Let's talk about international theme park travel with Stefan Zwanzger, 'The Theme Park Guy'
Written by Robert Niles
Theme parks aren't simply an American phenomenon. Some of the most exciting developments in the theme park industry today are happening outside the United States, and few people have witnessed more of what's happening at theme parks around the world than "The Theme Park Guy," Stefan Zwanzger. A native of Germany who now lives in United Arab Emirates, Stefan's been covering theme parks on his website since 2007. I met Stefan in Singapore in late 2011, when we were both covering the debut of Transformers: The Ride. Some of our mutual followers on Twitter asked me to interview Stefan for Theme Park Insider, and I thought that a delightful idea -- well-fitting with my goal of bringing more Americans' attention to what's happening in other great theme parks around the world. We swapped emails over the past few days, and here's our conversation:
Robert: How did you get started writing about theme parks? What motivated you to get involved in this industry?
Stefan: Compared with you, Robert, who has a history with theme parks [I used to work at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom -- Robert], I have a filmmaking and online marketing past. When I started The Theme Park Guy in 2007, I had the rare combination of time and money, so I decided to learn a little, go travel and take a look at all of them. Who wouldn't? It's an ongoing journey, so let's see what it will lead to.
Robert: What were the first parks you visited in 2007, and what about those visits convinced you to continue doing this?
Stefan: The first park I visited was a new themed water park in Bahrain called "Lost Paradise of Dilmun." Exotic, beautiful, and empty. Very motivating. But I took the decision to do what I do after I had re-visited Tokyo DisneySea earlier that year. DisneySea is like Star Wars or Indiana Jones -- when you see those movies, you want to become a filmmaker.
Robert: How many theme parks, on in how many countries, on how many continents, have you visited?
Stefan: I just had to count. Right now I've got 188 theme park visits in 48 countries on the site. Add a few more that I have not mentioned or listed, and the total number will probably be just above 200. But it's really not about the numbers. Sometimes I return to the same park many times, because I can see and feel passion and attention to detail and enjoy spying on their progress.
Robert: So what is it that fascinates you about theme parks?
Stefan: Roller coasters are great fun, but for me nothing rivals a great dark ride. Of course that can be a coaster/dark ride combination, such as The Mummy or Flying Dutchman. Top-notch dark rides with real surprises are very, very rare, though. I am still looking for that perfect ride, and have high hopes for Mystic Manor which I will see next week. If I never find it, though, I'd probably have to get a team together and we'd have to try to create one ourselves.
Robert: So you are visiting Hong Kong Disneyland this week? What other trips do you have planned for the upcoming year, and will you be posting about them on thethemeparkguy.com?
Stefan: I surely will. I don't plan so far in advance, but in the upcoming months I hope to see Vladivostok's brand-new oceanarium, some theme parks in Malaysia and also take a look at the Shanghai Disneyland site again. Another visit to America is also long overdue. While writing this I realize that I have to motivate myself a little to cross the Pacific or Atlantic, so I can understand all those Americans who haven't been to Europe or Asia yet.
Robert: But we should! What are some of the best theme park attractions around the world that American theme park fans are missing if they don't travel beyond the United States? What makes those attractions so good?
Stefan: 'Journey to the Center of the Earth' at DisneySea. It's a brilliant dark ride with great theming and perfect timing. The Mount Prometheus volcano surrounding it, too. Also, DisneySea's uniquely themed Tower of Terror. Tokyo Disneyland's trackless Winnie the Pooh Ride. Japanese customer service, and Japanese Disney fans. Now, American theme park fans also might miss the Jaws Ride, but it's still operating at Universal Studios in Osaka. So you have lots of reasons to visit Japan. Beyond that, the gorgeous landscape surrounding Hong Kong Disneyland, giving it that special extra magic. The ingenious Atlantis resorts and water parks in the Bahamas and the United Arab Emirates, too. And the fastest roller coaster in the world [Formula Rossa at Ferrari World], installed by Intamin in the heart of the Middle East.
Robert: It seems that many of the big theme park announcements we've heard over the past decade (particularly those in the UAE) turned out to be vapor. Of the current proposals for big new parks around the world, which ones are least likely to be built, and which ones can visitors count on happening?
Stefan: You are asking me to predict the future -- that's tough. For example, even though Universal Studios Korea and Universal Studios Dubailand are delayed and, respectively, rot in the desert, I wouldn't rule out that they will be built eventually. The world economy and stock markets really took an impressive dive in the past years. Let me attempt this prediction: all those projects that have been announced prior to 2008, haven't been built yet and won't be restarted within the next five years, i.e. 2018, are probably dead.
Robert: What are some of the best values (relatively, of course) in international theme park travel these days?
Stefan: I just visited India's Adlabs Imagica, which has a ticket price of about US$22, and some great rides, too. That was one of the best values I have experienced so far. I think, in general, most theme parks provide great value when you compare what you pay for flights, hotel stays or fun fairs in which you pay for every single ride.
Robert: Let's talk about one of those expenses -- eating. Which theme park has the best food?
Stefan: Theme park food is a real issue for me. Epcot is an admirable exemption, but apart from that I rarely come across great food, especially outside Disney, Universal and Atlantis. I tend to look for fruits and vegetables, but find burgers and fries, instead. That's terrible, because you could easily lose a kilo or two from walking and running around the park the whole day, but then mess it all up by having a burger lunch and burger dinner in between. Where is the connection between theme parks and junk food? Who came to the conclusion that they are related?
Robert: No kidding. You mentioned Disney and Universal, and I have to say that I enjoyed every meal I ate at the Tokyo Disney Resort even more than I have enjoyed eating at Disney's U.S. theme parks. Another reason to go there! But let's address a concern that some people use an excuse not to travel. Based on your experience, do you see a difference in the safety of theme parks in various countries around the world? Where do you feel most safe, and are there any countries where you worry about your safety in a park or on its rides?
Stefan: In America, Europe, Japan, Korea and Australia, for example, I feel very safe. In countries with a GPD/capita of below US$2000, or in places where men stare, I don't. But why tremble? I ride everything. If I die on a coaster, or better yet, on a dark ride, what a great end!
Robert: (Laughing.) Okay, let's take down some more barriers. What mistakes do "rookie" international travelers make that hurt their enjoyment of traveling, and what should they do to avoid them?
Stefan: Rookie or not, if you REALLY want to travel, travel alone. If you travel with your family, partner, friends, group or you bring any kind of comfort-zone with you, you probably won't grow much through your travels. You just take an expedition out of your living room, with your living room. If you leave everything and everyone at home that defines you as the person you are at home, you will travel and rediscover yourself at the same time.
Robert: Wise advice. And let's not forget that traveling along allows you to take full advantage of single rider lines! Wrapping up here, what's your best argument to encourage theme park fans, especially Americans, to travel more?
Stefan: You are so so lucky. You just need to apply at the post office and get a passport. You have visa-free travel to most of the world's countries, including those with high theme-park density, e.g. Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain and the UAE. Africans, Arabs, Indians and Chinese can't travel the way you can. They have to apply for visas to nearly every country in the world, one by one. Traveling is a tragedy for them, sometimes coupled with humiliation. Americans just book a trip online, and off you go.
I know you've got two big oceans on both sides separating you from the all the other continents packed with great theme parks, and that makes travel neither convenient nor cheap. But "Round-the-World" trips can be bought for a few thousand dollars, and you will see everything at once (and come back a different person). Theme park fan or not, if you can afford to travel, but you don't, you will miss incredibly much -- excruciatingly, incredibly much. Don't wait for someone to invite you or to drag you off the couch. (And take a look at themetours.com -- I have posted all my travel tools and experiences there. That might save you a little fortune.)
Robert: I suspect I know what your answer to this question will be, but I will ask it anyway. For an American theme park fan deciding whether to cross the Atlantic and visit Europe, or to cross the Pacific and visit Asia, which direction would you recommend? Where would theme park fans find the higher quality attractions and better value?
Stefan: Definitely Asia. But again, as an American I would take Round-the-World tickets, and do both in one go. The price may not differ much from what you pay for a return trip to Asia or Europe, especially if your itinerary includes several destinations on either continent. I can recall buying a RTW ticket for some $2,400 or less when I lived in London back in 2009. And that included Europe, Asia, Australia and America.
Robert: Thanks, Stefan. I look forward to reading more of your reports, and perhaps running into you again at another theme park premiere somewhere around the world.
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