By Robert Niles
Walt Disney World's Epcot celebrates its 30th birthday on October 1, which pretty much demands a look back at the park's history.
Epcot was Disney's third theme park, and the first not to follow the "Magic Kingdom" template. A sort of permanent world's fair, with one half devoted to corporate-sponsored technology exhibits and the other half a showcase of world nations, Epcot was and remains the world's most "non-fiction" theme park. It also lacks roller coasters and many other carnival ride staples found in most theme parks, further distinguishing the park.
But what most makes Epcot unique, I think, is the fact that a case can be made that the park was better when it opened 30 years ago than it is today. Here's the opening-day line-up of pavilions:
And here's what we have today:
Personally, I think Epcot hit its peak after the opening of the original (and all-time best version of) IllumiNations in 1988 and Wonders of Life in 1989. (I'm also partial to 1989 because that's when my then-future wife played in the Disney All-American College Orchestra. I also miss the early-morning rush to make restaurant reservations for the day by speaking with a Disney host via closed-circuit TV. Hey, for most of us, that was the first time in our lives and the only place in the world to experience video chat.)
More than any other park, Epcot suffered in Disney's late-1990s scorched-Earth management, which eliminated leads, closed locations or replaced them with cheaper alternates, and dismissed entertainment extras throughout the resort (including the college orchestra). And then there was the wand, the visual abomination that lorded over Spaceship Earth from 1999 - 2007, to be followed by the funeral Leave a Legacy that today clutters the park's once handsome entry plaza.
We've dissected Epcot's current condition before. Now, for our vote of the week, please tell us when you think Epcot was at its best, or if you think the park's at its best today.
By Scott Joseph
What's new at the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival Presented by Chase (besides that little addition to the name)? A vegan marketplace with something that tastes just like chicken, Florida local cuisine and zapiekanskis in Poland. Here's a preview of the new dishes being served at the festival, which opened today. Here's a first look.
By Robert Niles
Every now and then, you read an announcement abut something new from a theme park and think to yourself, "Wow. That was so obvious, why didn't anyone think of that one before?"
That's exactly what I thought when I read the announcement from SeaWorld Orlando about its new marketing deal with… the Miami Dolphins.
Well, duh. :^)
SeaWorld will feature former Dolphins linebacker (and "Dancing with the Stars" runner-up) Jason Taylor in TV ads targeted to Florida media markets. In addition, SeaWorld and the Dolphins will run several mutual promotions. From the press release:
SeaWorld Football Family of the Year is a sweepstakes that kicked off on September 21 and will continue through December 31. Fans can register at Dolphins.com/SeaWorld to win a grand prize three-day, two-night SeaWorld and Aquatica weekend getaway plus four tickets to all 2013 regular season Miami Dolphins home games.
Not mentioned in the press release, but confirmed to me via other channels, I've learned that the deal also includes a provision where the Dolphins will allow Clyde and Seamore will return to their long-standing jobs performing at the Orlando theme park, now that they are no longer needed as replacement referees.
By Robert Niles
Lots of news and some fresh trip reports on the Theme Park Insider Discussion Board this week. Let's take a look at the top new conversations.
Want a preview of Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights 22? Watch the videos in Full walkthrough of all houses [in] night vision. (Here's one to get you started…)
We have a couple of conversations going about "interactive" queues: Is Upgrading a line queue actually an upgrade to a ride? and What is the common courtesy one should follow when in an interactive queue?
Stuck at home or the office, dreaming of a theme park vacation? How about a trip report to pass the time? We've got three new ones: Brent Moody's Universal Orlando Trip Report: Sep 15th & 16th, Bradley Keith's Dollywood Trip Report, and Amy Smith's Aquatica trip report - 9/23/12.
Finally, some "blue sky" conversations for you: We debate whether a bad ride or story is better than no story at all in Peoplemover vs….??. Plus, readers ask What Will Disney's Next Park Be? and Will Star Wars Land ever happen?
Thanks for reading, and remember, whenever you have a question about theme parks or vacation planning, your fellow readers on the Discussion Board are waiting to answer!
By Robert Niles
Hey, just because it's the slow season for theme parks, and you're such wonderful, loyal Theme Park Insider readers, we're going to give you a two-in-one Tip of the Week this week.
You know how I mentioned it's the slow season for theme parks? Well, that's my first tip this week - go now. Heck, go any weekday when kids are in school around the theme parks you want to visit. Non-holiday weekdays between late August and mid-May see the fewest average number of visitors at the year-round parks in Central Florida and Southern California.
This is what you want to see - a nice, empty theme park street, such as the new Buena Vista Street at Disney California Adventure
Schools in Southern California used to run from early September until mid-June, but most major districts are moving back their calendars to match the same mid-August to late-May calendar you'll find in use in Central Florida (and around the country). That's also helping to tighten up the busy spring break schedule to mid- to late-March, instead of bleeding into mid-April as it used to do in Southern California.
With kids in school and their families at home, you'll often find nearly empty queues, wide open streets, and short to non-existent wait times throughout the parks. You'll also find abundant deals, include free dining plans at the Walt Disney World Resort, and reduced hotel rates for both on-property and nearby upscale hotels.
But there are a few tradeoffs. You'll also find great reduced operating hours, and reduced show schedules. Don't expect to find all the parades, street shows, character greetings and night-time spectacles that you'll find on the schedule if you visit in mid-summer. But sharp off season visitors usually report that they still can do even more visiting on a school day than they could on a July visit, even with the reduced hours and fewer shows.
So those aren't really that big a deal as tradeoffs. The tradeoff you really have to watch for is refurbishments. Theme parks use the slow season to fix and refresh their most popular rides, the ones they don't dare close to repair during the busy seasons, if they don't have to. That brings us to our second tip in this Tip of the Week - be sure to check the park's refurbishment schedule before you visit, if there's a specific ride you have your heart set on experiencing.
You can find schedule attraction closures and refurbishments on top theme parks' calendar pages:
I'd still encourage you to visit during the off-season, if you can. Popular rides can - and do - suffer unplanned closures during the busy seasons, too. So coming in mid-summer provides no iron-clad guarantee you'll get on that dream ride the day you visit, either. But visiting on a slow, off-season day gives you a chance to do more in a park, at a more leisurely, relaxed, enjoyable pace than visitors get to experience during the hot days of summer. If you don't have kids, or they're on an unusual school schedule, give an off-season visit a try.
For more tips and advice for planning a theme park vacation, visit our 100 Travel Tips for Visiting Theme Parks page.
By Robert Niles
Let's head back to the United States for this week's Attraction of the Week: Mystery Lodge at Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, Calif.
Knott's has been pursuing thrill seekers in recent years, with its chain-wide "Ride Warriors" ad campaign. But Mystery Lodge calls back to the park Knott's once was, before the Cedar Fair buyout, when the park offered rich themes - and a dash of education - along with its thrills.
Mystery Lodge opened in 1994, one of the last attractions added to Knott's Berry Farm before its sale to Cedar Fair. Created by Bob Rogers' BRC Imagination Arts, Mystery Lodge shares both a setting and a visual effects trick that Rogers had used in a similar show for the General Motors pavilion at Vancouver's Expo 86 world's fair.
So what's the trick? We'll get to that in a minute. But let's set the scene first, shall we? Mystery Lodge offers what might be Knott's best themed and decorated queue, a walk past rockwork and water features inspired by the Pacific Northwest, where the story you'll soon experience is set. Once inside the show building, you enter an "outdoor" scene, designed to look like the entrance to a Native America longhouse, at the magic hour of twilight.
After a short introduction by your host, you'll enter a plain theater, facing a glass wall. Behind it, you see into the longhouse, where an elderly Native America storyteller greets you. A fire burns in the middle of the room. As smoke from the fire twists into shapes, the storyteller believes he sees an owl in the smoke, which he tells us is a symbol of death. That prompts the man to share stories and reflect upon his past, which collectively help illustrate the Pacific Northwest Native American experience.
Photo courtesy BRC Imagination Arts
And then, the end of the show happens. I won't spoil it here, but even after watching Mystery Lodge countless times, I still consider its ending one of the neatest effects in the theme park business. Friends with stagecraft experience say it's a Pepper's Ghost trick, from the same family of visual effects that enabled the Tupac "hologram" that went viral after this year's Coachella festival. (Take a look back at the Mystery Lodge building from the outside sometime. Doesn't it look a lot bigger than the size of the interior theater would suggest? Is that a clue that something tricky's happening?)
But you don't need to be a theme park design geek and know how Rogers and his team made the effect to appreciate it, because the effect only adds to the warm and wonderful script that truly animates this show.
Under new Cedar Fair CEO Matt Ouimet, the former president of Disneyland, Knott's seems to be taking steps to change its recent course toward becoming an iron park aimed solely at thrill seekers. Knott's is revamping its food selections and bringing back theme-appropriate background music to Ghost Town. If Ouimet really wants to make a play for the theme park fans who are pushing the Disneyland Resort to record attendance (even after its recent price increases), I hope he finds some inspiration in Mystery Lodge. While I think this show alone merits a visit to Knott's by dedicated theme park fans, adding an attraction or two with the same level of theming and storytelling would help elevate Knott's back to elite theme park status.
By Scott Joseph
Along with the announcement that Be Our Guest would bring beer and wine to the Magic Kingdom, another first was made public: for the first time since it opened, the theme park will have its own executive pastry chef to oversee baking duties. That would seem to indicate a renewed interest in culinary quality. More...
By Robert Niles
You've shown up early and claimed your space in front of the castle for the night's big fireworks show. The area lights have gone off, the music's begun to play, and the first shell's about to launch into the sky.
But here's the big question: Are you, and everyone around you, standing or sitting? Few questions cause more conflict in theme parks than this collective nightly decision: Is everyone going to stand up to watch the show, or sit down?
Standing allows more people to crowd into the space, giving more people the chance to see the show from its optimum viewing point. But standing leaves shorter visitors, including all those kids, straining to see anything above the taller adults in the crowds. Sure, you could put your kid on your shoulders, but that's just going to block the view even worse for the people behind you. And have fun with that sore back tomorrow.
Sitting allows people to enjoy the show without having to worry about the people in front you. Little kids can see and enjoy the show. But people sitting take up more room than people standing, leaving fewer able to get into those prime viewing spots. And sitting on the hard concrete for an hour or more? Have fun with that sore back tomorrow.
So which is it? Sure, this is a collective decision, but which way will you try to sway the crowd? Sometimes, you don't have a choice. Every time I've watched World of Color, Disney California Adventure cast members have enforced a "no sitting" policy, forcing everyone in the crowd to stand to see the show. But over at Disneyland, crowds at Fantasmic! almost always sit, at least whenever I've watched the show. At the fireworks in front of the castle I've seen the crowd go either way - some nights everyone sits; some nights everyone stands.
And some nights, a few people get into nasty shouting fights with those around them who want to do the other, instead.
By Robert Niles
It's late September, and on the, uh, rather flexible calendar that rules the theme park world, that means it's time for Halloween!
Several major Halloween events kick off tonight, including Universal's Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Florida and Universal Studios Hollywood, and Halloween Haunt at Knott's "Scary" Farm.
Universal Orlando sent me this lovely memento to promote this year's Halloween Horror Nights. You had to pull off the hairy scalp, open the skull, and dig your fingers into the squishy brain to retrieve a USB drive with the video press release. My 12-year-old son loved it.
We've got pages for you to upload photos and submit reviews for all of the Halloween events at top theme parks:
For more child-friendly Halloween events, Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party has started already at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom and Mickey's Halloween Party at Disneyland kicks off next weekend.
Remember that Halloween events typically get better as the month goes on, as scareactors get more experience with their roles, crowds get bigger and the holiday approaches. But if you'll be attending any of these events this weekend, I'm sure your fellow Theme Park Insider readers would love to hear your early take on how the parks did this year.
By Robert Niles
When did you (or your children) stop trick-or-treating?
I suspect that, for many, once someone gets to middle-school age, trick-or-treating on Halloween begins to fade into childhood memory. Kids in double-digits are more often likely to get a disapproving look along with their candy. Friends might start laughing or sneering at classmates who still choose to dress up and work the neighborhood.
But some kids love trick-or-treating, and don't want to give it up.
If you look young enough, I suppose you can keep trick-or-treating for a long time. One of my wife's college friends was small enough that she could pass for a child and get away with trick-or-treating well into graduate school. But what do you if you're a normal-sized middle- or high-school student who just wants to keep being a kid for one more night?
Fortunately, for people who live in Southern California or the Orlando area, we have an out: Mickey's Halloween Party. (Throw in a "Not-So-Scary" if you live in Orlando.) At the Disney Halloween party, everyone can trick-or-treat and no one's going to look at you funny for getting your candy fix. That makes this party a great alternative for families with kids who are at that "in between" age when they still want to dress up and collect candy, even if some of the neighbors don't approve. Heck, it's a fun option for grown-ups who'd like to get their own candy stash, too, without having to raid their kids'.
C'mon. Raise your hand if you've ever enforced the "daddy tax" or the "mommy tax."
At Mickey's Halloween Party, everyone in the family can dress up (or not), grab a bag and fill it up with candy all evening long. Or if candy's not your thing, you can enjoy ride time on several of Disneyland's or the Magic Kingdom's top attractions, a special fireworks show, and a Halloween parade. Both parks put out many Halloween-themed sweets for sale, for anyone looking for a non-candy treat.
This year, I've heard that visitors with diet restrictions, including nut allergies, can go to City Hall in the Magic Kingdom to exchange the candy they collect during the evening for more acceptable treats. (Disneyland's party hasn't started yet, so I haven't heard if the same policy will be in effect on the west coast, too. *Update: See the comments.)
If you go, here's my number-one tip: Go as deep into the park as you can, as far away from the castle as possible, before you start collecting candy. Disney distributes candy in several zones around the park, and the ones nearest the castle can be mobbed with nearly hour-long waits early in the evening on some nights. Start at the far edges of the park and work your way in - the opposite approach that most families will take.
And don't be afraid to hit some rides while lots of other visitors queue up for the sweets. Disney won't run out if you wait until later in the evening to fill your bags. Disney trucks in a ton of candy for each night. That's not a euphemism. They literally have one ton (or more) of candy on hand for each night of the party.
Trick-or-treating doesn't have to end with elementary school. You can keep on acting like a kid on Halloween. That's why I love living in Southern California, where every fall we can go to Mickey's Halloween Party.
Mickey's Halloween Party runs at Disneyland on select nights from Sept. 28 - Oct. 31, with tickets from $54-$69.
Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party runs at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom on select nights from now through Nov. 2, with tickets from $56-$70.
By Robert Niles
What better way to celebrate International Talk Like a Pirate Day than with some of theme park fans' favorite pirates?
Even if you're not ready to chuck your job and set sail under the Jolly Roger, you still can join a ragtag band of rowdy misfits. With a click you can become part of Theme Park Insider's Facebook group:
Come on aboard, matey!
By Robert Niles
Do you have food allergies? Are you on a restricted diet? Or are you simply looking for a special meal while you're on vacation, even if you can eat pretty much anything?
You don't have to go without or leave the park to get the food you need or want on your theme park vacation. Parks are set up to accommodate just about any dietary need you have. Gluten-free? Low cholesterol? Peanut free? Theme parks can handle any need or request you have - you just have to know where and when to make it.
Special meal requests aren't just for people with dietary needs, either. If you're celebrating a special occasion - a birthday, an engagement or an anniversary, theme parks can create a special, off-menu meals for those occasions, too. Again, you simply have to ask. (And pay for it, of course.)
So how do you do that? The simplest way is to tell the operator what you need or are looking for when you make a dining reservation. Here are some of the phone numbers and webpages you can use to make restaurant reservations or special meal requests at top theme park resorts. (If there's no advance reservations number, just ask when you arrive at the restaurant.)
By the way, did you know that you also can make reservations at the Universal Orlando restaurants via Open Table, the popular online restaurant reservation service? (I didn't.)
For more tips on getting the most from a theme park vacation, please visit our new tips page: 100 Travel Tips for Visiting Theme Parks. And if you some advice for other readers on booking special meals at a theme park, please share it with us in the comments.
By Robert Niles
Talking about SeaWorld San Diego's Manta with a local reporter last week, I tried to explain why I loved that roller coaster so much.
Here's what I said: The real test of a roller coaster isn't how you feel after riding it once. It's how you feel after riding it three times in a row. On most coasters, you end up feeling either sick, or bored. If a coaster's too extreme, multiple rides will toss and turn your stomach. But a coaster that's too tame will leave you asleep, or at least daydreaming about doing something else. A great roller coaster leaves you just as excited when you exit the third and fourth time as the first time you stepped off it.
Manta hits that sweet spot for me. But today I'd like to bring your attention to another great roller coaster in the same mold. Like Manta, it doesn't go upside down, leaving it accessible to many roller coaster rookies. But it offers a similar mix of great twists, speed and airtime, as well as some awesome views that a terrain coaster like Manta can't offer.
Battlestar Galactica is actually two, dueling Vekoma roller coasters. But I'm not going to write today about the "Cylon" side, a inverted coaster will multiple inversions. As I've written before, inverted coasters just aren't my thing - I've yet to ride one that didn't leave my head throbbing and stomach churning after a single ride. As a result, I simply won't ride them anymore. So if you're looking for a review of Cylon, look elsewhere. Anyway, I was too busy riding the delightful Human side of the coaster to even think about giving Cylon a try.
On Human, you board a coaster train decorated with the nose and exhaust bells of a Viper fighter from the Battlestar Galactica TV series. Then you launch up the initial lift hill as Cylon's train races beside you. From there, you dive into BG's tight, twisting track, which runs and dives above Universal Studios Singapore's central lagoon.
The ride offers you some wonderful views of the park, but you won't notice those on your first ride, as you'll be too bust looking at the interwinding tracks, and close encounters with the Cylon train. You'll enjoy more twists and turns that I could count, whipping you around the ride and up out of your seat but never with so much force that you feel disturbed or distressed. And the wind blasting your face on this 56 mph coaster provides welcome, cooling relief from the inevitably hot, humid weather in Singapore.
It's not the longest coaster out there - a little under 90 seconds from dispatch to unload. But from its launch to the final turn into the station, Battlestar Galactica never pauses. It's nonstop action that gets your adrenaline pumping and demands a second ride to keep it flowing.
By Robert Niles
In my previous piece on Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, I mention the increased competition Disney faces from Universal Orlando. Well, let's not forget that SeaWorld Orlando's throwing down, too.
The park just released its first "webisode" preview of its largest attraction in its history, Antarctica - Empire of the Penguin reviews, which will open next spring.
SeaWorld Creative Director Brian Morrow talks about the ride, its new animal habitat and shares some looks at the construction site.
What do you think? Is this enough to convince you to see SeaWorld next year?
By Robert Niles
I hadn't intended to include Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom in this series. Hey, the park's about to debut a multi-year expansion and renovation to its Fantasyland. Disney's obviously putting a lot of money into fixing this park - what more is there for us to say? But after your reaction to Disney's announcement last week that it would start selling alcohol in the park, I realized that Disney's not doing enough to convince its fans that Disney really has the right plan in place for what's long been its most popular theme park. So let's talk about that.
Let me back up before we go forward. One of my favorite vignettes in Stories from a Theme Park Insider, our book about working at Walt Disney World, was What time is the 3:00 parade?, where I learned that sometimes you have to listen not to what people say, but what they mean when they say something.
I tried to apply that lesson when reading the criticism and opposition many of you wrote in response to Disney's decision to sell beer and wine in the new Be Our Guest restaurant in the Magic Kingdom. For some readers, I'm certain that their opposition really is just about the alcohol. Hey, I get that. As someone who's endured the pain of dealing with alcoholics in my life, I understand the desire for an alcohol-free refuge. But I also suspect that many of the people complaining about this decision have had wonderful times visiting Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and other theme parks that serve alcohol. If you can deal with alcohol being served in those parks, you can deal with alcohol service in the Magic Kingdom, too.
But what about Walt? What about him, I say? Allowing Walt to dictate every decision at the company that bears his name is to ossify the Walt Disney Company forever in the mid-1960s, trapping the company in a modernist worldview that doesn't resonate widely in our post-modern world. It's great to be inspired by Walt's vision and to try to live up to the standards of quality he set. But you're never going to create the great entertainment Walt wanted from his company if you let a guy who's been dead for nearly 50 years micromanage every decision you make.
So what it is then? What's setting off the many people who feel disappointment or even anger at this decision? To me, this is like the whole "what time is the 3:00 parade?" issue. There's something else lurking beneath the surface here.
The Magic Kingdom theme parks, except for the one in France, are the only major theme parks in the world that don't serve alcohol. That no-alcohol policy is one of the elements that have made the Magic Kingdom distinct. Without it, there's one less thing distinguishing the Magic Kingdom from every other major theme park out there. Plus, there's the fear among some fans that Disney will use the inevitable profits they'll make off alcohol at Be Our Guest to justify expanding alcohol sales throughout the park, making the Magic Kingdom less and less unique among theme parks, and looking more and more like the parks at Universal, SeaWorld and, gulp, even Six Flags.
Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom might be the world's most visited theme park, but it's far from the world's best. Of the four "Magic Kingdom" theme parks I've visited - Orlando, Anaheim, Tokyo and Paris - I think Orlando's is the weakest in overall quality of attractions, entertainment, food, maintenance, and service. And that's before we look at the competition. Universal Orlando's Wizarding World of Harry Potter meets and exceeds Disney's standards for immersive theming using high-quality construction materials. Universal's keeping the pressure on, too, with a new high-quality Spongebob Squarepants store, a new parade and nighttime show, a new Harry Potter land under construction, and rumors of an expansion of The Simpsons.
With what does Disney respond? A new Fantasyland that's mostly more of the same:
Sure, there will be a new Snow White family coaster, but that won't debut until 2014, by which time Universal will have opened its new Transformers ride and might be close to opening the second Harry Potter land. That leaves the Be Our Guest restaurant as the only unique element of the new Fantasyland that will be open anytime soon. And that's coming at the cost of the Magic Kingdom's no-alcohol policy. Add something. Lose something. Ultimately, what is gained?
I think that is what is driving the frustration of so many Disney fans. They look up Interstate 4 and see Universal moving forward with new world-class attractions, shows and shops. And they're waiting for Disney to respond with something typically, uniquely Disney.
And they're not seeing that yet. That is why Disney needs to fix this park.
Yes, Disney's trying. It's dumping hundreds of millions of dollars into creating a "NextGen" experience, but up until now all the public has seen of that have been incremental improvements - room key cards, advance ride reservations, interactive card games, sounds tricks in queues - nice new amenities, sure, but not the radical change in theme park storytelling that would define a new generation of entertainment. In geekspeak, Disney's giving us 1.1 or 1.2 - not 2.0.
That's what Disney's fans long to see. Ultimately, I think almost all Disney fans really don't care as much about alcohol in table-service restaurants in the park as much as they care about seeing the Walt Disney Company maintaining Walt's commitment to building and running the world's most unique and captivating theme parks.
So what can Disney's managers and designers do to convince you that they still share that commitment? How can Disney fix this park? Please tell us your thoughts, in the comments.
By Robert Niles
Yep. It's happened. Today, Walt Disney World announced that it will start serving alcohol at the Magic Kingdom, once the new Be Our Guest restaurant opens in November.
From the Disney Parks blog, which tried to bury the news deep in a post about the restaurant's menu:
And just for dinner, select wines and beers will be offered that complement the French-inspired cuisine.
Disney serves alcohol at Disneyland Paris, but not at the other Magic Kingdom theme parks - the original Disneyland in California, Tokyo Disneyland, and Hong Kong Disneyland. (Alcohol is available in the private Club 33s at Disneyland and Tokyo Disneyland, but guests cannot access those without an invitation from a member.) So this decision will leave Hong Kong Disneyland as the only totally alcohol-free Disney theme park, and will reduce to three the number of Disney parks where alcohol is not available to "regular" guests.
What do you think?
Update: Let's make this our vote of the week:
By Russell Meyer
“Kings Dominion is breaking records again” was the tagline for today’s media event. While there was no indication from sources that this announcement would be the addition of another record breaking roller coaster or thrill ride, many were probably hoping for something a little more thrilling than what was actually announced with that tagline. Kings Dominion did announce that a multi-million dollar expansion to their kids area would be completed in the upcoming off-season and create the “World’s Largest Peanuts-themed Children’s Area.”
Planet Snoopy will be a complete revamp of the existing children’s area, Kidzville, and unify all of the children’s attractions under the Peanuts theme. For those who have been to Kings Dominion, Kidzville was created in 1997 under Paramount Parks’ management, and added a number of new attractions to the former Hannah Barbara themed children’s area. In fact, a few of the old attractions were not dramatically changed from their Hannah Barbara roots (Boulder Bumpers, Jeep Tours, and Treasure Cave, which has been closed this season) during the Kidzville expansion.
Planet Snoopy will feature 12 new and re-themed attractions, 2 new live shows, an expanded family care center, and an open air marketplace featuring fresh fruit and food. Based on conceptual drawings, it appears that there will be 5 brand new rides for the park, 3 flat rides, an elevated track-based ride, and a Peanuts-themed railway. The 3 new flat rides will include a teacup-style ride, a lay-down glider-style ride, and a spinning tugboat ride (Zamperla Rockin’ Tug based on the drawings). The elevated track-based ride looks somewhat similar to The High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride at Islands of Adventure, but featuring individual spaceship-themed cars instead of long trains.
To make room for the new attractions, it appears that Space Port, Virginia Clipper, and Hot Rods will be removed along with Treasure Cave based on the conceptual map of the new area. Aside from the elevated track ride and Peanuts-themed railway, there doesn’t appear to be much expansion of the existing area’s footprint.
Park officials were clear to note the importance of having attractions and activities for the entire family, and creating exciting rides for young thrill seekers to enjoy before they’re ready to step up to the big rides is key to the park’s future growth. By refreshing and expanded their children’s area, Kings Dominion is introducing youngsters to the world of theme park rides, and is hoping to create future theme park fans. As the father of a small child, it’s always great to see parks make a concerted effort to target younger children and families, especially those that focus so heavily on bigger, taller, and faster. However, the billing for this media event was perhaps a bit much for a refresh of an existing area along with a few new small attractions. Additionally, by referring to the expansion as “record breaking” is a bit dubious in the theme park world, especially from Cedar Fair, a company that boasts a number of record breaking roller coasters. I don’t have an issue with parks touting the size or number or rides, but making up silly records is just a marketing trick.
Planet Snoopy is a much needed renovation of the aging Kidzville, and a welcome addition to Kings Dominion. It may not be the “record breaking” addition many fans would have wished for, but it should serve the park well, and entertain the next generation of theme park fans for years to come
By Robert Niles
Thank you to everyone who voted and commented last week in our poll about increasing coverage at Southern California theme parks. (And look for more stories about Universal Studios Hollywood in the months to come, as a result!) Today, I'd like to throw open the same vote for Central Florida.
Again, I know from looking at years of pageview traffic that readers love coverage of the Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando theme parks. So I want to know what else in Central Florida you'd like to read about more often. Remember, I'm talking about increases in coverage here. I'm not planning to cut back anything - I'm just looking for direction from you on how best to spend my time and resources when adding new reviews, tips, advice, and trip reports to the site. (I'll always coverage major news about new and closing attractions, etc.) After all, if you'd rather not read more about something, I don't want to waste my time and money writing more about it.
So we've got the three major non-Disney, non-Universal parks on the ballot this week: SeaWorld Orlando, Busch Gardens Tampa, and Legoland Florida. In addition, I've included Downtown Disney and Universal's CityWalk Orlando, to see how much demand you have for additional coverage of Disney and Universal, outside the six main theme parks.
By Robert Niles
We've got a lot of great new conversations for you this week on the Theme Park Insider Discussion Board. Let's get started with some news:
Watch the video as Cedar Point knocks down the Space Spiral:
Also this past week, we learned that Legoland Florida to add Star Wars Miniland.
And there's a hot rumor that Universal Studios bringing Krusty Burger and Moe's to life!
Here's an update on another of the projects at Universal Studios Florida: Transformers in June?
If that's not enough theme park news for you, check out another round-up in The Return of: From the Trenches of Amusement.
What do you think of the Redone Matterhorn at Disneyland?
And if you're interested in reading more about thrill rides in the UK, check out Thorpe Park - Uk - (upcoming) trip report.
We're also talking about the best Park Meal Deals/ Dining Deals.
Finally, we've got a couple of raging debates for you this week: Universal Creative or Disney's Imagineers?
By Robert Niles
Here's something no parent wants to hear, over and over and over again, while on vacation:
"Mommy! Mommy! Mommy! (or "Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!") - I want this! Buy it for me?"
You cannot fight this. So don't even try.
You can try to teach your kids not to want all the cool stuff they'll see when visiting your favorite theme park, but let's face it: You're fighting millions of dollars in research, marketing, and product development. Parks employ and contract with thousands of people whose job it is to sell your kids stuff. You can't win.
So why try to fight a hopeless battle? Focus on what you can control instead - putting a stop to the whining.
Here's a simple solution that's worked for me and for hundreds of other parents: Make your kids spend their own money on theme park souvenirs. Give them an allowance before you leave on vacation, or, better yet, make them earn their theme park spending money doing chores or other work.
Tell your children before you leave on the trip that they can't ask you for money to spend on souvenirs. If they want anything, they'll have to spend their own money. Get started now, though, months before you leave, so your kids will have a fair opportunity to save and earn they'll want for vacation.
Your kids can get an idea of what's available, and how much it will cost, by going on the Internet with you to the parks' online merchandise stores:
You're trying to teach your children how to make a budget, shop around, and learn how to make their own informed decisions about spending their money. Plus, by encouraging them think in advance about what they want to buy, you might find that they're offering to do even more work around the house so they can earn extra money for the trip!
Ultimately, you're trying to change the way your kids react when they see something cool in the store. Instead or reflexively wanting and asking for it, you want them to start thinking skeptically about it instead - "Is this something I really want, or need? Can I get a better deal? Or would I rather buy something else?"
When kids are spending their own, hard-earned money, they're a lot more likely to ask themselves that question than if they're always tapping into Mom and Dad's seemingly bottomless wallets.
So by making your kids spend their own money on theme park souvenirs, not only can you put a stop to the whining, you can help raise some smarter consumers, as well.
By Robert Niles
Mondays this fall and winter on Theme Park Insider, we'll be focusing on some of the theme park industry's best attractions that don't always get the attention they deserve. Let's kick this off with Efteling's Fata Morgana.
Now that I've visited the Tokyo Disney theme parks, Efteling in The Netherlands is the theme park I've not yet visited that I most want to see. One of the big reasons is Fata Morgana, an indoor boat ride that recreates scenes from 1,001 Arabian Nights.
I first heard of Fata Morgana from industry legend Bob Rogers, who asked me if I could name the three theme park rides without a happy ending. I got Mr. Toad's Wild Ride (we end up in Hell), and the original, pre-Johnny Depp Pirates of the Caribbean (where the pirates are about to blown to smithereens). But I couldn't name the third. And that's when Bob told me about Fata Morgana.
Fata Morgana opened in 1986, set in a Moroccan-style palace across a reflecting pool from the park's entrance. Once inside, you board via a turntable, which directs your boat into a jungle-like scene. From there, a wizard appears, who shows you the way into the forbidden Arabian city. Here's a video of the ride, which includes some nice shots of the surrounding area. Skip to 4:45 if you want to go straight onto the ride.
The key to appreciating this ride is to see yourself as the protagonist. You're wandering the marketplace in the forbidden city, a place where you don't belong. But you're caught, and taken away to a sentence of hard labor. Then the wizard reappears, and blasts your way out of the prison, into the harbor of the city where the king's barge awaits.
So do you hitch a ride out of the forbidden city, getting away to safety? Heck, no! The party's just starting. You sail on, into the palace, where you join the party in the king's harem. Not satisfied with the ladies, you press on, into the king's treasure room.
Hey, what's the big guy there? Why did everything go dark? Is that a big snake up ahead? Must not look into his eyes…
And the ride's over.
Confused? Let's think of the Fata Morgana this way: Remember the end of The Sopranos? How everything just went black? Well, like Tony Soprano, you just got whacked.
Hey, it's one thing to sneak into the king's city. Or his palace. Or even into his harem. But you most definitely do not get to mess with the king's cash. Touch the money, and you're gonna pay.
Even though I've never been there, this ride makes me love Efteling for just trying it. Not every theme park attraction needs to end on a sticky-sweet note. I love to see rides serve up a little darkness, now and then.
By Robert Niles
Are Disney World's hotel rooms not decorated enough for you? Don't worry, Disney can hook you up with even more decor - for a price, of course.
Starting Monday, you can order a "Mickey's Spooktacular Celebration" package for your Walt Disney World Resort hotel room. While you're away at the parks, Disney Floral & Gifts cast members will decorate your room with a light-up banner over the door, cobwebs and foam pumpkins around the room, and plush Mickey and Minnie dolls holding a goody-filled cauldron on the bed.
Mickey's Spooktacular Celebration - photo from Disney Floral & Gifts
And it's yours for just $384.95.
Disney also offers room decoration packages for Christmas, birthdays, honeymoons, and other celebrations, from $205 to $485. I've not seen any of these decorated WDW rooms in person, but when my daughter turned 5, we celebrated at Disneyland, and my mother paid for their room to be decorated for the birthday. We had banners, balloons, and a Mickey doll, if I recall correctly - but that was 10 years ago.
Have you ever sprung for a room make-over from Disney Floral & Gifts? Let's make that our vote of the week.
Have a great weekend, and thanks, as always, for being part of the Theme Park Insider community!
'Walking Dead,' 'Silent Hill,' Alice Cooper highlight Universal Studios Hollywood's 2012 Halloween Horror Nights
By Robert Niles
We're just a couple of weeks away from the debut of 2012's Halloween Horror Nights. Last week, we reviewed what fans will find at Orlando's version, and today, I got the chance to talk with Creative Director John Murdy about what's in store at Universal Studios Hollywood.
This year's Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood will feature seven mazes:
Visitors also will find four scare zones, including one based on Silent Hill, as well as "Bill & Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure."
Murdy talked with me about what he's looking forward to most at this year's event, why Hollywood's version is unique among Halloween events, and how Universal incorporates so many scareactors into the event:
Halloween Horror Nights opens Sept. 21 and runs for 19 nights, wrapping up on Halloween, Oct. 31. Tickets range from $46 for general admission on selected nights, to up to $199 for the "VIP Experience," including valet parking, Front of Line access, lounge access, food and beverage and a guided tour. Tickets are available on Universal's website.
By Robert Niles
Movie blogs this week have been reporting delays on production of director James Cameron's new Avatar movies, including word that a fourth Avatar might not be in the works at all. The initial report, from IndieWire on Monday, included speculation that the Avatar project for Disney's Animal Kingdom is running behind schedule, too.
Supposedly Cameron is not the easiest dude to work with and that, when frustrated by Imagineering and what he considers to be their lack of progress, he simply walks away and, say, stashes himself at the bottom of the ocean. That must make for a fractured and unwieldy work process for the Imagineers on the project – a kind of stop-and-go rhythm that's harder to wrangle than one of those flying dragons.
Video game site IGN yesterday took that report and ran with it, pushing the Avatar land's opening well past 2015, due to "creative differences between Cameron and Disney's Imagineer development team."
And today, blogger Kevin Yee reads the tea leaves and all but declares the Avatar project dead.
Yee goes on to confirm rumors that Avatar's been replaced on Disney World's to-do list by an east coast version of California Adventure's Cars Land, planned for the space now occupied by Lights, Motors, Action and the Backlot Tour at Disney's Hollywood Studios. That confirmation comes just a day after Yee threw a bit of cold water on such speculation, reporting that Disney Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter didn't want to dupe Cars Land in Florida, which would be enough to kill the project.
Yee's one of the better reporters out there, so if he says that project's a "go" now, I'm inclined to believe him. But I can't help but wonder what could have gotten Lasseter on board with the idea? Then again, if Avatar's not hitting its deadline (in the best-case scenario), Marvel's not coming, and Universal's raising the stakes by opening its version of Transformers next summer (check the blackout dates, folks), perhaps Disney might not have much choice but to greenlight something that's ready to go.
We do know this: Avatar was slated to go into the space in Animal Kingdom now occupied by Festival of the Lion King. If that show doesn't close in January to make room for Avatar, as is now planned, we will know for sure that the Avatar project is in trouble. And if Lights, Motors, Action closes instead early next year, we'll know that Cars Land East likely will happen, too. Keep your eyes open.
By Robert Niles
Which Southern California theme parks would you like to read about more often? I'm planning our coverage here on Theme Park Insider for the next several months, and want to hear from you about which parks we should give the most attention.
Obviously, Disneyland and Disney's California Adventure are the big parks in Southern California. They're the region's most visited parks, and I think they're Disney's top two parks in America for quality. But how about the other parks?
Now, I'm still planning on covering all the other parks in SoCal. I think they're each doing things I consider important and noteworthy. But beyond that minimum, I want to know how much more you'd like to hear about them. So I've got five polls below - one for each park. Please take a moment to vote in each, to let us know how likely you'd be to read additional features about these five theme parks.
Universal Studios Hollywood
Why it's important: The nation's 10th most visited theme park is about to undergo a major transformation, including the construction of a new Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Its Transformers: The Ride 3D just won our Theme Park Insider Award for Best New Attraction of the year, and new attractions, a new hotel and a new station for its famed Studio Tour all are included in its ambitious new development plan, to be built over the next decade.
Why it's important: The nation's 12th most visited theme park is SeaWorld's original park, located a short walk from the Pacific Ocean, on San Diego's Mission Bay. Its more family-friendly version of the Manta roller coaster gave this park its first world-class thrill ride, while upping its standards for decoration and design. With deep-pocketed new owners in place, SeaWorld has the potential for some major new shows and park enhancements.
Why it's important: Parent company Cedar Fair's new CEO, Matt Ouimet, recently ran Disneyland, and he "gets it" - he knows the value of theming parks while providing world-class customer service, and he also values Knott's great history. The park's Mystery Lodge remains one of the best shows in the theme park business and new menus are now in place at many of the park's restaurants. And there's that Giga coaster rumor out there which just won't go away….
Why it's important: Magic Mountain's the world's coaster capital, with more roller coasters than any other park in the world. And the park's not afraid to experiment in the thrill ride realm, with attractions such as X2 and its recent drop ride/coaster mash-up of Superman and Lex Luthor. Next summer's Full Throttle will offer a unique new track element, as well.
Why it's important: Legoland's first US theme park remains one of the world's best theme park experiences for elementary-aged children. Legoland does a better job than anyone in creating participatory attractions, such as the Driving School and the Police and Fire Academy, which involve kids in active play in ways that more passive theme park rides and shows simply can't.
By Robert Niles
On Tuesdays this fall and winter, we'll be offering a weekly tips column, featuring a money- or time-saving tip for visiting your favorite theme parks.
Now that we're into September, we're heading into the "off season" for the seasonal theme parks around the country. But just because kids are going back to school doesn't mean you should forget about theme parks. In fact, now's the time to buy passes for the 2013 season at the lowest rates you'll find them.
Knott's Berry Farm has put its 2013 passes on sale, for just $66.99. The passes are good for every day of 2013, excluding after-hours events such as Halloween Haunt. A one-day ticket at Knott's now costs $57.99 at the gate, for comparison.
The 2013 season pass also includes a free one-day ticket for use before the end of 2012, and you can buy additional one-day passes for yourself for $9.99 each. Knott's passes also include discounts on food, merchandise and 2013 Halloween Haunt tickets. If you want free parking (normally $15), you can spend an additional $97 to upgrade to a Platinum pass (total cost: $164), but that also gets you free admission throughout 2013 to all Cedar Fair parks, including Cedar Point, Kings Island and Canada's Wonderland. (*See the comments for additional parking options.)
If you want to do the math to see if a season pass is a good deal for you (and I always encourage you to do the math!), Knott's is offering one-day tickets online for $33.99, if you buy at least three days in advance. If you miss that cut-off, you'll have to pay $2 more - $35.99 for the one-day ticket online. That means a Knott's season pass can pay for itself if you visit the park just twice in 2013. If you're planning to visit another Cedar Fair park in 2013 as well as Knott's, and will spend more than three days total visiting Knott's and other Cedar Fair parks, I'd absolutely go for the Platinum pass.
Knott's will raise the price of its 2013 season pass later, so if you've got the cash to spare and plan ahead, you can lock in a pretty good price now for the park, then not have to worry about paying for theme park tickets next year.
For readers around the country, what other parks are you seeing offering similar "early bird" deals? Please share them with the rest of us, in the comments. Thanks!
By Dominick D
The Disney Parks Blog announced earlier what the signature drink at Gaston's Tavern will be: LeFou's Brew. LeFou's Brew is a no-sugar added frozen apple juice with a hint of toasted marshmallow, topped with all-natural passion fruit-mango foam served in steins and goblets with Gaston on Belle on them. This may sound familiar to anyone who has been to Cars Land. That's not all they announced for this quick service location, the signature food item will be warm, gooey cinnamon rolls. Thoughts?
From Robert: That's the same description as for the Red's Apple Freeze at the Cozy Cone Motel in Cars Land:
It's just frozen apple juice. The mango foam's not different enough from apple to lend an additional flavor to it, and I completely missed any whiff of marshmallow. It might look like Universal's Butterbeer, but the foam isn't nearly as sticky and the drink lacks any unique flavor - just the same old apple you can find anywhere. But a frozen drink is a nice thing to have in hand while waiting in the hot queue for Radiator Springs Racers. We'll soon see what our Florida readers think, when they get this drink in November.
By Robert Niles
Happy Birthday to Tokyo DisneySea, which is celebrating its 11th anniversary. The winner of this year's Theme Park Insider Award for the world's Best Theme Park officially opened on September 4, 2001, and I though we'd celebrate with some of my favorite photos of the park from our visit last December.
Fortess Explorations, in front of Mysterious Island
Chamber of Planets in the Fortress Explorations
Captain Nemo's drilling machine, outside Journey to the Center of the Earth.
Blasting out of the mountain on Journey to the Center of the Earth - this is only place on the track where you can see the vehicles in this Radiator Springs Racers/Test Track-style ride from the outside.
I love Harrison Hightower
And here's his hotel, the Tower of Terror
The S.S. Columbia, playing the role that would have been played by the Queen Mary had this park been built in Long Beach, Calif., as originally considered.
The Baked Lobster Tail and Sauteed Scallops with Butter Sauce at the S.S. Columbia Dining Room
The famous (and yummy!) Gyoza Sausage
On the street in the Arabia Coast section of the park
Inside Triton's Kingdom at Mermaid Lagoon, with Jumpin' Jellyfish in the background
Inside Magellan's, the table service restaurant in Fortress Explorations
Finishing the day with a taste of hazelnut cake and a bite of grape ice cream at Magellan's.
Here are more photos from Tokyo DisneySea.
Keep reading: August 2012 Archive
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