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March 2013

Vote of the week: Do you love the old or the new?

By Robert Niles
Published: March 29, 2013 at 8:12 AM

When you're dreaming of your next theme park vacation, what is it that drives you to make those dreams reality?

Is it the promise of experiencing a new adventure -- perhaps a hot new attraction such as Disney's Radiator Springs Racers or Universal's Transformers, or maybe just visiting a theme park that you'd never visited before?

At Transformers

Or are you the type who gets excited to visit an old friend, such as Disney's Haunted Mansion or Space Mountain, and who prefers to spend your money on vacations you know you'll love?

At Space Mountain

Of course, these decisions aren't always exclusive. Plenty of theme park fans who seek new adventures also enjoy old favorites on their trips. And plenty of nostalgia buffs will try a new attraction once they've spent time with their favorites.

But for the purpose of today's vote, I'm pushing you to choose one or the other: The new or the old. Which is the one that most motivates you to get out your wallet and put your money where your dreams are?

Let's hear your thoughts about what compels you to visit a theme park, in the comments. And, as always, thank you for reading, commenting on and spreading the word about Theme Park Insider. Have a great weekend!

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The Blog Flume Filter for March 28, 2013

By Jeff Elliott
Published: March 28, 2013 at 11:14 AM

Disneyland – The courts have determined how much it will cost to be tortured for three hours: $8000. (Update: Turns out it was just 30 minutes.) While we don’t know how the sum was devised, it was recently award to a wheelchair bound man who couldn’t be evacuated immediately from the It’s A Small World ride and sat turning into jelly while listening to the song hammer him over and over again. Various terrorist organizations around the world including the Democrats and Republicans have step forward to defend the “It’s A Small World” song. Bob Iger is currently working on a scathing press release accusing the judge of being foolish and not reading the fine print on the ticket saying that nothing is Disney’s fault…ever.


Update: Disneyland announced today that it will add "Iron Man Tech Presented by Stark Industries" to its Innoventions collection of exhibits on April 13. Visitors will get a chance to see the Iron Man suits Mark I-VII –- the same suits featured in “Iron Man 3,” and, not coincidentally, the very suits that will be worn by Disneyland executives to protect themselves from rabid Disney fan "foamers" who are aghast at the idea that Disney should add anything from its wildly lucrative Marvel franchises to Walt's Holy park.

Disney’s Hollywood Studios – While it is still just a rumor, a Star Wars miniland may wind up taking a substantial portion of the park and closing down the Studio Tour and Sounds Dangerous. And we are hearing rumors again that the hat is finally going to go.

DLP Dream – Here are some new scenes that were swiped from the Lion King and Brave. I would think that these would find their way to the other parks soon.

Islands of Adventure – Surveyors were seen in the park near the splashdown pool of Jurassic Park. While some are saying that it may be early work on a new King Kong ride, I get the feeling that they are measuring how far behind the River Adventure building they need to put the tower for the big flaming eye from Lord of the Rings. The could also be working on a new bathroom...or drainage…who knows.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom – Fences and green tarp have gone up in the area to where the Festival of the Lion King show is going to be moved. It sounds like progress is finally being made. The zebras at the end of Kalimanjaro Safari are apparently not working out. For some reason they are not acting like cute stripy horses and are behaving like wild animals, in that they are blocking the track and nipping at each other and in some case guests. While there is talk that the Addax is going to become the finale, I personally think they need to go back to the dead elephant animatronic. In somewhat related news, I also heard that James Cameron is in seclusion in New Zealand writing the next two Avatar movies.


Virtual Space Mountain – The below video was painstakingly assemble by some true fans of Space Mountain who attempted to lovingly get all of the detail of the entire ride put into the computer. But before that, I want you to try Jeff’s Virtual Space Mountain and then you can compare the two. For Jeff’s Space Mountain, close your eyes. Now rub your eyes with them closed to simulate the star field. Then whip your head from side to side as you imagine the course of the coaster track. Once at the end, whip your head forward to simulate the breaks, and presto!, instant Space Moutain. Or you could watch the video…

Disneyland’s Third Theme Park “Adventure” – I have always thought that the third Disney theme park would try to take a page out of Islands of Adventure’s book, with rides more aimed at teens and adults. The idea, while still a rumor, is starting to gain some traction. Think of a park that had Pandora, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Avengers, X-Men, and other Marvel properties. With big rides, roller coasters, and the like, while attempting to beat Islands of Adventure for thrills and theming. One can only hope, but if they need it, I have B&M on speed dial on my phone. I have never called it, but am aching to.

Planes - Goose & Iceman are back together again for this new movie. Keeping in mind that this is related to the Cars world, does anyone have any ideas for what the attraction would be for a Planes Land and series of attractions? That is your assignment this week. Build Planes Land, build it at any park or in the Disneyland third park if you must. If you need some inspiration, think Top Gun mixed with Karate Kid done in Cars style.

Kennedy Space Center – Kennedy Space Center – The pandering to the lowest common denominator begins. This week, the Space Center opened their Angry Birds Space exhibit in an attempt to get kids to show up who would otherwise not look up from their smartphone as their parent dragged them all over the space center.

Cedar Fair – It looks like the company is moving forward quickly with getting Fast Lane Plus and/or regular Fast Lane into all of its parks. The only one not mentioned as to having one or the other is Knott’s Berry Farm.

Six Flags Fiesta Texas – The Iron Rattler is now taking test runs with an empty train. Hopefully by next week they will have graduated to testing on mice and rats, then the week after on dogs, and then onto monkey testing. I wonder if I could pass as a monkey and get on the ride before everyone else?

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Using Disney's website to find and make the best dining choices at Walt Disney World

By Anthony Murphy
Published: March 27, 2013 at 8:01 AM

One of the most popular experiences at Walt Disney World is dining at its more than 250 restaurants. With four parks, more than 30 resorts, and Downtown Disney, you can find dining options for every taste and group. While you still can call 407-WDW-DINE for reservations, Disney has released My Disney Experience which allows guests to plan out their entire trip online -- including dining (and even attraction times for guests staying in selected resorts who get access to FastPass+).

Making dining reservations online is a great option for all guests: both first timers and veterans. The website allows you to filter restaurants based on price, location, and cuisine, which allows first time guests to really get a visual idea of the reservation that is lacking over the phone. It also allows veterans to skip much of the fine print that is stated with every reservation (park admission is not included, etc). I hope to give advice that will allow you to get into the restaurants you want and find good alternates, if needed.

Walt Disney World dining reservation page

The dining reservation site allows you to filter under the following parameters: Parks/Resorts, Price, Cuisine, ratings (based on TripAdvisor.com), and Disney Dining plans. This is also the place to make reservation for the dinner shows and special dining events such as character dining. Many of the more popular restaurants require a $10 security fee which will be charged if you don’t show up. They do give you ample time to cancel so it shouldn’t be too much of an issue, but that's good to know.

The website has become pretty user friendly, but I have a few suggestions/rules for you to get the most out of your search:

1. Book Early: Probably the biggest tip that lots of guests miss, you get to make the dining reservation 180 days before the day you arrive. If you stay at a Disney Resort, you can start making reservations for the entire trip. Non-resort guests would need to wait at least 180 days before each day. As with everything with theme parks, the earlier the better!

2. Choose your date and time: If you know that you want to go for a fun lunch on Monday or a romantic dinner a Saturday night, the website allows you to filter down and show the only restaurants that have available seating at the date and time. I would suggest choosing a rough time instead of going with the Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner choices. I find them very subjective and if your time is not available, they will give the next best time. Sometimes this is only a half hour off.

3. Choose your location: If you know you are going to Epcot or another park, just put that information into the filter and it you will see all the dining options available around that time. This is especially helpful for Epcot, which has the most restaurants that take reservations.

4. Check for events: Depending on when you go, there might be special events going on at the parks. While these are usually not to miss, they tend to make reservations a bit tougher. This is mostly at Epcot, but is usually on the weekends. This is a good tip to avoid crowds too.

5. Keep checking back: Don’t see the restaurant available on the day you want? Keep checking back to see if there is an opening. Many reservations change so there is usually a good possibility that there might be an opening if you are persistent and keep checking.

I know that the Disney dining experience can be a little daunting, but here is my family’s time tested strategies for getting reservations:

At Cinderella's Royal Table

Magic Kingdom: Quite possibly the toughest in-park dining reservations to get because this park has two of the most requested reservations in all of the Disney Parks: Cinderella’s Royal Table and Be Our Guest restaurants. If you request them on the first days you can make reservations, you usually can get them. Cinderella‘s Royal Table is prepay so it is important not to miss this reservation. Magic Kingdom does have some other excellent alternatives including Liberty Tree Tavern, Crystal Palace (good character dining for older kids and adults), and Tony’s Town Square Restaurant.

Epcot: As mentioned, this place has the most restaurants that take reservations. I would suggest looking at selections early just to give you more options. The only restaurant that is notoriously crowded is Le Cellier. If you really want to dine at a steakhouse, I would highly recommend Yachtsman Steakhouse at the Yacht Club Resort. Another great find is the new Hacienda de San Angel (Mexico). We try to get the 8:15 reservation so that we can watch and listen to illuminations (the restaurant is right on the lagoon with huge windows and music played inside the place). Lunch usually gives you the most options for reservations. Lunch usually is less expensive and offers specials. Our usual “go to” restaurants that are usually walk up or easier to get reservations are: Nine Dragons (China) and Biergarden (Germany). Epcot also has princess dining in Norway which is a good alternative to Cinderella’s Royal Table at the Magic Kingdom. Plus Mom and Dad can get an “adult beverage”.

Disney’s Hollywood Studios: Advanced reservations are not usually needed. If you know the date you are going to DHS, book a reservation. I recommend 50’s Prime Time Café or Sci Fi Dine In. Hollywood and Vine Character Dining is here and is a very popular option with Disney Junior aged kids.

Disney's Animal Kingdom: Because there are so few table service restaurants at DAK, we usually look for reservations at this place first when planning a trip. Besides character Dining, the only three options are Yak and Yeti, Tusker House and Rainforest Café. Rainforest Café is common in our area of the country, so we try for the Yak and Yeti. Advance Reservations are usually not hard for this park, but walkups are nearly impossible

Walt Disney World Resort Hotels: Many resorts offer great dining options which also include Character Dining and Dinner Shows. We try to stay away from the Magic Kingdom Resorts because reservations tend to be tough. One of our favorites near there, though, is the Hoop de Doo Revue at Fort Wilderness Resort. It is all you can eat (and drink) with live singing and dancing. If you have teenage kids (or no kids), Hoop-dee-Doo revue does have an 8:30 show that is usually less crowded, less expensive, and a little looser (the jokes are a little more suggestive, but still PG). The other great area to check from restaurants is the Epcot area. Many do not know, but there is a secret entrance that connects Epcot to the Beach Club and the Boardwalk. In fact, you can take a boat directly from Epcot to these resorts. They are full of some of the best kept dining secrets and reservations are usually not too difficult. These places also make a good alternative to Epcot if it is full.

Dining is a big part of the Disney experience, but make sure that you enjoy the food and have fun. Disney World has many dining options that allow you to experience the ambiance, food, and time with your family. Feel free to leave questions and comments in the section below. I would love to hear about your dining experiences!

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Free cupcakes at the Walt Disney World Resort? Let's celebrate!

By Amanda Jenkins
Published: March 26, 2013 at 9:01 AM

There is nothing like celebrating a birthday or anniversary, especially on vacation. Walt Disney World has its own kind of magic to sprinkle on your special day. When you book dining reservations, be sure to tell them what you are celebrating. When you arrive at your table, Mickey confetti will be sprinkled everywhere. After dinner you will be graced with a special cupcake. What makes it even more special is that it is FREE. Nothing tastes better than a delicious cupcake that wasn't added on to your bill.

I have been able to celebrate both a wedding anniversary and a two birthdays at Walt Disney World. Our wedding anniversary trip was showered with seven days of free champagne and a cupcake to share. My birthdays were again an all-week event of free cupcakes. One thing I noticed on our last trip in December, was that each place we dined at had begun to get creative. Each cupcake had its own design, taste, and special touch. Here are a few of my favorites.

Remember, let Disney know if you are wanting to celebrate during your vacation. You will be pleasantly surprised at the little free touches of magic.

Cupcake from Tusker House: This was more of a pound cake with vanilla frosting. It had a very light flavor.

Cupcake from Tusker House

Cupcake from Chef Mickey's: This vanilla cupcake with whipped icing was my only winter cupcake. The snowflake was a creamy white chocolate candy.

Cupcake from Chef Mickey's

Cupcake from Ohana: This cupcake was all chocolate and decadent. The little umbrella definitely put me in an island frame of mind.

Cupcake from Ohana

Cupcake from Akershus Royal Banquet Hall: This was by far my favorite for design and presentation. It had a delicate lemon flavor with creamy frosting. I loved it!

Cupcake from Akershus Royal Banquet Hall

What's your favorite birthday or celebration extra at a theme park?

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Where to eat? Flying Fish Café Chef's Counter at Walt Disney World's Boardwalk Resort

By Russell Meyer
Published: March 25, 2013 at 5:29 PM

For me, the Holy Grail of Disney dining experiences always will be the Chef's Table at Victoria & Albert's. The Five-Diamond-rated restaurant's ultimate meal is quite possibly the hardest advanced dining reservation (ADR) to grab in all of Walt Disney World. Not only is the table immensely popular, but there is only one party booked at the table each night. Every time my wife and I travel to Orlando, we have always tried to book this exclusive experience with no success. For those interested in trying, bookings begin 180 days in advance, and V&A's has its own reservation number. However, if you book an on-site hotel, you can begin booking 180 days in advance of your check-in day (so if you book a 10-day stay, you can book ADRs 190 days in advance). V&A's does have a wait list that you can be placed on in the event that the party booked at the table happens to cancel, but you probably have a better chance of being handed a free admission ticket than getting the Chef's Table off the wait list. In response to the incredible popularity of the Chef's Table, V&A's unveiled the Queen Victoria Room that is essentially the same experience as the Chef's Table without the one-on-one interaction with Chef Scott Hunnel.

Now, we always try to have one really nice meal on our trips to Walt Disney World. We typically visit in October, during EPCOT's Food and Wine Festival, and last October's trip was no different. As we usually do, we attempted to book a reservation at V&A's Chef's Table, but once again we were forced onto the waitlist. When the signature dining experiences were announced in July for the Food and Wine Festival, there weren't any dinners that really interested us. We strongly considered booking V&A's Queen Victoria Room, but discovered that another highly respected Disney restaurant also had a chef's table experience.

Flying Fish Café, located at Disney's Boardwalk Resort, specializes in American seafood cuisine in a lively dining room. The Chef's Wine Tasting Dinner experience accommodates up to 6 guests with two seatings each night (5:30 PM and 8:15 PM). For $129 per person plus tax, guests are served a five-course dinner paired with wine. Guests are seated at a counter right in front of the kitchen, with a great view of the action. As a person who's a bit of a foodie and always interested in the workings of the kitchen, the seating location is unmatched, but my one complaint would be that it did get a bit hot with a sear station a few feet away from my face.

Like most chef's table experiences (not only Disney, but most high-end restaurants), the evening opens with an introduction by a member of the kitchen staff, review of the evening's menu, and verification of allergies and significant distastes.

Our meal started with an amuse-bouche course consisting of a boule of dill-cured Norwegian smoked salmon and herb-laced Jonah crab garnished with sweet-sour fennel and heirloom radishes, kaffir lime-chive oil, and mote marine Siberian sturgeon caviar. The saltiness of the caviar and salmon was perfectly complemented by the sweetness of the oil and vegetables. The subtle taste of the crab was the star, and was not overpowered by any of the more powerful ingredients.

FLA 295

The amuse was paired with a Chandon extra dry riche champagne, which was an appropriate pairing to awaken the palate and open all of the senses. The sparkling wine had just enough sweetness to match the dish, and allowed the delicate taste of the crab to linger.

The first course was then presented, featuring crispy kuri squash and duck confit arancini with duck prosciutto, cucamelons, tiny greens, and piquant preserved lemon remoulade. For me, this was a combination of very unusual ingredients that I would never think to put together. The duck prosciutto was not as salty as I had expected, but the cucamelons were quite a unique experience, reminding me a bit of gherkins in texture without the potent, overpowering flavor. The remaining flavors on the plate were a bit bland, but this dish was really about the textural experience contrasting the crispiness of the arancini (like a fritter), the crunchiness of the cucamelons, and almost creaminess of the duck prosciutto. This course was paired with a Torres Esmeralda Catalunya (2010) that became the real highlight. The soft tannins and very forward dark cherry aroma helped to lift the dish and enhance the subtle flavors of the squash and duck.

FLA 296

The second course followed with frutti di mare-laced garganelli pasta served with calamari, Penn Cove mussels and Pine Island shrimp. The pasta also had tiny leeks, braised artichokes, and a lobster roe butter-enhanced artichoke crema. This was one of those dishes that I could eat all day every day. I'm a huge fan of seafood pasta, and this was by far one of the best I've ever had. The pasta, which looks like penne, is actually a sheet pasta that is hand-rolled into a tubular shape, instead of extruded. I could definitely tell the amount of care and effort that went into making the pasta as it was perfectly al dente, and absorbed the flavors within the sauce without losing its texture. I wished this course could have been a bit larger, but paired with a glass of Sauvia Soave Classico DOC Veneto (2010) and its citrus aroma and dry finish, I was more than satisfied.

FLA 298

Our palates were then given a bit of a break with an “Intermezzo” consisting of a Meyer lemon sorbet and limoncello. Even my wife, who tends to dislike limoncello, enjoyed this course. The chef noted that many guests like to mix the two components to make a slush, but I enjoyed each component separately.

FLA 299

After the brief break, the main course was presented -- a Tazmanian pepper and lemon thyme-scented Marcho Farms veal tenderloin served with tiny brussel sprouts, fava beans, porcini mushrooms, and celery root with a truffle, port wine, and veal reduction. The veal was incredibly tender, with an intense but not overpowering reduction that was like liquid gold. The vegetables served with the veal would not have been my first choice, but were perfect for the season and complementary to the veal. I'm not a huge fan of fava beans, but enjoyed their textural contrast to the bright sprouts and earthy mushrooms. The main course was paired with a glass of Frescobaldi Castiglioni Chianti Firenze (2010), and. yes, I had to comment to the chef that the combination of fava beans and Chianti made me feel like Hannibal Lecter.

FLA 300

The meal was completed with a wonderful dessert course of decadent dark chocolate and drunken raspberry creation served with chocolate panne cotta and salted chocolate caramels. Paired with a glass of Pacific Rim Framboise, the course was a chocolate/raspberry lover's dream. For me, the star of this course was the salted chocolate caramels. Sweet and salty desserts have become more prevalent on menus recently, but these delectable, chewy delights were a perfect end to the meal.

FLA 301

After a little over two hours and five amazing wine-paired courses, we reached the end of a delicious meal. While I felt some of the courses were a little lacking in portion size, I was more than satisfied when we reached the end of the meal. I've had other multi-course tasting menus where I was stuffed two or three courses before the end and felt guilty sending plates back to the kitchen with delicious food remaining. It was refreshing to be able to reach the end of a multi-course meal and not feel engorged. The progression of courses was well executed, and hit on all corners of the palate. Textures sometimes took precedent over flavors, but overall, I felt that the menu was well executed. For guests looking for that extra special dining experience at the Walt Disney World Resort, and who cannot book or afford the V&A's Chef's Table or Queen Victoria Room, I highly recommend the Flying Fish Café Chef's Counter. It's a fine dining experience in an energetic setting with a highly satisfying and well-executed menu, but also accessible in both price and availability.


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Aerial photos of Harry Potter Diagon Alley, under construction at Universal Studios Florida

By Robert Niles
Published: March 24, 2013 at 4:24 PM

If you're wondering if Universal Orlando will be able to complete its new Harry Potter Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida by July 2014, as we reported yesterday that Universal's trying to do, let's take a look at some construction photos to see how far along the construction is at this date. One of Theme Park Insider's best friends was kind enough to share these photos with us.

Aerial view of Universal Studios Florida

In our first aerial shot, you can see almost all of Universal Studios Florida. The large building at the lower right is the Gringotts show building, with the Diagon Alley buildings under construction just above and to the left, between Gringotts and the London waterfront.

See that narrow, track-like strip heading straight up from the Gringotts building, toward the backstage road? That's the track for the Hogwarts Express, which will be an elevated train traveling above the path of that back-of-house road to the original Wizarding World of Harry Potter, in Islands of Adventure. (You can see it way up there at the top right. If you're curious, that's the new Transformers building up there at the top left, on the lagoon front.)

Here's another aerial view, looking back from the opposite direction. You can see The Simpsons' Springfield under construction to the right.

Another aerial view of USF

Returning to Diagon Alley, here's a direct overhead view. The London waterfront path is to the lower left. The steel frame at the very bottom is Grimmauld Place, while the entrance to the new Harry Potter land will be through the gap between the white buildings just up and to the left of the Grimmauld Place framing.

Diagon Alley construction

The darker ground leading into the new land is the "main drag" of Diagon Alley, which ends at the entrance to Gringotts, which is that wood-topped facade under construction in the middle of the photo. There's some empty space between that facade and the main Gringotts show building, which dominates the right side of the photo.

Here's the same location, from the opposite direction:

Hogwarts Express and Gringotts construction

There you have a nice view of the Hogwarts Express track, running diagonally (sorry) on the right side of the photo. To the left of the track you've got a nice view of the back of the Gringotts entrance facade under construction. You also can see San Francisco and the Disaster! show building at the top of the photo.


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Theme Park History: George Tilyou and New York's Steeplechase Park

By Derek Potter
Published: March 24, 2013 at 12:50 PM

“What attracts the crowd is the wearied mind’s demand for relief in unconsidered muscular action. We Americans either want to be thrilled or amused, and we are ready to pay well for either sensation.”
-George Tilyou

That was the simple, timeless philosophy of the industry’s first true showman, the one who, over 100 years ago, perfected the business model used by nearly every theme park since.

George Tilyou

Born in New York City and raised in post-Civil War Brooklyn, George Tilyou witnessed firsthand the evolution of Coney Island from a quiet upper-class seaside retreat to the bustling playground of New York. His parents owned and operated The Surf House, a successful seaside restaurant. Even as a child it was apparent that George was a natural promoter. The story goes that he sold bottles of “authentic seawater” and boxes full of “authentic beach sand” to unwitting tourists who had never before seen the ocean, figuring that people would buy anything if it had a price tag. As it turned out, he was right. Tilyou owned and operated several attractions around Coney for several years. He took notice of a small operation called Sea Lion Park, the first enclosed amusement park. After seeing the possibilities, he decided to consolidate his attractions and build Steeplechase Park.

Tilyou’s reasoning for this was simple: he wanted more control over the area around his attractions. In those days, Coney was a haven for gambling, pickpockets, and prostitutes. By enclosing the park and charging an entrance fee, he kept the rougher element away and created a friendlier atmosphere for his patrons, thus establishing the model of the enclosed park and the pay-one-price structure as a standard. In addition to keeping out the ruffians, he also wanted a place where people would check their Victorian restraint at the door. George not only was a master showman, he also was quite the psychologist, who understood that people wanted to step away from the genteel culture of the late 1800’s and let their hair down. With this, Tilyou dubbed Steeplechase Park “The Funny Place,” and fashioned a diabolical grinning jester as the mascot, a very fitting image for the kind of irreverent, irresponsible fun the park promised its guests.

Steeplechase Park mascot

Steeplechase Park in 1903

The signature ride of the park was the Steeplechase Horse ride. Drawing on the popularity of horse racing, it was a six-track, gravity-driven ride with two people to a wooden horse. To give the ride a hint of realism, Tilyou dressed ride attendants as jockeys, had a trumpeter at the start gate, and a taped finish line. Riders would race to the finish on an undulating coaster track that circled around the grounds.

It was a thrilling ride in its own right, but the real show was yet to come. Upon exiting the ride, guests would travel through a dimly lit maze. The exit led hesitant guests into an arena called the Blowhole Theatre and onto a bright stage with an audience of snickering people sitting in the stands. Here, blasts of air would shoot up through the floor…blowing up the women’s dresses. A dwarf with a cattle prod would eyeball and then shock the poor unsuspecting fellows, often times in the nether region. As the couple struggled to compose themselves, they left the stage through a gauntlet of clowns with slapsticks, more blowholes, and other obstacles that left them completely void of self respect and providing howls of laughter to the audience. Humiliated, they would join the crowd to laugh at the next batch of victims.

Other rides at Steeplechase were the Human Roulette Wheel, where guests would sit in the middle of a giant polished spinning disc. As the wheel spun faster and faster, guests would wildly slide off into a pit, slamming into each other.

Human Roulette Wheel

Similar simplistic machines like the Barrel of Love, The Human Pool Table, The Earthquake Stairway, and the Razzle Dazzle simultaneously embarrassed and delighted riders. There were normal attractions, but the majority of the park was dedicated to Tilyou’s brand of wild and careless fun. There was nothing sacred at Steeplechase. Customers were subject to being part of the show at anytime. There were collapsible park benches throughout the park, and gag attractions such as the “California Red Bats,” which actually were broken red bricks (brickbats) displayed in a faux museum. Tilyou worked diligently to keep the park fresh, making changes every year, and he never missed an opportunity to put on a show. After a fire in 1907 destroyed most of his park, the supreme showman posted a sign in the ashes that read…

I had troubles yesterday that I have not today
I have troubles today that I had not yesterday
On this site will be erected a bigger, better Steeplechase Park
Admission to the burning ruins – 10 cents

Tilyou did rebuild the park for the following season, this time adding a five-acre glass building called the Pavilion of Fun that housed several of the rides, enabling them to operate in the rain and bad weather.

Pavilion of Fun in 1940

He died in 1914, leaving the park to his family. His son took over and carried the tradition for decades. Steeplechase Park proved to be the most venerable of the old Coney Island parks, surviving and remaining popular until its closure in 1964. The Parachute Drop Tower stands as the last relic.

While Fred Thompson’s Luna Park was a highly stylized visual masterpiece that entertained through themes and storytelling, Steeplechase’s appeal came from basic machines that stripped guests of their dignity, threw them against each other, and forced them into all kinds of compromising positions. This proved to be a very popular strategy in the rapidly changing, but still sexually repressed society of 1900. Tilyou didn’t see the point of excessive spending on visuals. He knew that the people were willing to be the visuals themselves. His brand of uninhibited, irreverent fun, coined by one writer of the day as “sanitized sex,” drew millions of visitors for nearly 70 years. In today’s litigious society, the park as it was probably wouldn’t last, but in an earlier time it was a sensation. Tilyou perfected the enclosed park model that is still followed to this day, and his psychological evaluation of customers and their needs lives on in the mission statement of everyone in the business.

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A closer look at plans for Universal Studios Florida's Harry Potter Diagon Alley, and an expected opening date

By Robert Niles
Published: March 23, 2013 at 11:56 AM

Fifteen months ago, we gave you your first look at the upcoming Gringotts roller coaster that will provide the centerpiece of the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter -- Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida in Orlando. At the time, I also got a glimpse at the plans for the area that will surround Universal's Gringotts, though there wasn't nearly as much detail about those shops and restaurants for me to see and pass along to you, then.

That's changed.

I've now gotten a chance to get a closer look at what you'll find in Universal Studios Florida's version of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. And I am blown away.

Diagon Alley
The view down Diagon Alley, from Pottermore

If you thought that the original Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure raised the bar for a themed entertainment area, Universal's getting ready to raise that bar a notch higher.

You won't see Diagon Alley from the rest of the park -- it'll be hidden behind the facades of Grimmauld Place, Wyndham's Theatre and other west end London landmarks. Only when you go through the adjacent Leicester Square station will you happen upon the "secret" entrance to the land, next to the Leaky Cauldron.

The Leaky Cauldron will be the new land's restaurant. And beyond the restaurant, Diagon Alley opens up in a riot of detail from the Harry Potter books and movies. This isn't some flat theme park land -- it will unfold before you on multiple levels, with elevated train trestles, stairways and multi-story facades. If you're looking for refreshment beyond the Leaky Cauldron, wander down the alley and turn left at Gringotts to find Florean Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour.

You'll find Ollivander's in Diagon Alley, of course, and on a much larger scale than in the Hogsmeade outpost in the original Wizarding World. There appear to be multiple "theaters" for the Ollivander's show in this Wizarding World, perhaps helping to alleviate the often-long waits found in the Islands of Adventure version.

Other shops will include Madam Malkin's Robes for All Occasions and Wiseacre's Wizarding Equipment, which appears to be the gift shop at the exit from the Gringotts ride. And, yes, there are plans for a Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes as well, located near the land's exit.

For all you Slytherins out there, Universal's not forgotten you. Knockturn Alley comprises about one-third of the land, with Borgin and Burkes as its centerpiece.

The Gringotts coaster will be the land's main attraction, and there's space designated in the plans for lockers, so expect similar boarding restriction as on Revenge of the Mummy and the original Forbidden Journey ride. The land's other ride will be the Hogwarts Express train that will connect Diagon Alley with Hogsmeade and the original Wizarding World. There appears to be a ticketing hall in the works the entrance to the train station, perhaps allowing visitors who haven't upgraded to a park-to-park ticket to do so in order to board the Hogwarts Express.

Plans call for dozens of other locations in the new land, most of which I assume to be simple facades surrounding the shops, restaurants and attractions I've mentioned above. But they'll provide abundant photo ops throughout the area. (When Diagon Alley opens, look for me getting my picture taken next to the offices of the Daily Prophet!)

So, when will this new land open? When an initial source told me, I was stunned. So I dug around a little. Now, based on what I've heard and found, I believe that Universal is planning to open Diagon Alley in… July 2014.

That's right. After opening Transformers in Universal Studios Florida this July, Universal's going to follow up with a new Harry Potter land the next summer. If that sounds aggressive, let's remember that USF's Transformers is going from green light to opening in about 15 months, and Universal's well into construction on Diagon Alley already.

Of course, nothing's certain in construction, but if you're a Harry Potter or a theme park fan (and I presume that you are since you're reading this site) and you're not already saving up for a trip to Universal Orlando, start now. Fifteen months ago we first learned of this new land. And if plans hold, in just over fifteen months from now, it'll be open.

I cannot wait!

Update: We've posted some fresh aerial construction photos of Diagon Alley, provided by another Theme Park Insider reader.

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2013 Theme Park Insider Tournament Final: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey vs. Haunted Mansion

By Robert Niles
Published: March 22, 2013 at 8:14 AM

After three weeks of voting, we've reached the final match-up in the Sixth Annual Theme Park Insider Tournament. Today, you'll help pick our collective choice as the world's best themed ride in 2013. Based on your previous votes, our finalists are:

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey from Universal's Islands of Adventure, which defeated Splash Mountain, Tower of Terror and Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges to reach the finals.

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey

The Haunted Mansion from Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, which emerged from the bottom half of the 16-team bracket, upsetting Pirates of the Caribbean, Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man to get here.

Haunted Mansion

One of the interesting things about head-to-head tournament voting, as opposed to our normal rating and reviews is that it rewards attractions with passionate fan bases -- rides that a healthy number of visitors count as their number-one favorite, even if other visitors don't rate it that highly. (The normal rating and review data favors rides with broad support, where nearly everyone rates the attraction as near the top. If you're into sports analogies, it's the difference between racing for wins versus racing for points. *Update: The top five rides in our reader ratings are listed in the right column, underneath the top parks listings.) Clearly, Haunted Mansion enjoys one of those passionate fan bases, as it always outperforms its average overall reader rating in our annual tournaments.

But Harry Potter has its passionate fans, as well. It defeated Mansion in last year's themed ride tournament final. Will it do so again? Let's get to the vote. (We're leaving the voting open over the weekend this time, with the poll closing on Monday morning.)

Thank you to everyone who voted in this year's tournament. And I hope that everyone enjoyed our attempt to shine a little extra light on the best of the best themed rides from around the world, including many international rides that U.S. theme park visitors might not yet have had the chance to enjoy. Have a great weekend, and stay tuned as we'll be posting some new pieces on the site on Saturday and Sunday.

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The Blog Flume Filter for March 21, 2013

By Jeff Elliott
Published: March 21, 2013 at 1:26 PM

Disneyland – Almost like a deadly virus, Starbucks is worming its way into just about every location on the planet. The disease has spread to Main Street USA in Disneyland, in place of the soon-to-close Disneyana, which is moving over to the bank, where it will be able to charge much more money for the same stuff. I’m sure all of the Disneyhead fanboys are going to throw a tantrum about this, but I think this is a pretty mild change. Now if you will excuse me, I’m going to go down to my living room to buy a Grande Double Mocha Latte with extra Whip.

Starbucks menu at Disney California Adventure

Disney’s Hollywood Studios – We are getting wind about some extremely early rumors talking about expanding Star Wars out to a mini land of its own. [And Disneyland is now surveying annual passholders about whether they'd like to see a Star Wars land in Anaheim -- Robert.] The rumor mentioned knocking down the parade float building and expanding out in that direction. And maybe we are just getting wind.

Busch Gardens Williamsburg – This week we are all about the special offers. The prize at Busch Gardens is a brand new 2013 Mini Cooper Roadster, to celebrate the first birthday of Verbolten. You will need to log onto Busch Gardens' Facebook page and jump through whatever hoops they want you to in order to win their prize. It is probably something like donating three times the cost of the prize to charity, dating the owner’s daughter, or getting signatures for a petition that says that Mickey Mouse should be thrown out of office. Good luck!

Legoland Florida – Okay, I will be the first to admit that I really don’t understand any of what they are talking about in the below video. I think I picked up on something about a new ride opening up and something about Legos. But I think I am really getting too old to understand the rest of it. Maybe in a couple of years my son can explain it to me.

Thorpe Park – It is probably no secret (assuming that you regularly read this article) that Thorpe Park is doing something very interesting with its Swarm roller coaster that isn’t even a year old yet. It joined the bandwagon of all of the other parks this year and is running the last two rows of the coaster train backwards. With such a change, Thorpe Park wouldn’t be Thorpe Park without some kind of incomprehensible viral campaign making a 90-second roller coaster sound like a terminal illness. I think there is a game associated with it, if you can get your browser to actually display the page correctly, but frogged if I know which one will work. First prize is a lifetime pass for Thorpe Park, which means that after I pay several thousand dollars catching an airplane across an ocean, hotel rooms, local transportation, and meals, they will let me into the park for free. Feel free to play amongst yourselves, since I know that some of our readers know how to rig a whole bunch of unearned clicks. But do keep in mind that Thorpe Park is not in Orlando with all of the other good parks.

Six Flags Over Georgia – The lift chain on Ninja broke due to some of the guests in the park having too large of a breakfast before coming to the park. A replacement chain is on order, but it will be around the middle of May before the coaster is back in action.

The Moment – The USA Network (characters welcome) is currently working on a reality TV show named after a Kenny G smooth jazz album. The concept of the show is very simple, take someone whose goal in life has been derailed for one reason or another and give them a really good chance at landing their dream job. We received a message this week from someone involved in casting for the show asking if anyone that read Theme Park Insider was interested in applying to be on the show for the dream job of Theme Park Designer. I promptly answered for you all with a deep felt apology that no one here was interested, and that we hope for the best for the show. I mean, I really didn’t want you to have to waste all of the time and effort to put together an audition submission and figured that since I am the best candidate here, I could just submit mine in everyone’s name and expect to have all of your votes when the time comes. And free ice cream. And lower taxes. And all of that other stuff you want...consider it yours if you sit this one out. While I don’t want to make it easy on you, if you are really interested, the link for more information is under one of the following links (you only get one try). Curtain #1. Curtain #2. Curtain #3. The Box. The Envelope. The Cash.

Cedar Point – I wanted to point out that one of our own has been quoted in Wikipedia in regards to Cedar Point’s Luminosity show. As currently displaying it says (under Reception): “James Koehl from Theme Park Insider described it as "The kind of show that you can watch over and over from different vantage points and see a different show every time."” Who in the heck let that that guy have the microphone? Apparently they didn’t like my quote: “Jeff Elliott from Theme Park Insider complained that the female dancers were wearing too many clothes.” It kind of makes me mad. I have written probably a hundred thousand words about amusement parks and no one is quoting me on Wikipedia. Although a little bird did tell me that Mr. Koehl has been invited to have a meeting with the General Manager of Cedar Point, which is probably when Mr. Koehl will receive his fat payoff.

Six Flags Fiesta Texas – While not nearly as sexy as watching them weld together a roller coaster. This is still pretty sexy.

Coney Island – Luna Park – There are some early rumors that with the new popularity of Coney Island (which is what happens when you sparkle it up and add some new rides) there is some early talk about rebuilding the Thunder Bolt roller coaster. If it was up to me, I think I would kill this idea and place a call to Rocky Mountain Coasters.

Las Vegas – I really appreciate all of the money that was spent last week to meet the ransom demands. To those of you that gave generously to my captives, many thanks! The rest of the trip was pretty tame after that, even though my basketball teams lost well before they were supposed to. The night before we were knocked out of the tournament, I managed to sneak away from the group I was with and catch up with Penn & Teller’s show at the Rio.

With Penn With Teller

If you are interested in a review, please let me know, it was a really good show! In other Vegas news, I saw the roller coaster track that was formerly called Speed: The Ride sitting in a field across from Mandalay Bay and the work that they are doing on putting up a Ferris Wheel at the Quad. The middle pivot of the Ferris wheel is up with the support beams being worked on, and to tell the truth, the thing is huge, but sitting next to really big buildings, so it looks a little small. I don’t know who chose the placement, but half of the ride is going to be hidden behind buildings.

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2013 Theme Park Insider Tournament: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey vs. Splash Mountain

By Robert Niles
Published: March 21, 2013 at 7:47 AM

Time to pick the second finalist in the 2013 Theme Park Insider Tournament, to determine Theme Park Insider readers' pick as the world's best themed ride.

Our first semifinalist today is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey from Universal's Islands of Adventure, which defeated Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges in the first round and defeated Kilimanjaro Safaris in the quarterfinals.

Hogwarts Castle

Potter is up against Disneyland's Splash Mountain, which upset Radiator Springs Racers in the first round, then took out Transformers: The Ride in the quarters.

Splash Mountain

The winner today advances to Friday's final. Voting is open for just 24 hours, so spread the word quickly on behalf of your favorite.

Tomorrow: The final!

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2013 Theme Park Insider Tournament: The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man vs. Haunted Mansion

By Robert Niles
Published: March 20, 2013 at 10:17 AM

We've got four attractions left to compete for the title of the world's best themed ride in the 2013 Theme Park Insider Tournament. The final's coming up Friday, and the first spot in that final is up for grabs today.

The upper seed is Universal's The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, which defeated Kilimanjaro Safaris in the quarterfinals and Revenge of the Mummy in the first round.

The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man

The challenger is Haunted Mansion, which upset Pirates of the Caribbean in round one and Journey to the Center of the Earth in the quarters to reach this round.

Haunted Mansion

Both attractions run in Orlando (and in Japan, for that matter), so this should be an in-person, head-to-head comparison for many readers. But if you want to learn more about these attractions and hear the opinions of their fans, just follow the links above.

Let's get to the vote. As always in the tournament, the poll is open for just 24 hours.

Tomorrow: Our other semifinal, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey vs. Splash Mountain

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Where to eat? Lunch at Disneyland's Carnation Cafe

By Robert Niles
Published: March 19, 2013 at 10:44 AM

Disneyland's had a Carnation restaurant since the park opened in 1955, with the Carnation Ice Cream Parlor and Restaurant occupying the space on the west side of Main Street USA up until 1997. That's when the original ice cream parlor closed and the restaurant contracted to just the outdoor alley space as the Blue Ribbon Bakery took over the parlor's indoor space.

Last year, after the Jolly Holiday Bakery Cafe opened at the end of Main Street, the table-service Carnation Cafe expanded back into its old space once the Blue Ribbon Bakery closed. Today, the "new" Carnation Cafe serves "homestyle" favorites such as sandwiches, burgers and blue-plate staples including fried chicken and meatloaf.

Carnation Cafe

For what it's worth, Disney closed the old ice cream parlor after Nestle acquired the Carnation Company and did away with Carnation-brand ice cream. (Nestle continues to supply ice cream to Disney through other brands, with an ice cream parlor next door to the Carnation Cafe on Main Street.) In fact, the old Carnation Company used to have restaurants outside Disneyland, too. I remember going to one (on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, I believe) with my mother after making my TV debut on an episode of "Romper Room" in 19*cough**cough*. So with the Carnation brand almost gone, Disneyland's current "Carnation" Cafe is supposedly just a reference to the flower and not to the old dairy company, but, c'mon….

I started my lunch with the Baked Potato Soup ($5.99).

Baked Potato Soup

The soup comes adorned with bacon and sour cream, with a generous blend of Cheddar and Monterey Jack in the mix. And what's this orange stuff? Yes, there are carrots in here, too. At first, the idea of carrots in my potato soup disturbed me, but it turns out that the carrots help brighten and give some extra texture to a soup that too often becomes a cloying, starchy mess. The carrots didn't distract from the potato flavor -- if anything, adding another root vegetable to the mix enhanced the potato taste versus all that melted cheese.

For my entree, I went with the Homemade Meatloaf, in ketchup glaze with mushroom gravy, served with mashed potatoes and a corn-edamame succotash. ($12.49)


The meatloaf delivers a peppery kick in its mix of beef and pork -- enough to give your mouth something to notice beyond on onslaught of ground meat, but not enough to transform the dish into something beyond what it is: a meatloaf. The succotash on the side delivered a nice mix of sweet roasted corn with touch of umami "meatiness" from the edamame. Mix in some of the potatoes to soak up all that gravy, and you've got a meal that'll fill you up.

So much so that 20 minutes later, I was thinking about a nap. And I didn't even finish the meatloaf.

Dessert was out of the question for me -- I'd have needed to split the meatloaf with someone to have any space left for sweets. But the Carnation Cafe serves a lemon chiffon pie and a seven-layer chocolate cake in addition to ice cream and malts, a nice nod to the restaurant's heritage.

The Carnation Cafe also serves breakfast and accepts advance reservations, via (714) 781-3463, although they're not necessary, except on busy days in the park, such as weekends and school holidays.

Have you eaten at Disneyland's Carnation Cafe? Leave a rating and review on our Carnation Cafe review page.

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2013 Theme Park Insider Tournament: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey vs. Tower of Terror

By Robert Niles
Published: March 19, 2013 at 9:47 AM

Our final quarterfinal match-up in the 2013 Theme Park Insider Tournament features the defending champion for Best Themed Ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey at Universal's Islands of Adventure, which defeated Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges 78%-22% in the first round,

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey

…versus Tower of Terror at Tokyo DisneySea, which defeated Indiana Jones Adventure 58%-42%.

Tower of Terror

Follow the links above to learn more about these rides, if you've not had the pleasure of experiencing both before. While it doesn't appear that we'll be getting the outstanding Shiriki Utundu illusion from Tokyo's Tower of Terror in the United States anytime soon, Japanese theme park fans will be getting their own version of Forbidden Journey when the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opens at Universal Studios Japan in Osaka next year.

So imagine that you're in Japan in 2014 and can ride both of these attractions. Which one would you choose to go on first?

Tomorrow: Our first semifinal contest, as Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man takes on the Haunted Mansion.

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2013 Theme Park Insider Tournament: The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man vs. Kilimanjaro Safaris

By Robert Niles
Published: March 18, 2013 at 9:41 AM

This Friday, you'll select the winner of the 2013 Theme Park Insider Tournament -- the world's best themed ride. But before then, we've still got two more rides to vote into the semifinals. Disney's Splash Mountain and the Haunted Mansion have earned their way in. Which ride will join them today?

Your choices are Universal's The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, which defeated Revenge of the Mummy 60%-40% in round one…

The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man

versus Kilimanjaro Safaris from Disney's Animal Kingdom, which upset Pooh's Hunny Hunt 67%-33% from Tokyo Disneyland.

Kilimanjaro Safaris

We've actually got two rides from Orlando in this match-up, so I expect that many voters will be able to decided this one based on personal experience with these attractions. But if you can't, just follow the links above to learn more, or dive into the comments to hear what other readers have to say.

Tomorrow: We fill out the semis, with Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey vs. Tower of Terror

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Disney to begin enforcing age limit for getting into the parks alone

By Robert Niles
Published: March 18, 2013 at 9:31 AM

The Walt Disney World and Disneyland Resort theme parks this weekend will begin enforcing consistent rules on how old visitors must be to enter their theme parks. Starting March 23, visitors who appear to be under age 14 won't be allowed to enter the parks alone any longer.

The kids
Sorry, kids. If you're not in high school yet, you'll need someone else with you to get into the parks now.

Of course, since most kids in their early teens don't have IDs with their ages on them, it'll be up to front-gate cast members to play "guess my age" when deciding to let a kid into the park without a parent or older sibling.

Disney's not had a consistent rule on this before. I spoke with a Walt Disney World cast member this week who said that there had been a policy that one had to be 14 to be use the WDW transportation system alone, but that parks weren't consistently enforcing any age rules once you were at the front gate. When I worked at Disney, kids had to be at least seven to ride attractions on their own, but I don't recall any explicit age limit to get into the park without a parent. At Disneyland, in California, some local parents for years have been using the park as a babysitter, buying annual passes for their children who more often than not go to the park on their own.

Fourteen's the average age for a high school freshman, so the policy will hit some middle school and elementary students who'd been using the parks as an after-school getaway. Maybe some kids staying at the Epcot resorts won't be able to run over for pastries in France while their parents take a nap or hit the hotel bar, either. But I suspect that resourceful kids near the cutoff age simply will find a way to "blend in" with some adults or older kids who look like them when they're entering the park. And, of course, kids under 14 will continue to be able to go on many attractions alone once they are in the parks.


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Knott's Berry Farm announces installment pay plan -- for hotel rooms

By Robert Niles
Published: March 17, 2013 at 4:01 PM

This is a first -- at least, it's not something I've encountered before. Plenty of theme parks have introduced installment plans for buying theme park passes. But Knott's Berry Farm has introduced an installment plan to pay for a hotel room.

Knott's Hotel room
Photo courtesy Knott's Berry Farm

Knott's Berry Farm's Easy Pay Program is, in essence, a layaway program for stays at the Knott's Berry Farm Hotel, in that you must complete your four payments before the beginning of your hotel stay. Given that many hotel stays are not paid in advance, one could just set aside a certain amount of money each month before a trip, and get the same result. But Knott's plan might help the theme park ensure that would-be visitors don't change their mind and decide to spend their "saved" money on something else. (Knott's FAQ promises "no cancellation fees" on reservations cancelled more than 72 hours before arrival.)

Have you seen an advance payment or layaway program like this for hotels before? Would you consider using it?

Update: From the comments, it appears that Cedar Point (Knott's sister park) is offering the same deal at its hotels.

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Theme Park History: Cedar Point - Then and Now

By James Koehl
Published: March 17, 2013 at 8:39 AM

Cedar Point, America's second-oldest amusement park, started in 1870 as a beer garden, dance floor and bath house on the beach of a sandy, cedar-covered isthmus separating Sandusky Bay from Lake Erie. Since then it has grown into one of the nation's largest amusement parks, a record-setter in roller coasters and the crown jewel in a nationally-recognized family of destination entertainment resorts.

Few visitors take the time to appreciate the remarkable collection of historic structures and features that are found throughout the massive grounds of Cedar Point. While many parks erect modern buildings that mimic historic structures in their design, Cedar Point has maintained many of its most distinguished structures and integrated them into the everyday life of this vibrant amusement park. These beautiful buildings, often standing side-by-side with the most modern and high-tech thrill attractions found anywhere on Earth, are a testament to the quality of the workmanship of their builders and the appreciation that Cedar Point has for its long and distinguished history.

Historic poster

The Grand Pavilion, now the heart of the Cedar Point Convention Center, was constructed in 1888. It was the center of social activities at Cedar Point and contained an auditorium, bowling allies and dining facilities, and was surrounded by open porches and balconies to catch the cool, pleasant breezes off Lake Erie.

original Grand Pavilion

This building is probably the least recognizable historic structure in the park, due to its being surrounded by later additions which replaced its balconies and porches. However, if they know what to look for, visitors can identify the distinctive roofline of the original structure rising above the later additions, still standing on its original location near the beautiful sandy beach that was the start of the Cedar Point Resort.

current Pavilion

In contrast to the hard-to-identify Grand Pavilion, the Coliseum is by far the most distinctive and well-known structure at Cedar Point. It has stood in the center of the park since 1906, its 14 pointed towers and two domes topped with matching cupolas anchoring the Cedar Point Midway.

old picture of Coliseum

Over the 100-plus years it has stood here, the Coliseum has housed restaurants, beer gardens, a skating rink and since the 1960's one of the largest collection of pinball and video games to be found in any amusement park in the world.

current picture of Coliseum

On the second floor of the Coliseum is a little-known gem of historic architecture, the Cedar Point Grand Ballroom. In the early years of Cedar Point, dances were a major source of enjoyment for the thousands of visitors that came to the park daily. The Ballroom was one of the largest in the Midwest, and in 1939 was redecorated as one of the finest examples of Art Deco design still in existence.

pic postcard of Ballroom

When I first visited Cedar Point in the mid '60s (OK, I'm showing my age), I thought that the Pagoda Gift Shop was part of the show building for the San Francisco Earthquake dark ride. A Chinese pagoda seemed appropriate as part of the San Francisco/Chinatown design of the ride. Little did I know that this beautiful colorful little piece of China in the middle of an American amusement park was actually one of the oldest structures in the park. It was constructed sometime between 1907 and 1914, and stood near the Coliseum but in a different location than its present site on the Midway. Before its present use as a gift shop, the Pagoda housed a variety of services such as the Cedar Point Post Office and a restroom.

photo of Pagoda

Behind the current location of the Pagoda Gift Shop, next to the Coliseum and surrounded by beautiful trees and flower beds, stands the old Administration Building, the headquarters for Cedar Fair until the new administration building was erected next to it a few years ago. When built in the early 1900's, this two-story wooden structure housed not only the offices for Cedar Point but also an apartment for George Boeckling, the man who converted Cedar Point from a quiet day resort with a beautiful beach into a nationally-renowned summer resort where thousands of people from throughout the Midwest came to relax, enjoy the rapidly-growing number of rides and attractions on the Amusement Circle, and drink and dance the summer nights away.

old picture of the administration building

Rather than demolish this historic but unused building, which sits on a prime piece of valuable real estate in the center of the Midway, Cedar Point decided to convert it into the Eerie Estate, a walk-through haunted mansion and one of the most popular features of HalloWeekends. Thousands of dollars worth of antiques were acquired to recreate the mansion of the late George Boeckling, whose ghost and those of his servants still haunt this structure. Here, too, is found Boeckling's Banquet, where guests can enjoy a wonderful gourmet meal in Mr. Boeckling's dining room while being waited on by his zombie servants.

pic of Eerie Estate logo

The Breakers Hotel was not the first hotel built at Cedar Point. That honor goes to the Bay Shore Hotel (1899), a tiny facility soon followed by the fifty-five room White House (1901), which was eventually absorbed by the larger Cedars Hotel (1915), a 270-room hotel which still stands near the Marina and is used as employee housing. None of these facilities, charming and cozy as they were, could compare with the size, beautiful location or comfort of the magnificent structure erected by Mr. Boeckling in 1905 on the Cedar Point Beach.

picture of Breakers

The original design of the Breakers Hotel contained more than 600 rooms, most of which had lake views, spread over eight acres. The center of the hotel was the Rotunda, a five-story hollow tower lined with balconies that still stands as one of the most beautiful spaces in Cedar Point.

picture of Rotunda

One side of the Rotunda led to the beach, while the other led past elegant meeting rooms and reception rooms to the main lobby. This two-story space, still graced with a grand staircase leading to a surrounding balcony, was hung with chandeliers and decorated with stained glass windows from the New York studios of Louis C. Tiffany. Wicker furniture from Austria, brass beds and oak dressers, and running water in every room -- a rarity in summer hotels of the era -- made a stay at the Breakers worth every penny of the two dollars that an average room cost per night.

Breakers Lobby

The Breakers has seen many changes in the years since it first welcomed guests to Cedar Point. Many of its original wings have been torn down and replaced with more modern hotel rooms. The Tiffany stained-glass windows in the lobby are gone, and the Chinese Writing Room is now a shop selling fine clothing. But the magnificent Rotunda still rises five stories high, with finely-polished wood floors and white wicker furnishings; the spacious lobby still has its grand staircase and surrounding balcony and is still lined with excellent restaurants; most importantly, the Breakers still stands on the beach at Cedar Point as one of the finest and few remaining resort hotels on the Great Lakes, a valuable reminder of this part of American history that led, via many circuitous routes, to the great entertainment, amusement and theme resorts that now can be found throughout this country.

modern pic of Breakers

The oldest structure at Cedar Point is probably the least known among the general public, the Cedar Point Lighthouse. There has been a lighthouse on this location, at the tip of Cedar Point, since 1839, but the sometimes savage winter storms that hit the area caused the original wooden structure to require constant repair, and in 1882 the current stone building was erected to help guide ships into the safe harbor of Sandusky Bay.

old pic of Lighthouse

Rather than demolishing this solidly-built and historically-significant structure, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Cedar Point decided to restore this unique building and use it as the centerpiece of Lighthouse Point, a collection of cottages and cabins inspired by lakeside villages of the 1800's.

pic of modern lighthouse

These structures are surrounded by many other historic structures and decorations brought to Cedar Point over the past 100-plus years of its existence: Log cabins from early in Ohio's history line Frontier Trail; elegant metal statuary from the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis grace many of the magnificent floral beds found throughout the park; historic rides such as the 1912 Midway Carousel and the 1920 Cedar Downs, one of only two racing carousels in America. The Town Hall Museum in Frontier Town is loaded with memorabilia from Cedar Point's past, including models of now-gone attractions, photos of Cedar Point over the last 100 years, and even a complete antique pharmacy.

Picture of statue

Cedar Point. It is not just an amusement park. It is not just a thrill park. It is a valuable link to the very beginning of the theme park world that we all love, a historic treasure to explore and experience.

final picture historical marker

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2013 Theme Park Insider Tournament: Transformers: The Ride vs. Splash Mountain

By Robert Niles
Published: March 15, 2013 at 8:04 AM

Today we feature the first Disney vs. Universal match-up in the 2013 Theme Park Insider Tournament, to select the world's best theme park attraction.

I must admit that I'd been looking forward to toady's match-up, ever since I seeded the brackets based upon Theme Park Insider readers' cumulative reader ratings of the many attractions listed on the site. This was to be a long-awaited head-to-head match-up between the two best new attractions from last year, which also happen to be the two among the top new attractions of the past decade.

And then you went ahead and voted Splash Mountain ahead of Radiator Springs Racers in the first round's closest match, 52%-48%. Such much for my plans.

So here's your new match-up: Transformers: The Ride, which defeated Men in Black Alien Attack 53%-47% in the first round,


…versus Splash Mountain.

Splash Mountain

You're standing in the middle of some bizarre hybrid park with both rides, but you can go on only one of them. Which will it be? If you've not been on both before, follow the links above to do a little research to help inform your decision. Or head into the comments to see what other Theme Park Insider readers have to say.

Monday: Another "busted-bracket" match-up with Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man vs. Kilimanjaro Safaris

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The Blog Flume Filter for March 14, 2013

By Robert Niles
Published: March 14, 2013 at 12:46 PM

Jeff Elliott's being held in a bus somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, and since we couldn't raise the cash for the ransom, I'm stuck doing the Filter this week.

Walt Disney World today confirmed its planned transformation of Downtown Disney into Disney Springs, which we first told you about here last month.

Disney Springs
Concept art courtesy Disney

It's the latest planned makeover for an area that's had more facelifts than Heidi Montag (for readers under 40) or Joan Rivers (for those over). What we didn't have last month was a timeline, which Disney provided today: Construction starts in April and completion's slated for 2016. So let's start taking bets. Which do we see finished first: Disney Springs or Avatar?

Disney's Hollywood Studios -- Disney's released the logo for this year's Star Wars Weekends, which honors the 30th anniversary of the release of "Return of the Jedi." Disney's also announced a couple of celebrity appearances for this year's events, including the return of Ray Park (Darth Maul) and lead Ewok Warwick Davis, who brings together the worlds of "Star Wars" and "Harry Potter" the way President Obama mashes up The Force with Vulcan telepathy.

Disneyland -- While you east coast theme park fans get to enjoy yet another series of Star Wars weekends, the Disneyland Resort is offering us on the west coast… a tribute to Greece? May 25-27, Disneyland and California Adventure will host special Greek-themed entertainment and food booths. The events will run in the Small World plaza in Disneyland and in Paradise Garden at DCA. Details to come.

Tokyo Disneyland -- Wrapping up the Disney news, Tokyo Disneyland is promoting the upcoming revamp of its Star Tours ride into Version 2.0 with an awesome video clip of the Empire invading Japan.

Which is cool until you realize, hey, wait a minute, isn't Japan already officially run by… an emperor? What's going on here?!?

Update: Universal Studios Japan announced today that is will be running a train on its Hollywood Dream - The Ride roller coaster backward, starting March 15- July 7. No word on whether the music played on the coaster will run backward, too.

SeaWorld Orlando -- It's time for the latest installation of SeaWorld's video blog promoting its new Antarctica ride, opening May 24:

This week's installment shows how SeaWorld is making all the ice that will be displayed in its Antarctica attraction. In fact, the ride will become the second largest source of ice in the Orlando area, trailing only the bars serving Disney cast members on the night of their weekly payday.

Speaking of attraction openings, Hong Kong Disneyland is now set to debut its new Mystic Manor attraction in May, as well. Back in the US, Disney's also confirmed that the new Mickey and the Magical Map show will debut at Disneyland on May 25. But if you're in the mood for a new attraction right away, don't miss our own James Rao's review of Silver Dollar City's Outlaw Run, a wooden coaster with a twist (actually, several of them), which debuts this weekend.

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2013 Theme Park Insider Tournament: Journey to the Center of the Earth vs. Haunted Mansion

By Robert Niles
Published: March 14, 2013 at 10:41 AM

Welcome to the second round of the 2013 Theme Park Insider Tournament, where you are helping us to select the world's best themed ride. We started with 16 top attractions from the ongoing Theme Park Insider reader ratings, and now we're ready to start the quarterfinals, as eight great rides go head-to-head for the opportunity to move onto the semifinals.

In the first round, Journey to the Center of the Earth defeated Sindbad's Storybook Voyage, 88%-12% while the Haunted Mansion beat Pirates of the Caribbean, 62%-38%. Today, you'll pick one of these two Disney favorites to advance.

Will it be Tokyo DisneySea's Journey to the Center of the Earth...

Journey to the Center of the Earth

…or the Magic Kingdom's Haunted Mansion?

Haunted Mansion

Please follow the links above and read through the comments before voting, if you're undecided.

Make your case for your favorite in the comments.

Tomorrow: Transformers: The Ride vs. Splash Mountain

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Silver Dollar City debuts Outlaw Run, a wooden coaster with a twist. (Actually, lots of them)

By James Rao
Published: March 13, 2013 at 11:26 PM

Can wooden coasters successfully execute inversions? That seems to be the dominant question posed by theme park operators since the infamous Son of Beast at Kings Island closed down years ago. Wednesday at Silver Dollar City, Herschend Family Entertainment and Rocky Mountain Construction debuted Outlaw Run, which seeks to answer that oft-posed question.

Outlaw Run sign

Outlaw Run's queue starts in typical amusement park fashion, with a switchback on a concrete slab (capable of holding over two hours' worth of anxious passengers). The queue is covered, decorated, well-ventilated, and moves past a few interesting tidbits of eye candy such as humorous and informative posters, luggage, and the office of Depot Proprietor Clem Barker, where an assortment of ticking clocks come alive every half-hour to mark Mr. Barker's obsession with punctuality.

The office of Depot Proprietor Clem Barker

These props tie in with the coaster's backstory which goes something like this: Passengers climb aboard the Western Missouri Stagecoach line to chase their dreams in the untamed west. However, rumors abound that an outlaw gang is on the loose and sure enough, those rumors are true!

Western Missouri Stagecoach

A wild race through the wooded hills ensues, but the bad guys are left in the dust, because at Silver Dollar City, "the good guys always win!"

As for the ride itself, Outlaw Run is unlike any coaster on the planet. Constructed from the ground up to utilize Silver Dollar City's varied and hilly terrain, this wooden coaster packs a wallop of entertaining elements into a fairly compact ride experience. There are eight key elements along the course including an 81-degree first drop and three inversions – all of which serve to keep the ride exhilarating and action packed from beginning to end.

Overbanked turn

The highlight of the course, and the most talked about element, is the double corkscrew at the end of the circuit. These uphill inversions provide a graceful, almost weightless finish to the ride, slowing the coaster as it heads back to the station. These are intense elements, definitely not for the faint of heart, but they are "tame" enough that the ride can still be considered family-friendly, provided that the family is filled with coaster lovers! In a nutshell, Outlaw Run is fast, smooth, exciting, and just plain fun.

No, I wouldn't wait two hours for this coaster (shoot, I wouldn't wait two hours for ANY attraction), but Outlaw Run has already become my favorite ride at Silver Dollar City. Filled with wonderful and original thrills, as well as immersive theming, this coaster is going to be a big hit for thrill seekers and theme park fans alike.

With Outlaw Run, Silver Dollar City solidifies its standing as the premier theme park in the Midwest, offering not only world class, unique roller coasters and signature amusement rides, but also amazing customer service, high-quality immersion, award winning shows, a one-of-a-kind natural cave tour, and top notch culinary items (aka "great food").

On the downside, Outlaw Run's Achilles' heel will be rider capacity – a problem common to many of the unique coasters being built today. While the coaster does have two 24 passenger trains, I was told by ride ops that they are hoping for peak levels of about 800 - 1000 riders per hour. That total is decent for a wooden coaster, but not great for a theme park expecting increased crowds of 85k because of this one of a kind, new ride. Massive initial waits could be off putting to first time visitors used to the people-eating attractions at places such as Walt Disney World and Universal Studios. However, local fans and less anxious riders will appreciate the Midwestern hospitality of the extremely friendly ride ops and may even use the wait time to investigate the creative touches throughout the coaster's lengthy queue.

So, can wooden coasters successfully execute inversions? In the case of Outlaw Run, the answer is an emphatic "yes." And if this instant classic is any indication of what the future holds for ingenious wood coaster designers like the folks at Rocky Mountain Construction, fans of the genre should be smiling from ear to ear. I know I am.

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Disneyland photo update: Fantasy Faire opens; Mickey's Magical Map set to debut in May

By Robert Niles
Published: March 13, 2013 at 2:34 PM

Let's hit the road down to Anaheim and see what's new at Disneyland Park.


First, I love how Disney makes the extra effort to camouflage its construction tarps and show an image of the building underneath. The Main Street Train Station is one of Disneyland's icons, and as much as it needs some maintenance TLC from time to time, it's nice that no one's photo op is totally ruined in that process.

The big news at Disneyland this week is the opening of the new Fantasy Faire section, which replaced the Carnation Plaza Gardens with a princess-themed meet and greet.

Fantasy Faire

The meet and greet is in the Royal Hall, which today (the day after the official opening of the new area) posted the longest wait in the park: 45 minutes.

Royal hall

The area's other new attraction stands on the replacement for the Carnation Gardens stage, which has transformed into the Royal Theatre.

Royal Theatre

You'll find two shows alternating on the stage three or four times a day, one based on "Beauty and the Beast" and the other on "Tangled."

Tangled show

The shows are relatively short, just a few minutes, charming and funny -- they can hold the attention of parents and older siblings just as well as that of their intended child audience. Do take a few moments to look up and around in the new area, too -- you'll find plenty of detail, such as Figaro from Pinocchio, who comes to life every few moments.


Disney also announced today that Disneyland's other debut for the year, the Mickey and the Magical Map show, will open on May 25 in the Fantasyland Theater. (There's just a construction wall to be seen there today.)

Fantasyland Theater construction wall

Speaking of construction, work continues on the refurbishment of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, which will reopen this fall.

Big Thunder construction wall

Now that's a big crane!

Big Thunder construction crane

So with Thunder down, I went for a ride on the Matterhorn instead:

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2013 Theme Park Insider Tournament: Tower of Terror vs. Indiana Jones Adventure

By Robert Niles
Published: March 13, 2013 at 8:21 AM

For our final match in the first round of the 2013 Theme Park Insider Tournament, we bring you two more favorites from Disney: Tower of Terror and the Indiana Jones Adventure.

You'll notice that I didn't preface Tower of Terror with the words "The Twilight Zone." That's right -- I'm putting up the Tokyo DisneySea version of Tower of Terror for this year's tournament. Why? I've explained before why I believe that Tokyo's Harrison Hightower story provides a better setting for the ride than the somewhat forced Twilight Zone overlay. (The TL;DR? The Twilight Zone is supposed to be all about ironic punishment. But there's no explicit irony in the TZToT lightning strike. The Harrison Hightower backstory provides a truly ironic reason for the strike, despite the lack of the Twilight Zone brand.)

Tower of Terror

But a better backstory wouldn't provide enough reason to prefer Tokyo's version of this popular drop ride to Florida's, given the Fourth Dimension scene and random drop sequences at Walt Disney World, which Tokyo's lacks -- as do the versions in Paris and Anaheim, too. So why choose the Tokyo version?

The preshow.

Tokyo's Tower of Terror offers a unique preshow that sets up the Harrison Hightower story with a visual effect that's simply the most amazing illusion I've ever seen in a theme park. I'm not linking a video because if there's even the slightest chance that you will one day visit Tokyo DisneySea, I hope that you'll walk into the Tower of Terror preshow without having seen an inferior video reproduction of what happens there, so you can feel its full effect, in person. You can have Florida's random drop sequence. I'll take watching that preshow over and over and over again. (FWIW, Theme Park Insider readers have given the Tokyo version a higher average reader rating than they have for the Florida one, though far, far fewer readers have rated the Tower in Tokyo.)

Indiana Jones Adventure

Disneyland's Indiana Jones Adventure dominated the Theme Park Insider reader ratings for the first couple years after I started collecting reader reviews online in 1999. The first theme park attraction to put a motion simulator on a dark ride track, Indy revolutionized the dark ride experience, paving the way for Spider-Man, Transformers and the upcoming Antarctica ride.

Even today, Indiana Jones wows fans in Anaheim and Tokyo with its use of animatronics, practical sets, and stagecraft to immerse you in a rollicking movie-serial-style adventure. (The Tokyo DisneySea version is called Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Crystal Skull, but is the same ride as in Anaheim, with the eponymous Crystal Skull replacing Mara and a temple idol effect replacing the rat room. The queue's larger, too, but those are the only differences.)

I know that starting with just 16 rides in the tournament left us with some really tough first-round match-ups, and I expect this to rank among the toughest. Of course, I also know that while I'm trying hard to raise awareness of Tokyo DisneySea and its outstanding Tower of Terror version, many of you will want to cast a vote for Tower of Terror on behalf of the WDW Twilight Zone version. If so, go right ahead. It's your vote. May Shiriki Utundu forgive you. ;^)

Let the flame war begin in the comments.

Tomorrow: The quarterfinals begin with Journey to the Center of the Earth vs. Haunted Mansion.

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Theme Park Tech: Musical Roller Coasters

By Russell Meyer
Published: March 12, 2013 at 11:05 AM

With roller coasters pushing the envelope of human tolerance, theme parks, engineers, and designers are increasingly turning to different ways to engage and immerse riders. Designers have placed riders into just about every possible position, flipped them in every conceivable direction, and changed train speeds more than a car on an L.A. freeway during Friday afternoon rush hour. However, a more elemental feature of theme parks is growing in popularity, and allowing designers to do more with roller coasters than just hit riders with ever-changing forces and visual stimulation.

Music has been a key component to the success in parks long before America’s first theme parks started gaining popularity in the middle of the last century. Music is not only key to set the mood and atmosphere as guests stroll through a park, but it’s also used to help tell stories on rides and during shows/parades. Without music, a theme park can be a very quiet place. However, only recently has technology advanced to allow designers to integrate music to enhance the roller coaster experience. Parks attempted to place speakers strategically on lifts and in other places along the track to play sound effects and short music clips, but they were rarely loud enough to be heard over the screaming of riders and the sound of the train roaring along the track. Indoor roller coasters had it a little better, but the music and sound effects were more of an afterthought than a real part of the ride.

Even with digital music hitting its stride in the early to mid-90’s with CDs, mini-discs (I never had one, but I knew silly people who did), and the invention of the MP3 in 1995, there was no way to deliver music or sound directly to speakers on the train. CDs and mini-discs skipped, hard drives crashed, and solid state memory was still in its infancy with memory measured in kilobytes. Not only that, memory cost thousands of dollars to purchase enough storage for a single song and a program to decode and broadcast it.

In 1996, Disneyland, which installed the first roller coaster in the world with a steel tubular track (Matterhorn Bobsleds), re-launched the iconic Space Mountain as one of the first roller coasters with an on-board soundtrack. The music, a remixed version of a piece called “Aquarium of the Animals,” created an entirely new experience for long time fans, and changed the way guests thought about the roller coaster. However, while the soundtrack was “blasted” right behind the head of the riders, the speakers did not have enough power to overcome the sound of screams and the train echoing inside the enclosed building.

Space Mountain

In 1999, Disney brought on-board sound into the 21st century with one of the first roller coasters specifically designed around a musical theme. Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Featuring Aerosmith set the standard for music on roller coasters that was left unchallenged for more than 10 years. The coaster trains, designed to look like “stretch” limos, pump sound through 120 on-board speakers. The music was not initially ear-splittingly loud, but was definitely loud enough to overcome the sounds from the riders and train.

Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Featuring Aerosmith

Even in the new millennium, ride designers were still having difficulty getting on-board speakers to overcome the sounds of the ride itself along with the riders. Improvements in battery technology and advancements in solid state memory and file compression eventually allowed for a crisp, clear delivery of music and sound effects to riders. 24-volt sound systems are now the standard for on-board coaster sound systems, and were first introduced in California Screamin’ (Disney California Adventure). The 2005 complete redesign of Space Mountain and a 2007 upgrade of Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster also brought the boosted 24-volt sound system to the masses, and revitalized the aging musical coaster pioneers.

California Screamin'

In 2008, the combination of music and roller coaster reached its pinnacle with the debut of three new musical roller coasters in a single park. Hard Rock Park, now appearing these days on NBC as a film set for “Evolution”, showed what can be done when you put a kickin’ sound system on a roller coaster. Eagles: Life in the Fast Lane was a rather benign double-lift mine train-style roller coaster, but with a well synchronized soundtrack of songs from one of America’s most popular rock/country bands, it made a simple ride far more interesting and exciting.

Eagles: Life in the Fast Lane

Maximum RPM!, which was probably more unique for its one-of-a-kind ferris wheel lift, blasted a peppy 80’s-era soundtrack through the car’s on-board sound system.

Maximum RPM!

However, Hard Rock Park’s signature coaster was themed around one of the most iconic rock bands of all time, Led Zeppelin: The Ride. The coaster was meticulously designed with input from the band, which required designers to play the selected song (“Whole Lotta Love”) in its entirety. With a 5-minute song and most coaster durations lasting under 3 minutes, designers had an interesting dilemma: come up with a 5+ minute roller coaster, pick a different song, or find a way for guests to somehow experience the enter song though a pre or post-show. The later was the final solution, and with a cleverly integrated pre-show and loading process, riders would hear the first half of the song in a sound stage before boarding the coaster. Once on board, the song picked right up leading to a Robert Plant scream synchronized to the first drop. In order to further enhance the on-board audio experience, designers filled the track and supports with sand to reduce sounds coming from the train rolling along the track and positioned speakers in front of each seat and behind riders’ heads. Those who had a chance to ride Led Zeppelin: The Ride for the year that the park was open, experienced what is still probably the greatest musical roller coaster ever built.

Led Zeppelin: The Ride

A year later in 2009, Universal, after much publicity, debuted one of the most technologically complicated roller coasters operating today. Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit not only features a booming on-board sound system, but gives riders the ability to create their own soundtrack and make a video of them rocking out to their selected tune. The coaster went through a series of technical issues, culminating with a flaw in the train design that left the coaster out of service for well over a year. However, after all of the issues and an unusual track layout, it is likely to continue to thrill guests for years with its hidden musical tracks that provide hundreds of musical options and customizable experience.

Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit

Even Six Flags is working to implement music and sound effects through on-board speakers with X2 (upgraded with on-board sound in 2008) and Bizarro (upgraded Superman Ride of Steel at Six Flags New England and Medusa at Six Flags Great Adventure in 2009). While the soundtracks for the upgrades Six Flags coasters are more sound clips than storytelling mechanisms, they still add a level of excitement that is noticeably missing if you happen to experience the coaster without the soundtrack.


Music plays such a huge role in theme parks, and designers are just scratching the surface of integrating music and sound effects on roller coasters. On-board sound has almost become a necessity on modern dark rides like Spiderman, Transformers, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye, and Curse of DarKastle. As parks look to make new and more interesting coaster experiences, on-board music and sound is bound to play a larger role in future coaster designs.

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2013 Theme Park Insider Tournament: Pooh's Hunny Hunt vs. Kilimanjaro Safaris

By Robert Niles
Published: March 12, 2013 at 7:45 AM

Today on the Theme Park Insider Tournament we feature two unique and ambitious attractions that, well, were kinda tough to find a match for in this year's field. So they ended up facing each other.

Pooh's Hunny Hunt

Don't make this mistake of assuming that Pooh's Hunny Hunt at Tokyo Disneyland is anything like the Pooh rides in Orlando and Anaheim. Richly detailed, the Tokyo Pooh ride features a trackless ride system that allows each trip through the 100-acre wood to become unique.

You start in the wood, where you can look up to find Winnie the Pooh, Piglet and Owl floating along on a Blustery Day. From there, your hunny pots whisk you into the next room, where a bee swarm introduces Tigger for a friendly bounce around the room. (The bouncing cars and scenery get me every time I watch it.) Then things get a little trippy. As the scene melts into a star field, you drift among the Heffalumps and Woozles, where the hunny pots spin from one near miss to another before escaping to find Pooh again, blissfully enjoying a rather immense amount of honey.

Here's an on-ride video that allows you a taste of the experience:

Kilimanjaro Safaris at Disney's Animal Kingdom also offers a unique experience with each visit. Climb aboard a tour bus for a trip through the park's animal reserves, where you might see giraffes, crocodiles, rhinos, lions and many other African animals.

Kilimanjaro Safaris

Over the years, Disney's trimmed back the storyline of this ride, which originally featured poachers killing a mother elephant while tour guides rush to save her baby. The "Little Red" storyline's gone now, replaced with a new zebra exhibit at the end of the journey. I couldn't find a video of the newest version of the ride, but here's a good video that captures much of the spirit of the attraction, including some of its "Jungle Cruise with live animals" appeal:

Again, here's the criterion for voting: If you're in a theme park with both attractions, which one would you want to go on most? Let's get to the vote.

You're welcome to campaign for your favorite, in the comments.

Tomorrow: We wrap up round one with Tower of Terror vs. Indiana Jones Adventure.

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Universal confirms Minion Mayhem for Hollywood in 2014

By Robert Niles
Published: March 11, 2013 at 10:12 PM

Universal Studios Hollywood confirmed today what theme park fans have known for months -- that the park's getting its own version of Universal Studios Florida's popular Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem ride.

Despicable Me
Attraction logo courtesy Universal

For those who haven't been on the ride in Orlando yet, Minion Mayhem is a 3D motion simulator ride, based on the Universal animated hit "Despicable Me," which takes you through Gru's laboratory as his team of Minions try to convert you and the rest of the audience into Minions, too. Of course, lots and lots goes terribly wrong, but that's the fun -- and there's a character interaction where you get the chance to dance with Minions in the post-show area.

But will Hollywood's version of the ride be any different than Orlando's? In Universal's press release, the head of Universal Creative hits at some upgrades, at least for the exterior.

“The ‘Despicable Me Minion Mayhem’ attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood will continue to push the creative envelope with its exceptional show content, sight gags, special effects and 3D digital animation. The exterior treatment will feature even more thematic and colorful creative touches that will literally place park guests inside Gru’s world,” said Mark Woodbury, President, Universal Creative.

In addition, the release references "3D Ultra-HD animation" for the ride, and I don't recall seeing that designation in the releases for the Florida version. Perhaps there will be an animation upgrade, too?

Looking at aerial photos and site plans, Universal has a bit more space to work with in Hollywood, where Minion Mayhem will replace the old Terminator show. And site plans suggest that the old Coke Soak area adjacent to the Terminator site will become a Despicable Me play area, perhaps to replace the Curious George play area that appears destined to be consumed by USH's new Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Universal said that Hollywood's Minion Mayhem will open "in 2014," and isn't offering anything more specific than that. Thoughts?

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Where to stay: Bay Lake Tower at Disney's Contemporary Resort

By Amanda Jenkins
Published: March 11, 2013 at 11:59 AM

Many people have mixed emotions when it comes to the Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World.

Contemporary Resort
Disney's Contemporary Resort, with the Bay Lake Tower to the left

Some like it for the nostalgia of riding on the monorail through the concourse. Others feel it lacks the whimsy that many other Disney resorts offer. Then there are people, like me, who fell in love with this resort and it's Disney Vacation Club/deluxe villa part: Bay Lake Tower. So much so, that we became Disney Vacation Club members making Bay Lake Tower our home resort. Not only is this a monorail resort, but the Contemporary/Bay Lake Tower is the only one with a walkway to the Magic Kingdom.

Bay Lake Tower offers a variety of rooms. It has deluxe studio, one-bedroom villa, two-bedroom villa, and the three-bedroom grand villa. The studios, one and two-bedroom villas are available with standard, lake, and Magic Kingdom view rooms. The three-bedroom grand villa is available in lake and Magic Kingdom views. Its views of the Magic Kingdom are some of the best by far of the three monorail resorts.

Magic Kingdom view
The view of the Magic Kingdom from the Contemporary Resort's Bay Lake Tower

Bay Lake Tower is connected to the Contemporary Resort by a whimsical, curvy bridge that reflects the aesthetics of the two buildings. When you step off the bridge into the Contemporary, you are on the fourth floor. This has the shops, Bay View Gifts, Fantasia Gift Shop, and Fantasia Market. It also has your quick service dining Contempo Cafe and the very popular table service, Chef Mickey's. Game Station Arcade is also located here. The escalator to the monorail is accessed from this floor. Located on the first floor of the Contemporary is the popular healthy alternative restaurant, The Wave. The top floor boasts the signature dining restaurant, California Grill.

A Bay Lake Tower bedroom

When we have visited this resort, we have stayed in both the two-bedroom villas and the one-bedroom villas. When you enter into your room, you can see touches of Disney with a definite pop art feel. The pictures on the wall reflect iconic scenes such as Space Mountain or Cinderella's Castle in bright colors. Rough drawings of Mickey and Minnie adorn other areas of your room. The designs of the furniture and bathrooms all show a contemporary, angular look. Everything is squared or rounded with modern touches such as metal arms on a chair. Even the lamps have prominent geometrical shapes. The bed spreads share a circular pattern that reflect a barrage of hidden Mickey's. The master bathroom contains the whirlpool tub, and separate shower with bench and two different shower heads. Our boys spent many a happy time playing in the shower, pretending it was raining while sitting on the bench.

A Bay Lake Tower villa kitchen, after a day in the parks!

The kitchen has what one needs, if you plan on doing any cooking while on vacation. A booth is next to the kitchen, with two chairs at the island. These do come in handy when you order room service. The kitchen and living room are in an open area with no dividers. Large windows cover the wall of the living room, with a door going out to the balcony. Each bedroom has a sliding glass door that leads out to a balcony. If you have a Magic Kingdom view room, you can turn your television to the resort station, and hear the music while watching the fireworks from your balcony. If you have a lake view room or a Magic Kingdom view, you can also see the nightly water pageant that sails along Bay Lake. You are given a time schedule for this when you check into your resort.

The Bay Cove Pool

Disney's Bay Lake Tower also boasts Bay Cove Pool. This area has a pool with water slide, hot tub and splash area. The last few times we have been here have been on the cold side (at least for me) to really enjoy the pool amenities. My husband and sons braved it in December and had a wonderful time going down the slide and swimming. I stretched out in one of the lounge chairs overlooking Bay Lake and took a much needed nap. Cove Bar is in this area and offers drinks and snacks. On Wednesday evenings, there is an outdoor movie shown in this area. Information for this along with the Community Hall and DVD rentals on the first floor of Bay Lake Tower.

This resort does have a definite theme. Being so close to the Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland, it seems to reflect this than anything else. One almost has a futuristic feeling when you step into this resort. It is as if one has just stepped into another extension of Tomorrowland, to dream of your upcoming day of vacation.

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2013 Theme Park Insider Tournament: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey vs. Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges

By Robert Niles
Published: March 11, 2013 at 9:46 AM

Let's recap the 2013 Theme Park Insider Tournament to date:

  • Haunted Mansion defeated Pirates of the Caribbean 62%-38%
  • Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man defeated Revenge of the Mummy 60%-40%
  • Journey to the Center of the Earth defeated Sindbad's Storybook Voyage 88%-12%
  • Transformers: The Ride defeated Men in Black Alien Attack 53%-47%
  • Splash Mountain defeated Radiator Springs Racers 52%-48%

We've got three more first-round match-ups this week before we start the quarterfinal match-ups on Thursday. Today's first-round contest features two popular rides from Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure theme park.

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is your defending tournament champion, and the winner of the 2010 Theme Park Insider Award for Best New Attraction. The highlight of Universal's acclaimed Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Forbidden Journey has helped Universal to win new fans and earn record revenue, fueling an expansion of Universal theme parks around the world.

Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges

Harry Potter's success might cause some to forget that Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges once was part of a game-changer for Universal, too. Rapids rides existed long before Islands of Adventure opened in 1999, but Popeye took them to new level, with immersive theming and more ways to soak passengers than a rapids ride had ever thrown at them before. For fans who can't handle the topsy turbulence of Harry Potter, but are looking for a way to cool off on a hot Orlando day, Popeye offers an attractive alternative.

So let's vote:

Campaign for your favorite, in the comments.

Tomorrow: Pooh's Hunny Hunt vs. Kilimanjaro Safaris

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2013 Theme Park Insider Tournament: Radiator Springs Racers vs. Splash Mountain

By Robert Niles
Published: March 8, 2013 at 10:39 AM

Disney loves big fake rocks, doesn't it?

Blessed with the budgets that being the worldwide market leader in theme parks delivers, Disney's Imagineers don't always limit themselves to working with the land where their parks sit. They sometimes create massive new vistas -- mountains, cliffs and plateaus to provide homes for their thrill ride creations.

We're pitting two of Disney's best against each other today in the 2013 Theme Park Insider Tournament: Disney California Adventure's Radiator Springs Racers and Disneyland's Splash Mountain.

Radiator Springs Racers

Radiator Springs Racers takes visitors through the world of Pixar's Cars movies, as you ride inside one of the eponymous vehicles for a tour of Radiator Springs, followed by a high speed race around Ornament Valley. Radiator Springs Racers is the highlight of Cars Land, which was itself the centerpiece of Disney's $1 billion-plus revamp of the California Adventure park. Framed by the multi-stories tall rockwork of the Cadillac Range, Racers uses the ride system theme park fans first saw on Epcot's Test Track to create an engaging themed ride that blend character-driven storytelling with a fun touch of high-speed thrill. It's all very comforting -- one of the few major attractions where nothing "goes terribly wrong."

With the Magic Kingdom's Splash Mountain down for a much-needed refurbishment until later this month, we're going today with the Disneyland version, which has looked better than its east coast sibling in recent years.

Splash Mountain

Splash Mountain debuted at Disneyland in 1989, the first of three installations of the ride around the world. (The third is at Tokyo Disneyland.) Inspired by Knott's iconic Timber Mountain Log Ride, Splash Mountain provided Disney with a place to feature its "Song of the South" characters and the Academy Award-winning song "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" after Disney deep-sixed the film. Facing the Rivers of America, Splash's 50-foot drop has become one of the great photo ops in any Disney theme park, and the musical sections within the mountain have become a beloved part of a Disney theme park visit for millions.

And yet… only one of these rides is moving on to the quarterfinals of this year's tournament. Racers or Splash? If you're standing in the Disneyland Resort esplanade, to which ride do you run first?

As always, voting is open for 24 hours, and the comments await your campaigning.

Thanks for a great first week of this year's tournament. We'll continue Monday with another first-round match-up, this time of popular rides at Universal's Islands of Adventure: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey vs. Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges.

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The Blog Flume Filter for March 7, 2013

By Jeff Elliott
Published: March 7, 2013 at 3:54 PM

Universal Studios Florida – Transformers: The Ride – The gift shop is open and the walk-around characters are already getting their pictures taken. But where is the ride? Who knows at this point. What we need someone to do is to confront Optimus Prime or Bumblebee as they are gallivanting around the park and ask them why in the hell they are not backstage right now finishing up the ride. We are sick of waiting! Although it could also be that they ran out of money in the budget and need to sell a bunch of T-shirts before they will have enough to turn the ride on.

Optimus and Bumble Bee
Photo courtesy Universal

Disneyland – Fantasy Faire – By this time next week this new addition will be open to all visitors. I wonder if it is too late to let them know that they misspelled “fair”.

Disney California Adventure – Half of Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree is closed as they replace the floor of the attraction. According to our sources, the original floor wasn’t durable enough and the surface is getting scratched up. But the closure has inflated wait-times for the working half of the ride. I think it is a bad idea to let Disney think that the long waits show this ride actually has high demand. They might think they can get away with more stuff like this in the future.

Shanghai Disneyland – The first round of fireworks were launched over the park this last week. From what we heard, it was a bit of a scheduling mistake and they were not actually supposed to be launched until the media preview day. This does let us know that they are potentially shooting for a March opening, but the year is still in question. Funny enough (and absolutely true), the neighbors are already complaining.

Hong Kong Disneyland – Not wanting to be left out of all of the new stuff the other parks are getting, Hong Kong officials announced that they are getting the first Marvel Land. According to the rumor mill, the land is going to look like the city did at the end of the Avengers movie, and the only way to see the superheroes is through the front glass of a café. While we don’t yet have an idea what the ride will be like, you can almost certainly believe that it will be based around hitting people really hard, blowing things up, and then having a biscuit in a bad-guy-free world. Rumors also mentioned that several Imagineers were thrown out of Islands of Adventure after they were caught in the park after closing time taking measurements of the Spider-Man ride.

Dollywood – We are getting some extremely early rumors indicating that Rocky Mountain Coasters may have already penciled in Dollywood as one of their next build sites. This is nothing but good news all around.

Kennywood – The park has confirmed that they purchased a swatch of land adjacent to the park behind the Jack Rabbit and Racer roller coasters. While they plan on using the existing building for storage, they have not said what the rest of the land will be used for. The park has refused to talk about an ancient Amish burial ground on the site, but our sources tell us that it will take the Halloween event up a couple of notches when you hit that dead zone where no technology works. People are going to have to run out of there screaming before they can update their Facebook status.

Six Flags New England – In case no one else is building one, this park is going to build a Sky Screamer. This is good because currently no one else is building one because all of the parks that really cared already put one up in the last two years. But Six Flags need bragging rights for something so this one is going to be the tallest in the world. Rumor has it that they are going to build it so tall that they are looking into ways to anchor the top of the ride to the moon.

Alton Towers – The Smiler – Alton Towers has a problem, well several problems. The first is that they cannot build very tall rides. The second is that they have very noisy neighbors that can’t seem to figure out that when they moved right next door to an amusement park, some of the sounds and sights might get out. The park has an answer for this. It is called Smiler. Some of agents of the amusement park rumor union have said that they have counted 14 inversion, not including the spin cycle at the end. So it looks like the coaster has been designed to put the neighbors on it and then hit them with so many inversions that their brains leak out their ears…putting a smile on the face of the Alton owners…and thus the name Smiler.

Drayton Manor – This park has decided that it can no longer stand by as Alton Towers and Thorpe Park build massive roller coasters that continue to bleed away its customer base. This week it was reported that Drayton Manor is going to put up a Thomas the Tank Engine ride. So take that!

Russia – It wasn’t but 25 years ago when the Russians were the “bad guys”, but now we have become downright friendly with the place. That’s what happens when you have a country full of really hot women running around the place who really like Americans (or at least can convincingly pretend to). First we sent them McDonalds, which is fine with me, take it. Then we slowly started sending them just about everything else. The only thing that irks me about this arrangement is that they keep sending things back. I mean why can’t they just keep some of the things we send over there, like emoticons, SUVs, Smirnoff Vodka, and Justin Bieber. But now the Russians have decided to take it one step further and take a huge stab at the theme park business. Russia really doesn’t have what we would call a theme park. Their amusement parks are few and far between and are in such a condition that they make Elitch Gardens look like Islands of Adventure. But now they have a Universal Studios park in the works and no less than three Dreamworks theme parks on the slate. Just this last week we have heard that the town where the meteorite hit is working on a theme park to cash in on their new notoriety. In addition to that, the Olympic Village in Sochi is also getting a theme park. I can’t but think that there are a lot of eggs going into the same basket.

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2013 Theme Park Insider Tournament: Transformers: The Ride vs. Men in Black Alien Attack

By Robert Niles
Published: March 7, 2013 at 10:44 AM

A motley collection of evil aliens has invaded Earth, and now it's up to an unlikely, top-secret alliance of friendly aliens and highly-trained human beings to defend the planet. But they can't do it alone. They'll need your help in battling the aliens and saving Earth. But are you up to the challenge?

That's the premise for both of today's contestants in the 2013 Theme Park Insider Tournament: Transformers: The Ride

Transformers: The Ride

and Men and Black Alien Attack.

Men and Black Alien Attack

We've covered both of these rides extensively over years on Theme Park Insider. We attended the world premiere of the Transformers ride in Singapore in December 2011, then walked through the then-under-construction Hollywood version early last year. And we talked with ride designer Thierry Coup in Singapore about the attraction, as well. Dave Cobb, who headed the team that created Men in Black, also talked with us about his ride.

Transformers will be joining Men in Black at Universal Studios Florida this summer. But if you've not yet ridden both of these great attractions by visiting LA or Singapore in addition to Orlando, please read those posts linked above for background to help you make a decision. Which one of these rides would you want to hit up first on a visit to USF later this year?

What do you think of these rides? Tell us your thoughts, in the comments.

Tomorrow: Radiator Springs Racers vs. Splash Mountain

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Ever wonder what it's like to be part of filming a roller coaster TV show?

By Bobbie Butterfield
Published: March 7, 2013 at 10:11 AM

It was a gorgeous day at Hersheypark on the first Monday of October, 2012, a perfect day for riding and filming the park’s newest coaster. As a member of American Coaster Enthusiasts [ACE], I had been invited to participate in the filming of Skyrush for Travel Channel’s Insane Coaster Wars series and was thrilled to be offered this opportunity – even though it meant riding a coaster with widely publicized comfort issues over and over.

We were told to report to Hersheypark at 8:15am and use the employees’ entrance. We had also been given wardrobe advice – i.e., no T-shirts featuring other parks or coasters, with bright solid colors preferred because they photograph better. The crew from Indigo Films was already on the scene and handled things expeditiously from start to finish. The first order of business was getting the paperwork out of the way; we all had to sign waivers permitting the use of our pictures by the broadcast media. I was surprised and pleased by the diversity of our group. I had been afraid that I would be out of place because I’m in my sixties (having taken up roller coasters as a hobby at the ripe old age of 59) but this was not the case. There were young people, middle-aged people and senior citizens. Once the paperwork was dispatched, those of us who had ridden Skyrush previously (I had, about two weeks after it opened) got the opportunity to vote on the ride with a laptop that had been provided for this purpose; those who hadn’t ridden would vote later. Our camera crew was very interactive and invited anyone who wanted to talk about this coaster to step up to the mike and camera before the filming began. They were interested in hearing what expectations the newbies had of Skyrush as well as talking with veterans of the ride.

Sign in

It did not take long for the crew to be set up for filming although some adjustments were made. They initially had mounted a camera in the second row of the coaster but later removed it. They also had one of those octopus-type helicopters hovering over the scene for an aerial view. I soon realized that Indigo Films had handpicked several people in advance who were not associated with the ACE group. These were three exceptionally good-looking and undoubtedly videogenic young people – two women and a man – who were designated to sit in the front row once they began filming. (They had gone through a couple of trial runs before they turned the cameras on.) Because Skyrush seats four across, with two inside seats and two outer wing seats, that left one empty seat so I grabbed it and sat with the pretty people. The crew wanted us to remain in the same seats for three consecutive rides and then switch. Because they were not planning to film every single ride, they alerted us as to when a ride would be filmed so that we could follow protocol. We were instructed not to ride with hands in the air when the ride was being filmed. Also, although it was a bit chilly, we were asked to remove our jackets because they wanted it to look like the middle of summer.


Then the fun began in earnest. Once restrained (the lap bars, unlike those on most coasters, are pulled down from overhead and are incredibly tight – more about that later), we were off and running. As anyone who’s ridden Millennium Force or Intimidator 305 knows, cable lifts are fast, and the lift on Skyrush is the fastest I’ve ever encountered. To be fair, I should point out that the train is not at ground level when dispatched, but even so, I was struck by the speed of acceleration. I calculated that it took about 10 seconds to reach the top of the 212-foot lift hill. Then the 200-ft. drop! It was breathtaking. In comparison to some of my favorite coasters – Millennium Force, I305, Nitro, Apollo’s Chariot, on which the initial drop is pretty much straight down - Skyrush has a little something extra in that the track curves to the right near the bottom of the drop. The rest of the ride was pretty amazing. I found the ejector airtime to be almost off the charts and can say without hesitation that this coaster is the most intense one I have ever ridden. It’s not the tallest or fastest but the most intense because the angles on the curves are totally insane. In short, it’s quite an experience.

After everyone had had an opportunity to ride several times, the film crew asked for repeat interviews so once again I stepped up to the boom mike and got in my two cents’ worth. Everyone who gave his or her impression of the ride spoke with great enthusiasm but no-one mentioned the restraints. We had been warned beforehand that this topic was taboo.

The drop

As to the restraints, these proved to be a problem for some of those in our group. I knew that the park had added extra padding to one of the trains – presumably the one that was being used for this film shoot – but it wasn’t sufficient to eliminate discomfort. I was OK for my three rides in the right front wing seat but encountered some difficulty when I switched seats. Some were worse than others. On each directional change, the lap bars tighten to the extent of exerting extreme pressure on the thighs. And the most painful part of the ride – this was the consensus of our group – is the small hill just before the train returns to the loading station. I survived eleven rides on Skyrush during this film shoot and could have ridden it a few more times had I not had to take a short break from the physical abuse, but some of the other participants had to quit altogether after half a dozen because the whacking they took was so agonizing as to be intolerable. The ride itself is short – just over a minute – and it could be argued that because of the thigh-crushing restraints, it is mercifully short. Skyrush, currently undergoing maintenance and repair, is a remarkable coaster which could easily be in the top 10 if it were more user friendly. Hersheypark needed a good hypercoaster and they now have one, but its future may be bleak unless the problem can be resolved. I can see this exceptional, beautiful coaster falling by the wayside due to low ridership.

Return to station

Being at Hersheypark with a camera crew, a group of coaster enthusiasts and ERT (the park wasn’t even open to the public that day) was a fun and rewarding experience. I may well end up on the cutting room floor before the program featuring Skyrush airs, but so be it. We had a good crew and a good time. Kudos to the Indigo Films crew at Hersheypark for both their professionalism and consideration. I hope I run into the same gang at another film shoot. Last but certainly not least, I wish to thank the staff at Hersheypark for their hospitality and patience. They made us feel welcome and provided refreshments, including yummy hot chocolate. The ride ops did an outstanding job of enabling this event to go off without a hitch. I have now been to Hersheypark three times and on each occasion was impressed by how well it’s run and by the helpfulness of the employees.

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Disney releases new image of Shanghai Disneyland Resort

By Robert Niles
Published: March 6, 2013 at 1:44 PM

The Walt Disney Company today released a image of its model for the new Shanghai Disneyland park in China, under construction for a planned debut in 2015.

Shanghai Disneyland

From Disney's press release:

The image illustrates a portion of the model of Shanghai Disneyland, and provides a first look at a beautiful, 11-acre green space at the center of the park, and a closer look at the unique design and scale of Enchanted Storybook Castle, the iconic central attraction of the theme park. On opening day Shanghai Disney Resort will include Shanghai Disneyland, two themed hotels, a 46,000-square-meter (495,000 square feet) gross floor area retail, dining and entertainment venue, recreational facilities, a lake and associated parking and transportation hubs.

Disney's perfected the art of creating attraction and theme park models and concept art that look richly detailed while remaining maddeningly vague. So go ahead and play your best "Where's Waldo?" game in trying to find some attraction hints within the image. The comments await you.

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2013 Theme Park Insider Tournament: Journey to the Center of the Earth vs. Sindbad's Storybook Voyage

By Robert Niles
Published: March 6, 2013 at 1:34 PM

Today in the 2013 Theme Park Insider Tournament we feature two popular attractions from Tokyo DisneySea, the park that won last year's Theme Park Insider Award as the world's best theme park.

Since we're a website based in the United States, the majority of Theme Park Insider's readers haven't had the opportunity to visit the Tokyo Disney Resort. And that tends to put non-US attractions at a disadvantage in contests such as this, where the highest raw vote count wins. But Tokyo DisneySea's just too good a park not to have an attraction advance in the tournament, so I've taken a little executive license by setting up a TDS vs. TDS match-up in round one. This way, hey, we know one of these rides is moving on.

If either of these rides existed at Walt Disney World or Disneyland, they'd become instant favorites with American theme park fans. Richly detailed and throughly rewarding, Journey to the Center of the Earth and Sindbad's Storybook Voyage feature two of the largest animatronic Disney's ever developed, even as each ride delivers a vastly different physical experience.

Mount Prometheus

Journey to the Center of the Earth inhabits one of the most impressive facades in the world of theme parks -- the immense Mount Prometheus. You queue in an underground cavern, viewing exhibits from past explorers, while lava bubbles at your feet. Eventually, you're taken "down" to the boarding station, where you climb into mine cars that will continue your journey deep into the Earth. It's all sweet and pretty at first, but of course something goes terribly wrong. And that leads to an encounter that blends every theme park attraction design trick in the book to create a moment that will get your adrenaline pumping like few other theme park moments ever could.

Sindbad's Storybook Voyage

Sindbad's Storybook Voyage delivers a much gentler experience, a musical boat ride through the adventures of the popular storybook character. Revamped in 2007, with the addition of a catchy new theme song, this storybook voyage rivals any theme park boat ride in the world for warmth and charm, while delivering just the right touch of adventure.

I've included our on-ride video of Sindbad's Storybook Voyage, but haven't embedded a video of Journey to the Center of the Earth, as I couldn't find one that I believe does the ride's climatic moment any justice. But do take a moment to enjoy the tune from Sindbad. It's one of my theme park favorites.

Time to vote. Which ride would you most want to experience first today, if I magically transported you to Tokyo DisneySea?

If you've had the good fortune to visit Tokyo DisneySea, please share your experience in the comments, while I imagine eating a Gyoza Dog again.

Tomorrow: Transformers: The Ride vs. Men in Black Alien Attack

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2013 Theme Park Insider Tournament: The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man vs. Revenge of the Mummy

By Robert Niles
Published: March 5, 2013 at 11:34 AM

Thrills and theme can live together, and the best theme parks find ways to appeal to heart, mind and physical senses by blending thrills and theme in unique attractions. Universal provides two of the better examples of themed thrills with its Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man and Revenge of the Mummy.

Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man

The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man opened with Universal's Islands of Adventure in May 1999. Disney had introduced a mash-up of a flight simulator unit on a dark ride track with Disneyland's Indiana Jones Adventure in 1995, but Universal took that platform a step further by adding 3D projection to the mix. If you think that's only an incremental improvement, let's remember that creating the illusion of 3D is dependent upon maintaining a proper visual focal point for viewers. That's tough enough to do in a stationary movie theater. Now imagine doing that for viewers in a vehicle that's not only moving along a track, but bucking and swaying as it moves, too. The perspective and focal point of the 3D image must shift to accommodate those viewers, then seamlessly transition to pick up viewers from the next vehicle, too. Spider-Man not only accomplishes this, but does so in service of a fun, action-packed story that has won raves from Theme Park Insider readers.

Revenge of the Mummy

Universal debuted Revenge of the Mummy at Universal Studios Florida in May 2004, with an abridged version opening at Universal Studios Hollywood a month later. Themed indoor roller coasters have been around since Disney's Space Mountain debuted in the 1970s, but with Revenge of the Mummy Universal created the most ambitious blend of a roller coaster with an animatronic dark ride to date. Each installation of Revenge of the Mummy differs from the others substantially, with the Florida original involving film series star Brendan Fraser in a sarcastic subplot that "resolves" with a fun twist at the end. In Hollywood's shorter version, Fraser's gone, but good triumphs over the evil Imhotep anyway. It's in Singapore that Revenge of Mummy fully embraces its dark side, allowing the bad guys a rare theme park win.

(I strongly considered matching up Singapore's Revenge of the Mummy against Efteling's Fata Morgana in this year's tournament, creating a battle of rides with unhappy endings. But Florida's Revenge of the Mummy earned its place in the top 16 with so much support from Theme Park Insider readers over the years, and I didn't want to give Mummy two spots in the tournament, so in the end I decided to go with the more popular Florida version and to leave the rarely-rated Fata Morgana out this year, in favor of a more-often-rated attraction.)

Here's an on-ride video of Florida's Revenge of the Mummy, for those who haven't experienced this version of the ride:

And here's a snippet of the new 4K imagery from Universal's 2012 revamp of Spider-Man:

Time to vote!

Undecided? Let's see if some of your fellow readers would like to make the case for their favorite, in the comments.

Tomorrow: Journey to the Center of the Earth vs. Sindbad's Storybook Voyage

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2013 Theme Park Insider Tournament: Pirates of the Caribbean vs. Haunted Mansion

By Robert Niles
Published: March 4, 2013 at 12:15 PM

Let's kick off the 2013 Theme Park Insider Tournament with a match-up of Disney classics. Both Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion debuted in the late 1960s in Disneyland's New Orleans Square. Over the years, they've grown into entertainment franchises, with Pirates inspiring a billion-dollar-plus film series, and duplicate attractions opening all over the world.

Pirates of the Caribbean

Pirates debuted in 1967, the first major attraction to open after Walt Disney's death in 1966. Over the years, Disney's tweaked the ride here and there, most notably to add characters from the Pirates of the Caribbean films, in 2006 and again in 2011. Based on the ride's overwhelming popularity, Disney killed plans for a Western River Expedition attraction at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, in favor of building an abbreviated version of Pirates for that park in 1973.

Haunted Mansion

Mansion opened in 1969, following a six-year delay after its facade was completed in 1963. But it's the Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom version of the Haunted Mansion, which opened with that park in 1971, that wins Theme Park Insiders' votes as the best of the Haunted Mansions. While I love walking into the front door of Disneyland's antebellum mansion (as well as the descending stretch rooms), I've got to concede that the additional scenes in the Magic Kingdom's version give it an edge. Perhaps that's why when it was time to bring the Haunted Mansion to Tokyo Disneyland, Disney chose the Orlando version.

Of course, Disney also chose the Anaheim version of Pirates for Tokyo, although Disney did choose to have riders exit before the lift, as in Orlando. Perhaps this is the heuristic we should use for answering whether the Disney World or Disneyland version of a ride is the better one: Which one did Disney install in Tokyo? In other words, when we debate Anaheim vs. Orlando, the answer pretty much always should be… Tokyo. But I digress. ;^)

Along with It's a Small World, another 1960s Disney product, Pirates and Mansion defined for generations of theme park fans what a dark ride could be -- immersive setting, richly detailed scenes, strong characters and engaging music tying everything together. Fans often also throw strong narrative onto that list, but I believe that it was the initial absence of a strong narrative on Pirates and Mansion that helped make both attractions so compelling. These are impressionistic attractions -- a collection of active scenes that invites, even demands, that you impose a narrative upon them. And that is what draws us so deeply into these rides -- they inspire our imaginations. Just why the heck are they dunking Carlos, anyway?

Over the years, Disney hasn't been able to resist the lure of imposing narrative on these rides, and we've seen the official backstory for each ride grow over time (not to mention the addition of film characters). But that's not kept these rides from continuing to inspire new generations of riders.

Disneyland's Pirates:

Magic Kingdom's Mansion:

Despite Pirates consistently placing above Mansion in the Theme Park Insider reader ratings, Mansion holds a two-to-one lead in head-to-head match-ups in previous Theme Park Insider tournaments. Who will win this year's contest? It's up to you to decide:

Let's get the debate going in the comments.

Tomorrow: Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man vs. Revenge of the Mummy

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Busch Gardens Williamsburg offers beautiful, and challenging, terrain for visitors

By Daniel Etcheberry
Published: March 3, 2013 at 8:22 PM

Virginia's Busch Gardens Williamsburg is considered to be the most beautiful theme park in the United States, and having been to most of America’s theme parks (certainly to the most popular ones), I agree.

Busch Gardens Williamsburg

But BGW can also be the most challenging one for wheelchair users. If you happen to be in a manual wheelchair, the first thrill ride you will experience will be when entering the park; between the parking lot and the main entrance to the park, you will find a very sharp slope.

Walking into the park
It's down the hill and into the park

This slope is also long, so I don’t recommend going in a straight line. My strategy is to go down in zigzag. It makes it much easier, and you won’t end up in a runaway wheelchair. On your way out, well, the zigzag strategy will not help, and the only option is to take a break every time you need it.

Once inside the theme park, you will encounter some small hills that are nevertheless very tiring to wheel over them. The hilliest part throughout the park is between Ireland and France; if you want to avoid that section, you can plan visiting the park clockwise (Italy first), then take the train (which is wheelchair accessible) at the New France station, and get out at the Scotland station. Then go back to Ireland. Another option is to do Ireland first and then follow the plan just mentioned. It will all depend on the Celtic Fyre show’s schedule at Ireland that is a must see. Plan accordingly.

BGW is worth all that effort. It may not be as convenient as the Florida’s theme parks, but the beautiful location will reward you for your effort.

As a side note, when riding Europe in the Air, ask for a three-point harness that they provide so you stay sitting in a straight position without worrying about losing your balance. I have tried the ride with the harness and without it -- without it made me nervous, but using it let me enjoy the film because I knew I was going nowhere.

Have you visited Busch Gardens Williamsburg in a wheelchair, or with someone who was using one? Please share your observations and advice, in the comments.

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It's almost time for the 2013 Theme Park Insider Tournament

By Robert Niles
Published: March 1, 2013 at 2:58 PM

Spring approaches, which means that regional theme parks will start reopening soon, and that it's time for the annual Theme Park Insider Tournament.

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
Last year's Best Themed Ride champion: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, from Universal's Islands of Adventure in Orlando

In our ever-lasting quest to explore new tournament formats, we're trying yet another way of running the tournament this year. Rather than place every type of attraction under the sun against each other as we have in the past, this year we've decided to focus on the attractions that Theme Park Insiders love most: themed rides. Based on your reader ratings, and with a little executive judgment thrown in, I've selected 16 top themed rides to participate in this year's tournament.

We'll get started Monday, with daily one-on-one match-ups until we've got a champion. Each weekday, I'll present a write-up of the day's contestants, along with photos and maybe some on-ride video, too. Then it'll be up to you to vote. Each vote will be open for just 24 hours, so you'll need to visit the site every day to not miss a match-up.

If you've been on both the rides in a daily match-up, great. You'll be a most-informed voter and I'll hope that you'll speak up in the comments to make the case for your favorite. But if you've not yet ridden both contestants, please do go ahead and vote anyway. Just read the descriptions, watch the videos, see what others are saying in the comments, and go with the ride you think you'd prefer. Think of it this way: If all that information we're giving you in each post was what you knew about the rides from a guidebook, and you were suddenly transported to a theme park with both of the day's competing attractions, which one would you want to ride first? Vote for that one, then.

Here are the rides that will compete for the 2013 Theme Park Insider Tournament title (in alphabetical order):

  • Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man
  • Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
  • Haunted Mansion
  • Indiana Jones Adventure
  • Journey to the Center of the Earth
  • Kilimanjaro Safaris
  • Men in Black Alien Attack
  • Pirates of the Caribbean
  • Pooh's Hunny Hunt
  • Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges
  • Radiator Springs Racers
  • Revenge of the Mummy
  • Sindbad's Storybook Voyage
  • Splash Mountain
  • Tower of Terror
  • Transformers: The Ride

I've created a bracket, but I'm going to refrain from labeling the rides as 1-16, in an attempt to avoid biasing the vote. Plus, I've arranged the bracket to create what I hope will be the most interesting possible match-ups throughout the tournament, rather than trying to impose a strict ranking order on the rides.

So please be here on Monday for our first match-up, and stick with us daily for the following 14 contests in this year's tournament. Let the campaigning begin!

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Where to eat? Lunch at Disney California Adventure's Carthay Circle Restaurant

By Robert Niles
Published: March 1, 2013 at 12:59 PM

Theme Park Insider front-pager Russell Meyer and his family joined me and my wife at Disney California Adventure's Carthay Circle Restaurant this week for a TPI "staff meeting"… to sample Executive chef Andrew Sutton's winter lunch menu.

Carthay Circle marquee

Sutton, the long-time chef at the Grand Californian Hotel's acclaimed Napa Rose restaurant, headed into the park last year to launch the Carthay Circle, which offers Asian- and Mediterranean-inspired California cuisine in a fine-dining setting.

Inside the Carthay Circle Restaurant
Inside the Carthay Circle Restaurant's main dining room

Carthay Circle photos
Photo mementos cover the walls inside the Carthay Circle Restaurant, including these photos of young Walt Disney and the original Carthay Circle movie theater.

As much as we enjoyed the entrees we ordered, it's Sutton's appetizers that are gaining cult status in the theme park fan community, especially for his spicy duck wings and the Carthay Circle's "signature" fried biscuits.

Fire Cracker Duck Wings
Fire Cracker Duck Wings, with soy, lime and Sriracha chili sauce ($14)

Carthay Signature Fried Biscuits
Carthay Signature Fried Biscuits, stuffed with white Cheddar, bacon and jalepeno, served with apricot honey butter ($12)

I'd call the biscuits fritters instead, but they pack a deceptive punch, with a peppery zing cutting the richness of the bacon-laced molten cheddar. The apricot honey butter balances the heat with a touch of fruity sweetness. The Fire Cracker wings didn't suffer from the gaminess than sometimes makes it hard for me to enjoy duck. Instead, you get a nice meaty background that stands up to the fiery Sriracha glaze.

Udon Noodle Bowl
Udon Noodle Bowl with red Thai curry broth, shrimp and mussels, bok choy, daikon, mint, cashews and fresh coriander ($20)

I was expecting something more like a traditional soup, but the limited amount of spicy curry broth in the Udon Noodle Bowl served more like a sauce. Which is fine, because you'd need an asbestos-lined mouth to handle an entire bowl of this broth. But, as served, the curry warmed the noodles and vegetables without overpowering the dish. And I'm always happy to see a chef be generous with the seafood in an Udon bowl -- this one didn't skimp on the promised mussels and shrimp.

8 oz. Angus Burger
8 oz. Angus Burger with black-pepper bacon and grilled onions, and French fries ($22)

Laurie's eight-ounce burger proved too much for one person to eat. Sutton typically doesn't go overboard on portion sizes, so this would be your best candidate on the menu for splitting. Unfortunately, Laurie insisted on eating all the crispy bacon off the the burger before letting me try the half of the patty she couldn't finish. Still, the burger reminded me of the "Walt's Gourmet" burger I ordered at Disneyland Paris last summer. Yet I preferred the Carthay Circle's, as the grilled onions here helped complement the beefy taste of the patty, instead of overpowering it with the richness of foie gras.

Short Rib Raviolis
Short Rib Raviolis Sauteed in Sage Brown Butter, with winter squash and Portobello mushrooms ($27)

Cavatelli Pasta with Tuscan-style Braised Lamb
Cavatelli Pasta with Tuscan-style Braised Lamb, with spinach and Grana Padana cheese in lamb jus ($23)

Russell and his wife ordered the raviolis and the cavatelli, and both reported enjoying their selections immensely. Russell's young son made good work of his soba noodle bowl, too, impressing Laurie and me with his willingness to devour vegetables. Maybe he's the world's greatest young eater, or maybe (based on the taste of what I had in my bowl) the veggies are just that good.

Soba Noodle Bowl
From the children's menu: Soba Noodle Bowl, with beef, snow peas and broccoli ($7)

Of course, we had to try dessert, too.

Warm Winter Pear Country Pie
The Warm Winter Pear Country Pie, with salted caramel ice cream ($12)

Cordiella Chocolate Decadent Layer Cake
The Cordiella Chocolate Decadent Layer Cake, with raspberry sauce. ($12)

The Meyers took the pear pie, while Laurie and I polished off the chocolate cake. Each came with an accompaniment (the ice cream or the sauce) that helped contrast with the dessert's primary flavor, so you're not left with a boring one-note finish to the meal, as too often happens with dessert.

The Carthay Circle offers World of Color Fastpasses to diners who order two courses or more during their meal. That's a nice touch. In Tokyo and Paris, top Disney restaurants offered dining packages with their parks' signature nighttime shows, but you had to order specific items from limited menus to get the reserved seating. I appreciate being able to explore the entire menu while still getting the extra benefit. (Laurie and I, who've seen WOC plenty of times, headed home after the meal, so we gave Russell and his wife our extra passes to give away later in the day.)

Have you dined at the Carthay Circle? Please share your rating and review of the restaurant on our Carthay Circle Restaurant page, as well as in the comments below.

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