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May 2013

Transformers soft-opens in Orlando; Simpsons next, this weekend

By Robert Niles
Published: May 31, 2013 at 9:09 AM

Transformers: The Ride 3D soft-opened to park visitors at Universal Studios Florida, in Orlando, for the first time last night. A Theme Park Insider reader who got on the ride right after it opened emailed his observations:

Optimus Prime in Orlando

The Orlando version is similar to the Hollywood version. If my eyes did not deceive me, this version also uses an elevator system similar to the one California's version uses. I believe that the lift occurs in the 3rd room where you first encounter Optimus Prime. Top notch graphics, incredibly realistic. Everyone that I observed coming off the ride seemed impressed. I'm just impressed that they built such a great ride in about a one year's time.

In terms of differences, there was a slightly different line queue layout and an Optimus Prime figure on top of the line queue entrance. I did not see any in-ride differences. That being said, it has been a year since I went on the California version so I might not of noticed the in-ride differences.

My one critique, which I think has been mentioned before by others, is that the ride building sticks out like a sore thumb. However it bears saying that one has to prefer the amazing E-ticket ride that doesn't quite fit in with the surrounding theme, over an empty Xena & Hercules building.

Like I said in my earlier email, all the screens seemed to work perfectly and the ride ran flawlessly while I was in line and on the ride. Transformers was fast paced and fun, just like the California version. A welcome and much needed addition to Universal Studios Florida. In my opinion, it is an equal to the Forbidden Journey next door. The perfect appetizer before theme park goers get a taste of the new Harry Potter Expansion next summer.

Transformers from the air
The Orlando Transformers building

To confirm, the Orlando version of the ride uses the same ride system and layout, down to the same blueprints, as the first two Transformers rides, in Singapore and Hollywood. Since Universal had built this identical ride twice before in the past few years, that certainly helped speed the construction cycle in Orlando, where Universal went from project green light to completed ride in just about one year. But let's not discount that accomplishment -- that development schedule for an attraction of this magnitude is just insane in today's business. Universal threw big coin at making this happen -- fast -- and now its visitors will get to enjoy the result this summer.

If you're looking for more detail about the ride, Universal Creative ride designer Thierry Coup first talked abut Transformers in-depth with us in Singapore in December 2011. (Warning about that link if you haven't ridden: Spoilers abound!) In addition, we reviewed the Transformers ride when it first opened in Singapore, too.

Transformers Orlando opens officially on June 20, and we're planning to have someone there to cover the festivities in the park that morning. In the meantime, though, Transformers isn't the only soft-opening happening this weekend at Universal Studios Florida.

Universal team members have been telling park visitors that the Simpsons-themed restaurants in the park's new Springfield land will open this weekend, as well. So if you are in the park this weekend and get your hands on a Krusty Burger, Duff Beer, or other Simpsons-themed food or drink, please submit a comment below, or drop us an email (themeparkinsider@gmail.com) describing it. Your fellow readers thank you for the report.

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Vote of the week: Aquatica opens in San Diego, so let's talk water parks

By Robert Niles
Published: May 30, 2013 at 7:40 PM

SeaWorld San Diego will open its Aquatica water park Saturday (June 1), following its acquisition and multi-million-dollar rebuild of the former Soak City water park in Chula Vista. San Diego is the third of the three SeaWorld parks to get an Aquatica water park, following San Antonio last year and the original in Orlando in 2008. Unlike the other two, San Diego's Aquatica will be located miles from its sister SeaWorld park -- the weather's much more hospitable to a water park in warmer, inland Chula Vista than at the sometimes-chilly and overcast Mission Bay, where SeaWorld San Diego is located.

Here's the line-up of attractions at Aquatica San Diego:


  • Whanau Way: A 60-foot water slide complex featuring six slides, four enclosed and two open air.
  • HooRoo Run: Two enclosed and two open-air slides down this 80-foot ride.
  • Woohoo Falls: Three water slides, including one in the dark.
  • Kiwi Curl: Three 60-foot water slides, with an option of sliding in the dark.
  • Walhalla Wave: This 78-foot ride is designed for families to enjoy together (height requirement is 42”) in a gigantic tube.
  • Tassie's Twister: Drop down a 75-foot water slide in a multi-person raft through thousands of gallons of swirling water before dropping into a six-story funnel.

Aquatica San Diego
Photo courtesy SeaWorld

Other attractions:

  • Big Surf Shores: A 500,000-gallon wave pools in Southern California, with period swells of up to five feet and a 43,000-square-foot white sandy beach.
  • Loggerhead Lane: Guests can swim or float along in an inner tube down a winding 1,250-foot long lazy river, with more than a dozen Caribbean flamingos on display.
  • Walkabout Waters: This four-story "sprayground" with slides, hoses, jets, and geysers. Every five minutes, a 500-gallon bucket unloads water on everyone below.
  • Kata’s Kookaburra Cove: A children's play area.
  • Slippity Dippity: Kid-sized slides in another family play area, designed for families with toddlers.

A single-day Aquatica ticket is $38 ($30 for kids) online at the Aquatica website. A two-day combo ticket for SeaWorld San Diego and Aquatica is $96 for adults and $88 for children 3-9, also on the website.

How popular will this new park be? The Orlando Aquatica is the nation's third most-popular water park (behind the two Walt Disney World water parks), according to the TEA/AECOM Global Attractions Attendance Report. But with 1.5 million visitors a year, Aquatica lags its sister park, SeaWorld Orlando, which drew 5.2 million visitors in 2011 (the latest year for which data is available.)

Even the most popular water park in the world, Disney's Typhoon Lagoon, at just more than 2 million visitors a year, wouldn't crack the Top 20 for attendance among North American theme parks. But parks can build a world-class waterslide attraction for an order of magnitude less money than a world-class roller coaster would cost. So while water parks attract fewer visitors than traditional theme parks, their lower costs can make them highly profitable.

So the San Diego Aquatica doesn't need to draw SeaWorld San Diego's 4.3 million visitors a year to be a financial success for SeaWorld. But will it be a hit with visitors?

We typically don't cover water parks here on Theme Park Insider (see those attendance numbers above for the reason). But many theme parks offer water parks as part of their entertainment experience. Sometimes, they're included in the cost of a theme park ticket, such as at the popular Holiday World and Splashin' Safari in Indiana. More often, the water park requires an extra admission, though discounted theme park/water park combo tickets are readily available, as with SeaWorld and Aquatica. And, of course, many top water parks aren't affiliated with any theme park, such as the Schlitterbahn water parks in Texas.

What's your take on water parks? Do you usually make a water park part of a theme park visit? Do you visit water parks on their own? Or do you skip water parks in favor of other vacation and entertainment alternatives? That's our vote of the week.

Let's talk water parks, in the comments. And, as always, thank you for reading and being a part of Theme Park Insider!

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The Blog Flume Filter for May 30, 2013

By Jeff Elliott
Published: May 30, 2013 at 12:56 PM

SeaWorld Orlando – While guests may still be flocking to SeaWorld to check out the new Antarctica area, apparently one of the penguins already has had enough and tried to follow the visitors out. According to SeaWorld, the penguin was caught quickly and returned back to its habitat after jumping over the short glass barrier that separates it from the Antarctica ride upload area. But we've heard word that a penguin later was seen in the back of a refrigerated truck traveling west on Interstate 4. Was the penguin trying to rendezvous with his comrades at Busch Gardens? SeaWorld officials also are said to be puzzling over a large open bar tab for slushie drinks and herring cocktails, as well as several collect calls made to McMurdo Station, all billed to someone calling himself "Puck."

Disney's Animal Kingdom - For years, scientists have theorized that a massive asteroid collision wiped out the dinosaurs. Today, we know the truth -- it was gun violence. The truth was revealed when a Disney World visitor found a loaded handgun in a ride vehicle at the Dinosaur ride in Animal Kingdom, left behind by whoever apparently did the terrible deed of shooting all the dinosaurs in the past. Who brings a loaded gun to a theme park? I mean, other than Jungle Cruise skippers, but we've always wondered about them, haven't we?

Disneyland - Now has a opening for its outdoor vending crew. Idiots need not apply.

Knott's Berry Farm - Continuing "Theme Parks Gone Wild" week on the Blog Flume Filter, Knott's Berry Farm this morning hosted local media for an event to reopen a ride that's not actually open. The Timber Mountain Log Ride was supposed to reopen this morning after a $1-million-plus refurb, but, apparently, a million bucks doesn't buy what it used to, such as water to fill the flume.

Dry flume

Knott's still brought out Ethan Wayne, the son of acting legend John Wayne, who originally dedicated the Log Ride in 1969. The younger Wayne reminisced about the original opening day, and then… just left, as there was no log to christen and no ride to ride.

Ethan Wayne
Ethan Wayne points to a photo of himself meeting Walter Knott at the original dedication of the Log Flume, as his father, actor John Wayne, looks on.

It sure looks pretty, though.

Timber Mountain Log Ride

Knott's officials said the ride might be open later today. Or tomorrow.

Six Flags Fiesta Texas – The decorations are already starting to fall off the Iron Rattler, namely the Iron Rattle itself. Maintenance crews immediately removed the rattle from the other train as a precaution before reopening the ride. So the Iron Rattler is now the Iron Rattlerless, which is not really a word and kind of hard to say. Park employees are now looking for another 50-foot rattlesnake to pull the rattle from, as well as enough duct tape and Gorilla Glue to attach it to the coaster train so it won't fall off this time.

Universal Studios Hollywood – Over the last week, an interactive Optimus Prime and Megatron debuted. I don’t know about you, but I keep thinking that he is going to fall over on the kids. I think largely the Optimus Prime works, but the Megatron is just trying too hard to be a bad guy. Maybe if he softened his approach to be more funny instead of insulting it would work better, like if he was out there recruiting instead of menacing. Lines like “Join the Decepticons, we have cookies” would go over really well.

Universal Studios Florida – The park is sending emails out inviting annual passholders to early access on its Transformers ride. The AP sessions are scheduled to start June 9th before the park is opened. Update! Transformers soft-opened to Universal Studios Florida visitors on Thursday evening. And team members are telling park visitors that the Simpsons-themed restaurants in Springfield will open this weekend.

DisneylandMickey and the Magical Map has opened and for those of you who can’t wait we have posted a video below. While I was impressed by the stage and the writing, after taking a quick peek I saw microphone headsets. This then makes me extremely impressed with this show as it seems to indicate that the at least the main actors were not pulling a “pop star” and actually singing their parts on stage. Based on some of the chorus sounds it seems like the back ground singers actually were singing as well. Paint me very impressed as a show like this needs at least two talented people for every part and the quality of this show is very high. Maybe you might want to pass on the video and just go see it for yourself.

Mt. Olympus – Hades has a new trick. The Wisconsin Dells amusement park has added a barrel roll to this wooden roller-coaster tribute to the underworld. Also added to the ride? Animatronics in the "underworld" tunnels, representing the PR teams at Knott's, Disney and SeaWorld, who really wish this week from hell would be over.

We have a contest this week courtesy of Monsters U and Disney’s marketing department. Post your answers in the talkback below. Just a little hint, all of the doors are to places in the Magic Kingdom, and there are repeats.

Magic Kingdom doors
Image courtesy Disney

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Where to eat? Lunch at the Columbia Harbour House at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

By Robert Niles
Published: May 29, 2013 at 11:32 AM

The Columbia Harbour House at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom rejects the theme park standard menu of burgers and pizza in favor of amplifying the New England theme of its Liberty Square setting.

Disney's take on an old-fashioned New England seafood house, the Columbia Harbour House does offer more than its share of fried food -- including fish, shrimp and -- a nod to the landlubber theme park fans -- chicken. But it also serves some fresh-seafood options rarely found in the theme parks.


The Harbour House was my family's favorite place to eat in the Magic Kingdom when I was a child. Back then, the Harbour House served Monte Cristo sandwiches, which reminded us of the Blue Bayou back at Disneyland that we enjoyed so much when we lived in Southern California.

These days, the Monte Cristos are long gone. And I think that the last time I ate at the Harbour House, I was working in the Magic Kingdom and Disney was using the upstairs of the restaurant as a cast cafeteria while the regular employee dining area was being refurbished.

So I decided to make a long-overdue return to the Columbia Harbour House during the 24-hour Monstrous Summer party in the Magic Kingdom last Friday and try a seafood lunch.

Lobster roll and clam chowder
Lobster roll ($9.99) and clam chowder ($4.69).

Disney's lobster roll impresses with its size -- a thick, split New England-style roll stuffed with aggressively dressed lobster meat. It's more than you can wrap your mouth around. I ended up using a fork to pick off some of the lobster from the top until I could handle the rest of the sandwich.

The best lobster rolls I've ever enjoyed have been minimally dressed, with just enough mayonnaise to hold the meat together, and maybe a touch of celery salt to balance the mayo's richness. The Disney lobster roll practically swims in mayonnaise, though, with celery and lettuce added to the mix. Given the price ($9.99) and the size, I suppose you can't expect the roll to deliver that high a percentage of expensive lobster meat. Frankly, I was surprised to find as much lobster as I did in the roll.

But what bothered me was the bun. Disney's lobster roll bun is the right style -- a hot-dog-like bun split on both sides, but it's far too large and fluffy, and worse, not grilled or toasted.

Part of the appeal of the lobster roll is the contrast between the cold lobster meat and the warm buttery roll that encases it. But this is just a mass of untoasted white bread. The texture contrast and buttery accent are absent. At this point, we're talking more lobster salad sandwich than lobster roll.

Granted, I'll take that any day over a standard theme park burger, so I suppose I shouldn't complain too much.

The tastier choice on my lunch plate? The clam chowder ($4.69). Delivering a nice balance of mild clam flavor with a touch of a peppery kick, the chowder would have made a nice lunch on its own, if I hadn't been looking try as many choices as I could cram in my stomach for this review. The clam chowder didn't deliver the transcendent taste of the sea that the scallop chowder at Tokyo Disneyland did for me a year ago, but that was one of the best dishes I've ever eaten in a theme park. Credit Disney for offering soups in many of its parks -- and tasty ones, at that.

I wish I'd had room left to try the grilled salmon, too, but I will leave it to our readers to offer opinions on that dish, in the comments.

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Disneyland evacuates Toontown after possible explosion (*Updated)

By Robert Niles
Published: May 28, 2013 at 6:11 PM

Fire crews are on the scene and visitors are being directed out of the Toontown section at Disneyland after what multiple reports described as an explosion in a trash can in the park.

That's all we know at this time. We welcome reports from theme park visitors at the park, in the comments.

Update: A Los Angeles Times reporter is citing the Anaheim Police as saying that it was a bottle of dry ice blowing up. No injuries reported.

Update 2: And here's your relevant Wikipedia entry on how dry ice in a bottle can explode. Multiple readers have reported that dry ice is readily accessible inside the park, as it is used in ice cream carts to keep items frozen cold. Furthermore, although Disneyland does have a bag check outside the front gate, a former security employee said that dry ice isn't something that would typically be kept from being brought into the park, so long as it appears to be used to cool food items.

Update 3: Disneyland announced at 7:45pm PT that Toontown was declared "all clear" and visitors were invited to return to the area.

Update 4 (Wed): Anaheim police report that they've arrested a Disneyland outdoor vending cast member in connection with the incident, Christian Barnes, 22, of Long Beach. He is being held on $1 million bail. The local ABC affiliate (owned by Disney, FWIW), quotes police saying the suspect "is cooperating with investigators and has indicated that this was an isolated incident with 'unanticipated impacts.'"

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Could SeaWorld's concept art for Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin have set up visitors for disappointment?

By Robert Niles
Published: May 28, 2013 at 10:18 AM

SeaWorld Orlando's largest-ever theme park investment, Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin has opened to huge crowds (with wait times typically exceeding two hours)… and mediocre reviews. Some fans have lauded the ride for its advanced ride system and intricate set detail. But others have ripped it [see comments] for lacking an engaging story and not delivering enough on-ride views of the attraction's stars -- SeaWorld's penguins.

SeaWorld promoted the attraction aggressively, as one would expect given the size of its investment, which park president Terry Prather has called the largest in company history. In addition to the predictable media outreach, SeaWorld tried to appeal directly to fans through social media, including a YouTube series called "Behind the Freeze," in which SeaWorld Creative Director Brian Morrow updated fans on the progress of the new attraction in the months leading to its opening last week.

But could some of SeaWorld's early marketing efforts set the stage for public disappointment in its new ride? Many fans complained the Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin did not meet their expectations. What crafted the expectations that the ride itself failed to meet?

Consider this widely distributed promotional image for Antarctica, which appeared on Theme Park Insider and many other sites around the Internet:

Antarctica promotional image
Concept image courtesy SeaWorld

Looks like fun, doesn't it? You'll ride in open vehicle, through a bright, open, live animal habitat, looking at penguins just a few feet away from you. Sliding across the ice, you might even get a little wet from a splash through water somewhere on the ride. And you'll also get a chance to walk into the animal habitat, getting even closer to the penguins, as the ride vehicles slide around you.

But what we got, instead, was this (skip to 2:10 for the on-ride portion):

The set detail inside the ride provides some stunning visuals:

Frozen waterfall
A frozen waterfall

But spinning through a darkened cavern of icicles and multi-colored rocks isn't what the concept image for the ride suggested:

Antarctica rie vehicle in action

You don't see live penguins on the ride until the very end, and they're not out on the ice with you, but kept instead behind a floor-to-ceiling panel of glass. Riders will get the chance to get closer to the penguins, without a barrier between them, but only after exiting the ride.

SeaWorld's Antarctica penguins

SeaWorld's wisely timed the lighting inside the penguin habitat to approximate light levels in the real Antarctica. But in late May, that means a darkened environment for almost all of the day for the penguins -- not the bright setting that the park's promotional images portrayed.

All this goes to show the risk that parks accept when they issue concept art for their upcoming attractions. Disney's John Hench was the master at creating such images, painting deceptively vague, impressionistic scenes that appeared to show great detail but in fact revealed little.

SeaWorld showed its future visitors photorealistic detail in its promotional images for Antarctica -- details that did appear in the ride and its surrounding land, but not in the context relative to one another that visitors saw in that promotional image. That created expectations for an experience that the ride did not deliver, perhaps setting up many of those visitors for disappointment.

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Top theme parks look to win visitors with new attractions for Summer 2013

By Robert Niles
Published: May 27, 2013 at 9:38 PM

Theme parks around the world have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on new attractions that have debuted over the past 12 months. But which are the new rides and shows that will appeal most to theme park fans and their families?

Let's take a look at some of the top new dark rides, roller coasters and live shows that have premiered since July 1, 2102 at the top-attended theme parks we cover here on Theme Park Insider. These rides and shows represent popular entertainment franchises such as Sesame Street and DreamWorks' Madagascar, as well as original new characters, including Henry Mystic of Hong Kong Disneyland's Mystic Manor and Puck the Penguin from SeaWorld Orlando's Antarctica.

For each new attraction, we've included a link to its listing page here on Theme Park Insider, which includes readers' ratings and reviews for that ride or show. In addition, below each new attraction's name, we've embedded a video of that ride or show, so you can experience these new attractions for yourself online, if you've not yet had the chance to experience them in person.

But if you have seen some of these new attractions in person, please click on the names of those attractions to submit a rating (and, if you're a registered site member, a review) for those rides and shows. Our readers' ratings will determine which attraction wins the Theme Park Insider Award for the Best New Attraction of the year, to be announced on July 4, 2013.

Dark Rides

In addition to the rides listed below, we're expecting Transformers: The Ride 3D to soft-open this week at Universal Studios Florida, in advance of its official opening on June 20. The same ride debuted at Universal Studios Singapore in December 2011 and at Universal Studios Hollywood in May 2012, so we're not counting Transformers among this year's new attractions. (In fact, it won the Theme Park Insider Award for Best New Attraction in 2012.)

Transformers: The Ride 3D at Universal Studios Florida

Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin at SeaWorld Orlando (Reviewed by Robert Niles)

Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem at Universal Studios Florida (Reviewed by Domenik Jost)

Mystic Manor at Hong Kong Disneyland (Previewed by Robert Niles)

Sesame Street: Spaghetti Space Chase at Universal Studios Singapore

Roller Coasters

Six Flags Magic Mountain has not yet announced an opening date for its new coaster, Full Throttle, so we can't confirm it on the list of new attractions that will debut by June 30 of this year. But here are five other coasters that have or will have had their official opening by the start of summer.

Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars at Hong Kong Disneyland (Previewed by Robert Niles)

Coast Rider at Knott's Berry Farm

Gatekeeper at Cedar Point (Reviewed by Jim Koehl)

Iron Rattler at Six Flags Fiesta Texas

Outlaw Run at Silver Dollar City (Reviewed by James Rao)

Live Shows

In addition to the shows listed below, most regional amusement parks roll out new stage shows, parades and/or fireworks presentations each season.

Enchanted Tales with Belle at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

Fantasy Faire Royal Theatre at Disneyland (Note that the Tangled show shown below rotates in performance with a Beauty and the Beast show.)

Madagascar Live! Operation Vacation at Busch Gardens Tampa (Reviewed by TH Creative)

Mickey & the Magical Map at Disneyland (Reviewed by M. Ryan Traylor)

Now that you've had a chance to look at these new attractions, we'd love to hear which ones most appeal to you. Which of these live shows, roller coasters and themed rides will be the ones that endure as popular theme park attractions for years to come? Cast your votes below, and please let us know your thoughts about these new attractions, in the comments.

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A preview of Busch Gardens Williamsburg's Food and Wine Festival

By Russell Meyer
Published: May 27, 2013 at 6:15 PM

Busch Gardens Williamsburg has been known for serving a variety of foods authentic to the park's European theme. The Virginia theme park integrates its food into the guest experience, and any trip to Busch Gardens is not complete without a taste. However, in 2013, Busch Gardens is taking on quite a challenge by launching a Food and Wine Festival. The event has been rumored for a number of years, and there's no doubt that the increasing success of the Epcot Food and Wine Festival at Walt Disney World provided some level of inspiration for this inaugural event. The park announced the event at March's Passholder Preview Day, and the anticipation for the event has been growing ever since. Information has been slowly released through the park's website, and festival booths have been popping up around the park over the past few weeks. In advance of the May 31, 2013 official opening of the event (which runs on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through June 23), I was invited to represent Theme Park Insider at the park's media preview of the festival.

The preview presented a select sampling of the dishes that will be available at kiosks scattered around the park. The dishes were presented as a multi-course menu by Resident Chef Justin Watson, who is the culinary driver behind most of the dishes that guests will be able to sample during the festival. Much like the Epcot Food and Wine Festival, dishes and beverages will be served at kiosks/booths scattered throughout the park theme to a specific European country: Scotland, Ireland, Scandinavia, Canada, Austria, Belgium, France, Italy, Spain, Greece, and Germany, along with Crepes & Coffee and German Beer kiosks. The food will range in price from $3 - $7. I was not provided with a full price list, but an example menu at the Crepes & Coffee kiosk indicated a price of $4.99 for three different varieties of crepe. Alcoholic beverages on the menu were listed in the $6 to $9 range, and include beers, wines, mixed drinks, and liquors appropriate to each country.

BGF&W 113

Chef Watson prepared six dishes for the preview event which demonstrated the wide range of cuisines guests can expect from the Festival. The menu
started off with a Tapas Platter, which will be served at the Spain kiosk.

BGF&W 102

This dish consists of a serving of paprika-roasted Marcona Almonds, a marinated olive medley, and a wedge of Manchego Cheese topped with Membrillo (quince paste). I'm not a huge olive fan, but really enjoyed the ones presented on this plate. Chef Watson noted that he really enjoys making Mediterranean cuisine, and the presence of Spain and Greece along with the obvious inclusions of Italy and France on the Festival Menu plays right into his wheelhouse. The cheese on the Tapas Platter was relatively mild but creamy, and very interesting combined with the sweet Membrillo. The almonds were simply amazing, and reminded me of some flavored Macadamia nuts I sampled a few years ago in Hawaii.

The second course of our preview menu was a Chilled Pea Soup, which can be found at the Scotland kiosk.

BGF&W 103

Chef Watson explained that typically pea soup in Scotland is served warm, but because of the timing of the Festival in early summer, he chose to put a spin on the recipe by creating a cold soup. The soup not only contains peas, but also spinach, which is pureed into the soup and gives it its distinctive color. The soup is topped with a minted cream that accented the dish very well. However, I was expecting a soup that was a little thicker. The flavors were all nice, but the texture wasn't quite what I expected.

The third course was a simple Greek Salad, which will be served at the Greece kiosk.

BGF&W 104

This dish was pretty simple with cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, Kalamata olives, and green peppers marinated in lemon oregano vinaigrette before being tossed with lettuce. The salad is finished with feta cheese crumbles and a really tasty crispy pita chip. This was the one dish previewed that I wondered how it would work in a festival environment. It's a really simple dish, and I'm not sure if theme park guests will be willing to pay for a little salad that doesn't contain any unique ingredients (perhaps some pepperoncinis or fancier olives would elevate the dish).

The fourth course was a spin on a traditional mussel dish. Chef Watson explained that they had originally envisioned serving a traditional Belgian-style mussel dish with butter cream sauce, but the decision was made to take a more classical French approach to a mussel dish by presenting the shellfish simmered in a tomato fennel broth. The Moules Provencales avec Rouille will be available in the France kiosk.

BGF&W 106

The New Zealand mussels, which are much larger than east coast or Pacific Northwest varieties, soak up the broth like a sponge. The mussels are accompanied by a crouton covered with a lemon saffron mayonnaise. The flavors in this dish were well developed, but I would have preferred the dish served in a bowl with a little more of the broth.

The fifth course, a traditional Austrian Paprikash, was the highlight of the preview menu for me.

BGF&W 107

The dish is a sweet paprika chicken stew that features predominantly dark meat, which increases the tenderness and absorbs the delectable flavors in the stew. The plate is topped with a sour cream sauce that cuts the acidity of the stew perfectly. Of all the dishes sampled during the preview event, this was the dish that I would definitely try again after the Festival starts next week.

The menu was completed with a home-style Tiramisu that will be served out of the Italy kiosk.

BGF&W 112

There was nothing earth-shattering about this dessert, but it was well executed with plenty of espresso flavor in the lady fingers and a subtly sweet mascarpone cheese mixture. The dish was a fine ending to a well-executed menu, and demonstrates what guests can put together touring around Busch Gardens on June weekends.

Following the preview menu, we were invited to participate in an interesting wine tasting. The park has recently installed wine tasting stations around the park in Italy, France, and Germany, and during the festival, they will feature blind taste comparisons between European wines and their Virginia counterparts. Busch Gardens worked with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and a number of Virginia wineries to offer their wines, as well as presentations by their winemakers on select days throughout the Festival. The Festival will feature other special events including: cooking demonstrations, lessons, VIP tours, a Wine cruise on the Rhine River, and a new interactive grape stomping show in San Marco.

BGF&W 114

For an inaugural event, Busch Gardens is shooting for the moon. The logistics of an event like this are extremely complicated. The park is utilizing many of their existing kitchen facilities to prepare dishes that are finished by expeditors in each kiosk. Chef Watson noted that the saucier that developed many of the sauces and broths for the dishes would likely be arriving at the park between 2 and 4 AM to begin preparations for the day, since regular park chefs would be using most of the kitchen equipment during normal park hours. Anyone who has attended the Epcot Food and Wine Festival could probably appreciate the amount of effort and planning that goes into the event, and that is in a park that already has world-class chefs, ample kitchen staff, and facilities and equipment spread all over the park and backstage areas.

BGF&W 105

For theme park guests that have experienced Epcot's Food and Wine Festival, I think they will see a lot of similarities between Walt Disney World's extremely successful event and what Busch Gardens is attempting. The scale of Busch Gardens' event is not quite as expansive as what Epcot puts on every fall, but for a first time event, I think the park is really putting on something special. Park officials are putting on a grand event that is spread across the entire park with foods of varying complexity. The vision is quite grand, and it will be interesting to see if they find success, because if guests support and gravitate to this event, it can be a successful annual event for many years to come.

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Plan your day at Disney's Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World

By Robert Niles
Published: May 26, 2013 at 9:19 PM

Walt Disney World added Disney's Animal Kingdom to its theme park lineup in 1998, providing Disney with a competitor to the Busch Garden theme park in Tampa, which long has featured live animal exhibits. Disney's Animal Kingdom also puts the spotlight on wildlife, with several attractions devoted to the animals of Africa and Asia.

The Tree of Life at Disney's Animal Kingdom
The Tree of Life at Disney's Animal Kingdom

What to do before you go

Please see our guide to the Magic Kingdom for advice on booking hotels and buying tickets to the Walt Disney World Resort and its four theme parks. Advance dining reservations are not essential at Disney's Animal Kingdom, but if you have the cash, you might consider booking a guided wildlife tour for part of your day in the park.

For the closest look at the park's wildlife, book the Wild Africa Trek, a three-hour guided tour through the park's Safi River Valley, where you'll walk on a rope bridge over hippos and crocodiles, then ride in a safari vehicle to see rhinos, giraffes and other African animals. The tour includes photographs of your expedition, taken by a Disney photographer, as well as an African-inspired gourmet breakfast or lunch. It's not cheap -- $189 per person, and you must be at least 8 years old and 48 inches tall to participate. Call +1-407-WDW-TOUR or visit Disney's website to book in advance of your visit.

When planning which day to visit Disney's Animal Kingdom, note that the park closes earlier than the other Walt Disney World theme parks, usually at 7 or 8pm, even during the busy summer months. So many visitors with park-hopper passes choose to spend the rest of the evening in another park. To beat the crowds early in the morning, choose to visit on a day when the park is not offering early admission to Disney hotel guests through the Extra Magic Hours program. On those days, you might find long waits for the park's most popular rides even by the time the park opens to "regular" visitors. Check Disney's website for operating hours.

What to do when you get to Disney's Animal Kingdom

Disney's Animal Kingdom is the largest and most remote from the three other Disney World theme parks. There's no monorail or boat service connecting Animal Kingdom to the other parks -- you'll have to drive or take a bus to get there. Like all Disney World theme parks, it's $14 to park, but your parking pass is good for the rest of the day at all four parks, so you can come and go as you please without having to pay again for parking.

Given Animal Kingdom's immense size -- 580 acres -- you'll need to ask yourself if you think it worth the time and effort to spend 20 minutes or more walking back and forth across the park to reduce your wait for a particular attraction. Disney's Animal Kingdom includes fewer than 20 attractions, only about half of which earn high ratings from Theme Park Insider readers. Three recommended attractions are walking trails that never have a wait, and three others are shows, one of which runs continuously with rarely more than a short wait between performances. Get a show schedule when you enter the park, and check the show times for the Finding Nemo -- the Musical and Festival of the Lion King shows, as they run at specific times during the day and you'll need to show up at least 30 minutes before their show times to get seats.

Expedition Everest
Expedition Everest

Ideally, start your day with Kilimanjaro Safaris. Animal Kingdom's animals tend to be much more active in the cooler mornings than in the often hot and humid afternoons. A perfect visiting plan would have you continue around the park from there, clockwise, visiting the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail and Maharajah Jungle Trek, before riding Expedition Everest, watching the Finding Nemo show, riding Dinosaur, then wrapping up with the It's Tough to Be a Bug and Festival of the Lion King shows. If it's a hot day, and you're in the mood to get wet, cut back across the bridge from Discovery Island to Asia after the Nemo or It's Tough to be a Big shows to throw in a mid-day ride on the Kali River Rapids.

The one problem with that itinerary is that it puts you in the Everest queue after it's built up to a long wait on most days. Here are your potential solutions:

  1. Use FastPass+ to reserve a mid- to late-morning ride time on Everest, if you have access to FastPass+
  2. Swing by Everest when the park opens to get traditional FastPasses, before cutting across Asia and Africa to ride Kilimanjaro Safaris.
  3. Break up your group and use the single rider line to cut your wait time on Everest.
  4. Visit during the school year when the Everest stand-by line stays under 30 minutes throughout the day.

Options 1, 3, and 4 are best if you want to minimize walking around this huge park. Everest's single rider line tends to move swiftly. It's not as quick as the Fastpass return queue, but you're not stuck with an inflexible ride time, either, so we'd recommend using the single rider option if you don't have small children in your group who need a reassuring parent or older sibling with whom to ride.

In general, attractions in this park have better-than-average capacity and none of the major attractions here ever gets an insufferable wait, so seeing everything worth seeing before the park closes shouldn't be too difficult.

Where to eat

Theme Park Insider readers' favorite restaurant at Disney's Animal Kingdom is the counter-service Flame Tree Barbecue, located near the center of the park in Discovery Island. It's also conveniently located if you're using our touring plan described above, as you can dine there before or after the Nemo or It's Tough to Be a Bug! shows.

Readers also give high marks to two table-service restaurants that accept advance dining reservations: The Tusker House Restaurant in Africa, which offers a character buffet with Donald Duck at breakfast and lunch, and the Yak and Yeti restaurant in Asia. Call +1-407-WDW-DINE or visit Disney World's website to book.

What's Next?

Disney's announced that it will be a major new land for Disney's Animal Kingdom, based on James Cameron's Avatar. That land will replace the current Camp Mickey-Minnie land, and the Festival of the Lion King show will move to a new theater in the park's Africa section to make way for Avatar. No opening date has been set.

We have updated this post since it was first published, in response to reader comments.

Next week: Disney's Hollywood Studios


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The Blog Flume Filter for May 25, 2013

By Jeff Elliott
Published: May 25, 2013 at 8:56 AM

So while our editor Robert's been in Orlando, enjoying his VIP early ride access to new attractions, the Blog Flume Filter's been languishing in his email in box, completely forgotten. That's it. I've had enough. In the spirit of Robert's new-found love for Hyperspace Hoopla, I'm challenging him to a "Blog Off with the Blog Flume Bloggers." Robert's had his go, with all his goodness and happiness and magic and stuff. Now it's time to turn to the dark side of theme park news.

Shanghai Disneyland – There are rumors that a new ride film is being worked on for Soarin' Shanghai Disneyland that would feature an international set of famous landmarks. The rumor continues to say that right after Shanghai opens, the other Soarin's might receive the new ride film as well, sometime around mid-2016. The real question here is whether or not there are going to be other improvements to the attraction. I would think that the new film would be a good excuse to install a new state of the art projection system. There have also been rumors about some kind of tie-in with the Disney's Planes movie, but as I would consider that more of a short-term upgrade than a long-term integration, I doubt they would adjust the ride film at all. And since the best part of the ride was Kronk's preshow, I would be extremely irritated if they did away with that.

Mystoc Manor

Hong Kong Disneyland – For those of you who are interested in track layouts and how ride systems work, the following video plots out where the vehicles are in the ride house of Mystic Manor with a split screen for two different cars. It is purely geekdom, but I have to admit that I already watched it twice.

If that wasn't geek enough for you, Ride Sims already has a Ride Op Simulator for Mystic Manor...feel free to check it out and be completely frustrated by it here: ridesims.com/simulations/mystic-manor

Marvel Universe – There were some rumors that Disney was trying to get Spiderman back from Sony to include him in one of the future Avengers movies. The co-chair of Sony Pictures emphatically denied that they would ever let go of Spiderman. There is also the regular rumor that IOA is going to give up the Marvel characters…sure…wake me up when Disney pulls out the fat wad of cash. But there are thousands of Marvel characters! So Disney can't use the big ones that everyone already knows about. Big deal. Isn't Disney the single largest promotion vehicle in the world, or not? Get some other characters and make people like them. Iron Man was nobody until they started the current run of movies. Do that, but with other characters. Disney has only about 8,983 more Marvel characters to use.

Alton Towers – The Smiler hit a snag on its media day and stranded journalists on the lift hill for about a half-hour. All I can say is: it's too bad Robert wasn't one of them.

Europa Park – We just got word the this park is working on a new land called Kingdom of the Invisibles with a unique dark ride made by Mack rides (go figure, Mack owns the park). After following up on this news tip we found that Kingdom of the Invisibles has been open for several months already, but no one has been able to find it.

Six Flags Great America – Backwards ride = new ride! At least that is what Six Flags management thinks. Therefore, in addition to Batman and American Eagle running backwards, they say to expect Viper to run backwards sometime in the future. If this gets anymore out of control, you are going to have to drive into the parking lot going backwards and instead of getting a meal at a counter, you'll have to fill a plate yourself, and then turn it in at the counter, which is what most theme park food makes me feel like doing anyway.

Nurburgring – It looks like we weren't wrong when we said that Ring Racer would open this year. It looks to have a scheduled opening date of July 7th.

Dorney Park – The locals (who had absolutely no idea how close their were living to a major amusement park) are now all in a tizzy about fireworks displays every night during the summer. Come on… It's not like theme park visitors are launching garbage in the neighbor's yards…although if they keep making a fuss, I think I just came up with a new attraction for Dorney Park.

American Dream at the Meadowlands – Halle-freakin'-luiah, this park finally made over the biggest hurdle in order to get it back on track despite the objections of the New York Giants and New York Jets football teams. First things first. WHY oh WHY are they both called NEW YORK teams when they both share a stadium in NEW JERSEY? I think I have the answer for this: It is because these two teams are such [obscenity deleted] that they [obscenity deleted] with their [obscenity deleted] that New York kicked them out and told them to never come back. Here is the part that everyone wants to hear: The American Dream complex will have an amusement park and an indoor water park at the very least, not to mention a large theater complex, although I don't know the status on the once proposed indoor skiing facility. The building has been sitting and rotting since the first developer abandoned the project after it was about 75% completed, but the new developer has bigger plans.

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A great day to be a theme park fan

By Robert Niles
Published: May 24, 2013 at 1:18 PM

ORLANDO -- The Memorial Day weekend unofficially kicks off the summer vacation season in the United States, so theme parks often use the weekend to launch new attractions and promotions. But the nation's top theme parks outdid themselves this year, with a fusillade of fun on both coasts.

We start this morning in Orlando, where Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom kicked off its "Monstrous Summer All-Nighter" 24-hour party at 6am. Guests arriving before that hour got a treat from Mickey at the park's toll booths -- free parking! Once across the Seven Seas Lagoon, media floodlights illuminated the park's iconic train station.

The Magic Kingdom

Crowds were slow to fill the park as the sun dawned over its attractions, including the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, under construction in the New Fantasyland expansion.

New Fantasyland, at dawn

But let's not dawdle too long in the Magic Kingdom. We've got a date at SeaWorld Orlando. At 8:45 this morning, the park officially opened its new Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin attraction to the public, launch the ride with a live rendition of its theme song from country singer Lauren Alaina.

Lauren Alaina an her band, at SeaWorld Orlando

As visitors rushed into the new ride at 9am, eventually pushing it to a five-hour wait, we'll switch focus to the west coast, where it was 6am, and the California edition of the "Monstrous Summer All-Nighter" 24-hour party was just getting underway.

The first riders on Antarctica
The first riders on SeaWorld's Antarctica

Our M. Ryan Traylor covered the press preview of the new Mickey and the Magical Map musical at Disneyland last night, and stayed over to watch the crowd assemble in Anaheim.

Morning crowds at Disneyland

He shot this fun time-lapse of the crowd massing around the Disney California Adventure gate,

As well as this panorama shot of an empty New Orleans Square.

New Orleans Square panorama
Click for a larger version.

While Disneyland guests streamed into the two California parks, back in Orlando, we were on our way back to Walt Disney World, to visit highlights in all four of the parks before the end of the day.

Spaceship Earth at Epcot

At Epcot, you'd asked me to visit Test Track, to offer my opinion on this ride, which recently opened in its new format.

Test Track

I like the Tron-like wireframe look of the new version, along with its nod toward involving riders with some interactivity. (You help select automobile design features that will be "tested" along the way as you ride through the Test Track.) With so much design done on computers these days, I found Test Track a welcome update of the original, though, as I noted on Twitter, I still wouldn't turn down the chance to ride once again the World of Motion attraction that Test Track replaced.

From Epcot, it's on to Disney's Animal Kingdom, where you suggested a ride on Expedition Everest.

Expedition Everest

So I thought I'd bring you along with me:

The "Disco Yeti" continues to appear to have become a permanent feature on this ride, as Disney's made no effect to repair and reanimate the massive Yeti animatronic within the mountain. So strobe lights flash continue to flash on it to create an illusion of movement (thus the "Disco Yeti" nickname).

Many theme park fans had hoped that Universal Orlando would jump into the mix today by soft-opening its Transformers: The Ride 3-D today, as well. Universal stepped on SeaWorld's big media premiere for Antarctica yesterday with its public confirmation of a new Simpsons-themed "Springfield" street to come this summer. But as of mid-afternoon, insiders were telling us that a soft open of the ride wouldn't come until next week. So my quest to ride Transformers in Singapore, Hollywood and Orlando, all before their public openings, appears to have failed. At least for now.

Following our advice for theme park visitors, I'm taking a mid-afternoon break, but will return to the parks this evening to visit Star Wars Weekend at Disney's Hollywood Studios.

Update: Just got back from Hollywood Studios, and I'm calling it a night. But Hyperspace Hoopla was worth the trip to Orlando. It's wonderful silliness -- pure fun.

Gangham Style
The Star Wars Stars dance "Gangham Style."

I know the knock on Hyperspace Hoopla -- that it's not respectful of the Star Wars characters. But that implies a definition of "respect" that turns on maintaining a rigorous narrative discipline within the franchise.

Jedi Mickey
Jedi Mickey dances the show to a close.

But there's a deeper form of respect, one that transcend intellect. And it's the love that this audience feels toward these Star Wars characters. Sure, we can respect their movies (well, most of them), but this is a love that also allows us to get silly, throw away our roles and just enjoy spending time together, even doing absurd things. Just like a family. As the Palaptine character said at the beginning of the show, "Are you really going to complain about logistics in a show that had Amidala dancing with Leia?"

Indeed. Just watch, and feel the love. (I didn't bother trying to record tonight's show -- I just wanted to enjoy it. So here's the video from Matt Roseboom's crew at Attractions Magazine, recorded last week.)

Have a great weekend, everyone. And whatever you do, take some time to feel the love.

How are you celebrating this holiday weekend? Please tell us your theme park travel plans, in the comments.

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Show Review - Mickey and the Magical Map at Disneyland

By M. Ryan Traylor
Published: May 24, 2013 at 2:24 AM

Disneyland has a brand new stage show, opening on May 25th at the Fantasyland Theatre.

In Mickey and the Magical Map, our hero, a mischievous Mickey Mouse, gets into a spot of trouble when he tries to be more than just an apprentice. The sorcerer has been working on a magical painting of a special map that will take dreamers to wherever they can imagine and it’s almost finished. Mickey decides that he can just fill in that one last spot and that’s when he starts his magical journey.

Mickey and Yensid
Mickey and the Sorcerer – Yen Sid

Mickey and the Magical Map takes the audience through a series of Disney films. First we meet King Louie from The Jungle Book. Next was a trio of princesses: Pocahontas, Mulan and Rapunzel. From there we are whisked under the sea with Sebastian. We come back to shore for an animated song and dance from Lilo & Stitch. Then Princess Tiana and her riverboat close the show.



The story structure is similar to Mickey’s Philharmagic across the country at Magic Kingdom, but unlike that attraction, this is a live show. Don’t worry, it’s still in 3D. Rounding out the cast of Disney characters is an ensemble chorus of singers and dancers and a live trumpet player who joins Louis and Tiana.

MMM is a nice addition to the Disneyland park, giving guests an opportunity to see a live show during the day. The only other daytime main stage show currently running is Aladdin at DCA. With this show, Disney also brings a diverse cast, showcasing four princesses of different ethnicities. Whereas Aladdin could have a small audience based on their taste, MMM reaches out to a greater range of viewers.

The Magical Map is the great technology winner of the show, with 35,000 square inches of LED screen surface. The choreography of live action and animation were perfectly in sync, especially as Mickey descends into the painting. To get the best view of the entire map, don’t sit in the front section. Be sure to grab a seat on one of the many rear benches. The close seats are slight obstructed due to the design of the map’s platforms. You won’t miss any of the live performance, but the map won’t line up perfectly between its sections.

The Map
Mickey and the Sorcerer – Yen Sid

Magical Map isn’t intended to be nighttime spectacular. If you’re looking for effects and fireworks, you’ll need to wait until the sun goes down in Anaheim. This show is just a wonderful mix of some of the greatest hits from Disney history.

Magical Map is shown in the newly renovated Fantasyland Theatre. Prior to this show, this area was used as the Princess Fantasy Faire for a Disney Princess meet and greet. You can now meet the princesses over at the new Fantasy Faire, open now and located just to the left of the Sleeping Beauty’s Castle on the old location of the Carnation Plaza. You can also see the tales of Belle and Rapunzel at the Royal Theatre in Fantasy Faire.

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Universal Orlando confirms new Simpsons land for this summer

By Robert Niles
Published: May 23, 2013 at 11:11 AM

Universal Orlando today confirmed that it's building a Simpsons-themed Springfield street to open this summer at Universal Studios Florida.

Concept art of Universal Studios Florida's Springfield. Image courtesy Universal.

From the press release:

The expansive, new area within Universal Studios will be anchored by the mega-attraction, The Simpsons Ride, and will allow guests to enter the world of The Simpsons like never before. It will be the only place in the world where guests can walk the streets of Springfield. It will include a brand-new outdoor attraction, places and foods pulled right from the show and two new Simpsons characters who will make their debut with the new area – Krusty the Clown and Sideshow Bob.

And yes – there will be Duff Beer, brewed exclusively for Universal Orlando.

For the first time ever – anywhere – fans will be able to walk down Fast Food Boulevard and visit the places that helped Springfield stake its claim as “Shelbyville by the Sea.” They will be able to grab a Krusty-certified meat sandwich at Krusty Burger, snatch the catch of the day at the Frying Dutchman, get a slice at Luigi’s Pizza, go nuts for donuts at Lard Lad, enjoy a “Taco Fresho” with Bumblebee Man and imbibe at Moe’s Tavern.

The new attraction – called Kang & Kodos’ Twirl ‘n’ Hurl – will take “foolish humans” on an intergalactic spin designed to send them into orbit.

So the big rival to Butterbeer turns out to be... Duff Beer? Universal's Springfield development illustrates the power that food can play in themed environments -- the various food brands in The Simpsons are as much a part of the narrative of Springfield as anything else in town, much as the food served as such an evocative element in Harry Potter. But how will Duff Beer and Krusty Burgers taste? We will have to wait until this summer to find out.

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Ride review - Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin at SeaWorld Orlando

By Robert Niles
Published: May 23, 2013 at 7:23 AM

ORLANDO -- Twenty-one years after SeaWorld blended dark rides and live animal exhibits to take visitors to the North Pole with Wild Arctic, SeaWorld Orlando's completed the journey to the other side of the world.

Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin brings SeaWorld visitors to the South Pole for a unique ride adventure through the lives of a colony of penguins. Built amidst SeaWorld's largest-ever capital expenditure, Antarctica is set within an impressive vista of rock and ice, under a rockwork icon of a mother and child penguin.

Antarctica ride entrance at SeaWorld Orlando

Upon entering the ride, you begin your adventure with a two-minute pre-show, introducing you to a Gentoo penguin couple, standing guard over their egg as a storm approaches. It's the last egg in the colony to hatch this year, but will it hatch in time? The answer comes quickly -- yes, and we meet the center of our attention for the rest of the ride, young Puck the Penguin.

After this introduction, we're ushered into another waiting area, where we can select a "mild" or "wild" adventure. You'll be riding in unique trackless motion base vehicles from Oceaneering, the same firm that created the ride vehicles for Universal's Transformers and Spider-Man and Disney's Indiana Jones rides. The difference between wild and mild comes down to how much the ride vehicles spin on your adventure through the ice caverns of Antarctica.

On its preview evening, almost everyone selected "wild," leading to a much longer wait for that option. Keep in mind that SeaWorld's definition of "wild" is pretty mild, especially when compared with those much more intense motion-base rides. Still, if you're not a fan of what my wife calls "jiggle box rides," such as Star Tours and the like, or if you have any upper-torso strength issues, you should opt for the mild adventure. You'll see the same scenes as the "wild" riders -- in fact, you might get a better view of the ride's detail, as you won't be spinning gratuitously through much of it.

Once your party has selected its adventure option, you're ushered into yet another small waiting area, much like the final wait area on The Simpsons Ride (and Back to the Future before it). From there, you step into the eight-person saucer that will take you through the ride.

You begin in a room that struck me as a '60s-mod twist on a cavern, more like being inside a lava lamp than a cave. But as your vehicle slides out onto the floor, you're reunited with the baby Puck, who will soon grow up, lose his fuzz and face his first major life challenge -- diving into the sea water for the first time.

But as we wait for that, we're off into the most visually impressive scene of the ride -- a massive ice cavern, filled multiple colors, hanging icicles and dominated by a massive frozen waterfall. Mild riders will get to linger with the detail, while the wild riders shriek as they spin around the room. As you exit into the next scene, "fire" blasts from the cavern walls.

Then it's on to meet the grown-up Puck, on his way to a destiny with the sea. It's here that we encounter the conflict in the ride, and given how mildly SeaWorld's treated the narrative up until this point, that moment of conflict surprised everyone in my vehicle. Sensitive children might be frightened by Puck's moment of peril, but I found it engaging -- a moment of suspense that enlivened the ride's narrative.

I don't think I'm playing the spoiler by revealing that our young hero survives his test, but the highlight of the attraction is yet to come -- a chance to spend time with a colony of live penguins, in the ride's post-show exhibit.

Penguins of Antarctica at SeaWorld Orlando

As you approach the unload platform, you'll hit a blast of frigid air, and might notice your unload ride attendants wearing parkas and wool caps. It's cold in here -- nearly 30 degrees. You're on the penguins' turf now. The lights are kept low in late May, to simulate the penguin's native Antarctica habitat. The brutal chill will likely force most visitors to hurry along, but pack a jacket so that you can linger with these animals. Watching the penguins dive into the water and blast through it, just inches away from you, ought to provide more of a thrill than any spin through an ice cave, anyway.

Here's SeaWorld Creative Director Brian Morrow, telling me a bit about the ride's story, and its unique ride system, which allows anyone who can sit upright to ride:

And here's a POV video of the entire experience (minus the waiting, of course):

Ah, the wait. What we don't yet know about Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin is how long those wait times will be. The ride did not soft-open before its media premiere, and on its preview party night, the ride experienced several short downtimes, diminishing its capacity. Given the slow pace of dispatch last night and again this morning, it's hard for me to see how SeaWorld gets this ride operating at full capacity in time for its public debut Friday morning.

For most theme park fans, their enjoyment of a ride depends as much upon how long they waited as what they experienced once on board. If SeaWorld can dispatch a quartet of ride vehicles every minute or so, as designed, fans will find this a fun ride. But if dispatch happens once every 10 minutes or more, this is going to be a long wait for the payoff. We'll see what happens this weekend, and beyond.

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It's an early, early morning to visit a galaxy far, far away for Disney's Star Wars Weekends

By Amanda Jenkins
Published: May 22, 2013 at 7:31 PM

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...I went to my first ever Star Wars Weekend at the Disney Hollywood Studios. Our hopes and dreams were to meet the man that made the double lightsaber so awesome. The man who went on to play two more iconic characters in the land of geekdom. We are talking about the man known as Darth Maul, aka Snake Eyes, aka the Toad...Ray Park. I had read on many websites that if you wanted to meet one of the stars from the Star Wars galaxy, then you had to line up outside the entrance of DHS before the break of dawn. So, in order for us to have an easy time on opening day, I planned our entire trip around this weekend. We decided to arrive on Thursday, May 16th, and stay until Monday, May 20th. I even booked our room for the Boardwalk since it has easy walking access to the Disney Hollywood Studios. We were prepared to do battle and do all that we could to meet Ray Park.

Princess Leia in security
Forget the Empire. It's Disney security that's putting the real heat on the Rebel Alliance.

When we arrived Thursday morning, we quickly checked into our resort and began to grill the concierge on what time we should arrive. Sadly to say, they were no help. Obviously these folks were not Star Wars fans. We then left these sad, uninformed people and went directly to Epcot to exchange our Annual Passes for the new ones that work with the new RFID technology. We grabbed a quick lunch in the World Showcase, then headed to DHS to see and talk with people concerning what time we should attempt to get in line. When we got through security, we noticed that they had the lines already divided and set up. Each line had the name of the actor and even one separate line for just the merchandise from Darth Mall. Now, it was at 2pm when we looked at these lines. And there was a woman with a tent and chair already set up. Needless to say, this scared us a little. We aren't big enough fans to camp out for this, especially when we have a beautiful room, soft bed, air conditioning, and bathroom waiting for us at the Boardwalk. We then went and talked to the people at Guest Relations. They told us that if we wanted autographs of stars, then we needed to get in line a few hours before opening. The lady already camping out was one who does it every year. Guest Relations has a running pool each year to pick what time she will arrive to camp out. The one we talked to said that he had lost since he had picked the 4:00-4:30am time slot. Since this lady obviously knew something that we didn't know (or else she just really enjoys camping out at DHS), we went to ask her opinion on what time we should arrive to be able to get Ray Park's autograph. She said to get there between 3am and 5am to get a Fastpass for his autograph. Or, we could just camp out. She already had everyone's autograph, she was just in line for merchandise. We wished her luck and went on our way. We decided to get up at 3am, and walk to DHS and get in line.

I just want to point out that if you do decide to get up that early, you probably don't want to spend the evening park-hopping, like we did. When you do this, you wind up staying out until close to midnight. Three in the morning will come rather quickly with no sleep. We got up, got ready, and left the room around 3:30. It was a peaceful, beautiful walk to DHS along the Boardwalk. As we got closer to DHS, we could hear music and people. There were already a bunch of people in the lines. The longest line at the beginning was for the merchandise! We quickly got into the Ray Park's line which had about 25 people waiting. Our line was against the railing, and as I began to sit down on the concrete, my husband pulled me back up and pointed at the bottom of the streetlight. There was a snake moving across it. I'm proud to say that I didn't scream like a little girl (which I would normally have done with the proper amount of sleep and lack of audience).

People began to continue to stream in steadily. A man from Disney Security at the Magic Kingdom lined up behind us. He shared some stories of crowds at the parks and then told us how many people usually get the Fastpasses for autographs. One story that was interesting to us since we were staying at the Boardwalk, was that a few weeks ago, a guest jumped off the dock and into the water over by the Swan and Dolphin resort. This guest was then banned from every Disney-owned park. He was asked to leave and never return. So as a word of caution...if you want to continue to visit the parks, don't jump into the lagoons.

After many, many conversations about how cool Ray Park is, Star Wars, possible upcoming Star Wars storylines for the new movies, possible Marvel movies and park rides (I was wearing an Agent Caulson shirt), and how the security guard said there were already rumblings of Universal getting ready to release their Marvel rights soon; the hours began to go by and the sun came up. The park was set to open at 8am, so around 7, I began to look for stormtroopers to come out and entertain us. I had seen the videos of the stormtroopers standing on top of the ticket building. They never came. The reason for this is that they now are on raised platforms inside the park, along Hollywood Blvd. A little after seven, the castmembers began to come and hand out the Star Wars Weekends brochure. We then saw that Mr. Park was only doing one autograph session. This caused quite a panic in our line. We began to wonder if our waiting in line all these hours would be enough to meet him. Around 7:30am. They came out with wristbands. Once you received a wrist band, you stayed in line to get a Fastpass. You had to have both in order to meet the one you were in line for. As we waited with baited breath, we got our wristbands! Then the Fastpasses came out with our time stamped for our return. Ray Park was doing an autograph session at 1:45p.m. Our return time was for 2:00-2:15p.m. We would find out later during the day that only 75 people were issued the wristbands and Fastpasses to meet Ray Park. We were part of this lucky group! Once we entered in, two stormtroopers were on raised platforms heckling the crowd. This was one of our favorite parts. The jokes were so funny. One of our favorites was that they were ribbing the crowd over letting a little rope keep us from entering in the park. "No true Sith would let a little thin rope stop him from his goal." After the rope, or "force field", dropped we began to look at all the Star Wars points of interest. The stage set up over by the sorcerer's hat had Han Solo encased in carbonite. Sometimes there would be stormtroopers guarding it, Bobba Fett, etc. Each would have things to say to the crowd. Here again, the stormtroopers were the funniest. They would accuse the crowd of using Jedi mind tricks, and would threaten to slap the dark side out of each other.


We headed over to the Darth Mall tent. There was a line at 8:02am that had a four- to five-hour wait time. We decided that we didn't really need anything at that moment, and walked onto Rock'n'Roller Coaster. After a ride and some breakfast, we found ourselves in our favorite part of the galaxy, the Empire's side of the park. My husband turned into a little boy and we had to get some pictures with Darth Vader, Darth Maul and some stormtroopers. Okay, okay, I had to get some pictures with the stormtroopers. The stormtroopers, along with bounty hunters, clone troopers and guards were moving constantly through the back lot near Toy Story Midway Mania. They would pause and give autographs, pose for pictures, and arrest people. When you asked an Empire character for an autograph, they really acted like they were being put out by doing so. We missed the Star Wars parade for wandering around this area and getting pictures. After getting some lunch and checking out the line at Darth Mall's (still about three hours), we went over to the Republic's side of the park. We saw some Jedi, Chip and Dale as Ewoks, and such. Star Tours and Tatooine Traders had extreme crowds. Soon it was time to head to Echo Lake and meet (cue cool music) Ray Park.

With Ray Park

He was without a doubt the nicest actor I have ever met. He was humble, had a wonderful sense of humor, and was a big fan of my Agent Caulson shirt. He was very appreciative of us wanting to meet him and spent some time talking with us while autographing a book for our young sons and husband. On a side note, we found out he was staying at our resort, even on the same floor. We didn't see him, since we spent so much time at the parks, but it was still something to know he was there. After being in geek heaven for a few moments, we then headed back to the tent of the never-ending line. It was only about an hour wait. By now our curiosity was so peaked that we had to see what on earth was in this place to draw such a large group of people. Did this large tent named Darth Mall contain the lost ark of George Lucas? Was there a portal to another galaxy filled with Fastpasses? People were starting to come out with giant bags, big smiles, and saying how happy they were that their items were going to be shipped home. We walked slowly but steadily through the line. It was an incredibly hot day with no breeze. The humidity was high and we were in the back between the Tower of Terror and Rock'n'Roller Coaster. There is no shade there. It would have been a prime place to set up a kiosk of bottled drinks and ice cream. Sadly, no one had thought of that. We finally made it into the tent. It was incredibly crowded but there was a large selection of items that were limited addition and many others that weren't. There were photo ops with C3PO and R2-D2, a rancor, and a celebrity autograph place. I unfortunately became quite sick from the heat and left after a few minutes to find some shade and a seat. I left my husband with the credit cards and let him shop. We had been going now for about 14 hours now on less than three hours of sleep. We knew that our day needed to end before seeing the Hyperspace Hoopla. We began to make our way towards the exit to catch a friendship back to the Boardwalk.

Our day at the Star Wars Weekends was a blast. Will we do this again? You bet your Millennium Falcon we will. I highly recommend this for anyone who is a fan. You will thoroughly enjoy yourself surrounded by the sights and sounds of a galaxy far, far away.

Star Wars Weekends continue Fridays and Saturdays until June 8 at Disney's Hollywood Studios.

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Construction is underway on Orlando's I-Drive Live

By Robert Niles
Published: May 22, 2013 at 7:07 PM

ORLANDO -- Per your request, here's an update on the I-Drive Live retail and dining project, under construction for a scheduled 2014 opening on the old Mercado site on Orlando's International Drive.

I-Drive Live sign

The project's icon will be the Orlando Eye, a 425-foot observation wheel. (You might remember that this project originally was called I-Walk, and was renamed after legal threats from Universal Orlando over that name.) Here's where the Orlando Eye will be built, looking east from International Drive:

View of Eye site

Two structures have gone up on the site, which will include a 25,000-square-foot Madam Tussauds wax museum and 25,000-square-foot Sea Life Aquarium -- both properties of Merlin Entertainments, which is backing the project. (Merlin also owns Legoland Florida.)

Concept art

Here's a view of the project site from the north, from the parking lot in front of the new Kings Bowl:

View from north

And here's the view from the south, next to the Pirates Cove Adventure Golf:

View from south

The project is slated to open in stages between 2014 and 2015.

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Let's talk about international theme park travel with Stefan Zwanzger, 'The Theme Park Guy'

By Robert Niles
Published: May 22, 2013 at 10:54 AM

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.

Stefan Zwanzger, 'The Theme Park Guy'

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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Update from Orlando

By Robert Niles
Published: May 21, 2013 at 6:22 PM

ORLANDO -- I'm in Central Florida this week, mostly cover the opening of Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin at SeaWorld, but I'll be stopping by Walt Disney World during my visit as well (and maybe Universal Orlando -- see below). I'm taking requests -- if you have something in the Orlando theme parks (including Downtown Disney or CityWalk) you'd love to see full-on reviewed here on Theme Park Insider, please let me know in the comments, and I'll see what I can do for you!

Aerial view of SeaWorld Orlando
We're on our way to SeaWorld! (Photo by TH Creative)

Taking a moment for much more important news, though, the folks at Holiday World are raising money for the American Red Cross to provide relief for the many people who've lost their homes, and more, in the tornado that struck the Oklahoma City area this week. Holiday World's put up a package with admission tickets, VIP pampering and a trunkload of memorabilia. If you'd like the details, and to bid, visit the Holiday World website. The auction's open until next Tuesday.

Returning to Orlando news, NBC's Today Show will be broadcasting from Universal Orlando this week, on Thursday morning. (Remember that NBCUniversal owns, well, NBC and Universal.) It's a lock that the Today Show crew will be promoting Universal Studios Florida's new Transformers ride during the show -- which leads one to wonder: If Matt Laurer gets to ride this week, can a public soft opening be too far away?

Switching focus to Disney, our resident Jungle Cruise advocate, TH Creative, appears on the Jungle Crews podcast this week to share the love for his favorite attraction.

And if you're in the mood to share the love for your favorite Disney attractions, Disney's now joined the late 20th century and begun accepting reader reviews of its attractions on the Walt Disney World website. (Just like you've been able to do here since 1999!) And, yes, even Disney's own website users rate Stitch's Great Escape with lousy reviews. The feature's in Beta now, so we'll have to wait a bit to see what Disney chooses to do with this much more public customer input.

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Spring ticket price increases begin at the Orlando theme parks

By Robert Niles
Published: May 20, 2013 at 9:56 AM

Universal Orlando over the weekend kicked off what promises to be the latest round of Orlando-area theme park ticket price increases. Universal raised its one-day, one-park base ticket price from $89 to $92, before tax.

Aerial view of Universal Studios Florida
Universal is betting that its major construction at Universal Orlando will drive demand for Universal theme park tickets, allowing it to raise prices this week. Photo by TH Creative.

A single-day ticket that gets you into both parks -- Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure -- went up four bucks, from $124 to $128. As before, you can find much better per-day ticket prices on multi-day purchases. On its website, Universal is offering to US and Canadian residents a three-day admission ticket for $146.99 for park-to-park and $125.99 for one-park-a-day access. That puts your per-day admission cost under $50.

History shows that whenever one of the Big Three in Orlando -- Disney, Universal and SeaWorld -- raises prices, at least one of the others follows. So if you're on the fence about buying Walt Disney World or SeaWorld Orlando tickets, you might want to hurry up and do it before those parks match Universal's increase.

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Plan your day at Walt Disney World's Epcot

By Robert Niles
Published: May 19, 2013 at 3:04 PM

Third in our series of trip-planning posts, for visits to the world's top theme parks

Walt Disney envisioned EPCOT as an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, where people would live, work and play in a new urban community, designed for modern efficiency. But he died before his "Florida project" could be completed. Walt's successors at the Walt Disney Company honored his vision with Epcot Center (now, just "Epcot"), a kind of permanent world's fair, with sections devoted to modern scientific and industrial accomplishments (Future World), as well as to the nations of the world (World Showcase).

The iconic Spaceship Earth at Walt Disney World's Epcot

What to do before you go

Epcot was the second of the four Walt Disney World theme parks. Please see our guide to the Magic Kingdom for advice on booking hotels and buying tickets to the Walt Disney World Resort.

Epcot's most popular attraction might be its restaurants. Each of the nations in World Showcase features at least one restaurant, including many table service restaurants that rank among the better theme park restaurants in the world. Getting for Advance Dining Reservations well before your trip is a must when planning a visit to Epcot. Call +1-407-WDW-DINE or visit Disney World's website to book, up to six months in advance of your visit. The toughest table in Epcot is Canada's Le Cellier Steakhouse, but Theme Park Insider readers also give high marks to Teppan Edo and Tokyo Dining in Japan, the Garden Grill in the Land pavilion, and Monsieur Paul in France, a fine-dining restaurant open only for dinner, where the bill can run higher than at any other in-park Disney restaurant in the world. Visit our Epcot listings page for a complete list of restaurants in the park.

Herb-crusted rack of lamb at Monsieur Paul
Herb-crusted rack of lamb at Monsieur Paul

Visitors on the Disney Dining Plan (often sold as an ad-on with on-property Disney hotel vacation packages) flock to Epcot's restaurants to use their meal credits, due to the relative high quality of the park's restaurants, so call as early as you can to secure tables at the restaurants you want.

With dining bringing in lots of locals, too, Epcot remains open for the same hours pretty much every day of the year: 9am - 9pm. The park offers Extra Magic Hours to Disney hotel guests in the evenings on some days, but that shouldn't discourage you from visiting on those days. Epcot is huge. At 300 acres, it's Disney's largest theme park one of Disney's largest theme parks -- even on busy days, crowds almost never become overbearing.

What to do when you get to Epcot

You'll pay $14 to park in Epcot's immense parking lot. You can ride the monorail over from the Magic Kingdom's Transportation and Ticket Center, but plan to park at Epcot instead, to ensure that you're in place at the park's gate before its 9am opening.

Unique among the Disney World theme parks, Epcot has a second entrance -- called the International Gateway -- located between the United Kingdom and France pavilions in World Showcase, and connected by a walking path to the Yacht and Beach Club Resorts. A boat service also connects the International Gateway entrance to the Disney's Hollywood Studios theme park. We don't recommend using the International Gateway entrance first thing in the morning as Epcot doesn't open its World Showcase attractions until 11am, and it's a slow bus ride from that entrance to the Future World attractions at the front of the park.

Epcot has only three attractions that draw any significant wait times during the day -- all in Future World. But the wait times at these three attractions can be massive, so getting them out of the way early is essential.

One of the three, Soarin', is an exact duplicate of Soarin' Over California at Disney California Adventure at the Disneyland Resort. If you've been to California Adventure, or are planning a trip, you're better off seeing Soarin' there, as the California original offers a much shorter wait than you'll find in Epcot. The second of the Big Three at Epcot -- Mission: Space -- is a love-it-or-hate-it high-speed centrifuge ride that simulates a space flight to Mars. You'll experience several moments of weightlessness in a tight-fitting, four-person space "capsule" on this ride. If that sounds exciting to you, don't miss this experience. If that sounds like the most dreadful thing you've ever heard, then, by all means, skip this ride. Mission: Space also offers a "Green" side, without the moving capsules (the "Orange" side is the one with the weightlessness), but what's the point of cramming yourself into a tight space for a fake mission to Mars if you're not going to experience the physical thrill? Maybe if you're really into claustrophobia.

Mission: Space
Mission: Space

That leaves Test Track, an interactive tour through an automobile design studio, where you help design elements on a car you'll ride through a high-speed test. Disney revamped this attraction in 2012 and it draws lines of several hours in the middle of the day. There is a single-rider line available which can cut your wait to under an hour, or if you hit the line at the right time, perhaps as little as just a few minutes.

If you want to go on just one of these rides, visit it first thing when the park opens at 9. If you want to ride two, grab a Fastpass ride reservation return time for one, then immediately do the other. (We'd suggest getting the Fastpass for Test Track before riding Soarin'.) If you want to ride all three, get a Fastpass for Soarin', then cross Future World to ride Test Track, breaking your party up to use the single rider line if you're visiting on Christmas week or some other very popular day when standby wait times already have exceeded an hour. (If the wait's still under an hour, just keep your group together and go ahead). After riding Test Track, look to see if your return-time window for Soarin' has opened yet. If it has (or is about to), go next door to get Fastpasses for Mission: Space before heading over to Soarin'. If not, and you can't get a Fastpass for Space yet, look to see if you have time to ride it before you have to be back at Soarin'. Worse comes to worst, return to Mission: Space to get a Fastpass for it after riding Soarin'.

Your other must-see attractions in the park are Spaceship Earth (the ride inside the iconic geosphere that looms over Future World), the American Adventure animatronic show in World Showcase, and Impressions de France, the best theme park movie ever made, which plays in the France pavilion. None of these rides attract much more than a 20-minute wait during the day, even during busy periods, so see them at your convenience. Just focus on bagging the Big Three in Future World (or getting Fastpasses to them) before lunch, then plan your way around the park to accommodate your dining reservations. Like we said, it's a big park. You don't want to spend all day criss-crossing it.

If you take advantage of Epcot's abundant shopping, which specialty stores stocking merchandise from each World Showcase country, take advantage of the park's package delivery service if you are staying at Disney hotel, or have Disney hold your packages for pick-up at the park's entrance at the end of the day. Just tell the clerk at the register you'd like to use the package pick-up service. If you want to avoid the hassle of schlepping your souvenirs home altogether, Disney will ship what you buy to your home via UPs or FedEx, for an additional fee.

Where to eat

We covered the table service restaurants above, but if you prefer counter-service meals, Theme Park Insider readers recommend Les Halles Boulangerie and Patisserie in France, Kringla Bakeri Og Kafe in Norway and the Yorkshire County Fish Shop in the United Kingdom. (Click through on those links for fuller descriptions, photos and readers' reviews.)

If you'll be visiting during the spring or fall months, consider skipping the park's restaurants and instead "eating around the world" at the many food stands the park sets up for its Flower & Garden (in the spring) and Food & Wine (in the fall) festivals. You'll find a wide variety of international specialities from the various countries in World Showcase during these weeks-long events. You'll also find many chef's demonstrations and special dinners available during the Food & Wine Festival, which helps make the previously sleepy weeks in the park between September and November alive with foodie Disney fans from around the world.

Foolhardy Epcot visitors might also try to "drink around the world" at World Showcase's abundant bars, pubs and drink stands, but at theme park prices, that's a struggle to see which will pass out first -- you, or your credit card's limit.

Nighttime entertainment

Epcot closes its day with IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth, a light and fireworks show that plays on and around the World Showcase Lagoon. Even though you can see the show from just about anywhere in World Showcase, you'll want to stake out a place before showtime to secure the best views. Plop down and grab a space around the World Showcase lagoon where you can see as much of the lagoon and Spaceship Earth as possible. You might need to claim your space up to three hours before show time on busy days, or up to an hour early on "normal" days. Or you can plan to eat at one of the waterside restaurants that offer IllumiNations viewing, which are the Rose and Crown Pub in the United Kingdom and La Hacienda de San Angel in Mexico.

What's next at Epcot?

A new Moroccan restaurant, Spice Road Table, will open waterside later in 2013. That's it.

We will update this entry, based on reader feedback in the comments. If you have a suggestion for this page, please use the comment section below to let us know. Thank you!

Next week: Disney's Animal Kingdom


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Vote of the week: What's the top animated franchise you want to see in a theme park?

By Robert Niles
Published: May 17, 2013 at 11:16 AM

Yesterday's opening of the new Madagascar stage show at Busch Gardens Tampa surprised a few readers who hadn't heard the news that Universal no longer holds the rights to use all the DreamWorks Animation characters in its United States theme parks. Universal and DreamWorks did not renew that licensing deal, though Universal has re-upped for the theme park rights to the Shrek franchise.

From the Shrek land at Universal Studios Singapore: Go home, Gingy, you're drunk.

SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment then signed for the U.S. theme park rights to the Madagascar characters, setting the stage for the new production in Tampa this week. Another production of the same show will debut at sister park SeaWorld San Diego next month. Character meals and meet-and-greets are on the way, too.

These deals apply only in the United States, though. A trip abroad can blow the mind of any American theme park fan who's gotten used to seeing certain characters in certain parks. Merlin Entertainments has had the rights to use the Madagascar characters in its parks in Europe. And Universal retains the rights to these DreamWorks characters for its park in Singapore, where Universal's built entire lands devoted to Shrek and Madagascar. Universal also holds the rights to use the Sesame Street and Peanuts characters in its Asian theme parks, where SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment and Cedar Fair don't have a presence.

The "Madagascar: A Crate Adventure" ride from Universal Studios Singapore

Licensing rights are multi-million-dollar deals for film studios that don't have their own theme parks, and for parks looking to expand beyond their own intellectual property. Market leader Disney's long relied on its in-house collection of animation franchises to populate its parks. And Universal's going all-in with its own Despicable Me franchise, building a new attraction and Super Silly Fun Land area at Universal Studios Hollywood, to complement the existing Despicable Me ride in Florida. But before Gru and the Minions came along, Universal had to rely on licensing deals, including DreamWorks, Nickelodeon, and Jay Ward characters.

But these licensing deals pay off for theme parks only when they move people to visit. Of the top movie animation franchises out there today, which is the one that would most influence you to visit a particular theme park, if it featured those characters? We'll make this our vote of the week. We're looking only at feature film animation franchises not developed by Disney or Universal. For our five selections, I've included four of the top-grossing animated film franchise, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com, along with an up-and-coming franchise that promises to be the next into the top five, based on the success of its first film (of three now planned).

Obviously, the number-one grossing franchise, Shrek, already is in several Universal theme parks. But consider both existing attractions and the potential for future rides and shows when casting your vote. Or, if that's too complicated, let's just make this easier: Which franchise's characters would you most want to take a photo with in a meet-and-greet?

Please tell us in the comments how you'd like to see theme park use some of these franchises. And, as always, thank you for reading Theme Park Insider!

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Madagascar Live! Operation: Vacation debuts at Busch Gardens Tampa

By TH Creative
Published: May 16, 2013 at 6:46 PM

Busch Gardens Tampa's Stanleyville Theater will be bursting with thermonuclear "tween" energy when the park premieres its newest live stage show Madagascar Live! Operation: Vacation on May 18th. Backed by a live band and a cadre of fresh-faced dancers, the production features characters from the popular DreamWorks Madagascar franchise.

Busch Gardens' Park President Jim Dean and Alex the Lion
Busch Gardens' Park President Jim Dean poses with his newest star Alex the Lion.

While the park's May 16th media event unveiled the show for the press, Busch Gardens' marketing team wisely packed the theater with a boisterous crowd of elementary school students who were ready to sing and dance with a familiar collection of Madagascar characters. Live on stage to lead the charge were Alex the Lion and Gloria the Hippo, as well as Skipper and his team of penguins – although the loudest squeals were reserved for the Lemur King Julian.

While the show's premise was a bit thin (the vacationing characters must cheer-up Gloria who misses her friends Marty the zebra and Melman the giraffe -- both of whom are absent from the production), the re-designed theater, music, dancers and gorgeous character costumes were more than enough to bring the younger crowd to their feet.

Julian and his fans
Julian, King of the Lemurs, welcomes his demographic... er, "subjects."

Clearly the jungle setting featured in the film fits nicely with Busch Gardens' theme. Park President Jim Dean expressed enthusiasm about the partnership with the DreamWorks films, noting that the Madagascar films "in particular complement our brand."

Vice President of Entertainment Nancy Hutson reported that the characters presence will extend beyond the Stanleyville Theater. Park meet-and-greets as well as character dining is planned.

While "Madagascar Live! Operation: Vacation" will be most popular with the tweener set that turned the film franchise into a billion-dollar enterprise, Associate Marketing Manager Kelly Heckinger correctly points out that the films' humor and charm "work on many levels with adults as well as kids."

Another production of the show will debut at sister park SeaWorld San Diego in June.

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The Blog Flume Filter for May 16, 2013

By Jeff Elliott
Published: May 16, 2013 at 4:29 PM

Disneyland – After losing a lawsuit in regards to the It’s A Small World ride, Disney has been testing the ride in the early morning hours to find where the limit of endurance is…and as you can see from the leaked photo below, it is not going well. After the picture leaked, Disney attempted to put a happy spin on the story saying that they were racing the ducks around the ride for charity, but we have to assume that's just a cover story.

Belly-up ducks

It looks like Disney has moved its Glow with the Show technology across the promenade to the original park and are already synching fireworks to their ears.

Disney’s Hollywood Studios – Now that the Beauty and the Beast characters have found a home in the Magic Kingdom, the buzz is that the Studios' Beauty and the Beast show could be on the verge of closing. Once it closes, instead of a new show going in, we are thinking that the theater will be bulldozed and a dark ride put in that extends nearly back to the parking lot. But to compete and be an additional draw next to Tower of Terror, Rock & Roller Coaster, Star Tours, and Toy Story Midway Mania, any new ride had better be something good.

Islands of Adventure – With the "other" Universal Orlando park so busy with construction and everyone analyzing every word that is said about Harry Potter Land 2, apparently the Islands have been a little on the lonely side and decided to man up for some quick rumors this week. First off, the King Kong idea about pulling the ride film from USH and somehow building a ride system around it has pretty much been dismissed. What refuses to go away is the one that Toon Lagoon is going to close right after Harry Potter 2.0 opens and will be completely made over to Middle Earth. While we know there is a fight in court over this one, the lawyers should be able to settle their differences by this time next year.

Universal Studios Hollywood – The park is killing two birds with one stone. Curious George is coming down to make way for Harry Potter going in. But that then begs the question of where they are going to relocate the kiddie rides or just make do without a kiddie land. The answer seems to have bubbled up this week. Despicable Me has a little more room in California than they did in Florida and with that extra room, there are probably going to be a couple of extra preshow rooms as well as a kiddie land rethemed to the amusement park in the movie called Super Silly Fun Land.

SeaWorld Orlando – The new Antarctica area and ride are currently open for cast member previews, which leads as to think that be this weekend or early next week SeaWorld will have soft opened the ride. They are also rumored to have a theme song that is probably nowhere near as tacky and talent-dead as the Full Throttle theme song.

Alton Towers – Not wanting to let the entire cat out of the bag, the following video is everything on the Smiler except the “secret weapon”. And to be honest, no one yet is 100% certain what the “secret weapon” is…although we think it is something like being in a tumble dryer.

Paramount Park Spain – This park has cleared their final approval hurdle and is free to start construction as soon as they can get construction vehicles on the site. If they were the Florida division of Universal, they’d already have three buildings up…because it’s already been several minutes since they were cleared to start work.

New Parks – This has been an odd week about new theme park announcements. Bob Iger can’t seem to keep a secret and keeps talking about a Star Wars theme park. Legoland appears to be slated for a park in South Korea. Dolly Parton renewed her interest in opening up a park in Nashville. It looks like Universal Studios Dubai is trying to get off the page again. Ferrari World is suggesting that they will have a new park open in two years; we don’t know where just yet but suspect South Korea. Rovio, the maker of Angry Birds, signed an agreement to build a park in Russia.

VIP Tours - Many of you probably have heard about Dream Tours and its “VIP” program that utilizes a handicapped person to get you through the lines at Walt Disney World faster. Keep in mind that the source of this story is the New York Post, which broke the news about those Saudis who bombed Boston being arrested about fourteen times before the police caught up to those two kids from Kyrgyzstan. And that the rich people who allegedly bought this service weren't too bright. Suuuuure, everyone else is waiting a two and a half hours for It's a Small World. I wonder how much they paid to bypass the lines at the Tiki room and the Country Bear Jamboree, too.

But the scheme is inspiring some imitators. New Jersey-based "Scheme Tours" is now offering an "RIP" program, where convicts on a work-release program will obtain FastPasses to any attraction, while you wait. Just, uh, don't look over there, okay? Those other guests really didn't want to ride anyway.

Even Disney's getting in on the act. It's new "FastPass++" system will charge the One-Percenters 99% of a front-line cast member's annual wages to skip the lines at It's a Small World. The catch? The rich fat cats might not have to wait to get on, but they'll have to wait two and a half hours to get off the ride. Justice served.

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Look east -- far east -- for Disney's best response to Harry Potter

By Robert Niles
Published: May 16, 2013 at 1:19 PM

With all the attention we've paid to Universal's Harry Potter over the past weeks/months/years, let's not overlook a potentially enthralling theme park franchise that rival Disney has started to develop -- one that's far from realizing its immense potential to engage theme park fans.

I'm not talking about Princesses. Or Avatar. Or even Star Wars. I'm talking about a Disney theme park franchise that the company has yet to introduce to its American theme park fans.

It's the Society of Explorers and Adventurers.

We first heard of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers at Tokyo DisneySea, where the group (take a moment to figure out its acronym…) plays prominent roles in several attractions inside the park. The Society makes its headquarters in the park's Fortress Explorations Citadel, which also serves as home to Magellan's restaurant, which one can consider the official Society dining room.

Fortress Explorations at Tokyo DisneySea
The headquarters of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers, at Tokyo DisneySea

But the Citadel's not the only Society presence in the Tokyo park. DisneySea's Tower of Terror attraction focuses on Society member Harrison Hightower, a world explorer and antiques collector whose arrogance an contempt toward the ancient cultures he seeks becomes his undoing.

Newspaper account of Harrison Hightower's fateful journey, on display in the attraction queue.

And there we find the conflict that animates this wonderful narrative. In Fortress Explorations, we see how the Society inspires visitors with the wonder of scientific discovery. But in Tower of Terror, we see the dark side of global exploration, when the greedy drive it toward exploitation of native people and their cultures instead.

Disney's not left the Society in Tokyo. This month, Disney opened Mystic Manor at Hong Kong Disneyland, and in it, introduced us to another Society member, Henry Mystic. Mystic's not as overtly evil as Hightower. If anything, Mystic's sin seems more of benign neglect -- failing to properly control his monkey assistant, Albert, who unleashes the potentially destructive magic of Mystic's artifact collection during our visit to the Manor.

Great narratives, such as J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter, expose us to seemingly limitless new worlds of characters and conflicts, which echo archetypical stories from our cultural past. Potter reflects traditional coming of age tales as well as a classic Christ fable. (Harry dies to protect his people, and then is resurrected, all surrounding a chapter called King's Cross. C'mon, Rowling's just beating us over the head with it at that point, isn't she?)

With its conflicts in Tower of Terror and Mystic Manor, Disney's Society of Explorers and Adventurers' narrative echoes epic tales of discovery and of conflict between civilizations at first contact. And it does so while introducing notes of the supernatural, an archetypal element that's driven stories since the beginning of time. This isn't a single narrative driving a single attraction. It's an epic tableau, with the potential to drive a limitless number of attractions around the world.

What Disney has created so far tantalizes visitors with the suggestion of many more members of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers, with epically engaging conflicts of their own, all as yet to be discovered by us. By doing so, Disney's created space in its as-yet under-developed Society narrative for our own imaginations to fill in, further engaging us in the story. True interactivity isn't simply triggering a special effect. It's causing us to become emotionally and intellectually engaged in a narrative, helping to craft and move it along, even if we're the only ones who see it happen.

Society of Explorers and Adventurers brochure
Click for a larger version of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers' headquarters map

Disney's accomplished that grand task with the Society of Explorers and Adventurers. It's driven me to rethink my own budget, to start stashing cash to pay for future trips to Tokyo and Hong Kong, where I again can be with these intriguing characters. And it's making me long for Disney to further develop the story of the Society, and to bring it to an American audience, which, I am certain, will embrace and cherish the Society as much as I have.

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Expect 'NextGen'-style animation and interactivity in Universal's Diagon Alley

By Robert Niles
Published: May 14, 2013 at 1:34 PM

The leaks keep on coming from the Wizarding World of Harry Potter -- Diagon Alley, now under construction at Universal Studios Florida in Orlando. We told you in December 2011 about the Gringotts coaster that will provide the centerpiece of the new land, and in March of this year we described about the various shops and restaurants you'll find when Universal Orlando's second Harry Potter land, which opens in the summer of 2014.

Now, we're hearing more about the various atmospheric details that will distinguish this new land.

You've likely heard of Disney's "NextGen" initiative, which, among other things, includes the installation of new animation and interactive elements in queues and other public spaces in Walt Disney World's theme parks. Well, Universal's creative team is raising the stakes with a similar initiative of its own inside the new Wizarding World.

Universal's pushing the intersection of technology and stagecraft with its development of these features, which, if successful, will help make Diagon Alley the most convincing and immersive themed environment ever created in a theme park. If Universal pulls off what it has planned, as one insider told me, Disney's NextGen will be several generations behind Universal's.

So what is Universal planning for Diagon Alley? Let's start by reviewing what we already know:

Diagon Alley concept art
Concept art courtesy Universal

Diagon Alley Attractions

We've got two rides coming: the Gringotts dark ride, which will blend Premier Rides roller coaster track with a 3D story-driven dark ride. Twin, 12-person, Victorian-inspired open-air cars, arranged in three rows of four, will take riders through the Gringotts vaults, where they will encounter dark wizards, including Voldemort. The ride vehicles will have a motion-base component, making this a blend of Revenge of the Mummy and Transformers in the ride's technology.

The second ride is the Hogwarts Express, which will shuttle visitors between the two Wizarding Worlds: Diagon Alley in Universal Studios Florida and the original Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure. Trains will travel on an elevated track through the backstage are connecting the parks. The windowless train cars will feature digital screens that simulate windows overlooking the passing English countryside -- but don't expect a smooth voyage. As this is a theme park attraction, expect that something will go terribly wrong. (It might be best to keep some chocolate handy. I hear that helps.)

Riders will exit the Hogwarts Express outside the two lands, and might be required to queue to enter the Wizarding World on the other side during busy periods in the parks, according to a Universal survey obtained by Parkscope. The Hogsmeade station will be located underneath the Dragon Challenge track, exiting on the "Lost Continent" side of the Wizarding World. The Diagon Alley station will exit through the facade of King's Cross station, next to the Disaster! exit in Universal Studios Florida.

In addition to the two rides, I'm told that Universal is working on a live show, which will play in the open area under a glass canopy near the Gringotts ride's exit.

Diagon Alley
Gringotts Coaster building (lower left) and the rest of Diagon Alley under construction in May 2013. Photo from TH Creative's gallery from earlier this week.

Diagon Alley Restaurants

The Leaky Cauldron will be the main restaurant in the new land, standing next to the Wizarding World's entrance. Your other refreshment options will include Florean Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour, located near the Gringotts bank tower, and what looks on the land's plans to be a Butterbeer stand over one the other side of the land, nearer the Gringotts exit.

Diagon Alley Shops

Universal's creating another Ollivander's wand shop, this time with three rooms to handle to the "wand picks the wizards" show. In addition, you'll be able to stock up on Wizarding gear at Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes, Madam Malkin's Robes for All Occasions and Wiseacre's Wizarding Equipment (that will be the store at the exit to Gringotts).

The plans also call for Borgin and Burkes in Knockturn Alley, located over to the left of the land's entrance, underneath King's Cross station. And that's where things get really interesting.

Diagon Alley's Interactive and Animated Elements

Here's where we get to the fresh stuff! The experience will begin even before visitors step into Diagon Alley, as the Knight Bus, which will be parked on the London promenade outside the land, will feature interactive talking heads.

We already know about the giant fire-breathing dragon that will inhabit the top of the Gringotts bank tower. This dragon really will breathe fire (if all goes well in construction, of course), and it represents the largest of the many animated elements planned for Diagon Alley.

It might be worth taking another look at the Weasley Wizard Wheezes scene from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince for some clues as to the additional interactive and animated elements Universal's planning for its version of that iconic joke shop.

Elsewhere in the new land, be on the lookout for suits of armor that fall apart then rebuild themselves, as well as self-stirring cauldrons and some skeletons that perform with a surprising effect that my sources refuse to tell me about in more detail. And goblins, too!

The most cryptic clue I've heard, though, concerns the wands. There's a huge time crush, obviously, to finish this land by June 2014 (for a planned July opening), but I keep hearing hints that Universal's got something planned that involves wands. One's imagination runs wild.

Which, of course, is the whole point. Universal is working to create a land that will appear to come to magical life for each visitor. With so many interactive and animated elements, the idea is that the entire land becomes a platform for an individual experience within the Wizarding World. It's not just about queuing up for a roller coaster ride. Diagon Alley has been conceived as a public place that supports personal stories, as each visitor discovers the various details and elements available throughout the land.

And the technology that Universal's developing for Diagon Alley won't be limited to this land. Expect Universal, at some point after the opening of Diagon Alley, to begin work retrofitting the original Wizarding World with new interactive and animated elements, so that the magical experience continues at the same sophisticated level across both lands.

Update: I'm hearing now that Universal is working on a "new generation" of souvenir wands, which will have interactive capabilities inside the park and some (undisclosed) additional use at home, too. So your old wands won't be able to do what the new ones will. The wands' abilities are described as more complicated than simple RFID-based triggers.

Finally, many of us are debating just how animated the Gringotts dragon will be. Will it just breathe fire, or will it move, as well? I haven't heard a definitive answer on that, and anyone who's been around Animal Kingdom's Yeti can tell horror stories about trying to maintain a functional animatronic figure on that massive a scale. But the dragon inside the Gringotts ride? Well, that appears to be a different situation.

For the latest on Harry Potter Diagon Alley and other theme park news, follow Theme Park Insider on Twitter and become a fan on Facebook.

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Merida meets 'Murica

By Robert Niles
Published: May 13, 2013 at 1:42 PM

So Disney gave its newest "princess" a makeover, and that's making some fans mad -- including the person who created Merida.

Merida, before and after

Those are the before and after looks for Merida, the heroine of Disney/Pixar's Academy Award-winning Brave. Disney officially "crowned" Merida as the company's 11th Disney princess in a ceremony at the Magic Kingdom last weekend. To publicize the ceremony and Merida's inclusion in the highly lucrative Disney Princess merchandise line, the company released several images with an, uh, updated look for the Scottish princess.

Disney princesses

The obvious change is the switch to the sparkly dress. Hey, even warrior princesses aren't always dressed for battle. But Disney's stripped several inches off Merida's waist and hips, perpetuating a stereotype of rail-thin feminine "beauty." And Disney's reshaped Merida's mouth in addition to laying on her eye makeup with a trowel.

That's elicited a backlash from thousands of fans, as well as from Brenda Chapman, who created the character.

Let's remember that Chapman and Disney haven't had a fairy-tale relationship in the past. Disney sacked her during production, though she retained directing and writing credits on the film.

Yet the makeover reinforces an accusation that Disney simply can't seem to wrap its corporate head around a female character that doesn't look like a Barbie princess. Disney's princesses no longer look like their original selves, but instead most resemble 11 toy dolls with interchangeable bodies, distinguished only by the colors of their hair and skin, their haircuts and their dresses. Which, of course, can be swapped depending upon the occasion. Reducto ad merchandisum.

It's that merchandising that drives this, of course. For every person who signs the Change.org petition to change Merida back, hundreds more moms and dads will shell out big bucks to buy their daughters stuff with Disney princesses and their prefab look.

Merida, meet 'Murica.

Contrast Chapman's conflict with Disney with the number-one talking point that gets drilled into the head of any reporter who covers a press event at a Universal theme park. You can't get through a Universal press event without hearing its PR and Creative reps talk about how Universal cultivates relationships with filmmakers when it designs new theme park attractions -- whether that's Michael Bay on Transformers, Peter Jackson on King Kong 360:3D or Stuart Craig on Harry Potter. Left unsaid is an inference that other companies (read: Disney) aren't so accommodating with the filmmakers with which they work.

Look, Disney's going to continue to crank out impossibly skinny, Barbie-like princess merchandise so long as people keep buying it. Don't like it? Don't buy it. But theme park fans might also want to keep their eyes and ears open for how battles like this influence the creators who inspire and make tomorrow's theme park attractions. Chapman's public stance against Disney provides a relatively rare clear glimpse into the struggles between creators and executives that usually take place well behind the scenes.

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More aerial construction photos of Orlando theme parks, including the Hogwarts Express track

By TH Creative
Published: May 12, 2013 at 9:50 PM

[Editor's note: TH Creative emailed these aerial photos of some of the big new theme park projects under development around the Orlando area.]

Universal Studios Florida
Universal Studios Florida, with Diagon Alley (upper right) and Springfield (lower left) under construction

Diagon Alley
Gringotts Coaster building (lower left) and the rest of Diagon Alley

Hogwarts Express track
Hogwarts Express track, backstage at Universal Studios Florida. [Editor: It appears that the track splits -- to allow two trains to pass in the middle of the route between Diagon Alley in Universal Studios Florida and Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure?]

Hogwarts Express track
The Hogwarts Express track from a different angle. You can see the Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit track to the right.

USF's Transformers building

Cabana Bay Hotel
Heading outside the park, its the new Cabana Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando, under construction

Islands of Adventure
Islands of Adventure, with the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride building in the foreground.

Flying away from Universal to see Orlando's other big project, here's the Antarctica building, surrounded by other popular SeaWorld attractions.

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Plan your day at Disneyland

By Robert Niles
Published: May 12, 2013 at 1:37 PM

Disneyland revolutionized the theme park industry when it opened on July 17, 1955. Today, Disneyland Park in Anaheim, California remains the nation's second-most visited theme park, behind its younger sibling, Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom.


The Disneyland Resort now includes two theme parks, the original Disneyland and Disney California Adventure, which opened in 2001 on the site of Disneyland's old parking lot. (Disney now welcomes most drivers into the massive "Mickey and Friends" parking lot located about a half a mile north of the park entrance.) The entrance to Disneyland's two theme parks are located just yards apart, making "park hopping" easier here than at any other theme park resort in the world. That said, with a $1 billion-plus makeover of California Adventure in 2012, each park has more than enough attractions to fill an entire day, so adding the park-hopper option isn't necessary to get the full value of a day's admission.

What to do before you go

The Disneyland Resort offers three on-site hotels, but many motels on Harbor Boulevard in Anaheim are located as close to the theme parks' main entrances as Disney's Paradise Pier and Disneyland Hotels. Therefore, it should be easy to find an affordable room within walking distance of the front gate, whether you stay with Disney or not. So if you're planning to fly into Southern California for a Disneyland visit, you might want to consider whether or not to skip renting a car, at least for the Disneyland portion of your trip. You won't need it while at the resort, and almost all the hotels in the area will charge you $15 a day to park it in their lots -- the same price Disney charges for daily parking. You can find a list of the nearby hotels on our Disneyland Hotels page.

Grand Californian Hotel
Disney's Grand Californian Hotel and Spa has won the Theme Park Insider Award as the world's best theme park hotel for the past two years.

Walt Disney World veterans should note that Disneyland does not offer Disney's Magical Express -- the free bus service between the resort and the airport that Disney World offers its on-site hotel guests. You're on your own to get to the resort from the airport. Gray Line buses run a Disneyland Express that costs between $19-$32 round-trip from the airports.

Disneyland's crowds are dominated by locals -- with hundreds of thousands of Southern Californians holding various levels of annual passes to the resort. The best times to visit to avoid crowds are weekdays during the school year and days that are blocked out to the most levels of annual passholders. Check Disneyland's website for its blockout calendar, and try to avoid weeks in the spring and summer that aren't blocked out to any annual passholders, such as late May and early June, late August, early in Thanksgiving week, and certain weeks around Spring Break in March and April. Those are often the busiest weeks of the year, rivaling the weeks around Christmas and the Fourth of July.

Visitors staying in a Disneyland resort hotel, and those who buy certain Disneyland ticket and vacation packages can get "Extra Magic Hour" early admission to one of the two Disneyland Resort theme parks on selected days. If you don't have this perk, try to visit Disneyland Park on a day when it doesn't offer the Extra Magic Hour. Otherwise, you'll find yourself entering a potentially already-busy park when you show up at "opening" trying to beat the crowd. Check out Disneyland's calendar page and click through to each day's daily schedule to see which park has the early admission hours each day.

Visit Disneyland's Vacation Packages and Special Offers webpages for combination deals on hotels and theme park tickets. Then price those against booking a nearby off-site hotel and buying your tickets separately through Disneyland's website. If you're thinking about visiting other theme parks during your trip to Southern California, consider the Southern California CityPass, which includes tickets to Disneyland as well as Universal Studios Hollywood and SeaWorld San Diego, against buying tickets individually. (The CityPass is available on Disneyland's ticket webpage.)

If you are planning to visit other theme parks in the area, be aware that Southern California's theme parks are far more distant from each other than the parks in the Orlando area. Universal Studios Hollywood is located an hour's drive (in good traffic!) from Disneyland, and SeaWorld San Diego is nearly two hours' drive in the opposite direction. If you're driving during the hours of 7am-10am or 3pm-7pm on weekdays, you might end up spending an additional hour or two in the car for those trips, due to rush-hour traffic. Consider moving to a different hotel, closer to those destinations, when visiting those parks, to avoid a daily commute. Universal offers an Anaheim shuttle service, but otherwise, public transport between theme parks can be difficult to arrange. You'll want to rent up a car (in Anaheim or at the airport) if you're visiting other destinations in Southern California beside Disneyland.

Like Walt Disney World, Disneyland allows you to make restaurant reservations in advance, though getting reservations isn't nearly as competitive in California as it is in Florida. Unless you're visiting during an extremely busy week (such as around Christmas), calling 714-781-DINE a few weeks before your visit should suffice to get lunch or dinner reservations to the Blue Bayou restaurant, located inside the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. (Ask for a waterside table, and tell them if this is your first visit to the Bayou.) You also can reserve tables at the Cafe Orleans, Plaza Inn and Carnation Cafe, but advance reservations aren't necessary at those restaurants except on busy days, and even then, just call a couple days in advance, and you should get your desired table time.

When you get to Disneyland

Arrive at the entry plaza before the park opens -- 15 minutes in "off season" and an hour in advance during holiday and popular vacation times. When the park opens, make your way down Main Street, then bear right into Tomorrowland, where you'll pick up Fastpasses for Star Tours: The Adventures Continue. From there, walk on to Space Mountain for your first ride of the day.

After riding Space, stop in for a ride on Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters if you can get through before your Star Tours return time expires. In the past, you could use Fastpass tickets at any time during the day after your initial return time, but now you must ride during the specific return-time window specified. (If you show up to ride at your appointed time and find the attraction closed for any reason, just ask for a replacement Fastpass that's good anytime later in the day.) If you don't have time for Buzz now, leave it for later in the day.

After you complete your Star Tours mission, head back across the park into Adventureland, where you'll pick up Fastpasses for Indiana Jones Adventure. Theme Park Insider readers prefer the versions of Splash Mountain and Haunted Mansion at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, so if you've visited that park and are looking for a unique experience at Disneyland, you can skip those. But if not, or if you'd just like to compare the different versions, ride those now.

Pirates of the Caribbean
Photo submitted by Brandon Mendoza

Theme Park Insider readers have voted the Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean the best ride in the park. This is the original installation of Pirates, and much longer than the Orlando version. But it also puts through more people per hour than any other ride in the park, allowing it relatively short waits compared with other attractions, so it's a good choice to leave for later in the day, perhaps immediately after riding Indiana Jones.

Other Theme Park Insider reader favorites, either unique to, or original at, Disneyland include:

  • Fantasy Faire: New for 2013, this extension of Fantasyland, located next to the castle at the end of Main Street features an indoor meet-and-greet area with Disney princesses, as well as a fun collection of stage shows that visitors of any age will enjoy.
  • The Enchanted Tiki Room: The first attraction ever to use Audio Animatronics, presented in a more intimate and well-cared for setting than Disney World's version of the show. Plus, if you're in the mood for a popular Dole Whip frozen treat, you can take advantage of a much shorter line for those snacks from inside the Tiki Room preshow area. Disney allows you to take Dole Whips inside the show!
  • Sailing Ship Columbia: A replica of the first American ship to sail around the world travels around Disneyland's Rivers of America.
  • It's a Small World: The original version of this Disney classic first appeared at the 1964 New York Exhibition and now makes its home in Fantasyland. Disneyland's version also features a variety of Disney characters among Mary Blair's classic dolls, allowing you to play a fun "Where's Waldo?"-type game to see how many you can spot as you ride.
  • Roger Rabbit's Car-Toon Spin: The highlight of Disneyland's original Toontown. (Fastpasses available)
  • Disneyland Railroad: Walt's desire to have a life-sized railroad to play with probably did more to inspire him to build Disneyland than anything else. On the Disneyland Railroad, you can see the Grand Canyon dioramas that first appeared in the Ford Motor Company ride that Disney created for the 1964 New York Fair. And if you reserve at space early enough in the day at the Main Street Railroad station, you can get a ride on the "Lilly Belle," the private car named for Walt's wife.

Another fun way to enjoy Disneyland (if you have the extra cash) is to book a guided tour, such as the Walk in Walt's Footsteps tour, which provides an overview of the parks's history as well as visit inside Walt's private apartment above Main Street. Call 714-781-TOUR up to one month before your visit for tour options and current prices.

Where to eat

The most famous and beloved thing to eat at Disneyland might be the Blue Bayou's Monte Cristo sandwiches. A batter-fried ham, turkey and cheese sandwich served with jam, the Monte Cristo is served sliced in fourths, and is rich and filling enough that it might feed a family of four. The Monte Cristo's available only at lunch at the Bayou, but it's also available all day at the lower-priced Cafe Orleans next door. Both restaurants offer a wider variety of Creole and Southern-inspired meals as well. If you'd in the mood for fried chicken, the Plaza Inn earns good reviews, as does the Carnation Cafe, also on Main Street.

Monte Cristo sandwich
The Monte Cristo sandwich at Cafe Orleans

Disneyland's food earns consistently high marks from readers, which makes sense given how hard Disneyland works to appeal to locals. You'll find many Disneyland counter service locations using real plates and servingware, instead of the ubiquitous paper and plastic found at Walt Disney World. Mealtime crowds aren't as bad here, either, as there's no Disney Dining plan and plenty of excellent options within walking distance in California Adventure and Downtown Disney as well. Pick whatever sounds good to you, and you'll be fine.

Nighttime entertainment

The crowds at Disneyland typically don't thin during the day. With so many locals coming to the park after work, if anything, Disneyland gets more crowded as the evening comes.

That's the bad news. The good news is that Disneyland accommodates those crowds with excellent evening entertainment, making it well worth your time to stay late into the night. Disneyland's main parade is Soundsational Parade, which steps off at 7pm most days. If you're visiting on weekend or during the summer or holiday periods, do not miss Disneyland's original version of Fantasmic!, which Theme Park Insider readers have declared beats the Orlando copy in just about every way imaginable. (Okay, you'l have to sit on the ground for Disneyland's version, as there's no dedicated theater. So there's that. But the show's well worth that sacrifice.) Arrive at least an hour before showtime to claim a space along the banks of the Rivers of America. Yellow-jacketed cast members will tell you where you can and cannot sit, and can offer recommendations on the best available spaces to see the show.

What's next at Disneyland?

A new live stage show, Mickey and the Magical Map, debuts on May 25. After that, nothing's announced for the park, though rumors swirl that Disney is considering a Marvel-themed attraction for the park. We'll see.

We will update this entry, based on reader feedback in the comments. If you have a suggestion for this page, please use the comment section below to let us know. Thank you!

Next week: Epcot

Previously: Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

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Gatekeeper opens to the public at Cedar Point

By Jim Koehl
Published: May 11, 2013 at 8:43 PM

Gatekeeper, the new B&M wing coaster at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, opened Saturday, May 11th with fireworks, the Ohio State University Marching Band, and tens of thousands of excited "ride warriors". This record-breaking coaster, the first new coaster at Cedar Point since the acclaimed Maverick premiered in 2007, has been previously covered in TPI with POV videos showing the ride from both sides, the right and the left. Finally, though, a first-hand report is available.

First, though, the facts. This coaster sends riders through multiple inversions, including an Immelmann, a zero-g roll, and a wing-over drop while traveling on a 4164 foot-long track that starts on the Lake Erie shore, carries them over and actually through the two support towers of the new entrance plaza, then returns them to the loading building on the site of the former Disaster Transport coaster, which itself was located on the site of the Jumbo Jet and, before that, the 1929 Cedar Point Cyclone. Gatekeeper is a worthy successor to these coasters.

Jim at Gatekeeper

My son Anton and I were at the front gate at 7:30 a.m., far in advance of the 8:30 special opening for Platinum Pass holders. While waiting to be admitted, we enjoyed the beautifully designed new entrance plaza with a large LED sign board over the admission gates, running such messages as "Gatekeeper: It's Big, It's Tall, It Has That New Ride Smell." The dedication of Gatekeeper was scheduled for 9 a.m., with the first riders being the winners of an auction that benefited area charities and that raised over $30,000 for them. We were not among the winners, but thought that we were there in plenty of time. I got the feeling that Cedar Point was a bit overwhelmed and underprepared for the huge crowd that soon formed at the gates, and poor signage led to confusion among the early-arrive guests. Visitors with general admission were mixed with those with early admission, and when they finally opened the gates for the early admission guests, it appeared that they also opened all the other gates at the same time. We should have been much farther up in line for Gatekeeper than we ended up due to this confusion, but most people took it in stride and patiently waited. The line for Gatekeeper was soon snaking far out into the Midway, wrapping around several attractions and eventually doubling back down the far side of the Midway halfway to Cedar Downs. When the queue lines for Gatekeeper were opened after the dedication ceremony, the line began to move rapidly forward as the massive holding areas filled with thousands of guests, all anxious to be among the first riders to experience this beautiful ride.

Gatekeeper track

The wait was worth it! From the ground, while watching it run first empty test runs and then with screaming guests, most people commented that it didn't look all that fast. Once aboard the beautiful bird-themed trains and strapped into the surprisingly-comfortable seats, and as soon as we finished climbing the 170-foot first hill and began the wing-over drop down 164 feet, we knew that this was going to be an amazing experience. The appearance of slowness from the ground is soon replaced with a non-stop series of swooping, soaring, flipping and thrilling maneuvers. The most breathtaking feature, and the signature move of Gatekeeper, is a giant flat spin followed by a zero-g roll through the keyhole openings of the two one-hundred foot entrance plaza towers. This takes riders sideways through these towers, leaving many screaming and wondering if they were going to lose a limb or two.

I am fortunate that I live close enough to Cedar Point that I will have opportunities to ride both sides of Gatekeeper (I rode the left side this time) and will ride the front seat on both sides and be able to compare. We rode in the center of the train, and to be honest I don't remember even noticing the seats in front of me once. The ride is that intense and that much fun! My son grabbed the outside seat, so I sat on the inside, and I had one of the best rides of my life. I heard riders that sat in the last seats of the train say that it was an extremely intense ride. It looks like more research is needed before I can decide where the best seat is.

Gatekeeper is an amazing addition to Cedar Point, and to the world of coasters. Its beautiful location, record-breaking features and crowd-pleasing excitement makes it a welcome and already well-loved addition to the Cedar Point family of attractions.

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Vote of the week: Backwards or in the dark -- which coaster thrill do you prefer?

By Robert Niles
Published: May 10, 2013 at 10:40 AM

We've long offered a couple nuggets of advice to people who say that they're afraid of riding roller coasters. First: Keep your eyes open and focused on the track in front of you. Imagine that you are "driving" the roller coaster and that the track in front of you is the road ahead. Often, that uncomfortable feeling that people get in their stomachs while on a roller coaster comes from feeling a loss of control. Imagining yourself driving the coaster can trick your mind into reclaiming that sense of control, allowing you to feel more at ease and able to enjoy the pure speed and the twists and flips that the coaster offers.

It's easier to imagine a coaster train as being a car you're driving when the coaster train is decorated to look like… a car.

Our second nugget of advice flows from the first. Help yourself feel more comfortable on launch coasters by mashing your right foot down as the coaster takes off. Imagine that you're pressing hard on the gas pedal of your car, trying to get it to accelerate as fast as it can. Again, you're imaging yourself "driving" the coaster, trying to reestablish that mental sense of control that will put your nerves and your stomach at ease.

All that said, after you've become comfortable on roller coasters, if you're like many of the coaster fans here on Theme Park Insider, you'll reach the point where you don't want to feel comfortable on them anymore. You'll want to feel those nerves -- that sense of dread in your stomach and panic in your heart. You'll start craving that sense of not having control.

Raging Bull

Roller coaster designers have plenty of tricks that help them amp up the thrill level on their coasters. Two of their classic tricks eliminate the ability to see the track ahead of you, robbing you of that opportunity to reestablish mental "control" of the ride. How do they do that? They can build the coaster indoors and run it in the dark, or they can flip the train and run it backwards.

Here's a backward launch coaster for ya!

Yesterday, we heard from Theme Park Insider reader Anthony Murphy, who showed us Six Flags Great America's inverted coaster Batman: The Ride, which the Chicago-area park has started running backwards this season. Universal Studios Japan ran a backwards train on its Hollywood Dream coaster earlier this year and Kings Island visitors have for years had the option of riding that park's wooden Racer coaster frontwards or backwards.

Millions of theme park fans have enjoyed roller coasters in the dark, too, from Disneyland's relatively tame stateside Space Mountains to its head-rattling, multiple-inversion Space Mountain: Mission 2 at Disneyland Paris. Universal has used indoor roller coaster track to add thrills to dark rides, such as its Revenge of the Mummy rides and its upcoming Gringotts ride at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter -- Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida.

But when it comes to pure thrill, which way do you prefer to "ride blind"? Backwards, or in the dark? That's our vote of the week.

Tell us in the comments about your favorite (or least favorite) backwards or darkened roller coaster. And thank you, as always, for reading Theme Park Insider.

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The first Inverted roller coaster is now running backwards

By Anthony Murphy
Published: May 9, 2013 at 9:31 PM

Before there was Montu, Dragon Challenge, or Alpengeist, Six Flags Great America offered theme park fans the world's very first inverted roller coaster -- Batman: The Ride.

But this year, this inverted coaster is offering another type of "twist": Six Flags is running it backwards!

Batman - backwards

First opened in 1992, Batman: The Ride was built by Swiss coaster makers Bolliger & Mabillard. Six Flags Great America themed this roller coaster to Tim Burton’s Batman franchise, which released Batman Returns the same year. This is also one of the first themed queues done for a Six Flags ride. The line starts in the Gotham City park (donated by Bruce Wayne), which is very well kept and bright, however, once beyond the park walls, we can see the grafitti and urban decay of Gotham. We see a shot-out police vehicle that hit a fire hydrant. Then we then enter a sewage duct to make our way into the Bat Cave and on to the ride.

Turning the cars backwards creates a new and disorienting experience for the riders. Here's my video report, with on-ride video of my brother, Alex:

The one downside with Batman is that this ride was made for people sized in 1992. The ride is not forgiving for, eh, us bigger people. The way the seat is situated and the safety harness makes this one of the most difficult attractions to fit. Still, Six Flags says that the backward train will run for a limited time only, so come on out and ride this classic backwards before it's too late.

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The Blog Flume Filter for May 9, 2013

By Jeff Elliott
Published: May 9, 2013 at 2:45 PM

Editor's note: Before Jeff goes on his weekly rant, I should note that Cedar Point's Gatekeeper had its preview day today, so the coaster now open for rating and review on our Gatekeeper listing page. We featured POV video from the ride on the Flume earlier this week. Now, take it away, Jeff!

Tokyo Disneyland – According to the video below, Darth Vader’s ship has found the Earth, landed here someplace, and taken over a ride at Tokyo Disneyland. This news story oddly seems to correlate to several people who saw a bunch of space ships that look similar to the X-Wing Fighters from the Star Wars movies that were attempting to drop photon torpedoes though open manholes several miles away.

Shanghai Disneyland – Plans for a large transportation hub for this new park have been released. In the press release, they mention that: “The hub at the west gate of the amusement park will comprise five bus terminals, car and taxi parking lots, a large toilet and six lounges.” Hmmmm. A large toilet? That will make needing to make a pit stop really interesting.

Disneyland – Space Mountain reopens. It never should have closed in the first place, but that is California for you. C'mon, to the rest of us here in 'Murica, "safety" is when you score two points in football. When all of the people who can’t stand to live in the mess that California has become and decide to move east to Colorado, I really hope that they bring some decent rides with them.

Star Wars Weekend – Star Wars Weekend is bringing back the popular "Cast Yourself in Carbonite." According to the website, it takes 7-8 weeks to deliver. If it is anything like the movie, go late on your last day of vacation. They will freeze you in carbonite and then have FedEx deliver you to your house in a couple of weeks. Though I'd prefer being delivered home by Boba Fett, this sounds like a really good end to a vacation, as you don’t have to deal with airport security or crappy airline service and can have a nice long, cold rest before Luke and Leia show up at your house to thaw you out and have you return to work. That is how it works, right?

In other news, more actors are lining up to get in the good graces of the Mouse before the new movies start filming by making guest appearances at Star Wars Weekend. The original actors who played Darth Maul, Boba Fett, Wicket the Ewok, Admiral Ackbar, Lando, Chewbacca will be at Star Wars Weekends at various times trying to show how much the public loves them and demands that they should be in the newest movie.

Star Wars Theme Park – Bob Iger dropped hints this week about using the newly purchased Star Wars franchise to make an entire theme park. While the how and where and what are all still being worked on, Uncle Bob said that he would keep us informed of developments. Based on the track record we have here at TPI, by the time Mr. Iger confirms anything, we will have known about for many months.

Star Wars Universe – Here is a little video candy to hold you over for another week. I have said this from the very beginning: JJ gets it. Although the working title of “The Further Adventures of Jar Jar Binks” is a little worrisome. It is nice to know that in another week or so, JJ will begin serious work on Star Wars, after his release of that other science fiction-y thing-y movie. He probably deserves to take the weekend off, but Star Wars fans really are demanding.

Jurassic Park 4 – The fourth entry into the Jurassic Park movie series has hit a snag and is now on hold. Depending on whose Twitter feed you read, the project has completely closed down or it is just on hold for the time being. My thought is that this early in the game it is a problem with the story. And shutting down production until the story is just right sounds like a prudent move. Especially since, for $20 and a case of PBR, I’ll rewrite the script for you. Jurassic Park is about a theme park… and where do you think would be a good place to find experts on theme parks? I rest my case.

Lotte World – Here is some video of an interesting new shooting ride where you have a whole room full of people shooting at the screen. I think Universal should jump on this technology quickly and outfit the Barney show with this kind of system.

Hersheypark – The Great Chocolate Factory Mystery has opened, and from the reviews that we have heard is that it is a combination of Turtle Talk combined with a Mystery. The show has over a hundred variations and interacts with the audience singling out people in the audience and naming people who are watching the show. I didn’t realized this, but they worked with Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to get this made, so despite the animations in the preview movies, it looks like there is a much better product inside the theater and well worth the money.

Alton Towers – The Smiler and its record-setting amount of inversions now has an opening day scheduled: May 23. I don’t know how Alton Towers normally handles their soft openings, but I would expect that tests have already started and it is merely a matter of days before they let people on for the first time.

Kings Island – A trademark filed by Cedar Fair seems to indicate that something will be called Banshee in the near future. Wild speculation would make sense that it be used as the replacement of Son of Beast, as they can put a spin on why Son of Beast came down… because it was killed by a Banshee. While the name is just speculation at this point, we are starting to see what looks like footers going into the site already. There is talk that Cedar Fair is contracted for another wing coaster, but it doesn’t make any sense to build a wing coaster in Kings Island with Cedar Point so close, so it may be Carowinds in line for the wing coaster and Kings Island is still a guessing game. Based on the name Banshee… wouldn’t a flying coaster make sense? Cedar Point doesn’t have one of those. But it also doesn’t make much sense because a flying coaster or a diving coaster wouldn’t have the kind of huge footprint that Son of Beast had.

Djurs Sommerland – Apparently in Denmark a twice-launched coaster is what they call a family coaster. The short-in-height ride certainly makes up for it in the way it hugs the ground and just eats the track, which it has quite a bit of. The only thing this coaster needs is a bunch of trees to do flybys with and you will have a great coaster.

Theme Park Apprentice: Season 5 – There are hints being dropped around the office that the new season of Theme Park Apprentice is at hand. While nothing is firm at this point, it sounds like an overall theme to do battle with has been thrown out the window and you will be given a lot more freedom to create rides on your own whim. If you haven’t played before, now is the time to get some research done in preparation of the competition by searching Theme Park Insider for old challenges and entries. I do believe that auditions will be held starting in another week or so. If you have questions, feel free to transfer over to the discussion board at this point. Good luck!

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SeaWorld Orlando reveals theme song for new Antarctica attraction

By Robert Niles
Published: May 9, 2013 at 7:28 AM

SeaWorld Orlando has provided a sneak peek at the theme song for Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, the park's upcoming multi-million-dollar dark ride and penguin encounter.

The singer's former American Idol finalist Lauren Alaina, and the style is Idol pop (country flavor). Antarctica is SeaWorld's largest single capital investment in company history, according to CEO Jim Atchison, and its nice to see that SeaWorld's creative team is including original music in the mix, along with a high-tech variable ride system, film and physical effects, as well as an up-close animal encounter. Here's more about the ride, from the IAAPA theme park industry show last fall:

Antarctica opens to the public on May 24, and we'll be there for a media preview on May 23, as well as talking again with SeaWorld creative director Brian Morrow about the ride. So keep reading Theme Park Insider for more on Antarctica.

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Told ya so! Universal Orlando confirms Harry Potter - Diagon Alley for 2014

By Robert Niles
Published: May 8, 2013 at 6:49 AM

Universal Orlando this morning confirmed the news we've been telling you for months: That it is building a new Wizarding World of Harry Potter, themed to Diagon Alley, in Universal Studios Florida. And that it will open in 2014.

Concept art of Diagon Alley
Concept art from Universal

From Universal Orlando's press release:

Building on the global phenomenon that is The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Orlando Resort and Warner Bros. Entertainment today announced an expansion of historic proportion with the entirely new themed environment, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley.

Scheduled to open in 2014, the world’s first centrally themed, multi-park experience expands The Wizarding World of Harry Potter across both Universal Orlando theme parks and allows Universal’s creative team to bring an unparalleled vision to this unique project. The new area will bring to life some of the experiences and places found in and around London in the Harry Potter books and films, offering brand-new adventures for fans and theme park guests from around the world.

Diagon Alley and ‘London’ will be located within the Universal Studios Florida theme park, which is adjacent to Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park, where guests now experience Hogwarts and Hogsmeade. The new area within Universal Studios will be just as expansive, immersive and authentic as the existing themed environment.

And – just like in the books and films – guests will be able to travel between ‘London’ and Hogsmeade aboard the Hogwarts Express.

Work on the new area is already underway. When complete, it will feature shops, a restaurant and an innovative, marquee attraction based on Gringotts bank – all directly inspired by the fiction and films.

More details on The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley will be released over time.

We first reported the plans for the new land in December 2011, revealing the Gringotts coaster and basic layout of the Diagon Alley. And we first reported in March this year that Universal was aiming for opening Diagon Alley in July 2014.

You can read our complete coverage of Universal's Harry Potter attractions on our Wizarding World of Harry Potter page.

Update: Just confirmed from an inside source: The dragon atop Gringotts in the Harry Potter concept art is not an artist's embellishment. It will be real (i.e. a physical prop and not a projection). And the dragon will breathe fire.

As Dewayne Bevil from the Sentinel said to me earlier, when we were looking at the concept art, "It looks like Disney's dragon from New Fantasyland flew over to Gringotts."

Yeah, and it's going to be living there now.

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Take a video ride on Cedar Point's new Gatekeeper

By Robert Niles
Published: May 6, 2013 at 2:59 PM

Cedar Point today released its official on-ride POV video for its new Bolliger & Mabillard Wing coaster, Gatekeeper.

The Sandusky, Ohio theme park has posted two videos for the ride, one from each side of the coaster train. On a wing coaster, the seats sit on either side of the track, making for some different visuals, especially for a coaster that spends as much time on its side, as this one does.

Here's the left side:

And here's the right side:

Let's go to the vote:

Gatekeeper opens May 11.

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How not to plan a trip to a theme park: Iron Rattler edition

By Bobbie Butterfield
Published: May 6, 2013 at 2:35 PM

For the past several months the Six Flags Fiesta Texas website had heralded Iron Rattler as opening this spring. This left considerable room for conjecture, as spring officially began on March 20 and summer doesn't begin until June 21. Repeated telephone calls to the park failed to yield any definitive information so everything was still up in the air. The website is now advertising the new thrill ride as opening this summer but it would appear that the official debut will actually take place in the spring, on May 15. So there it is; we now have a date and an end to the suspense. Mark your calendars! However, I am getting ahead of myself and telling the story in reverse, so I will start at the beginning.

Author with Iron Rattler in Background

Planning a trip around the anticipated opening of a roller coaster is a serious mistake, as I recently discovered. Several months ago I purchased a non-refundable flight from Philadelphia to Phoenix with a stop in San Antonio along the way, the purpose of the stop in San Antonio being to ride Iron Rattler. Unduly optimistic, I had had high expectations that Iron Rattler would be up and running by the time I was scheduled to depart. Of course, it was not yet up and running but because US Airways was going to charge me $300 to postpone my trip, I ended up going anyway.

Shortly after arriving at Six Flags Fiesta on Sunday, April 28, I went to the hospitality booth, explained that I write about roller coasters and had come all the way from Philly, and asked whether it would be possible to at least get a behind the scenes tour of Iron Rattler. (I did not misrepresent myself as a member of the media, which I am decidedly not, but did mention that I had had an article published on Theme Park Insider.) It would appear that no-one in the PR department was available so this never came to pass. (More poor planning on my part, leaving it to the last minute, although I had a good excuse insofar as I had been battling a virus and didn't know whether I would be up to making the trip until the day before my scheduled departure.)

My visit to the park therefore began on a note of frustration. All I could do was look longingly at Iron Rattler and although I knew that they had been testing the ride with water dummies for some time, I never even got to see one train go up. So I had to made the best of a bad situation and try to get some enjoyment, thrills, kicks, whatever from the rides that were operating. Superman Krypton Coaster struck me as the most promising of the lot, and I was not mistaken in my perception. The scenery (lift hill and first drop hang over a cliff), angle of the drop, 145-foot vertical loop and zero-G roll followed by 4 additional inversions made for a pretty good ride -- good enough that I rode it 3 times in succession.

Next up was Poltergeist, which I thought was fun but nothing to write home about. The launch out of the station was indeed a blast and the compactness of the track is rather remarkable but otherwise I didn't find it in any way exceptional except for the fact that this was this first time I'd ridden a coast with inversions without a harness. (The restraint is a lap bar; so much the better, as this was sort of an audition for Outlaw Run, which is on my list for this season and which of course has nothing in common with Poltergeist other than inversions and a lap bar as the primary restraint.)

Boomerang Coast to Coaster was the least attractive of the options but because it was there, I felt obligated to ride it. Although I've ridden some of the biggest and baddest coasters around and consider myself a seasoned veteran, this coaster really threw me for a loop. Being pulled up the first lift hill backwards had me completely unnerved, as it felt as if I was going to pitch forward at any moment and I had to brace myself hard with my feet. I could hardly wait for the catch car to release the train so that we could go hurtling downhill and get out of this uncomfortable position. Fortunately, going down the second lift hill backwards was a lot easier than going up the first lift hill backwards although going through the vertical loop and cobra roll in reverse was more disorienting than going through these inversions with the train facing forward, I came to the conclusion that Vekoma and I simply do not get along and will make it a point not to ride this type of coaster again.

Between rides I kept returning to Iron Rattler in an attempt to get closer to it. This was impossible. I couldn't find a path that would lead me around the side and wasn't at all certain about the location of the entrance. I did see one large area that was fenced off and covered; this would logically be the best way to enter the loading station but what do I know?

Iron Rattler

It was almost time to head back to the airport to catch my flight to Phoenix but Goliath, close to the park's entrance/exit, in its third incarnation since being transplanted and renamed twice, certainly deserved a shot. This proved to be a fun ride but again, nothing earthshaking. It's an enjoyable coaster with 5 inversions and a limited drop (80 ft.), pretty much a case of been there, done that.

Six Flags Fiesta Texas is a beautiful park but my take on the ride lineup is that it's less than exceptional -- although that may change with the opening of Iron Rattler. The rides, in my opinion, are simply not of the same calibre as those at my home park, Six Flags Great Adventure. I also felt that there was an overemphasis on inverted coasters and the park could use a ride like El Toro or Nitro. Still, it wasn't a waste of time to go there. The park staff was great and one of them engaged me in an animated discussion of roller coasters. Anyone who likes to talk coasters is OK by me. This guy highly recommended Six Flags Over Texas, claiming that the rides there were better than at Fiesta, and I do not doubt it. Despite my disappointment over the Iron Rattler situation, I managed to enjoy myself, have new experiences and get fresh material for my roller coaster blog.

As a footnote, I should mention that after my visit to Six Flags Fiesta Texas, I received a very nice email from the marketing director of the park, inviting me to the media event on May 15 and offering me the opportunity to be among the first to ride Iron Rattler. This would certainly be an exciting opportunity but having just returned from Texas, I don't think that I can afford to go back there quite so soon or take more time off work. My timing is so off I could cry. Don't ever take my advice about planning a trip to a theme park.

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Plan your day at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

By Robert Niles
Published: May 3, 2013 at 10:34 PM

Editor's note: Today we're starting a new weekend feature, bringing together and updating our trip-planning advice for each of the world's most popular theme parks. We're starting with the world's number-one-most-visited park, Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom.

Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom is the world's most popular theme park, attracting more than 17 million visitors a year. With an average of more than 45,000 people a day jamming into the park's 107 acres, advance planning can help make the difference between a magical vacation or a crowded nightmare.

Few people limit their Disney trip to the Magic Kingdom. It's just one of four theme parks in the Walt Disney World Resort, and Disney's ticket structure encourages multi-day visits. A one-day ticket to the Magic Kingdom will cost you $89. But if you buy a 4-day ticket -- one day per park -- the cost drops to just $64 a day. And if you buy a 10-day ticket (the longest-duration ticket Disney sells online), the cost per day drops to just $31.80. So it makes the most financial sense to plan a Magic Kingdom visit in the context of a longer Walt Disney World vacation.

What to do before you go

With all the ticket options Disney makes available, you'll definitely want to do your research -- and buy your tickets -- before you arrive at the park. Disney tickets are not fixed to a particular date and can be used at any time, so long as you use all your days within 14 days of using the ticket for the first time. (For an additional charge of between $13 and $28 a day, you can add a "no expiration" option to your tickets, which can be nice hedge against future price increases if you're planning to return to Disney in the future. You'll have to call Disney at +1-407-939-7211 to buy this option -- it's no longer available online, or listed at the ticket booths. Definitely get the full 10-day ticket if you're buying the "no-expire" option, to lock in the lowest price per day.)

Because Disney tickets aren't tied to a specific date, you can -- and should -- wait to buy them until after you've booked your hotel. Disney offers dozens of on-site hotel properties aimed at a variety of budgets, and sometimes combo room/ticket packages can offer a good deal on a Disney World vacation, so look into those options before buying your tickets.

If you decide to stay off-site, plan to bring or rent a car, as Disney theme parks are located miles away from all off-site hotels, and public transportation in the Orlando area is extremely limited. Once your room is booked, buy your Disney World tickets online via Disney's website, or a licensed broker such as Undercover Tourist. If you're visiting the Orlando area for a convention, you also can buy discounted Disney tickets specifically for convention attendees. Never buy used Disney World tickets, from Craigslist or other sources, as Disney uses a finger scan system to ensure that only one person may use a specific ticket.

If you can visit during the school year, you'll find somewhat smaller crowds than during traditional vacation periods, such as summer and spring break. The week between Christmas and New Year's is the busiest of the year. And Disney runs a variety of special events during the year, most notably several marathon weekends that draw tens of thousands of runners to the resort. So there's not much "off season" left anymore.

Disney allows visitors to make restaurant reservations six months in advance. So if you want to eat at some of the Magic Kingdom's most popular restaurants, including the new Be Our Guest restaurant and the Cinderella's Royal Table restaurant, you'll need to know the dates of your visit that far in advance, as other visitors might snap up all those reservation times on the day they become available, 180 days out. Call +1-407-WDW-DINE or visit Disney World's website to book. (If you can't get dinner reservations for Be Our Guest, the restaurant also is open for lunch on a walk-up basis only.)

Inside Be Our Guest
Dining in the West Wing of the Beast's Castle at Be Our Guest

Disney allows people who've booked a room at one of its on-site hotels to start making dining reservations for their entire stay 180 days in advance of the first day of their visit, instead of 180 days in advance of the date of they wish to dine. That allows on-site guests a head start of up to 10 days in booking dining times. Visit Disney World's special offers page to see current deals on hotel packages, then go to the resort's home page to price other hotel and ticket options for the dates you're considering.

Certain Disney hotel packages now allow you to use Disney World's new "Fastpass+" system to reserve ride times on selected attractions, in addition to making restaurant reservations. Otherwise, all Disney World visitors can use the resort's original Fastpass system to make free ride reservations once you're inside the park. Just visit the Fastpass distribution machines next to a ride to get a return time for that attraction. You can get another Fastpass for another attraction two hours later, or after your return time, whichever comes first. Not everyone needs to be present to get a Fastpass, so you can send one person ahead with everyone's tickets to get the Fastpasses for your entire family. Remember, you now must use your Fastpasses during their assigned return time window -- you can no longer return at any time later in the day, as visitors once could.

When you get to Disney World

Plan on making an early start to enjoy as much of the Magic Kingdom as you can in the morning before other visitors crowd the park. Look up the Magic Kingdom's operating hours online, and look for dates that have hours listed under the "Extra Magic Hours" column. Extra Magic Hours is Disney's program that allows on-site hotel guests to get into certain parks before they open to other guests in the morning, or to stay after the park has closed to other visitors. If you're not getting into a park early under Extra Magic Hours, you do not want to start the day at a theme park that has Extra Magic Hours that morning. It'll already be filled with guests by the time you get in, negating any advantage of the early start. Pick another park to start the day.

If the Magic Kingdom does not have Extra Magic Hours on the day of your visit, plan to arrive at the parking lot an hour before the park's posted opening time anyway. (Arrive 90 minutes early during very busy periods, such as Christmas and Independence Day weeks.) Parking costs $14 a day at the Walt Disney World Resort, but once you've paid for the day, you can park in any other Disney theme park parking lot for no additional charge, so save your parking pass. Once you've parked, you'll take a tram to the Transportation and Ticket Center, where you'll see hundreds of people who didn't buy the tickets in advance queued up and wasting time buying tickets instead of making their way into the park.

The Magic Kingdom stands on the far side of the Seven Seas Lagoon from the Transportation and Ticket Center, so you'll need to ride either a monorail or a ferry boat to get to the park. This is your first big decision of the day, assuming both options are open. If the line for the monorail extends all the way down the platform ramp and into a queue at ground level, choose the higher-capacity ferryboat instead. If the crowd's light and there's not much of a line waiting for the monorail, they typically run more frequently than the ferry and allow you a higher vantage view of the resort area.

What to do inside the Magic Kingdom

Unless it's dreadfully cold, start your day with Splash Mountain, a log flume ride in the park's Frontierland, featuring the characters from Disney's long-buried musical "The Song of the South." Splash Mountain will have some of the park's longer waits later in the day, so get this popular attraction out of the way early, before long queues form. You must be 40 inches tall to ride Splash Mountain, but Disney offers a child-swap option if you have children under that height, which allows an adult who waits with the child to ride immediately after the rest of your group gets off the ride, without having to wait in the line again.

Splash Mountain
Splash Mountain

After Splash Mountain, head next door to the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad roller coaster. Thunder's a great first coaster for young theme park fans, as it's build on a man-made "mountain," meaning that the track itself if somewhat hidden by the terrain and never all that far above the "ground." It's a relatively mild coaster, too, topping out at just 32 miles per hour. (You drove faster than that getting to the park.) Thunder also has a 40-inch height requirement.

The next "must-see" in the Magic Kingdom, based upon our readers' ratings, is the Haunted Mansion in Liberty Square, a short walk around the edge of the Rivers of America. It's a ride through a haunted house that's more funny than scary, though the darkness and special effects popping up at you might disturb sensitive youngsters. But it's a favorite of millions of Disney fans, who consistently rate this among the world's best theme park attractions.

Your fourth "must-see" stop is next door in the park's Fantasyland, for the Mickey's PhilharMagic 3D movie. A musical romp featuring dozens of Disney characters, Mickey's PhilharMagic plays in a relatively high capacity theater. You might choose to leave this show for later in the day if you'd prefer to visit some of the lower capacity (and thus, longer-wait) attractions in Fantasyland first, before their lines get too bad, such as Peter Pan's Flight, Dumbo, and Enchanted Tales with Belle.

With the Magic Kingdom's top "must-see" attractions out of the way early, relax and find your own way around the rest of the park during the day. Remember, this is a vacation -- not a military operation. You don't need to schedule every minute of the entire day to get your money's worth from your visit. Here are our readers' top recommendations in each of the park's themed lands:

  • Fantasyland: Enchanted Tales with Belle -- this is a fun blend of a small show with a meet-and-greet with Belle from "Beauty and the Beast." It's a small capacity show, so visit this early in the day if you want to see it. Fastpasses are not available.
  • Tomorrowland: Space Mountain -- this roller coaster in the dark is better at the other Disney resorts, if you'll be visiting California, France or Japan anytime ever. The Disney World version has fairly comfy seats but a rough track and no on-board music. Still, it's a fun ride for coaster fans. If that doesn't sound like your thing, video game fans might prefer Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin, an indoor ride where you shoot laser pistols at targets to score points and save the galaxy. Fastpasses are available for both of these rides.
  • Main Street USA: Meet Mickey and Minnie in the Town Square Theater. Fastpasses are available.
  • Adventureland: Pirates of the Caribbean is the highest capacity attraction in the park. It's not as long or as good as the Pirates attractions in California, France or Japan, but it's an excellent option for later in the day when lines have grown crazy in the rest of the park and you're looking for a long, cool ride in the dark to escape the afternoon heat.
  • Frontierland: If you're looking to relax in a dark, air-conditioned theater in the afternoon, take in the County Bear Jamboree show. But if your kids are restless and need to blow off some energy, take a raft over to Tom Sawyer Island instead, and let them run around that wooded play area.

Get Fastpasses for reserved ride times later in the day. If a standby line looks too long, remember that waits get longest between noon and early evening, getting shorter during parade times and then again later in the evening. Opt for high-capacity rides (such as Pirates) and theater shows in the middle of the afternoon to fill time before your next Fastpass return. Or head back to your hotel for a swim or a nap, if you're staying on-site.

Where to eat

If you didn't get dining reservations in advance, Be Our Guest is open on a walk-up basis for lunch, though the lines can get long. Other highly-rated counter-service options include Columbia Harbour House for seafood, Sleepy Hollow Refreshments for fried chicken waffle sandwiches and Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn and Cafe for burgers with an elaborate toppings bar. Dole Whips and Citrus Swirls, available at separate locations in Adventureland, are two popular Disney treats on a hot day. Check our Magic Kingdom park listings page for more dining and attraction options.

The fried chicken waffle sandwich, with sweet and sour syrup and arugula.
The fried chicken waffle sandwich, with sweet and sour syrup and arugula, from Sleepy Hollow Refreshments.

Freebies in the Magic Kingdom

You don't have to buy high-priced souvenirs to take home a keepsake from your Magic Kingdom visit. If you ride the Tomorrowland Speedway, kids can ask for their own souvenir "Driver's License." Check the park's published show times (you can pick up a schedule at the front gate or next to any store cash register in the park) to be part of "Captain Jack's Pirate Tutorial" in Adventureland. Kids who participate get a free "pirate diploma." Or visit the Fire Station on Main Street to pick up a starter pack of cards to play Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, an interactive game that you can play in stations around the park. If you're celebrating a birthday, anniversary or a first visit to the park, you can get a free souvenir button at City Hall on Main Street. And if you take one of the "Friendship" boats over to a hotel anywhere in Walt Disney World Resort, a free souvenir trading card is often available, if you ask nicely.

If you've got the stamina to make it through the day, the Magic Kingdom offers fireworks every evening, and multiple parade performances most days. Plan to stake out a place at least an hour in advance for the best views on busy days. But if the park is offering two shows of its nighttime parade, opt for the second one. Most people will go to the first, so go on rides during that show, then watch the second parade, when most people have left the park for the day and you can walk up to the parade route for a great view without having to wait.

What's next at the Magic Kingdom?

A new princess meet and greet location, Princess Fairytale Hall, will open in Fantasyland in late 2013. And the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, a family roller coaster through the Show White dwarfs' gem mine, is under construction for a 2014 opening.

We will update this entry, based on reader feedback in the comments. If you have a suggestion for this page, please use the comment section below to let us know. Thank you!

Next week: Disneyland

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Vote of the week: Do you do theme park parades?

By Robert Niles
Published: May 2, 2013 at 11:29 PM

Disney's cooking up a new parade for the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World -- but will theme park visitors make this new parade a hit?

Celebrate a Dream Come True parade

Theme park parades can start heated arguments among some fans, who will debate the Electrical Parade vs. Spectromagic vs. Light Magic for hours on discussion boards. (Okay, everyone will pretty much agree that Light Magic was a disaster. But why was it so bad? Oh, now we're going again!) Yet many, many other theme park fans couldn't care less about parades. They're the ones running to the other side of the park to ride as much as they can while the parade draws visitors away from those rides and toward the parade route.

Theme parks don't need for a majority of their visitors to watch parades to make the shows worthwhile. If only a small percentage of park visitors choose to sit down and watch a parade, that still can mean a reduced load of thousands of visitors to a park's overwhelmed attractions, making wait times manageable for others at the busiest time of the day. The parades can represent the elusive "win/win" scenario for park managers -- a great show for people who love such things, and lesser wait times for people who'd prefer that.

But only if parade fans actually like the parade. Throw a bad show out there, and everyone's skipping the parade for the park's other attractions, keeping wait times long and all the money spent on the parade wasted.

What do you do about parades when you visit a theme park? Are they something you include in your day at the park, or something you try to avoid? That's our vote of the week.

Please tell us in the comments about your all-time most memorable parade moments, whether they be from a great parade, a terrible one, or one that allowed you to bag a record number of attractions with little or no wait.

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The Blog Flume Filter for May 2, 2013

By Jeff Elliott
Published: May 2, 2013 at 10:40 AM

Disneyland – Mickey & the Magical Map is set to open May 25th at the Fantasyland Theater. Okay, with the newsy bits completed, I have to say that this really impresses me. It is using newer technology to lipsync the character with the music, they are using what looks like live musicians, which means that it is possible that the voice is not prerecorded but done on the spot by someone talented and a puppeteer. Even the movement of King Louie is impressive as it looks like the performer seems to grasp the unique movements of the character. Having seen none of the rest of the performance, I think I would make it a point to see this show…and I rarely see shows, so that is saying a whole lot.

Epcot – The only reason I’m including this is because I know how many people were upset about the whole magic wand thing and Spaceship Earth. But I think this is cool, so just deal with it. I imagine on the ground looking up at this is just shy of spectacular. I would then have to wonder about what else in the future will be done utilizing this system. I mean, wouldn’t it be extremely expensive to go through all of this effort and then never use it again?

Tokyo Disneyland – Star Tours 2.0 has soft opened. Among the many special touches that this version has is a recruitment video for people to join the Empire complete with soft padding nearby for when you pass out after Darth Vader does the throat choking thing on you.

Disney Parks – There was a major, super huge announcement made this week. Disneyland, California Adventure, and Magic Kingdom will be opened for 24 hours from 6am to 6am starting May 24th. Yeah, well, this limited time magic is very, very limited. What is the point of going to the park on that day when you know that the entire world will be going to the parks on that day and it will take you 24 hours to accomplish what you could normally do in 5 hours. And let’s be clear here, this is a perk specifically designed for annual pass holders, because if you are just a regular guest, you will want to avoid this like rabid monkey flu unless you like 16 hour waits for a single ride.

Walt Disney World – You may want to ask the esteemed Mr. Niles about this because I don’t cover restaurants. But. The California Grill at the Contemporary Resort is getting an Iron Chef makeover with the kitchen on stage. Yawn. How about a ride? How about a ride where you order your meal on a touch screen while going up the lift hill and then in the final turn of the coaster, you zip past a window with your arm out and they do a 50 mph handoff of your lunch. Until then, let’s leave the culinary experiences to those who don’t think McDonald’s is an upgrade from the food they know how to cook themselves.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom – In order to be able to check the correct box and take the tax deduction for being an educational experience, Disney is now finally ready to unleash the fury of the Wilderness Explorers onto the park. I hate to point out that there will be no wilderness involved and certainly no wilderness exploring. In fact I would be surprised if there was any dirt involved in any of the missions and, from what I hear, wilderness seems to have a lot of dirt. I personally wouldn’t know since I live in a city and in the city they consider weeds growing between the cracks in the pavement to be “agriculture”, cockroaches are “wildlife”, and the stinking beasts that live in the city zoo which are called “captives”.

Once Upon A Time – For those of you who actually have time to watch TV, I have heard that Once Upon A Time is relatively popular even though it is on ABC. Since Disney owns ABC, they figured that what the park really needs is crossover appeal to all of those people who haven’t been off the couch for years and need to be made aware of the Disney Parks. While they’re at it, they could also do a TV show with the Cirque Du Soleil performers doing interesting tricks off of the catwalks of the still closed Space Mountain.

Star Wars – According to director JJ Abrams, John Williams is going to be on board to score the next movie. Apparently it was cheaper just to get John Williams than to pay him to license his Star Wars music again. Which, to me, is a bit of a bummer since I was hoping for Danny Elfman to go all Oingo Boingo with the canteen music. With Star Wars day on May (the) 4th I would have expected some bigger news, like Carrie Fisher getting a personal trainer or something like that.

Cedar Point – Earlier than they were planning on making the official announcement, demolition has started on the Blue Streak. Rumor has it that the coaster is coming down in order to put up an office for the court appointed return of COO Jack Falfas way far away from the rest of the staff.

Knott’s Berry Farm – Coast Rider is testing. This is a small wild mouse coaster. So the big question is: why do we care? The answer is: If we pretend like we care, then Knott’s will start doing the right thing with some of their other attractions, like refurbing their mine ride, giving Mystery Lodge a technology boost and refresh of the story, and actually getting around to building that theorized 500ft tall coaster they keep fertilizing the rumor mill with. You aren’t going to complete against your neighbor’s Cars Land without doing something really serious soon.

Kings Island – The park put up some construction barriers to make everyone think that there is construction going on behind the “construction barrier” in order to not have to explain to guests why they are still paying the same price for tickets when a major attraction was knocked down for marshmallow cookers. While there are rumors about Kings Island getting a replacement into that area by 2014, as of yet they have withheld any news even so remote and uninteresting as to be included here. At least we can guess that “big wooden roller coaster with loop” is out of the running.

Kennedy Space Center – One of the staffers, while trying to avoid the mad kids flocking to their inappropriate-at-a-museum Angry Birds exhibit stumbled across a large object covered in shrink wrap. When they pulled the corner a bit, they found that it was the Space Shuttle Atlantis, so they decided to pull the rest of the shrink wrap off and think about putting it on display. In other space related news, the Russian Space Agency finally figured out that if the US has no way of getting into space on their own, then they can charge any fee that they want to charge in order to ferry people to and from the International Space Station. It would have only cost N*Sync $20 million to take Lance Bass out to the space station and leave him there, but now the Russians want $70 million per person to act as the world’s space station taxi service.

Blue Collar Country Theme Park – Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall, and Daniel Lawrence Whitney (Larry the Cable Guy, to those of you who consider a character to be a person) are putting together a theme park in Alabama. They have plans to build as many as 6 more parks if this one goes over well. I have to say that it will be interesting to go on rides that were put together with duct tape. At this point, they have a plot of land and a bunch of work to do, but they probably have deep enough pockets and connections to Git-R-Dun.


Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to come up with some ride ideas for the Blue Collar Theme Park…although a roller coaster with a beer tap on the train immediately comes to mind. They could take the Knights in White Satin ride from Hard Rock Park and change it slightly to make it an exploration Inside Larry’s Brain… Any other ideas?

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Universal Orlando announces June 20 debut for Transformers, plus a contest to win a trip to the opening

By Robert Niles
Published: May 2, 2013 at 9:05 AM

Universal Orlando today announced that its version of Transformers: The Ride 3D will open on June 20. Universal's also running a contest on its Facebook page, giving away a trip to the grand opening.

Transformers Orlando

Universal announced yesterday through a promo video that it would make the opening date announcement today:

This morning, "Prepare for Battle June 20" appeared at the top of the building in Orlando, tipping off everyone in the area of the specific opening date, which Universal has now confirmed via its Facebook page.

At Theme Park Insider, we've been all over the Transformers ride since the original version opened in Singapore in December 2011. We were the only US-based media outlet to cover that opening, and we've continued to follow Transformers with an exclusive first interview about the ride with its designer, a pre-opening walk-through of the Hollywood version of the ride, and by breaking the news that Transformers would be coming to Orlando.

Universal's built the Orlando version of the ride in record time, with ground-breaking just last summer. Universal insiders report that the ride's just about reading for employee testing, and that soft opens for the public could be happening within the next few weeks.

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What are the best (and worst) high-motion dark rides for visitors with upper-torso weakness?

By Daniel Etcheberry
Published: May 1, 2013 at 10:59 AM

Guests with upper-torso weakness should be aware of the forces that certain rides will give to their bodies. If you are one of them, you are lucky to have me as your theme park ride dummy. I am generous enough to try all the rides (well, almost all) so you can avoid the ones that may be challenging for you -- those ones you will not enjoy because you will be more worried about staying in an upright position than enjoying what is happening around you. Let's go down the list of hellish experiences.

Your worst bet would be Indiana Jones Adventure (Disneyland) and Dinosaur (Disney's Animal Kingdom). Those vehicles (which run on identical tracks) have very rough movements in all directions. If you have a weak upper-body, there is no way you can keep sitting straight by your own. At Dinosaur, my brother-in-law (who is big in size and strength) had to grab me very tight to keep me in place. I was lucky to have him next to me. At Indy, there was no brother-in-law, and I ended up over my mother's lap for the whole ride. I only was able to see the ceiling and listen to John Williams' score. Your better, more affordable choice is to stay away, put on a copy of the soundtrack album and just watch the ceiling at home… or find a big and strong brother-in-law.

Indiana Jones Adventure at Disneyland
Not the best choice for visitors with upper-torso weakness

Next in line is Star Tours: The Adventures Continue, at Disneyland and Disney's Hollywood Studios. I was too worried about leaning sideways or bending forward that I did not enjoy the ride as much as I wanted to. The simulator moves a lot, and the seatbelt will keep you on the seat but you will have to do a constant effort to stay in an upward position. Not as bad as the previous rides, but a nuisance nonetheless.

The Cat in the Hat at Universal's Islands of Adventure? Ask for the wheelchair accessible vehicle! If not, you will make the same huge mistake that I made the first time I rode it. It spins like crazy! Don't let the family-friendly façade fool you. It is much safer if you stay in your wheelchair. The first time I rode it, I started to slide to the side-open section of the vehicle. It was scary.

Your best bet for a safe and enjoyable ride on a high-motion dark ride is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey at Universal's Islands of Adventure. With its over-the-shoulder restraint, you will feel safe and it will keep you sitting straight. The beauty of it all is that the bench (which is mounted over a robotic arm) has more movement than all the previous rides I just mentioned, but it is safer and more enjoyable. It is a dream come true for people like us -- a dark ride that is thrilling and doesn't give any concerns at the same time. Ah, and it is a dream come true for the rest of the population as well.

Daniel Etcheberry writes each month for Theme Park Insider about theme park accessibility issues.

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Keep reading: April 2013 Archive