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August 2013

Cedar Fair announces 4D dark ride, Wonder Mountain's Guardian, for Canada's Wonderland

By Cory R
Published: August 30, 2013 at 11:10 PM

Canada's Wonderland just announced today they are building a new dark ride inside the park's iconic Wonder Mountain, called Wonder Mountain's Guardian, due to open May 2014. This will be the first dark ride Cedar Fair has ever attempted. It is going to be a 4D interactive dark ride, on a coaster track.

Wonder Mountain's Guardian

Here is a video from the announcement that goes into more detail.

It sounds like they are attempting a cross between Spiderman/Transformers, Toy Story Mania, Expedition Everest, and Disney's vision for the Beastly Kingdom dragon coaster that (sorta) never happened. Sounds awesome in theory, if they pull it off. Cedar Fair has no experience in dark rides, so its hard to predict how it will turn out.

TRIOTECH, the Montreal-based company creating the ride doesn't seem to have too much experience with major, well-known theme parks. Their CEO says this will beat anything Disney or Universal has. It is hard to believe that, especially when the budget for the ride is rumored to only be 10 million dollars. It will have the longest interactive screen ever built for a ride, so that's saying something.

I grew up in Toronto and went to Canada's Wonderland all the time. I would love nothing more than for this ride to be as awesome and state of the art as its being hyped to be. Only time will tell. But Summer 2014 is shaping out to be a great summer for North American theme parks. I can't wait to check out this ride.

What are your thoughts on Wonder Mountain's Guardian?

Update: In more Cedar Fair news, Worlds of Fun, outside Kansas City, announced a new tower swing ride for next year, SteelHawk. This is widely expected to be the Windseeker ride relocated from California's Knott's Berry Farm.

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Theme park history: A short history of Universal's Islands of Adventure

By Robert Niles
Published: August 30, 2013 at 10:39 PM

When Universal Studios obtained the land for its Florida theme park, it bought enough land to support more than one park. But what would that be? After Universal Studios Florida opened in 1990, Universal entertained the idea of going after rival Disney with an all-cartoon park, licensing characters from Warner Bros., Jay Ward and either DC or Marvel comics, since Universal hadn't done much with animation since one of its young contract animators named Walt Disney left to form his own studio back in the 1920s. But after Universal Studios' Jurassic Park opened as a huge hit in 1993, Universal was quick to add that franchise into the mix, and the second gate in Orlando evolved into what became Islands of Adventure.

Islands of Adventure
Photo by Bryce McGibeny

In both of its studio-themed parks, in Hollywood and Orlando, Universal had pretty much stuck to its own, classic film properties. But to develop Islands of Adventure, Universal chose to license multiple properties from other creators, including Marvel Comics' Spider-Man and Incredible Hulk, Jay Ward's Dudley Do-Right, King Features' Popeye and other comic strips, and the Cat in the Hat and other characters from the estate of the late Dr. Seuss. Universal got another boost when Disney decided to drop the proposed Beastly Kingdom land from its Animal Kingdom park, and several designers from that project moved over to Universal, producing a Lost Continent land for Islands of Adventure that looked suspiciously like the planned, and canceled, Beastly Kingdom.

Construction began in 1997 and Islands of Adventure opened officially on May 28, 1999. Unlike its older sibling, Islands of Adventure opened to rave reviews. Fans on the Internet loved Universal's high-tech attractions, most notably The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, a hybrid of a motion-base dark ride and 3D projection technology that won the Theme Park Insider Award as the world's best attraction for four straight years before we retired the award, since nothing but Spider-Man ever came close to winning it.

But the new theme park was just one element of the expansion at the resort Universal saddled with the clumsy name "Universal Studios Escape." Universal eliminated its surface parking lot in favor of two massive parking structures, and brought over the CityWalk dining and entertainment mall concept from Universal Studios Hollywood. Add three on-site hotels and Universal had created a model for a modern, walkable, car-less resort destination, one that rival Disney would soon duplicate with its revamp of the Disneyland Resort. (Seriously, the similarities between Disneyland and Universal Orlando these days are uncanny.)

In 2001, Universal wised up and dropped the silly "Escape" name in favor of the far more obvious "Universal Orlando Resort." With a clear marketing focus available at last, backed up by strong word of mouth, Universal Orlando's parks weathered the global drop in tourism in the early 2000s better than other American theme parks, but they still lagged behind all of Disney's parks, even the maligned California Adventure.

Until one more licensing deal propelled Universal to another level.

Hogwarts Castle at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter
Photo by Joe Keenen

Both Universal and Disney long had coveted the theme park rights to J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter. But with a Lost Continent land already in place that easily could be reskinned to the village of Hogsmeade, and endorsements from collaborators such as Dr. Seuss's widow, Audrey Stone Dimond (not to mention a rumored fortune in cash through generous royalties), Universal won the rights, creating The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Islands of Adventure for a June 2010 debut. Wait times to enter the Wizarding World exceed eight hours on its opening day, as the queue of fans extended around the park, then outside it, through CityWalk.

Potter propelled Universal Orlando to double-digit percentage attendance growth in a single year, bringing the company billions of dollars in additional revenue since its opening. Simply, the history of Universal Studios' theme parks should be separated into pre-Potter and post-Potter eras. With millions of new fans and untold profits from Harry Potter, Universal had the funds to buy out long-time partner Blackstone Group, allowing Universal's corporate parent to own 100 percent of the Orlando resort for the first time. Universal's also embarked on an ambitious expansion of its theme parks around the world, building new Harry Potter lands at Universal Studios Florida, Hollywood and Japan.

Back in Orlando, Potter profits have helped Universal build a fourth hotel at the resort, as well as to add and refurbish attractions in both theme parks, helping the Universal Orlando parks draw closer in attendance to those at rival Walt Disney World.

Ironically, Disney now owns one of Islands of Adventure's major licensors, Marvel Comics. But the contract Universal signed with Marvel before Disney bought that company grants Universal Orlando the Florida theme park rights to those characters in perpetuity, preventing Disney from using its own Marvel characters at the Walt Disney World theme parks. Will Disney ever write a check big enough to buy back those rights from Universal? Will Universal use its Potter profits to sign additional license deals, such as landing the theme park rights to Lord of the Rings? Whatever the outcome, the development of Islands of Adventure clearly helped elevate both Universal and the Orlando theme park market to new levels of popularity, with theme park fans being the ultimate winners.

Next: Disney California Adventure


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Vote of the week: Where's your dream overseas Disney destination?

By Robert Niles
Published: August 30, 2013 at 2:58 PM

This weekend's Labor Day holiday marks the unofficial end to summer travel season in the United States, and, for some, a last-chance holiday getaway before settling down to another year of school, or getting back to work.

But Theme Park Insider readers never stop thinking and dreaming about vacations. So let's mark this latest holiday weekend by thinking about even more ambitious travel plans. This weekend, let's talk about the Walt Disney Company's travel destinations outside the continental United States.

We've got five option from which you can choose. Of course, we're happy to include readers from around the world here on Theme Park Insider, so one of these might be a local option for you. Don't feel like you can't select it if that's still the one from among these five destinations you'd most want to visit.

Here are our five options, along with the case for each.


Aulani — You won't find a theme park at Disney Vacation Club's Oahu resort, but you probably won't care, 'cause you're in Hawaii. You will find the Disney characters in residence, fine dining and Disney entertainment, and sitting on the beach in Hawaii might be one the better attractions in the world, anyway. Blue skies, soft air, warm ocean waves. And no passport required for U.S. residents, as you've not left the country.

Phantom Manor

Disneyland Paris — Disney's largest Magic Kingdom offers several unique takes on classic Disney attractions, including a Pirates of the Caribbean with an entirely different narrative and no Johnny Depp to be found. Phantom Manor riffs on the Haunted Mansion to add elements from Marc Davis' Western River Expedition. Space Mountain goes upside-down. There's a dragon under the castle. And before Be Our Guest started serving wine with dinner, Paris was the one and only Magic Kingdom where you could get your drink on. (Let's just ignore the Studios park, shall we?)

Mystic Manor

Hong Kong Disneyland — Mystic Manor. Okay, there's more than Mystic Manor at Disney's newest theme park, but really, this year's winner of the Theme Park Insider Award as the world's best new attraction might just be enough to carry Hong Kong to the win in this week's vote. If you're looking for more, though, Grizzly Gulch was one of the two runners-up this year for the same award, and Hong Kong is the home of Disney's only not-so-"not-so-scary" (read: actually scary) Halloween event.

Shanghai Disneyland

Shanghai Disneyland — Okay, we're going to have to fire up the time machine for this one, as the park isn't due to open for another couple of years. But if you need a few years to save for a overseas dream trip, Shanghai's got to be in the mix for Disney fans. The Chinese park will take Paris' title as Disney's largest Magic Kingdom, with a completely new take on that classic theme park design, not to mention Disney's largest-ever centerpiece castle.

Tokyo DisneySea

Tokyo Disney — The world's best theme park, Tokyo DisneySea. Theme Park Insider's top-rated theme park attraction, Journey to the Center of the Earth. Pooh's Hunny Hunt at Tokyo Disneyland. Awesome service. And every flavor of popcorn imaginable.

Campaign for your favorite, in the comments. And have a wonderful weekend, wherever you are!

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The Blog Flume Filter for August 29, 2013

By Jeff Elliott
Published: August 29, 2013 at 9:35 AM

Universal Studios Hollywood – Axe day is coming very soon — in fact it is next Monday, September 2. Axe day is the day that many attractions are getting the axe and will close down permanently at the end of the day. Among the attractions looking at the Axe are: The Curious George play area, Flintstones games area, Nickelodeon store, and the Mummy's Tomb on the studio tour. The Gibson Amphitheater is going to make it to Friday, but probably not much further than that. The replacement? Harry Potter and the Goblet of Cash, of course.

Universal Studios Hollywood Halloween Horror Nights – Those of us who could never get a date during high school turned to hobbies that would ensure that we never felt the soft, warm embrace of a companion. And these people have quite the hobby. On the second video, I think I would be more scared if I knew more than about three words of Spanish.

Islands of Adventure – One of the people in our spy network just came across a permit to put in a construction trailer in the Jurassic Park area for 18 months. The little games area that I have heard about in the Jurassic Park area is certainly not an 18-month project, and I have heard nothing about a refurbishment of the existing Jurassic Park River Adventure. I wonder what they are up to?

Universal Studios Florida – Some of us don't live close enough to go to these parks often enough. For those who do live close enough, I am proud and happy to know that they sell cameras to those lucky few people. The following video shows quite a bit of what the food offerings are…as if you were there for the food. Speaking of people living near the parks, if you want a glimpse of the new Hogwarts Express passenger trains, go for a ride on the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit.

Disneyland – As the assistant director of the University of Denver Pep Band, I just want you all to know that the conductor is the person that stands out in front of all of the really talented people, waves a stick, and kisses babies. The real workhorse in any band is the assistant director. Just saying…

Disney's Magic Kingdom – I really really really like the remote control fire hydrant. I can only imagine how frustrated my dog would get if he lifted his leg and the hydrant took off on him. He would proba- SQUIRREL!

Disney's Animal Kingdom – There is some work going on out in the middle of the pond. What the spy network tells us (read as wild speculation) is that they are looking into a nighttime show similar to but not an exact copy of World of Color. Although it could also be them clearing an area for the branches of the tree to carefully fall, who knows?

Disney's Hollywood Studios – For those of you who have always wanted a villain's park or villain's land, here is a special treat for you. The Disney villains are taking over the park on September, Friday the 13th, 2013, between 8pm and 1am.

SeaWorld – While there was an article talking about how low attendance at the SeaWorld parks this year is a blessing in disguise, the chain is still freaking out. The Orlando park has slashed its midweek ticket prices by 50% and the San Diego park is doing a free kid's ticket with the purchase of an adult ticket.

Cedar Point – Other people on TPI have stolen my thunder about what the new attractions are going to be, but there are some other things going on. Mean Streak is probably going to close before the end of the season to start maintenance. Hopefully the maintenance will reimagine this roller coaster into a churro stand. At least a churro stand is easier on my back. Shoot the Rapids has water in it and may reopen soon. It also looks like they have the last parts for SkyHawk in the mail and might be able to get it open soon. There are also some rumors about Gatekeeper testing some new restraints.

Carowinds – This park announced a $50 million expansion plan, probably utilizing the new land that they bought. While at Disney $50 million buys you a construction wall and a big hole, I think Carowinds will be able to do a lot with their budget. The park is being a little cagey about what exactly they are going to install.

Kings Dominion – The park has stated that they hope to have Intimidator 305 open before the end of the season. Hopefully it's not just for walking tours.

Six Flags – Check out the list of new attractions for the Six Flags chain.

Lost Parks of Northern California – Kris Rowberry & ACE have just posted their trailer for the next installment of this wonderful series. I can't wait until September. Good thing it's next week.

Action Park - Until we get the next installment of Lost Parks here is a good part one of a documentary on a completely crazy amusement park. This water park sounds like a heck of a lot of fun, assuming you took all of your limbs home with you at the end of the day. FYI, for those of you with a gentle disposition, there are a couple of lightly objectionable words, so put your headphones on.

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Six Flags announces new rides for 2014, including world's tallest drop ride and wooden roller coaster

By Robert Niles
Published: August 29, 2013 at 5:27 AM

Six Flags this morning announced its line-up for new attractions for 2014 at its parks around North America.

"Our promise to you is to bring you something new to every single park, every year," Six Flags CEO Jim Reid-Anderson said in this morning's video announcement. Here are the highlights:

Concept art courtesy Six Flags

Zumanjaro Drop of Doom: Six Flags Great Adventure
Following Magic Mountain's addition of a Lex Luthor-themed drop ride to its Superman roller coaster tower, Six Flags in New Jersey will add a trio of 450-foot drop tower tracks to Kinga Ka's tower.

Concept art courtesy Six Flags

Goliath: Six Flags Great America
Six Flags' Chicago-area park gets the chain's fifth coaster named "Goliath," but, again, this one won't be like the others. Great America's Goliath will be the world's fastest wooden roller coaster, with tallest and steepest drop, Reid-Anderson said. This Goliath will feature an 85-degree, 180-foot, 72 mph drop, followed by a zero-G roll, two overbanked turns, taking the fastest and steepest wooden coaster titles from El Toro at sister park Six Flags Great Adventure.

Colossus and Batman backwards, Expanded kids area, New waterpark ride: Six Flags Magic Mountain
Magic Mountain will be following Great America's lead by sending two of its coasters backward for the 2014 season. The wooden coaster Colossus and the B&M Inverted Batman get the call. In addition, Magic Mountain will be expanding its kids area, including another kiddie coaster, and adding two Bonzai Pipelines slides to Hurricane Harbor.

New England Sky Screamer: Six Flags New England
The Massachusetts park is getting another one of those high-in-the-sky swing rides, this time with a 400-foot tower. (The highlight of this announcement, however, might have been Reid-Anderson cracking a Sarah Palin joke. Follow the link below to the video to watch.)

Six Flags also will expand the kids' area at its original park, Six Flags Over Texas, while building a new Hurricane Harbor water park at Six Flags Over Georgia.

You can watch the announcement video, as well as follow links to all the new attractions at Six Flags' smaller parks, on the Six Flags website.

What do you think?

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Lobster rolls are coming to Disneyland

By Robert Niles
Published: August 28, 2013 at 11:17 AM

Disney announced yesterday that it has added lobster rolls to menu at the Harbour Galley in Disneyland Park. Disney's been serving lobster rolls in the Columbia Harbor House at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom for some time now, but this marks the first time lobster has appeared on a counter-service menu at Disneyland. (If anyone remembers counter-service lobster at Disneyland before now, please let us know in the comments.)

The reason for lobster's appearance in Anaheim, ultimately, is the current low price of lobster, as low as $2.50 a pound wholesale. The New Yorker's James Surowiecki recently dove into the world of lobster pricing, if you'd like way more detail about what's happening in that market. Even if low wholesale lobster prices don't lead to bargains on lobster dinners at seafood restaurants, they do allow more restaurants to add lobster to their menus profitably.

So now Disney's taking advantage. We reviewed the lobster roll at the Columbia Harbor House last spring. At $9.99, Disney's lobster roll lacks the buttered-and-grilled buns usually found surrounding New England-style lobster rolls. And Disney extended the lobster with a overly generous amount of lettuce and mayonnaise.

Lobster roll at Walt Disney World

But there's plenty of sweet lobster to be found on this roll, too, and I would expect to see something very similar from Disney in Anaheim. For my money, the gold standard in lobster rolls is Red's Eats in Wiscasset, Maine, a roadside stand where you get more than a pound of chopped, buttered lobster meat on a freshly grilled roll for $17.99. No mayo. No lettuce. No celery. Nothing cutting the taste of the sweet, sweet lobster.

Lobster roll in Maine

Obviously, Disney's not going to be able to compete with lobster shacks on the Maine coast for freshness, quality and price, given that Disney needs to get its lobster shipped to Orlando, and now to Anaheim. But the west coast has its own lobsters, too. They're not the big-clawed Maine lobsters, but the coast of Baja California is littered with lobster shacks serving the spiny Baja lobster.

A New England-style lobster roll's a good thematic fit for Disneyland's Harbour Galley, located next to the Sailing Ship Columbia's harbor in the park. But what about a Baja lobster-themed counter-service seafood restaurant in Disney California Adventure? Maybe one that served fish tacos, too?

Seafood's long been a part of Southern California's culinary culture. Of course, the relative high cost of seafood's kept it off theme park menus in the past. But if low lobster prices are helping Disney bring New England-style lobster rolls to Disneyland, maybe there's hope for California-style lobster across the esplanade some day?

Let's take it from there. What other speciality food items would you like to see Disney add it to its theme parks, in Anaheim or in Orlando? Let us know in the comments.

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This week on the Theme Park Insider Podcast: Stories from a Theme Park Insider

By Robert Niles
Published: August 27, 2013 at 11:40 AM

Stories from a Theme Park InsiderOn the Theme Park Insider Podcast this week, we're presenting an audio version of four chapters from our book, Stories from a Theme Park Insider. If you're new around these parts, Stories from a Theme Park Insider is our book about working at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, with several additional stories contributed by Theme Park Insider readers who've also worked at the MK and other Orlando-area theme parks.

Thanks to your support, Stories from a Theme Park Insider has spent time on the travel bestseller lists at Amazon.com and Apple's iTunes Bookstore, and many of you have requested that I start recording the stories for podcast again. So, once a month of so, I'll include some stories for our podcast. If you've got a favorite story from the book that you'd like to request that I include on a future podcast, please let me know in the comments.

And if you're a current or former theme park employee and you'd like to send in a personal story for inclusion on the site or the podcast, please email me at themeparkinsider@gmail.com. (I'll send you a T-shirt or theme park gift card if we use your story on the site, if you'd like.) I've run out of fun stories to tell from my time working in the parks, but perhaps some of you have a few smart anecdotes you'd like to share with your fellow readers and theme park fans!

Next week on the podcast, we'll have an interview with John Murdy, the creative director of Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood, who'll be telling us in more detail about much of the great stuff he and his crew have planned for this year's event. Please subscribe to the podcast via iTunes to make sure you won't miss that, or any other episode.

Stories from a Theme Park Insider is available for $2.99 as an eBook and $6.99 in print from Amazon.com. If you've already bought a copy, thank you! Reviews on Amazon and Goodreads are sincerely appreciated.

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Southern California Halloween 2013 preview: Tickets now on sale for Universal and Knott's events

By Jacob Sundstrom
Published: August 27, 2013 at 9:52 AM

While the weather in Southern California may tell us otherwise, fall is quickly approaching; and with autumn comes Halloween events of all shapes and sizes around the Southland. Their intent ranges from glorified (and expensive) trick-or-treating to scaring the pants off of you and your closest friends.

Celebs at HHN 2013
Photo courtesy Universal Studios Hollywood

We're going to preview the latter, today. There are two major players in the Halloween event market, Universal Studios Hollywood and Knott's Scary Farm. Six Flags does its thing every year, but I can't comfortably put it in the same category as the other two right now.

Five all-new mazes highlight the six-maze lineup that has now been announced in full by Universal Studios Hollywood. Since the event returned from a five-year hiatus in 2006, it has established itself as the premier Halloween event in the area in terms of quality — while Knott's holds the distinction of being the largest haunt in the western United States.

Most of Hollywood's mazes come from properties that originated in the film industry — notable examples from the past include Friday the 13th, Nightmare On Elm Street, Halloween, The Thing, etc. Set-quality movie mazes have been Universal's mark on the industry, and this year's lineup does not deviate from the movie-inspired mantra.

The Evil Dead, Insidious and The Walking Dead represent the independent properties assembling at Horror Nights. The Evil Dead and Insidious are new to the event, while The Walking Dead is back for its second year with a 100-percent redesign for 2013.

El Cucuy: The Boogeyman is brand new this year and features the voice of actor Danny Trejo as the titular monster. This idea riffs on the La Llorona maze which made two appearances at the event. Given Universal's success with urban legend mazes (particularly in Orlando where these are produced regularly), there is plenty of reason to be excited about this maze.

Black Sabbath: 3D replaces Alice Cooper's maze, making the band that your parents really liked the third musician to grace the Horror Night grounds since its revival. Rob Zombie's House of 1,000 Corpses first made an appearance in 2000 before the event's hiatus. It returned in 2010 and was joined by Alice Cooper in 2011. Alice Cooper returned in 2012 and is now replaced, more or less, by Black Sabbath.

The only repeat offender is Universal Monsters Remix which became infamous last year for its dubstep jams mixed by Dr. Frankenstein himself. Apparently this maze was requested by fans to return — and whether that's true or not we'll never know. It was unoffensive and grew into its own as the actors became more comfortable with their roles.

The House of Horrors (the all-year permanent maze in Hollywood) venue, which is where this maze is hosted, has long been host to the weak link at Horror Nights. On the bright side, it has also long been host to the shortest line of anywhere at the event! Awesome!

Three of the five scare zones are IP-inspired: Child's Play, The Purge and The Walking Dead all make appearances. [For newbies: A scare zone is an area of the park (usually a walkway or path) with a number of actors dressed to match a central theme — their only job is to scare passersby. This is a great way to get scares without waiting in lines and it sets the tone for the rest of the event.]

While the mazes understandably get a significant amount of attention, it's the Terror Tram that is the most unique aspect of the event. Guests ride the tram down to the Universal backlot and are unceremoniously forced to exit and walk through the backlot to return to the park.

The drop-off point is typically Whoville — guests then walk past the Bates Motel and the Psycho House before entering the War of the Worlds set on their way back to a tram that will return them to the upper lot. Along the way the walking dead will be scattered around the backlot offering scares on the very ground where many iconic horror films were shot.

Horror Nights opens on Thursday Sept. 20 and tickets range in price from $44-69, depending on the night you attend. Thursdays and Sundays will be cheaper while a Saturday will cost you more. Front of line passes are available for anywhere between $119-139, a price that includes admission to the event. The pass allows you to skip each line once, so it may be wise to arrive early and see how many mazes you can get through before the crowds force you to use the passes. That way, you can double-up on the mazes you really enjoyed by using your front of line pass later in the night.

You can see my thoughts on Knott's Berry Farm's lineup here. That event opens a week later than Halloween Horror Nights, on Sept. 26. Knott's holds the distinction of being a bit cheaper than Halloween Horror Nights. You can get in on the cheapest nights for $38, while you'll be charged $54 on the event's most popular dates.

As with most things, it's cheaper to buy your tickets online and in advance. Knott's offers a variety of packages, which you can see on its website; the front of line pass is a good value, running you anywhere from $65-70 on top of your admission ticket. The price is a bit steep, but after waiting in just one line you'll see the money is well spent.

At Knott's, your best bet is to follow common theme park logic; that is, start at the back right corner of the park and start walking your way counterclockwise through the park. Don't forget about the Elvira show, either — I have a feeling that will be a can't miss for those with a bit of nostalgia in 'em.

As with Horror Nights, arriving early will save you a LOT of time at these events. Given the demographic of the attendees (young people) and the location (Los Angeles, home of America's nastiest freeway traffic), you can expect most to arrive late. That gives you the opportunity to bust out a few mazes before most of the crowds are inside the park.

The TL/DR? Arrive early, pick up a front of line pass if you can afford it and go through the event from the back to the front in order to minimize wait times. Attending an event on a non-weekend will save you quite a bit of change and will limit the number of guests in attendance. Buy your ticket in advance because these events can and will sell out! And of course, have fun and post a trip report!

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Cedar Point announces two new family rides for 2014

By James Koehl
Published: August 27, 2013 at 9:47 AM

Cedar Point this morning announced its 2014 improvements. After installing a major new roller coaster last year with Gatekeeper, Cedar Point's aiming for more modest additions for next season, but the park will be paying some much-needed attention to the Gemini Midway section of the park, with two new rides for 2014.

Two redundant kiddie flat rides will be removed along with a series of carnival games that weren't used this year, and a Disc'O Coaster called Pipe Scream will be put in their place. Across the Midway will be Lake Erie Eagles, a spinner where the eight ride vehicles are spun around a central tower, and riders have a rudder where they can control the "flight." This is a similar ride to the Surfside Gliders that sister park Knott's Berry Farm installed on its Boardwalk this year. Frog Hopper (a kiddie tower drop) will be moved to Camp Snoopy and renamed Woodstock's Airmail, and Jr. Gemini will have its entrance moved to Camp Snoopy and renamed "Wilderness Run." And it looks like the Bumper Boats will be bumped out of the park.

In a nice twist, Cedar Point invited a contest-winning family to introduce the additions in a video:

They also announced how the Breakers improvements are to be done. It will be a two year plan, with the outside being redone for the 2014 season and an interior renovation for 2015.

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Universal Orlando construction update: It's a great time to be in the theme park design and construction business

By Robert Niles
Published: August 26, 2013 at 2:42 PM

If you're looking for work in a sluggish economy, there's a business that can't hire and put people to work quickly enough:

Theme park construction.

Universal Orlando has asked many of its big contractors to plan to stay on-site for at least a year following the completion of their current projects for the resort. Universal's clearly planning to continue major construction work on its properties after the completion of the current Cabana Bay and Harry Potter Diagon Alley projects.

Aerial construction photo of Universal Studios Florida
There's lots of construction work under way in the Orlando theme parks, and more to come soon.

But what for? Here's what we know will happen: Universal will be taking on major construction work in Jurassic Park and at the Wet n' Wild water park property. I've not yet seen blueprints for either of those projects, so I'm not willing to report specifics of what will be happening on those sites. But I do know from sources on the ground in Orlando that Universal's focus will shift in those directions once Cabana Bay and Harry Potter are completed.

Honestly? Any area or attraction that was built before The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened in June 2010, and that hasn't been substantially refurbished since, is a potential target for redevelopment over the next five to 10 years, either for a major Spider-Man or Springfield-like refurbishment, if not complete replacement. Banking so much cash from Harry Potter has convinced the NBCUniversal overlords to turn on the money hose for Universal's theme parks, and anything not up to "A"-grade quality (i.e. Disney-level finish standards) will be upgraded.

That's not just in Orlando. Remember, Universal Studios Hollywood has started its billion-dollar-plus "Evolution Plan" makeover of that property, with a new Central Plaza under construction, and Curious George and the Gibson Amphitheater closing over Labor Day to make room for Harry Potter. Throw in Despicable Me, a new hotel, at least two new attractions and a refurbished Studio Tour, and construction crews will remain busy on the mountain in Universal City for years to come.

Don't think the construction binge is simply a Universal development, either. Remember that Walt Disney World has Cars Land, Avatar and a Star Wars land all in various stages of development. Disney's Imagineers are slammed with work on Shanghai Disneyland, too.

I'm hearing that people at Disney would love to get going on expansion projects in Disneyland and California Adventure, building on the resort's momentum after the hit debut of Cars Land, but that the reawakening of Walt Disney World (following the reassignment of former Disneyland President George Kalogridis to oversee WDW) and the Shanghai work means that Disneyland doesn't have the parks division's development focus all to itself this time.

Another industry insider recently told me that theme park design firms simply can't staff fast enough for all the work in the business now, and with Imagineering and Universal Creative hiring so many top candidates, independent firms are having to get far more aggressive in recruiting than they have been in the past.

In short, if you're experienced in stagecraft, film production, architecture design, or construction management and want to get into the theme park business, now is the best time in a generation to do that. Join TEA. Get down to Orlando for the IAAPA Attractions Expo in November. And when you get your gig, don't forget who encouraged you. We love leaks at Theme Park Insider! ;^)

Even fans who don't care about the business of making theme park attractions can get excited about the industry's direction. More construction means more and better attractions in the years to come, in Orlando, in Southern California, and in Asia, not to mention at all the regional parks around the world that are hiring independent design firms to help them compete with Universal's and Disney's new developments.

It's not just a great time to be a theme park designer. It's a great time to be a theme park fan.

Update: Cedar Fair announces a three-year, $50 million capital improvement project for Carowinds, which will include new attractions.

Which new project are you most looking forward to visiting?

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The theme parks of Colorado, part two: Water World, Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park and The Wild Animal Sanctuary

By James Koehl
Published: August 26, 2013 at 12:29 PM

Did you miss Part One of our tour of Colorado theme parks? Here's our look at Elitch's, Lakeside and Heritage Square.

Water World

Water World is a massive water park located in Federal Heights, Colorado, about 10 miles north of downtown Denver. It is an unusual water park in that it is owned and operated by the Hyland Hills Park and Recreation District, which also has golf courses, ice skating arenas, parks and other recreation facilities throughout the area. Water World, though, is not like your local neighborhood park pool.

Water World's slogan is "America's Biggest. America's Best." At 67 acres it just might be the biggest water park in the country. America's Best? That is open to discussion, but it is a very good water park, packed with dozens of water rides, slides, pools and some unique water attractions found nowhere else on Earth. The park is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., but does close occasionally during the week late in the season when school starts, and will close if the weather forecast calls for temperatures to be below 72 degrees. If inclement weather forces the park to close early, half-day or full-day rain checks are provided. Admission rates vary from $39.99 plus tax for an all-day adult ticket down to $8.99 plus tax for seniors after 1:45 p.m. (half-day admission). Children under 40 inches are free. Special discount tickets, some with meal packages, are available at area merchants, grocery stores, etc.

Much of this park, like so much in the Denver and Central Colorado area, is very hilly. These hills are used to the best advantage on the many water slides that make up most of the attractions at Water World. There seemed to be an endless array of water slides to choose from: body slides, tube slides, family raft slides, some slides that you race other riders, some enclosed, some open-air. There are some drawbacks to this, though. Riders have to carry their own tubes, racing mats, family rafts, etc. to the top of each ride, and each ride is at the top of a VERY long walkway. For those of us from a lower altitude, where there is more oxygen, we definitely felt the effects of oxygen deprivation several times. There is a special up-charge service called Tube Valet, where special rafts are reserved at the start of some of the most popular attractions, sort of a Fast-Lane type of system which saves you having to carry your own raft to the top — but you still have to walk to the top of each attraction. You do get front-of-line access for the most popular attractions. The cost of this service is $45, but only one rider in a four-rider raft needs to have purchased this service. Another service, Personal Tube Rental also an up-charge but for a lower rate ($5/person or $8/two people), reserves personal tubes for riders on certain tube rides, so that you don't have to wait for a tube to be freed up so that you can get it and start up the walk. You have to carry it up yourself, and once again, you still have to walk.

Water World landscaping

The layout of Water World is very confusing. It looks like it was expanded several times, and with the restrictions of its hillside location it can be very hard to figure out how to get to a certain attraction without one of the many maps that are found throughout the park. Even then, when you think you are on the right way to a certain water slide or food court, it is easy to get turned around by the doubling-back of some of the walkways. Several places had missing signs, where the entrance to two different attractions were signed for only one of them. The park is divided into several different themed "lands" such as "Big Top," "River Country" and "Wild Isle" but they all seem to just run into each other with no defining borders. It is a very attractive park visually, but not an especially efficient park to navigate, at least for a first timer.

Along with the before-mentioned water slides, tubes, etc., there are also two wave pools: Captain Jack's, which is the smaller and (I believe) the first wave pool at Water World, and Thunder Bay, a massive 1.8-million-gallon wave pool, larger than a football field. This wave pool is HUGE, and the waves it created were impressive. One problem, though, with this wave pool is that it is so large that it makes it a challenge to reach the entrances to several of the most popular attractions at Water World. The entrances are on the far side of the pool, requiring guests either to make a long detour around the pool or forge their way through the pool itself and the thousands of guests being tossed around (happily) by these massive waves. OK, I know, it's a water park and you go there to get wet, but our party of four decided to cross the pool (the most direct route) and were immediately separated by the surging waves, the dozens of inner tubes and countless happily shrieking guests.

We finally reassembled on the far side of Thunder Bay and after some more exploring found the entrances to the three most unusual attractions at Water World, "Lost River of the Pharaohs," "Voyage to the Center of the Earth" and "Storm." Each of these rides are family raft-type rides, requiring riders to carry their raft up a very long path to the entrance (unless they have paid for the Tube Valet wristband). These long climbs up the hill while carrying the large, awkward raft and waiting for your turn to climb aboard and start the ride is worth it. These water rides are fun, exciting, drenching, and unique experiences found in very few if any other water parks.

"Lost River of the Pharaohs" takes riders down a fairly smooth water channel that, I suspect, is meant to represent the Nile River. As the "river" twists, turns and gradually gains speed, an Egyptian pyramid appears and the river enters the structure. The riders in their rafts are suddenly surrounded by scenes from a Pharaoh's tomb, with mummies, ancient Egyptian statues, the Ark of the Covenant (for some strange reason known only to the designers and to Indiana Jones) and stone heads of Egyptian gods with eyes that begin to glow evilly. A voice announces that the riders have violated the Pharaoh's tomb and must suffer the curse, and the water channel suddenly gets much rougher — the speed of the rafts increases, the riders get splashed, and the channel begins to spiral down a helix deeper and deeper, finally emerging from the hillside and depositing the rafts into a landing pool, where riders exit their rafts and must make a decision- ride it again, or hurry over to the building next door, the queue building for the other major water dark ride at Water World, "Voyage to the Center of the Earth."

"Voyage to the Center of the Earth" is a wild, wet, completely indoors (and sometimes underground) family raft ride that takes riders through the well-known story of a recently discovered cave system that leads deep into the earth, where dinosaurs still exist. This unusually long water ride has unexpected drops, a wild, spiraling helix that carries rafts deep into the earth, and the occasional underwater baffle that stops the rafts completely in a calm pool, then sudden releases them into a rushing river. This river rages past bubbling pools of lava, through the skeletal remains of a huge creature, then carries raft and riders into an area inhabited with animatronic dinosaurs that snap, roar, and reach for the riders. Near the end of the ride a huge Tyrannosaurus Rex towers over the river, and the rafts barely escape by plunging down a tunnel towards the exit pool. This attraction is extremely popular at Water World, and deservedly so — it is great fun, very well designed and themed, and a ride that can be enjoyed over and over.

The third themed water ride is "Storm." It is themed to take riders through a torrential thunderstorm. It starts by sending the riders in their family raft through a drenching waterfall, then down a dark, winding tunnel where thunder, lightning and rain surround the riders, leaving them soaked and slightly thrilled. It is not as carefully or elaborately themed as the other dark rides, but it still was a fun adventure and unique in that it added special effects where most other water parks would just settle for a dark tunnel.

Other attractions throughout Water World have some general theming, such as the "Ragin Colorado" whitewater rapids ride, but most are the usual water slides, tubes, etc., all of which seemed to be well-staffed, well-maintained and attractively landscaped. There are several areas designed specially for children with such themes as the circus ("The Big Top") and the Caribbean ("Calypso Cove").

Mile High flyer

There is one attraction that approaches thrill ride status, "The Mile High Flyer," a hydromagnetic water coaster that uses linear induction motors to propel four-person boats at speeds of up to 20 mph. Dips, tunnels, boats being shot uphill and plenty of splashing water make this ride great fun. Unfortunately, this attraction is extremely slow-loading, and we waited for at least a hour for a two-minute ride.

Water World is a huge water park, with nearly 50 water attractions, restaurants and food courts, large sundeck areas and just about every amenity imaginable in a water park. We visited on a hot Tuesday in July, and there were thousands of people enjoying the water rides, the wave pools, the sun decks and large grassy lawns covered with beach towels. For some reason, though, the park is only open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. We were there until closing time, and there were still thousands of people there enjoying the park. The early evening remained warm, and closing the park at 6 p.m. left many people disappointed — they wanted to stay and enjoy Water World longer. To get the most out of this park, plan on staying the entire day, open to close, and accept the fact that there is a good chance you will not be able to do everything there is to do there.

Water World. America's biggest water park. One of America's best.

Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park

Our day at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park in Glenwood Springs, Colorado was one of the most fun and memorable experiences we had in Colorado. The drive from the Denver metro area to Glenwood Springs should almost be considered part of the "adventure." The three-hour drive on I-70 west from Denver passes through such well-known ski resorts as Vail and Breckenridge, but the best part of the trip is the magnificent scenery that surrounds the highway. The Interstate, reported to be the second most expensive highway in America, was designed to have as little impact on the topography as possible. In places the east-bound and west-bound lanes sit one lane above the other, to lessen the amount of damage done to the magnificent landscape of the Glenwood Canyon and the Colorado River that courses through it. Rafters can often be seen on the river, sometimes floating placidly on a level section, other times fighting raging rapids that make this stretch of the Colorado one of the most popular white-water rafting areas in Colorado. Towering mountains, rugged cliffs and an occasional waterfall make this drive an amazing experience, especially for a flatlander from Ohio.

Glenwood Canyon scenery

After seeing the signs for Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park and parking the car in a relatively small but free parking lot in front of a large hotel, we looked around. Where is the park? All we saw was a small ticket building and the loading station for a gondola cable car ride that crosses the road and ascends the side of a mountain. This is the gateway to the park, the Iron Mountain Tramway, a 4,300-foot tramway carrying a series of three enclosed gondolas, each capable of carrying six adults comfortably up the side of Iron Mountain to the park. This is not a continuously-loading skyride-type ski life, but gondolas arrive every few minutes, loading was efficient and the wait was minimal for us. Bad weather can close the tramway — in that case, shuttle buses carry visitors up the side of the mountain to the park (on a steep, winding road which many said was the scariest ride in the park!)

Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park is nearly invisible from the Glenwood Canyon valley. The entire park is on the top of (and in some cases inside) Iron Mountain, and the tramway ride offers magnificent views of both the surrounding mountains and canyons and, if you look down, the rugged vegetation that clings to the sides of these mountains. The climb to the top of the mountain only takes a few minutes, and the only thing to give any indication that there is something at the top of the mountain is an occasional glimpse of what looks like a roller coaster track hugging the hillside and a lone Native American teepee tucked in a small clearing, a very low-key attempt at theming, almost quaint in this era of extremely elaborate theme design at most "theme parks."

The tram drops guests at the Visitor Center, a three-story structure that contains both attractions and guest services. Passing by this rather non-descript structure (which I will return to shortly) guests find themselves in the Plaza, the center of Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park. This large open area is surprisingly attractive, and give visitors just a hint of the fun they are going to have at this remarkable park. The first things visitors see is the Mine Wheel, a small but uniquely-designed Ferris wheel that stands on a small hill across the Plaza and provides a beautiful backdrop and great welcome to the park. Also found in the Plaza, besides the Visitor Center, are the Snack Shack and Roundup Tent, where basic burgers, hot dogs, drinks and others fast foods can be enjoyed while watching live entertainment such as magicians and snake-oil comedy routines. Some craft shops and Guest Services are also found here.

The Visitor Center does not appear to be a very large structure, but it is filled with an amazing variety of attractions and services. The Main Level, entered from the Plaza, contains the General Store (with its usual and expected Glenwood Caverns/Colorado souvenirs), a ticket sales booth, and the Lookout Grille, a very large counter service restaurant with a limited but very reasonably priced menu and amazing views of the Glenwood Canyon far below. Seating is available both inside and from the surrounding dining deck outside.

view from Iron Mountain

The Upper Level of the Visitor Center has a Laser Tag room, where about twelve guests at a time try to take out their opponents while hiding behind a variety of Wild West-type props (saloon bars, walls with windows, barrels, etc.). It was lots of fun, though not the largest laser tag facility nor the best, and the attendant we had was probably the only person we met at Glenwood Caverns who was borderline rude. Still, most guests seemed to enjoy the experience. The lower level of the Visitor Center, reached by walking around the outside of the building and down a path, housed the 4D Motion Theatre, the first in Colorado, where a trio of animated roller coaster-type short films were shown, with the usual moving seats, sprays of air and water, and other special effects. Great fun, even though Jeff Elliott insisted on screaming every time we went "down" a coaster hill and scared several small children in the theatre!

Before returning to the Plaza and discovering the rest of the adventure park, there are several small attractions on the path leading to the 4D theatre that need to be mentioned. This area is the best place to find adventures for small children. The Giddy Up, a small children's drop tower, and the Fossil Dig, a large shaded sand box, give young kids a chance have their own adventures and parents a chance to sit and rest. One of the most unique attractions I have ever seen anywhere was also found here, almost over looked by us because at first we didn't know what it was — the Speleobox. This was a large, wooden box, about 6'x6' high and wide and about 10' long, with two small openings in the front just large enough for a person who doesn't have much stomach on them to fit into. Inside there is a twisting maze of passages, strangely shaped openings, ramps, drops, and tight turns for children and adults brave (and thin) enough to attempt to negotiate and work their way through. The only way to get through is to crawl, push and pull yourself through on your stomach, back or side while bending, tugging and hoping that you can get through and come out the other opening. The idea of the box is to give you an idea what a spelunker (a cave explorer) must be able to do to explore underground caves and their tight, twisting passages. Both my son and Jeff managed to negotiate the Speleobox, although Jeff was a bit more winded and sweaty than my 14-year-old, barely 100 lb., son was. I admit it — I wasn't brave (or foolhardy) enough to try it.

Returning to the Plaza and heading down the walkway path to the right leads to several of the signature attractions of Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, the first of which is the Fort WhereAmi Maze, a large wooden fort maze where the goal is to find your way to all four corner towers and escape before your friends do. Each explorer is given a paper where they can write down the time they start the maze. Each corner tower has a paper punch chained to the wall, with a different letter punch in each corner (spelling M-A-Z-E when you reach all four towers) that you use to prove you found each tower. Then you need to find your way out of the maze, and compare winning (or losing) times. It is a fun maze, challenging, sometimes frustrating and well worth the effort.


The next attraction on this pathway is the Giant Canyon Swing, a power swing by S&S. I will admit that I did not ride this attraction. I bravely held our places in line for the cave tours while Jeff Elliott and my son Anton researched the Giant Canyon Swing. This is the report Jeff brought back:

"The swing is perched on the edge of a cliff, not a pretend cliff or close to a cliff, but right on the edge.  The brave will choose the seats that face toward the mountain and once the swing ride gets going, you are looking straight down 1300 feet to the highway and canyon river that you arrived on.  Even for a jaded roller coaster junkie who has laughed on Top Thrill Dragster, this simple swing ride took my breath away and had me repeating in my mind 'I trust the ride. I trust the ride. I trust the ride.'… which for some odd reason kept me from screaming a blue streak. The actual ride is not that tall (fifty feet tall with a maximum arc of 122 degrees) but it is just tall enough that you lose track of the land surface you started on and can only look down on 1300 feet of oblivion.  For someone scared of heights, the walk on the platforms just to get to the swing will probably be enough to make you turn back.  Just for color on the size of the drop… think about four Top Thrill Dragsters stacked on top of each other… and then swing off the edge to the point that you are slightly more than looking straight down."


Swing, looking down
Photo courtesy the park

The remaining attractions on this pathway are the reason that this park was created in the first place, the caverns. There are actually two cave tours, the Historic Fairy Caves and the King's Row Caves. The Fairy Caves were the first caves discovered in the late 1800's, and were open for tours in 1897 as one of the first cave tours in America with electric lighting. This cave tour has been expanded and lengthened to a 45-minute, quarter-mile guided tour by an experienced guide. The second cave tour, King's Row, is a portion of the same cave complex but lower down the hillside. It is also a 45-minute guided tour, and includes a rather remarkable light show deep in the cavern complex showing the luminescence of some of the minerals that created this cavern system. Neither of these tours is handicapped-accessible, and require guests to climb up and down many steps and pass through multiple narrow passages. Both, though, are remarkable adventures, well worth the visit. I have been in several cavern systems before, but never on the top of a mountain! The guides were friendly, intelligent, experienced and made the tour interesting for all ages.


Returning to the Plaza and following the pathway to the left leads to some of the most thrilling attractions at Glenwood Caverns. On the right hand side of the path is a wild west "Shootin' Gallery", "Olde Tyme Photos", a rock climbing wall, the Wild West Express family coaster, and three of the signature attractions in the park, attractions that put the "adventure" in Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park: "Cliffhanger", "Soaring Eagle" and "The Alpine Coaster."

Photo courtesy the park

The Cliffhanger Roller Coaster started its life as Firestorm at Celebration City in Branson, Mo. It was sold in 2012 to Glenwood Caverns, where it was renamed Cliffhanger for a good reason — it sits on the edge of a cliff 1,450 feet above the Colorado River, and with its elevation of 7,160 feet above sea level it hold the record of being the highest coaster in elevation in North America and one of the highest anywhere in the world. It is not a spectacular coaster in itself, being a fairly small steel coaster with some wicked turns, but the scenery surrounding it, especially as you are racing along the edge of the cliff and looking down at the river makes a ride on Cliffhanger a thrilling and memorable experience, one well worth the long climb up the winding path to the hilltop where it stands.

soaring Eagle

soaring Eagle

Soaring Eagle Zip Line sends riders down a 625-foot cable while seated in a ski lift-type chair with an eagle design motif. Riders must climb a winding staircase to the top of a metal tower, where they are secured into their seats, the safety rail in front of them is pulled back, and they sail off down the cable towards the Glenwood Canyon far below. Upon reaching the bottom of the cable and stopping thanks to a series of springs, they are winched back to the loading station. The ride is not especially long, but does give a bit of an adrenaline rush, especially for guests with a fear of height.

The signature attraction at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park (after the actual caverns) is the Alpine Coaster, the first of its kind in America. Riders are secured by a seat belt (which cannot be unlocked by the rider) to a sled capable of holding two adults (but single riders were the norm when we were there, other than for young children being required to ride with adults). These sleds are attached to a 3,400 foot long track that weaves back and forth down the side of Iron Mountain, with tight banked turns, bumps, waves, and straight-a-ways that let the rider-controlled sleds reach speeds of nearly 30 mph (although one employee told us that, for employee nights, the built-in brakes can be removed and speeds of over 40 mph have been reached, making Jeff Elliott wonder how to get a job there!)

Alpine Coaster
Photo courtesy the park

Upon reaching the bottom of the track, the sleds and riders are winched back to the loading station up a 1,000-foot track that lets riders relax from their heart-pounding descent and enjoy the rugged vegetation, bushes, wildflowers and weather-beaten trees that cover the hillsides at this altitude. The Alpine Coaster is an attraction that anybody who gets the least bit of enjoyment from a roller coaster should absolutely NOT pass up! It is exhilarating, breathtaking at times, and a unique experience that gives riders a chance of being the only rider on a roller coaster that they are in control of.

Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park is not a very large park in size. When we first arrived, I thought that it was a cute little park with a typical western theme, a park with a limited number of attractions that would probably keep us entertained for half of the day. What I found was a full-day park with an amazing mixture of adventures, family attractions and thrill rides, a park with experiences that almost beg to be repeated over and over because they were so much fun. Some guests with limited time purchased individual tickets and only did a few attractions, while others, like ourselves, bought Fun Day Passes ($48/adult, $43 /children 12 and under). The Fun Day Pass was by far the best purchase for us — we did just about everything, often multiple times, and wished we could have done more. Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park is an amazing park, a treasure in Central Colorado that deserves to be discovered by anyone who loves adventure and family fun.

The Wild Animal Sanctuary

On the prairie about 40 miles northeast of Denver, near the small town of Keenesburg, Colorado stands one of the most remarkable facilities to be found anywhere in the world. It is not a theme park — there are no rides, no roller coasters, no flat spinners. It is not a water park — although there are pools and some waterfalls, swimming in these pools is not only prohibited, but is downright dangerous and potentially deadly. The nearest mountain range is 50 miles to the west, beautiful in the distance, but the landscape between them and this facility is mostly flat and featureless, covered with scrub grass, scraggly bushes and rocky dirt. It looks like the Serengeti of Africa — windblown, dry, almost barren...and it is the home of one of the most fascinating experiences we had during our visit to Colorado.

This is The Wild Animal Sanctuary.

The first thing that must be understood to fully grasp the importance of this place is that it is NOT a zoo. It is not a place designed to keep visitors entertained with exotic animals on display in carefully-themed enclosures. The animals, their needs and well-being, come first — always. That is not to say that the human visitors to TWAS (the abbreviation which is used in all official publications and that I will often use to save time) are ignored. On the other hand, visitors are provided with an amazing variety of information about these animals, both in general and concerning each individual animal, their stories, what brought them to TWAS, and what we can do to help them and prevent their stories from being repeated with other wild animals. The facilities provided for visitors are basic — a few food stands, a gift shop, port-a-potties — this is not a fancy place. It is a place to learn, to understand, to experience.

Animals in the Sanctuary

The Wild Animal Sanctuary was founded in 1980 by Pat Craig, who opened a licensed facility on his farm near Boulder, Colorado to take in a Jaguar cub. Soon his mission of providing a place to care for and rehabilitate large carnivores was established, and he moved to larger facilities in Lyon, Co. Development in the area forced TWAS to relocate to its present location in 1988. Financial difficulties due to decreased donations in 2005 nearly led to the closing of the facility, but in mid-2006 it was decided to aggressively raise the needed funds by opening the facility to the public for the first time, increasing the use of volunteers, soliciting sponsors and selling merchandise. Since then, visitor attendance to TWAS has reached the 100,000-per-year mark, and the facility has expanded its area from 320 acres (160 acres dedicated to animal habitats) to 720 acres, with nearly 400 acres of habitat available and plans for future expansion of habitat areas into the future as funds are available and needs are determined.

Pat Craig, the Executive Director and founded of TWAS, stated, "Our organization exists to rescue and provide a permanent home for wild animals that have been abused, abandoned, displaced or neglected. The vast majority of the animals residing at the Sanctuary were either confiscated by law enforcement, or seized through some type of legal action against people who attempted to keep a large carnivore as a pet." There are a few exceptions to the large carnivores that dominate the population of TWAS — a herd of fifty Alpacas were donated by their owner who could not afford to feed them anymore and offered them to TWAS to "feed to the tigers." TWAS accepted them, but instead of using them for fresh meat, the Sanctuary provided them with pasture, food, security and the companionship of several donated horses and even a rescued camel, Morrison.

The vast majority of animals at TWAS were bred in captivity, and are unable to fend for themselves in the wild. They do not know how to hunt and survive on their own, having always been fed by humans. The goal of TWAS is to rehabilitate these magnificent creatures, return them to health, acclimate them to their new surroundings and to other similar animals, and let them live out their natural lives in surroundings as close to their native homes as possible. When they first arrive at TWAS and are evaluated for their needs, they are kept in small enclosures (which are still usually much larger than the crates, small pens or wire cages where they spent most of their previous lives), then gradually introduced to others of their species. A proper diet, medical treatment for the many conditions they always seem to suffer from, and a healthy, stress-free environment help these previously-abused creatures become the majestic animals they deserve to be. There is no attempt to retrain them to be returned to the wild, since for most of them the wild would be a death sentence. The Habitats created at TWAS attempt to let them live safely in a setting close to what their lives would have been like had they been born in the wild, without the dangers they are not prepared to face.

Bear habitat

These Habitats at TWAS are huge. Depending on the type of animal living there, they range from five to 25 acres. All have underground dens of concrete that maintain a temperature of about 60 degrees year round, thus allowing the animals a place to go and have some privacy; shaded shelters and play structures are found throughout the habitats, and pools and water tanks are plentiful for those animals who like to play in the water and cool off. A few animals are kept in smaller enclosures if they have special health needs and being in the larger habitats would not be in their best interest, or if they are new arrivals and are still being evaluated and rehabilitated, but they still have all the benefits of privacy, a healthy diet, security and mental stimulation that make their lives at TWAS enriching and satisfying.

It was soon recognized that visitors to TWAS wanted to see these animals as close as possible, but how to do so without putting them back in the same situation they often came from, that of being "on display" and forced to perform for the humans? It was discovered that these animals do not consider anything above them to be "territory." The answer was one of the most original structures in any animal facility in the world, the "Mile Into the Wild Walkway". This concrete, steel and composite walkway is 22-feet wide, approximately 30 feet above ground and an amazing 4,800-feet long. It is fully handicapped accessible from the Welcome Center via a ramp, and traverses over 21 of the large animal habitats while connecting the Welcome Center to the Tiger Roundhouse and Education Center, the Central Observation Deck and the Bolivian Lion House. Future plans include the development of more Habitats, with the Mile Into the Wild Walkway being extended to a total length of over 15,000 feet — nearly three miles!


Every animal at TWAS has its own story, and these stories are shared with visitors in a variety of ways. The Tour Guide Book, available at the Welcome Center, gives detailed histories of nearly each animal at the Sanctuary. The Education Center, located near the beginning of the Walkway, has displays showing how many of these animals found their way to TWAS, including some actual footage of them being rescued from often horrible situations. Volunteers are often found walking with visitors on the Walkway, telling them about TWAS and it mission, and relating to them something about each animal in the habitat below. They know these creatures by name, and it is obvious in a few minutes that these volunteers take great pride in the work that they and the hundreds of other volunteers do in caring for these majestic animals.

What happened to bring these wild animals to this amazing facility? Each has their own story, and each story is worth knowing. These are just a few of them, quoted from the Tour Book:

"Irwin (Tiger): This Tiger came from an El Paso Texas truck stop where he was a roadside attraction. The Tigers there were allowed to breed at random, and their cubs were sold to motorists who stopped to get gas."

"Sandy (Mountain Lion): Sandy was owned by a Texas family who hit her on the side of the head with a baseball bat. She suffered skull fractures and damage to her right eye."

"Mara (African Lion): Mara used to be in the film industry in California. However when she reached roughly the age of two, Mara chose to stop cooperating with her trainers- and so she was discarded."

"Magnum (Black Bear): Magnum and three other Black Bears were rescued from a small property in Dayton, Ohio after their owner died suddenly. The Bears spent 20+ years of their lives living in tiny horse stalls with concrete floors. They were also declawed and had their teeth filed down because they were trained to perform tricks and wrestle people at local fairs."

These are just four of the hundreds of stories that these animals brought with them to TWAS. Here, they are allowed to live as close to a normal life as possible. Visitors looking down at them in their habitats will see lions, wolves, tigers, leopards, black and grizzly bears, foxes, bobcats and even lynx and African servals, all living like they should — not on display in a roadside sideshow or performing in a circus in Mexico, not locked in a horse trailer in Oklahoma or being kept by a drug lord in Chicago (all of which has happened to some of these animals) but enjoying life. The lions have formed Prides, the wolves live in packs, and the Grizzly Bears — well, when we were there, each had claimed a large metal water pool to bask in, soaking in the cool water like it was their own private Jacuzzi. As evening approaches, the wolves begin to howl, the male lions start to roar, and the cooler temperatures encourage the animals who have spent most of the day basking in the warm sun to start playing, exploring, and showing the hundreds of visitors strolling on the Walkway just how important this place is.

TWAS does no breeding of animals. All animals are spayed, neutered or implanted with contraceptives — with the exception of male lions. Neutering a male lion would cause the loss of their manes, which are directly related to their testosterone levels, so all female lions are implanted with contraceptives. Except for the rare instance when a rescued animal was pregnant when it arrived, TWAS does not deal with infant animals. When that does happen, though, arrangements are made to care for them and eventually integrate them with the current population of the Sanctuary.

The Wild Animal Sanctuary survives on donations, admission ($15/adult, $7.50 children 3-12), merchandise sales, sponsorships of animals and portions of the Walkway, and other fundraising enterprises. It is open year-round, with hours varying depending on the length of the day (9 a.m.-8:30 p.m. during some long summer days, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. during some shorter winter days). The website lists hours.

Is this a full-day activity? Probably not, unless you have a major interest in large wild animals. However, you will be surprised how fast several hours can go by while you discover how these animals live in their natural settings. Plan on between two and four hours to fully experience TWAS, preferably later in the day when the temperature is cooler (in the summer at least) and the animals become more active. There are two things that you should consider bringing with you to get the most out of this experience — binoculars and a camera with a zoom lens. The walkway is at least 30 feet above the ground, and the habitats are up to 25 acres in size. The animals go where they please — they are not herded into up-close-and-personal enclosures to be sure that visitors get the best view. They decide where they want to roam, sleep, lounge, and occasionally hunt the hundreds of rabbits that share these habitats with them, and sometimes they decide to hang out quite far from the walkway. The binoculars can come in handy at these times, but even if you don't bring them, not to worry — the animals in the next habitat will probably be closer, and TWAS put many of the enrichment facilities (water tanks, trees, shade structures, etc.) near enough to the walkway to keep the animals easily visible to guests.

The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colorado is a fascinating place to explore. Visitors will see wild animals in a setting like no other — animals living in habitats as close to their natural environment as is possible, where human intervention is limited and the animals and their well-being comes first. It is a remarkable place to visit — calm, relaxing, interesting, and educational without being heavy-handed about it.

aerial pic of TWAS

It is an important place. It deserves our support. If you find yourself anywhere near the Denver area, take the time to spend a few hours at The Wild Animal Sanctuary. It was one of the highlights of our visit.

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Think you know how to use Disney's Fastpass? Try getting a Fastpass in Tokyo

By Bryan Wawzenek
Published: August 26, 2013 at 10:35 AM

Disney park veterans can sometimes get a chip on their shoulders. We know what to do, where to go, when to go, which way to go, where to stand, where to eat, what to eat, how to get there and why.

Like seniors in high school, sometimes we can only stare in confusion at the Disney freshman as they look at the Fastpass machines, look at the Fastpass return times, look at the standby wait time, look at the machines again, look at their tickets, look at each other, look at the map and look to join the standby line anyway. And later, in our most smug moments, we strut alongside the crowded standby line for Splash Mountain, Fastpasses gripped tightly, with an expression that says, "Don't all of you people waiting 90 minutes wish you were as brilliant as me?" You know, because it takes a degree from MIT to get to the park early or understand Fastpass.

Fastpass and Standby entrances for Tokyo Disneyland's Splash Mountain

Well, we can all feel pretty smart… until we visit the parks at the Tokyo Disney Resort. Yes, these are the parks where every guest knows about Fastpass, everyone uses it and those machines run out of tickets before you can say "return window." During a recent trip to the Tokyo parks, I witnessed the longest lines I've ever seen just to get a Fastpass. I saw return time clocks move like seconds on a stopwatch. I watched Fastpass machines getting covered an hour after park opening. Cats and dogs living together; mass hysteria!

Journey to the Center of the Earth Fastpasses

But don't cancel your flight to Japan just yet — I can assure you that there are methods to surviving the Fastpass madness. Before we get into those coping strategies, let's talk about how the Fastpass system works in Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea. It's essentially the same as it was in the U.S. parks before the end times on the return windows were enforced. You go to the attraction, you scan the park tickets for everyone in your party and you can return with a drastically shorter wait anytime that day — as long as it's after the first time printed on the ticket. (We sometimes returned during the window, but often came back later; cast members were never concerned with anything but the date and the first time.) After you get your first Fastpass, you'll be eligible for another either when your return time begins or two hours after receiving your Fastpass — whatever comes first.

The Tokyo parks also use Fastpass for shows — two at Disneyland and one at DisneySea, presently. Guests go to a Fastpass location in each park (Tomorrowland Hall in TDL, Biglietteria in TDS) and wait in line to scan their park tickets. The machines, which have an English option, require guests to select which showtimes they want to attend. Then the computer asks itself if it feels like being nice (or enters your ticket in a lottery or something), and either gives you tickets or tells you that you're up the Rivers of America without a paddle. Each visitor can only enter the lottery once a day. (It's important to note that these "show" Fastpasses have no bearing on your Fastpass eligibility for the other attractions in the park.)

Big Band Beat at the Broadway Musical Theater in DisneySea

At the time of our visit, the shows were the summer seasonal presentation "Soryo Kobu" on the Castle Forecourt Stage and "One Man's Dream II — The Magic Lives On" at Showbase (Disneyland) and "Big Band Beat" at the Broadway Music Theatre (DisneySea). The wait for "Soryo Kobu" passes was often more than 30 minutes in the morning and early afternoon; the waits for the other two, long-running shows were minimal. We tried a few times for "One Man's Dream II" but never had any luck with the lottery. The good news is that the first show each day is first-come, first-served, so if you're desperate to check out a show, you can always line up for that. In the case of "Big Band Beat," you also can line up for balcony seating for each show. With the seasonal shows in front of Cinderella's Castle, you can catch a glimpse of the show without a reserved seat, which are prized for their proximity to the stage and (in the summer) the water cannons that soak the audience.

Back to the "regular" attractions — Tokyo Disneyland offers Fastpass for nine of them (Big Thunder Mountain, Slash Mountain, Haunted Mansion, Pooh's Hunny Hunt, Captain EO, Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters, Space Mountain, Star Tours: The Adventures Continue and Monsters Inc. Ride & Go Seek!). EO and Haunted Mansion don't use Fastpass on days with moderate, or less, crowds. Tokyo DisneySea has eight Fastpass attractions (Toy Story Mania, Tower of Terror, StormRider, Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Crystal Skull, Raging Spirits, The Magic Lamp Theater, Journey to the Center of the Earth and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). Just like EO and Haunted Mansion, StormRider, The Magic Lamp Theater and 20,000 Leagues don't feature Fastpass on less-crowded days. (I was at the resort one week before the busy summer season began and, with moderate crowds, none of those five were deemed busy enough by the parks to necessitate Fastpasses.)

OK, now that we're through the basics, let's get practical. Here are some tips to maximize your experience at the Tokyo Disney Resort:

Accept That Fastpasses Go, Well, Faster in Japan — In the salad days of non-enforced Fastpass windows in Orlando and Anaheim, a pro could rack up a whole pocketful of passes, ensuring E-ticket ride after E-ticket ride during peak hours. That's just not going to happen here. Come to terms with it. Breathe in. Breathe out. You'll still have fun. I promise.

Do Your Homework — Just as there are websites that predict crowds for the U.S. Disney parks, there is one for Tokyo Disney: http://www15.plala.or.jp/gcap/disney/. Only one hitch — it's in Japanese. Google translate to the rescue! Once translated, the site is called Disneyland DisneySea Congestion Expected Calendar and ranks days on a scale from "People Rattle" (not crowded) to "Congestion Violently" (I think we understand that one). Better than just that, this website predicts maximum standby wait times for the big-name attractions as well as when Fastpasses will be completely distributed (they're on a chart on the site's right side). Some of the ride names don't quite translate, but you can figure it out by process of elimination. We found the predictions to be fairly close to what we experienced — if anything, a bit on the conservative side.

Have a Plan — Combine what you saw on the congestion calendar with your own attraction priorities. Most U.S. travelers are interested in checking out the attractions that are exclusive to the Tokyo parks. As luck would have it, Monsters Inc. Ride & Go Seek! and Pooh's Hunny Hunt have the hottest Fastpasses, so your best strategy is to Fastpass one and ride the other first thing if you want to guarantee at least one turn on both with minimal waiting. Here's a tip: Although these parks don't clear out like the U.S. ones do as closing time approaches, you can sometimes luck into a short wait for Pooh in the last hour. But don't expect the same treatment from Monsters Inc., given how close it is to the park entrance. As far as DisneySea goes, Fastpassing is a little easier — especially if you're willing to skip Toy Story Mania, which debuted at the park in 2012. Because of its proximity to TSM in the American Waterfront, the Harrison Hightower version of Tower of Terror usually runs out of Fastpasses relatively quickly. The upshot is that this has stretched the lifetime of the Fastpass machines for Journey to the Center of the Earth, which many consider to be one of the best themed attractions on (or inside) the planet.

Monsters Inc. Fastpass queue
The queue for Monsters Inc. Fastpasses. Consider yourself warned.

Get There Early — I know this is said often on this site, but it's especially true when it comes to the Tokyo Disney parks. We early birds are used to having the run of things in the U.S. parks for the first couple of hours. It's just not that way in Tokyo, because Japanese visitors get there super early. Let me give you an example: On a morning at Tokyo Disneyland, we arrived about an hour and 15 minutes before the park's opening time. Every single turnstile had a line at least 50 people long sitting in front of it. Seriously. There is no rope drop; once the time is right, the cast members start letting people in as efficiently as possible. When it comes to Fastpass windows, every minute counts. So, if you're serious about maximizing your ride time, be prepared to camp out for a while. One last tip: At DisneySea, line up at the park's south entrance, which is further away from the Resort's central area and seems to be less crowded (relatively speaking).

Morning wait
If they're not in a moving queue, Tokyo Disney visitors sit while then the wait.

Enjoy Yourself — Now that I've gotten you all riled up about the Tokyo Disney crowds, let's take a step in the other direction. Although it might feel like a matter of life and death as you sprint to Pooh's Hunny Hunt (you'd think so, by looking at the racing crowds), remember these are two of the most ornate, carefully structured and beautifully detailed theme parks to ever exist. They were meant to be soaked up. After your mad dash in the morning, slow it down and take it all in. Plus, the ride queues are often knock-down, drag-out amazing. If you have to wait a little bit in the Monsters Inc. lobby or while away the minutes gawking at Harrison Hightower's clever murals, it makes the experience even richer.

Monsters Inc. lobby

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The theme parks of Colorado, part one: Elitch's, Lakeside and Heritage Square

By James Koehl
Published: August 25, 2013 at 4:46 PM

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Denver, Colorado and the surrounding area while vacationing with Team TPI member Jeff Elliott and his family. While there, Jeff introduced my family and myself to the many theme, amusement and entertainment parks of central Colorado, and I would like to share my thoughts on them with you. Each one was a unique experience — not all fit into the traditional image of a "theme park" but each offer history or entertainment value that make them worth at least a read, if not a visit if you're in the area.

Elitch Gardens: How not to run a theme park

The first and largest park in the Denver area is Elitch Gardens, which advertises itself as "America's Only Downtown Theme & Water Park." This is actually the second incarnation of Elitch Gardens. The original "Elitch's", as it is known by locals, opened northwest of downtown Denver in 1890 as Elitch's Zoological Gardens. It featured floral gardens, the Elitch Theatre and the first zoo west of Chicago. The Theatre had a major impact on the performing arts in the western United States with the establishment of one of the first summer stock theatre companies in the country, which performed ten different plays over a 10-week season. Dozens of major stars performed on the Elitch Theatre stage from 1897 to 1987, from Grace Kelly (who was discovered there and went on to become Princess Grace of Monaco) to Robert Redford and even William Shatner.

old Elitch Gardens

Over the years, many amusement rides and The Trocadero Ballroom were added, and the motto "Not To See Elitch's Is Not To See Denver" was earned. However, its 28-acre location in Denver limited its ability to grow and develop, and it was decided to build a new Elitch Gardens on a 70-acre site in downtown Denver, on a former railroad yard and Superfund cleanup site. Twenty rides from the original Elitch's were transferred to the new site, and the new Elitch Gardens Theme Park opened in 1995. In 1997, Island Kingdom Water Park was added, with a one-price admission to both parks. The old Elitch's site was redeveloped, and the only structures to remain are the carousel building (minus the carousel and now used as a picnic shelter) and the old Elitch Theatre, which is undergoing restoration.

Through most of its history Elitch Gardens was owned by local Denver families, first the Elitchs, then in 1916 by John Mulvihill. His son-in-law Arnold Gurtler inherited the park in 1930. Over the years the original park and its replacement, passed through several more generations of the Gurtler family until 1997, when the Gurtler family sold to Premier Parks, which subsequently purchased and renamed itself Six Flags.

The sale to Premier Parks was probably incited by two factors: 1) the move to the new site, and necessity of building a completely new park, cost more than was anticipated and nearly bankrupt the family, and 2) attendance at the new park (about 1 million for each of the first two years) never reached the projected 1.2 million visitors/year.

The park was known as Six Flags Elitch Gardens from 1997 to 2006, when it was purchased by CNL Lifestyles Properties. The Six Flags name was dropped and PARC Management leased and operated the park until 2011, when CNL terminated the lease with PARC and hired Herschend Family Entertainment to operate it. Herschend, which owns and operates such well-respected parks as Dollywood and Silver Dollar City, appears to be making some efforts to win public support for their efforts to improve Elitch's rather tarnished local reputation by eliciting public input about future attractions being considered for the park.

The new Elitch Gardens never was embraced by the locals as much as the old Elitch's was. Many who remember the old site long for the elegant gardens and structures, its historic rides and friendly atmosphere. The new site, while larger than the old one, is hemmed in by the Platte River on one side and by massive parking lots shared by the park, the Pepsi Center (home of the Denver Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche) and Sports Authority Field at Mile High (Denver Broncos). This limits its ability to expand and add large new attractions without removing current rides and/or structures, and actually the park today has fewer attractions than it did when it opened.

This series of ownership changes since it reopened on its current site has left Elitch Gardens with a mish-mash of styles and a confusing layout. It calls itself a theme park, but there is really no definite stylistic theme. Upon entering the site, guests can head to the right to Island Kingdom, a twenty-acre water park popular on hot Denver days but unoriginal in theming. It has the usual thatch-roofed, sea-side decoration so commonplace in too many water parks. Guests heading to the left enter the only truly themed area of the park, a Main Street, U.S.A.-type block of beautifully designed storefronts and shops, featuring the Trocadero Theater, an homage to the old Elitch Theatre and Trocadero Ballroom from the old Elitch Gardens (with little or no resemblance to either). The far end of the street is dominated by the Big Wheel, a beautiful Ferris wheel surrounded by floral gardens.

Elitch's today
Photo courtesy Elitch Gardens

Proceeding around the Big Wheel guests come across a series of confusing paths and dead ends. An attractive Kiddieland (yes, that is what it is called, because the one at the old Elitch's was the first in the country with that name) has all the usual rides expected along with its own theater and a large ball pit/play area. The rest of the park is designed in a rather non-descript Western theme, with some wooded areas, some gardens, and a variety of old carnival spinner rides brought over from the old Elitch's interspersed with newer attractions added when Six Flags owned it. Two water rides, Shipwreck Falls (a shoot-the-chute) and Disaster Canyon (a whitewater rafting ride) occupy a nicely landscaped area spoiled by the fact that the water in the rides was literally brown and muddy. Shipwreck Falls was not running on our visit in July, making me wonder if it the channel had finally silted up. That is not a joke.

muddy water

Five adult coasters provide most of the thrills in Elitch Gardens. None are especially unique: Half-Pipe (which was never working on my three visits to Elitch's, and is apparently only opened on weekends — on weekdays, it has a maintenance sign hung on it with no maintenance workers to be seen); Mind Eraser (a steel inverted Vekoma); an originally-named Vekoma boomerang coaster called "Boomerang"; and Sidewinder, a shuttle loop coaster brought from the old Elitch's. The only wooden coaster is Twister II, named for and inspired by the original 1964 Mister Twister at old Elitch Gardens but not relocated. Of all the thrill rides at Elitch Gardens, this coaster probably scared me the most — not because of its design, which is really a fun wooden coaster design, but because of the physical condition of the ride. The wooden steps leading up to the station were rotten and actually bent under a person's weight, and part of them were breaking off (on a subsequent visit some — but not all — of the steps had been replaced).


One part of the coaster track goes through a wooden tunnel, and boards were falling off of the side. Handrails had either been painted with the wrong type of paint or the metal had not been properly primed, because the paint was peeling off the surface, leaving multiple colors of undercoats visible down to the bare metal, and flecks of peeled paint laying on the ground underneath the rails. We noticed this paint situation on every other coaster we rode.

missing boards

These coasters were also, in my opinion, understaffed. There was nobody at the entrance to the (mostly empty) queues to check riders for height restrictions or to keep them from bringing unapproved items onto the loading platform. One patron tried to bring his half-finished beer onto a coaster, and when the ride operator finally noticed it and did tell him that he could not do so, the ride operator let him set the beer in the bin to be picked up after he rode! Another operator (on Sidewinder) appeared to be doing paperwork, and even though he was supposed to be monitoring the ride controls I never saw him look up from his paperwork.

If there was a bright spot in the park, it was Ghost Blasters, a family-friendly interactive ride through a haunted mansion where guests using "Boo Blasters" shoot at ghosts and haunted objects and battle for the high score in their vehicle. I won every time, beating Marine-trained Jeff Elliott and my own son Anton. Maybe that was why it was a bright spot?

Ghost blasters

Herschend has had three years to make a positive influence on Elitch Gardens, and many of the problems I witnessed are problems that can be easily addressed with a minimum of cost. First is customer service. Some employees were friendly and helpful — most seemed oblivious to the presence of visitors, chatting amongst themselves about private matters while giving just a cursory check of the seatbelts on the coasters. (And this was just days after the Texas Giant accident!) After ordering a hot dog and fries meal ($6.99) at J.M Mulvihills Bar and Grill, a counter service restaurant, I asked for a glass of ice water and was told that they were not allowed to give me water, that I would have to pay for a bottle of it. I later mentioned that to Jeff and he went on a mission to find complimentary ice water. We went through their indoor food court (more on that later) and asked every booth for water. We were refused every time. We then went to an information booth and asked where we could get a glass of water, and were told to go to very restaurant we started at! I told them that we had been refused. Fortunately, the front gate manager was there, and he took us to the restaurant himself and asked for a glass of ice water for us...and was refused. After a whispered argument the girl behind the counter grudgingly gave Jeff a glass of ice water. Jeff, being the trouble maker he is, handed it to me and asked for one for himself...if looks could kill, Jeff would be dead.

The indoor food court, Rustlers Food Court, was just-plain disgusting. Filthy tables covered with trash and spilled drinks, trash cans overflowing, and this was later in the afternoon, well after the lunch rush was gone and just before the dinner rush would start. We witnessed one guest who had purchased a wrap sandwich which was to come with ranch dressing for a dip. She was informed that they were out of it, and she would have to go find some herself — even though the different booths in the food court had interconnecting doors that the Elitch Garden employee could have used to find it for her.

The third restaurant we visited, Blue Moon Beer Garden, I believe was an attempt to be a sports bar, and had twelve beers on tap. It was a long, curved room with the serving area in the middle and soft drink dispensers at each end. Unfortunately, they only had condiments at one end, the opposite end from where we sat, and the floor around our booth was so wet that I took a foldable "wet floor" sign I saw leaning against the wall and put it in front of our booth. The hot dog sliders we had (choice of Jalapeno, bratwurst or Italian sausage with fries for $9.99) were average in taste but had way too much bread in the buns. The fries were very good, surprisingly — crisp, well seasoned and hot.

hot dog meal

I also saw a vending stand selling pizza for — ready for this — $33/pizza, or $5.75/slice. We didn't try the pizza.

I came to Elitch Gardens wanting to really like it. I had never been to it, and although I had been warned that it was no comparison to the parks that I am most familiar with I still tried to come in with an open mind. I found a park poorly designed, lacking innovation, understaffed, with a policy of refusing to give guests complimentary water even on the hottest days. Denver deserves a better park than this. The future will determine if the new Herschend management team can return Elitch Gardens to the high esteem it once was held in by Denver.

Lakeside Amusement Park: No school like the old school

Lakeside Amusement Park is the other "traditional" amusement park in Denver. Opened in 1908 as The White City (a popular name for parks of that era), it is one of the oldest parks in the country still at its original location. It is a family-oriented park and should be considered a Mecca for any amusement park historians. While much of its original Exposition and White City design survives, the 1930's saw the addition of Art Deco structures and ornamentation to Lakeside. This amalgamation of styles, once common place in amusement parks of the mid-1900's, has all but disappeared from American parks- but not at Lakeside. Here it still exists, and makes a visit to Lakeside like a trip back in time.

Tower of Jewels

The park is dominated by a historic tower, the 150-foot-tall Tower of Jewels. Constructed in 1907, this beautiful example of Exposition architecture is covered with an estimated 5,000 lights, and is part of the original entrance complex that also housed the Casino Theater and Riviera Ballroom, all still standing but no longer used for their original purposes. Many other original structures from the earliest days of Lakeside still stand, from shelters to ticket booths, giving this park a feeling of authenticity that cannot be duplicated. At night, Lakeside glows with the lights on the Tower of Jewels and with a vast display of neon lights ornamenting the many Art Deco structures throughout the park. During the day, Lakeside is a very pretty park- at night it is a trip back in time to an era when Disneyland didn't exist and every town had its own Lakeside Amusement Park.


Cyclone coaster

Not only is the design and decoration of Lakeside a throw-back to the past, so is the ticketing. Parking is free, and admission is a whopping $2.50 per person, with a fifty cent rebate coupon good towards the purchase of ride tickets. Rides can be enjoyed by purchasing individual tickets at fifty-cents per ticket. A small kiddie ride might cost only one ticket, while the major attractions such as the roller coasters cost $3, or six tickets. All day passes are also available, costing $14 Monday through Friday and $22 Saturdays, Sundays and holidays.

You will not find many hair-raising thrill rides at Lakeside, no cutting-edge technology or detailed theming. Lakeside is primarily traditional amusement park midway rides, such as the Tilt-A-Whirl, Scrambler, Ferris Wheel, bumper cars and bumper boats, and many rides specific for young children. Three attractions could be considered moderate thrill rides: Zoom, a 150 foot high drop tower; the Cyclone Roller Coaster, a wooden ACE Coaster Classic built in 1940; and the ride which, in my opinion, has the best name of any amusement park ride anywhere, The Wild Chipmunk, a 1955 wild mouse coaster. Standing in the center of the park is the skeletal remains of the Staride, a Ferris wheel-type ride that, even in its rusty condition, looks more like a sculpture rather than an eyesore. The Cyclone has a feature that I have never seen in a wooden coaster- an actual Tunnel of Love. After leaving the beautiful Art Deco loading station and before starting up the first lift hill, the track enters a winding, pitch black tunnel, giving a few moments of privacy that I suspect many thousands of couples over the years have enjoyed. One more historic feature of Lakeside is its 22" gauge miniature railway that circles Lake Rhoda, which gives Lakeside its name. The two steam locomotives, "Puffing Billy" and "Whistling Tom", came from the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis; the third locomotive, modeled after the famous California Zephyr, is the world's first miniature diesel locomotive.

Lakeside train

Lakeside is certainly not the perfect amusement park. Along with the historic aspect of it comes the fact that most of it is old. Much of it appears to be a bit run-down and needs a bit of paint. Many of the lights on the Tower of Jewels were burned out. Locals consider it (using a phrase I heard from one of the locals) the "ghetto park," although everyone who has gone there seems to enjoy it if they know what to expect, an old park in need of some cosmetic touching-up. It is a park of old, traditional rides, lots of rides for young children, a few medium-thrill rides, a very good woodie and a coaster that puts the "wild" in "wild mouse" (the Wild Chipmunk — I do love that name!). It is what it is, and doesn't try to be anything other than that. It is an old, traditional amusement park such as used to be found in every town across the country.

And thank God it still is here to enjoy and experience.

Is Lakeside Amusement Park a "destination park" worth a special trip to Denver to visit? No, but if you are a history buff, especially one interested in amusement park history and architecture and you find yourself in the Denver area, a visit to Lakeside is a visit to be enjoyed and treasured, a trip back to a simpler age and time.

And you can't beat the price!

Heritage Square: Almost Denver's Disneyland

Heritage Square Family Entertainment Village in Golden, Colorado began in 1957 as Magic Mountain, and was one of, if not the first theme park to be created after the Disneyland concept. A group of local businessmen hired Marco Engineering, Inc. (led by the former Disneyland V.P. C.V. Wood, Jr.) to create a new park with what is called a Storybook Victorian theme. Designed by several Hollywood art directors, including Disney veteran Dick Kelsey (art director for "Bambi", "Dumbo" and portions of "Fantasia" and "Pinocchio"), Heritage Square remains one of the best surviving examples of this design style, which incorporates stage and film design concepts, forced perspective and unusual architectural details to make an artificially-designed setting look and feel both real and welcoming.

Heritage Square

The original Magic Mountain was to be a much larger park than the present Heritage Square, with six themed lands based on Colorado history, culture and future development. A ski resort, which was completed, was one of the first ski runs in North America to rely on artificial snow. The ski resort was successful, but the theme park wasn't. Financial troubles caused the construction of several of the themed lands to be scrapped, and the park closed in 1960. Attempts to save it by outside investors failed, and its amusement rides were sold to a new park, Six Flags Over Texas, being built in Arlington, Texas. The remaining buildings from the completed lands (Cavalry Post and Stockade, Centennial City (an old west downtown area) and part of Fairgrounds) stood idle.

More Heritage Square

1970 saw the purchase of the site by the Woodmore Corporation, which reopened the park in 1971 as Heritage Square Family Entertainment Village, a themed shopping village featuring local craftsmen and artisans, a comedy melodrama theatre, and a beer garden. Over the years ownership has changed many times. It is currently owned by Lafarge, which also owns the large quarry next door and uses Heritage Square as a sound buffer between the quarry's blasting and the city of Golden.

Heritage Square is a very unusual park in that each attraction is independently owned and operated. There is no charge for parking or admission to the grounds, but each attraction requires individual ticket purchases, and what appears to be one amusement park is actually two independent parks sitting side-by-side with different ticket booths. The Heritage Square Amusement Park has the more traditional flat spinner carnival-type rides, while Miner's Maze Adventureland has slightly more physical attractions such as a spring bungee jump, climbing wall and, of course, the Miner's Maze.

Alpine Slide

The most popular attraction at Heritage Square is the Alpine Slide, a winding slightly-banked trough snaking down the side of Jackson Hill where riders on wheeled sleds speed down the hillside held in by nothing but gravity. Riders ascend the hill (a mountain to this Ohio flatlander) where they are provided a personal sled to ride down the hill. Each sled has a brake to give the rider some control, and there are two different parallel troughs, one slow (for beginners) and one fast (for experienced riders). Prices start at $8/ride for 7 years and older, up to $38 for five rides. Children 6 and under cost $5 and must ride with a paying 18-year-old driver. It really is a great ride, thrilling and much less intimidating the second time down.

The rest of Heritage Square is occupied by go-carts, a small lake with Swan paddle boats, a miniature golf course, the shopping streets with several privately-operated shops selling such things as Native American goods, toys and souvenirs, a large Victorian-themed music hall, restaurants (one of which, Notz Landing, was featured on the Food Network show "Unwrapped") and even a large church complex, the Red Rocks Church. The park is encircled by the Rio Golden Railroad, a narrow-gauge train which crosses over the entrance of the park, reminiscent of Disneyland.

Heritage Square Family Entertainment Park is just that — a family park aimed at the local Denver and central Colorado population. It is absolutely NOT a destination park, but for a theme park fan with a special interest in the history of theme parks, and especially in the effect that Disneyland's design had on the development of other parks, and if you are in the Denver/Golden, Colorado area and have a few hours to kill, Heritage Square is a fun and interesting diversion, especially for families with small children and tweens, teens and adults with no fear of racing down a hillside on a wheeled sled with no seat belt, no attached track and no fear. With the exception of the Alpine sled, though, there is really very little for thrill-seeking adults or even teens/tweens to do unless they are there to keep the younger children entertained. It is not a full-day park, but fortunately it is just a short drive to the Coors Brewery (now officially the Golden Brewery since Coors and Miller merged), which offers free tours of its fascinating facility (and free beer and soft drink samples at the end of the tour). Combining half a day at Heritage Square and half a day at the brewery would be the perfect way to satisfy the entire family.

Tomorrow, Part Two — with visits to Water World, Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, and The Wild Animal Sanctuary

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Theme Park History: Discover the origins of Disneyland through a visit to Walt Disney's barn

By M.H. Habata
Published: August 24, 2013 at 12:27 PM

In popular legend, Walt Disney came up with the idea for Disneyland on a Sunday afternoon while sitting on a park bench while his two daughters rode a merry-go-round and imagining an amusement park appropriate for the whole family. While that merry-go-round in Griffith Park, near the Disney Studios, still exists and can be ridden by the public, more of the inspiration for the Disney theme parks can be traced to the Disney's love for trains.

Walt's Barn

About three miles' drive from the merry-go-round, Walt Disney's barn housing his model trains and railroad equipment was transplanted from the backyard of his former home to the Griffith Park grounds of the Los Angeles Live Steamers, and is open to the public one Sunday each month, staffed by volunteers knowledgeable about trains, model railroads, and the history of the Disney parks. I visited the barn on a recent Sunday after picking up a brochure about the attraction earlier in the summer.

According to Randy Bright's book Disneyland: Inside Story, Disney's wife Lillian believed that it was her husband's longtime fascination with trains that provided the focus for the creation of Disneyland. In 1950, the Disney family moved to a new home in the Holmby Hills section of Los Angeles, where employees from his studio machine shop, particularly Roger Broggie, helped him build a one-eighth scale working live steam railroad. Disney named his model train the Lilly Belle after his wife.

In addition to the 2,600 feet of track running around the property, Disney built a barn for his train models and equipment which was a replica of the barn from his boyhood Missouri home. After moving to the new house located on Carolwood Drive in Los Angeles, Disney spent much of his free time tinkering with the trains, and often entertained guests and party-goers with rides on the Lilly Belle. It was during this period that he became involved with his plans for building a family-oriented amusement park in the greater Los Angeles area. Throughout the various incarnations during the planning process, Disney's new park always had a steam-powered train for guests to ride.

Photo of Walt's trains

In 1999, with the death of Lillian Disney and the sale of the Holmby Hills property, the barn was moved to Griffith Park by a nonprofit Carolwood Foundation, along with many of Disney's model trains and equipment. Since the 1950s, Disney had been an active member of the Los Angeles Live Steamers, which was founded by train enthusiasts and operated model trains for the public in a section of Griffith Park The barn is currently open the third Sunday of each month to the public, weather permitting. It is located in a corner of the area used by the Los Angeles Live Steamers, which operates a separate model train every Sunday for visitors to ride.

Railroad museum entrance

The Los Angeles Live Steamers site is in the northern part of Griffith Park, between the Travel Town rail museum to the west and the Los Angeles Zoo and Autry Western museum to the east. Entering from the east gate, which is only open when the Walt Disney Barn is open to the public, one crosses the model railroad track operated by the Live Steamers and enters a grassy park-like area containing the barn, a covered maintenance area containing railroad equipment, and a temporary structure covering a railcar from the first passenger train at Disneyland.

Close-up of Walt's barn

The barn is the heart of the exhibit area. Stepping inside the barn, one sees various model trains in the center of the barn, along with numerous displays along the walls.

Disneyland memorabilia

Artifacts from Disney's backyard model railroad, which he called the Carolwood Pacific Railroad

Carolwood RR route
The control panel for Disney's Carolwood Pacific Railroad

Walt's hat
One of Disney's porkpie hats

Disneyland railroad model
A model of the C.K. Holliday, the first railroad engine used for the Disneyland Railroad.

More railroad memorabilia
Other artifacts from the Disneyland Railroad

Monorail model
The exhibits include not only traditional trains, but the Disneyland Monorail system.

To the back of the barn, the Carolwood Foundation has acquired a coach car from the first train in operation at Disneyland.

Original Disneyland coach car

The rail cars were taken out of commission from Disneyland, except for the Lilly Belle coach which still can be ridden at the park. (Ask at the Main Street Disneyland Railroad station early in the day to get a ticket for an assigned ride time.)

Photo of Disneyland railroad

The Foundation is working on creating a permanent structure for the combine coach, as well as restoring a French village which was part of the original Storybook Land in Fantasyland before the 1983 reimagineering of that land.

Restoration plans

On the days the barn is open to the public, there are multiple volunteers working at the entrances and inside the barn, answering questions, and showing off the various exhibits. The barn also hosts events and book signings by former Imagineers and others connected to the design of the Disney theme parks.

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Theme Park History: A short history of Disney's Animal Kingdom

By Robert Niles
Published: August 23, 2013 at 2:17 PM

Following the successful debut in 1989 of the park now known as Disney's Hollywood Studios, as well as the premiere of The Little Mermaid that year (which revived Disney's animation division), then-CEO Michael Eisner declared that the 1990s would be the "Disney Decade," with an unprecedented expansion of the company's theme parks. Eisner's vision was of a Walt Disney World resort that was not just a must-see in Florida, but an "only see," a place where visitors could experience everything available in Florida theme parks, and never have to leave Disney property during their vacation.

After all, Disney had a movie studio park to match Universal's. And an even bigger aquarium than SeaWorld's in Epcot. But what Walt Disney World didn't have at the start of the 1990s was a live land-animal park with thrill rides, to match Busch Gardens Tampa.

Enter Disney's Animal Kingdom.

The Tree of Life at Disney's Animal Kingdom

At one point in the design process, the park was dubbed "Disney's Wild Kingdom," but Disney scrapped that name when it couldn't clear the trademark with the Mutual of Omaha insurance company, which owned the "Wild Kingdom" name thanks to its long-time syndicated TV show of the same name. Disney's Animal Kingdom theme park would include lands devoted to exhibits of African and Asian wildlife, as well as lands inspired by extinct and imaginary animals. The thrill rides would be located in the lands devoted to dinosaurs and to mythical creatures such as dragons and unicorns, as not to disturb the animals in the park's Asia and Africa sections.

Disney also designed Animal Kingdom as its largest theme park, at more than 500 acres, and located it far from the other parks and developments on property, to provide as isolated environment as possible for the animals. Well, as isolated as possible in a park that would end up drawing more than nine million visitors a year.

But even with the many millions of dollars that Disney budgeted for its Disney Decade projects, the company didn't have an unlimited supply of cash to
spend. As construction on the part approached, Disney killed its plans for the "Beastly Kingdom" land in the park, which would have included a dragon-themed roller coaster, a unicorn-themed walk-through attraction, and an enchanted Scottish restaurant.

If you're an experienced visitor to Central Florida theme parks, the preceding paragraph might cause you to say, "Wait a minute — that sounds familiar." It should. Because after Disney deep-sixed Beastly Kingdom, Universal Creative brought in some of the Disney Imagineering talent who'd worked on the land, and they revised the Beastly Kingdom plans into the Lost Continent land at Universal's Islands of Adventure theme park, which opened one year after Animal Kingdom. The dragon coaster became Dueling Dragons. The unicorn attraction became the Flying Unicorn family coaster. And the restaurant became the Enchanted Oak Tavern.

And if "Lost Continent" or those attraction names don't ring a bell, perhaps you might know that land in its current form, as The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. With locations in place that could be easily reskinned as Hogsmeade from the Harry Potter books and films, Universal could afford to outbid Disney for the rights to Harry Potter, which ultimately provided Universal with the cash cow that allowed it to expand and revamp its theme parks around the world. (Dueling Dragons became Dragon Challenge. The Flying Unicorn is now Flight of the Hippogriff. And the Enchanted Oak Tavern transformed into the Three Broomsticks.) Would Universal have been able to create such as huge hit, or even have obtained the rights to Harry Potter, if Disney had built Beastly Kingdom and the Lost Continent never happened? That's one of the great "what if" debates in the theme park industry.

Disney opted for what became Dinoland USA over Beastly Kingdom because it had the animated movie Dinosaur (which debuted in 2000) in production, and because it had made a multi-million-dollar investment with then-partner McDonald's restaurants to buy the world's best preserved dinosaur skeleton, the Tyrannosaurus rex "Sue." A reproduction of Sue now stands in the park, while the original went to Chicago's Field Museum. Disney also could easily repurpose the existing ride system from Disneyland's hit Indiana Jones Adventure as "Countdown to Extinction," which was renamed "Dinosaur" after the 2000 movie debuted.

A movie tie-in also resulted in the park's centerpiece icon, the Tree of Life. The 4D film shown in its theater, It's Tough to be a Bug, features characters from the Pixar animated film A Bug's Life, which debuted seven months after the park's opening.

Disney's Animal Kingdom opened on Earth Day, April 22, 1998 and is today the fourth most-visited theme park in America. Despite the loss of the Beastly Kingdom project, Animal Kingdom did eventually get its roller coaster, when Expedition Everest debuted in the park's Asia section in 2006. And the park will get its land based on imaginary creatures, too, as Disney is developing a land based on the James Cameron movie Avatar to replace the Camp Minnie-Mickey area that was the original site of Beastly Kingdom. No opening date for that project has been announced.

Next: Universal's Islands of Adventure


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Vote of the week: When's your next theme park vacation?

By Robert Niles
Published: August 23, 2013 at 9:33 AM

Summer vacations are ending, and students are heading back to school. That means we're approaching the end of an another theme park season, though the season for theme parks never really ends here on Theme Park Insider, does it? ;^)

Of course, with the calendar turning toward September, our focus does change from taking vacations to planning the next one. Over the next several weeks, we'll be offering more front-page posts on theme park vacation planning, with tips for saving money and finding value for your next family vacation.

Photobombing at Disney's Hollywood Studios
Ah, the fun of family vacation photobombing….

But when will you take that next trip to a theme park? With so many parks extending their season with Halloween events, will you be attending one of them, in September or October? Or are you looking to the holidays for a theme park getaway? Maybe it'll be next spring break, instead? Or will you be sitting out until next summer, when another wave of theme park attractions debut, led by Universal Studios Florida's Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley?

Of course, some of us are fortunate enough to live in Southern California, Central Florida, Tokyo, Singapore, or someplace else where the theme parks never close for the season, and we can keep visiting year-round.

For our vote of the week this week, please tell us when you're looking to take your next theme park trip, after this summer ends.

What's your favorite theme park memory from the Summer of 2013? Please share it with us, in the comments.

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Are theme park fans ready for 'The Marvel Experience' in 2014?

By Rod Whitenack
Published: August 22, 2013 at 5:59 PM

The same producers who gave us Broadway’s “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” have announced that they will be delivering a $30 million traveling theme-park-style attraction featuring Marvel Comics’ roster of superheroes and villains to two dozen U.S. cities in 2014. The Marvel Experience will be staged in a mobile dome complex the size of two football fields that will appear in each city for one week.

The Marvel Experience

The massive attraction promises original 3D animated features, motion-comic origin stories and holographic simulations, but the centerpiece of the experience is a new 4D motion ride that promises to be a first-person thrill ride that will “enable anyone to feel like a superhero like Spider-Man or Captain America,” according to Hero Ventures CEO, Rick Licht.

There are some big names lending their producing experience and financial assistance to this project. Live Nation chairman and “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” producer, Michael Cohl, will be heading up the project while folks like Roy P. Disney, New York Giants co-owner Steve Tisch and a who’s who of financial bigwigs are providing funding for the project.

My first thought on “The Marvel Experience” is budgetary. Is $30 million anywhere near enough money to produce an interactive theme park attraction of this magnitude, let alone move the entire production from city to city every week? “Spider-man: Turn off the Dark” cost more than twice that amount just to get off the ground, and it only had to play one city.

I like the idea of bringing a theme-park-quality attraction to the masses instead of forcing guests to travel to a specific park to experience something spectacular, but with only a $30 million budget, will this attraction feel more like the Ringling Brothers Circus at the local fairgrounds than the “Spider-Man” ride at Universal Studios? Does Disney and Marvel risk cheapening their characters and brand with a watered down “trailer rig” attraction?
This news does sort of overshadow the minimal effort Disney seemed to put into their earlier “Iron Man” promotional attraction and their recently announced, seemingly similar, “Thor” attraction. “The Marvel Experience” producers have already announced their ambition to create a second leg to the US tour that would serve as a “sequel” to the first attraction.

This is big news that brings with it lots of questions: What will it ultimately look like? What does this mean for Disney’s plans for Marvel attractions at its own parks? What do you think of this?

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Universal Orlando officially opens its Simpsons expansion

By Robert Niles
Published: August 22, 2013 at 2:10 PM

Universal Orlando Resort hosted a media event this morning to officially open its Simpsons-themed Springfield U.S.A. expansion, which has been soft-opening in phases to Universal Studios Florida visitors over the past two months.

Kang & Kodos
Photo courtesy Universal Orlando

"When creating Springfield, we wanted to make guests truly feel like they're part of the record-breaking animated show, Mark Woodbury, president of Universal Creative, said in a prepared statement. "Now fans can become part of The Simpsons family and step inside the same places Homer and his family visit on a regular basis."

If you've visited Universal Studios Florida this summer and experienced any part of Springfield — the Kang n' Kodos spinner ride or any of the new themed eateries — please submit a rating and/or review via our Universal Studios Florida listing pages:

In addition to those counter-services restaurants, Springfield includes a Lard Lad Donuts and a Duff Brewery Beer Garden, where visitors can purchase a dessert package that includes lagoon-side seating for viewing the nightly Universal Cinematic Spectacular show.

Springfield's the second new major development at Universal Studios Florida this year, following the debut of Transformers: The Ride 3D this spring. Of course, both of those openings are preludes to next year's highly anticipated debut of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley at the park in the summer of 2014.

* * *
By the way, you might have noted that I led this report by noting the press event today, but didn't mention being there. That's because I wasn't. While several Theme Park Insider readers have stepped forward to start writing for the front page this year, we still need writers in the Orlando area who can cover press events such as this when I can't make it to the east coast from California. If you've been reading Theme Park Insider, live in the Orlando area, and think you'd like to give writing about theme parks for us a try, please email me at themeparkinsider@gmail.com with an introduction. (People with a track record of submitting great comments to the site get first dibs.) Thank you!

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Form vs. function, or, why Disney's doing it wrong trying to copy Universal's Butterbeer

By Robert Niles
Published: August 22, 2013 at 11:01 AM

Earlier this week on the Theme Park Insider Podcast, attraction designer Dave Cobb talked about the knock-off culture in the theme park industry, and how parks that copy others often don't distinguish between the form and function of an attraction.

It's not just the Chinese theme parks we discussed that do this. Even Disney itself has ripped off others' attractions in the past — sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Few would argue that Disney's Splash Mountain didn't improve on Knott's Timber Mountain Log Ride, the original log flume mountain attraction that Disney's Imagineers have conceded "inspired" their attraction. Heck, that "inspiration" flows both ways, as Knott's just dropped more than a million bucks on new animatronics and show scenery for its Log Ride, to make it more "Disney"-like.

But Disney blows it on occasion, too. Consider Disney's current obsession with rolling out a variety of foam-topped sweet drinks in its theme parks.

Red's Apple Freeze
The impostor: Red's Apple Freeze from California Adventure's Cars Land. (Also known as Le Fou's Brew in Walt Disney World's New Fantasyland.)

Clearly, Disney's trying to capture the success that Universal's had with Butterbeer in its Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

And the original: Universal Orlando's Butterbeer

But in copying the form — a sweet drink topped with a flavored foam — Disney missed the essential function of Universal's Butterbeer. Harry Potter fans didn't love Butterbeer just because it's a tasty drink that leaves a silly foam mustache on your face when you drink it. They've order millions of these drinks over the past three years because it provides one more physical connection between them and the world of Harry Potter and his friends.

As the other attractions in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter engage visitors through sight, sound, and touch, Butterbeer allows visitors to connect with the world of Harry Potter books and movies through taste and smell — two senses too often overlooked in the creation of themed entertainment experiences. It's not the drink itself that provides the appeal (though it's certainly tasty!), it's the fact this is a convincing recreation of something from the books and movies that Harry, Ron and Hermione drank, too. You're not just standing in Hogsmead where your beloved characters stood. You're drinking the same drink they drank, too. That's an active connection with beloved characters, beyond the passive connection one gets from watching a film or riding a ride.

Obviously, if Butterbeer tasted terrible, it wouldn't have the same appeal. (Which is why Universal didn't make the Krusty Burgers in Universal Studios Florida's Springfield USA the foul creations referenced in so many Simpsons TV episodes.) But the ginger/butterscotch flavor and foamy top on are secondary forms to Butterbeer's essential function of actively connecting visitors to the characters of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. To get way too deeply metaphorical here, Butterbeer serves an almost "communion"-like role in bringing visitors into the Wizarding World.

All the foam-topped drink variations in the world won't allow Disney to recreate that, because Disney lacks the context that makes Butterbeer so special. What would Butterbeer be like without Harry Potter? It's be Le Fou's Brew. And who would care?

But here's the irony. Disney does have a food-and-beverage product available to it that could serve the same function in its parks for fans of one of its movies that Butterbeer serves in Universal parks for Harry Potter fans.

It's "The Grey Stuff" from Beauty and the Beast. When Lumiere sang "try the grey stuff, it's delicious," in "Be Our Guest," millions of Disney fans became curious about what "the grey stuff" might be and just how delicious it might taste. When Disney announced its plan to build a "Be Our Guest" restaurant in its New Fantasyland in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, the first question many Disney fans asked was: "Will they have 'The Grey Stuff'?"

Yes, Disney does serve The Grey Stuff at Be Our Guest. But rather than embrace it as a Butterbeer-like attraction in itself, Disney's hidden the dessert off the menu, making available only to selected visitors celebrating a special event at dinner.

The Grey Stuff

What a missed opportunity! How many Beauty and the Beast fans would queue to buy The Grey Stuff it Disney made it widely available? Conversely, how much less popular would Butterbeer be if Universal had hidden it as exclusively as Disney has The Grey Stuff? Would the Wizarding World of Harry Potter been as intense a hit without widely-available Butterbeer?

When Disney tried to copy the form of Butterbeer while ignoring its function, it falls into the same trap as those cheap Chinese theme parks that roll out creepy knock-off versions of It's a Small World. It's not what something looks, feels or tastes like that matters in the theme park world. It's how it makes us feel that matters, and how that feeling connects us with a beloved world we long to visit.

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Is the Six Flags Season Dining Pass a deal worth buying?

By Russell Meyer
Published: August 21, 2013 at 8:12 PM

In 2012, Six Flags tested an intriguing concept in a few of their parks around the country. This season, that concept was launched in all Six Flags parks nationwide. The Six Flags Season Dining Pass is an interesting premise, and can be quite valuable if guests work to make it worth the initial investment. However, it's really just another way for Six Flags to guarantee profit at the beginning of the season with the hope that most guests won't have the time or discipline to get their money's worth.

On the surface, it's pretty simple. The Season Dining Pass can be purchased for $69.99 at most parks (it's $99.99 at Magic Mountain), which has been advertised at a $30 discount from $99.99 for the entire season with the threat that at some point the price would go back to the original price, but as of this writing, it's still being sold at the discounted rate. The purchase of the Season Dining Pass allows guests to get one "lunch" and one "dinner" each day they're in the park up until the beginning of Fright Fest (for an extra $10, you can keep the plan through the end of the season). Six Flags provides brochures outlining all of the food that guests can get with their pass, including a number of additional items that guests can get with their Season Dining Pass if they're willing to pony up an extra $1 when they order. "Lunch," at least at Six Flags America, is defined as any time between 11:00 AM and 3:30 PM, while "dinner" is between 4:30 PM to 7:00 PM.

Most entrees cost $8-$12, meaning that guests would need to redeem at least seven meals to break even on their initial investment. With the limit of two meals per day, guests purchasing the Season Dining Plan need to plan on visiting Six Flags at least four times to recoup the cost of the plan.

I was a little skeptical about the plan when I added it to my Six Flags America season pass in April, but went ahead with it anyway. In previous years I would rarely eat at Six Flags, but with a 3 year old, I thought it might be nice to be able to not have to pay the outrageous Six Flags food prices to get hot food in the park or waste time leaving the park to get food outside and come back into the park. While the Season Dining Pass has been convenient and relatively free of glitches, we've had to change our typical park routine and have had some hits and misses among the eligible meal items.

The best dish I've had over the course of the season has been the beef brisket sandwich at the Coyote Creek Restaurant. This is the only dining plan location in Six Flags America that allows guests to get something other than French fries with their meal, and the beef brisket served on a hearty Kaiser roll is pretty good. Now, I would never actually pay the posted $11.99 for this meal, but of all of the items available to Season Dining Plan holders at Six Flags America, this was my favorite.


Also on the good side have been the popcorn shrimp and fries, and the western hot dog platter complete with chili, cheese, and bacon (and fries).

However, there have been some misses as well. The cheeseburger platter, served with fries of course, is not terrible, but also nothing special. It's a bland slab of meat topped with greasy cheese, lettuce, and tomato on a non-descript bun. I wouldn't even pay half of the listed price of $10.99 for this meal, and there are probably quite a few fast food restaurants that would be ashamed if this burger appeared on their menu at over $5. Also, while I appreciated the portion size of the make your own pasta (stretches pretty far between two adults and a 3-year old), the chicken alfredo was far less desirable than the meatball marinara.


Another big miss was the footlong hot dog platter from one of the Hurricane Harbor eateries that was served to me with about a teaspoon of chili and not a single drop of the advertised cheese (the stand was out, but did not indicate it prior to scanning my card). I was also not terrible impressed with the spicy chicken sandwich, which was a generic dried out chicken patty served with lettuce and tomato on a plain bun with a side of, you guessed it, fries.

I can't say that I haven't gotten my money's worth out of the 2013 Six Flags Dining Plan, because over the course of the season, I've consumed well over $130 worth of food. However, I can say that we've changed our typical visiting habits to maximize our meals. Before this year, we typically would arrive at the park at or slightly before park opening and leave before 3 PM, but this year, we have been getting to the park around 2 PM and leaving around 5 PM in order to get two meals out of a single visit. Also, while we haven't had to pay for food in the park, it hasn't always been the best food, and the Season Pass Dining Plan does not include beverages. Guests with the Dining Plan can purchase a reusable cup for $9.99 that offers unlimited refills, but only on the day it was purchased, with refills on subsequent visits costing $0.99.

For the Six Flags target audience (teenagers and young thrill seekers), the Season Dining Pass might be a worthwhile investment assuming you know that you will have to visit more than your average season passholder, and are okay eating mostly generic food (pizza, chicken strips, and cheeseburgers are the most common dining pass menu items).

While the Season Dining Plan seems like a decent concept, it might not be a valuable choice for all guests. Even though I feel like I have been able to more than recoup my investment, I wonder if the changes to my typical park touring plan and acceptance of generic food were worth the tradeoff. However, with some subtle changes, I think Six Flags might be able to get me to sign up for a second season.

Some of those recommendations would include:

More variety of entrees — Not only did I feel that the menu was rather limited, but the fact that just about every single item was served with fries was extremely frustrating. I appreciated the beans that were an option in the Coyote Creek Restaurant, but everywhere else, it is fries or nothing. Perhaps a side salad, cole slaw, or even a piece of fruit would be a welcome addition in lieu of fries. Also, Six Flags eateries have a lot of other items that did not qualify for the Season Pass Dining Pass but were less expensive than items that are. If a guest wants to blow their meal on a funnel cake or nachos for the sake of variety, why should they be limited? I can see not allowing guests to get more expensive items, but less expensive items should be fair game. Allowing guests to get any single food item off any menu below $11 would nearly double the number of items currently available to guests, and could potentially increase profits.

Introduce more healthy items — I'm by no means a healthy food advocate, but it seemed that if you didn't want a plain salad, there were absolutely no other healthy options available. There aren't a huge number of healthy options in most Six Flags parks, but it should be something that could be a selling point for the dining plan.

Incentivize the plan for families — Six Flags does it with their season passes and even advertises family meals, so why not sell a season dining plan for a couple or family? I initially thought that sharing single entrees with my wife and son would work out, but it typically just left us all more hungry and unsatisfied. There's no way we would have gotten value paying for even two Season Dining Passes (I went to the park 3 times by myself) paying full price for both, but if we could have gotten a pair of passes for $100, it would have been very tantalizing.

The Six Flags Dining Pass certainly has some advantages for both the passholder and the park. By encouraging us to stay a little bit longer in the park and perhaps visiting one or two more times than we would have if we had not had the dining pass, Six Flags also increased the chances of us spending more money during our visit on souvenirs, games, drinks and upcharge attractions. It also gave us an opportunity to sample and explore some of Six Flags' food options. While not all of them were great, there are a few items that I wouldn't mind revisiting if I really didn't want to leave the park in the middle of a day for a meal. I hope that Six Flags will take a look at the results of the first year implementing the Season Dining Pass nation-wide, and take the opportunity to make improvements. While it's unlikely that I would sign up again next year at its current price of $69.99, the minor tweaks I suggested might convince me to try it again.

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Theme Park Insider interview with Dave Cobb, on Chinese theme parks and overcoming the knock-off culture

By Robert Niles
Published: August 21, 2013 at 2:24 PM

This week on the Theme Park Insider Podcast, we talked with Dave Cobb, senior creative director at Thinkwell, an independent theme park design firm in Burbank, California. Thinkwell's the team behind The Making of Harry Potter at the Warner Bros. Studio Tour in the United Kingdom, as well as the Special Effects Stage show at Universal Studios Hollywood, among many other projects around the world. Before joining Thinkwell, Dave worked at Universal Creative, where he was the creative director for Men in Black: Alien Attack at Universal Studios Florida, then he moved onto the Paramount Parks chain, where we oversaw themed attractions such as the Italian Job Stunt Coaster and Tomb Raider, before that chain was sold to Cedar Fair.

Dave Cobb. Photo courtesy Thinkwell GroupIn our conversation, we talked about one of Thinkwell's current big projects, a Monkey King-themed park in Beijing, China. From there, we got into a broader discussion about how parks copy one another, and how, too often, they miss the crucial distinction between form and function that leads fans to fall in love with great theme park attractions.

Dave: Money King, yeah, we just wrapped up schematic on that, maybe a little further. All of our projects are broken up into phases. In most of the theme park world, it's usually blue sky phase, concept development and refinement, schematic, which is where you figure out space and size and cost, design/development, which is where you actually figure out engineering and architecture, and then production, which is when you put stuff in the ground. Usually, you end up putting stuff in the ground sometime in D/D, hopefully.

Unlike an operator, a Disney or a Universal, we don't have the luxury of saying from the get-go, we're absolutely for sure going to build something. A lot of the time we're hired by clients in phases. Monkey King is a perfect example of that. We did the concept back in late 2009, early 2010, and that was with a developer in China who does a lot of real estate. They had us develop a concept package which then went to the Chinese government for approvals and blessings and everyone said hey, this looks great. Then we did a concept refinement, and we finished schematic a couple months back. It's this huge package. What's funny is that we brought them the final package and it was like three feet tall, and they said you didn't need to bring so many copies, and we said, no that's just one -- it's the schematic. It's literally hundreds of sheets per attraction.

The Monkey King project really represented a milestone for us in our projects dealing with China. It was the furthest got in terms of design/development with a project there. Also, culturally. Those are stories [Monkey King] that are in the DNA of more than a billion people. You can't screw it up. And that was a concern, but we have a lot of designers who either are Chinese or have worked on projects in China before. We actually had a couple of Beijingers (where the park is going) working on the project here [in Burbank] and we really tried to imbue the whole team not just with a sense of cultural responsibility -- of course that's there, that's assumed -- we wanted them to really celebrate it and get their heads into why these stories are so cool.

It's easy to look at them [the Monkey King stories] and think, oh, they're fairy tales. But they're really more than that. They're national consciousness in a lot of ways. They're superheroes. They're a trickster character who lives by his guile and thumbs his nose at the authorities. So there really are some fun themes to play with there. Half of the challenge was to find unique ways to show off what we do, which is spectacle and Western entertainment and dark rides -- all the stuff they're hiring us for. But [we have to] make sure it still stays true to why people like those stories.

I had a standard question I would ask all the clients: "What's your favorite Monkey King story, and why?" Journey to the West is the name of the book, and there are 100 or so chapters. And everybody had a different answer. Now, there was a constant on a couple of them. There were two or three that were always in everyone's top [answers], and those became some of our bigger attractions. (Laughs)

The gratifying part of this was, after pitching to cultural consultants and people there, we pitched to this guy who is head of one of the film boards in China. He approves which films from outside of China get played in China. He's that guy. I pitched one of the rides that all of us worked so hard on, and at the end he stood up at the desk and he applauded. I was so tickled. One of our guys was actually recording that moment, so we showed it to the team when we got back.

It's a challenging place to work for a lot of reasons, but the culture is so incredibly cool and different from ours, yet [it's] the same and different. People ask me, how different is a theme park there? Well, at the end of the day they're hiring us for spectacles and dark rides. They want that. But how do we address that to a Chinese sensibility and culture? That's an ongoing collaboration.

Robert: The stereotype of Chinese theme parks is, thanks to Tumblrs on the Internet, cheap knock-offs of Western theme parks. The Bizarro Disneyland.

Dave: [Laughs] And I've been to all those.

Robert: Obviously, there's been a demand for that, but now we're at a point where they're contracting out and building the real thing. There's going to be a real Disneyland in Shanghai. Chinese are contracting with companies such as Thinkwell, who know how to build a real Western theme park. How do you see this trend playing out?

Dave: I think the demand for a real, quality, Disney-style theme park is no different that the burgeoning demand there for luxury goods: the real Prada bag and not the fake Prada bag. Knock-off culture is what it is there. It's the elephant in the middle of the room in a lot of ways. But that's changing because you have two or three generations of people who have been educated overseas. They're understand why those extra steps in creating technology, or entertainment, or goods, or services, make for a better product and will make your audience fall in love with it.

Like you said, the Tumblr blogs show us these scary Small World clones. I've ridden them, and they are creepy as hell. But that's because they copied just what the saw and not necessarily what they felt. At least that's my own B.S., psychological evaluation of that. I went on one of those Small World rides. It was trying to be Small World. It had all the blocky graphics, sort of like Mary Blair, or I always like to switch the first letter of someone's name when it's the knock-off, so it's Barry Mlair.

At the end of the ride, I look up in the sky above all the singing dolls and there's this sort-of starburst pattern on a little logo and I squint and look at it said "Mattel" on it. And I went, why is there a Mattel logo? Then I realized it's because Mattel used to sponsor the one here [at Disneyland in Anaheim]. So they had just taken a picture of the set and copied everything, not knowing what the context of that meant.

This is just cultural misappropriation, misunderstanding. They're trying really hard to get the same feeling, when the feeling of that ride isn't just the way it looks. It's many other things, too. That's an education for them, as it's an education for us to learn how to adapt to Chinese culture and audience.

Another one I saw was a park in Beijing where they'd obviously went to Islands of Adventure. There was one area of the park where right next to each other was the facade for The Cat in the Hat dark ride, the giant arm from the collapsed Poseidon statue, and a row of sets from Port of Entry. I mean, I was working there [at Islands of Adventure] at the time when all of that was being built, so I saw it come out of the ground. I have a photographic memory of that park. So I walked in and I went, "Wow, this is deja vu." They literally took a picture and said "We want that." But the seams of where they went together were not there. And that's the kind of thing that we can help them with.

Hong Kong Disneyland had an impact there, but there's a bit of dissonance when we deal with mainland China clients. They see [Hong Kong] as a different audience. That's changing, but I think a lot of our clients reacted that way because [Hong Kong Disneyland] initially was seen not as a success. But we all know that Disney's just going to turn on the money hose until it works. So now it's working, and very well. Grizzly Gulch and Mystic Manor are two of the best things they've done in the world in a long time. That Mystic Manor ride, I can't wait.

Robert: And what's interesting about Mystic Manor, that final, climatic scene...

Dave: ...It's Monkey King!

The thing people need to know is that Monkey King isn't some licensed character. It started as oral tradition, told between families, and then it was written down and now it's what they call one of the five greatest books in Chinese literature. Then it turned into operas, and stage plays, and animated series, and comic books, and toys. There's a version for it with a very famous Chinese actor that was made for television in the 70s, and that's the one that the current generation of adults, like our age, know and absolutely love. We got it on DVD when we were over there and watched it and it's so charmingly funny. The Gen Xers will know what I'm talking about -- it looked like a Sid and Marty Krofft show, with slightly cheesy costumes and goofy special effects. It was like Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, or Wonderbug, or any of those things. Seeing that really helped me understand that this isn't some creaky old novel. This is something that every generation reinvented.

There was that great HD video of Mystic Manor that hit the day after the ride opened… by the way Internet, I love you. Theme park nerds out there, first know that we're one of you, and we love all of you. We travel a lot for work, but I can't get out there and see everything. But when something opens, all I have to do is go to Google. The day after it opened, there was this gorgeous first-person video that showed everything. So thank you for that, whoever you were.

Then it got to that last scene, and I'm like, "Holy crap, it's the Monkey King!" He's being used as a cultural touchstone. If the story of this ride is that all of statuary and objects come to life and reveal their magical properties, well, he's a trickster. Of course, he's going to screw things up at the end. It's a brilliant little get for them. And it's a perfect example of why you can't necessarily do the Haunted Mansion in a Chinese park. Ghosts are not the same. In most Asian cultures, ghosts are different, but in China ghosts are very, very different. It's usually about magic, and whether or not that magic is good or bad. It's more about demons and elemental spirits than it is about the ghosts of dead people.

So you go through Haunted Mansion [as a Chinese visitor] and it doesn't quite read. People don't understand the idea of your friends and family, or strangers, people in the graveyard singing at you. We have an affinity for that because we've been told that old New England-style houses and graveyards are creepy places. That has no cultural relevance at all [in China]. It doesn't push any buttons.

I thought that ride in particular was a brilliant retelling of the tenets of the Haunted Mansion but as something entirely different. And also, it starts with a monkey, too. The whole mischievous monkey idea, it's great. Monkeys are celebrated as tricksters in the culture, and sort of adored as cute things.

Robert: As you were talking about all these knock-off parks that copied the form, but totally missed the function. Here's something that got the function of the Haunted Mansion [as a spirit-driven magic show], but it's in a completely different form.

Dave: Now [clients in China] see that Disney's going to make this work, they're going to adapt to the audience, not the other way around. Shanghai is a perfect example of that. From what little I've seen, it has only the most tenuous connection to the physic design of Magic Kingdoms we know. It shares a lot of the philosophies, but it's expressing them in a completely different way.

For more of our interview with Dave Cobb, including the challenges of designing for a multi-generational audience, the damage of the Coaster Wars, and the power of letting your audience be part of the show, download Episode 4 of Theme Park Insider podcast on iTunes.

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Theme Park Apprentice 5: Challenge 10 Vote

By Tim W
Published: August 21, 2013 at 2:22 PM

This is the final vote of 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 submitted their final theme park designs. It is now up to TPI to decide upon the winner of the competition. The contestant with highest voting percentage, in addition to the judging votes will win the competition.

Our Candidates:

Chad H: Magna Brittania

Jay R: Exposition Summit: Literary Park

Good luck to our final two contestants and may the best man win!

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Dollywood announces new roller coaster and hotel as part of 10-year expansion plan

By Robert Niles
Published: August 21, 2013 at 7:41 AM

Dollywood this morning announced the first two projects in a planned $300 million in capital expansion over the next 10 years at and around the Tennessee theme park.


Opening next summer, Firechaser Express will be a dual-launch family coaster that travels forward then backward on the 2,427-foot track. The coaster will have a height requirement of just 39 inches, and will be themed to firefighters protecting the forest of the Great Smoky Mountains.

Then, in the summer of 2015, Dollywood will open its first on-site hotel, the DreamMore Resort. The facility will feature 300 rooms on a 100-acre site that also will include a spa, indoor and outdoor pools and a full-service farmhouse restaurant. The hotel will be within walking distance to the Splash Country water park and will offer complimentary transportation to Dollywood.

Updated, 8:30am: "We hope to build several resorts in the area and continue to build great new places to stay," Dolly Parton said during this morning's live announcement webcast. She also revealed that she will "star," in hologram form, as the Ghost of Christmas Past in a new holiday show later this year.

"Dollywood is investing big, to become a full-fledged family destination," Craig Ross, president of the Dollywood Company, said. The $300 million will be divided among new attractions and hotel development.

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What are the best snacks at the Tokyo Disney theme parks?

By Bryan Wawzenek
Published: August 20, 2013 at 1:22 PM

In the realm of theme park dining, Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea have quite a reputation. When planning my trip to Disney's Japanese outpost, the most frequent dining advice that I was given was, "Eat anywhere. Everything's good." Yeah, uh-huh, sure.

Tokyo Disneyland
Fantasyland at Tokyo Disneyland. Photo by David Weiss

But my skepticism was thwarted by the Tokyo Disney Resort restaurants' outstanding service, cleanliness, efficiency and — most importantly — food! It's not by accident that DisneySea's fabulous S.S. Columbia Dining Room was named Theme Park Insider's Best Restaurant for 2013. But instead of discussing the many wonderful sit-down establishments at these two parks, today we're sweating the small stuff: snacks.

Tokyo DisneySea
Sunset over Mount Prometheus at Tokyo DisneySea. Photo by David Weiss

Before we snack our way through Tokyo Disney, I should explain that Japan is not a grab-n-go culture when it comes to food or drink. For instance, Japanese Starbucks franchises offer a "short," which is a tiny coffee that commuters buy, stand there and gulp, then continue on their way to the office (as opposed to the millions of Americans that you see toting Starbucks cups everywhere). It seems that this idea is relaxed a bit in the Tokyo theme parks, where we sometimes witnessed guests walking with ice pops or popcorn. But, more often than not, visitors bought their snacks, found a spot to sit where they could enjoy their purchase (or simply stood next to the snack stand and chowed down), and then moved along. With the exception of a Fastpass time crunch, we did our best to follow the local custom.

Mickey-Shaped Everything

Of course, another local custom (when it comes to Tokyo Disney, at least) is the popularity of any food that is shaped like Mickey's head. There was Mickey-shaped mac and cheese, Mickey-shaped chicken fingers, even Mickey-shaped churros.

We were not immune to the charms of these round-eared delights, and found ourselves indulging in a giant, Mickey-shaped waffle topped with vanilla ice cream and mango (680 yen, or about $7), the seasonal special at the Great American Waffle Company. While waiting in a short line, we watched workers flip the Mickey waffle irons, ensuring that the treats were never in short supply.

Great American Waffle Co.

A minute after ordering at the counter, our waffle arrived, fresh and hot, crispy on the outside and soft and light on the inside. It was topped with a zig-zag of maple syrup and surrounded by whipped cream, custard, ice cream and chopped mango (none of which were generous servings, but enough to get the job done and all plenty delicious).

Mickey waffle, with toppings

Just around the way from the Waffle Company is Boiler Room Bites, a snack stand seemingly built out of the wreckage of an old ship (with the boiler room turned into a kitchen). The Adventureland outpost is home to the Mickey-Shaped Steamed Bun filled with pork and chicken (400 yen, $4.10). Craving something savory, we opted for this option over the Minnie-shaped bun with strawberry and milk. We were thrilled with our decision; not only was the bun warm and soft, the fillings were rich and plentiful. The Mickey shape doesn't just offer a gimmick, but an interesting way to deliver different flavors — the ears were packed with barbecue pork, while the head was filled with teriyaki chicken.

Mickey-Shaped Steamed Bun

And with a Japanese heat wave in full swing, we couldn't stop ourselves from a few snacks to help us cool down. Instead of the Mickey-shaped ice cream bars found all over Disneyland and Walt Disney World, the Tokyo parks offer Mickey- and Minnie-shaped, fruit-flavored ice pops. In DisneySea, your options were tropical fruit (Mickey) or peach and raspberry (Minnie), and in Disneyland, you could choose between orange (Mickey) and pineapple (Minnie) — all 300 yen ($3.07). They were pretty huge, delicious and refreshing — as was the 300 yen frozen mango. But it's not Mickey-shaped, so where's the fun in that?

A peach and raspberry Minnie ice pop
A peach and raspberry Minnie ice pop


Another one of Tokyo Disney's unique offerings is the Tipo Torta, which consists of a dense, sweet cream wrapped in long, thin layers of pastry dough. At the time of our visit, the Tipo Tortas were available in three flavors: strawberry and caramel (available at the Village Pastry wagon in Fantasyland at Disneyland) and honey-lemon (available at Tropic Al's stand in Lost River Delta at DisneySea). We tried the caramel and honey-lemon versions (each 350 yen, $3.60), and both were akin to having an ice-cream sandwich in churro form. The honey-lemon flavor was more complex and worked better than caramel as a cold treat.

Honey-lemon Tipo Torta
The honey-lemon Tipo Torta from Tropic Al's stand in Lost River Delta

Side Orders

Snack stands aren't the only place you can treat your sweet tooth at Tokyo Disney. One of my absolute favorite dishes during my time at the parks came as a side item at the Queen of Hearts Banquet Hall — which is worth a stop for a meal or a snack, if only to check out the brilliantly decorated dining room, themed to "Alice in Wonderland."

Queen of Hearts Banquet Hall

While passing through this crowded-but-efficient buffeteria, I added a cup of Chilled Cream of Purple Sweet Potato Soup (400 yen, $4.10) — maybe because if you're going to eat in Wonderland, you ought to have something that looks like the Cheshire Cat. The gamble paid off — the soup was silky smooth, with a surprising depth of flavor as sweet and savory layers intermingled. If this dish had been as readily available as ice pops or churros, I would have probably indulged in another bowl each day.

Chilled Cream of Purple Sweet Potato Soup

Adult Beverages

Keeping in line with previous Magic Kingdoms, Tokyo Disneyland doesn't serve alcohol (Club 33 excluded, of course). But you can enjoy an array of adult beverages at Tokyo DisneySea. Rather than downing a run-of-the mill American brew in the park's American Waterfront area, enjoy a little atmosphere with your libation at The Teddy Roosevelt Lounge, located on the second deck of the S.S. Columbia. (Even if you're not a drinker, come get a juice, a parfait or a sandwich — this place is worth checking out!)

Teddy Roosevelt Lounge

The gorgeous, dark wood pub is festooned with tributes to the 26th president, from portraits of Teddy throughout his life to Rough Rider paraphernalia to carved bears that serve as columns along the bar. Stepping out of the sun to wet our whistles, we ordered a Grasshopper and a Screwdriver. Both drinks were as carefully crafted as the relaxed, elegant surroundings. (An alcoholic beverage will cost you between $8 and $15, depending on your drink of choice.)

Grasshopper and a Screwdriver


And what would a trip to the Tokyo Disney Resort be without daily (or hourly) doses of the parks' creatively flavored popcorn? During our trip, the two parks were offering 11 varieties of their famous corn. Unlike most Japanese visitors, who carry their popcorn in souvenir tubs shaped like Mickey or the "Toy Story" aliens or the oh-so-popular Duffy, we opted for the 300 yen ($3.07) regular size, in order to taste as many flavors as possible. In the end, we tried eight versions — because who can get excited about Salt or Caramel when you can try Milk Tea and Corn Potage? Speaking of Corn Potage, it might have been my favorite. Available exclusively in Toontown, this popcorn was covered in a bright yellow candy coating that gave it the flavor of sweet corn soup. Apparently, I really like my corn with extra corn — can you tell I'm originally from the Midwest?

The Corn Potage popcorn stand in Toontown
The Corn Potage popcorn stand in Toontown

Another big winner was the Curry popcorn, available in Adventureland in Disneyland and in Arabian Coast in DisneySea, where we grabbed a box. The mixture of spices provided plenty of kick, but was restrained enough not to wear out its welcome. Unlike the Black Pepper (which became a bit one-note, flavor-wise), the Curry corn kept us coming back. It reminded us of something we had at Memphis's rib mecca The Rendezvous — a legendary barbecue establishment that sells popcorn coated in their secret spice rub.

Curry popcorn
Curry popcorn, with the Caravan Carousel from Arabian Coast in the background

As for the other flavors, Honey (two locations in Fantasyland, with one by — what else? — Pooh's Hunny Hunt) was predictably delicious and Strawberry (Port Discovery, although you can smell it from Mysterious Island) was wonderful with a more delicate sweetness than most, cloying strawberry candies. Even more delicate were Milk Tea (the Cape Cod section of American Waterfront) and Apple Cinnamon (the harbor section of American Waterfront). The Milk Tea's subtle mixture of sugary and salty flavors was a nice balance, but I expected a little more oomph from the Apple Cinnamon corn.

Although I was hoping for a revelation with the Soy Sauce & Butter flavor (Adventureland and Tomorrowland), I didn't get it — although the butter and salt flavor profiles were a good match, as you'd expect. (I'd find my sublime Soy Sauce dessert delight elsewhere in Japan when I tried Soy Sauce ice cream.) As I said before, Black Pepper was a one-note flavor — but it was a fine note, with taste-bud tingling pepper dispersed nicely on every kernel.

So, what did we learn as we snacked our way through Tokyo's twin Disney parks? Purple potatoes can make for a soup that'll make you grin like the Cheshire Cat. The Mickey shape provides a creative way to get additional flavors into a steamed bun. Some extra corn can lend corn-flavored popcorn some extra pop. And, finally, instead of scarfing your snack while jetting around the parks, it's nice to have a seat, enjoy your food and revel in a quiet moment — even if it's in the middle of Toontown.

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Walt Disney World's California Grill Will Reopen Sept. 9 with New Look, Menu

By Scott Joseph
Published: August 20, 2013 at 8:59 AM

California Grill, the popular restaurant at the top of Disney's Contemporary Resort overlooking Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, will reopen after an extensive remodeling on Sept. 9. Pam Brandon reports in her Disney Parks Blog post that reservations will be taken beginning Monday, August 26.

California Grill, which closed on Feb. 1, has long been considered one of the premier dining venues at Walt Disney World Resort. It opened in 1995 with a fittingly contemporary design by New York restaurant designer Martin Dorf, who fashioned his decor after the legendary Rainbow Room. (Dorf also designed Flying Fish Cafe and Citricos.)

The new decor is by Puccini of San Francisco. The redo will feature a wall of wine and give more tables a better view of the panoramic vista. The show kitchen -- one of the first in the area when it opened in May of 1995 -- will still be open to the dining room, but chef Brian Piasecki told me that every piece of equipment except the pizza oven is new, and much of it state-of-the-art additions.

You can see photos and read more about the new California Grill's cuisine at scottjosephorlando.com.

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Theme park history: A short history of Universal Studios Florida

By Robert Niles
Published: August 18, 2013 at 8:05 PM

If there's anything positive to be said about Universal Studios Florida's grand opening on June 7, 1990, it's that the World Wide Web wasn't around yet to allow theme park fans from around the Internet to roast the park in real time. But everyone on site at Universal that day, including local and national news reporters and other invited guests, certainly did their best to do just that. Even Disneyland's rough opening — with ladies shoes sinking in fresh asphalt, inoperative water fountains and hours-long lines — looked like a day with a private VIP tour guide compared with Universal Studios Florida's debut, when almost none of the park's rides actually worked.

Universal Studios Florida
The entrance of Universal Studios Florida in 2013

Universal's owners had been wanting to build a theme park on the east coast since the early 1980s. Following rival Disney, Universal chose Central Florida, ironically setting on a site near the intersection of Interstate 4 and the Florida's Turnpike that Disney had considered for Walt Disney World 20 years before, but ruled out since it couldn't obtain enough land. Universal was happy with the much smaller site, but construction didn't begin for several years.

Universal's announcement in 1986 that it would begin construction on the park prompted Disney to fast-track plans for its own studio-themed attraction, the Disney-MGM Studios, which opened in 1989. The addition of two new parks in the area helped encourage even more visitors to vacation in Central Florida, while further providing business to emerging theme park design firms in the area. In 2001, Universal even moved its theme park design division, Universal Creative, from Universal City in California to Universal Orlando.

Obviously, Universal didn't give up after the park's rough opening. For its first summer, Universal provided every guest who visited a free ticket to return for another day in the future, effectively buying the park a second chance with its initial visitors. Those who returned many years later would find a very different park than what Universal offered on its opening day.

Movie studios aren't museums. They routinely tear down and recycle sets for use in new productions. And so it is with Universal Studios Florida. Like at Walt Disney World's movie studio theme park, almost no live production happens at Universal Studios Florida anymore, save for filming of the parks' own commercials. Universal had ditched the tram tour concept it developed for Universal Studios Hollywood in favor of stand-alone attractions in the Florida park. But of the attractions available in the park's first year, only the E.T. ride and Horror Make-Up show continue in more-or-less their original form. The ride portion of the former Earthquake attraction also continues, minus the pre-ride demonstrations themed to that 1974 disaster movie. (It's now called "Disaster!") Otherwise, all the park's other original attractions are gone, replaced with newer, often more-high tech, rides and shows.

Transformers: The Ride 3D

In the past year, Universal's built Transformers: The Ride 3D, and re-themed the area around The Simpsons Ride as Springfield U.S.A., with a variety of restaurants and bars themed to the long-running animated franchise. And work continues at a blistering pace on The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley, a London-themed extension of the original Wizarding World that will connect with that land in the neighboring Islands of Adventure theme park via a Hogwarts Express train ride attraction when in opens in Summer 2014.

Despite all the changes inside Universal Studios Florida, the park itself might seem like a model of stability compared with the areas around the park. The original parking lot is now the site of Islands of Adventure. The park's original Hard Rock Cafe, built atop a guitar-shaped platform, is now the site of the Curious George water playground. Three new hotels, with a fourth under construction, the massive CityWalk shopping-and-dining complex, and two multi-story parking garages now surround the park.

Universal Studios Florida in 1990
The guitar-shaped platform under the Hard Rock Cafe stands in the middle of this 1990 photo. The ET ride's show building is to its right, and the Bates Motel that once stood on the site of what is now the Barney theater is below that. The surface parking lots are now the sites of CityWalk and Islands of Adventure. Photo courtesy TH Creative.

Today, the two Universal Orlando theme parks each attract more visitors in a year than their older sibling, the original Universal Studios Hollywood. And with the opening of Transformers, Springfield and, next year, Harry Potter, Universal Studios Florida will likely be the fastest-growing major theme park in attendance growth over the next two years, as well.

The moral, as always? If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. But start by giving away a ton of free tickets, too.

Next: Disney's Animal Kingdom


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Vote of the week: Is theme park customer service getting better or worse?

By Robert Niles
Published: August 16, 2013 at 10:03 AM

As theme park fans, we love great rides and shows. Many of us phone and email early to get a table at favorite themed restaurants. We queue to meet beloved characters.

But there's one more, very important, factor that affects how well we enjoy our theme park vacations. It's the customer service we get (or don't) from our favorite parks' cast or team members.

Talk to anyone who's built a career in the theme park business, and chances are the inherent conflict between creative and operations will come up in the conversation at some point. The ride designers and entertainment directors thrive on creativity while operations demand command and control. No one wants a creative roller coaster operator -- we want someone who will follow the procedure to get the trains loaded and dispatched safely and swiftly.

But the best operators aren't automatons. They know how to read a guest's needs and how either to find a solution, or, better yet, to head off a problem before it happens. Great work in theme parks isn't simply about moving ride vehicles, ringing up sales or keeping the streets clean. All those tasks are important, of course, but a great theme park operation requires providing great customer service, above all.

So who's doing a good job of that? And who's not? And, more importantly, how is that situation changing? Is the staff at your favorite theme park getting better or worse at customer service over the past few years?

That's our vote of the week.

Please share your best — or worst — recent example of theme park customer service, in the comments. And, as always, thank you for reading, and for being a part of the Theme Park Insider community. Have a great weekend!

Update: Yeah, I'm pushing the leaners by not offering a "It's the same" option. How about this, then? If you think the service at your favorite park is consistently good, please vote "better." If you think the service has been consistent, and bad, please vote "worse." And if you think service has been getting better at some parks and worse at others, vote on the basis of the direction it's heading at your favorite park, the one you care about most.

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The Blog Flume Filter for August 15, 2013

By Jeff Elliott
Published: August 15, 2013 at 3:31 PM

Disney's D23 – The D23 convention has come to a close. Now all of the videographers are back home and have compiled the videos we have been expecting for days…

This is a nice warm-up video to the Imagineers section:

A full walkthrough of Journey into Imagineering:

The Treasures of Walt Disney Archives Tour:

You may be asking yourself why they took up so much space with archival items. There is only a cynical answer to that question, and it is because they went out of their way to not say anything new about Star Wars, new theme park rides, or anything else in the parks.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom – There are two new walk around characters that just debuted at the park. Based on the height of the characters, these almost seem like a case study into how the Na’vi might work at the park. The new characters are called DeVine and Bamboo. I find it somewhat irritating that they don’t talk, which limits their interaction with park goers.

Disneyland – Indiana Jones has a new lighting effect on Mara. To be honest, I don’t really see the difference, but I am also not on the ride every week.

Universal Studios Florida – The new ride for Simpsons land has finally opened up to visitors. The Kang and Kodos Twirl ‘n’ Hurl seems to take the Dumbo ride and crank it up a couple of notches since there are targets to hit.

SeaWorld San Diego – We are starting to hear that the next big attraction to the park for 2015 will be to remodel the Penguin Encounter to be more like the new Antarctica exhibit in Orlando.

Dollywood – While the official announcement is not until next Wednesday the 21st, we are starting to get some idea of what is going in. A Trademark filing has us thinking that the new attraction will be a roller coaster by the name of Firechaser Express. This attraction is presumed to be a more family oriented coaster with a launch and no inversions. I would think that Cheetah Hunt at BGT or Manta at SWSD is probably a vague idea of what the new coaster is going to be like. Construction is already underway in the Adventure Mountain area.

Six Flags Fiesta Texas – The Iron Rattler is now open with an added safety precaution of a seat belt.

Heide-Park – The German theme park is the next in line for a B&M wing coaster. The official announcement is set for sometime this week. And silly us, we thought that Kings Island was going to get it…

Worlds of Fun – This park was already in line for a couple of additions to their waterpark, but a strange turn of events has led to rumors that Worlds of Fun may also be getting a very large ride as well. As it seems, the ride inspectors in California have refused to sign off on the evacuation system for Knott’s Berry Farm’s Windseeker ride, despite the fact that it has been approved for every other park outside of California. This explains why a brand new ride has been sitting closed for 11 months (Please don’t mention Knoebels Flying Turns to me, they should have that open soon). Since Knott’s is unable to open the ride, the next option is to dismantle it and send it somewhere else. As of now, it looks like Worlds of Fun is that somewhere else.

Knott’s Berry Farm – It sounds like the launch cable on Xcelerator has snapped again. At this point we have no idea when it will reopen.

Kentucky Kingdom – It was confirmed last Friday that Rocky Mountain Coasters is handing the rehab for Thunder Run. This is something that RMC is familiar with even if they do not go with the steel topper track. This does however pave the way while explaining the reason that the Twisted Twins will not open until 2016 and be a “much superior ride”. I’m thinking Iron Horse treatment like Outlaw Run and the New Texas Giant for the Twins. But we shall see… Meanwhile all of the old Six Flags signs have come down and been replaced by the new Kentucky Kingdom signs. While it is a small thing, it is very symbolic.

Darien Lake – The Predator sounds like it is in the running for a Rocky Mountain Coasters rebuild.

Six Flags Great America – American Eagle’s Blue side also looks to be in the running for a Rocky Mountain Coasters rebuild. This is somewhat intriguing as it sounds like only one side is going to get the makeover, which would make this a steel vs. wood racing coaster.

Star Wars - It is amazing what I find amusing…

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Where to eat? Lunches at Earl of Sandwich and Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen Express in Disneyland's Downtown Disney

By Robert Niles
Published: August 15, 2013 at 9:04 AM

Disneyland's theme parks offer a wide variety of some of the better theme park quick-service options anywhere. But what if you want even more choices for lunch? Downtown Disney awaits, just steps away from Disneyland and California Adventure. Let's take a look at a couple of quick-service alternatives there.

Most of the restaurants you'll find in Anaheim's Downtown Disney are table-service restaurants that appeal more to the apres park crowd. But you do have a handful of counter service options. The most popular might be the west-coast outpost of Earl of Sandwich.

Earl of Sandwich

I've not eaten at the wildly popular Walt Disney World location, but I did first try Earl of Sandwich at Disneyland Paris's Disney Village last summer. And, I must concede, I didn't like it. Earl of Sandwich bills itself "The World's Greatest Hot Sandwich," and the "Hot" part isn't simply marketing hype. Each sandwich comes wrapped tightly in foil, like a Chipotle burrito, and steaming hot. While that's not bad on a sandwich that's just meat and cheese, such as the roast-beef-and-cheddar Original 1762, on a sandwich that features lettuce and tomato, such as the Full Montague, the heat and tight packing are a disaster.

To me, part of the appeal of a loaded sandwich is the contrast of its various elements. A hot, juicy burger with cool, crisp lettuce. The snap of crisp bacon coupled with the luscious texture of a ripe, fresh tomato in a BLT. In the Earl's sandwiches, everything's smushed together, like a panini without the exterior sear.

Knowing that this time, and wanting to give the Earl its best shot, I ordered what I understood to be the shop's most popular sandwich, the Holiday Turkey.

Loaded with turkey, stuffing, gravy and cranberries, this is a day-after-Thanksgiving dream. And it would work all smashed together and hot, just like so many of us make them at home, straight out of the microwave. It would have worked for me, too, had the Earl thrown on an extra slice of turkey and left off the gratuitous slather of mayonnaise. With mayo, gravy and cranberry sauce, this was less a sandwich and more like soup on a roll.
Just too goopy for me. I picked the sandwich apart after a few bites, to try each component alone, and I liked them all. But the sum here isn't even equal to the addition of its parts, much less an improvement.

Earl of Sandwich also makes a point of noting its freshly-baked bread. But who can tell, when it's toasted this dry? Toasting's a time-honored trick for hiding less-than-fresh bread. I wonder if I could order a Holiday Turkey on untoasted bread, without the mayo, and unwrapped so that the darned thing could breathe a bit. That'd be delightful. Alas.

I also ordered a cup of the Butternut Squash soup, thinking it'd make a perfect accompaniment to my mid-summer faux Thanksgiving meal. Again, meh. Decent butternut squash flavor, but beaten down a notch by a vegetal broth.

If Earl of Sandwich was too fussy for its own good, Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen Express offered an example of how good simplicity can taste.

Red Beans and Rice

I ordered the Red Beans and Rice, with a small baguette on the side, from the counter service window next to the main Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen table service restaurant. If you're not familiar with this Louisiana classic, don't be fooled by the name — this is no vegetarian dish. Brennan's Red Beans and Rice comes loaded with ham and sausage and delivered such a peppery kick that I was happy to have that baguette and butter to cool my taste buds after every few bites.

And that baguette! Perfectly fresh, with a crisp crust surrounding an airy interior, this loaf reminded me how good bread can be. No one would dare toast this.

Good bread. A simple, meaty stew. This is a lunch that will wake your taste buds and keep your tummy filled until dinner.

What's your favorite place to eat in Disneyland's Downtown Disney? Please tell us, in the comments.

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A visit to Universal Studios Japan: Part Two

By Bryan Wawzenek
Published: August 14, 2013 at 9:23 AM

If you missed it, here's Part One of our trip to Universal Studios Japan.

With all of the A-list rides at Universal Studios Japan conquered and the heat of the day in full force (Osaka is pretty humid in July, or at least it was for our trip), we decided to cool off with the air conditioned pleasures of Sesame Street 4-D Movie Magic. In terms of Universal, this movie is exclusive to Japan – although an edited, English-language version ran as Sesame Street Presents Lights Camera Imagination! 4-D at some Busch Gardens and SeaWorld parks in the U.S. (The theme park rights to Big Bird and friends are held by Universal in Asia, but by SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment in the States).

An interesting quirk at Universal Studios Japan is that the Sesame Street and Shrek 4-D movies share the same theater, near the entrance of the park. They two movies alternate showings throughout the day, and each has a designated queue in front of the theater. The film itself was plenty of fun, in spite of (and sometimes because of) the language barrier. As a kid who grew up on the pre-Elmo incarnation of Sesame Street, I appreciated that this wasn't just the Elmo show, but allowed lots of screen time for a bunch of the Muppets, from Grover to Cookie Monster to Oscar the Grouch.

Sesame Street/Shrek 4D theater

Something slightly more exciting happened a few minutes after the show when, as we were walking through the streets of New York, we chanced upon a massive Muppet meet-and-greet. The live Sesame Street – Magical Music Box show had just finished, and most of the characters were hugging and taking pictures down the way from the stage. Elmo, Bert and Ernie, Cookie Monster, Abby Cadabby and the Count were all hanging out, and my wife and I instantly reverted back to being five-year-olds.

The Count

Our previous experiences at Tokyo Disney taught us that organized queues for character meets rarely exist in Japan. Basically, you just hover in a group, or follow the character as he/she walks around, until the character approaches you or gestures to you or whatever. Sound chaotic? Well, it is, even despite Japanese politeness, which falls a little by the wayside in this instance. But, being two of, maybe, a dozen non-Asian people in the entire park has its advantages. Time and time again, Japanese teenagers were passed over so that we could say "Konnichiwa Cookie Monster" and get a picture. In a very crowded area, we were able to get pictures with five of the characters in as many minutes. Ernie even managed to get away from his fans to photobomb our picture with Bert.

Ernie photobomb

Apparently, our time with the Sesame Street gang instilled a desire to visit the kiddie area, the one-year-old Universal Wonderland, which is divided into Hello Kitty Fashion Avenue, Sesame Street Fun Zone and Snoopy Studios (yes, Universal has Japanese rights to the Peanuts gang, as opposed to Cedar Fair Entertainment Company in the U.S.) The combination of the three make for an enormous area for the youngsters, filled with scaled-down rides as well as spots for less-structured play. Plus, the Snoopy and Sesame Street lands feature large indoor spaces, so that kids can spend some time out of the elements (depending on what season it is in Osaka).

In addition, many of the more popular rides (Peppermint Patty's Stunt Slide, Elmo's Bubble Bubble water ride, Snoopy's Great Race coaster and others) feature the timed, reserved ticket entries used on some big attractions. So, kids can play in the playground-like areas instead of waiting in hour-long lines. Nicely done, Universal Japan.

If I have any criticism of the area, it's that you lose a little bit of the magic of each group of characters by packing them all together. Sure, there are different "zones," but they're all pretty close to each other. For instance, that means that the music playing in the outdoor areas isn't some of the great music from Sesame Street or the Peanuts movies (does Hello Kitty have music? I don't know because I am not, nor have I ever been a Japanese girl). Instead there's something akin to that annoying Kidz Bop stuff blasting out of the speakers – nine-year-olds singing "Shiny Happy People"… perfect. Oh, and the Flying Snoopy Ride should be Red Baron themed. How do you say "missed opportunity" in Japanese?

On our way out of Universal Wonderland, we ran into a couple of old pals – Charlie Brown and Lucy. Not only did Chuck jump at the chance to get a picture with me, he grabbed my arm, ran over to Lucy and kept poking her in the arm until she agreed to take a group picture with my wife, him and me. You'd think that the other Japanese visitors would be upset with our inadvertent character-hogging, but they were polite and even offered to take our picture for us. We apologized and thanked them (some of the few Japanese words we knew) for their patience.

Banana popcorn
Banana popcorn. This needs to be next to a Minion meet-'n-greet in Super Silly Fun Land, doesn't it?

Between shopping and snacking (banana-flavored popcorn = interesting), we ran into Woody Woodpecker and the Pink Panther. Apparently, Universal Studios Japan is looking to corner the market on all somewhat outdated animated characters – watch out Heckyl and Jeckyl! I have a suspicion that the esteemed Mr. Panther is kept around merely because he is, yes, pink and Japanese females seem to love anything pink and cutesy. Or maybe they're all big Peter Sellers fans and I'm just taking a shot in the dark. Look it up on Wikipedia, kids.

The Pink Panther

Before and after our reserved slot for Biohazard – The Real (again, you can read my full story on that attraction here), we skipped some attractions that we had experienced plenty at previous visits to Universal parks: Backdraft, Terminator 2: 3-D, Shrek's 4-D Adventure, the Waterworld stunt show and the Universal Monsters Live Rock and Roll Show – because I have a childhood fondness for the Wolfman and I just can't take seeing him perform a Flo Rida song ever again. We also missed out on Animation Celebration, a Woody Woodpecker movie that never seemed to be starting when we were in the vicinity. Instead, we took a second ride on some of our favorite attractions that didn't have forbidding wait times (Space Fantasy, Jurassic Park and Jaws). Exiting through the Jaws gift shop, we purchased what has to be one of my favorite theme park souvenirs – a Jaws oven mitt, complete with a victim inside the mouth. Pretty great.

Jaws oven mitt

Seeing as we were waiting to eat dinner until we were outside the park (thinking that we'd get a better deal and a better meal in Osaka), there was only one thing left to do: take in the Magical Starlight Parade, which kicked off exactly at park closing time (8:30 p.m.). Now, because Universal Studios Japan has the rights to Snoopy and Sesame Street and Shrek and Woody Woodpecker and Hello Kitty and the Pink Panther and plenty more, I figured that their nighttime parade would be loaded with these characters. I was waaay off.

Elmo and friends

Although the Magical Starlight Parade began with three representatives from Wonderland (Kitty, Snoopy, Elmo), the rest of this spectacle was filled with Disney knock-offs. Universal Japan runs a C-minus take on the Main Street Electrical Parade, complete with floats dedicated to Cinderella, Aladdin and Alice in Wonderland, works that are all in the public domain. It was strange enough to see slightly different versions of the Queen of Hearts and the Genie in a Universal park, but the parade floats also weren't very good. Many strands of lights were burned out, the music was repetitive in a bad way and the whole thing seemed to go on a bit long. Mostly it was just weird.

Aladdin's Genie
Aladdin's Genie, but not Disney's Aladdin's Genie

The White Rabbit
The White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, but not Disney's Alice in Wonderland.

Cinderella, but not… oh, you know the drill by now.

And it was a strange note to end a great day at a great park filled with (for the most part) first-class attractions. When Universal Studios Japan opens its Wizarding World of Harry Potter land in 2014, I may have to return. I can't imagine how much fun the Forbidden Journey will be with a couple of excited-out-of-their-minds Japanese fans sitting next to me.

Wizarding World of Harry Potter Japan construction photo
Japan's Hogwarts Castle, under construction

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Theme Park Insider Podcast, Episode 3: Universal takes Harry Potter around the world

By Robert Niles
Published: August 13, 2013 at 1:08 PM

We're talking Harry Potter on the Theme Park Insider Podcast this week.

Diagon Alley concept art
Concept art courtesy Universal

Thank you to everyone who submitted questions via our Facebook page — I answered several of them during the podcast, which details plans for Diagon Alley in Universal Studios Florida's new version of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, opening next summer in Orlando. We also talk a bit about the two other new Wizarding Worlds under construction, at Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal Studios Japan.

You can download our Harry Potter episode directly, or you can subscribe to the podcast via iTunes. We're posting fresh episodes every Tuesday. Please give us a listen!

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A visit to Universal Studios Japan: Part One

By Bryan Wawzenek
Published: August 13, 2013 at 12:18 PM

Preparing for a visit to Universal Studios Japan was a daunting task. There's not a ton of English language information about Universal's first overseas venture out there (at least compared to the Tokyo Disney parks, which have wonderful coverage from TPI's Robert Niles and a couple of somewhat helpful guidebooks). Although my wife and I had been to Universal's other three locations – Hollywood, Orlando, Singapore – I wanted specific information about line lengths and crowds. The best info that I got was to expect to wait a very long time… for just about any attraction.

Seeing as we were visiting in the high summer season (mid-July through August), we gave ourselves the best shot at manageable crowds by going to Universal Japan on a Wednesday. Despite a small bit of train confusion – we went the wrong way on Osaka's Loop Line – we arrived at the park gates about 45 minutes before the park's posted opening time of 9 a.m. It helps that the elevated rail station is right at the start of CityWalk, and it's about a 10-minute stroll to the park from there.

We entered a short line to buy one-day passes (6,600 yen, about $68.50 at this time), and then a much longer line stretching from the gates to the ticket kiosks. We waited patiently with the hordes of almost completely Japanese visitors until 9 a.m. when… well, nothing seemed to happen. As opposed to the Tokyo Disney parks, where each line had a designated turnstile, the Universal Japan lines were more like amorphous blobs that moved at the speed of smell. We shuffled our way to the gates, comforted by the fact that every other "line" was crawling along at the same rate.

Universal Studios Japan

By 9:10 we were in the park's entrance land, or Hollywood, which is similar to the Hollywoods at the other Universal Studios parks (art deco, Brown Derby, etc.), but reminded me most of Universal Singapore because of the glass roof that covers the area. Hollywood was also home to our first attraction of the day, Hollywood Dream – The Ride.

This Bolliger & Mabillard Mega Coaster, exclusive to Universal Japan, has been operating both the traditional forwards and backwards trains since March. Knowing that the limited time only "Backdrop" option would likely prove more popular, we opted to get in that queue. While we thought we were getting in line to ride, what we were actually doing was getting in line for a Fastpass-like ticket that would allow us to ride the Backdrop version between 10:30 and 11:30 a.m. (I'm sure multiple, friendly park employees were informing us of this fact in Japanese as we walked through the line.)

But, not to worry, after exiting the line in the Sesame Street Fun Zone, we looped back around to join the forwards queue for Hollywood Dream, which posted an accurate five-minute wait time. While in line, my wife was handed two large, purple rubber bands to strap her flip-flops to her feet. A small touch, but one that helps you keep your belongings while saving valuable loading time (i.e. – no riders walking through the train, taking their footwear off, finding a place for their sandals and then returning to get strapped in).

Hollywood Dream provides a thrilling, though far from terrifying, ride. For this former Chicagoan, it was like a tamer version of Raging Bull at Six Flags Great America. Hollywood Dream features a shorter drop (141 feet) and slower max speed (56 mph), but boasts a nice upward helix near the end. I preferred the Backdrop experience just a little bit more – but then, I get a kick out of descending backwards into the Haunted Mansion's graveyard, so I might be easily impressed.

There's no real theming to Hollywood Dream, either at the station or on the tracks. The hook, of course, is that you get to choose your on-board soundtrack from five options. For our visit, those included "Celebration" by Madonna (and not "Holiday," much to my wife's disappointment) and "Numb" by Usher. In contrast to the Universal Orlando coaster that it inspired (Hollywood Rip, Ride & Rockit), Hollywood Dream's soundtrack choice matched the ride's movements nicely. At night, the trains look pretty cool with their moving LED lights zooming through the sky. The all-around experience on Hollywood Dream was better than HRR&R, but so was the subway ride to Universal Osaka.

Next up was another Japan exclusive, and another coaster: Space Fantasy – The Ride. (Yes, and before you ask, every ride at this park was subtitled "The Ride." I suppose this makes it easier for new guests to differentiate between shows and moving attractions.) I had no idea what to expect from Space Fantasy, apart from knowing that it was a wild mouse coaster in a building that used to house the E.T. ride. So, after storing our stuff in a locker – mandatory for this one – we joined the 15-minute line.

Space Fantasy – The Ride

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this whimsical little coaster. Space Fantasy is themed to the hilt, with a couple of pre-shows that feature some sort of space princess, little star-sprites and a robot that's like a giant Neopet. Because everything but the safety instructions was in Japanese, I don't quite know why we visitors were being sent into space – it's possible that we were meant to sprinkle pixie dust all over the cosmos. Or maybe we were supposed to land on Endor and something went horribly wrong.

Doesn't matter. This charming ride takes you through asteroid fields, around planets and past space stations. The spinning cars make the pretty docile track more exciting – it's a less exhilarating, but more detailed Space Mountain. One last note: there is a little button on the front of your car and we had no idea when to press it. We tapped it occasionally throughout the ride, to no result. Until, that is, the final scene, when it seemed to send us out of a space cave with an explosion. Maybe the ride does this every time anyway. I don't know, but it was awesome.

Next, it was off to the park's San Francisco area (shouldn't it be Hill Valley?) for the last remaining version of Back to the Future – The Ride. Mr. Sparkle aside, The Simpsons aren't big stars in Japan, so Doc Brown's Institute of Future Technology is still standing in Osaka. It was an hour past park opening and we listened to Huey Lewis and ZZ Top while waiting 20 minutes for our spin in the DeLorean.

Back to the Future – The Ride

Well, "spin" is generous. More like a shake. This ramshackle motion simulator with its fuzzy film projection is showing its age (even if it was only installed in 2001). After bumping my head on the side of the DeLorean twice, I was more appreciative of advancements made with The Simpsons Ride and other more recent attractions. It's hard to imagine that Back to the Future is long for this park – for obvious reasons, but also because the ride vehicles display the current date at the beginning. So, in 2013, we went a whole two years into the distant future to see the strange place Hill Valley has become. What happens in 2015, when we all have hoverboards?

Doc Brown

Next up was another attraction that's extinct in the U.S., Jaws – The Ride. In 2012, Universal Orlando shot a scuba tank in the shark's mouth to make way for Harry Potter's London, but Japanese tour guides are still taking visitors on a harrowing journey around Amity Harbor. The ride remains quite popular at this park, and we waited about 45 minutes in the late morning. Lucky for us, the queue was quite detailed, with the tourism videos that used to show in Orlando as well as some museum-like displays on the history of Amity. I don't remember such an interesting queue for the U.S. Jaws ride, but maybe that's because I never waited more than a few minutes.

Jaws – The Ride

The attraction itself is a carbon copy of the departed Orlando version, with one big difference: the skippers. In the U.S. version, I often got stuck with a blasé guide, but this was not the case at Universal Studios Japan, where the guides on both of our trips played their frantic fear to the hilt. In particular, the jumpy female skipper who led our nighttime excursion was the best Jaws guide I've ever had. And I didn't understand a word she said.

Narrowly escaping from a giant shark builds an appetite, so we headed back to Hollywood to get a burger at Mel's Drive-In. I can't vouch for most of the food at Universal Japan, except to say that, on average, it was more expensive and less-appetizing than the good grub at Tokyo Disney. The bacon burger we split at Mel's was satisfactory – and maybe it tasted better just because it was different from the amazing Japanese cuisine we had been immersed in for the past few weeks. I will say that the folks working the counter at Mel's were among the friendliest I've encountered at a Universal park anywhere, laughing and dancing to the oldies as they handed trays to customers.

Not wanting to get caught in the crossfire between the Water Surprise Party parade and the hundreds of 10-year-old boys with squirt guns (sold at the park), we ambled over to Jurassic Park – because, of course, you never get wet on anything there. As we entered the area, a baby Brontosaurus was lurching around the main drag, posing with guests/absolutely horrifying one little girl.

baby Brontosaurus

The posted wait time for Jurassic Park – The Ride was 30 minutes, and we entered near a giant statue of John Hammond with a precious baby dinosaur.

John Hammond and friends

While in line for the water ride, my Jurassic Park shirt drew lots of attention from park workers. In broken English, one worker asked where I had gotten it and when I answered Universal Orlando, she said, "Orlando! Oh! Very jealous!" She was quite sweet and friendly, just like all of the employees we encountered. A cleaning lady even went out of her way to hand me an Elmo sticker because of my JP shirt (and maybe because I said "Konnichiwa" at the correct time of day).

Back to Jurassic Park – The Ride. It's pretty much the same as the Orlando edition (one T-Rex attack, Raptor cage almost falls on the boat) and just as fun. All of the animatronic dinosaurs were in action and appeared to be in wonderful shape. We got less wet on this version (certainly in comparison to Singapore's JP, which is given the cool twist of being a river rapids ride), but I don't know if that was by design or sheer luck.

Next, it was on to the New York section of the park because I had read about a brand-new attraction called Biohazard – The Real, in which guests got to enter a zombie-infested haunted house while toting a gun (yes, a fake one). It turned out we needed to get reservation tickets (like the ones we had earlier in the day for the Backdrop version of Hollywood Dream), made our way to the ticket disbursement area and received a pair of these not-quite-but-sorta-Fastpasses for 6:30 p.m. (If you want detailed information about this unique attraction, you can read my write-up of that experience. If you don't, suffice it say that it was very cool. I mean, you get to shoot zombies. Come on.)

Biohazard – The Real

Our Biohazard tickets in hand, we stayed in New York to check out The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man – The Ride, which had completed the 4KHD refurbishment in early July. We waited a little less than an hour, winding through the Daily Bugle – very similar to the queue found in Orlando.

This being our first time experiencing the enhanced ride, it was worth every minute of wait time. An attraction that I already count as one of my favorites was now sharper, smoother and even more fun. It didn't hurt that we rode with a group of Japanese girls that couldn't have been more excited to hang with Spidey. They say that a great comedy movie is even better when you laugh along with a packed theater crowd. The same goes for a great dark ride when you enjoy it with people who are having the time of their lives.

Tomorrow: We continue our visit to Universal Studios Japan with Part Two.

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Theme park marketing, like a banshee

By Jacob Sundstrom
Published: August 12, 2013 at 12:50 PM

Kings Island announced the longest inverted roller coaster in the world on Thursday night. Banshee looks like an incredible coaster and a more than apt replacement for the much-maligned Son of Beast which was mercifully torn down a couple of years ago.

Banshee logo

What caught my eye more than the seven inversions and 4,000+ feet of track was this line from the attraction’s press release: “The first female-inspired thrill ride at a Cedar Fair Entertainment amusement park.”

A banshee is a mythical fairy-woman (commonly found in Irish folklore) that is said to appear near those who are about to die, particularly those in a violent way such as in battle. It is not uncommon for the banshee to not be seen -- but heard -- or, so the story goes.

My first question was whether that was true -- we know that when Cedar Fair first acquired the old Paramount parks (Kings Island being among them) there were several Top Spin attractions themed to the Tomb Raider franchise, which Robert noted in his original announcement post. But to say those wipe out their claim would seem a bit unfair; after all, Cedar Fair didn’t build the Lara Croft inspired attractions. Heck, they certainly didn’t waste any time re-theming them when the license expired.

Okay, so that claim stands; so the next question is: how many male themed attractions has Cedar Fair built?

Well, not many, to be honest. Cedar Fair isn’t in the business of paying for independent properties (or IP’s as they’re called in the biz) which is typically where male attractions come from. Think Indiana Jones, Spider-Man or Harry Potter. Cedar Fair doesn’t have any of those -- most of their attractions are themed to “things” (Wicked Twister, Flight Deck [let’s get a little jab in at that whopper of a roller coaster name]) or animals (The Bat, Diamondback, et. al).

The only major attractions that could fit into the male-centric category are Ghostrider, Renegade and MAYBE Maverick. That’s companywide -- and one could argue that these attractions are as much horse-themed as they are cowboy-themed. Perhaps Cedar Fair should have announced this as the first gender-themed attraction in their history!

If you look around the theme park industry a bit, you’ll notice that there is seldom a female-centric attraction to be found. Wonder Woman has yet to make her mark at a Six Flags park, Spider-Girl isn’t rushing into a Universal property anytime soon [there is Storm Force Accelatron - Editor] and one could argue that the princess-themed attractions at the Disney parks hardly depict women in a strong or positive light.

Though Kings Island appears to be depicting a banshee as a horrifying creature more than a semi-human fairy, we’ll take what we can get. To be fair, while a banshee is typically not the cause of someone’s death, hearing a banshee’s cry is (fairly) associated with a poor outcome for the hearer.

If Cedar Fair really wanted to take a stand in this area, they would build a roller coaster themed to a female gunslinger. Aren’t 90 percent of Cedar Fair’s themed attractions themed to the old west anyway? One more can’t hurt.

So is this Cedar Fair taking a stand in favor of empowering women in their theme parks? A ploy to appeal to women, a large portion of their customer base?

Probably not.

If we review the story arc of theme park marketing over the past 30 years, we’ll find that there has been one constant throughout it all: The claim to be the tallest, the fastest or, well, first. It’s like a disease. Instead of hyping an attraction based on its individual merits, theme parks have cannibalized themselves by using other attractions as measuring sticks. They have effectively conditioned their customers to accept nothing but something better than the last something.

Remember, these are the same geniuses that thought building a $15 million roller coaster every year was a sustainable business model. Ah, the late 90’s/early 2000s. Good times for theme park fans.

What we are seeing in the Banshee announcement is an extension of that theory. Cedar Fair has found a way to make a splash and get people talking about their new ride -- heck, I’m talking about it right now! Progressivism is trendy these days and the cynic in me is hesitant to say we’re making real progress on issues like women’s rights and Cedar Fair found a way to cash in on it. Marketing with progressivism as a convenient side effect? That’s an easy pill for a marketing department to swallow.

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Theme park history: A short history of Disney's Hollywood Studios

By Robert Niles
Published: August 11, 2013 at 5:35 PM

After Epcot opened in 1982, Disney's Imagineers started thinking about what was missing from World Showcase, specifically, which industries they could feature in future new pavilions. At the top of the list, the Imagineers put Disney's own industry — entertainment. But Epcot's Entertainment Pavilion soon grew into a proposal for a third theme park at the Walt Disney World Resort. That proposal got expanded and fast-tracked when Universal Studios began developing a nearby site for its Universal Studios Florida theme park in 1986.

Three years later, on May 1, 1989, the Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park opened, beating Universal Studios Florida by nearly a year. Universal executives cried foul, claiming Disney had copied the plans that Universal had shown then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner several years earlier, when he was the head of Paramount Pictures, and Universal was looking for partners for its Florida park. Eisner denied seeing the plans, and, anyway, Universal Studios Hollywood had already established a very public template for a movie studio theme park nearly two decades before — shows and attractions built around a working movie studio.

Except that no one was doing any substantial film or movie production in Orlando at the time. So Disney started some. It created a satellite of its Burbank animation studio, which would create new animated films as theme park visitors would look on through windows into the studio. And it launched a new version of its Mickey Mouse Club for the Disney Channel, to occupy soundstages in the studio theme park.

Disney long ago converted those soundstages into attraction spaces, but that All-New Mickey Mouse Club continues to influence pop culture, having launched the careers of Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, Ryan Gosling, and Christina Aguilera, among others. Disney's Florida animation studio also created the films Mulan, Lilo & Stitch and Brother Bear before Disney closed it in 2004.

Animation Academy
Disney animators no longer make movies at the park, but visitors now get the opportunity to learn how to draw Disney characters in the animation studio's replacement, Animation Academy.

Disney's also removed the MGM name from the park now known as Disney's Hollywood Studios. When MGM declined to renew the licensing deal that gave Disney the right to use its name, Disney renamed the park in January 2008. Yet MGM properties such as The Wizard of Oz continue to be featured in the park's Great Movie Ride. (At least for now.)

In front of the hat
C'mon, admit it. You've either taken this photo, or seen someone take it, if you've visited Disney's Hollywood Studios.

Disney's substantially expanded its studios theme park over the years, mostly at the expense of its studio tram tour, which is expected to close entirely within the next few years to make way for yet another expansion. The Muppets' 3D movie, Lights, Motors, Action auto stunt show, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids playground, Toy Story Midway Mania and the Walt Disney retrospective ("One Man's Dream") all occupy areas once taken by the park's studio tour.

In 1994, the park opened its Sunset Boulevard expansion, anchored by Rock 'n' Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith and the award-winning Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. A dedicated theater for Fantasmic! followed in 1998.

Today, Disney's Hollywood Studios is the fifth most-visited theme park in the United States, but last among the four Disney World theme parks. (Disneyland in Anaheim is the non-WDW park in the top five.) In an effort to boost the park's attendance, Disney has begun two as-yet unannounced projects that will once again remake large sections of the park.

The first is a new version of the popular Cars Land from Disney California Adventure in Anaheim. The second is a long-awaited Star Wars Land, to be built around the park's existing Star Wars attraction, Star Wars: The Adventures Continue. Neither new land will be open for several years, as Disney's not yet started construction in the parks.

Next: Universal Studios Florida


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The Imagineers behind Hong Kong Disneyland's Mystic Manor talk about their award-winning attraction, at Disney's D23

By Robert Niles
Published: August 9, 2013 at 9:48 PM

From the moment the first on-ride videos hit YouTube, theme park fans around the world have been raving about Hong Kong Disneyland's Mystic Manor. Theme Park Insider readers loved the new ride so much that you named it the World's Best New Attraction in the annual Theme Park Insider Awards last month.

This morning at the biennial Disney D23 Expo, Imagineers Joe Lanzisero and Mark Schirmer spoke about their work on Mystic Manor, a "redemption story," as Mark described it, of a beloved sidekick who messes up by opening an enchanted [Pandora's?] music box and then struggles to close it before anything else goes horribly (and hilariously) wrong. Joe and Mark described the project, the challenge of creating a new intellectual property from scratch, and the opportunities afforded by telling their story using a revolutionary new ride system.

Mystic Manor at D23

Here's an edited transcript of their remarks:

On creating an original story

Joe Lanzisero: "This has probably been a high point of my career, for a bunch of reasons. One, we got to create something totally new. We didn't have to do a Pixar project or something based on something else. [Laughter from audience] It's great that we have all that wonderful IP that we can go to mine for a project, like Monsters Inc. in Tokyo, which Mark and I did together, but this was an opportunity, like the original Imagineers had, to create something totally new -- we created new characters, and new ride system."

Mark and Joe
Mystic Manor project leads, Mark Schirmer, left, and Joe Lanzisero. With Albert the monkey in the, uh, middle.

"It has its genesis in some pre-existing Disney mythology. Those of you who have been to The Adventurers' Club [loud applause], thank you Joe Rohde for that concept; we took that same idea to Tokyo when I was doing the Tower of Terror there. They didn't know the whole Rod Sterling "Twilight Zone" thing, so we had to create a new story there. And we created this story about this Society of [Explorers and Adventurers] and Harrison Hightower, who owned the hotel there. He was a member of the society, well, surprisingly enough there was another member of the Society, Lord Henry Mystic, who, unlike some of the other characters in the Society -- some of them had kind of shady backgrounds -- Lord Henry here, he's an earnest guy. He's part of the British upper class, traveling the world, and along the way met this little monkey character [the sidekick, Albert]."

The two then played the Mystic Manor preshow for the audience:

Mark Schirmer: "With that preshow, the things we wanted to communicate in there were pretty straightforward: to introduce Albert and certainly Lord Henry, as he's voicing that over, and it was [also] about the music box -- the latest acquisition [in Lord Henry's collection]. It might have some interesting who-knows-what inside and we just need to be careful about it. We really wanted to communicate about those things."

Joe: "When we base an attraction on a movie, our guests come pre-wired with some emotional connection to the experience. They've seen the movie. They have the music from the movie. They know the characters from the movie. It's all in their head. So our job becomes planning those trigger moments. On a Winnie-the-Pooh ride, you're going to want to see Tigger bouncing around and hear the Tigger song. We just have to show that, and boom, that triggers in people's heads this emotional connection. We were starting here with a blank sheet of paper, so it became important for us to start establishing who these characters were and how they got to know each other. So besides that pre-show film, as you walk through the queue line, it's like a museum in his house. It's Lord Henry showing photos of his travels and the other members of the Society. But we also set up how Lord Henry first met Albert. He chose to rescue Albert, and it really creates this bond. They love each other. It's really a father and son-like relationship."

On the ride system

Mark: "One of the things that was really integral to this attraction was the ride system, and the ride vehicle. You may note that it is a trackless system. We actually have more than 200 RFID tags buried in the concrete floor to help guide this system. We start out by dispatching four vehicles at a time, but to help heighten the excitement we actually go down to single file, and then we'll group you back together at the end. We really wanted to help tell the story of this in the queue, where [we say] Lord Henry actually invented this. He was a bit of tinker as well as an explorer. He invented the Magneto-Electric Carriage [the ride vehicle] that he took to the Paris Exhibition of 1900 and of course won the gold medal."

Joe: "In our attractions, ride vehicle usually take on two roles. One, they're invisible, like on Haunted Mansion, with the Doom Buggies. They're really not part of the story. It's just a conveyance device that moves you through the house. In other attractions, Indiana Jones being a good example, or here, the ride vehicle is really part of the storytelling."

"It has the ability to start and stop, turn 360 degrees, go fast, go slow. It really becomes our camera in that we can tell people what we want them to look at. A lot of this is what Walt was really trying to do with the original Haunted Mansion, and that was to create a large-scale magic show. We have some of the most amazing special effects in this show, and the reason why we can pull them off -- most of them have a set-up, they play out and we move on to the next one -- is because we have the ability now with this ride vehicle to time out the whole experience to allow each scene to play through before moving on, unlike rides like Pirates or the Haunted Mansion, which have to be continuous -- it's just a cycle of things that go and go and go, and hopefully you catch the right moment. Here we are guaranteed always to get you at the right moment where we want to to see the particular thing."

On the importance of music and special effects

"Two really, really important things made this show special, and were so key to the storytelling. [One] was the music. We knew from the start that music would be an important part of this, going back to our heritage with great attractions such as It's Small World, Pirates and Haunted Mansion. I bet as I said those names, those songs popped into your head. That's great, because it become part of the experience. So we knew we wanted to have great music. And then this "music dust" [which escapes from the open music box] was so important. It almost becomes a character in how it has to comes alive and brings objects to life and such. So the fact that we were able to get Danny Elfman to do the music, and then to really kind of crack the code on a new special effect that had never been done, this music dust, were pivotal moments in making this happen."

Mark noted that they were able to recruit Elfman because his manager had been at Mark and Jim's initial session previewing Mystic Manor, at the original D23 Expo in 2009, and brought the Mystic Manor project to Elfman as a result.

The two also noted that Mystic Manor includes several homages to other Disney attractions, including an appearance by Trader Sam from the Jungle Cruise, singing busts much like those in the Haunted Mansion, and a Tiki God on a much larger scale than its fellow deities from the Enchanted Tiki Room. The ride also includes a scene with 4D effects, as bugs crawl from a mummy's sarcophagus and into your ride vehicle. (Hey, isn't that an homage to a Universal attraction, too?)

Speaking of Universal...

Joe: "We used a lot of projection in this show, but our goal from the start was that you would never know there was projection. You're not fooling anybody when you can tell there's a screen with something projected on it. There are whole rides that other companies have done where you put on 3D glasses, and it's all projected. I mean, they're cool, but it's not real. I think what makes this ride so much more believable is that you don't have 3D glasses on, everything is dimensional and real. It's all environmental. Wherever there was any kind of projection special effect, we worked very hard to combine things -- there's projection, there's fog effects, there's black light effects, there's animation effects -- everywhere we could to blend things in such a way that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and it became one believable thing."

The ride building
The two showed a floorplan of the Mystic Manor show building.

On character animation

"Originally, Lord Henry and Albert were going to be a lot more realistic looking. I have a background in animation, so I think about these things -- the expressiveness of an animation character, giving them big eyes, and exaggerated features. The early Imagineers knew this. Marc Davis and Blaine Gibson, when they created all the characters for the Haunted Mansion and Pirates, they're not real. The proportions are all exaggerated. The eyes are bigger. The limbs are exaggerated. All that's for an easy read. In our attractions you just have seconds to tell people what they're suppose to be feeling about this character."

Mark: "The ride is only five minutes long, and we've got so much story to tell. These guys have to be recognizable immediately."

Joe and Mark did not take questions at the end of their hour-long presentation, so there's still no word on when, or if, Mystic Manor or another attraction based on the Society of Explorers and Adventurers might appear in another Disney theme park.

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Disney's Imagineers tease Star Wars, Avatar projects at D23 convention

By Robert Niles
Published: August 9, 2013 at 3:37 PM

Disney's putting on its biennial D23 convention in Anaheim, but there's no big Disney Parks presentation this time, so don't expect any official confirmation of new projects during the three-day event.

But that doesn't mean that Disney's Imagineers can't drop some hints. The Disney Parks pavilion at this year's D23 is completely devoted to celebrating the 60th anniversary of Walt Disney Imagineering, and the first displays you see after going through the pavilion's preshow spotlight three of Imagineering's biggest upcoming projects.

Disney Springs model

The first is a model of the Downtown Disney Orlando re-do, Disney Springs. But, let's face it, that's not the one you care about. What's this to the right, with those big crates labeled "Project Orange Harvest"?


It's R2D2, chirping and rolling around the floor, while fans queue for a photo. (I loved the WDI nametag: Artoo, hometown "Naboo.") But these are not the droids we're looking for. What we want is up there, in that crate to the right.

Top secret Star Wars Land plans

Yep, it's the "top secret plans" to Walt Disney World's Star Wars Land. What's in 'em? Well, I told you this was a tease. That's as close as we're getting to them, for now.

On the other side of the Disney Springs model lies the other tease: The desk of an Imagineer working on Disney's Animal Kingdom's Avatar Land.

Avatar Land design

The host guarding the desk told me that the Imagineer "is just back from a research trip to Pandora." See? There's his backpack, complete with a luggage tag from the Burbank airport to Pandora station.

Pandora backpack

And the host even let me try it on for size. (It's heavy! Maybe the Avatar Land plans are in there, too?)

Ready for my trip to Avatar Land

Disney's prepared a quick video tour of other highlights from the pavilion, which includes a "Hatbox Ghost" animatronic, though without the elusive disappearing head effect.

D23 is sold out for tomorrow, and concludes Sunday. Later tonight, we'll bring you coverage of this morning's Imagineering presentation about Hong Kong Disneyland's Theme Park Insider Award-winning new attraction, Mystic Manor.

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Kings Island confirms Banshee roller coaster for 2014

By Robert Niles
Published: August 8, 2013 at 9:10 PM

Tonight Kings Island announced its new attraction for 2014: Banshee.

Opening next April at the Cincinnati-area amusement park, this Bolliger & Mabillard roller coaster will be the world's longest inverted coaster, at more than 4,124 feet or track length and a two-minute, 40-second ride cycle. The coaster will feature seven inversions and a top speed of 68 mph.

Here's the computer-generated POV, courtesy the park:

Kings Island is claiming that Banshee will be the first "female-inspired thrill ride at a Cedar Fair Entertainment Company amusement park," but let's not forget that when Kings Island was a Paramount Park, it had a Tomb Raider-themed ride, and as every male gamer of a certain age remembers, Tomb Raider very much had a female lead.

Banshee is going onto the site of the former Son of Beast roller coaster, which the park tore down last year after closing it in 2009, following years of bad reviews and mishaps.

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Blog Flume Filter for August 8, 2013

By Jeff Elliott
Published: August 8, 2013 at 1:56 PM

Disneyland – Work continues on the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. I was excited about this until I heard that they were retracking the entire thing, then I just thought that it was money that could have been spent on a new attraction. I just don't understand Disney sometimes.

Speaking of not understanding Disney sometimes, I don't quite understand why the whole Jungle Cruise isn't about the fascinating plant life instead of the fake animals and bad jokes.

Walt Disney World – I just ran across a video that is sort of a primer for what MyMagic + is bringing to the parks. Live it. Love it. Gripe about it online…

Universal Studios Florida – As we predicted, the walls came down. And now we have video.

Universal Studios Hollywood – Over the last week they just announced that they are doing a maze themed to Ozzy Osborne and his pals. The plot of the maze is that you are an old, fried has-been that can't seem to stop swearing every third word and need to find the bathroom in the middle of the night in the dark. Here's the announcement:

Dollywood – As of right now, parking at Dollywood and its water park is free until Sept 2. I worry that this might be an indication that attendance is down for the year.

Pigeon Forge – The Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster is now open. What the video does not show is that you have a brake so you can slow yourself down. But, honestly, brakes are for little girls who sleep with stuffed unicorns…the rest of us need to man up and snap off the break before you start. If you can tell anything about how fun this ride is, the laughing from the guy filming the video should be some kind of indication.

Silver Dollar City – Outlaw Run has made two modifications to the restraint system and is now able to take larger guests again. According to what I have heard, guests with waists as large as 46” were able to ride, which seems to be exceeding what most rides will take before the walk of shame. I am extremely impressed when how rapidly this park responded to this issue.

Six Flags St. Louis – You know those Deer Hunting games that eat your quarters and them simulate going out into the wild to hunt deer and other large game. Apparently SFSL is super-sizing this attraction and actually doing bow hunting of deer on property. I am sure this has special conditions like needing to be staying on property, with a season pass, and being the cousin of the general manager, but they are doing it. I wonder if they would let me put up a hunters blind at the top of the Boss roller coaster?

Kentucky Kingdom – Thunder Run is currently getting its track replaced. It's a bummer that the new track is not looking like the steel stuff from Rocky Mountain Coasters. Although it is really nice to actually see some working getting done as the park makes the attempt to ride from its ashes.

Las Vegas – Circus Circus – Footers are starting to go in for their S&S Power El Loco coaster. While this coaster will have a slow throughput, it packs a lot of thrills into a tiny little footprint.

Kings Island – Normally we like to have Mr. Niles look at the blue prints and then give us his take on what the new attraction is going to be. Well, to be honest, Mr. Niles is busy with "themed" attraction and doesn't have time for stuff like this. So…feel free to play detective yourself and discuss what we know about the new coaster in the talkback below. Also, KI may just be messing with us, but there is some rumbling that this new coaster might be named Bat and not Banshee…although it might all be subterfuge. At least the video looks real and the manufacturing codes on blue track coming out of the B&M plant match up with the blueprints. KI is sticking by their story that this one will be a record breaker…but what record? They will make their official announcement tonight, so get your predictions in now.

Alton Towers – The Smiler has popped another bolt, been down for a couple of days, been repaired, and then reopened again. One has to start wondering if maybe there is a bigger problem here or just a lot of use, bad weather, and bad luck.

Avatar – This series of movies (and soon to be Disney's Animal Kingdom land) has announce the release dates of all three sequels that they are currently planning. Holiday 2016, 2017, and 2018. All three films will be shot back to back starting sometime next year. Apparently James Cameron has figured out the story paces and was able to split it all down into three movies that will be written by different people. One has to wonder if the new DAK land will incorporate as much of the new material as possible.

Muppets 2 – The second new reboot Muppet movie has released its trailer. In a case like this where they do not want to give away certain plot points this early, they need to do something else other than flash random images at you. I think they wasted time and money assembling this. The Muppets have always been about sketches…why not write an amusing sketch that would get the fans excited about the return? Why not an amusing sketch about them trying to write an amusing sketch for the movie trailer? C'mon guys, after the Lone Ranger, I figured you'd try a little harder. Please contact me through the TPI messaging system if you need more guidance…or a script…

Mickey Mouse Club 1970's – I may be dating myself here a little bit…but…when I was a kid, instead of asking the timeless question of whether you preferred Ginger or MaryAnn, we had the not so timeless question of whether you preferred Blair, Jo, or Tootie. To be honest, I was always a Molly fan, but when she left the show, my second choice was Blair...I guess that says a lot about me…

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Theme Park Insider interview with Disney's Jack Lindquist

By Robert Niles
Published: August 7, 2013 at 3:36 PM

Many theme park fans might know Jack Lindquist as the first president of Disneyland, a role he played from 1990 to his retirement in 1993. But Jack started working at Disneyland a few months after the park opened in 1955. Along the way, he developed or helped develop many of the practices and promotions that became Disney and theme park industry standards, including off-site ticket sales and after-hours special events. He even invented the Disney Dollar!

It's important for theme park fans to recognize that theme parks operate they way that they do today not by some accident, but because innovative leaders such as Jack Lindquist (and last week's interviewee Marty Sklar) figured out how to make them work. Jack's written about his years working for Disney in his book, In Service To The Mouse: My Unexpected Journey to Becoming Disneyland's First President [$8.99 for Kindle], and he spoke with us this week.

Like a great manager, Jack gives much credit to the cast members he worked with over the years, but Jack's willingness to embrace innovation surely helped establish Disney as the industry leader in theme parks for his generation, as well as for the next. Disney honored Jack as a Disney Legend in 1994, and, I hope, IAAPA one day will honor him with a spot in its theme park industry Hall of Fame.

Disney Legend plaque
Jack Lindquist's Disney Legend plaque, on display at Diseny corporate headquarters in Burbank.

You can listen to our complete interview with Jack Lindquist on the Theme Park Insider podcast, available now via iTunes. A partial transcript follows:

Robert: You started at Disneyland as its advertising manager, just a few months after the park opened in 1955. Obviously, Walt himself helped sell America on Disneyland with his television show. But getting people from dreaming about a Disney theme park trip to actually buying their tickets take a lot of additional work. Along the way, you developed or helped develop many of the ways of doing that: off-site sales of tickets, special events, giveaways, even the "I'm going to Disneyland" commercials. How were you able to develop so many promotions that not only worked, but became standards for other companies to follow and imitate?

Jack: I think it was I continually tried to find ideas that were different, that hadn't been done, that needed to be done, and to design promotions and ad campaigns around that. One of the best things we had going in the very early days of Disneyland was ignorance. We didn't know we couldn't do something, but we knew it had to be done, so we just went ahead and did it. There were no books to go by; there had never been a project like this before. So you just had to improvise, be intuitive. I just did what was necessary.

That's how the whole thing with the New Year's Eve party, with the advance sale of tickets, came about. I knew that we couldn't fill a New Year's Eve party, and sell 5-6,000 tickets at a minimum, just by having people come to a box office in Anaheim. So we started talking to stores. Pretty soon we had 8-10 locations, from Long Beach to Pasadena to Westwood to Newport Beach, where people could get tickets, in advance, and not have to drive to Anaheim. And it worked. We sold about 5,000 tickets away from the park, and about 3,500 ticket at the park. And we didn't pay any commissions to any of those outlets. As I told [them], 'I'll just drive people into your store. If they buy something [else], good. I can't promise you that, but they'll be there, and it's up to you to capture while they're there.'

On "I'm going to Disneyland!":

Michael Eisner and [his wife] Jane were having dinner at the Plaza Inn on the night that they opened Star Tours, and they were hosting Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager, who'd just flown around the world in that small plane. Jane Eisner said, 'My gosh, you folks have flown around the world nonstop, what are you going to do next?' And [Jeana] said, 'we're going to Disneyland!' Jane turned to Michael and said, 'That's a good phrase, remember it.'

After dinner, Michael came outside and found me and Tom Elrod, the VP of marketing at Walt Disney World. So Tom and I talked about we could use [the line.] We said there's a Super Bowl game in about three weeks: Denver versus the New York Giants, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. What if we had the MVP from that game, right at the end of the game, on the field, say 'I'm going to Disney World! I'm going to Disneyland!' Can we make that happen?

We went to the NFL, went to NBC, and then we talked about who would be the MVP. We decided that the quarterbacks would be the best bet. So we went to Phil Simms and John Elway and their agents and started negotiating. We signed both of them, and as it worked out, Phil Simms was the MVP. We shot it as soon as the game ended, when they were on the field. And overnight, we got it to the Today Show, where we bought time for the next morning, as well as on Good Morning America and the CBS Morning News. And the thing that happened, it got picked up and ran on news shows all over the country, gratis.

Then we went to the World Series and did the same thing. We went to the Indianapolis 500. We went to the NBA Finals. People expected those commercials immediately following a major sporting event. And it all came from remarks that a young lady made to Jane Eisner. Jane deserves all the credit for recognizing that was a great advertising line.

Robert: Many fans might know you just as the first president of Disneyland, but you worked on projects in Florida, too, including the development of Epcot. In your book, you've got some great stories about trying to recruit nations to become part of World Showcase — stories that make me wonder how anyone ever gets anything done in international diplomacy. What's your favorite memory from the Epcot project?

Jack: There are so many, but probably my favorite was the time we spent in Iran with the Shah. It was exactly a year before the overthrow of his regime. We spent five weeks there. He was very gracious; we met with him, his wife and his top leaders. I have no idea how ruthless he may have been as the ruler of that country. You felt an undercurrent — there were things happening, you didn't know what — you just felt it. The thing [the Shah] was most impressed with, though, the thing he kept referring over and over to us, was that when he took the throne after World War II, 98 percent of his people were illiterate. And just that year, reports show that over 52 percent of his people could read and write. He was so proud that 50,000 young Iranians were going, at the government's expense, to universities all over the world, and that they would come back and be the leaders of Iran in the 21st century.

Robert: Well, he was right.

Jack: Yeah, but he didn't see that side. World Showcase was an interesting project. For three years, I traveled over 300,000 miles a year, and visited 43 different countries.

Robert: Later in the 1980s, you pulled off some epic giveaway promotions, for Disneyland's 30th and 35th birthdays. Everything from free tickets to cars. What made you develop those promotions, and why don't we see parks giving away stuff like that anymore?

Jack: I don't know! [Laughs] I know why we did it, though. In 1985, that followed the Olympics in Los Angeles, which everyone predicted would be a boom for tourism, and turned out was a bust. The Olympics was a spectacular show, but it didn't drive hotel occupancy, theme park visitation or anything that we expected. So we were coming off about 9.2 million attendance for 1984, and we needed something to really highlight '85. I was sitting around thinking, 'Well, it'll be our 30th anniversary." Well, nobody celebrated a 30th of anything, but I said, 'Why not?' So I got started thinking that it's our birthday, but I want to give presents to our guests. I talked with a people inside and outside of the company, and the one single thing [people wanted] was automobiles. We went to General Motors, which was one of our new lessees at Epcot Center, and we worked out a deal with them. We gave away that year 106 General Motors cars, from Chevrolets to Cadillacs.

We started with every 30th person won something, then every 300th, 3,000th, 30,000th, 300,000th, and three millionth. In my original memo to [then-CEO] Ron [Miller], I said that if we don't do 12 million people between Jan. 1, 1985 and Dec. 31, 1985, I'll resign. So he'll win if we lose. And we did 12,040,000 people.

It worked. But it took everyone in the park to make it work. We totally computerized our entire front gate. We had Price Waterhouse underwrite the program, to give it the credibility it needed. We had to abide by all the federal and state regulations for lotteries and so forth. We had several hundred people win who never attended the park. We had a computerized turnstile set up [over by the kennel]. They went through it just the same as if they bought a ticket and went through the front gate, and if it hit one of those numbers, they won something. I think we had four of those people win cars, who never went into the park.

Robert: So Disney Dollars were your idea? How did you make that happen?

Jack: I was flying back from a trip to Europe, and you've got 11 hours' time to kill. I was going through my change, and there were francs, and Deutsch marks, and pounds, and so forth. And I thought, you know a lot of these countries we just visited, we do more people per year than their population. So why can't we have a currency?

This was not some cheap promotion thing. I wanted a real currency. So we went to the Secret Service and we built in all the safeguards for counterfeiting. It was an expensive project, but we printed the money, and we introduced it in May 1985. I think we had 40 or 50 people standing in line, overnight, at the box office to be the first people to purchase Disney Dollars. One man, the first morning, bought $10,000 worth.

I got a call about two weeks later from the Kellogg's people. They'd heard about Disney Dollars and were interested in talking with us about putting a Disney Dollar in every box of corn flakes. They came to California, we had a meeting, and I said, 'How many boxes of corn flakes in a month are we talking about?' And he said, 'About a million and a half.' I said, 'I'm very interested.'

Everything went fine until he said 'What's the discount?' And I said, 'There is no discount.' He said, 'You don't understand. We're going to use a million and a half Disney Dollars. What's it going to cost us?' And I said, 'A million and a half dollars.'

I told him, 'I'll make you a deal. You go to the U.S. Treasury and tell them you're going to put a dollar in every box of Kellogg's. I will give you the same discount you get from them.' We never saw them again.

I think that was the success of it. It wasn't just a promotional dollar. It was a Disney Dollar. You can go into a Disney park today, take your old Disney Dollar to the box office, and get a [U.S.] dollar for it. The last report I got was in 1996 from the head of finance in Florida who told me that, at that time, there was about $135 million in Disney Dollars that were out. So I said, 'Good, [with that] I just built Indiana Jones at Disneyland!' [Laughs]

Robert: You were one of the first — if not the first — advocate inside the company for building a second gate in Anaheim. What was your involvement in that effort over the years?

Jack: I was the guy on the soapbox, starting in 1982, for a second gate at Disneyland. You can keep adding new attractions to the park, but you need to do something like Florida did with Epcot Center, a whole new park, something you can really make a fuss about, more than any new attraction.

Disneyland was an aging property. A second gate was the most practical way to extend length of stay — and that's the basis for any second gate. So instead of a one, one-and-a-half day visit, you're going to stay three days. I felt that's exactly what we needed in California. I fought for that from 1982 until I retired, when Michael bought off on the concept of the second gate. I didn't [then] exactly what it was going to be, and it turned out to be California Adventure, which wasn't a good park when it opened. But in 2012, when they opened Cars Land, now it's a good park.

A second park has to be real, or perceived, to be equal to the first park. Epcot certainly was. California Adventure wasn't when it opened. I think during the construction of California Adventure, someone needed to go up to Michael and say, 'If you're not going to spend at least a couple hundred million more dollars, at least, to make California Adventure a park that can be perceived as equal to Disneyland, leave it a parking lot.'

Michael changed over the years. I enjoyed very much working with Michael from 1984 to 1993, and that's because he had Frank Wells. They were a great team. When we lost Frank, I think Michael really lost more than he could cope with.

Robert: What's your advice to anyone getting into this industry today? What does a newcomer to this business need to know in order to have the same kind of success that you enjoyed during your career?

Jack: You gotta like it. You gotta like it from the first time you see it. Then stick with it — you never know what's going to happen. I was very happy with the job I had for an ad agency, but I saw Disneyland, in May 1955, two months before it opened. Just looking at it, I fell in love with it. I had the chance to go to work there, and I jumped at it. I don't know why. It didn't make economic sense or geographic sense. I lived in Burbank. So for [the first] six months, I drove from Burbank to Anaheim, without a freeway.

Learn everything you can. I never thought that marketing was the most important thing in the world. It isn't. It's everything working together. It's operations. It's maintenance. It's finance. It's legal. And today, all of those things are a lot more important than they were in 1955. It's the whole. Learn everything you can about every facet of how the park works.

You can learn more about Jack Lindquist's Disney career through his book, In Service To The Mouse: My Unexpected Journey to Becoming Disneyland's First President [$8.99 for Kindle], or by downloading our complete, 40-minute interview with Jack [MP3 file, 38MB].

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Universal Orlando announces another Harry Potter fan weekend event

By Robert Niles
Published: August 7, 2013 at 2:13 PM

Universal Orlando has announced another special weekend event for Harry Potter fans.

The event will take place at Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida Jan. 24-26. Vacation packages will go on sale Aug. 22 at noon Eastern time, and will include admission to a private evening event at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, as well as early morning entry to the Wizarding World, breakfast at the Three Broomsticks, and reserved admission to weekend events, in addition to three nights' hotel accommodation and a three-day, park-to-park Universal Orlando theme park ticket.

Universal hasn't yet announced which Harry Potter stars will attend the January event. Here are Rupert Grint (Ron), Tom Felton (Draco) and Michael Gambon (Dumbledore) at the opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in June 2010.

Packages start at $675 per person for Universal's three on-site hotels and $395 for nearby partner hotels, based on two people in a room. (Rooms at Universal's Royal Pacific, the least expensive on-site hotel, start around $225 a night in January, otherwise. And a three-day, park-to-park ticket is $159.99 per person, online, for price comparison.)

Visitors with regular park-to-park tickets during the event weekend will be able to get into the Harry Potter film tribute on Friday and, on a first-come, first-in basis, the wand masterclass with choreographer Paul Harris and Q&A sessions with the movies' cast members and filmmakers on Saturday and Sunday.

Universal also ran a Harry Potter tribute event in November 2011. You can find more information about the upcoming event on Universal's website, at www.universalorlando.com/landing/harry-potter-celebration.aspx.

So, who's going?

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Fix This Park: Knott's Berry Farm

By Robert Niles
Published: August 6, 2013 at 10:59 AM

Theme parks fans long have recognized a pecking order in the theme park industry. At the top, offering attractions and facilities of the highest quality (and, as a result, attracting the largest attendance) has stood Disney. One step below that stood the Universal, Busch and SeaWorld parks, which offered great rides and shows, but usually in facilities that were a notch less fancy than those built by Disney. Next came the regional amusement parks, such as Cedar Fair and Six Flags, which operated even more basic facilities, focusing on lightly or unthemed roller coasters and carnival rides.

But those divisions are beginning to blur, at least at the top of the industry. Disney took a huge step backward in quality with its Walt Disney Studios park in Paris and the original California Adventure, though it's now investing billions to reverse that course with top-quality projects such as Cars Land and Buena Vista Street. At the same time, Universal's working to close the gap from the opposite direction. With the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal's now building attractions at the Disney level. (Some of us might argue that Universal's Potter exceeds Disney's current standards.) SeaWorld's becoming more ambitious in its construction projects, too, with more richly themed environments such as Orlando's Antarctica and San Diego's Explorers Reef.

So what does this have to do with Knott's Berry Farm? Knott's once stood as Disneyland's near-equal in quality. In the 1950s and 60s, the parks operated more or less as a duopoly in the theme park business, with Knott's staying open on weekdays that Disneyland closed, and vice versa, in a not-so-subtle effort to share crowds between the parks. For decades, Disney's Imagineers have been drawing inspiration from Knott's attractions, most notably the Timber Mountain Log Ride that led directly to the creation of Disney's Splash Mountain. One can make a strong argument that many little kids in southern California in the 1980s preferred Knott's Camp Snoopy to Disneyland's New Fantasyland. Disney even considered buying Knott's in the 1980s and 90s, before deciding to develop California Adventure instead.

But Cedar Fair bought Knott's from the Knott family instead. And under Cedar Fair management, Knott's began to devolve into just another Cedar Fair iron park. Knott's closed dark rides, cut shows and started putting its money into roller coasters. It's once-industry-leading food quality suffered. It even obliterated its park entrance by paving over its lake and dropping a massive B&M inverted coaster on the site.

Knott's entrance

Then, in 2011, former Disneyland president Matt Ouimet took over Cedar Fair. And under Ouimet, who knew Knott's past and potential, Cedar Fair's began to change its approach to Knott's Berry Farm. The company invested more than a million dollars to refurbish the Log Ride with state-of-the-art animatronics, lighting and scenery. The food's improved, with new selections and recipes. And park officials aren't exactly hiding their desire to perform another Log Ride-like makeover of the park's Calico Mine Train attraction, too.

Inside the log ride
Inside the "new" Timber Mountain Log Ride

So as we talk about "fixing this park," let's acknowledge that Knott's already has started. It has made and is making changes that merit the attention of Disney and Universal theme park fans. But let's take it from there. What else could Cedar Fair and Knott's do to move this park out of the "iron park" echelon and instead challenge Disney, Universal and Busch Gardens parks for quality, theming and entertainment value?

Let's review what's already in place. Knott's Mystery Lodge remains one of the great theme park shows anywhere. The work of BRC Imagination Arts, whose artists have created many works for Disney, Mystery Lodge would make a fine addition to Epcot's American Adventure pavilion, if ever Disney wanted to tell more of the story of Native Americans. It should be a must-see for theme park fans.

But one attraction, even of the quality of Mystery Lodge, isn't enough to get theme park fans to buy a ticket into a park. They need more. The Timber Mountain Log Ride always was a nice ride, but after this summer's renovations, it's simply eye-popping. (Skip to 1:11 for the start of the ride POV.)

For the refurbishment, Knott's contracted with Garner Holt Productions, which also has created animatronics for Disney, among other clients. Couple the new Log Ride with Mystery Lodge, and now Knott's has two top-quality themed attractions to offer fans. If the Log Ride refurbishment drives attendance gains this year, it's likely we'll see a similar refurb of the Calico Mine Train. That'd be three top-quality attractions.

We're getting there.

Let's talk about food, the original foundation of Knott's Berry Farm. Two years ago, I visited Knott's with my son and we ate at the Ghost Town Grill with the intent that I'd review the restaurant for Theme Park Insider. But the food was so bad — nearly inedible with a funky smell and taste — that I killed the piece. Knott's attendance was falling and I didn't feel like wasting your time with a post knocking a park you weren't paying attention to anyway.

I revisited Knott's for the reopening of the Log Ride this summer and ate at the Ghost Town Grill again. What a difference!

Beef brisket sandwich

The Blacksmith's Smoked Beef Brisket Sandwich, with cole slaw and sweet potato fries ($14.99), offered plenty of roast beef with a nice smoky flavor that elevated it far above a typical deli sandwich. The crunchy cole slaw balanced the rich meat well, and I ended up trading the sweet potato fries with my daughter for the tasty mashed potatoes she'd selected with her Calico Classic Cheeseburger ($13.99). The third side option was regular French fries, and we agreed those were the best of the bunch, perfectly crispy on the outside with just enough potato fluff in the middle.

Chicken tenders and fries

Our only complaint? Cost. Sorry, as much as my son loved to devour his chicken tenders and fries (after grudgingly letting me try a few fries), there's no way a plate of chicken strips and fries should cost $15.49.

So while Knott's is making progress, there's still far to go before this park makes the jump to the next level. What should the park do next?

How about putting a new dark ride in the old "Kingdom of the Dinosaurs" space? Maybe a Snoopy vs. the Red Baron shooter?

Or how about a steel track treatment for the increasingly rough GhostRider, once one of the industry's best wooden coasters?

Or how about a thorough revamp of Camp Snoopy, ditching the scaled-down carnival rides in favor of more active themed play areas, such as those found down the coast at Legoland? (I hope that Knott's always keeps the Huff-n-Puff, though. That's an ideal kiddie ride — one that demand physical activity to make work.)

And, finally, how about some "addition by subtraction" and shipping that B&M Inverted, Silver Bullet, up the state to Knott's Cedar Fair sister park, California's Great America, which could use a big new coaster? (*Update, in response to comments: Okay, maybe not to CGA. Perhaps another Cedar Fair park?) That would clear space for Knott's to rebuild a themed entrance worthy of a top-quality park. Maybe Knott's could even bring its lake back.

What do you think? What does Knott's need to do to get your business, as a theme park fan? How would you fix Knott's Berry Farm?

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A haunted house where you can fight back? It's Universal Studios Japan's 'Biohazard - The Real'

By Bryan Wawzenek
Published: August 5, 2013 at 10:35 AM

Doors slam. Girls shriek. Something not too far away unleashes a guttural roar. The sounds are familiar to anyone who's waited to enter a haunted house attraction. The difference this time is that you have a gun in hand, and are ready to defend yourself from any attacking creatures.

A haunted house in which you get to fight back is the basic concept behind Biohazard — The Real, the new walkthrough attraction at Universal Studios Japan. My wife and I were fortunate to be visiting the Osaka theme park in late July, just a few days after this live-action video game had opened. In fact, there was no mention of it on the park's English language map or website (it still isn't on there). I had been tipped off to look for Biohazard — The Real by some chatter on theme park message boards.

Bioharzard The Real entrance

Biohazard — The Real is based on the 'Resident Evil' video game franchise, which is known as 'Biohazard' in Japan. The attraction, like many of the games, takes place in Raccoon City, where mutated creatures and zombie-like humans have been on a kill-crazy rampage. Guests who "enlist" are joining the games' S.T.A.R.S. force that's responsible for putting down as many of these nasties as possible.

Before coming to Universal Japan, I had read that Biohazard — The Real was set up in the Palace Hotel in the New York section of the park. Sure enough, there was Biohazard signage and a small queue in front of the theater. Before making our way into the roped-off area, we were intercepted by a friendly attraction worker in a red military beret who helped us understand what to do.

Between her excellent hand gestures and a map that she could point to, we learned that we had to walk back to the Hollywood portion of Universal in order to get our tickets for Biohazard. This, as we found, was a somewhat common practice for some of the most in-demand attractions at Universal Japan. For instance, for the backdrop version of Hollywood Dream — The Ride, we waited in a separate line to get tickets for a specific hour later in the day. So it's basically Universal Japan's version of a Fastpass. We watched 'Biohazard' game trailers as we waited for 10 minutes in an air-conditioned theater until we got our tickets, which would be valid about four hours later. Simple enough.

Queue worker

Just following our entrance time, we lined up with a few dozen folks outside the Palace Theater, which was advertising the Raccoon City Film Festival. After about 15 minutes, we entered the lobby, where newscasts of Raccoon City's calamities played out on TV screens before us, occasionally interrupted by commercials for the military force we were set to join. Although nearly everything on the screens was spoken in Japanese, we were handed a laminated info sheet that let us know what to expect: we'd be given a pistol and an arm band that would show our level of "infection." Green meant good, yellow meant not-so-good and red meant zombie meat.

Eventually, we were allowed upstairs into a hallway made up to look like an alley and then into a gun shop. The line was split into groups of eight and we were briefed by a fast-talking man behind a counter — all in Japanese, of course. After handing us our pistols (each loaded with 30 rounds) and arm bands (all glowing green), the man looked at us and, making sure we knew what was about to happen, said, "You. Shoot. Zombie." We smiled, gave him the OK sign and all was well… except for, you know, the whole about-to-enter-a-zombie-apocalypse thing.

The door opened and off we went into the dank, dark streets of Raccoon City, littered with the dead and, in some surprises, the not-so-dead. The people at the front of our group began popping off shots almost immediately, while we back-of-the-liners had to watch out behind us for any late-comers. And , yes, there were plenty of hungry zombies, stumbling their way after us. Much of the attraction is a bit of a blur, but I can tell you that the scares came at a furious pace, the actors were all fantastic and the seven-foot-tall Tyrant (which was part of Universal Japan's Raccoon City display for Halloween Horror Nights) was more than a little menacing.

I wasn't sure if this was going to be like laser tag or Buzz Lightyear's Zombie Blasters, and as it turned out, it wasn't really like either. There's no laser target projecting from your weapon and no real way to "kill" the creatures you see; it's just point and shoot. The live zombie actors are coached to recoil or slump against a wall when they hear the muffled pop of the guns. So, it's essentially a souped-up version of cops and zombies. Bang, bang. You're dead. And that's still pretty awesome.

I also wasn't sure how the "life meter" would work. As it turns out, it didn't seem to be a real factor. Everyone in the group was blinking red after the second room (of, maybe, nine or 10 total), and we were all still blinking red when we came to the reload station before the final push. Our fellow officers checked our life meters before the last section to make sure we weren't on solid red, but it wasn't clear if this was just for show or if they'd actually pull you out at that point. I doubt it.

The last section was rife with bloodthirsty baddies coming at us from every angle and (SPOILER ALERT) we all died — complete with a "You are Dead" kill screen projected on the wall in front of us. Wah-wah...

As we handed in our equipment and thanked the uniformed officers for their help, a woman from our group who had ended up right behind me began apologizing for clinging to my backpack during some of the scariest parts. I laughed and told her it wasn't any problem, doing my best to make myself understood that I wasn't upset in the least and that I had just as much fun as she seemed to have. If we had spoken the same language, I would have told her that I'm used to having my wife cling to my back in these sorts of things. I guess giving her a gun changed all that!

Biohazard — The Real was a blast with a great twist on the standard haunted house routine — and every member of our group seemed to agree. I'm sure a Resident Evil — The Real would be the must-see attraction at Halloween Horror Nights at Universal's U.S. parks. That said, I would love to visit a more intricate version of this concept, perhaps with guns that display laser targets and require accuracy and life meters that are actually tied to what happens on the streets of Raccoon City. Then again, maybe I've played too many video games.

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Theme Park History: A short history of Epcot

By Anthony Murphy
Published: August 4, 2013 at 6:21 PM

Walt Disney World's second theme park, Epcot (originally Epcot Center) opened October 1, 1982, but its origins go back to before the creation of Disney World, as seen in this clip from Walt Disney's ABC television show:

Walt Disney envisioned Epcot (which stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) to be an actual city where people would work and live with new technology presented by the very best in industry. After Walt Disney's death, the company decided against building and managing a city, especially without Walt's guidance. However, Walt's original vision for Epcot did push the Walt Disney company to convince the Florida legislature to create the Reedy Creek Improvement District and Lake Buena Vista, government entities effectively controlled by the Walt Disney Company, allowing the company great latitude in developing the Walt Disney World Resort.

Because of the success of Disneyland in California, the Walt Disney Company initially created a larger clone of the iconic park first (the Magic Kingdom) for Walt Disney World, but the ideal of Epcot continued to intrigue people inside and outside the company. When Imagineers considered developing Epcot as a theme park, some wanted the park to focus on new technology, while others wanted to showcase international culture. Eventually, they pushed the two plans together and created the hourglass-shaped combination of Future World and World Showcase that we know as Epcot today. It was Disney's first theme park not to be a Disneyland-like "Magic Kingdom."

Disney's then-CEO E. Cardon Walker dedicated the park:

Epcot relied heavily on corporate and international sponsorship in developing its many pavilions, and the massive capital investment Disney made in the park not only jump-started the company's theme park division, which had languished creatively following the completion of projects underway at the time of Walt's death, it helped launch the careers of many influential theme park design professionals, including Monte Lund, Bob Rogers, and Rick Rothschild. However, progress eventually stalled and Disney's not added a new Future World pavilion since building Mission: Space in 2003 and hasn't added a World Showcase pavilion since Norway in 1988.

Here are the original Future World pavilions still operating in some form today:

Spaceship Earth

Spaceship Earth: Located in the park's iconic geodesic sphere (no, it's not a giant golf ball), this attraction has had the same theme since its opening: communication. Originally sponsored by Bell/AT&T, it's now sponsored by Siemens and features narration by Judi Dench. Spaceship Earth was one of the first attractions to portray future technologies now come to life, such as Skype and Google hangouts.

Communicore: Home to ever-changing industry-sponsored exhibits on technology, especially computers, the Communicore pavilions were rebranded as Innoventions in 1994. Today, Innoventions West provides a home for Disney character meet and greets —, something that never happened in the park's early years, when Disney characters were kept out of the park entirely.

Universe of Energy: Known for its massive animatronic dinosaurs, this pavilion features a unique moving theater, which carries 80 people in each of six vehicles that glide through the pavilion, guided by a thin wire underneath the pavilion floor. Originally sponsored by Exxon, the pavilion closed temporarily in March 1989 to remove a preshow film reference to the Exxon Valdez tanker after its oil spill. In 1996, Disney revamped the attraction, renaming it Ellen's Energy Crisis, and later, Ellen's Energy Adventure, with a new preshow and narrative featuring Ellen DeGeneres, replacing the somewhat dry narration by Vic Perrin. In 2004, ExxonMobil dropped its sponsorship.

World of Motion: Sponsored by General Motors, this dark ride gave you a history of human transportation. It closed in 1996 and was replaced by Test Track, a ride through a vehicle design lab which was revamped in 2012 and is now sponsored by GM division Chevrolet. Both attractions use the same show building, which looks like a wheel from the top.

The Land: Developed and sponsored by Kraft, this pavilion originally represented the development of agriculture and food technology. Afetr 10 years, Nestle took over the sponsorship and all three of its attractions were revamped. In 2004, Disney demolished the Food Rocks animatronic show to make way for a major expansion of the pavilion to house Soarin', a clone of the movie attraction from Disney California Adventure. Many of items grown in the greenhouses seen during the Living with the Land ride are used by the Garden Grill Restaurant, slow-rotating restaurant that overlooks the ride.

In addition, Disney opened the Imagination pavilion in 1983, which has been home to three iterations of the Journey Into Imagination ride, though none as beloved as the original. The Living Seas pavilion, featuring what was the world's largest aquarium at the time, opened in 1986 and was rethemed into The Seas with Nemo and Friends in 2007, after a four-year redevelopment. In 1989, Disney opened the Wonders of Life pavilion, featuring the resort's first motion-simulator ride, Body Wars. That pavilion closed in 2007 and is now used for special events, though the rides remain closed.

The remaining original Future World pavilion was Horizons, a dark ride that showed what the future might hold for guests. The attraction was known for allowing you to choose your own future destination, though a selection of video clips shown during the ride. It also was considered the "sequel" to the Magic Kingdom's Carousel of Progress. There was even a nod to this by using that attraction's theme song ("There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow") in the attraction. Horizons was sponsored by General Electric, but when GE didn't renew its sponsorship, the attraction closed in 1999 and was replaced by Mission: Space. There are some nods to the old attraction in Mission Space including using the "space theme" music from Horizons.

Here are the World Showcase pavilions:

Mexico: This pavilion is completely inside of a Mayan pyramid and looks like a nighttime scene in a Mexican marketplace. It takes many of its inspirations from the Blue Bayou in Disneyland, including the boat ride that goes though the pavilion. This ride, now themed to Disney's Three Caballeros, shows the sights and sounds of Mexico. More recently, they have built a tequila bar and a new restaurant on the waterfront solidifying the popularity of alcoholic beverages in World Showcase. The nighttime show, Illuminations: Reflections of Earth, is controlled from the top of the pyramid.

Norway: This was the last country to be added 1988. It also features Maelstrom, a thrill-type attraction with flumes that explores Norway culture and legend. This pavilion also has one of the few Stave Churches in existence. This was one of the few countries of World Showcase that actually helped finance and sponsor the pavilion, but Norway's sponsorship ended in 2002.

China: This pavilion has the 360 movie Reflections of China which showcases the beauty and breadth of China. It replaced the 20-year-old movie "Wonders of China," which was one of the first American movies allowed to filmed inside of China, especially the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square.

Germany: Another popular pavilion for alcohol, its main restaurant, the Biergarten, provides German foods and one-liter beers. However, that was not supposed to be the restaurant. When building the pavilion, Disney started building the queue area for a boat ride similar to one in Maelstrom. However, Disney Imagineering decided to take a different route and it turned the pavilion into a restaurant.

Italy: Created in the style of Venice, this pavilion was also supposed to have an attraction like Germany, but the plans were scrapped. It would have been where Via Napoli currently stands. Italy originally started with L'Originale Alfredo, a very popular restaurant found in Rome that is said to have created Fettuccini Alfredo. It was replaced by Tutto Italia in 2007. The other main restaurant, Via Napoli brings Neapolitan pizza to the United States. To make the pizza as authentic as possible, they ship water from Pennsylvania to use in the dough because it shares much of the same water qualities as Naples. It also pays tribute to Italy with its three pizza ovens named after Italy's three volcanoes: Etna, Stromboli, and Vesuvius.

American Adventure: Representing the United States, a majority of this pavilion center's around the video and audio animatronic show, "The American Adventure." This show actually takes place on the second floor of the building because the animatronics from George Washington to Rosie the Riveter are shuffled and presented on what is basically a "drawer" of animatronic stages that kept are under the guests' seats. It is also worth noting that this show also shows the progress of technology with showing historic scenes using that time period's technology (pilgrims/colonialists use paintings, civil war uses photographs, and World War I and so on uses moving pictures).

Japan: Japan was one of the first pavilions in mind for World Showcase (because Tokyo Disneyland was also under construction). They originally were going to build a clone of "Meet the World" which is found at the Tokyo park, but were concerned about potential controversy because "Meet the World" did not mention World War II. This pavilion also holds one of the most unique performers in all of the Disney Parks: Miyuki who is the only female rice candy artist in the world. She creates "Japanese lollypops" in the shape of the guest's favorite animal.

Morocco: Morocco was also a later addition to World Showcase (1984), but is the only one that was actively built and still sponsored by its host country. In the their main restaurant, Marrakesh, there is a replica of the letter sent from the King of Morocco to George Washington congratulating him on independence, because Morocco is one of the United States' oldest alliances. Also, due to Islamic beliefs, the pavilion does not light up during Illuminations: Reflections of Earth because of the religious nature of the art in the pavilion, including the main tower which is a replica of a prayer tower. Disney will be building an additional restaurant on the lagoon side in 2013.

France pavilion

France: Representing Paris, France uses its buildings to create forced perspective to make the pavilion look larger and more crowded than it actually is. They go as far to spray bird repellant on their replica of the Eiffel Tower so that birds do not perch on their small scale tower and look like "monsters". This pavilion also hold the movie "Impressions de France" a travelogue of different parts of France. The classical score for this attraction features French composers and TPI editor Robert Niles called it the best theme park movie ever made.

United Kingdom: The United Kingdom pavilion was the first to have a permanent restaurant built on the Lagoon Side of World Showcase (Rose and Crown). The stores represent, in section, the United Kingdoms of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. The entertainment is also very popular here with the British Invasion (now the British Revolution) and the World Showcase Players.

Canada: This pavilion highlights the natural beauty of Canada. Originally, the Canadian government was concerned by the pavilion that it would reinforce the stereotypes of Canada (i.e. a bunch of lumberjacks), but they helped finance the new 360-degree movie "O Canada" in 2007. The pavilion's high-popular restaurant, Le Cellier Steakhouse, originally started out as a buffet, but soon moved to table service and is one of the toughest reservations in the Walt Disney World Resort.

Up next: Disney's Hollywood Studios


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Discounts, accessibility make Busch Gardens Tampa a good choice for visitors in a wheelchair

By Daniel Etcheberry
Published: August 4, 2013 at 5:48 PM

Busch Gardens Tampa is a good tourist destination if you are in a wheelchair. It is not hilly, and the pathways are wide. The admission ticket for the disabled (wheelchair or blind) is half the price of the regular one, but you have to ask for it at the park's front gate. The park's website does not offer this option. Being a theme park where most rides are not wheelchair accessible and they are difficult to transfer, it makes sense that they give a discount for the disabled.

Busch Gardens Tampa

There are two rides that you can take the wheelchair with you: one is the train ride around the park. The space for the wheelchair gives you the same good views of the animals at the Serengeti than the regular seats. For a closer look at the animals, take the Serengeti Safari; you go on an open air vehicle (that is wheelchair accessible) around the Serengeti Plain. You will have the opportunity to feed the giraffes. The Safari is not included in the park's admission.

The rest of the park offers other animals' exhibitions, live shows, and a 4D theater. All of them are wheelchair accessible. The tiger exhibition's best spots to see them very close through the domes are not wheelchair accessible. If going to Sesame Street Safari of Fun, be careful with the toddlers who love to get under the wheelchair; NEVER go backwards unless you are sure there is no toddler behind you.

Overall, Busch Gardens Tampa is a good destination for everyone.

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Vote of the week: Are dining deals the best deal for you?

By Robert Niles
Published: August 2, 2013 at 11:39 AM

How hungry do you get when you visit theme parks? Food and beverages provide a huge share of income for most theme parks, and smart park managers know that offering something other than the same food anyone can find in a shopping mall food court can help drive spending in their parks.

Just take a look at the new Simpsons-themed Springfield land Universal Orlando has opened in its Universal Studios Florida park. (The latest phase opened today.) Universal already had a Simpsons Ride — the new Springfield land surrounding it is driven by an opportunity for Universal to increase food and beverage sales. The new "attractions" in Universal's Simpsons land are stuff you can eat and drink: Krusty Burgers, Lard Lad Donuts, Flaming Moes, and Duff Beer.

Pulling a Flaming Moe
A bartender at Universal Studios Florida's Moe's pulls a Flaming Moe. Photo by Justin Pegg.

It's not just what theme parks sell you. Parks try to lure your business by how they price and package their food, too. Walt Disney World this week announced its annual "free dining" promotion, where visitors who book certain vacation packages at its on-site Disney World hotels get a free Disney Dining Plan option during their stay. Universal's also added an expanded dining plan option, too, and you can buy variations on one-price, all-you-can-eat deals at SeaWorld and Six Flags parks, as well.

Of course, the deal's in the details with any of these dining packages. Some Disney fans are getting upset over leaked news that Disney World soon will add RFID chips to the refillable mugs that it sells to guests at its on-site hotels, and throws in "free" with Disney Dining deals. The chips reportedly will work to allow mugs to be refilled only at the hotel where that guest is staying, and only for the duration of the stay. That's the current rule for the mugs, but with no enforcement, guests have been refilling them at other hotels, and even bringing them back to refill on future visits, too.

All this raises the question: How do you find value on food and drinks when you visit a theme park? Do you look for one of these specially-priced dining deals? Or do you try to save money (and calories!) by sharing over-sized portions, ordering from a kids' meal or otherwise limiting what you buy to eat?

Soup and bread at Epcot
Sharing the Lobster bisque and a baguette at Epcot's Les Halles Boulangerie and Patisserie.

Or are you one who doesn't buy food in parks? (Maybe you bring your own, or wait to eat until after you've left the park.) Or, finally, do you just say "I don't have time for that," and order what you want, when you want, making dining part of your theme park experience?

It's time for our vote of the week.

Tell us your experience with dining deals, in the comments. And, as always, thank you for reading Theme Park Insider.

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Blog Flume Filter for August 1, 2013

By Jeff Elliott
Published: August 1, 2013 at 11:31 AM

Universal Studios Florida – The latest that I have heard is that the construction walls in Springfield could come down as early as today. Time to head over there right now! Well, wait for the rest of the article and then go… Or finish reading this in the car on the way over to the park… Assuming someone else is driving. Or maybe call the park first and ask them…

Disney’s California Adventure – The World of Color is going to get a holiday makeover. Don’t worry, I’ll let you know again closer to the holidays, but for now:

Disneyland - Every role is a starring role – Mark Twain Riverboat Captain. Although I thought that most cast members that had anything to do with the water (Tom Sawyer Raft Driver, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Jungle Cruise captain…to name a few) were all given the position because they were too unreliable to pick up trash around the park, and had somehow, through some quirk of nature, learned how to swim. Although knowing how to swim is not a character trait I particularly admire in someone who should be trying their best to keep the boat floating.

Disneyland Paris – Distressing news is coming from European contingent of Disney parks. From what we are hearing, all new construction is going to be halted in both parks after the Ratatouille ride is completed. This means that all of the cool news we have been hearing about an expanded Star Wars Land and Cantina are now on hiatus. Hopefully this is a move to get a little bit of money back in their coffers to help deal with their debt load and not an indication that Disney is no longer going to try because there is really no one in Europe that gets close to their attendance numbers.

Epcot – We have been hearing murmurs that Soarin’ is about to get a digital projection upgrade, which frankly has it good points and bad points. You are going to lose resolution by going digital unless the screen is broken down into sections serviced by different projectors or unless the entire screen becomes a massive Cowboy Stadium sized LCD TV screen. The good news about upgrade is that if they go digital, they would have the ability to take a trick out of Star Tours book and play random scenes for you. Not that I want to sound like a whiner here, but, why not we fix the places that don’t have a two hour wait (cough, cough, Imagination Pavilion, cough cough) before fiddling with things that people already like and are willing to stand in line for a ridiculous amount of time to see. That is the thing about Epcot I have never understood: “Is it broken?” “No.” “Let’s fix it anyway.” And then the attractions that no one really cares for (cough, cough, Ellen, cough, cough) seem to go on and on forever without even being considered for an upgrade/update. And don’t even get me started on the lack of rides in the World Showcase.

Universal Studios – Both Florida and California are getting a new Walking Dead haunt this year. Check it out:

Comcast – Even after opening Despicable Me, Simpsonsland, and Transformers, with several Harry Potter lands under planning and construction, the CFO of Comcast said in a statement during the last week that they are now “accelerating NBCU’s capital investment plan” for the theme parks. Holy &#@#$%! Really?? I thought we had just gotten past an acceleration and were coasting down the other side. But, no. Accelerating. Wow. What the heck are they planning to build to keep accelerating? I thought the plan that they were already running with was huge.

Busch Gardens – There is something going on at the two Busch Gardens parks that is making me very leery about what the future holds for these two parks. Last week we were receiving reports that two restaurants in Tampa are closing shortly on the heels of the park shortening their hours. This week we are receiving news from the Williamsburg park that other strange things are taking place. The park is now offering a $50 weekday pass for SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa in what I am assured is an indication of low attendance at the parks. According to one source, the German shops are not going to order any more beer steins and cuckoo clocks, but it begs the question if those are just low margin items or if all of the German themed goods are on the way out. In addition to that, we received a report from a local season passholder who told us that contracts with cast members that were set to expire at the end of the year have been reconfigured and now terminate at the end of the summer while management is looking for any excuse at all to fire performers. There are also reports that regular yearly shows for Halloween and Christmas are being canceled with no plans to replace them with anything. Separately any of those items would not worry me, but I am getting the feeling that after a less than spectacular showing when the company went public and the 1.8 billion in debt that is hanging over their heads, things are looking somewhat troubling now.

Kings Island – The park has revealed that they are going to make the announcement of their newest coaster on Aug 8. From the press release that we received, they are claiming it is going to be a record breaker of some sort. The leading rumor is that the coaster’s name will be Banshee and made by B&M. Aside from that we really don’t have any solid specifics. Stay tuned to TPI as we find out more.

Cedar Point – Now that everyone has been on GateKeeper, here is how it was made:

Silver Dollar City – The park is now being particularly careful about their Rocky Mountain Coasters ride ever since the death in Texas. According to some reports the restraints are now being locked down to a 36” waist. If your waist is any bigger than that, you better be able to suck it in and not moan when they cinch you down, otherwise you will be taking the “walk of shame”.

Lotte World – Lotte World in South Korea just gave us a taste of what dark ride shooters should be. One can only hope that this is what Cedar Point may have in mind when we hear them talk about a new dark ride for next season.

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Theme park history: A short history of SeaWorld Orlando

By Robert Niles
Published: August 1, 2013 at 6:54 AM

SeaWorld Orlando opened December 15, 1973, the third theme park in the SeaWorld chain of marine parks.

The third park? That's right — after opening the original SeaWorld in San Diego in 1964, the company opened its second park in Aurora, Ohio in 1970. Hampered by midwestern weather that kept the park closed many months during the year, as well as local restrictions that prohibited building amusement rides, the Ohio SeaWorld park lagged the chain's others in annual attendance until the company decided to close the park in 2001. (Today, that property is the site of Cedar Fair's Wildwater Kingdom water park.)

SeaWorld found a much more lucrative site for its next park, when it decided to open just up the road from the new Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom, two years after that park's successful debut. SeaWorld helped establish Orlando not just as yet another town with a theme park, but as a multi-park vacation destination, nearly 10 years before Disney would open its second park.

SeaWorld Orlando entrance
SeaWorld Orlando today

Like the San Diego and Cleveland-area parks, SeaWorld Orlando debuted with a mix of animal exhibits and shows. Three years after the park opened, SeaWorld's owners sold to textbook publisher Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, but HBJ ran into financial trouble, and eventually chose to sell.

That's when Busch Gardens owner Anheuser-Busch stepped in, buying the SeaWorld parks in 1989. Unlike HBJ, Busch had experience in managing animal exhibits as well as building thrill rides, and Busch used that experience to develop SeaWorld more aggressively in what was becoming a very competitive Orlando theme park market, with four Disney and two Universal theme parks today fighting for visitors' time and money.

In 1992, SeaWorld Orlando joined in the simulator ride craze started by Disneyland in 1987 by introducing Mission: Bermuda Triangle, which the park later rethemed into Wild Arctic. However, with Wild Arctic, SeaWorld demonstrated the audacity to use its simulator as a preshow for a richly detailed, highly-themed exhibit of arctic animals, including polar bears and beluga whales. This established a template of combining major thrill rides with themed animal habitats in "two for one" attractions that SeaWorld parks continue to this day with newer attractions such as Manta and Antarctica.

Once a show-driven park, under Busch ownership SeaWorld Orlando began bringing unique rides systems to the Orlando park, including the nation's first combination roller coaster and flume ride with Journey to Atlantis in 1997. SeaWorld also added a Bolliger & Mabillard floorless roller coaster, Kraken, in 2000 and a flying coaster, Manta, in 2009, which won the Theme Park Insider Award as the best new attraction in the world that year.


In 2008, Belgian brewer InBev bought Anheuser-Busch, leading to the sale of the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens parks to a private equity firm the next year. And in 2010, SeaWorld suffered its greatest tragedy when one of the park's orcas grabbed the ponytail of a trainer, then dragged her into the water, drowning her. That led federal regulators to bar SeaWorld's trainers from performing in the water with the whales during the park's iconic "Shamu" shows, sparking a legal and public relations battle over the use of captive orcas that continues to this day.

But SeaWorld has continued to develop unique attractions to supplement its shows, including a 360-degree, 3D dome theater for a movie in its TurtleTrek exhibit in 2012 and the nation's first trackless dark ride system for its Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin pavilion in 2013.

Today, SeaWorld also offers Orlando visitors two other, smaller parks in addition to its eponymous marine park. Discovery Cove opened in 2000, offering up-close animal encounters in a more intimate, and pricey, setting. And in 2008, SeaWorld opened the water park Aquatica, which the company then replicated (on smaller scales) at or near the two other SeaWorld parks, in San Antonio and San Diego.

Up next: Epcot


Also: This isn't directly related to the history post, but SeaWorld announced this week that it is offering $50 daily tickets on weekdays to US residents for SeaWorld Orlando or Busch Gardens Tampa, starting today and running through December 20. Tickets are available on the parks websites, or by calling 888-800-5447.

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Keep reading: July 2013 Archive

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