By Robert Niles
As I reported on our Theme Park Insider Twitter feed earlier this week, Universal's theme park division has filed a trademark application for "Silly Swirly."
Universal filed the application on July 16, and described it as for "Amusement park and theme park services," which could mean just about anything offered in a park.
The inclusion of the word "Silly" makes one think of Universal's recently-trademarked "Super Silly Fun Land," from Despicable Me, which the company is building as part of its Minion Mayhem attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood. Super Silly Fun Land will provide a new kid-focused play area for the park, given the impending closure of the Curious George area to make way for Hollywood's Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
What's your best guess as to what "Silly Swirly" will be?
The only other theme park-related trademark application from the past couple weeks was Disney's application for "Golden Oak Club," on July 19, for the residents-only clubhouse and dining room at its Golden Oak development in Walt Disney World.
By Robert Niles
We're pleased to announce today a new feature on Theme Park Insider — a weekly podcast! As soon as Apple approves it, you can download the podcast on iTunes, or you can subscribe to its feed directly. Update: It's now available on iTunes!
And we're starting with a guest who's literally an industry legend. The former president and principal creative office of Walt Disney Imagineering, Marty Sklar has written about his 50-plus years working for the Walt Disney Company in a new book, Dream It! Do It!: My Half-Century Creating Disney’s Magic Kingdoms, available August 13. Named a "Disney Legend" by the Walt Disney Company in 2001, and a member of the IAAPA Hall of Fame, Marty writes about his long working relationship with Walt Disney himself, for whom Marty wrote some of Walt's most famous speeches. Marty also writes about Disney's Four C's — Curiosity, Confidence, Courage and Constancy — and how they've influenced not just him, but also generations of Imagineers who've followed. (For those of you who would rather read the interview, a transcript follows.)
Photo courtesy Disney
Robert: Many theme park fans know that you got your start writing The Disneyland News in 1955 and worked closely with Walt Disney for many years after that, until his death 11 years later. But one thing that I got out of the book was that when you were at UCLA, you also covered Coach John Wooden. Disney and Wooden might have been the two most famous men in Los Angeles in the 1960s and certainly rank among the most influential people ever in their respective fields. What common themes, if any, do you see in what you learned from these two men?
Marty: Passion for what they did. Optimism about what they could do. And a respect for their players, their cast, their talent. Coach Wooden was more interested in making sure that the talent he had on his team, his players, succeeded as human beings than he was in winning national championships. [Lew] Alcindor [aka Kareem Abdul Jabbar], [Bill] Walton and all of them would keep coming back and back and back. That says something. I found the same kind of respect for Walt Disney from people who had worked with him for many years and were so loyal to him and would do anything to help him succeed. I think they both had passion for what they did, and even if they didn't always express it, a love for the talent that was around them and an optimism for the future and the potential of going beyond what you did last time. The thing about Coach Wooden, it wasn't until 1964, after he'd been at UCLA for 15 or 17 years that he won a national championship. There was a stick-to-it-ness, if you will, and a belief in what he was doing, as with Walt. Walt really believed in the direction he was going.
Robert: What were the four C's again? One of them was "Constancy," that stick-to-it-ness you just referenced there. And the ability to inspire people to stick with the program.
Marty: I had that on my wall, so that I could turn around and read [those words] from Walt Disney. I think the "Confidence" was probably number one. I think his confidence that he was going in the right direction gave us confidence that we could go beyond what we had individually done before because we were all going into new ground most of the time. That was Walt's whole career. He started with those six-to-eight-minutes shorts, then pretty quickly started developing Snow White, and then tried so many different things. Even after World War II, when he didn't have much money. Make Mine Music was an attempt to use music in a different way in motion pictures and on and on. Almost everything Walt did was "okay, I've done that, what can we do next?"
Robert: At one of the Disney Legends sessions at the annual IAAPA Expo, I remember you telling a story, warning a new Imagineer that when you come to work at Disney, there's only one name on the front door, and it ain't yours. What's the reason, or the benefit, for having just that one name on the door? Why isn't the theme park design industry more like movie making, where show people a list of credits along with the show?
Marty: In Disney's case, and I write about this in the book, he spent his whole life building an image of Walt Disney. He even said it [the Disney image] wasn't even him anymore. It was an ideal that people looked up to, and we were all part of that. He didn't want something in the park being John Hench's Space Mountain for Disney. He wanted it all to come out under the Walt Disney label, because it meant so much. If it were like the movie industry, that would be tearing down a lot of the things that he had built up over the years. We all bought into that because it was so powerful. This is one of the things I said over and over again to Imagineers, there's only one name on the door. If you want your name in lights, you'd better go somewhere else, because you're not going to get that here. It wasn't important that people know who I was, or who John Hench was, or Marc Davis was. These were all icons of our business and some of the greatest talents that ever worked on parks. I am participating in a program where the Art Directors Guild of Los Angeles is honoring Harper Goff and you don't really think about Harper Goff when you think about the parks, but there wouldn't be the kind of Adventureland that there is without him, and believe me, there wouldn't be a World Showcase the way it was done without Harper Goff. And yet, all these names came out as "Walt Disney," and it was so powerful around the world. Not just here in the United States. That name, that image, and what it stood for — stands for today.
Robert: That certainly speaks to the power of branding, but I also think it speaks to the theme of teamwork, which is something that emerges again and again in the book, and not just within Imagineering, but also outside the company, with the advisory boards that you put together to help with the development of projects such as Epcot. What do you see as some of the keys to effective collaboration in a creative project? And what do you see as some of the mistakes that young designers make when they try, and fail, to work with others on a project?
Marty: I think that they forget that what the team can accomplish is so much stronger than what you can do as an individual. In the book, I talk about almost the first day I was at Imagineering when John Hench said to me, "You know, this is not an 'I' business. It's a 'we' business." Some many hands touch everything, and so many hands contribute to make it a better product. I think that's how you have to look at a themed operation. I was watching when UCLA won the national championship in baseball and listening to all the players and the coach in interviews. Every one of them, even the kid who drove in five runs in that last game, said this is a team — we do this together, this is the way we operate and we wouldn't be successful if it weren't for operating as a team. That's such a great dynamic.
We talk in Imagineering about 140 different disciplines. Think about all the talent in a particular project. John Hench was right. You can't say "I did this" when so many different talents have contributed to making it the best that it could be.
Robert: On that note, one of the things that struck me in the book was the idea that the reward for doing this work isn't in getting your name in lights, or even getting an "attaboy" from Walt or whoever your boss is. The reward is when the project premieres and people are applauding or crying, reacting to this and knowing that you were part of the team that elicited that reaction. You've got to get people bought into the idea that that is the reward that you should be looking for.
Marty: The period I was really struck by this was when aerospace was letting a lot of people go and we were getting a lot of good engineers out of aerospace. And they loved it. They could take their kids to something that they created, and be so excited about sharing that with their families. Whereas in aerospace they'd been making things that killed people and destroyed things. And here they were building things that would last and be enjoyed by people. They could sit there in a theater, or on a ride, with their family, and feel the energy from their kids and feel the respect for Dad or Mom for what he or she did.
Robert: I have to confess that when I was a lowly worker bee at Disney, it was in Dick Nunis' division of park operations. In the book, there are several vignettes and anecdotes that point to a creative tension that might have existed between you and Dick. That got me thinking that when I was working at the Magic Kingdom, we fooled around with our spiels now and then, but when it came to something like starting up Big Thunder Mountain, or evacuating people from Pirates, we really didn't have room for creativity. We had to go by the book. That need for following procedure in park operations naturally leads to getting executives over there who are more command-and-control oriented, if you will, like Dick. But even in your position in Imagineering, it's creative, yes, but ultimately, you still need to get projects built, on time and on budget. How do you organize and manage a creative services company in a way that inspires and accommodates that creativity while still keeping people directed and focused on the big goal of getting projects done?
Marty: We had the expression that in a blue sky meeting, a creative meeting, that no idea is a bad idea. Well, you and I know that's not true. I've heard a lot of bad ideas. But if you put someone down and say "that's a stupid idea," you'll probably never get another one from that person. And I know that, so many times, after a meeting something that at the moment is considered dumb or stupid, someone would come into my office and say, "you know what 'Joe' said, what he suggested didn't quite work — it was kind of a silly idea — but think of it this way: maybe if we did 'X, Y, Z' instead of 'Z, Y, X,' this would really be something that we could build on." Even a comment that seemed way off base in terms of what we were discussing, someone would pick up on it and say, "Hey, you know what? There's a kernel of an idea here." I think that's an attitude you have to establish in a creative organization.
I participated in a program called the California Arts Project, for 125 teachers and administrators from around the state. I spent three days talking with them about how Disney does things. I did a program with Jon Storbeck, who's the VP of Operations for Disneyland, and the whole idea of the program was how creative and operations people work together. This is not something that happens easily. One of the things that came up, I told this story about the day Eddie Sotto came into my office and said "come out here in the hall." And so I walked out into the hallway and all of a sudden he was lying on his back and it looked like he was holding a wheel and he said "now, imagine, I've got the wheel, and next to me is the engineer, and also next to me is…." The idea being, this is a spacecraft. And I'm in that space capsule. Meanwhile, he's lying there on his back, with nothing around him, and he's just going through the motions. Well, we built that capsule and ultimately, it became Mission: Space at Epcot. Now, I said to Jon Storbeck, what would happen is someone did that to you? He said security would pick him up and take him away. That's the difference, you know? We recognize that kind of difference. However, the operating people are one the front lines. In the end, they are make or break for shows that we do. If the experience that the guest has in the show is ruined by the operating people, what kind of attitude are people going to have for the show? They're not going to enjoy it. Your family won't have a good time. So you have to find a way to work together.
Robert: It's different, your roles. But you're all in the same cast and on the same team.
Marty: Or the same business.
Robert: When you started at Disney, it obviously was a much smaller organization. Today, it's hundreds of thousands of employees around the world: television networks, publishing houses, real estate developments, all in addition to the movie studio and theme parks. Does that make it harder today for an Imagineer today to get the attention to get a creative idea approved and built than maybe it was back in the 1960s and 70s, and, if so, what can big corporations such as Disney do to make their size an asset for creators instead of allowing it to become a liability that stands in people's way?
Marty: Well I don't think there's an impediment at Disney. Just look around the world at what they're doing. Actually, it's a better opportunity for creative people and creative ideas today than it was in the 70s or early 80s, the period after Walt. That was a tough period, until we got Epcot going and then the new Fantasyland for Disneyland and Tokyo Disneyland. But now, look at what they're doing: the Shanghai project, they just finished Cars Land at Disney California Adventure, and the new shows at Disneyland. They're doing the whole village in Florida over again. They're talking about a great expansion in the Studios in Florida. Tokyo Disneyland is doing some brand new things, and has for the last few years. Hong Kong just opened two enormous new attractions: Mystic Manor and Grizzly Gulch. All around the world, in the parks business, Disney is doing an enormous amount of work. There's probably more money being spent on Disney parks around the world than in any other 10-year period in the history of the parks. I don't have those statistics, but that's my guess.
Robert: Success obviously breeds success. If you can demonstrate that 'X' investment in this project paid off with 'Y' increase in income, it makes it a lot easier to get the bean counters to go along. In the book you talk about a period in the late 1990s and early 2000s when it was hard to get approval for things, and hard to get the company to spend money on the projects that are really doing so well for it today. What changed to help put the company back on the right track?
Marty: Well, there was a realization that you have to build things with the quality that's expected of Disney. When you try to do it on the cheap, which we did with California Adventure, and the second gate in Paris [Walt Disney Studios Park], and the beginning of Hong Kong, it was obvious that the public expects more. To be very frank about it, you can't get away with that if you're Disney. There's absolutely a realization of that, and that's why you see all of these great projects happening, where not only a lot of money, but a lot of great ideas are being put into practice.
By the way, now with Universal doing some really great things — I love that competition. A lot of the things that we did in the 80s and early 90s were because of competition. I think the competition is good for Disney; it's good for Universal. And it's good for the industry. Everyone has to stand up and do better things in order to meet the competition.
Robert: Getting back to the sports metaphor, when you have a good team and you're playing a good team, that's when you have the best games.
Marty: And that's when you have the most fun, too. Don't forget: we're in the fun business.
Robert: Absolutely. If people aren't enjoying what they're seeing, nobody's succeeding in this business. One of the things that I learned about that I would love to learn more about was 'Edie's Wall' - this wall in the Imagineering meeting room where you'd tack up little quotes that people had said in meetings — quotes that revealed something about the persons who said them. Apparently, you are the caretaker of all of these quotes. What were some of your favorites, and will we ever see a book of the best of the wall?
Marty: I just suggested that yesterday, because I've got about 300 of these sayings and maybe three or four dozen sketches that were made in the meetings by John Hench and Joe Rohde and Herb Ryman and others, doodling — everything from Mickey Mouse to animals for the Animal Kingdom and on and on. Or humor about Michael Eisner and others. (Laughs) I think it would make a great book. The name of that chapter in my book is "You're carrying my logic to too logical a conclusion." I recently ran into Gary Wilson, who was the Chief Financial Officer for Disney, and I said, "Gary, I quoted you in my book," and he said, "What did you quote me as saying?" I said, "I quoted your response to something Frank Wells said, where he criticized something you said in the meeting. And you said, 'You're carrying my logic to too logical a conclusion.'" And he said, "Absolutely! I had to stand up to Frank for what was right!"
There are all of these wonderful quotes. I always thought that the best one was from George Lucas: "Cliches are cliches because they work." That was so insightful, in many ways. A lot of them were about the tension that was in the room, in all of these meetings, like the one from John Cushman, where Card Walker was asking, "John, we're going to make October 1, 1982 [for the opening of Epcot], aren't we?" And John Cushman, who was the contractor working with us, said, "October 1 has never been the problem —l 1982 is the problem."
I really do want to write that book, and not just with the quotes, but about the personalities who said these things and why they came up. There's one that actually started it all, and I'll give it to you, Robert, and I didn't include this in the book. Ray Kayo, a lawyer at corporate Disney, came over and he made this big pontification speech and we're all rolling our eyes and saying, "we have to listen to this?" All of a sudden, he stops, and he says, "I guess what I'm saying is, nothing." And everybody cheered.
Robert: Your final formal role with Disney was as an ambassador for Imagineering. Reading the book, I got the sense that's really a role you've played for many years before that. In the book, you talk about your father being an educator, and much of what you did in leading Imagineering could be described as education. What are some of the lessons that you hope, as an educator, that aspiring theme park designers — or creators and artists in any medium — learn that can help them to become at least partially as successful in reaching and touching audiences as Walt Disney and the people who followed him at the company have been over the years?
Marty: I can't do much better than what I wrote in Mickey's Ten Commandments [included at the end of the book]. My philosophy, I'd guess you'd call it, is enclosed in that. It started out with talking about our business and the key things that, as Imagineers, we needed to do. For example, the one that I always say, if you don't start with this, forget it. You're dead before you begin. That's number one: Know your audience. Who are you talking to? I think a lot of people start on a project with an idea that they like, but there might not be any audience out there. Who are you trying to talk to? Who'd going to enjoy this product?
Marty Sklar's book, Dream It! Do It!: My Half-Century Creating Disney’s Magic Kingdoms, is available now for pre-order on Amazon.com. It will release on August 13, 2013.
By Robert Niles
Wandering around the country this month, we happened upon a welcomed surprise: "Butterbeer" in a bottle.
We found this wizardly treat, appropriately enough, in a store in Salem, Massachusetts. Despite the sign on the display case in the witch-and-wizard-themed souvenir shop, the name on the bottle's not actually called "Butterbeer." (Warner Bros. has that trademark for beverages.) The product's called "Flying Cauldron Butterscotch Beer," and it's from Reed's soda company, also known for Reed's Ginger Beer and Virgil's Root Beer.
So how does it taste? As one might expect, like a butterscotch cream soda. I thought it tasted like Universal's Butterbeer — the non-frozen version, at least — minus the creamy foam "head". The bottle helpfully suggests a "Giggle Portion Recipe" — adding a scoop of vanilla ice cream to achieve that a creamy, foamy effect.
If you'd like to order a few bottles for yourself and your favorite wizards, you needn't fly your broom or apparate to Salem. Reed's takes orders on its website, and ships to the lower 48 US states. A 12-pack costs $16, and a 24-pack costs $28. Tax and FedEx shipping added another $10 for delivery to California — those costs vary by state. Or, if your local grocery stocks Reed's or Virgil's products, I suppose you could request that they put in an order for "Flying Cauldron Butterscotch Beer," too.
If you've seen this drink in a store, or have tried it yourself, let us know in the comments.
Update: I also found the Butterscotch Beer and a certain Disneyland favorite at Jungle Jim's, a national chain of specialty groceries.
A mint julep in a bottle
I have to admit that I didn't like my second bottle of Butterscotch Beer as much as the first. And I think that's because I didn't wait for it to get ice-cold, as the first bottle was. The warmer "butterbeer" just crushed by taste buds with a too-sweet aftertatse. Some cold creaminess definitely would have helped round out the flavor. So, if you can't wait to completely chill the drink, go for the scoop of ice cream.
(FWIW, I didn't buy the mint julep. That stuff tastes like mouthwash to me....)
By Tim W
This is our fourth vote for Theme Park Apprentice 5, the theme park design game that we're playing over on the Theme Park Insider Discussion Board. This week, our contestants designed water rides for their theme park in development. Our bottom 2 contestants have been sent to a vote, in order to win your votes to be saved. The contestant with the lowest voting percentage will be fired from the competition.
Alan Hiscutt: Gungan City Submarine Tour
Chad H: Aquae Sulius
Please be sure to read over their proposals from Challenge 8 before voting on whom to save.
By TH Creative
It’s been said that Mr. Walt Disney and those who worked alongside of him embraced a two word mantra: “Plus it!” From production on the Walt Disney Studios’ earliest films to the advent of WED Enterprises, the company’s namesake was aggressive in his admonishment that the creative people behind his productions take their best efforts to the next level. The term “Plus it!” was short hand for “make it better.”
One illustration of the Disney company’s continued commitment to this attitude is weaved into the history of Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. For more than 40 years the company has evaluated and refined the Florida park’s daily operation, improving efficiencies and enhancing the themed entertainment experience for its guests.
In fact, after the company’s intentions were revealed, Mr. Disney explained his specific motivations to build the Magic Kingdom. “I'm doing this because I want to do it better,” Mr. Disney said.
Disney started thinking about what would become the Walt Disney World Resort in the early 1960s, but his vision wasn't limited to recreating a "Disneyland East." After researching sites in New York, St. Louis and elsewhere in Florida, Buzz Price (who found the site for the original Disneyland in California) recommended a 30,000-acre site southwest of Orlando. That would provide the space Disney wanted to create an "Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow," a modernist planned community that would include abundant hotels and recreation facilities, including a new, larger "plussed" Magic Kingdom theme park. Walt Disney died in 1966, and the "EPCOT" community eventually transformed into another theme park, but Walt's brother Roy saw the Magic Kingdom and several surrounding hotels to completion.
From its earliest days, the Magic Kingdom has stood as perhaps the most iconic production in themed entertainment history. Since it’s opening in 1971, a conservative calculation would conclude that half a billion guests have walked into the park.
While the Magic Kingdom borrows its hub-and-spoke layout from the company’s flagship property – Disneyland – many of the attractions operating on opening day were decidedly “Plus It!” productions. California’s “Submarine Voyage” evolved into the more theatrical “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” The single commander in chief featured in California’s “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” was trumped by an army of animated executives in “The Hall of Presidents.” And while the Florida project included its own editions of “It’s a Small World” and “The Haunted Mansion” the Magic Kingdom also premiered its own original productions of “The Mickey Mouse Revue” and “The Country Bear Jamboree.”
The success of the Magic Kingdom’s attractions found its foundation in an additional exercise in progression. In 1969, the implementation of the Digital Animation Control System (or DACS) used revolutionary computer technology to manage the movements of audio-animatronic characters. An individual character’s movements were recorded on computer discs. This allowed Walt Disney Imagineers to fine tune each figure – further enhancing the quality of a production.
In addition to advancements in the park’s attractions, the day to day operation of the Magic Kingdom stands out as another example of Disney “doing it better.” Certainly any fan of Discovery Channel documentaries is well aware about the (not very) secret “utilidors” traversing beneath the park. The backstage tunnels allowed park personnel, retail goods and other material to move freely -- out of the sight of visiting guests. Another example of the park’s operating efficiency is seen in its AVAC system – a series of large pipes that contained compressed air used to transport trash to waste collection stations outside the park. The fascination with the park’s operation has resulted in the company offering behind-the-scenes visits for park guests.
After it opened, the company continued to tweak the park’s operation. Even minor changes assisted in improving the guest experience. Near the end of the Magic Kingdom’s first decade, the company decided to phase out its signature alphabetized ticket books. Responding to the actions of competing park operators Disney retired its fabled “E-Tickets” – electing to allow free and full access to all of the park’s attractions for a single admission price.
Another “low-tech” inspiration that brought a personal touch to cast member/guest interactions was the distribution of complimentary celebration buttons. Guests visiting the parks on a birthday or anniversary were given a button announcing their name and what they were celebrating. Cast members spotting the buttons would then be able to greet a guest by wishing them a happy birthday – adding a personal connection via a small progression.
While the simple addition of celebration buttons has been a successful progression the Magic Kingdom’s dedication to personal service continues to advance toward a state-of-the-art standard. As the company approached the park’s 40th anniversary, it invested hundreds of millions of dollars to implement Disney NextGen – an operation and guest services system that represents an almost exponential advance in efficiency. From the ability for guests to personalize their vacations at the “My Disney Experience” website, to the opportunities to reduce wait times at attractions via the “Fast Pass-Plus” system, the potential efficiencies produced from Disney NextGen has substantial potential. The technology is supported by Disney “MagicBands” – RFID wrist bands that will supplant the need for paper tickets and allow resort guests to purchase retail items and food.
On a personal level the MagicBands will soon enhance the experience surrounding the company’s popularcharacter greetings. Rather than communicate through silent pantomime, Mickey Mouse will soon be talking and addressing a guest by their name. “Hi Robert! I’ve been looking forward to meeting you! Are you enjoying your day in the Magic Kingdom? That’s swell!”
Considering the Magic Kingdom’s history demonstrates a commitment to “doing it better” it’s unfortunate that Mr. Disney (allegedly) passed away before the park welcomed its first guests. Then again, it seems reasonable to believe that Mr. Disney would not be inclined to let the park rest upon its laurels. Certainly his evaluation of the current state of the most successful theme park operation in history would likely be: “Plus it!”
THCreative is is a member of Team TPI and the author of ‘7097-050719’ – Book One in the Theme Park trilogy.
By Robert Niles
File this under "First World theme park problems."
You've lucked out and are enjoying a day in a nearly-empty theme park. The crowd's so much lighter than expected that the parks' employees haven't had the chance (or bothered) to take down the serpentine queue chains blocking your path to an attraction's entrance.
What do you do?
Do you go around the chains, like an obedient theme park visitor, wasting time walking back and forth on your way into the ride? Or do you take a shortcut?
If you opt for a more direct route, do you swing your leg up over the chain to climb over it, or do you hunch down and scooch under to make your way toward the entrance?
Or, do you take the "former theme park employee" option and just start unclasping chain lengths to open a direct route by yourself? It's Vote of the Week time.
By Robert Niles
The Asian theme park boom continues, as Twentieth Century Fox announced today that it's getting (back) into the theme park business, partnering with casino owner Resorts World, which will develop a Fox-themed park in Malaysia.
The Twentieth Century Fox Theme Park at Resorts World Genting will open in 2016, on the site of the 35-year-old Genting Theme Park, which will close September 1 to make way for the new development. Resorts World will invest US$125 million in the redevelopment of the 25-acre site.
Dato Lee Choong Yan, President and Chief Operating Officer of Genting Malaysia Berhad and Jeffrey Godsick, President of Twentieth Century Fox Consumer Products, at the announcement. Photo courtesy Resorts World Genting.
Announced highlights of the new park will include attractions based on family franchises Ice Age, Rio, and Night at the Museum, as well as older-skewing franchises including Alien, Predator, and Life of Pi. The park's press release promises "media based rides, thrill rides, dark rides (and) children's rides and water rides."
Legoland recently opened a new park in Malaysia, and Resorts World Sentosa in nearby Singapore is the site of the Universal Studios Singapore theme park. The Fox park joins a large and growing list of additional theme parks under development in Asia, led by Shanghai Disneyland.
By Robert Niles
When people who know little or nothing about Hersheypark hear that there's a theme park with that name, I suspect that most of them envision something more like Hershey's Chocolate World than the actual amusement park next door.
Opened in 1973, Hershey's Chocolate World replaced the factory tour at the old, now-closed Hershey's chocolate plant a few blocks away in downtown Hershey, Pennsylvania. The look of the attraction's exterior replicates the style of the old factory, including its iconic twin "Hershey" smokestacks. Substantially expanded and renovated over the years, Hershey's Chocolate World now includes an Omnimover-style dark ride, a 4D theater show, chocolate tasting, a "build your own chocolate bar" experience, and a trolley tour of the town — in addition to a food court and souvenir shop.
Three singing cows host your dark-ride trip through Hershey's world of chocolate.
Imagine a completely corporate Epcot pavilion, one dedicated to telling the story of chocolate — as made by the Hershey Company, and you'd have Hershey's Chocolate World. Compare this attraction with Hersheypark next door, and it's like you're looking at two different companies' approaches to implementing the same theme.
Which, in fact, you are. Chocolate World is run by the Hershey Company, the chocolate makers, and not by the separate Hershey Entertainment and Resorts Company that runs Hersheypark. (Both companies are controlled by the Hershey Trust, established by Milton Hershey, who left his companies to the Trust.)
Hersheypark is, at its heart, a regional amusement park that simply references the Hershey brand without really exploring it or trying to deepen your relationship with it. When you're visiting Hersheypark, you're thinking more about airtime and visuals and speed and all the other things we think about when we're riding rides. If you're thinking about chocolate, it's simply about eating some more of it, as you might in any other iron park. An infrequent visitor would find it difficult to tell the difference between Hersheypark and similar parks such as Busch Gardens Williamsburg or Holiday World.
That's not the case over in Chocolate World, which is unmistakably all about Hershey, chocolate and forever equating the two. Chocolate World doesn't simply name-check Hershey products, as Hersheypark does. Every moment inside Chocolate World is designed to deepen your connection with — and affinity for — Hershey's chocolate brands.
It's the difference between how Six Flags treats Superman, for example, and how Universal treats Harry Potter or Disney treats any of its character franchises. At Six Flags, a Superman roller coaster doesn't do anything to deepen or inform your relationship with the DC Comics icon. It simply name-checks Superman, to exploit your already-existing affinity for that character in the hopes of transferring some of that affinity to the ride. But in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, or Cars Land, or the Be Our Guest restaurant, Universal and Disney are going beyond simply name-checking something you already know and love. They're trying to lead you to into a deeper relationship with those franchises, rather than settling for you simply enjoying a few moments on a ride with their name. Disney and Universal want these rides, shows, and other experiences to boost your appreciation for their theme — not the other way around, as with Six Flags and Superman.
To apply this analogy, Hersheypark takes the Six Flags approach, while Chocolate World goes the Disney/Universal route. The dark ride in the pavilion, Hershey's Great American Chocolate Ride, tells the story of the making of Hershey's chocolate products in a 10-minute musical narrative, designed by The Goddard Group, a major themed-entertainment design firm that also helped create The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, Jurassic Park: The Ride, and Terminator 2: 3D, among other attractions around the industry. The Jim Henson Company worked on Chocolate World's 4D show, Hershey's Great Chocolate Factory Mystery. Sit in Chocolate World's food court, and you might as well be in a brighter, funner, sweeter version of the Sunshine Seasons food court in Epcot's The Land pavilion.
But the disconnect between Hersheypark and Hershey's Chocolate World goes beyond implementations of theme. The dark ride in Chocolate World is free, but you have to pay to experience the 4D show, tasting adventure, build-your-own-bar experience, or trolley tour.
Want to buy a combo ticket with the theme park? You can't. Hersheypark offers a combo ticket with Dutch Wonderland, an amusement park 30 miles away in Lancaster that Hershey Entertainment and Resorts Company used to own. But there's no combo ticket on Hersheypark's website that includes Chocolate World next door. You can buy a package that includes all four Chocolate World's paid-admission attractions for $39.95 per person. After spending about $50 a ticket for Hersheypark next door, we decided to ride the free dark ride, browse the shop, grab some chocolate drinks and dessert in the food court and call it a day.
A Hershey's frozen cocoa, along with a free sugar cookie the attraction was offering as part of its 'Christmas in July' promotion.
But what if we could have bought a combo ticket in advance, with an appropriate discount for buying the combo? We'd probably have spent the extra money and gone for the full Chocolate World experience. In lieu of that opportunity, after visiting both attractions, my wife and kids, who aren't that much of thrill ride fans anymore, said that they wished I'd just skipped Hersheypark and bought them Chocolate World tickets instead. I'd love to hear in the comments from fans who've bought the full Chocolate World experience if they think that was a good deal.
By Jeff Elliott
Epcot – We're hearing speculation that the Imagination Pavilion is going to close, shuttering everything still limping along inside it, around the first of the new year. Unlike the Wonders of Life Pavilion, it's not going to be as easy for Disney to tuck away this more-prominent pavilion so that everyone forgets about it. Will Disney let another empty pavilion just stand and rot, or does it have some secret plan to knock it down and put up something cool in its place? As always, keep your browser tuned to TPI for the latest news as we attempt to solve this mystery.
Disney's Hollywood Studios – At the end of this Behind the Scenes at Lights Motor Action video, they say that you need to hurry and get to the park to see this show. She's not joking. This is one of the rides that is supposed to be closed to make way for Star Wars Land. And speaking of that development, Disney confirmed that it will offer "teasers" for its new Avatar and Star Wars lands at this month's D23 convention in Anaheim.
Disney California Adventure - World of Color is getting a new seasonal overlay, starting Nov. 15. Hosted by Olaf the Snowman, from Disney's upcoming animated feature "Frozen," World of Color - Winter Dreams show also will incorporate winter scenes from Disney films such as "Bambi," "Fantasia" and "Toy Story."
Universal's Halloween Horror Nights - The Walking Dead will return to Universal Studios Florida and Universal Studios Hollywood this fall, with new mazes at both parks. In addition, scenes from The Walking Dead will provide the main themes for the scarezones at the Orlando event.
Busch Gardens Tampa – Last week the park started closing an hour earlier, and this week the park is closing two of its bigger table service restaurants, the Garden Gate Café and the Crown Colony House. Don't forget that this follows a ticket price increase earlier this year. Is attendance really so bad that there's no demand for the extra park hours or two major restaurants? Is SeaWorld corporate management getting cheap? Or is the park saving up and clearing space for some big new change that we haven't heard about yet? I would hate to think that in a market as competitive as Central Florida that anyone would dream of making such drastic changes unless there was something huge in the pipeline.
Amusement Park Safety – It is not every day that you happen to be the right person in the right place at the right time. (I really should have bought a lottery ticket that day.) A TV station in Denver was at Elitch Gardens looking for a local angle on the Six Flags Over Texas accident, and I was there. I did not seek out an interview; I was just irritated with the coverage that the tragedy in Texas was getting and sought to head off the exploitation for political gain before it got out of control. I spoke for about 15 minutes to the reporter before they left the park without talking to anyone else, yet it is only easily digestible sound bites that made the final cut.
Disney Research – Whoever is in charge of this R&D at Disney needs to receive a fat bonus and a promotion, although they'd probably then get fired for spending way too much time and money on something that doesn't fit around a customer's wrist. For this device, Disney would be able to simulate someone in a 3D movie reaching out and grabbing your shoulder…and that is just the first use that comes to mind.
Lost Parks of Northern California – Luna Park – This is Episode 2 of a wonderful series. If only we can convince them to do some history for a state that is a little bit farther away from the coast… Maybe, like, Colorado, or something. I mean, even most Californians only have a vague idea of where Northern California is.
Share any other theme park news you've heard, in the comments.
By Robert Niles
During our day at Hersheypark, my family and I opted to have lunch at Hersheypark Place, the table service restaurant located just steps from the park's front gate.
Located in the former Tudor Grill building, Hersheypark Place offers an extensive menu that includes salads, wraps, flatbread pizzas, sandwiches, burgers, pasta, and other entrees such as pot roast, fish, steak and ribs. And if you come in the mornings, you can get a character breakfast buffet, too. With so many selections, I suspect that a family a four could exhaust all the ride options inside Hersheypark long before they could work their way through the menu at Hersheypark Place.
Here's what we tried:
My son just hit his teen years, so pizza's a warmly welcomed option at pretty much every meal, as well as anytime in between. So he chose the Pepperoni flat bread pizza ($11.25). We decided that the quartered pepperoni served on the flatbread were meant to look like Hershey's Kisses.
My wife and daughter each chose the $9.50 "Mix & Match" option pairing a half-sandwich and half-salad. Both opted for the Grilled chicken and smoked gouda panini while my wife took the house salad and my daughter the Caesar.
Grilled chicken and smoked gouda panini with house salad ($9.50)
Several menu options were noted as "House signature items," and that's where I kept my attention. My choice? The Classic cheesesteak with fried potato chips ($13.95).
My son endorsed the pepperoni-kissed pizza, though the relatively sparse meat topping and cracker-thin crust didn't give the dish much opportunity to distinguish itself. Still, the robust sauce and mild cheese balanced each other well enough for my son to make quick work of it.
The salads didn't elicit much more than shrug, but my wife expressed pleasant surprise at the taste of the panini. The roasted garlic aioli, served on the side, gave the already flavorful chicken sandwich a nice additional kick, while amplifying the smoky gouda. The half-sandwich was plenty large enough for a satisfying meal, and it appeared that the kitchen simply filled the rest of the plate with the "half" salad, providing more greens and veggies than on many entree-sized salads we've seen our on trip.
My cheesesteak also delivered more food than I could finish. But I've got to give the kitchen due credit for nailing a great sear on the meat. The steak offered plenty of flavor without any gristle or fat, the downfall of too many sub-par cheesesteaks. The meat sat atop melty provolone and onions grilled just to the point of sweetness, but not beyond to a cloying caramelized state. The well-seasoned fried chips provided a nice textural contrast to the sandwich and its fluffy steak roll.
If we were to visit again, I'd like to try the "Fruit, Nuts & Berries" salad, with baby spinach, toasted walnuts, feta, Mandarin oranges, dried cranberries, and "chocolate fat free raspberry vinaigrette." Or the "Chocolate BBQ Burger," with bacon, cheddar and "Hershey's Chocolate BBQ sauce." So many choices!
Too stuffed for continue, we decided we would wait until our visit to Hershey's Chocolate World to get our chocolate dessert fix. But when our server brought the check, we realized we wouldn't be able to resist a little kiss good-bye from the restaurant.
Hersheypark Place accepts reservations via OpenTable, but we walked into a nearly empty restaurant with no reservations on a weekday just after noon, so I wouldn't hesitate to try getting a table without them.
Tomorrow, we'll "wrap" up our coverage of Hersheypark with a recap of our visit to Hershey's Chocolate World.
By Bobbie Butterfield
It’s time to put Connecticut on the map. Located in Bristol, about a 40-minute drive from Hartford’s Bradley International Airport, Lake Compounce is a 332-acre theme park and water park featuring more than 50 rides and attractions. It’s also the home of Boulder Dash, a “mountain coaster” consistently ranked among the top-ten wooden coasters in the country.
When I arrived at Lake Compounce shortly before opening time (11am), there was already a long line of cars waiting to enter the park. The cost of regular parking was only $8.00, a bargain considering that I had had to pay $20.00 to park at a theme park in Massachusetts on the previous day. The cost of admission was a bargain for me because I qualify for the senior rate of $19.99; regular admission is $38.99 but at the time of my writing this, there’s a limited time online special of $30.99. This is one of the advantages of visiting a theme park that’s somewhat off the beaten path and not owned by two of the biggest chains whose parks I regularly patronize. Lake Compounce is owned by Palace Entertainment, which owns half a dozen theme parks including Pittsburgh’s Kennywood, and a large number of water parks. Opened in
After entering the park, I found my attention directed to the vintage wooden Wildcat coaster, operating since 1927 and still going strong. This is something of a focal point. Otherwise, I was struck by how nicely the park is laid out and by how well it uses its mountainous terrain. The creative use of the terrain is particularly evident on Boulder Dash. One of three coasters at Lake Compounce (the third being Zoomerang, a Vekoma boomerang), Boulder Dash is built into the side of a mountain, surrounded by trees and of course boulders. This coaster takes the riders on a wild ride through the woods on a 4,672-foot track with tree branches overhanging the track. Its reputation preceded it and it more than lived up to that reputation. I cannot remember the last time I had so much fun riding a roller coaster. Boulder Dash features one airtime hill after another, dashing along at 60mph with never a dull moment. The ejector airtime is insane and although this is not one of the biggest or most imposing wooden coasters in existence, in my opinion it’s one of the very best. Also worth mentioning is that the ride ops were outstanding not only in running the coaster efficiently but in interacting with riders to the extent of asking for a round of applause for first-time riders and birthday celebrants. The park kindly gave me permission to record an on-ride video but unfortunately, only the audio came out, no video, so that I now have four audio recordings of Boulder Dash. Sigh.
There are so many other rides and attractions suitable for families and people of all ages that no-one is in danger of running out of things to do or see. Among the rides not previously mentioned are Thunder Rapids, Revolution (a spinning disk sending riders backwards and forwards to the top of each end of a steel track), drop tower and the obligatory Ferris wheel, to name just a few. Also of interest is a scenic lakeside water park featuring a number of attractions including but not limited to slides, rafts and a wave pool.
One of the amenities provided by Lake Compounce is the drink stations, scattered through the park, where guests can get free unlimited soda. As one accustomed to being gouged at theme parks to the extent of having to pay almost $4.00 for a soda, I was delighted to be able to refresh myself at no additional cost. This is only the second theme park I’ve visited that offers free soda and on a hot, humid day it was really a blessing!
Lake Compounce is one of the friendliest and most user-friendly theme parks I’ve ever visited. With Boulder Dash, great staff, nice ambience and on top of that free refreshments, what more could you ask for?
By Robert Niles
HERSHEY, Pa. — There's little better than a torrent of rain and a storm-filled forecast to keep crowds away, and lines short, at a theme park. The weather, and the meteorologists, came through for us on our planned visit to Hersheypark today.
We arrived in Hershey last night under cover of an Old Testament, underwear-soaking rain. The forecast called for continued rain today, from the before the park's 10am opening through late afternoon. We'd decided that if the rain continued, we'd just hang out in our hotel room until lunch time, then head over to the park's Chocolate World exhibit before tackling the park later in the days, when the rain began to clear.
Morning brought clouds, but no rain. The forecast flipped, with no precipitation called for the morning, but storms rolling in for the afternoon. So we flipped our plans, too, and headed out to the park for opening.
It's Christmas in July this month at Hersheypark
Fortunately for us, not that many people decided to do the same. We found short waits throughout the day — topping out at 20 minutes for Fahrenheit. On most rides, we walked straight into the loading area, sometimes getting the entire ride to ourselves.
Granted, Hersheypark's got plenty to occupy a crowd, with more than 60 attractions, including dozens of waterslides and kiddie rides to supplement the park's roller coasters and carnival rides. Only the park's Tidal Force flume ride was closed for the day, and all the coasters I rode had at least two trains running, keeping wait times minimal to nonexistent for those of us who took our chances with the skies.
You won't find estimated wait times posted at the entrances to any Hersheypark attractions, but the park offers a free smartphone app with live wait times, which I used throughout our visit. With just a 10-minute wait advertised, I decided to start with the park's newest ride, Skyrush, the Intamin "wing" coaster that debuted last year.
Skyrush kicks off with a brisk run up its 200-foot lift, before diving into a series of dips and twists that will leave riders flying from their seats. Which could be great, if it weren't for the ride's lapbar restraint system, which has earned the coaster the derisive nickname "Thigh Crush" from riders exiting with aching legs. I felt the sting of the lapbar twice on the ride, as the coaster pulled lateral G's during airtime crests, pushing my legs up against the lapbar. But that wasn't my greatest complaint with the ride. For a new steel coaster, this one's rougher than a 20-year-old woodie, knocking my whole body around the seat throughout the ride.
I rode in one of the outside seats, which extend beyond the train's floor. Unlike B&M wing coasters, only the outer two seats in each four-seat row extend beyond the track on these trains. The center two seats sit atop the track, above the outer seats, making the seating configuration more like B&M's Diamondback than Gatekeeper or Arrow/Six Flags' X2.
But enough about the lowlight of the day. Let's get to the tasty stuff. (Forgive me.) For our next stop, we opted for the park's one dark ride, the Reese's Xtreme Cup Challenge.
Other readers have given this shooter poor marks, but with no wait to get on, I enjoyed the use of dips and speed tunnel effects on the ride, in addition to being able to see my laser "shot" against the wall, making it easier to adjust my aim and hit more targets. I led our car with 73,560 points, as our "Team Chocolate" beat "Team Peanut Butter" in the other car. Don't expect the immersive story beyond the game that you'll find in Universal's Men in Black or even Disney's Buzz Lightyear rides. I couldn't tell you about a narrative on the ride beyond the fact that a couple of animatronic sportscasters showed up a few times in the ride to tell us who was winning, and that spinning cut-outs of surfers and skateboarders occasionally blocked the targets. But it's a fun shooter, plus a cool ride in the dark on a steamy, sunny day. That'll do.
Let's get to what Theme Park Insider readers have rated the best ride at Hersheypark: Lightning Racer.
The GCI wooden racing coaster, which debuted in 2000, runs nearly 3,400 feet and over 51 mph on each track, which are named Thunder and Lightning. My son and I walked straight into the station to discover no one waiting on the Thunder side, allowing us to walk right into the front seat, where we'd ride as the only passengers on the entire train.
What a delightful ride! Smoother and steeper than a typical woodie, Lightning Racer offers great views of the entire park, as well as some fun visuals as the two tracks turn to face each other, allowing the coasters to "battle." We loved our ride so much that we ran through the exit to get right back on the Lightning side. This time, we had to wait one whole train to get the front seat. And two other people rode in the back seat, so we didn't get the train to ourselves. (Sniff!)
Yeah, I'm glad that we didn't spend the money for a front of the line pass today.
I also walked right into the station for Storm Runner, the 2004 Intamin launch coaster that established itself as the first hydraulic launch coaster with inversions. With a 150-foot top hat to start the ride, Storm Runner isn't known for its height or even its 75 mph top speed. It's the inversions that follow offer pure fun, with abundant airtime filling the back half of this 50-second ride.
For my final ride of the day, I headed over to Fahrenheit, a Ingenieur Büro Stengel vertical lift coaster than debuted in 2008. A 90-degree lift leads to an immediate 97-degree drop before the track sets you flying through its action-packed elements, many of which fake you out with a slight twist to one direction before turning through the opposite way.
Don't let your eyes glaze over those numbers. You start this ride facing straight up to the sky, unable to see anything but the clouds (or clear blue sky) above you. Ninety degrees seems level on the page, but when you're riding up this lift, you feel like you're pitched back beyond 90 degrees. The short, 12-passenger trains don't linger at the crest of the lift hill. You've facing straight up, then — boom! — you're falling head over heels, seven degrees over-rated beyond straight down, before sweeping into the first twisting element. Once you're through, take a moment to look toward the horizon, beyond the park's border, where you'll find Hershey's original (now-closed) factory at the corner of Chocolate and Cocoa Avenues.
Later this week, I'll tell you a bit about the current home of Hershey's factory tour, Hershey's Chocolate World, a separate attraction located just outside the park's gates. And I'll also share our lunch at Hersheypark Place, the new table-service restaurant located between Hersheypark and Chocolate World.
Have you been to Hersheypark? Please tell us about your visits, in the comments.
By Robert Niles
Disney Parks today announced a deal to make AT&T the official wireless provider at the Walt Disney World and Disneyland Resorts.
The deal includes sponsorship of some runDisney and other sports events, but the element that should catch the attention of theme park fans (at least those with cell phones on the AT&T network) is that the telecom company will improve its transmission network at both resorts.
Better cell reception might make it worth your while to use the free electrical outlets near the Magic Kingdom's new Tangled restrooms.
According to the press release, here are the planned network enhancements, which should help guests now frustrated with poor cell and data reception during peak visiting times:
Other than the one mention of Disney World, there's no other word in the release as to what will go in which resort, or what the current infrastructure looks like. But, from personal experience as an AT&T customer at Disneyland, I've seen my connection speed drop to zero as crowds grow at the park. Free WiFi, available from the Grand Californian's network at Disneyland in selected locations at the WDW Resort, helps, but a more robust cell data network will make using Disney's apps and other online resources (did you know that ThemeParkInsider.com works pretty darned well on an iPhone?) easier for visitors.
By Tim W
After a week of not having a vote for Theme Park Apprentice, the vote is back and we need your help to decide which two contestants will be staying in the competition.
This is our third vote for Theme Park Apprentice 5, the theme park design game that we're playing over on the Theme Park Insider Discussion Board. This week, our contestants designed live shows for their theme park in development. Our bottom 3 contestants have been sent to a vote, in order to win your votes to be saved. The contestant with the lowest voting percentage will be fired from the competition.
Christopher Sturniolo: The Hero's Journey
Chad H: It's...Not Monty Python
Alan Hiscutt: Jedi Academy
Please be sure to read over their proposals from Challenge 7 before voting on whom to save.
What you can do to stay safe in a theme park, and what theme parks can do to help keep you safe, too
By Robert Niles
Last week's horrible events in Texas and Ohio remind us of the ever-present struggle to keep theme park safe. With tons of equipment moving at high speeds, opportunities for danger abound at theme parks. Yet much simpler hazards claim the most victims in parks each year — sunburns, overheating, pedestrian collisions, and such.
You've got a greater chance of getting seriously hurt in a car accident on the way to a theme park than you do of being hurt on a ride while there. But, obviously, accidents do happen. You can minimize your chances of getting hurt at a theme park — from dangers great and small — by following the advice in our theme park safety tips.
Theme park visitors can do much to keep themselves safe in a park. But, at some point, we rely on parks to ensure that they've provided safe facilities and operations for us to enjoy. The rise of the Internet has helped to ensure that the days are over when people got hurt in theme parks without anyone hearing about it. Too many fan communities are watching what's happening in the parks on a daily basis. When I worked at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, an accident at Pirates of the Caribbean led to one visitor being seriously injured and hospitalized. But the local newspaper an TV stations never reported it. Disney's own EMTs responded, and no one needed to report the incident to outside authorities or law enforcement. The local reporters simply had no way of knowing what had happened.
That's not how things happen today. In addition to oversight from thousands of daily visitors using social media to publish to the world, states such as Florida and California are now recording injury accidents at theme parks. With so much more public attention paid to safety, perhaps it's not a coincidence that parks are working even more aggressively to implement new safety procedures. A generation ago, you didn't see gates at the loading platforms on most Disney rides as you do today, for example.
But while mechanical innovation can help improve safety in the parks, it's the operators who provide the final line of defense for visitors. Great theme park attractions operators prevent accidents. Poorly trained and inexperienced operators don't. An experienced operator can sense when visitors are uncomfortable getting on a ride — whether it's a child who's about to cry or an adult on the verge of a panic attack. Great operators know how to intervene in a way that keeps the ride running, the line moving and all visitors out of harm's way. I've joked about my method of asking women riders if they were pregnant, but that's the type of pro-active approach operators must take to prevent accidents from happening.
Great operators become great through one thing — experience. Training helps, but operators need time on the job to learn how to see problems before they happen. But operators can't get that necessary experience if they can't afford to stay on the job long enough to get it. The cost avoided in damages and increased insurance premiums by a single fatal accident prevented can pay for the extra pay and benefits that can entice many operators to stay on the job longer, becoming more experienced and better operators as a result. But park managers and corporate leaders need to recognize that connection for it happen.
Over the next many weeks, those of use who continue to follow the story will learn more about what happened late last week in Texas and Ohio. But as we return our attention to theme park safety issues, let's not limit the discussion to lap bars, restraint and ride systems, and other mechanical elements. Let's start talking more about what parks can do to ensure that they're offering visitors a well-trained, experienced crew of operators to help keep them safe, as well.
More: Theme park safety tips
By Robert Niles
Six Flags Over Texas tonight is confirming the death of a female visitor who apparently fell from the Texas Giant roller coaster this evening.
The Texas Giant in a previous season. Photo by James Rao.
The Texas Giant is a hybrid coaster that debuted in 2011, after Rocky Mountain Construction rebuilt a steel track atop the original wooden structure built by the Dinn Corporation. It reaches a height of 153 feet with a drop of 147 feet and a top speed of 62 miles per hour. The coaster does not invert, and offers a lap bar as a safety restraint.
Six Flags Over Texas announced that the ride is closed and will remain closed pending an investigation.
The boat appears to have slid backward down the lift hill and turned or flipped, leading to at least one serious injury.
Update, 7/21: The woman killed on Texas Giant has been identified as Rosy Esparza of Dallas. In the Cedar Point incident, the one person who was transported to a local hospital for treatment of a head injury now has been released.
By Jeff Elliott
Disneyland – It seems to me that every other week Disney debuts a new show in Frontierland using Toy Story characters, so I don’t know if this is something that you have already seen or not:
And before we forget about it, HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DISNEYLAND
Star Tours – There have some reports lately that new segments from the new round of Star Wars movies will be added to Star Tours. Since the ride film is modular and computer driven, this seems like something well within Disney's ability to do, but based on the article, this should probably be filed away as wishful thinking for the time being.
Tokyo Disneyland – I think this is probably one of those rides that not many of us have been on or will have a change to get on any time in the near future. So with that in mind, here is a ride-through of Tokyo's Monsters Inc. "Flashlight Tag" Ride.
Busch Gardens Tampa – Beams for new Falcon's Fury drop tower ride are currently going into the ground. In other news, details for Howl-O-Scream are starting to leak.
Walibi Belgium – This goes out to all of the amusement parks who have standard outdoor roller coasters. Psyke Underground has just reopened after a refurbishment that took a simple outdoor shuttle coaster and made it an indoor special effects coaster. The difference is literally night and day. Disney knows this. Universal knows this. Do I need to use a bigger font for everyone else?
Editor's addition: SeaWorld – A new anti-SeaWorld movie, Blackfish, is hitting theaters in big cities later the month, and the theme park chain is fighting back with emails to film critics, attacking the film's claims that being held in captivity drove an orca to drown a SeaWorld trainer in 2010. SeaWorld refused to talk on camera with the filmmaker, so what's in the film represents only one side of the story. Was that the right call by SeaWorld? I don't know.
As I've written before, even though I'm no fan of SeaWorld's handling of "Shamu," I think that anti-SeaWorld activists ought to be careful what they wish for, as SeaWorld and other zoological facilities do much to promote and protect nature.
Let's not fool ourselves into thinking for a moment that this is about protecting the lives of trainers, either. If documentarians really cared about the lives of theme park employees, where's the big expose on the Walt Disney World monorails, which have killed as many park workers as SeaWorld orcas have this decade? This is about stirring up public support for a ban on orca captivity. We'll see how that goes, I guess — Robert.
By Robert Niles
Universal's Halloween Horror Nights will bring Evil Dead to Universal Orlando and Universal Studios Hollywood this fall. This spring's remake of the 1981 horror classic earned good reviews from critics (62% on Rotten Tomatoes) and more than $50 million at the box office to date, making it one of the more successful horror remakes of all time.
From Universal's press release describing the maze that will be based on the film:
"Guests will be transported into the film and face off against a demonic evil that will stop at nothing to consume them. It begins when a mysterious passage from an ancient book is read, releasing an unearthly force of darkness. A pack of violently possessed victims, including the film’s starring character 'Mia,' wreaks brutal carnage throughout the mazes – and guests must make their best attempt to escape."
Here's Universal's teaser video for the collaboration:
Evil Dead joins The Cabin in the Woods at announced mazes so far for Universal Orlando.
By Robert Niles
Universal Studios founder Carl Laemmle opened his 230-acre Universal City ranch on March 15, 1915, offering visitors the chance to walk around his outdoor movie studio, located just north of Los Angeles, and to watch the filming. Admission was just 25 cents, with a chicken boxed lunch available for just a nickel extra. The original Universal Studio Tour provided a nice little side income for the movie studio until the studios began adding sound to their movies, and Laemmle had to close the studio to the not-very-quiet public, to provide a soundproof environment for filming.
Universal reopened its lot to visitors in 1961, outsourcing the tours to the Gray Line bus company. But, following a feasibility study by Buzz Price — the same man who helped determine the locations for Disneyland and Walt Disney World — Universal decided to start its own tram tour of its facilities, and Universal Studios Hollywood opened on July 15, 1964.
For $2.50 each, visitors rode pink-and-white striped "GlamorTrams" around the studio's back lot, with stops to see a collection of costumes designed by Edith Head, a makeup demonstration, a walk through a star's dressing room, a western stunt show, and — the big money maker for Universal — to buy themselves lunch at the studio commissary. The next year, the studio tour entrance moved to the park's current entrance on the Upper Lot of Universal City, and Universal built an arena for the western stunt show.
Universal Studios Hollywood opened with a very lean staff, just a couple of tram drivers, another couple of tour guides, a ticket seller and contracted stunt men for the show. To keep labor costs down while adding more entertainment for visitors, Universal started using audience volunteers to play roles in various scenes throughout the tour. That began a tradition of audience interactivity that eventually spread not just to other Universal theme parks, but to parks run by Disney, SeaWorld and others throughout the industry, as well.
(In 1974, I "got my start in show business" by playing a freckle-faced, six-year-old boy riding a San Francisco-style cable car in a fake Rice-a-Roni commercial "filmed" during the Universal Studio Tour. The part was a real stretch for me, being a freckle-faced, six-year-old boy at the time.)
Filming schedules forced Universal to change the tour trams' route through the backlot, on almost a daily basis, an operational consideration that continues to this day. To keep up the entertainment value of the tour (even on the days when filming closed much of the backlot), and to compete with Disneyland, Universal began adding fixed attractions during the tour, starting with the flash flood scene in 1968, the parting of the Red Sea (from The Ten Commandments) in 1973, the collapsing bridge in 1974, and the Ice Tunnel in 1975. (Today, that special effects tunnel at the end of the tour is themed to The Mummy.)
In 1976, Universal added what would become its biggest tour attraction to that date: Jaws. Based on Steven Spielberg's break-out hit from the previous year, Jaws recreated the village of Amity from the movie, with a 25-foot animatronic shark emerging from the water to attack the tram. An immediate hit, Jaws created the template for future big-budget, dedicated Studio Tour attractions based on enduring Universal films. In 1986, Universal added an even bigger attraction, installing King Kong in a 26,000-square-foot New York-themed soundstage. The Kong animatronic, the largest in the world at the time, was built by Bob Gurr, who also created most of the ride vehicles for Disneyland. And in 1988, Universal added its third iconic Studio Tour attraction, Earthquake: The Big One, another themed soundstage, where the trams shook and bobbed during a simulated 8.3 San Francisco earthquake.
Starting with the Castle Dracula theater in 1980 (now the home of the Special Effects Stage show), Universal added new attractions to the Upper Lot over the years to complement the Studio Tour, continuing the park's evolution from tour to full-day theme park. And in 1991, Universal Studios Hollywood expanded onto the Lower Lot, with the opening of a quarter-mile series of escalators connecting the top and bottom of the mountain upon which Universal City was built. Today, the Lower Lot is home to the Jurassic Park River Adventure, Revenge of the Mummy and 2012's Theme Park Insider Award winner for Best New Attraction, Transformers: The Ride 3D.
Outside the park's gates, Universal opened CityWalk in 1993, providing a blueprint for a new generation of themed shopping and dining experiences, such as The Grove in Los Angeles' Fairfax District, not to mention the West Side and Downtown Disney from rival Disney.
Today, Universal has just begun a $1-billion-plus transformation of the theme park and its surrounding property. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter will take over a large portion of the Upper Lot, while Gru and the Minions of Despicable Me will move into the space formerly occupied by the Terminator 2 show. As part of what Universal is calling its "Evolution Plan," the company also will be building new hotels, a new entrance to the park, a hub-like "Central Park" on the site of the old Stunt Show theater, a new loading area for the Studio Tour and new attractions on the sites of the Castle Dracula and Waterworld stunt show theaters. Despicable Me and its surrounding Super Silly Fun Land will open sometime in 2014, with no opening dates yet announced for the other new developments in and around the park.
Up next: Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom
By Robert Niles
SHAMROCK, Texas — Driving across North Texas, well, the scenery doesn't always keep you awake. So when Laurie pulled off the road this afternoon, I knew it was my turn to drive.
Out roadtrip switches typically aren't a big deal. Pull off the highway. Switch seats. Drive back onto the road. But this time, we had a problem.
"Are you kidding me?" I yelled, in frustration. Laurie had selected an exit with no return to the highway. We'd have to drive down a local road until we could find a way back to I-40.
So we headed down the road for a mile or so, until we saw an intersection up ahead. A sign pointed us back toward the highway. Soon, we'd be back on our way. But what is this?
"Take a picture," I yelled, again.
Here's what I was looking at, across the street at that intersection in the middle of nowhere Texas, off I-40, where Route 66 once ran.
Yep, my wife, strong with the Disney Force, just dumb-lucked us to the site of the visual inspiration for Ramone's House of Body Art in Disney California Adventure's Cars Land, back home in Southern California.
Disney's concept art for Ramone's
I know where some Imagineers have been!
By Robert Niles
The Tokyo Disney Resort just announced a US$16 million reboot of Tokyo Disneyland's Jungle Cruise ride, for a fall 2014 debut.
From the press release:
The revamped version of the attraction will have new lighting effects and other special show effects. In addition, a specially written musical sound track will be heard throughout the attraction for the first time in any Jungle Cruise. Also, an after-dark only “night cruise” will provide a unique take on the jungle adventure.
The "night cruise" option reminds me of the wildly popular "Night Safari" at the Singapore Zoo, an attraction that's been copied throughout Asia. But a musical soundtrack? As the press release stated, that is a first for a Jungle Cruise. Tokyo Disney's got a pretty good track record with musical revamps, though. Tokyo DisneySea's 2007 revamp of its Sindbad ride added Alan Menken's "The Compass of Your Heart," which has proven itself one of the top theme park songs in the world.
Of course, this announcement should fuel speculation on whether similar reboots will come to Disney's other Jungle Cruises around the world. The Oriental Land Company — not Disney — might be paying the bills in Tokyo, but they're hiring the same Imagineers who could bring these same plans to Disney's U.S. parks for the (not unsubstantial) cost of installation.
The current version of Jungle Cruise will close in Tokyo on January 6, 2014.
By Robert Niles
Thinking about vacations is a form of mental time travel — for those moments, you live in the future. So even though the calendar reads "July," theme parks fans who plan ahead are already thinking about Halloween and Christmas.
As they do every summer, the major theme parks have begun to put tickets on sale for their fall and winter holiday events. Walt Disney World is selling tickets to Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party and Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party. Disneyland is in pre-sale to Annual Passholders for its Mickey’s Halloween Party tickets, and speculation continues that the resort will add a hard-ticket Christmas party, too — this year or next.
Universal Orlando has put tickets on sale for its Halloween Horror Nights, and tickets for the Hollywood version should go on sale soon. Knott's Berry Farm just revealed its 2013 Halloween Haunt line-up and is selling tickets to the event now, too.
Throw in events at many other regional theme and amusement parks around the country, and fans won't lack options for special holiday events in the parks.
So... are you planning to go?
It's time for our Vote of the Week. Please tell us your holiday theme park plans. Are you planning to attend one of these "hard-ticket" holiday events? If not, will you be visiting a theme park during these seasons anyway? Or are you skipping the parks this holiday season? Please select the option that best describes your plans.
By Jeff Elliott
Update from Robert: This just dropped today, so I'm adding it to the Filter now. It's the first official trailer for "Saving Mr. Banks," the movie about the making of "Mary Poppins," starring Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers, and filmed, in part, at Disneyland.
Now back to the rest of Jeff's Blog Flume Filter -- Robert
Disney Fireworks – Apparently there is much more to a fireworks show than lighting a match and a boom. I wouldn't have thought about any other steps other than maybe: throw it and run for cover.
Epcot - Mickey's America Streetbeat – I am always fascinated with the talking character heads, blended with live music and live actors. I am also impressed with how the characters are able to do their routines with a big heavy animatronic head on and not be huffing and puffing at the end of it. I wonder if those costumes smell like rotting fish wrapped in month old gym socks by the end of the day. Or does Disney Pixie Dust magically make performers' sweat glands disappear?
Disneyland – Back before the paint dried in 1955, this was a completely different park than what you have today. Before some of you younger readers get bored, you need to hang on until the end where they show arguably the most abused/enjoyed ride at the park: Jungle Cruise.
The Optimist – There is a new online game that just started up in the last week or so that is supposed to run until the D23 Expo. Apparently it takes on an alternate reality in regards to Walt Disney. Here's where to get started. It really is hard to suspend disbelief when every single page is tagged at the bottom with a huge disclaimer and a Disney copyright. Looks like you will need to play this game and then read TH Creative's book and figure out which one is better. And just for the record I did finish TH's book, it was very intriguing and well worth the time…and where is Book 2?
Shanghai Disneyland – Construction on the castle is underway. If you look further back on the picture, it is impressive to see the number of cranes that they have on the site. That's almost as many as Universal Orlando had!
Photo courtesy Disney
Disney's Magic Kingdom – The first mine car for the Seven Dwarfs roller coaster has just been delivered. The Imagineers were so proud that they had to take a picture.
Photo courtesy Disney
Universal Studios Florida – The Rip Ride Rockit coaster has its newly-refurbished trains on site. It sounds like the new train is giving this troubled coaster a much-needed smoother ride. Let's hope we can get the other trains fixed soon. In Potter news, they are starting to enclose the bones of the buildings that they have up, giving us a good idea what the shape of the buildings are taking.
Grand Texas Theme Park – This park just made the first step in going from an "idea" to a "plan". They have purchased 600 acres of property in New Caney, Texas, and have plans to start construction by the end of the year with a 2015 opening.
New York – There is a good article here that shows a history in pictures of what amusements New York lost and wants back.
Tripsdrill – Hier ein Onride vom neuen Gerstlauer Launch Coaster Karacho in Tripsdrill. Möglicherweise möchten Sie Stick um und werfen Sie einen Blick auf die kühle besondere Wirkung auf der Rückseite der Achterbahn wagen. (Translated as: You might want to stick around and take a look at the cool special effect on the back of the coaster car.)
Kentucky Kingdom – This park has all of the paperwork signed and is slated to open next summer with a new roller coaster and doubling the size of the waterpark. T2 and Twisted Twins will remained closed for the time being, needing extra work before they can open. The newest rumor (classified as an "idea" or "wild idea") is that Rocky Mountain Coasters will be called in to Iron Horse the Twisted Twins.
Nurburgring – The Ring-Racer coaster is now doing test runs to open in the near future. I think I understand now why all of the videos have only shown the launch and the turnaround but little else. It is because there is actually little else to this coaster.
By Jacob Sundstrom
Six new mazes and the return of Elvira will highlight this year's Halloween Haunt at Knott's Scary Farm. The country's longest-running Halloween event last night rolled out its entire event lineup, which includes 12 mazes, four scare zones and seven shows. Elvira, Mistress of the Dark — an icon of the horror industry — will host her own show revue-type show featuring singing and dancing. Elvira was featured prominently at Knott's Scary Farm from the early 1980s all the way up to 2001, which was her last involvement with the park — until now, of course.
While Elvira will cause some buzz around the event, it's the mazes that draw in the target audience; you know, the people too young to know who Elvira is. So how does Knott's maze lineup stack up?
Among the returning mazes are Trick r' Treat, Pinocchio: Unstrung, Delirium, End Games, Slaughterhouse and The Witch's Keep.
Trick r' Treat was the most memorable maze of last year's Haunt, which featured the event icon, The Green Witch, and played upon many of the tropes of classic Halloween films while offering some great show scenes, particularly late in the house.
The Witch's Keep is another Green Witch-themed maze which was unofficially in last year's lineup; it took place on The Calico Mine Ride and was little more than a redressing of the ride daytime guests experience. Perhaps now that the maze is officially on this year's docket, it will get a more thorough treatment.
Delirium was my favorite maze of last year's event and its return was well received by the nearly 2,000 season pass holders in attendance. Delirium offers inventive scares and phenomenal set design. When Knott's is at its best, Delirium is the kinds of creation it spins out. Pinocchio was forgettable for me, particularly after the success of the Doll Factory mazes several years back.
End Games (I see you, Hunger Games) plays off the post-apocalyptic gladiator theme that seems to be getting more and more popular in recent years. The technology used in the maze (closed captioned videos of people going through the maze) is fun, but at times the scares felt too distant as chain link barriers separated the guests from the scarers.
Slaughterhouse, now the owner of the longest-running-maze title, is getting a refresh this year. This should be a welcomed change because while the maze is a fan favorite and fits right in with the other trope-happy mazes Knott's creates, the scares have become a little familiar and could use a new look.
Six new mazes include an all-new Trapped experience. Trapped: The New Experiment is a sequel to last year's up-charge maze which puts a group of up to six people in a maze where they have to solve puzzles to escape.
While not the first of its kind, Trapped is what many call the future of Halloween events. Mazes like this push sensory boundaries in ways a normal maze can't by putting the scarer to guest ratio at 1:1, if not outnumbering the guests. I did not experience Trapped last year, but it received rave reviews and sold out every night of the event.
Did I mention that Knott's makes a killing on this event? Oh yeah, they do.
Mirror Mirror is the most intriguing maze included with your admission. While the word "maze" is used to describe these haunted attractions, there's nothing exactly maze-like about them. You go in through the entrance, walk through the course and head out the exit. According to the designers, Mirror Mirror will actually be a maze -- meaning you can, and probably will, get lost inside. How they will pull that off logistically, I have no idea. But it's an exciting and refreshing take nonetheless.
Black Magic plays on a Houdini gets involved with the cult story, Forevermore is the story of a serial killer who uses Poe's stories to commit creative murders and The Gunslinger's Grave is an old-west themed journey through revenge.
While the song and dance of introducing these mazes was impressive, it's the execution of some of the more challenging mazes that interests me the most. One of my biggest complaints with Knott's Scary Farm in the past has been that the mazes, while technically "original" ideas have not been all that, well, original. Yeah, you didn't base Slaughterhouse off of a movie, but... well, it's not exactly an outside-the-box idea.
Speaking of originality, one of Live Show Supervisor Jeff Tucker's talking points was the freedom granted by not basing mazes on outside properties. What may have been meant as a dig at Universal Studios' movie-based mazes may actually be an indicator that the team learned from last year's Evil Dead takeover of the Timber Mountain Log Ride.
Last year was not the first time Knott's created a movie maze (2006's The Grudge 2 maze earned that distinction), the rushed Evil Dead attraction was... lackluster, to say the least. It was announced last minute, leading many to believe that Knott's jumped at the chance to make a quick buck by advertising the Sam Raimi flick. Whatever the reason, it seems that Knott's is moving away from outside properties, at least for the time being.
In addition to the Elvira show, Knott's returns the pop-culture-skewer-fest The Hanging. Blood Drums is another returning show, while Possessed, Cursed and Academy of Villains are all new for 2013.
The Green Witch remains the official icon of Knott's Scary Farm, though she may have some very pale competition in the mistress of the dark.
By Robert Niles
Yesterday's news about the production company behind "The Dark Knight" and "Man of Steel" movies moving to Universal got some theme park fans dreaming about the DC comic characters also making the move.
Keep dreaming. As I explained yesterday, Legendary Pictures' move does nothing to change the ownership of those icons, which remain the property of Warner Bros. Let's take this opportunity to look at exactly who owns what when it comes to the legal rights to use some of the world's most popular comic characters in theme parks.
Who owns the characters? Warner Bros.
Who owns the rights to use those characters in theme parks? Six Flags
Warner Bros. used to own the Six Flags theme parks, which corporate parent Time Warner sold to Premier Parks in 1998. As part of that deal, Time Warner also sold Premier (which then renamed itself "Six Flags") the long-term theme park rights to its comic and cartoon characters, including Batman, Superman and Bugs Bunny.
Six Flags pays an annual royalty to Warner Bros. to continue using those characters, and must also obtain approval from Warner Bros. for each use of its characters. According to Six Flags' annual report, filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, in 2011 (the latest year for which Six Flags has disclosed the figure), Six Flags paid Warner Bros. $3.3 million for its DC ad Looney Tunes license, in addition to an unspecified amount representing 12 percent of the in-park sales of merchandise using those characters.
Want to read the legalese of the deal? Here it is:
"We have the exclusive right on a long-term basis to theme park usage of the Warner Bros. and DC Comics animated characters throughout the United States (except for the Las Vegas metropolitan area), Canada, Mexico and certain other countries. In particular, our license agreements entitle us to use, subject to customary approval rights of Warner Bros. and, in limited circumstances, approval rights of certain third parties, all animated, cartoon and comic book characters that Warner Bros. and DC Comics have the right to license, including Batman, Superman, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Tweety Bird and Yosemite Sam, and include the right to sell merchandise using the characters. In addition, certain Hanna-Barbera characters including Yogi Bear, Scooby-Doo and The Flintstones are available for our use at certain of our theme parks. In addition to annual license fees, we are required to pay a royalty fee on merchandise manufactured by or for us and sold that uses the licensed characters. Warner Bros. and Hanna-Barbera have the right to terminate their license agreements under certain circumstances, including if any persons involved in the movie or television industries obtain control of us or, in the case of Warner Bros., upon a default under the Subordinated Indemnity Agreement."
Hey, there's actually interesting stuff in there. Most interesting, Warner Bros. has some ways to get out of the deal. Presumably, as in any contract, if Six Flags were to breach the contract by not paying its royalty or not obtaining or adhering to Warner Bros.' approval for use of the characters, Warner Bros. could terminate the deal. But the language above explicitly mentions two other ways that Warner Bros. could pull the license.
The complicated one has to do with what's called "the Subordinated Indemnity Agreement." That's a section of the contract under which Time Warner sold the parks to Premier that obligates Premier to spend a minimum annual amount improving the original Six Flags parks and to make certain payments to Time Warner for the next 15 years. If Six Flags defaults under those terms, it loses the DC and Looney Tunes rights (among a bunch of other penalties). But given that Six Flags kept spending enough money on its parks and making its payments to avoid default while it went through bankruptcy, it's hard to imagine that Six Flags would default on that deal now, given the much stronger financial position the chain now enjoys. (As of today, Six Flags has a market capitalization of $3.5 billion.)
But it's Warner Bros.' other way out of the deal that most affects Six Flags' future. Six Flags would lose the rights to use the DC and Looney Tunes characters if the amusement park chain were to be acquired by any other business in the movie or TV business.
In other words, Disney or Universal.
Warner Bros. doesn't want the theme park rights to its characters falling into the hands of a studio competitor without its approval. As Six Flags' annual report states, "This could deter certain parties from seeking to acquire us." If Disney or Universal wanted to buy Six Flags as an end run to get the theme park rights to Batman and Bugs, they couldn't do it. All they'd end up with would be a bunch of freshly unnamed, unthemed roller coasters and flat rides. That's a pretty substantial "poison pill" against a takeover, given that Disney and Universal are the number-one and number-three largest theme park operators in the world, by annual park attendance.
The DC/Looney Tunes license is "long term," and not "in perpetuity," according to Six Flags' legal documents. So if Warner Bros. wanted to regain control of these theme park rights, perhaps to sell them to another company, the value of that buyout presumably would be diminishing over time, as we approach the year in which the license deal would expire anyway. (I've not found a public document that states when that happens, though other terms and obligations between Warner Bros. and Six Flags expire in 2027 and 2028.)
Until that does happen, Six Flags owns these rights.
Who owns the characters? Disney
Who owns the rights to use those characters in theme parks? In Japan and the United States east of the Mississippi: Universal. Elsewhere in the world: Disney
Disney bought Marvel Comics in 2009 for $4 billion. But years before, Marvel had sold the theme park rights to its characters to Universal Studios. Two years before Disney bought Marvel, Universal opted not to renew those theme park rights for the western half of the United States, and the Marvel characters left Universal Studios Hollywood in at the end of 2007.
Universal retained the rights for the eastern United States, where it had built Marvel Super Hero Island in its Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando, as well as for Japan, where Universal's Japanese development partner had built a clone of IOA's Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man ride in Osaka's Universal Studios Japan. (I've not found any public documents that reveal what Universal is paying Disney, or paid Marvel, for these rights.) The theme park rights for Japan are under a long-term deal, said to last into the 2020s, while the Orlando rights are in perpetuity, meaning that Disney never will be able to secure the rights to use its Marvel characters in Walt Disney World's theme parks until it can convince Universal to give up those rights.
And in the business world, "convince" means to write a very large check or to fork over other capital assets that Universal would want more than to continue to be able to run Marvel Super Hero Island.
Disney has the rights to bring Marvel characters to Disneyland, Hong Kong Disneyland and Disneyland Paris (or to any other company's theme parks outside the eastern US or Japan), but it can't do anything with those characters inside theme parks in the eastern US or Japan. That's why the Walt Disney World monorail wraps promoting Marvel movies had to stay on the Magic Kingdom line. The Epcot monorail line goes into that park, so if a Marvel character were depicted on those trains, Disney would be in breach of contract with Universal, and liable in what could be a nasty, expensive lawsuit.
So unless you hear about another deal coming, don't get too caught up daydreaming about a Gotham Island at Universal or an Avengers ride at Disney's Hollywood Studios. Absent any making someone else an offer they can't refuse, the DC characters will remain in the Six Flags theme parks, and the Marvel characters at Universal Orlando, for years to come.
By Robert Niles
Variety is reporting that film studio Legendary Pictures won't renew its distribution deal with Warner Bros. and will instead begin working with NBCUniversal. This could become a very big deal for theme park fans, as Variety is speculating that part of the Legendary's deal with Universal might include the development of new attractions based on upcoming Legendary films.
Working with Warner Bros., Legendary has produced some of the biggest film franchise of the past decade, including the Dark Knight and Hangover trilogies. Legendary's existing IP won't move to Universal under this new deal — Batman, Superman and the Wolfpack remain the property of Warner Bros. — but Legendary does bring with it an ongoing relationship with some of Hollywood's hottest filmmakers, including Christopher Nolan ("The Dark Knight," "Inception"), Todd Phillips ("The Hangover"), and Zack Snyder ("300", "Man of Steel"). Given Universal Creative's recent track record of working with directors such as Michael Bay and Peter Jackson to develop attractions based on their films, the Legendary deal brings a potential additional infusion of major star power to Universal's theme park development family.
NBCUniversal has long been considered the frontrunner given its strong film distribution pipeline around the world and the TV networks it owns — from NBC to Syfy. Company also provides access to the company’s theme parks which could easily house attractions based on Legendary’s upcoming pics that include “Pacific Rim” and “Godzilla.”
Godzilla joining King Kong? Pacific Rim and Transformers? All in a Universal theme park? Legendary attractions, indeed.
By Robert Niles
The "Downtown Disney" name appears to be going away at the Walt Disney World Resort, as Disney prepares its shopping and dining district in Lake Buena Vista for its transition to "Disney Springs." But the concept of "downtown core" to the sprawling Walt Disney World Resort remains intriguing.
Why? Let's consider the competition. The world's other major multi-park theme park resorts — Disneyland, Disneyland Paris, Tokyo Disney, and Universal Orlando — all occupy much less space than Walt Disney World. Those resorts' parks are located within walking distance of one another, with a central shopping and dining district also just steps away. They function like themed downtowns, faux urban cores with a high density of retail, accommodations and amusements. In Tokyo and Paris, these "downtowns" are linked to the rest of their metropolitan areas via mass-transit rail stations in the middle of the development. Disneyland Paris also includes car-dependent, exurban-style development on its periphery, but the central core around the two parks and its Disney Village functions the same as at these other theme park resorts.
The Disney Village at Disneyland Paris
But Walt Disney World — the first of these resorts, and as such, the prototype — is different. Built in the early 1970s on thousands of acres of undeveloped land in what was then the middle-of-nowhere Florida, the Walt Disney World Resort abandons Walt's initial vision of a modernist, transit-focused urban development in favor of a car-dependent exurban one. Even if you don't bring a car to the resort, you'll still find yourself on roads, riding in buses, if you want to get around and see all of what the resort has to offer. This is theme park suburbia. There's no urban core, no downtown, here.
Or is there?
No, what Disney calls "Downtown Disney" never was a functioning downtown. Located on the southeastern edge of the resort, far from its four theme parks, the former Disney Village never functioned as an urban core for Walt Disney World. In an effort to prevent visitors from taking advantage of free parking on its sea of asphalt surrounding these shops and restaurants, Disney no longer provides direct bus transportation from Downtown Disney to the theme parks. It's impossible for this "Downtown Disney" to function as a central core to the resort's theme parks if you literally can't get there from here on the resort's transportation system.
So forget about Downtown Disney as Disney World's downtown. That doesn't preclude another location from serving in that role. Where could that be?
It's helpful to consider first what the function of a resort "downtown" would be. You'd want a densely developed location, within walking distance of multiple parks, with shopping, dining and accommodations also located on site. Alternate transportation would be available for those who don't wish to walk the farthest distances inside this core. Ideally, non-automotive transportation would be available to points beyond the central core, taking you elsewhere in the resort and perhaps even outside of it.
Actually, there is a location inside the Walt Disney World Resort that satisfies most of these requirements. And, as you might expect, it's nowhere near what Disney calls Downtown Disney. So where is it?
It's Disney's Epcot Resorts area.
Is this the real "Downtown Disney?" Photo by Amanda Jenkins
Located between Epcot and Disney's Hollywood Studios, you can reach either of those parks on a footpath linking the five hotels in this area: Disney's Yacht Club Resort, Disney's Beach Club Resort, Disney's Boardwalk Resort and the Walt Disney World Dolphin and Swan. Don't want to walk? A "Friendship" boat will be along in just a few minutes to take you down the waterway that also connects these parks and hotels. You'll find abundant dining in the area, even if the retail's a bit light for a downtown. Want to get to other parks? Yes, there are buses, but if you walk through Epcot, you'll find a monorail station awaiting you on the other side, ready to whisk you over to the Magic Kingdom and its collection of hotel resorts.
If you're willing to ignore Animal Kingdom, the water parks and the soon-to-be Disney Springs, one easily could enjoy a road-free vacation staying at the Epcot Resorts Area, walking, boating and taking the monorail around these hotels, restaurants and theme parks. It could be just like a vacation at one of the other multi-park theme park resorts around the world. You'd be enjoying a "theme park downtown."
There is guest demand for this level of convenience. Perhaps it's not a coincidence that one of the hotels located in the center of the Epcot Resorts area, Disney's Yacht Club Resort, was the highest-rated Walt Disney World hotel in our most recent Theme Park Insider Awards. Some people like to ditch their cars on vacation, yet remain in the midst of plentiful entertainment options.
Of course, Disney's poured many millions of dollars into developments not linked to this downtown core, and millions of Disney visitors want to experience those parts of the Walt Disney World Resort, too. So, for the time being, at least, the Walt Disney World Resort will continue to be a road-dependent resort for the vast majority of its visitors. But I think there's great value in recognizing the Epcot Resorts Area as a proto-urban core for the resort.
We might have surpassed the point of peak car dependency in America. Younger Americans aren't getting drivers' licenses at the same rate their older siblings and parents once did. The specter of Peak Oil looms. And, anyway, Disney clearly would prefer that its visitors not rent cars while in Orlando, which they might use to visit other, competing attractions in the area. (That's why it offers that Disney's Magical Express service to and from the Orlando Airport.)
But, let's face it, people don't like buses. If Disney wishes to create alternates to road transportation at the Walt Disney World Resort, it can most cost-efficiently route high-capacity non-road transit systems by developing the resort using the classic "hub and spoke" design that Walt developed for Disneyland and for his vision of Epcot — a design that was very much inspired by scholars of urban design. But Disney won't need to spend billions of dollars to create that hub from scratch if it recognizes where its urban core already might be evolving.
Perhaps then, the Epcot Resorts area can become a fully-functioning Downtown Disney for everyone at the Walt Disney World Resort.
By Robert Niles
If you were following Theme Park Insider over the long holiday weekend (in the United States), you might have heard that three of the four top spots in this year's Theme Park Insider Awards went to theme park resorts outside the United States. The only award to go to a US theme park was the Best Theme Park Hotel honor, which went to Universal Orlando's Portofino Bay Hotel once again.
I'd proud of the increased international reach of ThemeParkInsider.com, as well as the increasing number of our US-based readers who are finding ways to make international travel part of their vacation experiences. Together, they're leading to more submitted reader ratings for parks outside the US, allowing the very best of those parks to compete for our annual awards.
That said, while I think we've done a pretty good job of listing the rides, shows and restaurants at the international theme parks most likely to attract English-speaking visitors (we are an English-language website and community, after all), we haven't been as aggressive in listing and promoting reviews of official, on-site hotels at some of these resorts.
Not that I'm campaigning for a non-US sweep of the awards — but I do want to make sure that we are giving you, the Theme Park Insider readers, every opportunity to rate and review important components of the theme park vacation experience at top resorts around the world, including on-site hotels.
The Tokyo Disneyland Hotel
So allow me to take a moment to direct your attention to our listings of on-site hotels at highly-attended theme park resorts outside the United States. If you've stayed at any of these hotels, your submission of ratings, reviews and photos would be greatly appreciated by other readers thinking about future theme park trips!
By Russell Meyer
Most Walt Disney World visitors who choose to eat in the Wilderness Lodge probably make reservations at the Whispering Canyon Café. The table service restaurant has been featured on a number of Travel Channel and Discover Channel shows covering the Walt Disney World Resort. Whispering Canyon Café is quite an experience, and it's easy to understand why so many guests chose to eat at a restaurant that is as much entertainment as it is a hearty meal.
However, just past Whispering Canyon Café, there is another restaurant where the wait staff doesn't have to entertain the diners. Artist Point is at the far end of the Wilderness Lodge lobby, and features an exquisite dining room with light-colored wood columns and breathtaking murals along with a view of the resort's pool and the lake beyond. You realize this is a "signature" dining experience, requiring two Disney Dining Plan table-service credits, as soon as you walk past the whiskey cart and take in the ambiance of the main dining room. The restaurant aims to capture the taste and feel of the Pacific Northwest and the western National Parks, and just walking to my table along the window side of the dining room, I got that feeling.
The menu offers a rather limited selection (six appetizers and nine entrees), which for me indicates a frequent, seasonal rotation, and excellence from every dish. I'm a carnivore at heart, but was immediately drawn to two of the vegetarian dishes on the menu. I simply love mushrooms, and was lured to the description of the Smoked Portobello Soup. I was equally intrigued by the White and Black Truffle Ribbon Pasta. My server verified that I was aware that both dishes that I selected were fully vegetarian, and I went ahead.
Shortly after I placed my order, a bread basket and butter/olive oil plate was brought to my table. The delicious sourdough bread is some of the best I've tasted, and yes, I've been to San Francisco a few times. The herb butter was creamy and not too salty, which can be a common fault in house-made herb butters.
Following a longer than expected wait, my soup was brought to the table. The smoky Portobello soup with roasted artichokes, chive oil, and sourdough crouton was quite possibly the most amazing soup I've ever had in my life. As expected, the soup packed a very earthy flavor, but the smoked Portobello mushrooms tasted like chunks of bacon. Yes, the kitchen here was able to make slices of mushroom taste just like thick cut hickory smoked bacon. I talked for a few minutes with my server about the dish, and he said that he frequently gets comments about the bacon flavor in the soup and how impressed guests are that the dish is completely vegetarian. The toasted sourdough crouton added the perfect amount of crispiness, and the overall texture of the soup was smooth and thick. I would have been perfectly satisfied with my meal if I was just served continuous bowls of this soup, and even at $11, it was worth every penny.
After I had a few moments to contemplate the perfection of my soup, my entrée arrived. The black and white truffle ribbon pasta with English peas, served with black and white truffle and pea puree, wild mushrooms, black figs, pearl onions, fontina cheese and kalamata olives looked terrific. The obviously handmade pasta was al dente with soft earthy tones that worked well with the peas and onions. The puree was smooth and creamy with a bright aftertaste without being sticky or pasty. As good as the pasta and puree was, the highlight of the dish was the fontina cheese and kalamata olive fritters. One of my friends famously serves olive cheese balls at his annual holiday party, and while those are pretty amazing in their own right, Artist Point's spin on the simple olive cheese ball is divine. The gooey, salty cheese combined with the minimal crispy breading worked in perfect harmony with the tart olives. I didn't check the menu in the adjacent bar, but if these are not an appetizer in the bar, they need to be added.
After devouring my entrée I contemplated the dessert options, but honestly told my server that I would have had another bowl of the soup to finish the evening if I were still hungry. The desserts were all pretty standard fare with a cobbler, cheesecake, crème brulee, and cannoli on the menu, so without a unique option or my stomach growling at me for more sustenance, I passed on dessert.
While Artist Point will probably never reach the notoriety of other Walt Disney World Resort signature dining experiences such as Victoria & Albert's (Grand Floridian), California Grill (Contemporary), Yachtsman Steakhouse (Yacht Club), or Jiko (Animal Kingdom Lodge) primarily because of the presence of the extremely popular Whispering Canyon Café just steps away, it is a noteworthy restaurant that perfectly fits the theme of the Wilderness Lodge Resort. The impressive, yet simple décor and lovely views harken to classic National Park lodge restaurants with overlooking views of natural wonders. I've dined at both the Ahwahnee Dining Room in Yosemite National Park and Bright Angel Restaurant in Grand Canyon National Park, and Artist Point does an impressive job generating the feel of those spaces. Now, a pool and lake are nothing compared to the Grand Canyon or El Capitan, but the moment you walk into the dining room, you feel exactly what the designers are going for, and the food follows through with that simple, earthy elegance.
Have you eaten at Artist Point? Please share your experience, in the comments.
By Tim W
This is our second vote for Theme Park Apprentice 5, the theme park design game that we're playing over on the Theme Park Insider Discussion Board. This week, our contestants designed restaurants for their theme park in development. Our bottom 3 contestants have been sent to a vote, in order to win your votes to be saved. The contestant with the lowest voting percentage will be fired from the competition.
Jay R: Chicken Soup For the Soul
AJ Hummel: Festival of Elements
Chad H: Captain Cook's Public House
Please be sure to read over their proposals from Challenge 5 before voting on whom to save.
By Robert Niles
Disneyland opened in 1955, but it wasn't Southern California's first theme park. Knott's Berry Farm had slowly been growing over the past 20 years from a sit-down chicken dinner restaurant to a Ghost Town-themed park with a variety of attractions. And in 1954, Marineland of the Pacific opened in Palos Verde — the world's largest "oceanarium" park.
The initial success of Marineland provided a model for four UCLA graduates — George Millay, Milton Shedd, Dave Demotte and Ken Norris — to open another oceanarium down the coast in San Diego, after they decided their initial plan for an underwater restaurant with a marine show wasn't feasible. SeaWorld San Diego opened March 21, 1964. Located on the shore of San Diego's Mission Bay, reclaimed from a tidal marsh, the park is subject to substantial development restrictions from both the city and the California Coastal Commission, which limits how SeaWorld can develop the park to this day. For example, SeaWorld San Diego's version of the Manta roller coaster tops out at 30 feet, due to Coastal Commission restrictions.
Originally a 21-acre park, SeaWorld opened with sea lion and dolphin exhibits, but none of what would become its icon, killer whales. Fortunately, 1964 was a great year to open a theme park with dolphins, as the television show Flipper debuted that fall, making the species of marine mammal a national sensation. Unline rival Marineland's owners, SeaWorld's four owners aggressively reinvested their earnings back into the park, allowing it to expand and in just four years eclipse Marineland in annual attendance.
A history display on the construction fence surrounding the park's upcoming Explorers Reef entry plaza.
Shamu, the third orca (killer whale) ever captured — and the first healthy orca to be caught intentionally, came to the park in December 1965, after being caught earlier that year in Washington's Puget Sound by a Seattle aquarium. Shamu died in 1971, but her name continues to be used as the stage name for all of the theme park chain's orcas around the country.
SeaWorld became a publicly-traded corporation for the first time in 1968, which allowed the park to invest more money in expansion, and not just in San Diego. SeaWorld opened its second park, SeaWorld Ohio, in 1970, and SeaWorld Orlando in 1973. In 1971, SeaWorld's founders partnered with the Newhall Land Company to open a more traditional theme park, Magic Mountain, in that northern Los Angeles suburb. SeaWorld soon backed out, but if you put a SeaWorld map and a Magic Mountain map side by side, you'll see multiple similarities, including iconic observation towers near their entrances and meandering paths that look nothing like Disney's traditional "hub and spoke" layout.
In 1976, textbook publisher Harcourt Brace Jovanovich bought the three SeaWorld parks. HBJ continued to invest in the park's expansion, including a Shark Encounter, massive new Shamu Stadium and Penguin Encounter in San Diego. In 1987, HBJ bought and closed Marineland, bringing many of its marine mammals, including the park's famous orcas Corky and Orky, to the San Diego SeaWorld. (Corky continues to live and perform there today.)
Corky, with Theme Park Insider editor Robert Niles in 2008.
After selling to HBJ, George Millay went on in 1977 to develop the nation's first major water park, Wet n' Wild in Orlando. The World Waterpark Association later declared him the "Father of the Waterpark" and the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions [IAAPA] inducted him into its Hall of Fame in 1994 for his role in developing both the oceanarium and waterpark industries.
Facing crippling levels of debt, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich sold its theme parks to Anheuser-Busch in 1989, which had experience operating animal-themed attractions with its Busch Gardens theme parks. Under Busch, SeaWorld San Diego continued to grow, adding the Wild Arctic ride and exhibit in 1997, the Shipwreck Rapids raft ride in 1999, and the combination flume ride/roller coaster Journey to Atlantis in 2004, in addition to updating to its killer whale, dolphin and sea lion shows every few years. Anheuser-Busch also owned the U.S. theme park rights to the Sesame Street characters, which allowed SeaWorld San Diego to open its Sesame Street Bay of Play kiddie-ride area in 2008.
In 2008, Belgian brewer InBev acquired Anheuser-Busch, and the next year sold the parks once again, this time to private equity firm The Blackstone Group, which also owned the Legoland theme parks and half of the Universal Orlando Resort. In 2012, SeaWorld San Diego opened its Manta roller coaster and the next year Blackstone offered another "initial" public offering of SeaWorld stock, making SeaWorld again a publicly-traded company.
Over the years and its several owners, SeaWorld helped developed many of what have become standard practices for the care and breeding of marine mammals in captivity, and SeaWorld animal care employees routinely lead or assist in the rescue, care, rehabilitation and reintroduction to the wild of injured marine mammals, seabirds and other wildlife. In 2012, SeaWorld debuted a television show on the (Disney-owned) ABC network, Sea Rescue, which documents many of the parks' animal rescue and rehabilitation efforts.
For the park's 50th anniversary in 2014, SeaWorld San Diego is revamping its entrance plaza as "Explorers Reef," designed to look as though visitors are walking under a wave into the bottom of the ocean, with touch pools that allow visitors to make immediate contact with some of the park's marine animals.
Please share your favorite SeaWorld San Diego memories in the comments.
By Robert Niles
For the past year, you've voted with your ratings of the world's most popular theme park attractions here on Theme Park Insider. And today, for the 12th consecutive year, we are pleased to announce the winners of the Theme Park Insider Awards, the best of the best in the global theme park industry, voted on by you, the world's best theme park fans.
We used the cumulative ratings submitted over the past year by Theme Park Insider readers to determine the winners in four categories: Best Theme Park, Best Hotel, Best Restaurant and Best New Attraction.
We determined the Best Theme Park award by determining which parks had the largest number of highly-rated attractions that received more than a minimum number of ratings. In the other three categories, the eligible location with the highest average reader rating, given at least a minimum number of ratings, was declared the winner. We considered only table-service restaurants in the Best Restaurant category, "official" on-site hotels for Best Hotel, and attractions that opened officially since July 1, 2012 in the Best New Attraction category.
With those techie details aside, let's get to this year's winners!
This is the third overall Theme Park Insider Award for Best Theme Park for Tokyo DisneySea, and second in a row.
This is the third overall Theme Park Insider Award for Best Hotel for the Portofino Bay, which last won in 2009.
This is the first Theme Park Insider Award for the S.S. Columbia Dining Room, which is the first restaurant outside the United States to win our Best Restaurant award.
Best New Attraction:
This is the second year in a row that an attraction outside the United States has won the Best New Attraction award, following Universal Studios Singapore's Transformers: The Ride (which shared the award with its sister attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood).
For the first time, a majority of our winners represent parks outside the United States, with the Tokyo Disney Resort claiming two of the four awards, and Hong Kong Disneyland claiming the third honor. Universal Orlando kept the American theme parks from being shut out, as Universal Orlando returned to winning after a one-year absence last year, which followed an 11-year streak of winning at least one Theme Park Insider Award every year.
Including the runners-up honors, here is how this year's top theme park resorts fared:
Congratulations to all of these parks, and to all the people who help make them award-winning destinations!
By Robert Niles
SeaWorld Orlando offers a substantially different experience than the other Orlando-area theme parks. At SeaWorld, the park's focus is on live animals, not television and movie characters (though you might find Sesame Street characters in the park from time to time). But the bigger difference between SeaWorld and the other area parks might be SeaWorld's emphasis on live shows in huge theaters over the ride-based attractions that command the majority of visitors' attention at Disney and Universal.
What to do before you go
Most people who visit SeaWorld Orlando do so as part of a visit to the Walt Disney World or Universal Orlando Resorts (or both!) SeaWorld Orlando is located between those two resorts, south of Universal Orlando and north of Walt Disney World. If you're attending a convention, SeaWorld's located just across the 528 Beachline Expressway from the Orange County Convention Center.
Unlike Disney and Universal, SeaWorld offers just one theme park in Orlando, but it also offers a popular water park, Aquatica, in addition to Discovery Cove, a smaller, more-exclusive animal encounter park where visitors can swim with dolphins, among other activities.
If you're considering staying near SeaWorld to take advantage of its central location, SeaWorld has partnered with seven "official" hotels around its property, and offers a package of benefits to visitors who book through its website into those hotels. The benefits include early access to the park on selected days, free use of SeaWorld's "Quick Queue" front-of-the-line pass, and free transportation not just to the SeaWorld parks but also to the Universal Orlando parks.
Having front-of-line not as valuable here as it is at Universal, so keep that in mind as you weigh the value of various hotels' benefits. Buying the "Quick Queue Unlimited" option here costs just $19-$29 a day, though, so it might be a nice add-on if you can't make it into the park at opening to avoid the long lines for the park's newest attraction, Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin. Quick Queue also allows you to skip the lines at the park's five other rides, plus the TurtleTrek movie, though not for the kiddie rides in the Shamu's Happy Harbor area. (But you have an option for that — just keep reading.)
If you're visiting SeaWorld along with Universal Orlando, consider the Orlando Flex Ticket, which allows unlimited admission to SeaWorld, Aquatica and the Universal Orlando parks for 14 consecutive days. The "Flex Ticket Plus" throws in admission to SeaWorld's sister park Busch Gardens in Tampa. You can price the Flex Tickets, along with other multi-day and one-day ticket options, on SeaWorld's website. Note that SeaWorld offers a $10 discount on one-day tickets bought in advance via its website.
If you live near another SeaWorld-owned theme park, Platinum Annual Passes provide unlimited admission to 10 of the company's theme and water parks around the United States (though not to Discovery Cove). If you are interested in Discovery Cove, its all-inclusive packages — which start at $229 per person — also include 14 consecutive days of admission to SeaWorld and Aquatica as part of that price, so that can be another way to get SeaWorld tickets.
Going to Discovery Cove isn't the only way to get close to the animals, though. SeaWorld offers a variety of animal encounters, as well as VIP tours. We tried the Beluga Whale Interaction at sister park SeaWorld San Diego a few years back, if you'd like to read a first-hand account of such experiences. Prices start at $29 for behind-the-scenes tours up to $100+ for in-water animal encounters, depending upon season.
Parents with young children might consider the Family Fun Tour, starting at $59 for kids and $79 for adults. It includes front-of-line access to the Shamu Happy Harbor kiddie rides, as well as an animal feeding, reserved seating at the killer whale show, and meet-and-greet with the park's Shamu walk-around character (not the live whale — FWIW, none of the park's killer whales are actually named "Shamu").
Finally, if you'd like a table-service meal while visiting the park, Theme Park Insider readers recommend SeaWorld's Sharks Underwater Grill, where, as the name implies, you can dine with an underwater view of the park's shark aquarium. You can book a free priority seating time via SeaWorld's website. The park also offers Dine With Shamu, a buffet served waterside at the park's killer whale facility, where trainers offer a short presentation with the whales during your meal.
When you get to SeaWorld Orlando
Check SeaWorld's website in advance of your visit not just to find the park's opening time on the day you'd like to visit, but also to check the day's show schedule.
With the park's emphasis on popular live shows, you'll build your day around those show times, rather than just making your way from one continuously loading ride to another, as you would for the bulk of your time at Disney or Universal. You'll also find a list of the day's show times on back of the large paper park maps you can pick up when you enter SeaWorld. Plan to arrive at each theater 10-30 minutes before show time, depending upon how busy the park seems, to ensure your choice of seats together.
SeaWorld does have rides, though, and they're best to get done first thing in the morning. At mid-day, you'll find the park's longest lines at its newest attraction, Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, despite the ride's poor ratings from many visitors. It's a short dark ride followed by a visit to the park's penguin habitat, and visitors' enjoyment of the attraction seems inverse to how long they waited for it. The penguin habitat is kept at 30 degrees, so the longer you can stand the cold, the more you'll enjoy getting see dozens of penguins, up close, with no glass between you and them.
If you don't have a Quick Queue pass, and you want to see Antarctica, start your day there. Otherwise, start with the top attractions recommended by Theme Park Insider readers:
Note that you will get soaking wet on Journey to Atlantis, so you might skip that ride on particular cool or overcast winter days.
Once you've done the park's top rides, move on to the shows. Our readers' top recommended shows at SeaWorld are:
If you're visiting during the summer months, our readers also recommend the Sea Lions Tonight! show, which plays only on summer evenings. There's also a Shamu Rocks show, followed by fireworks, in the summer months.
When you enter a SeaWorld theater and see some of the seats designated as a "splash zone" — SeaWorld's not kidding. You run a strong chance of getting soaked if you sit in the Splash Zone, and might get wet if you sit too near it. For some visitors, especially on hot summer days, that's part of the fun of SeaWorld. And if not, well, consider yourself warned.
If you've got kids and want to blow off some steam in Shamu's Happy Harbor, plan to do that before or after seeing the One Ocean show, as its theater is next to the Happy Harbor, and a long walk away from everything else in the park.
Just wander and enjoy the animal exhibits and other shows in between your desired showtimes for the rest of the day. Even at its busiest, this isn't a park where you spend an enormous amount of time waiting. But it does offer many opportunities for unique moments, from touching bat rays to feeding dolphins or seals. It's SeaWorld. Go with the flow.
Where to eat
SeaWorld used to be owned by a food and beverage company (Anheuser Busch), so even the counter-service food here tends to be pretty good, though the park no longer offers the free beer tastings it did back in the Busch days. You'll do well with pretty much any food selection in the park, if you didn't book a table service meal in advance. If you're really hungry, SeaWorld sells an All-Day-Dining Deal, $32.99 for adults and $17.99 for children 3-9, that allows you to get two courses every time through the line at its restaurants, with as many passes through the line as you can to make. You can buy that option in advance via the website, or at a booth near the front gate when you enter.
What's next at SeaWorld Orlando?
With the park's largest-ever capital expansion. Antarctica, just opened, nothing new's on the horizon for SeaWorld Orlando just yet.
Previous 'Plan Your Day' articles:
By Robert Niles
We've got tons of theme park news flowing in this week, so let's clear it with a round-up, shall we?
Disney's Chairman and CEO, Bob Iger, has agreed to stay on until 2016, instead of retiring from his CEO gig next year, as originally planned. That keeps Iger on board through the planned opening of the Shanghai Disneyland park in 2015, as well the seventh episode of the Star Wars saga, also scheduled to drop that year.
Remember the big CALIFORNIA letters that stood at the front of the Disney California Adventure park up until its billion-dollar refurb? They've returned this week, in their new "retirement home" at the California state fairgrounds in Sacramento.
Legoland Florida this week opens its new "World of Chima" attractions, based on the Cartoon Network's "Legends of Chima" show debuting next week. The centerpiece is The Quest for CHI, a themed "Splash Battle"-type water shooter ride, where riders use their shooting skills to "help their hero, Laval the Lion Prince, defeat Cragger the Crocodile King as he attempts to steal the precious supply of CHI." A 4-D movie and interactive play area round out the expansion, which opens to the public tomorrow, July 3.
Photo courtesy Legoland
Sure, it's the middle of summer, but July's the month when theme parks begin releasing details of their annual Halloween events. Disneyland's revealed the 13 dates for this year's Mickey's Halloween Party, and Universal Studios Hollywood is about to start the voting on its Facebook page to determine the winner for its fan-designed character contest. Universal Orlando's revealed its first maze concept for this year's Halloween Horror Nights. And Knott's has a press conference scheduled for next week to reveal details about this year's Halloween Haunt (including the return of Elvira?), and we'll be there for that.
The Orlando Business Journal followed up on our report that Disney will build a Star Wars land at Disney's Hollywood Studios with its own confirmation of the report, then it found some more details on how Star Wars might be taking over a good chunk of the park.
We've had a discussion going for a week or so about Universal Studios Florida visitors being surveyed about The Smurfs replacing the park's ET ride. The Orlando Business Journal says that one's a go, too.
Universal fans also are buzzing about a report that the park will replace Disaster! with a new King Kong attraction. This isn't a clone of Hollywood's 360: 3D experience, but a new attraction with practical effects and an animatronic Kong.
Something to think about on those last couple of reports: The word "rumor" is pretty much worthless in describing theme park developments. Either something exists in a design life-cycle, or it doesn't. I like to think of the development process in three steps. An attraction starts as an idea, when creative design employee or team envisions what an attraction might be. Creative teams have tons of ideas, many of which never proceed in development, but that sometimes get leaked or released before that decision gets made, anyway.
The second step in development is becoming a plan. This is when designers start working up advanced models, blueprints and other tangible assets that will be used to guide construction or implementation of the development. Again, many projects get to this stage, but never proceed.
The third step is for a development to become a project. This is the stage where parks start spending real money, green-lighting budgets, hiring contractors, and filing permits. When a development hits the project stage, I'm confident in reporting here on Theme Park Insider that it's going to happen. So whenever you hear about "rumors," what you really want to know is: Is this an idea, a plan, or a project? The answer to that question tells you how likely that development is to happen some day.
Where to eat: Busch Gardens Williamsburg's Food and Wine Festival (perhaps coming to another SeaWorld park near you?)
By Russell Meyer
A little over a month ago, I was invited to a sneak preview of the Busch Gardens Williamsburg inaugural Food and Wine Festival. My initial impression was positive, despite the similarities to Epcot's exceedingly popular annual fall event. As I am composing this review, Busch Gardens' first attempt at a large scale food and wine event is over, but based on what I saw and tasted during the penultimate weekend of the festival, not only will guests see the event return next season, but the event may be exported to other SeaWorld parks around the country in the not-so-distant future.
During May's media preview, I was able to sample five dishes, and talk with Resident Chef Justin Watson about his vision for the festival and some of the logistical hurdles that he and his team would need to overcome to ensure a successful event. When I returned to the park on Father's Day, I was able to experience the full vision for the festival, and even had a chance to chat with Chef Justin as I spotted him in the park, checking on food quality and guest satisfaction.
My first impression about experiencing the festival following the media preview was that the event looked very much as I expected, and perhaps even more impressive for an inaugural event. The most impressive things I noticed were the actual booths. Not only are the booths far more spacious than the ones typically erected for industry rival Epcot's festival, but the design is very clever with kitchen tools and food doubling as decorative elements on the exteriors.
Busch Gardens also strategically located some of the booths in areas where they could take advantage of unused or underutilized interior space inside the park. For instance, the old Bistro 205 restaurant near Griffon was used for the France booth, while the relatively slow Pigs in a Kilt stand near the Clydesdale Stables was used for the Scotland booth. I visited the park with my wife, our three-year old, and my sister-in-law, her husband, and their two young children (5 and 1 1/2). The large group of us was able to sample two items from each booth, and while not everything we tasted was a huge hit, there weren't a lot of clunkers. In order to make paying easier for guests, Busch Gardens introduced a bar-coded wristband linked to a credit card or cash pre-payment. The wristband could also be linked to a guest's season pass, so any guest purchasing items at the booths could just walk up, show their wristband, and pick up their item without having to fumble around with cards, cash, or change. [Editor's note: OMG, it's SeaWorld's version of a MagicBand!] The system was a little more low-tech than Epcot's system, but was a nice luxury nonetheless. However, I did have a minor issue when one of the cashiers processed my order prior to my season pass discount, which resulted in a double charge. I was able to get the situation rectified, but it was a bit annoying that I had to continuously tell cashiers that they had to scan the barcode for the season pass discount and then a second time to pay for the order.
We made one full circuit around the park, and sampled a few items from just about every booth. We started at the Spain booth, where I had already tried the Tapas Platter during the media preview, so we got 2 orders of empanadas.
The dish was good, with a nice cilantro cream sauce accompanying the two fried pies. The filling had a bit of heat, but was not anything exceptional.
At the German beer booth, I sampled the German beer flight. The flight included four-ounce pours of Spaten Oktoberfest, Franziskaner Hefeweisse, Bitburger, and Kostritzer. Similar to Epcot, the beer flights are served in a four-cup holding tray, but with a clever improvement: Stickers were affixed to the trays identifying each slot with a number, and guests are handed a small slip of paper that provided a description of each beer matching the number on the tray. Last fall in Epcot, I recalled getting a Sam Adams beer flight from the Hops and Barley Market, and the cast member was hand writing letters on the trays to help guests figure out which beer was which. One simple sticker and a small slip of paper, and Busch Gardens had solved a pretty significant problem.
We also sampled the Currywurst and Rahmgulasch from the nearby Germany booth.
The Currywurst was very flavorful, and a neat spin on a relatively humble dish. The Ramgulasch was a very elevated version of a peasant dish, and oozed with deliciousness. As we noticed throughout the day, the braised, stew-like dishes were by far the best of the bunch.
Next up was the Austria booth, where we tried the Tafelspitz mit Apfelkrin and couldn't help but pick up another taste of the Paprikash, which I had sampled during the media preview.
The Paprikash was executed just as wonderfully as it was when I tasted it at the preview, with tender chunks of chicken soaking in a delectable complex sauce. Meanwhile, the Tefelspitz was probably my least favorite of the dishes we tried. The beef was lacking flavor, while the apple horseradish cream sauce was just a bit strange.
The next booth we reached was the Canada booth, where we sampled the Cheddar and Lager Chowder and Venison Sausage and Corn Porridge.
The chowder was a bit thick for me to consider it chowder, but the flavors were all great. The smoked paprika oil really rang through adding a nice bit of spice to the soup. The sausage was awesome with a nice gaminess to the meat, and the porridge was a perfect compliment.
Next up were the Belgium and France booths. We chose to just get the beer flight from the Belgium booth, passing on the food pairing featuring chocolate, hazelnuts, and cheese. At the France booth, we sampled the Coq au Vin.
As with the other braised, stew-like dishes, the Coq au Vin was loaded with flavor. The red wine flavor was definitely present, and balanced well with succulent chicken. This was quite possibly the best dish of the day.
Before leaving Aquitane, we made a stop at the Crepes and Coffee stand to try a banana Nutella crepe along with a strawberry crepe.
Both crepes were excellent, but the banana Nutella combination was pretty amazing.
We then grabbed an order of Bangers with Colcannon from the Ireland booth.
On first sight, the dish looked like a simple sausage on top of mashed potatoes and gravy. However, the tart cabbage and Guinness-laced gravy took this simple-looking plate to another level.
Further along at the Scotland booth, we picked up an order of Shepherd's Pie and some Scottish Toffee.
The Shepherd's Pie was on par with other restaurant quality dishes I've had before, and had plenty of lamb chunks beneath the fluffy mashed potato top. The toffee came following a recommendation from one of the sous chefs, and did not disappoint. The sweet caramel combined with chunks of chocolate and almonds disappeared from the plate in an instant.
Our final dishes of the day came from the Greece booth with a serving of Baklava and Halloumi.
The Baklava was literally swimming in honey, but surprisingly not overly sweet. The Halloumi was one of the surprises of the day. A dish that is as simple as some grilled cheese drizzled with honey and pistachios could not have been more interesting. The saltiness of the cheese contrasting the sweetness of the honey was a perfect pairing, providing a nice end to our culinary adventure.
In talking with Chef Justin during our visit, I asked him how the festival was going along with the prospects of it returning in the future. Not only did he seem confident that the event would return to Busch Gardens Williamsburg in future years, but the chain was exploring the possibilities of trying a similar event at other SeaWorld parks. I think trying the event at SeaWorld Orlando right up against Epcot's Food and Wine Festival in the fall would be a big mistake, but I wouldn't be surprised to see them try the event at one of the Florida parks (SeaWorld or Busch Gardens Tampa) in the spring/early summer. I could also see a similar event finding an audience at SeaWorld San Diego. Chef Justin noted that it was a difficult event to pull off, and there was a big learning curve attempting such an expansive festival in its first year, but he was very confident that the feedback they were getting from guests and management was very positive.
Based on what I experienced, I would definitely plan a return visit to the festival next season. The staff still has a few issues to work out (most notable that there were few pictures or sample plates of the dishes for guests to see before ordering), but I would commend Busch Gardens for executing an excellent event in its first attempt. Guests can expect that future events will only get better, and I would hope that this event will eventually rival what Epcot has put on every fall for the past 17 years.
By Robert Niles
Millions of fans come to theme parks every year for the rides, but smart theme park fans don't overlook some of the live shows also playing at many of the world's top parks.
Here in Southern California, our parks recently opened two major new live shows. We've already reviewed Disneyland's Mickey and the Magical Map and SeaWorld San Diego's Madagascar Live! Operation Vacation, when it opened at sister park Busch Gardens Tampa last month. But over the past couple weeks, I got my first opportunity to see these shows.
Rapunzel sings during "Mickey and the Magical Map." Photo submitted by Brandon Mendoza
Each of these shows runs 20 minutes, making them a great way to get off your feet and out of the sun for an enjoyable extended break in the middle of the day. Mickey and the Magical Map plays in the outdoor (but covered and shady) Fantasyland Theater in Disneyland, while Madagascar Live plays in the indoor (and air conditioned) Mission Bay Theater at SeaWorld San Diego.
But if you're paying theme park prices for a day's entertainment you want more than a cool place to sit for 20 minutes. Both shows deliver that entertainment value with energetic casts performing popular songs from their source material, as well as an original tune created just for its show. Another plus? While it's worth showing up 20-30 minutes early to ensure getting seats together for each performance, neither of these shows will subject you to an hour-plus wait, as you might find at many popular rides this summer.
If there's a knock to be made against these shows, it's that their premises are whispy-wafer-thin — just flimsy excuses to get to the music. But with a 20-minute show time, I'd prefer less set-up and more time for singing and dancing anyway. (If you want more plot and dialogue in a Southern California theme park show, take in a performance of Aladdin at Disney California Adventure.)
There's no faulting these casts, though, at least not at the performances I watched (and recorded for your enjoyment). The vocalists, dancers and instrumentalists bring it, entertaining the audience with fun songs you'll have playing over and over again in your head for the rest of the day.
Follow the links below to rate and review these shows, if you've seen them already. Or just leave a thought in the comments.
If you're looking for an even cooler entertainment experience in a Southern California theme park, Knott's Berry Farm also just debuted its newest Peanuts-themed ice show. But I haven't had the chance to see it yet — comments about that show are welcomed, too.
What are some of your favorite live shows at theme parks?
By Daniel Etcheberry
This month I am going to write two articles instead of the usual one, and both of them together. Rejoice!
First: Did you know that people in wheelchairs get to ride an extra attraction that no one else get to do? It's the hidden elevator! There are rides that have elevators so people in wheelchairs can get into the loading area or out of the unload area. Revenge of the Mummy and Men in Black at Universal Studios Florida provide two examples.
Did you know about the hidden, "extra" ride inside here?
Next door at Islands of Adventure, on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey one has to take two elevators — the first one just before the sorting hat (which makes one miss that element of the queue). At Walt Disney World's Pirates of the Caribbean at Magic Kingdom, one has to take the elevator only once, when the ride is over.
[Editor's note: How about the granddaddy of wheelchair-access theme park elevators — the elevator and van ride between the upper and lower lots at Universal Studios Hollywood?]
What all the elevators have in common is that they kill the magic, since they are not themed. The only theme park elevator that got themed is located at Disney Hollywood Studios.
Second: Actually this one has nothing to do with theme parks. It is about my wheelchair experience at my local zoo during Halloween. It is called Zoo Boo, and the scares came not from scare actors, but it came from accessibility issues. And all of them from haunted houses.
Haunted house #1: I was driving my power wheelchair through a hallway, and they turned off the lights. I had to drive in a pitch black hallway with a group of screaming teenagers behind me.
Haunted house #2: I drove most of the place without a problem, but toward the end there was a narrow hallway with airbags at both sides; my wheelchair got stuck between those airbags, and when I tried to move the wheelchair in reverse, it tilted backwards and I was lucky to have someone behind to hold the wheelchair. Someone went to the exit to ask for help.
Haunted house #3: This one was in 3D! It was eye-popping, but the 3D made it hard to see the distance of every object. I hit walls and people.
I have never been to the Halloween event at Universal, but according to the park, all haunted mansions are fully wheelchair accessible. Next time, I know where I can get my scares without getting scared.
By Tim W
This is the first vote that we will be having for Theme Park Apprentice 5, the theme park design game that we're playing over on the Theme Park Insider Discussion Board. Over the past two weeks, our contestants designed a walkthrough experience and a roller coaster for their theme park in development. Our bottom three contestants have been sent to a vote, in order to win your votes to be saved. The contestant with the lowest voting percentage will be fired from the competition.
Christopher Sturniolo's Once Upon A Time Park: Beyond the Rabbit Hole (Walkthrough) and Wolfsbane (Coaster)
Jay R's Exposition Summit - A Literary Park: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Walkthrough) and Sherlock Holmes (Coaster)
Joseph M - Positron Park - Faraday's Lab (Walkthrough) and Synchrotron (Coaster)
Keep reading: June 2013 Archive
Theme Park Insider Guidebooks
Top U.S. Theme Parks
Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom
Other Top International Parks
Readers' Top Themed Rides
Top Roller Coasters
Top Theme Park Shows
Features, News and Advice
2014 Blog PostsJan. Feb. Mar.
2013 Blog PostsJan. Feb. Mar. Apr. May Jun. Jul. Aug. Sep. Oct. Nov. Dec.
2012 Blog PostsJan. Feb. Mar. Apr. May Jun. Jul. Aug. Sep. Oct. Nov. Dec.
2011 Blog PostsJan. Feb. Mar. Apr. May Jun. Jul. Aug. Sep. Oct. Nov. Dec.
2010 Blog PostsJan. Feb. Mar. Apr. May Jun. Jul. Aug. Sep. Oct. Nov. Dec.
2009 Blog PostsJan. Feb. Mar. Apr. May Jun. Jul. Aug. Sep. Oct. Nov. Dec.
2008 Blog PostsJan. Feb. Mar. Apr. May Jun. Jul. Aug. Sep. Oct. Nov. Dec.
2007 Blog PostsJan. Feb. Mar. Apr. May Jun. Jul. Aug. Sep. Oct. Nov. Dec.
2006 Blog PostsJan. Feb. Mar. Apr. May Jun. Jul. Aug. Sep. Oct. Nov. Dec.
2005 Blog PostsDec.
2004-2005Staff column archive