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October 2012

Happy Halloween!

By Robert Niles
Published: October 31, 2012 at 12:43 PM

I've got a few more thoughts about yesterday's huge news about Disney and Star Wars, but I'll hold off posting those for a day while everyone enjoys tonight's Halloween parties and trick-or-treating. Tweet us @themepark with photos and updates if you'll be in the parks tonight. Or just take a moment to vote in our annual Halloween poll and wish your fellow Theme Park Insider readers well in the comments.

Universal's Halloween Horror Nights
Deadmau5, Kat Von D and Tyga visit Halloween Horror Nights. Photo courtesy Universal Studios Hollywood.


Me? I'm planning to spend the evening handing out candy while dressed as Bob Iger. Treats for everyone! Happy Halloween!

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Disney buys LucasFilm. New Star Wars movie coming - theme parks next?

By Robert Niles
Published: October 30, 2012 at 1:48 PM

Disney announced today that it will buy LucasFilm and its associated businesses from Star Wars creator George Lucas, for $4.05 billion in cash and Disney stock.

From Star Tours

That gives Disney control not just of LucasFilm and its Star Wars franchise, but also of Industrial Light & Magic and Skywalker Sound. ILM created last year's Academy Award winner for Best Animated Feature, Rango, in addition to providing special effects on hundreds of other hit movies. Of course, Disney's bought a former Lucas outfit before. Let's not forget that Pixar started as a Lucas sideline, before Steve Jobs bought it.

In a statement, Lucas acknowledged that the deal means he's turning over control of the Star Wars franchise. (Foes of Jar Jar Binks cheer!) Check out this line (I added the emphasis):

"I'm confident that with Lucasfilm under the leadership of Kathleen Kennedy, and having a new home within the Disney organization, Star Wars will certainly live on and flourish for many generations to come. Disney’s reach and experience give Lucasfilm the opportunity to blaze new trails in film, television, interactive media, theme parks, live entertainment, and consumer products."

Disney's confirmed Star Wars, Episode 7 for release in 2015. (Whaaa? Less than three years? Have they been working on this?) Who knows what else might be in the works?

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Tip of the week: Check the weather before you travel

By Robert Niles
Published: October 30, 2012 at 9:05 AM

This week's super storm provides a great reminder of an important theme park vacation tip: Check the weather before you go.

Sandy attacks!My favorite Photoshopped Hurricane Sandy picture. If you're going to fake a photo, go all out.

You might think that the weather in Southern California or Central Florida is always gorgeous. And it very often is. (Sorry, friends up north!) But even in LA and Orlando, nasty weather strikes from time to time. You'd be surprised how many visitors forget that fact. They carelessly pack their shorts and swimsuits, thinking that they'll be enjoying stereotypical weather, no matter what's actually in the forecast.

My mother, who lives in the Orlando area, and I kid each other that whatever weather one of us is having - the other's weather is the opposite. If it's raining in Orlando, it's dry in Los Angeles. If it's warm in LA, it's on the cool side in Orlando. There might be something to that - Orlando's summers bring daily thunderstorms, while summer's the dry season in Southern California. Winters? Kinda the opposite: more rainy in LA and drier in Florida. So while LA and Orlando typically enjoy nicer weather than the rest of the country, rain, extreme heat, storms and even snow can happen.

A few weeks ago, the temperature hit 108 degrees in Anaheim. Hurricane Sandy blew strong winds across Central Florida before moving up the coast to New Jersey. I've seen theme park visitors shivering because they didn't prepare for a forecast cold snap, and wet and miserable tourists complaining about their day because they didn't change their plans to accommodate the rain. (Here are six tips for enjoying a day at a theme park in the rain.)

If you pack the right clothes and adjust your schedule to deal with the weather, you can enjoy a theme park visit in almost any weather. But if you don't look at the forecast and plan ahead, you can end up having a miserable day if you're caught in weather you didn't expect.

So go online, look in the paper or check your phone's weather app just before you pack to go. Find out what the weather will be at your destinations, and come prepared. And if you're facing extreme weather, such as a hurricane, call ahead to see if you can rebook to another time. If a hurricane warning is imminent, most places want to keep you out of the area and would be happy to rebook you to another time without penalty. But you have to ask.

Have you ever been caught by extreme weather while on vacation (or while working in a theme park)? Please share your story in the comments.

For more tips on how to get the most from your family vacation, visit our 100 Travel Tips for Visiting Theme Parks page.

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Attraction of the week: Universal Studios Singapore's Revenge of the Mummy

By Robert Niles
Published: October 29, 2012 at 1:15 PM

Two days from Halloween, it's time for a little darkness, don't you think? Let's celebrate the sinister side of theme park attractions by honoring Universal Studios Singapore's Revenge of the Mummy as our Attraction of the Week.

Now this is an attraction entrance!

Entrance to USS' Revenge of the Mummy

Universal and Resorts World Sentosa spared no expense in crafting a more impressive entrance for this version of Mummy than you'll find at either Universal Studios Florida or Universal Studios Hollywood. It's the centerpiece of an entire "Egypt" section of the park.

Egypt at Universal Studios Singapore

The facade's not the only change in Singapore's version of Mummy. Universal Creative's given us a much darker narrative than on either of the US Mummies. There's no Brendan Fraser silliness here. As I wrote in my review of Universal Studios Singapore last year,

"While Hollywood's version of the ride allows you to triumph over the undead fiend Imhotep and Orlando's puts your triumph in doubt, there's no question who wins on this version of Mummy.

And it ain't you."

Revenge of the Mummy queue
Inside the queue

More…

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

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

Nice, huh?

If Disney's core emotion is an earnest wistfulness (with the Brand Name: "Magic!"), Universal's has always been the wisecrack. While that attitude has helped Universal cut the cloying sweetness of Disney-style family attractions, it's kept Universal from fully embracing the dark side of narrative as well. You see Universal's fondness for sarcasm in the Florida version of Mummy, which builds as much on a gag about Fraser and a cup of coffee than on Imhotep itself. But here, Universal resists the temptation to show off its cleverness and commits to letting the mummy have its revenge.

It's cliche, but here the third time really was the charm. In Singapore, with a fully immersive facade, foreboding queue and sinister narrative, Universal Creative has fully realized the dark potential of its Revenge of the Mummy.

Happy Halloween. ;^)

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Theme park news: Closings, openings, and makeovers

By Robert Niles
Published: October 28, 2012 at 8:55 PM

Let's close out the weekend with a few notes of theme park news.

Princess

  • First, the big news over the next few days will be Hurricane Sandy, which has finished dumping rain on and blowing around Florida and is on its way to hammering the mid-Atlantic and northeast. Best wishes to all our Theme Park Insider readers in the affected areas. Take care and stay safe. Update: Here's our Hurricane Sandy thread on the TPI discussion board.

  • Thinking about visiting Disneyland in a couple weeks? You could be just steps from the filming of a new movie starring Tom Hanks as Walt Disney. It's "Saving Mr. Banks," and it's the story of the making of the Mary Poppins movie. The film will be shooting in Disneyland on November 6-7. Don't try to go looking for stars, though. Disneyland's planning to block off sections of the park for the filming, which they'll redecorate to make look like it did in 1967.

  • Maybe you could spend some of your Disneyland visit time at the new Earl of Sandwich, however. Disneyland's announced that the long-awaited first California outpost of the sandwich chain will open in Anaheim's Downtown Disney on November 2. Disney's got Earl of Sandwich locations at Walt Disney World in Florida and at Disneyland Paris in France. Update, 10/29: We're hearing that Earl of Sandwich soft-opened today (Monday). Anyone try it yet?

  • Finally, your favorite Walt Disney World princesses are due for a makeover. Disney's planning new, more "contemporary" hairstyles and costumes for the Disney princesses. I'm having trouble imagining Cinderella with an ironed-flat lid. Or, worse, a Justin Bieber 'do. Hey, if the classic look is good enough for the Real Housewives of Disney, shouldn't it be good enough for all of us?

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    Vote of the week: Avatar vs. Iron Man?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 26, 2012 at 9:14 AM

    Do new attractions motivate you to book a theme park vacation? Yes, no, maybe? Let's talk about a couple of specific new attractions, then. How about the new Avatar show/ride coming to Disney's Animal Kingdom? Or the rumored new Iron Man ride at Disneyland? Would either of them entice you into taking a trip you might not have made without them? If so, which one would you most want to book an extra trip to experience?

    Innoventions
    The future home of Stark Expo?

    Let's make this our Vote of the Week. We know a little bit about Avatar - that it will be built on what's now the Camp Minnie-Mickey section of Animal Kingdom, and that it's centerpiece attraction will be something like a next-generation Soarin' - in 3D. A second, smaller ride might also be included in the Avatar complex.

    Plans for Iron Man are less clear at this point, but seem to be focused on the Innoventions building in Disneyland's Tomorrowland (that used to be America Sings, and before that, Carousel of Progress). Remember that Disney owns the theme park rights to its Marvel characters everywhere outside Orlando, so Disney doesn't need to cut a deal with Universal (which owns the Orlando-area theme park rights to Marvel), to build an Iron Man-themed attraction in Anaheim.

    So, given what we know about the scope of these potential attractions, which one gets you more excited for a future theme park trip? And let's not forget the Disney World vs. Disneyland factor, too. I'm looking to see which of these rides is more likely to drive additional visits to its resort. The rest of the resort, of course, factors into that. Or do neither of these rides inspire you to book a visit?


    Please tell us in the comments how you'd compare these attraction ideas. And thank you, as always, for reading and for spreading the word about Theme Park Insider.

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    Here's how to follow Theme Park Insider - and other pages you like - on Facebook

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 25, 2012 at 9:28 PM

    We'd love to have you join our fans on Facebook by "Liking" our official "Theme Park Insider" Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/themeparkinsider.

    Theme Park Insider's Facebook page

    But if you want to see posts from Theme Park Insider in your news feed on the Facebook front page (and we promise, they'll be worth it!), you need to take an extra step, too.

    You see, Facebook doesn't show you all the posts from the people and pages you follow, on that front-page news feed. It selects only posts it thinks you're most likely to click on or to "like." (Or posts that a company pays for you to see. More on that in a bit.) So when a Theme Park Insider post does appear on Facebook, if you click that link or like the post, you'll get more Theme Park Insider posts showing up on Facebook.

    But you won't see them all. There's only one way to do that. Here's how to do it: Go to Theme Park Insider's Facebook page and hold your mouse cursor over the "Liked" button. (You have to have a mouse to do this - you can't do it on mobile. And you have to have "liked" our page first.) When a little pop-up window appears, move your cursor down to the "Add to Interest Lists…" option and click that.

    Facebook will then walk you through the steps of adding a new "Interest List." This first list you create will start with Theme Park Insider's page, since you clicked from that page, but you also can add any of the other pages and people you follow on Facebook to the list. And you can name the Interest List whatever you'd like. (You can create as many Interest Lists as you want, too.)

    Here's an example of an Interest List that I've created: It's called "Theme Parks" and it includes Theme Park Insider's Facebook page as well as the official Facebook pages for the Top 10 theme parks in the United States. You can subscribe to this Interest List by clicking to it and then clicking the "Subscribe" button on the top of the Interest List page.

    Once you've created or subscribed to an Interest List, you'll see it appear as an option whenever you click "Add to Interest Lists…" for a page. You'll also see links to your completed Interest Lists on the left side of Facebook's home page, listed under "INTERESTS." Whenever you click one of the Interest List links, you'll see all the posts from all the people and pages on that list. (You can add or remove individual pages from a list at any time.)

    Again, the more you interact with the individual posts in your Interest Lists by clicking or liking them, the more likely Facebook will be to show posts from that page to you on the Facebook front page.

    Facebook used to show our Theme Park Insider posts to almost all of the people who'd like our Facebook page. These days, Facebook only shows the posts we put on Facebook to about 10 percent of the people who've liked us. And Facebook's pressuring website publishers to pay up if they want their posts to be seen by more of their followers. (We'd be happy to pay Facebook to expose Theme Park Insider to people who haven't heard of the site, and have in the past. But it seems a bit weird to us to not show our posts to so many people who've said that they want to follow the page. That's why I'm posting these instructions.)

    Interest Lists can be a powerful way to get the Facebook you want, instead of the Facebook that advertisers want you to see. We hope that you'll use Interest Lists to stay in touch with Theme Park Insider via Facebook, but you can use it to tailor Facebook to see posts from any of the pages you like. You shouldn't have to miss any of the posts you want, and be stuck with posts you don't care about. With Interest Lists, you can get more of what you want, and avoid the rest.

    Thanks again for reading Theme Park Insider - here, and on Facebook!

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    First details leak about Disney World's Avatar 3D movie ride

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 25, 2012 at 1:28 PM

    Over the past few days, I've been hearing more and more buzz from industry insiders about Disney's Avatar theme park project. And last night, people started sharing some of the same news on Twitter, so it looks like Disney's made some decisions about the project.

    Avatar

    Here's what shaping up: It appears that Disney's looking at something that might be described as a cross between Soarin' and the Carousel of Progress. The core Avatar attraction would comprise multiple 3D projection theaters, with visitors in some ride vehicle that would give the impression of flight (like Soarin's "hang gliders" do). What I'm not certain of, given all I've heard, is whether visitors will ride from one theater to the other, as on Carousel of Progress, or if the additional theaters are there just to provide extra ride capacity, as on Soarin' or Universal's The Simpsons Ride.

    The Carousel of Progress option excites me more, but it raises the question of why Disney would need multiple theaters if the attraction's based on a 3D movie. After all, a screen's a screen. If you're spending the money to move people into different theaters, one would presume it would be because you had different, essential physical elements in each theater, such as props or animatronics.

    Of course, ride vehicles moving from 3D screen to 3D screen is Universal Creative's big thing. (Think Spider-Man, Harry Potter, and Transformers.) So I'd be very interested to see Disney's take on that concept.

    Lemme throw in one more twist. Last week, Al Lutz sparked a rumor that Disneyland would build an Iron Man ride in the Innoventions building in Tomorowland (bottom of the linked article). That's the old Carousel of Progress building, so people are putting two and two together and wondering if Disneyland's Iron Man might be a smaller-scale version of the Avatar ride at Walt Disney World. (The Innoventions building accommodates two stories, while Avatar is said to be a taller, three-level theater, a la Soarin'.)

    Mouse Unlimited seems to have heard the same rumors I have, but they throw in an additional element: a "C-Ticket boat ride (or at least what appears to be a boat ride)" that will be part of the Avatar development, too.

    Clearly, progress is happening. The buzz is loud enough that I'm convinced construction on the building for these attractions will begin soon. But let's not forget that attractions can change substantially in development. In our interview last year, Universal Creative's Mark Woodbury revealed that Universal was making substantial changes to its design of Islands of Adventure's Harry Potter ride until pretty late in the development process. So much can change. Still, Avatar's moving forward.

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    Tip of the week: Split meals to save money... and your waistline

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 24, 2012 at 2:53 PM

    Most restaurants serve dishes that offer way more calories than you need in a single meal. That half-pound burger or 32-ounce cola might look like a bargain when compared with smaller portion sizes, but is it really a deal to spend a few extra cents to get more food than you actually need? Finish those bad boys, and yeah, you'll feel full. But make it a habit, and your clothes will feel fuller than ever, as your weight balloons.

    Monte Cristo
    As yummy as one piece of Disneyland's Monte Cristo sandwich might be, you do not want to eat an entire plate of this by yourself. Trust me.

    Don't finish those meals by yourself. And don't let them go to waste, either. Split your meals, and you'll not only save money on the per-person cost of eating out, you'll avoid the urge to overeat all that extra food on your plate.

    Splitting meals not only saves you money inside a theme park, it can be a great way to cut expenses to help you save money for your next vacation, too. Share when you eat out in your hometown to start cutting your spending, so you'll have money left at the end of the month to put in your vacation fund. (Remember, the best way to save money on a vacation is to pay for it up front - so you can avoid big interest charges while paying your credit card bills for months after you come home.)

    Be careful when pricing vacations that include dining, such as the Disney Dining Plan. If you're considering one of the Walt Disney World vacation packages that include "free" dining, consider how much it would cost to split meals on that same vacation, if you stayed in a comparable, but less expensive, hotel. Would that be the better deal?

    If you decide to go with a Disney Dining option, switch your thinking from "find the place that serves the most food for the lowest cost" to "find the place that serves the best food, in reasonable portions, for the most money." Remember, you're spending credits, not cash. And sharing meals won't help you get value, so go for the best quality food you can find to get your money's worth. One of the ironies of modern food service is that the better quality restaurants tend to serve the more reasonable portion sizes. Take advantage of that.

    What are some of your favorite tips for getting the most value from dining out?

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    Disneyland to enter Cars Land float in the 2013 Rose Parade

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 23, 2012 at 2:23 PM

    Disneyland confirmed today that it will enter a float in the 2013 Rose Parade, here in Pasadena.

    Cars Land Rose Parade Float
    Concept art courtesy Disney

    Yep, the theme is Cars Land, as Disney continues its marketing campaign for the new land that's made California Adventure the original Disneyland's first serious challenger for the title of Most Popular Theme Park in Southern California. Disney's entered floats in the Rose Parade before, but not since the mid-2000s, when the park promoted Tower of Terror, and then Disneyland's 50th anniversary.

    Since Theme Park Insider's world headquarters is three blocks from the Rose Parade route here in Pasadena, we've got tons of parade and float decorating photos from past Rose Parades here on the site. Just search "Rose Parade" over in the search box, to the right. And we'll be on the route again this year, taking photos of the Disney float for you. (Even though it appears that my beloved Northwestern Wildcats have once again gagged away their chance to play in the Rose Bowl. Sigh. Thank heaven for 1996. And 1949. When we won.)

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    Attraction of the week: Efteling's Droomvlucht

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 23, 2012 at 10:45 AM

    We started our Attraction of the Week feature last month with a look at Efteling's Fata Morgana. Today, we return to the Dutch theme park to shine the spotlight on another beloved dark ride: Droomvlucht.

    Droomvlucht

    Translated as "Dreamflight," Droomvlucht debuted in 1993, Efteling's 12.5-million-Euro response to the opening of Disneyland Paris the year before. Designed by the parks creative director, Ton van de Ven, and featuring music by Ruud Bos (who also composed the music for Fata Morgana), Droomvlucht takes riders through an elaborately decorated world of fairies, trolls, and fantasy landscapes.

    You ride in suspended vehicles, a la Disney's Peter Pan ride, through five scenes: Castle Realm, Wondrous Forest, Fairy Garden, Heavenly Strongholds, and Squelch Forest. The ride also features one of my favorite dark-ride effects: a star field. I know, they're pretty simple and relatively inexpensive, but I know so many people who just love them. Let's just put this out there: Every theme park should be required to have at least one dark ride with a star field effect. Who's with me?

    Let's take a ride on Droomvlucht [The ride starts at 1:50. The rest shows you the exterior and queue]:

    No, there's no plot here - this isn't a narrative-driven dark ride. It's an impressionistic experience - a visit into a dream realm, where one scene leads into the next without explanation, things look a little crazy, then spin out of control at the end, and only your therapist has an explanation. Hey, at least this is a pleasant dream, though, and not some dark, dystopian nightmare. (Don't worry, fans of the darkness, I'll be offering you one of those types of rides next week!)

    If you've visited Efteling and ridden Droomvlucht, please consider submitting a rating and review on our Droomvlucht page.

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    Universal finally announces... an announcement

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 22, 2012 at 10:23 AM

    Well, well, Universal does have a publicity department, after all. ;^)

    Months after construction began on not one, but two major new developments at Universal Studios Florida, Universal finally has confirmed that it will... announce something.

    Universal Studios Florida

    They haven't told us what it is yet, but the announcement's coming on November 1 at 7:30 pm ET. The evening's an unusual time for press announcements, but Universal's shown that it doesn't care for playing by the book on these sorts of things. Theme park standard operating procedure typically calls for making an announcement, then starting construction. Given the progress Universal's made on its projects without saying a thing about them, I was beginning to wonder if Universal Orlando's PR staff had been pressed into work on the construction sites, leaving them no time to actually send out press releases.

    Of course, we already know what the two big developments at Universal Studios Florida will be. Theme Park Insider readers last December got the Web's first look at the plans for the Gringotts coaster in the new "Diagon Alley" Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Florida. And in June, we broke the news about Transformers: The Ride coming to USF.

    Then again, given the way that Universal's coyly denied confirming anything about these two projects, it's possible that the Nov. 1 event will announce something entirely different. Nothing Universal Orlando does anymore surprises me. All I know is that some people at Universal wouldn't mind at all if their little announcement on Nov. 1 made people forget about that new Fantasyland thingie down the street for a while....

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    Vote of the week: Which park is the top draw at the Disneyland Resort?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 20, 2012 at 12:53 PM

    From all reports, attendance at Disney California Adventure continues to soar above its numbers from previous years, as Cars Land, Buena Vista Street and the rest of the park's billion-dollar makeover draw fans to the Disneyland Resort's second gate.

    In fact, California Adventure's become so popular that reports say, the park outdraws its older sibling on some days. Now, Disneyland and California Adventure stand closer to one another than any other theme parks (even closer than Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure). So park-hopping at Disneyland's a snap. Many passholders treat the two parks as one - easily switching back and forth throughout the day. But where do you start first?

    Let's say you're magically transported to Anaheim tomorrow morning, and a Disneyland Resort park-hopper ticket appears in your hand. Where do you go?

    Do you turn south, and head into Disney California Adventure, to see Cars Land and all the new attractions there?

    Disney California Adventure

    Or do you turn north, and visit the original Disneyland first, with its Halloween overlays and classic attractions?

    Disneyland

    That's our vote of the week. Keep in mind that you've got a park-hopper. You can visit both parks that day, so there's no missing out on a favorite attraction from either park. The vote's simply asking which park you would choose to do first on your next visit to the resort.


    In the comments, tell us your dream itinerary for a one-day Disneyland Resort visit. And thanks again, as always, for reading Theme Park Insider!

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    Walt Disney World trims its Country Bear Jamboree

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 18, 2012 at 10:25 PM

    Disney's made some changes to the Country Bear Jamboree.

    The musical animatronic show just came back from a refurbishment, but Disney did more than just clean the bears' fur and change the lights. They've cut nearly a third of the show, from reader reports, including the entire "Devilish Mary" song, as well as much of the banter between the characters during the show.

    Here's a video of the original show, as seen last year:

    And here's a video that Walt Disney Imagineering released toady, talking about the changes. Well, most of them.

    I guess they left out the part about leaving out part of the show? How meta. Still, the Country Bear show wasn't exactly thrilling audiences. Theme Park Insider readers have rated it a 6 - far below the average for attractions in the Magic Kingdom. Clearly, Disney had room for improvement. But will cuts and freshen backgrounds be enough to restore this show's popularity? Or should Disney have gone all the way and created an all-new Country Bear show?

    Disney's done that before, with the Vacation Hoedown show that replaced the original Country Bear Jamboree in the late 1980s and early 1990s. (That's the show I watched several hundred times as a cast member at Walt Disney World during that time.) If you want to see that show, or the full-length original, or the Christmas version for that matter, you'll have to visit Tokyo Disneyland, which plays all three shows during the year.

    Have you seen the new version of the Country Bears yet? If so, what do you think?

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    Theme park magic, for a limited time only

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 17, 2012 at 2:54 PM

    Take a look at the theme park construction schedule, and you'll see a big gap for the Disney theme parks in the United States. Disney has no new attractions scheduled for debut in 2013. There's nothing new under construction at the Disneyland Resort in California, and the only new rides at Walt Disney World will either be open later this year, or not until 2014 and beyond.

    So when you've got nothing new to promote for a whole year, what do you hype? Bring on the gimmicks!

    Ice carriage
    Disney kicked off its new promotion with a photo op of massive ice sculptures in New York's Times Square.

    As gimmicks go, Disney's plan for 2013 looks like a fun one. Disney will introduce "theme weeks" at its parks on both coasts, including "True Love Week" for Valentine's Day, "Pirate Week," "Independence Week" for the Fourth of July, and "Long Lost Friends Week," featuring lesser-known Disney characters not often seen in the parks. Disney also will bring the Golden Horseshoe Revue back to Disneyland for a one-month run. (Yes!) There'll be a late-night Friday the 13th party in September, featuring the Disney villains, too.

    The idea is to present a slew of short-run, limited-time special entertainment promotions in the parks. Which is great, as it provides something special and unique throughout the year, giving locals reasons to visit more often and creating some "off peak" attractions for out-of-market visitors, too.

    The only thing I don't like about the promotion? The name: "Limited Time Magic".

    Ugh. What is this, a mattress sale? ("Come on down, these prices are only for a limited time!") Who wants to think about limitations when on vacation? Shouldn't Disney be promoting the limitless magic of its theme parks, instead of diminishing its most precious marketing hook ("magic")? I get that Disney wants people to feel an immediate urge to book a visit, but surely it doesn't want to plant the idea that Disney's running out of magic soon?

    (If I'm Universal Orlando, I'm responding to this campaign with a promotion for the front-of-line passes at the Universal hotels. Show a big picture of Harry Potter with the catchphrase "More Time for Magic!" But I'm way too competitive sometimes.)

    Maybe people will ignore the lamentable "Limited Time Magic" phrase and just focus on the individual offerings. But, coupled what I wrote earlier today about Fastpass+ and NextGen queues, I'm beginning to wonder if Disney's not losing a bit of its edge when crafting marketing messages. What do you think?

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    Come to Disney... and skip the cool stuff?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 17, 2012 at 9:35 AM

    Here's what I don't understand about Walt Disney World's recent development strategy:

    Why is Disney spending millions to develop and promote new, interactive queues for its attractions… at the same time it's spending millions to develop and promote new Fastpass+ systems to allow people to skip those queues?

    Interactive queue at the Haunted Mansion
    The interactive queue at the Magic Kingdom's Haunted Mansion

    Does anyone else see a conflict here?

    What's the message we're supposed to take away from this: "Come to Disney, where we're making it easier to skip our cool new stuff"?

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    Tip of the week: Buy convention participant tickets for discounted admission to major theme parks

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 16, 2012 at 6:35 PM

    The Disney theme parks in the United States typically don't offer discounted evening-only passes to the public, but if you're attending a convention in the Orlando or Anaheim areas, you can get discounted afternoon and evening tickets to Disney, Universal, or SeaWorld theme parks.

    Hogwarts at twilight

    Often, your convention will offer you a link to the theme parks' special websites to purchase convention tickets, either through the meeting's website or an email blast. But if the convention's organizers haven't let you in on the opportunity, here are the links:

    The park can require you to show your convention badge to use these tickets, so visitors not going to a convention who buy these tickets are gambling that they'll get an apathetic turnstile attendant who'll look the other way. And some parks (particularly Disney World), might make you tell what convention you are attending - and where you're staying in town - in order to buy the tickets in advance.

    My son and I bought the $45 Disneyland tickets to visit California Adventure when we went to VidCon last summer. The park was open until 10pm that day, so we had plenty of time to see everything in the just-opened Cars Land, have dinner and ride a couple other rides in the park before calling it a night. In that case, the convention ticket allowed us to see everything we wanted to see in a single park visit for much less than the cost of a one-day ticket (now $81).

    So if you're going to a big meeting in town with a major theme park, consider special convention tickets to see if they offer a better deal for you than paying the regular advance purchase price.

    For more theme park tips, please visit our 100 Travel Tips for Visiting Theme Parks.

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    Attraction of the week: Disneyland Paris' Les Mysteres du Nautilus

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 15, 2012 at 3:05 PM

    Our Attraction of the Week this week, Les Mysteres du Nautilus at Disneyland Paris, isn't the sort of attraction that's going to inspire anyone to book a special trip. Heck, you could enjoy a delightful visit to Disneyland Paris with ever experiencing this attraction. But I like Les Mysteres du Nautilus because it represents the type of experience theme parks need to feature to distinguish themselves from amusement parks that offer nothing more than a collection of shows and thrill rides.

    Les Mysteres du Nautilus at Disneyland Paris

    Les Mysteres du Nautilus is a walk-through attraction, a visit into Captain Nemo's Nautilus submarine from Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." You won't find much animation here, or any overt storytelling. With little wait anymore, even on busy summer days, you could breeze through this attraction in moments and wonder why the heck I'd ever write about it.

    But that's not how to get the most from a walk-through. Consider this the setting for a story where you play the starring role. Most adults bring too much self-consciousness to allow them to treat a theme park attraction as a narrative playground. But if you can imagine yourself as part of the crew of the Nautilus, this walk through becomes as engaging and enjoyable an experience as anything else in the park.

    For that to work, however, designers must create a physical space with enough detail to make you think you're part of the experience. Tokyo Disney's Fortress Explorations, Universal Orlando's Jurassic Park Discovery Center, and - my favorite - Disney's Tom Sawyer Island (especially the well-maintained one in Tokyo) all immerse you in "another" place, where you can set your imagination free to play.

    Schematics of the Nautilus
    The schematics of the Nautilus Photo submitted by Ty Wijnans

    Captain's quarters
    Captain's quarters in the Nautilus.

    Plotting the Nautilus' course
    Plotting the Nautilus' course, 20,000 leagues under the sea.

    A map of Vulcania
    A map of Vulcania (familiar to visitors of Tokyo DisneySea!)

    Nautilus' map room
    Detail in the Nautilus' map room.

    Treasure ballast
    One of the great details: the ship's ballast is treasure found in old wrecks just as Jules Verne described it. Photo submitted by Ty Wijnans

    Captain Nemo's organ
    Captain Nemo's organ

    The octopus
    An encounter with a giant octopus at the end of the exhibit.

    I would have liked to see a few more interactive play opportunities on Paris' Nautilus. But there's enough visual detail here that I found myself lingering for far longer than than I'd planned. I don't expect Disney to ever build another 20K ride here in the United States. But how hard would it be to give us an immersive walk-through like Les Mysteres du Nautilus to enjoy?

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    Vote of the week: When to visit a brand-new ride or show?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 13, 2012 at 10:11 PM

    I'm sure that plenty of Disney fans visiting Walt Disney World this week were thrilled to see the Magic Kingdom open its newest phase of the Fantasyland expansion early this week. But would you consider an extra visit to the park just to see the new Little Mermaid ride and the other newly opened locations in the expanded land?

    Prince Eric's castle

    For that matter, would you ever consider timing a visit to be among the first to experience a new attraction - or would you rather wait, until the bugs often found with a new attraction get worked out and the inevitable huge early waits die down a bit?

    What's your take on visiting a new attraction? Let's make that our vote of the week:


    Tell us your thoughts about new attractions - your favorite story about seeing a new ride, or your thoughts about the Fantasyland Expansion specifically, if you'd like. And, as always, thanks for reading and supporting Theme Park Insider!

    Comments (23) | Archive Link

    Looking for first reader reports on the New Fantasyland at Disney World's Magic Kingdom

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 12, 2012 at 11:30 AM

    Walt Disney World has been pulling back the construction walls to reveal more and more of the next phase of the Fantasyland expansion at the Magic Kingdom. And now I'm hearing from several sources that some of the locations within the new Fantasyland are soft-opening to guests.

    Gaston's Tavern
    Photo courtesy Disney

    Disney's announced an official Dec. 6 opening date of the new land, with an official soft open (isn't that an oxymoron?) on Nov. 19. Annual passholders can sign up starting at noon Eastern on Monday, Oct. 15, to get in even earlier - for special AP-only previews on Sat. Nov. 3 and 10, and Sun., Nov. 11.

    Welcome to world of theme parks, where the word "open" is as hard to pin down as the Cheshire Cat.

    Anyway, we'd love to hear your reviews and see your photos should you be among the lucky ones to get in to any of these new locations early. Follow these links:

    I'm going to go ahead and list these locations as open so that people who've been there can submit ratings and reviews. But if you haven't yet visited, please, do not submit a review. On attraction and restaurant pages, we want to hear from people who've experienced them first-hand. Everyone else is welcomed to talk about these new locations here, or on the discussion board.

    In other news, Dec. 6 is also the official reopening day for the revamped Test Track at Epcot, though I'm hearing soft opens before that date are likely, too.

    Update (Oct. 15): Here's a new video from Disney showing off Be Our Guest:

    Comments (13) | Archive Link

    SeaWorld San Diego to remake its entry plaza as 'Explorer's Reef'

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 10, 2012 at 6:11 PM

    SeaWorld San Diego today announced a multi-million-dollar makeover for the park's entrance. When complete in 2014, visitors will enter the park under a giant wave, which will lead them into a new three-acre entrance plaza called "Explorer's Reef."

    New SeaWorld entry
    All concept art is courtesy SeaWorld

    From the park's press release:

    The new front gate concept will replace the existing ticket booths with a beach-themed, concierge-style ticketing area that will provide guests with a single location to purchase admission, as well as sign up for tours, animal interactions and dining experiences. Also eliminated will be the glass window between the guests and park's ticketing service representatives, creating a more open and personal experience.

    Inside the park, once visitors have passed under the wave sculpture, they will enter Explorer's Reef, designed to look like they're walking on the bottom of the ocean.

    Explorer's Reef

    The redesigned entry plaza will feature four "touch pools," where visitors can make contact with a variety of marine creatures.

    Explorer's Reef touch pool

    Both saltwater and freshwater, the 24,000-gallon touch pools will allow guests to connect with sea life in an intimate way. Four hundred brown-banded and white-spotted bamboo sharks, as well as more than 4,000 cleaner fish will highlight the interaction experience. The number of fish in the touch pools will total nearly 5,000.

    New SeaWorld retail

    Explorer's Reef also will feature an open-air marketplace for retail and food and beverage locations.

    Snack shop

    SeaWorld rebuilt the entrance of its Orlando park several years ago, to generally good reviews. And Disney just showed with its Buena Vista Street makeover of California Adventure's entrance how changing an entry plaza can improve the overall feel of a park. Ultimately, though, aesthetics are just part of the experience. I'm thinking of the touch pools as the entry plaza "meet and greet" so common in other theme parks, this time featuring the real stars of SeaWorld - the marine creatures themselves. That would give the land a solid attraction to make the park a nicer experience for visitors. And I love the idea of replacing the ticket windows with something more open and helpful. But the park also will need improved retail and especially dining to make Explorer's Reef the kind of comfortable, engaging place where you want to hang around a while. (The inclusion of vending machines on the concept art for the dining leaves me a bit skeptical on that count, I'll admit….) Long term, I'd also like to see the park do more to create a "hang around" space on the bay front at the back of the park, too.

    SeaWorld will build a temporary entrance, to the right of the existing entrance, for visitors to access the park while it builds the new entryway. The new gate and entry plaza will open in March 2014.

    Thoughts?

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    Tip of the week: Go without now to get what you want later

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 9, 2012 at 3:58 PM

    I suspected, when I wrote last week's tip about getting a passport, that some readers would bring up cost. Not just the cost of getting a passport ($100+), but of paying for a trip outside the country (more than that), too.

    Allow me to suggest that anyone reading this post has the money for both a passport and a trip abroad. The trouble is you're probably spending that money on something else. :^(

    So let's share some ideas on how you can stop spending money on stuff you don't really need - so you'll have that money available to spend on the stuff you really want. Please add your tips in the comments.

    On the train in France
    Let's travel!

    Car payments

    Let's start with a long view. For many people, the car payment's the biggest check you write each month after your mortgage or rent payment. But it's the easiest one to mine over the long haul for vacation money. Here's what you do: Drive your current car into the ground. Don't trade it in for a new car (and a new loan) after you've paid it off. Keep driving it for as long you can, until the a repair bill comes in that's greater than the remaining value of the car. That's when you'll know it's time to buy.

    Here's the trick, though. Keep making your payments in the meantime, even after your current car is all yours. You won't make the payments to the bank, of course. You'll make them to yourself, by putting the money into a savings account.

    Once the car's dead, if you've driven it for several extra years, you'll likely have enough money in the bank to pay cash for a new (or slightly used) and fuel-efficient car. (Save at the pump, too.) You might even have some money left over. If you do - that's your trip money! Keep stashing cash every month, and you'll be able to pay cash for your next car, too. And the car after that, and after that. You'll never have to pay interest on a car loan again. And, the leftover money - the cash each month that would have gone toward loan interest - will be yours to pay for theme park trips.

    Pay TV

    Okay, I live in Southern California, where I get more than 60 high-def TV channels over the air, free. When I want to watch movies or cable TV shows, I turn to Netflix or Hulu. (Amazon Prime's another option.) I watch ESPN online. What I don't do is pay for cable or satellite TV. Even with the Netflix cost, that still saves me hundreds of dollars a year that I can spend on other entertainment I like more than "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo." If travel is more important to you than the Travel Channel, try going without cable or satellite for a few months. Worst comes to worst, someone will give you a sweet "introductory" deal to get you back if you can't hold out, saving you some bucks on the monthly TV bill.

    Food and drinks

    Going out to lunch on a workday? Pack a lunch instead. Cook and freeze meals on the weekend so you won't have to go out when you're busy during the week. It's cheaper. Gotta go out? Get a glass of (free) water instead of buying a drink. Buy a reusable water bottle and refill it, instead of buying bottled drinks. Cutting soda out of your life will save you money, calories, and weight. What's not to like about that? Brew a cup of coffee at home and skip the trip to the coffee store, too. Saving five bucks a workday on soda, coffee or lunch adds up to $1,250 a year. You can get a round-trip air ticket between Chicago to Tokyo and a two-day Tokyo Disney passport for less than that. DisneySea, here you come!

    Play the rewards game

    This tip's for advanced savers. If you can pay off your credit card every month, go ahead and get yourself a rewards card that helps you get points or credits for your theme park trips. Airline or hotel-branded cards, or affinity cards from Disney or Universal, can help you get points with each purchase, and often throw in another bunch of points for signing up. These cards can be good deals only if you avoid high interest charges by paying in full each month. Many cards will hit you with a high annual fee after the first year, so make sure that the benefits you'll be getting are worth that cost. But 30,000 free airline miles can buy you a free trip round-trip ticket at certain times of the year, right there.

    For more travel tips, please visit our 100 Travel Tips for Visiting Theme Parks and How to get the best deals on theme park tickets pages.

    Comments (12) | Archive Link

    Attraction of the week: Sindbad's Storybook Voyage at Tokyo DisneySea

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 8, 2012 at 4:07 PM

    Now this is what I love in a theme park attraction: Great storytelling, a lively, original musical score I'll be humming for the rest of the day, and 10+ minutes riding through in a dark, air-conditioned show building. Why can't theme park companies build rides like that anymore?

    Well, they can, and they do. You just have to fly to Asia to ride them. :^(

    The Giant in Sindbad's Storybook Voyage

    Our Attraction of the Week this week is Sindbad's Storybook Voyage, from Tokyo DisneySea. You'll follow Sindbad the sailor and his tiger cub, Chandu, as they sail from their home port to Mermaid Rocks, then on to Rukh Island, the Cave of the Giant, the Palace of the Sultan, the Land of the Monkeys, and finally to Whale Straits, before returning home. Along the way, you'll find some of the largest animatronic figures anywhere, creating an awe-inspiring scale that's unmatched in any other dark ride, including Pirates of the Caribbean.

    Like Pirates, Sindbad's Storybook Voyage is built around an original song, this time by Alan Menken. The ride's "The Compass of Your Heart" will burrow into your ear and stick there long after the flight home. Have a listen:

    Sindbad's Storybook Voyage debuted in Spring 2007, replacing the original Sindbad's Seven Voyages ride that opened with the park in 2001. (The song premiered in the 2007 revamp.) Found in the Arabian Coast land of Tokyo DisneySea, Sindbad's Storybook Voyage does not appear at any other Disney theme park, and along with other unique attractions such as Journey to the Center of the Earth and Aquatopia, has helped push Tokyo DisneySea to the title of World's Best Theme Park in this year's Theme Park Insider Awards.

    While that shows Sindbad's got some fans, I don't think this ride yet has enough. I know it's based on a public-domain character, and not a trademarked Disney princess, but I wish that Disney could find a home for Sindbad at Walt Disney World. Or, at least, for a ride of the same scale and ambition.

    Comments (17) | Archive Link

    Developers look east of London for new theme park plan

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 8, 2012 at 12:55 PM

    I've grown so skeptical about announcements of new theme parks that I hesitate to post stories about them anymore. (See, Dubai) But here goes anyway. A French cement firm and a British developer have announced that they will build a US$3.2 billion theme park on the site of what used to be a large cement works east of London.

    The park would be built in north Kent, between Dartford and Gravesend, just south of the Thames River and adjacent to the Ebbsfleet International train station. The developers have signed a licensing deal with Paramount Pictures to create a Paramount-themed studio park on the site, where the developers also plan hotels, restaurants, and a water park.

    Opening date? 2018. But the developers are still looking for investors, and for government approval and financial support. So excuse me if I don't get too excited just yet. Unlike Disney or Universal, Paramount no longer has a theme park creative team, so any developer licensing with Paramount would still need to hook up with a design firm to create the theme park. I've not yet heard any word about designers that might be working with this group. Paramount's got some interesting IP, but as I've said before, it's the not the franchises you have as much as what you do with them that's important for theme parks.

    Thoughts?

    Comments (8) | Archive Link

    Vote of the week: What's the best Simpsons-themed restaurant?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 6, 2012 at 12:48 PM

    Following up on our post about Universal Studios Hollywood, we talked about adding new themed restaurants to the park. One of Universal's strongest franchise themes is The Simpsons, and rumors are flying that Universal's expanding The Simpsons' footprint in Orlando to take over the International Film Festival building, which might become a Simpsons-themed restaurant.

    The Simpsons' Springfield abounds with restaurants depicted in the TV show and movie, so it would make sense to recreate one of those for a Simpsons-themed restaurant, to go next to The Simpsons Ride in either or both Universal Studios Florida and Universal Studios Hollywood. But which restaurant should get the honor? That's our Vote of the Week.

    The Pimento Grove dining room

    I've selected five finalists. Krusty Burger and Moe's seemed obvious, given how often they appear on the show. Lard Lad would be a wonderfully silly icon to have in the park. I added The Frying Dutchman because I love the episode where Homer goes to court over an all-you-can-eat buffet, plus I'm a sucker for seafood restaurants. Finally, I picked The Pimento Grove because I'd argued that USH needed a table service restaurant, and who wouldn't love to see Universal take another shot at Disney by lampooning a Brown Derby-style restaurant? Just imagine all those celebrity "photos" on the walls, done in the style of Simpsons animation.


    Tell us your vision for an expanded Simpsons land, in the comments. And thank you again for reading Theme Park Insider.

    Comments (15) | Archive Link

    What makes an entertainment franchise great?

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 5, 2012 at 3:47 PM

    Once in a while, the Harry Potter vs. Star Wars debate flares up on Theme Park Insider, as it did this week in our Fix This Park feature on Universal Studios Hollywood. To me, the most interesting thing about this argument is the essential question it raises: What makes one entertainment franchise better than another?

    Daniel Radcliffe and the opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter
    Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, opens the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal's Islands of Adventure in June 2010, with Rupert Grint, left, and Warwick Davis.

    Allow me to suggest a simple answer: The better franchise is the one that entertains and engages the larger number of people over the longer period of time. The best franchises don't just hit with people for a year or two - they endure across generations, as new readers and viewers each year discover the characters and stories in that franchise.

    In short, check with me in 30 years, and I'll tell you which turned out to be the better franchise.

    That said, let's take a look at the top five all-time entertainment franchises, in U.S. box office receipts and books sold, to see who our "best franchise" candidates might be:

    For movies:

    1. Harry Potter
    2. Star Wars
    3. Batman
    4. Avengers
    5. James Bond

    And for books:

    1. Harry Potter
    2. Goosebumps
    3. Peter Rabbit
    4. Lord of the Rings
    5. Chronicles of Narnia

    Harry Potter tops both lists, with 450 million books sold and more than $2.4 billion in domestic gross. Figure a conservative $8 a ticket, and that's 300 million tickets sold.

    That's three quarters of a billion paid customers. Pretty impressive. But I know an entertainment franchise that's drawn even more paid eyeballs over the past decade and a half that Harry Potter's been filling his Gringotts vault:

    The Walt Disney theme parks.

    With 121 million visitors last year, according to TEA/AECOM, the Disney theme parks drew nearly three times its nearest competitor (Merlin) and more than its next four competitors combined (Merlin, Universal, Parques Reunidos, and Six Flags). And with an average of more than 100 million visitors a year over the past decade, it's conceivable that more people have visited a Disney theme park than own a Harry Potter book or have seen a Harry Potter movie. (You'd need to know repeat customers for both to know for sure.) Throw in all the visitors to Disney Parks before Potter burst onto the scene, and the score isn't even close.

    Which brings me to my point: The popularity of an entertainment franchise isn't nearly as important to a theme park as what the park does with that franchise. Fat lot of good the Batman franchise has done for Six Flags, which failed to place any of its parks among the top 15 North American theme parks for annual attendance last year. Does anyone remember Goosebumps at the SeaWorld family of parks? Or James Bond in Paramount Parks?

    If you click through to the complete list of top movie franchises, you'll find occupying the eighth spot Pirates of the Caribbean, a franchise launched by a Disney theme park attraction. So when it comes to theme parks and entertainment franchises, Disney's parks drive franchises - not the other way around.

    So does Harry Potter matter? Of course it does. Harry Potter went to Universal, not to Disney. That influx of Potter fans has allowed Universal to introduce itself to millions of new customers, and the income Universal's earned from them is allowing the company to expand its parks around the world. But if Universal Creative hadn't hit one over the fences with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, that franchise would have done as much for Universal as the Dark Knight Coaster did for the Six Flags park - zilch.

    Ultimately, as we're trying to guess the long-term impact on theme parks, it doesn't matter how successful a franchise has been in other media. It matters only how well that franchise is developed within the parks, and how much people want to keep coming back to experience those attractions, again and again, over the years.

    Harry Potter's a great franchise for Universal not because it's sold a ton of books and movie tickets. It's a great franchise because it has inspired and enabled Universal Creative to do some awesome work. If some other franchise does the same for Disney, or SeaWorld, or Six Flags, or Universal again, well, then that's a great entertainment franchise, too.

    Comments (24) | Archive Link

    Fix this theme park: Universal Studios Hollywood

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 3, 2012 at 4:05 PM

    Last week, the Los Angeles Planning Commission approved Universal Studios Hollywood's proposed $1.6 billion studio and theme park expansion (half a billion bucks more than Disney California Adventure's rebuild). Named Evolution, the project will include:

    Evolution plan

    • 337,895 net new square feet [of] attractions at Universal Studios Hollywood theme park
    • 39,000 net new square feet of retail and dining options at the theme park and CityWalk
    • Two new hotels and the option to replace amphitheatre with a smaller venue

    Looking at the plan's concept map, and overlaying it on a Google Map of the same area, more detail emerges. If the plan goes forward as now drawn up, we'll be getting:

    • New parking and/or attraction facilities east of Universal Studios Blvd, on an existing surface lot and old recreation area north of Buddy Holly Drive
    • An expansion of CityWalk and parking to the north and east of CityWalk's current eastern end
    • A new 500-room hotel, built west of the existing Frankenstein parking structure, on the north side of Universal Hollywood Drive
    • Addition hotel/attraction/retail development on the VIP surface parking lots south of the park entrance
    • New attractions on the sites of Waterworld, the Gibson Ampitheatre, Special Effects Stage and Terminator 2:3D
    • New attraction space on the current tram tour station site
    • A new tram tour station, down the hill from the existing station

    Consensus suggests that Waterworld (and possibly the Gibson) will become the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter. But what else does this park need to become not just a must-see on a Southern California vacation (which it is already), but a go-to place for frequent repeat visits, by visitors and locals alike, the way the Disneyland theme parks now are?

    Unlike every other major theme park in America, Universal Studios Hollywood wasn't the product of designers working on a empty lot, building a design created on a blank sheet of paper. The theme park evolved around Universal's long-standing production lot in the hills above Los Angeles. Constrained between production facilities and unforgiving mountain geography, Universal Studios Hollywood lacks the hub-and-spoke or central lagoon design that define so many other theme parks. It meanders across a mountain top, with a second level below, accessible via a series of massive escalators.

    Universal's most recent major overhaul of its property led to CityWalk, which finally gave the property the table-service dining, extensive retail and "places to just hang out" that the old studio-tour-and-show-theaters theme park lacked. But while CityWalk was revolutionary in the 1990s, by now, everyone's copied CityWalk. Rick Caruso's Grove and Americana at Brand duplicate the CityWalk experience, while being closer to many LA-area residents and offering much less expensive parking. This time around, Universal needs to improve the "hanging out" experience inside the park, with uniquely themed dining and retail experiences that outdoor malls such as the Grove can't match.

    So for me, I hope that Evolution includes at least one table-service restaurant inside the park, something Universal Studios Hollywood now conspicuously lacks. But the park needs better variety in menus throughout the park, inspired by new, neighboring themed attractions. Ultimately, I think that unique dining does more to lure repeat visits from locals than anything else a park can offer. Sure, I like riding the rides and seeing the shows. But even the best attractions grow a little stale after several dozen times through. Great food, though, is always great food, and while I can go a day without theme park entertainment, it's real hard to go a day without eating.

    USH's lack of unique food gives me fewer reasons to visit the park, even though I have an annual pass and live just 15 minutes away. The high parking prices and lack of an evening parking benefit on APs usually steers me toward Americana at Brand when I want to see a movie, since I can park there for no more than a couple bucks and the drive distance is a little shorter.

    Put a Wizarding World of Harry Potter in USH, however, and the game changes. Give me a Three Broomsticks and Butterbeer, and now I have something unique to draw me to Universal. Create more themed lands with unique shopping and dining, such as a Madagascar area, or an expanded Simpsons land with a Moe's Tavern or a Frying Dutchman, and I'll have even more reasons to visit. Add a day-long free parking benefit for annual passholders, and Universal might win back some of the dinner-and-a-movie crowd that's flocking to places like Americana, as well.

    Since Universal ditched plans to add housing to its Evolution plan, local opposition has evaporated. Unless there's an economic meltdown, this plan is going to happen, in some form or another. But with the details still to be filled in, what are you wishing for as Universal fixes this theme park?

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    Tip of the week: Get a passport - before you need it

    By Robert Niles
    Published: October 2, 2012 at 2:43 PM

    Do you love travel? Do you like to think about all the different places you could visit? Are you always "planning" trips, even ones you might never take?

    Help make your travel dreams move closer to reality by taking a few moments to get yourself the single most important thing a traveler owns - a passport.

    Passports
    With passports, the Niles family is ready to travel.

    Yeah, I've heard your excuses. You can't afford to travel outside the country. Or, maybe you think you could save up the money someday, but you've got plenty of time before you'll need one. But let me counter with this: Having a passport in your drawer - ready to go - changes the way you think about travel. It allows you to seriously consider possibilities that existed only as fantasies before.

    Without the passport, there's no way an American is visiting Tokyo Disney, Efteling, or Universal Studios Singapore. So that's one more thing keeping you from getting serious about setting aside the cash, making a budget, or checking prices to plan a trip outside the country. Chicken, meet egg. (And vice versa, of course.) Get the passport, and you've eliminated one more excuse that's keeping you from planning the trip that, let's face it, as a theme park fan you probably really, really wish you could take.

    Let me frame this for the science geeks out there. It's all about Newton's First Law of Motion: If you're an object at rest - sitting at home without a passport - you're not going anywhere. If you're an object in motion - say, a traveler with a passport - you're going to stay in motion until something stops you.

    Very few of us are going anywhere right now, in early October. So keep your travel juices flowing during your stay-at-home time by starting the process to get yourself a passport right now, if you haven't gotten one already. And if you do have a passport, go get it and check the expiration date. If you're within a year of its expiration, renew it.

    A first-time passport will cost you $135 (it's $105 for kids under 16). Don't bother with the cheaper passport card - it's only good for land crossings or cruise sailings to Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean. If you want to fly anywhere, or see the rest of the world, you'll need the real deal - a passport book. Get it, and I'll bet you'll soon start looking for an excuse to use it. Then you'll be traveling, which you love, right?

    And one more thing, if you live in a state that's trying to enact a voter ID law, passports are the world's ultimate form of identification. I've found that passports always are accepted as ID - anywhere. Don't bother settling for some state-issued, non-driver's license photo ID. Invest in a passport instead, and you'll buy yourself admission to the rest of the world.

    For more travel tips, visit Theme Park Insider's 100 Travel Tips for Visiting Theme Parks.

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    Attraction of the week: Silver Dollar City's Marvel Cave

    By James Rao
    Published: October 1, 2012 at 2:33 PM

    Looking for an unusual theme park attraction? How about a visit deep inside the Earth, into a cave?

    Not a fake, plaster-over-chicken-wire job, but a real limestone cave, which lies underneath the park? That's what you'll find when you visit the Marvel Cave Tour at Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri. This cave tour and the Marvel Cave itself (which sits directly beneath part of the park) are so important that, without them, SDC would not exist today.

    Marvel Cave sign

    Paraphrased from the Silver Dollar City website:

    Around 1500 AD, the Osage Indians were the first to discover Marvel Cave. Hearing strange noises rising from deep within the entrance, the Indians feared the cave and named it The Devil's Den.

    In 1869, a group of explorers descended into the cave looking for priceless mineral deposits. The explorers failed to discover the ore they sought, but were convinced that marble could be found inside the cave. Their report sparked the interest of locals who decided to rename the cave, Marble Cave. However, the only thing ever mined from the cave was bat guano (used for fertilizer and gunpowder, among other things).

    Another Marvel Cave sign

    In 1894, William Henry Lynch and his two daughters, Miriam and Genevieve, opened the cave as an Ozarks tourist attraction. After Mr. Lynch's death in 1927, the cave's name was changed to its present moniker.

    By the late 1940s, Marvel Cave was drawing over 5,000 visitors a year. In 1950, Hugo Herschend, his wife Mary and sons Jack and Peter, leased the cave for 99 years. They eventually added a custom-designed train to carry folks back to the surface and were further inspired to create an authentic replica of an old time Ozark Mountain community. By the end of 1960, Silver Dollar City was born.

    Cave tours depart approximately every 40 minutes and last about an hour (depending on the size of the group and the number of questions folks have), with most of that time spent traversing nearly 600 stairs into and out of the depths of the Earth.

    Marvel Cave map

    A trained cave guide hosts the journey and provides visitors with anecdotes of historical or geological importance. The tour guide has a somewhat scripted spiel, but it varies widely depending on how extensively people participate in the adventure. If there are a lot of questions or comments, these superlative tour guides know enough stories and facts to make every tour a somewhat unique experience. I have taken this tour countless times over the past few years, and each time I have learned something new.

    (Please note: all those who wish to experience a Marvel Cave tour should be in decent health, with no phobias about cramped places, heights, the dark, or bats! Also, one should never eat a full meal or drink a gallon of water just before embarking as there is nowhere along the tour to relieve yourself!)

    Bat in Marvel Cave

    When the tour finally begins (after many lawyerly required warnings and cautions) you head down a long, long flight of stairs into the Cathedral Room, one of the largest cave entrance rooms in the United States.

    Entering the cave

    Cathedral Room

    It is so large that it can house the Statue of Liberty with room to spare! And, if you visit during the Christmas Festival this spacious room is fully decked out with Christmas lights that form a gigantic Christmas tree when viewed from the floor of the chamber. It is a breathtaking illumination to say the least.

    Once the tour is at the base of the Cathedral Room, a photo is taken of your family, which can be purchased at the end of the tour if you so desire. If I remember correctly, the cost is about $20 for a nice portrait, although the price is sometimes discounted (especially during Lantern Tours – more later).

    The journey continues as you wind your way through various passages and rooms in 60 degree coolness (during the summer) and 60 degree warmth (during the winter).

    Inside the cave

    Cave features

    Overall, the cave is breathtakingly beautiful, meticulously maintained, and simply awe inspiring.

    Cave waterfall

    Enjoy the adventure… and watch your head!

    When the tour finally emerges back into the light of day, a cable train takes cave visitors back to the surface.

    Cable train to surface

    However, if the train breaks down you do get an added bonus as you are required to reverse direction and hike the same 600 stairs back to the tour entrance! Sadly, I have never been lucky enough to have the cable train break down!

    For an extra charge ($10.00 for adults and $5.00 for kids ages 8-11), Silver Dollar City offers a Lantern Light Tour where up to 20 visitors can experience the Marvel Cave the old fashioned way, without electricity. During this tour, all the normal recessed lighting in the cave is turned off, and the only light is provided by dimly lit, battery powered lanterns. The tour takes an extended route through the cave, winding through seldom visited areas, and providing additional time for the tour guide to provide details, offer insights, and even relate ghost stories that often scare the you-know-what out of several participants.

    The Marvel Cave Tour is an outstanding attraction, well worth an hour of your time. It is a unique experience at a theme park, and something that should not be missed when you visit Silver Dollar City.

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