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December 2012

2013's New Year's resolutions for theme park fans

By Robert Niles
Published: December 31, 2012 at 12:08 AM
Every year at New Year's, I offer a list of New Year's resolutions for theme park fans. You've already gotten started with several suggestions, so allow me add my suggested resolutions to our growing list, too.

Also on my New Year's resolution list: To get that 21-century jet pack they promised I'd have by now. (The picture is of a float in the 2012 Rose Parade.)

So, please, read on, and repeat after me. :^)

As a theme park fan, in 2013, I resolve to…

  1. Start every park visit with a smile on my face.
  2. Smile (silently) at 10 frowning people every day I spend in the parks.
  3. Offer directions to a lost visitor.
  4. Not to hesitate to ask a park employee for directions or advice at any point during my visits.
  5. Remember the name of those park employees, and if their advice helped me, to go to guest services at the end of the day and submit a formal compliment about them.
  6. Let the other people go first when we both arrive at the attraction entrance at the same time.
  7. Keep my temper in check when someone cuts in front of me.
  8. Clear my table and leave immediately after eating, when other diners are looking for a place to sit.
  9. Say 'thank you' to the park employees whenever I go on and whenever I leave an attraction.
  10. Say 'thank you' to custodial employees whenever I see them cleaning the park.
  11. On every visit, go on something I've never been on before, or at least that I haven't been on in five years or more.
  12. At least once, shamelessly wear a pair of Mouseketeer ears in a Disney theme park, or some other silly hat in another park.

Silly hat

I'd love to hear your resolutions, wishes, hopes and suggestions for 2013, in the comments. Stay safe tonight, and Happy New Year! I'll be Tweeting from the Rose Parade route on New Year's Day, so please follow my updates @themepark as you watch the 124th Rose Parade, live from Theme Park Insider's home town of Pasadena, California! (FYI: Disneyland's Cars Land float is scheduled as number 52 out of 92 units in the parade, so expect it somewhere around noon Eastern time, 9pm Pacific.)

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Vote of the week: How should theme parks deal with their holiday crowds?

By Robert Niles
Published: December 28, 2012 at 1:11 PM
If you've visited any of the Orlando or Southern California theme parks this week -- or during any Christmas holiday week in past years -- you've experienced the busiest that theme parks can be. Packed queues. Hours-plus waits. Closed parking lots and park gates by mid-afternoon. Even frayed nerves and conflicts among those who came in without reasonable expectations.

Of course, it doesn't have to be this way. Parks take several steps to cut down on the crowds during this week. But you might not like those alternatives any better than a three-hour wait to ride Toy Story. Let's take a look at a few of them.

Christmas Minnie Mouse

Raise the price

Economists' favorite way to reduce what they call "an excess demand problem" (in plain English, "really long lines") is… to raise the price. Surely, a lot fewer people would end up coming through the front gates of the Walt Disney World and Disneyland theme parks if their daily tickets cost, say, 50 percent more than on a "typical" day. If parks hit the right price point, they can create an atmosphere that's downright comfortable for all the guests who get in, while allowing the park to make almost as much, if not just as much, money as it would by keeping the front-gate prices the same and packing the place, as they do now.

But parks make money on a lot more than just the front-gate charge. There's parking, food and merchandise. With fewer people in the park, that means less income from those sources, even if the park's attracting a, uh, "higher end" clientele. And who buys their tickets at the front gate, anyway? (Not you, dear Theme Park Insider readers. You know well enough to buy your tickets in advance.) Are the parks going to ask people using no-expire tickets purchased long ago to fork over extra cash to get in? Not unless the parks want to face a nasty class-action lawsuit.

And I'll bet that many of us would argue that theme parks have gotten expensive enough as it is. Jacking up the price at Christmas only serves to make the parks appear even more elitist.

Require reservations

Even if parks wanted to try raising ticket prices for this holiday week, they would need a way to distinguish holiday-week tickets from "regular" theme park tickets. That would be the only way to keep people who've bought regular-priced tickets in the past from using them during the high-demand holiday week. But even without a price increase, parks could use "holiday-only" tickets to limit crowds.

Tokyo Disney already sells tickets for specific dates only, so this wouldn't be a revolutionary concept. Walt Disney World could require people who wish to visit between Christmas and New Year's to register in advance online, either by purchasing tickets specifically for those dates or by reserving those dates for use with an existing no-expire theme park ticket. Annual passholders would have to claim their days in advance, too. (Disneyland and the Universal theme parks don't sell no-expire tickets, so this isn't an issue for them, except for the APs.) When a day is sold out, that's it. No one else is getting in.

To make this system an improvement over the current one, parks would need to set reasonable caps on daily attendance. Again, there'd be some math wizardry involved in setting the number where crowds wouldn't become overwhelming, but the park wouldn't take a hit on food and merchandise sales. I suspect that if parks did implement a reservation system, it'd come hand-in-hand with a price increase for those days, too.

In effect, Walt Disney World already has implemented a twist on the reservation model with its Very Merry Christmas parties. Those provide another option for visitors who want to enjoy the holiday festivities and atmosphere at the park, but on an evening when park capacity is controlled more tightly than usual, as advance reservations are (usually) required. I suppose that annual passholders could argue that the parties represent a price increase, too, as admission to the parties is not included with their passes. But for people without an AP, the parties actually represent a price decrease, as the party ticket is less than the cost of a one-day, one-park ticket.

Close the gates earlier

Long-time visitors to the Walt Disney World and Disneyland resorts have learned to expect the gates to the Magic Kingdom parks to close each day around noon or so to new visitors, during Christmas week. But what if the parks were more aggressive about restricting access, and closed the gates earlier, to further limit the number of visitors in the parks? Would that make the experience of visiting during this week more comfortable for those who arrived early? Would an earlier close encourage more guests to visit other parks and attractions at the resort? Or would closing the gates earlier just transfer the location of angry, hostile lines of people - from inside the park to just outside the front gates?

Leave it alone

Sometimes, the best alternative in a bad situation is to quit looking at even worse alternatives. Leaving things the way they are means continued massive crowds in the parks, but it saves both the company and visitors the hassle and expense of dealing with a potentially complex new ticketing system. Or having more visitors get left outside on an expensive theme park vacation. People who don't want to deal with this week's crowds can stay home, and visit another time. And people who do will learn to either accept the crowds, or become one of those who chooses to visit another time.

The danger for the parks in doing nothing is that many of the people frustrated by this week's crowds won't choose just not to come back during future Christmas weeks. They might choose not to come back ever, at all. Parks don't want to be in the business of making customers mad. If Christmas week crowds are turning too many customers off of theme parks altogether, that's a problem that they must address.

So which of these would be your preferred option? Should parks do something to address the attendance issues that seem to be inherent in this week? Cast your vote below:

Please share your thoughts on this issue, in the comments. And I wish everyone a very happy holiday week. One programming note: I will be on the Rose Parade route here in Pasadena on Jan. 1, taking photos of the Disney Cars Land float, which I will post here on Theme Park Insider. So please stay tuned for that, next week.

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Disneyland to revive The Golden Horseshoe Revue -- for one month only

By Robert Niles
Published: December 28, 2012 at 12:03 PM
Disney today announced the first of its "Limited Time Magic" promotions, including a revival of what was once the world's longest-running stage show.

The original Golden Horseshoe cast
The original Golden Horseshoe cast. Photo courtesy Disney

A Salute to the Golden Horseshoe Revue returns what was Walt Disney's favorite show to Disneyland Park. Hosted by Miss Lily and her Saloon Girls, the revival will feature song and dance numbers such as "Hello, Everybody," "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," "Belly up to the Bar" and "Can-Can," in Frontierland's family-friendly western saloon. The show will play Thursdays through Mondays from January 10 to February 4.

But if the revival's anywhere near as entertaining as the original, I'll help organize the sit-in at City Hall to demand that the Golden Horseshoe be made a permanent addition to Disneyland Park. (And while we're at it, let's bring back the Diamond Horseshoe to the Magic Kingdom, too! After all, I suspect that some of Disney's "Limited Time Magic" promotions are actually trial runs to see what works, and doesn't, with Disney's most faithful fans.)

Disney also announced a "Bling in the New Year" dance party in Tomorrowland at the Magic Kingdom between Dec. 30 and Jan. 5. The show will feature plenty of Disney characters, as well as an hourly "countdown to midnight." And for Disney hoarders, there'll be a new, special Mickey ear hat released every month in 2013, as well. Get your credit cards ready.

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The top Theme Park Insider stories of 2012

By Robert Niles
Published: December 27, 2012 at 9:31 AM
Stuck at work today? Or just stuck in a line at Walt Disney World or Universal Orlando, and looking for something to read to pass the time?

We've got you covered, either way. Why not take a break to re-live some of the top moments on Theme Park Insider from the past year? After all, we kicked off 2012 with a biggie, didn't we? ;^)

Gringotts bank, under construction at Universal Studios Florida
Gringotts Bank, under construction at Universal Studios Florida. We first let you know about the plans for the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter last New Year's Eve.

Here are the top 20 most-read Blog Flume articles from 2012:

  1. Plans for Harry Potter at Universal Studios Florida revealed
  2. What's the best roller coaster park in the world?
  3. Disney claims top 8 spots in 2011 global theme park industry attendance report
  4. The '2fer' deal returns to Disneyland Resort
  5. Ride review - Transformers: The Ride at Universal Studios Hollywood
  6. Disneyland cranks up ticket prices
  7. Which Walt Disney World ticket should I buy?
  8. 'I'm going to (Tokyo) Disneyland!' - Planning a trip to the Tokyo Disney Resort
  9. Universal Studios Hollywood officially opens Transformers: The Ride 3D
  10. Disney World confirms opening dates for new Fantasyland attractions (sort of)
  11. Ride review - Radiator Springs Racers and Cars Land at Disney California Adventure
  12. Update on the Universal Orlando/Transformers rumors
  13. Ranking the Disney theme parks: What is the world's best Disney park?
  14. Magic Mornings coming to California Adventure?
  15. What will close at Universal Studios Hollywood to make way for Harry Potter?
  16. Will you pay to skip the lines at a theme park this year?
  17. Planning a trip to Disneyland Paris
  18. Ride review - Manta at SeaWorld San Diego [with on-ride video]
  19. Walt Disney Studios Paris, and the problem with movie studio theme parks
  20. Vote of the week: Which new ride are you looking forward to most?

What was your favorite theme park moment from the past year?

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How to enjoy Christmas and New Year's at Disney and Universal, during theme parks' busiest week of the year

By Robert Niles
Published: December 26, 2012 at 1:06 PM
Welcome to the busiest week of the year at the Walt Disney World, Disneyland and Universal Orlando resorts. The week between Christmas and New Year's brings the largest crowds of the year to the nation's most popular theme parks, creating long lines throughout.

Inevitably, that leads people to freak out. But if you come to the parks with the expectation that they'll be crowded -- and bring a strategy for dealing with that -- you can have a wonderful time enjoying the holidays at Disney and Universal.

Hogwarts castle at Universal Orlando

First, all the regular rules for visiting theme parks apply. Buy your tickets in advance, online. Make your lunch and dinner reservations early. Get to the park in the morning before it opens - an hour or more this week.

But don't expect to use the first hour or so in the parks to enjoy most the top rides before lines build up. These aren't typical, summer-like crowds. Lines for almost all attraction will blow up immediately, but getting to the park and in line at the front well before opening will help you to get in at least one, maybe two, top rides before waits get crazy-long later in the day. At Disney, grab a Fastpass for a popular ride before heading to your first destination of the day. At Universal, consider buying a Universal Express pass, if you aren't staying at one of the resort's three on-site hotels, where guests get free front-of-line access for their entire stay. (That perk makes this the very best week of the year to stay at those hotels.)

I'd give up on park-hopping at Walt Disney World on these busy days. Once you've got a parking spot, hang on to it. Lots will close later in the day, and you don't want to spend time waiting for buses or monorails when you're already waiting so much for rides and shows. At Disneyland and Universal Orlando, the other theme park is just steps away, so park-hopping remains a better option at those resorts, but you'll still have to wait at the entrance turnstiles, and might get caught outside if the park closes temporarily after hitting its capacity. So even at those resorts, I'd stick with the park you enter in the morning, at least until well after sundown.

Though wait-times will exceed an hour for almost all attractions at mid-day, remember that attractions have well-defined and regulated queues. On busy days such as these, you might be tempted to skip the crowded attractions for some of the other entertainment in the park, such as parades and street shows. But thousands of other park visitors will have thought the same thing. If those thousands of visitors are patient folks like you, and understand that they're visiting on a crowded day (down in the front, please), all will be fine and everyone will enjoy the show. But if you've got even a few impatient people in the crowd, who expect everyone to get out of their way, conflict's gonna happen. At least in an attraction queue, there's a literal order that you won't find on parade route and in front of the Magic Kingdom castle stage. So bring extra patience if you choose to enjoy a show or parade in the parks. Stay safe, and make friends with the people around you. You want cooperation, not conflict, when the parks are this busy.

On New Year's Eve, the crowds will swell even larger. If you're planning to spend midnight in the parks, you might need to claim your space as early as 5pm. By 9, don't expect to be able to move around, go to bathroom, send someone to get food, etc. After 10 in front of the castle in the Magic Kingdom, you might not be able to move your arms anymore. It's like being in Times Square in New York at that point. Thousands of people around you are having a great time, and if you know what to expect, you can, too.

You do have other options for seeing midnight fireworks, however. Some restaurants in the parks and surrounding hotels have tables with views of the fireworks and offer special New Year's Eve dining packages. But you'll need to book up to six months early to get the best tables. Keep that in mind, though, for your next visit to the Orlando area.

For meals in the parks, if you haven't made dining reservations already, plan to eat like you're in another time zone. That means hitting the counter-service restaurants for lunch before 11am or after 2pm, and dinner before 5pm or after 7, to minimize your wait time and increase you chances of getting a table near the restaurant.

Remember, too, that there's never any wait to wish someone a Merry Christmas or Happy New Year - especially the park employees, who are working hard to control these crowds, keep the lines moving and help everyone enjoy their day, as much as is possible. Keeping a smile on your face and a positive attitude in your mind will help even the most crowded day feel fun.

I'd love to hear some your advice and stories about visiting the theme parks during the holidays. Please share your stories, in the comments.

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Robert's rules for the perfect theme park

By Robert Niles
Published: December 24, 2012 at 12:46 PM
Today feels like a bit of lost day, sandwiched between a weekend and Christmas. But I thought I'd stir up a fun little discussion for those of us who find ourselves browsing online today or on Christmas:

Let's talk about the perfect theme park!

Tokyo DisneySea
Now that's a weenie! If Tokyo DisneySea isn't perfect, it was your selection as the Theme Park Insider Award winner for world's best theme park in 2012.

What are the qualities, features and characteristics that would make a theme park "perfect"? Conversely, what are the elements that, when missing, cause a theme park to fall short of its potential?

I'm going to offer some suggestions about physical elements, but if you'd like to add your own thoughts about other elements that go into the theme park experience, please, feel welcomed to do so!

So let's get to it. Here is my list of qualities of a perfect theme park. (In most cases, I've listed a few examples of parks that display that quality, though there usually are others, too.)

The perfect theme park should be easily accessible - not just by car, but it should be tied into the local community's mass-transit system as well. Ideally, the park should have its own regional train station in the resort, so people don't have to drive to reach it. (Examples: Disneyland Paris, Tokyo Disneyland)

The perfect theme park should be part of a walkable development, with not just the train station, but also the parking garages, hotels and any other assorted shops and development within walking distance. For things beyond a short walk away, the park should provide boats, monorails and other forms of out-of-the-ordinary transport to reach them (in other words, not just buses). Once you arrive at the park, you should never need your car again. (Examples: Universal Orlando, Universal Studios Singapore)

When you enter the perfect theme park, you should pass through some physical element that marks a defined transition from outside the park to inside. This helps reinforce the idea that you've entered a special place, different from your everyday life. (Examples: Walking under the train station at Disneyland, or under the Disneyland Hotel in Paris)

Once inside, the perfect theme park eases your transition into a fantasy world by starting with a "real" themed environment. This should be a recreation of a place that is or was once real - appealing to your senses of nostalgia, romance or adventure. (Examples: Main Street USA, Buena Vista Street)

This initial themed land leads you into the park, where you see some magnificent edifice in the distance, visually drawing you deeper into the park. (Walt Disney famously called this the "weenie.") Along the way into the park, comfortable diversions distract you: benches, seating areas, cafes, shops, character meet and greets. Despite that weenie in the distance, you want to hang out here, in a nostalgic place where you long to be (again). (Examples: Buena Vista Street, Mediterranean Harbor at Tokyo DisneySea)

Once you approach the weenie in the center of the park, your other options appear. It's here that you finally transition from the real to the fantastic, as some of the themed lands you'll see here represent places that never did - and never could - exist. Only after you enter the various lands, do the individual attractions appear. (Examples: the hubs in the Magic Kingdoms)

The perfect theme park hides the outside world from view. Sure, you might be able to see surrounding forest, ocean. mountains or a river (I do like the view of the James from atop Apollo's Chariot), but you won't find developed reminders of that outside world you've left.

Inside the perfect theme park, all back-of-house functionality also is hidden from your view.

You'll find different menus in each land throughout the perfect theme park, themed to that land. No lands share the same food items. Even the snacks - popcorn, ice cream and churros, feature different flavors in each land. (Examples: Wizarding World of Harry Potter, flavored popcorn in Tokyo Disneyland)

Every themed land in the perfect theme park has its own flora - trees, plants, flowers - that are unique and themed to the land. You'll find different pavement and architecture in each land, too.

The perfect theme park doesn't offer any flat, blank surfaces - anywhere. Every surface in the perfect theme park offers visual (and, usually, physical) texture. The perfect theme park is built with high-quality surface material that can stand up to touch, sunlight and rain, without fading or wearing. (Examples: Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Tokyo DisneySea)

So what elements would you add to the perfect theme park? As you (hopefully!) celebrate a perfect holiday, let's talk about our vision of a perfect place, as well. Merry Christmas and best wishes to all!

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Vote of the week: Celebrating Christmas at a theme park

By Robert Niles
Published: December 21, 2012 at 11:35 AM
As Christmas crowds descend upon the Orlando and Southern California theme parks, let's take a few moments to share our favorite theme park holiday memories.

We've been sharing photos of theme park Christmas trees on our Theme Park Insider Pinterest page.

I wrote about my Christmas morning at Walt Disney World in Stories from a Theme Park Insider. Along with my fellow cast members, I couldn't believe that people would choose to pay to come to a theme park on Christmas morning. At least I was getting paid - and extra - to be there. But I discovered that spending the morning with your loved ones in a truly special place could become one of the most enjoyable gifts of a lifetime.

I suspect that some of you have discovered the same. :^)

So let's make this topic our Vote of the Week and the prompt for a discussion, to follow.

In the comments, please share with us your favorite story about spending the holidays at a theme park. And please enjoy a very Merry Christmas and happy holiday season. Best wishes from Theme Park Insider!

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Universal Express vs. Disney's FastPass+: Two different ways to look at a vacation

By Robert Niles
Published: December 20, 2012 at 12:21 PM
Which type of vacation sounds better to you?

One option: You are assured of getting on all the attractions you want to see because you've reserved ride times for each of them, in advance. Your lunch and dinners are reserved, too. In fact, all of your meals and snacks are included in the cost of your hotel room, which can range from mid-range to luxury prices. It's pretty much an all-inclusive vacation, with all your activities scheduled in advance, for worry-free enjoyment during your trip.

Mickey and Minnie

The other option: You don't have to worry about waiting in lines on your vacation, because when you show your room key, you get to skip them. There's no need to schedule anything in advance, just show up whenever you like and go to the front of the line for nearly-immediate boarding. You can reserve meal times in advance, too, but that's another phone call, and there aren't that many places that take reservations, anyway. Most dining is counter-service, and if you want an "all-inclusive" option, you can buy an additional, inexpensive "all you can eat" plan. But it's honored only at a few, selected locations. The skip-the-lines perks is available only at a limited number of hotels, which start at upper-mid-range go up from there. But if you can afford that, and get a room, it's no worries about ride and show lines or reservations for the rest of your trip.


Regular readers of Theme Park Insider will recognize these options as the (new) Walt Disney World and (existing) Universal Orlando models, respectively. They fascinate me because they really do represent two different views of what a relaxing vacation should be: one where everything's planned in advance, and one in which planning isn't necessary.

Not only that, I think it's fascinating to think ahead about how these plans will influence the future of the Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando resorts.

Here's another big difference between these approaches: Walt Disney World's scales, while Universal Orlando's does not. Walt Disney World can continue to add more and more people to its now-very-limited FastPass+ system, scheduling more people into more attraction times at more locations in its parks, replacing the current paper Fastpass reservation times it now distributes. Conceivably, it even could make Fastpass+ a requirement for all visitors, forcing everyone to schedule every attraction visit in advance.

Universal Orlando, however, can't add many more people to its Universal Express line-skipping plan without creating significant waits in the supposedly-no-wait Universal Express bypass queues. That's why, when Universal Orlando announced plans for a fourth on-site hotel, it noted that guests there would not be getting the free Universal Express perk with those rooms. Universal has hit its limit with free Universal Express. The system simply won't scale beyond what it now is.

But hitting the limit does bring one advantage over Disney's system. Universal's system is sustainable. It can go on offering its Universal Express perk to guests at those three hotels pretty much forever, if it would like. The easy scalability of Disney's approach eventually will force it into a sustainability problem. What happens even those ride reservations are "sold out"? You can't keep selling tickets into the park then.

Fastpass+ either will need to be capped, a la Universal's plan, to allow for reasonable stand-by wait times, or it inevitably will force Disney into a system where it must require visitors to specify a date for their visit. Days where all the Fastpass+ reservations are claimed would be days that are "sold out" and no one could buy admission to the park. Since popular dates likely would sell out far in advance, it wouldn't surprise me to see Disney then implement a variable pricing scheme, where park admission on certain dates cost more than on others.

Gaming out the future of Fastpass+ is like watching dominoes fall. If Disney goes with variable pricing, what happens to existing tickets? Disney's always said that a non-expiring ticket is good for admission on any day when the park is open. Now, Disney easily could deny admission to someone with an old "no-expire" ticket on a sold-out day. But it couldn't easily demand that a customer pays extra to use that ticket on an "upcharge" day. With so many no-expire tickets out there, even a variable pricing plan might not keep popular vacation periods from "selling out" far in advance.

So the only other solution is to increase capacity. Hello, Cars Land East. And Avatar Land. And Star Wars Land. Any anything else Disney can envision to increase its parks capacity. Which would be great for theme park fans, unless Disney's bean counters start enforcing a "quantity over quality" approach, only approving new developments that might make California Adventure 1.0 and the woeful Walt Disney Studios Paris parks look like dream destinations in comparison.

And what of people who don't get these perks? With Universal already hitting its limit, the future seems to be the same as it ever was over there. Perhaps Universal will play around more with pay-per-use ride reservation systems, as it has this year. But if Disney expands Fastpass+ beyond the capacity of its current Fastpass system, as it appears bent on doing with all the Fastpass+ infrastructure we're seeing going into non-Fastpass attraction at the resort, visitors who don't use Fastpass+ might be facing longer and longer stand-by waits as a result. At some point, not participating in Fastpass+ might not be a viable option if you want an enjoyable theme park vacation.

So whats the best solution? Honestly, I don't know. So long as I can afford a room at Universal's Royal Pacific, I love being able to skip the lines at that resort. But I totally see the appeal of locking in my no-wait ride times at top Disney World attractions, too, especially if I don't have to book an on-site hotel room to do it.

Let's throw it open for discussion. What do you see the logistics of Orlando theme park vacations changing, as a result of Fastpass+? And how will you, and your family, probably react? Let's talk in the comments.

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Celebrate the holidays with the Country Bears

By Robert Niles
Published: December 19, 2012 at 9:11 AM
Let's get the day started with a little Christmas music, from Disney's Country Bears.

Of course, since Disney's evicted the Country Bears from Disneyland and no longer plays the Christmas show at Walt Disney World, it'll help you to get the most from this performance if you understand Japanese... ;^)

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First Taste: Monsieur Paul opens at Epcot's France Pavilion

By Scott Joseph
Published: December 18, 2012 at 12:50 PM
Monsieur Paul is the new restaurant that replaces the former Bistro de Paris at Epcot's France pavilion. It's a tribute to chef Paul Bocuse, and it features some of his signature dishes, such as the truffle soup that is served in Bocuse's restaurant near Lyon. The food is very good, but whether or not theme park visitors will embrace a restaurant with a soup that costs $29 a bowl remains to be seen.
Full review at scottjosephorlando.com.

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At the end of the world, it is time to give thanks

By Jeff Elliott
Published: December 18, 2012 at 9:47 AM
I find it very convenient that the end of the world is on a Friday. Assuming that the world ends late on Friday, it will allow us all to get slobbering drunk and not have to worry about the hangover on Saturday. It would have been much more Biblical if the world was snuffed out shortly after church on Sunday, but some just don’t get into the spirit of the dramatics. Or maybe it would be better to wait a couple of hours after that until the Cleveland Browns put the beat-down on the Denver Broncos…in what would unarguably be a sure sign of the apocalypse.

Epcot's San Angel Inn Restaurant
I wonder if the Maya ever imagined this...

But, alas, no…the world end’s on Friday, so we better start getting used to the idea.

It’s not like we didn’t see this coming, between Hostess going out of business, Manny Pacquiao losing to Marquez, the Patriots losing to the 49ers, the NHL lockout, and losing Michael Clarke Duncan, we should have seen the writing on the walls. Even more, we should have figured out if Dick Clark was leaving us, things were looking really bad. Dick Clark was already 130 years old and looked like he had another 150 left in him, so it’s not as if it wasn’t a conscience decision on his part. At least Donna Summers, Whitney Houston, and Robin Gibb have someone to announce their never-ending concerts in the pit.

Gangnam Style should have been a good indication as well.

I wonder: if Hostess died, then is it possible that you can get a Twinkie in the afterlife? It might be something to look forward to…

So, anyway, with the approaching demise of the world, I figured it was a really good time to get on Santa Claus’s or your deity of choice’s good side and express a little bit of gratitude for making the last year on this planet an exciting one. Feel free to add your own thank you’s in the talkback below.


Thank you to Universal and Disney for deciding that a spat between the two companies should result in the best group of attractions the world has ever known. Too bad the east coast wasn’t quick enough to complete the Harry Potter expansion, Transformers, the Simpsons expansion, and the Seven Dwarves Coaster before the end of the world.

Thank you to Louisville Fair Board for dragging their feet on Kentucky Kingdom and allowing Holiday World to siphon off all of the people who would normally go to your park, creating a renaissance for a small family park that is now one of the major players on the theme park scene.

Thank you to Cedar Point for showing how to beat Six Flags at their own game, and somehow managing to kill Universal and Disney and all other parks when it comes to the Golden Ticket Awards, despite the fact that they are a seasonal park with little to no theming.

Thank you to Six Flags Magic Mountain for keeping Cedar Point honest.

Thank you to Six Flags Fiesta Texas for redoing the Rattler before it killed someone.

Thank you to Kings Island for tearing down Son of Beast before it got caught in some apocalyptic monster’s teeth. If the world wasn’t ending on Friday, I would be looking forward to whatever might have been reinstalled in that area.

Thank you to Cars Land for the inevitable conversation that I will have to have with my son explaining why cars can only talk on Disney property.

Thank you to Robert Niles for keeping Theme Park Insider running. Since hell has wifi (explaining where many YouTube videos originate from), if for some reason when the world ends, if Robert goes “up”, I will personally attempt to run TPI from the pit for all of us who don’t qualify make it through the pearly gates.

Thank you to Elitch Gardens for not building anything for years, because with the high altitude and stuff, it would just make people’s heads literally explode if something new were built, and then you would have clean up issues and the lawsuits and all of that stuff… And when I say new, I don’t mean some cast off that some other park doesn’t want despite the fact that they only have like 5 working rides.

Thank you to SeaWorld for at least making an effort this year to pretend like you are a player in the Universal/Disney duel. Although if SeaWorld really got into this duel, it wouldn’t be a “duel” anymore, it would be a “truel” and if you included Lego or Busch, it would be a “cruel” or “quad-uel”.

Thank you to Six Flags for all the special elite services we get for free after paying $25 for parking.

Thank you to Disney’s Animal Kingdom for finally getting the Yeti fixed. Isn’t it amazing that Disney can build a robot that can catch a baseball and shrug when it misses, but can’t seem to pull the plug on the disco light over the yeti? I wonder if the robot catcher is on steroids like all of the other baseball players…

Thank you to all of those insane individuals who think that barrel rolls on wooden roller coasters are a good idea. I understand now that with the world coming to an end, there was never any intention to actually do this.

Well, that is all that I have…..feel free to unload your soul in preparation for the ending of the world below.

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Attraction of the week: Busch Gardens Williamsburg's Loch Ness Monster

By Robert Niles
Published: December 17, 2012 at 3:52 PM
For the past several weeks, I've been directing your attention some great theme park attractions around the world that don't always get the attention they deserve. Today, I hope you'll indulge me as I shine the "Attraction of the Week" spotlight on a ride for purely sentimental reasons.

I suspect that for many of us, there's a ride out there somewhere that you love for reasons that have less to do with the ride itself and more with what that ride has meant to you during special moments in your life. For me, that ride is the Loch Ness Monster at Busch Gardens Williamsburg.

This Arrow coaster opened in 1978 at what was then called Busch Gardens: The Old Country. Theme parks around the country were adding roller coasters with inversions in the late 1970s, following Magic Mountain's success with Revolution - the first modern vertical loop steel coaster. Busch Gardens raised the stakes, though, as the Loch Ness Monster featured two vertical loops, which interlocked.

Loch Ness Monster

Hey, it was a big, big deal at the time.

I first rode Nessie in October of 1979. That was my very first "upside down" roller coaster, and the only reasons I summoned the courage to try it were (a) I was obsessed with Scotland and the Loch Ness Monster back then, and couldn't stand with myself if I'd skipped a ride with that theme, and (b) the ride's loops were over water, so I figured if I fell out at the top, splashing down into water would better than dying by falling onto hard earth.

Nessie's loops seemed all the more impressive back then. Not only was I bit shorter than I am now, the trees surrounding the rides were quite a bit smaller back then, too.

Trees surround Busch Gardens' Loch Ness Monster
Nessie, 30 years later

Plunging through the first loop surprised me. I never felt like I was "upside down." I stayed exactly where I'd been since leaving the load station - sitting on my seat in the coaster train. The blood didn't rush to my head like it did when I hung upside down from the monkey bars at school. But I was amazed that the water I'd expected to protect me after my inevitable fall was up there in the sky. And that the trees appeared to be growing down, instead of up.

Physics, for the win.

But as much as I loved the loops, Nessie won me over with an unexpected tunnel. I thought I was getting a roller coaster, but here I was enjoying a few seconds of a dark ride as the monster flew by me - bright lights in the pitch-black.

After it was over, I ran around to the entrance to go one more time. But I wouldn't ride Nessie again for another 30 years, on our first big, family cross-country roadtrip. This time, my daughter Natalie joined me, for what would be her very first trip on an "upside down" coaster. Sure, she was a little apprehensive. But I told her about my first trip on Nessie, and she was ready to try.

We didn't see the lights in the tunnel, though. But she loved the loops every bit as much as I did, when I was a kid. As we pulled into the station, she held her hand toward me, and extended her little finger for a pinkie shake.

"Coaster buddies," she said?

"Coaster buddies," I replied. Then we ran around to the entrance to go one more time.

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Vote of the week: How do you see 3D?

By Robert Niles
Published: December 16, 2012 at 11:55 PM
Theme parks seem to love 3D - Transformers, Toy Story, Spider-Man, Mickey's PhilharMagic. Parks have been rolling out more and more rides and shows with 3D movie elements, and fans have been lining up to experience them.

But not everyone loves 3D. For some theme park fans, 3D's a headache, literally. When the projection's just a little bit off, or your eyes can't quite synch the images correctly, 3D leaves fans seeing "ghost" images, blurry action and even feeling headaches from the visual confusion.

It's worse for some visitors, whose eyes can't process 3D at all. Last month in Orlando, I spent a few moments with someone in the industry who had loved riding Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, but she was expressing her fear that Universal would put 3D into the new Gringotts ride. She couldn't see 3D at all, but didn't want to miss out on that new ride the way she would have to skip Transformers, the 3D motion-base ride Universal Studios Florida is opening this summer.


That conversation got me thinking about another aspect of this problem - accommodation. Theme parks, like all public places, are required by U.S. federal law to provide reasonable accommodation to persons with disabilities, including visual disabilities. Could this mean that parks might one day be required to provide a 2D version of a 3D attraction to accommodate visitors who can't handle those effects?

Perhaps this is interesting: When Universal invited me to walk through the new Transformers ride at Universal Studios Hollywood before it opened to the public, we walked through wearing the 3D glasses. But in one scene, the Universal Creative rep displayed the projection in 2D so that we could take still photos. I wonder if Universal or Disney could run 2D shows of its 3D attractions on certain times during the day, to accommodate people who can't see 3D? Obviously, that could become an operational challenge, so I totally understand why parks might want to avoid that if they could. But if parks saw that not offering a 2D option was costing them visitors (or someone sued), might they change their minds?

Let's make this a vote of the week. How do you see 3D?

Please tell us your thoughts about 3D, both in the theme park attractions and in movies in general. And thank you, as always, for reading and being a part of Theme Park Insider!

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More NextGen roll-outs at the Walt Disney World Resort

By Robert Niles
Published: December 16, 2012 at 11:32 PM
The Walt Disney World Resort is rolling out more and more of its NextGen technology for managing visitors' vacations. Last week, Disney ran another test of its news Fastpass+ system, which allows selected on-property Disney hotel guests to reserve in advance specific ride times at a limited number of attractions. Disney's also rolling out "tap to pay" RFID payment stations at some of its merchandise locations. (You might have seen or used the same basic technology at ExxonMobil gas stations that allow you to wave a Speedpass keychain at the pump to pay for your fuel.)

With Disney, you're using your resort hotel keys to access the NextGen services. But the company's about to open up NextGen to more visitors. This week, the company debuted a new version of the Walt Disney World website, which includes a link to a new section, My Disney Experience. That's where visitors can set up a trip itinerary, which eventually will hook into the new Fastpass+ system for eligible guests.

New WDW website

Ultimately, I'd love to be able to enjoy a day in the parks without having to bring my wallet, and worry about it getting stolen, lost or soaking wet. Just slip on my waterproof NextGen wristband, and I'd be good to go - using it to get into the parks, access my restaurant and ride reservations and to pay for all my meals, souvenirs and snacks. I know my wife would really like to be able to ditch the purse.

Of course, parent with small kids will still need the diaper bag. And I imagine most of us will still want to bring in our cell phones. But anything that cuts down on the amount of stuff I have to haul around the parks for the day, hey, I say let's go for it.

Have you used any of the NextGen tech at Walt Disney World yet? (So far, all I've used is the ordering system at Be Our Guest.) If so, please tell us in the comments about the experience.

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SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment plans an IPO, as Creative team works to spend the money

By Robert Niles
Published: December 15, 2012 at 4:01 PM
Reuters is reporting that SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment is planning to start selling stock in the company, perhaps within the next few months. The news service reports that SeaWorld's planning an Initial Public Offering [IPO] which could earn more than $500 million for its owner, the private equity firm Blackstone Group.

Blackstone bought SeaWorld (which also owns the Busch Gardens theme parks as well as Sesame Place) in 2009 after Belgian brewer InBev acquired the Anheuser-Busch, then decided that it wanted to get ride of Anheuser-Busch's theme park division. Blackstone bought the parks for $2.3 billion.

As SeaWorld's working toward raising a big chunk of change, the park's creative team is hard at work spending it. :^) Here's the latest video update from Brian Morrow and his team, who are working on the debut of SeaWorld Orlando's Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin ride, which is opening this spring:

I talked with Brian about Antarctica at the IAAPA industry convention in Orlando last month, where SeaWorld unveiled the Oceaneering-produced ride vehicles that will carry visitors through the attraction. (Oceaneering is the firm that engineered the ride vehicles for Universal's Transformers and Spider-Man rides - so SeaWorld's building on a proven track record here.)

Antarctica's ride vehicles look quite a bit like an eight-seat version of the Luigi's Flying Tires from Disney California Adventure's Cars Land.
But this "motion-base ride system on top of a trackless transport" promises a much more sophisticated ride experience, as the vehicles can tilt in multiple directions, and with variable intensity, as the units move themselves through the ice-cold penguin exhibit space SeaWorld's creating.

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New Universal project announced for Dubai

By Michael Owen
Published: December 15, 2012 at 3:59 PM
Universal are finally set to open an entertainment destination in Dubai, according to reports in the Middle Eastern press.

After years of setbacks Universal will work on a new project revealed by Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum today which will be part of a wider development under the Crown Ruler of Dubai's name.

According to the Gulf News, Universal's part in the new project will be park of a family tourism center with a park capable of handling 35 million yearly visitors and the regions largest leisure and entertainment center.

The wider development will take the form of a city within a city, so to speak, with over 300 hotels, the worlds largest shopping mall and living and office space.

Any announcement of this size and scale will undoubtedly be taken with a pinch of salt after the mammoth Dubailand project was revealed, scaled down and then scrapped within a decade, but the Sheikh's direct involvement with the announcement of the project offers a serious statement of intent.

The plans for Universal's input have yet to be fully revealed, though the likelihood will be the company will either be asked to put together a traditional Universal park full of well-known favourites or a large scale indoor facility, much like Abu Dhabi's Ferrari World, to keep guests out of the heat.

My opinion? I won't be holding my breath, though I expect this to be built at some point, especially as Dubai's economy gets back on its feet, it's likely not in the very near future.

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Christmas trees from around the world of theme parks

By Robert Niles
Published: December 11, 2012 at 7:25 PM
Did you know that Theme Park Insider has a page on Pinterest?

I've just created a new board, to celebrate the holiday season: Christmas trees from around the theme park world. Take a look at a couple of the shots:

Tokyo DisneySea

Disney's Hollywood Studios

I'd like to add more. Do you have a great photo you've taken of a Christmas tree in a theme park? Email me your best shot, or send me the URL if it's already posted online, such as on Flickr, Pinterest, or some other photo-hosting service. I'll pick three people who send in photos or URLs to select a prize from the Theme Park Insider prize vault. (The photos must be your own.)

We've got TPI T-shirts, signed copied of Stories from a Theme Park Insider and a couple of Disneyland photo books to choose from. And congratulations to our winners from the last prize vault give-away: Jeff Elliott, Caroline Sharp and Jack Curley.

Update: Here are three more...

Silver Dollar City, from James Rao:

Disney's Hollywood Studios, from Fiesty Felix:

And SeaWorld Orlando, from David Brown:

Thanks for the pictures!

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Harry Potter stars shooting film footage in England for new theme park rides

By Robert Niles
Published: December 11, 2012 at 2:58 PM
Work is coming along on the new Harry Potter ride for Orlando.

And I'm not just talking about construction inside Universal Studios Florida. British media are reporting that the stars of the Harry Potter films are working at the Warner Bros studios in Leavesden shooting footage for the new Harry Potter rides in Florida and California.

Tom Felton and Michael Gambon
Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy) and Michael Gambon (Dumbledore) at the opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando in June 2010.

Uh, California? Japan? (Cue the record scratch.)

We've known that the Gringotts coaster that will be the centerpiece of the Diagon Alley land that's under construction at USF would need new film footage as part of the ride. (Concept art suggests that it will make the first appearance by Voldemort in one of the Harry Potter attractions.) But the reference to Universal Studios Hollywood's Wizarding World in the story leads one to wonder if California will be getting the Gringotts coaster in lieu of or perhaps in addition to the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride that's housed in Hogwarts Castle at Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure. Or if California's getting something completely different, instead. Same for Japan. (*The post has been updated to include the USJ reference.)

(Thanks to reader Duncan Henny for the tip.)

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Attraction of the Week: Universal Studios Japan's Space Fantasy: The Ride

By Robert Niles
Published: December 10, 2012 at 12:14 PM
Love Disney's Space Mountain? How you'd like to ride another creative team's take on a roller coaster ride through space? Just book your flight for Osaka, where you can blast off on Universal Studios Japan's Space Fantasy: The Ride.

Space Fantasy: The Ride
Photo illustration courtesy Universal Studios Japan

This Mack indoor spinning coaster opened in March 2010, replacing the park's E.T. Adventure ride. The ride itself is similar to Knott's Berry Farm's Sierra Sidewinder, which is another spinning coaster from Mack Rides. But the setting's nothing like Knott's outdoor coaster. On Space Fantasy, you'll fly through an elaborately decorated indoor "space", complete with star fields, looming planets and laser effects.

It's a far trip from a giant chocolate chip cookie flying across the wall.

Universal's even provided a backstory for this adventure. Here's the ride description from the Universal Studios Japan website:

"You board a spaceship departing from Earth with the mission to save the sun. The Earth and Saturn… As the magically captivating planets and comets race by, you dodge through clouds of tumbling asteroids blocking your way. Look out! They seem close enough to be touched! Twisting and turning, spinning and rocking,you will be thrilled as the story goes on. Toward the climax, you dash into the heart of the dimming sun!"

Uh, that doesn't exactly sound like a happy ending for riders. But the journey, from the queue through the ride itself, looks like a delightful trip. Check out this promotional video, which I like because it includes scenes from the ride's queue, which features "GestureTek" video characters that react to your touch.

Along with Efteling and Hong Kong Disneyland, Universal Studios Japan ranks high on my to-do list of top theme parks I haven't yet visited. If Space Fantasy isn't enough to make you long to visit someday, too, USJ will be the next theme park to get the Wizarding World of Harry Potter - their's is opening in 2014. And USJ remains the only Universal park with a Back to the Future ride, which remains a missed favorite among many theme park fans.

If you've ridden Space Fantasy, or would just like to someday, we'd love to hear from you in the comments.

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Vote of the week: The best way to make a theme park reservation?

By Robert Niles
Published: December 7, 2012 at 10:44 AM
How do you prefer to book your theme park vacation?

Major theme parks offer a variety of ways to buy tickets, book hotel rooms and make restaurant reservations. (Soon, you'll even be making ride-time reservations with certain packages at the Walt Disney World Resort.) But how do you prefer to do all of that - online, over the phone or by email? Or, if you just love waiting in lines, how about in person?

On the train
How do you prefer to book your tickets?

Since we're asking you this question online, I suppose it's reasonable to assume that our vote will skew in favor of the online option. But let's look at some of the pluses and minuses of all the options first.

On the Web, you've got immediacy. But it's up to you to wade through the available options. If you've got questions about potential alternatives, or can't find the exact option you're wanting, you might be out of luck. (For links to various parks' online reservation systems, please visit our How to get the best deals on theme park tickets page.)

Over the phone, you've got a couple more possibilities. You could speak with a live operator, or work your way through an automated voice menu. (Walt Disney World's automated voice menu has, uh, acquired a bit of a reputation over the years….) Operators are great for flexibility, answering questions and guiding you through options you might not have considered. But you could be on hold for a while waiting for one. And if you're not interested in exploring all those upsells - and just want to book your ressie - well, you might be in for a bit of conflict. Automated systems can frustrate, too, but at least they're almost always instantly available.

You can use email to book at some parks, too, though you'll have to wait for a response to be certain you got what you wanted. Disneyland uses email for its online restaurant reservations. And you probably shouldn't send credit card numbers via email unless you're doing so via secure connections, which I don't know that any parks use for this sort of thing.

Finally, there's just showing up and doing things in person. That's a terrible call for buying tickets on the morning of a busy summer day. But for a spur of the moment visit on a slow day? What the heck.

Please tell us some of your success and/or horror stories with making reservations at theme parks, in the comments. And, as always, thank you for reading and being part of the Theme Park Insider community. Have a great weekend!

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Disney's missed opportunity with the New Fantasyland

By Robert Niles
Published: December 6, 2012 at 7:56 PM
Disney's getting a lot of press today for its media events over the past two days officially opening its latest expansion of Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom (which actually have been open to the public for nearly a month - check out post yesterday for links to all of our coverage.)

Opening Ceremony
Actress Ginnifer Goodwin, Disney Parks Chariman Tom Staggs, Mickey Mouse and singer Jordin Sparks open the New Fantasyland at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom this morning. Photo courtesy Disney

Here's my take: Disney reduced what could have been a rim-rattling slam dunk to a layup. Yeah, the additions shown off today still score, but they don't get people out of their seats and shouting to their friends the way a complete new extension of the land - with the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train mountain at its center and not a construction wall in sight - would have.

Disney chose to save substantial construction costs by building its new Fantasyland in phases, rather than paying the extra expense to build all four components - Storybooks Circus, Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Seven Dwarfs Mine Train - at the same time. So we got Storybook Circus last spring, Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast last month, and we will get the Mine Train in 2014.

That's spreading the impact of the new land over two years. It's as if Universal had opened the Wizarding World of Harry Potter with Hogwarts still under construction, then debuted Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey 18 months later. No, I don't expect the Mine Train to be as spectacular as Forbidden Journey has been, but I think that makes Disney's position even weaker. The Mine Train could have been the final piece to really wow people today. Instead, it's presence in the middle of the New Fantasyland simply serves to remind everyone that today's "premiere" isn't. The project won't be complete for more than another year.

I love what Disney's done with New Fantasyland - so far. But I want to raise the missed opportunity here. Opening Fantasyland in dribs and drabs might please the hard-core fans, who are always looking for something new. But that decision kept Fantasyland from having the critical mass that allows a project to appeal beyond established fans and grab the attention of other potential visitors - the way that the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and to a lesser extent Cars Land did.

The Magic Kingdom will get an attendance boost over the next year as people who put off visits in 2011 and 2012 to avoid the construction begin to return. But some will hold out until 2014, further dampening the impact that the New Fantasyland could have had for the company.

Yes, building it all at once would have been more expensive. Substantially so. But theme parks have always been a business where you have to spend money to make money. Contrast Disney's relative caution with Universal's damn-the-budget drive to get Transformers built and open within 12 months.

A complete New Fantasyland would have convinced more Orlando-area visitors reason to come to the Magic Kingdom in 2013 - not 2014 or beyond. But with construction walls remaining in the middle of that area all year, I wonder how many of those potential visitors might choose to spend a day over at Universal's completed Transformers in late 2013, instead.

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Walt Disney World's new Dragon debuts above the Magic Kingdom's New Fantasyland

By Robert Niles
Published: December 5, 2012 at 7:13 PM
Disney tonight premiered its new flying dragon, during a party celebrating the official opening of the New Fantasyland at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom.

Here's the video:

This is Disney's heavily-hyped new flying plaything, though it remains to be seen whether Disney will make this a recurring feature in the Magic Kingdom (a la Tinkerbell's castle fly-by), or if it will leave the dragon's appearance as a one-shot deal, with the technology to be re-employed elsewhere, at another time.

As for the New Fantasyland - despite this week's "official opening" the new section of this land isn't finished yet. Its centerpiece - the Snow White-themed Seven Dwarfs Mine Train - won't open for at least another year. And what is opening this week has been officially soft opened for a couple weeks, and unofficially opened for a couple weeks before that.

ICYMI, I offered my thoughts on this phase of the New Fantasyland last month, as well as reviews of the new Be Our Guest and Gaston's Tavern restaurants, as well as took a look at Be Our Guest's unique lunchtime ordering system.

Update: Almost forgot about the Storybook Circus section of New Fantasyland, which also officially opens this week, even though it actually opened last March.

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More airing of grievances: Table service dining in Universal Orlando's theme parks

By Robert Niles
Published: December 4, 2012 at 11:37 AM
If last week's, initial grievance was over an embarrassment, this week's first grievance marks more of a missed opportunity.

Lombard's Seafood Grille

Theme Park Insider readers love Universal Orlando's top two table-service in-park restaurants, Lombard's Seafood Grille at Universal Studios Florida and multiple Theme Park Insider Award-winner Mythos at Islands of Adventure. Both offer a nice selection of entrees for reasonable prices (all but one entree under $20), placing them among the best meal values in the theme park business.

But let's be frank. Executive Chef Steve Jayson and his staff can cook much more ambitious cuisine than fried fish, burgers and a daily pasta special. This isn't the pre-Harry Potter era, when Universal needed to beat Disney on price in order to remain competitive in the Orlando market. Potter's shown that Universal can compete with - and beat - Disney on quality, commanding premium prices at the same time.

I love that Universal is stepping up its game, bringing Transformers to Orlando, approving a top-quality expansion of The Simpsons, and expanding the Wizarding World to the Studios theme park. Please, Universal, turn Chef Jayson loose and let him upgrade the menus - and yes, the prices - to make Mythos and Lombard's not just the best value in Orlando theme park restaurants, but the most ambitious and highest-quality dining rooms in the market, as well.

Let's see what Universal can do with a plus-$20 theme park table-service dinner entree. What do you think?

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Attraction of the week: Tokyo DisneySea's Journey to the Center of the Earth

By Robert Niles
Published: December 3, 2012 at 7:13 PM
One year ago this week, I rode what's become my favorite theme park attraction on the planet: Journey to the Center of the Earth at Tokyo DisneySea. I love this Journey for what might be the greatest single moment in a theme park attraction.

But you've got to love the setting, as well.

Mount Prometheus at Tokyo DisneySea

Journey to the Center of the Earth occupies Mount Prometheus, the icon that defines the Jules Verne-themed Mysterious Island in the heart of the park.

Walk up to the mountain, and you'll see a giant drill, boring into Mount Prometheus. This is the machine that is clearing our way to the center of the Earth.

Drilling into the mountain

Walk through the passageway into the mountain, and you'll wind your way through an elaborately-decorated queue, with steaming lava, maps, and equipment used on past journeys.

Journey to the Center of the Earth queue

Once through the queue, you'll board lifts that will take you down to the loading station...

Lifts in the Journey queue

…where you'll board the mine cars that will take your deeper into the Earth, into its core.

Load station

You'll pass crystal caverns, and encounter giant mushroom forests filled with bizarre creatures, before, as to be expected, something goes terribly wrong.

And that is perhaps the most exhilarating, delicious moment in theme parks. The moment when you come face-to-face with a monster that is everything that Expedition Everest's Yeti is supposed to be, and much, much more. (The way that Disney's Imagineers distract you before whipping you around to face the monster just amplifies the excitement.)

The Monster

At once, as you confront the monster, this gentle dark-ride tour becomes something else. With a blast of speed, it's you that erupts from the side of the mountain for a final, high-speed escape around the caldera.

The finale of Journey to the Center of the Earth

Of all the delights at Tokyo DisneySea (your choice as the world's best theme park this year), this was the one that left me rushing to go around and ride again, despite having only one day to do everything in the park. It's the moment that stays with me, a year later, taunting me to save enough money to go back to DisneySea.

As much as I love Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Transformers: The Ride, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man and even Radiator Springs Racers, none of those rides offer that that exhilarating moment when surprise, fear and thrill come together to leave you breathless the way that Journey to the Center of the Earth does. It's changed my standards for what theme park attractions can be.

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First looks at the new version of Epcot's Test Track

By Robert Niles
Published: December 1, 2012 at 10:50 PM
Walt Disney World's new version of Test Track has soft-opened to family and friends of cast members, and might be soft-opening to the public as early as tomorrow (Dec. 2). A Theme Park Insider reader who recently rode the new Test Track has sent us a review (with spoilers - if you care to avoid details, bail on this post now:

I never really liked the original Test Track to begin with. It just doesn't reach that level of awesomeness that Impressions de France or Tower of Terror reaches. To me, it was a very meh ride, in which I wouldn't wait more than 20 minutes for. Granted, I am a CM so I am pretty spoiled when it comes to wait times... With that said, I do believe Test Track 2.0 is a big improvement from the original. I rode this 5 times (3 day, 2 night rides) during the Cast-Only Previews on November 24th so not all the elements were working. But I was very impressed from what was working!

First thing's first, it is very Tron-like. And I liked that. Queue: The queue has been totally redone and doesn't even resemble the old queue. And it smelled like a new car. There were people working on some monitors so not everything was working. Design: There are 2 Stand-By design rooms and we were given a white card with a blue rubber band on it. Which you have to hang on to throughout your ride and post-show experience. They are similar to the the Photo-Pass cards given out in the Disney Water Parks, but the size of the regular card. Our card was just white but I'm sure it'll have a design once it opens. You go into these design rooms, tap your card to a symbol on the right, and you have about 2-3 minutes to design your car. You tap your card first, and you better design fast because there are a lot of options for your car like wheels(*Don't forget the Back Wheels!!!*), length, outline, color, accessories, etc. A lot of people didn't finish once time ran out. The design process is a lot like the Sum of All Thrills' design process but with a lot more options. As you make changes to your design, you can see what it does to your car. For example adding something can give you +5 environmental but -5 power.

Once the design is done, you walk up a ramp to merge and then to load. Load: Once your by the air gates, you tap your design card to the same symbol as the design lab's symbol and your design should pop up (This didn't always work when I rode.) Ride: After each test, your design is ranked with each person's design in your car. (This wasn't working when I rode) And you can see the rankings on the screens where they used to talk to you in Test Track 1.0. When heading to the seat-belt check, you hear the same "Hello! The seat-belt check is just around the corner.." announcement from your car but in a male's voice instead of a female's.

Hill Climb: This is the first time you see any Tron-like scenery and I was quite impressed by it. It's like sensory overload. The top of the hill climb is very Space Mountain-like with the stars. Suspension Test: There is none. Your car doesn't shake anymore. I think this is supposedly where your design is uploaded. 1st Brake Test: At the end of this test, it looks like you're heading into a valley but when you swerve out of control, the valley starts flooding with the water like cube things heading towards you. When the water thing hits you, the screen where you see the valley explodes, and the water like cube things are projected in the cars. 2nd Brake Test: Similar to the first but instead of a valley, a lightning strike hitting a (city as I recall). And on your left, you see a cool looking red city. Environmental Tests: The first test is like a laser projected from the ceiling and onto your car. (like Dinosaur, if it's working, right before you see the control room before you time travel) The second test looks like a stream-line test where you see yourself in your car and you can see the stream-lines going around your car. But this wasn't working when I rode. The third test, you see some Tron-like designs on the walls and as you passed by, they change colors. It was a pretty cool effect.

Track Course A: Pretty much the same as Test Track 1.0 but with more futuristic road signs and the trees are outlined to look Tron-like. Truck: The Truck is still there but, like the trees, is outlined to look Tron-like. And the truck driver with the lei is gone. Barrier/Power Test: When you make that right turn before you start the test, you can see all the test symbols "charging up?" I guess that's the best way to explain it. The crash wall is still there but, as you guessed, Tron-like. (This is the last Tron-like thing you see.) And the outside portion is the same as Test Track 1.0, but the lights under the track are blue instead of a yellowish-orange. The breaks still stink like 1.0's, where they are constantly pumping their brakes. Thermal Imaging: This is where you see your design rank overall with the other riders in the car. Post-Show: You can see a lot of places to tap your card and when you do, your design pops up and is given a score. Which is compared against everyone else who rode that day. Maybe year/month? My score was in the low 200's (I have no idea what that score means but I'm sure as I ride more, I'll understand it). There looks like there are more post show things to do but it was roped off to us and we had to put our cards into a black basket before exiting through a Cast hallway that leads backstage.

If you're looking for video, here's a side-by-side comparison with the original version of Test Track, where you can see the differences between the new version's computer graphics and the old version's physical props (credit to Matt Roseboom's crew for this mash-up):

Anyone planning to ride the new Test Track soon?

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