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September 2013

Would Disney ever close or debrand a theme park?

By Robert Niles
Published: September 30, 2013 at 2:10 PM

Theme Park Insider reader Annette asked an interesting question in response to our post on planned improvements at the Disneyland Paris resort: "Would a Disney park ever close or be unbranded?"

She cited examples of hotels changing hands or brands, and wondered if the same ever could occur for a Disney theme park, particularly Disneyland Paris, which many fans have criticized for poor maintenance and a lack of new attractions. (See link above.)

Walt Disney Studios Park in Paris
Fix. Sell. Kill — Which will be Disney's choice?

Would Disney ever close a park? Sure. It already has.

Disney closed its original Walt Disney World water park, River Country, in 2001. Would that happen again? Barring a major disaster that rendered a park unrepairable, one would have to doubt it. Disney's recent track record suggested that it would rather "turn on the money hose" and clean up its problem parks than to close or sell them away. Look at what Disney's done to rebuild and revamp Disney California Adventure and Hong Kong Disneyland, and what it's about to do to rebuild Florida's Downtown Disney as Disney Springs.

At this point, Disney has abundant income that allows it the freedom to fix its past mistakes. So long as Disney continues to bring in that level of money, Disney's not conceding defeat in the theme park business. Parks that fail to attract the level of customer adoration the company wants will get improvements until customers start throwing money at them again.

(And here's a note to Walt Disney World fans. If you want Disney to spend more money on these parks, the best thing you can do to help make that happen is for you to spend less money on them. Nothing gets a project green-lighted faster at Disney theme parks than revenue failing to meet projections. So long as customers keep spending at a resort, it's easy for managers to assume all's well and to send new spending elsewhere. Want to improve the Walt Disney World Resort? Forget about petitions or discussion board rants. Just go to Disneyland or Tokyo Disneyland, instead. Heck, you could go to Universal Orlando, too, though if enough people spent their money with other companies that Disney's income suffered, that could impair the company's ability to power up that money hose.)

Let's flip the question, too. Would Disney ever buy and rebrand another company's park? Again, it's considered that in the past, "kicking the tires" on a deal to purchase Knott's Berry Farm before the Knott family sold it to Cedar Fair in the late 1990s. According to some Imagineers, Disney played with the idea of buying and upgrading Knott's as Disneyland's "second gate," employing some of the designs from the abandoned Disney's America project. However, the desire to have the parks located next to one another that led the company to abandon plans for Long Beach DisneySea earlier in the decade dissuaded Disney managers, and the Knott family found a deal more to its liking from Cedar Fair.

So what about Disneyland Paris? Resort managers last week detailed their refurbishment plan for the resort, including its hotels, though they announced no new attractions for either theme park. The situation at Disneyland Paris is complicated by the fact that Disney only owns a portion of the resort instead of owning it outright, as it does at Disneyland and Walt Disney World, or licensing the resort to another owner, as it does in Tokyo. Disneyland Paris also has carried a huge, profit-draining debt burden for much of its existence, due to a flawed business plan at launch.

Disneyland Paris was, at its birth, a real estate scheme. Its business plan relied on the sale and development of commercial (including hotel) and residential property surrounding the core theme park. But when those plans didn't come through, the park was left with immense debt, requiring multiple bailouts from additional investors. That has left the Disneyland Paris theme park with a popular reputation as a financial failure, which is ironic because the theme park might have been the only element of the whole resort that actually succeeded beyond expectations.

Still, the resort's a package deal. Disney appears ready to invest the cash it needs to ensure the continued success of the Disneyland park and its hotels. But will Disney commit the additional money needed to upgrade Walt Disney Studios Paris to the same standards of the other 10 theme parks in the chain? Disney did the same for the other two underfunded parks it opened in the first decade of the 21st century: California Adventure and Hong Kong Disneyland. That history suggests Disney is more likely to do the same for the Paris Studios, rather than selling or closing the park.

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Use, not abuse, forced Disney to change its disabled access system

By Robert Niles
Published: September 30, 2013 at 11:02 AM

People continue to react to the Walt Disney Company's decision to change the way it accommodates visitors with disabilities in its theme parks. Beth Kassab of the Orlando Sentinel quoted me in her most recent column, which suggested that increasing wait times at Disney World attractions prompted some visitors to find ways around the wait, with GAC use and abuse becoming one popular way to do that.

Much of the coverage over Disney's decision to replace the Guest Assistance Card [GAC] with a new Disabled Assistance System has focused on reported abuse of the system by people pretending to have a disability to get preferred access to attractions. But conversations with Disney cast members have convinced me that is not the reason Disney made this change.

This isn't going to be easy for some Disney visitors to hear. But let's consider this a little tough love. The reason why Disney is ending the GAC program isn't because it was abused too much by people without disabilities. Disney killed the GAC because it was used too much by people with disabilities.

As we've written before, Disney did not intend to create a system that gave visitors with disabilities no-wait, front-of-the-line access to its attractions. That's simply the way the system evolved, for maximum operational efficiency. It simply was easier for Disney attractions personnel to move parties with a disabled visitor immediately onto a ride via the exit, than to make them wait and block the exit area, or to come back later.

Getting to ride without waiting invited abuse, which is why Disney adopted the GAC program, to make visitors with disabilities get a card from Disney so that individual attraction cast members wouldn't have to bear the responsibility of deciding who deserved special access. That helped put a stop to groups of kids renting a wheelchair to skip lines, but the system eventually grew unsustainable.

As crowds grew at Disney theme parks, people who previously could have endured a five- to 20-minute wait for rides and shows found that they couldn't handle waits of 40-80 minutes or more. Without the GAC, many people with back problems, weight issues, heart conditions, autism, or any of many other issues that make waiting in line difficult or impossible simply might have decided not to visit a Disney theme park. But with the GAC, not only could they visit, but Disney became a preferred entertainment destination. As more and more people used GAC to access rides, standby lines grew even longer, prompting even more people to get a GAC.

These aren't "fakers." They are people with legitimate medical claims. The number of people with medical conditions that could impede their ability to visit a crowded theme park is, unfortunately, astronomical. We're talking about tens of millions of Americans. More than one third of Americans are obese, according to the federal government. A third of adults have high blood pressure. One in six American children have a development disability. Autism prevalence is now at one in 50 kids. (That's nearly 1.5 million children, doing the math on U.S. Census Bureau data.) And let's not forget that Disney attracts millions of visitors from outside the United States, too, adding to the pool of potential visitors with disabilities.

Neither Disney nor any other theme park company can sustain a system that gives all of these people front-of-the-line access. But, fortunately for Disney (though not for the families affected by this change), the law doesn't require that Disney does that. The Americans with Disabilities Act simply requires that institutions create facilities and procedures accessible to persons with disabilities. It does not provide for nor demand preferred access. So that's why we soon will have a new system for disable access at Disney parks, a ride reservation system that will allow people with disabilities to skip non-accessible queues in the parks, but not to skip the waits.

Of course, many people are upset that they're losing what was a wonderful accommodation. For many families dealing with a disability, having front of the line access at Disney provided a welcome relief in an otherwise trying and frustrating experience. Frankly, it stinks to lose that. But Disney can't give preferred access to everyone. At some point, if everyone is "preferred," no one is. And millions of Disney visitors effectively lose their access to the parks again.

Don't think for a moment, though, that the system Disney introduces in 10 days will be its final word on access. For some families, even the new reservation system won't be enough to provide access to the park and its attractions. Don't be surprised it Disney tweaks the system in the months and years ahead to better balance the needs of all its visitors, including those with autism and other conditions for which a reservation system is — and here's an understatement — less than optimal.

But let's also not believe that this change is coming because a small group of greedy people decided to cheat the system. The "disabled" aren't a small subset of Americans. They're more than a hundred million of us. Use, not abuse, made Disney's GAC system unsustainable.

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An evening with top theme park artists, to support arts education

By Robert Niles
Published: September 28, 2013 at 9:57 PM

Some of the theme park industry's leading creative talents came together tonight in Los Angeles to support the next generation of visual artists. Disney legend Marty Sklar hosted "An Affair of the Art" at his home to benefit Ryman Arts, a youth arts instruction program in the LA area. Ryman Arts honors the late Herb Ryman, who created the original concept art for Disneyland, among many, many other creative works for the Walt Disney Company.

Marty Sklar

This year's Patron Event paid tribute to "The Art of Cars Land," and Cars Land's lead Imagineer, Kathy Mangum, led discussion about the project with collaborators Bill Cone (production designer on the Disney/Pixar film "Cars"), auto designer Chip Foose, and rockwork designer Zsolt Hormay.

Kathy Mangum and team

While Kathy spoke one-on-one with each member of the Cars Land team, the others worked on art projects, which later that evening would be sold to patrons at the show. Here, Bill creates a pastel "Cars" landscape. (In case you're wondering, we were asked not to take photos of artwork at the show, to project artists' copyrights.)

Bill Cone at the easel

After the program, supporters wandered around the Sklar home to view and purchase art works by supporters and students of Ryman Arts, with proceeds to support the school, which provides professional visual art instruction to local teen-agers, free of charge. Disney Imagineers Scott Hennesy and Joe Lanzisero were on hand, selling and signing copies of their children's book, "The Cat's Baton is Gone." (You might remember Joe most recently here on Theme Park Insider for his D23 talk describing his work on Hong Kong Disneyland's Mystic Manor, which TPI readers voted the world's best new theme park attraction this year.)

Scott Hennesy and Joe Lanzisero

We would like to thank Bob Rogers of BRC Imagination Arts for inviting and hosting us at the event this evening.

Bob Rogers, Robert Niles, and Marty Sklar

You learn more about supporting Ryman Arts at ryman.org.

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A video tour of Tokyo DisneySea

By Robert Niles
Published: September 28, 2013 at 12:37 PM

Here's a little virtual weekend getaway for you: a 10-minute video trip to the world's best theme park, Tokyo DisneySea.

Sure, it's Japanese, but it's an official promotional video from Tokyo Disney Resort, and unlike many promo videos from U.S. theme parks, it's not loaded with tight shots and jump cuts that leave you with no sense of the place. From what I can tell, we're following a couple in their 40s who are celebrating their wedding anniversary in the park.

Tokyo DisneySea
Photo by David Weiss

The piece includes some wonderful videography of Tokyo DisneySea, including many wide shots that really help you feel what it's like to walk around this beautiful park. They start by arriving on the resort's monorail (love the Mickey-shaped windows!), then there's a plug for the park's "45 plus" pass, a discounted weekday admission pass for visitors age 45 and up.

From there, we watch the couple walk through the American Waterfront, on the way to a ride on the Raging Spirits roller coaster. (There's some really nice off-ride and POV footage here.) From there, it's back to the Hotel MiraCosta for a special lunch at the Silk Garden Road restaurant. (Okay, they're not taking the most efficient route around the park.) The video also includes shots of Toy Story Midway Mania, Turtle Talk with Crush and a ride on the DisneySea Electric Railway, which allows that absolutely delicious view of Tower of Terror and the S.S. Columbia.

The video concludes with an anniversary dinner in the secret, hidden dining room at Magellan's, where the husband presents his wife with an anniversary present. I noticed that the photos the couple took all day were taken by Disney cast members on the couple's own camera. There's no PhotoPass at Tokyo Disney. But you can print souvenir photos from your own SD card.

Anyway, it's a sweet video with plenty of gorgeous views of the park. Well worth 10 minutes on a lazy weekend.

Earlier:A tour of TokyoDisneySea

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Opening night at Knott's Berry Farm's 2013 Halloween Haunt

By Jacob Sundstrom
Published: September 27, 2013 at 2:43 PM

Knott's Scary Farm opened to the masses last night and Theme Park Insider was there to cover all the madness. Since the format for the Horror Nights post seemed to work okay (I assume our Pulitzer is in the mail), we'll follow the same format here. I'll break down the 11 mazes with brief paragraphs and then give you some tips on how to best see everything in one night.

Welcome to Ghost Town

First, some overall thoughts.

There is a lot to like about Knott's event. The whole thing feels like a group of mazes you might find in your neighborhood — albeit made by especially talented neighbors. It's a nostalgic event in many ways; part of that is because the makeup and set designs are relatively simple, and another factor is the amount that they rely on their scareactors to get the job done.

This has pros and cons. What's great is that the whole thing just "feels" like Halloween. This is an event that has been going on since my parents were in middle school and the park does seem to appreciate the history of the event. The con is that the event is not particularly scary — at least, not as scary as its primary competition. There are several reasons for this; most notably that the actors do not seem particularly focused on generating repeatable scares.

By that, I mean that instead of every actor embodying a role that is a part of the show they appear to be doing their own thing. Each maze is loosely organized chaos with actors roaming around from room to room trying to scare individual guests — this type of thing works great in scare zones (which is where Knott's excels) but it does not translate to mazes where monsters are the show and not just a part of it.

This has been true of Knott's Scary Farm since I started attending the event in 2007. Scareactors crack jokes and talk to guests with reckless abandon which creates a problem: It's not scary or suspenseful. Alfred Hitchcock talked about the difference between suspense and surprise in an interview once, which I think sums up what an event should be going for. (paraphrased)

"Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. ... In these conditions the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen, "You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There's a bomb beneath you and it's about to explode!"

In a Halloween event, this suspense comes from walking into a room and knowing you will be scared or surprised but not knowing where it's coming from. It's akin to walking into a dark room — what you do not see is frightening. What Knott's actors often do is stand out in the open and expect their mere presence to be frightening. For some people this is effective, but it makes an event similar to a bad slasher movie: all surprise with no suspense.

Trick or Treat

Trick or Treat
One of the returners from last year, this maze takes you through the Green Witch's house where you'll be spooked by all manner of tricksters. The set dressing in this maze is great and for the most part the actors seemed to be focused on scaring the guests.

Also a repeat from last year, Endgames puts you in the middle of a battle arena with loud music and loud actors — this is a skippable maze if the line is very long.

Dominion of the Damned
A sequel to a solid maze last year, Damned does not have enough scares to go with its solid set design. I liked the look of this maze, but there were not enough people taking advantage of the guests distracted by the great sets.


Easily the best maze of the night for the second straight year. While a hodgepodge of the bizarre by its very nature, Delirium is extremely scary with some very inventive scares inside. I won't spoil anything, but you're going to want to do this maze. Note that to reach the entrance for Delirium you need to go through Dominion of the Damned; two ghouls with one ghost-vacuum.

Pinocchio Unstrung
In this version of the story, Pinocchio was never turned in to a real boy at all — and he's taking his anger out on you by turning humans in to puppets. Some frightening imagery and good scares in this one.


Probably my second favorite maze of the night, this maze saw its great concept fully actualized as you enter the lair of the "Forevermore killer," a serial killer who uses the works of Edgar Allen Poe as inspiration. If you're a fan of the poet at all, you'll appreciate all the nice touches inside — particularly the poem readings while you walk through the maze.

Black Magic
This Houdini-inspired maze rounds out my top three. Great effects inside and a really clever idea for a maze. Magic was very theatrical — as many of Knott's mazes are — and it worked. Highlights include a killer rabbit coming out of a hat and monsters "locked" in a tank filled with water.

Mirror, Mirror

Mirror Mirror
You might recall my excitement about this maze when it was first announced. Billed as "a maze you can get lost in," Mirror Mirror was, I thought, going to revolutionize the way mazes are built from now on. Hooooooo boy was I wrong. Easily the worst maze of the night, Mirror Mirror is not a maze you CAN get lost in — it's a maze you MUST get lost in.

A small portable building that can house no more than a dozen people at a time is filled with mirrors — your job is to find your way out. The problem is that you CAN'T find your way out. One of the mirrors is a hidden door that an actor opens after they feel you've been locked in there for long enough. Not only does this defeat the purpose of the maze, it also makes the line one of the slowest of the night. Avoid this maze at all costs — it's not worth the wait.

Gunslinger's Grave
An old Western town has been overtaken by bandits who appear to be more interested in taunting you than scaring you. The set design was solid, but the maze was not in any way frightening.

At the maze reveal, the designers said Slaughterhouse would get a refresh this year. Maybe it did, but other than more actors it seemed to be the same maze as last year. There's nothing particularly wrong with that, but the maze certainly feels a bit dated as it is now the longest running maze at the event.

Witch's Keep (Calico Mine Ride)
This isn't a maze, per say, and it's extremely hard to do anything effective with this concept. I'm not sure that Knott's would be better off by letting this concept go dark next year, but I don't think there is a way to make this attraction anything other than forgettable.

That's it for the mazes — now for the lineup of shows. The Hanging is much the same as last year — if you like the pop-culture skewering type shows (think Bill and Ted at Horror Nights) than you will enjoy this show. If not, you have a few other options.

Elvira's Sinister Seance was great fun and featured the Mistress of the Dark's trademark schtick which will be enjoyed by anyone who considers themselves a fan of her character. She performed in a couple of dance numbers, did some monologue type stuff, made fun of a few audience members and featured in a five-minute long video they showed during the event.

The show was bookended by a couple dance crew performances which were well done all things considered. There are only two showings a night, but the midnight showing I went to last night was sparsely attended, so you may be better off waiting till the end of the night to see this one.

Without a front of line pass, I was able to do every maze before 10pm. It was a sparsely crowded night, to be fair, and I would consider picking up a front of line pass if you plan on going on a Saturday in October. If you can go on a Thursday or Sunday night, I would, as the age of the Knott's crowd skews young — meaning fewer kids in the park on a school night.

I worked my way from the left and went counterclockwise around the entire park. Hitting the four mazes bunched behind Ghostrider right at the beginning is a good move as those tend to see larger wait times as the late arrivers show up at around 8 p.m.

Don't forget about the up-charge maze, Trapped, which may actually be the future of Halloween events. For $60 a group (up to six guests) you can go through a maze which requires puzzle-solving and task-completing to escape. I have not experienced this maze, but I heard good things about it last year.

If you'd like to see some of my photos and thoughts from last night, you can check out my Storify of the event.

Questions? Comments? I'll respond to them in the comments! Thanks for following along and Happy Halloween!

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Vote of the week: Which way do you walk around Epcot's World Showcase?

By Robert Niles
Published: September 27, 2013 at 12:31 PM

With the annual International Food & Wine Festival opening today, many theme park fans will be visiting Walt Disney World's Epcot over the next several weeks. Drawing more than 11 million visitors per year, Epcot is one of the world's most popular theme parks anyway, special of event or no. But almost every one of those 11 million visitors a year faces the same question when visiting Epcot:

Which way to turn when entering World Showcase?

World Showcase
Decision time: Left (clockwise), or right (counterclockwise)?

Do you turn left and go through the national pavilions clockwise, starting with Mexico? Or do you turn right, and move counter-clockwise, starting with Canada? (Okay, "anti-clockwise" for our European friends.)

Coming in through the back, from the Boardwalk? Same question. Do you head left, clockwise, toward England, or right, counter-clockwise, toward France?

Years ago, I always went through World Showcase in the clockwise direction. But I've noticed that since I've moved back to California, I always start with Canada now, instead. Perhaps it's because I just want to get to France more quickly. Or I just get my fill of Mexico at home.

Which way do you go around Epcot? If you're not consistent with your choice, select the one you take more often.

Tell us in the comments why you go the way you do. Is it for the scenery? The food? Drinking around the world? Habit? Thanks in advance for voting, for commenting, and just for hanging around here being part of the Theme Park Insider community.

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Demolition continues at Universal Studios Hollywood

By Robert Niles
Published: September 27, 2013 at 10:55 AM

Demolition continues at Universal Studios Hollywood, where crews are clearing old attractions and shops to make way for Harry Potter and the rest of the billion-dollar expansion of the Southern California theme park.

Universal Plaza
The new Universal Plaza, in the heart of the Upper Lot at Universal Studios Hollywood

Our Jacob Sundstrom filed a USH construction update a few days ago, but much has happened at the park since then, according to multiple reports from our friends on Twitter.

In addition to the demolition of the Gibson Amphitheater concert venue, the park's taken out the Mummy's Tomb experience on the Studio Tour.

In addition to those removals, the park also has been tearing down the Curious George play area and the Studio Souvenirs store. Universal's billion-dollar "Evolution" plan for the park also calls for new attractions on the sites of the Special Effects Stage and Waterworld shows, though there's no word yet on when those might come down, or what might replace them. Work continues now on Super Silly Fun Land and Despicable Me on the old Terminator site.

At some point, work will expand into CityWalk, which is getting expanded parking, and the theme park's entrance, where Universal plans a new hotel.

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All You Fear is Here: HalloWeekends at Cedar Point

By James Koehl
Published: September 27, 2013 at 9:09 AM

When the weather starts to turn cooler and the sun sets earlier over Sandusky Bay, the beautiful lake north of Ohio turns from Lake Erie to Lake "Eerie." A mysterious fog covers parts of Cedar Point. Buildings closed throughout the park's regular season start to emit strange evil sounds. Lightning flashes from the second floor windows of the old Administration Building, from the long abandoned apartment of George Boeckling, the man who turned Cedar Point into a major tourist attraction ( and who died in 1931...or did he?). The screams heard throughout the park don't all come from the roller coasters Cedar Point is famous for.

This is HalloWeekends.

Cedar Point Halloweekends

Cedar Point's celebration of all things scary premiered in 1997 as a three weekend event with two haunted areas, the Cedar Point Cemetery and the Eerie Manor (both now replaced with other attractions) and the Cedar Point Spooky Express (the park's Cedar Point and Lake Erie Railroad going past added "spooky" areas). Every year since has seen new haunted areas added, old ones replaced, an increased emphasis on family-friendly activities, and the event extended to last for seven weekends, from the second weekend in September to the weekend before Halloween. HalloWeekends now encompasses the entire park, with haunted areas being found from the front gate to the farthest reaches of Frontier Town and decorations everywhere, including all the Cedar Point Resort hotels. The park is open Friday evenings from 6 pm to midnight, Saturdays from 11am to midnight, and Sundays noon to 8 p.m.(except on Sunday, Oct.13 when the park is open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.). The amount of decorative materials needed to turn Cedar Point into one of the nation's largest and most popular Halloween attractions is remarkable: 800 pumpkins and 400 other gourds totaling over 23,000 lbs, 96 bushel baskets, 1735 bales of straw, 4,500 square feet of wax-encased bodies in one haunted house alone, and nearly 80,000 cornstalks are just a small part of the huge volume and variety of materials needed to decorate the massive Cedar Point grounds.

Monster Midway Invasion Celebration

Cedar Point has made a special effort to provide plenty of activities for families with young children who might not be ready for the major scary parts of HalloWeekends. The Planet Snoopy children's area is now "Planet Spooky", and Camp Snoopy is- you guessed it- "Camp Spooky"; the Blue Streak Plaza has been transformed into "Howl-O-Palooza", featuring the non-scary "Magic House on Boo Hill", the Hay Bale Maze for children and their families to find their way through, giant inflatables of silly monsters, and the Pumpkin Patch Stage where a variety of friendly monsters come and play with guests of all ages; family-friendly Halloween shows such as "Monster Under My Bed" at the Planet Snoopy Stage, "Charlie Brown's Funtime Frolics" at the Camp Spooky Stage, and "Halloween Hullabaloo!" at the Ghoul Time (Good Time) Theatre provide entertainment throughout the day. A trick-or-treat trail with the dinosaurs on Adventure Island takes children past over fifty life-size dinosaurs (but unfortunately has an up-charge of $5). The biggest family entertainment addition to Cedar Point for HalloWeekends is the Monster Midway Invasion Celebration, a parade winding from the front of the park, down the midway, under Corkscrew and through the Gemini Midway. This parade features over one hundred performers, dancers, Halloween characters, floats, bands and the winners of the children's costume contests held daily. All of these activities, along with the seasonal decorations found throughout the rest of the park, including nearly 1000 potted mums, make HalloWeekends at Cedar Point a great place for families with young children to spend a cool Autumn weekend.

Two areas at Cedar Point attract visitors day and night with their unusual decorations and themes - the Dead Rock Cemetery and the Cedar Point Ride Graveyard. The Dead Rock Cemetery, located under the turn-around at Corkscrew, features tombstones and costumed skeletons of famous deceased rock stars -or in the case of Elvis Presley, "probably" deceased. Visitors often spend time looking for their favorite performers, commenting, "I didn't know that he was dead!" and searching for new "residents" of the cemetery since last year. The Cedar Point Ride Graveyard is found on the main midway under the Skyride near the front of the park, and has tombstones for twenty-four rides that once thrilled riders at Cedar Point but- alas- are no more to be found at America's Rockin' Roller Coast. Each tombstone is designed specifically for the attraction it commemorates: the San Francisco Earthquake (1966-1984) tombstone has a large crack down the middle of it; the Pirate Ride (1966-1996) has a stone pirate statue on top of the tombstone; the tombstone for the much loved Upside Down Fun House (1966-1981) is just that - upside down! Last year, for the premier of the new Shoot the Rapids ride, the "grave" for the old Shoot the Rapids was shown dug up and empty- the ride had risen from its grave! One that gets the most comments is for the Frontier Life, a second skyride that once carried guests from the main midway to Frontier Town. One of its gondolas is lying directly under the Sky Ride, appearing to have fallen from the cable and crashed to earth, leaving several skeletons of its "riders" trapped in its wreckage and making the living riders above wondering if perhaps they are next!

Let's face it - it's the haunted houses and scary areas that bring the crowds to parks on cold Autumn weekend nights, and Cedar Point has ten haunted attractions, four indoor and six outdoor. These walk-through attractions have a variety of themes and take advantage of both the historic structures of Cedar Point and the long, winding areas under the roller coasters that for most of the year are inaccessible to guests. Four attractions are indoors, and are open Friday through Sunday; the other six outdoor "Scare Zones" are open on Fridays and Saturday evenings (and on Sunday, October 13th) with varying hours of operation. All are included in admission to Cedar Point. The lines can be quite long for the indoor haunts, so Cedar Point offers "Fright Lane", similar to "Fast Lane" that permits one-time-only front-of-line admission to all four indoor haunted houses (for an additional $35/person).

Eden Musee
Photo courtesy Cedar Point

The four indoor haunts are "The Eerie Estate", "Eternity Infirmary", "Eden Musee", and new for 2013, "Zombie High School". Eerie Estate is the mansion of G.A. Boeckling, who made Cedar Point into a nationally famous resort, but is now inhabited by the undead servants of Mr. Boeckling. It is loaded with thousands of dollars of antiques, and is the location of Boeckling's Banquet, a fine-dining event held in the formal dining room. The Eternity Infirmary is a hospital where "patients" can check in- but can't check out...alive! The Eden Musee, located inside the massive infield of Mean Streak, is described like this by the official press release; "The wax museum's longtime owner has left his children to run the family business their way, with disastrous results. Eden Musee Wax Museum and Chamber of Horrors is a chilling throwback to the historic attraction housed at Cedar Point from 1918 to 1966."

Zombie High
Photo courtesy Cedar Point

Zombie High School is the newest haunted house at Cedar Point. Set in Cleaver High School, home of the Cleaver Beavers, guests returning to high school "have much more to fear than flunking a math test. At Cedar Point's Zombie High School, flesh-eating hellions and glassy-eyed teachers lurk in the halls and locker rooms, waiting for unsuspecting visitors. Every corner of the school, from the cafeteria to the chemistry lab, has been overrun by the undead." I especially enjoyed the details in this haunted house, from the undead lunch ladies serving brains in the cafeteria to the hallways barricaded with now-bloodied school desks to the prom scene where zombies are dancing with dead partners hanging from hangman's nooses. Over 3000 props were assembled to create the undead-infested hallways, classrooms and gymnasium, including an especially disturbing scene in the locker room involving 140 jock straps. Even the team name has been changed by the deceased students to the "Cleaver Zombeavers"!

The six outdoor haunts weave throughout Cedar Point, utilizing both public walkways and areas normally off-limits to park guests. At night, Frontier Trail becomes the science fiction steampunk-themed "Maniacal Mechanical Screamworks"; Camp Snoopy (or Camp Spooky) is taken over by the crazed clowns and sideshow freaks of "CarnEvil"; the normally waterfilled channel of Thunder Canyon is drained, lined with over 50,000 cornstalks and becomes the twisting, evil cornfield haunted by the "Cornstalkers". What is usually a welcoming picnic shelter near Raptor becomes a nightmarish demented version of a Renaissance Festival gone very wrong- a "Fear Faire". The last two haunted areas, "Blood on the Bayou" (where the dark, murky waters of the Cedar Point waterways are too dangerous to explore- or survive) and "Cut Throat Cove" (where the "motley crews of sunken ships" lost along the shores of Cedar Point over the centuries are looking for new dead crewmates), are found under the Iron Dragon/Mantis coasters and Maverick respectively. One hundred fifty foggers and disorienting lighting add to the eerie atmosphere of these weird, winding and ultimately entertaining scare zones.

Blood on the Bayou
Photo courtesy Cedar Point

Who populates these scare zones? Over four hundred "Screamsters" are transformed by twenty-five makeup artists in four hours into zombie football players, undead pirates, melting wax figures and walking cornstalks. Detailed makeup, over 450 prosthetics and elaborate costuming turn everyday people from all over this part of Ohio into the demented clowns of CarnEvil, rotting wenches of Fear Faire, and the wandering ghosts that populate the Cedar Point Ride Graveyard every evening. Thousands of props and elaborate scenery constructed specifically for each haunted area complete the transformation.

How does HalloWeekends compare to other Halloween attractions? I must be honest and admit that I have not visited any other theme park Halloween event. All I can base it on is how I see visitors react, and they do react. My teenage daughter always screams at the right time, and we usually have to push her through the mazes. The Screamsters all seem to enjoy their evil, bloody characters, and seeing how their performances developed from the first day of HalloWeekends to their performances just two days later was impressive. They know when to jump out, how to get the best reaction, and especially how to chose the best person in the group to haunt, hunt, and "play with".

Cedar Point does not have the deep vault of horror material to chose from that Universal does, and I must commend them for coming up with so many original haunted areas, each different in theme but consistent in their quality. If I had a complaint, it would be that some of the indoor haunts are so dark, especially the Eerie Estate, that it is visually hard to see what we are supposed to be scared of. I tripped over a chair, and my son ran into a wall. That was not scary, just annoying. This complaint is one that I heard from other guests, and I hope that Cedar Point addresses this easily-resolved problem soon.

HalloWeekends is a great Halloween event, ranked fifth best in the nation by Amusement Today's Golden Ticket Awards. Add that to Cedar Point's sixteenth consecutive win as the Best Amusement Park in the World and its unique and beautiful location on Lake Erie and spending a weekend at Cedar Point this Halloween season is a trip to enjoy for all ages.

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Epcot's Food & Wine Festival officially starts tomorrow

By Robert Niles
Published: September 26, 2013 at 12:48 PM

The annual Epcot International Food & Wine Festival starts tomorrow, September 27. We'll welcome trip reports, including photos and food descriptions, from any Theme Park Insider readers attending this year's event. (Just post here if you're a registered member of the site, or email your report to themeparkinsider@gmail.com.)

Epcot Food and Wine Festival

Disney's promoting some of this year's featured specialities with YouTube videos. The videos don't include specific ingredient measurements (ugh!), but perhaps they might inspire your kitchen creativity, even if you're not attending.

Australia: Grilled Lamb Chops (Yes, the Festival includes cuisine from nations not included in World Showcase)

Germany: Apple Strudel

Japan: Sushi California Roll

Mexico: Shrimp Tacos

Have you attended the Food & Wine Festival? Got some advice for first-timers? Please share your tips in the comments.

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Disneyland Paris unveils major refurbishment plan for the resort

By Robert Niles
Published: September 26, 2013 at 9:32 AM

Disneyland Paris has been taking heat from fans recently, with complains that maintenance standards have fallen at Europe's most-attended theme park. The park's second gate, Walt Disney Studios, continue to languish as the runt of the Disney Parks chain, even as the other two parks Imagineers have conceded were "built on the cheap" — Disney California Adventure and Hong Kong Disneyland — get lavish upgrades.

Disneyland Paris

Today, Disneyland Paris hosted a media day for European bloggers who cover the resort, to outline plans for refurbishments and improvements at the parks. You can follow the #eventDLP hastag on Twitter for updates during the presentations. I've selected some of the highlights to feature below.

Disney detailed plans for the redesign and refurbishment of rooms at all of Disneyland Paris' on-site hotels, including the addition of Cars "elements" to the Santa Fe Hotel. Wait a minute, I thought that Cars took place in California… ;^)

Disneyland Paris will not be adding DVC rooms to the resort, however. Now on to the parks themselves.

Crush's Coaster might be the nastiest queue in all of Disney, a limited-capacity spinning coaster with no FastPass or single rider line, and a queue that often fills to an hour wait before the park even opens. I'd love to see Disney try something to fix that mess.

Park officials also detailed improvements for Disneyland Paris' Halloween and Christmas celebrations, including new parade floats, soundtracks, and enhanced decorations in the parks. Managers also are working to address complaints about customer service by launching a new cast member recruitment campaign, targeted throughout Europe. (Translation: Let's get more non-French employees.)

Some DLP fans expressed skepticism about today's announcements, tweeting that they've been promised improvements in the parks before. But Disney's clearly "turned on the money hose," as one industry insider has said, trying to fix problems at its theme parks around the world created by corporate stinginess in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Maybe now will be Disneyland Paris' turn.

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Where's the human element in theme park attractions?

By Robert Niles
Published: September 25, 2013 at 4:51 PM

What's your favorite element of a theme park attraction? Is it the music, the lightning, the scenery? The ride, the animatronics, the special effects? This question comes to mind around this time of the year as theme parks debut their annual Halloween events. Why does Halloween elicit questions about attraction elements? Because theme parks' Halloween events overwhelmingly rely on an element that's often missing from theme park attractions — people.

We're not talking about people on a ride or in a show theater. There's always plenty of them! We're talking about the use of people — live actors or operations personnel — in a theme park attractions.

Curse of Chucky Scarezone at Universal Studios Hollywood's Halloween Horror Nights

Haunted houses, mazes, and scare zones work or fail based on the efforts of the scareactors who populate them. For events so focused on themes of death, Halloween events actually provide some of the liveliest evenings of the year at parks. Hundreds of scareactors play with thousands of guests, in a massive display of live, interactive theater. You'll never find that experience at home watching television or playing video games. You won't find it in a movie theater. Even watching a live stage show, you're separated from the actors by the stage itself, and won't experience the up-close interaction found every single night in a theme park Halloween event. That's one of the reasons why so many fans adore these events. It's a rush to become part of a production like this.

Why shouldn't theme parks make more use of the people throughout the year, and not just in September and October? A few attractions do. Disney's Jungle Cruise might be the most popular example. And again, it's developed a passionate fan base that appreciates the unique interplay between a skipper and his (and now, these days, sometimes her) "crew." Sure, not every trip goes the same. Audiences and skippers are different, and sometimes they don't "click." But that variability can be part of an attraction's appeal.

Theme parks have spent millions trying to create attractions with a high "re-ride" factor, experiences that reward visitors who return to ride again and again. But you don't need high-tech computer systems to power that. When theme park personnel is well-trained and experienced, they can deliver unique experiences that are consistent only in their high quality. That's the aim of park entertainment departments, who train and manage actors, musicians and character performers in their parks. The best moments in theme park entertainment happen when performers break through that "fourth wall" to make enduring connections with park guests. Want an example? Just try to read this story without breaking up.

Yet often in parks, there's an institutional division between entertainment and attractions design and operations. That separation robs parks of opportunities to create unique hybrid attractions that blend human performance with more traditional park amusements -- the fun sort of walk-throughs and ride experiences that Halloween fans enjoy at this time of the year.

The bean-counter/sharp-pencil crowd often tries to silence this talk with objections about labor costs. But people are cheap compared with multi-million dollar ride systems. The successful parks of the 21st century will be ones that find ways to break operational walls to create unique immersive experiences. It's not about stage shows, and rides, and restaurants, and shops. It's about bringing them all together into one, continuous show that engages visitors in multiple media throughout the day. And live performance with park actors and employees must become an ever-present element of that.

So let's bring more people into theme park attractions. No, they won't be an appropriate element in every new attraction. But parks would do well to think about throwing them into the mix more often. The fun of participating in massive, live-action scrum of interactive theater shouldn't just come once a year.

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Walt Disney World puts 'The Grey Stuff' on the menu at Be Our Guest

By Robert Niles
Published: September 25, 2013 at 11:04 AM

Now you don't have to beg to get The "Grey Stuff" at Walt Disney World's Be Our Guest restaurant anymore.

The Grey Stuff

Theme Park Foodie reported this morning that the Beauty and the Beast-inspired dessert now appears on the restaurant's dinner menu. The chocolate mousse-like dessert is now served in a larger portion and atop a chocolate pastry, for $4.29, according to the report.

To confirm, The "Grey Stuff" now appears on the online menu for Be Our Guest, listed on the Walt Disney World Resort website. No details are provided, but the dessert is listed as $3.99 there.

Until now, the dessert was available only at a server's discretion, inspiring Disney visitors to claim all sorts of birthdays, anniversaries or other special events to get their forks into the treat billed as "delicious" in the Academy Award-nominated song that provided the restaurant's name. Perhaps Disney does listen, after all. So who's ordering The "Grey Stuff" the next time you're there?

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SeaWorld files trademark application for 'Yonaguni'

By Robert Niles
Published: September 24, 2013 at 1:46 PM

SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment on Sept. 19 filed a trademark application for "Yonaguni," which might be the name of an upcoming show in one or more of the chain's theme parks.

Here's the legalese, the catch-all description from the public filing:
"Entertainment services in the nature of an animated television series for children; production of live-action and animated entertainment shows and interactive programs for distribution via audio and visual media, and electronic means; amusement park and theme park services; educational and entertainment services rendered in or relating to theme parks, namely, live stage shows, live amusement park shows, live performances by costumed characters, and presentation of live theatrical performances; presentation of live stage shows; theater productions"

Yonaguni isn't some nonsense word, by the way. Yonaguni is the westernmost inhabited island in Japan. It's also known for the offshore Yonaguni Monument, a massive underwater rock formation.

Turtle formation
A Yonaguni Monument formation called "The Turtle." Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps that's a clue as to the show's theme and/or content? Anyone hear anything from inside SeaWorld about this show? The comments await.

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Halloween Horror Nights 23 kicks off at Universal Orlando

By Domenik Jost
Published: September 24, 2013 at 10:22 AM

This past weekend, Universal Orlando kicked of its 23rd annual Halloween Horror Nights event. The first thing I will say is that the event has overall improved in comparison the last couple of years. This year Universal is brining to life the horror franchises Evil Dead, Resident Evil, An American Werewolf in London, and Cabin in the Woods, as well as brining back the Walking Dead for a second season. In addition to all the IP Houses, the creatives at HHN are bringing La Llorona to Florida adding their own touches, a sequel to the popular Havoc house, and a new 3-D House Afterlife: Death's Vengeance.

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The night kicked off with a laughter filled press Q&A meeting with the HHN creatives joined by An American Werewolf in London director, John Landis, and Capcom's Resident Evil Brand Manager, John Diamonon. My favorite moment of the entire hilarity was John Landis responding to Mike Aiello talking about the detail in the houses and the little details such as the lighter and other game items from Resident Evil. John Landis responded that no one pays attention to that detail when they are busy being scared the "crap" out of. Saying, no one is going to just stop and say look at the amount of detail they put in this house....noooo they are busy screaming in fear. Of course most of the media is thinking well we are guilty of doing just that, paying attention to the detail (*facepalm*). Watch the full Q and A session below:

Before I start going house by house, let me just say this year is definitely an improvement to the slippage in quality that Halloween Horror Nights has been slacking on the last couple of years. Being a fan of the event I am happy to report that it is improved and actually worth going to see. This year is heavily populated with IP houses drawing on some of today's biggest horror franchises. Most of this years houses were good, some were amazing, while a couple of them fell a bit short.

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The first of the super popular horror franchises brought to life, again, is the Walking Dead. This years house is much improved over last years version and solely focuses on season 3. The house is filled with details from the show including a full size Governors Aquarium and the complete prison block at the end if the house. There are plenty of walkers (zombies) in the house making it one of the better houses at this years event. It's a 3/5 for me on the scares and a 3.5/5 on the look, feel, and detail.

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Also being brought to life is the recent remake of Evil Dead. The house follows the plot of the movie from beginning to end. As is usually always the case at HHN, the detail of the house is amazing. This house is not based on the original but last years remake and yes it does an incredible job recreating those scenes from the film, but I do have to say this one fell a bit short to me and left me a bit hanging. The scares were just not there. All the scare actors seemed to be in plain sight and to me lacked the surprise element on my walk through. It's a 2/5 for me on the scares and a 4/5 on the look, feel, and detail.

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Unfortunately another dud to me was Resident Evil which focuses mainly on the 2nd and 3rd games on the franchise. When I first walked into the house my hopes and expectations from seeing the incredible entrance facade. The entrance facade was huge and almost seemed to be going from wall to wall in one of the sound stages. I do enjoy the original Resident Evil games and it was cool seeing the ionic characters and story brought to life, but everything past the facade quickly felt too spaced out. Each room was as I would describe it to wide and big to keep the element of surprise for guests. The HHN creatives even attempted to create a room where the game (or house) is in pause mode. Unfortunately it didn't work for me, and I really didn't see anything other than the sign "Game Paused" right before entering the room that would make me thing the game is actually paused. The house once again is very detailed and includes hidden items from the game that are highlighted with a light similar to in the game. It's a 2/5 for me on the scares and a 3/5 on the look, feel, and detail.

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One of my favorite houses is based on last years hugely successful horror film, Cabin In The Woods. The detail of the set is amazing, and it follows the story of the film quite accurately through the house. Room for room you walk through the different iconic scenes in the movie that flipped the horror genre on its head. Everything is there, even the huge bloodied up elevator scene. This house definitely provides plenty of areas for screams from start to finish. I'd give it 4/5 for me on the scares and a 5/5 on the look, feel, and detail.

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Another one of my favorites is based on the John Landis-directed 1981 classic, An American Werewolf In London. This one is just amazing for any fan of HHN and the movie. It definitely shows in this house how excited the HHN creatives were about the opportunity to bring this film to life and how incredibly close they worked with John Landis on perfecting the maze.

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Every little detail in this house is just pure perfection. This house presents a first for HHN in that the designers recreated the wolfs with such accuracy and get this, they aren't humans inside of them! No, they aren't real wolfs either, but the designers created animatronic puppets that fluidly move and attack guests. These puppets are some of the most incredible work I have ever seen at Halloween Horror Nights and are just pure beautiful designs. Each room in this house follows the story perfectly and it just shows again the attention to detail that Universal puts into recreating the scenes from this film. There are plenty of opportunities for screams in this house and I would vouch to say this is the best house this year. It's a 4/5 for me on the scares and a 5/5 on the look, feel, and detail.

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Next up is the imported house from Hollywood with an Orlando twist and touch, Urban Legends: La Llorona. This house took Hollywood by storm last year and with it's success we find it in Orlando this year. I personally never saw Hollywoods version but from what I've been told Orlando's version learned from Hollywood and took it up another notch. This house is another visually stunning masterpiece. The atmosphere inside reminded me of how spooky it would be to sit around a campfire and hear the story being told all the while hearing creepy noises coming from all around you scaring you to the core that it just might be someone coming to kill you. This house doesn't just tell the famous mexican fable, but it puts you right in the middle of it. With opportunities for screams from left to right, beginning to end, this one is a 4/5 for me on the scares and a 4.5/5 on the look, feel, and detail.

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Next up we have a popular house from a few Horror Nights ago brought back in a sequel that takes place six months after the last one, it is Havoc: Derailed. The super soldiers are back and this time they are escaping from, well as the name suggest, a derailed train wreck. The train you walk through is literally turned on its head and is incredible, and the remainder of the house is a totally wrecked area. This house is just pure chaos as you would assume a train wreck would be. It is not the best house of the event, and it doesn't offer nearly the amount of scares as the other houses, and the best it has to offer is the experience of walking through a wrecked train car. It's an overall 2/5 for me on the scares and a 2/5 on the look, feel, and detail.

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Last but not least it's the annual 3-D maze which of course includes the Vortex that appears every year, I'm talking about Afterlife: Death's Vengeance. Don't go to this house expecting the incredible detail that Universal is known for, but expect to be utterly disoriented in this years "fun house" maze. It's a visually disorienting house, with the flashes of backlight and ample amount of bright neon colors leaving you wondering which way to go at times. There are several rooms in this house that are especially cool with the 3d glasses you are given at the entrance of the house. This house is definitely not the scariest of this year, but it does make for quite the fun experience. It's a 2.5/5 for me on the scares and a 4.5/5 on the look, feel, and detail.

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Next up we have the street experience which last year utterly failed and bombed in my opinion, this year is going back to a more rooted feel. This year Universal has taken a single theme to the streets, it's the Walking Dead. The creatives took different episodes of the wildly successful TV show and recreated them in the streets.

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New York turns into Atlanta and there is even a giant tank (the creatives couldn't find anyone to let them borrow a tank, so they just went ahead and built it). Hollywood is transformed into the episode Clear with zombie traps, in the streets you will also encounter The Farm, the Woodlands, a Survivor Camp, and of course the Schoolbus is back in action. Also roaming the streets again is the Chainsaw Drill team. And for the first time I do have to admit one of them fully surprised me and got me as we were walking past the new London waterfront. One of the chainsaw drill team members was hiding behind the construction wall and to my surprise jumped out starting his chainsaw.

Also back this year are two familiar shows, The Rocky Horror Picture Show: A Tribute, and Bill and Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure. This year I am happy to report, Bill and Ted's is once again hilarious from start to finish with solid comedy material. In past couple of years this show had declined in quality of material and laughs had been sparse, while the overall show had been lackluster at best. This year, Bill and Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure is centered around a camp for famous Hollywood teenagers and actually has a halloween/horror theme to it fitting right in with the remainder of the parks experiences. Bill and Ted's Excellent Halloween adventure is hilariously fun, and I would go see it again and again.

This years Halloween Horror Nights 23 does not disappoint and I would definitely recommend a visit. The event runs at Universal Studios Florida on select nights through November 2, 2013. For the exact dates and tickets visit www.halloweenhorrornights.com/orlando.

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Disneyland to start offering restaurant reservations online

By Robert Niles
Published: September 24, 2013 at 9:39 AM

Disneyland today announced that it's joining the 21st century and making dining reservations at the resort available online. Up until now, if you wanted to book a table at the Blue Bayou, Carthay Circle, or one of the other table service restaurants at the resort, you had to call 714-781-DINE, or email dine@disneyland.com with a request and wait for someone to get back to you.

Firecracker duck wings
Wanna get your Fire Cracker Duck Wings fix? You can go online to make reservations at Disney California Adventure's Carthay Circle restaurant, starting October 3.

Starting October 3, you'll be able to making advance dining reservations via Disneyland.com, just as you've been able to do for years for Walt Disney World and its website. (The silly email reservation "service" now will go away.) The process and user interface online will be identical to the one now available on disneyworld.com.

Including the required credit card. Disneyland also will be cracking down on people who book reservations then don't show by requiring credit card numbers to make certain reservations, and charging up to $10 per person for reservations that are missed without cancellation at least a day in advance.

Getting a table at the Disneyland Resort hasn't been nearly as difficult as securing reservations at Walt Disney World. Disneyland has no Disney Dining Plan like WDW's, meaning that Disneyland diners aren't competing with thousands of other diners looking to fill meals on their pre-paid plans. Locals also make up a much larger share of visitors to Disneyland, and they don't plan meals nearly as far in advance as out-of-town tourists. So perhaps there simply hasn't been the demand or the need for online reservations at Disneyland as at Walt Disney World.

But with just about every other notable table service restaurant in the country offering online reservations, either through their own websites or services such as OpenTable.com, Disneyland has stood out with its antiquated, 20th-century approach to reservations.

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SeaWorld unveils float for 2013 Macy's Thanksgiving Parade

By Robert Niles
Published: September 24, 2013 at 9:17 AM

SeaWorld today unveiled the design of a float it will sponsor in this Thanksgiving's Macy's Parade in New York. The float will celebrate SeaWorld's upcoming 50th anniversary, marking the 1964 opening of SeaWorld San Diego.

Sea of Surprises float
Concept art courtesy of SeaWorld

Being a Los Angeles native and living in Pasadena, California for the past 13 years, I'll cop to a twinge of jealousy whenever I hear about someone booking a float for the Macy's parade in New York instead of our New Year's Day Tournament of Roses Parade. But who knows? Maybe SeaWorld will come through and sponsor a float in the state when the chain was born, too. Wouldn't SeaWorld's marine mammals and gardens look wonderful in flowers? ;^)

The nation's two big holiday parades have long histories with the theme park industry. The Macy's parade finds an alternate home through the holiday season at the Universal Orlando Resort. And Universal Orlando owner NBCUniversal is the Macy's parade broadcast partner, as the Thanksgiving Day parade airs on the NBC network. Disney's sponsored many floats in the Rose Parade over the years, most recently with a Cars Land float in this January's parade. We also should note that Disney-owned ESPN is the Tournament of Roses' television partner for the Rose Bowl game, which pays for the Rose Parade. The parade itself airs on multiple networks, including ABC and NBC.

Investor-owned SeaWorld doesn't fit into these media relationships, but the Macy's parade reached 22.4 million viewers last year, giving the park a huge promotional opportunity for its "A Sea of Surprises" float. What do you think of the float design? Will you be watching the parade? Do you think it will inspire more visitors to SeaWorld?

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Disney's Seven Dwarfs Mine Train starts coasting, but who's getting taken for a ride?

By Robert Niles
Published: September 23, 2013 at 3:49 PM

The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train roller coaster, under construction at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, is now coasting.

Seven Dwarfs Mine Train
Photo courtesy Disney

Disney Imagineers conducted their first "drop test" of the family coaster that will complete the Magic Kingdom's "New Fantasyland" when it opens in the spring. One of the coaster trains dropped from the ride's station and ran under its own gravity-powered momentum.

This is the latest droplet of information about the ride to trickle from Disney World's PR team over the past months. Each press release and blog post build anticipation for a new attraction. (Or, at least, its publisher hopes that it does. If not, what's the point?) But what happens when too many press releases build anticipation beyond the level a new ride or show can deliver?

That's a risk that PR professionals ought to consider when promoting a new attraction. How would the public have reacted to last summer's Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin attraction at SeaWorld Orlando had that park not promoted it with so many YouTube videos and concept illustrations? Would word-of-mouth from initial riders have been better if they'd had no expectations about the attraction? Would more positive reaction from early riders delivered more visitors to SeaWorld over the ride's first 12 months than a massive publicity burst, especially if that publicity left some visitors with unmet expectations?

Disney's decision to build New Fantasyland in phases, with its centerpiece — the Mine Train — opening last, inevitably raises the attention paid to this ride. We've been talking about it for years now, and following its construction for many months. But there's little in the specs for this ride that suggests it will be anything more than a "D"-ticket level attraction: A nice, solid addition to the park, but not a leading destination that alone convinces potential visitors to book a trip.

But what happens if the publicity convinces some visitors that this will be that sort of attraction, just as SeaWorld's publicity for Antarctica did for that ride? (For what it's worth, I'm walking you through my thought process on whether or not to post on this today. But I thought this an interesting issue worth discussing.)

What do you think? Is Disney overhyping the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train? Or are people who read these releases (either here or through Disney's social media) savvy enough to see through the hype? What are your expectations for the final piece of the New Fantasyland?

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Monday theme park video round-up: Mazes, fireworks and water slides

By Robert Niles
Published: September 23, 2013 at 12:57 PM

Got a case of the Mondays? Cure it with some quality time watching fresh theme park videos from around the Internet. Here are highlights from the past few days.

Our Jacob Sundstrom gave high marks to the Insidious: Into the Further maze at Universal Studios Hollywood's 2013 Halloween Horror Nights. Now take a video walk-through yourself:

Over in Orlando, we've heard good things about the American Werewolf in London maze at Universal Studios Florida's Halloween Horror Nights 23:

For a completely, different type of Halloween maze, imagine a "cornfield" maze, but in an actual cornfield. Holiday World delivers:

Now into the scary stuff? Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom takes care of you with the annual Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, now running at the park. Here's this year's HalloWishes fireworks show:

Getting away from Halloween, and inspiring some summer jealousy among those living in parks of the country where the weather's turning cool, Disney's posted some POV video of its most popular water slides. Here's Typhoon Lagoon's Crush n' Gusher:

You can follow the links for POV from Typhoon Lagoon's Storm Slides, Mayday Falls and Blizzard Beach Snow Stormers, too.

Please share links to your favorite recent theme park videos, in the comments.

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Disney confirms changes to disability access program. But is there a better way?

By Robert Niles
Published: September 23, 2013 at 10:43 AM

Disney now has confirmed the changes to its procedures for accommodating theme park guests with disabilities — a change we discussed here on Theme Park Insider last week.

Small World queue
Disney soon will be changing the way that visitors with disabilities access rides and shows at its theme parks.

Disney's Guest Assistance Card [GAC] program is going away on October 9, to be replaced by a Disabled Assistance System [DAS]. The basic principal is the same: theme park visitors with disabilities will be given "back door" access to attractions when the guest cannot use the attraction's "normal" stand-by waiting queue. But instead of getting unlimited instant access to attractions, visitors with disabilities will be given an assigned return time to one attraction at a time. Return times will be set to the current stand-by wait time for the ride or show, so that there's no time advantage to using DAS over waiting in line. Also, visitors with disabilities must be present and ride in order for others in their party to be admitted through the DAS return line.

Questions remain, of course. Will all wheelchair parties now have to get DAS cards? (Now, many guests with wheelchairs go straight to wheelchair entrances, not bothering with GACs, as our own Daniel Etcheberry reports.) Will the DAS return times be for a specific time window, as FastPass is now, or can parties with a DAS reservation ride at any time during the day after their assigned time, without having to worry about missing a specific hour-long window? Will Disney provide enough staff so that people won't have to wait in long lines just to get DAS approval and attraction return times?

Theme Park Insider readers reacted passionately to the initial reports about this change — some welcoming it as a long-overdue response to an abused system and others attacking it as an unworkable alternative that will keep their families from being able to visit the parks. But is there a better alternative to GAC or DAS?

From reading your responses to the program, it appears that the key issue is fairness in the number of attractions that a party can experience in one day. Having disability access should not enable those families to visit more attractions during their visit than those without that access can experience. And not having disability access should not prevent groups traveling with a person with disabilities from experiencing the same number of rides and shows during their trip as a "normal" party can. If all visitors could feel assured that they'd still get their "fair" number of rides in, perhaps they'd feel less stressed out about how other people were using systems such as DAS.

Perhaps a more ideal system would price theme parks on the number of attractions visited instead of the amount of time spent there. And to ensure that visitors didn't just crowd the "best" rides and shows, the system would group attractions into classes, and give you a limited number of visits to rides and shows in each class.

Hey, maybe A-through-E ticket books weren't such a bad idea, after all?

Actually, Disney's new FastPass+ system restores some of the functionality of the ticket books, in that it does confirm three attraction visits per day for people using that new ride reservation system. Disney hasn't rolled out FastPass+ fully, but perhaps families with a person with autism might be able to use the system in the future to schedule a day in the parks in a way that would accommodate those visitors' needs.

Let's think this through: Maybe the solution to the disability access problem is a more scheduled day for everyone, with an increased reliance on FastPass+-type scheduling that minimizes or eliminates the use of the conflict-producing stand-by lines. Disney's old ticket-book-style of access would return, not through physical ticket books, but through FastPass+ back-end programming that allows visitors a certain number of reserved visits to certain classes of attractions on a given day. Sure, there'd be less opportunity for spontaneity during a theme park visit. But there'd be less uncertainty, and fewer conflicts in stand-by lines, too.

Another way to reduce wait time is, of course, to increase the park's peak capacity. Disney's decision to drop millions of dollars on new ride reservation and scheduling systems instead of simply using that money to build more rides has many of its current (and some now-former) fans upset. But new rides attract new visitors, and it's unlikely that a park ever could build enough new attractions to ensure insignificant wait time during the busiest times of the year. If it could, that park would be stuck with a massive amount of excess capacity during slower times of the year. No park that wanted to stay in business would spend its money to do that.

Even if parks so their very best to create the most accessible queues possible, there will be some people with certain conditions who won't be able to use them. So a park needs to come up with some system to accommodate people who can't wait in traditional queues. Disney's going to give its new system a try, starting next month. But just as DAS evolved from GAC, it's likely that we'll see Disney's system for accommodating visitors with disabilities continue to evolve in the future.

Update: Keep this in mind before commenting, too. While I appreciate the passion that so many readers have brought to the discussion on this issue, I'm reminded of an old law school cliche: "If you have the law on your side, pound the law. If you have the facts on your side, pound the facts. If you don't have the law or the facts on your side, pound the table."

The more you "pound the table" in your reaction to this issue, the more likely others are to see you as someone without facts or law on your side. From my time working at Disney, I know that many cast members were convinced that the guests who complained the loudest, and with the most emotion, were often the ones trying to pull a fast one.

Many readers have brought good reason and insightful experience to this discussion. They are the ones who will convince others and have influence in shaping the future of theme park policy. Those who "pound the table" won't. And, frankly, shouldn't.

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Universal Studios Hollywood's 2013 Halloween Horror Nights might be its best yet

By Jacob Sundstrom
Published: September 22, 2013 at 8:35 PM

Now in its eighth year since being resuscitated by John Murdy and company, Halloween Horror Nights Hollywood is better than ever.

Six mazes, five of them all-new, highlighted what is arguably Hollywood's best Horror Nights yet; and if the opening night crowds are any indication, this year's event may shape up to be its most popular, too.

With popularity comes crowds — and I mean crowds. Rival Knott's Berry Farm doesn't run out a dozen mazes a year just for the heck of it; at some point is almost becomes a necessity to get guests off the streets and into the mazes. I'm not saying Horror Nights has hit that point yet, but planning your night is more important now than it ever has been.

Luckily, I'm here to help. I'll start by running through the mazes from first to worst and then give you a game plan for surviving the hoards of fans at this year's Horror Nights.

Insidious: Into the Further
The success and failure of this maze, to me, was going to be how well they executed entering "the further," a space where spirits/demons dwell and where the protagonist in the first film has to go to rescue his young son. In the film, the further is foggy and visibility is low when you first enter. I knew that if the creators could nail this, the maze had a real chance to be the best in the event.

Insidious facade

They did not disappoint. Walking through what I assume was a dark hallway filled with fog kept me from seeing any farther than the back of the head of the person I was following. The hallway was only 20 feet long, but it felt like I was walking through it forever; and the longer I walked the more and more a sense of total dread crept upon me, knowing the next scare could quite literally come from anywhere.

Of course the sets and scenes were incredible and I felt the actors were on point, especially considering how rusty first night casts often are. This maze was very scary, something the Insidious sequel can't quite claim.

El Cucuy: The Boogeyman
After the success of the La Llorona maze last year, I was excited to see what Murdy and company would do with their second myth-based maze. It did not disappoint as El Cucuy provided great scares and a frightening atmosphere, particularly in the second half of the maze.

El Cucuy entrance

There are typically three categories of mazes at Horror Nights: There are mazes that are outright terrifying, mazes that are very scenic and theatrical and there are mazes that seek to disorient guests. El Cucuy lives in the middle ground between the first and second category, lacking the actor-generated scares that Insidious provided, but using its environments to genuinely frighten guests.

Evil Dead: Book of the Dead
Fans of the film franchise will love this maze. The set dressing is absolutely phenomenal and the scenes they chose to incorporate from the two films (the original and recent remake) are sure to please diehards of the series. Of course the maze also provided some great scares (and at least one great effect — I'll leave that as a surprise, though) but felt a bit more theatrical than Insidious and El Cucuy.

When I say theatrical I mean that there were times when it felt like I was watching the action rather than being a part of it. While there's a time and place for both, I'm at a Halloween event to become a part of my favorite movies — not to watch them reenacted live.

Walking Dead: No Safe Haven
Much like the Evil Dead, this maze was incredibly well designed — but the long wait meant the maze was absolutely jam-packed with guests. Not only does this take away from the fear-factor of the maze, it also makes it much tougher for the actors to get their scares in.

The Walking Dead maze

This of course just exacerbates the fact that zombies really aren't that scary. They move slowly and can do nothing but growl or snap at you. The amazing sets in this maze will surely please fans of the show, but the real Walking Dead scares come from the scare zone that comes in the backlot...more on that later.

The Walking Dead scarezone

Black Sabbath: 13 3-D
Much like the Alice Cooper maze last year, the Black Sabbath maze was designed for one purpose: To disorient. If you get motion sickness, I would recommend doing this maze without the 3-D glasses. There were a few good scares in this maze, but unless you're a huge fan of the band (and I imagine many people are) you'll wonder why you waited over an hour to go through this maze.

Universal Monsters Remix: Resurrection
If you're scoring at home, that's six-for-six mazes with colons in the name. Can't wait for The Conjuring: The Maze to come to life at coming events!

Joking aside, this maze was what it was last year. There are some solid scares, and I commend the actors who really seemed to be in-sync throughout the maze, but the environment is far from immersive. It's a limitation imposed by the structure they're building this maze in (the year-round House of Horrors attraction) and I feel the loud music only further detracts from the experience.

Now...how do you get through the event with minimal waiting?

Well, if you have the money to spend, I highly recommend picking up a front of line pass. It ranges in cost from $119 to $139 (it includes admission) and allows you to skip every line at least once. Meaning if you get to the park right when it opens, you can wait 10 or 15 minutes for a few mazes before being forced to use your front of line pass — this gives you a chance to do the better mazes twice in one night and keeps you from waiting in any of the ridiculous lines.

If that's not an option for you, here's a game plan based on what I observed from opening night.

Get to the park early — 6:30 ought to do the trick (event opens at 7 p.m.) because they allow guests in a good 20-30 minutes early on most nights to line up for the Terror Tram and the tram to the backlot where the Walking Dead and Black Sabbath mazes are located.

Get in line for the tram to the backlot immediately. The Walking Dead and Black Sabbath mazes both posted wait times over two hours by 9 p.m. — they were up to an hour at 8 p.m. The Walking Dead is the most anticipated maze at this event, and Black Sabbath being in the same area means both mazes are swamped early on. So tackle them both first before heading back to the lower lot (the tram to the backlot is located by Transformers).

Now hit Insidious and Evil Dead in whichever order you prefer — I recommend Insidious first as it held a longer line than Evil Dead did on the night I was there. Now head up to the top lot and get in line for the Terror Tram as it closes early on Thursday and Sunday nights.

Next head over to El Cucuy. At this point you will probably have to wait in an actual line, but I never saw the wait for this maze go over an hour long so it's the lesser of two evils. If you'd like to see the event's only show (Bill and Ted), you should still have time to see a later showing which will be less crowded as most people will have moved to the mazes at this point. On your way out you can do Monsters Remix.

That plan of attack should keep the amount of time spent in lines to a minimum.

Some other notes:

The scare zones struck me as much better this year than in year's past. The Purge perfectly fit as a centerpiece for the event and the Chucky scare zone (complete with Chucky hurling down insults from a balcony) will delight longtime fans of the event. However, the best zone of the night was undeniably The Walking Dead.

Curse of Chucky scarezone

The Purge scarezone

The tram to the backlot drops you off right on the new metropolitan sets; as a film fan, I was geeking out the moment I stepped off the tram. Then came the walkers, which were less than scary in the maze but extremely effective on the open streets of the metro sets. This was the best scare zone I have ever been through at this event, dating back to 2007 (okay, okay, so that's not THAT long ago).

Metro set

Speaking of the backlot, how was the Terror Tram this year? Pretty much the same as last year. It's a great experience, but as someone who has been to this event dozens of times, it's more of a novelty than scary at this point. It's a must-do experience for those new to the event, but if you're short on time and did it last year, you wouldn't be missing much by skipping it this year.

Lastly: The Bill and Ted show, in which actors skewer other actors, musicians and anyone else who made a PR faux-pas in the past calendar year. If you like this sort of thing (I don't) and you liked the show last year (nope) then you will like it this year.

To recap:

- Insidious, Evil Dead and El Cucuy are the three best mazes of the event. Start at the backlot, move to the lower lot and finish on the upper lot to avoid ridiculous wait times.

- Check out the Chucky scare zone if you'd like to be insulted by a man pretending to be a serial killer trapped inside of a doll.

- Go to the Bill and Ted show if you want to get off your feet. Do the Terror Tram if you haven't done it before.

- Arrive early, buy your tickets in advance.

- Leave earlier to get there than you think you have to — L.A. traffic during the evenings is unbearable.

Be sure to share your thoughts on this year's event in the comments! What was your favorite maze? Your least favorite?

I'll be checking out Knott's Scary Farm on Thursday, so look for that report Friday afternoon. You can follow along with me at Knott's Scary Farm by following me or Theme Park Insider on Twitter (@JakeSundstrom and @ThemePark, respectively).

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What's the best roller coaster park in America?

By Robert Niles
Published: September 22, 2013 at 4:01 PM

We've shown you the best roller coasters in America, as well as the worst. But few people plan a vacation or even a day trip around a single roller coaster. Fans are looking for value from a theme park admission than that. Thrill ride fans want to find the parks that deliver the best collection of roller coasters — the most thrills for their money.

So what are the best roller coaster parks in the United States? Once again, we're turning to you — Theme Park Insider readers — to make that call. We've collected the reader ratings you've submitted on roller coasters at top parks around the country over the past year. From them, we've calculated our collective picks for the country's best roller coaster parks.

Here's how we did it: First we looked for excellence. To be considered for the top five, a park had to have had at least two coasters rated a "9" or above by Theme Park Insider readers. From there, we looked for high-quality quantity, too, giving parks points for roller coasters rated "8" or above. We wanted to weigh the excellent coasters even more, so we gave parks an extra point for each coaster rated "9" or above. (Rankings were determined on the basis of ratings submitted by last Friday afternoon. Coasters had to have had a minimum number of votes to be considered.)

With this system, parks aren't penalized for having mediocre coasters or other types of rides, since we're ignoring them in the rankings. So long as a park offers plenty of high-quality coasters, they're good by us. No sense marking a park down for offering other rides, too. Hey, if those rides draw a few people out of the queues for the top coasters, all the better. ;^)

So, here they are:

ThemeParkInsider.com's Top Roller Coaster Parks in America, 2013

1. Six Flags Magic Mountain, Valencia, California


2. Cedar Point, Sandusky, Ohio


3. Six Flags Great America, Gurnee, Illinois

Raging Bull
Raging Bull

4. Six Flags Great Adventure, Jackson, New Jersey

El Toro
El Toro, which also was our pick for the best roller coaster in America.

5 (tie). Busch Gardens Tampa, Tampa, Florida and Busch Gardens Williamsburg, Williamsburg, Virginia

Montu at Busch Gardens Tampa

Apollo's Chariot
Apollo's Chariot at Busch Gardens Williamsburg

Again, if you're a coaster fan, you'll do well at any of these five six parks, as well as several others that lurk just below in our rankings. Here's to looking back at a great summer at the country's regional amusement parks, and looking forward to another great season of riding coasters, starting next spring.

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Vote of the week: Getting over a fear of roller coasters?

By Robert Niles
Published: September 20, 2013 at 11:02 AM

As a parent and a theme park fan, I love going on thrill rides with my kids. But the feeling hasn't always been mutual. Okay, before you jump to any conclusions about my relationship with my kids, it was the thrill rides that my children didn't always like, not me. (At least, that's what they're telling me….)

These days, my kids are teenagers and they demand extreme thrill rides that make even me raise my eyebrows when we get to the queue. But I've met many Theme Park Insider readers over the years whose kids haven't yet gotten over their fear of big roller coasters and other thrill rides. Heck, I've met plenty of adults who still won't get on a coaster with inversions, huge drops or even high-speed turns. Earlier this week, our Bobbie Butterfield wrote about how she overcame her fear and skepticism of coasters, as an adult.

Full Throttle at Six Flags Magic Mountain

How do you feel about extreme roller coasters and thrill rides? Are you game for anything a theme or amusement park can throw at you? Or would you rather not take a ride in the jiggle box or on the runaway train when you're on vacation? Were you once scared of big thrill rides, and eventually overcame that? If so, how did you do that? What helped you make that switch in attitude?

Limitations in engineering, budgeting and even human endurance have slowed the Coaster Wars that once seemed to bring a new "world's tallest" or "world's fastest" roller coaster in the United States every year or so. But creative roller coaster designers, such as Switzerland's Bolliger & Mabillard, continue to devise new combinations of track elements, seating arrangements and train configurations that deliver original thrill experiences — for people will to give them a try, that is.

Some people just never have cared about thrill rides. They come to parks for the story, the music, the setting — something other than physical thrills. And some fans couldn't imagine anything other than simply loving big thrill rides, from even before the time they were bid enough to ride the. But plenty of theme park fans have had to confront their own, or their children's, fear of roller coasters and thrill rides. They want to go, but that height, those speeds, something, intimidates them and keeps them from getting on board.

What then? It's one thing to force yourself to confront a fear, but would you force a child to ride? Some parents do that, and their kids embrace the experience, becoming lifelong thrill fans. Others? Well, if you thought theme park tickets were expensive, try therapy bills.

I've tried to let my children decide what to ride, on their own terms, not mine. I'd explain the ride, make a case if I thought they'd enjoy it, but then tried to be quiet and accept their decision if they said no. Yet I understand the longing that many parents have to share one of their favorite experiences with their children, and the frustration that ensues when the kids don't want to do it. Heck, some kids do seem to respond best when they're told what to do. It's an individual judgment call.

Got a good story about overcoming a fear of roller coasters? Please share your thoughts about extreme thrill rides, in the comments.


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What is the best roller coaster in America?

By Robert Niles
Published: September 20, 2013 at 8:47 AM

Yesterday, we covered the worst roller coasters in America, so let's end the work week on a higher note. According to ratings submitted by our Theme Park Insider readers, here are the top 10 roller coasters in America:

El Toro
The best roller coaster in America?

  1. El Toro at Six Flags Great Adventure
  2. Bizarro at Six Flags New England
  3. Maverick at Cedar Point
  4. Intimidator at Carowinds
  5. Apollo's Chariot at Busch Gardens Williamsburg
  6. Manta at SeaWorld Orlando
  7. Millennium Force at Cedar Point
  8. The Voyage at Holiday World
  9. Nitro at Six Flags Great Adventure
  10. Outlaw Run at Silver Dollar City

Let's keep in mind that the average reader ratings for these great coasters are jammed together as closely as riders waiting in their queues. The difference between numbers one and 10 in terms of quality isn't much at all — you'll enjoy a great ride on any of these coasters, as well as on several more that lurk just underneath the current top 10.

We asked fans of Theme Park Insider on Facebook and on Twitter to name their favorite roller coasters, too. We heard multiple responses for many of the coasters on the top 10 list above, including Millennium Force, El Toro, Bizarro, Voyage, and Apollo's Chariot. In addition, Theme Park Insider fans on Facebook and Twitter frequently lauded:

Let's celebrate another great summer of riding coasters with on-ride videos from some of your favorites:

Later today, we'll keep talking coasters with our Vote of the Week, and tomorrow we will reveal Theme Park Insider readers' picks for the top roller coaster parks in the United States.

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The Blog Flume Filter for September 19, 2013

By Jeff Elliott
Published: September 19, 2013 at 1:58 PM

Disneyland – The Nightmare Before Christmas seasonal overlay of the Haunted Mansion is now open.

But that is not the only thing to get a seasonal overlay. Oh, no. We have other surprises for you.

Disney’s Magic Kingdom – The Princess Fairytale Hall is now open. I thought the original fairy tales, like the ones from the Brothers Grimm were supposed to be pretty dark and gritty. I think this attraction needs some dark and gritty. How about some zombies? How about zombies with laser eyes and automatic weaponry? And by the way, since there was a comment made last week, I am happy to report that this attraction is absolutely free.

And if you ever wondered how anything gets done around Disney with people following them around with cameras, here’s your answer:

And now that the little girls have been distracted, it is time to move on to the little boy’s distraction:

Disney’s California Adventure – We kind of figured this was coming. The characters from Planes have been added to the Soarin’ preshow.

Limited Time Magic – I think I actually figured out the brilliance of Limited Time Magic. For a while I was hacked off about them putting together an entire year of events that only benefitted people who lived within a couple of blocks from the parks. But now I realize that I was thinking about the situation all wrong. What they are actually doing is throwing everything and the kitchen sink at their adoring fans to see what sticks and what doesn’t. What this has allowed Disney to do is to expire everything very quickly, the great and the embarrassing, and then make notes about what is working and what isn’t. It has been an entire year of experimenting with what they think the crowds might like. Based on the reaction to the Disney Villains party, I think we might see the entire Halloween season taken as a Villains Party. And if that goes over as well as this last Friday the 13th, we can then expect to have the Villain’s Land we have been dying for years to get.

Kentucky Kingdom – Progress is still being made, although it looked like a lot of destruction was underway…

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Kings Island offers contest to win a trip to... Knott's Berry Farm

By Robert Niles
Published: September 19, 2013 at 10:54 AM

Kings Island has announced that it will run a "Scream Like a Banshee" contest on Fridays during its Halloween Haunt event this fall, to promote its new roller coaster debuting next spring.

Banshee logo
Kings Island will debut the world's longest Bolliger & Mabillard inverted roller coaster next April.

Weekly winners advance to the finals on October 26, with the finals winner getting a trip for two to Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, California.

It might seem strange for a theme park to be running a contest where the grand prize is a trip to another park, but don't forget that Kings Island and Knott's Berry Farm both are siblings in the Cedar Fair theme park chain.

Utilizing sister parks to offer prize trips to an affiliated out-of-market park seem like a strong move, especially when the sister park is in a popular tourist destination such as Southern California. It's not like Knott's and Kings Island are competing for the same visitors. But the chance to win a trip across the country to Southern California and Knott's certainly seems like a good lure to bring more visitors from around Cincinnati to Kings Island. Theme Park Insider readers from the Midwest can respond in the comments as to whether this contest would help push them to visiting KI this fall.

What do you think? Have you seen this type of promotion before, at other theme or amusement parks? Which other park combinations would be good candidates for running a similar promotion?

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What is the worst roller coaster in America?

By Robert Niles
Published: September 19, 2013 at 10:21 AM

Theme parks are kicking off Halloween events all around the country, so let's talk about the scariest, most frightening, and completely horrible theme park attraction experiences imaginable.

But we're not going to talk about haunted houses, mazes or scarezones. Nope. Today, we're talking about something far worse than those staged frights. We're talking about the most painful theme park attractions ever built. (Okay, the second most painful, after getting stuck on "It's a Small World" when ride attendants forget to turn off the soundtrack.)

We're talking about the worst roller coasters in America.

The worst roller coaster in America?

Yesterday, I asked Theme Park Insider's fans on Facebook and on Twitter to identify the worst coasters they ever ridden, and why they thought them so bad. And you responded with tales of pain, anger, and frustration. Many of you cited rides so unpopular that their parks have closed them, notably Son of Beast at Kings Island, Drachen Fire at Busch Gardens Williamsburg, Rolling Thunder at Six Flags Great Adventure and Flashback and Psyclone from Six Flags Magic Mountain.

I asked my children if they wanted to make a pick, too, and my son raised an interesting point. Some fans like rides that beat them up. They're looking for the most extreme thrills available in a park, and would love the chance to ride something with a reputation for brutality. The rougher, the better.

So you can look at these lists as rides to avoid, or rides to rush to. Your choice. But you can be assured that these roller coasters have left their mark, sometimes literally, on many other visitors before you. From our Theme Park Insider reader ratings of attractions at highly-attended theme parks around the country, here are the lowest-rated coasters in the country.

  1. Ninja at Six Flags Over Georgia
  2. Georgia Cyclone at Six Flags Over Georgia
  3. The Dark Knight Coaster at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey and Six Flags Great America outside Chicago
  4. Mean Streak at Cedar Point
  5. Mind Eraser at Six Flags New England

In addition to the coasters listed above, our fans on Facebook and Twitter also panned The Roller Coaster (formerly Manhattan Express) at the New York, New York Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Gwazi at Busch Gardens Tampa, Viper at Six Flags Great Adventure and Six Flags Magic Mountain, and Apocalypse at Six Flags America, which is the former Iron Wolf from Six Flags Great America.

What's your pick for the worst roller coaster you've ever ridden? Let's open this up beyond America's borders, too, so go ahead and warn us in the comments about really nasty coasters elsewhere in the world, if you'd like.

Tomorrow, we'll look at the flip side and list readers' picks for the best coasters in America. And this weekend, we'll reveal our readers' pick as the top roller coaster park in the United States in 2013.

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Universal sends its greetings from Halloween Horror Nights

By Robert Niles
Published: September 18, 2013 at 12:41 PM

What's this, just arrived in the mail?


Universal Orlando has sent its annual promotional box for Halloween Horror Nights. I wonder if that mention of "brain surgery" is a clue about what's inside? ;^)

From Universal Orlando

Let's take a look!

This year's Halloween Horror Nights promotion

Once we remove the note, there's some nice detail on the top.

HHN 23

But we want to see what's inside. With a quick twist of the key, it's open.

Opening the lock

Hello, gorgeous! Hey, is there something in your eye?

Hey, a head!

Yep, there is.

What's that in your eye

Looks like we've got a new family friend.

Pose for a picture

That stick drive came loaded with press images for this year's event, so let's share a few.

The Evil dead
From The Evil Dead

The Walking Dead
From The Walking Dead

American Werewolf in London
From An American Werewolf in London

Meanwhile, for fans of Hollywood's Halloween Horror Nights, creative director John Murdy has been tweeting tips for visiting this year's event. Many of them will be familiar to readers who saw our interview with John earlier this month. But here's an extra tip that wasn't in our interview:

Are you planning to go to Halloween Horror Nights this year? If so, on which coast (or are you one of the truly dedicated fans who do both)? Tell us what you're hoping to see this year, in the comments.

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Walt Disney World resumes limited theme park bus service from Downtown Disney

By Robert Niles
Published: September 17, 2013 at 2:11 PM

Once again, but only for a limited time, you can park your car at Downtown Disney and ride a bus to a Walt Disney World theme park. Disney publicly confirmed today that it has resumed bus service between Disney's Animal Kingdom and Downtown Disney.

Disney stopped running buses between Downtown Disney and the parks in order to clear spaces at the shopping and dining area, by preventing visitors using those lots as free parking alternatives to the pay-per-day theme park lots. Disney's calling the bus service to DAK "experimental," and said that the service will run until October 31.

Animal Kingdom parking lot
You can avoid the Animal Kingdom parking lot by taking the bus from Downtown Disney instead. But only for the next six weeks.

Could this experiment clear the way for a resumption of bus service to all the Disney theme parks? The timing is curious, as Disney's begun the transformation of Downtown Disney into Disney Springs, which involves the closure of some of Downtown Disney's sometimes-crowded lots. As today's Disney Parks Blog post notes, Animal Kingdom closes much earlier than the other Disney parks, so visitors using the Downtown Disney lots for a visit to Animal Kingdom likely would clear out before the evening rush to Downtown Disney's restaurants, freeing spaces for those visitors.

But don't forget the flip side. Ultimately, if parking's scarce at Downtown Disney/Disney Springs, it makes sense for Disney to try to take pressure off those parking facilities by encouraging people to leave their cars at the theme park lots. Disney's running the DAK/DD route until 1am each day, long after Animal Kingdom's closing time, which varies from 6-8pm. That implies that Disney intends for Animal Kingdom visitors to leave their cars at the park while they visit Downtown Disney for the evening.

Of course, free parking at Downtown Disney versus $15 to park at Animal Kingdom affects visitors' parking decisions. Disney Springs will include parking garages in addition to surface lots, and some fans have wondered if Disney will attempt to impose a parking fee in those garages in an effort to influence parking demand. For what it's worth, Disney charges people who park at Downtown Disney in Anaheim for more than three hours (five hours with validation from certain retailers). Universal Orlando offers reduced price parking in its garages after 6pm to encourage evening visitors to CityWalk, but it still charges. (Visitors to CityWalk and the Universal Orlando theme parks use the same parking facilities.)

Perhaps Walt Disney World is using this experiment to collect usage data that might eventually help it determine a price point and policies for Disney Springs parking? How much does Disney need to charge to discourage people from parking at Disney Springs to visit the theme parks, while still providing bus transportation that enable people to leave their cars at the parks when spending the evening at Disney Springs? Knowing how many people will use those buses each way with the current $15 price difference for parking might help Disney begin to answer that question.

Will you be using this bus service, if you're visiting the resort in the next six weeks? Would you use it in the future?

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As Disney prepares a replacement for Guest Assistance Cards, here's how we got into this mess

By Robert Niles
Published: September 17, 2013 at 1:03 PM

Disney's much-abused Guest Assistance Card program will end next month, according to a report on MiceAge. Disney will replace the program with a new Disabled Assistance System [DAS], the website said. Under the new scheme, visitors with disabilities that preclude their use of the traditional queues for attractions will get Fastpass-like return times for those rides, but only for one ride at a time. A guest with a qualifying disability will need to present a DAS pass, which include his or her photo, to get admitted at that return time. If a DAS user doesn't ride, no one in his or her party will be admitted to the attraction. Since DAS users can reserve only one return time at a time and won't be able to transfer that benefit to anyone, there should be no wait-time advantage to having a DASpass (see what I did there?) over using the park's stand-by queues. Visitors can get the DAS card at Guest Relations, and reserve return times at designated kiosks around the parks. The new system will go into place at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World on October 9.

In considering how Disney's new program will work, perhaps it's worth taking a look back to see how we got to this point.

Before the adoption of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, theme parks in the United States were under no federal obligation to accommodate visitors in wheelchairs, or those with other medical disabilities. However, industry practice was to find a way to allow visitors in wheelchairs to get on rides and into shows when they could not go through traditional, narrow serpentine queues.

Typically, the way parks accommodated these visitors was to bring them through the exit. Parks usually design wider exits for attractions, to allow people to get out quickly, so there was plenty of space for a wheelchair to access the ride from that point. But operations staff didn't want wheelchair parties clogging that space at the exit while they waited their "fair turn" to board, so custom became to load those parties as soon as possible. That allowed wheelchair parties to bypass not just the queues for attractions, but also the waits.

And once word about that got around, the attempts at abusing this practice began. When I worked at Walt Disney World's Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, I soon lost count of the number of groups of able-bodied teenagers who'd rented a wheelchair and took turns riding in it in an attempt to skip as many lines as possible. So Disney introduced the Guest Assistance Card program to try to cut down on such abuse. Visitors would need to go to Guest Relations to get a special card that would identify them as needing special access to an attraction. While many park employees continued to admit guests in wheelchairs through "back-door" entrances, many also stonewalled others they suspected of trying to cheat the system, asking to see their GAC before letting them ride.

Problem solved? Not even close. The ADA isn't just about people in wheelchairs. It also requires accommodation from people dealing with any from a much wider range of disabilities, including mental and emotional conditions that make it difficult or impossible for people to deal with confined queues or uncertain wait times. Civil and criminal penalties for denying accommodation can be harsh, so the cost of denying a GAC to someone who actually needed it was so large that saying no to such requests simply wasn't worth the risk. Just about anyone making a plausible request could get a GAC.

Let's acknowledge here that most people aren't jerks. If they see people with obvious disabilities getting to skip queues, they don't begrudge that and calmly accept letting those others go ahead. But as soon as people see others getting to cut the line who don't have obvious disabilities, or who appear (to them, at least) obviously not to have a disability, they feel less shame in asking for that same advantage, too. Over time, the number of guests with GACs swelled, and grew to include thousands of visitors who were physically and mentally capable of waiting in traditional queues. Which only encouraged more people to abuse the GAC system, lest they be left waiting behind others abusing the system, too.

Ultimately, the solution that will stop this abuse is to create a system of accommodation that doesn't allow persons with disabilities to get access to more attractions than another guest without a disability would on the same day. Building more ADA-compliant queues will address this challenge for guests using wheelchairs, by eliminating the need for them to bypass the queue. More efficient use of ride reservation systems can help accommodate guests with the mental or emotional inability to handle a queue, too.

By restricting the number of return passes, timing them to require a wait time approximately equal to the current stand-by wait, and eliminating the transfer for line-skipping privileges, Disney appears to be taking a step toward creating that more efficient system. The cynic awaits pushback from those visitors who've been abusing GACs and who will now have to wait their fair turn. The optimist hopes that at least a few instead will welcome the change and take this opportunity to atone for their participation in past abuse.

Update: Disney has confirmed the changes. Our discussion continues in this new post.

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Evolution of a roller coaster junkie: How I overcame fear and skepticism

By Bobbie Butterfield
Published: September 17, 2013 at 9:43 AM

I wasn’t always a roller coaster addict and I wasn’t always fearless. As a kid, I enjoyed riding coasters but as I grew older I more or less forgot about them unless one of them made the news. I knew that coasters were becoming increasingly bigger when Dorney Park filed suit in federal court against Six Flags Over Texas for claiming that the Texas Giant was the tallest wooden coaster, asserting that their Hercules held that distinction. (Both parties ultimately settled, agreeing that Texas Giant had the tallest lift hill and Hercules had the longest drop.) In any event, Hercules came and when without my ever venturing up to Allentown to ride it. The last coaster I rode while still in my youth was the Coney Island Cyclone, in the early 1970’s. I had first seen the Cyclone when my Uncle Adam drove right by it on a trip to the 1964 New York World’s Fair and forbade me to ride, saying that roller coasters weren’t safe because “They’re put together by a bunch of drunks.” When the Cyclone was scheduled for demolition, before it was declared a national landmark, I seized the opportunity to ride it and that was that. It wasn’t until 2010 that I gave serious thought to taking up where I left off.

How I got deeply involved in this hobby goes back to when I was engaged to a Brit. He would pick me up at Heathrow airport and on the way back to his flat we would pass Chessington World of Adventures. On one occasion I brought up the subject of roller coasters and he told me in no uncertain terms that we - both pushing 60 – were too old to ride coasters because this would result in internal injuries. What rubbish! This struck me as highly improbable and I was determined to prove him wrong, not to show him up but to prove to myself that I wasn’t too old and infirm to withstand the G forces on a coaster. Few things motivate me more than being told that I can’t do something.

At this point I began to wonder whether I would even have the nerve to get on a coaster after all this time. In surfing the web I discovered that there was a pretty interesting looking coaster called El Toro at a park about an hour away from Philadelphia and I decided to go for it. I set up an account with Zipcar (“Wheels When you Want Them”) and set off an adventure which changed the course of my life forever.

A more cautious person might have started off with something a bit more moderate, such as Rolling Thunder. But no, I had to jump off the deep end. It was El Toro or nothing. I remember this day as clearly as if it happened yesterday, from the long wait to get on it to freaking out because I was going over my car reservation time, didn’t want to pay a $50 late fee and couldn’t call Zipcar because my cell phone was in a ride locker. (Fortunately, someone ahead of me in the queue let me use his phone to extend my reservation.) The ride itself was quite an experience although not necessarily a great one from my point of view. El Toro knocked the wind out of my sails. I don’t know what I expected but certainly not this. El Toro was clearly no Coney Island Cyclone.

Over the next several months I continued to struggle with El Toro. On my next visit to Six Flags Great Adventure, I rode it four times but during the visit after that, I simply could not bring myself to get on it. I would look at the first drop and become panicked when I saw how steep it is. This made me extremely frustrated; I kept asking myself what is wrong with you? Despite my trepidation I was determined to conquer this monster although it wasn’t until I made another trip to the park that things magically clicked. There is no logical explanation for this, but whereas the first drop had previously been a hurdle to overcome, it suddenly became the route to euphoria. I was hooked.

EL TORO photo eltoroscenicview_zps87f1a8a1.jpg

The battle was far from over, however. One thing I could not bring myself to do until almost a year later was get on a steel coaster. Steel coasters were an alien concept to me. After all, I grew up with woodies and there is something reassuring about the fact that they have guardrails and an infrastructure. Looking at only a steel track with no visible means of support other than the poles in the ground was like looking at something from outer space. Thinking that I really should ride Nitro, I sat in the test seat near the entrance numerous times and found the restraint inadequate. Accustomed to the tight restraints on El Toro, I found it difficult to believe that a less than snug lap bar would prevent me from being ejected from the coaster. So I continued to ride only woodies, applying for a Delta Sky Miles credit card offering a mileage bonus, in order to finance a trip to Indiana to ride The Voyage.

My 60th birthday marked my debut on a steel coaster. A staff member at Six Flags Great Adventure said “If you can handle El Toro, you can handle Nitro.” I wasn’t so sure about that but being in a good mood after ten rides on El Toro – thanks to the pricey Platinum Flash Pass to which I treated myself to celebrate a milestone – I was game. Nitro turned out to be a great way to finish a day at a theme park. My least favourite part of the ride was the hammerhead turn, as this is the point at which I felt most vulnerable. Still, I could cope with it and sixty rides later, I am a convert.

Alpengeist at Busch Gardens Williamsburg was my first invert and I absolutely hated it. With everything topsy turvy and my feet over my head as if I were performing somersaults at an unusual altitude, I thought omigod, can anyone actually be enjoying this? I simply wasn’t prepared for this type of ride. Griffon was a different story although the thought of getting on it initially scared the hell out of me. A dive coaster was another new concept. The idea of hanging over a precipice 200 feet in the air did not particularly appeal to me so I was pleasantly surprised to find that I actually enjoyed hanging over the edge, taking in the breathtaking scenery before the abrupt 90-degree drop.

ALPENGEIST photo alpengeist_zpsa7cb72e4.jpg

The next challenge was to ride a giga coaster. I’d seen videos of Millennium Force on YouTube and ended up going to Cedar Point. 300 feet was going to be a long way down so I wasn’t sure whether I could stomach it. That was another surprise. On the first drop I found myself grinning from ear to ear, saying YES, YES, YES! This was doable and I could handle it. The next 12 rides were hands in the air.

By this time I was becoming somewhat sophisticated about roller coasters and their elements. My goal was to ride as many as possible on top ten or top twenty lists. At about the same time I decided to set up a roller coaster blog. Even so, there were certain types of coasters that I still refused to ride because they inspired me with fear. At Kings Dominion I was not the least bit nervous about riding Intimidator 305 but felt extremely apprehensive about riding Volcano The Blast Coaster and Flight of Fear. The rollout at 155 feet – a record for longest inversion on any coaster until broken this year by Gatekeeper – looked pretty scary. It was only after a pep talk from a park employee that I took the plunge. It wasn’t until my second visit to Kings Dominion that I got up the nerve to tackle Flight of Fear. Going through four inversions in the dark was almost unthinkable. Anyway, my rides on both Volcano and Flight of Fear rank among the best I’ve ever had.

VOLCANO photo volcano_zpse3f7a6f6.jpg

The last frontier was hydraulically launched strata coasters. I might never have ridden Kingda Ka had I not gone to the park with a date from hell who wanted to ride it. This will never be in my top ten list because there are far better coasters but I always ride it when at SFGA because I enjoy the rush of adrenaline from the launch and now that I’m no longer scared out of my wits, I can enjoy the spectacular view of the parking lot from 456 feet in the air, lol.

Montu at Busch Gardens Tampa did more than any single coaster I’ve ever ridden to alter my perception of inverts. This coaster was a blast from start to finish, especially the batwing element. I only wish that I could get back to Busch Gardens Williamsburg, as I suspect that I would now have a completely different opinion of Alpengeist.

A self-confessed roller coaster junkie, I have ridden coasters 386 times during the past three years and conquered my fear although on some coasters I still worry about the restraints not being tight enough. I will ride anything with a few exceptions. I don’t do standup coasters for medical reasons and prefer not to do coasters with highly unconventional riding positions. Superman: Ultimate Flight was OK but uncomfortable. Riding face down just feels too weird and I wouldn’t expect to enjoy Batwing at Six Flags America because going up the lift hill while flat on my back would probably feel even weirder. Other than that, I’m up for just about anything. In looking at the 2013 Golden Ticket awards, I see that I’ve ridden 9 of the top 10 wooden coasters and 6 of the top 10 steel coasters – so I’ve made some strides in accomplishing what I set out to accomplish. For someone who used to have panic attacks at the sight of El Toro, I’ve come a long way, baby.

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Theme Park History: A short history of Disney California Adventure

By Robert Niles
Published: September 16, 2013 at 9:58 PM

What if you opened a theme park, and nobody came? That's what the Walt Disney Company faced on February 8, 2001, when it opened the second gate at the Disneyland Resort, Disney's California Adventure. Park officials had planned for tens of thousands of Disney fans to visit the park on its first official day, but only a few hundred showed up for the opening ceremony. The park had soft-opened to Disneyland's annual passholders for a few weeks before and bad initial reviews, spread online through a variety of Disney and theme park discussion forums, knocked the park for thin theming, mediocre finishes, and generic rides, depressing attendance once the park opened officially.

California Adventure's old entrance
The Disney's California Adventure entrance, before the 2012 changes. The "CALIFORNIA" letters are now at the Cal Expo in Sacramento.

But California Adventure nevertheless stands as one more influential theme parks in industry history. In the early 1990s, Disneyland's then-President Jack Lindquist advocated for a second theme park next to Disneyland, in order to convince more tourists to extend their stay at the resort. In 1989, Disney had gained control of the Disneyland Hotel by buying the company that had owned the hotel. Along with getting the Disneyland Hotel, Disney obtained the lease to operate the Queen Mary ocean liner, which was moored as a tourist attraction in Long Beach.

That gave Disney two options for a second theme park in Southern California: One, to build a west-coast version of Disney World's Epcot, to be called Westcot, on the Disneyland parking lot, or, two, to build a nautical-themed park, to be called DisneySea (a play on "Disneyland"), next to the Queen Mary in Long Beach. Ultimately, Disney decided against building a second park so far away from Anaheim and gave up the lease on the Queen Mary, abandoning its Long Beach project. But the Oriental Land Company liked the plans for DisneySea so much that it decided to build that park as the companion for Tokyo Disneyland at its Tokyo Disney Resort. Anaheim would get Westcot, instead.

But Disney killed those plans in 1995, after the lackluster debut of Disneyland Paris. But Disneyland still needed an expansion to boost attendance and guest spending. Later that year, Disney's then-CEO Michael Eisner revived plans for Disneyland's second gate, but with a much lower budget and less ambitious scale. The new version of the second gate would be themed to the park's home state of California.

California Adventure marked the end of the "Disney Decade" of hit after hit. The park's failure to live up to Disney standards for theming, popularity, or income fueled criticism of Disney management from fans and critics outside the company as well as from many influential persons within it. Disney management's case for California Adventure wasn't helped when Tokyo DisneySea opened to rave reviews later in 2001, eventually winning multiple Theme Park Insider Awards as the world's best theme park.

California Adventure wasn't the only disappointment at Disney back then. But unlike movies or TV shows that soon fade from public memory, theme parks stay there as a constant reminder of failure. The criticism ultimately boiled into to a public split between Walt's nephew Roy E. Disney and Eisner, which contributed to Eisner's exit as CEO in 2005.

In 2007, new Disney CEO Bob Iger announced a $1.1 billion makeover and expansion of the park, which concluded in June 2012 with the opening of a new park entrance plaza, Buena Vista Street, themed to the Los Angeles Walt Disney arrived in during the 1920s, and Cars Land, a beloved recreation of the town of Radiator Springs from the Pixar Cars movies. Along the way, Disney dumped the possessive in the park's name, which now is simply Disney California Adventure.

The new California Adventure entrance
The new Disney California Adventure entrance, today. The new entry is inspired by the old Pan Pacific Auditorium in Los Angeles, which also inspired the entrance to the Disney's Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World.

So a project was conceived as a way to get tourists to spend more time at Disneyland in California ultimately resulted in the creation of the world's best theme park in Tokyo and a change in management at the Walt Disney Company, before evolving into the wildly popular theme park that Disney California Adventure is today.


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Tokyo Disney theme parks ride out a typhoon

By Robert Niles
Published: September 16, 2013 at 9:11 AM

Have you even been to a theme park during a hurricane? Most readers probably think of the Florida theme parks as being the most likely targets, but tropical storms hit theme parks along the Pacific, too.

The Southern California theme parks have never suffered a hurricane, thanks to the California Current pulling cold ocean water from the north down the coast. (Think of it as the opposite of Florida's Gulf Stream, which draws warm water up the U.S. east coast, helping to make it a prime hurricane target.) But the Kuroshio Current brings warm water up to Japan, providing a road map for tropical storms such as Typhoon Man-yi, which hit Japan over the past couple days. The storm caused considerable damage in the southern part of the country, but by the time it reached the Tokyo Disney Resort, its rain and winds were mostly a nuisance rather than the source of major harm. Several visitors documented the storm on Twitter:

After the worst of the storm blew through, maintenance crews moved swiftly to repair storm damage.

I've not yet found any reports from Universal Studios Japan, which is in Osaka, where the storm caused more damage than in Tokyo. If you've found some reports, or were there, please comment.

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Disney's 'Villains' event highlights need for infrastructure improvements at Hollywood Studios

By Robert Niles
Published: September 15, 2013 at 8:21 PM

Fans are still buzzing about Friday night's "Unleash the Villains" "Limited Time Magic" event at Disney's Hollywood Studios (and Disneyland). Huge crowds pummeled both parks, but we heard the most response from fans who'd attended the Florida version of the event. Here are selected comments from Theme Park Insider readers:

"We attempted to go last night in Orlando (around 8pm), but after sitting in traffic for two hours with no end in sight, we called it off. We were within 1 mile of the entrance to Hollywood Studios for the entire two hours, but barely moved. There was no Disney traffic control or other signs directing traffic to alternate routes."

Stage show at the Friday the 13th Disney Villains event
Some of the Disney villains at the Hades stage show during the Friday the 13th event at Disney's Hollywood Studios. Photo courtesy Disney

"It was a complete train wreck at DHS. They sold out of all the merch hours before the event even began, it was unbelievably poorly staffed and organized, and the combination of the heat, the size of the crowd, and the stupid alcoholic drinks made it downright dangerous. Not sure how they could have screwed it up any worse. We were incredibly disappointed."

"We were stuck in traffic forever, until we decided to park at a resort and walk the rest of the way. Once we were there the line to see the villains was incredibly long, however we did get some good pictures of them (just not with them) in the viewing areas. The Hades show was fun, but the best part of the night was the Villainy in the Sky fireworks. The coolest fireworks show I've seen on Disney property. The lack of merchandise was a little disappointing, apparently most of it had sold out during the day before the event even began."

"I parked at fantasia mini golf and walked, heard one guest say he was on a WDW bus for 3 hours before he got there. The lines to meet the villains was horrific and if you stayed in it you only got a pic with the villain that was available not the one you waited in line for. Cast members were outstanding! But a better plan needs to be in place for next time. BEST FIREWORKS SHOW DISNEY HAS EVER DONE!"

"Both the Florida State Troopers and Orange County Sheriffs were redirecting traffic and turning cars away once park capacity was quickly reached by 8:30p or so. The costumed characters looked fantastic as did the many guests who appeared in costume - plenty of pictures taken by all. Safe to say even Disney was surprised by the massive crowds for this first ever Disney Villains party."

Here's the "Villainy in the Sky" fireworks show, courtesy one Theme Park Insider reader:

The villains fireworks show impressed not just because of the massive volume of pyro that Disney shot up. Villains often have great music, and Disney cut together an impressive soundtrack for this show. No thin pop tunes or whimsical melodies here. Disney started with great classical music, then worked in some of its classic villains themes, too. It was a master class in musical accompaniment for themed entertainment, and an example of how powerfully Disney can impress an audience when it's on top of its game.

But the complaints about access into the park, limited park capacity and staffing for the event raised some tough questions for Disney. And not just as it looks ahead to other special events in the future, either. Remember, Hollywood Studios is where Disney's planning to build Star Wars land. And Friday night demonstrated that DHS is in no condition to handle an onslaught of new fans. Star Wars could make Friday night's crowd the everyday crowd at DHS. And that should worry Disney fans and managers alike.

If Disney's going to do Star Wars land right, we won't simply see a fresh overlay of existing park facilities. We will need to see some major infrastructure work around Disney's Hollywood Studios, including new access and exit lanes from the park, expanded Disney transportation, and a larger parking lot. Sited properly, new park entrance lanes could free space for an expansion of the park around the existing Star Tours ride (it bumps up against the current entrance lanes from World Drive). The park's going to need that extra space to accommodate a larger capacity.

Were you there Friday night? Let's continue the conversation, in the comments.

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You want a Disney MagicBand photo? Here's a Disney MagicBand photo!

By Robert Niles
Published: September 15, 2013 at 10:30 AM

Okay, so it's become a "thing" now for people who are about to visit the Walt Disney World Resort to post photos of their MagicBands online, when they arrive in the mail.

Well, we can play that game, too. Here's a photo of my favorite Disney Magic Band!

The original Disney MagicBand

What's yours? ;^)

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Universal Studios Hollywood construction update

By Jacob Sundstrom
Published: September 14, 2013 at 3:31 PM

You might have noticed that there is a lot of construction going on around Universal Studios Hollywood these days. Harry Potter is coming and the entire resort seemingly has been boarded up or tarped off in preparation for the boy wizard.

Construction wall

This is most evident on the eastern side of the park where everything south from the studio tour up against the Shrek 4D queue has been boarded off. The Curious George play area is being demolished, and the Studio Souvenirs shop is also walled off.

Another construction wall

The loss of the large play area is the only thing that will be missed in the process -- and certainly that will all be forgotten when Harry Potter World opens in two (or three) years time. So now, much like Disney California Adventure during its construction process, guests will have to get used to the temporary wooden walls.

Still more construction walls

Lest you think nothing is coming in the meantime, construction seems to be progressing on the new Despicable Me attraction. The ride is a clone of the one found in Orlando, though the facade will be a bit different. Having been on the Florida ride I can say that, other than well-founded capacity concerns, this ride should be a hit amongst guests.

Gru's house, behind the scrim

More of Despicable Me

The former Terminator theater, transforming to Despicable Me

The Gibson Amphitheater is now closed for good, as evidenced by this wall.

Former Gibson entrance

The newest addition/improvement to the park is not a ride or attraction at all. Rather, it’s a large centerpiece called Universal Plaza that now gives a focal point to Universal’s main drag. It looks terrific in person, particularly on the back side where there is a large fountain with tables and chairs.

Universal Plaza tower

Universal Plaza

Pictures do not quite do it justice, nor do they capture how much it improves the feel of the central area of the park. Before the plaza was built the areas blended together and the paths seemed to meander from one side of the park to the other. Now there is a focal point and a distinct crossing point from the main street to the rest of the park.

I have been told it looks terrific at night, but since the park closed at six I will not have a chance to see for myself until Halloween Horror Nights kicks off next week.

Speaking of which, there are plenty of decorations and props up for the Halloween event already.

Halloween Horror Nights warning sign

HHN props

Chucky's van?

I’m always surprised by how many props are left out in the park during regular operating hours. It makes sense from a logistical sense, of course, but it’s a bit shocking to see the gruesome props out in broad daylight.

If you'd like to get another view of the changes in the park over the past year, compare the Universal Studios Hollywood official park map from one year ago to the current version:

2012 USH park map
Summer 2012

2013 USH park map
September 2013

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Let's talk theme parks in Australia: Perth's Adventure World announces new $12 million roller coaster, Abyss

By Robert Niles
Published: September 13, 2013 at 6:22 PM

Australian theme park Adventure World took advantage of Friday the 13th to announce details for its new underworld-themed roller coaster, Abyss. Here are the specs:

Abyss is the single largest investment at Adventure World since it launched in 1982 and features a unique 10 storey high vertical lift, a more than vertical 100 feet drop, giant G-Force turns and head spinning twists.

The Gerstlauer custom built coaster also includes four inversions through daylight and a secret dark ride section as well as a zero-g-roll, rollover loop, cobra roll and inline loop. Offering a hair raising journey over 630 metres, riders will experience turns, drops and disorienting twist while they travel in the open air and in the dark.

Photo illustration by Adventure World

Adventure World also is offering fans the chance to be the first to ride at the coaster's VIP and media event, by playing an online game called The Chosen Ones, which also will introduce fans to the ride's backstory. Adventure World opens for the season on September 26 (remember, it's the Southern hemisphere!), and Abyss will open in November.

We haven't been in the habit here on Theme Park Insider of providing much coverage of Australian theme parks. None of Australia's theme parks cracked the 2012 TEA/AECOM Global Attractions Attendance Report's top 20 theme and amusement parks in Asia and the Pacific. The park in the last spot on that list drew 2.1 million visitors last year, so the Australian parks all come in with fewer visitors than that. For reference, the last park in the U.S. top 20, SeaWorld San Antonio, drew more than 2.6 million visitors last year.

However, Australia remains a strong tourism market, sending visitors to Universal Studios Singapore and other destinations throughout the region. We'd love to hear from Australian theme park fans in the Theme Park Insider community. What are your favorite parks, in Australia, and beyond? Is it worth the trip for visitors to Australia to include a theme park visit during their trip to the country? And what do you think of Abyss?

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Vote of the week: What should replace Cars Land in Disney's Hollywood Studios plans?

By Robert Niles
Published: September 13, 2013 at 2:46 PM

Now that we know Cars Land won't be coming to Disney's Hollywood Studios in Walt Disney World after all, we move on to the next question: What else will Disney do to attract more visitors to this park? We know that Star Wars land is coming, and Imagineers have said privately that a second expansion for the park remains on the table, even if that won't be Cars Land.

So now's the time for fans to lobby for a favorite. We'll offer a few options in this week's vote, and we invite you to make the case for your favorite idea, in the comments.

Monsters Inc. Ride and Go Seek
Inside the Monsters Inc. lobby at Tokyo Disneyland

The obvious place to start is to replace Cars with one of the many other popular Pixar animation franchises. Toy Story's already in Hollywood Studios' Pixar Place, and a Monsters Inc. door room coaster ride long has been suggested for the old soundstage area next door to that. Could the rest of the studio tour space be converted into Monstropolis? Disney's built two other dark rides based on the franchise: one in Tokyo Disneyland and one in Disney California Adventure. Bringing one of those over to join the door room coaster could be an easy way to plus this area.

As for other Pixra franchises, Disney's building a Ratatouille dark ride at DHS' sister park in Paris. And The Incredibles would give Disney the opportunity to build a superhero-themed land even though Universal owns the Orlando-area rights to Disney's Marvel characters.

If not Pixar, Disney now owns several other popular franchises that could slide into what would have been Cars Land's space. How about a new Muppets theater and/or dark ride? And maybe a Muppets-themed play area to replace Honey, I Shrunk the Kids?

Looking for something with more thrills? How about relocating Indiana Jones? Disney probably wouldn't want to bring the Indy ride from Disneyland or Tokyo DisneySea to DHS, as its the same ride system and layout as Animal Kingdom's Dinosaur. But there's an Indy-themed coaster at DisneySea, as well as at Disneyland Paris. That'd fit nicely in DHS' old backlot, next to a new home for the stunt show in the old Lights, Motors, Action facility.

Disney could "pull a Universal" and license someone else's property, too, as it has for James Cameron's Avatar at Animal Kingdom. The top film properties, in all-time box office, that aren't being used in active licenses in major U.S. theme parks include James Bond, Lord of the Rings, and (wait for it) Twilight. Yes, we know that Universal's been after Lord of the Rings. But if Universal could sign Harry Potter away from Disney, maybe Disney could return the favor with an upset signing of the J.R.R. Tolkien classic. (Hey, we're dreaming here….) And I'm suggesting Twilight merely because I want to see some heads explode in the comments.

The final option? Forget bringing anything new. Let Disney load up Hollywood Studios with even more Star Wars, creating a double-sized land that wraps around half the park.

Please tell us your dream scenario for an expanded and improved Disney's Hollywood Studios. And, as always, thank you for reading Theme Park Insider!

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An Insider's preview of El Cucuy maze at Universal Studios Hollywood's Halloween Horror Nights

By Jacob Sundstrom
Published: September 13, 2013 at 8:13 AM

Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood has branded itself with brands, so to speak. They are the unquestionable leader in making mazes based on horror movies — it's kind of their thing, if you will.

Three years ago they began a journey that started with a La Llorona scare zone and has now evolved into El Cucuy: The Bogeyman, a maze I toured with a group of journalists Thursday afternoon. La Llorona is a popular Mexican myth about the ghost of a mother who drowned her children in a river to be with a wealthy man. After the man rejected her, La Llorona drowned herself in the same river she drowned her children in.

Now, the story goes, she wanders the forest at night looking for her children; of course, she will never find them (it is no fun to be a ghost, as it turns out) and is willing to kidnap disobedient children to replace them. Fast-forward to 2013: La Llorona was a hit as a maze in 2012, but Horror Nights creative director John Murdy felt he had done all he could do with the concept. So what's next?

Enter El Cucuy.

Murdy stumbled upon the myth while doing research for the 2013 event and immediately saw its potential as a maze. He and his counterpart Chris Williams began the brainstorming process which resulted in two wildly different takes on the maze. Murdy won't divulge the details of who designed what half of the maze, but confirmed that they found a way to mesh their two designs together.

El Cucuy is a lot like most horrific myths: A mythical creature hunts and eats disobedient children. This is a common trope in many myths across many cultures because parents can't seem to get their kids to eat their vegetables without threatening death at the hands of a hungry monster.

In the El Cucuy maze

It's a broad concept, so Murdy and Williams had to find a way to turn this myth into a narrative. The solution starts in a movie theater — fitting, given the mantra of this event since its return in 2006.

Your path through the maze follows the journey of a young boy and starts with him and his uncle attending a luchador horror film. Yes, a luchador horror film is a part of a genre of Mexican films that pits a famous Mexican wrestler against an evil being. The genre was most popular during the sixties and seventies and has to be experienced to be believed. If you're a horror fan, I highly recommend searching out one of these films.

This story will be narrated to guests in line outside the maze by actor Danny Trejo. Murdy said he envisioned Trejo's unique voice while writing the narration for the maze and Trejo was willing to come on board. Trejo's voice will also be heard as the narrator (and the voice of El Cucuy) inside of the maze.

Guests will enter the movie theater where something horrible has happened; namely, everyone in the theater is dead and El Cucuy, a shapeshifter, is on the prowl. You journey through the theater to the boy's home and eventually in to the layer of El Cucuy.

As Murdy led us through the maze, I could not help but be thoroughly impressed with the amount of detail that goes in to every thing they do at Halloween Horror Nights. Most of these nuggets will not be noticeable when there is nothing to light your way but black lights and the screams of those ahead of you, but that has not stopped the creative team from pulling out all the stops.

In the El Cucuy maze

Movie quality sets in a maze not inspired by a movie? You better believe it.

El Cucy's lair is sure to be the hit of the maze if for no other reason than the shock value. I won't spoil the surprises, but Murdy made a point to say that this maze in particular crosses the line of what is allowed in a maze like that.

A little hyperbole? Sure. Murdy is nothing if not a great showman; and he has a point. Horror is supposed to cross the line, right? That's what makes it horrifying, after all.

While IPs will always be the butter on the bread of Hollywood's Horror Nights, it is fun to see what Murdy and Williams come up with when left to their own devices. The research they did for El Cucuy and La Llorona is remarkable — Murdy did not want to take any chances when playing with another culture's story.

Still, the broad nature of myths allowed Murdy to pull from sources ranging from personal contact to the good ole' Internet for answers. The result? An especially horrifying soup.

El Cucuy: The Bogeyman (theme parks love colons followed by an article) will feature a shape-shifting monster, a terrifying journey through a child's worst nightmare and a truly sick twist with pumpkins.

Heroes get remembered, but legends never die — Murdy hopes the legend of El Cucuy will be an especially memorable part of Halloween Horror Nights 2013.

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The Blog Flume Filter for September 12, 2013

By Jeff Elliott
Published: September 12, 2013 at 3:06 PM

Harry Potter – The big news of the day is that Warner Bros. and J.K. Rowling have announced a new movie from the Harry Potter wizarding world: an adaptation of "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them." The new film will not include Harry and his friends, but will instead tell the story of Luna Lovegood's grandfather-in-law, Newt Scamander, and will start in New York 70 years before the events in the Harry Potter series. Let the speculation begin about a "Fantastic Beasts" make-over of what remains of Lost Continent!

Legoland California – The Carlsbad park announced its 2014 expansion today: a "World of Chima"-themed expansion of the Legoland Water Park. The three-acre expansion will include a wave pool, a water play area and "an iconic 30-foot tall floating 'Mount Cavora' which shows the eight animals representing each animal tribe." So steaming hot Winter Haven gets a World of Chima land while almost-always temperate, seaside Carlsbad gets a Chima water park? Do we have that right?

Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom – The Princess Fairytale Hall is scheduled to open on September 18th. Here's a preview, where you can become a royal subject, forking over the bulk of your annual income to the Disney kingdom.

Magic Kingdom – Not So Scary Halloween - Over the last week the new in front of the castle show Disney Villains Dance Mix debuted. I am now convinced that there was a 4-for-1 special on dancers this year, because it seems like every time we walk into a park there are even more dancers. I only published the following video as a punishment to those who don't read the words on this article

Disney California Adventure – World of Color is getting a winter overlay, continuing the Disney tradition of simulating the snow and cold weather that many of its winter tourists are trying to escape.

Universal Studios Florida – Here is an intro to five of the different mazes. Apparently they don't want you just wandering into one of these without having a clue what was going to happen.

It is amazing how fast they can turn someone into a zombie. Although truth be told, I usually wake up looking like that…or worse…

Six Flags Over Texas – The New Texas Giant is slated to reopen this weekend. The restraint system on the coaster has been completely rebuilt with a seatbelt backup. At the entrance of the ride queue they have also placed a sample seat where you can see if you will fit into the vehicle comfortably enough. Rumors also seem to indicate that the sample chair is perched on a scale that attempts to measure the effectiveness of your lawyer.

Six Flags Magic Mountain – X2 is going to be down for the near future to get its chain lift replaced. No word currently on when it will be open again, but probably not before the Halloween celebrations end.

Kings Dominion – The lift hill on Intimidator 305 has been fixed as is currently making test runs. I would hope they can get this coaster opened by this weekend.

Universal Studios Florida – It has been a year and a half. So, yes, it is okay to look back on it now and weep about how much we miss this attraction.

The Little Mermaid – For those of you who have attention spans slightly shorter than the average lightning strike, the Disney Company brings to you Second Screen Live. For the rest of us, they are still making quaint hand-held devices called books.

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Theme Park Tech: Earth and theme park attractions

By Russell Meyer
Published: September 12, 2013 at 10:19 AM

This is the second article of my "elemental" series, which is about Earth, and the use of topography and layered features to enhance the theme park experience. [If you missed the first article, here it is: Air and theme park attractions.] Many early amusement parks and theme parks were deliberately built on the flattest ground possible to make it easier for people to walk around and to build attractions. Even today, many of the world's most popular theme parks are built on land with little topographic relief. However, as land around many parks became more scarce and/or expensive to build on, park and attraction designers began to build above and below the "street level" of existing attractions and develop attractions on areas of the park where topography is more challenging.

One of the first parks in the US to begin "layering" their attractions was Disneyland. The Haunted Mansion begins with an elevator trip taking guests one story below the main level of the park. In a park where space is at a serious premium, placing part of an attraction below the mean park elevation allowed designers to hide the ride building while still allowing icons like Sleeping Beauty's Castle and The Matterhorn to be visible from around the park. Pirates of the Caribbean and Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye also utilize attraction space that is below surface grade. However those two attractions do so to create much larger spaces for visual effect more so than design necessity.


Walt Disney recognized that the need be able to use space beneath a theme park was critical to operation and sustainability of the park. When he designed Magic Kingdom in Florida, the entire park was built on top of an elaborate maze of tunnels, storage space, maintenance facilities, and other rooms. The entire park is essentially built on top of a basement that supports park operations. Instead of having to dedicate valuable street level space to storage and operational support, Magic Kingdom can utilize almost every square inch of surface space for attractions, retail, and guest space. From costume storage to server rooms, the sub-grade space beneath the Magic Kingdom is essential to the park's success. The Keys to the Kingdom Tour offers guests an opportunity to see exactly how integral the subsurface support space is to the operation of the park.


Not many theme parks have gone to the extreme of Magic Kingdom's use of subsurface space to support theme park operations, but many others have used topography to their advantage. Six Flags Magic Mountain is built around a local topographic high which offers challenges to theme park design. Magic Mountain has taken on that challenge head on by designing rides that are custom-built into the terrain. From La Revolution to Tatsu to Ninja to this year's Full Throttle, the park has used its natural topography to an advantage by building one-of-a-kind attractions that could not be built anywhere else.


While the main part of Six Flags Fiesta Texas is a mostly flat piece of property at the bottom of a rock quarry, two of its signature roller coasters are built into the walls of the quarry. Superman: Krypton Coaster and The Rattler use the shear cliff faces to great advantage. The park also utilizes the quarry walls as a backdrop of their nighttime show like a giant projection screen.

Alton Towers in the United Kingdom has gouged the earth to accommodate world class rides that would otherwise be impossible because of local height restrictions. Oblivion and Nemesis would not have been built if park designers did not remake the earth. Not only would the rides have not been possible, but by constructing them into ravines and tunnels, it makes the coasters far more exciting. Busch Gardens made a similar design choice when they built Montu at their Tampa park. Montu has almost as much track above the mean surface elevation as there is below ground. It not only adds excitement to the coaster as the track flips and spins through troughs and ravines, but is allows it to achieve greater speeds and G forces.

In the early days of wooden roller coasters, it was common to see parks use the natural hills and valleys to dictate the design and layout of the coaster. Even more modern wooden roller coasters utilize the lay of the land in their design. The Beast, with its massive spiraling helix, would be very different on a flat piece of ground. The designers of The Voyage deliberately designed the coaster's series of airtime hills and signature tunnel with topography in mind.


While it's definitely easier and cheaper to build stock rides on flat pieces of land, parks that embrace their topography and add topography to their parks are certainly more interesting. A park like Busch Gardens Williamsburg can be a chore to walk around with its undulating hills, valleys, and bridges, but the park uses that topography to create breaks between different themed areas.



However, not all parks have taken their topography to their advantage. Universal Studios Hollywood has probably some of the most challenging terrain of any theme park in the world, literally built into the Hollywood Hills. When the park wanted to expand, instead of building directly adjacent to existing park land, which would have requires a serious investment to remake the terrain, the park found the closest flat piece of the studio lot that was not being used, and built a quarter-mile complex of escalators to the new Lower Lot. The result is a theme park that is a serious chore to navigate, and an even bigger challenge for the park to balance crowds and staff.


Remaking the Earth and using natural topography is something park designers have been doing for decades. Many parks prefer to just build on flat land, and spread attractions across their property, while others use topography to their advantage, or layer their attractions to take advantage of their limited space. As land becomes scarcer, and parks look to expand and enhance their attractions, using topography, and remaking the Earth will be critical to the success of theme parks.

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More hotels, more rides - NBCUniversal's CEO outlines his vision for Universal's theme parks

By Robert Niles
Published: September 12, 2013 at 9:32 AM

Can you imagine a Universal Orlando Resort with more than four times as many hotel rooms as it has now? Universal has done a feasibility study that claims the resort could fill up to 10,000-15,000 rooms on its property, NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke told stock analysts yesterday.

"We need to get those hotel rooms open and build out the resort," Burke said, according to an Orlando Sentinel report of the meeting.

Cabana Bay Beach ResortThe Cabana Bay Beach Resort, under construction at Universal Orlando earlier this year.

Universal Orlando currently has three on-site hotels, offering 2,400 hotel rooms. Next year, Universal and its hotel partner Loews will open the 1,800-room Cabana Bay Beach Resort, bringing the total number of rooms on site to 4,200. But where would the additional 6,000-plus rooms go? The remaining space around Cabana Bay? The Wet n' Wild property? Into CityWalk, above retail and dining facilities? All of the above?

One of the great benefits of Universal Orlando, as currently configured, is that it is not car-dependent, as much of the Walt Disney World Resort is. You can park your car and never have to go on a road for the duration of your stay at Universal Orlando. (Or, if you get a shuttle from the Orlando airport, you can visit Universal Orlando without needing to rent a car, which appeals to many visitors from Europe.) Everything's in walking distance, or, if you don't feel like walking that far, boats await to take you to and from your hotel. Could Universal preserve alternate, non-road transport options for guests in up to 15,000 rooms?

Universal is developing Cabana Bay to be a lower-priced option that its existing hotels, where rates start at around $200 a night. One could reasonably assume that Universal's additional hotels could appeal to price points both below and above its current properties. Perhaps a budget hotel located over near Wet n' Wild, similar in price and finish to Disney's All-Star Resorts? Or an ultra-luxe, high-priced hotel set in between the two parks, above the shops of CityWalk, a la Disney's Grand Californian Hotel at Disneyland?

What will all those visitors do when they come to Universal Orlando? Burke told the analysts that Universal has increased its capital spending on theme parks to about $500 million a year, and that he expects that to be the company's new normal for annual capital spending. He said that the company's goal is to open a new attraction every year at both Universal Orlando and Universal Studios Hollywood.

Half a billion a year on new stuff in the parks? Every year? This really is a great time to be in theme parks.

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Disney's Hollywood Studios expansion update: Cars Land parked

By Robert Niles
Published: September 11, 2013 at 1:18 PM

We've been tracking this one ever since Disney didn't include a Parks and Resorts presentation on the D23 schedule last month. But we've now heard from enough insider sources that we can confirm for you that Disney has spiked its plans to recreate Cars Land at Disney's Hollywood Studios.

Radiator Springs Racers
Looks like you'll need to keep coming to California for this view.

Disney's used its D23 Expo to announce new attractions projects in the past, but all we got this year were teases for Avatar and "Project Orange Harvest," which is the development name for the Star Wars land that's still under development for Disney's Hollywood Studios.

Project Harvest
Teasing Project Orange Harvest at D23

One of my initial sources who told me last summer about Disney's plans for both Star Wars and Cars Land at DHS warned that if Cars Land ever slipped behind Star Wars on the development schedule, that would be an ominous sign for Lightning McQueen and the gang. Disney liked the idea of bringing Cars Land to Florida not just because it was a proven hit across the country at California Adventure, but also because the plans were finished and could be easily and quickly duplicated in Florida.

Until, someone decided that the they couldn't be.

Of course, if Disney really wanted a second Cars Land, it could throw enough money at the project to make it happen, come heck or high water. But Disney, like any company, has to prioritize its expenses. And, apparently, it's decided that it would rather go big on Project Harvest than expand the budget simply to recreate Radiator Springs Racers and Flo V-8's Cafe in Lake Buena Vista.

So we've removed those from the list of upcoming attractions at Disney's Hollywood Studios. If you want to see a Cars Land in a Disney theme park in the United States, you'll continue to need to book a trip to Anaheim.

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Could NBCUniversal's Sprout network provide a theme for new kids' attractions at Universal theme parks?

By Robert Niles
Published: September 10, 2013 at 11:01 AM

Last week, we looked at Universal Orlando's owned and licensed IP for clues where the theme park resort would make changes next. One of the areas we identified as a candidate for replacement or refurbishment was Universal Studios Florida's Woody Woodpecker's Kidzone. Obviously, a theme park that wants to appeal to families with small children, as Universal Orlando does, will need to offer attractions that appeal to pre-schoolers. Islands of Adventure does this with Seuss Landing. It's hard to imagine that Universal would take out the Kidzone without replacing it with a similarly-targeted land.

But what would that be? Readers have suggested that Universal could focus on reintroducing characters such as Woody Woodpecker and ET to today's kids, thus increasing the appeal of the existing land. Would Universal do that? Let's look at what corporate parent NBCUniversal is doing to appeal to the pre-school family market, for clues as to what its theme park strategy toward those potential visitors might be.

Barney the Dinosaur
Barney the Dinosaur is one of the franchises that NBCUniversal has brought to its kids channel and its theme parks.

Disclosure time: My children are in their teens now, so we've moved out of this target market. And we don't subscribe to cable TV in our household, so I had to do some extra research on available channels targeted to little kids. Disney Junior and Viacom's Nick Jr. are the leaders in this space, but NBCUniversal has a pre-schooler channel, too: Sprout.

Although NBCUniversal manages the channel, it does not own it outright. Sprout is a joint venture with partners PBS and Sesame Workshop, and that complicates matters should NBCUniversal want to build a Sprout-themed kiddie land in its U.S. theme parks. (Here's some background on Sprout, from the New York Times.)

Sprout's programming includes shows for PBS and Sesame Workshop, as well as independent productions licensed for U.S. viewers from children's TV production companies around the world. But domestic broadcast and cable distribution rights do not necessarily include the rights to develop related theme park attractions. While Universal holds the theme park rights to Sesame Workshop characters in Japan and Singapore, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment owns those rights in the United States. That means no Sesame Street characters in a Sprout theme park land, even though they're prominent on the Sprout channel.

For what it's worth, SeaWorld's license with Sesame Workshop expires on December 31, 2021, according to its Prospectus filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, so if Universal wants to get those theme park rights within the next eight years, it's going to need to buy out SeaWorld.

There's plenty else on Sprout, of course, which could provide Universal Creative enough material to fashion an impressive kids' land. Barney's already in the Kidzone. The NBC Kids block, which broadcasts Sprout programming on the NBC broadcast network on Saturday mornings, includes potential theme park franchises in The Chica Show, Pajanimals and Justin Time.

Illustrating the complicated business relationships involved in independently produced entertainment, Justin Time, which is production of Canada's Guru Studios, airs on Disney Junior in its home nation. Pajanimals is a production of The Jim Henson Company, which has spawned or sold properties to multiple partners and competitors of Universal's.

(Side note: Let's review just how influential Henson has been in children's entertainment. Henson created the Muppets, which provided much of the cast of Sesame Street, the foundation upon which the company Sesame Workshop was built. Sesame Workshop also has produced The Electric Company and Dragon Tales, among other children's franchises. When Henson considered selling out to Disney, just before his death, the international division of Henson's company split, creating HIT [Henson International Television] Entertainment, which created Bob the Builder and Kipper the Dog before acquiring Barney and Thomas the Tank Engine, among other properties. After Jim Henson's death, his heirs decided not to sell the company to Disney, but they did finally sell the rights to the Muppets to Disney in 2004. The Jim Henson Company, minus the Muppets, remains independent, producing Pajanimals for NBCUniversal's Sprout and movies such as Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day for… Walt Disney Pictures. Personal note: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day just wrapped filming at my son's school in Pasadena. That same school also served as the filming site for Sam Witwicky's high school in the first Transformers movie, which, of course, inspired Universal's hit new theme park attractions. I swear, sometimes I feel like James Burke, writing this stuff.)

Ultimately, if Universal wants complete control of the properties on Sprout, it's going to need to create a children's television production division within Universal Studios and start creating its own kids TV properties. A couple of recent personnel moves at NBCUniversal have placed individuals with TV development and licensing experience into key positions with the company, however.

This week, Universal announced that Jeff Shell, who formerly oversaw NBCUniversal owner Comcast's cable TV networks, will succeed Ron Meyer as the head of Universal Studios. (Meyer, 69, will remain with NBCUniversal in a "senior statesman role," according to the New York Times.)

Earlier this year, NBCUniversal hired executive Russell Hampton from Disney to handle "franchise management" for Universal. Here's a key quote from The Hollywood Reporter:

"NBCUniversal has an amazing collection of assets," Hampton tells THR, citing properties like Top Chef, preschool channel Sprout and the Despicable Me franchise as prime examples. "The best way to monetize IP is creating mega-franchises, properties that can span multiple demographics."

Obviously, Universal Creative and the Universal theme parks already have started developing Despicable Me and its Minions as a major theme park franchise. Hampton's quote suggests that Universal is considering Sprout in that same context.

Universal doesn't need to create its own children's television entertainment to bring Sprout to its theme parks, of course. Universal could opt to negotiate and sign licensing deals with the various producers of Sprout's TV shows, instead. However, at some point, Universal management will need to confront the question of which is the more affordable option -- license for TV and theme parks, or just create and produce the characters itself.

What would like to see Universal do with kid-focused attractions at its theme parks?

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Theme Park Insider Podcast, Episode 7: What are the most over-rated and under-rated theme park attractions?

By Robert Niles
Published: September 10, 2013 at 9:16 AM

This week on the Theme Park Insider podcast, we're trying something different. Instead of a one-on-one interview, or a news round-up, as we've brought you in the past, we're hosting a round-table discussion with three Theme Park Insider front-page writers.

James Koehl and Jeff Elliott join me this week on the podcast, where we reveal our picks for the most over-rated and under-rated theme park attractions. You might know James for his coverage of Cedar Point, as well as his recent epic two-part overview of Colorado theme parks. Jeff is the author of the Blog Flume Filter, his twisted take on the week's theme park news.

Epcot's IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth
Robert's pick for most over-rated theme park attraction is Epcot's IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth. Listen to this week's podcast episode to find out why.

You can subscribe to the Theme Park Insider podcast via iTunes, or you can access the podcast's RSS file directly, if you're resisting our Apple overlords. And if you just want to listen to the audio file right here on your computer/phone/whatever, that file is right here.

We've been producing the podcast for nearly two months now, and we'd love to hear some feedback from you, our audience. Have you subscribed to the podcast? Did you even know we had one? Which type of episode do you prefer: interviews, news round-ups or discussions? If you like interviews, do you prefer to hear them on the podcast, or just to read the transcripts on the site? What would you like to hear on future podcast episodes? Or are we just wasting our time with them?

Comments appreciated. And thank you for being part of Theme Park Insider!

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Glow with the Show ears are coming to Walt Disney World

By Robert Niles
Published: September 9, 2013 at 1:38 PM

Disney announced today that's it is bringing its light-up "Glow with the Show" Mickey ears to the Walt Disney World Resort. The ears debuted at the Disneyland Resort in 2012, and since then Disney's brought them to Tokyo Disney and Disneyland Paris.

Glow with the Show ears

If you bought a pair of the ears at Disneyland, they will work at Walt Disney World once Disney starts running "Glow"-activated shows this fall. Disney World is starting with Fantasmic! on October 15, then will add the light-up ears to the Wishes fireworks and Celebrate the Magic shows at the Magic Kingdom on October 19. The ears also will become part of The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights show at Disney's Hollywood Studios when it returns later in the fall.

From reports on Twitter and Facebook, it appears that the Glow with the Show ears are most popular in Tokyo, which probably shouldn't be a surprise given Tokyo fans' enthusiasm for of Disney merchandise (they love Duffy!) and embrace of gadgetry. We've written before about the Prisoner's Dilemma problem with Glow with the Show -- the visual effect of seeing all those ears lighting up works only if other people buy the ears. But buying the ears for yourself doesn't improve your view of the show, unless you're satisfied with knowing that you've contributed to the greater entertainment good. Disneyland did offer some special events for annual passholders where it gave away ears, and provided special reserved viewing areas to participating shows for ear owners, to boost the number of people wearing the light-up ears in the parks. Disney World has not announced any such events in Florida, but who knows?

If you're interested in the technology behind Glow with the Show, here's a Disney video on that topic, with Creative Entertainment Technical Director, Chuck Davis:

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Do different theme parks reflect differences in regional attitudes?

By Bobbie Butterfield
Published: September 8, 2013 at 4:01 PM

One of the things I observed during my visits to highly rated theme parks over the past two years is the extent to which they are defined by regional lifestyles and attitudes. I find that parks located near large metropolises in the Northeast are among the least welcoming whereas parks in rural areas are among the most welcoming. Even parks located near smaller cities in the South Atlantic or Southeastern regions tend to be more user-friendly than those along the Northeast Corridor. I also find that the closer you get to the Midwest, the closer you get to the level of hospitality desired at a theme park.

A prime example is my home park, Six Flags Great Adventure, a great park by any standard but not one of the most welcoming. Located between New York and Philadelphia, it attracts numerous visitors from those two cities. Urban living tends to promote a certain wariness and watch your back mindset, and this is reflected at the park. Security at SFGA is very tight. In order to enter the park it's necessary to empty your pockets of cell phones, cameras, keys, etc. and go through a metal detector. I should point out that metal detectors are standard at Six Flags parks, regardless of where they‘re located, but the screening process at this park was more obtrusive and intrusive than that at a sister park in another area of the country. At Six Flags Fiesta Texas the staff was friendlier and the atmosphere more relaxed than at the two Six Flags parks I've visited in the East. I also got exceptional follow-up from the marketing director of Six Flags Fiesta after my visit – not just one of those surveys that the park is prone to send but an actual one-on-one communication.

Jackson, New Jersey is by no means a large city but because of its location, SFGA has had to incorporate a big city mentality. Certainly this park attracts a different demographic from parks in more rural areas and it tends to be a faster crowd. At Hersheypark, only two hours away from Philadelphia but in a relatively rural area, I have never been subjected to the same level of scrutiny or seen such extremes of dress as at SFGA. The last time I went to SFGA there was a concert and the park was heavily populated by skinny young women bare from the midriff to the pelvis with navel rings and other body piercings. This is something I've never seen at Hershey, Knoebels or other parks located in rural areas. These parks tend to be more moderate and family-oriented. They also tend to be more hospitable. On my last visit to Hershey, I rode Skyrush with three little boys who were intrigued by my Theme Park Insider T-shirt, bombarding me with questions about where I'd been and which coasters I'd ridden, and shared a lunch table with a nice young couple. Only rarely has anyone at SFGA evinced any interest in talking with me. (Speaking of Knoebels, not only the park staff but the locals who gave me driving directions when I got lost were so approachable, helpful and friendly that I as a city person was amazed.)

The only theme park near a major city in the Northeast at which I felt like a truly valued patron is Lake Compounce, where the staff was absolutely wonderful, according me special consideration and privileges. The same cannot be said for Six Flags New England, located in the same region.

The Midwest is among the best places to visit a theme park. When I went to Holiday World, I was impressed by the relaxed setting, welcoming atmosphere and extreme friendliness of the staff. No metal detectors, no distrust, no hassle! This park stands out as one of the best I've visited in terms of pleasantness and customer service. In my experience, people in this region are simply more open, trusting and congenial than those back east, and this translates to area theme parks. A young lady stationed at the entrance to Pilgrims Plunge (don't know whether that ride is currently operating, as it's not showing up on Holiday World's website) was super friendly and gracious even after I made the serious gaffe of saying on camera that although The Voyage is a great ride, it's not as good as El Toro. (What could I have been thinking?) Also in the Midwest, Cedar Point gets high marks for being user-friendly (except for the long ride queues), as does Silver Dollar City.

Virginia is a nice place to visit a theme park but even there, the level of hospitality is not as high as in the Midwest. Still, on my recent visit to Kings Dominion I was favourably impressed by the fact that at Volcano The Blast Coaster, a staff member actually wheeled a cart through the loading area to collect loose articles that could not go along for the ride. This was largely a matter of necessity, as the trains load and unload in different areas, and from the loading area it's not possible to hop across the track and stash articles on the other side. Be that as it may, I suspect that some parks would let riders fend for themselves and either forfeit their property or pay to put it in a locker.

One of the nicest surprises I encountered during my travels was Dollywood. People in Pigeon Forge tend to be rather laid back by my standards and I had a very good feeling about this park. One of the ride ops was especially engaging, chatting with me about Wild Eagle and giving me advice about what to do on Mystery Mine to avoid a head-banging experience.

WILDEAGLE photo IMG_0924_zpscee01b30.jpg

I cannot comment on the smaller and lesser known parks, as I haven't visited them, so that this may be somewhat slanted, but these are my observations after visits to a number of high profile theme parks.

It's been an interesting journey thus far and an illuminating one, to see how theme parks differ from one another as much as a result of their geographical location as anything else.

[Editor's note: What do you think? In composing your comment, let's keep this to personal experiences, and avoid stereotyping regions or parks where you haven't visited. Thanks!]

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Aquatica announces vertical expansion; Busch Gardens Williamsburg add a new rock n' roll show

By Oak A
Published: September 8, 2013 at 3:55 PM

Aquatica, SeaWorld Orlando’s water park, is teasing its new attraction for 2014 with the Twitter hashtag #NothingTaller. The announcement also implicitly confirmed reports of height-test balloons being deployed over Aquatica recently by also releasing an image of a height-test balloon with a tag affixed to it reading 105’.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, SeaWorld announced that the new attraction would be “the tallest water thrill ride of its type in Orlando.” The Sentinel's report suggests Aquatica's new attraction will not be a traditional speed slide, as Disney’s Blizzard Beach’s Summit Plummet extends 120 feet into the air.

In other SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment news, sister park Busch Gardens Williamsburg in Virginia has announced a new show for 2014. London Rocks will play in a renovated Globe Theatre and feature a 25-minute live-action and multimedia tribute to the heyday of rock in England. The area around the theater will be refurbished before next spring, to reflect the theme of the new show.

[Theme Park Insider editor Robert Niles contributed to this report.]

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Vote of the week: How do you pay for a vacation?

By Robert Niles
Published: September 6, 2013 at 1:25 PM

What's the single most unpopular part of a theme park vacation?

Some fans might stay away from certain types of rides. Few theme park visitors enjoy the weather when the temperature pushes 100°F. Parks have spent millions of dollars creating queue-skipping systems for guests who don't want to wait in line.

But few elements of a theme park vacation elicit as much despair as the question: "How are we going to pay for this?"

How many carnival tickets would you need for a theme park admission and hotel stay? Probably more than these…

Of course, discounts and deals abound for people who take the time to look for them. But avoiding the rack rate doesn't mean you get to avoid the entire bill. At some point, you've got to say good-bye to some money to say hello to a favorite theme park destination.

So how do you do that? Do you save in advance, then pay cash or put your expenses on a debit card or credit card you'll pay off immediately? Do you pay in advance, such as on Walt Disney World vacation packages, where you put down a deposit at reservation then pay off the balance before you arrive? Or do you just put the whole thing on a credit card and pay it off later, when you've got the cash?

Many families use a mix of payment strategies. So for this week's vote, let's stick with your most recent multi-night theme park vacation, and select the answer that best describes how you paid for the majority of its cost.

Do you have a creative way to save, or get, money for your theme park vacations? Please share your favorite budget planning tips in the comments. As always, thank you for being an important part of the Theme Park Insider community!

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Holiday World announces Mayflower swinging ship ride for 2014 season

By Robert Niles
Published: September 6, 2013 at 8:21 AM

Holiday World in Santa Claus, Indiana has announced its new addition for 2014: a swinging ship ride for its Thanksgiving section, named, appropriately enough, the Mayflower.

Concept art courtesy Holiday World

After several years of focusing on its Splashin' Safari water park, Holiday World returns its attention to the theme park side of its operation, with its first new ride on that side in several years. And a Mayflower-themed swinging ship ride next to The Voyage roller coaster seems about as obvious match as one can imagine. Here's the park's promotional video, with another nice little announcement at the end.

If you didn't watch, Holiday World's also announced the addition of Friday night fireworks in the park for the 2014 season.

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What are the best restaurants at Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando?

By Robert Niles
Published: September 5, 2013 at 3:37 PM

Yesterday, we brought you Theme Park Insider readers' collective opinion on the worst restaurants at the Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando theme park resorts. Today, we look to the opposite end of the quality scale, and honor the restaurants you've selected to be among the Orlando theme parks' best.

Lombard's Seafood Grille
Readers' choice as the best theme park restaurant in Orlando

According to our Theme Park Insider reader ratings, here are the top table-service and counter-service restaurants in the Orlando-area theme parks. (10 votes minimum)

Best table-service restaurants

  1. Lombard's Seafood Grille, Universal Studios Florida
  2. The Hollywood Brown Derby, Disney's Hollywood Studios
  3. Mythos Restaurant, Universal's Islands of Adventure
  4. Finnegan's Bar and Grill, Universal Studios Florida
  5. Teppan Edo, Epcot

Best counter-service restaurants

  1. Be Our Guest*, Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom
  2. Kringla Bakeri Og Kafe, Epcot
  3. The Three Broomsticks, Universal's Islands of Adventure
  4. Krusty Burger, Universal Studios Florida
  5. Flame Tree Barbecue, Disney's Animal Kingdom

*We've got Be Our Guest listed as a counter service restaurant, since we've heard it serves more guests that way at lunch than as a table service restaurant at dinner, even though many readers are rating it on the basis of dinner. Either way, though, it's making these lists.

(Update: We also had Finnegan's on the counter service list by mistake, originally. That's corrected, which bumps Liberty Tree Tavern from the table-service top five, and promotes Flame Tree Barbecue to the counter-service list.)

If you've dined at any of these restaurants recently (past year or so), please follow those links above to submit your own rating, and a short review if you're a registered member of Theme Park Insider. (Member can submit reviews on any listed attraction, restaurant or hotel. You don't need to register to submit a rating, however.)

Of course, visitors to the Orlando theme parks have abundant options outside the parks, including many top-quality restaurants in the resorts' hotels and in the Downtown Disney and CityWalk marketplaces.

Our fans on Facebook recommended 'Ohana at Disney's Polynesian Resort, along with Victoria & Albert's at the Grand Floridian next door. In Downtown Disney, our Facebook fans liked Bongos, while Margaritaville and the NASCAR Cafe at CityWalk earned some shout-outs, too.

Over on Twitter, the California Grill atop Disney's Contemporary Resort earned the most mentions. That restaurant is reopening next Monday, September 9, with a new look and menu, and we'd love to hear some reviews from visitors. Just email us at themeparkinsider@gmail.com with pictures and descriptions!

Our Twitter followers also recommended 'Ohana and the Kona Cafe at the Polynesian, as well as Jiko, Boma, and Sanaa at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge, Trails End at Fort Wilderness, and Kouzzina at Disney's Boardwalk.

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The Blog Flume Filter for September 5, 2013

By Jeff Elliott
Published: September 5, 2013 at 11:52 AM

Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom – It may still feel like summer, but the Halloween decorations are up already.

The castle show is already getting into the Halloween spirit by adding villains to the castle show.

Universal Studios Florida – The Hogwarts Express train engine is now on site. Ride the Rockit to get a good look at it. We are also trying to figure out exactly what Project 766 could be, as there have been a number of permits to start work on it. Could this be the renovation of Disaster into Kong? Maybe it is the renovation of Twister into a pile of steaming rubble.

Islands of Adventure – Despite the spirited debate about permits for a construction trailer in the talkbacks last week, we still cannot seem to rid ourselves of a rumor that makes it sound like a new attraction is going in near Jurassic Park. IOA also received a green light for a 3D Lorax ride to be placed behind One Fish Two Fish.

Disney's Hollywood Studios – It's almost as if this park has long term contracts with a bunch of dancers and can't think of what to do with them other than embarrassing dance rallies. The Character Dance Jam is scheduled to run until October 13.

Busch Gardens Williamsburg – The snit that we have been reporting between management and cast members of their live shows, has resulted in sudden firings and other cast members walking off of shows. Unfortunately, right now BGW is down to one live show. This is going to make hiring for next year's show difficult.

Cedar Point – We have reports that Shoot the Rapids is making test runs and should open soon.

Knotts Berry Farm – Xcelerator reopened over the holiday weekend. That was a quick turnaround if indeed the launch cable had snapped. Kudos to the maintenance team.

Six Flags Mexico – We finally have the animation for the new and improved Medusa coaster with the Rocky Mountain Construction Iron Horse rails.

For those of you who have a little bit of free time, here are 6+ hours of videos on your favorite subjects…enjoy…you probably weren't planning on doing anything this weekend anyway…

Walt: The Man Behind the Myth

Making of Walt Disney World Thrill Rides

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Disneyland buys an additional 11 acres in Anaheim

By Robert Niles
Published: September 5, 2013 at 9:26 AM

Disneyland has purchased an 11-acre site at the intersection of Harbor Blvd and Ball Road, with the intent to use the site for an employee parking lot. The site now houses the Anaheim RV Village, and Disneyland plans to put 1,400 employee parking spaces on the site, according to a Disneyland spokesperson.

Resort expansion years ago claimed Disneyland's long-time, on-site parking lot for theme park employees. There's a parking garage on the north end of the property for Team Disney employees, but in-park workers have had to park as far away as Angels Stadium during busy periods in recent years. Disney provides shuttle buses from remote lots, but they have to navigate the same street traffic as everyone else. And that's while employees are off the clock.

The land Disneyland has bought is outlined in red. For reference, the Mickey and Friends parking garage is the big building on the left. Map via Google Maps.

Having a closer parking lot certainly will benefit Disneyland employees, but let's not overlook the longer-term potential for the site. If Disneyland could build a multi-level parking structure there instead of leaving it as a mere surface lot, that could create space on the site for additional offices and other back-of-house support facilities. Conceivably, that could one day open space now used for those purposes on the north side of Disneyland Park, allowing the park to expand into those areas.

No matter how Disney uses its new land, having that additional space gives the resort additional flexibility in the years to come.

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What are the worst restaurants at Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando?

By Robert Niles
Published: September 4, 2013 at 4:18 PM

Amanda's review of Tony's Town Square Restaurant at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom kicked off a spirited discussion about the worst theme park restaurants in Orlando, here on the Theme Park Insider website as well as on our Facebook page.

Hollywood & Vine
Is this the worst theme park restaurant in Orlando?

Many fans asked for a summary of the results. Let's go one better: How about including the results from our on-going reader ratings of the restaurants at the Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando theme parks, too?

Our Facebook fans panned the food at Mama Melrose's Ristorante Italiano in Disney's Hollywood Studios and the Rainforest Cafe at Disney's Animal Kingdom and Downtown Disney. Also in Downtown Disney, T-Rex earned several bad reviews from fans, as did the Hard Rock Cafe at Universal Orlando's CityWalk.

Several Facebook fans had unkind words for Epcot's Les Chefs de France, but that restaurant scores relatively well in our Theme Park Insider reader ratings, so we'll leave it up to you to debate in the comments if that restaurant deserves a place on any Disney visitor's "must avoid" list.

With that, let's go to the results of the Theme Park Insider reader ratings. Here are the five worst-rated table-service restaurants at the Orlando area theme parks, starting with the worst. (10 votes minimum. Also, TPI reader ratings include only restaurants located inside a park's gates — no hotel or CityWalk/Downtown Disney restaurants.)

Worst table-service restaurants

  1. Hollywood and Vine, Disney's Hollywood Studios
  2. Tony's Town Square Restaurant, Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom
  3. Nine Dragons Restaurant, Epcot
  4. Coral Reef Restaurant, Epcot
  5. Tutto Italia, Epcot

And for those of you who don't bother with Priority Seating reservations anyway, here are the five worst counter-service restaurants at Disney and Universal, according to Theme Park Insider readers.

Worst counter-service restaurants

  1. ABC Commissary, Disney's Hollywood Studios
  2. Liberty Inn, Epcot
  3. Circus McGurkus Cafe Stoopendous, Universal's Islands of Adventure
  4. Pizza Planet Arcade, Disney's Hollywood Studios
  5. Backlot Express, Disney's Hollywood Studios

For what it's worth, no restaurants at SeaWorld Orlando made the cut for either list. You can follow the links above to add your rating and review for these restaurants, if you'd like to pile on with yet another negative review or challenge the conventional wisdom with a positive one.

And if this is too much negative talk for you, tomorrow we'll focus on your picks for the best theme park restaurants in Orlando. We've already started that discussion on our Facebook page, if you'd like to jump in there.

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What will be the next big construction project at Universal Orlando's theme parks?

By Robert Niles
Published: September 4, 2013 at 1:30 PM

A flurry of construction permits from the Universal Orlando Resort continues to fuel speculation about what Universal might be building in its theme parks next. Universal's certainly been leading in the industry in construction progress over the past few years, with its lightning-fast development of Transformers: The Ride 3D, the redevelopment around The Simpsons, and the ongoing construction of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley.

Universal Studios Florida
What's next to go under construction at the Universal Orlando resort?

While it's always helpful to keep an eye on permits and other public records to discover a theme park's plans, it's also helpful to consider the context of what's already there. Let's start with two assumptions:

1) Any land or attraction at the Universal Orlando Resort that's not up to the theming and finish standards established in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter will be upgraded or replaced to meet those standards.

2) Universal won't throw good money after bad.

Since Harry Potter opened in Islands of Adventure, Universal has upgraded The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man to a 4K projection system, opened Despicable Me, built Transformers on the site of the empty old Xena soundstage and refurbished the area around the old International Film Festival food court into Springfield USA. Harry Potter has reinforced the lesson — for Universal and the entire theme park industry — that spending money on high-quality attractions and environment makes you more money in return. Since Potter's finally given Universal the adequate cash flow to walk that talk, it will.

So what's next? It's easiest for Universal to upgrade locations themed to franchises that it owns (or holds a long-term license to use) and that are likely to continue to appeal to visitors for a generation or more. The Simpsons fit that model. So did Spider-Man. Obviously, some of the properties in the Universal Orlando theme parks don't fit that model. Those lands and attractions will be replaced, rather than refurbished. However, Universal won't move on that construction until it's lined up an appropriate replacement franchise.

Ultimately, audience appeal is key. Universal closed Jaws, one of its iconic franchises — and one that it owned, not licensed — to clear space for Harry Potter in Universal Studios Florida. So nostalgia alone won't keep any existing lands or attractions safe. Universal must see an enduring appeal among its visitors and potential visitors.

With those thoughts in mind, where's Universal Orlando next most likely to take on new construction projects?

Likely to get improvements

Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit: Universal Studios Florida's rough and unreliable roller coaster already's gotten the first of its new trains. If the new trains help improve the coaster's ride and reliability, expect to see it stick around, with cosmetic changes to improve the queue. If the new trains don't help, however, this ride moves onto the "likely to be replaced" list.

Terminator 2: 3D: Yes, Universal closed this attraction in California to make way for Despicable Me. But Universal Studios Hollywood has much less space available for expansion than the Orlando parks, and Terminator star Arnold Schwarzenegger is a toxic product in California, thanks to his miserable turn as the state's governor. (He left office as the most unpopular governor in state history.) Universal's already filed permits for upgrades in this theater. Add a modern, 4K-3D projection system (pretty please?), and T2 could be good to go in Florida for another generation.

Wet n' Wild: Universal didn't just buy the land under this park to own an unthemed water park with limited tourist appeal. Expect to see substantial changes on this property in the years to come. One could argue that this property should be on the "likely to be replaced" list, but since we've heard no credible information that Universal will replace Wet n' Wild with something other than an improved water park, this goes on the improvement list for now, even though a new name for the property might be considered one of those improvements.

Jurassic Park: This is the one franchise in Islands of Adventure that Universal owns outright. Plus, Jurassic Park's dinosaurs offer enduring popularity, so it's the obvious choice for immediate expansion within IoA.

From here, we move down the priority list a bit.

Seuss Landing: Licensed from Random House, Seuss Landing was the best-themed land in Islands of Adventure before Potter, but its bright colors make it a hog for fresh paint. Expect to see more aggressive maintenance in this land in the years to come, if not an expansion into the remaining Lost Continent area, if Universal decides to promote additional Seuss-themed movies.

Revenge of the Mummy: Still a fan favorite, Mummy might benefit from some on-ride effects upgrades, but beyond that, Universal could get more return on its investment with upgrades elsewhere.

Men in Black: Licensed from Columbia, Men in Black remains a popular franchise and shooter rides are great for encouraging repeat visits. This and the next entry on the list could be candidates for the replacement list if Universal lands a hot property that fits best in their buildings. Otherwise, they're both solid attractions that deserve a little additional maintenance love now and then.

Universal Horror Make-up Show: This is the last remaining "how movies are made"-type attraction in Orlando (or will be, once Disaster! goes away — see below), and continues to win positive reviews from fans.

Likely to be replaced

Toon Lagoon: Enjoy this land now, because the only thing keeping it open is the fact that Universal hasn't secured the rights to a replacement yet. Universal licenses all the characters in this section, including Popeye from King Features Syndicate, Dudley Do-Right from Jay Ward Productions (now owned by DreamWorks Animation) and a bunch of other newspaper comic characters from various syndicates. The ongoing decline of the newspaper industry (and its comics) severely limits the appeal of much of the IP in this area. That makes this the land most likely to be completely replaced at Islands of Adventure. (*cough* Lord of the Rings *cough*)

Woody Woodpecker's Kidzone: Today's teen-agers might hide fond memories of watching Barney when they were kids. Today's 20-somethings enjoyed Fievel back in the day, as GenX-ers did ET. The baby boomers read Curious George, and a generation before that loved Woody Woodpecker shorts in the movie theaters. Notice anyone missing, though? How about today's children? It's too bad Universal didn't use Gru and the Minions to replace ET, then redevelop the surrounding area into Super Silly Fun Land. That would have been cool. Universal floated the idea of a Smurfs attraction replacement in this area, but that sequel's poor reception at the box office likely doomed that idea. As soon as Universal can settle on an alternate replacement plan, this land is toast.

Disaster!: The Christopher Walken overlay at least scrubbed the references to the old Charlton Heston Earthquake movie no one under age 50 remembers. But it's still not hitting with fans. If Universal wanted to build a new animatronic Kong attraction, this might be the most appropriate site.

Fear Factor Live: Licensed from Endemol, no one in America cares about this franchise anymore. NBC's cancelled it on TV and the only question in play here is… does Universal slot a new live show into this theater, or tear it down to build an entirely new attraction? If Universal chooses the new show option, that could come within the next year or two.

Twister: The Helen Hunt movie's worth watching if you come across it on TV on a lazy Saturday afternoon. But that's not enough appeal to justify a position in a theme park that has aspirations for becoming the one of the world's best.

Shrek: Universal's already dropped its license for all the other DreamWorks animation characters. Shrek's expected to follow them out the door when its license deal is up in a few years.

Lost Continent: The remains of what didn't get reskinned as Hogsmeade linger, but the IP is in the public domain, so there's no hurry to dump what can be an impressive Poseidon show (when it's properly maintained) as well as the fan-favorite Mythos Restaurant. The Sindbad show's proximity to the expanding Wizarding World of Harry Potter makes it an obvious target for assimilation, but the rest of the land likely will hang on until Universal decides to expand Seuss. Or until Universal Studios puts a Poseidon movie into production.

Beetlejuice: Like the bulk of Lost Continent, the Beetlejuice show could go either way — refurbished or replaced. Given that this is a license, though, that seems to tip it toward the long-term replacement list.

Likely to remain the hostage in a Universal/Disney IP turf war

Marvel Super Hero Island: We've written about this before, but the TL/DR is that Universal licenses the rights to these characters from Disney in perpetuity and Universal ain't selling them back without getting a fleet of truckloads of cash in exchange. Universal would love to expand this area to capitalize further on the wildly popular Avengers, but Universal's limited to what it's already built unless Disney gives its blessing for expansion, which it won't. That puts this land in eternal limbo. Universal recently upgraded the Spider-Man ride. Look for continued cosmetic and functional upgrades in this section whenever Universal feels like giving Disney's management another case of indigestion.

That's where things stand now at the Universal Orlando Resort. So let's talk to management: What would you like to see Universal do next to improve its Orlando properties?

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Theme Park Insider interview with John Murdy, on Universal Studios Hollywood's 2013 Halloween Horror Nights

By Robert Niles
Published: September 3, 2013 at 1:51 PM

This week on the Theme Park Insider Podcast, our Southern California horror expert, Jacob Sundstrom, steps in to interview John Murdy, the creative director for Universal Studios Hollywood's Halloween Horror Nights. Jacob and John talk about the great stuff that John's team has put together for this year's event, then get into some of the insider details on why and how John and his crew have done that. The major construction at Universal Studios Hollywood this year has forced some logistical changes that fans should know about before they go, and Jacob and John cover those.

John Murdy

You can hear the entire conversation by subscribing to the podcast on iTunes, or by downloading the audio file directly. A partial, edited transcript follows:

Jacob: What was your vision for Halloween Horror Nights?

John: I kinda looked around the haunt industry in America and the one thing I really didn't see anyone doing or attempting to do was to create what I called branded horror, which was to actually go out and license horror movies and to bring those to life as living horror movies, with a movie-quality attention to detail. We didn't that exactly in 2006 [when Universal Studios Hollywood revived the event] -- it was kind of a baby-step year, just to get back in the business. In 2007, that was the first time we did that, with New Line Cinema doing Freddy, Jason and Leatherface. That really proved to be the difference in putting Halloween Horror Nights on the map.

Jacob: Back before the hiatus, there'd been a Rob Zombie maze. So when you went in to choose to do this branded horror, how much did you look at the past at what had been done, versus just making it up as you went along?

John: I didn't really look back at all. I knew that fans of horror movies just absolutely loved the brands that they were into and I thought that the ultimate wish fulfillment for those fans would be to get to live their favorite horror movies. Having been someone who went to high school in the 80s, certainly with Freddy and Jason and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies, even though the first one came out in the 70s, I was real familiar with those properties. They were icons of horror. I wanted to hit all the details that fans of those movies would want to see. We figured if we targeted the uber-fan, that if we got the details right for them, then everyone else would dig it. [Editor's note: If that sentence right there doesn't turn you into a John Murdy fan, I don't know what will. That's exactly the attitude I wish every designer in the theme park business brought to the challenge of creating immersive environments.]

Jacob: How do you decide which properties to work with? How much is driven by people coming to you, versus you having a wish list?

John: Our ideal always is to work directly with the creative individuals, whether it's a movie, or a TV show, or music, or a video game. We want to work with the people who had the original vision for those franchises, so we can work hand-in-hand to bring them to life. Sometimes it's just a chance encounter. And at lot of time it happens during the event. With Eli Roth, when we did Hostel, I met him at the Eyegore Awards, which is our opening night awards ceremony that kicks off Halloween Horror Nights. Right after the awards ceremony, he just came running up to me and was, like, 'We gotta work together!' Luckily, a lot of [horror directors] are fans of the event. A more recent example would be James Wan, with the Insidious films. James was at the event last year, and he was calling me. He'd just gone through the La Llorona maze, and I was in the middle of the chainsaw area -- I couldn't hear a word he was saying! But eventually James and I hooked up and right from the start, James let me know that he really wanted to be creatively involved. Whenever we get the opportunity to work with the filmmakers, that's the best-case scenario.

In regard to everything else, we have very specific criteria that we filter all potential properties through. We sometimes bend the rules, but we never break them. Awareness is the first thing. Quite simply, how popular is the franchise, and more importantly, how much do fans of Halloween Horror Nights want to see that franchise? Ultimately, we want to do mazes based on films, or TV shows, or music, or video games that people want to see.

The second thing is environments. We put an enormous amount of attention into the sets and the prop dressing of what we create. We always feel that there has to be enough unique environments in that film or series of films that we can draw from. We go on all the boards on the Internet and look at what were the fans' favorite scenes.

When it comes to a single film, though, that's when it gets a bit tricky. Even if it's a great horror movie, it might not lend itself to being a great maze. The example I always use for that is Saw. If it'd only been the first movie, we wouldn't have done it. The vast, vast majority of that first movie takes place in the bathroom, and that's it. It wouldn't make a great maze. We look for at least a dozen iconic environments.

The last one is characters. This is a live event. It's not a film; it's not a TV show. It's live theater -- a very strange, twisted form of live theater, but that's what it is. That means live actors. You have to think about the fact that there's going to be a live actor playing this role. Will people recognize what this character is? I love The Shining, it's one of my favorite movies, but I can't imagine trying to cast 15 Jack Nicholsons.

Jacob: The Terror Tram is a unique experience, something that's not being offered anywhere else. How would you describe that for someone who's never been on that before?

John: It's 124 actors -- it's a massive cast. The first thing I do with them every year is tell them, 'You are standing right now on the very ground where the horror movie was invented.' When you talk about the horror movie genre as we know it today, and particularly the monster movie genre, that all started here at Universal. I started coming here as a guest in the 70s, and started working here in 1989 as a tour guide. I've grown up on this lot and the specialness of this place never leaves me. It's trip to ride around this backlot and be able to say, look that's where Frankenstein was filmed, or to walk into the soundstage where Phantom of the Opera was filmed. Over the years, certain studios are associated with a certain type of films. MGM was known for its musicals. Disney, obviously, is animation. With Universal, from the very beginning, it's always been associated with horror. For someone who's never experienced Terror Tram, to be able to get off the tram and walk past the Bates Motel and the real Psycho house -- that's the house from the original Hitchcock film -- there is nothing like that in the world.

On the normal studio tour, you don't get to get off the tram. This is the only time of the year we do it -- you get to get off the tram and walk through Hollywood history. Of course, we're "Halloween Horror Nights"-izing it, so it's a massive area, more than the size of a football field, populated by more than 120 actors. It's not a maze. It's not a scare zone. It's its own, unique thing. Getting the opportunity this year to go into another section of the backlot is huge. We're really lucky that, working with our partners in the movie studio, we were able to work this out.

Jacob: How did that come into being?

John: Out of necessity, really. [Laughs] If you've been in our park recently, you know that we're in the midst of a major expansion. Over the next three years, it's going to be radically, radically, different. So that means there's a lot of construction going on. For us at Horror Nights, that meant there were three maze locations that we had to replace. We used to have a maze behind Shrek and that area -- not Shrek itself, but where we built our maze -- is about to go under construction. We built a maze for years in the old Wild West venue, and that's getting turned into the new Universal Plaza. Over by T2, where we had built mazes in recent years, like Alice Cooper Goes to Hell and before that, the Rob Zombie maze, that's being turned into Despicable Me, so that's off the table. We knew this was coming, so during the event last year I was already going, 'Where are we going to go?' [Laughs]

The evolution of Universal Studios Hollywood wasn't like the theme parks in Orlando, that were always intended to be theme parks and were master-planned as such. This park started in 1915 as a movie studio and in 1964 when they started doing the Studio Tour, it was just a trailer on Lankershim Blvd., I think it was two trams and three tour guides. The park just gradually evolved out of what was originally just a movie studio. That means we have to find very unique ways and places and locations to build what we do for Halloween Horror Nights.

There's two separate tram operations this year. Terror Tram will depart from the same place it's always departed from, up at the Studio Tour plaza on the top deck of the theme park. Then on the lower lot, it'll be down by where Transformers is, there will be another tram to take you out to the metro sets, and that area's going to include a scarezone themed to The Walking Dead, and there's a general area we call The Hub, which is right smack in the middle of these amazing sets, where there will be food and bathrooms and amenities for the guests. There are [also] two mazes to experience down there: Walking Dead, our brand new maze which is based on season three, and in what I still refer to as the 747 stage, because it originally housed a full-sized airplane that was used for the Airport disaster movies -- and this is the first time in my tenure with Halloween Horror Nights that I've had a soundstage to work inside -- that's going to house Black Sabbath 13: 3D. After you've experienced that, you can get back on the tram and that will take you back to the park, where you can experience all the other mazes and scarezones and shows and rides at Halloween Horror Nights.

Jacob: This is going to be fundamentally changing the way that guests go through and experience the event. For years, you've said that the best way to do the event to avoid lines is to start in the Lower Lot. What would you recommend now for people to get through with as little line waiting as possible?

John: I think the same philosophy still applies. It's not unique to Universal. This is probably the best-kept secret in theme parks, as far as how to navigate them: You start at the back, and you work your way forward. The reason for that is, people tend to navigate theme parks in a very linear fashion. You come through the main gate, and if something is compelling, [you] get in line. And let's face it, we're in Los Angeles. It doesn't matter if the Lakers are in the playoffs, in the first quarter not everybody's going to be at Staples Center. It's just the way Los Angelenos are. [Laughs] They never arrive on time for anything. I think the real trick is to get there early; we open at 7:00, but a lot of times we pre-stage people earlier than that. We'll let people in early, and they can get in line to see Bill & Ted, or the Terror Tram. We try to give you a heads-up on Twitter. If you get there early, I still think the best thing to do is to the farthest point and work your way backwards.

In previous years, I would notice that the wait times would always be like five minutes for any wait time down there [on the Lower Lot]. While it is a new dynamic, and we'll have to see how to works out, I still think that you should head downstairs and get on the tram and head out to the metro sets first.

Jacob: You do an opening and a closing ceremony. They're a tradition at Horror Nights. Why don't you talk about that, and tell us why people should stick around for the closing of the event at 1 or 2 in the morning?

John: Yeah, I think these are both secrets of Halloween Horror Nights. I don't think everybody knows about it, but it's one of the cool things about it. We've always done this thing we call the Opening Scare-amony, and that kind of kicks off the night. It's like a battle scene in Braveheart -- it's just insane, it's like the most dangerous form of theater on Earth. It always involves our chainsaw guys. There's a rope drop and where all the guests are pre-staged in an area and once they go, it's characters running one direction and guests running the other direction and then meeting in the middle. Now while I call that the most dangerous form of theater on Earth, it's very carefully choreographed chaos. It's designed to look chaotic and insane, but it's all very carefully rehearsed.

Then at the end of the night, we always do this thing we call Chainsaw Chase-out. There's only one way out of the theme park -- it's one street. So we line that street, kind of like the formation of bowling pins, with our chainsaw performers. You'll see one, then two, then three, then four. And they're basically trained to act like Buckingham Palace guards. They will just stand there and they won't really interact with the guests, but they will make the guests walk around them. It's really off-putting. It's incredibly fun to watch. People will be coming out of the park, thinking, oh, it's done, there's nothing else. Then they can't get out of the park without going through the gauntlet of chainsaw performers. There's always this guy who's designated to be the captain, and when he gives the signal, all 20 or so chainsaws go at once. It ends the night on such a high note. We literally send them screaming for the turnstiles.

* * *

Listen to the podcast for more from John, including his tips on insider details to look for in this year's mazes, as well as some background on how he and his team approached some of the myths and legends that have inspired Halloween Horror Nights mazes, such as La Llorona and El Cucuy.

Tickets are on sale now for Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood, with prices starting at $44 a night.

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Where to eat: Dinner at Tony's Town Square Restaurant in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

By Amanda Jenkins
Published: September 3, 2013 at 9:52 AM

Some things cannot be helped when vacationing. For instance, one might get sunburned while swimming. One day it might rain. The one thing that you try to control but know you are taking a gamble on is dining. You could be going along having the time of your life, each day just a joy from sun-up to sundown...then BAM! You have an experience that takes away the magic from your trip. You feel dumbfounded and wonder what on Earth just happened.

My husband and I felt many of these emotions when we dined at Tony's Town Square Restaurant in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. I knew I was taking a big chance on making reservations here. The reviews were not completely positive, but I held out hope that maybe we would find out that it wasn't all that bad. Surely there was something positive about it. I mean, this is Walt Disney World. They have a lot of wonderful places to eat, some even award winning. This is the Magic Kingdom...where dreams come true...Mickey is always happy to see you...the happiest place on earth...right?

I should have seen the signs. First off, I have to explain my sense of humor. I have what I like to call a dry wit. My family prefers to call it sarcasm at its highest level, but I try not to be too unkind. I love T-shirts that reflect my humor, for instance on this trip I brought along some shirts that said, "I avoid clichés like the plague," and "Despite the look on my face, you are still talking." I wore the latter while flying. On this particular day, I wore my "I'm no rocket surgeon" shirt. I should have known something wasn't right when only three people understood the humor. I did have an elderly man say that I made his day by wearing such a funny shirt. But many others though gave me sympathetic looks, as if they were sorry I didn't become a rocket surgeon. This shirt began the dive into the pool of lost magic at Tony's Town Square Restaurant. I'm not sure, but it might be cursed. It definitely will not be going with us on our trip in a few weeks. No need to tempt fate.

We were getting hungry before our actual reservation. Our dinner reservation was for 8:15 pm. We were getting hungry around 5:30pm. So we took a chance and went to see if they could go ahead and seat us a couple of hours earlier than scheduled. They said that it was no problem at all and to sit over in the waiting area. It would only be ten minutes. This set off a few warning bells. A reservations restaurant that could easily seat us nearly three hours earlier than scheduled??? Hmmm. As we went to sit down, a cast member was twirling fake pizza dough in the lobby. She looked at my shirt and laughed. If she had only stopped there, it might have been a bit pleasant. She then began to air her grievances of fate, family, and her life to the two of us. She continued to twirl the fake pizza dough while saying that she actually had been on her way to becoming a rocket scientist, but then opened a bakery that lost money, and now here she is twirling fake dough at Disney World. Her family is filled with brilliant doctors and scientists, but what is she doing?!? Twirling fake dough at the Magic Kingdom. During this tirade, two little children were anxiously trying to get her attention and ask about the pizza dough. My husband actually pointed out to her that she had some interested customers. She ignored them for most of it, but was then short with them while answering their questions. I saw a little Cinderella and pirate walk dejectedly back to their parents. She continued to discuss her horrible fate, though I tried to point out that she at least enjoyed her job. She snorted her derision at such a thought. With grateful hearts, we were summoned to the hostess desk and were able to escape the dark pizza dough lady.

Tomato and Mozzarella salad ($7.49)

As shocking as that was, we still held out hope that our meal would be worth all the drama of the lobby. We were squeezed, and I do mean squeezed, in between two tables. Our elbows were in danger of hitting our neighbors in the back. While looking through the menu, we decided to avoid what we would normally order at an Italian restaurant. It's vacation, time to try something new. We began with a Tomato and Mozzarella salad ($7.49). The tomatoes were fresh with the shallots and had just enough balsamic vinegar dressing. The breadstick that accompanied it was very stale and difficult to chew.

Cannelloni ($16.99)

For our entrees, which came way too quickly after our appetizers, I chose the Cannelloni ($16.99) while Chuck picked the Cioppino ($23.99). The Cannelloni were three pasta shells filled with a mixture of sausage, ground beef, and ricotta cheese. They were topped with shredded mozzarella, marinara sauce, and Alfredo sauce. It looked promising. The cannelloni was chewy. The meat and sausage mixture was spiced so strongly that you could not tell exactly what flavor you were supposed to taste. The marinara and Alfredo were incredibly salty. I began to dissect these to see if anything would taste well on its own. Despite these efforts, I eventually gave up and placed my napkin over it. I was saddened now that I had allowed them to take my partially eaten salad to make room for this entrée.

Cioppino ($23.99)

Chuck's Cioppino is supposed to be a classic seafood stew. It was indeed in a large bowl, and it did have clams, mussels, calamari, and even a few shrimp. It also had pappardelle noodles in the tomato-based broth. After a few bites though, he also said that it was as if someone had dumped a load of spices and salt all over the food. Some of the clams even tasted a little gamey. Chuck remarked that it reminded him of something you would get out of a Chef Boyardee can. He loves seafood, and for him to give up after a few bites is saying quite a bit. Our waitress came by, saw that we hadn't really eaten, and asked why. When we told her that our entrees tasted a little off, she shrugged her shoulders and took the plates away.

Chocolate cake
Hazelnut chocolate cake ($5.99)

Our desserts arrived. Chuck stuck with ice cream ($4.99) while I tried the hazelnut chocolate cake ($5.99). Both were good, but we didn't finish either one. We really wanted something filling. We paid and left (and luckily dodged the angry pizza dough lady). After walking out we quickly towards Tomorrowland and bought a pretzel and hotdog. Not exactly the meal we wanted, but we were desperate to get the horrible tastes out of our mouths and needed something to fill our abused stomachs. Chuck felt very nauseous after his seafood. We had to go to first aid to get him some Pepto Bismol. Based on these two meals, I cannot recommend this restaurant. I now see why many a reviewer on a variety of websites have given such negative comments. I had actually made a reservation here for our upcoming trip with our boys when I made this for the two of us. I quickly canceled it. Until I hear that there has been a new menu implemented, renovations for space to sit and enjoy your meal, and a kinder staff, I do not see us darkening the door of this establishment again.

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Enjoy the sights, but watch for the kids, when visiting Legoland Florida with a wheelchair

By Daniel Etcheberry
Published: September 2, 2013 at 4:00 PM

Legoland Florida is a nice place to stroll with a wheelchair. The previous park "Cypress Gardens" was a relaxing place to get around with a wheelchair, and that park catered to the elderly which made it much easier to move around. Legoland caters to the very young (3-12 years old) which is more challenging to move around (you just have to stay more alert around you). But not all the park is that way; it kept some areas almost intact from the old days, and strolling around those areas will make you forget that it is a park for children.


One of those areas is the famous gardens that now have the name of the former park. This is located at the end of Legoland. It is a peaceful stroll (I did not see a single kid), but be warned that the beautiful bridges are steep; if you are not sure about crossing them, do the following: when you enter the gardens, make a left to see the Lego Southern Belle sitting next to the lagoon with the gazebo in the background. It is a lovely sight to take a picture of you with the figure. Then return to the entrance and continue to the right side of the gardens where you will see the gazebo up close. If you continue further you will find a jaw dropping Banyan tree; not to be missed. By doing this, you skip two steep bridges. The pathways in the gardens are narrow though.

The centerpiece of Legoland is "Miniland"; this place has wide pathways and it is easy to navigate. You will be able to see every detail from your wheelchair.


If you are a parent with a kid in a wheelchair, none of the rides are wheelchair accessible; this means that you cannot get the wheelchair into the ride’s vehicles. On the other hand, it does not look that hard to transfer them into the rides. It is also worth mentioning that there are rides that are not for kids with upper torso weakness (like the "Royal Joust"). I did not ride "Islands in the Sky" (which gives you a bird’s view of the park), but it looks too narrow to fit a wheelchair; go to guest relations or ask at the entrance of that attraction to see if they can accommodate a wheelchair.

Restaurants and stores at Legoland are wheelchair friendly.

Pack your wheelchair and head to Legoland Florida. Just watch out for those kids.

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Keep reading: August 2013 Archive