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October 2013

Vote of the Week: Which is the world's best Haunted Mansion?

By Robert Niles
Published: October 31, 2013 at 12:29 PM

In honor of Halloween, let's spend a little time with the theme park attraction that brings us so many happy haunts throughout the year: Disney's Haunted Mansion.

But which is the best of the world's Haunted Mansions? Is it the original, at Disneyland, in Anaheim?

Disneyland's Haunted Mansion

Or Walt Disney World's?

Haunted Mansion at the Magic Kingdom

Perhaps you might prefer the Tokyo version, located in Tokyo Disneyland's Fantasyland section. A clone of Orlando's version, Tokyo also offers the Haunted Mansion "Holiday Nightmare" overlay also found in Anaheim.

Haunted Mansion at Tokyo Disneyland

Or maybe you liked it when Disney broke the mold and created Phantom Manor at Disneyland Paris, which sets the classic Mansion story inside an old west facade, incorporating elements from Marc Davis' never-built Western River Expedition at the end?

Phantom Manor at Disneyland Paris

And finally, let's consider that holiday overlay, where Jack Skellington and his crew from The Nightmare Before Christmas take over the Mansions in Anaheim and Tokyo from September through the New Year.

Haunted Mansion Holiday

Even if you've not had the good fortune to experience all five versions in person, from all you know about these rides, which would you consider the very best?

Thank you for being part of the Theme Park Insider community, and Happy Halloween!

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Young boy injured on Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland Paris

By Robert Niles
Published: October 30, 2013 at 1:49 PM

Newspapers in Europe are reporting that a five-year-old boy was critically injured on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland Paris today.

According to the U.K.'s Daily Mail, "Emergency services were called when the boy, who has not yet been named, became 'trapped between a platform and a boat.' A Disney spokesman has confirmed the accident happened."

Here's photo of the load/unload platform at Disneyland Paris' Pirates ride:

Disneyland Paris Pirates of the Caribbean load platform

As you can see, safety gates hold back visitors who have yet to board, and there's almost no space between the boat and a dock for even a small child to slip through. If someone were to fall into the water, it would seem to have to be in between boats. The article also quotes the boy as "falling under a machine," which suggests the load belts that boats ride upon as they move through the load/unload area.

Boats on Pirates of the Caribbean move through the rest of the attraction on a current of water propelled by pumps located throughout the ride. No reports yet detail exactly where in the ride this incident happened.

Two years ago at Disneyland Paris, falling rockwork from Big Thunder Mountain Railroad injured five riders, one seriously.

Update: I just posted this to our Facebook page, in response to predictable "let's blame the parents" posts.

Thought for the day: I find it revealing when people rush to put 100 percent of the blame on parents they've never met when something horrible happens to a child, in theme parks or elsewhere. Perhaps it says something about our nature when we so quickly reject compassion and humility when given an opportunity to bully and blame.

Update 2: Statement from Disneyland Paris:

We are deeply saddened by the accident that took place this afternoon in Pirates of the Caribbean.

Our emergency teams were immediately on the scene to provide first aid to the 5-yaear old child. Throughout this difficult situation, our teams are accompanying the child and his family in order to offer any assistance necessary.

Safety is our utmost concern and we are working in close partnership with the authorities to understand what happened. The attraction remains closed until further notice.

Update 3: More detail, from The Telegraph (via comments)

During the ride, the boy leaned back and somehow fell out of his boat and was hit by another just behind. The child’s father immediately jumped out to recover him, but not quick enough to prevent the accident.

“He was stuck between the platform, with his chest compressed, and the boat,” said commander Fabrice Delin of the Codis emergency services for the Seine-et-Marne department, where the park is situated.

This happened at the unload platform.

Update 4: From the comments:

I was there with my son in the boat at the front of the docking area when the boy fell in. We had already moved off past the gates and into the ride and had to tight rope walk back up the wood fencing to get back onto the platform. It took six people to lift the boat off the boy. It is unclear whether he fell off at the front of the boat that was lifted (this boat was still on the tunnel before the exit platform or whether he fell off the back of the one just coming into the exit platform. In either case it appeared that the child should not have been standing to get off the ride yet in either case and I can not see how the ride or the staff were at fault. They acted extremely quickly and calmly, they got him out as fast as they could and administered first aid with medics arriving asap. I really hope the little boy pulls through but it really is a lesson to us all to be vigilant to our children's actions even second guessing what they are going to do next. The tragic events of yesterday are a lesson to us all, my thought and prayers go out to the little boys family and the staff of the ride.

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NBCUniversal CEO: Diagon Alley to open in 'spring'

By Robert Niles
Published: October 30, 2013 at 8:02 AM

Universal Orlando's new Harry Potter land will open in "spring," according the CEO of the theme parks' parent company. NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke told investor analysts in a conference call this morning that the Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida would open sometime in the spring of this year. For reference, Universal defined the same opening timeframe for the original Wizarding World in Islands of Adventure, which eventually opened on June 18, 2010.

Diagon Alley
Universal's concept art for Diagon Alley

Burke also said that the new Wizarding World would open after the Cabana Bay hotel, which he said would open in March. So let's start with a potential opening date for Harry Potter 2 sometime between April 1 and Friday, June 20, which is the last day of spring. But Universal's provided two more clues about Harry Potter's debut.

Universal Orlando is now offering a third day free to U.S. and Canadian residents who buy a two-day ticket via Universal's website. But those tickets must be used by May 22, 2014. And the Universal's "Power Pass" annual pass is listing summer blockout days for Universal Studios Florida starting on Saturday, June 14, 2014.

Given these three parameters, it appears that the most likely opening date for Diagon Alley lies somewhere between May 23 and June 13, 2014. Also remember that the original Wizarding World was open on for "technical rehearsal" — Universal's term for a soft-open — for a few weeks before its official opening. With a soft open, visitors could get their first look inside Diagon Alley sometime in early to mid-May.

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Tuesday theme park news round-up: Bats, Falcons, and Thor

By Robert Niles
Published: October 29, 2013 at 7:59 PM

If you lived in the Midwest in the early 1980s, or if you're a fan of roller coaster history, you likely remember The Bat at Kings Island. The prototype suspended coaster didn't work all the time -- okay, it was broken a lot. But it enticed a generation of roller coaster fans with the possibilities of a new way of placing riders relative to a roller coaster track, and won a legion of fans in the process. Kings Island eventually, and rightfully, closed the coaster, but its name will return to the park for the 2014 season. Kings Island announced today that it will rename The Bat's successor, the suspended coaster Flight Deck, as The Bat when the park opens next spring. Flight Deck was built as Top Gun, but lost that name when the old Paramount Parks chain sold Kings Island and the rest of its parks to Cedar Fair and declined to include the license for its film franchises in the deal.

Falcon's Fury
Photo courtesy Busch Gardens

Busch Gardens Tampa has taken delivery on more than 500 tons of steel for the 335-foot main tower of its new drop ride, Falcon's Fury, which will debut next spring. The pieces shipped across the Atlantic Ocean from Spain before arriving at the park last week. Falcon's Fury will be the tallest freestanding drop tower in North America when it opens. If you're curious about that "freestanding" qualifier, that's because Six Flags will have taller drop rides, but they're attached to the sides of other attractions.

Disney's found another use for its facade projection system. The latest digital projection show for the It's a Small World facade at Disneyland will be a short presentation every 15 minutes during the Small World Holiday overlay, where the entire facade will become a massive clockwork. Here's a preview:

Until Disney's managers give the greenlight for a new Marvel-themed attraction at the Disneyland Resort, it appears that the Innoventions facility in Disneyland's Tomorrowland will continue to serve as the de facto Marvel outpost in the park. This week, the park debuted its new Thor exhibit and meet-and-greet, to support the new movie coming to theaters next month. Earlier this year, Iron Man got the spotlight at Innoventions. Let the countdown begin for the Captain America exhibit next spring.

Disney this week has been installing new Coca-Cola-brand soft drink flavors from around the world at Epcot's Club Cool. Despite so many the old flavors going away to make way for the new tastes, Disney continues to troll us all by still serving Beverly. Yay?

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Photo Gallery: HalloweenTime at Disneyland

By Robert Niles
Published: October 29, 2013 at 5:04 PM

We've posted a photo album from HalloweenTime at Disneyland, over on Theme Park Insider's Facebook page.

If you're on Facebook, we'd like to invite you to follow our page. It's a great way to be notified of new Blog Flume posts on Themeparkinsider.com, as well as to share stuff we post only over there, such as this photo gallery, discussions and whatever else theme park fans like sharing.

Wherever you follow us, on the Web, on Facebook, or on Twitter, we'd like to thank you for being part of the Theme Park Insider community.

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What's your dream theme park travel checklist?

By Robert Niles
Published: October 28, 2013 at 5:59 PM

The Guardian last week offered a feature on "checklist travel" — profiling 10 people who've come up with to-do lists of goals they're trying to accomplish in their travels or spare time.

The checklists included tasks such as "Walking every street in New York City" and "Visiting every Northern Rail station in the UK." For Theme Park Insiders, of course, theme park-related checklists should spring to mind. What theme park checklists would you like to accomplish in your life?

Riding at Dineyland

Here are a few we've completed:

Riding all the rides at Disneyland in one day: It took the latest One More Disney Day promotion to pull off this task, which required nearly 15 hours with the park only lightly attended for most of the day. Disneyland has nearly four dozen attractions, though some might be closed for refurbishment on any given day. On days when crowds are light, limited hours often prevent visitors from getting to every ride and show. And on days with extended hours, large crowds manage to prevent the task.

Tokyo's Pirates of the Caribbean

Riding every version of Pirates of the Caribbean on Earth: This required visits to Disneyland in Anaheim, California, Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom in Florida, Tokyo Disneyland in Japan, and Disneyland Paris in France. As of now, there's no Pirates yet at Hong Kong Disneyland, and Shanghai Disneyland's still under construction. For what it's worth, the Tokyo version is the same as Disneyland's except for a Magic Kingdom-style exit, taking you off the ride after the collapsing room scene, which allows you to skip the ride up the chain lift back to the loading station. Disneyland Paris offers the Inception of Pirates rides, with a scrambled narrative relative to the classic Disneyland and abridged Magic Kingdom versions.

Here are three more "Riding every _____ on Earth" checklists, from your editor's personal travels:

  • Riding every Haunted Mansion on Earth: Disneyland, Magic Kingdom, Tokyo Disneyland, and Disneyland Paris for Phantom Manor. Hong Kong Disneyland's Mystic Manor doesn't count, as it shares no name, characters, scenes or ride systems with the other Haunted Mansion rides.
  • Visiting every Tom Sawyer Island on Earth: Disneyland, Magic Kingdom, Tokyo Disneyland
  • Riding every Revenge of the Mummy on Earth: Universal Studios Florida, Hollywood, and Singapore. (Let's not restrict this to Disney!)

Revenge of the Mummy in Singapore

One doesn't need to be a global traveler to get in on the fun. How about these other candidates for theme park checklists?

  • Drinking around the world: Consume one alcoholic beverage at each Epcot World Showcase pavilion that serves alcohol, in one visit to the park.
  • Visiting all the Orlando theme parks in one day: The Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney's Hollywood Studios, Disney's Animal Kingdom, SeaWorld Orlando, Universal Studios Florida, and Universal's Islands of Adventure
  • Getting every character's autograph: This is easy to do in parks with fewer characters, but how about in a Disney theme park? And how about trying to do every meet and greet in a single day?

Roller coaster fans long have pursued their own checklists. The most popular model of roller coaster among Theme Park Insider readers is the Bolliger & Mabillard hyper. How about a checklist to ride all 12 B&M hypers around the world? (Your editor has a mere three, so far.)

The ultimate checklist might appear to be to visit all 11 Disney theme park around the world, a list that will grow to 12 with the opening of Shanghai Disneyland in a few years. But more than a few people have accomplished that lofty goal. Let's make it tougher, then: What about a checklist to go on every Disney attraction around the world?

Of course, finishing that checklist would require riding every ride and watching every show at the Walt Disney Studios Park in Paris, a task that might be too cruel to ask of even the most annoying troll on the site. So let's leave this to you: What theme park checklists would you most want to attempt? Which ones have you finished, or come close to completing? And which theme park checklists would most impress you?

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Hong Kong Disneyland's Sort-of-Scary Halloween Party

By Bryan Wawzenek
Published: October 28, 2013 at 10:36 AM

HONG KONG — Two haunted houses, a battle between werewolves and vampires, intergalactic ghouls, a spooky side show and a parade led by a giant Jack Skellington – this is Halloween at Hong Kong Disneyland.

Creepy castle

Disney's first (and, for the moment, only) Chinese outpost amps up the fright factor during the witching season, which makes the park's Haunted Halloween event drastically different from the "Not-So-Scary" varieties found in Orlando and Anaheim. That's not the only thing that separates HKDL's Halloween celebration (which runs Thursdays through Sundays in October) from its stateside counterparts. Haunted Halloween doesn't require a separate ticket or an additional charge. Visitors pay the same price (450 Hong Kong dollars; about $58 U.S.) as they would on any other day, but get to reap the benefits of longer hours and extra attractions. Not bad.

My wife and I checked out Disney's Haunted Halloween last week, on a day that felt uncrowded in comparison to any other Disney park – although the sidewalks of Main Street, U.S.A. became a little bit fuller after dark, as guests came after school or work to enjoy the holiday festivities. A $299 HKD Night Pass (available after 6 p.m. only on the Haunted Halloween days) surely aided in this.

Mickey Mouse

We arrived early for a full day at the park, and were each given a Scream-No-More Challenge Passport, with information about HKDL's shriek-inducing attractions and stickers to mark our progress (or lack thereof). On our way in, we began to discover HKDL's decorative Halloween touches, from a Mickey face partially composed of pumpkins in front of the Hong Kong Disneyland Railroad to the "Nightmare Before Christmas"-themed displays in the Main Street shop windows to the imposing figure of Chernabog, rising in the center of the hub before Sleeping Beauty's castle. Of course, the "Fantasia" standout looked even cooler at night, when his yellow eyes lit up while spirits appeared to swirl around him.


Amidst the park's usual offerings, there were other seasonal treats to take in during the daylight hours – such as Babyhead, "Toy Story"'s tortured doll/erector set arachnid that had made its way from Sid's house to Andy's backyard in Toy Story Land. And any time is a good time to ride Space Mountain with its Ghost Galaxy overlay, which is running throughout October, whether you visit on a Haunted Halloween day or not.


Ghost Galaxy

This was my first time on Ghost Galaxy (it's been running in Anaheim since 2009, although it originated in Hong Kong in 2007) and I was slightly underwhelmed. It had nothing to do with this version of Space Mountain, a copy of the one-track/two-person-wide rocket car version at Disneyland that moves at a zippy clip … especially in the last third of the ride. On the other hand, the projections of nebulous space ghosts that appeared as we coasted failed to add any excitement or terror to the experience. Maybe I was hoping for too much.

As we wandered through Grizzly Gulch in the twilight hours, we saw that the land's Halloween Fair was in full swing. On the path between Adventureland and the entrance to the Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars coaster, five wooden carnival booths had been set up, each with a different carnival game. Children and adults could try their paw at Grizzly Bowling or pick up a mallet and see if they could get the strongman bell to ring.

Grizzly Gulch fair

Everyone who participated received a large Grizzly Gulch sticker from a cast member and those who did well got an extra one or two. Of course, that was open to interpretation. My wife and I both failed to knock down all the pins at Grizzly Bowling, but only I was lauded for a "great job" and was given an extra sticker. Perhaps my Grizzly Bowling technique was just that superb. As we walked away from the area, we noticed that each sticker was themed to the activity, with scenes of Grizzly Gulch's furry residents joining the fun. Nice touch.

Stickers and treats

As if we didn't have enough stickers already, we headed next to Fantasyland, where cast members were stationed at four elaborate pumpkin displays to hand out stickers (of Mickey and the gang in formal Halloween attire) and snacks (mini rolls of Mentos and Dole pouches of yogurt-covered fruit pieces). After dark, these stations would also serve as photo spots for Mickey, Minnie, Chip and Dale, and something truly terrifying: Duffy.

It still wasn't quite dark enough to venture into one of HKDL's two haunted houses (both were open at 2 p.m., but you've got to wait until after dark, right?), so we headed down to Main Street's Market House Bakery, which was stocked with terrifying treats. One we had to try was a doughy roll made to look like Jack Skellington with strawberry jam "blood" and cream cheese filling (32 HKD, or about 4 bucks). The roll was light and airy while the jam and cream provided a rich, flavorful counterpoint – although I could have used more "blood" and "guts," but who couldn't at Halloween?

Jack Skellington treat

Next, we decided we'd have enough time to visit the park's Graves Academy haunted house (located on the Adventureland side of the central hub) and then get set up for the HKDL's Halloween parade. Anticipation is half the fun of going into a haunt and with a 40-minute wait (our longest for anything at the park), we got our money's worth. But the line moved steadily and included entertainment in the form of a balloon artist and a statue of Graves Academy founder Alistair Graves, which would occasionally come to life with a turning head and glowing eyes.

Graves Academy

Graves Academy itself was a solid haunt that stayed true to its theme – a demented boarding school – throughout the 10-minute walk-through. From classrooms where students were threatened not to speak (or else face grave consequences) to the horrifying cafeteria kitchen, the haunted house exploited plenty of school-themed scares. Every scene was well-detailed, from rows of desks to a fully stocked school library, although not quite up to the level of a full-time Disney park attraction. This isn't Mystic Manor, but when old-fashioned darkness and yelling work this well, it doesn't need to be.

Having escaped with our lives (if not diplomas) from Graves Academy, we wandered into Tomorrowland to check out the Party Zone, a stage featuring live music acts, including a pretty wonderful drumming group. The land was also home to the Boo-tique, where cast members were supposed to doling out frightening face paint – although we never saw anyone participating.

With less than 10 minutes until parade time, we were happy to find a spot one row back from the curb on the Tomorrowland side of the hub. I had read that the Glow in the Park parade was themed to "The Nightmare Before Christmas," but didn't know exactly what that entailed until the first float came rolling around the bend. On a pumpkin sat a pretty mobile, two-story tall Jack Skellington, greeting guests (in Chinese) and bending his torso and turning his head to leer at the parade watchers on both sides. Pretty darn cool.

Skellington float


The next float featured Sally, Doctor Finkelstein and his ghoulish laboratory, after which the parade became a Halloween catch-all. There were glowing attendees (hence the parade's name) to a zombie ball, acrobatic lava dancers, a villains float with Maleficent, Jafar and Captain Hook and the grand finale of Mickey and company on a pirate ship in their Halloween duds. Short but sweet and if it's not quite the Magic Kingdom's Boo to You parade, well, what is?

Parade finale

Soon after, we made our way to the Sideshow Carnival Extraordinaire, on the outskirts of Adventureland, where three circus-type wagons were set up. However, this was more "side" than "show," as cast members appeared in richly detailed costumes for the sole purpose of posing for pictures with guests. With giant wings and a mean makeup job, bat boy looked amazing, but not quite enough for me to wait in a 20-person line when I could just snap a quick shot and move along.

Sideshow Carnival Extraordinaire

After all, we had another haunt to get to – The Revenge of the Headless Horseman, located somewhere in the twilight zone between Adventureland and Grizzly Gulch. The sideshow characters that we encountered on the way proved to be a well-matched set-up for this haunt, themed as a traveling carnival where the star attraction is one horseman, sans noggin. I don't think I'm spoiling anything to say that everything goes horribly, terribly wrong when the Headless Horseman takes umbrage at all the other carnival acts, who think they're so special with the heads still connected to their necks and everything.

The Revenge of the Headless Horseman

Creepy carnivals can be marvelous fodder for haunted attractions, and this one wore its theme well, delivering creative scares of both the animatronic and live actor varieties. Disney park fans might especially appreciate the nod to Madame Leota, in a scene where the Headless Horseman has smashed a crystal ball to leave its floating head gasping for life (the haunt uses the same effect employed in the Haunted Mansion, which does not exist in Hong Kong). Between HKDL's two haunts, I'd give this one the edge. Although it felt shorter, the theming was more lively and the set-ups more surprising.

Make no mistake, although neither is as gory or terrifying as what you're likely to find at Universal's Halloween Horror Nights, the two haunts are aimed at teenagers and adults and are not appropriate for young ones. These grim, grinning ghosts are not just out to socialize.

Much more social were the vampires and werewolves (and, from the looks of it, were-lions) terrorizing Main Street, made almost unrecognizable by copious amounts of fog and dramatic, red lighting. The monsters split their time between posing for guest photos and chasing around shrieking teenage girls. Every so often, the music would swell and the two bloodthirsty gangs would square off in a "West Side Story"-type duel. All that prancing, while entertaining, made them a whole lot less scary, regardless of prominent brows, fangs and snouts.

Werelion on Main Street

Vampire on Main Street

After a day packed with a giant pumpkin king, a murderous horseman and more stickers than we'll ever know what to do with, we decided to call it a night. I learned that a Disney park can get pretty spooky when it wants to, although the experience left me wanting one last scare – how about an It's a Small World Halloween overlay? Think "Children of the Corn." Now that could be really scary.

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Theme Park History: Cedar Point's near-death experience

By Derek Potter
Published: October 27, 2013 at 2:13 PM

Today, Ohio's Cedar Point stands among the leading amusement parks in the world, with millions of visitors every year, legions of fans, and scores of awards. It's the anchor of a billion-dollar company that trades on the New York Stock Exchange, and the self proclaimed “Roller Coaster Capital of the World.” With all of Cedar Point's success, it seems almost strange to think that in another time, the highly popular Lake Erie resort was a breath away from closing forever.

Cedar Point

Cedar Point began life as a small bathhouse and beer garden over 140 years ago, in 1870, and grew steadily into a bustling resort by 1900. Behind the leadership of George Boeckling, a real estate tycoon with a knack for showmanship, the park grew astronomically for the next 30 years into one of the most successful amusement operations in the world. By 1931 though, Boeckling had died, and the Great Depression had begun taking its toll on the country. Cedar Point along with the rest of the industry was hit hard…first with the Depression, and then by the war and the supply rationing it brought. Without strong leadership, by the end of the 1940s the once great resort found itself in disrepair and the future coaster capital of the world tore down its last roller coaster because it didn’t have the money to fix it. The parent company that owned and operated the resort was all but broke. The early 1950s were a little kinder to Cedar Point. Although a measure of success returned, the finances were a mess and the company was ripe for a takeover.

In 1957, Cedar Point began attracting the attention of a real estate developer named George Roose, who sought to transform the area into a high end housing project. Taking advantage of the park’s tenuous financial position, Roose and his partners bought into the company and soon gained a majority stake. He left no secrets about his intentions to close Cedar Point, but the people were not too keen on this proposition. The public outcry throughout the state was loud, and it attracted the attention of the media and Ohio Governor Frank Lausche, who pledged to block residential development by condemning the property, purchasing the land and turning it into a state park. The state legislature developed an official plan for when the day came.

Roose and his business partner Emile Legros saw the writing on the wall, and were now faced with the real prospect of losing their investment. What they also saw was the early success that Disney was having in California. After a visit to Disneyland, the partners were convinced that the resort could be made into a viable operation and announced that Cedar Point would remain and be redeveloped into the “Disneyland of the Midwest”. The state subsequently scrapped its plans to purchase the site and left Roose and Legros to develop their park. After two years of planning, construction on the modern day Cedar Point began and the rest is history.

And there you have it. It seems Cedar Point fans in those days were just as dedicated as the modern day fans are. Also, in these days of government shutdown, it’s nice to recall an instance where things actually got done and good came of them.

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Vote of the week: Disney cruises, yes or no?

By Robert Niles
Published: October 25, 2013 at 2:57 PM

Disney Cruise Line unveiled its refurbished Disney Magic today. The 2,700-passenger ship will sail from Miami until next year, when it repositions to Port Canaveral, nearer Orlando. Disney's not disclosed how much it spent reworking the Magic during its six-week downtime, but upgraded features on the ship include a new restaurant, nightclub, and pub, an "Avengers Academy" experience for children, new water slides, and a redesigned lobby. Basically, Disney reworked the ship to look more like its two newest ships, the Dream and the Fantasy.

Lobby of the new Disney Magic
Photo courtesy Disney

The Magic, which debuted in 1998, is the Disney Cruise Line's oldest ship. The second-oldest, the Wonder, is scheduled for a similar refurbishment sometime next year.

Do you enjoy cruises? Even though Disney aggressively packages theme parks and cruise vacations, we rarely cover DCL or other theme park-related cruises here on Theme Park Insider (for reasons we'll address in a moment). So we might have skewed the results a bit by not covering this aspect of travel on a more regular basis. But we'd still like to hear what you think about cruises.

We invite cruise fans to make the case for 'yes' votes, in the comments. I'll take the 'no' case. ;^)

Fair warning: This argument is made from hearsay alone. I've never been on a cruise, and should I be fortunate for the remainder of my life, I'll never take one. "Cruise" sounds like the root of "excruciating." I'm not a glutton, so big buffets no longer appeal to me. The idea of swimming in a pool in the middle of ocean seems absurd. (Give me a snorkel and send me to Maui or the Keys if I want to play in the water.) Give me trails to hike, cities to discover, or theme parks to explore. Not a floating hotel with tiny, cramped rooms. If I could sail the boat, fine, I'm in. But sitting in a lounge chair all day, with no Internet access, sounds like a country club prison sentence to me.

Ports of call? Here's a story: A couple summers ago, my family and I visited France, where we took a delightful bike tour of Vernon and Giverny. While crossing the Seine, a tour bus passed us. I watched the people in the bus — encased behind closed glass windows, 10 feet off the ground — whiz by, and I thought that I'd never want to travel that way. Yet a cruise ship is a tour bus multiplied by at least one order of magnitude. No thanks.

Theme parks are designed for crowds. They're productions, created as shows that need an audience to come to life fully. Plopping 3,000 people into a Caribbean port alters it from a natural place into one of those tourist productions. Perhaps some people are into that. But if I want to see a production, I'll head to a theme park or to Broadway. If I want to visit Caribbean islands, I'd rather seek places where the big cruise ships don't call.

Finally, there's a reason why almost no cruise ships are flagged in the United States. That's so cruise operators can avoid U.S. labor and safety laws, which protect the health of employees and passengers alike, and ensure at least a minimum wage and humane working conditions for employees. Cruise ship employees get no such protections, and, frankly, I'd rather spend my money elsewhere as a result.

That's my case for a 'no' vote. But, as I've said, I've never taken a cruise, and simply haven't heard yet a counter-argument that sways me to consider spending several thousand dollars to go on one, as opposed to one of the many other types of vacations that I know I'll enjoy. Please, if you're a cruise fan, make the case for a 'yes' vote, in the comments. And if you're on the fence, tell us what you'd like to know about cruises, to help you make a decision one way or the other. And thank you, to everyone, for reading and participating here on Theme Park Insider.

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Where to eat: Lunch at Disneyland's Plaza Inn

By Robert Niles
Published: October 24, 2013 at 4:43 PM

Earlier this week, Amanda Jenkins took us along for lunch at the Plaza Restaurant at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. Today, let's visit that restaurant's older, west-coast sibling, Disneyland's Plaza Inn.

Plaza Inn

If Disney World's Plaza Restaurant might be easy to overlook, there's no missing Disneyland's Plaza Inn, which stands prominently on the edge of the hub in the center of the park. That's not the only difference between the two Plazas. In California, you're served at the counter, not the table, and there are no sandwiches to be found on the menu, which specializes in fried chicken and pot roast.


The Plaza Inn opens for lunch at noon, after the restaurant's popular character breakfast closes for the day. Once you choose your meal at the service stations in the restaurant's lobby, you can select a seat in one of the Victoria-styled dining rooms or on the plaza outside.


On an overcast day, we chose to eat inside, where I enjoyed the Plaza Inn's fall seasonal entree, a glazed salmon, with pineapple salsa, mushroom quinoa, and green beans ($16.99).


I love that Disneyland's restaurants feature a variety of seasonal entrees. With the majority of Disneyland's guests being locals, ever-changing menu items go a long way in giving passholders a fresh reason to come back to the park. But I'm sure that many other Disneyland fans would be perfectly happy eating nothing else at the Plaza Inn but the restaurant's fried chicken platter ($14.99 for one-half chicken, with mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, and a biscuit).

Fried chicken

For today's lunch, I chose the salmon special, and Laurie the traditional fried chicken. Have you ever had a moment when you sat down to a meal, taken a bite, then thought to yourself, "I'm going to devour every bite of this now"? When you want to eat not just because you like the taste of something, or you feel obligated because you bought or made it, but when your appetites awaken and declare that you need this food?

That's how I felt tearing into the salmon. Balanced with the nutty quinoa, earthy mushrooms, and peppery beans, with a touch of fruity sweetness from the salsa, every bite of the meal worked together to satisfy completely.

And then I tried some of Laurie's chicken.

Southern California's got some great fried chicken. Roscoe's made chicken and waffles famous, and the Knott family built a theme park from its chicken restaurant. But it's been a long time since I've enjoyed a piece of fried chicken as much as I enjoyed the Plaza Inn's. Crispy and salty on the outside, the chicken itself nails that delicate balance of being juicy without crossing over into being greasy. And the combination of mashed potatoes and gravy might as well be dessert for all the richness it adds to the plate. (Yeah, we finished it.)

Even though I cleaned my plate (and helped Laurie with her's), I didn't leave with that stuffed, bloated feeling that follows to mediocre restaurant meals. I just felt, well, satisfied. But we did skip dessert, for which the options today included a red velvet layer cake, a carrot cake, and an apple tart, for $5.19 each.


Someday soon, we'll need to come back to the Plaza and try that pot roast, too.

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Universal Orlando installs Hogwarts Express trains

By Robert Niles
Published: October 24, 2013 at 3:06 PM

Universal Orlando today installed the Hogwarts Express train on its track.

Hogwarts Express
Photo courtesy Universal Orlando

The Hogwarts Express attraction will run between Universal's two Wizarding World of the Harry Potter lands, the original Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure and the new Diagon Alley in Universal Studios Florida, which will open in June or July of next year.

Hogwarts Express
Photo courtesy Universal Orlando

Video screens make to look like windows will give passengers the illusion of steaming through the English and Scottish countrysides as they ride between Kings Cross station in London (in USF) and the wizarding village of Hogsmeade (in IOA). Most of the ride will happen "backstage" between the two theme parks, so the lack of real windows also will prevent riders from seeing those "back of house" support facilities between the parks.

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Bill & Ted's Sociology Adventure: Why social context matters in theme park storytelling

By Jacob Sundstrom
Published: October 23, 2013 at 4:16 PM

It’s rare that social issues come into the realm of amusement parks — but here we are. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure has been cancelled at Universal's Halloween Horror Nights in Hollywood, thanks to an outcry over a series of allegedly homophobic jokes in the show. I’ve seen the show before, but if you have not, you can see a video with the jokes in question over at the Huffington Post.

My initial reaction to the show was pretty much the same as it has been for the past two years: It’s not funny, the jokes are lazy and I did not have a good time. That’s fine. I know a lot of people LOVE the show to death and there’s a big difference between finding a show unfunny and finding a show homophobic. Because I didn’t care for the show much, I didn’t put in a whole lot of critical effort in my review of the event. If you liked the show last year, I figure you liked the show this year.

At some point in the last couple of weeks I heard some rumblings about the offensive nature of the show. I didn’t think much of it because, well, the show is offensive. That’s the point. They make off-color jokes that are supposed to offend people. So I didn’t think much about it until Twitter nearly combusted today as theme park sites and bloggers found out the show had been cancelled.

Phrases like “faux outrage” and “political correctness” and “you’ve never seen the show” and “context” were bandied about like play things. I get it. People are upset because a show they like is being taken away from them and it’s being taken away (in their minds) by people who have never and will never visit Halloween Horror Nights. They might be right. I think they’re missing the point.

Part of what makes off-color humor work is that comedians (usually) attack groups in power. There’s a reason that making jokes about machismo and white people go over better than making jokes about minorities: It’s not funny to make fun of marginalized groups. Now, that’s my opinion on comedy and it is obviously not shared by everyone. But to say that outrage over a homophobic joke is fake or otherwise invalid is, in my mind, kind of disgusting.

Beyond that, it’s one thing to make the joke about a group that is routinely humiliated (and still not treated as equal human beings in over half of this country, you know), and it’s another to say that their feelings — or feelings on their behalf don’t even matter. As a sports writer (I can’t go to theme parks EVERY weekend) this debate reminds me a lot of what’s happening over the name of Washington DC's NFL team right now. The rationale seems to be: The majority of Americans don’t find the name offensive; therefore, everyone who is offended is wrong. [Editor's note: Jacob wrote the name of the team, but I don't want it on the website, which shows you where I come down on that issue. - Robert]

Where that crowd gets it wrong is its belief that this is some sort of a democracy. This is not a case of “majority rules” -- this is a case where if a group is being marginalized and offended, they’re the ones we should all be answering to. I’m not gay and I do not pretend to speak for gay people in any capacity, but if there are people offended by the content of the show, that means something.

Now that’s all well and good, but it is fair to note that the context and content of the show is heavily advertised to prospective viewers. You WILL be offended and if you are easily offended DON’T WATCH is the message given before the show (paraphrasing, but you get the idea). So the comparison is made to an R-rated movie where people ostensibly don’t complain about the content because it’s known that it is created for adults.

That assumes, of course, that homophobia, racism and sexism are R-rated events that are strictly created for adults. The problem with that line of thinking is twofold: First of all, homophobia isn’t the same as gore, sex and violence. Secondly, the idea that homophobia is okay because it’s within the context of an adult event is silly. I would argue that given the context of where this country is in terms of treating gay people like human beings that the jokes are at best lazy and at worst offensive.

My point in all of this isn’t that the show was abjectly disgusting and offensive — far from it. My point is that all of these jokes happen in the wider context of our social construct. Not all jokes intended-to-offend are created equal. So while many may disagree with Universal’s decision to cancel the show, I think it’s important to show a degree of sensitivity towards the groups being targeted and to treat this issue the way it is: complicated. Spending more than five minutes thinking about the situation might lead to cooler heads and better understanding prevailing.

Update: Universal Orlando just posted to Twitter that its Bill & Ted show uses a different script and the Orlando version of the show will continue as scheduled.

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Disney announces Christmas makeover for the Jungle Cruise at Disney World and Disneyland

By Robert Niles
Published: October 23, 2013 at 10:50 AM

The Jungle Cruise rides at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom and Disneyland will become the "Jingle Cruise" for this holiday season, Disney announced today.

Jungle Cruise

For the holiday makeover, Disney will decorate the attractions' waiting areas with holiday ornaments, the boats will get new holiday-themed names, and the skippers will get a bunch of new holiday jokes to add to their repertoire. Of course, experienced Jungle skippers have been adding unapproved Christmas-themed jokes to their spiels for years. Among many other unapproved jokes. ;^)

This will be the third current holiday attraction makeover at Disneyland Park, joining Small World Holiday and Haunted Mansion Holiday. But Jingle Cruise will be the first holiday makeover of an attraction at the Magic Kingdom since the demise of the Country Bear Christmas Special.

Jingle Cruise will debut at both parks in early November.

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More on Disney, Universal, and the latest play for Lord of the Rings

By Robert Niles
Published: October 22, 2013 at 8:50 PM

A report claims that a theme park deal for The Lord of the Rings franchise is imminent, and that it's Disney, not Universal, about to do the deal.
Walt Disney World News Today has claimed that "Disney and Warner Brothers have either signed or are very close to signing an agreement that will bring 'The Lord of the Rings' and 'The Hobbit' movie-inspired areas to the Disney Parks." [Please note that, despite the website's name, the publication is not affiliated with the Walt Disney Company.]

Middle Earth

Earlier this year, another site reported that Universal had the deal in hand, only to back off soon after. The Lord of the Rings franchise is the eighth-highest-grossing film franchise of all time, according to Box Office Mojo, testifying to its commercial appeal. If you're curious, Harry Potter is the number-one film franchise of all time, followed by Marvel.

Universal's been thought to have the inside track on negotiations, given its wildly successful partnership with Warner Bros. on The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Warner Bros. also owns the film rights to Lord of the Rings, and would need to sign off on a theme park deal. Universal's also worked with Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit director Peter Jackson on the King Kong attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood.

But Warner Bros. isn't the only party to any potential deal. The estate of author J.R.R. Tolkien also would need to give its blessing, and that's been thought to be another strike against Disney's involvement. Tolkien was well known for his contempt of Walt Disney and his work, once ordering his partners to "veto anything from or influenced by the Disney studios (for all whose works I have a heartfelt loathing)."

And yet… the Tolkien heirs have been said to be less than happy with Jackson's films [scroll down for link], and a disgust with Walt Disney didn't keep P.L. Travers from signing over Mary Poppins, did it?

At this point we at Theme Park Insider have no information that we're confident about that suggests either Universal or Disney have a deal in hand. But perhaps it might be of interest what Disney Legend and former Imagineering Senior VP Tony Baxter had to say about Lord of the Rings in an interview with Theme Park Insider earlier this month. (That interview will appear on the site within a few weeks.)

Baxter compared Lord of the Rings unfavorably to Harry Potter as a theme park-friendly property. "Things like Remembralls and Howlers," he said, citing two examples from the Potter universe, "they were so classic in the ways that the words were constructed, that they stick in your brain. Whereas I look at the world of Lord of the Rings, and I can't tell you — other than the Orcs — I can't tell you the names of the people. They were too confusing."

Would a Disney Legend dissing the viability of Lord of the Rings as a theme park-friendly environment be enough to suggest that Disney's theme park designers aren't sold on the Lord of the Rings franchise? Or does it say nothing more than one man's opinion about a potential challenge facing anyone trying to being that franchise to life in a theme park?

Would you like to see Lord of the Rings in a Disney theme park, a Universal theme park, or a theme park anywhere else in the world?

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Orlando airport on its way to $1.1 billion expansion

By Robert Niles
Published: October 22, 2013 at 2:59 PM

This isn't about a theme park, but it affects a facility that hosts millions of theme park fans every year: Orlando International Airport is on its way to a billion-dollar-plus upgrade.

The Orlando airport commission last week approved plans for a $1.1 billion expansion and renovation plan for the facility, which serves more than 35 million passengers a year. The commission's concerned that the current facility can't effectively handle more than 45 million passengers a year, which it projects the airport to hit by 2019. So it's devised a plan to add a second terminal facility one mile south of the existing terminal, while upgrading the existing terminal facility and its gates for international flights.

Proposed south terminal
The proposed south terminal for Orlando International Airport

The commission's airport expansion master plan [PDF] detailed the rationale behind and the six phases of the expansion plan, which will start by adding a new, 2,400-space parking garage, remote check-in location and people mover station that will form the core of a new southern terminal facility. The southern terminal will connect to the northern terminal by a three-minute people mover ride, and ultimately might house up to 120 domestic and international airplane gates, two 500-room hotels, 20,000 parking spaces across multiple garages, and terminals for state-wide and local commuter rail systems. (For reference, the current north terminal complex includes 106 gates.)

Here's a concept video:

The $1.1 billion pays for the first phases of the expansion. A full build-out would cost at least $1 billion more. While the airport commission will start right away with renovations and expansion of the existing, northside terminal, focusing on the international gates, the southern terminal project won't start until the airport hits 40 million passengers a year.

Theme park fans, what do you think of Orlando's airport? What would you like to see it fix, add, or improve to better serve the area's tourists and theme park fans?

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Trip Report: Taking the kids to 'Brick or Treat' at Legoland California

By M.H. Habata
Published: October 22, 2013 at 2:23 PM

During Halloween season, theme parks across the country run special events with scary mazes and entertainment. Disney parks have carved a nice niche for families and children with "not-so-scary" events. But just as there are lots of less well-known regional theme parks across the country, there are a variety of Halloween events at many of those theme parks.

photo op at entrance

This past Saturday, my wife and I took our kids to Legoland California, north of San Diego, for its Brick or Treat event, which runs weekends during October. The Legoland event is not a "hard ticket," meaning that you don't need to buy a separate ticket from your regular admission ticket to attend the event. The park is decorated for the holiday, and trick-or-treating runs from noon until park closing.

sign for nighttime event activities

The nighttime event, called the Brick-or-Trick party night, runs from 5 pm (when the park normally closes during the off-season) until 9 pm, with costume parties, trick-or-treat stations, a fireworks show, and special entertainment like magic shows, live bands, and themed stage shows. Legoland sells a discounted ticket for just the nighttime event for $30 for adults or children. For comparison, a regular day ticket, not including the water park or aquarium, costs $78 for adults and $68 for children (ages 3-12).

The park is located about 30 miles north of San Diego and about 90 miles south of Los Angeles, a little distance from the major cities. The park is usually considerably less crowded than other theme parks in Southern California, such as Disneyland or Knott's Berry Farm. In fact, the park cannot be seen from the freeway, and there are no billboards on the freeway approaching the attraction, only a simple highway sign.

We drove down from Los Angeles early on Saturday morning and arrived about a half hour before the scheduled opening at 10 am. There were various photo opportunities inside the entrance, with giant Lego Jack o' Lanterns and with adult-sized Lego minifigures from the Monster Fighters series. The park is nicely decorated with hundreds of pumpkins — both real and plastic — Lego ghosts and skeletons, haystacks, spiders on cobwebs, etc.

trail near Castle Hill looking downhill

Before the nighttime "party," there isn't a lot of special entertainment for Halloween, except for a couple of performances in the Castle Hill area of a family-friendly show about a princess throwing a Halloween party having ordered monsters by mail order that aren't quite scary enough. A similar show runs during the rest of the year with the same actors featuring a pirate trying to steal the princess' inherited treasure. Both shows feature a court jester whose antics steal the show, along with jokes for the parents and grandparents that the kids don't notice.

stage show

At noon, the park opens its 10 trick-or-treat stations, which are scattered around the park. During the daytime, we saw maybe a quarter of the children already wearing their costumes around the park. Many of the stations are themed to the different areas of the park, such as the desert Land of Adventure. Four of the 10 stations are along a trail near the Castle Hill section, decorated with special Lego figures for Halloween. To keep the number of people on the trail more manageable, employees restrict how many park guests can enter on a timed basis.

Lego figure on trick or treat trail

I haven't been to a Halloween event at a theme park with trick or treating for a few years, but my sense was that the candy and other treats being handed out were somewhat healthier than you might expect, with the treats being provided by event sponsors like Snyder's of Hanover, Honest Kids, and Corner Bakery.

trick or treat bag contents
The contents of one trick-or-treat bag, back at the hotel.

We left the park around 2:30 pm to go check in to our hotel and eat dinner. We returned to the park a little before 5 pm, when the nighttime party was starting, and found the parking lot almost full, a crowd of visitors heading into the park, and a steady stream of day visitors leaving.

During the nighttime event, the western half of the park (including Pirate Shores, Fun Town, Duplo Village, and Dino Island) is closed off. There are three stages set up around the park, with the main stage on a lawn near MiniLand hosting three different costume contests (the themes are kingdom, Lego, and creative), live music groups, a dance contest, a magic show, and a fireworks show at park closing at 9 pm. Unlike certain other theme parks, Legoland has only a handful of fireworks shows during the year — during the Halloween parties and on New Year's Eve.

magic show

We caught the first magic show of the evening. The magician was quite talented, and called excited children from the audience as volunteers. I should say at this point that I have never seen as many people in the park as I did on Saturday evening. We did our trick-or-treating in the early afternoon with wait times under two minutes, but the lines we saw for the treat stations between 5:00 and 6:30 were 30-75 people long. The biggest audiences I have seen before this weekend at Legoland have been for the 3D movies that are shown in an indoor theater, but I'd estimate there were 200-300 people covering the lawn around the MiniLand stage for the magic show.

Right after entering the park in the evening, we tried the re-themed Coast Cruise, which is normally a relaxing boat ride around the lagoon, viewing Lego models of such landmarks as Mount Rushmore, the Taj Mahal, and the Manhattan skyline. New for Brick-or-Treat this year, the ride had been redubbed the Ghost Cruise, with the queue decorated with oversized Lego character cards for the Monster Fighters series. The guides for the boats were "good guy" characters from the series, and children are given a card on which to write down letters held by Lego ghosts which are placed around the ride's landmarks. The letters then have to be unscrambled to come up with a phrase, which enters you into a contest for a prize.

Rodney Rathbone
Our boat's guide, Dr. Rodney Rathbone, in front of the Lego Mount Rushmore.

ghost at Mount Rushmore
A ghost on Mount Rushmore holding a clue.

The description of the re-themed ride simply said that children would hunt for clues hidden around the ride. I was afraid that the clues would be difficult to find, and after learning that letters needed to be unscrambled to create a phrase, I imagined that some difficult brain puzzler was in store. But not only did the guide shout out every letter with the children on the boat, but he also had a dry erase board on which he was writing down each letter as we went along, and before we returned to the dock, he helped the children spell out the answer to the puzzle. Rest assured that no child left the ride puzzling over the answer to the scavenger hunt.

Our family was already tired out from spending most of the day at the park, and instead of fighting the crowds, we went into the indoor area in the park where Lego Xbox games were set up. My wife and I sat down while the kids played some different Xbox games, and then we all played some interactive Xbox Kinect games.

Afterwards, we stopped by the SeaLife aquarium, which was included with the cost of the evening ticket, and which the event map promised to have a bonus trick or treat station. We enjoyed the exhibits in the aquarium, despite the fact that the hallways and exhibits were much more crowded from the evening party event than we were used to from previous visits.

spider crabs

The treat station at the aquarium ended up being more of a trick, in my opinion. Kids had to check off a list of sea animals on a paper they were handed at the entrance. At the gift shop at the aquarium exit, they were given an oversized Lego aquarium sticker for their trouble.

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Where to eat: Lunch at The Plaza Restaurant at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

By Amanda Jenkins
Published: October 21, 2013 at 6:28 PM

Our trip this fall completed a mini quest of our family's. We completed eating at every table service restaurant in the Magic Kingdom. I know, it would be more impressive if I said we completed eating at every place in Epcot, but it is still a small victory. Remember, I am surrounded by men with extreme forms of pickiness. The Plaza Restaurant was on the list of places we had not tried along with Cinderella's Royal Table. I have always been curious about the Plaza. You just never really hear anything about it.

The Plaza Restaurant

The Plaza Restaurant is in many ways hidden. As you walk down Main Street U.S.A., your eyes are naturally drawn towards Cinderella's castle. But to the right is a pathway leading to Tomorrowland, and nestled in is the Plaza Restaurant. Many people go into the Plaza's Ice Cream Parlor without knowing that next door is a table service restaurant. I scheduled lunch for us on a day that we planned on attending Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party. We would end up going to three parties during this trip. This was party day number two. We had eaten breakfast at The Crystal Palace and had dinner plans for the Liberty Tree Tavern. The Plaza seemed like a nice choice to have lunch and a needed break from our busy schedule.

This is one place that I had not previously researched. I had glanced at the kid's menu to make sure that there was something my boys would eat, and made the reservation. The Plaza is a pretty place. It is very bright with the windows and lovely chandeliers. The colors are all gold, white, and yellow. With all this though, there just seems to be something missing. Maybe it is because of the heavily themed restaurants we were eating at this vacation, but the Plaza seems to be lacking a bit of pixie dust. I understand it is set during the gay 90's, but would one know this if you didn't know the history behind Main Street U.S.A.? Hmm. I wonder.

Interior of The Plaza Restaurant

We soon were brought our menus. Sam ordered the child's grilled cheese sandwich with French fries, while Luke chose the cheeseburger and fries. Chuck went with the Plaza Club with broccoli slaw. I pulled a bit of When Harry Met Sally. I changed the way a menu item was originally listed. I really wanted the vegetarian sandwich. I did not, though, want it with hummus and cucumber. It came with pesto and tomatoes on focaccia, which was all that I wanted, along with the other two. I love tomato sandwiches. I do not like hummus or cucumber. The waiter was very patient with me and after questioning whether or not I was a vegetarian or vegan, he made a suggestion. He suggested that I order it with grilled chicken breasts. I decided to give it a try with the chicken breasts added.

Vegetarian Sandwich
A modified Vegetarian Sandwich, with grilled chicken substituted for the hummus and cucumber. Served with pesto, tomato, mozzarella, and lettuce on focaccia. (Regular sandwich is $11.99)

Our orders were quickly brought to our table. The boys were content with their selections and dove right in. Chuck did not enjoy the broccoli slaw. He is a fan of both broccoli and slaw, but did not care for it. His club sandwich was good, nothing outstanding.

The Plaza Club
The Plaza Club ($12.49)

My concoction of the vegetarian sandwich was good. I ordered fries with mine, since I am not a fan of slaw. While we were eating, a cast member dressed in the style of the 1890's came in and announced that the one hundredth customer of the day had entered. She announced his name to the rest of us, and said that he would get a free sundae. She encouraged us to clap for the gentlemen, and then left. Good luck to all future one hundredth folks.

Our waiter soon returned to get our dessert orders. Chuck asked for a chocolate sundae, Sam wanted a dish of vanilla ice cream, and I decided on a dish of the raspberry sorbet. Luke, being his usual picky six-year old self, surprised the waiter by telling him that he didn't want any dessert. This waiter, after recovering, tried many times to entice him. He offered him ice cream, milkshakes, and even mini cookies and milk. Our Luke could not be tempted. The rest of us though enjoyed our ice cream and sorbet. If you are a fan of raspberries and/or sorbets, then visit the Plaza's Ice Cream Parlor and grab one. I did so a few years ago on a whim, and love getting one each time we visit. This and the revered Dole Whip are a definite must for any visit to the Magic Kingdom.

Raspberry sorbet

Overall, the Plaza Restaurant can be a welcome diversion to the usual quick service lunches that most get while at the Magic Kingdom. It may lack the usual whimsy that one typically finds in a Disney table service eatery, but the different sandwiches offered are a pleasant diversion from the usual chicken nuggets and burgers. Reservations and walk-ins are easily made.

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Walt Disney World news update: Mickey's got something to say to you

By Robert Niles
Published: October 21, 2013 at 2:54 PM

The Talking Mickey has been appearing over the past week at the Town Square Theater meet-and-greet at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. First seen a while back at Disneyland's Toontown and then at various media events, the "talking" Mickey moves his mouth and carries on personal conversations with the guests he's meeting, thanks to a touch of stage and tech trickery. No more potentially awkward miming, just the much more awkward stunned silence of trying to reconcile that the real, live Mickey Mouse actually is talking with you.

Disney's bringing another west coast import to the Walt Disney World Resort: Valet parking. Long offered at Disneyland's Downtown Disney, valet parking started today at the West Side at WDW's Downtown Disney. Valet parking is available from 4pm to 2am and costs $15, plus tip. But it allows you to avoid the hassle of finding a space in Downtown Disney's lots, which have lost hundreds of spaces as Disney closes sections of those surface lots to start construction on the shopping center's new parking garages.

Saving Mr. Banks
Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers. Photo courtesy Disney

The first reviews of Disney's Saving Mr. Banks are in, and it looks like the studio's movie about the making of Mary Poppins might represent its best chance at an elusive Best Picture Oscar. (No movie released under the Disney studio banner ever has won the Academy Award for Best Picture.) At the very least, the movie that was filmed at Disneyland and the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank appears to be a strong contender for multiple nominations, so we'll be hearing a lot about it during the movie awards season. The film is playing the festival circuit now and opens in the United States in mid-December.

Finally, if you like watching construction crews at work, Disney's just released a time-lapse video of the building of the new DVC wing at the Grand Floridian, which should be opening within the next few weeks.

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Theme Park History: Dr. Martin Couney and the Coney Island 'Child Hatchery'

By Derek Potter
Published: October 20, 2013 at 10:25 AM

Of all the stories in theme park history (and perhaps medical history), one of the most curious has to be the story of Dr. Martin Couney.

Dr. Martin Couney

Born in 1870 in Germany, Dr Couney was one of the early pioneers of neonatology. He helped to develop the baby incubator and methods of caring for premature babies. In the late 1890s, his senior associates tasked him with spreading the word of the new technology to doctors and hospitals. Couney developed an exhibit and began demonstrations at fairs and expos around the world. The exhibits proved to be very popular, but more so with the curious general public than the medical industry they were intended to reach. The exhibit generated considerable crowds and revenue, but doctors and hospitals just weren’t that interested at the time.

After traveling exhibitions throughout Europe and the US for a few years, Dr. Couney set up a permanent exhibition in the newly opened Luna Park at Coney Island. In those days, hospitals had no special care for premature babies, so Couney was never short of patients. The outside of the building was no different than the other sideshows surrounding it. The sign above the door read “Life Begins With The Baby Incubator.” Customers were enticed in by a carnival barker and charged 25 cents to come and see the “child hatchery.”

Coney Island incubator exhibit

The inside was essentially a hospital. The atmosphere was quiet and clinical, incubators lined the walls, and trained nurses were employed to care for the babies. One of the nurses was Couney’s daughter, who ironically enough was born premature and spent some time in the incubator herself. The wet nurses employed to feed the babies were ordered on diets, and were fired if caught eating a hot dog or some other fried fare from the boardwalk. Tour guides were fired if they made jokes during the presentation. The rules and regulations for infant care were strictly enforced, and professionalism was emphasized. It was important to distinguish themselves at least a little from the pandemonium surrounding them.

Coney Island nurses Coney Island incubators

Naturally, there were those opposed to the idea of putting premature babies on display for the purposes of entertainment and profit. More than once there was a movement to shut him down. Dr. Couney had his reasons though, for throughout the show’s existence, he never charged a cent to the parents of the children he treated. It was the revenue of the paying customers covering the very high operating costs. He never took a payment for his services, and he accepted children of all kinds. Race, economic class, and social status were never factors in his decision to treat. The names were always kept anonymous, and in later years the doctor would stage reunions of his “graduates.” The medical profession that had once called him into question eventually embraced his methods and began promoting their use and sending him patients. Dr. Couney would eventually open more incubator attractions…a couple more at Coney Island and a handful around the country at other amusement centers and fairs.

Eventually, the enormous expense of running the exhibits began to outweigh the revenue as public interest in the attraction waned. Dr. Couney had made his case for the preemie though, and almost forty years after attraction opened, the first research center for premature infants was opened at Cornell University’s New York Hospital, reportedly differing very little from his operation. By this time, other hospitals were also opening treatment centers of their own. In 1943, Couney declared his work “finished” and closed for good. It’s reported that over 40 years of operation, Couney’s incubator attractions had an 80% success rate and saved about 6500 newborns from almost certain death. He died a few years later in 1950, having left his mark in both the theme park and medical industry.

More history posts:

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Vote of the week: Has Disney changed your mind about Avatar?

By Robert Niles
Published: October 18, 2013 at 5:48 PM

Typically, theme parks fans cheer when companies announce major new attractions. But Disney's Avatar project, now under development for Disney's Animal Kingdom in Florida, has divided the fan base. Not since California Adventure has a new Disney project under development angered so many potential fans.


Disney fans turned on California Adventure when they saw the underwhelming plans and heard rumors, later proven true, of meager budgets for underdeveloped attractions. But no one's suggested that Disney won't bust open Scrooge McDuck's bank vault for Avatar. It's the IP -- the characters and story of James Cameron's 3D movie -- that's made some Disney fans hostile to the project.

(And, might we suggest, it's almost always Disney fans? People who consider themselves theme park fans, rather than Disney fans foremost, seem to be more accepting of Avatar, at the least, taking a "let's wait and see" attitude.)

Disney's relative silence after its first announcement that it would develop the land din't help win over skeptics. An attraction line-up leaked earlier this year, but we didn't see any concept art for the project until last weekend, when Disney released several images during its D23 Expo in Japan.

Has that changed your opinion about Disney's Avatar? Is what you are hearing and seeing now about it causing you to reconsider what you've thought about this project? Are you looking forward to the 2017 debut of the world of Pandora with excitement or dread? Let's make this our Vote of the Week.

In the comments, please tell us which new theme park developments -- anywhere in the world -- most excite you, and how they would rank next to potential new theme park attractions you'd like to see, but that haven't happened yet.

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Theme park news update: Disney in China

By Robert Niles
Published: October 18, 2013 at 3:58 PM

A few weeks ago, we brought you a construction update with photos from Shanghai Disneyland. This week, Disney announced that it's begun vertical construction on the site, with the placement of the first steel beams for park buildings. Disney's still expecting to complete the new theme park by late 2015.

Here's a video:

Over in Hong Kong, Disney's promoting Hong Kong Disneyland's annual Haunted Halloween. This isn't a not-so-scary Halloween trick-or-treating party, as US fans have seen at the Magic Kingdom and California's Disneyland. Take a look at Chernabog from Fantasia, who's taken over the hub in front of Hong Kong's castle.

Haunted Halloween at Hong Kong Disneyland

Hong Kong Disneyland is promoting a "Scream No More Challenge", with checkpoints throughout the park where visitors are challenged not to scream. Many of the checkpoints are regular park attractions: Mystic Manor, Big Grizzly Mountain, Toy Story Land's RC Racer and Parachute Drop, and the Ghost Galaxy overlay of Space Mountain that originated at California's Disneyland. But four of the checkpoints might legitimately be considered Disney Halloween "scarezones": Graves Academy, Sideshow Carnival Extraordinaire, Revenge of the Headless Horseman, and Babyhead (Andy's Mutant Toy).

Sideshow Carnival Extraordinaire

Wow. Wouldn't "Haunted Halloween" make a great companion event at California Adventure for Mickey's Halloween Party at Disneyland? Or a Hollywood Studios companion to the Magic Kingdom's Not-So-Scary event? What do you think?

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Trip Report: Fright Fest at Six Flags Great America

By Anthony Murphy
Published: October 18, 2013 at 2:18 PM

"Thrills by Day, Chills By Night" is the motto for Great America's annual Fright Fest. This year I was able to go on a Saturday in which they were open from 11am to 11pm. I will walk you through a few of the highlights and give an overview of how Six Flags does Halloween.

Fright Fest

As mentioned, the park does stay open pretty late so if you get there right at 11am, you will be disappointed in seeing no monsters. This is the "family time" in which kids can trick or treat with Bugs Bunny and the gang and experience the rides, sans creepy characters. All the rides (except water) were running and it seemed to be a pretty full day. Some of the rides also have taken on their Halloween alter egos with Chubusco (teacups) turning into a demonic rave with lighting and smoke affects. The other major transformation is the Rue Le Dodge (bumper cars) into a dark light bumper car experience. It also rained during this time so we tried JB's Sports BBQ for lunch. It pretty much is the old Crazy Buffalo Saloon with a sports makeover. While the food is not cheap, it does appear to be better than the rest. They have buffalo wings, burgers, and pulled pork sandwiches. There is also a full bar so while its ok, it stands miles over the rest of Great America's food.

When 4pm rolls around, it is monster time. Great America has a parade that "introduces" us to all our new Halloween friends from the various areas of the parks. These would include Scarecrows, Clowns, Pirates, and corpses. I was actually very impressed with some of the makeup this year, especially with the Seven Sins Cemetery corpses. They were themed to the Southern dead have risen. There were Southern Belles and even some Confederate Generals. Even though we are far north of the Mason Dixon line, I found that a bit provocative.

Zombie southern belles

Great America did create one more haunted experience/house this year which brought their total to six. They were The Abyss (Sea Themed), Total Darkness (house completely in the dark), Wicked Woods (Zombie infestation), Manslaughter Manor (Poltergeist), Massacre Medical Center (Hospital),and the Mausoleum of Terror (Graveyard). This year, they required guest to purchase wristbands for $20 which would give you unlimited access to the houses. For $30, you can get one to skip the line. We started the day with the $20, but found out that it was going to take too long so I got the $30 for our group hallway though. One of the more interesting houses was Total Darkness which was, well, in total darkness. "What?" you might say…. It was a pretty small house that was pitch black and you simply walked though mostly straight and stuff would brush your face (cobwebs, rubber bats, etc). It was also in the Hurricane Harbor Water Park Section, turning it into the Bermuda Triangle. I still think Massacre Medical Center is the best done with costume, effects, and that a house can still be scary with lighting.

Bermuda Triangle

We only saw one show this year, but was the most popular: Love at First Fright. It tells the story of two teens on a dare in the graveyard when they are kidnapped by a witch and her team of monsters (Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolfman, etc). It is performed as a musical show using popular Halloween songs (Monster Mash, Time Warp) and a few other classics (Devil with a Blue Dress, Love Potion Number 9, etc). It also has many topical jokes including Miley Cyrus and the Harlem Shake. I believe this show is performed at other Six Flags parks as well.

The night ended with a show and parade to say goodbye to our new friends. If you happen to be in the Chicagoland area and are looking for some coasters and some scares, come up to Gurnee and experience Six Flags Great America's Fright Fest.

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Using Disney's MagicBands to open Pandora's box

By Robert Niles
Published: October 18, 2013 at 12:28 AM

With Disney's release last weekend of concept art for for its new Avatar land, we've seen the next step in the company's implementation of its MyMagic+ wristband technology. What's that, you say? You don't remember seeing any wristbands in those pictures? Well, there probably weren't any. But Avatar will mark the largest implementation to date of the "theme park as platform" ideal we've been writing about over the past many months.

Avatar boat ride
Concept art courtesy Disney

This isn't anything Disney's officially provided details on yet. Heck, Disney's still working on inventing some of this technology. But designers inside Walt Disney Imagineering are a lot more excited about what they're trying to do with the RFID-enabled wristbands than some Disney fans have been with what (at this point) essentially amounts to wearing a glorified room key around your wrist. And those designers' excitement is beginning to leak out of the company.

The tags embedded in each MagicBand wristband allow Disney to do far more than admit you into a hotel room, theme park, or attraction. They give Disney the build systems that can identify distinct individuals within those environments, and to react to them. This isn't a new concept, of course. Think of the plastic cards you now use to design your ideal car on Test Track. Or even ET saying your name at the end of that Universal ride. But those were relatively low-tech systems that reacted when a particular seat passed a certain point in the ride, based on input provided by a cast or team member at the loading point of the ride. They didn't read and react to the person in that seat, during the ride itself.

Disney's goal with Avatar is to use MagicBands to dramatically increase the number of reactive elements in the entire land, and to have those reactions trigger in real time, without cast assistance. And MagicBands won't be the only technology Disney uses to implement a more interactive theme park land. At the recent D23 Expo in Anaheim, Disney's Imagineers showed off an artificial "plant" that reacted to human touch, a nifty little piece of tech that's straight out of James Cameron's Pandora. Why shouldn't we expect to see that tech playing in the new land, animating the environment around visitors?

A reactive environment that "plays back" with its visitors allows Disney to create an experience that further blurs the distinction between waiting and experiencing. As much as theme park fans and designers like to talk about immersive environments and storytelling, theme parks retain a lot of their carnival DNA -- you wait, you ride, you wait, you watch, you wait, you ride. And so on. Themed queues, such as on Disney World's Pirates of the Caribbean started the process of evolving beyond the carnival model. Alternate play areas, such as Dumbo's Big Top, took us the next step in that process of evolution away from simple queuing. Avatar, Disney hopes, will represent the culmination of that process, where any perception of "waiting" simply melts away as its interactive environment adjusts to entertain visitors at all times, in ever-changing ways, until their turn on the "big ride" comes around.

How silly might the current controversy of GAC and DAS disability access systems seem once a park designs a fully accessible physical environment where there are so many options, so many things to engage you along the way that you never feel like your "waiting" for anything at all?

And what of those big rides? How about ride systems that can read your MagicBand to tell if, and when, you've ridden before, then react to ensure that you get a unique experience each time? RFID readers could trigger different film and practical effects in a ride in combinations that might make Star Tours: The Adventures Continue's randomly selected 54 potential combinations look simple.

Then, as all this is happening to and around you, imagine that cameras triggered by your presence were recording your adventures on Pandora, for a personalized DVD of your experience, in high definition 3D. You'll literally star in your own Avatar movie. (Worried about privacy? Certainly some visitors will. Bit it's also hard to imagine money-loving Disney wasting its time and bandwidth tracking and cutting videos of people who aren't paying for this extra.)

Much of this sounds like hazy vaporware, I know. And that's what it is, until it happens. If you're having trouble wrapping your head around what Disney's trying to do here, that's understandable. I can't envision it with any clarity myself. I feel a little like someone trying to understand what a website is before ever going on the Internet. We need to see this new interactive environment in order to understand it.

But Disney isn't spending more than a billion dollars on MyMagic+ just to make a new ticketing and payment system. This is the key that unlocks a new stage in the evolution of theme parks, where interplay between visitors and the park itself becomes something that happens in real space, instead of people's imaginations. Yes, Disney's Imagineers still needs to make this happen. They haven't yet pulled it off. But they're trying, and that should excite any theme park fan with a love for innovation and experimentation in the parks.

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How to skip the lines at Disney World, Universal and SeaWorld Orlando

By Robert Niles
Published: October 17, 2013 at 7:29 AM

Want to visit some of the world's most popular theme parks, but not have to wait in their lines? The Orlando-area theme parks can hook you up with front-of-the-line access to most of their most popular attractions — usually for a price. Here's a round-up of the current line-skipping options at the Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, and SeaWorld Orlando resorts. (Note: This stuff changes. If you see errors or can offer corrections or clarifications for any of the information below, please tell us nicely in the comments, and we'll fix it in the article.)

Walt Disney World

Disney was the first major theme park chain to offer a park-wide ride reservation system, called Fastpass. Visitors can use their park ticket to collect a Fastpass, which allows them to bypass the stand-by line at a particular attraction one time during a specified one-hour window. Your use of Fastpass is limited — once you get a Fastpass, you can't get another one until your return window opens or two hours have passed, whichever comes first. And once an attraction has distributed all of its Fastpasses for the day, that's it.


You collect a Fastpass by going to the Fastpass distribution location for a specific attraction, usually located near its entrance. Wait your turn to get to one of the Fastpass distribution machines, then stick in your park ticket. The machine will then print a Fastpass with your return time. Not everyone in your party has to wait in the distribution line. One person can bring everyone's tickets and collect the Fastpasses for the group. But the machines will dispense just one Fastpass per park ticket. And, as we said, you can't get a Fastpass if you got another one within the previous two hours and that return time window hasn't opened yet.

Fastpass is free and has been available to all park visitors. However, Disney this year has introduced a new ride reservation system, called Fastpass+. You don't get Fastpass+ reservations in the park — you make them online before you visit. At this time, Fastpass+ is available only to selected guests at on-site Walt Disney World Resort hotels and Disney World annual passholders, but the system is expected to expand to all visitors within the next year.

With Fastpass+, you can make advance reservations for up to three attractions — including character meet-and-greets, parades and fireworks shows — in a single park on each day of your visit. If you don't select specific attractions to reserve, Disney will select ones for you, automatically. Fastpass+ is part of the MyMagic+ system that uses Disney's new RFID-enabled MagicBand wristbands, which you tap at the selected attraction entrance for entry at your designated reservation time. If you have a Disney World annual pass or hotel reservation, Disney will contact you with details on how to use the system. In the future, all visitors will be able to book Fastpass+ times by clicking the MyMagic+ link on disneyworld.com.

With the introduction of Fastpass+, Disney apparently is reducing the number of Fastpass tickets it makes available each day for participating attractions. While all attractions, meet-and-greets, and shows are part of Fastpass+, only the most popular rides and shows have offered Fastpass. With fewer Fastpass tickets available, visitors who don't have Fastpass+ will need to arrive early and get a Fastpass first thing in the morning to ensure that they'll be able to skip at least one line later in the day. Kevin Yee reported on Facebook yesterday that Toy Story Midway Mania at Disney's Hollywood Studios, one of the most popular Fastpass locations, distributed all of its Fastpass tickets for the day within 17 minutes of the park opening one day earlier this week. And this isn't a busy time of year for the Disney World theme parks. That's leading to speculation that Disney eventually might eliminate the Fastpass system in favor of the Fastpass+ and its advance reservations.

If this all sounds too complicated for you, there's an easier solution — but it'll cost ya. While Fastpass and Fastpass+ are free to visitors, Disney also offers a paid solution to skip its lines, and it's much less complex. Simply hire one of its tour guides, and you'll have no-wait access to almost all attractions and shows in the parks. With Disney's VIP Tour Services, you can hire a guide who not only will get you into the attractions of your choice, he or she will offer expert insight to the resort, including its history and behind-the-scenes information about its operations, if you're interested. Prices start at $315 per hour for on-site hotel guests and $340 an hour for those not staying on-site. Prices are per guide, not per guest. Your tour group can include up to 10 people, but everyone has to have theme park admission tickets, which are not included in the tour guide price.

People staying at Disney's hotels sometimes can enjoy shorter lines by taking advantage of the resort's Extra Magic Hours for hotel guests. These are designated times, before or after a park's public operating hours, when the park opens to hotel guests only. Check Disney's operating calendar to see which park has Extra Magic Hours on which day. (By the way, these are the parks to avoid on those days if you are not a Disney hotel guest.)

Up until this month, some Disney visitors also were able to skip lines by using a Guest Assistance Card. Intended for parties traveling with a person with disabilities, the GAC allowed a party to use a designated handicap-accessible entrance at several rides and shows, which effectively allowed them to skip the line at some of them. Disney's replaced the GAC with a Disability Assistance System [DAS], which works more like a parallel Fastpass system, granting persons with disabilities and their party a return time for immediate accessible boarding to an attraction. But the return times will be not sooner than the current stand-by wait time for the attraction, negating any line-skipping advantage. This brings Disney in line with existing disability-access programs at Universal and SeaWorld.

For dining reservations, getting what Disney calls a "priority seating" time is a must at most Walt Disney World restaurants. You can make reservations up to 180 days in advance of the start of your trip, if you're staying at a Disney World hotel, or 180 days in advance of your desired reservation time, if you're not. Popular restaurants, such as Cinderella's Royal Table, book up exactly 180 days in advance, and sometimes within a hour or so of reservations becoming available at 6am Eastern Time. You can make reservations over the phone by calling 407-WDW-DINE, or online via https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/dining/. By the way, if you can't get into a restaurant by calling or booking on the website, Disney's tour guides have been known to access otherwise-impossible-to-get reservations at top restaurants. It's not a given, but paying extra sometimes can buy you extra access.

Universal Orlando

Unlike Disney, Universal and SeaWorld do not offer free front-of-line ride reservation systems for its visitors. But Universal does offer the simplest and most extensive line-skipping perk in the theme park industry. You have to be staying at one of its three on-site hotels, but if you do, you get front-of-the-line access at all but two of the attractions at Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure for the duration of your stay. Just show your room key at the attraction entrance, and you move to the front of the line. (The two exceptions are the ultra-low capacity Pteranodon Flyers flying swing ride and the ultra-popular Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, both in Islands of Adventure. But your room key gets you one hour of early access to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter before it opens to public each morning, so you still get some preferred access to the resort's most popular ride.) This unlimited Universal Express Pass benefit is included at no extra charge for up to five guests with your room reservation. The Express Pass is good from the day of your arrival through your check-out day, so a one-night stay gets you two days of unlimited access.

If you are not staying on-site with Universal, the resort will sell you more limited front-of-the-line or no-wait access passes. Universal offers everyone paid Express Passes that allow you to skip the line one time at each attraction, for prices starting at around $20-30, depending upon time of year. However, the general rule is… days on which Express Passes sell for their lowest price are the days when attendance is low enough that you probably aren't going to save much time with an Express Pass.

Universal's also been offering a Q-Bot system, which "holds your place in line" without your having to stand in it. Look for signs near the park entrances to see if this option is available on the day of your visit. It's typically cheaper than the Universal Express option, and can allow yo to get more rides done in a day, if you use your "virtual" wait time on one attraction to go ride another with a shorter wait.

At the other end of the price scale, Universal offers a VIP Experience that includes the Express Pass access into a minimum of eight attractions during a five-hour walking tour of the park, starting at $170 per person. If you want to bring a group of up to 10 people, you can book an eight-hour tour of both parks for your group for $2,750. For that price, you've got the run of the place and can do whatever you'd like (within park rules, of course).

For dining, you can make reservations at Universal's table service restaurants by calling 407-224-3613. Universal now offers its hotel guests a dining plan to compete with Disney World's, but at this point, with Universal having significantly fewer on-site hotel rooms compared with Disney World, its dining plan hasn't overwhelmed its reservation system the way Disney's has, and reservations at Universal Orlando restaurants remain much easier to get. Calling a just a day in advance is usually enough to secure a table at any Universal restaurant. (Call earlier if you're wanting to dine on a popular holiday, of course.) If you stay on-site or book a VIP Experience, Universal staff will hook you up at the restaurants of your choice at your request.

SeaWorld Orlando

SeaWorld offers separate reservation systems for its rides and its shows. The Quick Queue Unlimited pass, starting at $19 (park admission required), allows you unlimited skips for Manta, Kraken, Journey to Atlantis, Wild Arctic, Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, Sky Tower, and the TurtleTrek theater. The Signature Show Seating pass, starting at $29, gets you places in reserved seating areas for shows at the park's Shamu, Dolphin, Nautilus, and Sea Lion and Otter theaters. Note that the show pass costs $10 more than the ride pass, which probably says something about the relative popularity of rides versus shows at SeaWorld.

SeaWorld also offers a six-hour VIP Tour, starting at $99 per person (again, park admission required but not included), which includes the Quick Queue Unlimited pass, as well as reserved seating at three shows, plus your tour guide and he the park's All-Day-Dining deal.

Finally, there's one very simple, very cheap option to skip the lines in any of the Orlando-area theme parks: Just visit when there aren't any lines. Being at the park when it opens (at a park without Extra Magic Hours, that is) allows you at least a limited amount of time with minimal queues. And lines typically go down late in the evening, as well. Visiting on weekdays when schools around the country are in session also helps you to encounter minimal waits. But if you don't have that flexibility with your schedule, you do have these other options available.

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Alton Towers announces new land based on BBC children's channel

By Chad H
Published: October 16, 2013 at 5:08 PM

Although the theme park season is drawing to a close for the year, the United Kingdom's Alton Towers is already planning big - or should that be little? - for next year with "Cbeebies" land.

Cbeebies at Alton Towers

Whilst Cbeebies might seem a like strange word, its the channel name used by the BBC to market programs at kids under 5. In addition to the UK, versions of the channel are broadcast in Ireland, Singapore, Hong Kong, Poland, Indonesia, Mexico, Australia, parts of Africa, and also in the USA (albeit in Spanish only). Additionally shows from the network appear on other channels internationally.

Although no specific shows or characters are named to be featured, UK newspaper The Guardian speculates that characters from "In the Night Garden" and "Postman Pat" are likely to appear. The press release calls the area a "planned five-acre site" which will include character interaction, immersive play areas, rides, as well as seasonal events.

The press release is not clear if this is a redevelopment of existing child focused areas (such as "Cloud Cuckoo Land" and "Old MacDonald's Farmyard), but does seem a bit quick for a completely brand new land.

This is perhaps an interesting choice as Alton Towers does not currently charge for guests under the age of 4, and has of late been better known for its roller-coasters such as Thirteen and The Smiler. The owner of Alton Towers, Merlin Entertainment, also operate the Legoland parks internationally, giving them some specialised experience targeting the child theme park market.

Whilst perhaps not exciting for those of us over 5; the idea that the BBC is willing to license at least some of its properties for theme park use gives hope to other properties (such as Doctor Who, Merlin or Atlantis) may see more thrilling attractions in the future.

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Where to eat: Breakfast at Cinderella's Royal Table at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

By Amanda Jenkins
Published: October 15, 2013 at 4:31 PM

I'm sure I'm not alone when I say that I have always wanted to go into Cinderella's Castle. Yes, I've walked under the archway to cut over to Fantasyland; but I mean go deep within the inner walls. I know that unless Disney brings back a promotion such as A Year of a Million Dreams, I will never ever see the coveted Cinderella's Suite. So, I must content myself to eat at a restaurant with one of the most difficult reservations to make: Cinderella's Royal Table. I have tried in the past for reservations, even at the 180-day mark, and failed miserably. My husband would try and comfort me by saying things like, "Hey, we have sons, so no big deal if we don't eat there." Then my inner child would poke at my conscience and remind me that it needed to be a little girl again and get in that castle. So for this trip, which was booked 300 days ahead of time, I marked every calendar in the house, my phone, the computers; and made sure to be awake and coherent at 6am on day 180 to make this reservation. It had now become a quest to see what all the hubbub was about.

Cinderella's Royal Table

After studying all the menus and such, I decided for my picky eaters that breakfast was the meal most likely to please everyone. I was able to book a breakfast for 9am on the last day of our trip, Oct. 4th. In order to secure your reservation, since this place is the equivalent of Fort Knox, you must pay for the meal when you reserve your time. I knew we would be on a dining plan (which takes two table service credits from each member of your party), so I rested in the fact that the $175.86 would be refunded. I also was quite proud of the fact that I had finally made a reservation at the Castle. I can't believe I was able to reserve Be Our Guest when it first opened easier than the Cinderella's. There must be something to the slipper losing princess.

My boys are such good sports. They truly are very thoughtful and understanding, sometimes, to remembering that their mother is (when the room is divided between the sexes) a girl. And sometimes she needs a dash of princess frills in what is otherwise her male-centered world. They were ready to sacrifice their manliness to see what the inside of the Castle looked like, and was even brave enough to face a few princesses. Of course being the evil parents we are, we teased them by saying that this was probably the perfect place to meet a future wife. Pure evil.

We arrived and made our way down a deserted Main Street U.S.A. and entered into the Castle. We were ushered into the drawing room for a photo with the hostess herself, Cinderella. We allowed our sons to have that honor. After the photo we were given the choice to take the red velvet stairs or the elevator up to the dining hall. Since we had enjoyed a great many desserts on our trip, we opted for the stairs.

Dining hall

We were greeted at the top and shown to a table. Once seated our boys were given toy swords. Drink orders were taken and a plate of breakfast pastries were brought to our table, complete with Mickey blueberry muffins.

Mickey muffin

Even though they were shaped in his favorite character, Luke had already decided in his stubborn six-year old way, that these muffins were not good. I'm here to attest that yes, they are quite tasty, along with the strawberry tart I tried. Sam swore the cinnamon rolls were wonderful. Chuck and I were given menus to choose our entrees. I decided to go with the steak and eggs, while he chose the lobster and crab crepes. Our boys were brought the standard children's breakfast which consists of French toast sticks, bacon, and scrambled eggs. I'm pretty sure that I have the only two children on the planet that do not like scrambled eggs or French toast. Our waitress was very understanding and brought out more items that they did like such as the bacon and cinnamon rolls.

Royal Children's Breakfast
The Royal Children's Breakfast, with scrambled eggs, bacon, and French toast sticks (and a cinnamon roll)

Chuck stated, that after all the places we ate during our vacation, this meal was his favorite and best by far. His crepes were warm cheese-filled with spinach, sautéed lobster and blue crab meat. These crepes were topped off with a poached egg and Hollandaise sauce. Chuck said that he could not eat them fast enough. They were beyond fantastic and some of the best food one could find at a character meal.

Cheese-filled crepes topped with spinach, lobster, and blue crab meat, with a poached egg and Hollandaise

I ordered my steak cooked medium. It was a beautiful filet on a frittata that had a slight chipotle flavor, with caramelized onions, roasted tomatoes, and rosemary potatoes.

Grilled filet mignon on a chipotle/caramelized-onion frittata served with rosemary-lemon roasted potatoes

My filet mignon was very tender, cooked as requested and was very flavorful. This was definitely something that belonged in a signature dining restaurant. The frittata added just enough heat to the filet. I've never been a big fan of rosemary, but the potatoes were very tasty and were not heavily seasoned with the spice. I was along the same mindset of Chuck, in that this was by far the best meal we had eaten on our vacation. Our sons were not as thrilled with not being able to choose a different breakfast, or the inability to change the way their eggs were cooked. They prefer eggs cooked over-easy. This was the only complaint we had with Cinderella's Royal Table. For adults, and probably the normal child, this is by far the best breakfast in Walt Disney World, especially the Magic Kingdom. I now see why it is such a coveted reservation.

While we ate, and our boys examined their swords, princesses began to descend upon our table. We were visited by Snow White, Ariel, Sleeping Beauty, and Jasmine. Along with the swords, our boys were each given a wishing star. During a period of time where the princesses went away to do whatever princesses do, the children were asked to take their wishing stars, hold them up, close their eyes, and make a wish. It was cute to see many little ones wishing as hard as they could with their little plastic stars. These along with the swords (girls get magic wands) and photos with Cinderella are yours to take home. Chuck and I made ourselves leave our fabulous plates and began the long walk back to the resort to being the process of our return home.

Cinderella's Royal Table is a beautiful place. I love the huge windows which overlook Fantasyland. Banners and shields adorn the stone walls and help give the illusion that you are in a castle of old. The tapestries in the drawing room depict the story of Cinderella. I would love to try and eat here for dinner. I have always loved how the back of the castle looked at night all lit up. My inner child was more than satisfied with my experience here. My mature side thoroughly enjoyed the food. It is by far a special dining experience.

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SeaWorld announces float for 125th Rose Parade, in Pasadena

By Robert Niles
Published: October 15, 2013 at 6:00 AM

When SeaWorld last month announced its participation in this year's Macy's Thanksgiving Parade, we raised the possibility of SeaWorld entering a float in the Tournament of Roses Parade in Theme Park Insider's hometown of Pasadena, California, too.

Well, this morning SeaWorld unveiled the design for its "Sea of Surprises" float in the 125th Rose Parade, on Jan. 1, 2014.

SeaWorld's 'Sea of Surprises' Rose Parade float
Artist's rendering provided by SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment

From SeaWorld's press release:

SeaWorld's float features many of the parks' most popular animals, including killer whales, dolphins, penguins and sea turtles. A 55-foot floral foaming wave of more than 20,000 cascading iris and roses "crash" over a colorful reef, designed with more than 15,000 florescent orange roses. The bright, whimsical coral reef is teeming with marine animals including starfish, sea horses, turtles, manta rays, crabs and fanciful fish.

Designed by Stanley A. Meyer Design LLC, the float will be built by Fiesta Parade Floats. This will be SeaWorld's fourth Rose Parade float but the first in 23 years, with previous floats in the 1989, 1990 and 1991 Rose Parades.

"We feel our 'Sea of Surprises' float is a great way to kick off our 50th Celebration which starts in 2014. The float will bring the inspiration, fun and excitement of our three SeaWorld parks to millions of people, both nationally and internationally," said SeaWorld San Diego spokesperson David Koontz.

We'll be on the Rose Parade route this January, as always, and bring you coverage of the SeaWorld float as well as other highlights of the 125th Rose Parade.

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Indian theme park opens B&M floorless coaster, Nitro

By Oak A
Published: October 14, 2013 at 9:16 PM

Adabs Imagica, one of India'a premier themed resorts, just opened a Bolliger and Mabillard installation in their theme park. The coaster, named Nitro, reaches a zenith of 132 feet (40 meters) and a top speed of 62.5 miles per hour (104.9 km/h). Nitro, a floorless coaster, features five inversions. Photographs of the new ride, including construction images, can be viewed here.

Says Aarti Shetty, creative director at Adlabs Entertainment: "We have always strived to create experiences that one has never had in India before. Nitro is one of our key and most awaited attractions in the park, taking thrill to an all new level. It is one of my favorite rides and I am sure people will thoroughly enjoy and appreciate this beast of a coaster. The launch of Nitro is a big milestone for Adlabs Imagica as the park is now officially complete with all the rides fully operational. All our 21 attractions are now available for our guests to experience. Adlabs Imagica has been incorporated with a vision to set up India’s largest family entertainment theme park and we continue to get the best international experiences for our visitors."

Adlabs Imagica is located near Mumbai, India's largest city. In addition to Nitro, the park features 20 other attractions, among them a ride based on the Bollywood smash hit Mr. India, a prehistoric river rapids ride, an Ali Baba-themed interactive shooter ride, a drop ride, and an indoor LSM-launch coaster. The resort also boasts numerous themed restaurants, a 300-room hotel, and a water park.

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Why leaks are a good thing for the theme park industry

By Robert Niles
Published: October 14, 2013 at 8:38 PM

Last weekend, Disney released artwork for a theme park development it won't open for another four years. And, judging from our pageview and social media traffic here at Theme Park Insider, people loved it.

It's the same story whenever new information leaks out about theme park's plans. Fans love hearing what's coming at their favorite parks, and Internet traffic spikes as fans log on to learn about and discuss the new plans. And yet… parks haven't exactly opened up a transparent design process. Major projects such as Disney's Star Wars lands remain unannounced (though not unteased), and park public relations employees offer nothing more than a "no comment" when asked about them.

Project Orange Harvest
"Project Orange Harvest": Disney's Star Wars Land plans?

When employees and contractors leak plans for new attractions before their park's PR crew, park managers often react harshly. We've heard from our friends inside the industry that some at Disney and Universal weren't happy with our Theme Park Insider reports on leaked information about Avatar, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley, and the Orlando version of Transformers, to cite three recent incidents. It's not that our reports were inaccurate. It's that they happened outside the park management's control.

That's understandable, but wrong-headed. Leaks are great for the theme park industry, and parks should be more aggressive about releasing information about their upcoming attractions. Here's why:

Early information allows would-be customers more time to save for a trip

Consumers have more choices for vacation and out-of-home entertainment than they ever could afford to enjoy. Consumers have to make decisions about where to spend their money. If theme parks want more families to spend thousands of dollars on theme park vacations, they need to accept that many of those families are going to need time to save for those vacations.

But if theme parks are going to convince families to give up other trips, nights out, take-out meals, and whatever else they sacrifice to save for a vacation, they have to offer something more compelling that those alternatives. A big new theme park development, such as Harry Potter, can help persuade more families to save for theme park vacations than another run of ads for the same-old-same-old ever will.

Why can't families just save for their trip after the new attraction opens? They could, but let's not overlook the emotion of being a fan. If millions of other people are going to visit some hot new attraction before you get your chance, that might that make you feel like a little bit less of a fan? And if you don't feel that same attraction, is it really worth all that sacrifice to go? If you're managing a brand, why take a chance on lessening fans' emotional bonds with the franchise? Give them the notice they need to budget a trip to your park, and release the news about a new development as soon as it gets the green light.

Early information prevents the "bait and switch"

The year before The Wizarding World of Harry Potter debuted at Universal's Islands of Adventure, attendance at Universal Orlando tanked. An economic recession certainly contributed to the decline, but millions of fans likely delayed their trip to wait for Potter's arrival. And that's spawned fear within the industry of early announcements. Why tell people too early about a major new attraction, if that encourages them to delay their trips?

But that's a good thing, not a problem. The last thing that anyone who spends a lot of money wants to hear is that he or she could have gotten a better deal by waiting to buy. Why burn a customer? Tell what you know, and let those who want to wait, wait. With an extra year to save, they'll likely spend more money with you, and if the attraction's a hit, they'll leave an even more satisfied customer — more likely to return and more likely to rave to friends.

Will you lose some immediate trips with an early announcement? Perhaps. But better to lose trips than customers.

Early release of plans allows a company to gauge fan reaction before it's too late

If a customer doesn't want to learn that it could have gotten a better deal by waiting, a business doesn't want to learn that it wasted money on the wrong product. Leaks and early release of theme park plans can allow a company to discover that it's bought a dog — before it goes "number two" all over the yard.

Of course, a company has to listen to that reaction. Imagine if Disney had taken seriously all the fan criticism of California Adventure when it was under development. Perhaps then Disney would have allowed its Imagineers to spend some of the billion dollars that they ended up spending a decade later to fix the park. And Disney could have enjoyed an extra 10 years of higher revenue, and happier customers, in return.

Showing your hand tips off the competition, and that's good

So what if the competition rushes a new development into production to match yours? That just means your market has two great new attractions that will encourage potential visitors from all around to come to your community. Don't believe for one moment that Disney isn't making money from Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Anything that encourages more people to travel to Orlando ultimately helps every park in town. If a new project encourages other tourist attractions to get off their rear and into gear, even the original park benefits.

Attraction leaks and announcements build excitement for the industry

When people hear about new developments, that sends a message to fans — and to investors — that firms in the industry have both the financial security and the management foresight to invest in their future. That encourages fans to make financial (and emotional!) investments in selecting theme parks as their vacation destination of choice. It also encourages investors to put their money in companies with theme parks, raising stock prices and making more capital available for future expansions. Which allows this whole wonderful process to repeat itself.

Of course, all this assumes that leaked or released attraction plans are accurate. That's not always the case. Sometimes, ride systems don't work as planned. Contractors fail to deliver as promised. Maybe an attraction designer leaks a concept to earn public support that will sway management to deliver its approval, but management still says 'no.' Smart theme parks don't want to disappoint customers. But let's do the math. Trying to avoid the risk of disappointment from an occasional miss isn't worth the lost income, goodwill, and access to feedback from trying to keep the public from learning about all of a park's new projects as soon as they're approved.

That said, the worst thing a park can do is intentionally mislead the public. Rumors have floated on Twitter that a certain theme park (which we will not name) was considering releasing fake development plans to various employees and contractors, in the hope of smoking out leakers. What's the possible good in that? The ideal should be to avoid the "bait and switch." Let the leakers leak. Or, better, beat them by releasing the information first.

This doesn't mean that parks should spoil every detail of a planned new attraction. But, at least, let people know what's coming and give them enough detail to get excited. Parks should be using every tool they can to encourage people to change their spending and start planning to visit their park. If a leak is accurate, let it go. Information that gets people excited about theme parks is nothing but good news for the industry.

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Where to eat: Lunch at Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater Restaurant at Disney's Hollywood Studios

By Amanda Jenkins
Published: October 12, 2013 at 9:19 PM

Where can you eat in a classic convertible, under a star-lit sky, and see classic clips of some of the cheesiest monster movies in Disney World? The Sci-Fi Dine-in Theater Restaurant at Disney's Hollywood Studios is such a place.

For our last two trips, we have had lunch there during our visits to Disney's Hollywood Studios. This was a first though for our sons. I don't know how many fellow Mysties (Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans) are TPI's, but if you are then you are well acquainted with the selection of monster/sci-fi clips that are prime for riffing and have been by Mike, Joel, and the bots. Seriously, check out old Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes. I digress. Back to Sci-Fi Dine-in Theater.

Once entering, you are directed by your carhop to your convertible (there are also picnic tables for those who would prefer a different seat). This is by far one of the best themed restaurants, in my opinion, on Disney property. The ceiling is a nighttime sky and every car has a perfect view of the movie screen. Even the old speakers that use to adorn drive-in theaters are right beside your vehicle. Many of the cars have seating for two in the front of the car, seating for two in the middle, and additional seating in the back. There are a few cars that have a table in the middle with seating available for everyone to see each other. Our boys sat in front of us and loved being the "drivers." While we were eating, we picked up a pair of hitchhikers, an additional couple, to our car.

Inside the restaurant

A continuous loop of previews, old food stand/snack commercials, and a couple of cartoons are projected on the movie screen. One drawback to this is, if you are the kind that believes in taking your time while eating at a sit-down restaurant then you will be subject to repeats. Chuck and I have debated on how this could be improved upon. Our sons wanted to actually see some of the movies that were previewed, Chuck and I would love to see MST3K shown in here, and I have begun to think that maybe with Star Wars belonging to the Disney family, how about showing one of those films? Timing it would be difficult with folks coming in at different times. I understand that the whole point is to get the customer back out to the park, but it would be a lot of fun to see a movie.


We had lunch reservations for 11am (opening time for the restaurant). We were seated right away. We had the deluxe dining plan this vacation, and as part of it we were able to order appetizers. Chuck went with the spinach artichoke dip while I tried the fried dill pickles. Our picky eaters, or children, decided to skip the appetizers. Chuck thought his dip was on the bland side. It was good, just not enough heat for him. The fried dill pickles came with a spicy ranch dip. They were crisp, tart, and were wonderful with the dipping sauce.

Spinach and Artichoke Dip
Spinach and Artichoke Dip ($8.49)

Fried Dill Pickles
Fried Dill Pickles ($8.49)

For our entrees, the boys ordered cheeseburgers and fries, Chuck chose the flame-broiled New York Strip Steak and I finally decided on the Build-Your-Own Angus Chuck Burger. The boys enjoyed their burgers and fries.

New York Strip Steak
Flame-broiled New York Strip Steak ($29.99)

Chuck's steak came with two fried onion rings and veggies. He ordered his steak medium rare and it was cooked as requested. He felt it was lacking in flavor. We have had steaks from different places in Disney World, and he believed that this did not match up to some of the others in taste. It was alright, just not as great as previous ones.

Build-Your-Own Angus Chuck Burger
Build-Your-Own Angus Chuck Burger, with bacon, lettuce, tomato, and Swiss cheese ($15.99)

My burger was ordered well done with bacon, lettuce, tomato, and Swiss cheese. It came as requested and was a great burger. Many times, I find when ordering a burger with bacon, that the bacon is too chewy almost rubbery. This bacon had a little more crispness so that when I bit into the burger, I did not pull all the bacon out in one bite. I went with the fries for my side item (not the healthiest choices, I know, but sometimes you just need a burger, fries, and fried pickles). While eating, our car hop was great with teasing our boys about their driving. She alerted us when we had obtained our hitchhikers and made sure all food allergies (mine) were taken care of.

For dessert, the boys ordered milkshakes. Sam ordered vanilla and loved it. Luke ordered chocolate. He didn't like his. This isn't really an accurate review for the chocolate shake, since we all tried it and it tasted like a chocolate shake should. Luke is our pickiest eater. If food looks the least different, then he has already decided before eating it that it is no good.

Hot Fudge Sundae
Hot Fudge Sundae ($7.99)

Chuck ordered the hot fudge sundae and I ordered the apple crumble. Chuck enjoyed the sundae more than his meal. My apple crumble came out piping hot with vanilla ice cream and little cinnamon pearls. It was soft in the middle with a crunchy crust surrounding it. It was delicious!

Apple Crumble
Apple Crumble ($7.99)

I have had the turtle cheesecake and the house-made Sci-Fi candy bar on previous visits which are both yummy, but I believe that the apple crumble knocks the other two out of the running. Definitely puts one in an autumn state of mind. After lunch we received our bill, or "speeding ticket." Our boys drove a little too crazy for the theater and we as their parents were forced to pay the price.

Sci-Fi Dine-in Theater is a unique dining experience. The ambience alone is good for a visit. It is just a fun place. The food is good, though not on the signature scale of other restaurants. It is easy to make reservations and/or walk-in.

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Disney reveals Avatar land details at D23 Expo in Japan

By Robert Niles
Published: October 11, 2013 at 11:15 PM

Disney theme park officials didn't have much to reveal at the recent D23 Expo in Anaheim. But they haven't been so stingy at the first-ever D23 Expo in Japan.

At the Tokyo Disney Resort today, Disney Parks chairman Tom Staggs offered a preview of the Avatar land under development at Disney's Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World. Staggs presented several images of concept art for the new land, which will replace Camp Mickey-Minnie at the theme park. And there's now an opening date: 2017.

Here's an overview of the new land:

Avatar Land

A look at what's expected to be the new boat ride:

Avatar Boat Ride

And an image from the expected "Soarin'"-like 3D show.

Avatar 3D Movie Ride

Finally, Disney announced that Animal Kingdom will be getting a new nighttime show, centered around the Tree of Life and the Discovery River.

Night show at DAK

In addition, the park will be getting a nighttime version of the Kilimanjaro Safaris, which, with the new nighttime show, pretty much confirms that the park will also be getting extended hours when Avatar opens.

It's happening, people. So, now that you've seen some official concept art, what do you think?

Update: Here's the promo video from D23 Japan:

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Vote of the week: What's the longest you've been stuck on a theme park ride?

By Robert Niles
Published: October 11, 2013 at 11:00 AM

Since stuck roller coasters appear to be so popular (with the people running TV channels, at least), let's play along. Let's talk about the longest time you've ever been stuck on a theme park ride.

It's a Small World
How much time could you handle being stuck in here?

Perhaps you've been lucky (or you just don't visit parks that often), and you've never had a ride stop for more than a moment while you're on board. But anyone who's ever worked attractions in a park knows that shut-downs happen somewhere in the park every day. Typically, a shut-down only lasts a few minutes, until a crying child is calmed, a misunderstanding with a wheelchair party overcome, or a falsely-flagged sensor reset. But as we saw earlier this week Universal Orlando's Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rocket, a shut-down can last hours when people are stuck in a location not easily accessible by park employees.

Please share your favorite theme park ride "break-down" story, in the comments.

Speaking of comments, a comment on our post on that incident reported that It's a Small World also was shut down at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom this week, for about 45 minutes. Visitors stuck on that ride (where the famous theme song continued to play for 30 of those minutes) were offered an additional Fastpass to the ride of their choice as compensation for their ordeal.

That got me thinking: How long would you be willing to endure being stuck on It's a Small World in order to score a Fastpass for any other ride? Let's assume that it's a busy summer day, and all other Fastpasses for that ride have been distributed, so this is the only way to bypass the stand-by line. And let's also assume that the Small World theme song is playing the entire time while you're stuck. How long would you wait, stuck, on Small World to get an-otherwise impossible Fastpass to Tower of Terror? (Probably a few minutes, right?) To Toy Story Midway Mania? (Probably longer?) To the Swiss Family Treehouse? (Zero-point-zero minutes for that one, I'm guessing.)

Taking a page from fantasy sports geeks, this could be the new metric for measuring an attraction's popularity. Let's call it "MSOSW" for "minutes stuck on Small World" — the number of minutes you would be willing to endure on a stuck Small World ride to get an otherwise unavailable Fastpass to that attraction. Which attraction would you assign the largest MSOSW? Which ones would get a zero? How many strange looks can we get in the park while talking about various attractions' MSOSW value? Surely no more than baseball geeks talking about VORP, right?

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How much do you want 'Big Brother Mickey' watching you on vacation?

By Robert Niles
Published: October 11, 2013 at 10:31 AM

How much do you want Disney, or any other theme park company, to know about what you're doing on your family vacation?

That's the question raised by an Orlando Sentinel report on what Disney's planning to do with all that data it will be collecting from visitors using its new RFID-enabled wristbands.

From the article:

MyMagic+ will allow Disney to track where visitors go across the vast resort; how they spend their money; and what and when they like to eat. Disney plans to use that information to devise more sophisticated and personalized sales pitches, in which everything from the message to the price could vary from one prospective customer to the next.

Such stories often play on an archetypal conflict: "Big Brother" vs. private citizen. The big company spies on us to collect information it will use to make a profit, while individuals try to protect some private space for themselves.

Photo courtesy Disney

But isn't that just too simplistic? Sure, sometimes people want their privacy, but sometimes they're okay with being watched. If you're Jesse Pinkman on the run from the law, yes, you want your privacy. But if you're hiking through the Rockies and get lost, wouldn't you prefer someone have the ability to track your location and send a rescue?

If I'm reading a magazine or website, I'd rather see ads for travel destinations and products that interest me, instead of offers for cigarettes, hearing aids, strollers, baby toys, or any of the thousands of other products out there I don't buy (or don't buy anymore). If publishers don't have any way of tracking my preferences, I'm going to get a random selection of ads all the time. How annoying.

If Disney can use its MyMagic+ data to tailor its offers to specific customers, fine. Do families whose little girls have grown up really want to keep getting offers for princess-themed attractions or events? Many won't, and Disney serves itself and those customers by shifting its offers as those customers' interests shift.

On the flip side, when tracking is used against customers, they're not going to like it. Do you really want Disney to know when and what you've ordered when you are "drinking around the world" at Epcot? Imagine getting to Italy and having a cast member refuse to serve you because you've ordered too many alcoholic beverages in too short a time, as tracked by your MagicBand (no matter if you bought a few extra drinks for friends). Not saying that would happen, but imagine the possibilities.

Part of the challenge for Disney in rolling out MyMagic+ will be to decide what data-driven actions help it win over more customers, and what types actions creep out those customers and drive them away. Let's help by offering some suggestions, in the comments.

What would you like to see Disney do with its MyMagic+ data, to improve your experience in the park? And are there times when you hope that Disney will "look the other way" and ignore data, or put in protections that help you continue to feel comfortable when visiting?

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Thursday theme park news round-up: Disneyland, Aquatica, Sesame Place, and Ocean Park

By Robert Niles
Published: October 10, 2013 at 3:53 PM

Disneyland's long been a favorite holiday destination for Southern Californians, where the weather in December — while pleasant — isn't exactly the snowy wonder most people associate with the Christmas. This year, the resort will add to its holiday celebrations with a new event aimed at the massive Latino market in the area. "Disney ¡Viva Navidad!" will run Disney California Adventure' Paradise Garden from Nov. 15 through Jan. 6, 2014. Boardwalk Pizza and Pasta and the Paradise Garden Grill will offer special Mexican dishes for the event, including tamales, pozole, and buñuelos. Mariachi will perform at the bandstand, and a "street party" with Mickey, Minnie and The Three Caballeros will play several times a day during the event.

Paradise Garden bandstand
Disney's planning more holiday entertainment at the Paradise Garden Bandstand this fall and winter.

Aquatica San Diego is adding a new water slide for next season. Taumata Racer will open on Memorial Day weekend next spring and feature a 375-foot slide around a 180-degree turn, and in and out of tunnels, before riders race across its finish line. Taumata Racer will be located between Walhalla Wave and Kata's Kookaburra Cove on the northwest side of the park.

Taumata Racer
Illustration courtesy SeaWorld

Sesame Place announced a new land for the park for 2014 — Cookie's Monster Land. From the press release: "As part of the park’s largest financial investment to date, Cookie Monster will serve as host to all of his monster friends in this colorful and imaginative new land featuring five exciting rides, a three-story net climb and a soft play area for the park’s youngest visitors."

Cookie's Monster Land
Illustration courtesy Sesame Place

Ocean Park in Hong Kong announced that it is seeking final approval to open a new 495-room "Ocean Hotel" at the theme park's entrance. Marriott International will operate the US$322-million hotel, which, if approved, will break ground next year for a 2017 opening.

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Tonight's non-story: Riders got stuck on a roller coaster

By Robert Niles
Published: October 9, 2013 at 9:54 PM

TV news in Orlando and cable stations around the country broadcast from Universal Studios Florida Wednesday night, after the park's Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit roller coaster got stuck, stranding 12 riders near the top of the attraction's 167-foot lift hill.

Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit

What might be news to assignment editors at TV stations shouldn't be news to theme park insiders — rides "break down" and get stuck all the time. And once in a not-too-rare while, riders get stuck for longer than an hour. That's what happened tonight in Orlando.

Yes, spending more than two and a half hours stuck on a roller coaster stinks. But no one on Rip, Ride, Rockit (or anyone on one of the other hundreds of rides that get stuck for an extended period every year) was in any real danger. The Orlando Fire Department responded and worked with Universal Orlando personnel to get everyone down safely, at around 9:45 pm Eastern time. (And Universal Orlando certainly will accommodate those riders with some compensation for their lost time and ordeal.)

Park insiders and visitors often talk about rides "breaking down." But when roller coasters trains stop on their track, it's almost never because they "broke." Instead, rides stop because that is what the ride's designers wanted. Coaster designers create mechanical and computer software systems to ensure the safety of riders and equipment. When these systems detect something not exactly correct about the ride's operation, they begin a procedure that shuts down the ride.

We wrote about this several years ago, in explaining why people have to be 40 inches tall to ride Disney's Thunder Mountain. Roller coasters are designed to operate on a precise cycle, and anything that disrupts the cycle prevents the coaster from operating properly. Whether it's a crying child in a station holding up a train, or a sensor somewhere on the track reporting something amiss, the ride's computer system will try to bring trains to a safe stop, as quickly as possible.

Ideally, the shut down brings riders to a place on the track where they can be easily and quickly exited from the train and led out of the attraction. Obviously, that didn't happen here. While the coaster stopped in a way that ensured riders' safety, it did not do so in a way that minimized their inconvenience. TV crews seem to love shots of people stuck on theme park rides, though heaven knows what they think might happen. People are stuck on rides because the ride worked. If it had actually failed, you'd be looking at a far different scene. Fortunately for visitors and the industry, that's a scene that rarely happens.

Even though Rip, Ride, Rockit did its ultimate job by keeping its riders safe, this Maurer Söhne coaster has endured sharp criticism from fans over the years for failing to deliver the entertainment that any ride should. Fans have complained about frequent shutdowns that back up lines and rough rides that have made them question why they even bothered to wait in those long lines. Many fans on Twitter and Facebook used tonight's shutdown to call again on Universal to give up on this ride. Sister park Universal Studios Japan also has a music-themed roller, but that coaster was built by Bolliger & Mabillard and has a much better reputation for uptime and rider comfort.

That said, when you see these scenes on TV, chill. No one's in danger. The moment of greatest risk actually has past. But enjoy the visuals of the park — there's a lot more depressing stuff you could be watching on TV, after all. And let's hope that someone among the 12 stuck on Rip, Ride, Rockit tonight got some fresh Harry Potter construction photos from up there that they'll share with the rest of us tomorrow.

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

By Amanda Jenkins
Published: October 9, 2013 at 4:57 PM

I stirred up a hornet's nest with my last review of Tony's Town Square Restaurant in the Magic Kingdom. Not only did I cause others to relive times of horror, but I myself received some rather angry emails about my own conduct. I will go ahead and apologize for not doing what everyone said, like letting management know right then. I can only say that I am not a confrontational person but I shall strive to do better in the future. I'm only human. I appreciate feedback from my fellow TPI's and take their comments very seriously. Having said that, please allow me to tell you something else that happened after my first review of Tony's.

Two days after Robert posted my review, I received a phone call. The caller id showed a 407 area code. Since we were leaving in a few weeks for Walt Disney World, I assumed that the call was in reference to one of our reservations. Imagine my surprise when I was told that the gentleman on the line was the manager of Tony's Town Square Restaurant and wished to talk to me about my last experience with their establishment. He had read my review and was very upset by my experience. Not only was I in shock, but also a little fearful. Had I angered Disney to the point of being denied entrance into the parks? No. I hadn't. I had got their attention.

Mr. Anderson, the manager of Tony's, and I had a long conversation about what happened. He agreed with me about the angry pizza dough lady. Her job was to interact with the children and not air her grievances. He also was apologetic about the food and server. He became the manager shortly after my first experience and assured me that this was not what he wanted Tony's to be known for. He had taken the opportunity to see that I was returning Sept.26-Oct.4th and asked if I would allow the staff at Tony's to show the type of experiences that makes them a place to eat. He was so kind and understanding. He showed many of the characteristics that I appreciate in Disney cast members. As much as I was fearful, I knew it was only fair to try Tony's one more time.

Mr. Anderson made the reservation for Friday Sept. 27. This was a Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party night that we had tickets for. Our dinner was for six in the evening. This year my sons wanted Chuck and I to dress up for the party with them. All my guys were superheroes. They wanted me to dress as Black Widow. There is not enough CGI in the world to make me dress in a skin-tight black body suit. Most girl hero costumes are not meant for a mother of two, or a family theme park for that matter. So to keep some cool points with my boys, I dressed as a pirate. The four of us, all dressed up, entered Tony's.

While I was checking us in, Chuck and the boys sat in the waiting area. There were two cast members in the lobby who went around and engaged the children with a chef puppet and fake pizza dough. The one with the puppet went up to my sons and engaged them in conversation and had them laughing in delight. My sons are six and nine years of age. My youngest really enjoyed the puppet asking him about his Flash costume. We were soon called back to be seated. This time we were seated in a booth by the beautiful Lady and the Tramp fountain. I have to say here that Lady and the Tramp was my favorite movie as a child. I'm thirty-three years old. I had brown hair as a child that darkened as I got older. There were no brown haired princesses until I was a teenager. There was only one character with brown hair, or ears...Lady. As a little girl, I would ask my mom to put my hair in doggy ears, just like Lady. With that little back story, being close to the beautifully lit statue was a lovely gift.

Lady and the Tramp

Mr. Anderson came by our table and he explained that they were going to show us some of the special things that Tony's can do for those who visit and are planning special occasions. Chuck went ahead and ordered the tomato and mozzarella salad. I didn't know what to order, so I passed on the appetizer portion. One of the staff though, came out and brought me their signature Pezzi Parmesan Bread to try. Oh my. This bread looks like a giant muffin and comes with two dipping sauces, a Crème Sauce and Marinara. This was soft and easy to tear. It was some of the best tasting bread I have ever eaten. I loved it in both sauces and could have most likely made a meal out of this.

Pezzi Parmesan Bread
Pezzi Parmesan Bread ($7.49)

I had to stop, because I decided to try the Chicken Parmigiana. Chuck decided on the Shrimp Scampi, while both boys went for the cheese pizza. When my chicken parmigiana arrived, I knew I was in trouble. It was a huge portion, and lets face it...pirate corsets should not be worn with plates full of food that smell good. I had to stop Chuck from eating just to get a decent picture. He said that he had never had shrimp scampi taste this good. He was concerned at first because of the sun-dried tomatoes and asparagus tossed in. He found that these really added a new and pleasant taste to the scampi. Chuck was thrilled and only unhappy when our boys needed to visit the restroom and needed his help with their costumes. This took precious time away from devouring his shrimp and linguini.

Shrimp Scampi
Shrimp Scampi ($17.99)

My chicken pamigiana was another pleasant surprise. It was lightly breaded with crisp gently seasoned bread crumbs, melted mozzarella, drizzled with just enough marinara sauce, and perfectly cooked spaghetti. I was overjoyed by my first taste to find that the first experience here was not to be repeated. It was seasoned well and nothing was overpowered. My only complaint was that I was unable to remotely come close to finishing it. If it had not been for the Halloween party, I would have asked for a to go box.

Chicken Parmigiana ($20.99)

The boys enjoyed their pizza. Sam, my eldest dressed as Wolverine, made sure we took a photo of his pizza pulled apart like an, "X", for X-Men.

Kids' cheese pizza ($8.59)

While we ate, we were treated to the many ways that Tony's make one's evening special. When our entrees were delivered, a cast member came to our table. He said he had heard that Lady and the Tramp was my favorite movie and since we were at Tony's...he then began to sing, "Bella Notte". After the song, he explained that he goes around to the tables and any that are celebrating, or are a couple enjoying a romantic meal, he then sings for them. He had a very nice voice and with the Italian food, candle lit in the old chianti bottle (another special touch for those celebrating), the soft glow from the fountain, and my entourage of superheroes; I was feeling that Disney magic. After the song, a Disney photographer came over to our table and took what would become my favorite photo from our vacation. Mr. Anderson had it developed and framed as a thank you gift for trying Tony's again. With the photo, song, and beautiful fountain, this could be a great place for a proposal if you are unable to get reservations at Cinderella's Royal Table.

Amanda and her family

No dinner is complete though until desserts are brought forth. The boys were each given a special Halloween cupcake in an ice cream cone. They loved it. I ordered the pumpkin cheesecake. I am a sucker for anything pumpkin flavored and when I heard this was on the menu, I immediately asked for it. It was creamy and had just the right balance of pumpkin and cinnamon. I may have had to loosen the pirate corset, but it was worth it just to finish the dessert. Chuck was too full and had to pass on dessert, though I did catch him sneaking some bites of the boys Halloween cupcakes.

Halloween cupcake

Pumpkin cheesecake
Pumpkin cheesecake ($5.49)

Mr. Anderson and his staff really did a fantastic job of making up for our first disastrous visit. The waiters were really wonderful in answering questions about the food, interacting with my children about their costumes, and giving tips not only for what to order but also about the Halloween party. The food had improved beyond what I had hoped for. I may just have to make another quick trip back before the end of fall for a meal of just Pezzi bread and pumpkin cheesecake. As the saying goes, "to err is human, to forgive, divine," and it can be rather tasty.

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Dollywood releases full ride animation for Firechaser Express

By Robert Niles
Published: October 9, 2013 at 10:14 AM

Dollywood released today a full-ride computer animation video of its upcoming Firechaser Express family coaster.

If the ride ends up looking anything like the animation, this might be the most impressively decorated family coaster in the country — and that includes competition such as Disney's Barnstormer and Universal's Flight of the Hippogriff.

Firechaser Express
Maybe the volunteer fire-fighters' job would be easier if there weren't a gas station selling fireworks in the middle of the forest. Just sayin'…

Firechaser Express's launch stats won't frighten anyone — zero-to-16mph in 1.1 second forward and zero-to-20mph in two seconds backward — but that's the point. This is a family coaster, and Dollywood appears to be providing riders plenty of other entertainment on the ride, including Dollywood's iconic lush mountain terrain and a nice little special effects interlude. Hey, it's not a theme park ride unless something goes terribly wrong, correct?

Firechaser Express opens next spring. What do you think?

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Marvel, Star Wars and the next steps for Disney's Tomorrowlands

By Robert Niles
Published: October 8, 2013 at 2:02 PM

Remember "The Marvel Experience"?

That was the traveling Marvel-themed attraction announced in August, which promoters said would feature exhibits, meet-and-greets, and a 3D motion-simulator ride starring Marvel superheroes.

Makes last night's news from Hong Kong Disneyland seem a bit like déjà vu, doesn't it? Yesterday, Disney Parks chairman Tom Staggs announced that Disney would build "The Iron Man Experience" at the park, with Stark Expo exhibits including the Hall of Armor, an Iron Man meet-and-greet, and what sure sounds like a 3D motion-simulator ride.

No inside information here about a formal design or development connection between the projects, but they sure sound similar, don't they?

Is there any chance Disney and Marvel fans might see a "[Insert Marvel character here] Experience" at another Disney theme park? Staggs announced that the Hong Kong Iron Man ride will take place in that city, which initially might suggest that the ride will be a one-off for that park only. But Disney brought Soarin' Over California to Florida's Epcot, so a Hong Kong setting shouldn't by itself rule out a deployment to another park. So, which one? Look first to Paris' underdeveloped Walt Disney Studios, though by 2016 Shanghai Disneyland should be open, and no one would be surprised to see a Marvel attraction there, perhaps as a way to boost attendance a couple years after the Grand Opening, when attention begins to fade. Remember, Marvel's barred from Walt Disney World and the Tokyo Disney Resort, so the only other option at the moment is California's Disneyland.

Would Disney bring Marvel to Disneyland? Legally, there's nothing stopping it. But space constraints might. For now, the industry buzz has Disney focusing on Star Wars as the next big project in Anaheim, not Marvel.

MiceAge posted a report today detailing leaks from a Disneyland management meeting that previewed plans for a Star Wars overlay in the park's Tomorrowland. [Scroll down past the DAS stuff.] The plans are said to include moving the Astro Orbiter from the hub to the upper plaza in front of Space Mountain. The Millennium Falcon would be parked on the Astro Orbiter's old home atop the former PeopleMover loading station. Tomorrowland Terrace would become the Mos Eisley cantina. And the Innoventions building would become the loading station for a speeder bike ride that would consume the current Autopia track.

Space Mountain plaza
The future home of Disneyland's Astro Orbiter?

Will it happen? Until blueprints are distributed and contractors hired, all theme park plans are blue sky and subject to change. And Imagineers have been known to float ideas into the online fan community to gauge reaction. In addition to ride development, these plans would require rebuilding the current Captain EO theater building to support the Astro Orbiter ride above, gutting and rebuilding Innoventions, and creating a show building around Tomorrowland Terrace, in addition to possibly rerouting the monorail track. That's a lot of coin, even for Disney.

And here's another thought worth considering: Star Wars and Marvel each take Tomorrowland another step away from its original, idealistic vision of a community in the future, replacing it with yet another conflict-driven narrative. At their hearts, both Star Wars and Marvel are dystopian, portraying worlds in which "ordinary" people have no hope, save for the efforts of superheroes (or super-human Jedi) who might come to their rescue. Perhaps there's a dissertation in there, for a student of Disney and popular culture. In the 1950s, Disney's Tomorrowland reflected a society that felt empowered and hopeful about its ability to shape a better future. In the 2010s, the plans for Tomorrowland seem instead to suggest we're living in a time when we're not thinking optimistically about our future as much as we're simply hoping that someone will ride down from space or the sky to save us.

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Disney confirms Iron Man ride for Hong Kong in 2016

By Robert Niles
Published: October 7, 2013 at 10:20 PM

Disney's finally building a Marvel-themed park attraction. And, as expected, it won't be in the United States.

As we've covered before, Disney's contractually prohibited from using any of its Marvel characters inside the parks at the Walt Disney World Resort, since Marvel sold those rights to Universal Orlando long before Disney bought the comic book publisher. With little room for expansion at California's Disneyland, attention's turned instead to the Hong Kong and Paris Disney resorts, which need fresh attractions to boost attendance at their under-developed parks.

Iron Man Experience
Concept art courtesy Disney

Andy Sinclair-Harris, a Disney Imagineer assigned to Hong Kong Disneyland who frequently posts to Twitter, announced the news that it's Hong Kong that will be getting an Iron Man-themed ride.

The Iron Man Experience will open in Hong Kong in late 2016, according to Disney Parks chairman Tom Staggs, who as Andy's Twitter photo shows, was at the park in Hong Kong for today's announcement.

Update: Tom Staggs posted a bit more detail about Iron Man on the Disney Parks blog.

"Upon entering the ride vehicle our guests will be able to take flight with Iron Man on an epic adventure that not surprisingly pits Iron Man, and our guests, against the forces of evil. This adventure will take place in the streets and skies of Hong Kong, which will make an even more unique and special experience for our Hong Kong Disneyland guests. In addition, guests will be able to meet and take photos with Iron Man."

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Not-so-lost in translation: Speaking English in Japanese theme parks

By Bryan Wawzenek
Published: October 7, 2013 at 4:15 PM

During the run-up to my recent visit to Japan and the country's Disney and Universal theme parks, I became concerned about the language barrier. I wasn't really worried about finding my way around. In the past year, my wife and I had traveled to China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia with minuscule knowledge of the languages spoken there and we had bridged most of the language gaps with patience, hand gestures and a bit of educated guessing.

Given those experiences, I was more concerned about how Japanese theme parks would feel. While the U.S. Disney and Universal parks certainly offer excitement, there's also a degree of "comfort food" to my trips there. Maybe I sound completely ridiculous, but going to the American locations of these parks can be like visiting old friends. I was unsure exactly how I'd feel about my old friends speaking, or singing, a new language. What we discovered was that it was a little weird, often hilarious and usually wonderful.

Tokyo DisneySea

Basic Navigation
Getting around the parks is no problem for those who read English. Both parks at the Tokyo Disney Resort offer maps and time guides in English, which were handed to us upon retrieving our multi-day pass (more English maps and guides were available at Guest Services at each park). We also were handed an English map at Universal Studios Japan in Osaka, and parade/show times were posted in English in a few areas around the park. As far as attractions and restaurants go, most have dominant English language signage, sometimes with a Japanese translation underneath. In order to make areas such as Tokyo DisneySea's American Waterfront feel authentic, the signs are all in English. This means the subtle wordplay found on the land's fake advertisements is lost on most park visitors, although it shows how dedicated Japan's Disney parks are to theming.

Sign in the American Waterfront

Learn a Little
English will get you around, but it helps to learn a few Japanese phrases before visiting. In order to communicate basic things not just with park employees but also with Japanese visitors, I would recommend learning at least the different forms of greeting ("Ohayo gozaimasu," "Konnichiwa" and "Konbanwa" – depending on the time of day), thank you very much ("Arigato gozaimasu") and excuse me/I'm sorry ("Sumimasen"). If you have the time, aptitude and/or interest, more phrases would come in handy. Throughout our trip, most Japanese were positively tickled that we were making the smallest of efforts and we felt similarly when they would do their best to reciprocate in English. It's amazing that you can have a heart-warming exchange while simply ordering lunch.

The restaurants – whether snack stands, counter service or table service – at Universal and Disney in Japan couldn't be easier to use. All signage is in Japanese and English. Just about everything has a picture and, in some instances, the establishments have plastic food displays to show you what you'll be paying for (something you'll see in restaurants throughout Japan – mmm … plastic sushi). Speak slowly and don't hesitate to point to what you want; most food service cast members/workers made sure that we were getting exactly what we were asking for.

Menu, in two languages

Cast Members
Many cast members at the Disney parks spoke enough English to communicate the normal duties of their jobs. If we had a question or problem that required a better command of the language, they were happy to find another cast member with more English language knowledge. In our experience, this was rarely required, and hand gestures along with a friendly smile seemed to do the trick. During our visit, we needed to stop in the Central First Aid location at Tokyo DisneySea with an extremely minor health issue. Our fears that we might not be understood were alleviated the moment the welcoming cast members placed a portable electronic translator on the desk. It was good to know that if we had needed help with an emergency, the language barrier would not have been a hindrance.

Because Osaka's Universal park appears to see fewer international visitors, English was not quite as commonly spoken by park workers. That is how we accidentally ended up with a reserved ticket for the "backdrop" version of Hollywood Dream (a happy accident; we just thought we were getting on the forward-moving version of the coaster). On the other hand, because of the lack of foreign visitors, we instantly became a little more "special," with workers handing us freebies and going out of their way to make sure we were enjoying our time at USJ.

As I said earlier, amidst the excitement of preparing to visit the Japanese parks, there was a small, irritating voice in the recesses of my brain screaming, "But you're not going to understand anything!" Regardless of how I felt about that, it didn't even turn out to be true. Although many rides contained solely Japanese narration or dialogue (The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Monsters Inc. Ride & Go Seek), others contained a mixture of Japanese and English.

The Country Bears Vacation Jamboree was sung in a mixture of both languages – and yes, "Achy, Breaky Heart" is just as cloying in Japanese. The Haunted Mansion featured Japanese narration, but Madame Leota and Little Leota spoke English, as did the ghouls howling "Grim, Grinning Ghosts." As for "The Little Mermaid" musical show in the Mermaid Lagoon Theater, all of the songs were in English with the dialogue in Japanese. Meanwhile, all of the scallywags sacking the Spanish Main sang and spoke English in Pirates of the Caribbean.

Hitchhiking robots
Beware of… Star Tours' hitchhiking robots?

Although most attraction plots are comprehensible in any language, for some that were completely in Japanese, I was glad that I had experienced them in English before. Hearing Darth Vader bellow in Japanese on Star Tours: The Adventures Continue is unique, but I'm happy I heard the James Earl Jones version first. I feel the same way about Japanese-only narration on Universal's Jaws (although the Japanese skipper was the most animated one I'd ever encountered) and Disney's Jungle Cruise. Although, if you know the latter's spiel well enough, you can recite the corny one-liners in your head. (As far as the Jungle Cruise goes, that is sure to change, given the renovation plans for the Tokyo Disneyland version of this Disney classic.)

Jaws entrance

Of course, the Tigger song might be even funnier in Japanese – or maybe the bouncing effect on the stunning Pooh's Hunny Hunt just makes everything better. One of my favorite rides in all of the parks was USJ's Space Fantasy indoor roller coaster, and I had next-to-no idea what was happening as we zipped around the universe. Whatever you say, space princess, wheeeee …

Space Fantasy entrance

And then there was a ride with an orientation film in which neither Japanese nor English were spoken. Because Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Crystal Skull is set in an Aztec temple in South America, our guide is the Spanish-speaking Paco (who sort of looks like Jack Black's non-union Mexican equivalent). We weren't totally in the dark – the video is subtitled in English and Japanese as Paco bids us, "Adios!"

(OK, quick side note about Indy. I am a total dork who, when the opportunity presents itself, likes to "drive" on the ride. I can't help myself. I turn into a 9-year-old. So, during one of our spins on Crystal Skull, my wife realized that the Japanese couple next to us had noticed my "driving" and were roaring with laughter as the sight of the silly American. As we pulled in to unload, we were all laughing at my antics, the woman mimicking what I had done, and sharing a moment of enjoyment even though we didn't share a language. It's a theme park moment I'm sure I'll never forget.)

In three instances at the Disney parks, attractions provide foreigners with a handheld screen that translates the Japanese into English or Chinese. At the Magic Lamp Theater and Mermaid Lagoon Theater at DisneySea and the Enchanted Tiki Room: Stitch Presents Aloha e Komo Mai! at Disneyland, you can request this subtitle screen when you join the queue. The devices lagged just a bit, but performed well. In the cases of the Magic Lamp and Stitch, we enjoyed the dialogue-heavy shows a little more for knowing exactly what was going on.

Tiki Room translator

Two other DisneySea attractions offer a different sort of English enhancement: souvenir fliers written in English. When we queued up for Sindbad's Storybook Voyage, a cast member raced to grab a couple of these small but colorful pieces of paper that listed the English lyrics to Alan Menken's "Compass of Your Heart" – the theme that plays throughout this exuberant musical dark ride. Another intricately designed sheet was available at the entrance to the Tower of Terror, which explained the backstory that was recited by the ride's "tour guides" before the pre-show.

Sindbad translation sheet

Tower of Terror translation

The sole instance where the language barrier proved an insurmountable impediment was at DisneySea's Fortress Explorations (a free-roaming area that's sort of like Tom Sawyer Island for the Renaissance). Although there are English-language maps for the attraction, the Fortress's scavenger hunt game is only presented in a Japanese booklet. Oh well. I really can't complain if that's the one thing in three parks that we couldn't do because we didn't know Japanese.

OK, so occasionally there are confused moments or misunderstandings because you are almost completely surrounded by people who don't speak your language. The trade-off is that, because these Japanese parks see relatively few foreign visitors, many of the walk-around characters are as excited to take a picture with you as you are with them. Seriously.

At the Disney parks, characters were all-too eager to goof (pun intended) around with us. Maybe it was because we were a little less reserved than the average Japanese visitor (although we saw some pretty excited guests during our time there) or maybe it was because we were a little extra thrilled to see characters that are not commonplace in the U.S. parks (Scrooge McDuck, Abu from "Aladdin," Bernard and Bianca from "The Rescuers," Max from "Goof Troop"). No matter – it's great to discover that a handshake, high-five or hug is the same in any language.

Bernard and Bianca

Universal took it to a whole different level. Bert and Ernie, who had been taking pictures with guests separately, decided that they needed to both be in a picture with my wife and me. We didn't request this, but were happy to accept. Visitors who had to wait a little longer didn't get upset and politely offered to take our picture with the Sesame Street residents (and we gestured to do the same after our picture). Almost exactly the same thing happened with Charlie Brown and Lucy, although Lucy seemed less agreeable (not sure if she was in character or honestly annoyed with Chuck's insistent prodding). I can only imagine how much more boisterous the characters might become in the presence of an English-speaking kid, and not just us kids-at-heart.

Ernie photobomb

Regardless, the character interactions were bizarre, fantastic and unforgettable … which could describe the entirety of our experience as English speakers in Tokyo Disney Resort and Universal Studios Japan. All I can offer is a heartfelt "arigato gozaimasu."

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Harry Potter Diagon Alley construction update

By Robert Niles
Published: October 7, 2013 at 1:39 PM

We've got a few new construction photos from Universal Studios Florida's The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley, courtesy Theme Park Insider reader Michael B.

We'll start with a look into Diagon Alley, toward Gringotts Bank.

Diagon Alley construction

Here's a close-up of workers on the London facade wall.

Diagon Alley construction

And here's the Grimmauld Place facade, which covers the Gringotts Coaster ride building behind it.

Diagon Alley construction

Construction photos are always welcomed on our Gringotts Coaster page. Any registered Theme Park Insider reader who's logged in may submit attraction, restaurant and hotel photos via their listing pages on the site.

The Gringotts Coaster cars are arriving at USF, as has the Hogwarts Express trains, and all reports have the new land proceeding on schedule. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley will open in 2014, most likely somewhere around June or July.

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Updates on the 2013 Epcot Food & Wine Festival and Spice Road Table construction

By Oak A
Published: October 7, 2013 at 12:52 PM

The 2013 edition of Epcot's renowned International Food & Wine Festival has begun, and I recently travelled to the park to engorge myself in what the seasonal event has to offer. The event consists of 30 individual stand positioned around Epcot's World Showcase, each representing a different country, region, or cuisine, along with 4 stand representing different classifications of alcoholic beverages, i.e. "Craft Beers." Each stand offered 2-4 dishes, most including dessert, and multiple beverage selections. The stands are merely counters with kitchens as opposed to constructs where one can dine indoors, instead seating has been assembled around each stand.

Ireland at the Epcot Food $ Wine Festival

I dined at the following stands:

  • Greece — Taste of Greece platter (Calamari, Htipiti, Eggplant Dip, Olives, and Pita Bread)
  • Canada — Seared Rainbow Trout with Bacon, Frisee, and Maple Vinaigrette
  • Ireland — Lobster and Seafood Fisherman's Pie
  • France — Escargots Persillade en Brioche
  • New Zealand — Steamed Green Lip Mussels with Garlic Butter and Toasted Bread Crumbs
  • Japan — California Roll
  • Poland — Zapiekanki
  • Germany — Schinkennudeln
  • South Korea — KImchi Dog with Spicy Mustard Sauce
  • China — Silk Ice Cream Ribbon (Mango)
  • Argentina — Beef Empanada

Every single dish was enjoyable, and quite filling. I had originally intended to order a dish from each stand, but that plan capitulated soon after beginning my counter-clockwise journey around the Showcase.

Due to the amount of images having been captured, I will include a link to a slideshow that features all of the festival's stands (sans the American Adventure Coffee Cart, due to my camera's battery's passing): Epcot International Food & Wine Festival photo slideshow

The Epcot International Food & Wine Festival began September 27th, and ends November 11th.

Spice Road Table construction

In addition to the images of the F&W Festival, I also snapped some pictures of an ongoing construction project at Epcot, the Moroccan pavilion's new Spice Road Table restaurant. The restaurant is due to open by the year's end; given the site's current condition, expect some Imagineer activity soon! You can see what I mean by following this link to view a slideshow of the construction site.

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Attraction of the week: Texas' Kemah Boardwalk Dungeon of Doom

By Jacob Sundstrom
Published: October 5, 2013 at 9:38 PM

Growing up in San Jose, California, I was no stranger to boardwalks. The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk was just an hour's drive away and my family made at least one trip over the Santa Cruz "mountains" every summer in the early- to mid-2000s. Being in a northern California coastal town, sweatshirts and jeans were required attire in July just as they were in December.

In Kemah, Texas (located on Galveston Bay, just south of Houston)? Yeah, try 90 degrees and 65 percent humidity in the first week of October. I left my jeans (why did I even bring them!?) and sweatshirt at my new apartment as the wife and I made the trek to the Kemah Boardwalk, home to the Boardwalk Bullet, several flat rides, restaurants and in October, the Dungeon of Doom.

Kemah Boardwalk

This was my second trip to Kemah, my first since 2011 when I first took a spin on the Boardwalk Bullet, one of my favorite wooden roller coasters. Bullet has not lost a step and appears to be as popular as ever. The boardwalk was hopping Saturday thanks to a large beer festival and many a patron made their way across the way to take a spin on the Gravity Group creation.

Boardwalk Bullet

But I wasn’t here for the Boardwalk Bullet (okay, okay... maybe a little bit); I was here for a haunted house I knew nothing about. In my experience, these smaller, low-budget mazes have the opportunity to be just as scary as anything you’ll find at a Universal Studios or Cedar Fair park. The brunt of any maze’s scares comes from the actors, so if the scareactors know what they’re doing, you can paint the walls black, pump a building with fog and get the job done.

It also doesn’t hurt when you go through a maze at 4 p.m. on a Saturday when there’s virtually no one in the maze but you. This left me to stumble through the dark passageways, often times needing to feel my way through by putting my hand on the wooden walls, alone. That’s an experience a big theme park can’t deliver outside of an up-charge attraction. You’re (rarely) going to stumble upon an empty maze at Halloween Horror Nights; usually you have to accept that you’ll be plodding along a maze with hundreds of other paying customers.

That was not the case in Kemah.

Dungeon of Doom

I entered the maze with a father and son; one of whom was not in any rush to get through this maze. I decided to surge ahead of them, lest I never receive any of the scares I paid $15 to enjoy. So I started walking, and walking and...well, you get the idea. This maze was enormous. I spent 15-20 minutes wading my way through room after room and scare after scare, wondering if there would ever be a respite from the terror. I get scared easily -- which is why I have fun at these events, but there’s something especially horrifying about knowing there is not another soul within five minutes of you in either direction.

The maze was housed underneath an elevated part of the boardwalk and was 100 percent indoors -- a welcome blessing given the oppressive Texan heat. This also allowed the creators to build a maze that felt very permanent. The walls were high and made of wood and the scenes were well crafted both thematically and strategically to give actors places to hide from guests when they did not want to be seen.

Inside the Dungeon of Doom

Actors jumped up from behind half-walls that separated guests from scenery and many followed me through the dark hallways, which kept me from anticipating what would come around the next dark corridor. I assume this was done out of necessity: It was that or hide behind a wall and wait for the next guest to come, but goodness, it was effective.

Rooms were separated by the long plastic curtains you might find in a freezer, meaning you could not see from room to room. In between themed rooms were long hallways that seemed to end abruptly thanks to keeping the corners poorly lit. Whether that keeps up with some sort of haunted house safety code, I don’t know, but good lord it was terrifying.

Then there were clowns. And then there were chainsaws. Thankfully not clowns wielding chainsaws, though, or I might not have survived to bring you this report at all.

Kemah Boardwalk’s Dungeon of Doom doesn’t have a story or central theme, but it did a heck of a job in scaring me halfway to death. In the quest for great haunted attractions, remember that you don’t always have to spend $60 and drive to a large theme park. Some of the best attractions are set up right in your backyard -- or boardwalk.

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Disney's theme parks prepare to implement their new disability access system

By Robert Niles
Published: October 4, 2013 at 9:11 PM

Disney today announced details about its new Disability Access Service [DAS] program at its U.S. theme parks.

We've been talking on Theme Park Insider about this new program for a few weeks now:

One important point of clarification in Disney's announcement today: Guests using wheelchairs will not be required to use the DAS program, as they were not required to use the current Guest Assistance Card [GAC] program. They can continue to use wheelchair-accessible queues or to get return times for alternate entry (usually through the exit) from cast members at an attraction entrance.

Obviously, the loss of the GAC is upsetting many Disney visitors who had come to rely on its front-of-line access. And that's eliciting frustration from many other guests who have felt pushed aside by Disney's current access procedures. But as theme park fans debate Disney's actions to provide more equitable access for all, let's acknowledge that achieving true equality of experience for all guests is impossible. We're each too different from one another to experience parks in the same ways, whether we have disabilities or not.

On that topic, we'd like to thank the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation for sharing our Daniel Etcheberry's post on the differences he experienced before and after he became a full-time wheelchair user:

The new system at Disney goes into effect on Wednesday, October 9.

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How to do the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival without going broke

By Scott Joseph
Published: October 4, 2013 at 9:07 PM

The annual Epcot International Food and Wine Festival is underway. Here are some of the food items to try from the International Marketplace kiosks, including something from South Korea amusingly called Kimchi Dog, which is not what you think it is. Neither is the haggis. Plus, I'll take you on a complete lap of the World Showcase in 25 seconds.

More: How to do the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival, on ScottJosephOrlando.com

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Vote of the week: How much money is too much for a hotel room?

By Robert Niles
Published: October 4, 2013 at 11:26 AM

How much is too much for a hotel room?

That's the question everyone budget-conscious traveler faces when planning a theme park vacation. Sure, we'd all love that suite overlooking the park, with 24/7 concierge service, front-of-the-line access to all the rides and shows in the park, and all local transportation on demand. But those rooms cost a lot of money. Too much, for most families.

Portofino Bay Hotel
It can be pricey, but enough Theme Park Insider readers considered it a great value that the Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando won our Theme Park Insider Award as the world's best theme park hotel last summer.

So how high can you go on a nightly hotel rate? What's the point at which you have to say, "I don't care how great the facilities and amenities are, I can't afford it."

You can find "Value" resort rooms on-site at Walt Disney World for under $100, but you'll probably end up paying more than $100 a night once you add taxes and fees. You almost always have to go over $200 a night, after tax, to find on-site rooms at either Universal Orlando or the Disneyland resorts. If you have to travel during school vacations, you'll often need to pay still more. But parks deliver a wide range of services and amenities for travelers who can pay higher nightly rates. Willing to pay $1,000 a night? You can find some really sweet accommodations, at pretty much any theme park, at any time of year.

Of course, most families can't pay that. Many can't afford, or just won't pay for, on-site location and amenities during the time of year when they can travel, so they look for lower-priced, off-site accommodations. But even off-site, you've still got trade-offs to consider: distance from the park, size and quality of the room, availability of parking, dining and airport access, whether you're a member of a loyalty program, etc. Considering all those factors, you try to get the most value for your money.

...Up until a point — that price per night when you can't pay more. And if you don't find the value you need for that price, you don't take the vacation. At least, not to that destination.

So let's talk about your financial breaking point for hotel rooms. How high are you willing to go on nightly rates? For this vote, let's consider the final price per night, including taxes, fees, and all the other costs a hotel tacks on to your bill at check-out.

We've offered a range of prices here, but tell us your specific cut-off, in the comments, if you'd like. What's the best deal you've found for a hotel on a theme park vacation? Where's your go-to option for value when you want to visit your favorite park?

For more: Rate and review on-site theme park hotels from around the world.

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Avoid the top theme park travel mistakes and faux pas

By Robert Niles
Published: October 3, 2013 at 5:26 PM

In the spirit of helping you get the most enjoyment from your theme park vacation with the least amount of embarrassment, here are some of the top mistakes and faux pas made by theme park visitors.

Drawing Goofy
Drawing Goofy is okay. Being Goofy, not so much.

Don't be "that guy." This is your "not to do" list for your next (and every) theme park visit.

  • Buying your "tickets" on Craiglist or eBay.
  • Bringing wrapped presents to a theme park for a party. (You won't get them past the bag check.)
  • Leaning on, grabbing, or pushing characters at a meet-and-greet.
  • Sending someone ahead to get in line so the rest of your group can cut to join him.
  • Yelling "Andy's coming!" at any point during your visit to a Disney theme park.
  • Making a crying child go on a ride.
  • Sitting in the "splash zone," then complaining when you get wet.
  • Using shoe lifts or other tricks so that your too-short child looks tall enough to ride.
  • Insisting that the Tom Sawyer Island rafts run on guide rails.
  • Not turning off the flash when taking photos inside indoor attractions.
  • Sitting at restaurant tables without food while diners are looking for a place to sit.
  • Tipping at the Tokyo Disney Resort (or anywhere in Japan).
  • Asking a Disney cast member where the Harry Potter ride is.
  • Standing during a parade or fireworks when people behind you are sitting.
  • Placing a child on your shoulders when others have been waiting behind you for the show.

Got another to add to the list? Please submit it in the comments!

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The Disney/Obamacare story, and what's really driving employment in the theme park business

By Robert Niles
Published: October 2, 2013 at 10:32 PM

The Walt Disney Company got some nice press around the Web today following the disclosure that it would promote more than 400 part-time employees to full-time status, a move that was attributed to new requirements under the U.S. federal Affordable Care Act (also known as the "Obamacare" law).

Some background: The basic premise behind the law is "no more freeloading." You've got to pay for health insurance, either by having your employer pay for it on your behalf, or by buying it yourself. So the law requires companies to buy health insurance for employees who work over a certain number of hours a year.

Walt Disney World has decided to just go ahead and bump some of those eligible employees up to full-time status, which means more hours and benefits for those workers. But a story earlier this year reported that SeaWorld would cut hours for some of its employees in the same situation, so that it wouldn't be required to pay for their health insurance.

Opponents of the administration jumped all over the SeaWorld story, citing it as evidence that Obamacare would hurt employees. Now, supporters of the administration are crowing about Disney, and how this shows Obamacare is helping employees get better deals at work.

But changes in health care laws don't drive employers' decisions about adding or cutting hours nearly as much as one other factor does — how much money the company's making.

If there's money on the table to be had, companies will add the workers and hours they need to collect it. If there's no money there, hours and employees soon will be going away, too.

A little perspective here. The 400-some employees moving up to full time at Disney represent fewer than two percent of the resort's part-time workers. And Disney moves some part-timers to full time nearly every year at the end of summer. (Long ago, when I worked at Walt Disney World, I started as a "CT" [casual temporary] — part-time, seasonal — employee, but moved to full time at the end of the summer following my senior year in college. And no one outside his family knew who Barack Obama was back then.)

Obamacare or no, Disney's theme parks are having a good year, by all financial reports. So Disney can afford to bump up its employees' hours to take advantage and try keep its customers coming back. SeaWorld's suffered a tough year for attendance, so it shouldn't surprise anyone that company might be less willing to add hours, and might even be looking to cut.

What we don't know yet is how many employee hours Disney or SeaWorld is adding or cutting overall at their parks. That's what will really tell us about what's happening to employment. (In fact, SeaWorld is adding some full-time employees, too.) The new health care law might encourage a company to push a few part-time employees near the cut-off threshold to one side or the other of that cut-off. But those all-important revenue numbers will determine how many employee hours a company adds or cuts overall.

I'm sure that companies that don't want to admit they're having a tough time might be perfectly happy to let Obamacare take the blame for their layoffs or cutbacks. And I'm also sure that companies that are adding jobs and hours are very happy for whatever positive press others are willing to give them, thanks to this being such as hot issue at the moment.

But Obamacare isn't really the big issue here. Whatever effect that law might have is nothing compared to the direction of the overall economy. When people who are willing to spend have money in their hands, companies add jobs and hours. When people willing to spend don't have cash on hand, workers get cut. (That's one the reasons why the recovery from the most recent US recession has been so sluggish. The increases in income have been going mostly to very wealthy Americans, who are less likely to spend that cash than working-class Americans would be.)

If people have money and want to spend it at Orlando-area theme parks, SeaWorld and Disney will be adding jobs and hours. And if people don't have cash, or decide to spend it elsewhere, life's gonna get tougher for people in Central Florida. That's the simple, and more accurate, story.

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Shanghai Disneyland construction update

By Robert Niles
Published: October 2, 2013 at 2:45 PM

Our colleague Stefan Zwanzger sent a link to a Shanghai Disneyland construction update photo gallery he just posted on thethemeparkguy.com.

Shanghai Disneyland construction
Photo courtesy Stefan Zwanzger

The 42-image gallery shows that demolition's nearly complete on the homes and businesses that once stood on the park's construction site. Construction cranes are up all over the place, and roadwork around the park is moving swiftly, even if almost nothing's gone vertical yet inside the park itself.

Here's a shot Stefan got of the resort's construction plans. In Chinese, of course. (Anyone able to translate? There's a higher-res version on Stefan's site.)

Shanghai Disneyland construction plans
Photo courtesy Stefan Zwanzger

At current the rate of construction, the project appears to be on pace for an early 2016 opening, as has been rumored. Here's our Shanghai Disneyland page, where we will be listing the park's attractions and restaurants for rating and review, as we approach the park's opening date.

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An 'Amazing Race' around the world of theme parks?

By Robert Niles
Published: October 2, 2013 at 12:20 PM

We shared this idea on Twitter last night, and many fans immediately embraced it: Imagine an all-theme park version of the TV reality show, The Amazing Race.

Tokyo Disneyland
Let's get ready to race!

This show should be the cool, fly-around-the-world version of the race, not the lame, drive-around-country family-edition version. So we're talking about international theme parks here. Like the original, this theme park race would start and end in the United States, and make no intermediate stops inside the country. Since it's easier on your body clock to fly west, we'd also start on the west coast, fly around the world to Asia then to Europe, and end on the east coast. The obvious choices for starting and ending points are Los Angeles and Orlando, since those are the top two theme park markets in the United States.

It's unlikely that both Disney and Universal would agree to cooperate with a show that also featured the others' theme parks, so we're looking at including one or the other. But neither chain offers enough destinations to provide the 10 or so stops that the show would need, so parks from other owners would need to be included, too.

Here are a couple of potential 10-stop itineraries that come to mind:

Season "D": Disneyland, Tokyo Disney, Lotte World, Hong Kong Disneyland, Ferrari World, Europa Park, De Efteling, Disneyland Paris, Alton Towers, Walt Disney World

Season "U": Universal Studios Hollywood, Universal Studios Japan, Ocean Park Hong Kong, Universal Studios Singapore, Ferrari World, Port Aventura, Europa Park, De Efteling, Alton Towers, Universal Orlando

The idea is to feature the world's most popular theme parks, at least for the initial go. So that would put the show's stops in the Far East and Europe, since those are where the popular parks are. To break up a long travel leg, let's throw in an intermediate stop on the Arabian peninsula, which is developing some interesting parks, too. (Abu Dhabi's Ferrari World is included in both itineraries above.)

Each episode should play in three acts: a travel leg to get to the park, then a first, followed by a second, challenge within the park. At the end of the each episode, the final contestant to complete the second task would be eliminated. But there should be some drama in the first two acts of each episode, too.

Challenges in a theme park race show shouldn't simply involve riding rides. Ideally, the should require more complicated tasks that the various contestants need different amounts of time to complete. Maybe they have to do some job in the park: driving rafts, performing in a parade, filling buckets of popcorn, feeding the dolphins, etc. Or they could require some guest-focused task: finding "hidden Mickeys," scavenger hunts, and the like. Whatever the challenges, they should include a mix of those that require the demonstration of skill, and those that require the endurance of some good ole public humiliation. And the focus should remain on showing the most interesting and unique elements of the park being visited in that episode. This is, at its heart, a travelogue as much as it is a game show.

One of fans' frustrations with The Amazing Race is that as many eliminations as not seem to be determined by who gets the bad cabbie. That certainly seemed to be the deciding factor in this week's Season 23 premiere episode, when a bad cab ride put the team that ultimately was eliminated so far behind that it couldn't catch up. (I don't think that constitutes a spoiler for anyone who hasn't watched the episode yet, since it describes roughly half the episodes in the freaking series.)

Placing the show inside theme parks eliminates much of the need for taxis, as there won't be any driving around in cities. But contestants still would need to move between the parks and the local airports. To put more of the competition in the contestants' control, let's propose that they use public transportation wherever possible. Only when there is no reliable mass transit or airport shuttle option should contestants be told it's okay to use cabs on this leg of the trip. (I'm thinking Ferrari World here. Or maybe getting from Disneyland to LAX.)

One of the fascinating behind-the-scenes elements of The Amazing Race is timing the flights between cities. Ideally, you want contestants to have options on when and through which connecting airports to fly, so that some contestants can get a time advantage over the others. But you don't want the time advantage to become so extreme that those other contestants are effectively eliminated before they even get to the destination. Producers earn their money devising a procession of destinations that satisfies both needs.

When I flew from Singapore to Tokyo nearly two years ago, I hustled off the plane and through customs, catching a shuttle bus from Narita Airport to Tokyo Disneyland with just about one minute to spare. If I hadn't hustled so quickly to get off the plane and into the customs queue, I would have had to wait an extra hour for the next shuttle, or tried to navigate the Japan Railway system to get to Tokyo Disneyland. That is exactly the type of situation you'd want to arrange to create drama for an episode's first act, as contestants hurry to get to the park first.

The first challenge in the park would be the "second act" of each episode. Since elimination's not on the table, we'd need some other way to create drama in this act. (On Survivor, the winner of the first challenge usually gets some reward.) Here, perhaps the winner of the first challenge could get the opportunity to influence the other contestants.

Here's my idea, one that further reinforces the "theme park" theme of the show: Each contestant is given one "line skip" and one "breakdown" pass at the beginning of the game. The contestant who wins the first challenge in a particular park can play one of those passes. If he or she plays the "line skip," that contestant can select another contestant to "skip the line" and immediately join him or her in starting the next task. If he or she plays the "breakdown," that contestant selects another contestant who will have to serve a time penalty at the end of that task. If the winner of the task has already played his or her passes, the second-place finisher gets the chance to play a pass, and so on. (But you can't play a breakdown pass on someone who's already completed that task and moved on.)

Imagine the possibilities for mischief with that scheme in play!

Finally, to further differentiate this from The Amazing Race, instead of ripping open envelopes at clue boxes, contestants in our theme park race could get their clues by tapping an NFC-enabled cell phone to a check-in stanchion. The clue would then appear on their phones. (Product placement opportunity!)

I could see the show with individual contestants, or with teams. The show could be produced with parks' cooperation, but if parks didn't play along, perhaps if enough people contributed to a Kickstarter or watched ads on the show, it could happen as a (very expensive) guerilla Web production.

Hey, I'd watch this. (Let's not kid ourselves. I'd love even more to host!) What about you? Would you like to see an all-theme park Amazing Race? What destinations, challenges, and other elements would you like to see in such a show?

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How using a wheelchair changes the theme park experience

By Daniel Etcheberry
Published: October 2, 2013 at 11:09 AM

My theme park life can be divided in two parts; my able body experience and my disabled experience. 1999 was the year that changed the way I would experience the same rides that I rode before. Ending up in a wheelchair with no ability of standing up on my own and with upper torso weakness, it changed my ride’s experience. Actually the changes have been from the minimal to the impossible.


On the minimal side is E.T.; this ride has a special vehicle that can carry a wheelchair. It was exactly the same experience than when I was body able. Even better, the wheelchair always goes on the first row; the first time I rode it (body able) I was on the last row, and the first row is much better because the feeling of flying is more real.

Disaster falls in the same category as E.T., but with a slight change. Like E.T., this ride can accommodate a wheelchair, but that spot is on the first row to the left when entering the train. It is not the best spot, and the experience was less exciting with the wheelchair.

Other rides with minimal change were all the ones that accepted wheelchairs, such as it’s a Small World and the river boat at Epcot’s Mexican pavilion (the only change in these rides is that I see everything from a higher height, and when another boat bumps behind my boat, I feel a stronger jolt).

Going down the ladder are the rides where I have to transfer (with help of family members). The first time I rode Haunted Mansion at Magic Kingdom, I experienced the stretching room. People in wheelchairs have to enter through the exit, so I never saw that room again. Cast members stop the ride so one can transfer. Once seated, it is the same experience.

Going further down the ladder are the rides that are difficult to transfer. When I rode Splash Mountain at Magic Kingdom in 1996, it was relaxing and enjoyable; when I rode it again in 2001, it was relaxing and enjoyable except for the transfer out of the boat. The family member who rode it with me could not get me out, and we got lucky that there was a guest who helped us. After that experience I never rode Splash Mountain again. I miss that ride.

Going even further down the ladder are the rides that I don’t feel comfortable anymore. I rode Dinosaur in the nineties; by then I found it exhilarating, but when I rode it again in the 2000s, I felt that I was going to slip out of the vehicle. I was lucky that my brother-in-law was sitting next to me, and he hold me tight. This time I did not enjoy the ride at all.

Space Mountain

At the bottom of the ladder are the rides that are impossible to experience again. I enjoyed Space Mountain (MK) in 1996; now I don’t even dare to try. It’s a low vehicle with only one seat per row and very narrow. Very narrow leg room as well. Another impossible ride that I enjoyed in the nineties and became non-accessible for me was Spaceship Earth at Epcot. The disabled had to enter the ride through the exit, and they had to climb stairs! A few years ago they changed those stairs for a ramp, and I was able to experience the ride again.

Being a theme park fan and disabled sucks (for a lack of a better word), but one day I saw something that changed my perspective of life; there was a blind girl in front of me at one of the rides, and even though she couldn’t see the ride itself, she was able to listen to the music and feel the movement of the vehicle. Her imagination must have gone wild. Nevertheless, I felt blessed that I still can see the sights, and it also was a learning experience that no matter what limitations one can have, there is always an enjoyment to be had in a theme park.

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In honor of Walt Disney World's 42nd birthday, 42 things we've loved about Disney World

By Robert Niles
Published: October 1, 2013 at 2:10 PM

In honor of Walt Disney World's 42nd birthday today, here are 42 things (past and present) we've loved about Disney World.

Cinderella's Castle

The Mary Blair Grand Canyon Concourse mural
Riding in the front of the monorail
Mickey towel art on your bed
Mickey-shaped butter
Renting a boat at Dixie Landings and sailing to Downtown Disney and back
Roasting s'mores and watching a movie at Fort Wilderness
Trying on silly hats
Free buttons
Free wifi
Chocolate-covered frozen bananas
Watching the second nighttime parade in the Magic Kingdom and riding rides during the first
Canoeing around the Rivers of America
The last raft of the day from Tom Sawyer Island
A Citrus Swirl cone
A Dole Whip float
A chicken and waffle sandwich from Sleepy Hollow
The Adventureland egg roll dog
A peanut butter and jelly sandwich from Aunt Polly's
Sitting upstairs at the Columbia Harbor House
The goat trick
The Diamond Horseshoe Jamboree
The Country Bear Christmas Special
The tributes to 20K in the Little Mermaid queue
The Grey Stuff
Getting stuck on Buzz Lightyear
The music in Impressions de France
The first notes of Rhapsody in Blue in the original IllumiNations
Golden Dreams
The Disney All-American College Orchestra at Epcot
Using a live video call for the first time in your life to make a lunch reservation at Epcot
Guided tours
Choosing between space, desert, or sea?
Believing in hydrolators
Topiaries shaped like characters
The jumping fountains at the Imagination pavilion
Spaceship Earth in twilight
Thursday night cast member specials at Pleasure Island
Drawing your own Disney character at the Animation Academy
Mickey ice cream bars
The Cinderella mosaic
When the Yeti worked
Fireworks, every night of the year

You're invited to keep the list growing, in the comments.

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Will Ratatouille become Disneyland Paris' Mystic Manor?

By Robert Niles
Published: October 1, 2013 at 9:39 AM

Disneyland Paris has released a promotional image for its new Ratatouille-themed dark ride, to open next year at Walt Disney Studios Paris.

Ratatouille ride
Concept art courtesy Disney

The ride has been known by the development name "Remy's Kitchen Calamity," but the new, official name of the attraction will be Ratatouille: L'Aventure Totalement Toquée de Rémy. That translates (roughly) to "Ratatouille: Remy's Totally Crazy Adventure."

Disneyland Paris described the ride: "This world-first attraction will shrink guests to the size of a rat & plunge them into the heart of a particularly excited parisian kitchen."

Another translation? It's France's Mystic Manor.

The Ratatouille ride will use the same trackless, local-positioning guidance system as Mystic Manor and Tokyo Disneyland's Winnie the Pooh ride. (It's also similar to the system used on SeaWorld Orlando's Antarctica ride.) The kitchen chase theme provides plenty of opportunity for the variety of visual gags and effects that made Mystic Manor so wildly popular. And Remy, like Mystic Manor's Albert the monkey, is another lovable-looking animal protagonist who just can't help but get himself in trouble, making for great conflict opportunities in the ride.

Will Disney deliver on this potential as it did in Hong Kong? We'll have to wait for the ride's debut next year. But with Disney offering trackless rides in Tokyo, Hong Kong and, next year, Paris, theme park fans in the United States might understandably be wondering when Disney will bring a Mystic Manor-style ride to Orlando or Anaheim.

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Keep reading: October 2013 Archive

Stories from a Theme Park Insider

Stories from a Theme Park Insider

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