is and has been a tribute to discovery, opportunity, and the eternal possibilities that life offers us. The park's entrance ought to reflect that optimism. But it won't until Disney find a way to remove or relocate Leave a Legacy and to remake the entrance into the type of inviting space that Buena Vista Street now provides for California Adventure.

I'd suggest that Disney look to its best theme park, Tokyo DisneySea, and borrow the name of one of its lands, "Port Discovery," for the new version of Future World. Instead of funneling all visitors through a pinch-point under Spaceship Earth, where you can't see the thing, let's remake Epcot's entrance into a grand semi-circle plaza, with Spaceship Earth in its center. That way, people can flow around the geosphere, seeing it the whole time as they walk through the plaza and into the park.

That redesign would open up space for the highly-themed cafes, shops, and the small performance and meet-and-greet spaces that can make Epcot's Port Discovery a living invitation into the world of Epcot, instead of looking like a closed, ossified monument to the dead, as it does now. The southern edge of the plaza, behind Spaceship Earth, would then open up to the pavilions, making clearer pathways into the park that we have now with the Innoventions buildings blocking the way.

A warmer, more lively entrance to the park is essential because Disney can no longer assume that people are excited by science and world culture, as they were when the park opened 30 years ago and before. When Walt Disney was dreaming up his "Florida Project" in the 1960s, America's corporations eagerly spent millions of dollars to promote science - in schools, in media and even in theme parks. When Epcot opened, it drew upon major sponsorships from companies eager to attach their name not just to Disney's, but to the ideals of progressive science.

Today, some of America's largest corporations spend billions of dollars to deny science. Cable TV networks embrace anti-science viewpoints, and state legislatures are being lobbied to spend education funds on curricula that distort or deny scientific research. Disney could use its influence in popular culture to help defend science, but this isn't a company that's ever shown the stomach for overt social action. (See Habit Heroes.) Disney simply doesn't want to risk offending a significant number of customers by fighting the political war over science.

Frankly, I don't think Disney would do very well in that battle, anyway. You see, Disney's got a lousy track record trying to depict the future. Whether it's Epcot's Future World or the various Magic Kingdom Tomorrowlands, within 10 years of opening any of these lands, they look foolishly out of date. Disney's designers and storytellers do their best work not when they try to guess the future, but when they tell the stories of people who showed us the way forward in the past. Let them stick with that, instead of wading overtly into current debates.

Here's where Disney can solve the last two problems at once, the hostility toward science and looking toward the future. When dealing with a controversial issue, it's often best not to take a confrontational approach, but to take a step back. Find a common point of agreement, then take your audience down a different path from there.

So let Disney use Epcot to tell the stories of past leaders such as Hypatia, Omar Khayyam, Galileo, Newton, and even (pushing public resistance a bit) Darwin. Acknowledge that science and discovery have always come with conflict, and inspire us with the triumphs of science over fear and ignorance. Find the drama in discovery, and wow us with stories about that. Create a new characters, if they must, but tell stories that spring from science's history. And don't forget to bring us into the narrative, giving us a chance to feel like a hero, as well. (Then let us take the lessons of the ride from there, and apply them to our lives as we see fit.)

Don't neglect to show us the beauty of science as well. My favorite moment at Tokyo DisneySea was walking through the park's Fortress Explorations, and discovering the Chamber of Planets within it.

Fortress Explorations

Chamber of Planets

What a beautiful place! An Renaissance model of the solar system, one that you can turn yourself, placed in ornate room, topped by an intricate map of the heavens. I found beauty on that intimate scale through DisneySea. Epcot deserves the same. While many of Epcot's pavilions look spectacular from the monorail berm, they lose that beauty close up.

Mission: Space

Beyond the entrance make-over, Disney ought to target several of its most underperforming pavilions for replacement, starting with the Universe of Energy pavilion. From there, attack the (ironically dead) Wonders of Life, and the Imagination pavilion. I'd love to see a ride using Pooh's Hunny Hunt local positioning system technology from Tokyo. But whatever technology Disney employs, it should be in service of emotionally engaging stories about the advancement of human knowledge and technology, set in beautiful detail. No sitcom stars. No pop culture references that won't stand the test of time. (Anyone remember Hans and Franz?)

And don't make the mistake Disney made with Mission: Space, which reduces the wonder of astronomy and space exploration to its most mundane element: Not throwing up during spaceflight. Epcot's pavilions should inspire us to wonder about our potential to discover more of the world. They never should leave us clutching our stomachs and muttering to ourselves: "this stuff isn't for me."

What would you like to see Disney do to improve Epcot?

Next week: Disney's Hollywood Studios

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Tuesday news round-up: Knott's, Universal, Disney and Marvel

By Robert Niles
Published: August 14, 2012 at 12:00 PM

Knott's Berry Farm announced today that its shoot-the-chutes ride, Perilous Plunge, will close at the end of the month. The park's planning a new attraction for the space, but hasn't said what that will be. What do you think of this type of ride? Personally, the only ones I like are the themed versions, such as Busch Gardens' Escape from Pompeii, or ones that offer some innovative twist, such as the vertical lift on Holiday World's Pilgrims' Plunge.

Perilous Plunge

Universal Studios Hollywood announced another maze for its Halloween Horror Nights: "Universal Monsters Remix" will feature Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster and other classic Universal monsters in a gothic castle, set to "horror-inspired dance and electronic music." That sounds a little like a Halloween version of Universal Studios Singapore's Monster Rock show. What do you think? Will it be a good fit for HHN?

And getting to the big story of the day: As I noted in an update on yesterday's story, the deal for Stacy Snider and Steven Spielberg to return to Universal is said to be dead. And with that, Universal has no need to give up anything to Disney in exchange for letting the two out of their distribution contract with Disney. Looks like if Disney's has any hope of prying the Orlando theme park rights to its Marvel characters from Universal, it's going to have to offer something else instead. As far as I'm concerned, unless Universal could buy the Batman rights from Six Flags and build a Gotham Island in its place, I'd be thrilled to see Islands of Adventure keep its Marvel Super Hero Island.

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Let's play 'Connect the Dots'*

By Robert Niles
Published: August 13, 2012 at 2:30 PM

Here's a huge thank you to several Theme Park Insider readers, who shall not be named but who have helped me play "connect the dots" between several recent developments affecting the theme park industry.

Spider-Man, at Universal's Islands of Adventure
Wait a minute - Am I going to Disney World?

In case you missed it, Hollywood gossip says that new NBCUniversal owner Comcast is ready to make some changes at the top of Universal Studios. In the proposed shakeup, Universal Parks & Recreation CEO Tom Williams will move up the organizational chart, becoming a direct report to NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke. That's great news for theme park fans, as it would represent a strong statement by NBCUniversal about the value it's placing on theme parks within its business.

But the move that should get your attention is the one that would see current Universal Studios chief Ron Meyer move on to other duties in the company, clearing the way for DreamWorks CEO Stacy Snider to come back to run Universal. She'd be bringing her partner (and longtime Universal theme parks consultant) Steven Spielberg with her, of course.

But there's a snag.

You see, a few years ago, Snider and Spielberg signed a distribution deal with… the Walt Disney Studios. So Snider and Spielberg allegedly can't decamp for Universal without being released from that Disney contract first.

Now, if you're running Disney, what might Universal have that you'd really, really want, in exchange for letting Snider and Spielberg walk?

(Yeah, this would be a much bigger deal than Al Michaels for Oswald the Lucky Rabbit - the last time Disney and Universal swapped assets.)

If Disney were to get this property it covets, it would of course want to make sure it had assigned a top Imagineer to Orlando to oversee its introduction into the parks and resorts there, right?

And if Universal were to give up this asset to Disney, it would want to rush construction of a new thrill ride similar to a highly-popular one themed to this soon-to-be-lost asset, right?

And if you were Universal, you would want to hold back officially announcing this new ride, as well as the other major new development under construction in the same park, until you needed those announcements to "soften the blow" of giving up this prized asset, right?

Fascinating hypothetical, isn't it?

*Update: And now (Tuesday), Deadline New York is reporting that the Snider/Spielberg deal is dead, and the two are staying with DreamWorks and Disney. That blows up the picture, doesn't it?

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Walt Disney World to replace Epcot's Bistro de Paris

By Robert Niles
Published: August 13, 2012 at 2:01 PM

There will be no "three-peat" next year in the Theme Park Insider Awards for Best Theme Park Restaurant. Walt Disney World announced today that two-time TPI Award winner Bistro de Paris will close.

Epcot's France pavilion
Changes are coming to Epcot's France Pavilion

For the past two years, Theme Park Insider readers have voted the ultra-fancy (and expensive) Bistro de Paris at the top in-park table-service restaurant in the world. But after more than 25 years, Jerome Bocuse - who owns the company that operates Epcot's three French eateries - said it was time for a change. A newly revamped restaurant will open in the Bistro de Paris space by early December.

"It’s all new – new name, new dining room, new costumes for the servers, new menu. We’re still aiming for haute cuisine, but with a less formal atmosphere. Guests are in the park with their families, so we want to create an elegant, nice ambience, but not stuffy. Our guests want to experience true French cuisine," Bocuse said in a statement released on the Disney Parks Blog.

The downstairs brasserie, Les Chefs de France, (also a former Theme Park Insider Award winner) will not change, but the popular Boulangerie Patisserie will be moving to a larger space, under construction at teh back of the France pavilion. The bakery's current space will become an expanded Glacier ice cream parlor.

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Cedar Point announces GateKeeper, new Wing coaster for 2013

By Robert Niles
Published: August 13, 2012 at 1:48 PM

Cedar Point today announced the name and details for the new Bolliger & Mabillard Wing coaster it's building for 2013: GateKeeper will open on the Wicked Twister Midway and feature a 164-foot drop and a top speed of 67 miles per hour on a 4,164-foot track, making it the longest, tallest and fastest B&M Wing in the world.


Here's Cedar Point's official POV computer simulation:

Where do you think this new coaster will rank among Cedar Point's coasters, after it opens? How will it rank among other coasters around the country?

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Four more steps America could take to encourage more international tourism

By Robert Niles
Published: August 13, 2012 at 12:02 PM

On Friday, I suggested four steps the United States could take to help encourage more international visitors to come to our country. Today, I'll offer four more suggestions. But these are two-step suggestions, ones that will take quite a bit more time and investment than the suggestions I offered Friday.

Why is this important? International tourism can provide a huge boost to an economy. With the American economy struggling to recover from recession, and with theme park fans ever-hungry for new and better attractions, an increase in international tourism can help bring more dollars into America, helping the country as a whole. And when those dollars are spent on theme park attractions, parks become more willing to make big new investments.

Tokyo Disney monorail
Now that's a train!

5. Build more mass transit to tourist destinations

I've never rented a car abroad. I haven't had to. In Japan, Singapore, the United Kingdom and France, I've been able to get to all the great tourist destinations I've wanted to visit simply by using other available transportation options - trains and buses. Try to do that in America.

Unfortunately, mass transit doesn't work when you build far-flung attractions, dozens miles away from one another. In order to make train transit affordable and effective in the United States, we'd need to develop a commitment to what's called "transit-oriented development." In short, we'd have to design future development hand-in-hand with plans for new rail routes and stations, so that new attractions, lodging, dining, and retail would be located within reasonable walking distance of stations.

That's what is beginning to happen in Los Angeles County, as communities develop transit-oriented development plans around the county's emerging light-rail system. The Disneyland and Universal Orlando Resorts both are strong candidates for inclusion in an effective rail transit plan, given their compact layouts. And by providing free bus service to hotel guests through Disney's Magical Express, Walt Disney World at least has developed a bus-based mass transit system that's workable. But neither Orange County - in Florida or California - has yet linked these resorts to local airports or other destinations through an effective, large-scale mass transit system, like you can find at Disney in Tokyo and Paris, or Universal in Singapore or Japan.

6. No more tipping

Building upon my suggestion last week to include taxes in all published prices, ending the custom of tipping in restaurants, hotels, etc. would help tourists see the real price of any transaction. You'd know exactly how much a meal would cost, up front, and with no mental calculations for taxes and tips.

To make this fantasy happen, however, American businesses would have to begin paying servers a living wage, instead of relying upon their customers to make up the difference from the sub-minimum wage restaurants now pay their service employees. Unless there's a huge revival of labor unions, or Americans start electing labor-friendly representatives to Congress, I can't imagine how that would happen.

There is one way we could move closer to this goal however, and it wouldn't take an act of Congress. Disney could again include service in its Disney Dining program, as it did for years before eliminating the tips from that once-truly all-inclusive dining deal. That'd make life a little easier for visitors to the Walt Disney World Resort - not to mention for the servers who get stiffed by visitors who don't realize that their Disney Dining deal doesn't include compensation for their waiters.

7. Encourage more Americans to speak other languages

Why do so many Americans consider being monoglot a mark of superiority? As much as the French demand people at least attempt to speak their language in their country, I found few French who couldn't speak English (and usually German, Spanish, or Italian), as well. We have millions of native Spanish and French speakers living with us here in North America. It's not an act of weakness to learn an additional language. It's an act of confidence - confidence that we live in a place so attractive that others will want to visit us, and confidence that we will have the grace and willingness to welcome them.

Of course, we can't support expanded language education in this country without supporting education in general. With climbing child poverty rates depressing test scores and consuming expensive support resources in school districts around the country, I can't imagine where we'd get the money to start and expand foreign language instruction programs at the early elementary level, when they are most effective.

8. Encourage more Americans to travel

I believe that the best hosts are former guests, because you know what it's like to be a visitor to a new place, and know how you wish you'd been treated. This is the reason theme parks usually allow their employees into the park for free during their off hours - they want their workers to see the place through a visitor's eyes, so that they can better meet those visitors' needs when they're back on the clock. So I believe America would be an even more welcoming place to international visitors if more Americans traveled abroad themselves.

What's holding us back? Getting enough time off work. Having the money to afford the flight, plus hotels abroad. (Tip: Never fly abroad on a U.S.-flagged airline. If you're using miles on a U.S.-flagged airline, apply them to a flight on one of the airline's international code-share partners. You'll get far better service and more value for your dollar.) But there's a step the U.S. government could take that would eliminate one barrier to international travel while showing Americans that their nation value travel abroad.

We could issue every citizen a passport at birth, for free. Create a right to identification, one that would allow every American to get a free copy of a passport. Today, only one in three Americans have a passport.

By taking all these steps, we could begin changing our culture, to make it more engaged and welcoming to the rest of the world. And when we do that, perhaps we can change our approach toward border entry, ditching the assumption that every visitor is a potential terrorist who must prove his or her innocence, and moving toward seeing every visitor as an individual, who should be welcomed… then assessed.

These are hardly the only steps America and its citizens could take to encourage more visitors to come to our country. But I think it's important for us to better connect with others outside our country (that's one reason why I love the Internet so much), whether it's by going over "there" or having more of "them" come over here. Let's talk down the xenophobes in our country who think everyone who looks or talks different is an enemy and start talking about ways to build our economy through international outreach, instead.

Comments welcomed.

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Theme Park Apprentice 4: Challenge 10 Vote

By Tim W
Published: August 12, 2012 at 6:48 AM

It's time to vote again on our theme park design game: Theme Park Apprentice. This week, the remaining contestants were challenged to create a new land for Disney's Animal Kingdom.

Who do do you think did the best job? Vote to keep that contestant in the game, below:

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Vote of the week: What can Disney do to convince you to buy 'Glow with the Show' ears?

By Robert Niles
Published: August 10, 2012 at 9:34 PM

Disney announced today that it will soon begin triggering "Glow with the Show" ears at Fantasmic! at Disneyland Park. This is the first use of the ears at Disneyland - they've been part of the show at World of Color, the Mad T Party and Cars Land at Disney California Adventure all summer.

Glow with the Show ears

But is enabling their use at another show enough to convince more visitors to buy the ears, which run about $25 a pair? What else could Disney offer would-be buyers to convince them to get these ears?

When the entire crowd is wearing the Glow with the Show ears, the effect is stunning - it expands the show into the audience and makes the event a truly immersive, 360-in-the-round experience. But when only a few people in the crowd have the ears... meh. It just looks like a few people wearing hats that randomly light up. There are not enough ears blinking to see the coordination that's supposed to be there.

I wrote about Disney's Prisoner's Dilemma problem with Glow with the Show ears. But what if Disney offered another inducement when you bought the ears, such as a free, bonus Fastpass to any attraction? Or a reserved space in a special viewing area at a Glow-enabled show? (That perk would have the added benefit of concentrating the ears in one area, making it easier for everyone else to see them in action.) Or what if Disney just expanded the use of Glow ears to Walt Disney World, too. Would being able to use them on both coasts entice you to buy?

Please tell us in the comments if there's something else you'd like to see Disney do to spread the use of the ears - giving them away to on-site hotel guests, including them in package dining deals at selected table-service restaurants, etc. (Let's skip the obvious option of lowering the retail price. I suspect Disney would just dump the program before it sold the ears at a loss.)

Thanks for participating in this week's vote, and thank you again for your continued support of Theme Park Insider! Have a great weekend.

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Four steps the U.S. could take right away to earn more money from tourism

By Robert Niles
Published: August 10, 2012 at 10:50 AM

Disney posted an impressive earning report this week, driven in part by strong tourism at its theme parks in Anaheim and Tokyo. Walt Disney World didn't fare as well, but Disney made a point of talking about factors affecting international tourism in its report.

Having just returned from Europe, and traveled to Asia late last year, I've seen how other countries often welcome international visitors… and their money. It's a smart move. Money from international tourists is bonus cash for an economy - money from people who don't stick around long, consuming many public services. And international tourists are great for theme park fans. Their money helps theme parks justify building expensive new attractions that Americans can enjoy, too. But the United States, somewhat isolated internationally due to geography, hasn't always embraced tourist-friendly policies.

Millions of honest, peaceful people around the world want to visit America, and spend their money here. We ought to make it easier for those would-be tourists to do that. Here are four steps that America can take immediately (or is already in the process of taking) that can help bring more visitors to the United States, including to our theme parks:

Inside the A380
All aboard to America!

1. Reduce visa requirements for visitors

In a conference call with analysts this week, Disney CFO Jay Rasulo said "the only thing we're held back by from South America is actually, believe it or not, our visa policy and the ability for people to get access to the market." Earlier this year, President Barack Obama asked Congress to expand the list of countries whose citizens don't need a visa to enter the United States for a short visit. Yet Congress hasn't acted, using security concerns as an excuse. (It's not like being from a non-visa country exempts you from TSA checks when you fly to and enter America.) If potential visitors didn't have to go through the hassle of going to a U.S. Consulate, filing out extra paperwork and paying an extra fee, it's logical that more visitors would consider a U.S. visit. And since visa requirements are also always reciprocal, reducing the visa requirements on incoming visitors would mean fewer visa hurdles for US citizens traveling abroad, too.

2. Expand Open Skies deals

The United States has agreed to an "Open Skies" deal with Brazil, but it won't be in effect fully until 2015. Open Skies agreements reduce government restrictions on international flights, allowing the airlines to decide how many flights to schedule on specific routes. Of course, governments never want to act unilaterally - so the Open Skies framework creates a blueprint for governments to get together and open up more routes between their countries. More air routes = more revenue for airlines, on lower airfares for tourists, and more visitors for our country.

3. Post more multilingual signs in tourist areas

English is the international language of aviation, and even in Japan and France, many signs include English, often as the primary language in the Disney theme parks. But millions of visitors to America don't speak English, and millions more potential visitors stay home because they don't speak the language.

I don't care what you think about people who don't speak English, but the money tourists spend in America is more money for all of America. "English-only" laws that prohibit governments from spending money to include Spanish and other languages on highway signs and other facilities in tourist areas are costing all of us money by making America a more hostile place for certain visitors. Instead of prohibiting multilingual signs, government agencies and tourist-friendly businesses ought to be looking for more opportunities to post signs that include Spanish, German, French or other languages in addition to English. Let's roll out the welcome mat in areas international visitors most want to see.

4. Require that taxes be included in all posted and advertised prices

Traveling to Japan and Europe in the past year, it was a huge relief to me to find that posted prices included tax. That meant I could budget my spending much more accurately, since I knew exactly what I'd be charged at the register. But what really struck me was imagining what it would be like for people from those countries to visit America. With sales tax varying from city to city, not to mention state to state, these visitors would have no idea what their final bill would be. (Heck, many American visitors don't.) How would you know if a cashier wasn't ripping you off by throwing a couple extra quarters onto the bill? It's not like most visitors memorize the local tax rates for every place they visit.

And don't get me started on airfares and hotel room charges. Let's make it easier for people to figure out the true cost of travel. Let's be like much of the rest of the world and require businesses to include all applicable taxes in the prices that they post.

What do you think? Over the weekend, I'll post four more things that the U.S. can do over the long term to increase tourism, as well.

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Outlaw Run is Coming To Silver Dollar City

By James Rao
Published: August 9, 2012 at 11:02 AM

One of the worst kept secrets in the theme park world is finally official: Silver Dollar City is getting a brand new wood/steel hybrid roller coaster for 2013.

Outlaw Run
Currently under construction

Built from the ground up by Rocky Mountain Construction Group, the folks who resurrected the Texas Giant, SDC's Outlaw Run will feature a few eye popping stats sure to impress Coaster Boys and Girls everywhere!

- 162', 81 degree first drop, the world's steepest drop for a wooden coaster
- 68 mph top speed, the second fastest wooden coaster on the planet
- The world’s only wooden coaster to feature an inversion (double barrel roll)
- Here are construction photos

Visit the official site for more detail.

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Disney sends Cars Land's lead designer to Florida

By Robert Niles
Published: August 8, 2012 at 8:15 PM

Hey, Kathy Mangum, you just led the design team for Cars Land, which helped turn California Adventure - a one-time embarrassment for Disney - into America's hottest theme park. What are you going to do now?

Kathy Mangum
Kathy Mangum, left, with John Lasseter and Buena Vista Street lead Imagineer Lisa Girolami, before the rededication of Disney California Adventure in June.

You're going to Disney World!

(Sorry, that lead was so easy, I simply couldn't resist.)

Yep, Disney announced today that it is shipping Walt Disney Imagineering's Kathy Mangum off to Florida, where she will assume the newly-created position of "Executive Producer" for the Walt Disney World Resort, overseeing attraction and resort design at WDW.

You could go nuts trying to draft a linear organizational chart for Walt Disney Imagineering, which is co-lead by Craig Russell and Bruce Vaughn, with four senior vice presidents and six executive vice presidents (plus an additional VP for Tokyo Disney) on the management roster, too. Mangum's one of those executive VPs, and Avatar lead designer Joe Rohde is one of the senior VPs (along with Tony Baxter, to drop another name). It's a huge team, with heaven only knows how many projects going at once. So at this point, all I'll read into the announcement is that Disney is very, very happy with the money that Mangum's latest project is making for the company and would very much like new projects at Walt Disney World to make gobs of money for Disney just like Cars Land is doing, thank you.

The easiest way to make that happen might seem to bring in Mangum to build a Cars Land at Walt Disney World, perhaps at the Disney's Hollywood Studios theme park - the proto-California Adventure. But let's not forget that the two coasts don't always embrace identical new attractions with the same fervor. Toy Story Midway Mania draws better in Florida than it does in Anaheim, while Star Tours 2 hit bigger in Disneyland than at WDW. There's no guarantee that Cars Land would be as big a hit in Florida as it has been at the Disneyland Resort.

Still, it's generally good news for theme park fans when Imagineers get promotions within the Walt Disney Company, instead of accountants. Let's hope some fat design and construction budgets, bathed in green lights, are following Mangum to Central Florida, too.

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Fantasyland Expansion previews start Nov 19 at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

By Robert Niles
Published: August 7, 2012 at 3:16 PM

Walt Disney World announced today that previews for the latest phase of its Magic Kingdom Fantasyland expansion will begin on November 19. The official grand opening of the new additions will happen on December 6.

Concept art for Be Our Guest
Concept art, from Disney, of the Be Our Guest restaurant.

This phase of the Fantasyland expansion includes the Under the Sea: Journey of The Little Mermaid ride, Be Our Guest table-service-for-dinner restaurant, the quick-service Gaston’s Tavern, and the Enchanted Tales with Belle meet-and-greet.

We'd heard that previews for these new attractions will open for annual passholders in November. No word yet on when previews will be open to the public. As with most soft openings, there likely won't be a public announcement. Just show up and see if you get in. Also, no word on if Disney will be opening up a paid preview event, as it did for Cars Land at Disney California Adventure.

The final phase in the expansion, the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train family roller coaster, will open in 2014.

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What's new on the discussion board: Free WiFi and other amenities you want at a theme park

By Robert Niles
Published: August 7, 2012 at 9:27 AM

Sure, summer vacation's winding down, but there's never a time of year when we stop talking about theme parks. Here's what's new on the Theme Park Insider Discussion Board this week:

Here's a great theme park psychological test: Which Animatronic Would You Be?

Prisoners in Pirates of the Caribbean
Probably not these guys?

Have you been enjoying some extra time online while waiting or just hanging out at Walt Disney World? You can, because Free Wi-Fi now available at Magic Kingdom.

Do you know of other theme parks offering free wireless Internet access to their guests? There's Holiday World (where every amenity is free, it seems!), and I found free WiFi at Universal Studios Singapore and in certain parts of Disney's California Adventure, if you're close enough to the Grand Californian Hotel. Please submit other free WiFi sightings to the comments.

Let's talk more about amenities and customer service. What are some of The little things that keep you coming back to theme parks?

We love trip reports on the Discussion Board. Tim W files his Disney World Trip Report July 25- August 1st 2012.

We'll be talking more about improving theme parks this month, and there's a discussion going right now on what to do about a Great Movie Ride Redo.

And if you can't enough theme park attraction design talk, be sure to get your weekly Theme Park Apprentice fix with . This week, the contestants are working on a new land for Disney's Animal Kingdom.

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Kings Dominion teases new attraction for 2013

By Mike Gallagher
Published: August 7, 2012 at 9:22 AM

King's Dominion's website is teasing a new attraction for 2013. The teaser features a rocketship in space with the tagline "BREAKING RECORDS..AGAIN" and "THE COUNTDOWN BEGINS SEPTEMBER 12th (my birthday!)


I'm figuring it may be a launch coaster similar to Magic Mountain's Bizarro/Superman..without that height. It's a small footprint, and would give the park THREE launched coasters. I think THAT's what they mean by breking records, as I can't think, offhand, of another park that has as many. But of course, anything is pure speculation at this early stage of the game.

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If you criticize a theme park, are you still a fan?

By Robert Niles
Published: August 5, 2012 at 8:07 PM

Theme Park Insider readers started a great discussion last week, following my post ranking the world's top Disney theme parks. Thanks to everyone who contributed, and I'd like to continue the debate over what I thought was the strongest disagreement:

Where to rank Epcot?

Imagination pavilion at Epcot
The Imagination pavilion - one of the targets that most needs help at Walt Disney World's Epcot

I ranked Epcot ninth of the 10 Disney theme parks I rated, beating only the Walt Disney Studios Park in Paris. My reasons? According to Theme Park Insider reader ratings, Epcot has fewer top-rated attractions than any other Disney theme park in the United States. I agreed with those numbers, and believe that, with Epcot, Disney's failed to reach a park's potential more than with any other of its U.S. theme parks.

Placing Epcot last among Disney's U.S. theme parks was a tough call for me. Whenever I visit Orlando, Epcot's the first Disney park I want to visit. It's home to one of my all-time favorite attractions, Impressions de France, and I love walking around World Showcase, sampling food here and there, and browsing the shops.

But looking in stores and noshing is what you do at a mall, not a theme park. Without more top-rated attractions, Epcot's devolved into Disney's Fancy Outdoor Shopping Center. People paying Walt Disney World rates deserve a full-day, world-class, themed-attraction experience from Epcot. While attractions such as Mission: Space, Spaceship Earth, and Soarin' have their fans, your own cumulative reader ratings say they simply don't match the line-up of top attractions found at Disney's other theme parks in the United States and Japan.

Disney can do better with Epcot, and as fans, I think we have an obligation to say that. It's our money Disney wants to earn. If we fail to tell Disney - or any other business - what we want, clearly and repeatedly, none of us have much standing to complain when we they offer us weak choices instead.

That's why I cringe when some people react as if fans should be volunteer public relations staff for their favorite theme parks, always focusing on the positive, and trying either to ignore problems, or at least give them the best possible spin.

While I appreciate the passion these fans show for their favorite parks, I think, ultimately, they're being played for fools. Positive word of mouth, in person or online, tells a business all's well, and that the public loves its product. It doesn't need to make changes. When when the rest of the skeptical (and silent) public fails to buy in, all that happy talk online encourages a business to blame external factors, such as the economy, the weather, or something else, instead of taking a hard look at its own, inferior product.

I prefer to see fans be as willing to stand up to businesses as they are to stand up for them. Look, Disney World's doing a lot of great things - it's substantially improving the Magic Kingdom, and it offers a wide variety of themed hotels with sometimes excellent value. But I also believe that Disney World's cruising on its reputation. Many fans simply assume Walt Disney World's theme parks are better than those at Universal Orlando or Disneyland. Or they believe it's impossible to afford a vacation to Tokyo. Let's face it - the average Orlando theme park visitor isn't as well informed about global alternatives as the average reader of websites such as Theme Park Insider. So long as public consensus says Walt Disney World's the best, that's what they will believe.

Of course, over time, that public consensus will change, as more people visit alternatives such as Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Disney California Adventure's Cars Land. But if Disney waits until that perception changes to address Walt Disney World, it will left its flagship resort crippled for years to come.

Look at what's happening in Florida now, and it's apparent that Disney realizes this. The next phase in the Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland Expansion opens this November. Disney's said to have begun construction on Pandora: The World of Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom. Help is on the way for two of WDW's four theme parks.

But what of the Disney Hollywood Studios? And what about Epcot?

I want Disney theme park fans to keep up the pressure - to keep their focus on what needs improving in the Disney Parks chain even as we celebrate all that's Disney's done right within it, as well. That's why, starting next week, I'll be launch a new weekly miniseries on Theme Park Insider, where we talk about a popular theme park that needs some fixing to return it to world-class status. We'll be soliciting your ideas on what these parks can do to earn not just your money, but your well-deserved praise. So let's start thinking about what we'd like to see from the parks that want our business.

And next Monday, August 13 Tuesday, August 14, we'll start with... of course, Epcot.

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Vote of the week: What's your best chance at gold in the Theme Park Olympics?

By Robert Niles
Published: August 2, 2012 at 9:47 PM

So, who's watching the Olympics this week?


Watching the games is fun, sure, but how much of a thrill would it be to compete? Okay, none of us are ever going to make it to the "real" Olympic Games (unless we've got some really distinguished lurkers around here…), but many of us have shown a thing or two in a different arena.

How would you do in a theme park Olympics? How many of you have "gone for the gold" in the following events?

Rope drop sprint - Rewarding pure speed, the winner in this event is the first to make it to the park's most popular ride, the one that will packed with a multi-hour queue later in the day.

Stroller dodging - Rewarding lateral agility, the winner in this event must swerve, dodge and otherwise avoid shin-splitting strollers in a dash across the park to make a reservation deadline.

Personal space blockout - Rewarding both strategy and quickness, the winners in this event preserve their families' personal space in the scrum of a crowded theater load and unload.

Souvenir bag carry - Rewarding both strength and endurance, the winner in this event totes the heaviest load of souvenirs from the park's bag check to the last row of the parking lot without stopping.

Infrared point-and-shoot - Rewarding eyesight and reflexes, the winner in this event achieves the highest cumulative score in all the shoot-'em-up rides and arcade games in the park.

Tell us your favorite theme park golden moment, in the comments.

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Disney explains the 'Glow with the Show' Mickey hat technology

By Robert Niles
Published: August 1, 2012 at 7:46 PM

Wondering how Disney gets thousands of Mouse ears to light up in synch with the World of Color show at Disney California Adventure?

In a new video, Chuck Davis, Principal Technical Director for World of Color explains a bit about the technology behind the Glow with the Show Mouseketeer ears that interact with the performance:

For the TL;DW crowd, Davis says that the ears use infrared technology, like a TV remote, and that the show viewing area is divided into 40 zones which can accept individual commands, allowing Disney show techs to create wave and other effects using the ears. And that's not all.

"We've just begun to scratch the surface of the technology here at World of Color with the hats," Davis said. Already, Disney's implemented hat effects inside Cars Land, and if you're worried about the distraction of all those blinking hats around the park during the rest of the day, I've heard that they automatically shut off inside dark rides, such as The Little Mermaid.

What would you like to see these hats do next?

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What's new on the discussion board: Fantasyland AP preview, and good-bye to Son of Beast

By Robert Niles
Published: August 1, 2012 at 11:40 AM

Hey, it's been a while, and we're long past due for a front-page Discussion Board round-up. So without wasting another moment, here are some of the top new recent threads your fellow readers are discussing.

First up, some news: WDW to announce passholder preview for Fantasyland expansion

Fantasyland construction
Fantasyland construction from this spring

And Kings Island's getting rid of some of its dead wood. Literally. Son of Beast coming down, finally

I hope you've been enjoying our coverage of Disneyland Paris over the past couple weeks. But for another view of Disneyland Paris, check out Missing - Disney Magic - Reward Offered...

Here's a question I often ask myself, living in Pasadena and covering the Central Florida theme parks: Which airline is the best one to fly between Orlando and Los Angeles?

We've talked at length about riding coasters, but what are your Favorite Rollercoasters to Watch?

And for the Disney fans especially, what is your Favorite Disney coaster?

If you love thinking about the process of creating great theme park attractions, you'll want to follow our Theme Park Apprentice game, where readers try their hand at doing just that. We on Theme Park Apprentice 4: Challenge 9 – Restoration this week.

And if that's not enough attraction design for you, Let's brainstorm a Star Wars theme park.

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Keep reading: July 2012 Archive

Stories from a Theme Park Insider

Stories from a Theme Park Insider

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