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June 2013

Where to eat: Yak and Yeti at Disney's Animal Kingdom

By Jacob Sundstrom
Published: June 30, 2013 at 9:33 PM

One of just a handful of table-service restaurants in Walt Disney World's Animal Kingdom, the Yak and Yeti restaurant offers items inspired by Asian cuisine from all over the continent and a respite from the swamp-like Orlando humidity.

Yak and Yeti interior
Photo by David Bradley

It was a 30-minute thunderstorm that forced my then-fiancé, now wife, and I off the paths and into the nearest table-service restaurant. It quickly became our favorite restaurant in the park, and one of our favorite places to eat in the entire resort.

The walls are covered with relics from the owner's travels all over southeast Asia, or so the story goes. The dining areas are spacious; there is surprisingly quite a bit of seating hidden behind the narrow facade that dominates the exterior.

Yak and Yeti interior
Photo by David Bradley

We did not order an appetizer, but I heard great things about the Dim Sum basket, which includes pork pot stickers, shrimp siu mai, cha su boo and pork siu mai, all of which is steamed on a banana leaf ($13.99).

Yak and Yeti offers entrees ranging in price from $16.99-25.99. Lo Mein, Duck with Anandapur Glaze and the Shaoxing Steak and Shrimp are among the more popular items, our server told us. My wife tried the Chicken Lo Mein, while I opted for the Stir-Fried Beef and Broccoli.

Lo mein differs from chow mein in both the style of noodle (usually, though often times American restaurants use the same noodle for both) and the way it is prepared. Lo mein is not deep fried like chow mein, offering a lighter option when paired with chicken, like my wife ordered it. ($17.99) There's something to be said about a light meal when you're spending a whole day walking around theme parks in Orlando.

The lo mein was served with a generous amount of carrots, cabbage, green beans and bean sprouts. There was more than enough chicken, too; this was not a meal that subsisted on the noodles. The portions were large, which worked out well for my wife and I as we spent most of our trip eating one large meal a day and then augmenting our diet with snacks. It's a great way to save money and keep from adding several pounds while on vacation.

The flank steak used in the beef and broccoli ($18.99) was not over cooked as is so often the case. The sauce was savory and a little salty, which paired well with both the steak and the broccoli. I also ordered a side of steamed rice to accompany my meal, which was well worth the asking price of $3.50.

For the vegetarians, a vegetable lo mein dish is offered for $16.99, and the same dish is served with tofu for just two dollars more. That is the only dish that comes vegetarian at the restaurant, but for most of the dishes the meat can be substituted for stir-fried vegetables, which are also available as a side dish for $4.99.

An extensive list of interesting alcoholic beverages is offered, including the Shanghai Express, which features spiced rum, banana liqueur, peach schnapps and tropical fruit juiced. Beers from all over the world also find their way on the menu. Fear not, you can get a Corona or Heineken to accompany your Mahi Mahi.

We decided to try the house tea, which we both enjoyed very much; but we like tea quite a bit and frequently drink it at home. Yak and Yeti also offers soft drinks, and you can't go wrong with a glass of water when on vacation in Orlando.

The real treat, and a must-try in my wife and I's opinion, was the platter of fried wontons we ordered after our meal was eaten. The wontons are stuffed with cream cheese and served on skewers with fresh pineapple. They are served with vanilla ice cream and a honey-vanilla drizzle.

I am a known quesophobe (not a fan of cheese unless it's melted on my pizza) and was skeptical about the idea of ordering a dessert stuffed with aged milk; but upon my wife's insistence, I tried the wontons and was blown away by how much I enjoyed it. The shell was crispy and flaky, and the inside was warm and sweet.

Restaurants like these are one of the reasons my wife and I will be going to Orlando for the third time in three years this fall. Walt Disney World offers a huge range of restaurants that allow you to put your feet up and relax while enjoying a delicious meal. That is in stark contrast to the Disneyland Resort (where I worked for a year and a half and my wife currently draws a paycheck) which features two or three table-service restaurants at a reasonable price (hint: not the Blue Bayou or Carthay Circle Restaurant).

Yak and Yeti gives a break from quick service burgers and the Florida heat while serving up great entrees at a reasonable price. We visited the restaurant on both of our previous trips to the Animal Kingdom, and I have little doubt that we will pay it a visit again on our upcoming trip to Orlando.

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How music helps make the magic in theme parks

By Jonah Sirota
Published: June 30, 2013 at 2:23 PM

Imagine a beautiful, clear morning at Universal's Islands of Adventure. You've arrived early (because you read Theme Park Insider!), and, for some reason, you decide to walk around the park the long way to get to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. As you walk through Jurassic Park, you slow down. Even though the Jurassic Park River Adventure is not yet running, you are taken in by the beauty of the jungle landscape. You are nearly alone in this immersive place, and as music swells with a theme from Jurassic Park (called — no joke — Journey to the Island), you suddenly feel as though you are in the movie, a doe-eyed observer of this impossible new experience. At some point, you reluctantly realize that you'd still like to ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey before the crowds descend. You've got to leave this theme-park Eden and cross the bridge into a different place. But, what a transition! As you start to cross, and are able to make out the shape of Hogwarts on your left and a Butterbeer cart in front of you, you become aware that the music is changing. You are suddenly in Harry's world, alive with all of the wonder and possibility that Harry experiences in the books and movies. Before you get on that Kuka robot arm, before you even step under the arch, the magic becomes real.


Start at the 16:55 mark for the bridge music.

As a musician, I probably spend more time in theme parks paying attention to the way the park sounds than most guests. The music, especially the "underscoring" (the background music playing all around you while you visit a themed environment), is often designed not as a focal point of its own, but as another layer of theming. In today's most immersive themed lands (such as the Wizarding World of Harry Potter) the music does more than add theming, it actually creates the illusion that you are IN a movie. It's your life, only better, and with a soundtrack! It creates the kind of experience I described above.

On a recent trip to Orlando, I noticed that many of the most successful themed attractions share music by the same composer. I'm talking here about John Williams. He is responsible for the musical scores behind some of the biggest attraction properties in Orlando: Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, E.T., Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and, until very recently, Jaws (gone now, but with Diagon Alley taking its place, it's a zero net loss). You might notice that this list spans three parks and the two biggest theme park players, Disney and Universal. Very few others have reach like that (not coincidentally, Steven Spielberg is the other, and he produced or directed many of the movies on that list). Basically, as far as theme park attraction music goes, John Williams is the man. He wins Orlando.

John Williams
John Williams conducts the Orlando Philharmonic at the opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter on June 16, 2010.

What makes his music, or the franchises connected with it, so successful? The answer is simple: he is very good at what he does. For many years, he has been considered the best in the business when it comes to scoring blockbuster films. Three things set him apart.

First, like any decent film composer, he has a great sense for the character of a movie and the mood at any moment in the film. There are certain things that sound like a John Williams score, but there are also big differences between the sound of, say, Jurassic Park, which has exciting, idealistic, slightly overconfident music, to reflect the idealism — and delusions — of the character who invents Jurassic Park; and Harry Potter, a musical score full of both joy and regret, reflecting Harry's discovery of a better, but scarier, world than the one he thought he lived in.

The second thing that sets John Williams apart — and this one has gotten him into some trouble with musicians: he is good at borrowing material. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the great pieces written for symphonic orchestra over the last 250 or so years, and of the history of music going much farther back than that. If there is a clever trick in the book for creating a certain sound, effect, or mood, he has studied it and used it. In many of his films, for example Star Wars Episode IV, someone with a knowledge of music history can go scene by scene and name these influences (The Dune Sea of Tatooine sounds just like the Introduction to Part 2 of Stravinky's Rite of Spring; Imperial Attack borrows freely from Mars, the Bringer of War from Gustav Holst's The Planets, etc). I don't disparage him for doing this, and I imagine that he would be the first to admit his influences. But his "stealing" drives some professional musicians, and non-movie composers, crazy, because they feel that he stands on the shoulders of masters and hasn't earned his fame. That's kind of absurd. For one thing, if you are going to be influenced by those that came before, as every artist is, at least Williams picks the right people to mimic. His already-mentioned sense for mood and pacing means that he picks his influences very carefully, and based on the dramatic action in the film. He also works in a field where creative borrowing is almost expected. Much of the architecture in the Harry Potter films and Universal attractions, for example, comes from well-known Medieval castles and artwork. Few fault the set designers for going back to those influences. John Williams is doing exactly the same thing with the music. But he certainly contributes more than just good copies of older music.

Which leads to his third strength: the guy can write a great melody. Think about it. You can hum the themes to all of the movies I listed above (well, in the case of Jaws you would have to kind of groan rhythmically). Being able to write a good tune is a surprisingly rare gift for a composer. Two other composers known for their skill in writing melodies are Mozart and Tchaikovsky, and they have also been slandered by other musicians jealous of their natural abilities in this regard.

What does all of this mean for a theme park fan? Well, it's no surprise that some of the top-grossing IP [intellectual property] in all of film history has music written by the most successful popular film composer. But in the case of John Williams, the music may have really contributed to the success of these films. Can you imagine Star Wars without the music swelling as the binary sun sets on Tatooine? Or E.T. without the main theme blaring as E.T. helps the kids fly their bikes over the city? Or how about if we didn't have Hedwig's Theme to evoke quickly the entire film world of Harry Potter? These are iconic moments in film, and music, history, and they elevate their entire franchises, and the theme park attractions built off of them, to a different level.

Which leads me back to the bridge connecting Jurassic Park to Harry Potter at IOA. After my recent visit, I decided that bridge is my favorite musical "moment" in a theme park. I like many other spots, too, present and past: the old Imagination pavilion music at EPCOT by the Sherman Brothers, Danny Elfman's new ride soundtrack to Mystic Manor at Hong Kong Disneyland (the decision to commission and record a ride soundtrack of that magnitude makes me wonder if a film is in the works), and even the entrance plaza music at Islands of Adventure, which shifts brilliantly over the course of the day. But the bridge from Jurassic Park to WWoHP takes the cake for me, because the music is really well-integrated with the theme, and having two great Williams scores set off next to each other like that is just plain fun.

How about you? What's your favorite music, or musical location, in a theme park?

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Last call for reader ratings in the 2013 Theme Park Insider Awards

By Robert Niles
Published: June 27, 2013 at 9:54 PM

We'd like to issue a last call and invitation for Theme Park Insider readers to rate the attractions, restaurants and hotels they've visited in the past year, before we announce the 12th annual Theme Park Insider Awards next week. Your ratings determine the winners of those awards, which include four categories:
  • Best Theme Park
  • Best Hotel
  • Best Restaurant
  • Best New Attraction

Transformers: The Ride
Last year's Theme Park Insider Award winner for Best New Attraction: Transformers: The Ride at Universal Studios Singapore and Hollywood

Attractions that opened officially since July 1, 2012 that are not clones of previously considered attractions are eligible in the Best New Attraction category. Table-service restaurants located inside a park's gates are eligible for Best Restaurant, and official, on-site hotels affiliated with a park will be considered for Best Hotel. You can find the complete list of theme parks available for rating and reviews by following the "Park Guides" link at the top of the page. Follow "Hotel Reviews" to rate our listed on-site hotels, too.

Obviously, readers' ratings over the past 11+ months already have moved a handful of eligible locations in position to challenge for these awards. Here, for your convenience, are links to the top contenders in the hotel, restaurant and new attraction categories. Please rate only the ones you've experienced in the past year, but please do rate all of those. We want these awards to reflect the informed consensus of the Theme Park Insider community. And please do spread the word to others you know who've experienced some of these great destinations. We'd like to consider their views, too!

Best Hotel

Best Restaurant

Best New Attraction

We will announce the winners of this year's Theme Park Insider Awards on Thursday, July 4.

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The Blog Flume Filter for June 27, 2013

By Jeff Elliott
Published: June 27, 2013 at 12:02 PM

Trip Report: Kings Island – We normally lead this article with something from the Mouse, but this section just had to go first. Last week we posted a video of someone catching keys on a roller coaster and then put it to the vote with nearly a third of you saying that it was Photoshopped. On Monday I went to Kings Island and while I can't prove that the video is true or not, I proved that it is possible. We were going on our last ride of the day on Diamondback and right before the turnaround we hit an airtime hill and something hit me in the chest and then went flitting past my ear. A quick glance at the object made me think that it was my sunglasses, but I quickly remembered that they had been left with the baby boy in his stroller in the parent swap area. We then hit another airtime hill and this time I saw the person in front of me loose his cell phone. Almost in slow motion I saw it flipping in the air in front of me, leaned forward, and was able to nab it out of the air. Unfortunately, the response at saving his cell phone was less the overwhelming as he was much more concerned about losing his prescription glasses and being unable to see. But, it does prove that the video from last week is entirely possible. The picture below was taken by James Koehl and shows my wife, Evonne, excitedly pointing out whose cell phone I had caught.

Caught in the act?

Universal Orlando – It has been some time since Universal bought Wet 'n Wild, but they never owned the land that Wet 'n Wild was built on, merely leasing the land from the owners. This has been fixed and Universal is now in total control of the waterpark and the land it is sitting on. In addition to the land directly under the waterpark, Universal also bought several parcels of additional land that currently house some warehouses and others parcels nearby that are vacant. Could Universal be starting to get serious about expansion outside of its current borders?

Universal Studios Florida – This could be just Blue Sky dreaming, but we are starting to hear that the project after Harry Potter 2.0 opens might involve a change in occupants for the Woody Woodpecker's Kidzone. And that they might be little blue people. Maybe this is Universal's way of confusing consumers into thinking that instead of Avatar's tall blue people, what they really smurfing need is short blue people.

Walt Disney World – For those of you upset about me not leading off with something from Disney, I have a gift for you…although you might want to quickly go to the bathroom and grab a snack before starting this.

Disneyland – Since we did a huge program about Disney World, here is one about Disneyland.

Disney's California Adventure – We reported last week that a new Monstropolis area would receive a green light if the newest movie did well in the box office. At $82 million for its opening weekend, we are starting to see height check balloons already go up in the area. Consider this one to be started soon and the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire building to see the wrecking ball as the official start of construction approaches.

Epcot – We keep hearing rumors that refuse to die indicating that negotiations for a new country pavilion are ongoing at the moment. The country in question is Brazil. Please don't be excited about this until construction actually starts, since this dream has been hanging in the air for years. But if it does, can anyone think of something Brazilian that would easily equate into a show or (gasp) a ride that would fit into a pavilion? Feel free to post any ideas you have in the talkback below.

Disney's Hollywood Studios – Of course you know that the rumor mill is spinning faster than a jet engine since we broke the news that a major Star Wars expansion is going into the park as well as a Cars Land installation. So here is the latest: Instead of a full Cars Land like in California Adventure, the Studio would only get the Racers ride that would take over the Catastrophe Canyon area of the park. A newly circulating rumored expansion to Pixar would also go in taking over New York Street, Lights, Motor, Action, and Muppet Vision themed to Monstopolis, although the concept would probably be similar to the one going into Shanghai and California Adventure. Star Wars would then take over the Backlot Express restaurant with a Cantina themed restaurant, Sounds Dangerous would become new and much improved Jedi Academy show more integrated with theater style special effects, and the Great Movie Ride would come down for a new Star Wars E-ticket ride. The hat would also go to make way for a new icon for the park. But early rumors are might only be someone's dream…rest assured that Theme Park Insider will let you know when the facts slot into place and we see actual blueprints.

Tokyo DisneySea – The Mermaid Lagoon Show is going to close down for a yearlong rehab next April and it will return as a musical concert for King Triton. Here is what you are missing by not booking a trip right now over the pond to check this out.

Kentucky Kingdom – The Kentucky State Fair Board is finally ready to hand over the keys officially to Ed Hart and his group in order to reopen the park. Their plan is to spend $43.5 million in order to get the park reopened, which by Disney money standards is enough for a churro stand and a sign that says “come back later”.

Tripsdrill – Karacho is doing testing and while it is no Smiler, it does appear to be a really nice Gerstlauer coaster at a wonderfully odd park, or, excuse me, Karacho ist testen durchführen und es ist zwar kein Smiler, es sieht aber so aus, als ob ein sehr schönes achterbahn auf einem wunderbar komisch. Sorry…German park gets a German update, not a good German update, but it has been a while since those classes in middle school.

Six Flags Great America – Viper is now running backwards. WooHoo! New Coaster!

Banshee

Kings Island – We led with Kings Island this week, and we'll wrap this up with the same park. Before I had taken the opportunity to play wide receiver on Diamondback, we decided to get a little nosey about the progress of Banshee and as you can see by the picture above, they are already starting to pour foundations. Funny enough, no one at Kings Island had any idea what the new coaster was all about and I had to let several different cast members know the name and specs of their new ride. Although the newest rumors have changed the model of B&M coaster to a simple inverted…which goes to show that we really have no idea at this point other than just the name.

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Where to eat: Dinner at Emeril's Tchoup Chop at Universal Orlando's Royal Pacific Resort

By Russell Meyer
Published: June 26, 2013 at 1:29 PM

Emeril Lagasse is well known for his steaks and New Orleans-style cuisine. He's had a restaurant at Universal Orlando's City Walk for years, but few probably know that he also has a restaurant in the Royal Pacific Resort with a distinctive Asian theme. It fits perfectly with the hotel's theme, and offers a more upscale experience expected with the Emeril name. I was in Orlando on business, and decided to treat myself to a nice dinner, and reserved a table for one. For guests coming from off-site, valet parking is available at the Royal Pacific Hotel for $5. Guests that spent the day at Universal Orlando or City Walk and parked in one of the massive parking garages can reach the Royal Pacific Hotel by boat at the dock near the NASCAR Café or just walk down the long path that can be accessed near Margaritaville. The entrance is just up the ramp from the Royal Pacific boat dock and near the main pool.

As with most hotel restaurants, the exterior of the restaurant blends in with the design of the hotel, and is identified by a unique sign.

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The interior of the restaurant features a three-story-tall space with a massive iron-clad chandelier above a pond/fountain filled with lily pads and other aquatic plants. The restaurant features a semi-open kitchen, but no seats are situated directly adjacent to the action. Aside from the pond, the décor in general is simple and understated, perhaps to draw the guest's attention to the food that is about to enliven their palate.

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The menu features a variety of Asian cuisines including Japanese, Chinese, and Thai. There are even some traditional American dishes that have been given the obligatory Asian spin. I was immediately drawn to the Chef's Tasting Menu that included a number of dishes that really piqued my interest. The menu noted that full table participation in the Chef's Tasting Menu was recommended, so after some debate with myself, I chose to try out the four-course meal.

To start off, all tables are brought a serving of shrimp chips and peanut sauce. The chips look a little like flattened Styrofoam peanuts, but have a subtle taste and interesting texture. The sauce served with the chips was very good with a good balance of heat and sweetness. My only issue with the presentation was that the bowl containing the dipping sauce was very narrow, and required you to either bite the chip or break it in half to actually dip it in the sauce. Perhaps if the sauce were served in a wide bowl/saucer or if the chips were formed into strips instead of rounds, it would correct this minor oversight.

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My first course of the evening was poached ginger crabmeat ravioli. I love ravioli, particularly special or daily offerings that you know are made fresh that day instead of frozen days in advance. This ravioli was well executed, but probably could have been stuffed with just a little more filling. The buttery sweetness of the crab was not overpowered by the green curry sauce, and the crunchy cashews provided some extra textural intrigue.

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The second course of the menu featured pan roasted salmon with white asparagus and sweet corn relish topped with Asian-style chimichurri, soybean cream sauce, and crispy lotus root. The portion of salmon was a little underwhelming, but determined appropriate by the time I reached the end of the meal, and the crispy lotus root was interesting to look at on the plate, but provided little to the overall taste of the dish. For me, the highlight of this dish was the relish that I would classify more as a slaw. The sweet corn and white asparagus were nice and crispy with a light, refreshing flavor that perfectly complimented the seared fish. The fish itself was cooked perfectly with nice caramelization and the bitterness of the chimichurri balanced the sweetness of the relish well. Perhaps it was my devouring of the shrimp chips and peanut sauce, but both the soybean cream sauce on this dish and the green curry sauce on the previous course both had strong hints of peanut sauce, and seemed very similar. The peanut sauce served with the chips was rather thick, so perhaps it was coating my palate and masking the subtle flavors within the sauces.

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The third course was a grilled filet mignon served with sausage-herb roasted potato hash, baby vegetables, and topped with an olive compound butter and Emeril's housemade Worcestershire sauce. As you would expect, the steak was perfectly cooked to my desired temperature (medium rare) with a really good sear on the exterior. At first glance, the steak appeared overcooked based on the amount of sear, but had a warm red center, and was tender and juicy. The vegetables (baby asparagus and baby carrots) were crisp and nicely seasoned, and the potato hash was simply amazing. Not only did the hash include a nice combination of herbs, onions, and garlic, but it also contained diced pieces of sausage that almost made it the highlight of the plate over the steak, a difficult task with a perfectly cooked, prime cut of filet. The compound butter on top was scrumptious, but the Worcestershire sauce was a bit sweet for me. I'm a Lea & Perrins guy, and this Worcestershire sauce bordered on the French's side of the spectrum of being overly sweet and thin. However, much of that sauce got soaked up by the hash, and did a fine job of toning down the saltiness of the sausage and potatoes.

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The final course was lemongrass ginger ice cream served with pineapple salsa and a coconut macaroon. This was a perfect ending to a multi-course meal. The subtle flavors of the ice cream played well with the sweet pineapple to provide a nice cool-down for my hard-working palate. Cakes and pies at the end of tasting menus can often be too much, so it was nice to see the chef offering a dessert that takes into account that the diner's palate needs a bit of a break. The ice cream was almost of a sorbet texture, but I didn't mind with the generous helping of fresh whipped cream on top.

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I was very impressed with the offerings of Emeril's Tchoup Chop, and enjoyed the selections presented on the Chef's Tasting Menu (which also offers a parallel wine pairing for an addition charge, which I declined). The menu prices were on par with other "signature" dining experiences in Orlando, with my Chef's Tasting Menu priced at $60/person. Entrees on the menu are in the $15-$40 range, so a couple could probably dine for just under $100 with shared appetizers and desserts. The setting of the restaurant is stunning, and the grounds of the Royal Pacific Hotel offer a beautiful setting to take a post-dinner stroll or even a pre-dinner walk. (I managed to catch the fire dancer performance near the pool just before my reservation.) The restaurant itself is a little off the beaten path, but is well worth the detour away from the hustle and bustle of the touristy CityWalk. For guests looking for a high quality, upscale Asian-style dining option while at the Universal Orlando Resort, Emeril's Tchoup Chop might be the perfect fit.

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Plan your day at Universal Studios Florida

By Robert Niles
Published: June 25, 2013 at 8:03 PM

No park since Disneyland suffered more logistical nightmares on its opening day than Universal Studios Florida. But from that inauspicious beginning, Universal Studios Florida has recovered and grown to become of the nation's most popular theme parks, trailing only its younger sibling, Islands of Adventure, among the most-attended non-Disney parks in the country.

Universal Studios Florida

Universal Studios Florida has been undergoing an even more spectacular transformation during the past two years, as the park has added a new Transformers attraction, a Springfield-themed land around its Simpsons Ride, and in 2014 will debut a new Harry Potter land themed to Diagon Alley.

What to do before you go

Please read our post on planning a day Universal's Islands of Adventure for advice on buying tickets, booking accommodations and transportation to the Universal Orlando Resort.

We can't emphasize enough the value of staying at one of Universal's three on-site hotels — if you can afford the prices, which start at $225 a night. Staying on-site at Universal allows up to five people in your room an unlimited front-of-line pass for all the attractions at Universal Studios Florida on the days you visit the park, from the day you check in to the day you check out. Having that access completely changes the experience of visiting the park, allowing you to come and go as you please, without having to give thought to crowds and wait-time management. That allows you to get more value, with less hassle, from a day here than you could get from a typical day at almost any other theme park resort in the world.

Whether you're staying on-site or not, you can get access to a reserved viewing area for the park's nighttime show, Universal's Cinematic Spectacular, by booking a dining package at the popular Lombard's Seafood Grille. The package includes a dessert buffet while you watch the show. Call 407-224-7554 at least 24 hours in advance of your visit to book.

You also can book access to a reserved viewing area for the park's daytime parade with a character breakfast reservation at the park's Cafe La Bamba. Call the same number above to book those reservations.

When you get to Universal Studios Florida

With 2013's hottest new attraction just opened at Universal Studios Florida — Transformers: The Ride 3D — an early start is essential to avoid long mid-day waits, if you're not staying on-site and haven't bought a Universal Express line-skipping pass. Remember that you'll be parking in Universal Orlando's massive parking garages and walking through the resort's CityWalk dining and entertainment district before arriving at Universal Studios Florida's front gate. So plan to arrive at least an hour before park opening on the day of your visit to give you time to park, walk and get in position to be among the first to get to Transformers when it opens in the morning.

Transformers

From there, Theme Park Insider readers' top choices for "must see" attractions at Universal Studios Florida include:

You can take those rides in that order, but keep in mind that Mummy and Men in Black also offer single-rider lines, as does Transformers. If you're willing to split your party, single rider lines can allow everyone to get through the queue much faster than they would by sticking together when wait times get longer later in the day. You won't ride sitting together, but often you'll end up in the same or adjacent cars anyway. If you arrive at park opening and start with Despicable Me, then go to The Simpsons Ride, and then hit those three single-rider attractions (starting with Men in Black, since you'll be right there), you often can bag the park's top five attractions before lunch, even without a Universal Express Pass.

Check your show guide (pick one up as you pass through the entrance turnstiles) for showtimes for the Universal Horror Make-up Show, as well as for the mid-afternoon Superstar Character Parade and Universal's Cinematic Spectacular in the evening. Then work you way around the park and pick up any additional attractions that catch your eye. Check our Universal Studios Florida ratings and reviews for additional details.

Where to eat

Krusty Burger

If you're not booked into Lombard's and you're looking for a quick counter-service meal, our readers' top choice is the new Fast Food Boulevard in Springfield, next to The Simpsons Ride. This is where you can order and enjoy iconic selections from The Simpsons TV show, including a Krusty Burger and a Flaming Moe. Duff Beer (yes, with actual alcohol) also is available.

Special events at Universal Studios Florida

Universal Studios Florida is home to the world's most-attended theme park Halloween event — Halloween Horror Nights. Running selected evenings from September through October, Halloween Horror Nights is a wildly popular separately-ticketed event that takes place after the park closes for the day. That means visitors should expect earlier-than-normal closures for Universal Studios Florida in those months — something to keep in mind if you're planning to visit then.

In addition to Halloween Horror Nights, USF offers several other special events that are included with park admission, usually during the "off season" months of the school year. Those include a Mardi Gras celebration with a concert series that lasts long after Fat Tuesday, as well as a holiday parade with the balloons from New York's Macy's Thanksgiving Parade.

What's next at Universal Studios Florida

All this park-visit strategy goes out the window when The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley opens in Summer 2014. Expect the park to be slammed with Harry Potter fans from around the world for the rest of that year, as was sister park Islands of Adventure when the original Wizarding World opened there in 2010.

Next week: SeaWorld Orlando

Previously:

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The do and don'ts of watching Fantasmic! at Disneyland

By Jacob Sundstrom
Published: June 25, 2013 at 9:56 AM

Disney's Fantasmic! has been playing for more than 20 years, and despite it being the Disneyland Resort's longest running live-action show, a perfect system to get guests in and around it does not exist.

Orlando cheated. By that, I mean that Fantasmic! as it exists in Walt Disney World (Hollywood Studios, to be exact) takes place on a stage designed for it and guests get to — wait for it — sit in chairs while they watch it. Disneyland guests are not so lucky.

Mickey at the wheel, in the finale of Disneyland's Fantasmic!

The live-action show takes place on the Rivers of America, right in front of Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion, and it's just down the road from Indiana Jones, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Splash Mountain. In short, it's a mess on busy nights, which are most nights that it plays at Disneyland.

Guests trying to get from Main Street to Haunted Mansion are frustrated because it takes 20 more minutes to get to New Orleans Square than it did an hour ago. Guests who left strollers in front of Pirates of the Caribbean have to go around Tarzan's Treehouse because traffic is now under the strict control of Fantasmic! GC. That's "Guest Control" for those not in the know. Or, the Yellow People, if you prefer.

I was one of the flashlight-waving cast members for the better part of a year, and as such I feel like I'm well equipped to help you beat the system, or at least understand it.

First:

Go to the second show

Every day during the summer, Fantasmic! is shown twice; usually at 9:00pm, and then again at 10:15pm If you can, avoid the left side (west side) of the park from 8-9:30pm before heading over to the Rivers of America for the second show. The first show is routinely full during the summer months, while the second show rarely gets more than half full.

When you're at a theme park the number-one resource you have is time. Going to the second showing of Fantasmic! buys you an extra two hours that can be used for riding another attraction, taking another picture, or eating that sixth churro.

Get there early

Don't be the guest who complains that there aren't any spots left five minutes after the show begins. Heck, don't be that guest five minutes before the show begins. It's a popular show, yes, even 20 years after it debuted. Plan accordingly.

But don't get there at five

The show has been around for 20 years, and the view from 20 feet behind the river is as good as the view from 10 inches behind the river. Trust me. I've seen the show a few times. You don't need to get there that early; it's just not worth it.

Now, if you have to go to the first show, let's discuss where you want to be to see it. For me, the best spot to watch the show is over near the Haunted Mansion, just past the farthest light tower behind the small metal fence that lines the middle pathway. It's a standing spot, but it will usually be available as close as 30 minutes before show time.

If you're really hankering for a seated spot on the cold stones, you best show up early. Some guests will camp out at 5:30pm, but they're crazy. You can get a seated spot as late as 7:00pm on most nights — and the nights when you can't? Well, you don't want to be there for the first show on those nights.

Getting a seat is simple if you show up early enough, so let me throw a short list at you to address some recurring myths about Fantasmic! viewing.

Myth 1: Center stage is the only good view

With three water screens surrounding Tom Sawyer Island, there are fine views of the show from all sides as long as there is nothing obstructing your view. I'd always take center stage if it's available, but don't give up on the show if that area is starting to fill up.

Myth 2: It's cool to show up at 5:30 and leave all my stuff on the ground to save a spot

This is a big point of contention amongst Disneyland attendees. It's never a good idea to leave your stuff unattended for two reasons. (1) It might get stolen, and, (2) A cast member may pick it all up and move it. Trust me, I've done it dozens of times to much applause from surrounding guests. Don't leave your stuff unattended. It can pose a security threat, and it's just bad manners.

Myth 3: I can stand in a seating area

No. No you cannot. No. No. Stop. No.

Myth 4: The River Belle Terrace offers a good view of the show

No, the view is awful. But your butt is in a chair. So there's that. And you can't stand in this area. It's a seating-only area. I apologize for repeating myself, but you'd be surprised at how often this rule seems to confound people.

Myth 5: I can stand in a walkway to watch the show

Nope. You will be asked to move if you try to stand in a non-roped-in area. But you got there early for the second show! So this won't apply to you anyway, right!?

If you want to see Fantasmic! relatively stress-free, following this advice should help you to do that. The key to a good vacation is time management, and that's the key to watching a crowded theme park show, as well.

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What's it like to take the Warner Bros. studio tour?

By Robert Niles
Published: June 24, 2013 at 9:24 PM

Universal's Studio Tour isn't the only option for fans who want to see "backstage" at a working film and television studio in the Los Angeles area. While Universal's iconic tour is the most popular — and certainly the most familiar to theme park fans — other studios in the area also offer tours of their facilities to the public.

This week, my family and I took the "VIP Tour" at the Warner Bros. Studio in Burbank, just up Barham Blvd. from Universal Studios Hollywood.

VIP Tour sign

At $52 per person for a two-hour tour, it's not cheap. But the Warner Bros. tour delivers a level of backstage access that long ago disappeared from the Universal tour, as well as an opportunity to get close to some of the icons from Warner Bros.' recent history.

You'll see some of those icons represented in the merchandise for sale in the studio's VIP Tour lobby, which offers T-shirts and more from the studio's DC Comics, Looney Tunes, recent TV shows including The Big Bang Theory, and… Harry Potter.

Harry Potter merchandise

It might be a bit of surprise for theme park fans to see this selection of Harry Potter wands, robes, scarves and other souvenirs here, given the presence of Universal Studios down the street, but let's not forget that it's from Warner Bros. that Universal's licensed the theme park rights to Harry Potter. (In fact, Warner Bros. has created an entire Harry Potter-themed attraction around its Leavesden studios in England, where the eight Potter movies were filmed.) You'll get some time with Potter on the Burbank tour, however, and not just in the studio store. (Keep reading!)

Tours leave every 15 minutes between 8am and 4pm, and you can grab a drink or a gelato at the Starbucks in the lobby while you wait for your tour time to be called. After watching a short film introducing the studio and its history, you're escorted by the ever-friendly Warner Bros. hosts onto 12-person trams (elongated golf carts, really) for your tour of the studio property, where still photography is not only allowed, but encouraged.

Taking pictures

The tour begins with a trip around the back lot, where you'll get a wide view of scenes you typically seen in much tighter frames. This street's been everywhere from New York to Theme Park Insider's hometown of Pasadena, California (which also serves as the setting for The Big Bang Theory, in case you didn't know).

Backlot street set

Here's the ambulance bay for ER, for those who remember that NBC hit.

ER set

And my favorite moment from the backlot, the last surviving original exterior on the lot from Warner Bros.' Casablanca, according to our tour guide.

Casablanca set

At several points in the tour, you get to leave the trams and walk around. Here, we explore the studio's auto museum, home to several Batmobiles…

Batmobiles

…And a Ford Anglia from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. (So which is the one from the film, this one, or the one in the Dragon Challenge queue in Orlando? I'm just going to presume that they used more than one in filming.)

Ford Anglia

Later, we got a chance to hang out for a moment on the Central Perk coffee house set, from the TV series Friends. Most of the production on the lot is of TV shows, as so much primary shooting for films is done on location these days.

Central Perk

The only places we couldn't take pictures were inside soundstages for current productions. So I can't bring you photos of the Ellen talk show set, or from the sets of The Big Bang Theory and Pretty Little Liars, which we got to walk through during our tour. At each stop, though, our guide offered a description of what we were seeing, an introduction to the production process and offered to answer any questions we might have. Our guide also worked as a production assistant on one of the shows, so he brought the perspective of a studio production employee to the tour, instead of simply reading a canned tour script.

We took the tour on a weekend, when there's no production on the lot, which turns out to be a good thing for site-seeing, as production rules will keep tours out of any soundstages where filming is happening. By visiting on a weekend, or during the summer when almost all TV production stops, you get access to more soundstages than you would during the height of production season. If you want to see live filming, you're better off skipping the tour and obtaining free tickets to a show taping instead. (Or, better yet, do both!)

The final stop on the tour was another no-picture zone, and unfortunately for your enjoyment of this post, it was the absolute highlight of the entire experience for me and my family.

Warner Bros. Museum

It's the Warner Bros. Museum, where you can see costumes and props from many recent Warner Bros. productions, including my son's favorite movie, Inception, as well as the Dark Knight trilogy, this year's Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Argo, and, occupying the entire second floor of the museum, costumes and props from the Harry Potter films.

And… it's time for the Niles Family nerdgasm. Harry's wand. Horcruxes. Dobby. A quidditch set. A life-sized wax cast of Emma Watson as Hemione Granger, frozen by the Basilisk. Costumes worn by Harry, Ron, Hermoine, Draco, Lucius, Arthur, Molly, Fred, George, Dumbledore. The list of artifacts here goes on and on and on. The 20 minutes we were allowed here vaporized like one of Snape's potions, leaving us wishing that we'd made time for that trip to Leavesden when we were in London last summer.

If two hours isn't enough to satisfy your curiosity, Warner Bros. also offers a $250 per person, five-hour "Deluxe Tour", which includes a chance to meet with working crew members as well as lunch in the studio commissary.

Have you ever been on one of the "other" studio tours in the Los Angeles area, or the Warner Bros. tour in England? If so, please share your thoughts about them in the comments.

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Fun summer reads for theme park fans

By Robert Niles
Published: June 23, 2013 at 11:28 AM

Looking for some fun summer reading? If you're new to Theme Park Insider, you might not yet have heard about our Stories from a Theme Park Insider ($2.99 for Kindle, $6.99 in paperback), Stories from a Theme Park Insider a light-hearted look at what it's like to work at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, with stories and comments from other Theme Park Insider readers who have worked at various theme parks.

Unlike other cast members memoirs out there, this book won't take you to any dark or outrageous places -- it's more a reminder of why we fell in love with theme parks in the first place, with plenty of silly and embarrassing moments along the way of course. Hey, that's what happens when your work is someone else's vacation.

For another look at the theme park industry, download a copy of Theme Park Insider reader and correspondent TH Creative's 7097-050719 (a theme park trilogy) ($3.99 for Kindle). It's fictional what-if mystery that explores the popular urban legend that Walt Disney didn't really die in December 1966, but was cryogenically preserved. This fun tale follows a couple of writers from a certain theme park website as they cross the country to pursue the truth. Or, at least, to drink a lot of beer along the way.

If you're in the mood for a more, well, reality-based look at the creation of Disneyland, Walt Disney World and just about every other major theme park in America, the definitive read is Walt's Revolution!: By the Numbers (from $23.77), by the late "Buzz" Price. Price, a Disney Legend who never actually worked for the Disney Company, helped select the site for Disney's U.S. theme parks, as well as pave the way for multiple other theme park developments around the country. You'll feel like a real Theme Park Insider after reading Price's delightful memoir.

Finally, if you're a theme park fan with a love for snark and sarcasm, you simply must read Native Tongue ($14.99 paperback, $7.99 for Kindle) by the dean of contemporary Florida authors, Carl Hiaasen. It's a hilarious, though very irreverent, look at the misfits running a Florida theme park called "The Amazing Kingdom of Thrills," a fictional mash-up of many of our favorite parks. (Hiaasen's newest book, Bad Monkey, just debuted this month, if you're already a fan and haven't read his latest.)

Happy reading!

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Ride review: Full Throttle at Six Flags Magic Mountain

By Robert Niles
Published: June 21, 2013 at 3:20 PM

When you've spent the better part of the past decade traveling all over riding theme park rides, it's rare for me anymore to discover a truly unique new experience on a ride. And, to be honest, I didn't expect to find one on Six Flags Magic Mountain's Full Throttle, which debuted to local reporters today.

Full Throttle

But up at the top of that loop? A moment unlike any other on roller coasters awaits you.

As its name implies, Full Throttle doesn't take its time getting to the action, launching from the station to 70 miles per hour, up and into a 160-foot loop.

And it's in that loop that Full Throttle delivers its take-away moment — a full second (which seems like eternity) of weightless airtime, upside down, lingering at the apex of the loop. Oh, and did I mention that Full Throttle doesn't pin you down with over-the-shoulder restraints? Yep, just a lap bar — and the power of physics — keep you up there for your moment of floating in roller coaster heaven.

Fortunately, the rest of the ride won't waste your time back to the station. The loop transitions through a nifty high-speed banked turn into an Immelmann loop, which then drops you into the old monorail tunnel under the Superman plaza. From there, you launch a second time, backward, up onto the Immelmann for another moment of zero-G airtime, before gravity pulls you back into the tunnel for a third launch, a "kick in the pants" that drives you up and over the top hat that spans the upper edge of the ride's initial loop.

Another lingering moment of airtime awaits you there, again, before a quick, face-down drop back to the station. It's a sudden stop there -- the only rough moment on what is otherwise a silky-smooth, whisper-quiet ride.

Except for your and the other riders' screams, of course.

Full Throttle runs two trains with 18 riders each, so don't expect high visitor through-put on the coaster. With an active ride time a little over 60 seconds, capacity will be under 1,000 riders per hour, with loading efficiency determining how close to that figure the ride gets. As always with new coasters, get there early, or prepare to wait.

For after your ride, Six Flags has opened two new food stands adjacent to the Full Throttle Plaza, Loaded Dogs and High Octane Wings.

Full Throttle food stands

I tasted the wings earlier this year, so today I opted for the "Full Throttle Dog" at Loaded Dogs instead.

Full Throttle Dog

The dog, which is grilled on site next to the stand, comes dressed like a sale rack, with pastrami, bacon, chili, cheese, tomatoes and onions, and is served with waffle fries, for $10.99. Other varieties of topping-loaded hot dogs are available, along with corn dogs and topped fries. It's all a mess, of course, but tasty and fun.

Full Throttle opens to the public tomorrow, Saturday, June 22.

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Where to stay: Legoland California Hotel

By M.H. Habata
Published: June 21, 2013 at 6:35 AM

Although our family lives in greater Los Angeles, we are big fans of Legoland, a theme park geared for elementary school-aged children in northern San Diego County, about a two-hour drive from our home. Other parks like Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm are easier to drive to, but few theme parks have so many interactive rides and attractions that appeal to children ages 6-12.

Legoland Hotel entrance

We have been making one or two trips per year for the last three years, but during this past visit (early June), we decided to make it a complete Legoland experience for our family and stay at the newly-opened Legoland Hotel. Although there are other hotels in the immediate area, the Legoland Hotel carries the Lego theming into the design of the building, the common areas like the lobby and restaurant, as well as the individual rooms, which are themed to one of three popular Legoland themes: Kingdom (knights and dragons), Pirate, or Adventure (think Indiana Jones).

Legoland Hotel

Taking a page from the Disney theme parks, one of the benefits of staying at the Legoland Hotel is early access to Legoland California park and exclusive early access to rides in the park for an hour before the park opens. When you check in to the hotel, they give the children lanyards with nametags that say “Legoland Hotel VIP,” which can be used for early access to those rides. However, because we drove to Legoland on Saturday morning, visited the park for only one day, and stayed at the hotel on Saturday night, we weren't able to take advantage of the early ride access.

The hotel is located immediately outside the front entrance to the Legoland park (the whole resort now includes the main Legoland park, an indoor aquarium which is also next to the main entrance, and a water park located at the back end of the park – each park requires a separate ticket to enter). There isn't an exclusive entrance from the hotel, but one can walk out from the back patio of the hotel through a gate and be right outside the main entrance. Legoland placed the hotel along the pathway from the parking lot to the main gate, and as a day visitor, you cannot miss seeing the hotel walking into the park.

Official check-in to the hotel is at 4 pm, so if you are spending your day of arrival at the park, you can register at the front desk, and they will take down your cell phone number and call you when the room is ready. In the meantime, you can check your luggage if you don't feel comfortable leaving it in your car during the day. I would recommend packing a separate bag or backpack with whatever you plan to use at the parks (such as swimsuits and towels if you are planning to go to the water park), instead of waiting to arrive at the park to separate what you want to use that day.

At the entrance to the hotel is a clock tower seemingly made of giant Lego blocks, with four Lego figures at the base of each of the columns and a smoke-belching, roar-emitting Lego dragon sitting in the clock tower looking out from the tower. The exterior of the hotel appears to be partly made of huge Lego blocks of various colors.

Once you enter, there are more Lego figures in the lobby, including a smaller dragon and a female surfer.

Legoland Hotel lobby

The surfer stands above a large play area filled with Lego bricks, which children are encouraged to use to build their own Lego models.

Lego bricks

On the wall behind the registration desk are hundreds of Lego figures, which appear magnified by the plastic wheels of a Lego bicycle that rides back and forth.

Minifig display

Up a little ramp is a children's play area which contains a pirate ship that children can climb around in, and a castle play area with an ogre protecting its drawbridge.

Castle play area

According to Legoland's promotional materials, hotel rooms “start at $199,” but it's likely that rate is for off-season or weekday stays. Back in January, I booked our room on their official website for a Saturday-night stay in early June at $269 plus taxes and fees (for a total of $302), but was able to get a better rate in April from the website for about $25 cheaper.

It was probably a matter of the hotel working out the bugs in the system, but I noticed that when I cancelled the earlier reservation and booked the new one, the hotel did not refund the earlier amount to my credit card, and I had to wait on the phone for almost half an hour to resolve the matter with the hotel's customer service. We typically don't stay in hotels that charge more than $150, but we wanted the full Legoland experience for this visit, which was a reward for our children to reach some goals during the school year.

There are three floors to the hotel, and each floor has rooms specific to one theme. The first floor is Kingdom (castles and knights and dragons), the second floor is Pirate (not-too-scary Lego pirates), and the third floor is Adventure (explorers of desert treasures a la Indiana Jones). Besides the regular Themed rooms, there are more expensive Premium Themed Rooms on each of the floors which have “extra theming and Lego features” in the room, but not any additional square feet inside the room.

If you stay on the second or third floors, you will experience (or be subjected to) the Disco Elevator, which has a glittering disco ball on the ceiling and loudly plays songs like “YMCA” and “Stayin' Alive.” Kids seem to love the elevator, but after the fifth or sixth time riding the elevator, adults may start wishing they had brought earplugs.

Disco elevator

The rooms themselves are memorable for children because they are designed to make the children feel special. Inside the door is a separate sleeping area for children with a bunk bed and a separate television and two remote controls, as well as a sign on the wall that has some variant of “No Adults Allowed.”

Kids only

The inside of the room door has two peepholes, one at adult height and one at children's height. There are about a half dozen constructed Lego models decorating the room (each is glued together and glued down to its location), and a large bucket of Lego blocks for the children to play with. Lastly, there is a safe sitting near the entrance which has a combination for children to decode using clues hidden in the room, and inside the safe are small prizes (ours contained two mini Lego figures, a Lego Club magazine, and a bag of chocolate coins).

Safe

Besides room service, food is available at the Skyline Café, which has cutaway views of Lego figures inside buildings from a Lego city, and the Bricks family restaurant, which serves breakfast and dinner buffets.

Skyline Cafe

We chose to eat dinner at the restaurant, which served several types of cuisine, such as Mexican, Asian, and pasta, and had a separate buffet island with kid-friendly food items set at a lower height for children to be able to reach food by themselves. There are Lego figures and models throughout the seating area, and the server will also bring out a long coloring paper roll and crayons for the children when they are done with their meal. Like the hotel, the buffet was on the pricey side ($20 for adults and $10 for children for dinner, $17 / $8.50 for breakfast), and my wife and I were not especially wowed by the quality of the food, although our kids enjoyed the whole restaurant experience a lot.

Lastly, the entertainment at the hotel carries over much of the entertainment available inside the park. There is a daily Lego model building contest for children on a different theme each day (like the areas in the park where children can build Lego models), dance parties with Lego characters and interactive sessions with hotel employees in costume (just like inside the park), and showings of Lego tv program episodes (Ninjago, Chima) by the poolside in the evening.

The swimming pool has a large shallow area under 3 feet deep and is perfect for children, and is open from early morning until late at night. The only downside is that there is no Jacuzzi or hot tub for adults.

Legoland Hotel pool

To sum up, the main attraction of the hotel is that it extends the interactive play elements and Lego theming beyond the day at the Legoland park throughout your entire visit. But because of the relatively high cost of the accommodations, I wouldn't suggest to a first-time guest with children that you stay here unless you are confident that your children would enjoy the additional experience. Like at the Disney theme parks, really young children (under 5) probably wouldn't appreciate (and are too small for) many of the attractions at the park or features in the hotel. But for children in the target age group, maybe 6 to 12 years old, most fans of Legoland (and hopefully their parents and extended families) will have a memorable experience.

Have you stayed at the Legoland Hotel? Please rate it on our Legoland Hotel review page!

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The Blog Flume Filter for June 20, 2013

By Jeff Elliott
Published: June 20, 2013 at 10:21 AM

Disney’s Animal Kingdom – I think this video does a pretty good job of outlining exactly what you are expected to do as Wilderness Explorers. So once I get the kids deeply involved in that, will Disney give me badges for going off and sampling every bar in the resort while the kids play?

Disney’s Hollywood Studios – I understand that they are trying to shill a movie here, but all I want is my Hoopla back…Mike & Sully, you’re fired. Star Wars Weekend should be EVERY weekend…I mean they are building an entire land to Star Wars, so why leave us waiting for that when we could be enjoying Star Wars every week until the new land is ready?

Disney California Adventure – The latest rumor is that if Monsters University does well at the box office, the Monsters Inc. Door Coaster will get its long awaited green light. I think that possibility might convince more people to go see the movie than the DHS pep rally ever will.

Las Vegas – Las Vegas is a go-big or go-home kind of place and they are trying to go extra-extra-big on this one. Paperwork has been submitted to build an S&S PolerCoaster Roller Coaster near the Tropicana mixing a roller coaster with an observation tower. Their paperwork describes this tower as standing 650 feet tall, easily decimating Kinda Ka’s 460 feet. First approval is with the FAA, but there are other taller things around Las Vegas, so this shouldn’t be a problem. Once they get that approval, they will need to raise funds to put this crazy tower up, but the developers make it sound like the people with the money are already waiting in the wings with checks already written.

Cedar Point – We are watching the rumor mill swirl in regards to the proposed dark ride going into Cedar Point. This week, we may have heard where the dark ride may be installed: in the Coliseum building. The placement of the ride is interesting, as right on the main strip will mean that it is going to get a lot of business and will need to be an extraordinarily high capacity ride to keep up with the crowds. I would assume that the arcade would go, but I have to wonder what would happen to the ballroom on the second floor if the dark ride does indeed go in there.

Six Flags St. Louis – What happens when you take a 24-year-old Vekoma roller coaster and move it to a sister park that desperately needs something big to compete with nearby parks? Well, in a nutshell, it breaks. How very disappointing. It looks like all of SFSL’s roller coasters are going to have to run backwards next year to make up for this failure.

Disney Animation – Here is the first trailer for Frozen. I deeply fear what this may wind up being inflicted upon the poor Matterhorn.

Universal – So I report on Disney movies… I figured it wouldn’t kill me to report on Universal as well. “Dumb and Dumber To” was just purchased away from Warner Brothers by Universal. I know that the second Dumb and Dumber really stank in ways that I can’t even begin to approach on a family friendly website, but that was because they didn’t have the original stars and the original director. This new Dumb and Dumber has all of the originals back together: Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels and the Farrelly Brothers. With some decent writing and the two stars on top form, this could be a huge victory for Universal…although I have no idea what a Dumb and Dumber ride would contain. Any ideas?

Lego – Since I did the other guys, I should probably do this one. Chalk this up to clearly a movie that I am going to be forced to take my son to and probably wind up enjoying more than him. For those of you adults without kids, now might be a good time to get involved in Big Brothers/Big Sisters so you will be ready in time for the movie, because trying to find kids on Craigslist is just plain creepy.

Finally: Real, or CG'd?

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Transformers: The Ride 3D opens officially at Universal Studios Florida

By Robert Niles
Published: June 20, 2013 at 8:19 AM

After several weeks of soft openings and what might have been the fastest construction schedule in modern theme park history, Transformers: The Ride 3D opened officially at Universal Studios Florida this morning.

Transformers: The Ride 3D at Universal Studios Florida


Photo and video courtesy Universal Orlando

Based on early reviews from Theme Park Insider readers, expect this third version of Universal's Transformers ride to be every bit as popular as its older siblings in Singapore and Hollywood, which together won last year's Theme Park Insider Award as the world's Best New Theme Park Attraction. Here's one reader's review:

Spider-Man on crack. Bigger, faster, more intense. Nonstop vehicle motion and an incredible sense of simulated speed. Larger-than-life screens with vivid and clear projections. Eye-popping 3D. An fantastic experience and a new standard for themed attractions.

If you haven't been following Theme Park Insider for long, we've been covering Transformers from the start, and we were the only U.S.-based news outlet to cover the ride's initial debut in Singapore, in December 2011. Take a look at some of our in-depth coverage of Transformers: The Ride.

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Theme Park History: A short history of Disneyland

By Robert Niles
Published: June 19, 2013 at 2:52 PM

Disneyland opened on July 17, 1955 with a 90-minute live broadcast on the ABC television network. Future U.S. president Ronald Reagan was one of the three hosts for the broadcast, which introduced America to what would become its most popular and influential theme park. Haven't seen that show? Take a look:


But the story of Disneyland begins before July 1955. Two years earlier, in July 1953, Walt Disney asked Harrison "Buzz" Price to calculate the optimal location for a new type of theme park, one with a single entrance, hidden from nearby streets, with custom rides that put storytelling ahead of thrills. Price analyzed 40 years of population data to determine that the best available 160-acre site in the Los Angeles metro area, with Interstate highway access, would be in Anaheim. Based in part on his success in siting Disneyland, Disney later hired Price to determine the location of Walt Disney World, which Price sited southwest of Orlando, Florida. Price, who passed away in 2010, went on to do feasibility studies that led to theme parks and new developments for Universal, Six Flags, Busch Gardens and SeaWorld.

Walt's brother and business partner, Roy Disney, hired C.V. Wood, Price's boss, to build the park. An often off-color showman who could sell a sponsorship to most anyone, Wood brought Disneyland in on time and on its $18 million budget, but Walt fired him immediately after the park opened. "There was room for only one showman," Price wrote in his memoir Walt's Revolution! By the Numbers. "Their clash of egos was oil and water and Walt was the boss." Wood went on to build Six Flags Over Texas, helping to launch a boom of theme park construction across the country in the years following Disneyland's opening.

Disneyland

Disney's decision to build his park around custom rides led to the development of a massive new industry in themed attraction development. Arrow Dynamics got its big break building many of the original rides in the park's Fantasyland, and in 1959, Arrow built the Matterhorn Bobsleds, the world's first tubular-tracked steel roller coaster, the innovation that sparked modern roller coaster development around the world.

Enchanted Tiki Room

In 1963, Walt Disney unveiled The Enchanted Tiki Room, the first use of Audio Animatronics in a theme park attraction. An extension of animation in film, animated mechanical characters became a staple in Disneyland and other theme parks, with Disney introducing the first animated human character in "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln" at the 1964 New York Fair. (The attraction later moved to Disneyland, where a successor plays to this day.) Also at the New York Fair, Disney introduced It's a Small World, which also moved to Disneyland after the fair, where it stands today, having inspired additional versions at every other Disney theme park resort around the world.

Walt Disney died in December 1966, before the completion of Pirates of the Caribbean, in 1967, and the Haunted Mansion, in 1969 -- two animatronic-driven attractions that would become icons for the Walt Disney theme parks, with Pirates later inspiring a multi-billion-dollar motion picture franchise. The success of those attractions helped ensure the continued popularity of Disneyland even after Walt's death.

Pirates of the Caribbean

As Disney expanded with new theme parks on the east coast, at the Walt Disney World Resort, and internationally, with Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland continued to add new attractions in the 1970s and 80s. Disney added two new roller coasters during this time: Space Mountain in 1977 and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in 1979. In 1987, Disneyland launched an industry trend in developing motion-base simulator attractions with the introduction of the original Star Tours ride.

The early 1990s brought more popular expansions, including the wildly popular nighttime show Fantasmic! in 1992, and a new land, Mickey's Toontown, in 1993, inspired by the 1988 Touchstone (Disney)/Amblin movie "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" Disney then brought motion-base technology to traditional "dark rides" with the Indiana Jones Adventure in 1995.

While that technology helped inspire similar big-budget attractions at other Disney (as well as Universal and Busch Gardens) theme parks, Indiana Jones' debut in 1995 marked the high point for Disneyland before a period of decline in the late 1990s. The park's replacement for the wildly successful Main Street Electrical Parade, Light Magic, played to hostile reviews in 1997. The death of a Disneyland visitor on the Sailing Ship Columbia dock the next year, later faulted to a Disneyland manager's error, led to changes in theme park safety regulations in the state of California. The centerpiece of the 1998 Tommorowland update, Rocket Rods, failed frequently before closing for good in 2000. Disneyland's sister park, California Adventure, debuted to poor reviews and lackluster attendance in 2001. And Disneyland suffered five years of attendance declines, starting in 1996.

But Disneyland recovered in the early 2000s, in anticipation of the park's 50th anniversary in 2005. Disney invested in ride refurbishments throughout the park, replacing the failed Rocket Rods ride with Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters and completely rebuilding Space Mountain's track and interior. In 2011, Disney revamped Star Tours with a new version, Star Tours: The Adventures Continue, that includes 55 different narrative combinations. Park attendance (and prices) surged in the late 2000s and early 2010s, with attendance finally beginning to dip in 2012, as a multi-billion dollar refurbishment and expansion of California Adventure began to draw visitors to Disneyland's sister park in record numbers for the first time. Of course, many of those California Adventure visitors also find their way over to Disneyland, where the park remains popular - and crowded - throughout the year.

Please share your favorite Disneyland memories, or hopes for its future, in the comments.

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How do theme park ticket prices compare with other out-of-home entertainment?

By Robert Niles
Published: June 18, 2013 at 8:19 PM

So, just how expensive is Walt Disney World's $95-a-day ticket price for the Magic Kingdom? Let's compare the cost of one day at the world's most-attended theme park with the cost of other popular out-of-home entertainment options.

Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

Broadway show
The cost of a ticket to last year's Tony Award-winner for Best Musical, "Once": $142

Music concert
The average cost of a ticket to last year's high-grossing concert tour, Madonna's MDNA Tour: $138

Skiing
The cost of a single-day, walk-up lift ticket to Vail Mountain, the nation's most popular ski resort last season: $129

NFL game
The average cost of a ticket to see the Dallas Cowboys, who led the NFL in attendance last year: $110.70

Baseball game
The average cost of a ticket to see the Philadelphia Phillies, who led Major League Baseball in attendance last year: $37.42

Museum
The suggested admission fee to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the nation's most popular museum that requests an admission fee: $25

Since we considered average ticket prices for some of those options, let's acknowledge that the large majority of visitors to Walt Disney World do not buy single-day admission tickets, but instead purchase multi-day tickets that allow them to see all four of the resort's theme parks.

A four-day, one-park-per-day ticket to Walt Disney World costs $279 for adults, working out to an average ticket cost of $69.70 per day in a park. Let's compare that with the two other multi-park theme park resorts in America, whose parks represent the other four of the nation's top eight most-attended theme parks. Again, these prices assume a visit of one park per day, with no park-hopping.

At the Disneyland Resort in California, a two-day ticket costs $175, working out to an average ticket price of $87.50 per day to see its two theme parks.

At the Universal Orlando Resort, a two-day ticket costs $125.99, working out to an average ticket price of $63 per day to see its two parks.

Computed this way, a visit to the Disneyland Resort in California is quite a bit more expensive per day than a visit to either of the top Orlando theme park resorts: Walt Disney World or Universal Orlando. However, even the Disneyland Resort tickets cost less than seeing a top NFL game, a day on the slopes skiing, going to a popular concert, or seeing a top Broadway show.

Of course, one can find cheaper football, skiing, concert and theater tickets out there. But you can find cheaper theme and amusement park tickets across the nation, too. The question for consumers, as always, remains: Are you getting appropriate value in return for the money you're spending on out-of-home entertainment?

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Plan your day at Disney California Adventure

By Robert Niles
Published: June 17, 2013 at 2:01 PM

Once the target of jokes about building a theme park on the cheap, Disney California Adventure in Anaheim today stands an example of how luxuriant investment can attract millions of new visitors to a park.

Mickey Mouse at Disney California Adventure

Disney California Adventure opened in 2001, then "reopened" in 2012 following a billion-dollar investment in new rides and shows including the centerpiece "Cars Land," based on the Disney-Pixar animated films. That's made California Adventure a much more popular park, one that demands some advance planning in order to get the most value from your day.

What to do before you go

Please read our guide to planning a day at Disneyland for information on scheduling your trip, booking a hotel, buying theme park tickets and arranging transportation to the Disneyland Resort. Disneyland and California Adventure are located within a few yards of each other, on either side of a football-field-sized esplanade, so many visitors choose "park hopper" tickets and treat the two parks as one during their multi-day visit.

California Adventure's new icon is the Carthay Circle theater, a replica of the movie house where Walt Disney premiered his first animated feature, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." This Carthay Circle isn't a movie theater -- it's a restaurant, and if you'd like to dine there, advance reservations are highly recommended. Call 714-781-DINE before you visit. Also note that with your reservation, if you choose at least two courses during your meal (entree and either appetizer or dessert), you'll get a Fastpass viewing location reservation for that night's World of Color show, saving you to have to pick up one of those reserved places on the morning of your visit. You can also get World of Color Fastpasses by booking World of Color dining packages at the Wine Country Trattoria or Ariel's Grotto restaurants.

Carthay Circle

Disney offers Extra Magic Hours in the mornings on selected days to its hotel guests, as well to Annual Passholders and holders of certain multi-day tickets. If you've got an Extra Magic early admission, use it on a day when you can get into California Adventure early, to secure a Fastpass or ride on the highly popular Radiator Springs Racers before it opens to the rest of the park's visitors. If you don't have Extra Magic Hour access, avoid California Adventure on an Extra Magic early opening day, as you'll find Cars Land filled with other visitors and many of the Fastpasses gone by the time you enter the park. Check Disneyland's online calendar to see which days have Extra Magic Hour early admission to California Adventure. (You'll have to look at each day's schedule -- it's not listed on the monthly view.)

When you get to Disney California Adventure

Please note that since we published our post on visiting the Disneyland Resort, Disney's raised the daily parking fee to $16. Plan to arrive at the parking structure at least one hour before park opening to allow time to park your car, ride the tram to the parks and go through the bag check in order to queue up at the park entrance early enough to be among the first in when the park opens. Pick up a show schedule as you enter the turnstiles -- you'll want it to find when the Aladdin show is playing, later in the day.

Radiator Springs Racers

Your first destination should be to get a Fastpass ride reservation time for Radiator Springs Racers, which are distributed just past the Carthay Circle Restaurant, on the pathway next to A Bug's Land, before you get to Cars Land. Your "must see" rides at Disney California Adventure, according to Theme Park Insider reader ratings, are:

And your "must-see" shows are:

If you've been to Walt Disney World, you should note that Toy Story Midway Mania here does not offer Fastpass, and has much shorter waits than the same ride at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Florida. Soarin' Over California also offers shorter waits here than at its Epcot sibling.

World of Color has several reserved viewing areas for the night's shows (you'll be standing to watch the show), which are assigned by Fastpasses you can obtain in the morning. You also can get World of Color Fastpasses by dining at one of the park's table service restaurants (see above).

Disney California Adventure also offers a Twilight Zone Tower of Terror ride, but readers rate it inferior to the Hollywood Studios version in Florida, so if you're pressed for time, feel free to skip it. But if you want to pick up a Fastpass while you're waiting for the Aladdin show next door, it's a nice way to cap off your day in the park before heading over to World of Color in the evening.

World of Color

If you're not using one of the World of Color dining packages, go ahead and walk over to the Grizzly River Run queue in the Grizzly Peak section of the park, where the World of Color Fastpasses are distributed, to get one after getting your Radiator Springs Racers Fastpass. Don't worry about Disney's traditional two-hour waiting period between getting Fastpasses. World of Color Fastpasses aren't counted against your "One Fastpass at a Time" limit.

From there, head back down to Condor Flats to ride Soarin' Over California, then cut back behind Grizzly Peak to Paradise Pier to ride Toy Story Midway Mania and California Screamin'. Don't forget your Radiator Springs Racers return time! Disneyland Resort is now enforcing return-time windows, just like Disney World, so don't be late and miss your return time.

We recommend seeing the Aladdin show later in the day, after you've hit the "must see" attractions on the other side of the park. Arrive at the theater 30-60 minutes before show time (depending upon the size of the crowd in the park), to ensure you get seats. If you're planning to ride Tower of Terror, get a Fastpass for it before queueing for the Aladdin show. Don't just walk into the standby queue after the show. The Aladdin crowd floods that ride after each show, leading to its longest waits of the day.

Other notable attractions: If it's a hot day and you're looking to cool down, try the white-water rapids ride Grizzly River Run in the afternoon, or, if you don't want to get wet or wait as long, choose the indoor, air-conditioned Little Mermaid ride in Paradise Pier. The Animation Academy in the Disney Animation building in Hollywood Land offers free classes where you can learn how to draw a Disney character, and take your work home for a free souvenir. Finally, locals flock to the nightly Mad T outdoor dance party in Hollywood Land, where the White Rabbit DJ spins dance tunes while street vendors sell a variety of alcoholic beverages.

Where to eat

Theme Park Insider readers highly recommend the Carthay Circle restaurant, especially its signature fried biscuits and Fire Cracker Duck Wings. If you don't have reservations and are looking for counter service options, try the Fiddler, Fifer and Practical Cafe in the mornings for Starbucks coffee and pastries (have one person in your party get the coffees while another gets the Radiator Springs Fastpasses), or Flo's V8 Cafe in Cars Land for a lunch or dinner of diner-style roast pork, turkey or beef platters, served with two sides. Over in Paradise Pier, readers also give high marks to Boardwalk Pizza and Pasta and the Paradise Garden Grill, which serves a variety of meat and veggie skewers.

What's next?

The year since Cars Land opened has provided a welcome break from the non-stop construction this park saw for years during its refurbishment. But rumors are flying that Disney's going to make changes to the Hollywood Land section of the park, perhaps retheming the area around the current Monsters Inc. ride as Monstropolis, adding another Monsters Inc ride in one of the sound stages next to the current ride.

Next week: Universal Studios Florida

Previously:

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The new Safari Off Road Adventure opens at Six Flags Great Adventure

By Bobbie Butterfield
Published: June 17, 2013 at 10:39 AM

Historically, Six Flags Great Adventure featured a drive-through safari with an entrance separate from the main entrance to the theme park. This was closed late last year in order to pave the way for a new Safari Off Road Adventure with vehicles and tour guides provided by the park.

The Safari Off Road Adventure officially opened on May 25, 2013 and is accessed from the Frontier Adventures section of the park, near Runaway Mine Train and Saw Mill Log Flume. Riders board one of 18 safari-style open-air vehicles seating 30 people. These trucks are painted with zebra stripes and topped with a canopy. To add to the air of authenticity, drivers are outfitted in safari gear. (The promotional literature hypes onboard videos depicting a fictitious conservationist family but I paid no attention to this so will cut to the chase.)

Prior to entering the boarding area, park guests are required to have their photographs taken against a backdrop depicting a safari vehicle and giraffe. From the boarding area, the truck makes a turn and follows a winding gravel path before entering the animal preserve. It negotiates varying and sometimes hilly terrain, from gravel to dirt to grass to asphalt. At one point it traverses a pond. The ride was so bumpy that I found it difficult to hold my camera steady or jot down notes. Where appropriate, the driver pulled off the path to get closer to the animals.

Safari vehicle photo IMG_1299_zpsfe37b359.jpg

According to the park, there are more than 1,200 animals inhabiting this preserve. I don't know how many actual species are represented but saw a wide range of animals including, but by no means limited to, white rhinos, bison, giraffes, elephants, bears, ostriches, lions and tigers. Although the safari is divided into sections, zebra seemed to be almost everywhere. Appropriately, the didgeridoo section near the end of the journey contains kangaroos and emus. Our tour guide was extremely knowledgeable about the animals and I picked up tidbits of information here and there, such as the fact that the way to determine the gender of an ostrich is that males have black feathers. Tigers, unlike most felines, like the water, are good swimmers, often entice their prey into the water and kill them while their victims are drowning.

elephant photo IMG_1276_zps4cc3053d.jpg

zebra and giraffe photo IMG_1285_zpsb69a4fa5.jpg

The safari adventure includes a stop at Camp Aventura, where adventurers can purchase refreshments, use the rest rooms and get closer to some of the animals. All passengers must disembark at this point; those who wish to continue the journey without further interruption have to line up for the next available truck whereas those who wish to hang out at Camp Aventura may do so for as long as they please and pick up another truck later. For an additional charge not specified in the literature, park guests can feed the animals. In hindsight I'm sorry that I elected not to spend time at the camp, as a tour guide later told me that giraffe feeding typically takes place between 2:30 and 4:30pm.

camp aventura photo IMG_1289_zps6cf772ec.jpg

Having had to get off the truck on which I began the journey, I continued on a different truck with a new tour guide equally knowledgeable as the first. Our journey was somewhat delayed by the fact that bears were too close to the fenced gate separating the bears from the lions, so that we had to wait until the coast was clear before the gate could be opened to allow our vehicle to proceed.

brown bear photo IMG_1304_zps90e3400d.jpg

I thought that the new safari adventure was a great way to see the animals while sitting back, relaxing and actually learning something. Because the park incorporated the terrain used for the old drive-through safari into the main theme park, Six Flags Great Adventure is now the largest theme park in the world, with 510 acres. The safari is included in the price of admission to the park. And now that the Safari Off Road Adventure has been open for a couple of weeks, the wait time to get on has decreased, unless I just happened to pick a good day on the second go-round. It was my intention to do the safari as soon as it opened but there was a three-hour wait; this past Saturday, the wait was just over an hour. I would recommend this attraction to anyone visiting the park. It's a great addition to Six Flags Great Adventure and something that can be enjoyed by families and people of all ages.

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Vote of the week: The setting of Star Wars Land?

By Robert Niles
Published: June 14, 2013 at 10:31 AM

We know that Star Wars Land is happening at Disney's Hollywood Studios. But what we don't know yet is exactly where the new land will be set.

Both literally and figuratively.

Of course, if someone associated with the project would like to leak us a copy or description of the plans, we're at themeparkinsider@gmail.com. Until that happens, though, let's talk about the setting of Star Wars Land. Not the physical setting: where the land will be built in the park. Let's talk about the thematic setting, because Star Wars Land provides what might be the greatest placemaking challenge in recent theme park history.

Star Wars
One of many Star Wars settings: Mos Espa (Image from Wookieepedia)

Harry Potter was easy. Build Hogwarts Castle in the town of Hogsmeade -- almost all of the action in the seven books and eight movies takes place there. Star Wars plays across an entire universe, however. How do you decide which of the multiple planets that have hosted Star Wars stories should provide the setting for Disney's Star Wars Land? And if one were to choose to place the land on multiple planets, how would one logically explain guest movement between the different planetary settings?

Disney's current Star Tours ride never addresses the location of its Star Tours terminal. But the ride makes clear that there are multiple planetary destinations in the Star Wars universe beyond its setting. Given that Star Tours ought to be part of Star Tours Land, how would the ride's inclusion affect a decision about the land's setting?

Of course, given that Star Wars Land will be built in a movie studio-themed park, Disney could punt and theme Star Wars Land as a Star Wars movie set, avoiding the issue of deciding on which planet the land's action takes place. But we've described the challenges facing movie set-themed parks and attractions. Given the passionate desire that so many Star Wars fans have to immerse themselves in this universe, Disney might be blowing an opportunity to win multiple future visits from these fans by taking a cheaper and easier choice to go with a movie set-themed land. (But you can tell us below if you think that's the best option.)

Let's assume that the setting will be a planet, and not on a Death Star or other spaceship, which would necessitate building a much more-expensive all-indoor land. The top two choices, given the action of the first six films, would appear to be the Skywalkers' home planet of Tatooine, or the Republic/Imperial Capital of Coruscant. Yet, other planets surely will appear in the new Star Wars movies Disney is beginning to produce and will be eager to promote to its millions of theme park visitors. Perhaps the land's setting should be one of them?

It's vote of the week time.


If you voted for another planet, please use the comments to tell us your specific suggestion. If you voted for multiple planets, we'd love to hear your suggestions on how Disney could handle the transition between those settings.

Finally, welcome to all our new readers this week, and thank you to all of our readers for being part of Theme Park Insider. Our reporting on Disney's Star Wars Land really heated up as a result of conversations on our Twitter feed. If you're not already following Theme Park Insider on Twitter, please consider this your invitation to join us over there, too!

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Cars Land, one year later: It's getting a little rusty in here

By Robert Niles
Published: June 14, 2013 at 8:57 AM

So how is Cars Land holding up, one year after its wildly popular debut at Disney California Adventure theme park?

Yesterday, I took my wife to the Disneyland Resort, to see Cars Land for the first time. I've been in the parks multiple times since Cars Land opened last June, but hadn't really lingered in the new land, or ridden its centerpiece attraction, Radiator Springs Racers, since last summer. So I was looking forward to revisiting the area, too.

Cars Land, as well as the rest of the Disneyland Resort, remains wildly popular. We arrived at the Mickey and Friends parking garage at 10am to find every toll plaza entry lane filled, all the way back out of the structure. We would need another 45 minutes to get in, park, ride the tram over to the parks and go through the bag check, before getting into California Adventure.

This is why we tell people to get an early start on their theme park days!

Cars Land looks as good as ever, and my wife kept talking about the impressive setting, from the massive rock work surrounding Radiator Springs to the seemingly minor details that enliven the queues. We found the food at Flo's V8 Cafe as tasty as I remembered it from last year, making quick work of the roasted turkey and pork platters. We both especially liked the roasted corn, though we agreed that the turkey gravy was a bit on the salty side. (My wife wondered if she could just order it on the side next time.)

Roasted pork loin platter, from Flo's V8 Cafe
The roast pork loin plate, with Coca-Cola barbecue sauce, mashed potatoes with gravy, and roasted corn. ($11.49)

One thing I hadn't tried last summer was one of Flo's pies, so we decided to take care of that oversight by ordering the blueberry and peach pie ($4.99).

Blueberry and peach pie
Yes, that's a real plate and cutlery. Take that, Orlando theme parks! This is how you're supposed to serve food.

Delicious! The pies are supposed to be an individual serving, but we shared, as we didn't have much space left after each finishing an entree platter. The pie offered more peach than blueberry, but that helped keep the sweetness reasonable, providing a nice final note to the meal, rather than overwhelming it with an explosion of sugar.

As for the attractions, we started with Luigi's Flying Tires, which posted a 40-minute wait. The removal of the giant beach balls has helped the attraction in multiple ways. Operators are loading this ride much faster -- we were on and riding within 20 minutes, with the queue starting inside the Luigi's tire showroom. And with the beach balls no longer distracting riders, I see more people paying attention to learning how to "fly" the tires themselves, instead of just batting balls around the platform. That made for a much more enjoyable ride, as people start working together to get the tires to move around.

On Luigi's Flying Tires

I love this attraction, despite the hate it elicits from so many visitors. And my wife enjoyed it, too, as we turned several high-speed laps around the platform on this unique "flying saucer"-style ride.

With our late start, all the day's Fastpasses for Radiator Springs Racers were gone by the time we entered California Adventure at 10:45am. With a posted 135-minute stand-by queue wait, we opted for the single rider line, which posted a blank wait time. With the single rider queue backed up just past the bridge, we ended up waiting about 45 minutes to get on the ride. We were making the same pace through the queue as people in the stand-by line, but, of course, we didn't have to go through those three hidden rooms of queue that await stand-by visitors at the attraction.

So what about the ride? I'd heard from many visitors over the past months that the tractor-tipping scene didn't work. But that was just one of the many effects that no longer function properly on this once wild and exciting ride.

Here's a POV video I recorded, so you can see for yourself:

Let's recap: No tipping tractors. No Frank. No Mater sailing over the moon. No dialogue in the Radiator Springs town scene. No conversation between Lightning McQueen and Sally. Basically, between Mater and the track split between the Luigi's tires and Ramone's paint shop options, there's no audio at all in the heart of the ride, save for snoring cars and light background music.

And I thought Disco Yeti was bad. That's a fully functioning attraction compared with this.

Of course, the race itself remains great fun. And the animatronics that still work continue to impress -- Sheriff, Mater, Doc Hudson, and Luigi and Guido. Many of the first-time riders around me exclaimed how much they'd loved it, upon exiting the ride. But knowing what was once in this attraction, I was just stunned as I walked away.

When Radiator Springs Racers first opened, it suffered frequent downtimes, which are now pretty much nonexistent. I think I know why, now: Disney's just given up on maintaining the show elements inside the ride. If the cars run, you ride. And if any of the animatronics, work… hey, bonus.

And visitor reaction justifies that decision. People who don't know what this ride once offered love it. And people continue to pack the queue to see it. Which is great for tourism and for Disneyland. But I wish that, for a few months at least, people would love this ride a little less so that Disney could have the time to go in and fix it with a much-needed refurbishment.

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The empire strikes back: Disney readies a major Hollywood Studios expansion at Walt Disney World

By Robert Niles
Published: June 13, 2013 at 3:43 PM

The Walt Disney Company invested a reported $1 billion remaking its under-performing California Adventure theme park, and was rewarded with an attendance surge of 23% last year, following the debut of the remake's centerpiece Cars Land. After that, the president of the Disneyland Resort, George Kalogridis, was reassigned to Florida, where he's now overseeing the Walt Disney World Resort.

Get ready for history to repeat itself. It looks as though Kalogridis and his team have gotten the green light for a project to remake the Disney's Hollywood Studios park on a scale similar to what Disney just finished at California Adventure.

Disney's Hollywood Studios

The projects will share one very large component -- Cars Land, the highlight of the California Adventure makeover, will come to Florida as part of the Hollywood Studios revamp, according to multiple insider sources. But it won't necessarily be the highlight of the changes coming to the park.

That's because Disney's Hollywood Studios is also getting…

Star Wars Land.

Yep. Multiple sources have told me the long-awaited dream of theme park geeks everywhere is actually happening. Disney's moving ahead with both Cars Land and Star Wars Land at the Disney's Hollywood Studios in Walt Disney World.

From what I'm hearing, Cars Land will replace the Lights, Motors, Action auto stunt show as well as Catastrophe Canyon on the southern edge of the park, providing a logical extension to the existing Pixar Place. The demise of the Backstage Tour also would free up space for an additional attraction in Pixar Place (Monsters Inc? Incredibles?), but I've not yet heard any chatter about that happening in this phase of the park remake.

So what about Star Wars Land? The logical places for that expansion would be on either side of the existing Star Tours ride. From what I've heard, it appears that the expansion would take out the area between Star Tours and the auto stunt show stadium, including the Muppet theater and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids play area. But I've also heard of consideration of going in the opposite direction, which would place the new land on the site of the Backlot Express restaurant and Indiana Jones stunt show theater. Given that the Indy theater's used for several other events throughout the year, and that both the Muppets and Honey I Shrunk the Kids attractions long ago passed the height of their popularity, I'm hearing more forceful arguments for the first option.

This appears to be a five-year project, putting completion in 2018, though Disney could choose to throw money at it and accelerate it by a year.

Imagine a future Disney's Hollywood Studios with Star Wars Land, Cars Land and Pixar Place anchoring the southern half of the park, with Sunset Boulevard, featuring Tower of Terror and Rock 'n Roller Coaster, anchoring the north end. After many months of Universal Orlando pummeling Disney with one popular new expansion after another -- Harry Potter, Transformers, Springfield, and more Harry Potter -- it appears that Disney might, finally, be ready to strike back.

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The Blog Flume Filter for June 13, 2013

By Jeff Elliott
Published: June 13, 2013 at 11:03 AM

Disney’s Hollywood Studios – I think we just figured out what is going to go up in the Star Wars Dance Off theater. It looks like Monsters University is going to be throwing its Homecoming Celebration in that theater which will include a DJ, games, and activities. The festivities will run from 6pm to 10pm every night starting this weekend and running through the entire Monstrous Summer promotion. In the meantime, while we wait for some enterprising person with a camera to film some of it, here is a little bit more coverage of the now mothballed Star Wars Weekend.



Epcot – The lineup for the Sounds Like Summer concert series has been announced. What the concert series should be called is Sounds Like Someone Else’s Band, because all of the bands that have been booked are tribute bands and not the real thing. Doesn’t Disney own a recording label? Maybe it is in their other pair of pants…underneath all of the entrance fee and merchandising money. It so saddens me to see Disney being cheap when they don’t need to. Sting just played Red Rocks in Denver a week ago, just ask him and he would probably say yes for a little taste of Mickey's cash. Please don’t insult us with some silly Police tribute band…

SeaWorld Orlando – We now have proof that animals of different species can talk to each other. Last week, it was the penguins, this week it appears that the penguins have taught the sea lions a trick or three. What will it be next week? Shamu making a break for it?



Disney’s Animal Kingdom – The laser effects have returned to the Dinosaur ride. They had been gone for so long I had forgotten about them. I have to wonder if the crew is starting to spruce the park up in little ways in effort to make the new Pandora area not make the rest of the park look horrid. If that is true, I know of a big hairy guy that may get to change his tune in the near future.





Coney Island – The Thunderbolt is being resurrected! Except all is not as it seems. It seems that Zamperla has won the bid to build and install the new coaster, which is no big surprise since they are running the show there. It was very amusing on the Coney Island community board, someone asked if Zamperla had won the bid to install the new coaster. The response was: yep, who else is there? I would like to respond to that question with the following answer: B&M, Intamin, GCI, Gravity Group, Rocky Mountain Coasters, Mack, Vekoma, my across the street neighbor, half the TPI discussion board, and the girl I buy my morning coffee from… Please feel free to add any more that I missed below while I silently weep.



So, to recap, they are basically stealing a name that has a nostalgic value and then doing whatever they want with the actual coaster.



Farup Sommerland – We now have video of their latest coaster: Orkanen. While it is pretty short, it does pack quite a few thrills into it.

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Plan your day at Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure

By Robert Niles
Published: June 12, 2013 at 2:39 PM

The Universal Orlando Resort expanded to two theme parks in 1999 with the addition of Universal's Islands of Adventure, the first park built by Universal that wasn't themed to a movie studio. Today, Islands of Adventure is best known as the home of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the 2010 addition to the park that's helped make this park the most popular non-Disney theme park in America.

Hogwarts Castle

What to do before you go

Universal Orlando offers what might be the best deal in the theme park industry, one you should consider as it makes planning a visit to this and sister park Universal Studios Florida ridiculously simple. Anyone who books a stay at one of Universal's three on-site hotels gets front-of-the-line access to almost all attractions at the two parks for the duration of his or her stay, at no additional charge. With unlimited front of line access, you don't need to worry about itineraries or strategies -- just do what you want, when you want to, with no more than a five-to-10-minute wait for each ride.

This "Universal Express Unlimited" begins on your check-in day and ends on your check-out day, so a single night's stay at one of these hotels can get you two days of front-of-line access, for up to five people in one room. Universal hotel guests also get one hour of early admission to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, before it opens to "regular" park visitors. Since the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride (the one located in Hogwarts Castle) is the only major ride in the two Universal Orlando parks that's not covered under the Universal Express Unlimited front-of-line access, using this extra hour is essential for getting the most value from your stay at the resort.

Royal Pacific
Loews Royal Pacific Hotel, on-site at Universal Orlando Resort

You will need to buy theme park admission in order to use this perk, of course. And Universal charges the same rate for parking overnight at its hotels as it charges day guests for its parking garages, so don't forget that cost when pricing a trip. However, Universal's two theme parks are located within easy parking distance of one another, and a reasonable walk from each of the three hotels, so you might not need a car when you visit the resort. Along with the Disneyland Resort in California, Universal Orlando is a very walkable theme park vacation destination.

You can price on-site hotel rooms and packages at Universal Orlando's website, and check out its special offers page while you're there. (Rates start at around $225 a night at the Royal Pacific, which tends to be the lowest-priced of the three.) Make sure that you book an "on-site" hotel, and not an off-site "partner" hotel, for the front-of-line access. And also note that the on-site Cabana Bay Beach Resort that opens in 2014 will not offer the front-of-line access to its guests.

If your budget leads you to stay off-site, price Universal Orlando tickets on the Universal website, then ask if your human resources department, student union or credit union offers discounted tickets to the parks. Despite the two parks' close proximity, you shouldn't pay extra for the "park-to-park" ticket unless you're planning to spend at least two days at the resort. There's just too much to see at these parks to do them both in one day (unless you're staying on-site and have that unlimited front-of-line access.) Universal Orlando does not offer a "no expire" option on theme park tickets, so there's no point in trying to get a better deal by buying extra days for future trips, as you can at Walt Disney World. Buy tickets just for the days you'll be visiting the park on this trip. If you'll be visiting SeaWorld during your trip, look into an Orlando FlexTicket (available on the Universal Orlando website), which covers Universal Orlando and SeaWorld with one ticket, with an option to add SeaWorld's Busch Gardens Tampa park as well.

Even if you're not staying on-site, you still have opportunities to skip the park's queues. Universal offers paid front-of-line passes for visitors not staying at its resorts. An unlimited front of line pass will cost between $51-$102/day per person over the cost of a daily admission ticket, depending upon the day you visit. A "one-skip-per attraction" basic Universal Express pass costs between $25-$61/day per person, over the cost of park admission. When you consider the cost of an unlimited Universal Express pass for a family of four on summer vacation, you're essentially getting a four-star hotel room for free if you book a night at one of the Universal hotels, when you compare the hotel room cost to the price of the Express passes bought separately.

If skipping lines isn't exclusive enough for you, Universal will hook you up with a VIP tour guide, for the right price, of course. Prices start at $229 per person, on top of park admission, to join a scheduled VIP group. You can book a private tour for up to 10 people, starting at $2,750 for eight hours. (Again, that's on top of the admission tickets for everyone in the group.)

Mythos
Inside Mythos Restaurant

Whether you get front-of-line access for attractions or not, you'll need to call in advance to secure reservations at either of Islands of Adventure's two table-service restaurants, Confisco Grille and former Theme Park Insider Award winner Mythos Restaurant. Call 407-224-4012 in advance of your visit. Reservations are not difficult on most days, so you don't need to call weeks in advance. A few days should suffice.

Universal Orlando's parks do experience significantly smaller crowds during the school year, with the exception of September and October, when the popular Halloween Horror Nights after-hours event runs over at Universal Studios Florida. If you can plan your visit during weekdays during other months of the school year, avoiding popular vacation weeks around spring break, you might be able to avoid significant waits on most attractions without needing to pay extra for a Universal Express pass or on-site hotel room.

When you get to Universal Orlando

Parking costs $16 per vehicle ($5 after 6pm) and you'll park in the same parking garage whether you're visiting IOA or Universal Studios Florida. From the garage, it's a bit of a haul across several moving sidewalks into Universal Orlando's CityWalk shopping and dining district, on your way to the parks. Bear left for Islands of Adventure and right for the Studios, when you get through CityWalk.

Plan to arrive at least an hour in advance of the park opening during the summer and holiday seasons, to give yourself time to park and walk to the front gate to queue to be among the first in the park, if you don't have front of line access. (Otherwise, show up whenever you want.) Remember that Universal hotel guests already will be inside the Wizarding World of Harry Potter when the park opens, so you might spend this time better visiting other attractions in the park that don't have people in their queues yet, and saving Harry Potter for later in the day. (Many fans think the atmosphere in that land is best at night, anyway.)

The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man

Theme Park Insider readers' top four attractions in Islands of Adventure, outside Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, are:

  • The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man
  • Incredible Hulk Coaster
  • Popeye and Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges
  • Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls

All four are located to the left when you enter the park and walk through the Port of Entry area to the park's central lagoon. Start with Spider-Man, then move on to Hulk, Dudley Do-Right and Popeye. Note that the last two are water rides that will soak you, so if it's a cool or overcast day -- when the Orlando sun won't dry you immediately -- you might choose to leave those until just before you head back to the hotel. Fortunately, cool and overcast days tend to be those school-year off-season days when waits are short enough that you don't need to worry about visiting strategies.

Families with young children might choose instead to start their day by walking to the right and spending the morning in Seuss Landing enjoying the multiple Dr. Seuss-inspired attractions there. Start with the High In The Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride then return to One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish and The Cat in the Hat rides to minimize wait times.

There's one more way to minimize your waits, even if you didn't spring for the Universal Express pass. Six of Islands of Adventure's attractions have single-rider lines, though they might not be marked and you'll have to ask a ride attendant at the attraction's entrance for directions to the single-rider queue:

  • The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man
  • Doctor Doom's Fearfall
  • Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls
  • Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
  • Incredible Hulk Coaster
  • Jurassic Park River Adventure

You will miss some of the Hogwarts walk-through if you use the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey single-rider line, but you still will see the Gryffindor common room, Dumbledore's office, and an alternate version of the portrait gallery. On busy days, small groups can see more of the park in less time by splitting up and using the single-rider lines than they would be staying together and going through the regular queues.

Where to eat

Drinking a Butterbeer in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter might be one of the park's most popular attractions, even more than some of the park's highly lauded rides. But don't queue up for the big Butterbeer cart parked in the middle of the land. Instead, duck inside the Hog's Head Pub to order your (nonalcoholic and very sweet) Butterbeer -- there's a much shorter, and often non-existent, wait there.

Butterbeer
Fish and Chips and Butterbeer at the Three Broomsticks

The Hog's Head shares its space with the Three Broomsticks restaurant in the Wizarding World, which offers another popular option for breakfast, lunch or dinner in the park. It's counter service and takes no reservation, so arrive outside of traditional meal times to avoid a wait.

Outside of Three Broomsticks, Mythos and Confisco Grille, Islands of Adventure offers a fairly standard selection of counter-service theme park fare, mostly burgers and pizza, with ribs available over in Jurassic Park (natch).

What's next?

Universal's building a Diagon Alley-themed Harry Potter land over in Universal Studios Florida, which will connect to Islands of Adventure's Hogsmeade-themed Wizarding World through a Hogwarts Express train ride which will open in summer 2014.

Beyond that, there's nothing in development for Islands of Adventure that's been either announced or confirmed through our unofficial sources. Sharp observers might note that Islands of Adventure features an entire land devoted to characters from Marvel Comics, a franchise now owned by arch-rival Disney. Rumors have been flying for years that Disney's trying to buy back the Orlando-area theme park rights to Marvel from Universal, which would force Universal to redevelop that entire section of the park. But Disney's not yet made a offer that Universal couldn't refuse.

Perhaps not unrelated, it's also known from unofficial sources that Universal's been pursuing the rights to develop a theme park land based on The Lord of the Rings. Nothing's been signed, though.

Next week: Disney California Adventure

Previously:

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Where to eat? Lunch at Cookes of Dublin in Walt Disney World's Downtown Disney

By Robert Niles
Published: June 12, 2013 at 10:42 AM

Located in Downtown Disney, Cookes of Dublin offers counter-service "pub food" for Walt Disney World visitors craving a taste of Ireland, without the fuss or wait of an actual pub or full-service restaurant.

Cookes

Cookes' self-proclaimed speciality is fish & chips, which it declares the "Finest" on its menu and signage. But that's not what I ordered when I visited Orlando last month.

I have a confession: I love pies. Not American-style sweet pies (though I do enjoy a slice of blueberry or apple now and then). It's English-style savory pies that I adore. My favorite pies are from a UK company called Pieminister, which makes the single greatest pie I've ever enjoyed: the "Pietanic," a seafood pie with haddock, salmon and prawns. It kills me that I can't get these pies in America, so I never pass up a chance to try a good savory pie when I see one on a menu.

When I walked past Cookes and saw "Dublin Style Pies" offered on its menu board, I knew where I'd be having lunch. I opted for the Chicken and Field Mushroom Pie, with chicken breast, mushrooms, leeks and potatoes, served with chips, which Americans will recognize as French fries. ($11.95)

Chicken and Field Mushroom Pie

This isn't your typical American-diner chicken pot pie, drowning in pasty gravy and salt. Packed with shredded chicken breast and leeks, Cookes' pie offered a clean balance of meat and vegetables, under a delightful flaky crust. I finished every bite, and would be happy to return for a second helping upon a future visit to Downtown Disney.

Inside the pie

At nearly $12, it's not a cheap counter-service meal, but Cookes' chicken pie delivered enough white meat chicken in its serving to provide good value for the price. I only wish that more counter service restaurants at Walt Disney World would follow the lead of their siblings at the Disneyland Resort and serve with real plates and cutlery, instead of the ubiquitous plastic, paper and foil found at WDW. A real fork would have allowed me to enjoy this pie even more than I did.

Cookes also offers a ground beef and lamb pie, in addition to a selection of fried fish, shrimp, scallops and sausages, as well as wraps, salads and burgers (including a battered and fried burger!) Alas, there's no seafood pie on the menu.

Have you eaten at Cookes? If so, please share your experience with a comment.

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Falcon's Fury to drop in Spring 2014 at Busch Gardens Tampa, as SeaWorld announces 50th anniversary celebrations

By Robert Niles
Published: June 11, 2013 at 8:44 AM

Busch Gardens Tampa this morning announced its new attraction for Spring 2014: Falcon's Fury, a 335-foot drop ride with a unique element -- you'll drop face-first, instead of in a traditional seated position.

Falcon's Fury
Concept art from Busch Gardens. And, no, falcons won't be flying around you as you drop.

The idea is that you're diving toward the Earth like a bird of prey. Here's a promotional video from the park, with more details about the ride:

In addition, Busch Gardens' sister parks over at SeaWorld today announced a "Sea of Surprises" promotion for the chain's 50th anniversary. (SeaWorld's original park, SeaWorld San Diego, opened in 1964.) The promotion starts in March 2014 and will run for 18 months, through the end of summer 2015.

From SeaWorld:

Starting March 21, 2014, we invite guests to join us as we celebrate with new interactive experiences, new shows and daily entertainment, more up-close animal encounters throughout the park, and a Surprise Squad treating guests with prizes every day.

The promotions will run at all three SeaWorld parks -- San Diego, Orlando and San Antonio.

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Introducing a cross-country trip where the beer -- and Walt Disney -- are on ice

By TH Creative
Published: June 10, 2013 at 1:55 PM

[Editor's note: Our TH Creative has a new book! Here he offers a short excerpt and some thoughts about the creation of the first installment of his "Theme Park Trilogy," inspired, in part, by life on a certain website.]

7097-050719The Prologue of 7097-050719, Book One in A Theme Park Trilogy:

On the night of December 14, 1966, at St. Joseph's Hospital in Burbank, California, Roy Disney sat at the bedside of his younger brother Walt. Cancer had ravaged Walt's body. A portion of his lungs had been removed a month earlier. Colbalt treatments had left him weak and had robbed him of his appetite. Despite his frail condition, Walt managed a conversation with his brother – discussing their plans to build an elaborate theme park resort and futuristic city in Central Florida. Walt used the ceiling grid of his hospital room to map out the project – at one point indicating to Roy where he wanted to place a bench so he and his wife Lily could sit and “watch all the happy people” visiting Walt Disney World.

Soon after, the world learned Mr. Walt Disney had died – the cause of death listed as acute circulatory collapse brought on by complications from lung cancer. His passing was documented on State of California Certificate of Death 7097-050719. It was reported that Mr. Disney died at 9 AM.

That's what was reported.

* * *

At the beginning of 2008 I made a personal resolution to write a manuscript. I had no dreams of topping any bestseller lists or attracting a legion of readers that would result in a movie deal and/or theme park attraction.

(Chuckle)

Rather, I simply wanted to experience the exercise – to see if I could string together a narrative (beginning to end) and create something linear, coherent and (fingers crossed) mildly entertaining.

The resolution produced a work titled 'Name Tags' (which will be released as Book Two in the trilogy, later this year).

I found that completing the manuscript was a very satisfying experience. It gave me the necessary encouragement to compose a second story which I titled '7097-050719.'

The cryogenic preservation of Mr. Disney is (from my perspective) the quintessential urban legend. The rumor that Mr. Disney was being held in suspended animation is so pervasive it appears on the opening pages of Neal Gabler's remarkable biography Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.

While I certainly don't claim to be the first to explore this topic in the small arena of hypothetical fiction, I take some pride in the result.
Book One in the Theme Park Trilogy follows the adventures of Milo Tucker and Baxter Welles – a couple of park enthusiasts who crossed paths (and swords) on the discussion board of a popular theme park web site.

(Wink)

In order to resolve an especially contentious online debate, Milo and Baxter decide to meet face-to-face at the 2008 ComicCon convention in San Diego. The encounter begins a series of situations that uncover the truth about a 20th-century legend. Milo and Baxter's escapade draws from Disney's rich history as well as more topical events related to the company.

'7097-050719' is presented as parallel stories – one dated in the 1960s, the other placed in a more contemporary period.

I'm pleased to report that the response I have received from those that have read the book (including a fair share of TPI regulars) has been … well … VERY positive. So (taking a small leap of faith) I have placed it on sale at Amazon as an eBook.

Yes there are a couple of typos and some rough grammar. Then again, in the age of DIY, I often remind myself that Joe Strummer didn't play every chord perfectly.

Please note: The story contains a fair share of profanity. Um … Baxter has something of a mouth on him. And he likes beer.

A Theme Park Trilogy, by TH Creative

  • Book One – '7097-050719'
  • Book Two – 'Name Tags'
  • Book Three – 'Thrill Seekers and Danger Lovers'
Published by Old 535

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Back to back theme parks on a budget?

By Bobbie Butterfield
Published: June 10, 2013 at 10:01 AM

For those of us who can't afford to stay at a luxurious Disney resort or lakeview hotel at Cedar Point, or otherwise spend a lot of money on trips to theme parks, there are viable options. When I decided that I absolutely MUST ride Outlaw Run, the challenge was to get to Silver Dollar City the cheapest and most expeditious way possible. Because Coaster Mania at Cedar Point was scheduled for June 7, I decided to do Silver Dollar City the day before and then continue on to Ohio. It took a lot of searching to find a flight itinerary that would be compatible with the hours of operation at both parks but I did find one entailing a total of six flights on Southwest for slightly over $600, which was more than I could really afford but less than was being charged by other airlines and a multi-city trip is never going to be dirt cheap. Also, the advantage of flying on Southwest was that it's the only major airline offering service, with one flight change, from Philadelphia to Branson, cutting the driving time in half. (The closest the other carriers come is Springfield, Mo.)

I arrived in Branson at about 6:30pm on Wednesday, June 5 and headed out of the airport in a Toyota Avalon, recommended to me by Enterprise Rent-A-Car because it would purportedly be better for negotiating the hills in Missouri than the compact car that I had intended to drive. This was my first time in Missouri and as a city person, I was surprised to find myself driving with what appeared to be granite cliffs on either side and without seeing another car for miles. I stopped for dinner at a fast food place (I always eat cheaply while on the road) before heading to my motel, the Econo Lodge at Thousand Hills on Wildwood Drive South. The price of an overnight stay was just over $60, a bargain considering the cleanliness of the facility and high level of customer service. My room was immaculate, with a spacious area outside the bathroom for personal items, and well furnished with two beds, a table and chair. There was computer access in the lobby, enabling me to print out boarding passes and driving directions. The Econo Lodge put on a nice breakfast and the staff was extremely helpful. I would highly recommend this accommodation to anyone contemplating a visit to Silver Dollar City.

With Silver Dollar City opening at 9:30am the following day and my flight out of Branson scheduled to leave at 4:10pm, I had a limited window of time in which to experience the park. (I always like to allow a couple of hours to get gas and get to an airport in case I take a wrong turn, which I am inclined to do.) Because there were so many people trying to get into the park and I had to wait for three trams before I got one to take me to the entrance, I thought that there might be a problem getting on Outlaw Run due to long ride lines. Fortunately, this was not the case. The queue to get on was not long at all and I managed to get in six of the best and most memorable rides of my life. I cannot say enough about how good this coaster is; it's so good that it threatens to displace El Toro as my all-time favorite woodie. (I have written a full-length review of Outlaw Run which I will post on my roller coaster blog.) An 81-degree drop and double barrel roll on a wooden coaster is cause for celebration. I could have ridden it to the exclusion of everything else but thought it appropriate to try some other rides, so I rode Wildfire, which I thought was pretty good, and Powder Keg, which was fun although I can't say that it blew me away. Silver Dollar City is a lovely park and I loved the old west theming.

Outlaw Run photo IMG_1208_zps4cb4ff93.jpg

From Branson it was on to Chicago and then Cleveland, where I still had an hour-long drive to Sandusky. Because my flight to Cleveland was delayed, I was already tired and didn't get to Sandusky until close to midnight, I knew that there was no way I'd be able to make it to Cedar Point by 7am when Coaster Mania was scheduled to commence. I had booked a room at the Rodeway Inn a couple of miles down the road from Cedar Point for reasons of economy. An overnight stay cost me $61.32 and I got exactly what I paid for – or I should say, what I didn't pay for. This place is strictly no frills. There is no computer access and no breakfast room; the most a guest can get for breakfast is insipid muffins or lethal-looking doughnuts and a cup of coffee with powdered creamer, to be picked up at the registration desk. Much to my surprise at check-in, I discovered that most of the other guests were bikers. Yikes! As luck would have it, Coaster Mania was held contemporaneously with Ohio Bike Week. I felt somewhat apprehensive, as my image of bikers is Hell's Angels, but the desk clerk assured me that this was a fairly mellow group and that did prove to be an accurate assessment. However, it was still weird going to sleep surrounded by motorcycles. In any case, the room was clean and well furnished, the price was right and I would stay there again if I couldn't find a better rate at another facility. Except for the breakfast, the Rodeway Inn was a distinct improvement over Howard Johnson, where I had stayed on my two previous visits to Cedar Point. (At HoJo's, a plumber had to be called on the first visit and my room had to be changed on the second visit because the lights were burned out and the desk clerk couldn't find any more light bulbs, and I had to move furniture from the first room to the second because some furniture was missing from the room with the working lights.)

Whereas it had been warm in Missouri, it was cold in Ohio. The next morning I set out for Cedar Point shortly before 9am; by the time I parked, registered for Coaster Mania and got my meal pass, etc. it was probably about 9:20. It cost $38.46 to get in, as opposed to the $44.99 for online tickets for the general public, so that was another bargain. Attendees of Coaster Mania were entitled to ERT on the park's newest attraction, Gatekeeper, from 9 to 10am, so I expected to be able to get right on. Unfortunately, this was not possible. I had to wait approximately 40 minutes to get on, which meant that I probably wouldn't be able to beat the general public that would show up when the park opened at 10 to my favorite ride. (I later learned that more than 1,500 members of accredited roller coaster clubs had shown up for Coaster Mania.) In any case, I thought that Gatekeeper was wonderful and superior to Dollywood's Wild Eagle, with which comparisons are almost inevitable due to the similarity in design.

Gatekeeper photo IMG_1227_zpsd7926134.jpg


The fact that so many people uninvolved with Coaster Mania showed up at Cedar Point on such a cold, grey day struck me as odd but then Cedar Point is almost invariably crowded. I had to wait for the better part of an hour to get on Millennium Force and would have ridden it repeatedly – as I happen to think that it's one of the greatest coasters ever built – except for the increasingly long queue. With very limited time to spend at the park, I had to figure how to optimize the experience. Standing in line for extended periods is a challenge for me due to medical issues so I decided to compromise by riding one coaster I really like and then going for the one with the shortest wait time. So I rode Maverick (about a 40-minute wait), which I find wildly entertaining albeit a bit rough, and seeing that the line for Top Thrill Dragster was much too long, I thought about Raptor. I had never ridden Raptor and the line seemed to be moving pretty fast so I went for it. What a fun ride!

By now there was just enough time left to get the Gatekeeper jacket promised to everyone attending Coaster Mania. This involved standing in yet another line and by the time I reached the front of the queue, they had run out of everything but large and extra large. I take a small so was not a happy camper but settled for a large because it was free and a souvenir. With a $39.99 price tag affixed to it, it was a bargain considering that I had paid less than that to get into the park so got the rides and the jacket all for the price of one. I was actually happy to have the jacket because it was so cold on my flight from Nashville to Philadelphia (had to fly from Cleveland to Nashville to get back to Philly) that the jacket I had on wasn't warm enough.

It was a fun trip, at as minimal expense as possible, but an exhausting one. Six flights in three days is something I wouldn't want to do on a regular basis. However, I accomplished what I set out to accomplish, which was to ride Outlaw Run and Gatekeeper, but am glad to be back home with my two beautiful cats. Next trip is to Wisconsin Dells in a month, and that will be only a one-day affair.

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A second look at SeaWorld Orlando's Antarctica

By Russell Meyer
Published: June 9, 2013 at 3:48 PM

Theme Park Insider's Editor Robert Niles had an opportunity to experience the media preview event for SeaWorld's newest attraction 2 weeks ago, and provided a pretty thorough report on the icy new digs. A conveniently planned business trip had me in Orlando this week, and provided me a chance to get a look at Antarctica from the perspective of the Orlando summer tourist. As a Busch Gardens Platinum Passholder, I have unlimited access to all of the chain's theme parks, including all of the SeaWorld Parks, Busch Gardens Parks, Sesame Place, and water parks. I built in a number of blocks of free time into my trip to make sure I would have a chance to experience the new attraction, and I needed just about all of it to fully experience and get a feel for this very complicated new ride/exhibit. I attempted to get in shortly after landing in Orlando on Monday morning, but a 120-minute long line at 10am did not fit into my schedule. I made it back to the park on Wednesday afternoon (@4pm) to find a 70-minute posted wait during a pretty stiff rainstorm, and decided to bear it with an actual wait time of approximately 35 minutes. Thursday provided me many more opportunities to experience the ride/exhibit with little to no wait because of Tropical Storm Andrea passing to the north, keeping many people in their hotel rooms for the day. After six rides and over 90 minutes of total time inside the exhibit, I have been able to make a number of observations should be helpful for anyone making plans to visit SeaWorld exclusively to experience Antarctica.

DSCF3014

As Robert mentioned in his review, there may be a bit of overselling the ride portion of the attraction, and I would certainly agree with that. SeaWorld has spent a lot of time through its website promoting the technology of the ride featuring vehicles designed by Oceaneering. I think the biggest mistake that they've made is the names they've given to the two levels of ride intensity guests can experience. SeaWorld has chosen to use "wild" and "mild" to differentiate between the two experiences, and while "mild" is definitely pretty tame (no spinning, tilting, or sudden movements), "wild", when compared to other Oceaneering-vehicle-based attractions (Spiderman, Transformers, Curse of DarKastle), is more like a bumpy flight crossed with a spin on Mad Hatter's Teacups with your mother who won't let you spin them. Don't get me wrong, there's definitely a difference between the two adventures, but "wild" is just a bit of a misnomer.

The queue system is actually pretty well done. The line originates outside of the attraction, and snakes around the perimeter until guests reach a set of sliding doors. The doors lead to a pre-show room where guests are introduced to Puck and a colony of gentoo penguins living on the rocky, icy coast of Antarctica. The pre-show room is very nicely designed, with a number of video screens that provide a unique display for guests to view. I'm guessing that this room is also used as an ante-room to remove the humidity from the air prior to sending guests forward into the attraction (my wet clothes dried from the time it took to view the pre-show until I was on the ride, about 10 minutes).

DSCF3023

Once the pre-show is complete, guests are guided down a twisty, icy corridor until they reach a fork in the road. This is where riders will choose which level of adventure they want to experience. Guests under 42" are required to take the "mild" adventure, while guests between 42" and 48" have to ride with a responsible companion in order to take the "wild" adventure. Once guests have selected their adventure, the line snakes through an icy corridor where they wait until a loading bay is ready. This is where I was impressed with the technology of the ride, something that may be lost on the average theme park guest. There are four loading bays, accommodating up to 8 guests each. The loading bays can be switched between "wild" or "mild" depending upon the demand at any given time. Queue managers directing guests to loading bays select which adventure each vehicle will have, so if you reach that decision point, don't make your decision based on the length of the lines, because the queue managers will set the ride vehicles up to keep both lines moving. If everyone coming through is choosing "wild", all four loading bays will be set up with "wild" vehicles or vice versa.

Inside the loading bay, there is another LED screen where Puck makes another appearance and prepares guests for their adventure. As Robert had mentioned, this room is very much like the ones used on The Simpsons Ride that act as a final holding corral before guests are directed to their vehicle. Another sliding door opens, and guests are a few steps from their vehicle. The sleek vehicles position riders in 2 rows of 4 and are far more open than other Oceaneering vehicles. Seat belts, instead of lap bars, are used to secure riders in their seats. I would recommend taller guests or riders with longer legs to avoid the two end seats in the front row since the curve of the vehicle limits legroom on those 2 seats. There is a completely flat entry into the vehicles, so even the clumsiest person could probably get in without tripping.

There are quite a few videos of the ride itself out there, but as most have been saying, it's pretty short and underwhelming. A couple I rode with wanted to know if "that was it" when we got to the unload platform, and unfortunately it was. The entire ride encompasses five rooms. The first room is the loading/dispatch room (or lava lamp room, as Robert described it). The second is the icicle room, where the vehicles do the most spinning. The third is the "blizzard" room, where vehicles are queued in groups of four to enter the next room. The fourth room is the "action" room where a movie is projected onto a giant screen while the "wild" vehicles react and simulate the motion shown in the movie. The fifth room is the actual exhibit and unload platform.

There are a series of curtains between the "blizzard" room, "action" room, and "exhibit" room, along with the unload area that act as a series of airlocks to allow the park to maintain the 32-degree temperatures inside the exhibit. Yes, it is really that cold inside, and those who never venture outside of Florida will have a hard time staying in the exhibit for more than a few minutes. Also, guests with really wet clothes (after sitting in the splash-zone of a show, after riding Journey to Atlantis, or after a long summer downpour), will not be able to linger in the exhibit for long.

SWANT 021

As reported, there are a series of nets that have been put up in areas where some penguins have escaped. However, there is still a nice viewing area unobscured by nets that places guests within arm's reach of the penguins.

DSCF3068

As with most SeaWorld exhibits, there are experts walking around to answer your questions or to remind you to not use the flash on your camera. This is where it's probably a good idea to think about when to visit the attraction. The lighting inside simulates that light patterns in Antarctica, which is in the southern hemisphere. That means, during Orlando summer, the lights are dimmed for nearly 20 hours. Most cameras will have a seriously hard time taking pictures in these lighting conditions, particularly if you want to capture an action shot. To get the best view of the penguins in full simulated sunlight conditions, try to time your entry into the attraction between 10:30 AM and 1:30 PM during the summer, or just visit in the fall, winter, or spring, when the lighting in the exhibit will be kept brighter for more hours during the day. For those with digital SLRs, I recommend bracketing your white balance to try to get the best looking pictures if you have to visit the attraction during low-light conditions. I had an extremely hard time trying to get the white balance right, and never really got a picture I was really happy with when taking pictures in the dimly lit exhibit.

SWANT 025

Guests can stay in the exhibit/unload area for as long as they can take it. The space is not that big, so chances are you will be able to see everything you want in the 5-10 minutes most people would be able to tolerate the cold. However, shutterbugs may want to spend a little more time, and to give you an idea, I was able to tolerate the cold for about 35 minutes wearing a pair of jeans and a short-sleeved shirt.

DSCF3079

After guests have lost their taste for the cold, a revolving door leads to a much warmer area where guests can view the penguins. Most people will be drawn to the gigantic underwater viewing window that can be seen from three different viewing levels.

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However, one of the best views is from a window tucked over by the elevator to the far right of the room where guests can see the back of the exhibit without shivering to death. I had not noticed this window until the third time I went through, and was amazed with the view that it provides.

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Guests then exit the exhibit through another revolving door and into the humid Florida air. The area around Antarctica also includes the obligatory gift shop, lockers, a beverage station with Coca-Cola Freestyle machines featuring the SeaWorld exclusive Vanilla South Pole Chill, and the Explorers Cafe, where guests can select from a number of different internationally-themed dishes.

Is Antarctica the best new ride of 2013? Probably not. However, I think some arguments could be made to support the claim that it may be the best new theme park attraction of 2013. Antarctica is far more than just the ride, and the promoted stars of the attraction are the penguins. Antarctica definitely contains the most amazing penguin exhibit I've ever seen. Those that remember the old Penguin Encounter (or have recently been to the ones in San Antonio or San Diego), where guests stood on a conveyor belt while penguins swam and waddled behind 2 inches of foggy glass and goofy music played in the background, would certainly give SeaWorld high marks for this significantly upgraded exhibit. Also, the entire area around the attractions has been given a complete makeover to simulate the icy, rocky facades of the most desolate continent on Earth. It may not be as large as Magic Kingdom's New Fantasyland or Universal's Springfield, but it's no less detailed or complete than those recent additions.

Guests who come to experience Antarctica should think of the attraction as a complete experience, not just a ride. Think of the ride as just a fancy conveyor belt leading you to an awesome animal habitat. If you're looking for a thrilling attraction, go ride Manta or Kraken. This attraction is set up very much like Wild Arctic, where the animals are the stars, and the ride is just a way to get you to their world. It's unfortunate that SeaWorld probably put a little too much marketing into the ride itself instead of where it belongs, which is the habitat. Also, it's a shame that guests cannot currently view the habitat without riding the ride (the primary reason why they offer the "mild" version of the ride is so virtually everyone can ride and get to the exhibit using the ride vehicles).

Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin is infinitely better than the attraction it replaced, the Penguin Encounter. Not only does it provide a one-of-a-kind animal habitat, but it includes a decent ride and immersive experience for guests to enjoy. As with just about every theme park attraction, it's not perfect, and unfortunately some of the imperfections of the attraction are magnified by over-hyping of the ride itself. However, the attraction as a whole is definitely a winner, and will provide a unique experience to the South Pole for guests, without ever having to leave Orlando.

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The worst people you meet in a theme park

By Derek Potter
Published: June 8, 2013 at 4:25 PM

As park fans, it's only natural to talk about likes and dislikes. Theme Park Insider and sites like it are full of countless discussions and debates about rides, management, companies, service, and horror stories. For all our talk about how parks design their atmosphere, there isn't a lot of talk about how the people inside affect that atmosphere. The truth is that parks only have a certain amount of control over their environment. They can design it in a way that encourages happiness and facilitates fun and they can staff it with the best employees in the world. They cannot however, always control the behavior and/or attitude of the customers. At any given moment, the ambience is subject to change by the behavior of a single person or a group of people. In other words, it only takes one to irritate many and ruin the illusion. Since it is assumed that we are all here to have fun and enjoy a little escape from reality, we all should be bound by the laws of decency, common sense, and regard for one another to act like good theme park citizens and not annoy the bejeezus out of each other in public. Of course not everyone follows the rules.

With that in mind, I present a greatest hits compilation of theme park pet peeves and the perpetrators behind them. This list was compiled through public observation, personal experience, and a little Q/A with some of Theme Park Insider's finest. Some are bigger transgressions than others, but all actions on this list are guaranteed to generate contempt or worse from at least twelve other people.

The Line CutterThe Line Cutter — Have you ever been standing in a two-hour slow moving line in the hot sun and seen somebody - or worse a handful of people with stupid little smiles on their faces - jump in line a little farther ahead, out of your reach and range of voice? Do you ever wish you had a hand grenade in your pocket for these occasions...ok maybe a little harsh, but sometimes it's the little things that bother me the most. The young ones might get a free pass. It's the ones who know better…the college age children, wannabe gangsters, mouthy teenagers, and 30-year-old adolescents that need loaded into a cannon and shot out into the parking lot…park ejection in the most literal sense. If you are a line cutter over the age of 12, congratulations…nobody likes you.

The Seat Nazi — Park employees probably shouldn't be on this list, but until park management learns that assigned seating policies are just lame, these poor ride ops will be on the list. To give credit, many are gracious and polite, trying to shed their status as "the man" as they order grown adults around like children in order to save five minutes of average hourly wait time. The guy's just doing his job, but as a paying customer, is it that unreasonable to let me sit wherever I want on the new roller coaster that I traveled three hours to ride? I'll answer that…it is not.

Wannabe BallerWannabe Baller — This is the guy (and it's always a guy) who wins the basketball and dribbles it around the park for the rest of the day. The problem is that he can't dribble without losing the ball and sending it rolling or bouncing into a crowd of people. Amazing that he can somehow pull two free throws out of his rear end to win the prize, but can't make it 5 steps without booting the ball. Especially obnoxious are the ones who think they are Kevin Durant and try to crossover and spin around some old lady walking towards them (yes I've seen it happen more than once). Dude, you can't play, and if you can…we don't care.

The Backpacker

The Backpacker — Question…what exactly does one need in there to walk around for a few hours and ride some rides? What resides in these fully stuffed backpacks with three water bottles clipped to the back - packs that literally double the size of the person carrying them? Despite packing everything else needed for a weeklong excursion, they always seem to forget the bottle of self-awareness. You know…the bottle that says not to stop suddenly in the middle of the walkway, reminds them that there is someone behind them in the queue, or that people don't really like being body checked by a massive bag of nothing in particular when you turn around. This isn't the Alps or the jungles of Vietnam, and unless you are a professional photographer or a parent of pre-toilet-trained children, you need only a few things on this mission, most of which can fit in your pocket. Free your minds, your backs, and our personal space.

The Soggy Bottom Boys

The Soggy Bottom Boys — Don't you just love when you're next in line for the ride, and the person that gets out of your future seat looks like they just jumped in the lake? Inevitably, you walk upon a wet seat, something expected on a water ride…not so much on a dry ride. I'm fine with a seat freshly splashed by a wave or some other form of water cannon. I am not fine with a coaster seat containing somebody's 30 minute old warm, smelly, swamp-assy water sloshing around in the car. Who knows what's in that cocktail. I can only imagine what goes through the mind of the germaphobes in line. For the love of God, fellow man, public safety, and my pants…dry yourself off.

Parental MalpracticeParental Malpractice — As a parent of three young kids, I hereby claim complete and full license to say the following. What is it with parents yelling and screaming at their kids in the middle of the kiddieland walkway? Isn't this supposed to be a fun family time…a time to let off some steam and have fun with your kids? Which part of that fun involves exploding in the middle of a captive audience, making your sleep deprived, sugar overloaded six-year-old cry and throw a fit, casting legions of awkward vibes upon the immediate vicinity and making our well behaved children and everyone else around uncomfortable and/or annoyed? Of course they are tired, hot, and thirsty…they've walked a few miles today and it's 90 outside. Of course they don't want to go home...what kid ever wants to leave the park and go home? And maybe, just maybe, that six-year-old is crying because they scared of the 300ft/90mph coaster with six loops and the mega-wedgie slide. They aren't brats, they are kids, and kids learn behavior from their parents…that's you, remember?

Fashion Fail — Anyone who has had a look at People of Walmart knows exactly what I'm talking about. Look, I'm all for self confidence and things, and people have the freedom to express themselves and wear what they like in this great country, but why…why…why? There are many questions one can ask, such as…What makes a guy wear a t-shirt in the kid's area that looks like a Mountain Dew logo, but says "mount and do me" or …Is there something in the air that makes undergarments disappear and clothing shrink to three sizes too small? Should butt cracks have to buy a ticket of their own? After all, there are so many hanging out in the park. Did the red-light district close for the day and all the hookers came to the park? All very valid questions, considering some of the mighty interesting visuals we see on the midway. You know, the ones that go way beyond the realm of mere self-expression and fall into the category of either "Good Lord, my eyes!" or "What the hell was that?" And at the water park……I'll just stop now. It seems that in most public places people choose to dress normally, but for some reason the amusement park and Walmart seem to grant some sort of invisible license for people to wear things that let's be honest… nobody wants to see. There ought to be a website

The StaplerThe Stapler aka Man's Worst Nightmare — Ride safety is really important to this passionate ride op, and there are smashed nuts rolling around in the coaster car to prove it. These airtime-killing masters of vasectomy use the lap bar as a lethal weapon, crushing legs and the family jewels in their relentless pursuit to make us a permanent part of the seat. What's bad is that they seem to work at the coasters with the most airtime, and even worse and more puzzling…some of them are guys themselves. Can they not sympathize? Maybe they need a shot to the pills as a friendly reminder. Ride op 101: Airtime is intentionally designed and the lap bar is a restraint, not a torture device.

General Douchebaggery — This is behavior that may be a little more ambiguous, but everyone watching is thinking exactly the same thing (see title). It could be any number of things like wearing shoes with the skates built in and weaving through crowds or wearing saggy pants and walking very slowly down the middle of the path…holding up the 25 people directly behind them. Line smokers fall into this category, and also those who can't seem to locate one of the 5,000 trash cans in the park. Employees aren't exempt here. A few are found in the food stands, serving ancient fries and smashed burgers with a smirk. Others inexplicably reside in guest services. Yes dude, a customer asked you a question. Put your phone down and do your job.

Spoiledus BraticusSpoiledus Braticus — First-world problems really are the end of the world aren't they…at least to these people. This category is reserved specifically for adults who behave like children when they are mildly inconvenienced or unsatisfied with their situation. Normal human beings would take this in stride and maintain some dignity, but not here. There is a subtle art to complaining and getting what you want, and these people are about as subtle as a linebacker, and they give street demonstrations too, usually followed by a security escort. Yelling about closed rides, yelling about rigged games, yelling about lines, yelling because the ATM machine is down and they have to walk to another one to withdraw $200. Many of us have witnessed such meltdowns…like throwing a fit because the computer controlled lockers won't open. This guy had to wait 15 minutes (gasp) for I.T. to come, and the whole time he was literally yelling at the ride manager, loudly demanding that his entire 6 person party be reimbursed for their day (tickets, food, gifts, everything). His reasoning…They were late for a dinner reservation. After 10 minutes or so, some of the people in the crowd, all waiting patiently for I.T. just the same, began to grow tired of this middle-aged child, and one almost fed him his teeth for dinner. I personally was hoping that the security office had handed out tasers to the guards that morning. Unfortunately they didn't.

And there you have it. I wish I could say that you won't see hear or otherwise fall victim to one of these party fouls, but if you visit enough places it's inevitable. Best to just take it in stride and tell a story someday…perhaps in the comments below. The floor is open for additions to the list, tales of woe, or just plain ranting.

Earlier: How to have a horrible theme park vacation

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Vote of the week: What weather will keep you from the parks?

By Robert Niles
Published: June 7, 2013 at 10:07 AM

The first tropical storm of the season hit Florida yesterday. Tropical Storm Andrea is continuing its way up the east coast today -- trace a route from Busch Gardens in Tampa to Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Va., and you'll get a rough approximation of the storm's path. The storm caused no major damage or injuries in Central Florida yesterday, though several theme parks did close early in response to the weather. (And some of the mid-Atlantic parks are closing today.)

If you're visiting the southeast between June and November, there's a risk of encountering a tropical storm or hurricane, with August and September being the most likely months for storms. Of course, afternoon thunderstorms are a near-daily occurrence in Central Florida, so even if the forecast is clear for major storms, all visitors to the Florida theme parks during the summer ought to expect some inclement weather during their trip.

Hurricane
Even though we haven't seen a storm like this in a while, this still is not what you want to see on your summer vacation.

The Orlando-area theme parks are located well inland, and never have suffered major damage in a hurricane, though storms have closed the parks for a day at a time in the past. (Hurricanes have closed the Walt Disney World parks three times -- in 1999 and twice in 2004.) So fear of a hurricane or tropical storm shouldn't keep visitors from the area during the summer, though it's probably a good idea to schedule a day or two of free time during your summer Florida vacation. If the worst happens, that'll be the day you spend at the hotel riding out the wind and rain.

But the weather element that causes the most damage during the summer isn't rain, or wind. It's heat. Sunburns and heat exhaustion lead dozens of visitors to parks' first aid centers on a daily basis. Start drinking lots of water before your days in the parks, and don't forget the sunscreen if you want to spend the day enjoying yourself, instead of suffering in a first aid clinic.

If some people don't do well in the heat, many theme park rides don't do well in the cold. Low temperatures can keep roller coasters in their stations and water rides closed, while visitors run past frozen drink stands, looking for any place selling coffee or hot chocolate.

What kind of weather's most likely to keep you from visiting a theme park? Is it heat, cold temperatures, rain, or wind? That's our vote of the week.


Got a funny/crazy/interesting story about bad weather in a theme park? Please share your experience, in the comments.

And, while you're here, we'd like to invite you to join us as a fan of Theme Park Insider on Facebook, if you haven't already. It's a great way to keep in touch with everything that's happening in the world of theme parks.

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Where to stay: The Club Level at Disney's Boardwalk Inn at Walt Disney World

By Amanda Jenkins
Published: June 6, 2013 at 4:30 PM

For our quick trip for Star Wars Weekends in May, I decided to stay as close to the Disney Hollywood Studios as possible. With this in mind, I looked at each of the resorts that are within walking distance to both the Studios and Epcot. After much research, we picked The Boardwalk Inn and Villas. This was a first time visit to this resort, in that we tend to stay closer to the Magic Kingdom (Contemporary, Bay Lake Tower, and Grand Floridian). I was extremely excited about this trip, since it was one of many firsts. We were doing our first Star Wars Weekend, first time at the Boardwalk, and we decided to book our first ever concierge/club level room. We became annual passholders this past December for the first time and with these was able to book a club level room for the price of a regular room. Oh yes, we are definitely moving on up.

Boardwalk Inn


We arrived via Magical Express to our resort. As with others that we have visited, we were greeted immediately after disembarking the bus. We were quizzed with whether we have ever visited the Walt Disney Resort, have we visited the Boardwalk, and then given some quick directions to how to get around the resort. First off, when you enter in the lobby of the resort, you are actually on the second floor. The first floor takes you to the pools, Friendships [resort transport boats], and outside Boardwalk area. To get to the bus transportation, you do not go to the first floor, you exit on the second floor via the lobby.

Boardwalk Inn lobby

After soaking up this quick two-minute conversation, we were ushered into another time period. The Boardwalk is decorated in the early 20th century of a New Jersey boardwalk. The second floor boasts hardwood floors and a staircase with decorative carpeting. As you walk across the lobby you see an antique carousel under glass atop a round cushioned seat. A large decorative lighting fixture is directly overhead, with window and doors looking out over Crescent Lake. Jazz music plays throughout the resort giving an even more feeling of stepping into the 1920's.

Carousel and sofa

Decorative lighting fixture

After some confusion, mostly because I did not inform them on checking in that I had a club level room, we were not supposed to check in at the lobby. Quick note to everyone staying in a concierge/club level room at Disney: tell them immediately upon entering in the building so that you will not wait in line in the lobby. We were taken to the elevators, then up to the fourth floor. After going down a hallway, we were immediately taken to the concierge desk. There we were checked in, given all of our dining reservations, our room keys, and a schedule of times and food at the Innkeepers Club Lounge. Our room was not ready so we decided to leave and go to the parks. We were only gone a couple of hours before we were texted our room number. When we returned we discovered that our room was directly across from the Innkeepers Club Lounge. How fortuitous.

Club level hallway


We entered the lounge and found that they were cleaning things up and preparing for the evenings' tastings. There were still snacks such as cookies and fruit and water/soft drinks/coffee and tea available. The castmembers of the lounge were friendly and helpful but thankfully did not hover over you. The lounge was decorated with a large gilt mirror, dark wooden furniture and comfortable couches. The floor is covered in decorative carpets, that if one looks carefully will find a hidden Mickey of two. We were encouraged to come back around five in the evening to try the desserts and appetizers. When we came back we found an array of items that had a bit of an Asian flavor. We found that each item we tried was delicious. There was also a display of evening liqueurs for the discriminating guest. We would snack here quite often during our stay. At breakfast the next morning, they had hot beignets (my absolute favorite), oatmeal, fresh fruit, muffins, and many other continental breakfast items.

Inside the lounge

Inside the lounge


As nice as the food was at the lounge, it wasn't something that you could actually feel full, at least for dinner. During our evening of the 3am Star Wars weekend day, we decided to try out the room service. The Boardwalk's room service comes from the different restaurants that surround Crescent Lake. We couldn't decide what to order, plus we were exhausted, so we stuck with a hamburger and fries along with a tomato and mozzarella sandwich with homemade potato chips. It arrived quickly to our room, was hot, and it was quite tasty.

Bedroom

Minnie lamp
A "Minnie" lamp

Inside the room

Our room was decorated with many hidden Mickeys and even some Minnies. The room was bright and airy with its white bedspread and sea-foam green sofa. Our bathroom had the same type of decorative mirrors that one finds throughout the resort, with Mickey's as the decorative part. The light fixtures even boasted of Mickey's silhouette. I'm always surprised at how Disney manages to make a refrigerator blend in with the motif of their resorts, but here again they managed to place it in a dark wood cabinet that matched the wood of the desk in our room. The balcony opened out to views of Crescent Lake and the Boardwalk.

The view

The way our balcony was positioned, I was able to see the fireworks from the Magic Kingdom! I'm sure you can imagine my surprise, especially as I was thinking how I used to stand on the balcony of the previous resorts to watch Wishes. Here I was at an Epcot resort and I still get the magical view. Not too shabby. During our evenings that we were out late, we returned to find our covers pulled down.

Turn-down service

Close-up

Instead of the typical chocolates, we were given salt water taffy along with a card that had sayings such as, "The moon belongs to everyone, the best things in life are free. The stars belong o everyone, they gleam there for you and me." One of my favorite songs that Mel Torme sang in the classic musical "Good News". Sigh. Perfect, especially since the movie was set in the 1920's. Now that's theming!

Pros to this resort: Easy access to Epcot and Hollywood Studios. If you are one who loves to spend most of your evenings at Epcot, then this is definitely a resort for you. The resort had more of an adult feel to me, which is nice when you are traveling without your children. Definitely lessens the guilt more. Beautifully themed resort. Helpful staff without being pushy. A peaceful resort during the day with more activity during the evening along the boardwalk. A large selection of rockers to sit and look out over Crescent Lake. The general/grocery store had a larger selection of items than some of the other resorts.

Cons to this resort: The way to get around the resort can be a little confusing to a first time guest. The buses. Each time we wanted to go to the Magic Kingdom or was trying to leave the Magic Kingdom to return to the resort, we had to wait close to 45 minutes. This occurred on different days. It was not pleasant. Access to food. If we were not on the concierge level, we would have had to leave the resort and go along the boardwalk to the bakery for drink refills and quick service items. Which means: we would have had to go to the second floor, go down the stairs, walk outside until we came to the bakery. Since our room was directly across from the lounge, we would hear them moving carts of glasses and plates during the night. This disturbs one's sleep.

Would we stay here again? We would if we planning on attending an event such as Star Wars Weekends or Epcot's Food and Wine festival. If we were planning a longer trip with the plans of visiting the Magic Kingdom often, then we would not stay here.

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The Blog Flume Filter for June 6, 2013

By Jeff Elliott
Published: June 6, 2013 at 3:13 PM

Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom – The last piece of track for the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train roller coaster was just slotted into place. So if you were hoping that the Disney villains who'd kept the "New Fantasyland" from our sight all these 40-some years also had hidden a 500-foot hyper-drop on this coaster, well, it looks as though you're going to be disappointed.

Seven Dwarfs Mine Train
Photo courtesy Disney

Though I suppose we don't yet know what we'll find inside that mountain. Maybe Snow White going all Tony Montana on us: "Say hello to my little friend."

SeaWorld Orlando – SeaWorld tomorrow will raise the price of its one-day ticket to $92, following Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World, which recently raised their ticket prices.

What will SeaWorld buy with its extra cash? Apparently, more netting to contain the penguins in its new Antarctica habitat. It's not just our friend who jumped last week. Apparently, as many as seven penguins per day were bolting from the enclosure and going out for slushie drinks. Since the netting was installed, we've heard rumors that SeaWorld employees have confiscated several small knives, a tiny hack saw, half a dozen razor blades, and an acetylene torch. Perhaps bringing in those penguins named Skipper, Kowalski, Rico and Private wasn't the best move, after all.

Disney’s Hollywood Studios – Star Wars Weekend has one last weekend before Snig and Oopla are resigned back to the production trailer to start working on next year’s Hoopla. Good luck! In the meantime, here is a familiar voice that was featured this year at Star Wars Weekend.

Disneyland – Sometimes it is nice to remember that you don’t go to the Disney parks just for the rides.

Disney’s Grand Floridian – Victoria & Albert’s Down-Home Burger and Vittles Restaurant just received its five-diamond rating for this year, an accomplishment only attained by 53 restaurants in the United States. In Europe, they give this award out like it is candy to even the most roach infested street vendor, but apparently it’s really rare for a US restaurant to receive it. So take that, Gordon Ramsay!

Kings Island – While this news is confusing in the extreme, it looks like we have a name, make, and model of the new coaster going into Kings Island. The new B&M Wing Coaster will be named Banshee. This doesn’t make any sense at all, since three parks within 300 miles all have Wing Coasters already.

Cedar Point – We are starting to get word already about the next new ride at The Point. Can anyone say: “dark ride”? For those of you not really into the whole “characters” thing…this is why we go to theme parks.

Universal Studios Hollywood - Want to be a theme park designer? Here's your chance to create a character that will be featured at this year's Halloween Horror Nights. Universal is inviting fans to create a new character, based on one of the classic Universal monsters. Entries must be submitted by July 1, and voting will begin on HHN's Facebook page on July 2 to select the winner from among the finalists. The winning designer gets a trip for two to the opening of Halloween Horror Nights in Hollywood this fall to see the debut of the character. Here are the details [PDF] -- good luck!

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Whiners get the worst deals on theme park vacations

By Robert Niles
Published: June 5, 2013 at 5:47 PM

Perhaps the only thing more predictable than Disney's annual theme park ticket price increases is the complaining that follows them. (If you haven't seen it yet, check out the non sequiturs that animate this Los Angeles Times editorial on the topic).

Kali River Rapids
This is the way Disney theme park fans would prefer to get soaked on their vacation.

But getting emotional about purchases -- whether you feel positive or negative about them -- provides the surest path to making a bad decision about your money. Ticket pricing is business. Theme park companies don't get emotional about it, and if you're a smart consumer, neither should you. Consumers who get the best value for their money are the ones who approach decisions about which parks to visit -- and which tickets to buy -- with as much cold calculation as the parks bring to pricing those tickets.

So Disney raised the price of a one-day ticket to the Magic Kingdom by $6, Disneyland and California Adventure by $5, and Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios by $1. Parking went up a buck, too. Don't whine about that. Just do the math, and decide if Disney continues to be a good value for you and your budget, or not.

This is why I urge fans to look across the industry, at a wide variety of parks. Don't assume that just because Disney is the market leader in annual attendance that it offers the best theme park experience for your family. Does your family love Epcot? Have you considered Busch Gardens Williamsburg as an alternative? Do you enjoy live shows in the parks? How about Dollywood, instead? Thrill ride fans? Disney's never been the best value for you -- now's a great time to look around at other parks.

Even if you decide that you do value the Disney experience above all the others, you still can find value by adjusting to the latest price increases. At Theme Park Insider, we've long suggested that the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California provides better value for the money than Walt Disney World for many visitors. If you're a frequent Disney World visitor and not priced Disneyland recently, you should. Even if you decide to remain with Orlando, that area's wide variety of hotel accommodations provides an opportunity for you to save the price difference in Disney tickets by selecting a different place to stay.

The worst choice you can make, though, is to dump Disney in a huff, then spend your money instead on a poorly researched vacation that you and your family end up not enjoying. You're not "saving" money if you don't enjoy what you bought.

No matter where you decide to spend your money, you should choose a vacation based on a hard look at its costs and the value you get from that spending. Disney's just changed the numbers on us. It shouldn't change the way we approach making decisions about vacations.

Disney doesn't care what you say in comment forums. It does care whether you spend your money in its theme parks. If enough people decide that Disney's price increases have gone too far that the company starts to earn less money, that'll do more to get Disney to change course than all the comments on the Internet, together. But, I suspect that millions of theme park fans around the world will continue to decide that Disney delivers a premium vacation experience that's worth its premium prices, and that we'll see yet another price increase from Disney sometime around summer in 2014, too.

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Where to eat? Dinner at Epcot's Rose and Crown Dining Room

By Amanda Jenkins
Published: June 4, 2013 at 8:57 AM

Make a reservation at Epcot's Rose and Crown Dining Room, and you're asking for criticism. Why would you want to eat bland British food? Why would you waste a reservation there when you could have eaten at other places along the World Showcase? I understand certain misconceptions are made when you think of this place, but with an updated menu and some changes in their preparation, it has improved exponentially. My dinner in May was one of these times that eating here knocked my socks off.

Rose and Crown

This is a safe restaurant to me. I've never had a bad meal here, and it has perfect seating for Illuminations. To me, that is a win/win situation. This time though, I was pleasantly surprised by the improvements to the meals. After a long day of walking around Epcot and doing things we normally couldn't have done with our little boys present (i.e. taking our time and looking through every shop and pavilion), we made our way to our dining reservation. We were greeted and happily seated along the lagoon. We were asked if we were in a hurry to eat, or wished to take our time and enjoy Illuminations from our seat. After stating what should be the obvious for everyone, we were left with our menus. Our server was a sweet young lady from northern Scotland who treated us as if we were the dearest of people. She made her recommendations and even answered our questions, if whether or not this was typical of what she ate when at home. She told us which items were what her family would fix and delighted us with what she thought of American cuisine. After this discourse we decided to go the full Monty and start with appetizers. My husband ordered the roasted sea scallops, while I decided to try the Scotch egg. Now the last time we had eaten here, my husband had ordered the Scotch egg and had raved about it. I knew I had to give it a try. Little did we know that they had changed the way they prepared it. Before it was a hardboiled egg wrapped in bacon. Now it was something new.

The Scotch egg is still a hardboiled egg, but it is now wrapped in sausage and breadcrumbs and fried. It is then served sliced with mustard and soft strips of toast.

Scotch egg

When our appetizers arrived, I couldn't take pictures fast enough to show what they looked like before we dove into them. In fact, I was unable to get the scallops properly pictured since my husband began to eat and voice his pleasure over them. He said the tomato chutney and spinach pesto gave it such flavor. (I have to take his word for it. I'm deathly allergic to all shellfish.)

Scallops

I dove into my Scotch egg. It was heavenly. The sausage was mild and enjoyable with the mustard giving it just a kick of spiciness. The toast had just a hint of crispness and did not have any strong flavor to detract from the egg. I did not want to finish it, for fear I wouldn't have enough room for my meal, so Chuck was more than happy to finish it for me.

For our meals, we couldn't decide on what to order, so we decided to order two different things and share. I had already tried their fish and chips, so Chuck decided to give it a try. His favorite meal is no longer available, which was their bangers and mash. He decided to stay true to British form and have the fish. I wanted fish, but I was also in the mood for a steak. So I ordered their New York strip steak. I know, I know. How British of me to order a New York strip steak? Feel free to make fun of me in the below comments. Our dinners arrived and we once again immediately dove into them before I could adequately snap pictures of them. Sorry for the half-eaten portion pictures, but we were hungry and it was so good.

Steak

Chuck found that his fish came perfect. The fish was flaky and the breading was crispy. He loved it and wondered why I had never told him to order this. My steak arrived with two crispy onion rings, green beans and a grilled tomato on top. I ordered my steak to be grilled medium. It was just a tad bit closer to medium rare. This was fine with me since I like my steak both medium and medium rare. A good steak, in my opinion, is one in which you do not need to ask for any steak sauce. This steak required nothing except my knife and fork. It was tender and delicious. We began to eat what was in front of us and before we knew it, we had forgotten that we had planned to share. Good thing we are both only children and understood our reasoning for not sharing.

Here again, I didn't want to fill up, because I was bound and determined to try a dessert. I ate quite a bit, but still left some steak on my plate. Chuck reasoned it out and sacrificed his space for dessert to eat the rest of my steak. His noble sacrifice should be recorded for the ages. I knew there was only one dessert that I wanted to try, especially since I wouldn't have to share. The Sticky Toffee Pudding. I had never had it nor have I ever had an English pudding before. We will blame my lack of experience of this being that I'm from Tennessee. Not too many chances to try a pudding in this state unless it has the word Jell-o in front of it. When I ordered it, our waitress stated that it was her favorite and was hoping that would be what I picked.

Toffee pudding

After teasing my poor full husband of not being able to get any pictures of anything before we took bites, I stuck my spoon into the moist cake and took the first bite before we could snap a picture. I hate to say it, but I would do it again. It was that delectable. The cake was moist with the melted caramel. The vanilla cream all along the bottom of the bowel helped increase the sweetness of the caramel. It was the perfect end to the perfect meal. We had Illuminations starting right when dessert came. What better timing could we ask for?

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Southern California theme parks lead the increases in annual industry attendance report

By Robert Niles
Published: June 4, 2013 at 6:30 AM

The 2012 TEA/AECOM Global Attendance Report [PDF] is out, and Disney continues to lead the way, with the world's top eight most-attended theme parks. But attendance gains in Southern California were the story of the year, as Cars Land and Transformers drove parks there to double-digit attendance gains.

Cars Land
Cars Land drove California Adventure to record attendance last year.

Overall, theme parks saw a 5.2% increase in attendance worldwide in 2012. Here are the top 10 parks worldwide last year, with attendance (in millions) and their change from 2011, rounded to the nearest percentage point.

  • Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom 17.5 2%
  • Disneyland 15.9 -1%
  • Tokyo Disneyland 14.8 9%
  • Tokyo DisneySea 12.7 9%
  • Disneyland Paris 11.2 2%
  • Epcot 11.1 2%
  • Disney's Animal Kingdom 10.0 2%
  • Disney's Hollywood Studios 9.9 2%
  • Universal Studios Japan 9.7 14%
  • Universal's Islands of Adventure 8.0 4%

In North America, theme parks saw a 3.6% increase in attendance over 2011, with Disney California Adventure and Universal Studios Hollywood leading the way.

  • Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom 17.5 2%
  • Disneyland 15.9 -1%
  • Epcot 11.1 2%
  • Disney's Animal Kingdom 10.0 2%
  • Disney's Hollywood Studios 9.9 2%
  • Universal's Islands of Adventure 8.0 4%
  • Disney California Adventure 7.8 23%
  • Universal Studios Florida 6.2 3%
  • Universal Studios Hollywood 5.9 15%
  • SeaWorld Orlando 5.4 3%

Disneyland saw a slight decline, but remember that a park gets credit for a visitor if it's the first park that person visits during the day. And with Cars Land drawing so many Disneyland Resort visitors to start their day at California Adventure, that pushed that park's number up at the expense of Disneyland's, even though overall attendance at the resort was up last year.

Universal Studios Hollywood's popular debut of Transformers: The Ride 3D allowed it to move up one spot in the rankings, to number nine, displacing SeaWorld Orlando.

For perspective, the TEA/AECOM reported attendance at museums for first time. Here's the top 10 worldwide. The numbers lag theme parks', but remain in the multi-millions. (And keep in mind that several of these museums offer free admission. Attendance numbers are in millions.)

  • Louvre (Paris) 9.2
  • National Museum of Natural History (Washington DC) 7.6
  • National Air and Space Museum (Washington DC) 6.8
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York) 6.1
  • British Museum (London) 5.6
  • Tate Modern (London) 5.3
  • National Gallery (London) 5.2
  • Vatican Museums 5.1
  • American Museum of Natural History (New York) 5.0
  • Natural History Museum (London) 4.9

Previous attendance reports: 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002

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Plan your day at Disney's Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World

By Robert Niles
Published: June 3, 2013 at 11:23 AM

Opened in 1989 as Disney-MGM Studios, Disney's Hollywood Studios was the Walt Disney World Resort's third theme park. Intended as a working movie and television production studio to counter the Universal Studios Florida park that would open the next year, Disney's studio park today just uses its studio setting as a thematic device. Disney abandoned live production in the park years ago.

Disney's Hollywood Studios

But not using the park for filming means more space available for rides and shows. Today, Disney's Hollywood Studios includes some of the most popular attractions at the Walt Disney World Resort, making early arrival and advance planning a must to get the most value from your day at the park.

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. Disney's Hollywood Studios also offers two of the resort's more popular tale service restaurants: The Hollywood Brown Derby, a recreation of a classic "old Hollywood" restaurant, and Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater Restaurant, where you dine in booths made to look like convertible cars while watching cheesy old sci-fi movies on a drive-in theater screen on one wall of the restaurant. Call +1-407-WDW-DINE or visit Disney World's website to book, up to six months in advance of your visit, to ensure you get a table at the time you want.

Hollywood Brown Derby

As with all other Disney World theme parks, avoid visiting Disney's Hollywood Studios on days when the park is hosting Extra Magic Hours early admission for Disney hotel guests, unless you're one of those guests. Check Disney's parks hours online to find those days.

If you want to stay for the Fantasmic! show at the end of the park day, you can save yourself some time holding a seat for the show by reserving space in a VIP seating section. To do that, book a Fantasmic! Dinner Package in advance, at one of four participating restaurants in the park. Note that you must book this specific dining package to get the Fantasmic! seating -- just eating dinner at one of the four restaurants won't get you those seats.

Special events at Disney's Hollywood Studios

Disney's Hollywood Studios hosts the wildly popular Star Wars Weekends in late spring each year, drawing tens of thousands of Star Wars fans to the park on those days. In November and December, the park also hosts The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights, a massive holiday lights display that draws huge crowds to the park in the evenings. Plan accordingly, either to catch these events or to steer clear and visit at a less crowded time, if you're not interested in them.

What to do when you get to Disney's Hollywood Studios

Parking prices have risen to $15 a day at the Walt Disney World Resort, but Disney's Hollywood Studios is accessible via motor boat or walking paths from the Disney's Boardwalk and Epcot resorts area, as well as by driving or taking a bus from elsewhere in the resort. Remember that once you pay to park at a Disney World theme park, your parking ticket is good for parking at all other WDW theme parks on that day, at no additional charge. Just so your ticket to the parking toll booth attendant.

Getting to this park before it opens in the morning is essential in avoiding long waits for its top rides. The toughest attraction wait in all of Walt Disney World is at Disney's Hollywood Studios, for Toy Story Midway Mania, for which all Fastpass ride reservation times for the day often are distributed before noon. You can find a clone of this ride at Disney California Adventure, with a much shorter wait. If you've been to California Adventure or planning a trip, we'd recommend riding Toy Story there, and using your time at Hollywood Studios on other attractions. But if you aren't going to California anytime soon, and you must ride Toy Story here, make it your first stop of the day. If the standby wait is under 20 minutes, go ahead and ride now. If not, get a Fastpass return time for later in the day.

Toy Story Midway Mania

After Toy Story, head over to Rock n' Roller Coaster to pick up a Fastpass for that ride, if you didn't get one for Toy Story. If you did, and the standby wait for Rock n' Roller Coaster is under 30 minutes, ride it now. Otherwise, note which time you're able to get another Fastpass (it's noted on the bottom of your Fastpass ticket), and plan to come back to Rock n' Roller Coaster then to get that Fastpass. Next, go next door to ride the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Remember that you must use Fastpasses during their specific time window now. You can't simply choose to return at any time later in the day, after your return window opens.

The next three Hollywood Studios attractions highly recommended by Theme Park Insider readers are Star Tours: The Adventures Continue, the Lights! Motors! Action! auto stunt show and Walt Disney: One Man's Dream. The Walt Disney show is a walk-through exhibition followed by a short movie about Walt's life, and rarely attracts a wait. Enjoy it at your convenience later in the day. Check the day's show schedule for auto stunt show times and plan to arrive 20-30 minutes early to get in line for seats.

That leaves Star Tours, for which you should get a Fastpass time once you've eligible to get another one after collecting your previous Fastpasses. (Of course, if you show up at an attraction to get a Fastpass and find a standby wait of under 20 minutes, just go ahead and get in the standby line to ride now. Or, get the Fastpass first and bank it for a re-ride later in the day!)

Theme Park Insider readers prefer the original version of Fantasmic!, which plays at Disneyland in Anaheim, over the Disney's Hollywood Studios version. But if you'd like to see this version of the show, plan to arrive at least one hour before show time to claim a seat (two hours or more during the summer or holiday seasons), if you've not booked the dining package described above.

If you're looking for a free souvenir and a unique hands-on experience, visit the Animation Academy in the park's Magic of Disney Animation pavilion, to learn how to draw a Disney character, that you can take home with you.

Getting Goofy at the Animation Academy

Visit Theme Park Insider's Disney's Hollywood Studios page for a list of other attractions in the park, which you can enjoy at your discretion during the rest of your day. If you get Toy Story, Rock n' Roller Coaster and Tower of Terror out of the way early in the day, seeing everything else worth seeing in the park shouldn't be a problem, nor should it require stressful down-to-the-minute planning. Just keep in mind the day's show schedule if you'd like to see the Indiana Jones, Beauty and the Beast or auto stunt shows.

Where to eat

The park's counter service options are pretty ho-hum and indistinguishable from one another -- mostly predictable theme park burgers and pizza -- so you'll find much better meals by calling to book advance dining reservations at the park's sit-down restaurants.

What's next

Rumors are flying that Disney will close the auto stunt show and backstage tour to clear space for an east coast version of Disney California Adventure's wildly popular Cars Land. But there's no confirmation of that yet, much less a timetable.

Next week: Universal's Islands of Adventure

Previously:

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Disney World wheelchair tour guide for hire?

By Daniel Etcheberry
Published: June 2, 2013 at 9:39 PM

When I heard the news about rich Manhattan moms hiring disabled guides and paying them $130 an hour so their kids could bypass the standard queues at Disney World, I said to myself "$130 an hour! Wow! I would do it too!" Then the ethical side of my brain told me "don't you dare!" Since the dark side of my brain always wins, I'm available. In the meantime, let's visit Magic Kingdom to understand why I am so valuable.

There are several rides where people in wheelchairs enter through the exit, thus bypassing the entire standard queue and reducing the waiting time to zero (plus some minutes to wait for the special vehicle). At It's a Small World I enter the standard queue for a short length, and then I go to the exit ramp, nice right?

At the Haunted Mansion I also enter the standard queue for a short length, and then I go to the exit where I have to wait for the cast members to stop the ride for transfer. The only bad thing about it is that I miss the stretch room part. But hey kids, you don't have to wait for hours, so stop crying while I count your mom's dough.

Wheelchair at the Haunted Mansion
Wheeling through the Mansion's "interactive" queue

Other rides where I enter through the exit are Splash Mountain, Jungle Cruise, and Big Thunder Mountain. For the rest of the rides I use the standard queue.

Disney lets people in wheelchairs to enter the rides (through the exit) with a maximum of five family members (wink, wink). No wonder these moms pay so much money for their scheme. And by the way rich-moms, I'm just joking, so don't bother calling me. Tempting, but wrong.

Daniel Etcheberry writes about theme parks and disability issues for Theme Park Insider.

* * *
Editor's addendum: When I worked in the Magic Kingdom, Disney hadn't yet developed the Guest Assistance Card [GAC] program, and admission policies for guests with wheelchairs were much more informal. In fact, abuse of what system existed probably was worse then, as I saw plenty of teenagers with "sprained ankles," riding in wheelchairs, trying to use their condition to get them and their friends on the ride with no wait.

What they didn't realize is that getting to skip the "regular" queue didn't mean that you didn't have to wait for the ride. It just meant that you got to wait in the wheelchair queue instead. At times, the line-up of wheelchair parties waiting to get on Big Thunder Mountain extended out of the unload area, leading to longer time waits than parties would have had in the "regular" queue.

Even if there wasn't a queue of wheelchair parties waiting, unload personnel still loaded wheelchair parties at their discretion. Sometimes that meant that a party would have to wait while we sent a train with an empty car first. Given that we only had a few seconds to unload and load a train before the ride would go down, not having to take a few seconds to unload the car first when it got back to the station allowed a wheelchair party several additional seconds to board. Other times, that meant we'd just keep a group of teenagers we judged to be faking it to wait a good long time to get their ride.

The inconsistencies led Disney to develop the GAC program (in the 1990s, I believe). Disney wanted to cut down on the abusive rental of wheelchairs by able-bodied parties and to create a more formal system that gave attractions personnel and guests rules about admitting parties with wheelchairs onto rides. (One of those rules was the six-person party limit.) GACs also can be used by people with other disabilities that don't require a wheelchair, under certain circumstances.

As Daniel alluded to, GAC or wheelchair access saves a party time only on a handful of rides in the park. Smart use of the Fastpass system and timing your attractions right likely would get you on more rides in less time, when you factor in the extra time needed to navigate the park in a wheelchair. And if you want to spend money to skip lines altogether at a Disney theme park, you can't beat hiring a Disney VIP tour guide. That's why I remain skeptical that "rich moms hiring wheelchair users to get away from lines at Disney" is a big deal. But with all the publicity about it now, I wouldn't be surprised to see Disney's legal team start demanding that GAC users sign a statement that they won't sell access to their party, under penalty of losing not just their GAC, but their Disney tickets as well. -- Robert

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Disney announces ticket and parking price increases at Disneyland and Walt Disney World

By Robert Niles
Published: June 1, 2013 at 11:02 AM

Disney announced substantial price increases for admission tickets and annual passes at both Walt Disney World and the Disneyland Resorts, effective tomorrow. (So buy today if you're planning a trip soon!) Prices will rise from one to 15 percent.

Epcot
No, it's not filled with money. But soon...

And for the first time in the United States, Disney's priced a one-day ticket at one of its theme parks above the price of a one-day ticket at other parks in the same resort. A single-day visit to the Magic Kingdom will cost $5 more than visiting one of the other Disney World theme parks, starting tomorrow, for those rare individuals who do not buy a multi-day pass to the WDW theme parks.

Here are some of the new prices you'll pay, starting Sunday.

At Walt Disney World

  • A one-day, one-park rises from $89 to $95 for the Magic Kingdom, and to $90 for the other parks
  • A four-day base ticket (one park per day) rises from $256 to $279
  • A 10-day base ticket rises from $318 to $339
  • Adding the park-hopper option to your pass rises $2 per ticket (regardless of the number of days on your ticket), from $57 to $59
  • A four-park Annual Pass rises from $574 to $609 for non-Florida residents and from $425 to $464 for Florida residents

At Disneyland

  • A one-day one-park ticket rises from $87 to $92
  • A one-day park hopper ticket rises from $125 to $137
  • The SoCal Select Annual Pass rises from $269 to $279
  • SoCal Annual Pass rises from $329 to $359
  • Deluxe Annual Pass rises from $469 to $499
  • Premium Annual Pass rises from $649 to $669 (no blockout days, parking included)
  • The parking add-on for non-Premium APs goes from $129 to $139
  • The AP blockout day ticket goes from $70 to $84

The one-day parking fee will rise $1 on both coasts, to $15 at Walt Disney World and $16 at Disneyland.

The biggest price increase, 15 percent, is reserved for Disney's high-roller fans, as the two-resort Premiere Pass, good for 12 months at all Walt Disney World and Disneyland theme parks, raises $130 to $979.

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The Simpsons Fast Food Boulevard opens at Universal Studios Florida

By Robert Niles
Published: June 1, 2013 at 10:33 AM

The Simpsons Fast Food Boulevard opened this morning at Universal Studios Florida, giving fans of the long-running animated TV show their first chance to taste some of the iconic food and drinks featured in the show over the years.

Springfield
A bartender serves a Flaming Moe. Photo by Justin Pegg.

Built alongside The Simpsons Ride on the site of the old International Film Festival food court, Fast Food Boulevard is the first piece of Universal's new Springfield land to open to park guests. Here's the line-up of new eateries, with their menus:

Krusty Burger
Krusty Burger (6 oz. burger with secret sauce, cheddar cheese sauce, tomato, and lettuce) - $9.99
Clogger Burger (Krusty Burger with an extra patty, and bacon) - $12.99
Mother Nature Burger (6 oz. black bean burger with guacamole and tomato) - $10.99
The Ribwich (boneless barbecue ribs topped with coleslaw) - $11.99
Sideshow Bob Foot Long (foot-long Nathan's hot dog with chili, cheddar sauce, coleslaw and onion) - $8.99
Heat Lamp Dog (six-inch Nathan's dog) - $7.99
All sandwiches served with Kurly Fries. Applesauce or fruit may be substituted as a side upon request at all restaurants.

Springfield
Grab a seat at the bar, next to Barney, at Moe's. Photo by Justin Pegg.

Moe's
Mt. Swartzwelder Apple Drink (apple juice, lemonade and tea) - $3.99
Groovy Grove Juice (orange juice and lemonade) - $3.99
Mr. Teeny (lemonade and pineapple juice) - $3.99
Flaming Moe (a citrus drink with dry-ice smoke - nonalcoholic) - $7.99
Duff Beer (yep, it's real, alcoholic beer, available in regular, lite and dry) - $6.50

Cletus' Chicken Shack
Chicken and Waffle Sandwich (Fried chicken breast between two waffles, served with maple syrup mayo and tater tots) - $10.99
Double Batter Chicken Platter (Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, and coleslaw) - $10.99
Chicken Arms (Six Buffalo or BBQ chicken wings with blue cheese, celery, and tater tots) - $9.99
Chicken Thumbs (Fried chicken tenders with tater tots and choice of BBQ or honey mustard sauce) - $8.29
Thrilled to Be Grilled Chicken Sandwich (with lettuce and tomato, and tater tots) - $8.49

The Frying Dutchman
Basket o' Bait (fried fish, shrimp, and calamari, served with cocktail and tartar sauces) - $13.99
Battered and Plattered Fish - $12.99
Basket o' Shrimp - $11.99
Basket o' Calamari - $8.99
Clam Chowd-arr - $3.99

Luigi's
Meat Liker's Pizza (Personal pizza with ham, sausage and pepperoni) - $7.79
Cheese Pizza - $6.99
Vegetarian Pizza (on a whole wheat crust) - $7.49

You can see more photos from the Fats Food Boulevard restaurants on our Universal Studios Florida photo page. Thank you to Theme Park Insider reader Justin for sending these pictures. If you've tried any of these restaurants, you can submit ratings, reviews and photos by following the links above.

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Keep reading: May 2013 Archive



Stories from a Theme Park Insider

Stories from a Theme Park Insider

What's it like to work in a theme park? Stories from a Theme Park Insider takes you inside the famous tunnels and backstage at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom for a look at how theme parks really work, sharing the funny moments and embarrassments that can happen when your job is someone else's vacation.
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