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April 2013

Planet Snoopy debuts at Virginia's Kings Dominion

By Russell Meyer
Published: April 30, 2013 at 11:19 AM

Kings Dominion always has been a haven for coaster fans. The Doswell, Virginia park has one of the most complete collections of roller coasters on the east coast. Its most recent thrill machine, Intimidator 305, opened in 2010, and despite some initial design flaws, it’s still one of the most intense roller coasters in North America. So, when Kings Dominion gathered press to the park last fall to make an announcement for the 2013 season, there were rumors circulating that another world-class roller coaster would be on its way. Instead, they decided to go after the thrill seekers of tomorrow, with a renovated and refreshed children’s area named Planet Snoopy.

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Planet Snoopy is billed as the world’s largest Peanuts-themed children’s area, and it features a total of 18 rides (eight of them brand new for 2013). Kings Dominion’s goal was to create an area where families can enjoy rides together. As many parents may have found, most kids’ rides are designed for little kids, while adult rides are designed for full-sized adults. Rarely do theme parks outside of Disney specifically design rides to accommodate guests of all ages and sizes. The previous kids’ area at Kings Dominion had mostly small rides that children had to ride by themselves. This revitalization effort of the nearly 14-acre area was specifically aimed to solve that problem.

While most of the holdover rides still segregate children from their parents, all eight of the new rides can accommodate just about everyone. Not only that, but a few of them are pretty intense for “kids” rides. Of the remaining rides, only Boo Blasters on Boo Hill (a Sally indoor shooting gallery dark ride) did not get some type of Peanuts overlay or new name (Joe Cool’s Driving School was given a Peanuts overlay a few years ago). Snoopy vs. the Red Baron now features the iconic image of Snoopy as the Flying Ace above the ride.

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Great Pumpkin Coaster (formerly Taxi Jam), Peanuts Road Rally, Peanuts Turnpike, Flying Ace, Woodstock Express (formerly Ghoster Coaster), and Lucy’s Crabbie Cabbies all got new names, signs, and a fresh coat of paint. In fact, tons of new signage is spread across the new area featuring the Peanuts characters.

Additionally, many of the new signs feature facts and trivia that teach kids a little bit about what’s going on while they ride (think Physics Day year-round). The signs are all part of Kings Dominion’s FUNtastic Guide, which helps parents guide their children through some of the basic principles that govern our world like space relations, gravity, force, motion, and reaction.

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Of the 8 brand new rides, only two of them are not accessible to people of all ages and sizes. Snoopy’s Junction, a Zamperla train ride, is a little small for adults, and the engine can only accommodate children. While it’s a squeeze, parents can ride in most of the cars on this miniature locomotive.

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Linus Launcher, a spinning flat ride that places riders in a flying position, cannot accommodate children under 42”. The ride is rather intense, and most kids 4 and over should be tall enough to take a spin on this pretty unique spinner.

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Snoopy’s Rocket Express, the cornerstone attraction of Planet Snoopy, is an elevated track ride that gives riders a 12-foot-high view of the new kids area. The ride does have an extremely low capacity (4 people per car and 3 cars at a time), and one would assume that some type of netting or safety device will eventually be added to prevent riders from dropping items on unsuspecting guests below. This ride is similar to The High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride at Islands of Adventure, without the narration and story. Some guests may be disappointed to wait in a 30-minute line for a simple 90-second lap around an elevated track, but kids will probably love it.

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Woodstock Whirlybirds is a spinning teacup ride that is probably the most underwhelming of the new attractions. Not only is the ride platform elevated (I’m sorry, but every teacup-style ride should be flush to the ground), but the cups only have two spinning axes (most teacup-style rides have 3), and the cups themselves are really hard to spin with the tiny, slippery wheels.

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On the other hand, Charlie Brown’s Wind Up was far better than expected. The spinning swing ride features bench seating that allows a parent and child to ride together. The ride is very much like full-size swings with a relatively fast rotation and a tilted axis that provides an up and down motion.

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Snoopy’s Space Buggies is by no means the most extreme ride, but it sure is a clever one. It’s a standard flat vehicle spinner, but each car is mounted on an air suspension system that allows the vehicle to bounce up and down when it reaches a small ramp. I was surprised by the design of this ride, and while it probably has the smallest profile of all the new attractions, it was far more interesting than it appeared when it started moving.

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Flying Ace Balloon Race is a pretty standard elevated spinning teacup-style ride, but I found these vehicles far easier to spin. Not only was the wheel slightly larger than the one on Woodstock Whirlybirds, but the rubber-coated grip made it far easier to grab and spin.

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The final new addition is Lucy’s Tug Boat, which is a pretty standard half-pipe ride. However, I was impressed with the improved theming compared to other installations I’ve seen. Not only was the vehicle made to look like a tug boat, but they carried the design into the base (looks like a wave) and the surrounding area, complete with sand and lashed rope on the wooden light and sign poles.

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Kings Dominion’s Planet Snoopy is not the must-see addition of 2013. The eight new attractions are all off-the-shelf rides that will probably only thrill guests under 10, and the old rides just got new names and some new paint. However, the subtle changes that the park has made, to allow parents to ride with their kids on rides that are not quite as tame as your run-of-the-mill kiddie ride, should make the new Planet Snoopy a success. Combined with the new FUNtastsic campaign by the park to involve parents in their kids’ theme park adventure, Kings Dominion is on its way towards creating the next generation of theme park fans. After all, kids are tomorrow’s theme park customers, and without earning a new generation of young fans, theme parks cannot survive.

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Theme Park History: Orlando from the air, in 1990 (or so)

By TH Creative
Published: April 29, 2013 at 10:58 AM

In the late 1980s and early 1990s I was operating my own desktop publishing operation in Orlando. In addition to creating print media I also published ORLANDO SERVICE – a complimentary magazine for people who worked in the Central Florida Hospitality Industry.

As a publisher I was afforded the opportunity to attend various events meant to generate publicity for local attractions. On one of those occasions I had the good fortune to go along as a passenger on the Airship Shamu blimp. Recently, I came across a collection of photos I took during my flight – including early images of Universal Studios Florida.

Airship Shamu

Shamu launched from the property that currently Discovery Cove and flew north along International Drive – passing over the Orlando/Orange County Convention Center and the Peabody Orlando resort. I find the Peabody photo to be interesting because of what is missing. Aside from the second Peabody tower and convention center, Pointe Orlando and Wonderworks are nowhere in sight. Construction has only just commenced on the Rosen Plaza hotel across the street.

Orange County Convention Center

Peabody Hotel

Further north the pink roofs and colorful awnings give Mercado a bright-new quality. Next to Mercado is the vacant property that would eventually be the site of a shopping center as well as Orlando’s edition of Ripley’s: Believe It or Not.


International Drive

The voyage continued towards the north end of International Drive before approaching Universal Studios Florida. I don’t recall the date of my flight – so I will leave it up to TPI’s sleuths to determine if these pictures are “pre-opening” images.

Universal Studios Florida parking lot

Universal Studios Florida

As I look at these photos it seems strange to see the property with no resorts, no CityWalk or Islands of Adventure. As Shamu floated on the photos I took show the vacant land where the Wild, Wild, Wild West Stunt Show theater and Men In Black: Alien Attack, would be built.

[This particular site looks a bit different today -- Editor.]

Flying above the west edge of the park, I was able to take an exceptional photo of the Jaws attraction. On the east side of USF, I captured images of the old Hard Rock Café as wells as the Bates family home and motel. No sign of KidsZone, Curious George or Barney.

Old Hard Rock Cafe

The entire voyage was great fun. Looking at the photos I am struck by how much the Universal/I-Drive area has changed over the last (gasp!) twenty years-plus years.

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Hello Festival of Fantasy, and goodbye Spectromagic

By Skipper Adam
Published: April 28, 2013 at 6:06 PM

Disney has a long tradition of parades, mostly successful, some mediocre, and some lost and forgotten -- like Light Magic.

Recently it has been announced that a spectacular new parade, called the Festival of Fantasy Parade, will be replacing the Celebrate a Dream Come True Parade at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom.

Mickey and Minnie in the Celebrate Parade

I'm not a parade kind of person. The floats and choreography have to be amazing for me to be impressed. Aside from the Boo to You! parade and the Main Street Electrical Parade, I haven't liked WDW parades in nearly about a decade. Hearing news about a new parade reminded be that "New Parade" was WDW's of saying that it's really the same parade with a new name, same floats, only older and same choreography, only less complicated.

Then I saw the official blog release with the photos. Things started looking better.

Peter Pan float

Then my friend, who works on the upper end of the ladder at Main Street Ops, told me that there will be 26 (that's no typo: 26) floats. And the floats will be so massive that new housing structures will be built and that lovely Christmas garland that hangs across Main Street will have to go or be raised. Now I'm sold.

The time frame for the parade is interesting. Since there isn't room for three parades back stage, there will be a three month period in the park where the day parade will not exist at all starting next January.

On the note of storing parades. The somewhat missed Spectromagic has been left out in the rain to rust. Literally. The parade is largely beyond repair and deemed unworthy of the continual cost of storage so within the next few days it will be destroyed.

As night parades go, it was well below the satisfaction levels of Main Street Electrical Parade, which ranks much higher in all levels on guest surveys. As of now, it looks like Disney is hoping that Spectromagic quietly dies...out of sight, out of mind.

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Money-saving tip: Take the bump to cash in on airfare

By Brian Emery
Published: April 28, 2013 at 12:42 PM

Recently I wrote about rechecking your reservations on your hotel and car rental to see if the price has changed in your favor saving you some monies. Well, I want to amend to my cost-savings tips with one more way to get more on a future trip. Here is what recently happened to us on our vacation in Orlando.

Southwest Airlines. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

We fly Southwest since they have nonstop to Orlando from my home state, plus, if you book early and pay attention to prices, they are the most affordable. But every year Southwest airlines overbooks their flights, plus, they sell standby seats.

So on our journey home, as expected, Southwest makes the announcement: "We are looking for seats on Flight [your flight number here]. We are offering $300 per ticket, plus the amount of your flight." Well, since we were going from Orlando to connect in Baltimore [BWI], we would have been stuck in BWI from 10am to 10pm if we'd taken that deal. So we passed on that offer.

We left Orlando at 7:45am and landed in BWI at 9:40. I took a long walk around the airport with my daughter to check out the shops and foods offered. Bought an Aunt Annie’s pretzel, grabbed a yogurt from Pinkberry, coffee from Starbucks. When returning to find my bride after the walk-around, she tells me they are asking for seats again. My brain starts to churn. Well I can drive to my home state from BWI which is about 400 miles away. I am guessing about five-and-a-half hour drive. I tell them what I'm thinking. They agree -- we can drive, and they would not mind.

So off to the Southwest counter I go. Many flights were oversold and they were looking for seats for several flights. The woman never looked up at me as she was very busy on her computer. I patiently waited. Finally I said, Are you still looking for seats on Flight [whatever]? She said "Yes, we need a bunch of seats." Still she did not look up. I said I will give you three seats. Finally I had her attention. She looked at me and asked for my info.

In return we received $300 per ticket for three tickets: $900. And since the flights were sold out from Orlando to BWI -- also sold out BWI to my home state and they needed the seats so badly, Southwest gave the flight amount from Orlando to my home state for another $886, instead of just the ticket prices from BWI to home.

So the grand total is $1,786 in Southwest Airline vouchers for my next Orlando Vacation. I rented a car, took out our Garmin GPS and off we went.

Don’t be afraid to take a bump on your flight while on vacation and your next vacation’s flight might be paid for already.

Have you ever let yourself get bumped from a flight to get a voucher or payment for airfare while on vacation? If so, what's your advice on how to get the best deal from the airline? Please share your story in the comments.

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Disney attacks Antarctica with a 24-hour invasion

By Robert Niles
Published: April 25, 2013 at 7:40 PM

Disney announced tonight in Orlando that it will keep theme parks in Anaheim and Orlando open for "One More One More Disney Day," another 24-hour operating day this May 24 at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom in Orlando and Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure in Anaheim.

Disneyland crowds
Thousands lined up before 6am in Downtown Disney in Anaheim to get into Disneyland on February 29, 2012.

If that May 24 date sounds familiar and significant, it's because that's also the date when SeaWorld Orlando is unveiling the biggest investment in that chain's history, Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin.

That sets up a bit of conflict for Orlando-area theme park fans, and visitors who'll be in Central Florida at the start of this year's Memorial Day weekend. Do you head over to SeaWorld for the debut of its multi-million-dollar, high-tech new dark ride and penguin exhibit? Or do you hit up the Magic Kingdom for another Disney marathon? Or do you hope that the crowds flock to those parks and head to one of Orlando's other theme parks, instead?

In Anaheim, Disney's got no competition for the day. Knott's is opening its new wild mouse coaster the next day, and Magic Mountain's Full Throttle won't be ready until later in the summer. (Universal Studios Hollywood won't have anything new this year, as Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem isn't scheduled to open until 2014.) It's telling that Disney's opted to include both parks for this go in California, while leaving the event in just the Magic Kingdom in Florida. The original One More Disney Day drew tens of thousands of fans to Disneyland, overwhelming local streets and backing up traffic for miles on Interstate 5, as Disney had to close the park's gates as after-work crowds swamped the park. The larger Magic Kingdom actually drew fewer guests, as the Orlando area simply doesn't have anywhere near as many local Disney passholders as Southern California does, and late February isn't exactly prime time for tourists in either place.

But Disneyland's largest tier of annual passholders -- owners of the lowest-priced SoCal Select pass -- will be blocked out of the parks this time. And Memorial Day is a huge attendance weekend for tourists. So I'm wondering if the Magic Kingdom won't end up the more crowded park this time. Unless Orlando-area visitors opt for SeaWorld instead, of course.

What would you choose? Let's make that our Vote of the Week.

Let's hear your thoughts in the comments. And, as always, thank you for reading Theme Park Insider!

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The top five theme park destinations where you should spend your vacation money this summer

By Robert Niles
Published: April 25, 2013 at 5:16 PM

Where should you spend your theme park vacation money this summer?

The short answer is, of course, wherever you'd like. It's your money and you should spend it at whatever theme park or resort you feel delivers the best value for you and your family.

But if you'd like to send a message -- along with your cash -- perhaps you might give some extra consideration to the theme parks on this list. They're the ones that have spent most aggressively on new world-class attractions since last summer. If you'd like to send a message to the industry that says "we reward parks that invest in new rides and shows," supporting these parks with your vacation money this summer will help to do that.

SeaWorld ride engineers watch Antarctica during construction. Image courtesy SeaWorld.

SeaWorld Orlando -- SeaWorld tops our list for stepping up with the biggest capital investment in SeaWorld history: Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin. Utilizing first-of-its-kind, variable-motion trackless ride vehicles from the same company that created the vehicles for Universal's Transformers and Spider-Man rides, Antarctica will take riders into the coldest indoor dark ride environment ever created, allowing you to experience a virtual visit to the bottom of the world while getting up close to some very real penguins. Here's the latest video update from SeaWorld detailing its new attraction, which opens May 24:

Universal Orlando -- It was less than a year ago when we broke the news that Universal Orlando was about to begin construction on something big at Universal Studios Florida. And now, the Orlando version of Transformers: The Ride 3D is almost complete, looking ready to begin test rides at any time. Transformers follows last summer's debut of the popular Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem ride and accompanies the ongoing upgrades to the area surrounding the park's Simpsons Ride, which is slated to become a full-fledged Springfield land. And we haven't mentioned the biggest project at Universal Orlando these days -- the expansion of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter into USF with a new Diagon Alley land, which we're guessing might open sometime in 2014. Under new owners at Comcast, Universal Orlando's pouring money into its theme parks. You can send a message to the industry by putting your cash into them, too.

Six Flags Magic Mountain -- Magic Mountain builds its new rides for an order of magnitude less than SeaWorld and Universal spend on theirs. But Magic Mountain isn't settling to install the same old carnival rides and cloned coasters you'll find going in at so many other regional amusement parks around the country this year. This summer's Full Throttle not only will offer the world's tallest roller coaster loop, it'll have a unique design with a top hat element overlaid on that record-setting loop. Throw in three launches and a special effects tunnel, and any theme park fan has to give Six Flags Magic Mountain credit for trying something new.

Hong Kong Disneyland -- No new theme park attraction over the past six months has generated the buzz than Hong Kong Disneyland's Mystic Manor has. The centerpiece of the new Mystic Point section of the park, Mystic Manor utilizes a trackless ride system to bring visitors inside the artifact-laden mansion of Lord Henry Mystic, whose monkey sidekick, Albert, mischievously brings all those artifacts to life by opening an enchanted (or cursed?) music box. Filled with special effects, the first on-ride videos of Mystic Manor have Disney fans worldwide pulling out their calculators to figure out how to budget a trip to Hong Kong.

Mystic Point is the second new themed land to open at the park in the past 12 months, following last summer's debut of Grizzly Gulch and the Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars. That's a strong investment in new fun.

Universal Studios Singapore -- Want to get more value from a flight to Asia? Make it an "open jaw" multi-city itinerary with stops in Hong Kong and Singapore, where Universal Studios this winter opened its new Sesame Street-themed family ride, Spaghetti Space Chase. Yes, it's as a silly as you'd expect from Elmo and gang, but you'll enjoy a richly themed musical dark adventure with so many familiar Sesame Street characters. (If you're confused, Universal has the Asian theme park rights to the Sesame Street characters, while SeaWorld holds those rights in the United States.) Universal Studios Singapore is part of the Resorts World Sentosa development, which also opened Marine Life Park within the past 12 months. The park features the world's largest aquarium exhibit, giving your family even more new to do on a visit to Singapore.

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The Blog Flume Filter for April 25, 2013

By Jeff Elliott
Published: April 25, 2013 at 10:37 AM

Islands of Adventure – We have started hearing rumors about what happens inside the Hogwarts Express on its drive between the two different parks. According to the latest rumors, there are 6 different shows that will play randomly. This makes sense to me since, in the books, they seemed to get to the train station relatively early in the day, but didn’t arrive at Hogwarts until dusk. With that amount of time there could probably be 6 different shows plus an inflight movie or two.

Inside the Hogwarts Express
…And time to sell us a bunch of candy, too. (Image from Pottermore)

Universal Studios Singapore – After being delayed for a day because of semi-truck transporting a whale carcass dumping most of its blubbery load onto the one access road to the resort, the theme park welcomed its 10 millionth visitor to the park with the usual fanfare, parades, and whatnot.

SeaWorld – There is a saying that the rich get richer. During this last week, SeaWorld decided to sell off a bunch of shares of the chain in order to get several hundred million dollars. These shares in the company aren’t even close to half of the company’s shares, so anyone who wants to do hostile takeover can settle back down now, as 50.1% of the shares will never go on sale until Blackstone wants to unload them…so this was a plain and obvious money grab. But, if you have ever wanted the 99% to make the 1% regret their choice to make an easy buck, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) bought some shares of SeaWorld to be able to attend shareholder meetings and make a stink every three seconds for SeaWorld to release their killer whales, which PETA always seems to be trying to find ways to do. It makes me giggle just thinking about it, considering SeaWorld didn’t have to invite that into their house and let them wreck the bathroom while the paint was still drying. (Still, be careful what you wish for, PETA people. For everyone else, if you really want to do something to help animals, there's probably an animal shelter in your community that could use your time and money. Or your home as a new home for an abandoned animal. That's more important work than PR stunts.) So, anyway, SeaWorld now has a bunch of money, so maybe they'll spend some of that on rides and stuff…otherwise we might notice when Blackstone execs walk away with a high percentage of the cash.

Walt Disney World - Disney's holding another big press event this week, promoting the all same old stuff that's been open for months at the parks. But there's a new Monsters University skin on a monorail! Hey, that's new. We'd offer you pictures of the media festivities, but once again it seems that our invitation to a Disney World press event got lost in the mail. Funny how that always seems to happen.... Here's some hand-out publicity video about stuff that's not yet open, though:

Star Wars – While this is a little coarse for work, it did play on network late night TV, so it can’t be all that bad. While we don’t get any interesting news bits about the upcoming movies, we do discover a couple of things, one or two…at least…and it’s pretty funny if you let it play through to the end… Andy Kaufman asked: what is funny? His answer was “silence”. I think my answer is “anger”.

Las Vegas – MGM has decided to give the Excalibur and New York New York casinos an improved street side atmosphere, since most foot traffic goes past the front of the MGM on that side of the street and past M&M world. The New York New York side of the street is going to get a Hershey World and a bunch of restaurants that should be able to pull in some of the foot traffic. The plan is to build a new path that forces people off the sidewalk and strategically through retail areas all of the way down to the City Center. This goes along with a new concert venue that is going in behind New York New York, that will be the largest in Las Vegas. Unlike some other places that will go unmentioned, this deal was completed and approved over a three martini lunch and the final paper work was signed and registered before dinner. And if we know about it, there are probably already three bulldozers moving dirt around the area.

[It's Robert, jumping in for a moment. Here's the really big news about the NY/NY development: Vegas is getting a Shake Shack! It'll be the first Shake Shack in the western US, but more importantly, it means that there now will be a town that has both Shake Shack and In-N-Out! The ultimate fast food burger taste test can become reality! Of course, Denver will continue to have neither, so you're still pretty much screwed here, Jeff. Sorry.]

Six Flags Fiesta Texas – The Iron Rattler has some POV action! To be honest, I am a little disappointed about this. It seems fairly slow with three different bursts of speed before the break run which seems extremely high in the air. After drooling over The New Texas Giant and Outlaw Run, this seems very tame. But, keep in mind, they may still be using the “slow wheels”, so actual speed when it officially opens may be a little faster.

Nurburgring – The Ring Racer was seen doing test runs during this past week. If it finally does open, it will lose its four year reign as the Fastest Roller Coaster in the World That Has Never Opened.

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Universal Studios Hollywood announces the closing of Curious George and the Gibson, to clear way for Harry Potter

By Robert Niles
Published: April 24, 2013 at 12:06 PM

Universal Studios Hollywood yesterday got its final local government approval for its $1.6 billion "Evolution Plan" makeover of its theme park and studio property. And today, the other shoe's dropping, with swift announcements of attraction closings as Universal take the next step in building its west coast Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

The Gibson Amphitheater will close in September to make way for the new Harry Potter land. And Universal also just emailed this news: "The Curious George attraction will be closing at the end of the summer to make way for ‘The Wizarding World of Harry Potter’ groundbreaking."

Curious George playground
Say your goodbye to Universal Studios Hollywood's 'sprayground' soon.

According to public documents submitted by Universal as part of its Evolution Plan, we know that a new attraction will be going into the space currently occupied by the Waterworld stunt show, too, though Universal's not yet officially confirmed that show's closing, much less given a closing date. The Special Effects Stage also will close to make way for a new attraction at some point, and the Studio Tour will be relocating to a new loading area.

The old, long-closed Wild West stunt show area is already on its way to becoming a new "Central Park" landscaped area, and work is proceeding on the transformation of the old Terminator show into Despicable Me. Universal's also adding two hotels next to the park: on the sites of the VIP parking lot and the old Chinese restaurant next to the Frankenstein parking garage.

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The problem with movie studio theme parks, take two

By Robert Niles
Published: April 23, 2013 at 11:26 AM

Last summer I wrote about the problem with movie studio theme parks, and suggested that such parks were losing their appeal to visitors who've already learned about making movies from DVD extras and online video tools. And that studio parks' false fronts look cheap and unappealing when compared with the more authentically immersive themed lands that theme parks are creating.

If I painted a grim picture with that previous post, let me offer a more optimistic view today. Is there any place for a studio-themed park in this business? Perhaps -- but a successful 21st century studio-themed park will need to reflect the way that people access motion picture entertainment in this century, and avoid the trap of eternal tribute to the filmmaking conventions of the past century.

I'm not talking about conventions of storytelling, photography or cinematography. Great art endures, no matter when a work was made, and new theme park developments will continue to need the work of great artists who can tell stories and create visual environments that engage visitors in unique and addictive ways. But a 21st century studio-themed park needs to overcome the 20th century divide between creators and consumers.

'Want I really want to do is direct'
TPI Kid Brian at Universal Studios Hollywood's Transformers ride. The T-shirt pretty much says it all.

In the 21st century, that divide is gone. Consumers have become creators. Many of us live in, as attraction designer Dave Cobb called it at last year's IAAPA convention, "a maker culture." If the 20th century version of Universal Studios Hollywood's Studio Tour put us on a tram to sit passively as we drove by the park's famed backlots, the 21st century version of that tour needs to stop the tram and let us off to create new entertainment of our own.

This occurred to me as I was sitting in another studio park, Disney's Hollywood Studios, drawing a picture of Goofy in the park's Animation Academy. While I mourn the loss of the park's animation studio and its accompanying walk-through tour, now I have the chance to get off the sideline and into the game. Instead of looking at animators through glass, like animals in an old-school zoo, now I was learning from an animator and putting pencil to paper myself.

That is an attraction for the maker culture of today. Don't just show us how entertainment is made. Empower us to do it ourselves.

When I wrote that the Universal Studios Hollywood Studio Tour should let us off the tram, I meant that literally. My son, Brian, has been pestering me for weeks to buy him a pass to this year's VidCon in Anaheim. For his birthday nearly three years ago, we drove him and his friends to several popular filming locations around Pasadena, where they shot scenes for a short film that Brian edited while they all ate pizza back at home later that afternoon. For the party favor, every friends got a DVD of the video they'd shot. Kids like Brian and his friends aren't satisfied with driving by film sets for movies that were shot years before they were born. They want to get out and explore these settings on their own, and use them to create new stories that will engage them and their friends online.

Imagine a tour where you stop in Courthouse Square and Universal film consultants are waiting to show you how to use your smartphone cameras to set up a shot and film a short scene. You could use a Universal app to edit and upload the snippet, sharing with Facebook or other social media. It'd be like Disney's Animation Academy, but with video. And it'd be created in a place that no other social media video app could offer -- a working Hollywood film studio.

Obviously, Universal's created and honed its studio tour over the years to balance the capacity needs of theme park with the production needs of the studio and its clients. It can't -- and shouldn't -- disrupt that balance without careful thought and planning. But Universal's pouring more than billion dollars into remaking its Southern California property as part of its "Evolution" plan. (Update: The Evolution Plan got its final government approval today, clearing way for large-scale construction.) The Studio Tour is changing as part of that plan, and incorporating more interactivity into that attraction could -- and should -- be part of that plan.

Perhaps Universal could start with a special, upcharge interactive version of the tour, offered a couple times a day. From that, Universal's operations team and Universal Creative could learn what does and doesn't work with new interactive elements, not just creatively, but logistically as well. With that information, Universal's various teams could begin to design a more new tour attraction that balances the studio's production needs with the creative and capacity challenges of an interactive theme park attraction.

No, this wouldn't be easy. But if it were, a lot of companies would be in the studio theme park business. Universal's theme parks are flush with cash now in large part because Universal Creative proved itself up to the challenge of creating the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I'd like to hope that they'd be up to this challenge, too. This isn't just about the Studio Tour, either. Look at all the visitors cosplaying their way around the Wizarding World in Orlando. People want immersive environments in which they can engage and create their own narratives, whether they film and upload them or not. The maker culture wants to be active participants in theme parks, not passive tourists herded from one attraction to the next. That's a challenge for all theme parks and designers today. It's just that this challenge become most apparent in parks whose theme is the creation of media itself.

If Universal Studios Hollywood and other studio-themed parks are going to remain top draws for the next several decades, they need to do more than offer the same experience that they offered to a previous generation that had a different relationship with entertainment. The emergence of a maker culture has provided movie studios a new market of eager film fans, who would love the chance to experience those studios not just as passive tourists, but as active creators. This is an opportunity, one with the potential to become massive lucrative for Universal and other entertainment companies that might otherwise be losing income and market share to the marker culture.

Can the studio theme park survive in the 21st century? Certainly. But 21st century film fans have a different relationship with film than their parents and grandparents did. If studio theme parks want to engage these potential visitors, they can't get away with offering just the same old experience that drew those parents and grandparents.

What would you like to see Universal and Disney do with their studio-themed parks? What would make you and your family more likely to visit, and more often? Please tell us you wish list, in the comments.

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Disney's Animal Kingdom celebrates its 15th birthday -- so what should the park do next?

By Robert Niles
Published: April 22, 2013 at 10:17 AM

Disney's Animal Kingdom celebrates its 15th birthday today -- the park opened on Earth Day, April 22, 1998. Today, the park is the fourth most-visited theme park in America and third among the Walt Disney World theme parks, trailing the Magic Kingdom and Epcot but placing ahead of Disney's Hollywood Studios.

Disney's Animal Kingdom

Theme Park Insider fans love the park for its Festival of the Lion King show, Kilimanjaro Safaris ride and the Expedition Everest roller coaster, despite the animatronic Yeti that's been frozen in place for years, due to a broken support structure.

If you've visited Animal Kingdom recently, please consider yourself invited to rate and review its attractions and dining facilities on our Disney's Animal Kingdom listings page. But let's also talk about the future of this theme park, the youngest park at the Walt Disney World Resort.

Animal Kingdom will be the home to the new Avatar project, currently underway with an opening date yet to be announced. But Animal Kingdom's been the subject of many other Disney plans and fan rumors over the years.

Looking ahead to Animal Kingdom's 20 anniversary in 2018, what would you most want to see the park have opened by then? Would you like to see the Yeti repaired? Or would you rather Disney focus on Avatar? What about adding a new continent, such as Australia, America, or -- to match SeaWorld Orlando's upcoming attraction -- Antarctica? What about those Beastly Kingdom plans that were once supposed to be included in the park? And now, some fans are talking about Animal Kingdom as a good home for a stateside version of the Mystic Manor ride that just debuted to wildly enthusiastic reviews at Hong Kong Disneyland.

You can't choose "all of the above." To see where's fans' priorities lie, please select the option that's your top pick for this park.

Happy birthday, Animal Kingdom!

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Mystic Manor soft-opens to guests at Hong Kong Disneyland

By Robert Niles
Published: April 21, 2013 at 1:01 PM

Hong Kong Disneyland has soft-opened the final piece in its expansion program, Mystic Manor, the centerpiece of Mystic Point, which is the third new land to open in the park over the two years.

Mystic Manor
Photo courtesy Disney

Mystic Manor is the home of Lord Henry Mystic, a world explorer who's collected many artifacts and curiosities in his life's travels. Among them is a legendary music box, said to have the power to bring inanimate objects to life. But Henry's little monkey assistant, Albert, wouldn't dare open this Pandora's Box, would he?

This is a theme park ride, where something must go terribly wrong, so of course he does. Here's a first-look video of the ride (found on YouTube), including its pre-show set-up:

Mystic Manor employs a trackless ride system, similar to Tokyo Disneyland's Pooh Hunny Hunt and the upcoming Antarctic: Empire of the Penguin at SeaWorld Orlando San Diego. The system allows riders to experience more intimate encounters with the ride's various show scenes and sight gags than is possible with more traditional Omnimover and flume ride systems.

According to the ride's backstory, Mystic is a member of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers -- a fictional group that's featured prominently in Tokyo DisneySea, in both the Fortress Explorations and the Tower of Terror. The DisneySea Tower's builder, Harrison Hightower, also was a member of SEA, and the lushly decorated pre-show area of that ride is filled with similar artifacts, including one that very maliciously comes to life, as well.

Mystic Manor also includes elements that reminded me of Poseidon's Fury at Universal's Islands of Adventure, especially the final scene that transports you to a different place than where you thought you were.

Mystic Point's debut at Hong Kong Disneyland follows last July's opening of Grizzly Gulch, the home of the Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars roller coaster, and the 2011 debut of the Toy Story Playland kiddie area. Mystic Manor opens officially on May 17, so the ride might not be available to all visitors before then.

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Vote of the week: How to make a 'real' Krusty Burger?

By Robert Niles
Published: April 19, 2013 at 8:31 AM

Universal Orlando's got a problem.

Forget the challenge of building a Transformers ride in less than a year. Or coming up with a worthy sequel to the wildly popular Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Universal's got both of those covered. The real challenge for the Universal Orlando Resort is…

How do you actually make a Krusty Burger?

Krusty Burger

Universal's making fast progress on its new (and, yes, still officially unannounced) Springfield area for Universal Studios Florida. Included in that newly revamped land will be the facades of Moe's Tavern and Krusty Burger, standing where the old International Film Festival food court once stood. Universal's clearly planning to open a new restaurant in that space, as it has advertised already for personnel to work the new facility.

But if Universal's building a Krusty Burger, aren't people going to demand that Universal serve actual Krusty Burgers?

This isn't as simple as the challenge of creating Butterbeer. As successfully as Universal Orlando's executive chef, Steve Jayson, and his team nailed that task, they had it easy. People were supposed to like Butterbeer. Krusty Burgers are "the unhealthiest food in the world," vile fast food that the restaurant's owner, Krusty the Clown, wouldn't imagine actually eating. ("Ewww! I almost swallowed some of the juice!")

So what do you do? Do you honor of the spirit of hard-core, orthodox fans (think Comic Book Guy) and remain faithful to the canon, even if that means creating a new, horrible-tasting Krusty Burger to serve Universal's Simpsons fans? Or do you sell out the story and opt to serve something tastier instead?

It's fun to imagine selling nasty burgers to a horde of theme park tourists (other than us, of course), but what would you do if you were running the Universal Orlando Resort? Maybe you just slap the Krusty Burger name on your regular burgers, saving yourself the expense of developing and serving another food product? Or maybe you look for a way to avoid the issue entirely, and ask Universal Creative to work with Matt Groening to come up with some story to explain why this Krusty Burger location is selling a different type of burger than Springfield's infamous original Krusty Burger?

It's Vote of the Week time.

Please explain your answer, in the comments. Or just tell us what you'd most like to see become "real" in Universal's version of Springfield.

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Knott's Berry Farm prepares its revamped Log Ride and new Boardwalk rides for a late May debut

By Robert Niles
Published: April 18, 2013 at 5:50 PM

Southern California's Knott's Berry Farm today announced the opening dates for its new and renovated attractions debuting this year.

Snoopy at Knott's
Snoopy shows off the construction of the park's new family Boardwalk area. The park's Scrambler ride returns to the platform where Snoopy's standing, while Surfside Gliders, a Flying Scooters ride, will run on the platform behind Snoopy.

The new rides -- a Mack wild mouse coaster and two flat ride spinners -- will open May 25.

Coast Rider
The Coast Rider under construction

But I think many theme park fans might also be looking forward to the return of Knott's classic Timber Mountain Log Ride, which will reopen on May 30.

Timber Mountain Log Ride
The Timber Mountain Log Ride under renovation. Knott's has cut down the large pine tree that blocked the view of the mountain. (You can see the stump in the middle of the photo.)

Knott's is spending $1 million-plus to revamp the log ride, which was the world's first themed log flume when designer Bud Hurlbut built it for Knott's in 1969.

New Log Ride show scene
Artist's concept of a revamped show scene for the ride. Image courtesy Knott's Berry Farm.

Knott's has brought in design firm Garner Holt Productions to oversee the creation of new show scenes for the ride. Industry insiders know that name, but fans are certainly familiar with Garner Holt's work even if they don't know the name -- they've done several projects for the "park up the street", including the Jack Skellington animatronic for Haunted Mansion Holiday and the new Maleficent Dragon for Fantasmic!

Inside the mountain
Here's what that scene looks like today -- a rare look inside the Timber Mountain, under construction.

I spoke with creative director Bill Butler, who talked about what fans can expect to see when the refurbished Log Ride opens later this spring.

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The Blog Flume Filter for April 18, 2013

By Jeff Elliott
Published: April 18, 2013 at 2:32 PM

Disneyland – Whose genius idea was it to name a yearlong event “Limited Time Magic”? It implies that the magic ends at some point, which, at Disneyland, it should never end. Didn’t they think about making the negative word into a positive word and go with “Exclusive Magic”, that way you are adding and not just taking things away. Just as an FYI, I would be more than happy to work for Disneyland, feel free to contact me through the Theme Park Insider website, and I promise I will keep you from having to sleep in the mud pit you dug out for yourself. Also, I might be a little nicer if I worked there…maybe…but no promises. So. Anyway. Limited Time Magic. Tinker Bell and her trashy looking friends are making an appearance April 15th-21th. If this makes or breaks your vacation, be sure to get down there before Sunday. Not to get off on another rant, but I thought that in the Peter Pan movie, she was pretty much awful, spiteful, jealous, and, frankly, a B-word that I am itching to say, but for some reason she is nice now and pleasant, and one of the icons of the company when Mickey is out of action trying to deal with an 85-year platonic relationship. I don’t understand it. In other news, Iron Man Tech presented by Stark Industries opened this last week inside Innoventions and we are starting to hear rumors about this park getting a Tron LightCycle roller coaster as well as an Oz land…but those are just rumors at this point.

Disney’s California Adventure – I want to thank everyone for voting with their feet. By paying your admission and getting butts in seats at the new rides and stressing out the throughput of this park, you know have some executive types pondering some of the original plans for the park and already talking about how to add more attractions. Things that are currently being pondered are the old idea for a Monstropolis roller coaster and updating MuppetVision.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom – As a special treat to celebrate the park’s 15th anniversary, here is a special video showing the workers not putting in the bolts all of the way so that the limbs later fall off.

Star Wars Universe – Disney let the cat out of the bag on their strategy on Star Wars movies. We are going to get a new one every year starting in 2015. They are going with a schedule of every other year on the “main” storyline and the in-between years will be on spin-off movies (like the theorized Yoda, Han Solo, and Boba Fett movies). Their plan is to keep making a Star Wars movie per year until they don’t make any more money.

Universal Orlando – For those of you who don’t go to theme parks to be entertained by the rides, they have an augmented reality application that you can use inside the parks instead of riding rides.

Kentucky Kingdom - This soon to be resurrected park now have been approved for all of the funding from the state that they are going to get. Now the real work begins. Good luck! And please let us know how it’s going and who needs to be kneecapped to keep this project on track.

Dollywood – We have confirmed that Dollywood is indeed getting a new roller coaster for next year, although in the process we disproved the leading theory on what kind of coaster they were going to get, namely a Europa Park Blue Fire style coaster. The fallback rumor is that they are going to get something similar to Outlaw Run by Rocky Mountain Coasters. I expect to be impressed either way.

Busch Gardens Tampa – We are starting to assemble some pieces to a puzzle that we don’t quite have all of the corners to yet. But from the looks of things, all of the rides in the Timbuktu section are closing down all at the same time. I am holding out hope for a Somalia section with a gang warlord and rides that actually threaten to hurt people. They will also save a lot of money not having to build any restaurants.

California’s Great America – Gold Striker is so hard to report about. It isn’t the tallest, the fastest, and it doesn’t have corkscrews, but what they do have is a piece of CGA artwork that just happens to have a coaster train rolling around the inside of it. I love CGA coasters! They pack so much thrill into a little space and then don’t let up until the break run. They are not really headline news, but certainly an excellent roller coaster. As they should be, they are so proud of their new coaster that they strapped a camera to the first run through. Enjoy!

Drayton Manor – The park is attempting to break the world record for most people in the same place wearing a onesie. I hate to be the first to go on record and let everyone know that this is a bad idea because, frankly, it is going to scare the kids. I have a better idea -- one that is sure to pack the guests into the park instead of scaring them away: the world record for the most hot women in one place. Or maybe the most hot AND single women in one place. Then again, maybe Drayton Manor's not the best place to try that stunt, because Thorpe Park's recent attempt to set a similar record for the most hot and single British women in one place failed when Pippa Middleton decided to fly to Vegas instead.

Six Flags Over Georgia – In the same week that they are talking about closing the Scooby Doo ride in Six Flags (nowhere near) St. Louis, they are talking about putting a Scooby Doo ride into Six Flags Over Georgia. Look, I understand that Scooby Doo is an iconic classic cartoon character, but really? Scooby was cool in the 1970’s when you knew what drugs the kids were taking to make them think that a dog was talking. Since then, we really can’t tell. But why recycle this tired old character when there are great characters that have never had a chance at a theme park ride. Some of these characters could be gotten for dirt cheap, like the Animaniacs or Pinky and the Brain. They are all owned by the Warners, so it’s not like you are stepping on someone else’s toes here. I think you neglect to remember how good they were… I have seen this a hundred times or more, but it still makes me laugh…“I don’t want funny ‘haha’, I want funny ‘ut-oh’”…..classic….and I love how they dance around rights issues with Illinois Smith and Old Screamer instead of Old Yeller.

Six Flags Magic Mountain – The park is hinting that they may push back the Iron Horse treatment on Colossus back a little back do to some other massive project they have in the works. Only time will tell, but I get irritable when places spend so much on rides and then turn around and get sued by their employees for poor working conditions, lack of decent wages, and unpaid overtime.

Six Flags Mexico – There is another rumor about the next park to get an Iron Horse makeover. Medusa is now in the rumor mill as being in the queue for some steel rails.

Silver Dollar City – Speaking of Iron Horse treatments, here is a short documentary on Outlaw Run.

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Theme Park Tech: Air and theme park attractions

By Russell Meyer
Published: April 16, 2013 at 9:32 PM

Seasoned roller coaster fans would probably look at the title of this column and think it would be about B&M's first "flying" roller coaster "Air" located at Alton Towers in England. General readers might presume this column is about the weightlessness riders feel on roller coasters known as airtime. My concept for this column is a bit more elemental, and instead focuses on how air is commonly used in theme park attractions.

One of the most frequent uses of air on theme park attractions is one that riders encounter even before they board. Airgates, which aren't always air-powered, are a clever invention that allows parks to keep guests waiting to board from getting too close to moving vehicles. Through a simple mechanism beneath the floor, ride operators are able to flip a switch or press a button to simultaneously close gates from between one to dozens of metal or plastic queue gates. Most airgate systems work with a single cylinder that is pressurized with air to move a bar that connects to each of the gates allowing them to open and close together. They are some of the most critical safety systems on theme park attractions, and while many may get annoyed with ride operators screaming, "Don't lean on the airgates!" they play an important role in just about every theme park in the work.

Air is also frequently used as special effects on dark rides. From simple fans to simulate wind like on Soarin', Winnie the Pooh, and Cat in the Hat to more intense wind turbines to simulate motion on Transformers the Ride, The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman, and Curse of DarKastle, air is a powerful tool in the ride designer's arsenal to help create immersive environments.




What are relatively simple and straight-forward effects are typically combined with subtle motion and other effects to create a more realistic experience. It might be difficult to conceptualize, but imagine what Soarin' would be like without wind (and those wonderful smells) blowing in your face, or what the anti-gravity room on Spiderman would be feel like without that breeze blowing as the building sets lower, giving guests the impression that they are being launched skyward. When you can't move a ride vehicle quickly, designers typically use fans or turbines and the power of air to create the sensation of speed and quicker movement. Fans aren't just for placing in stifling queue houses to keep guests cool; they have become integral and important tools that are used to make the ride experience more realistic.


While becoming less common in recent years with the advent of magnetic brake runs, air-powered brakes were a hallmark of virtually every major roller coaster in the country. Airbrakes on roller coasters are very similar to airbrakes on commercial vehicles. Compressors store pressurized air in tanks that is then tapped to force high-friction plates to squeeze metal plates mounted on the train. Again, it's a very simple and effective design, but they're not completely infallible. If sensors do not activate the brakes in time or if the high-friction plates are not closing properly, airbrakes can allow trains to go past the brake run into the next block.


Even some magnetic brake systems use air to control when brake runs are activated. Intamin uses them extensively on their hydraulic launch coasters such as Top Thrill Dragster, Kingda Ka, and Xcelerator, and hypercoasters such as Intamin 305 and Skyrush. On these coasters, magnetic plates are mounted on the end of air-powered actuators that move the plates up and down to activate and deactivate the brake run. On hydraulic launch coasters, the magnetic brakes are lowered during the launch sequence to allow the train to accelerate past the brake run. Once the train speeds past the brakes, they sequentially raise to slow the train in the event of a rollback. Without the brakes activating, a train not going fast enough to clear the highest point of the coaster could speed backwards into stationary trains on the loading platform. As one who has experienced a rollback on Dragster, I'm thankful for the air-actuated magnetic brakes that kept me from crashing into waiting trains.



Speaking of air-actuators, the devices are becoming extremely popular, particularly on dark rides. They've been historically used to control audio-animatronic figures and other props, but have recently been employed on ride vehicles as gimble controls.


Air-powered actuators are what create the motions on modern dark ride vehicles like Spiderman, Curse of DarKastle, Transformers, and the upcoming Antarctica. While many of these rides make you feel like you're "riding on air" guests are literally riding on a vehicle that has a number of movements controlled by air. Some ride manufacturers are starting to favor hydraulic systems, such as Kuka's Robocoaster technology featured on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, but air actuators on dark ride vehicles are not going anywhere.


S&S, the undisputed kings of air, have been using compressed air to power just about every ride they manufacture. From massive tower-style rides to huge "sky swat" flat rides to roller coasters that launch trains just like planes off the deck of an aircraft carrier, S&S has harnessed air to create immense acceleration vectors and even held the world roller coaster speed record for a short time with Dodonpa. While its only US coaster, Hypersonic XLC, was removed at Kings Dominion, S&S established a hard-core fan base that adored the extreme acceleration rates that were even more intense than Intamin hydraulic launch coasters. Unfortunately, maintenance issues with the launch system and trains, along with an extremely low capacity ultimately were Hypersonic's demise. However, the technology lives on in attractions like Sky Swat, Power Tower, and Big Shot.

Most theme park guests probably don't think about how elemental components are used to make their experience more immersive or enjoyable. Air is such a basic part of our world, and theme parks use air in a variety of ways. From creating immersive environments, to realistic movements, to exerting extreme forces, air is a very powerful tool to make amazing attractions. We all breathe it and touch it every day, but theme parks harness air to perform a variety of tasks, and without it, some of the most important innovations and iconic theme park attractions would not even exist.

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10 ways to show that the good outnumber the bad

By Robert Niles
Published: April 16, 2013 at 11:04 AM

I'm sure that many of you have read Patton Oswalt's inspiring Facebook post yesterday [language potentially NSFW], in response to the horrors in Boston. His message that the good outnumber the bad in society reminded me a picture posted by my friend Rafat Ali, who edits the new travel news site Skift. (It was posted in the back of a cab.)

Two Wolves

Let's let these words inspire us to action. Here are 10 steps you can take on your next theme park visit to remind everyone around you -- as well as yourself -- that the good overwhelms the bad in life.

  1. Thank every park employee you encounter throughout the day.
  2. Smile at every person you see frowning.
  3. Clap and cheer wildly for every performer you see in the park.
  4. Let the other group go ahead of you when you arrive at the same place at the same time.
  5. Offer to take another group's picture, so everyone in that group can be in it.
  6. Clear your table and leave immediately after eating, when other diners are looking for a place to sit.
  7. Overtip your waiters.
  8. Give away a Fastpass if you aren't going to use it. (Remember that Fastpasses expire now, so be aggressive about getting rid of the ones you won't need, before it's too late to use them.)
  9. Pay it forward and buy the churros (or popcorn or Citrus Swirls or whatever) for the people in line behind you, too.
  10. Never be afraid of travel, of going out in public, or of anyone you meet along the way, no matter their race, age, gender, or ethnicity. Feed the good wolf and cherish all the great people out there around you every day.

What are you doing to make people feel better today?

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Disney policy change on accompanying children under seven on rides

By Skipper Adam
Published: April 15, 2013 at 9:13 PM

The rules for allowing children to ride a ride or visit an attraction alone are constantly changing to be more strict. However, the policy has changed so that it now may be a bigger burden on some families.

Gadget's Go Coaster at Disneyland
Gadget's Go Coaster at Disneyland

Before the policy was that a child under seven must have some one fourteen or older to go with them. That part is still the same. Before, if there were not enough "adults," children could sit in adjacent vehicles.

The NEW policy is that if a child is UNDER SEVEN, someone FOURTEEN OR OLDER be in the SAME ROW or in the row behind them in the SAME VEHICLE.

This honestly makes sense for about 99.5% of the rides. Rides like The Mad Tea Party, and more importantly the Barnstormer/ Gadget's Go Coaster becomes a challenge.

Previously on the Barnstormer/ Gadget's Go Coaster, if there were one adult and two children, often the kids would sit together and the parent in an adjacent vehicle. Since each seat on Barnstormer/ Gadget's Go Coaster are in their own vehicle, this is no longer allowed.

Long story short, some rides, families with too few parents and too many kids to fit in a row simply cannot ride some rides anymore.


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Happy 30th Birthday, Tokyo Disneyland!

By Robert Niles
Published: April 15, 2013 at 11:05 AM

Tokyo Disneyland opened 30 years ago today -- April 15, 1983. Disney Parks chairman Tom Staggs joined Oriental Land Company Chairman Toshio Kagami for a celebration in front of the park's castle to commemorate the park's anniversary.

Tokyo Disneyland's 30th birthday celebration
Photo courtesy Disney

Earlier, Oriental Land, which owns and operates the Tokyo Disney Resort under a license with the Walt Disney Company, announced that it is investing US$1.5 billion in improving and expanding its parks between 2011 and 2020. That figure includes the recent opening of Toy Story Mania at Tokyo DisneySea, as well as other, as-yet-unannounced improvements.

Elias Hotel
The 'Elias Hotel' facade in Tokyo Disneyland's Westernland pays tribute to Walt Disney's middle name, as well as to the park's opening year -- exactly 100 years after 1883.

We visited the Tokyo Disney Resort in late 2011, as the parks rebounded from the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan earlier that year, closing the parks for a month. Theme Park Insider readers voted Tokyo DisneySea the world's best theme park last year, and I'm in complete agreement. The Tokyo Disney Resort sets the standard for Disney theme parks worldwide.

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Disneyland's Space Mountain closes after State of California alleges unsafe working conditions for maintenance crews

By Robert Niles
Published: April 14, 2013 at 11:45 AM

The State of California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health has proposed nearly a quarter million dollars in penalties for the Disneyland Resort for alleged safety violations on Disneyland's Space Mountain ride. The allegations involve reported failures to provide safe working conditions for maintenance personnel on the ride and its show building, and do not involve Disneyland guests.

Space Mountain

Space Mountain was closed at Disneyland yesterday and remains closed today. In addition, Soarin' Over California was closed yesterday and today and the Matterhorn and Splash Mountain were closed yesterday, which promoted speculation by Disney fans on Twitter that those rides were also affected by the DOSH action. However, I've found only a state report regarding Space Mountain.

The state is proposing $234,850 in penalties for six violations, ranging from improper recording-keeping and a lack of fire extinguishers to the failure to provide guard rails and gates on maintenance platforms inside and outside the ride's building. Disneyland may appeal, if it chooses.

The three most serious allegations: (called "willful" in the report):

"Disneyland Resort failed to correct the unsafe work practice of employees of both Disneyland Resort and HSG, Inc. accessing the upper and lower exterior platforms of a building (Space Mountain) by means of unsafe ladderways."

"During the course of the inspection and prior, the employer, Disneyland Resort, failed to provide guardrails on all open sides of unenclosed elevated work locations more than 30 inches above the floor, ground, or other working areas of a building (Space Mountain) at Disneyland Resort. Employees of Disneyland Resort and HSG, Inc. accessed the upper exterior platform of Space Mountain to perform routine and also non-routine maintenance and were not protected by guardrails or any other type of fall protection."

"The ladderway floor opening on the lower exterior platform of a building (Space Mountain) did not have a swinging gate or equivalent protection, nor was it offset, to prevent a person from walking directly into the opening."

The state has posted a copy of its report on the Cal/OSHA website. The report covers inspections of the ride between November 11, 2012 and April 10 of this year.

I've emailed Disneyland media relations representatives for a response.

Update: And here it is: "We constantly strive to maintain a safe work environment for our cast members and contractors and we are reviewing certain protocols," Disneyland said in a statement. "We have received notification of the citations and are working with OSHA to fully review them."

A Disneyland spokesperson emphasized that Disney closed Space Mountain and Soarin' Over California voluntarily, and not as the result of any state mandate. "OSHA citations prompted a re-review of our safety protocols for cast members and contractors, which is why the two attraction are closed today," the Disneyland representative wrote in an email.

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Vote of the week: What should Disney do with Epcot?

By Robert Niles
Published: April 12, 2013 at 11:09 AM

Did you know that it's been 25 years since Disney added a new attraction to Epcot's World Showcase?

Epcot's World Showcase
The France pavilion in Epcot's World Showcase

Yep. Norway's Maelstrom, which debuted in 1988, was the last attraction added to the back half of Epcot. Since then, we've had some swaps -- new films for China and Canada, new versions of IllumiNations, and a new themed overlay for Mexico's boat ride -- but nothing added to the mix. No new nations, and not even an additional new ride or show in an existing pavilion.

Let's put that into a broader perspective. In the past 25 years, Disney's added zero nations to World Showcase, while the United Nations has added 38 nations to its line-up of countries. When Maelstrom opened in 1988, the Soviet Union still existed and the real Germany was still divided. The world has changed over the past generation. But you'd never know that from annual visits to World Showcase.

Perhaps that's the nature of sharing a park with a section dubbed "Future World." The future has this nasty habit of becoming the present, forcing designers and managers to keep changing attractions on that side of the park to keep it looking futuristic. That tends to suck up whatever budget Disney might "earmark" for Epcot improvements. (Sorry, couldn't resist that one.)

Not that's Disney's in the clear over there, either. Disney threw in the towel at SeaBase Alpha, changing the Seas into a Finding Nemo-themed ride. Ellen's Energy Adventure remains stuck in a 1990s' world view. The Imagination pavilion remains a narrative mess, according to no less a source that Imagineering's own Tony Baxter. Wonders of Life opened, then closed.

Millions of fans continue to pack into Epcot's World Showcase each year, and they're not all just spill-over from Future World. Many fans come to the park just to enjoy World Showcase's abundant food and delightful scenery. Perhaps that's why when Disney does add something to World Showcase, it's a restaurant, such as the new Moroccan waterfront restaurant the park will get later this year.

But… 25 years? Really? Is it time for Disney to add a new pavilion -- or at least an attraction -- to World Showcase, or is the company better off focusing its attention elsewhere in Walt Disney World's second most-popular theme park?

Let's hear your wish list for Epcot, in the comments. And, as always, thank you for reading Theme Park Insider, and for telling your friends about the site.

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Six Flags Magic Mountain tops off Full Throttle

By Robert Niles
Published: April 11, 2013 at 3:02 PM

Six Flags Magic Mountain this morning placed the final segment of track topping out the world-record loop on its newest roller coaster, Full Throttle, which will open this summer.

Full Throttle track

Workers installed the final piece of Premier Rides track atop the 160-foot loop, which will be the world's largest.

Close-up of final track installation

But this wasn't an ordinary section of track, as it has rails on both the top and bottom, enabling the loop to do double-duty as both a traditional loop and a ride-ending top hat element.

The Full Throttle track is complete

Six Flags' Vice President of Maintenance and Construction, Tim Burkhart, explains at the end of the video:

When I got home and started editing my photos, I noticed this, on the descent side of the top hat:

Track brake?

That sure looks like some brakes, to me. Given how close the top hat will be to the end of the ride, perhaps that shouldn't be surprising. (Again, I noticed this after I left and couldn't ask Tim for clarification.)

Track at the end of the ride
The Full Throttle station will be located at the right, showing you how much (or little) track length there will be between the top hat descent (on the left) and the station.

I expect substantial airtime as you come flying over the loop after the third launch on the ride. But with the station so close to the top hat, it's clear that Full Throttle won't have a bunch of do-nothing seat time at the end of its ride. This is one ride that promises to live up to its name from load to unload.

Full Throttle will debut this summer. No specific date yet.

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The Blog Flume Filter for April 11, 2013

By Jeff Elliott
Published: April 11, 2013 at 12:23 PM

Disney’s Hollywood Studios – It’s bad when a 76-year-old actor so badly wants to be included on a new film project that he will do anything shy of dropping trou to let everyone know how great he is. In fact Lando, or as he prefers to be called, Billy Dee Calrissian, is going to participate in the this year’s fourth Star Wars Weekend (June 7th – 9th), autographing women’s bosoms and kissing babies to hopefully get in the good graces of the Mouse Overlord and possibly pick up a working gig with the new movie. They could work him into the story by making one of Han and Leia’s kids look, uh, a bit different than one might expect…


Disney World’s Magic Kingdom – The Imagineers put out a new video on A Pirates Adventure: Treasure of the Seven Seas. This game is for people who go to the park too much and are willing to waste half of their day not riding the rides. I think this is a great idea, because it gets little monsters out of the line in front of me.

Disneyland Paris – Disney Dreams is gearing up for a July release for the Light Ears in sync with the show. So where did the video come from? Good question, I would think that it was some sort of dress rehearsal of the system. From what I see in the video, they need to put these suckers on sale already. I do want to point out the fact that it is really important to not buy your own set, but stand next to some people who have some, so you get the whole effect of the show.

Disney Motion Pictures – We have some early word that the Disney Company is working on a couple of movies right now that I thought you might be interested in hearing about. Both of these are still in the script stage, so consider these to be rumors until they have cast the thing and have most of it in the can…or on the memory stick, however they do it these days. They are currently working on Tron 3 and a reboot of the Black Hole. Feel free to let the speculation begin. Tron 3 seemed like a slam dunk since they are working on the ride for Shanghai Disneyland, but the Black Hole has been out of mind for quite a while. One has to wonder why they would dust that old thing off and try to give it a new life.

Universal Studios Florida – We are starting to hear rumors that Transformers might be ready for a soft opening and cast member previews as early as the end of this month. From what I hear, if they are able to open the ride on this highly accelerated schedule, management will not have to torture and kill the final two kittens from the original litter of a half dozen. It may not be a traditional form of motivation, but it seem to work really effectively on this project. In other news, tracks for the Hogwarts Express are currently going up at an amazing rate…probably because the construction foreman was seen walking around with a golden retriever puppy.

Busch Gardens Tampa – It would seem that Gwazi’s days in the park are numbered. Added to that is what we overheard in that the Tiger side is closed permanently. I have to wonder if management is placing frantic messages on Rocky Mountain Coaster’s answering machine or if they are ordering a stockpile of marshmallows. With all that bad news, it always nice to know that a preview of a show that recycles old movie footage can use a catchy and somewhat annoying song to get you to tap your foot and leave it open in another browser still playing as you use your main browser to check in with your bookie before the NBA finals begin.

Busch Gardens Williamsburg – We are getting or first hint of what the park might be thinking about installing for next year. Since Gwazi, in Tampa, is gearing down, someone overheard that the coaster trains that are not being used are going to be shipped to Williamsburg. This seems to indicate that they will be used for something other than a display with a plaque. The area that it looks like they are expanding into is where Drachen Fire used to be, which seems to indicate an expansion of Oktoberfest or maybe the long rumored addition of Spain. I’m hoping for an Amsterdam section, but don’t think that a family theme park could properly do it justice.

Cedar Point – Safety, schmafty…it looks fine from here. Slip the guy a $50 and you can get on before the manufacturer. I love how he is able to keep a straight face when he says that they run it all day for a week and someone from the maintenance crew doesn’t sneak on before the manufacturer’s people get on it. Whatever. Like his neighbor’s kids haven’t already been on it 20 times.

Kings Island – While they are saving up their pennies this year in order to put in a huge roller coaster next year in the old footprint of Son of Beast, the park is getting spruced up with a couple of surprises for its Dinosaurs Alive upcharge attraction. I don’t want to spoil it in case you are planning on a visit, but I can tell you this much, “Earth Quake Lizard”.

HersheyPark – The Chocolate World attraction right outside the gate of HersheyPark is currently undergoing a major expansion and adding a new 4D theater. While the show is still top secret, I was able to gain a little bit of information from the chocolate bar. When he refused to talk any further, I had to eat five of his brothers, slowly, in front of him before he would spill his guts about the top secret portions of the project. After I went into diabetic shock from too much chocolate, my wife taped the latest episode of Once Upon A Time over the recording, but I was able to salvage this little bit here:

Elitch Gardens – With the new laws passed in Colorado, it seems like Elitches is making a pitch to really pack some people into the park buy adding a marijuana shop (which is now legal in Colorado), a gambling casino, and a strip club. And to be honest, I probably still won’t visit…even if there was a shread of truth in any of that…

Six Flags Over Georgia – It looks like Ninja is going to be back in action on May 17th. Now take care of it this time. Don’t make us take it away from you again.

Grand Texas Theme Park – The Little Unobtrusive Theme Park, now has a new name and is getting ready to buy some land near Houston, Texas to give people some Texas sized thrills that have been missing since AstroWorld was sold to an empty lot developer. They are proposing what they call a “top ten wooden roller coaster” called Get Your Liberal A$$ Out of Texas. They have also mentioned a couple other rides, but this is by no means a complete list of attractions: A dark ride where you are an armed teacher shooting at school bullies, a shooting gallery called Silence the Democrat, a kind of Huss Rainbow ride that is themed to and attached to an actual working oil pump called Texas Black Gold, a huge drop tower called I’m Taller Than You (oddly not themed to guns or oil, but it is one of the few), and some kind of spinning ride called Revolution (which is strangely unthemed), among many others.

Sources: As a journalist, I have been informed that I should not give up my sources, even if a judge demands them of me.

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Review of Be Our Guest at Walt Disney World

By Scott Joseph
Published: April 11, 2013 at 11:18 AM

It's big -- you might say beastly big -- and loud, and it's the toughest restaurant reservation to snag at Walt Disney World. Here's my review of a recent dinner at Be Our Guest in the New Fantasyland section of the Magic Kingdom.

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Theme Park Tech: The queue's blues

By Robert Niles
Published: April 10, 2013 at 2:25 PM

Theme park operations teams measure their effectiveness by a simple datum -- how many people did your ride put through in an hour? It's all about the capacity. Get "The Number" up, and your rides' wait times go down. Let your number slide, and wait times explode -- as do customer complaints.

So what can an ops team do to increase the number of people it puts through a ride in any given hour? With just a handful of exceptions, operators don't control how long a ride lasts. That leaves most ride ops teams with two options:

1) Make sure that every seat is filled and you've crammed as many people on a ride vehicle as possible.

2) Minimize the amount of time that ride vehicles are stopped to load and unload passengers.

In short, keep 'em full and moving at all times. But spend a few shifts working a load position for a major theme park attraction, and you'll leave amazed at the huge number of factors that affect your ability to keep people moving swiftly onto your ride.

Loading platform at Paris' Space Mountain

Let's take your basic iron-park roller coaster as an example. You've got one train on the track. When it's in the station, loading or unloading, the ride's stopped and that all-important hourly count gets frozen for the time it takes to unload and reload the ride.

So let's add a second train to the track. Now you can take your time unloading and reloading a train while the other one is out on the course. A train's moving on the track at all times now, perhaps doubling the number of people the ride's serving in a given hour.

If a second train helps move The Number in the right direction, how about adding a third train, as well? Sure, but what happens if you've got a relatively short track, one that can't accommodate two trains, safely spaced apart, while the third is unloading and reloading passengers? Then one of your two trains is stuck out on a block brake waiting to get into the station, allowing your visitors to broil in the sun while waiting for the train ahead of them to clear the station.

How many times has that happened to you?

And that train ahead better clear the station, because if it doesn't get out on time, and the train behind stays there on that block brake, you can't safely dispatch the train behind it over the final lift (or launch) on the track. That train needs a clear block brake in front of it before it can enter the final zone of track, unless you want to risk a collision, injuries, bad press, government fines, and lawsuits. You wouldn't do that, so your ride system will have to shut down the lift, which probably requires closing the ride so an op can go out there, check on the stranded passengers, then help restart the lift.

This is known as a "cascade stop," and it's the leading cause of downtimes on roller coasters. And when a ride is down, The Number's down, too.

So how do you help ensure that a ride keeps running, as you keep trying to increase its capacity? Well, have you ever noticed how Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Disneyland and Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom has two stations, one to either side of the ramp (at the MK) or stairwell (at DL) you use to access the load platform?

With two stations, you give yourself up to double the time to load and unload a train, as a train can be loading on one side as another is leaving or coming into the station on the other. That allows you extra flexibility to run more trains on the same track without having to stretch the limits of how quickly your visitors can climb into and out of a roller coaster train seat. (Big Thunder Mountain can run up to five trains on its track.)

But now we run into another problem. Once you fine-tune a load operation to the point where it can accommodate thousands of guests per hour, you've got to have a queue that can deliver that volume of bodies into your loading area.

Consider your traditional, single-file, "serpentine" queue. It's the fairest way for people to line up for a ride -- first come, first served. But maintaining a single file queue creates a huge problem for ops staff at a high-capacity attraction. People just don't come out of a queue fast enough when they're coming out one at a time. What happens when a little kid tires out and stops moving until Daddy picks him up? Or someone stops to tie a shoe? Or visitors pay so much attention to their cell phones that they don't see the people ahead moving?

The line stops, and the ops team at dispatch faces a bad choice: Hold the ride, or send seats out empty until the line gets moving again. Either way, you're not keeping 'em full and moving. The Number suffers.

How many times have you been waiting in a queue and heard the announcement, "Please keep up with the party in front of you"? That's the ops team, trying to keep up The Number. Design teams have helped try to address this problem by creating loading platforms and preshow areas that group people into a mass that can move onto or into a ride vehicle or show theater at one time, instead of having to hold everything while people file in one at a time.

Moving sidewalks and load platforms provide a different approach -- maintain the single-file order, but put visitors on a moving platform so that you never need to stop the ride. Still, if a party needs some extra time to get in or out (wheelchair guests, crying children, texting teens), you've got to slow or stop the circuit anyway.

Queue design helps make or break The Number. Disney's been introducing "interactive" queues at many of its most popular rides in Orlando in an attempt to better entertain people while they wait. But interactive queues backfire when they slow or stop the line, and other visitors refuse to walk around those gawking at the interactive features. Recently, I've heard that ops staff at Big Thunder Mountain have sent a cast member up to the ride's new interactive queue to urge people to keep moving.

After all, the best way to alleviate the frustration of waiting in line is to reduce the amount of time you have to wait. That means improving The Number.

Please keep up with the party in front of you. And we'll see you in the comments.

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Disneyland honors Buzz Price with a window on Main Street

By Robert Niles
Published: April 9, 2013 at 9:06 PM

Disneyland today offered a long-overdue honor to Harrison "Buzz" Price by commemorating the late theme park industry economist with a window on Main Street USA.

Price, who had been honored as a Disney Legend in 2003, passed away in 2010. Never a Disney employee, Price still did essential work for the company as a consultant for Walt Disney, using his extensive market research and forecasting skills to select the sites for both the Disneyland and Walt Disney World Resorts.

We've been big fans of Buzz for years here at Theme Park Insider, and have featured him in several articles:

Buzz Price's Disney Legends plaque

"Guessing is dysfunctional. Ignoring prior experience is denial. Using valid numbers to project performance is rational." - Harrison 'Buzz' Price, 1921-2010

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Where to eat? Lunch at Epcot's Les Halles Boulangerie and Patisserie

By Robert Niles
Published: April 9, 2013 at 1:16 PM

Walt Disney World visitors for years have been cramming into Epcot's France pavilion to enjoy a variety of tempting sweets and bakery treats. So last year, Disney gave Epcot's counter-service eatery a new, larger home, expanding into the space adjacent the exit of the Impressions de France theater to create Les Halles Boulangerie and Patisserie.

Les Halles Boulangerie and Patisserie

As its name implies, Les Halles offers more than just pastries and sweets. (In France, a "patisserie" is a pastry shop and a "boulangerie" makes bread. Some foodies insist that no one can be an expert at both, but it's not like there's only one person back there running this eatery.)

Pastry case
Some of the many pastries at Les Halles.

We selected both sweet and savory items for a family lunch last month.

Family lunch
Our lunch for four, clockwise from top: A baguette ($2.95), Quiche Lorraine ($5.20), Chocolate Eclair ($4.25), Jambon Beurre (ham and cheese sandwich - $6.25), Creme Brulee ($3.75) and Lobster bisque ($4.90).

Coming from Southern California, Les Halles reminded me -- a lot -- of the Jolly Holiday Bakery Cafe at Disneyland. We enjoyed what tasted to me like the same Lobster bisque that I'd enjoyed at Jolly Holiday during the "One More Disney Day" event last year.

Epcot's bisque came without the breadstick (and seafood garnish) accompanying the Disneyland version, but cost $1.09 less. The ham and Gruyere quiche at Les Halles sported a flakier crust than the more biscuit-like crust on the Jolly Holiday version, but the Disneyland quiche offered larger chunks of ham and a side salad for its $7.19 price - $1.99 more than the Epcot quiche.

Quiche Lorraine
Quiche Lorraine ($5.20)

We ordered a full-sized baguette with our meal ($2.95) and were glad we did. We hadn't anticipated finishing the whole thing, but the chewy crust and warm interior paired so well with the tangy bisque that Laurie found herself dunking piece after piece.

Lobster bisque

Our kids split the delightful Jambon Beurre, a ham and cheese sandwich on a buttered baguette, while saving space for our desserts, a silky Creme Brulee with the requisite sugar crust that shattered upon first contact with a spoon, and a chocolate eclair that disappeared so quickly that I couldn't take proper note of it. No one claimed responsibility, though somehow everyone felt qualified to declare that it was delicious. Hmmmm….

Have you eaten at the new Les Halles Boulangerie and Patisserie? Please share your thoughts on our Les Halles Boulangerie and Patisserie review page and in the comments below.

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Attraction of the week: Museum of the Weird in Austin, Texas

By Rod Whitenack
Published: April 9, 2013 at 9:20 AM

[Editor's note: From time to time, we like to venture beyond the big theme parks to discover lesser-known, but still fun and interesting, themed attractions around the world. Rod Whitenack brings us one today from Texas.]

As the weather finally starts warming up across the country and spring starts to bloom, many of us start thinking about the open road and our seasonal plans to visit theme parks across the nation and beyond. A wise man once said, “It's not the destination, but the journey,” and for many of us who plan to drive across this great land to reach the theme parks of our choice, no truer thought may have ever been put into words.

The road, however, can be a harsh taskmaster. When the miles start to drag and the scenery starts to blur into one monotonous stretch of highway, a distraction from the mundane is called for. Welcome to the wacky world of roadside attractions! You may not find any $100-million, cutting-edge rides in the middle of nowhere on the way to Disney World, but you might experience gravitational vortexes at Secret Mystery Spots. You might marvel at a chainsaw garden or a miniature replica of Stonehenge, or you might walk among giant fiberglass dinosaurs on a prehistoric nature trail. Don't forget to SEE ROCK CITY!

These homegrown attractions often entice us with promises of the strange and the unusual, and back in December while visiting Austin, Texas, I took a tour of an attraction that combines all the roadside curiosities one could imagine into one place: The Museum of the Weird!

Museum of the Weird sign

Museum of the Weird entrance

Inside the lamp-lit, twisted hallways behind the Lucky Lizard Giftshop at 412 E. 6th Street, I discovered a world of the unexplained. One of the first exhibits you'll encounter is the legend of the Texas Bigfoot in all his 10-foot glory, amid a recreation of his natural habitat. Other monstrous characters lurk in the corners.

Museum of the Weird exhibit

You'll see wax figures of Dracula, the Wolf Man and the Phantom of the Opera among others. You'll see displays of infamous sideshow oddities like the Fiji Mermaid and the conjoined circus twins, Chang and Eng, as well as the Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy. You'll learn about the history of magic and witchcraft. Unusual movie props from films like “Gremlins” and “Freaked” are also part of the collection.

More Museum of the Weird

After exiting the first part of the museum, you'll find yourself in an area in the back of building that looks like a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean. In fact, Johnny Depp once lived in the adjacent apartment. You'll climb a winding spiral staircase to the second floor and a room filled with more movie monsters, including a giant bust of King Kong with a life-sized hand perfect for taking photos. This room contains rows of seats for the grand finale: a mini sideshow where you will witness amazing acts of unspeakable skill and questionable taste!

Pirates in Museum of the Weird?

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to Steve Busti, co-owner of the Museum of the Weird, for a Theme Park Insider exclusive. Enjoy the behind-the-scenes tour below:

RW: Whose original idea was "Museum of the Weird" and what are the names of the official owners/operators?

MOTW: The Museum of the Weird is owned by Steve & Veronica Busti. Together they opened the gift shop "Lucky Lizard Curios & Gifts" back in 2005 in Austin, Texas. In the beginning, the shop was the museum, but over the next year Steve had started collecting so many weird objects and exhibits that he decided to open the Museum of the Weird (name inspired by Austin's motto "Keep Austin Weird") in the back of the shop.

RW: What was the original inspiration for your attraction?

MOTW: PT Barnum was one of my biggest inspirations; he had created the first "Dime Museum," which in essence is what the Museum of the Weird really is. It's also my homage to all those terrific roadside attractions that used to dot the American landscape, many of which are still around today.

In addition, I was always filled with wonder by the old sideshows that toured around with carnivals back when I was a child. The banners were often times more interesting than the actual exhibits. However, there was one show I saw when I was a young child in the mid-70s that left me in awe. It was a caveman-like monster frozen in a block of ice. It was billed as the "Creature in Ice," but today it is more popularly known as the Minnesota Iceman. To this day there are many who believe this thing was actually real.

Its current whereabouts are unknown. Now wouldn't that be an amazing find for the museum!

RW: Were there any specific TV shows and/or movies you saw growing up that influenced "Museum of the Weird"?

MOTW: Growing up in the 70s of course I was inspired by shows like "In Search Of," especially anything to do with real-life mysteries like the Bermuda Triangle, UFOs, Ghosts, Cryptids…I was fascinated with that. I would check out every book in the library on those subjects.

I was also a huge monster movie buff, and I was also really creeped out by wax figures, which probably explains why I have them in my museum now. I got to see the 3D version of House of Wax in a theater when I was a kid, and even before that the very first movie I saw in a theater probably scarred me for life. Being a big Godzilla fan at the ripe old age of 4, my uncle took me to see Godzilla vs. Megalon in 1974. Unbeknown to me, it was playing a double bill with another movie caller Terror in the Wax Museum. I don't think I had ever seen a really scary movie before that, and I can tell you, that movie scared the crap out of me!

And that one probably prepared me for the following year when I saw Trilogy of Terror on TV. The Zuni Fetish Doll still terrifies me to this day! I even have a replica that I'll be putting in the Museum soon.

RW: Have you ever had any supernatural experiences or encounters yourself?

MOTW: I had my most unforgettable encounter with the supernatural when I was living in England. I had been very, very sick and became bedridden, and I believe I had a Near Death Experience. As I was laying there thinking I was dying, a beautiful woman appeared to me in my bedroom, urging me to get up. She was clear as day, but I only saw her head and shoulders, surrounded by brilliant white light, floating over my bed! Needless to say, I went from being completely unable to move, to literally jumping out of bed and running out of the room, filled with adrenaline!

I am pretty certain our Museum of the Weird is haunted as well! I never had anything paranormal happen in this building, however, until I brought a particular item in to put on display. Ever since then, my employees and I have experienced all sorts of strange happenings. If you come visit, ask us what we believe is haunting us, and we'll show it to you and tell you all the stories!

RW: Why Austin?

MOTW: This is where I live, and I believe it's the coolest city in the US! Also, Austin's motto is "Keep Austin Weird"… my goal is to Make Austin Weirder!

RW: On my visit, we were told some interesting stories about your location. One was that Johnny Depp once lived in the adjacent apartment? Can you tell us about that?

MOTW: In the early 90's Johnny Depp was in Texas filming "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" in nearby towns Manor, Elgin and Lockhart. During that time and after wards he lived in the apartment upstairs from where the Museum of the Weird is now. While here he formed a band with Gibby Hanes, the lead singer of the Butthole Surfers. The band was called P. They played several shows, as well as at the 1993 Austin Music Awards, and put out an album two years later.

RW: Another story was about a recently discovered underground secret passage beneath the building. Can you tell us about that?

MOTW: I can't tell you anything about that… it's a SECRET passageway! But if you take the tour of the museum we might show it to you. :)

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What are the best things to do at Disney and Universal, other than visiting theme parks?

By Robert Niles
Published: April 8, 2013 at 10:15 AM

When the parks get crowded, experienced Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando visitors know that they can find much more to do at those resorts than just go to their theme parks.

Whenever I visit Disney World, I love to get a boat and drive around the waterways between Port Orleans and Downtown Disney. Maybe it's the old Tom Sawyer Island raft driver in me, but I could happily spend an entire day doing nothing but riding and driving watercraft around the Walt Disney World Resort.

Boating at Disney World

Other visitors like to supplement their theme park visits with rounds of golf, fine dining at resort hotels, or -- going in the other direction -- gathering around a campfire for a roasted s'mores dessert. Last week, I asked Theme Park Insider's Twitter followers for their recommendations on what to do at Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando resorts, other than visiting the parks. Here are some of their responses:

What's your favorite thing to outside of visiting the parks when you go to Orlando? Please share your secret tips, in the comments.

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Money-saving tip: Recheck those reservations before your vacation

By Brian Emery
Published: April 6, 2013 at 1:58 PM

In just a few weeks we will be hitting beautiful, wonderful, delightful Orlando for our yearly visit. Since it is a busy time of year for Orlando, I booked early and the prices were higher than usual. And I expected this. So now that we are getting close to the actual vacation, I always recheck to see if the prices have dropped.

Hotel room
The price you booked for a hotel room weeks ago might not have to be the price you pay.

They were. Our hotel was $500 cheaper -- I booked in January at $1,700 at a resort\hotel. And the new price I rebooked at $1,200 -- for a $500 savings. Same hotel, same room, same everything... except the price.

Then I rechecked my rental car. I originally booked with Budget at $310.00 for eight days. This was the cheapest at the time I booked for a midsize car. After rechecking, I found a Premium car at Alamo for $90.00 less. A better car and a $90 savings!

I also did this a few years ago and saved a total of $300 on that vacation.

Just a few clicks of the mouse and I am now saving $600. Have you rechecked the prices for your upcoming vacation yet?

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Vote of the week: Where's your dream fine-dining dinner at a Disney theme park?

By Robert Niles
Published: April 5, 2013 at 8:34 AM

Who's hungry?

Let's talk about fancy dining for this week's Vote of the Week. Last week, my family and I got the chance to have dinner at Epcot's new Monsieur Paul restaurant, which last December replaced the multi-Theme Park Insider Award-winning Bistro de Paris. Disney's found a place for fine dining its theme park resorts around the world, and Monsieur Paul is clearly Walt Disney World's most ambitious in-park restaurant. But where does it rank among the best of the best of Disney's other top table-service restaurants around the world? That's what I'm putting up for a vote today.

I've selected what I believe to be the most ambitious fine-dining restaurant at each of Disney's multi-park theme park resorts: Disneyland, Walt Disney World, Disneyland Paris, and Tokyo Disney. To fill out the field with a fifth option, I've added a second restaurant from Tokyo DisneySea, which I believe to be on par with the other four for the highest levels of cuisine, ambiance and service.

Of course, very few of us have had the good fortune to eat at all of these restaurants, to make an in-person judgment about which is best. So let's make this an "aspirational" vote, if you will. Where would you most want to eat among these five restaurants, assuming you had the budget to go to its park and enjoy a meal at that restaurant? Let's assume that you're only having the meal at the park, so no picking a restaurant solely based on the park where it's located. So we've taken price and location out of the equation -- we're deciding solely on the basis of cuisine, menu and setting. Which is the restaurant that really gets you excited?

To help you learn more about these choices, I've linked my reviews and the Theme Park Insider reader reviews for each restaurant, in the order in which I dined at them:

S.S. Columbia Dining Room at Tokyo DisneySea

Baked Lobster Tail and Sauteed Scallops with Butter Sauce at S.S. Columbia Dining Room

Robert's review | Readers' reviews

Magellan's at Tokyo DisneySea

Scallops appetizer at Magellan's

Robert's review | Readers' reviews

Walt's at Disneyland Paris

Walt's Gourmet Burger at Walt's

Robert's review | Readers' reviews

Carthay Circle Restaurant at Disney California Adventure

Short Rib Raviolis at Carthay Circle Restaurant

Robert's review | Readers' reviews

Monsieur Paul at Epcot

Soupe aux truffes V.G.E. at Monsieur Paul

Robert's review | Readers' reviews

These five will be strong contenders for this year's Theme Park Insider Award for the world's best theme park restaurant, which we will announce this July 4. But other restaurants will contend for the award, which will go to the in-park table service restaurant with the highest average reader rating. So I'd like to make a pitch for you to click over and submit a rating for any of these restaurants where you've dined in the past year.

The ever-popular Mythos remains a candidate, of course, but we could use more votes for the Big Five restaurants linked above, as well as for these other top restaurants around the world:

Thank you, as always, for reading (and rating on) Theme Park Insider!

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The Blog Flume Filter for April 4, 2013

By Jeff Elliott
Published: April 4, 2013 at 1:31 PM

Tokyo Disneyland – Sincere congratulations need to go out to the marketing staff of Tokyo Disneyland for the amazing job that they did. While there were no new rides added and Star Tours was down for most of the year during its upgrade to 2.0, somehow the marketing staff was able to cram more than 2 million more people through the gates than the year before…now granted, last year was not a very good year with a nuclear meltdown and a tsunami and then many months of recovery, but only resulting in a 1% overall attendance drop last year. I mean it helps to have the best theme park in the world, but still…good job marketing staff.

Tokyo Disneyland

Epcot – In a park that is a little short on rides and has an overabundance of restaurants, who is also feeling the neglect as all of its local sister parks get (or are at least theorized to be getting) a large new land, one might consider the prospect of construction starting to be a very good thing. Except it is not for a ride. Nor is it for fixing up an existing ride. Nor is it for reopening an abandoned pavilion or part of a pavilion that was quietly closed years ago. It is for a restaurant. A Moroccan restaurant with indoor and outdoor waterfront seating. Excuse me if I don’t sound that excited about it. I wonder how long it would take, considering two meals a day, to eat at each restaurant in the World Showcase? A year? Six months? Longer than it took for Universal to construct Transformers? Is my point clear yet? Okay, moving on…

Disney’s Animal Kingdom – More fencing is going up and they are starting to move dirt around to build the Festival of the Lion King a new home. I do have to wonder if they are going to make it better than the more or less temporary facility that they had for the original show? You can plus quite a few things if you build an entire theater for a specific show. Maybe more animatronics…maybe some indoor waiting areas…maybe a larger seating area…maybe more intricate acts that use special features of the new building (flying harnesses and trap doors)…maybe…maybe…

Paramount Park London – This park, that is boasting to be the third largest park in the world after they get finished with it, has suddenly been stalled because of a rare breed of jumping spider. While the company has, of course, talked about how they are going to loving move the spider colony away and relocated into a wildlife preserve, I have a different answer.

Living Under A Rock – Just in case you were living under a rock for the last week, the sequel to Finding Nemo has a name: Finding Dora.

Finding Dora

Wait, what?

Obits - On a more somber note, we have lost two people this week that have had real impact in the entertainment world and directly related to themed park properties. Richard Griffiths died over the last week due to complications with heart surgery. To this crowd, he is probably best known as the actor who played Vernon Dursley, Harry Potter’s uncle. We also lost Jane Henson, Jim Henson’s widow, and Jim’s biggest early collaborator and one of the main reasons why the Muppets took off in the first place.

Universal Studios Florida – Just in time to allow everyone to reschedule their vacations for next year, we finally have the rough date the London side of Harry Potter will open: July 2014. This goes to show that Comcast would much rather have more people in their parks enjoying their rides than saving a little bit of money by not working the construction crews to death. I almost feel bad that I cancelled my cable subscription years ago to stick it to Comcast…something that I certainly don’t suggest that anyone else does, because SOMEONE needs to pay for all of these expensive ride additions.

Disney Infinity – In the same week that Disney shut down LucasArts, the Star Wars gaming division, we get a new look at Disney Infinity.

Star Wars: The Old Republic – Since LucasArts is in shut down mode, I thought it was important to let everyone know why I haven’t been returning emails or getting much sleep. I have become hopelessly addicted to this game. Since the game became free to play, they have made much more money with people buying in game items, that while not necessary, seem to help out quite a bit. I was able to get through Level 31 completely free, and only recently bought a subscription because the friend that got me started wanted to trade items, something that is not allowed for free members. This game is not a traditional MMORG like Warcraft, but is very story driven, where you need people of different abilities to help you on quests from time to time. There are four beginning classes of light side as well as 4 for dark siders, with complete different story lines for each. I could easy gush about this game, but you are just going to need to try it for yourself to understand. The only bad thing about the game is that it is not instant gratification. The game requires a decent computer with 25GB of free space, and a 18GB-20GB initial download, so get your computer going before going to bed some night in the near future and it will be ready in the morning.

Blackpool Pleasure Beach – Wallace & Gromit’s Thrill-O-Matic opened this past week. I can’t tell if it is bad videography, bizarre storytelling, or what the issue is here, because, while I like Wallace & Gromit, I just don’t understand what they are trying to do here. Maybe a better video would make it more understandable, but I couldn’t find any others. Part of it is that they are playing the theme song during the ride, so you lose the narrative of the ride…assuming there is a narrative of the ride.

Knott’s Berry Farm – Coast Rider is nearly finished with construction only needing to finish up the station and the transfer tracks. While this is not the marquee ride that we were expecting, this is placeholder enough to hold us over until they finally get the plan and budget for the “big one”. And by “big one” I mean something that would be the tallest roller coaster in the world and not of the same design of Kingda Ka, since they already have Xcelerator at the park.

Six Flags Magic Mountain – Six Flags has just released the theme song to their currently under construction Full Throttle roller coaster. I know that all things are derivatives of the things that came before it, but sometimes it shows a really shocking lack of talent and creativity. This song is as if the members of AC/DC, Motley Crue, Def Leppard, and Metallica (but way back before they completely sold out and had only partially sold out), had just stolen Pink Floyd’s car and had gone out cruising, but were too lame to find anything really cool to do. It is such a poorly conceived derivative that it makes starring in that piece of crap Rock of Ages movie look like a good career move. I think I am going to be a lot nicer to Justin Bieber after being subjected to this…this makes me think the Biebs might have talent somewhere…maybe in his other jacket…

Lost Parks of Northern California – It is always nice to see some historians really getting down to important work. My hat is off to Kris and his team, and please let us know when you have more episodes.

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Attraction of the week: Disney's Animation Academy

By Robert Niles
Published: April 4, 2013 at 11:04 AM

The Animation Academy at The Magic of Disney Animation pavilion at Disney's Hollywood Studios shows that a theme park doesn't need to spend millions of dollars on advanced technology to create an engaging, interactive family attraction.

Animation Academy

If you've overlooked Animation Academy on your recent visits to Walt Disney World, take a few moments to look for it the next time you're in Hollywood Studios. Many Disney fans wrote off the animation pavilion after Disney shut down its Florida animation studio, which occupied the pavilion and provided the main attraction for a guest tour through the facility. Today, you'll find in the pavilion a short show describing the animation process, a collection of exhibits, and a character meet n' greet.

Plus the Animation Academy, which, to me, provides the highlight of the entire pavilion.

What is the Animation Academy? Basically, it's a drawing class. About 40 visitors can attend each class, where a Disney instructor sits at the front of the room, talking them through the steps of drawing a popular Disney character.

One of the animation instructors, showing us how to draw Goofy, at the Animation Academy.

The instructor polls the audience at the start of each 20-minute class, asking how many people have drawn various characters in previous classes. From those results, the instructor picks two of the characters that people in the class have drawn least often before. From those two, the class votes on which one they should tackle in this class.

TPI Kid Brian, watching the instructor's work at the Animation Academy.

Each visitor works at his or her backlit "desk," using a pencil to follow the steps that the instructor illustrates on the screen at the front of the room. You've got no eraser, so you're encouraged to work fast and light, using free-flowing hand movement to create a "natural" shape for each step of the process.

Following the steps to draw Goofy.

The Animation Academy reminded me a bit of the Fun Town Fire Academy at Legoland, in that it's an interactive attraction that a family can experience together. You're not sitting passively, just watching some show. You're working on something, creating a free souvenir that you can keep as a reminder of your time together.

My finished product!

With a hourly capacity of only a little more than 100 people, Animation Academy's out-of-the-way location and low profile help keep the wait time reasonable. I've never had to wait longer than for the next show to begin, even on days when Toy Story Midway Mania posts three-hour-plus stand-by waits. But do plan to queue up 10-15 minutes before show time to ensure that your family can get seats together.

Four Goofys, drawn by members of the Niles family at the Animation Academy.

And don't worry about keeping your picture in pristine condition during the rest of your day at the parks. The merchandise crew at the pavilion's gift shop will provide rubber bands to hold your rolled-up drawings after the show, as well as a shopping bag to carry them in after you leave.

Have you ever found your inner artist at the Animation Academy? Please share your story in the comments.

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What's fair compensation for theme park guests who are evacuated from rides?

By Robert Niles
Published: April 3, 2013 at 12:59 PM

Last week, many newspapers and TV stations reported a story about a disabled man who won $8,000 from Disney in a court case after he'd been stuck on It's a Small World for three hours. (We had it in the Blog Flume Filter last week.) But the story was wrong: The man was kept on the ride for just 30 minutes. And the ride's music was turned off just a few minutes into the ordeal. The judgment payment seemed to have been based more on Disney's apparent inability to evacuate a guest with disabilities in a timely manner, in comparison with other guest evacuations, than any "pain and suffering" in having to listen to the Small World theme song for an extended period -- which is the mental image that helped the original, incorrect version go viral in the first place.

But the whole episode raises the question: What is appropriate compensation for a theme park visitor who has to be evacuated from a ride?

What's fair compensation when the theme park gremlins come looking for you?

Let's start with a basic assumption: This isn't the lottery. Theme parks shouldn't be obligated to hand over fat payments to visitors who get stuck on rides. You paid for a day in the park. If something goes wrong, and you're kept from enjoying part of your day in the park because you're stuck on a ride that's not operating properly, the park should do something to compensate you for that lost time. That's all.

So what should that compensation be?

Whenever you are evacuated from a ride, I think that you should get a pass to return to the front of the line for a re-ride later in the day, or be offered an immediate re-ride if the attraction returns to normal operation while you're still there. You've already waited for your ride and didn't get it, so there's no good reason why should be forced to wait again to experience the attraction.

When I worked at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom and had to evacuate people from Pirates of the Caribbean and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, I also offered those visitors a bit of a "backstage" tour as we walked out of the ride. I'd ask if anyone wanted to hear more about the ride as we walked through the backstage areas, and while most did, a few guests would want to get out of there as quickly as possible so I'd honor that and just keep moving quietly. But I thought it simple courtesy to make myself available to answer questions.

If an evacuation delay of an hour or more caused you to miss a meal or show reservation, it's also reasonable for you to ask that the park's guest relations staff help you to make alternate arrangements. (If an evac took more like 15 minutes, and you still missed your ressie, well, you shouldn't have cut it that close. Don't complain.) If you're stuck for close to a couple hours, or more, it might be reasonable to ask for a free one-day ticket to the park, to replace the day that you didn't get to fully enjoy because of the mishap.

All this assumes that you weren't hurt or had any of your property damaged while on the ride. If either of those did happen, though, you should be entitled to immediate help, such as first aid provided at the park's expense, or the repair, replacement or payment for damaged clothes or other property. (The only case of damaged property I ever saw was from hydraulic fluid from a leaking animatronic.) If your injury is the fault of the park, you should be entitled to full medical care for your injuries, at the park's expense. And if what happened was your fault, well, you shouldn't be asking the park to pay a dime.

Remember that not everyone gets off a ride at the same time during an evacuation. Most rides have designated evacuation points and, based upon the ride's design, you might not be taken off your vehicle at the evacuation point nearest you when the ride stops. Someone has to be the last person off a ride, so don't get extra upset if that person happens to be you. Just ask nicely for the compensation you believe you deserve, given the time you were stuck on the ride.

That said, parks aren't allowed under federal law to say that all able-bodied persons get off the ride first, and then we'll worry about the persons with disabilities later. If a ride's evacuation plan doesn't accommodate persons with disabilities in a reasonable manner (or otherwise discriminates against any other certain class of people), that's a fair case for complaint -- to the park itself, or to appropriate state or federal agencies. If you're wondering how to file a complain with a government agency, or even which agency to complain to, look up a phone number or email address for your local elected state Legislature or U.S. House representative and ask for "constituent services." That'll get you put in touch with someone in the rep's office who can help steer you in the appropriate direction.

If you felt unsafe during the evacuation or your wait for assistance, or if you were stuck on the ride for many hours, then it's fair to ask for compensation beyond a free return pass and admission to the park. If local or state authorities aren't already investigating the incident, use that constituent services phone number to ask for one.

The overwhelming majority of the time -- ninety-nine-point-lots-of-nines-percent -- park personnel come through with fair compensation and take care of the people who've been inconvenienced or hurt in their parks. They want happy customers and will make the reasonable effort to help you feel happy at the end of the day. Only when visitors and park managers disagree over what is "reasonable" will cases end up with lawyers, in court.

In those cases, it's up to a jury to decide whether the visitor's request was reasonable or not. Which is why I think it's so important for you to show up next time you're called for jury duty. If we're going to get reasonable decisions from the courts, we need reasonable people on those juries. Don't leave that duty to someone else when you're called to do your part.

Have you ever been offered compensation from a theme park for an evacuation or some other mishap? Have you ever asked for that? Please share your story, in the comments.

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Where to eat? Dinner at Disney's most expensive theme park restaurant -- Epcot's Monsieur Paul

By Robert Niles
Published: April 2, 2013 at 1:39 PM

Over the past year and a half, I've had the pleasure of dining at some of the Walt Disney Company's top theme park restaurants: Magellan's and the S.S. Columbia Dining Room at Tokyo DisneySea, Walt's at Disneyland Paris and the Carthay Circle Restaurant at Disney California Adventure.

But none of those restaurants top the price tag you'll find attached to dinner at Epcot's Monsieur Paul. The new upstairs restaurant in Epcot's France pavilion debuted last December, replacing Bistro de Paris, the three-time Theme Park Insider Award-winner as the world's best theme park restaurant. Could Monsieur Paul live up to that standard?

Monsieur Paul

Monsieur Paul's hefty prices -- topping out at $89 for the four-course "Menu Prestige" -- no doubt made it relatively easy for me to secure an Advance Dining Reservation for my family of four on a busy Spring Break weekday that saw a posted three-and-half hour stand-by wait at the park's Test Track ride. (I used Disney's new dining reservations website to book a 5:45 seating three weeks in advance of our visit. Monsieur Paul is not open for lunch.)

Disney promised a "less stuffy" atmosphere than Bistro de Paris in the new Monsieur Paul, which is named for legendary French chef Paul Bocuse, who founded the original Bistro de Paris as well as Les Chefs de France downstairs. (Bocuse's family continues to manage the restaurants.) Nevertheless, Monsieur Paul retains an elegant atmosphere, setting the stage for your culinary adventure with a grand staircase ascending to the dining room.

The foyer at Monsieur Paul

You'll find personal photos of Bocuse lining the wall as you walk up to your table.

Photos of Paul Bocuse at Monsieur Paul

The white tablecloths are gone, but the dining room remains a refined space...

The dining room at Monsieur Paul

…with the occasional whimsical touch, such as napkins in the shape of a waiter's jacket.

A table setting at Monsieur Paul

Our dinner began with an amuse bouche -- complimentary cheese puffs for the table.

An amuse bouche -- cheese puffs for the table

A great amuse bouche awakens your senses and prepares your taste buds for an oncoming adventure. These cheese puffs, while tasty, just weren't different enough from a bread course to stand out in that way, though. Still, we devoured them, as we did the baguettes our waitress soon brought to the table.

French bread for the table

Baked on site in the France pavilion's new bakery, the French bread couldn't match the taste and texture of of the bread we'd enjoyed last summer in France. Like many U.S.-baked baguettes, it offered a chewier crust and sturdier crumb that the French baguettes, which shattered to reveal an ethereal interior. (Is it the water over here?) But I'll take this bread over any other baguette I've had back here in the U.S.

A bit worried about the check we'd be facing at the end of the meal, my wife and I were relieved to discover that, yes, Monsieur Paul has a children's menu, and yes, they'll let a teenager order from it. My 15-year-old Francophile daughter opted to start with the Ham and Gruyere cake, served with a frisee salad ($6).

From the children's menu: Ham and Gruyere cake

Don't be fooled by the title -- this is a savory appetizer, much like a fluffy ham and cheese omelet, with a taste of salad on the side. For the main course, both my daughter and 12-year-old son ordered the Filet mignon with natural jus and mashed potato ($16).

From the children's menu: Filet mignon with natural jus and mashed potato ($16)

My son had tried in vain to extract himself from the obligation of dining in a French restaurant, declaring he'd find nothing he wanted to eat. A dedicated fan of Chipotle and In-N-Out, he'd insisted on buying himself a bacon cheeseburger at the Electric Umbrella a couple hours before our meal time, since he obviously wouldn't be able to eat anything at this fancy place where we were dragging him for dinner. Yet when this steak hit his placemat, we didn't hear a thing from him from several minutes -- he was too busy eating to talk. When he finished, not one atom of food remained on his plate, and he declared it the best steak he'd ever eaten. He's still not yet willing to concede that he likes French food, but he'll give you that a French chef at Monsieur Paul can cook a pretty tasty steak.

Moving on to the grown-up meals, my wife decided to start hers with a salad, and she chose the Salade au Roquefort: mixed greens with Roquefort cheese, pear and caramelized walnuts ($15).

Salade au Roquefort -- Mixed greens with Roquefort cheese, pear and caramelized walnuts ($15)

She reported that the pear balanced the sharpness of the Roquefort really well. There weren't so many pecans that you felt like you had candy in your salad, just enough to lend a sweet taste -- a bright note to the Romaine, which was lightly dressed with a touch of vinaigrette. Yet, like all of the selections at Monsieur Paul, this salad was big -- much larger than one would expect for a starter course from fine restaurant. However, our waitress, to her credit, provided fair warning about the portion sizes. Wanting to try as much as we could for a review even though we aren't big eaters, we ordered it anyway.

For her main course, my wife also opted for steak, selecting the Grilled beef tenderloin with mushroom crust, black truffle-laced mashed potatoes, and Bordelaise sauce ($43).

Grilled beef tenderloin with mushroom crust, black truffle-laced mashed potatoes, and Bordelaise sauce ($43)

My wife said that the dish seemed a bit sweet with the mushroom crust. But the amazing black truffles in the potatoes made her forget all about that.

Close-up for the black truffle-laced mashed potatoes serviced with the grilled beef tenderloin.

She called the potatoes "elegant -- smooth, with just enough truffle to keep you wanting another bite -- never enough to overwhelm you."

And yet… my wife ordered the steak medium, but it came to the table with less pink that she'd expected -- a shade closer to medium well. Given how well the Monsieur Paul kitchen nailed just about every other element of our meal, seeing it miss the temperature of a steak was like watching Alabama hang half a hundred on LSU in Baton Rouge, only to come home the next week and drop a game to Texas State. (Or winning an Express Pass on The Amazing Race and then forgetting to use it. Oh, wait a minute….)

What about my dinner? In case you're wondering, no, we didn't come to Monsieur Paul and fail to the order the Big One. Let's get to my choice -- the Menu Prestige ($89). I started with the designated appetizer: Saumon mi-cuit marine -- a lightly cooked marinated salmon, with blinis and cucumber salad ($17 if ordered a la carte).

Saumon mi-cuit marine -- Lightly cooked marinated salmon, with blinis and cucumber salad.

Seared on the exterior, the salmon was warmed just enough to firm the texture and create a flavor contrast with the silky interior. Tasting such a expertly prepared cut reminds you of the rich salmon flavor that you lose with overcooked fish. And the thinly-sliced cucumber offered a refreshing bright flavor that balanced the richness of the salmon.

If Paul Bocuse is known for a single dish, it'd be his truffle soup, the Soupe aux truffes V.G.E.. Named for Valéry Giscard d'Estaing (the VGE in the title), the French President in the mid-1970s when Bocuse created the dish, the soup offers beef broth and finely diced oxtail, carrots, onions and celery, with a larger dice of mushroom pate, flavored with generous slices of black winter truffle and crowned with puff pastry ($29 a la carte).

Soupe aux truffes V.G.E.

Yes, it's an ostentatious dish. I removed the pastry toque for my first few spoonfuls of soup, then tore off and then dropped pieces of the pastry back into the broth, to absorb the truffle flavor, as I finished the bowl.

A spoonful of the truffle soup.

If you love the earthy umami taste of mushrooms, put Bocuse's truffle soup on your bucket list. Truffles are mushrooms elevated -- forget the tasteless fungus of grocery-store button mushrooms, these winter black truffles will awaken taste buds you didn't even know you had. It's the flavor essence of a rich, almost funky, steak, absent the heaviness and fat of the meat. Monsieur Paul's truffle soup does not skimp on truffles, offering dime-sized slices of truffle throughout -- not the mere wisps one typically finds in "truffle" dishes at fine restaurants.

With my taste buds leaving me in a bit of a mental daze after the soup, our waitress brought the main course: Herb crusted rack of Colorado lamb, presented with a Nicoise-style tart with goat cheese, onions and asparagus and served with a cassolet of flageolet beans and sausage on the side. (Neither the lamb nor the other Menu Prestige main course option, a roasted bone-in ribeye, is available a la carte.)

Herb crusted rack of Colorado lamb, presented with a Nicoise-style tart with goat cheese, onions and asparagus

I left the decision on temperature to the chef's discretion, and the kitchen delivered three lamb chops cooked to a perfect medium rare. But what's this fourth one, hidden in there? The end cut, sliced thinly and charred to an almost-inedible well-done.

Burnt end of lamb

Why bother? Three chops for the main course were more than enough in a four-course meal. Why include this burnt end? Between this and my wife's steak, I wondered if Monsieur Paul had done away with a final check of all dishes as they left the kitchen, along with the white tablecloths. If the kitchen must make a choice, I'd wish it opt for limiting expenses with more reasonable portion sizes than settling for anything less than obsessive quality control. Not every American theme park visitor is a glutton, and a place like Monsieur Paul never will win that crowd.

I chose to ignore the extra chop (which I probably wouldn't have had room to finish anyway) and enjoy the other three cuts of lamb instead. Accented with a minty herbs, each piece offered the textbook, unique taste of lamb -- a touch gamier than beef, yet lighter at the same time -- engaging your taste buds with flavor without weighing them down with fat.

Monsieur Paul's wait staff mercifully allows you time between each course, allowing your appetite to recover enough to take on more food. For Americans used to waiters trying to turn tables, the service might appear slow. French cuisine finds its flavor not in spices added to its meals, but in the inherent tastes of select herbs, vegetables and meats. But to appreciate best those flavors, you sometimes need a few moments between courses. I was thankful for Monsieur Paul's staff for providing them.

The Menu Prestige did not offer its own dessert, instead allowing you to chose one from the regular dessert selections. I chose the Creme caramel, with sea salt caramel ice cream and a caramel macaron. (All desserts are $13, when ordered separately.)

Creme caramel, with sea salt caramel ice cream and a caramel macaron

My wife and daughter opted for the Warm chocolate almond cake, with praline ice cream.

Warm chocolate almond cake, with praline ice cream

My son selected the Three chocolate cake, with chocolate ice cream.

Three chocolate cake, with chocolate ice cream

Sneaking a taste of each, I'd opt for the delightful chocolate cake, if given the choice again. The typical challenge for desserts is that they strike a single note at the end of a symphony of a meal. While you want to end a dining experience with clarity instead of confusion, you don't want to bore your taste buds with anything terribly simplistic at the end, either. My tour de caramel failed that test for me -- it was just too much caramel for me, though it was delicious. Maybe I'm just not that into caramel, after all.

But the chocolate cake offered several variations on a chocolate theme -- enough diversity in taste and texture to entertain your taste buds to the very end, while providing a deliciously coherent end to the meal by staying within the family of chocolate. The almond cake with a molten chocolate center finished a close second among the desserts for me, and perhaps could have beaten the cake had it not overwhelmed me with so much molten chocolate. Again, sometimes too much of a good thing is just too much.

Have you ever eaten at Monsieur Paul? Please submit a rating on our Monsieur Paul listing page.

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What are the differences in loading procedures for guests in wheelchairs at Disney World and Disneyland?

By Daniel Etcheberry
Published: April 1, 2013 at 10:12 AM

Disneyland in Anaheim and Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom in Orlando have many "clone" rides between them, but the boarding experiences for the disabled are not always the same on each coast.

Let's consider Pirates of the Caribbean: At Magic Kingdom, wheelchair users enter through the regular queue. At Disneyland, we (I include myself as a wheelchair user) entered through the ride's exit, located next to the Blue Bayou Restaurant. In Anaheim, I waited outside the building for five minutes until a cast member came out to grant me access into the ride's unloading area. At the Magic Kingdom, cast members take our wheelchairs to the unloading area, since we do not return to the same place where we boarded the boat on that version of the ride. At Disneyland, Pirates returns to the same place where we boarded the boat, so there's no need for anyone to move wheelchairs.

It's a Small World

At It's a Small World, we have direct wheelchair access to the boats at Magic Kingdom. At Disneyland, the Small World boats use the same mechanism as the Jungle Cruise's boats: one gets onto a platform installed inside the boat, and then they swivel it so you face forward. Finally, cast members lower the platform to the boat's level.

Peter Pan at Magic Kingdom has a moving ramp in the boarding area that cast members never stop, and one has to be ambulatory to ride it. On the other hand, at Disneyland cast members stop the ride.

Space Mountain on the west coast has an alternate loading area for us where we can take all the time in the world to get in and out of the vehicle. The east-coast version does not have that feature. Go West! as the Pet Shop Boys would say.

Loading area at Space Mountain
The alternate loading area for wheelchair guests at Disneyland's Space Mountain. A track platform can slide left and right at this point, allowing a train with wheelchair guests to move off the main circuit to a load area where they can take as much time as they need to get in or out, without slowing other trains.

The rest of the clone rides at the two parks have similar boarding options.

Which park do you find more accessible for persons with disabilities: Disneyland or the Magic Kingdom? Please share your experiences, in the comments.

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Keep reading: March 2013 Archive

Theme Park Insider: Orlando 2014

Theme Park Insider: Orlando 2014

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