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November 2012

Vote of the week: Airing of grievances about The American Adventure

By Robert Niles
Published: November 30, 2012 at 10:41 AM

The season of Festivus is upon us, so it's time for the annual Airing of Grievances. I'll be airing more grievances as the month goes on, focusing on problems that theme parks ought to be fixing, but haven't yet. Some of these are simply missed opportunities. Others are actual embarrassments. Let's start today with one of those.

The finale of Epcot's The American Adventure show past its expiration date years ago. Today, it's grown into an embarrassment. Sorry, Disney, but Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong no longer illustrate America's "golden dreams," as even Disney Legend and Imagineer Marty Sklar pointed out this month during the industry's annual IAAPA conference. Former Imagineer Rick Rothschild agreed, saying at the same event that Golden Dreams is supposed to be updated every 10 years, and this version is going on 12 years now.

The American Adventure
Epcot's The American Adventure

Many years ago, when the tanker Exxon Valdez dumped its oil on the Alaskan shore, Disney moved swiftly to cut a reference to the ship from the preshow at the then-Exxon-sponsored Universe of Energy pavilion. Disney's waited too long to respond to the public humiliations of Woods and Armstrong. Disney ought to save itself further embarrassment and close this show - today. Give Eric Jacobsen, the Imagineer charged with overseeing Epcot, the money he needs to pull together a team of film editors to cut a new ending to the montage and install it ASAP - before Christmas vacation starts.

What do you think?

Let's hear your thoughts on "Golden Dreams," in the comments.

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Hotel Spotlight: Sleep with the fishes in Singapore

By Robert Niles
Published: November 28, 2012 at 9:28 PM

Theme Park Insider readers love Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge, in part because of the many rooms where visitors can see animals from the theme park's safari exhibits grazing right outside their window. Now, for all you wildlife lovers out there, how about a hotel room with a floor-to-ceiling window looking at upon 70 species of sea creatures?

Ocean Suite at Singapore's Equarius Hotel
Photo courtesy Resorts World Sentosa

How would you like to sleep with the fishes? (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

Singapore's Resorts World Sentosa, home of Universal Studios Singapore, has just opened 11 Ocean Suites at the resort's Equarius Hotel. The suites are two-story rooms with the aquarium view on the lower level. They're pricey - S$2400 (US$1,963) a night, plus tax, but that includes 24-hour butler service throughout your stay.

Your window to the sea actually looks out into the world's biggest aquarium exhibit, the 12-million-gallon S.E.A. Aquarium in Resorts World Sentosa's new Marine Life Park, which just opened this month.

The rainforest-themed Equarius Hotel is located on the other side of the resort from Universal Studios Singapore, but Resorts World Sentosa is only about 120-some acres in size (the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World is 107 acres), so it's an easy walk to get anywhere in the resort, which also includes one of Asia's most popular casinos, five other hotels and a luxury shopping mall, with shops such as Versace, Rolex and Jimmy Choo.

So, yeah, it's nice. And for this price, it'd better be.

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Monsieur Paul will open at Epcot's France pavilion Dec. 10

By Scott Joseph
Published: November 28, 2012 at 9:22 PM

The shuttered Bistro de Paris at Epcot's France pavilion will reopen Dec. 10 as Monsieur Paul, an homage to Paul Bocuse. Bocuse is considered by many to be the first celebrity chef. More details at scottjosephorlando.com.

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Theme Park Insider Contest: Write an attraction backstory

By Robert Niles
Published: November 27, 2012 at 1:52 PM

Last week, Disney announced a new backstory for its Big Thunder Mountain Railroad rides. According to the "new" legend (is such a thing even possible? I guess so…), the mountain's gold mine is the property of Barnabas T. Bullion:

Disney portrait of Barnabas T. Bullion

"The longtime mining magnate comes from a powerful East Coast family and considers gold to be his very birthright by virtue of his oddly appropriate name; in fact, he considers the ultimate gold strike to be his destiny. And that is why he is having so much trouble with Big Thunder Mountain. According to superstitious locals, Big Thunder Mountain is very protective of the gold it holds within, and the unfortunate soul who attempts to mine its riches is destined to fail. And so far that prophecy is coming to pass. The mine has been plagued by mysterious forces and natural disasters ever since."

Devoted theme park fans might notice that ol' Barnabas looks a lot like Disney Imagineer Tony Baxter. The new backstory will provide material for the interactive queue that Disney's installing at the Magic Kingdom in Florida. Perhaps the portrait's also a good-bye tribute to Baxter, who's said to be nearing retirement.

All this gets me thinking - I wonder what other theme park attractions (Disney or not) could use a fresh backstory? And I wonder what some clever Theme Park Insider readers could devise?

Hey, it's time for a contest!

Submit in the comments your best narrative for an original backstory to any existing theme park attraction. Be funny, scary, informative, or just really snarky. For whichever one I like best, I'll let its author select a prize from the TPI Prize Vault.

Theme Park Insider prizes

We've got Theme Park Insider T-shirts (in sizes S-XL for women and S-L for men), signed copied of Stories from a Theme Park Insider, and a couple of limited-edition theme park souvenirs: Two copies of the full-color photo book of the new Disney California Adventure that Disneyland sent its annual passholders earlier this year, and one copy of the souvenir "New Fantasyland" edition of the Eyes & Ears cast member magazine from the Walt Disney World Resort. If you write the best backstory, you get to pick which prize you want. Heck, if more than one story really impresses me, I'll pick more than one winner. The contest is open to Theme Park Insider readers in the United States, Canada and the European Union. (I don't know enough about contest laws to open it up to readers in other countries.) If you're not a registered TPI reader, you'll need to include your name and email address in the comment, so I know how to contact you if you win.

Have at it!

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Walmart, theme parks and the culture of violence in public spaces

By Robert Niles
Published: November 27, 2012 at 10:07 AM

I saw this video over the weekend, and it's been bugging me ever since:

The melee starts at 1:26. Yep, it's a Black Friday video, of people fighting over cheap headphones at a Walmart. You can find plenty to offend you in this video - obviously, the customers, and maybe even the guy who brought his kids along to record the scene.

But what really bothered me was… Walmart. It's bad enough when retailers don't plan for early arrivals crowding the doors when a store opens in the morning. That's not what happened in this video. Walmart set aside a display of merchandise in an already-open store and waited for a crowd to gather around before unveiling it. Predictably, the completely unmanaged crowd tore the display apart, fighting with one another over the merchandise as they did.

I've got to wonder: was this negligence - Walmart's inability to predict what would happen when they unveiled a display of underpriced items in a crowded store? Or was it deliberate - an attempt to incite a crowd, to create a buzz of excitement in its store?

Let's contrast this with another big crowd of eager consumers from earlier this year, one many readers of this site will remember.

Reopening of Disney California Adventure

The difference between how Walmart treats its customers and Disney treated its guests at the opening of Cars Land couldn't be greater. While Walmart left its customers to fight like animals over its newly-released merchandise, Disney walked its customers through the park to the newly opened Radiator Springs Racers ride, where even more Disney cast members were waiting to escort the crowd through an orderly line.

Walking to the opening of Cars Land

Whenever I opened an attraction at Walt Disney World, we were to "walk the line" down into the ride - to discourage the type of mob behavior we've seen at places like Walmart. In the days before Fastpass eliminated two queues at Big Thunder Mountain, whenever we opened the second queue we'd note which guest was passing through the turnstiles in the already-opened queue. Then we'd walk people through the empty queue, keeping pace with that guest in the other queue, so that the first party we were walking through the newly-opened queue would arrive at the load platform as the same time as that other guest we'd been watching. No one got to cut ahead. No one rushed the queue. We had to take 10 minutes of a cast member's (i.e. the company's) time to do this, but we took that extra time so that everyone would be treated fairly and the situation would remain safe, calm and orderly for all.

In other words, we treated our customers like human beings - not like a pack of angry dogs.

Of course, Disney's not perfect. I've seen plenty of cast members skimp on walking down a line, doing it for a few moments before letting the crowd rush ahead. Morning rope drops can be frightening when cast members don't try to manage the crowd. But there's a huge difference between a crowd at a rope drop dispersing into a huge theme park and a crowd in a Walmart parking lot trying to cram through narrow doorways. And there's a huge difference between companies that try to create systems to manage crowds and those which don't even bother.

One of my themes on this website is that every time you spend your money, you vote with your dollars for the type of businesses you want. That's why I go out of my way - from Singapore to Santa Claus - trying to find the very best experiences and service in the theme park business. I want to encourage you to spend your money with companies that value you, as well as your business.

Businesses that serve large crowds have a choice in how they address those customers. They can go cheap, skimp on leadership, and leave the crowd to itself, running the risk that people will descend into a culture of violence. Or they can invest in employees, provide leadership through design, and actively promote a culture of civility.

They have their choice, and you have yours. You get to decide which type of businesses we will have. You vote with your dollars. The businesses that get those dollars stay in business, and those don't - won't.

So when you're spending your money this holiday season - or anytime else - think about the ways that companies treat you and other people (customers and employees). I hope that you'll decide to take your money and your business to companies that treat people with the respect that human beings deserve.

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No more souvenir balloons at Tokyo Disney

By Robert Niles
Published: November 26, 2012 at 4:04 PM

Disney fans in Japan who want to buy a souvenir balloon on their next visit to the Tokyo Disney Resort are out of luck. Tokyo Disney has suspended the sale of helium character balloons, effective last Wednesday.

Balloon in Tokyo Disneyland
No more of these at Tokyo Disneyland, at least for a while

Why? A worldwide shortage of helium. The United States produces the majority of the world's helium, which is why balloons remain available at Disney's U.S. theme parks (though expensive - $15 at last check at Walt Disney World Resort). But in Japan, which imports almost all of its helium, supplies are running short. That's why Tokyo Disney's stopped sales.

Looking through my pictures from last December's trip to the Tokyo Disney Resort, I didn't see that many people with the character balloons. The cold weather might have had something to do with that, but balloons didn't seem to be nearly as popular with Disney's Japanese visitors as were souvenir character popcorn buckets or anything with Duffy - Japan's favorite Disney character. Cut off sales of those, and Tokyo Disney might have some problems on its hands.

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Dragons Discovered at New Fantasyland?

By Skipper Adam
Published: November 26, 2012 at 9:55 AM

Okay, as a Cast Member, I'm filtered through layers of nondisclosure agreements, but that this point I can point out evidence. There has been a viral like campaign on Disney websites for the new Fantasyland. The most oddball is a source releasing documents from the late 1860's of a discovery of a dragon egg at the construction site.

Combine that with a handful of reports of a strange fire breathing ultralight aircraft being tested in California nearby a hanger rented out by WDI...

Well, Jim Hill best sums up what I can't say, but am encouraged to hint at.

While not an attraction, this sure gives the New Fantasyland an edge. But one must look further, and this is speculation, but the rumor is that the Princess meet and greet opening next year isn't there permanently, but rather another walk through is planned. And even if that's not the case, there is plenty of room all over to squeeze in a dragon like they have at Disneyland Paris.

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Theme Park Insider's 2012 Holiday Shopping Links

By Robert Niles
Published: November 23, 2012 at 12:56 PM

The best places to get the widest selection of theme park merchandise remain inside the parks themselves. But if you can't get to the parks between now and Christmas (or whenever you're next sending out presents), all the major chains sell a selection of their merchandise online.

Personally, I like to go for the more subtle souvenirs. Hey, I love theme parks, but I don't want to make my home look like an episode of "Hoarders: Disney Edition." My favorite theme park-related items have been my Mickey Mouse watch (an awesome, self-winding version that I can't find on sale anywhere anymore - otherwise I would have linked it for you) and a Disney Cross pen, which I just lost on my recent trip to Orlando. (I've asked Santa for a suitable replacement. I love skinny, heavy pens.)

Gryffindor ScarfHere are links to each of the top parks' online merchandise stores, along with some suggestions:

I like Universal Orlando's online store best. It offers a nice selection of items, without too much clutter. If I lived in a colder place than southern California, I'd have my eye on the Gru scarf [$21.95], a subtle but fun tribute to the star of "Despicable Me."

SeaWorld's ShamuShop offers a fairly limited selection, but if you're looking for animal plush, you'll find plenty of options. I'd suggest Turtle: The Incredible Journey Blu-Ray [$24.95], which is a great example of the nature documentary work I'd love to see more of from SeaWorld.

The Big Kid in online theme park retail is, of course, Disney Parks, which offers thousands of items online via DisneyStore.com. But even Disney's online offerings represent only a small fraction of what you can find in the parks themselves. If you want any of the really cool new stuff from Cars Land or Buena Vista Street, you'll have to go to Anaheim, or call Disney's merchandise guest services phone number, (877) 560-6477 6am to 5pm M-F. If you don't know what you want, and are looking for deals, start your search on DisneyStore.com by visiting its special offers page.Stories from a Theme Park Insider

Of course, for the perfect theme park gift for the theme park fan in your life (or to put on your holiday wish list), "Stories from a Theme Park Insider" is available in a print edition [$7.99] this holiday season. It's a great read for theme park fans, especially fans who want a fun-and-sometimes touching, insider's look at working at Walt Disney World. If you're getting a Kindle or tablet reader with a Kindle app, the popular eBook edition [$2.99] remains available, too.

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Vote of the week: Giving thanks for theme parks, and for theme park fans

By Robert Niles
Published: November 21, 2012 at 9:59 AM

This Thanksgiving, I am thankful that...

…Universal Orlando has chosen to put so many of the millions it's earned from Harry Potter back into its theme parks - bringing Transformers to Orlando, building an immersive new Simpsons land, and expanding the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Universal Studios Florida. I hope Universal will provide a compelling example to other theme park companies in the years ahead, reminding them that - if you spend money for attractions of the highest quality, you'll earn that money back, and profits beyond.

I'm also thankful for the Three Broomsticks' fish n' chips and Butterbeer. Yum!

…SeaWorld Orlando is investing in what might be the most ambitious ride system ever implemented in a theme park. I can't wait to experience Antarctica - Empire of the Penguin next spring, with its trackless, customizable motion-base ride vehicles. I love what SeaWorld partner Oceaneering did with Universal Creative on the ride vehicles for Transformers and Spider-man, and am looking forward to seeing what the next iteration of motion-base technology can do for SeaWorld in a live animal environment.

Buena Vista Street will forever preserve a memory of what California once was - to inform (or remind) people whose only thought of California is stereotype. I especially love that it replaced a stereotype and did so by recreating a vibrant public space, one that has make the entire Disney California Adventure theme park feel like a more comfortable and welcoming space. Theme park designers should learn from New Urbanists, and work to create livable public spaces like this, where people can just "hang out," instead of leaving us with nothing but crowded, soulless pathways between the rides and the stores.

…True Theme Park Insiders honor us by choosing this as their venue to, uh, inform the public about such new developments at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley, Transformers coming to Orlando and new concepts for Disney's Avatar. I know that leaks drive theme park managers nuts. But when fans hear about parks making major new investments, they get excited. Leaks drive vacation plans, as fans start setting aside money and changing long-term vacation plans to make sure they see the new attractions that get them excited. We are proud to share news of new attraction developments with our readers, and invite more theme park insiders to let us know about upcoming projects. (Anonymity assured, of course.)

…I've been blessed with the opportunity to visit some of the world's great theme park attractions beyond the United States' borders, and to bring you along (well, virtually) on these adventures. Tokyo DisneySea, Tokyo Disneyland, Universal Studios Singapore and Disneyland Paris each offer unique, world-class attractions that any theme park fan should wish to visit someday.

…You, thousands of Theme Park Insider readers, continue to support this community with your time, attention, comments, questions, answers, ratings and reviews. You hear a lot from me on the site's front page, but you - collectively - have seen, ridden and stayed at many, many more places than I will ever have the chance to experience in my lifetime. You are the heart of this community and I am forever grateful for every single one of you who visits and chooses to hang around for a while.

For what are you giving thanks this Thanksgiving? Please let us know, in the comments. And while we're on the topic of Turkey Day, let me offer you another chance to vote on something:

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Absent any major theme park news in the meantime, I'll be back on Friday with our annual list of theme park holiday shopping links.

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Where to eat: Lunch at Gaston's Tavern, in the Magic Kingdom's New Fantasyland

By Robert Niles
Published: November 20, 2012 at 5:39 PM

So, let's review:

Gaston's Tavern

Make sense? If not, allow me to suggest a different approach to Disney's new offerings - Hit Be Our Guest for the hootch at dinner (the only place alcohol's served in the park), then crawl into Gaston's Tavern to treat the hangover the next morning.

That's because Gaston's offers what might be the greatest hangover cure ever offered by a Disney theme park: the delightfully greasy, salty and altogether meat-tastic pork shank [$7.99].

The Cinnamon Roll and the Pork Shank, from Gaston's Tavern

Small, dark, and rustic-looking, Gaston's Tavern doesn't offer a full menu - the food highlights are the pork shank and the warm cinnamon roll [$3.99], also pictured above. The cinnamon roll might impress with its large size, but good luck finding much taste in this big slab of white bread, despite its swirl of cinnamon swimming within. If you want the big taste, go with Disney's hot hunk of pig leg.

Pork shank

The obvious comparison is with Frontierland's turkey leg, but that indulgence tastes like a dieter's cut compared with the fatty pork shank. There's no way I'm ever finishing this thing and keeping a body mass index less than "corpulent." Not unless I finish one of those Disney marathons in under four hours flat, too.

But just imagine that flavorful, salty grease, soaking up the remains of last night's wine and other assorted "adult" beverages. Tear apart the bones to find the moistest meat within. No hangover could survive this culinary onslaught.

If you choose instead to chase the "tail of the dog," you won't find any help in this tavern. The signature drink here is LeFou's Brew [$4.49], the same drink known as Red's Apple Freeze at Disney California Adventure. Priced at $1.20 more than Universal's iconic Butterbeer, LeFou's Brew is frozen apple juice, topped with a thin mango foam - nothing like Butterbeer's rich, frothy head of butterscotch.

I can't imagine choosing Gaston's Tavern for lunch, even it it meant waiting in a long queue for the far superior Be Our Guest next door. But if you're simply in the mood for meat - rich, fatty meat without an ounce of pretension dressing it down - head for Gaston's, and tear in.

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SeaWorld announces Aquatica San Diego for June 2013

By Robert Niles
Published: November 20, 2012 at 4:58 PM

SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment announced today that it's bought the Knott's Soak City water park in Chula Vista, California, and will transform it into SeaWorld's third Aquatica park.

Aquatica San Diego
Concept art courtesy SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment

For those of you not up on Southern California geography, Chula Vista is located about 20 miles away from SeaWorld San Diego. Chula Vista's south and a bit inland from SeaWorld's home on Mission Bay. That makes Chula Vista a more attractive location for a waterpark than the cooler (and often gloomier) theme park site, which is right on the coast.

That said, when I tweeted the news earlier today, I didn't get much response until I followed up with "None of you really cares about water parks in California, do you?" And then, more people agreed than disagreed. California's a tough market for waterparks, which can thrive in hot, humid, landlocked markets. Texas has great waterparks. Holiday World's Splashin' Safari in southern Indiana might be the best one anywhere. Midwestern visitors love hitting up the Orlando waterparks when they visit Central Florida.

In California, water parks lag far behind theme parks in annual attendance. The state's most popular water park, Raging Waters in San Dimas, only ranked 13th in the nation among waterparks for attendance, drawing fewer than half a million visitors in 2011, according to the most recent TEA/AECOM annual report. For comparison, SeaWorld's original Aquatica, in Orlando, ranked third - drawing 1.5 million visitors in 2011.

Maybe Aquatica San Diego will provide the waterpark formula that will click with Southern Californians. The park is scheduled to open in June 2013.

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Where to eat: Lunch at Walt Disney World's Be Our Guest

By Robert Niles
Published: November 19, 2012 at 4:08 PM

The Magic Kingdom's new Be Our Guest restaurant promises French bistro fare, and, having spent a week in France this summer, the menu sure did look familiar: a Croque Monsieur, a salad Nicoise, a quiche, a carved poultry sandwich (the MK's is turkey - not chicken - but we'll call that close enough).

I'd intended on ordering the Croque Monsieur, but after looking at its photo on the restaurant video-board menu, I changed to the Tuna Nicoise Salad instead. Disney's Croque Monsieur looked simply like a toasted ham and cheese sandwich, instead of the luscious ham sandwich bathed in Grueyere and Bechamel that I'd seen so often in Paris. To complete a three-course menu, I selected the potato-leek soup and triple-chocolate cupcake, as well.

(To read more about Be Our Guest's unique lunchtime ordering system, and to see a screenshot of the video menu, please see my blog post from the weekend: At Be Our Guest, Disney solves the problems with counter service ordering)

Potato Leek soup

The potato-leek soup ($4.49) might have been the best bowl of soup I've enjoyed since the scallop chowder in Tokyo Disneyland last December. This is a rustic version of the French classic, laced with bits of potato instead of offering the silky consistency found in the Julia Child recipe. But every bite offered hearty potato flavor, touched with the mild, green-onion-like flavor of leeks. On a chilly November day, the soup hit the spot - making crave the chance to get it without having to wait in the 20-minute queue that greeted me at the restaurant's door.

Salad Nicoise

Disney's Tuna Nicoise Salad ($13.49) is served with four slices of seared tuna steak, along with a hard-poached egg, potatoes, olives, roasted red peppers and tomatoes, on a bed of vinaigrette-dressed mixed greens. Disney's nailed the tuna here - rich slices of sushi-grade fish, served warm on the edges with a lightly-peppered crust. The hard poached egg threw me off a bit (I'm used to a runny yolk in poached eggs), but I suppose hard-boiled eggs are a more traditional salad accompaniment, so I went with it. The salad was supposed to have green beans, but if there were any in mine, I missed them. I barely noticed the diminutive olives, too. But the tuna and spicy greens were so good that I didn't mind.

Triple chocolate cupcake

My daughter has a theory: "If it doesn't have chocolate - it's not dessert." So I went with the triple-chocolate cupcake [$2.99], a decadent creation with a pillow-soft crumb of chocolate cupcake surrounding a chocolate buttercream filling. The whole thing's topped with a rich chocolate ganache. Disney gilds the lilly with an inscribed "Be Our Guest" flake of chocolate and a raspberry. Bring on the choco-gasm!

Yeah, I finished it all.

Clearly, Be Our Guest is not only the highlight of this phase of the park's Fantasyland expansion, it's the best meal I've ever had in the Magic Kingdom. I'd love to hear from readers who have tried some of the other selection's on Be Our Guest's menu. But if you want an outstanding three-course menu of affordable French bistro classics, you'd need a magical enchantment of your own to find a better combination of soup, salad and dessert than this.

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Monday morning wake-up, with the 'wildest ride in the wilderness'

By Robert Niles
Published: November 18, 2012 at 11:40 PM

Let's get this short work-week started with a trip on Walt Disney World's recently refurbished Big Thunder Mountain Railroad:

I recorded this during my visit to Orlando last week, using the Pivothead eyeglass camera that I got for my birthday. It's an 8 megapixel 1080p video camera embedded in the sunglasses' frame, which allows me to record without using any handheld or body-mounted camera. I used them to do some recording at the IAAPA show last week, as well as to get some of the construction photos from Universal Orlando that I posted then. I plan to use the glasses camera to shoot additional video for the site that I'll be posting in the weeks to come.

That said, I thought Thunder looked to be in pretty good shape. Sure, I miss the "falling" rocks on the third lift, but after the rocks actually fell at Disneyland Paris, none of the world's four Big Thunder Mountains now have that effect (and I've ridden them all in the past year). Here's hoping Disney finds a way to safely return that effect soon, though.

Update: I forgot to note that the Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow attraction is now in soft opening at Disney's Hollywood Studios. Please follow the link to rate, review and submit photos if you've been on it.

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At Be Our Guest, Disney solves the problems with counter service ordering

By Robert Niles
Published: November 17, 2012 at 7:50 PM

With its Be Our Guest restaurant in the Magic Kingdom's new Fantasyland, Disney's finally solved some of the problems that have plagued theme park counter-service eateries in the past.

Be Our Guest grand ballroom dining area

You won't find the traditional lineup of cashiers in front of a pick-up counter at Be Our Guest. In the evenings, the restaurant becomes table service, with waiters and bussers handling the service. And at lunch, Be Our Guest employs a more unique style for ordering and delivering its meals.

With crowds packing the newly opened section of Fantasyland for its "dress rehearsal," Disney's stationed cast members outside the restaurant, both to the tell visitors just what "Be Our Guest" is ("No, it's not a ride. Or a character encounter. Yes, it's restaurant") and to hold those waiting in a queue when the line backs up to the restaurant's door.

Once inside, Disney displays the restaurant's lunch menu on video pedestals in the armory, though which the queue proceeds before entering the library, where you will order.

Video menu display

At the entrance to the library, a cast member will present you with what looks like a pager from your neighborhood casual restaurant. But this hunk of red plastic, slightly larger than a hockey puck, is your "enchanted rose," according to Disneyspeak. ("It was a lovely, long-stemmed rose," the cast member at the lectern explained to me. "Until Master sat upon it." Well played.)

The rose is the key to Be Our Guest's ordering process. This is NextGen at work, with an RFID chip in the rose, which will help Disney track your order from the library to your table. The cast member at the library entrance will direct you to an ordering station, once one becomes available.

The ordering stations are video touchscreens, which display photos of the food in addition to providing text descriptions and prices. Allergen information is also available on the screens. This display also helps eliminate many of the problems for WDW's many non-English speaking visitors. Ordering is as simple as pointing to the picture of the dishes you'd like.

Be Our Guest ordering screen

You'll start by touching your "rose" to the RFID reader on the console. Then, you place your order. Once it is complete, simply swipe your credit, debit or room key card to pay for your order. (If you wish to pay with cash, the cast members will direct you to one of the two ordering stations next to traditional cashiers.)

Once you have your order placed, you take your receipt and your rose, then select a table in one of the restaurant's three available dining rooms. Cast members have been holding the line at the front to ensure that plenty of tables remain available for all parties coming out of the library. And no one can get through to hold a table until they've ordered. That solves the biggest problem affecting counter-service eateries in theme parks - the large number of parties with food getting cold on their trays, wandering about looking for an open table, while the majority of tables are held by people waiting for the rest of their group, still back in line.

So how do you get your food? This is where the "rose" does its magic. After you set the rose on your table, cast members tell you to go ahead and get your soft drinks and silverware (and yes, it's real flatware, not plastic) from the self-serve stations along the dining room wall. The chip in your rose is associated with your order, thanks to your tapping in with it when you placed your order. That allows the food service cast to know which order should be delivered to which table.

Once you return, your food arrives within moments, wheeled to your table on an impressive cart. The glass-domed top holds the hot food items, while desserts and other cold or room-temperature items rest on the shelf underneath.

Delivery cart

No worrying about picking the "wrong" line to order, as there's only one queue feeding the ordering stations. No translation problems at ordering, slowing the line, as people try to get a cashier to understand what they want. Easy routing the line around indecisive diners, as cast members can send people to the other touchscreens as they become available. Nobody hogging tables without having food. And no food getting cold on the way to the table.

I'm certain that some visitors will find fault with something in Be Our Guest's ordering system, eventually. But to me, compared with every other "counter service" restaurant in the park, Be Our Guest's ordering system is, in the words of another resident of Fantasyland, practically perfect in every way.

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The next phase of Disney World's Fantasyland expansion, reviewed (sort of)

By Robert Niles
Published: November 15, 2012 at 9:26 PM

ORLANDO - Back when I worked at Walt Disney World, I worked in Magic Kingdom West Attractions. That now-defunct department used to cover all attractions operators in Adventureland, Frontierland and Liberty Square (which, if you look at them on a map, are the lands on the west side of Main Street USA and the castle). In MK West, we teased our counterparts in MK East, saying that they worked in a concrete stroller parking lot.

Not that we had anything to do with building it, but we loved the richly themed landscaped on our west side, anchored by the woods, water and rock work of the Rivers of America. Over in Fantasyland and Tomorrowland… well, things were pretty flat. With the exception of some creatively trimmed foliage in Tomorrowland, there wasn't much landscaping over there, either. Around the Fantasyland dark rides, at times the whole place really did just look like a giant stroller parking lot.

But now, finally, with the next phase of the Fantasyland Expansion opening, the Magic Kingdom's east side is beginning to look more like its west side. And that's a very good thing.

Yet… Fantasyland's expansion is not yet complete. Not while its heart remains under construction:

Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, under construction

That's the construction site of the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train (can you see the new track, poking out from the center show building?) - the mountain that will become the centerpiece of the Fantasyland expansion. Judging the Fantasyland expansion without the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train seems to me a bit like reviewing a meal by talking about the salad and dessert, but completely ignoring the entree. It's just not right.

So we're left to talk about the periphery. Many of use discussed the Storybook Circus phase when it opened last spring. Now, let's take on the Beauty and the Beast/Little Mermaid phase.

Be Our Guest

For me, the Be Our Guest restaurant provides the highlight of this phase. I'll devote an entire post next week to the restaurant, but for now I'll just say that it not only provides the best ordering experience in any theme park anywhere, it also raises the bar for food at the Magic Kingdom with one of the best meals I've had anywhere over the past several weeks.

Gaston's Tavern (which I'll also review in its own post next week) offers a few nifty gimmicks, too.

Gaston's Tavern

This phase offers two new character interactions, Enchanted Tales with Belle and Ariel's Grotto. The Belle encounter refines a new space between meet-n-greet and show, with an audience participation encounter than should serve as a model for future character attractions. I didn't go in - since I didn't have any kids with me and didn't want to feel like some sort of creeper - but my sister and her young daughter loved the show last week, and said that the mirror effect was stunning.

I did go on the new Little Mermaid ride, however.

Little Mermaid ride

As advertised, it's a clone of the Little Mermaid ride from Disney California Adventure, which I reviewed when it opened in 2011. While the ride itself is the same, the Orlando version does offer a much superior, well-decorated queue.

Little Mermaid queue

Look carefully for some of the animated moments you can find within it. Here's one:

And here's a ride through the attraction, if you want a sneak peek.

There's more to come inside the castle walls as Fantasyland continues to transform - the Princess Fairytale Hall is now under construction, too.

Princess Fairytale Hall

The Fantasyland expansion will be complete sometime in 2014. Once it's finished, I'm hoping that we'll find not just a beautifully decorated new section of the park, but also a well-themed story space, where we'll all feel comfortable just "hanging out" and being part of the atmosphere of this area, as we've found recently in Cars Land, Buena Vista Street, and yes, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. But until this land's really finished, I think it's just too early to tell how successful it ultimately will be.

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IAAPA's 'future legends': It's time to embrace the maker culture, and invite the audience into themed storytelling

By Robert Niles
Published: November 15, 2012 at 6:33 PM

ORLANDO - Last night, IAAPA shined its spotlight on the legendary work of the past. This morning, the annual theme park industry convention looked toward the future, inviting three innovative designers to speak about emerging trends and hot projects in the themed amusement industry.

Christian Lachel, Vice President of BRC Imagination Arts, moderated the session, as Susan Bonds, CEO of 42 Entertainment, and Dave Cobb, Creative Director at Thinkwell, shared links to and comments on some of the intriguing events, show and promotions they've worked on or found over the past few years. I'll link those here, then get to some highlights from a great discussion about audience that wrapped up the session. But do check these links. Only one of them could be consider a sort of "theme park," but all could have applications for engaging visitors in a highly themed, narrative-driven, real-time environment.

Susan's picks:

  • The Exquisite Forest at the Tate Modern in London: An interactive narrative project, created on the Web and displayed in a museum space.
  • Waze: Real-time, crowdsourced traffic data, powering a turn-by-turn GPS mapping app.
  • Flynn Lives: A two-year, online and in-person interactive experience leading up to the release of Disney's "Tron Legacy".
  • The Human Preservation Project: An interactive multimedia and in-person experience to promote Wrigley's 5 Gum.
  • What is Hidden in Snow…: Another multi-step interactive experience, promoting David Fincher's "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" films.

Dave's picks:

  • Sleep No More in New York: A "deconstructed" version of Shakespeare's Macbeth, presented through in a nonlinear narrative in multiple rooms of a converted warehouse that'd grown into a nightlife hotspot of its own.
  • Delusion in Los Angeles: An interactive haunt (produced by Neil Patrick Harris) that relies more on paranormal suggestion and audience participation than traditional gore-driven haunts.
  • Memecube: a customizable Twitter client that aggregates tweets from a specific place or event.
  • Caine's Arcade: A tribute to "maker culture," as illustrated by a 11-year-old boy and his cardboard arcade.
  • Warner Bros. Studio Tour London: A 3.5-hour tour through the studio where the Harry Potter movies were filmed.

Near the end of the presentation, Cobb shared a few anecdotes illustrating how people make themed spaces and places their own - how they stake their claims to participating in the story spaces that designers create. He starts by talking about the final scene in the Warner Bros. Harry Potter Studio Tour in London. But I also love his next anecdote about the Dr. Phillips High School students cosplaying their homework across the street at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, just like they were studying at Hogwarts. Listen:

Excerpt: "Regardless of the cool technology and cool designs that we see and all the stuff out there, it boils down to these are places that people use - they want to be part of that world. And if you don't give them a chance to be part of that world, they will make themselves part of that world, and figure it out. It's your best interest to try accommodate that and engender that level of devotion. Ten years ago we used to look at guys dressed up in Star Trek uniforms and laugh at them. If you do that now, you're wrong. These people are not nerds. These are your audience. I'm serious. I get mad at people when they joke about that. You totally don't understand pop culture right now. Because if you think that's fringe, you're not getting out enough - you're not looking at your audience hard enough."

Lachel wrapped it up: "These are story worlds that we're creating. They have multiple levels, multiple platforms for engagement. It's not just about creating a single attraction. It's also very creative sandboxes and places where the audience is encouraged to participate. They're co-creating. They're developing. They're working with you to tell these stories which are actually evolving."

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Bob Rogers' Legends panel 2012: Disney leaders look back on Epcot's 30th anniversary

By Robert Niles
Published: November 14, 2012 at 8:36 PM

ORLANDO - Every year at the IAAPA Attractions Expo, Bob Rogers (a friend and registered member of Theme Park Insider) gathers several Disney Legends for a wide-ranging talk about the history of the Walt Disney theme parks. This year, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Epcot, Bob shook up the usual routine and instead invited five current and former Disney Imagineers to talk about the development of the park.

2012 IAAPA Legends panel

I've selected some of my favorite highlights from this year's 90-minute talk. I never worked in Epcot, but I'm the husband of a former Epcot cast member, so I love hearing from some of the people who made this park happen. And I found it both refreshing and reassuring that some of Disney's current creative leaders also acknowledge room for improvement in this beloved park. Now, to get the suits in Burbank to open the checkbooks!

On design philosophy

Tony Baxter, Sr. Vice President, Creative, Walt Disney Company:
"To me, Epcot is the real world made magical, the Magic Kingdom is the magical world made real, the studio tour is how you make the magic. And if you think about that, you can take any theme and make it work anywhere. Let's take Indiana Jones. If it were in the Magic Kingdom, it's the ride we have at Disneyland, where you actually go into his world, and that magical world becomes real. If it's at the studio tour, it's how did they do the stunts in the Indiana Jones world. If we were to put it at Epcot, like now it is in the Discovery Center in California with National Geographic, [it's] showing you Indiana Jones as an archeologist and getting kids interested in archeology."

Marty Sklar, Retired, Walt Disney Imagineering:
"A lot of times we've had marketing people talk about 'why don't we talk about the parks are an escape, and escape from the real world,' and [Disney Legend] John [Hench] used to get upset about that. He said 'the parks are not about escapism. they're about reassurance' - that things can be done right, that you can talk to a stranger in a public place, that a public place can be clean, that you can come out of these experiences, and saying wow, I feel so good, I feel optimistic about the future, optimistic about the world."

"One of the rules I think is really important when you design things is to think about the 10th ride through the experience and design for that 10th ride. Don't design it for the first one - that's easy. If you get a response of 'been there, done that, I don't need to do it again' we're all out of business. You've got to want to go ion t at least 10, 20, 30 times, and get as much value out of it on that last ride as the first one. A lot of that comes out of making it emotional for people."

The importance of music in theme park storytelling

"Some of the best storytelling Disney has done, in motion picture and in our shows, has been in songs. X Atencio wrote 'Yo Ho, A Pirate's Like for Me' and then he wrote 'Grim, Grinning Ghosts' for the Haunted Mansion, and we stopped doing songs. Not one more song in a Disney park show. I called Bob and Dick Sherman right away and said you get your butts in here and we're going to show you what we're doing and we want you to start writing songs. They did 'One Little Spark' and then they did 'Making Memories,' and then we found a guy who was singing in a bar in Newport Beach, California. His name was Bob Moline and he wrote 'Listen to the Land' and with Randy [Bright] he wrote 'Golden Dreams' for American Adventure. Pretty soon, almost every pavilion had a song that you could associate with. It became a key part of our storytelling - you could just take that song and play it and you knew what that show was about and you knew what that story was."

"When you hear these songs, you think right away of a Disney park, of a Disney attraction, and if the lyrics are done well, like in the case of 'one little spark explains imagination'… all of things take you back to where you were. They're free souvenirs - once they get implanted, they're there forever. There's a park, Efteling, over in Europe, I can pretty much hum three songs over from Efteling, so it's not just a Disney thing, it's something others have learned, too."

On The American Adventure

Rick Rothschild, now Founder and COO, FAR OUT! Creative Direction:
"I remember walking out with a group that had seen [American Adventure] and a couple were debating who were the live actors and who weren't and I realized that I guess we'd done a pretty good job."

"There [originally] was a three-head show once, with Ben Franklin, Mark Twain and Will Rogers. As that whole process of evolving the story took place, the notion that the 20th Century was so close to us, there was so many different ways that we could tell history, that the idea of only having one spokesperson… Will Rogers, is probably not the best way to reflect the principle narrative all the way through the 20th century. We actually let the 20th Century begin to tell its own story, to allow the narrative come from a variety of different voices that are each speaking to their point in history. You can't sometimes summarize in one, sometimes you have to let the many take the storytelling."

What's wrong today, and needs to be fixed?

"I don't think the Imagination pavilion works anymore. I'm going to be forthright about that. I think the difference we had between Figment and Dreamfinder, representing knowledge and the unbridled enthusiasm of a child, was very clear to people. It spoke and it resonated. They've tried to bring Figment back, bit it's like having a comedian play against a comedian, with Nigel Channing. It's like Hardy and Hardy instead of Laurel and Hardy. You've got to have a good play between the characters, and I think people go through there and they don't understand what it's about. All of us go through this imagination process, and I thought that was an extraordinary topic to handle and put out there, and it kind of skirts the issue of what it is today."

And this exchange:

"Rick, how many times have you changed the Golden Dreams ending?"

"Eric and I were just talking about going at it again. It was sort of understood that every 10 years there's enough history goes on that we can begin to look back and we should reconsider."

Eric Jacobson, Creative Leader EPCOT, Walt Disney Imagineering :
"Rick's not announcing anything." (Laughter)

"My point being that we've gone 12 years since we did the last one."

"And having just seen the show yesterday, the next last image in Golden Dreams is a man by the name of Lance Armstrong."


On Epcot's legacy

Monty Lunde, President, Technifex:
"The buildup to do Epcot and Tokyo Disneyland was about 3,000 people. But then they opened and basically said to many of us 'have a nice life' and we were let go. There was no industry for those of us to go to, and many of us had a tough time finding work, so many of us just said 'let's try to do this on our own.' That was a first wave of entrepreneurs who started exporting what we learned at Disney to Universal, Paramount, Fox, Warner Bros. and everyone else who decided it would be a great idea to start a theme park. That essentially spawned this entire industry."

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Universal Studios Florida construction update: Now with The Simpsons

By Robert Niles
Published: November 13, 2012 at 8:56 PM

ORLANDO - I took a short break from the 2012 IAAPA Attractions Expo to drop in over at Universal Orlando, to check on the construction and ride a few of the new and refurbished attractions there I hadn't yet experienced.

First, we've got three construction zones at Universal Studios Florida now. The newest construction zone surrounds The Simpsons Ride, which just got its new collection of carnival games this year, replacing the games displaced by Harry Potter evicted Amity and Jaws.

Simpsons Ride

Universal has closed the International Food and Film Festival food court, striking it from the park map. Construction walls started going up today. We're expecting this to be the site of a new Simpsons-themed eatery and possibly a gift shop.

Film Festival food court

If you look carefully, you can see construction equipment getting ready to go, behind one of the walls in the area. Construction walls also block the lagoon in front of IFFF and Simpsons.

Simpsons construction

Harry Potter Diagon Alley Construction

Universal's making progress on the Diagon Alley-themed Harry Potter land that's also going into Universal Studios Florida. Here's a look at the show building for the Gringotts coaster, rising above one of the Universal's Cinematic Spectacular show units in the park's lagoon.

Gringotts show building

And a closer look at the show building.

More Gringotts, under construction

The rest of Diagon Alley, including the Kings Cross station that will connect the Hogwarts Express to the existing Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Islands of Adventure, has yet to go vertical.

Diagon Alley construction site

But the new Thames River wall is complete.

Thames river wall, at Universal Studios Florida

Transformers: The Ride 3D Construction

Hey, it's nice to be able to write about a project that Universal's actually confirmed, for a change. I've never seen a theme park build an attraction of this size this quickly. Granted, they had the design ready to go from Singapore and Hollywood, but this is a lot of iron and metal to put up, in less than five months so far.

Here's a view of the Transformers building, viewed from the New York street along the lagoon.

Transformers building, in Orlando

And looking toward New York, from the side of Mel's Diner.

Transformers, from Mel's

Here's the building, as seen rising behind the Monsters Cafe.

Transformers under construction

Finally, here's a view from above.

Aerial view of Transformers

By the way, today I got my first rides on Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem and the refurbished 4K HD Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man. Loved 'em both. Minion Mayhem's an action-packed simulator ride that manages to exude much of the cuteness from the end of the movie. And if you get into the spirit of it, the dance party at the end is a nice interlude before the inevitable exit through the souvenir shop.

And Spider-Man? Wow. Universal Creative nailed it on this one, refreshing Spider-Man with a sharp re-do that packs visual detail never seen before in the ride. Even if you thought you'd grown tired of Spider-Man in years past, give this new version a try. You won't be sorry. It's like rediscovering something you thought you'd known, but hadn't.

Now, when do we get some new super high-def effects on Potter? (Yeah, we're greedy, we fans….)

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Disney's 'Big Thunder Mountain' to Be Adapted for TV

By Jay R.
Published: November 13, 2012 at 7:56 PM

Saw this at work today, thought I'd pass it along:

Disney is adapting its Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride for a television show, making this the latest Disney theme park attraction property to make the move to the screen. Pirates of the Caribbean has been the biggest hit - by far - hauling in a billion-plus dollars for its four movies.

Big Thunder Mountain in Paris

The TV version of Thunder, to be called just "Big Thunder Mountain," will be written by Ice Age: Continental Drift's Jason Fuchs, according to the Hollywood Reporter. Fast & Furious' Chris Morgan will be the executive producer.

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First look at the Silver Dollar City's Outlaw Run roller coaster trains

By Robert Niles
Published: November 13, 2012 at 10:42 AM

ORLANDO - Ready to go upside down on a wooden roller coaster? Here's your first look at the coaster train on which riders will be doing that at Missouri's Silver Dollar City in March:

Outlaw Run train

The Branson theme park unveiled its new Outlaw Run coaster train at the Rocky Mountain Construction booth at the 2012 IAAPA Attractions Expo today. Silver Dollar City General Manager Brad Thomas talked about the coaster, and what will make it unique:

"Silver Dollar City is in Branson, Missouri, in the beautiful Ozark Mountains, and if you've been there before, you know that the park is anything but flat. So taking the beauty and the terrain of the Ozark Mountains and building a roller coaster amongst all of the trees and all of the hills is fun and exciting and adds to the overall theming and well as the beauty of this ride.

"We are excited about Outlaw Run because it does three things no other coaster currently does. First of all, it will be the second-fastest wooden roller coaster on the planet at 68 mph. It will be steepest drop of any wooden roller coaster, with an 81-degree drop. And it will be the only wood coaster on the planet that takes you upside down... and we're going to take you upside down three times on this coaster."

After the unveiling, I spoke with Fred Grubb, the founder and president of Rocky Mountain Construction, which has designed and is building the coaster.

Grubb promises a ride as smooth as on his company's Texas Giant, and not the teeth-rattling experience on the late-and-not-missed Son of Beast, which was from another company and was the previous "only wooden coaster to go upside down" in the world.

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SeaWorld's Brian Morrow talks about Antarctica - Empire of the Penguin

By Robert Niles
Published: November 13, 2012 at 9:40 AM

ORLANDO - SeaWorld Orlando unveiled its ride vehicle for the upcoming Antarctica - Empire of the Penguin ride this morning at the annual IAAPA Attractions Expo.

Antarctica ride vehicle

After the reveal, SeaWorld's Creative Director, Brian Morrow, spoke with me about what visitors can expect on the ride, which will open next spring. It's a trackless motion simulator ride, which Morrow called the world's first of its kind.

Highlights? Morrow said SeaWorld's designed the ride as family friendly. He wouldn't announce the height restriction just yet, but he said that it would be "very low" and that families could select the intensity of their ride, whether mild or intense.

Morrow also said vehicles would take different ride paths through the attraction, making it a different experience on subsequent rides.

SeaWorld Orlando park president Terry Prather wouldn't put a price tag on the new attraction, but said that it was the largest single attraction investment in the company's history.

Update: Here's the link to SeaWorld's official Antarctica page.

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Disney offers reserved fireworks viewing area for visitors with Glow with the Show ears

By Robert Niles
Published: November 11, 2012 at 3:41 PM

Maybe this is how Disney will convince more visitors to buy a pair of its Glow with the Show mousetekeer ears. The light-up ears create some stunnig visual effects when worn by hundreds of people watching World of Color or Fantasmic! at the Disneyland Resort. Now Disney's adding the Glow with the Show effects to the Believe… in Holiday Magic fireworks show at Disneyland, too.

But there's a hitch - one we wrote about the night that Glow with the Show debuted. As a visitor, you get the reward of seeing the ears in action not when you buy a pair, but only when everyone around you does. It's a "prisoner's dilemma" problem, and Disney's been trying to find a way around it, one that would encourage more people to buy the $25 ears.

Glow with the Show ears

Theme Park Insider readers have suggested several plans, including Disney giving away or loaning the ears. But Disney's into this to make money. Great show is nice, but only if it makes the Mouse some moola.

Disney's actually implementing one of the other plans you voted on. It's one that finally gives people some incentive to buy the ears and bring them to the park, while not costing Disney any significant amount of money in return. Disneyland will set aside a reserved viewing area for tonight's fireworks show, just for people wearing Glow with the Show ears. Visitors with ears should come to the Main Street Opera House starting at 3 today to get first-come, first-served wristbands for the reserved viewing area.

Brilliant! Waiting around for a prime viewing space for big shows like the fireworks is one of the great time sucks, robbing you of valuable ride time during your day. Disney's parlayed that into some valuable dining packages, where people pay extra for meals at certain restaurants to get a reserved space for a big show later that night, such as Fantasmic! at Disney's Hollywood Studios and Disney Dreams at Disneyland Paris. Here's another way to get that same time benefit.

Not only does a reserved viewing area reward people who buy and wear the ears, it helps show off the Glow with the Show effect, by concentrating the ear-wearers in one (I would presume very visible) area.

I'm flying to Orlando in the morning, so I won't be heading to Disneyland tonight. But if I had been, I'd definitely bring along my ears, simply to get a prime viewing space for the fireworks, without having to wait. And if I didn't own a pair of the ears, but knew about this deal, it might be enough to get me to buy a pair.

What about you? What do you think about this latest promotion? No word yet on how long it will run, or if it will expand to other shows.

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Theme park news and notes: On the road to Orlando

By Robert Niles
Published: November 9, 2012 at 1:34 PM

Sorry that I've been a bit scarce over the past couple of weeks. I've been finishing a journalism textbook that I've been writing over the past several months, and that final push is really eating most of my writing time. I will promise you quite a bit more theme park coverage next week, as I'll be flying to Orlando for the annual IAAPA [International Associate of Amusement Parks and Attractions] convention. Watch the Blog Flume next week for reports from the IAAPA show floor, conference sessions featuring leading park designers, and trip reports highlighting new developments at Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando.

I'll also be testing a birthday present I got, which I hope will lead to some fun blog posts in the future. That's all I'll say about that now. ;^)

On to some news and notes:

I've seen several reports on discussion forums around the Web that Universal Studios Hollywood has decided to close Terminator 2: 3-D on December 31 this year, to make way for a new attraction. I've emailed USH for comment, but haven't heard anything in response. (Update: Now confirmed. Go see it soon, if you want. Or head to Orlando, too!) If you work for or with anyone at USH and have heard about this, drop me a note, please. The T2 rumor's been flying for months now, and I've written that the attraction needs to go, especially given its star's toxic lack of popularity in California now.

Walt Disney World has announced another opening for Dec. 6, the day that the new version of Test Track and the already soft-opened Fantasyland Expansion will officially debut. That'll also be the day for the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie exhibit to open at Disney's Hollywood Studios.

Disney also announced its quarterly financial results yesterday. The parks continue to rake in the bucks, led by the Disneyland Resort, where attendance continues to grow. But attendance is off at Walt Disney World, which might be why we're hearing so many leaks about new developments at that resort (Avatar, Cars Land East, Star Wars, etc.) WDW needs some buzz to drive some bookings.

Have a great weekend, and I'll see you soon in Orlando!

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Tip of the week: Focus on kindness to get the most enjoyment from your vacation

By Robert Niles
Published: November 7, 2012 at 10:09 AM

I believe that most of us believe that we are kind people. Or, at the very least, we aspire to be nice to others. Yet too many theme park visitors forget about kindness toward others while they're racing from ride to ride, trying to squeeze every last dollar of value from the several hundred bucks they've spent on their family's theme park tickets.

But what are really buying when you pay for a theme park ticket? It's not just the opportunity to bag as many attractions in one day as you can. Or the chance to meet a bunch of cartoon characters. You're buying enjoyment - a good time with the people you've brought with you. If you're sacrificing enjoyment in order to maximize your ride time or fatten your kids' autograph books, you're doing it wrong.

Having fun at Dollywood
Having fun at Dollywood

So focus on kindness whenever you visit a theme park, and notice how that affects your enjoyment level throughout the day. Hey, once you've spent the money - it's gone. Let it go, then. From that moment on, focus only on the enjoyment that admission can buy for you.

Sure, get to the park before it opens. Go first on the rides which will have the longest mid-day waits. Either get dining reservations, or eat before or after traditional meal times to avoid restaurant waits. If anyone's getting too hot, take a break. Don't set aside any of these tips that help you get the most from your day in the park. But don't try so hard to squeeze so much into your day that you become a barking field general instead of a happy family member.

When you step inside a theme park, you've surrounded yourself with many of the nicest people you'll ever encounter in your life. Most of them are having a great time, in a fun place that they love. Open up, be nice to people, and you can enjoy one of the best days of your life.

So let the other family go into the queue first. Make room for others when you walk down the street. Thank the park employees every single time they direct you on or off a ride, take your order, bring you food, refill your glass or give you directions. Pick up your trash. Offer to take someone else's picture. If a ride's down, don't storm off. Say hello to the park employee at the closed ride's entrance, and with a smile on your face, ask for his or her advice on what to do instead.

If you've bought a one-day base ticket to an Orlando theme park, it's likely that the average park employee you encounter is making less money that day than you spent on your single ticket. So if you get frustrated, don't take it out on them. In fact, if you change your attitude, and focus on kindness instead, it's possible that park employee can show you the way around your frustration and toward an even better option instead.

But they don't always do that for the jerks.

Treat a theme park like an enemy land to be conquered, and the park will fight you back. Focus on obstacles and frustrations, and pretty soon, that's all you will see. And while you're having your inevitable mid-day meltdown, wasting time on a public shouting match, the rest of us will be going about our day, chatting with new friends, and enjoying every moment in the park - whatever we're doing there.

For more tips on getting the most from a family vacation, please visit our 100 Travel Tips for Visiting Theme Parks page.

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Thinking about leaving the country? Then head for a theme park!

By Robert Niles
Published: November 5, 2012 at 10:13 PM

Happy "No More Political Commercials" Day tomorrow to all our American readers! Of course, with each Presidential election in the United States comes the inevitable threats that "if my candidate doesn't win, I'm going to move!"

Well, if you're going to leave the country, might I suggest that you at least go to a world-class theme park? ;^)

Inside the A380
If a flight on one of these is in your future - make sure it's heading toward a great theme park!

Yes, this is my flimsy excuse to celebrate Election Day with yet another Theme Park Insider poll. But instead of voting on anything actually important, we're going to vote on which theme park outside the United States would be your preferred choice for spending a self-imposed exile. I'm giving you five choices - one each from Disney and Universal, plus three other choices. We've got three European parks and two Asian - if that makes a difference to you.

Let's pick the park that best represents your ideal mix of theme, decor, narrative and thrill. And that includes attractions you'll want to experience again and again and again - for at least the next four years. :^p

I'm hoping that some of our international readers will jump into the comments to make the case for one or more of these parks. I've visited the Asian parks on the list, and if you by some chance have missed my many, many links to them, here again are my multi-part trip reports from Tokyo DisneySea and Universal Studios Singapore from last winter. Frequent readers will have seen some my recent "Attraction of the Week" posts featuring rides from Europa Park and Efteling. Rides from Port Aventura will be showing up in that feature in the weeks to come.

So, let's embrace the worst case scenario, shall we? Your guy lost. Where to next?

Don't wait to vote! These polls close shortly after midnight, Pacific time. And on Theme Park Insider, campaigning in the voting place (i.e. the comments) is not only allowed - it's encouraged!

(Of course, if you're an American 18 or over and haven't voted for real yet - please go out and do it today. It's your right and don't let anyone take it away from you.)

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Attraction of the week: Europa Park's Blue Fire

By Robert Niles
Published: November 5, 2012 at 6:38 PM

Let's show some love this week to a roller coaster than many readers in the United States might not know. But it's got several of the features we like to see here on Theme Park Insider - not the least of which is that it looks like a really, really fun ride.

Our attraction of the week this week is Europa Park's Blue Fire, a 2009 launch coaster from Mack Rides. (For those of you not familiar with Europa Park, it's Mack Rides' home park and a showcase for its ride designs.)

Blue Fire
Photo courtesy Europa Park

Blue Fire opens with a short dark ride segment before getting to business with a 0-62 mph launch out from the ride's show building and up its initial, 125-foot hill. You'll pass through some rockwork before setting up for the ride's 105-foot loop. From there, you'll enjoy multiple inversions and airtime hills, including a twisted horseshoe roll that will look familiar to fans of Cedar Point's Maverick.

Blue Fire's sponsored by a natural gas company - thus the name. You're riding the "blue fire" of burning natural gas. So I can't give Blue Fire full credit for its short dark ride introduction - it's basically just a commercial for the sponsor. You see some natural gas workers, scientists, and a natural gas pocket, before you move up through the pipeline, where the pressure mounts and you burst through the wall - now all kinetic energy, flying through air. But it's nice to have that moment between loading and launch, allowing the tension and anticipation to build. And Blue Fire does one of the better jobs out there of providing fun visuals during the ride, with abundant decor and landscaping along its 3,465 feet of track. This ain't no roller coaster in a parking lot. (And let's give some due to that sponsorship money, shall we?)

Let's take a ride, courtesy the park's official on-ride POV video:

I've not visited Germany's Europa Park yet, but I'd love to take a ride on Blue Fire. If you've been on this coaster, please tell us your thoughts about it, in the comments.

Wanna waste some time looking at more great theme park videos and photos? Hit the archives and check out our past attractions of the week.

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Vote of the week: What to do about Star Wars in the parks?

By Robert Niles
Published: November 2, 2012 at 6:07 PM

Okay, now that I've dismissed the idea that Disney is going to build huge new Star Wars-themed attractions in its U.S. theme parks anytime soon, let's talk about what Disney could do to show off its new Star Wars franchise in its theme parks.

As I wrote earlier today, forget about big new rides or permanent shows happening anytime in the next few years. But those are hardly the only ways that Disney brings characters and franchises into its parks. Meet-and-greets with Darth Vader, C3PO and other popular walk-around characters ought to be locks. (Sorry, Dads, but I wouldn't get your hopes up for "Slave Leia," though.)

Darth Vader
"Have your autograph books out! Or else..."

Disney's got a lot of options to show off more Star Wars, through its entertainment departments. The big question, as I alluded to this morning, is: What does the public want? Put it another way: What will get more people to visit or spend more at Disney theme parks? If a new entertainment offering doesn't help promote the bottom line, why choose it over some other option that would?

With that in mind, I'm suggesting three specific ideas for our Vote of the Week. (And thanks to Twitter follower Clayton Lott for suggesting the World of Color idea.) Vote for the one that most would get you to take an extra trip to a Disney theme park.

If you've got another idea, please let us know about it, in the comments. Have a great weekend, and if you're able and willing, please take a moment to give in support of hurricane relief efforts. We hope that our readers in the northeast soon will be back to normal, safe, and in the mood to talk about silly things like all this stuff.

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Throwing a little cold water on the Disney Star Wars deal

By Robert Niles
Published: November 2, 2012 at 11:08 AM

I hate to spoil everyone's party here, but Disney's Star Wars deal isn't going to bring major new attractions to Disney's U.S. theme parks anytime soon. That doesn't mean that the deal wasn't a great one for Disney. Or for the Star Wars franchise. But let's take a look at what happened, from the theme parks' perspective.

Star Wars

Disney got complete control to an intellectual property (the Star Wars franchise) whose theme park rights Disney already owned. That's it. Now, owning Star Wars gives Disney considerable flexibility it didn't have a week ago, when it was merely licensing Star Wars from LucasFilm. For example, Disney no longer has to pay additional licensing fees to bring new Star Wars-themed attractions to its parks. That should make it easier for Disney to bring Star Tours to its theme parks in Hong Kong and Shanghai, Disney's only two theme park resorts without a Star Wars attraction.

What about Disney's other parks, including those at Walt Disney World and Disneyland? Fans have dreamed of seeing Disney build a full Star Wars-themed lands in one or more of these parks. (And you can count me among those.) But I find it hard to believe that Disney buying Star Wars would be itself clear the decks for this concept to fly.

Let's break it down. LucasFilm = George Lucas. So if you believe that Disney buying Star Wars is all that was needed to bring us Star Wars Land, you're essentially arguing that Disney was ready to proceed, but Lucas was standing in the way. Maybe he didn't like the proposed land's creative direction. Maybe he was afraid of over-saturation. (Hold on… Gimme a second to stop laughing… OK. I'm good. Let's proceed.) Maybe he wanted more money. Whatever the reason, I find it hard to believe that Lucas would veto Disney building a Star Wars land - then turn around and sell the whole franchise to Disney.

Not owning the Star Wars franchise wasn't keeping Disney from developing a Star Wars land. Whatever factors kept Disney from going in that direction before remain in play now.

So let's get to the good news for theme park and Star Wars fans. With ownership of the Star Wars franchise, Disney can change the rules of this game. By investing in a new Star Wars trilogy - one that Lucas will not write, direct or produce - Disney has opportunity to rekindle some of the passion for Star Wars that the prequel triology lost. Plus, Disney has an opportunity to help Star Wars connect with a new generation of fans who haven't seen original, first-run Star Wars films in theaters. Again, these are simply opportunities - not guarantees. But LucasFilm's track record with the prequels and subsequent TV projects suggests that it was stuck on a path where the company had been turning off fans even as it brought in a few new ones. Star Wars needed a shake-up to begin growing again. Disney's ownership provides that.

If Disney's successful with its new Star Wars films, the math behind building a Star Wars-themed land changes immensely. Demand for Star Wars will surge. New stories and characters will provide additional opportunities for Imagineers to recreate engaging physical and narrative spaces for the land. And did I mention that demand for Star Wars would surge?

Let's face it - this is a bottom-line call. It's all about the money Star Wars can make. If Disney can build a creative team that can build the fan base by faithfully curating the Star Wars canon while developing popular new Star Wars movies, Disney can set that creative team loose on building a Star Wars theme park land, too. But the movies will come first, and drive this process. With the first new Star Wars movie slated for 2015, I doubt we'll see any substantial action on new U.S.-based theme park rides before then. (Save, perhaps, a Star Tours upgrade to promote the new film.)

But there is one other piece of good news for theme park fans - one that will affect the parks right away. As the new owner of Star Wars, Disney now gets to cash the checks from all those other Star Wars licensing deals LucasFilm had going - Legos, video games, toys, etc. That provides Disney with an immediate source of fresh revenue, one that can fund projects throughout the company, including in the theme parks. So even if the LucasFilm deal doesn't lead to new Star Wars attractions in the parks right away, it might help clear the way for other improvements in the parks over the next few months and years. And that's definitely good news for theme park fans.

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Universal Orlando confirms Transformers to open 'Summer 2013'

By Robert Niles
Published: November 1, 2012 at 4:24 PM

Prior to its official announcement at 7:30 pm ET, Universal confirmed that Transformers: The Ride would come to Universal Studios Florida "Opening Summer 2013" on its Transformers attraction website, www.prepareforbattle.com.

TransformersYour Transformers ride vehicle, EVAC, from the original version in Singapore.

Update, 4:30 PT: Now the video announcement from PrepareforBattle is on the Universal Orlando Facebook site. And we've got it here, too:

With all of July blocked out on Universal Orlando "Power Pass" passes at Universal Studios Florida only, I think it's a safe bet that we're looking at somewhere in July for the official debut. Man, this is one seriously accelerated construction project. From green light to operational in just 12 months. Wow.

Hey, between this and Potter 2.0, it's nice of Universal to be doing its part to keep unemployment in Orlando-area construction low. :^)

And one more thing, if you're looking for an in-depth look at Transformers from the man who led the team that built the ride, check out our exclusive interview with Universal Creative's Thierry Coup, first published from Singapore last December. Or our archive of Transformers coverage from Singapore and Hollywood.

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In the news: Transformers, SeaWorld tickets, and baby rhino names

By Robert Niles
Published: November 1, 2012 at 10:12 AM

Three more theme park news items for this morning:

Universal Orlando has its big Transformers announcement at 7:30 pm ET today. You can count down to the announcement on Universal Orlando's Facebook page. And we'll have a post here on the Blog Flume after the announcement, for your reaction.

Coming soon to Orlando!

While you (or your kids) were out harvesting treats last night, SeaWorld Orlando dropped a little trick: another price increase - its second in four months. SeaWorld's base-ticket prices now match those for the Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando parks. The $10 online discount and Fun Card deal for Florida residents will remain, however. Let's attribute this price increase to SeaWorld's confidence that its new Antarctica mega-attraction will be a big hit when it opens next year.

Baby rhino
Photo courtesy Busch Gardens

SeaWorld's sister park, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, is asking its Facebook fans to name the park's new baby rhino. The baby is the second calf born to mother Kisiri and the seventh calf born to father Tambo. The baby weighed an estimated 140 pounds at birth, according to the park, and is expected to reach an adult weight of approximately 3,500 to 4,000 pounds. The poll is open through November 7.

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Keep reading: October 2012 Archive

Stories from a Theme Park Insider

Stories from a Theme Park Insider

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