Welcome to Theme Park Insider! Join the community or log in
Theme Park Insider
Facebook Twitter Google Plus Email Newsletter

November 2013

First look at the blueprints for Walt Disney World's Avatar 3D attraction

By Robert Niles
Published: November 30, 2013 at 11:41 AM

Despite what you might have heard about Disney's future theme park attraction plans, the Avatar "World of Pandora" land at Disney's Animal Kingdom at the Walt Disney World Resort remains good to go, and we've seen the plans that prove it.

Disney's scheduled the first phase of Pandora to open in 2017, and based on the designs we've seen, we believe that phase will include the "Soarin'"-style 3D movie attraction.

Avatar movie ride at Walt Disney World
Concept art courtesy Disney

Design plans for that attraction call for a massive, five- or six-story theater building, which will top out somewhere around 80 feet. The building will include four show theaters, which will radiate from a central hub from where visitors will load into the theaters.

Two of the four theaters will be ADA-compatible (more about that in a minute), and plans show three ride levels in the show building. The indoor portion of the queue will snake through a shorter building to the side of the main theater building. Just as the queue enters the theater building, the queue will split, and visitors will be sent onto one of two ramps. The left ramp will descend slightly to the first show level, while the right ramp will ascend to the second show level.

On each level, groupers will split their portion of the queue into four groups, to load each of the four theaters. Once directed to their theater, visitors will pick up their 3D glasses before entering a small pre-show room. From there, visitors will walk through a load vestibule before emerging into their theater. It appears that some of the visitors sent to the second show level will ascend to a third show level after they've been assigned their theater and picked up their glasses.

Although this attraction's been compared widely to Soarin', the load procedure implied by these blueprints would be compared better with Universal's The Simpsons Ride. On Soarin', everyone enters the theaters on one level, to board ride vehicles that then ascend to one of three show levels. On Simpsons and on Avatar, visitors will walk up ramps or steps to their ride level, although the ride vehicles may further elevate from those levels.

Visitors will face curved IMAX-style screens during the show, then will exit through one of two unload vestibules. The plans show visitors on the second and third show levels descending stairs to exit the building, so I presume that all wheelchairs parties will be sent to the first show level to board the attraction. In addition, the two ADA-compatible theaters exit the building at that first show level, while visitors from the two other theaters descend one more floor in their unload vestibule down to an exit corridor that crosses underneath the theater building, so that all four theaters can exit on the same side of the building.

I don't think anyone needs three guesses to figure out that's so all riders can exit into the attraction's gift shop.

What we don't know from these plans are what the ride vehicles will look like, though the plans suggest that they will be suspended from the building's ceiling. Nor, of course, do we know anything about the setting or storyline of the movie itself, beyond what Disney announced at the D23 Expo in Japan — that visitors would fly through the skies of Pandora. However, with four theaters and IMAX-style screens, we do know that this will be one massive show building.

Comments (15) | Archive Link

Wizarding World of Harry Potter construction update from Universal Studios Hollywood

By Robert Niles
Published: November 29, 2013 at 4:10 PM

Construction is getting underway on the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Hollywood, where crews have demolished the Gibson Amphitheater, and work is continuing on preparing the site for vertical construction.

You'll first notice the Harry Potter construction site when you reach the Shrek 4-D attraction, which has a new entrance.

Shrek 4D entrance

With the Curious George play area gone, as well as the Gibson behind it, you can see through to the mountains behind the park, which had been hidden behind those buildings before. If you take a peek over the construction walls, you can see equipment at work.

Harry Potter construction in Hollywood

Walk around the construction site, back toward The Simpsons Ride and the Studio Tour entrance, for a more expansive view of the Harry Potter construction site, which extends from the Shrek theater (on the right) more than 400 feet across the Upper Lot, past the Waterworld theater (in the background, in front of the CityWalk offices), to the edge of the mountain, above the Studio Tour entrance (off to the left).

Wizarding World of Harry Potter construction site in Hollywood

For some additional perspective, here's the Google Maps aerial view of Universal Studios Hollywood's upper lot. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter construction site is to the right, outlined in red. The Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem and Super Sill Fun Land construction site is in red, to the left. And the new Universal Plaza site is the middle, outlined in aqua. The Shrek theater is the structure in the middle of the Wizarding World's "mouth."

Universal Studios Hollywood construction map

That new Universal Plaza really contributes to the sense of open space in the park now. The Plaza Tower serves as the visual "weenie" drawing you into the park from as you enter. And plaza itself functions as the "hub" from which the park's lands emanate: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter to the east, Springfield to the north and International Street and Super Silly Fun Land to the west.

For now, though, the Plaza offers one more welcomed addition to the park — a Pink's hot dog restaurant, on the northeast corner of the Plaza.

Pink's hot dogs

Replacing the simple cart that once stood here, this counter service restaurant serves a wider selection of hot dogs from the Los Angeles landmark, including chili dogs, chili cheese dogs, bacon chili cheese dogs, the "engagement ring" dog (topped with onion rings), the "Mulholland Drive" dog (topped with grilled onions and mushrooms, plus nacho cheese and bacon), and the "bacon burrito" dog (two hot dogs, with bacon, cheese, chili and onions, wrapped in a tortilla). Polish sausages and burgers also are available, with chili and bacon toppings.

In our Grinchmas update earlier this week, posted photos of Minion Mayhem's impressive facade. That attraction is expected to open sometime in "spring 2014," according to Universal. The park has not yet given an expected opening date for Harry Potter. However, both Wizarding World of Harry Potter lands in Florida took two and a half years from initial construction to projected opening date.

Given that full construction on Hollywood's Wizarding World began in September, that would give us an expected opening date around March 2016. However, we also should consider that this project is happening in California, which is known for having, uh, somewhat tougher construction regulation than Florida. Plus, Universal's building this Wizarding World on top of a mountain, instead of on the billiard-table-flat land of central Florida. So no one should be surprised if the Hollywood Wizarding World takes longer to complete, with an opening anywhere from late spring 2016 to summer or beyond.

Comments (5) | Archive Link

Theme Park Insider's 2014 Orlando guidebook is now on sale

By Robert Niles
Published: November 29, 2013 at 1:06 AM

Just in time for your holiday gift wishlist, we've got a new "Theme Park Insider" book for you!

Theme Park Insider: Orlando 2014We're thrilled to announced that we've just published "Theme Park Insider: Orlando 2014," our first guidebook, and the follow-up book to our popular "Stories from a Theme Park Insider."

"Theme Park Insider: Orlando 2014" brings together the best features on the website in more than 200 pages of tips, descriptions, and advice to help anyone considering an Orlando-area vacation. The book includes freshly updated attraction, restaurant, and hotel listings and reader ratings for the theme parks of Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, and SeaWorld Orlando. In addition, the book highlights several other popular area attractions, including Busch Gardens Tampa, the Kennedy Space Center, and Legoland Florida.

The book goes beyond listings to provide analysis of the park's various ticketing, dining, and skip-the-line plans, helping readers decide which choices will be the right ones for their families. From tips on how score big on Toy Story Midway Mania to meeting theme park characters, "Theme Park Insider: Orlando 2014" provides welcome advice (and background trivia) that will help even long-time Orlando visitors get more from their theme park visits.

The eBook version of "Theme Park Insider: Orlando 2014" is available now on Amazon.com for $5.99. The print version will be available on Amazon (for $9.95) by Monday, and we're expecting the eBook to go live on Apple's iBookstore sometime next week, as well.

(In case you're curious, our long-range plan is to offer additional guides for other popular theme park destinations, including Southern California, Asia, and Europe. But that will depend upon how well this volume sells.)

If you'd like even more Theme Park Insider this holiday season, don't forget that our original book, "Stories from a Theme Park Insider" is still available on Amazon.com, and Apple's iBookstore. We hope that you'll consider putting both books on your holiday wish list, or your shopping list for the other theme park fans in your life. They're fun reads, and represent the very best of the Theme Park Insider community.

Update: The paperback version is now available on Amazon.

Comments (2) | Archive Link

Grinchmas gets underway at Universal Studios Hollywood

By Robert Niles
Published: November 27, 2013 at 2:39 PM

Universal Studios Hollywood kicked off its annual Grinchmas celebration this morning, with a new venue for the annual holiday event.

Universal entrance

Universal's tearing up a big chunk of the park as it spends more than a billion dollars on its ambitious "Evolution" plan, which will add attractions, hotels and new production facilities throughout its Studio City property. One of the first elements to finish is the park's centerpiece Universal Plaza Tower.

The plaza tower, in the distance

Universal Plaza is the new home for Grinchmas, now that its old space in the Curious George playground is under construction to make way for the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Universal Plaza, decorated for its first Grinchmas

Merry Grinchmas 2013

Now that is a theme park Christmas tree!

The Grinchmas tree, in 2013.

Each year for the opening of Grinchmas, Universal honors a celebrity for his or her charity work. This year's "Who-Manitarian" was Florence Henderson, best known to TV viewers as Mrs. Brady from "The Brady Bunch."

At Grinchmas 2013, Universal honored Florence Henderson for her work with City of Hope

Visitors can meet the Grinch and Max in the Plaza on weekends through Dec. 20, then daily through New Year's Eve.

Grinch and Max

Kids can find several Grinchmas activities in the Plaza during those same times, including the chance to make their own ornaments or decorate cookies.

Cookie decorating at Grinchmas

In addition to the decor around the Plaza, Universal's decorated its International Streets for the holiday.

Christmas decor on International Street

Father Christmas

On the far side the International Streets, construction on Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem and Super Silly Fun Land continues.

Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem

Clearly, the Hollywood version of this ride is getting a much more impressive facade than the Florida original. And we haven't yet gotten a good look at the accompanying Super Silly Fun Land play area.

Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem

Later this weekend, we'll share a few photos of the Harry Potter construction site.

Archive Link

Can 'Magic' scale? That's Disney's billion-dollar question

By Robert Niles
Published: November 26, 2013 at 10:59 AM

Disney's MyMagic+ system isn't working as the company planned, and that's beginning to affect to Disney theme parks' plans for the next few years.

Walt Disney World

The company is spending more than a billion dollars on its NextGen initiatives in the theme parks, the largest of which is MyMagic+, a new system for visitors to manage their Walt Disney World vacations. Under the system, visitors are supposed to use Disney's website and mobile apps to book reservations times for restaurants, rides, and shows, while they'll use RFID-enabled "MagicBand" wristbands as their admission media, hotel room key and "credit card" during their stay at the resort.

MyMagic+ has led Disney to create a new ride reservation system, Fastpass+, to run in parallel with its existing Fastpass system. In addition, Diseny's had to merge this new Fastpass+ system with its existing restaurant reservation system to create MyMagic+ profiles for all participating visitors. The system also has to hook in with Disney's hotel reservation system, including managing charging privileges to visitors' resort bills from the MagicBands.

Disney's had all the pieces of this puzzle before, with Fastpass, ADRs, and Keys to the World cards. But MyMagic+ puts them all together and expands the system to all Disney World hotel visitors, some of whom might not have used all those systems together in the past. Eventually, MyMagic+ is supposed to accommodate all Walt Disney World visitors, including local annual passholders and even visitors staying off site.

As it stands now, MyMagic+ represents a massive increase in scale for Disney's vacation management and reservations systems, with another massive increase in scale to come as annual passholders and "day" visitors come into the system. And, as Disney is learning, scale is the natural enemy of information technology applications.

The federal government illustrated this lesson with its Healthcare.gov system, which was intended as a federal back-up in case a few states declined to create their own health care insurance marketplaces, but instead became the primary exchange for the majority of Americans as most states elected not to develop those marketplaces. In addition, Healthcare.gov had to service millions of low-income Americans who were supposed to have gotten health insurance through an expansion of Medicaid, but who were left without coverage when their states declined to accept federal money to pay for that coverage. (A general rule of IT is that as your audience's age gets older or its income gets lower, your user interface must get simpler.) A system that was designed for a relative handful of middle-income consumers instead had to serve millions more users across a wider economic spectrum.

That's a massive change in scale. Throw in a DDOS attack at launch and the system crumbled, forcing the government to scramble its private contractors to recode it. Fortunately, that seems to have worked, and the federal website now is enrolling people at an ever-increasing rate.

Disney would be fortunate to turn around MyMagic+ as quickly. Before MyMagic+, Disney World theme park visitors used a couple of Fastpasses a day, on average. In practice, many visitors used many more Fastpasses than that, but they were balanced by individuals who didn't use the system at all. Under MyMagic+, everyone gets three Fastpass+ reservations a day, which are assigned by the system if the visitor doesn't choose his or her own selections.

Fastpass+ also covers every attraction in the park, including parades and even some counter-service restaurants — locations that never had anything to do with Fastpass before. The old Fastpass system also didn't account for families. You stuck a ticket into a Fastpass machine, and got a return time back. Every once in a long while, you'd put, say, four tickets in a Fastpass machine and get three passes for a 3:10 return, then one for a 3:20, as the 3:10 return time "sold out" while you were submitting your ticket cards. The system didn't know that you were trying to get four times together.

MyMagic+ tries to associate multiple visitors' profiles, to help families traveling together to stay together. This starts with ensuring that people can all get into their hotel room. But it extends to managing control of kids' charging privileges and Fastpass+ times, as well. From visitors' reports, Disney's Guest Relations staff has had to accommodate thousands of park guests who've had problems with MyMagic+ not being able to manage properly the various selections and profiles of families and groups visiting the resort. It's just another layer of complexity that Disney's IT systems haven't had to manage before.

Add up all the flaws, flubs, and bugs, and Disney's not been able to expand the system on the schedule it had planned. In addition, Disney's still spending money on fixes and implementation, instead of earning money from the increased guest spending it had anticipated with a full roll-out by now. That means the Disney Parks have to make up the difference somewhere else in its budget.

MiceAge reported thais morning that's happening as Disney delays, cuts back, or cancels almost all upcoming capital expansion projects at its theme parks in the United States, Paris and Hong Kong. (Remember, the Tokyo parks are owned and operated by Oriental Land Company, which has its own budget.) That means no Monstropolis at California Adventure, and delayed Star Wars lands at Disneyland and Disney's Hollywood Studios. It's worth noting that Disney's dealing with two issues simultaneously: a reduction in planned profits due to the MyMagic+ scale issues, and a rapidly approaching deadline to get Shanghai Disneyland completed.

If MyMagic+ had been delivering the cash the company had anticipated, Disney could have dealt with Shanghai by staffing up to get that project completed on time. But under a budget crunch, the numbers work better by diverting existing staff to Shanghai instead. That means a delay in their current projects. It's not a given, however, that even if MyMagic+ had been an undisputed success that Disney would have spent that money to staff up to overcome Shanghai delays. It could have chosen to bank that cash and reassign existing staff to those projects anyway.

Of course, plans and budgets change constantly, especially in companies the size of Disney. But with more than a billion dollars on the line, Disney's facing some tough choices the longer that MyMagic+ takes to get running smoothly.

Comments (45) | Archive Link

Christmas Town at Busch Gardens Williamsburg opens for its fifth season

By Russell Meyer
Published: November 24, 2013 at 4:02 PM

Halloween has become quite a lucrative season for theme parks, but as parks search for more sources of revenue and ways to draw guests to make return visits, Christmas is becoming just as profitable. Theme parks have been putting up holiday decorations for years, and many year-round parks hold hard-ticket events to expand their earning potential. However, theme parks in the more northern climates tend not to open during the winter months for fear of bad weather and perceived lack of interest. After all, how many people are silly enough to want to ride an outdoor roller coaster in 40 degree temperatures, or even colder?

Busch Gardens Williamsburg has bucked that trend as they open Christmas Town to guests for its 5th season. As a season passholder to the park, I've been intrigued by the concept. However, I've never really had a desire to venture to the park for the event that requires a separate admission, even from the most elite passholders. This year was my first Christmas Town, as my family and I were invited to the park as part of the blogger preview of the event. Having never been before, I had expected the park to be pretty much as normal with a bunch of lights and Christmas decorations, which is what many other parks do for the holidays. Instead what I found was a park that was very different than what I expected.


Christmas Town is truly a completely different theme park with more than six million lights, 1,500 Christmas trees, 20,000 ornaments, and over 3 miles of garland. While some of the park's rides are open, including Verbolten, Mach Tower (turned into "observation" mode as Nacht Tower), Battering Ram, DaVinci's Cradle, and most of the park's other flat rides, Christmas Town is not really about the rides. Christmas Town is also not just about the light and decorations, which is what many other northern climate theme parks do around the holidays by putting on extravagant light shows. Christmas Town is about the complete holiday experience.

As part of the blogger event, my family and I were invited to Santa's Fireside Feast, a buffet style meal complete with Jolly Ole St. Nick. The buffet features salad, Swedish-style meatballs, mashed potatoes with gravy, sweet potato casserole, corn, stuffing, and roasted turkey, along with chicken nuggets, hot dogs, and macaroni and cheese for the kids. As part of the meal, kids are invited to take pictures with Santa Claus (available for purchase after the meal), and Santa entertains guests with a dramatic oration of "Twas the Night Before Christmas". The food itself was pretty good, with the Swedish-style meatballs being the standout, but the real highlight was the opportunity to be with Santa for nearly an hour.


Following Santa's Fireside Feast, we strolled around the park for the rest of the evening to take in Christmas Town. While many of the park's signature coasters are not open during Christmas Town, just about every area of the park is, with the exceptions being Sesame Street Forest of Fun and Land of the Dragons. However during Christmas Town, each of the European lands is transformed into a new area with lights, decorations, music, and even some snow. Two of the most dramatic transformations are found in Holiday Hills (Festa Italia area) and The North Pole (Germany Area). Holiday Hills is a very clever American 50's era inspired overlay that feels straight out of a movie. The area is filled with nostalgic billboards, colorful lights, and 50's holiday music. The lights even put on a show, dancing with the music to count down the days remaining until Christmas. As with stores, malls, radio stations, and TV shows these days, it was a bit unnerving to see that there were still 33 days until Christmas, but until people are willing to push back, the Christmas season will continue to grow every year.


The North Pole is where guests can meet Santa Claus without having to pay for the Fireside Feast. The character meet and greet is set up in the former clearance store and snack stand underneath the giant clock. The décor inside the meet and greet area is well done, but the real magic is just outside. The fountain at the center of the clock square features the North Pole, complete with snow. I've been to other parks that create snow for the holidays out of soap bubbles, but the "flakes" always look too thick to feel real. Busch Gardens' snow at the North Pole feels much more real with smaller suds that give a far more authentic look.


In France, a giant tree has been erected to celebrate the 12 Days of Christmas, as well as 12 smaller trees, one dedicated to each day. In addition to playing the "12 Days of Christmas", complete with a dancing light show, the area features some favorite carols sung in French. France is also where guests can visit the Ice Palace: A Penguin Paradise. Busch Gardens transformed the backstage area of the Royal Palace Theater, location of The Catacombs haunted maze during Howl-O-Scream, into a penguin habitat. The Magellenic penguins, on loan from SeaWorld San Antonio and the Columbus Zoo, are displayed for guests to see, complete with a swimming area similar to what you would find at a SeaWorld park. It was pretty impressive for a temporary habitat, and worth seeing.


In Oktoberfest, O Tannenbaum will delight guests with another dancing light show, featuring instrumental carols. Those that enjoy Trans-Siberian Orchestra and the hundreds of YouTube clips of people getting their Christmas lights to dance in time to music would definitely appreciate the show. Oktoberfest also features the Mistletoe Marketplace, which is set up like a European Christmas market. Having been to Prague two years ago during the holiday season, they certainly were able to capture a similar vibe with this market.


Another impressive light display can be found along the Polar Pathway (the area around Escape From Pompeii), where the water ride's façade and surrounding pools are covered in strings of LED lights. The walkways in the area feature polar bears and a giant Santa adorns the area near the ride's load platform.

However, the light display along the train route was not as impressive. Perhaps I was expecting full scenes, animatronics, and sheets of light, but the strings inside the train and trees with lights wrapped around them along the tracks was a little underwhelming. The train is really a missed opportunity for the park, and after seeing the cars packed hip to hip earlier in the evening, I had expected something more.


The theater shows, on the other hand, were far from disappointing, and are by far should be the highlight of any visit to Christmas Town. Gloria! is a musical retelling of the Biblical Christmas story complete with special effects and a full orchestra, staged inside the Abbey Stone Theater in Ireland. The performers in this extravaganza are by far some of the most talented singers that I have ever seen at Busch Gardens, and that talent is combined with some well-conceived effects to create a show that will give even the meanest Grinch the warm fuzzies. The stage is equipped with a translucent screen that allows projections to occur in front of the performers, while another screen behind the performers can also display backgrounds. In addition, the stage has a number of moving platforms and walkways that allow the cast to simulate walking and floating, which really sells the story. Considering the small size of the stage, the producers of Gloria! have been able to pull off a minor miracle in addition to the miracle of the Nativity.


A much larger stage is set in the center of the Festhaus for Deck the Halls, a singing and dancing big band-style show featuring an energetic cast and live band. The singers here were a notch below those featured in Gloria!, but nonetheless put on a very entertaining show. Due to time constraints, I was only able to see a small snippet of Miracles, which features ballet dancers and a female quartet of singers. However, from what little I saw of the show, it appeared to be a happy medium between the more serious tone of Gloria! and schmaltziness of Deck the Halls.


The park also features a number of street performers, including carolers in England and jesters in France. The restaurants throughout the park also have modified their menus to feature more holiday-inspired dishes in addition to numerous stands serving peppermint hot chocolate. Overall, Christmas Town at Busch Gardens Williamsburg is a completely different experience than guests would receive during the normal operating schedule. It is more than just a bunch of lights and decorations, though they do play a big part in the park's transformation. The lights, decorations, music, street performers, and shows all work together to create a completely new theme park. Christmas Town is open on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through mid-December, and then every day from December 13th through New Year's Eve, with the exception of Christmas Day.

Comments (4) | Archive Link

Where to eat: Drinks and decor distinguish Disneyland's Trader Sam's

By Jacob Sundstrom
Published: November 23, 2013 at 12:46 PM

If it's a secret, it hasn't been guarded too carefully, but somehow, someway Trader Sam's at the Disneyland Hotel goes under the radar for vacationers and regulars alike. Maybe this is for the best as the bar and restaurant is not exactly expansive. My first special event shift as a cast member came at the opening of the bar a few years ago and let's just say that one night of "bouncing" was enough for me.

Trader Sams

The bar can still get packed on weekends and during the busy times, but there's something to be said for stopping by the unofficial cast member bar after a long day at the park. A sequel to the similarly popular Adventurers Club, Trader Sam's was the go-to bar for off duty cast members when I was working; and that has not come near changing since then.

On any given weeknight there will be a dozen or so guests that were cast members just an hour ago. To the untrained eye and ear they might go unnoticed, but if you've been around the parks as often as I have, you know a cast member when you see them. Okay, okay, and eavesdropping on the latest workplace gossip is generally a good tip-off, too.

But you're not at the bar to hang out with cast members (probably), you're there for the food and drinks — an area that Disney tends to excel in. While they have your typical mixed drinks and beers, it's the specialty drink menu that draws most of the attention. Of particular interest is the Uh Oa drink which is practically served on a platter and is recommended for "two or more guests."

Disney park drinks get the rap for being on the weak side, but I've never heard that said about Trader Sam's. Trust me when I say that you are getting your money's worth — at least, no less so than you do at any other bar. I usually stick with the Piranha Pool while my wife is a big fan of the HippopotoMai-Tai [yes, all the names for the drinks are this goofy].

Drinks at Trader Sams

As you might have picked up, the name for the bar comes from the titular Trader Sam who can be seen on the World Famous Jungle Jingle Cruise where he offers you "two of his heads for one of yours." In this iteration of Trader Sam he has traveled all over the world [shades of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers] to collect artifacts which now populate his bar. Ignoring that these [Indiana Jones voice] belong in a museum, they make for a very nice atmosphere.

While the inspiration for the bar's name come from the Jungle Cruise, the bar's atmosphere is more reminiscent of the Enchanted Tiki Room. The architecture of the building is meant to create the illusion that you're in some sort of a thatched hut complete with round wooden beams and jungle-esque shrubbery on the exterior. It's like what an Island's burger joint would look like if Disney did the theming.

Inside Trader Sams

Inside there are photos and artifacts on the wall along with some fake newspaper clippings and the like. But the sights are just some of the ways Disney creates the bar's signature feel. The sounds of the jungle fill the bar, and thunder and lightning effects are added in when certain drinks are ordered. Once you enter the bar (there is also an outdoor area which offers a much quieter and more tranquil setting) you might forget you're just outside the Disneyland Hotel. The room is dimly lit, small and filled with sounds. It's easily the most captivating bar I have ever been in and, in my mind, sets the standard for what Disney tries to do with its themed eateries.

Outside Trader Sams

Great theming takes you only so far, of course — the food has to match. Trader Sam's offers good-to-very-good bar food, my favorite of which is the pulled pork pizza. It's served with just enough cheese and barbecue sauce on a thin crust and embodies the best of California pizza.

For the thin-crust avert, the pineapple Angus burger is a safe bet — though it doesn't exactly pair well with most of the fruity drinks offered. The Ahi Poke is incredible and the panko-crusted Chinese long beans are a great non-meat option. If you're looking for something with a little bit of substance, but aren't a fan of red meat, the chicken lettuce wraps are delicious and light which makes them a perfect snack on the heavier side.

Trade Sam's isn't exactly a secret, but it is quietly one of the best bars at the Disneyland Resort and is another example of Disney's thematic excellence. Now quick, add Trader Sam to the Society of Explorers and Adventurers already!

Comments (1) | Archive Link

Vote of the Week: What's the best option for a new ride for Epcot?

By Robert Niles
Published: November 22, 2013 at 10:56 AM

With Bryan Wawzenek writing for us this week about all the cool new stuff at Hong Kong Disneyland, a new trackless ride coming to Paris, last year's massive Disneyland Resort expansion, and the continued awesomeness at Tokyo Disney, one can't blame Walt Disney World fans for feeling a bit left out. The New Fantasyland stuff has helped drive attendance and spending, but next to what other Disney resorts are getting, that's like having a meet and greet with Pluto when everyone else is getting a private audience with Mickey and Minnie Mouse. It's nice, but... c'mon.

It's high time that Disney showed some love to its most popular theme park resort. And love is on the way, with Avatar in the works for 2017 and beyond, and a Star Wars land coming at some point after that. But those will be for Animal Kingdom and Studios. What about Epcot?

Disney doesn't need to create a new attraction from scratch to bring something new to Epcot. The company's got loads of wildly popular rides around the world that it could copy in Florida to provide something new for the park. We've selected four options — from Disney parks in Tokyo, Paris, and Anaheim — that would fit well thematically at Epcot. And to shake up the poll even more, we've added a fifth option, to revive one of Epcot's most beloved past attractions.

Which of these options would you most want to see Disney bring to Epcot as a new attraction? Follow the links for more detail and reader reviews of the rides' current incarnations.

Disneyland's Matterhorn Bobsleds in the Japan pavilion, as Mt. Fuji

Matterhorn Bobsleds

This would require lopping off the Matterhorn's distinctive "hook" to create a volcano-like caldera at the top, but that's just a decorative change. The ride would remain the same.

Walt Disney Studios Paris' Ratatouille ride in the France pavilion

Ratatouille: L'Aventure Totalement Toquee de Remi

Bringing Remi to Walt Disney World would give American Disney fans their first trackless ride from the company.

Tokyo DisneySea's Sindbad's Storybook Voyage in a Persian or Arabian pavilion

Sindbad's Storybook Voyage

No, Sindbad wouldn't fit in the Morocco pavilion. Wrong coast of Africa, wrong sea to sail, and wrong ethnicity. But Disney could bring TDS' Arabian Coast land over as the first new Epcot pavilion since 1988 and have a huge hit.

Tokyo DisneySea's StormRider in The Land pavilion


Yeah, The Land already has Soarin'. But StormRider might be a better thematic fit for the pavilion. And people love watching bad weather.

Rebuild Horizons in the Wonders of Life space


Few former Disney attractions elicit the love that fans continue to have for Horizons. (Follow the link for one item of evidence.) Theme parks always can use high-capacity dark rides, and Horizons was one of the first to offer in-ride interactivity, too. It'd still pack 'em in.

So which of these options would you most want to see added to Epcot? Which ride would most encourage you to visit — and keep revisiting — the park?

Campaign for your favorites in the comments.

One more little pre-holiday piece of news for you: I'm pleased to announce that long-promised Theme Park Insider guidebook to Orlando will publish next week! I'm working on the final touches and expect to have the eBook available on Amazon sometime next week, with the print book available for sale soon after that. So, please, save a space on your Christmas wish list for what will be the best darned guidebook to the Orlando theme parks available anywhere. Or plan to buy a few copies as gifts for the theme park fans (or potential theme park fans) in your life.

Comments (30) | Archive Link

A Tour of Hong Kong Disneyland

By Bryan Wawzenek
Published: November 21, 2013 at 3:53 PM

In Part One of this story, I mentioned how the green mountains found beyond Hong Kong Disneyland add extra atmosphere, but also make the park feel even smaller than it is. The biggest loser in this situation is Sleeping Beauty's Castle.

Main Street USA

When you're first walking down Main Street, you think, "Wow, the castle's really far away." And when you get to the end of Main Street, you think, "Wow, the castle's really tiny." If WDW vets think the castle in Anaheim is minuscule, they should see this one, which makes the castle that Walt built look like the Burj Khalifa. Plus, there's nothing in it, because it's not very deep either. If I laid down underneath it, my legs would probably stick out. And I didn't ingest anything that said "eat me."

So, instead of going straight through to Fantasyland and getting depressed about this doll house of a castle, let's take the grand circle tour of HKDL and discover the good, the bad and the Mowgli.



When Hong Kong Disneyland first opened, almost half the park was Adventureland, because it took up the entire left side of the park. For a guy whose favorite land as a kid was Adventureland, this should be great… but it's not. That's because most of the things I associate with other Adventurelands aren't here – no Indiana Jones, no Tiki Room and no Pirates. (I haven't been this surly since my trip to Duff Gardens.)

So what is in HKDL's Adventureland? Well, the Jungle River Cruise, which is given in three languages: English, Cantonese and Mandarin.

Jungle Cruise entrance
Three language options mean three different queues

But that's not even the weird part. In a "two birds, one stone" attempt, the Jungle Cruise's river takes the place of the Rivers of America and boats make like the Mark Twain and revolve around an island in the middle. What's in the middle? Not Tom Sawyer Island but Tarzan's Treehouse, although it is reached by bamboo raft, much like Tom and Huck's stomping grounds at other parks.

Tarzan's Treehouse

I tried to give this Adventureland a fair chance, but came to the conclusion that it doesn't quite work. Tarzan's Treehouse is fine if you can walk in, walk around and walk out. It's not quite worth two raft trips, and it's a poor substitute for a free exploration area.

I was further soured on my time in Adventureland by a lackluster trek on the Jungle Cruise. We waited 15 minutes for an English-speaking skipper. During our time at the park, we encountered dozens of cast members who spoke perfectly wonderful English. Wouldn't it be our luck that we'd wait for the one "English-speaking" skipper who couldn't quite deliver what the queue had promised. As soon as she began the tour, all of the English speakers in the boat looked at each other to make sure that we hadn't boarded the wrong one by accident or had our drinks spiked at lunch. But, as the tour continued, you could make out a word now and again. I counted three: gorilla, elephant and bye-bye. When we came to the special effects finale, a Universal-like display of fire, she literally pointed to the rocks and said, "Look … fire" about two seconds before flames were supposed to shoot out of the rocks and surprise us. It figures that the one time it would have been helpful to misunderstand, I heard her perfectly. All of that aside, the river is too open, the ride isn't long enough and this is a poor implementation of the Jungle Cruise, in any language.

Jungle Cruise dock

Before we leave Adventureland, the place has a few things in its favor. First, it looks great, especially at night with tiki lanterns lighting the pathways and Tarzan's Treehouse lit dramatically across the water. Second, HKDL's performers do an excellent job with Festival of the Lion King, which is presented and sung in English, but features two monkeys that explain certain plot points in Chinese and provide comic relief. There's a multi-level, rotating stage that comes out of the floor, solid acrobatics and wonderful singing. I liked this version, which focuses on re-telling the "Lion King" movie, slightly better than the wonderful version at Disney's Animal Kingdom. But I still miss Pirates.

Festival of the Lion King

Grizzly Gulch

Grizzly Gulch

Past the train tracks, things get much better as we mosey into Grizzly Gulch, part of HKDL's recent three-land expansion. The concept for this exclusive land seems to be a mash-up of Frontierland and Bear Country; Grizzly Gulch is a frontier mining town that's been overrun by those critters. There's plenty of western atmosphere, including ramshackle storefronts, cowboy music and Geyser Gulch, a water play attraction placed on the site of geysers that could have been imported from Yellowstone National Park. Wanted poster puns and photo opportunities abound. It's pretty tiny, but the amount of theming detail might keep you around longer than you'd expect.

Geyser Gulch

If Grizzly Gulch is an updated Frontierland, the land's E-ticket attraction is an updated Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. It's got an even more cumbersome name: Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars. From what I understand, Asians aren't as game for thrill rides as Americans, and Big Grizzly takes that into account. From a coaster standpoint, it's quite tame (although Vekoma did a great job with keeping the track incredibly smooth). It's the ride's storyline that makes it special, including a portion where the uphill chain "breaks" and sends you hurtling backwards into a cave full of dynamite and a couple of curious grizzlies. OK, the part of the ride that follows that scene rises above tame, although to see the hooting and hollering riders exiting at the station, you'd think we'd all survived X2. Thrills are relative, I guess. It's a charming ride, no matter your thrill expectations.

ig Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars

Mystic Point

TPI has already devoted tons of coverage to this land and its star attraction, Mystic Manor, which I just wrote about in a feature about trackless rides. To be brief, Mystic Manor is fantastic, Mystic Point, less so. Lord Henry Mystic's house looks beautiful and the black-and-white stone pathway is a cool nod to nearby Macau, but the rest of this "land" includes dull optical illusions and lots of jungle vegetation. It's better that we move on to…

Toy Story Land

Toy Story Land

Maybe I had really low expectations for this and an unhealthy love of the "Toy Story" universe, but this land was one of my greatest surprises at HKDL. Toy Story Land is like the queue from the Hollywood Studios edition of Toy Story Midway Mania, only amplified and expanded. (If it included a version of Midway Mania, the land would be perfect.) TSL is similar to California Adventure's A Bug's Land, in that guests are shrunken down to the size of the Pixar characters. The idea is that we are in Andy's backyard, where grass blades are the size of bamboo stalks, popsicle sticks are as big as park benches and a giant Woody and Rex are there to greet us.

Toy Story Land features the same attractions as Toy Story Playland at Walt Disney Studios Park in Paris (which debuted a year before its Hong Kong sibling). Slinky Dog Spin is a ho-hum spinning ride. I had more fun walking through the giant Lincoln Log house in the queue. Toy Soldiers Parachute Drop strikes a brilliant balance between intense drop towers and thrill-deprived kiddie rides. It's far from terrifying (except for those with a fear of heights), but it's still exciting and it offers a great view of the park.

Parachute Drop

RC Racer ups the thrills a bit more, as you board RC and zoom up and back on a U-shaped Hot Wheels track. It packed more punch than I expected – but, like Parachute Drop, it finds a solid middle ground between stomach-turning and yawn-inducing.

Toy Story Land's RC Racers

None of this would be as fun without the exquisite toy theming. Any child of the '50s through the '90s is sure to find giant versions of things they once played with, from the slot car tracks that form the line for RC Racer to K'nex fences that adorn the path to Tinkertoy towers that hold up strands of Christmas lights which illuminate the land after dark. Nicely done.


Walking in from Toy Story Land, Fantasyland looks like most of its other iterations. There's Dumbo, the carousel, the tea cups and storybook houses that surely hold dark ride upon dark ride. Right? Well, no. There are exactly two dark rides in this version of Fantasyland and one of them is It's a Small World, which is set away in its own area. In that way, and with representations of Disney characters such as Woody, Ariel and Mowgli inside, it's kind of like the Disneyland version. But it also features an extensive Asia section complete with a "ferry tale" version of Hong Kong's famous harbor boats and skyline.


In this Fantasyland, there's no Peter Pan, no Snow White, no Pinocchio, no Alice. Only the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. It's no wonder that Pooh is one of the park's three attractions that use Fastpass (the others are Space Mountain and Buzz Lightyear). The line was one of the biggest we saw, although it was still only 20 minutes. This Winnie is pretty close to the Orlando edition – complete with the picture of Owl and Mr. Toad.

Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh

As with Adventureland, there's an excess of space, which hopefully will be utilized by future attractions. Fantasyland does feature two shows, a highlight for most Asian audiences: Mickey's Philharmagic (identical to its Orlando cousin and in English) and the Golden Mickeys Revue. HKDL has done a nice job with the beautiful Fantasy Gardens area, which features five meet-and-greet opportunities. It sort of reminded me of the character greeting trails at Animal Kingdom. The lines were relatively short for Mickey, Minnie, Pooh and Goofy, but shortest for Donald in a traditional Chinese outfit. Every character we encountered, whether here or elsewhere in the park, was thrilled to engage with anyone, and hammed it up big-time, perhaps a result of the low crowds.

Donald Duck



The futuristic space port rounds out the tour. Like other park features, Tomorrowland is small, but does justice to the concept with solid theming and great attractions. Space Mountain and Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters mirror the Disneyland versions – the former even featured the Ghost Galaxy layover for the Halloween season (something you can read more about here).


The requisite Tomorrowland spinning ride, called the Orbitron here, features flying saucers that fit two rows of people. The good news is that the extra capacity meant short lines. The bad news (for the folks in the back) is that the up-and-down control is in the front. The land's most unique attraction is Stitch Encounter, which is this park's version of Turtle Talk with Crush. As with the Jungle River Cruise, the theater attraction is presented in three different languages with specific showtimes. Although Stitch didn't relate any scientific facts like Crush does, the show was interactive and amusing. To give you an idea of the level of humor we're talking about, I'd say he had all the kids in stitches.

Stitch Encounter

If you think that's funny, you'd probably also enjoy some of the names we saw engraved on cast members' tags. You may be aware that, upon learning English, many Asians adopt an anglicized nickname. That was certainly the case with some of the cast members we encountered. However, others had names that I can only guess represented their favorite things. A girl named Coffee sold me an ice cream bar, a man named Money operated one of the Toy Story rides, a guy named Ninja cleaned up garbage – and, I assume, took out would-be assassins after dark.

Names aside, we found that most every cast member we met was friendly and helpful – many were positively effusive in their quest to assist. This was a welcome surprise, given some of our experiences in mainland China, where customer service is far from a priority. And there were many wonderful surprises to be found in Hong Kong Disneyland, from its overarching commitment to detail to the dynamic charms of its unique attractions. As the most recent version of Disneyland (for now), it's not yet on the level of its sister parks. But when Hong Kong Disneyland works its brand of magic, it's as good as any kingdom anywhere.

Comments (5) | Archive Link

Planning a Trip to Hong Kong Disneyland

By Bryan Wawzenek
Published: November 20, 2013 at 5:39 PM

In many ways, Hong Kong is Asia made easy. If you're an American traveler making a first visit to the continent, it's an ideal starting place. Because Hong Kong was under British rule until 1997 (when it was returned to China), the city has a decidedly Western aesthetic. English is widely understood and spoken. Signage is abundant. Transportation is simple. If you're familiar with finding your way in a major U.S. city, you can be plopped down in the middle of Hong Kong and everything should make sense – in great contrast to the learning curve that exists in most other Asian metropolises.

Hong Kong Skyline

Yet, these conveniences don't come at the expense of the city's character or Chinese culture. Unlike Singapore (a city that also was a British colony), Hong Kong hasn't totally whitewashed its more interesting elements in favor of shiny facades. The city's disparate characteristics (colonial, modern, natural) make for a fascinating experience. Streets packed with Chinese wet markets wind around gleaming, angular skyscrapers, which stand before a landscape of green mountains. Some of those lush peaks also are part of the atmosphere at Hong Kong Disneyland. It's an element unique to this version of the Magic Kingdom, one that emphasizes the park's (relatively) small size while also enhancing its beauty.

Hong Kong Disneyland Castle

Do You Need a Visa?

I'm getting ahead of myself. First, let's get you to Hong Kong. One thing you don't have to worry about is arranging a tourist visa. Visitors from North America and most of Europe receive visas on arrival that let you stay for 90 days (180 if you are British), as long as you're not in Hong Kong to study or work. This is different from mainland China, which has a more involved and expensive visa process (it cost my wife and I $300, and a couple of headaches, for our visas when we visited Shanghai and Beijing earlier this year).

Side note: Mainland China recently amended its visa policy for five of its cities (including Shanghai) so that visitors can travel visa-free as long as they stay for less than 72 hours and are booked to fly onto a third destination. For Theme Park Insider readers, that means that, in a couple years, you could hit Shanghai Disneyland and Hong Kong Disneyland on one trip and skip the extra expense of a Chinese visa. Not bad.

Hotels near Hong Kong Disneyland

Now you need a hotel. When it comes to accommodations, Hong Kong isn't cheap (it's a fixture on Forbes' Most Expensive Cities list). Because of this, you might just want to splurge and stay at one of the two hotels at the Hong Kong Disneyland Resort – the Hong Kong Disneyland Hotel or Disney's Hollywood Hotel. Right now, rates start at HK$1,650 (about US$213) and go up to HK$7,500 ($967). In addition to budget concerns, you have to think about location. HKDL is out on Lantau Island, removed from the major sites of Hong Kong and Kowloon. So, if the park is not your sole stop in Hong Kong, you might want to split your time between hotels, or only set up camp in an area with easier access to the city's highlights.

If you're booking a non-Disney hotel, here's something to be aware of. Just because you book a room marked "double" doesn't mean that you are booking for two people. Many hotels in Hong Kong charge by the number of people staying in the room, even if the bed, towels, amenities are the same. (It's also this way in Japan.) So, when you are looking for a good deal, make sure it's for the correct number of people in your group.

I speak from experience. We accidentally booked a double room for one person at the Canada Hotel in Kowloon. We used Agoda.com to get a good rate (something we've done many, many times to great results). When the hotel clerks demanded that we pay an upcharge that was more expensive than the current listed rate for two people, we questioned the amount and asked to speak to a manager. He was called, the phone was handed over and he quickly became enraged that we were even questioning this. He then told us that the hotel had an "unwritten policy" that it could refuse to let us stay there. This is exactly what he did, even though we had already paid for the room. What hospitality! So, my advice is to be careful and avoid the Canada Hotel – but not Canadians themselves, who can make for excellent company. (P.S. It worked out OK. We found a nearby Best Western with a decent rate and had a pleasant stay there.)

Hotel Transportation

OK, so you've got your flight and hotel booked. Now you just need to know how to get from the busy, but efficient, Hong Kong International Airport to your room. That's where Hong Kong's excellent public transportation system comes in. The best way out of the airport is on the MTR subway's dedicated Airport Express line. It moves fast and only makes three stops, each connected to "regular" subway lines. You can choose those or take a taxi (less expensive than New York or Tokyo) from there, depending on the location of your hotel. One piece of advice: if you're not a solo traveler, buy your Airport Express ticket from a clerk at the counter, not a machine. There is a discount for those who buy multiple tickets at a time. Our two tickets cost about US$14 for the 40-minute ride.

It will be a little bit different if you're going straight to the Hong Kong Disneyland Resort. Because HKDL and the airport are both on Lantau, a taxi ride shouldn't be too expensive. You could also take the Airport Express to the first stop, and take a couple of short subway trips to the resort. Alternately, it's possible that the hotels offer shuttle service. I looked into this, but wasn't able to locate anything. My best advice: ask your hotel.

Hong Kong Disneyland Train

Getting to Hong Kong Disneyland

If you're staying on-site, you can get the park by walking (15 to 30 minutes, depending on the hotel and your pace) or via shuttle, which drops visitors 5 minutes from the gates. If you're staying elsewhere in Hong Kong, your best bet is the subway, considering that the MTR has a dedicated Disneyland Resort line. Unless you're paralyzed by the mere thought of navigating a subway system, you'll find the experience hassle-free. Even if you run into trouble, you should have plenty of time. After all, HKDL opens late (not until 10:30 a.m. during my visit). All you need to do is get to the Sunny Bay station (about a 30-minute ride from the main areas of Kowloon and Hong Kong) and jump on the Disneyland line, which constantly makes the eight-minute journey between its two stops. The whole trip cost US$5 one-way for both of us.

Although it's not a Disney monorail, the above-ground train is the next best thing. The windows and handholds are Mickey-shaped, each car houses a bunch of Disney character statuettes, there are wide, padded benches and everything is immaculate. And then you arrive at the Disneyland Resort station, also known as the cleanest and most inviting train station in the entire world. It's like something out of Main Street, U.S.A., with ornamental light fixtures and stately, turn-of-the-century design. If good old Marceline, Missouri, had required a subway station, it could have looked something like this. In an extra touch, some of the pillars have sorcerer hats for their foundations. You're not in the park yet, but you might as well be.

Disneyland Station

Entrance Plaza

A few steps out of the station and you're on your way under the welcome sign and onto Hong Kong Disneyland's entrance plaza, where the centerpiece is a fountain that finds Mickey surfing on a whale's spout. The huge fountain incorporates Hong Kong's maritime legacy, as well as Mickey's pals, who are caught up in their own hi-jinks on the periphery of the fountain. Donald's boat is, of course, sinking fast. Man, will that guy ever catch a break?

Entrance Plaza

The ticket booths stand to the right of the fountain plaza. We had purchased our two-day tickets (about US$150 for the two of us) online, so we bypassed the manned booths to go to the ticket machines. We scanned the credit card we had used for the purchase, typed in a confirmation code and, in seconds, Jessie and Rex were staring at us from the backs of our two tickets. Pretty easy.

Ticket machines

Park Opening

All that was left to do was wait in line for opening time (which, again, was 10:30 a.m.). The only problem was, where were the lines? Keep in mind that our most recent Disney experience was in Tokyo, where we often arrived 90 minutes before park opening to join hundreds and hundreds of visitors who had been camped out for quite some time. In Hong Kong, we showed up about 45 minutes before things started, and the place was a ghost town. Did I get the time wrong? Was the place closed for repairs? Was I going to have to punch a moose in the nose? What in the name of Walley World was going on?
Turns out, this was business as usual – at least for a Wednesday in October. Small lines (10 or 12 people deep) began to form. Lines that would be dwarfed by crowds I've seen for the Tilt-a-Whirl at a church carnival. Not that I was complaining. Any fears that I would fail to experience Mystic Manor multiple times disappeared faster than you could say Lord Henry Mystic.

At 10:00 a.m., the gates were opened as a recording told us (in English, Cantonese and Mandarin, I think) that Main Street was open now and the rest of the park would follow at 10:30. In the meantime, everything on Main Street was hopping. You could grab a photo with Mickey in the town square, wander through the bakery and souvenir shops or check out Monsters University – a clever little overlay on the park's Art of Animation building across from City Hall. A white rope at the end of brick-covered Main Street prevented guests from going into the park's hub.

Just before the official opening, a little girl with a big pair of scissors was brought out to cut the ribbon, with Goofy and Pluto's assistance, and declare the park open. We stood in a crowd … scratch that – a small gathering of folks about three people deep. Because this is China, where personal space is not a priority, we were all smushed together like it was the last express subway train during rush hour. But, in a few moments, I'd be able to move my arms and legs again … and, of course, experience Hong Kong Disneyland's spin on the Magic Kingdom.

Tomorrow: Part Two - A Tour of Hong Kong Disneyland

Comments (8) | Archive Link

Diane Disney Miller dies at 79

By Robert Niles
Published: November 19, 2013 at 4:05 PM

Diane Disney Miller, Walt Disney's oldest child, died today at age 79.

Diane Disney Miller
Diane Disney Miller, with the statue honoring her father and his most famous character, in Disney California Adventure. Photo courtesy Disney.

Diane also was the wife of Ron Miller, who served as CEO of the Walt Disney Company in the early 1980s, until he was replaced by Michael Eisner in 1984, as part of a company defense against hostile takeover attempts.

Diane Disney was born Dec. 18, 1933 and died at her home in Napa, Calif., reportedly of complications from a fall earlier this year. Walt and Lillian Disney also adopted a daughter, Sharon Mae Disney, who died in 1993.

Disney lore says that Walt was inspired, in part, to build Disneyland by watching Diane and Sharon ride the Griffith Park carousel in Los Angeles. The lobby of the Main Street Opera House in Disneyland includes the Griffith Park bench on which Walt would sit when he watched his daughters. Diane later led efforts to build the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, as well as the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary.

Diane Disney Miller is survived by her husband, seven children, 13 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Comments (3) | Archive Link

Theme Park Insider interview with Disney Legend and Imagineer Tony Baxter: Part Three

By Robert Niles
Published: November 19, 2013 at 3:51 PM

Tony Baxter led the creation of some of the Walt Disney Company's — and the theme park industry's — most enduring attractions: Star Tours, Splash Mountain, the Indiana Jones Adventure. Earlier this year, Disney honored Tony's decades of service to the company by naming him a Disney Legend, and earlier this month, Disneyland gave Tony a window on Main Street, placing him among the park's hall of fame of designers and employees.

Tony Baxter's window on Main Street USA

Over the past two weeks, we've been presenting a transcript of our recent conversation with Tony. Today, we wrap up with Part Three of that interview. If you'd like to listen to an audio recording of the conversation, it's available on the Theme Park Insider Podcast. (And if you missed the first two parts, here they are: Part One, Part Two.]

Tony: I think the misconception is that Disneyland was melange of things that were IP-oriented and other things that were not. A lot of people say to me, 'I'm getting tired of all these attractions based on IP like Star Wars or Indiana Jones or Cars Land. Why don't you do an attraction like Big Thunder that doesn't have any IP?'

Walt a genius at cross-promotion. There wasn't a single thing about Disneyland that wasn't embedded in the public mind one way or another. At the obvious end you had feature films like Peter Pan and whatnot. The less obvious things were the nature movies that made up The Living Desert, The African Lion and whatnot. And then obviously, Davy Crockett and Zorro and everything that infused Frontierland. The one area where he said 'Eh, I don't have anything for this,' was Tomorrowland. And they went to work creating a series with Ward Kimball and Wernher von Braun that were so exceptional that 40 years later they were released on DVD with Leonard Maltin hosting. All that because those who grew up with it, their lives were changed. [President] Eisenhower even got them shown to Congress because they were so effective in turning the public's opinion about space, and making it, again, relevant and character-driven.

Walt had the luxury and the tools to be the benevolent dictator that he was and say, if we're opening this ride and it doesn't have any IP, I'm going to literally spend two hours on television with it. So attractions like Pirates and the Haunted Mansion — you can argue on one side that there was no existing IP, on the other hand, you say how many people watched the Sunday-night [TV] show versus saw a movie that year? I would argue that probably more people saw the Sunday-night show where Walt took us through the Pirates model and showed us the figures.

I think the extreme was the Haunted Mansion where not only had it been talked about for probably five years on television, but when it opened, because of that, [we had] the highest attendance in Disneyland's history, in 1969. I think it still stands. It was like 89,000 people at Disneyland that Saturday when it opened. That was because he had done such a good job of getting our palates whet to see it, and teased us with all of the things we would see inside of it.

Whether it's a movie or it's a television show, or it's something that is marketed in a promotional way, these are all tools. I think the fallacy is to draw the line and say, well a movie like Star Wars is [IP] and something like the Jungle Cruise is not. In fact, there were so many impressions and many of the things like in The Living Desert from Nature's Wonderland, the cat up on the cactus was a movie poster from The Living Desert. So when you went into the ride, and there was the cat up on the top, that was a thing that every kid dreamed about — from the Fridays when we were going to get to see that in school instead of having class that afternoon!

I think he was a mastermind — first of all, there was a resistance about television in the movie studio industry, and Walt said 'why?' It doesn't matter where the impressions come from, it's how do we focus those? So I think when you look at the park now, we have lots of studio support with Pixar and Marvel and whatnot, and we have means of promoting things internally and whatnot that are not as well used as we used to, but I don't think anything gets to the finish line without the number of impressions the audience has about it being there is pretty consistent, whether it starts life as a movie, or ends life as a movie, in the case of Pirates of the Caribbean.

Robert: That's a classic example of how a park can becomes its own IP — you can launch a movie franchise off a park IP. Then you look at something like Mystic Manor in Hong Kong, which is pulling IP from Tokyo DisneySea, and connecting it with Chinese mythology to create something that's really connecting with people.

Tony: I don't think we're as aggressive on this as we will be and could be, but between the fans and what we do now online, you look at the number of impressions about something, we as fans wouldn't even have the ability to know about Mystic Manor if we rewound the clock 20 years ago. You hear, 'I think Disney did some sort of thing,' and there's one picture of it in the paper last week and that's it. Now, we've all virtually ridden it.

Robert: The POV video was online, in HD, within hours.

Tony: Right. It's not just limited to Disney and the major theme parks. You can go to a minor [park] and find pretty good documentation of these things today. I think the fallacy of saying this is based on IP, and this is not — it's really breaking down. We wanted to believe it was a solid foundation, when it wasn't. Walt Disney did one of the greatest pirate movies ever in Treasure Island, so that was in the can. I'm sure it was like, ooh, that was fun, and it's still really good 10 years later, why don't we make a ride about Pirates? I don't look at it as a line.

I think the worst type of IP attraction is where you slap a name on something that's totally generic. I won't say other parks by name, but they'll go out of their way to buy the rights, and it's basically a billboard out in front of something they've bought from a steel vendor. To me, that doesn't do anything. It's got to deliver the emotional expectations if you're labeling it with IP.

Indiana Jones is a good example, because everything about that ride, we pretty much developed here. I actually have a slide that I put in a show, where I bring up the Indiana Jones Adventure and the perfect script and everything, and then I show 'Kentucky Buck Adventure' and a similar script, and I say, 'okay, tell me the emotions that are going through you as you see both of these.' And you get 'authentic,' 'correct,' and everything about it, and then 'rip-off' and all that, and I say, why would you avoid the relationship with Lucas and the payments and all that when what it 'buys' you are all these negative feelings? I'm sure we could do that, but why? Why not say that Disney's got the ultimate one? Star Wars is the ultimate space adventure. Indiana Jones is the ultimate. If we want to do anything in those worlds, you either are inauthentic or you're authentic.

Recently, the Discovery Center in Santa Ana had an Indiana Jones exhibit, co-funded by National Geographic. You look at the business sense of that — how do you get kids to go to a National Geographic thing on archeology? You don't. But you throw that in, again, and it's 'oh my gosh, I've got to go see that' because I care so much about that character and he will show me why this world is interesting.

Robert: We've talked about threads and making connections with people. What are some of the threads out there in the theme park business that you hope the next generation, that you've been bringing along, will develop in the future?

Tony: Well, the biggest misstep — well, we've got to be careful how we say this one — I won't say a word, but it looks a lot like this.

[Note from Robert: At this point, Tony goes to his desk and picks up a large booklet labeled "Walt Disney Imagineering: Harry Potter Plans," with an illustration of a Hogsmeade-like land on the front. I show the greatest restraint of my professional life in not lunging across the table to grab the plans from his grasp. Instead, I clench every reflex in my body, to allow Tony to continue talking.]

I think that people have learned from Disney that in the end you don't win by going cheap or avoiding what it is that is currently relevant to an audience. We've talked a lot about the young people of probably your age [Generation Xers, born between 1965-1977], who were into Star Wars and the Indiana Jones thing. But now there are people who have come of age between 2000 and now for whom the world of Harry Potter was incredibly influential. I talk a lot at UCLA, and when I do — they're very sophisticated kids, with their iPads and whatnot — and I say, 'how many of you stood in line at Barnes and Noble at midnight on release day?' Over half the class! You bought a book, now I'm told that you don't read anymore… so what was it? It was compelling IP. And the fact that I don't want to be left out when the kids are all discussing tomorrow what Hermione did and all this stuff. I've got to know.

She [JK Rowling] was so thorough in creating a believable world, it was just like Disney in the theme parks, or whatever. Things like Remembralls, and Howlers, and all these things — they were so classic in the way the word was constructed that they stick in your brain. Whereas I look at the world of Lord of the Rings, and, other than the Orcs, I can't tell you the names of the people. They were too confusing. But the Potter world — it's the kind of thing you have to look at and say, once in a lifetime a project like that comes and becomes the relevant myth for a generation.

What I saw was that not only did Universal take advantage of that, it was IP that was owned by Warner Bros. and JK Rowling, so they had to go out on a limb to procure it. In the end, what they've done is link that park with one of the major demographics that go to theme parks today. We all have to stand back and take note. So you see Disney throwing depth charges back — with Cars Land and soon Avatar, and a new Fantasyland. I think competition is healthy, no matter where it happens, because people get comfortable, and it takes things like that to shake it up. Again, you can't spend enough money on Harry Potter for that generation, because they will go to the Nth degree to relive their childhood. I don't think anyone has done a better job that they did in bringing that to life. And I'm actually very excited to see what Part Two looks like in another year.

Now there are other parks that do a very good job in being relevant to their specific audience. There's one that comes to mind, Efteling, which is a very small-budgeted park over in Holland. It's just as beautiful as Disney in many ways. The park is based on the conceptual ideas of Anton Pieck, who was a contemporary of Walt Disney, and who did beautiful illustrations back in the 20s, 30s, 40, and 50s. They have held to that. Like at Disneyland, if you go in there and are familiar with Anton Pieck's work, everything in there is reflected thematically. I find going to parks a very learning experience, and when you meet with their people, they will tell you that when they've diverted from that, and tried to bring in either generic roller coaster material, or do a Disney-type attraction that looks like our IP — they're kind of embarrassed by an attraction that is very Small World-like, but not Efteling-like. It even has an earworm song that I can hum for you, but I won't. [Laughs] They look at it and they go 'we didn't do the right thing, because it doesn't reflect the values of Efteling.' I think they've been more successful than any park I know of, other than Disney, of developing their own IP, their own rides. They have Pirates-sized rides there, with Audio Animatronics and everything that they generate internally. They don't buy things from outside vendors. So they were a contemporary of Disneyland. They were very small in the beginning, and learned a lot from Disney. I've gone there many times, and I've learned a lot from them. It isn't a phenomenon that Disney alone owns. Whether you're relevant to the world, or relevant to your own specific ethnic population, or whatever it is, that is the key to distinguishing [yourself].

I'm going to put a line here. I think there's a big difference between amusement parks, theme parks, and then storytelling, Disney-style parks. I love going to them, but I'm not a fond practitioner of either one or two. For me, it's 'how do you find these stories that move?' When you put something in that's got to hold for 20-40 years, you can't be riding once, then go, 'well, I've done that.' It's the 20th ride that's more important to design for. If you're just designing for a thing that plays like a movie, once you go, [it's] 'ah, I didn't see that coming,' and now there's no value to come back again. People won't. The reason that line at Peter Pan is still there, and it's 40 minutes long, 58 years later, is because it's something that's reassuring and something that is relevant even today. It's not burdened with dialogue and exposition that you just cringe at having to go through -- a preshow or something that is boring and based on you never having seen it before.

Walt used to say about the pirate ride, the dialogue in there is relatively unimportant. It's like a cocktail party that you're walking through — you listen to a little bit here and a little there. Every time you ride it, you get a different combination of things that you dial into. So it's ultimately rideable, over and over again.

Robert: You're creating an environment in which people can fill in their own narrative.

Tony: That is critical. Filling in your own narrative. It's more like when you ride through the streets of Paris on a tour bus, sure you can dial into this prerecorded thing. But when you stop at a red light, and you look down there and there's a lady leaning out of her window, and there's a cat on the balcony and these little red flowers and she's got the most expressive face, and you zoom in and you've got this picture, that is your story. It's that personal, 'wow, she defined what I think a lady in Paris would look like,' whereas the narration is some generic thing that I only want to hear once and if I ever went back there again, I'd just turn it off.

That's a thing you have to fight all the time to keep. That's why I thought it one of the most important things I leave for these people is 'forget that script.' Use it as a guiding tool at the beginning, like my Poseidon who's going to open the sea like Moses. If you literally took that as a line of dialogue, it would become boring after you got to that point again. It's this emotional thing of getting to find your own way through this experience that drives it home to people. I can hardly wait to go back to Disneyland and go on these things that I've already been on -- what is that about? A movie theater survives because every Friday it's got new content. If they had to show the same content for 10 years, it'd be closed. [Laughs] It's so story-driven. In our parks, you create the story. The most important person is you — how you interact with it, and creating places where there is no one, set way.

I won't give names for attractions, but I think it would be good for your audience to think about which ones allow you to create these amazing things and which ones do you avoid going on because they're pretty rote — here's this scene, and it's more like a display that you're not engaged in, you're just viewing a display.

Robert: I think that's the criterion that distinguishes what ends up at the top of our ratings, and what are the ones that you and your successors are going to be thinking, 'well, we might be able to take that out and replace it with something else and no one's gonna miss it.'

Tony: It factors all the way through obvious ones like Pirates and the Haunted Mansion down to very simple things, like Dumbo. What if you took the arms, and pull the elephants off and put a Tilt-A-Whirl pod out on the end of it? [Dumbo's] target audience is a four-year-old, because everything about it is non-threatening and it looks very exciting to someone in that age group, and the face has all the characteristics of a lovable creature that you might know through the most innocent, sweetest little movie Disney ever did. For a certain age group, it is absolutely aspirational and a rite-of-passage attraction. And parents vicariously get joy out of seeing their child loving that. But it could be just as easily be made generic and have no queue for it at all, even though the experience would be exactly the same.

Then you take a look at a misstep that I will go on record with, because I think everybody kind of agrees. The Flying Saucers was not a particularly exciting ride, but it was a flying saucer. There isn't a single person going to Disneyland who would go home saying 'I didn't go on the Flying Saucers.' What do mean that you didn't ride a flying saucer? We decided that there's such a mystique about that ride — it was an E ticket the entire time it was there. It closed as an E ticket. So let's try to do it again. And Luigi's was born. But Luigi's is a flying rubber tire. Well, there isn't a single person on the planet who wants to fly on a rubber tire. If the ride doesn't deliver — as the Flying Saucer ride didn't, either — now you have a thing that is like Dumbo without Dumbo.

You've got thrill as one of your components, you've got experience as one of your components, and you've got IP or emotional connection as one of the components. You really need to analyze going in, well, I'm not sure about thrill — you know, this is pretty basic. So it's got to have incredible IP — I get to go on a flying saucer. Okay, I don't care what it is, I've just got to say that I've done that.

If you said Dumbo isn't thrilling, and you took the Dumbo character out of it and put a pod on the end of it, so now it has no IP, and it doesn't go anywhere environmentally, like the Jungle Cruise, so… why are we building it? There's no reason here to build it. You could probably make a case for a ride working on one of the [components] — that's a thrill ride, like California Screamin': no theming, doesn't go anywhere, but it's one heck of a thrill. So you can work on one. But you can't work with none. That could be decided at the beginning of design -- which one we going to have as our safety valve? If the other two don't deliver, we have this.

Please tell us your thoughts about our interview with Tony Baxter, in the comments.

Comments (13) | Archive Link

Knott's Berry Farm announces major changes for Camp Snoopy, Calico Mine Ride

By Robert Niles
Published: November 19, 2013 at 10:33 AM

Knott's Berry Farm today announced that it will revamp two of its iconic attractions for 2014, following a successful refurbishment of its Timber Mountain Log Ride earlier this year.

Calico Mine Ride

Knott's owner Cedar Fair again will contract with Garner Holt Productions to create new animatronic figures and show scenes for the Calico Mine Ride, another Bud Hurlbut classic. Knott's said in a statement, "The renovation of the iconic attraction includes the addition of over 50 new state-of-the-art animatronic figures, all new audio and theme lighting system, and special effects that will capture the imagination of would-be miners as they journey deep into the winding caverns of the attraction."

Garner Holt worked with Knott's on the refurbishment of the Timber Mountain Log Ride, which opened in late spring. The Calico Mine Ride will close in January to begin its refurbishment.

The park also will revitalize its first-in-the-industry themed children's play area — Camp Snoopy. Knott's said, "Thirty years ago the five-acre nature wonderland was created by the Knott family to be a carefree place where nature, adventure and imagination come to life, and in 2014 it will undergo a number of exciting updates including new rides and restoration of the entire area with the original inspiration in mind."

Camp Snoopy's lost much of its theming over the past decades, becoming more a seemingly random collection of off-the-shelf kiddie rides than a coherent wilderness-themed "place," as it once was before Silver Bullet consumed the park's lake, the Peanuts Playhouse went away and the Snoopy bounce house lost its Snoopy, among other changes in the land. There's no word in the Knott's press release if Camp Snoopy will close completely for its refurbishment, or, if so, when that would happen.

What would you like to see Knott's do to revitalize Campy Snoopy?

Comments (12) | Archive Link

Spice Road Table details revealed

By Oak A
Published: November 18, 2013 at 11:09 PM

Today, Disney offered additional detail regarding the new restaurant coming to Epcot's Morocco Pavilion, the Spice Road Table.

Spice Road Table

This restaurant under construction, recently photographed here on TPI, is to be a lounge, "offering a variety of Moroccan small plates and specialty drinks." The restaurant's designers state that the lakeside establishment will be "perfect for IllumiNations viewing." The update also provided a glimpse at the contents of a menu at the Table; diners will be able to select between "zesty harissa chicken drumettes" or "a Mediterranean omelet with sausage, potatoes and caramelized onion", perhaps "mussels with preserved lemons and tomato sauce baked in an earthenware tagine pot", "Moroccan merguez sausage with a fresh tomato salad", or potentially still "garlicky jumbo shrimp in a spicy chile pepper sauce."

Speaking of the restaurant's aesthetic elements, the Table is said to have been inspired by "the outdoor cafes along the Mediterranean; the whitewashed façade of Spice Road Table is accented in icy shades of blue from the famous “Blue City” of Chefchaouen in Morocco’s Rif Mountains." The building will jointly contain the Spice Road Table, with 120 "outdoor terrace seats" and 60 "indoor booths", and a "collection of shops in the colorful style of a Moroccan souk, or marketplace, that stretches along the front of the building" alongside a "henna tattoo artist will create temporary body art from traditional and modern designs."

Archive Link

What to do if you're sick at Walt Disney World

By Amanda Jenkins
Published: November 18, 2013 at 12:00 PM

It's that lovely time of year again. The sounds of coughing and sneezing fill the air, while the tables in my home are decorated with bright orange bottles topped with childproof caps. As yucky as one feels being sick, there is nothing worse than being sick on vacation. I know. I have been one of those poor unfortunate souls.

My experiences have been from the mild, such as a head cold, to the extreme, like having to have emergency surgery once home. I have actually had two surgeries after two different trips to the place where memories begin. I cracked a tooth while enjoying a salad at the Magic Kingdom. On another trip, while bracing myself on the Dinosaur attraction, I had an unknown cyst in my hand that burst the tendon in my ring finger. That was one of the most painful rides ever. My hand was swollen for the last couple of days of our trip. I have traveled with a bag of antibiotics, had fever, had a disease that I did not know of, and wondered if I should even continue the trip. Why did I? Easy, my family was why I continued on.

Doc Hudson's here to give you a tune-up
You've got options other than Doc Hudson when you're feeling sick at a theme park and need a tune-up

My husband's job requires their officers to plan their vacations at the beginning of each year. Once these are placed, it is nearly impossible to change them. So, sometimes, we have to go ahead and travel, even if sickness makes the trip with us. Now, we would not go if we had something highly contagious. We are not willing to risk ruining someone else's vacation. There are ways though that illness will not hinder your fun times.

Take breaks: Multiple breaks during your trip can help you heal faster, thus making the rest of your trip more pleasant. Go back to your resort to take naps or to just relax. Your body heals faster the more you rest. If you do not wish to return to your room, then find a place to sit and people watch. One vacation, I left Chuck and the boys in Tomorrowland and relaxed outside of Cosmic Rays and just people watched.

Drink plenty of fluids: Not only in the summer should you keep hydrated, but many medications require fluids. If you have been running any fever, then you have already begun to be dehydrated. You need to drink often and this would also be an opportunity to rest while sipping, say, some raspberry lemonade or cool glass of pineapple juice.

Stay in the shade: Many medications warn you to stay out of direct sunlight. This can be difficult while visiting the sunshine state, so plan accordingly. You could plan your day around this, by attending the parks in the morning and evening.

Bring medications from home: Many trips, we have taken advantage of Disney's Magical Express, thus not renting a car. The resorts and first aid stations have a limited variety of medications. If there is something that is over-the-counter that helps you with sinus trouble and such, then you would be wise to bring it along with you. Each vacation, I make a list of all medications that might be needed and pack them. I leave them locked in the room safe until we need them. If you forget something though and really need it, there is another way. If you do not have your own car with you, there is a pharmacy that will deliver to the Walt Disney World resorts. Turner Drugs, for a small charge, will deliver both prescriptions and over-the-counter. They also provide baby formula, diapers, drinks, sundries, and medical equipment for rent and purchase. It will be delivered to the front desk of the resort for pick up. On the vacation where the tendon burst in my hand, we took advantage of this service and my medication was delivered promptly. Their phone number is (407) 828-8125 and their website is http://turnerdrug.com. For those with a car, there is also a Walgreens Drug Store and Winn-Dixie located in Lake Buena Vista.

Know whom to call: If you do not want to leave and spend the day at the doctor's office while vacationing, there is good news. The doctors will come to you! If there is a sickness or injury that needs medical attention, there are two companies that offer house calls. DOCS (Doctors on Call Service) (407) 399-3627, http://www.doctorsoncallservice.com, offers 24-hour-a-day medical service from AMA-certified physicians who practice family medicine. EastCoast Medical Network (407) 648-5252 offers not only house calls to the resorts but will also perform in-room x-rays and IV services. They are also available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I did not know at the time about these two services, or I would have called them with the tendon accident. If you have a car, there are urgent care facilities close by such as Centra Care located near Downtown Disney, (407) 934-2273, http://centracare.org. They offer free transportation to and from resorts and are opened from Mon-Fri, 8am-Midnight, and Sat-Sun, 8am-8pm.

Don't be afraid to ask: When in doubt of what to do, ask either the concierge at your resort or one of the helpful cast members in the first aid locations. They will be happy to provide you with any help to make your vacation as good as can be while sick.

I mentioned an unknown disease on a trip, that would be Meniere's disease. I was suffering with it on our vacation last December, and was diagnosed with it in January of this year. It is a chronic condition with no cure. It is a disorder of the inner ear that causes spontaneous episodes of vertigo, along with fluctuating hearing loss, ringing in the ear, pain, and, in my case and others, vomiting due to a constant feeling of motion sickness. For me, I do not have the spinning that Jimmy Stewart had in Vertigo; mine is more like the world has become a funhouse. Things appear to move side to side and up and down. I have had procedures and physical therapy to retrain my body in keeping balance. Many people have had to give up their favorite theme park attractions due to the disease. If you are diagnosed with this, don't give up hope. I found that I can ride most of the attractions, even roller coasters with little trouble. The only ones I had to say goodbye forever to were Astro Orbiter, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (bouncing with Tigger knocks me for a loop), and other spinning rides. It amazes me how these attractions, relatively mild, cause so much trouble and sickness.

Take care of yourselves fellow Theme Park Insiders!

Comments (15) | Archive Link

Theme Park History: 10 top movies or TV shows filmed in theme parks

By Derek Potter
Published: November 16, 2013 at 5:43 PM

Theme parks have been in the movies ever since their inception. Imagery, action, people, the utopian/dystopian setting… all are great storytelling devices that lend themselves well to the screen, and theme parks have them all. New movies such as "Escape from Tomorrow" and the upcoming "Saving Mr. Banks" were filmed at Disney theme parks, but over the years, many other parks have made appearances in films and TV shows. Some have provided a side scene for a few minutes, while others have served as center stage for the entire movie. Here's a list of 10 theme park movies and TV shows to watch.

Strike Me Pink (1936)

The Pike at Long Beach was the setting for many films and TV shows over the years before its eventual demise. One of the first was this musical about a weakling who becomes an amusement park manager and is forced to confront a mob of racketeers. Eddie Pink eventually finds some courage along the way and takes them on, setting the scene for a memorable chase through the park and onboard the legendary Cyclone Racer. Pretty neat stuff, considering this was the 1930s and CGI/special effects just didn't exist.

Little Fugitive (1953)

This tale of a little boy who thought he killed his brother and ran away to Coney Island gathered acclaim for its stylized camera work and the use of non-actors in lead roles. Little Fugitive was nominated for two Academy Awards and selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in 1997. Viewers get a good look at 1950's Coney, past its prime by then but still bringing the crowds. The decline would begin just a few years later.

The Brady Bunch-The Cincinnati Kids (1973)

The Brady Bunch was produced by Paramount Studios, who was a major shareholder in Taft Broadcasting. Perhaps in an effort to give Taft a little boost, they produced "The Cincinnati Kids." This episode aired in season five and showcased Taft's shiny new park Kings Island to a national audience. It's essentially a commercial for the park, as early every inch of it is covered in 30 minutes as the Brady family searches for an elusive set of dad's lost blueprints. This was the second TV show filmed at the new park in only a year of existence. The Partridge Family was there in similar fashion six months before.

Rollercoaster (1977)

Disaster movies were all the rage in the 1970s. After the success of films like Earthquake and The Towering Inferno, Universal released Rollercoaster in the summer of 1977. The film did well, considering it was up against Star Wars. This yarn about a ride inspector trying to stop a mad amusement park bomber is a bit farfetched with a little extra 70s cheese, but still a lot of fun. The movie has its share of star power, including George Segal, Henry Fonda, Timothy Bottoms, and a very young Helen Hunt. For park fans though, the stars of the show also seem to be the rides and the parks themselves. Kings Dominion, Magic Mountain, and the defunct Ocean View Park in Norfolk Virginia were all featured extensively. Part of the neat factor in watching this movie now is seeing Kings Dominion and Magic Mountain up close in their infancy, and getting a ride on the Rebel Yell and the brand new Revolution before the effects of time and trim brakes.

Kiss Meets The Phantom Of The Park (1978)

The painted rockers are at Magic Mountain for a few concerts, and find themselves in a battle with a mad scientist bent on destroying the park that fired him. Along the way they use their superpowers to fight baddie robots, help a damsel in distress, and save the park from a riot incited by their evil clones. This pile of cheese, made-for-TV movie turned cult classic was an attempt to capitalize on the band's fame in the late 70's. Someone apparently forgot to mention in the preproduction meetings that these guys weren't actors. Some years later bassist Gene Simmons said in an interview, "It was a classic movie…a classic movie if you're on drugs." In the end the band hated it, the fans didn't like it, and Magic Mountain got plenty of free advertisement for a national TV audience.

Big (1988)

The critically acclaimed blockbuster that earned two Academy Award nominations and launched Tom Hanks' already blossoming career into the stratosphere was filmed in New York. Ironically enough, Josh makes his wish to be big after he's turned away for not meeting the ride height requirements. The now 86 year old Rye Playland (known in the movie as Sea Point Park) was the setting for Josh's big date with Susan and again at the end when he locates the elusive Zoltar machine. The coaster featured in the movie is the 1929 Dragon Coaster.

Beverly Hills Cop III (1994)

Great America in Santa Clara, California was the scene for Axel Foley's battle against a gang of bad guys posing as a theme park security force. Also making an appearance in the final act is Universal Studio's Earthquake ride (with Cylons from the old Battlestar Galactica show). Filmmaker John Landis hired the Sherman Brothers of "It's a Small World" fame to spoof their own classic and create another annoying theme park anthem…which they accomplished in splendid fashion I might add. Watch for the George Lucas sighting.

3 Ninjas-High Noon At Mega Mountain (1998)

Nobody ever said that all movies were instant cinema classics…and this one certainly proves it. Starring a wig wearing Hulk Hogan, Jim Varney (otherwise known as Ernest), Loni Anderson, and three kids who know karate, this pile of crap follows the adventures of Hulk and the ninjas as they try to thwart Medusa the criminal mastermind from sabotaging the park's rides and stealing 10 million dollars. The newly opened Elitch Gardens in downtown Denver got a makeover for this one. This one is good for a laugh, but for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps it might serve as some device for a drinking game.

Adventureland (2009)

Backed by a strong, youthful cast and a killer soundtrack, this comedy looks at the wacky world of working at the amusement park. Those who have had this experience undoubtedly have a chuckle at the barrage of absurdities, clichés, and characters that seem strangely familiar. Filmed at Kennywood in Pittsburgh, and co-starring a pre-"Twilight" Kristen Stewart, this one is a full on workplace comedy with all the youthful angst trimmings… kind of like "The Office" and "Dazed And Confused" had a kid during their summer fling while working together at the ring toss.

And the king of all theme park movies…

National Lampoon's Vacation (1983)

No list of theme park cinema would be complete without this all-time classic. The Griswold's bumbling cross-country trek to Wally World (Magic Mountain) was the stuff of legend. There are many memorable images in this one…getting lost in the ghetto, being stuck with crazy then dead Aunt Edna, wandering through the Grand Canyon, John Candy trying not to throw up on Colossus, and the image of the busted ass Wagon Queen Family Truckster limping down the highway and finally pulling up to an empty parking lot. This one wasn't just about the park, it was about getting there, and this film will forever be in the minds of those who brave long family road trips.

There are plenty of other films to choose from. Feel free to share your favorites in the comments.

Comments (28) | Archive Link

Christmas at Disneyland: What's new for 2013?

By Robert Niles
Published: November 15, 2013 at 8:31 PM

It's the holiday season again at the Disneyland Resort in California. That means the decorations are up at Disneyland,

Sleeping Beauty Castle for Christmas

and Disney California Adventure.

Carthay Circle with holiday decorations

But what's new for this year at the parks? Disney hosted another big media shindig on Thursday to show off its holiday festivities. We posted our review of World of Color - Winter Dreams last night, and it's the clear standout among this year's additions to the resort's holiday line-up. While Winter Dreams doesn't reach the original World of Color's emotional range, it surpasses the regular version of the show in its technical scope, with the addition of hundreds of lights around the area. With Fantasmic! at Disneyland and World of Color at California Adventure, the Disneyland Resort offers an unsurpassed one-two punch of evening entertainment, and Winter Dreams should help keep the park packed with locals returning to see a new version of the show this holiday season. Here's the video, in case you missed it when we updated that review earlier today:

If Winter Dreams represents the best of Disney's effort to create compelling new experiences for the holiday, Disneyland Park's new addition for the 2013 season represents Disney's worst. The holiday makeover of the Jungle Cruise, Jingle Cruise, might be Disney's laziest holiday effort yet.

Jingle Cruise sign

You'll find a dozen or so strings of lights strung around the queue, and a few decorations slapped around…

Jingle Cruise queue

But that's all you're guaranteed to get. After waiting 30 minutes for a ride that's typically a walk-on during a school-year weekday, I ended up with a skipper who added just two brief holiday jokes to what was otherwise the standard Jungle spiel. (He added "Snow" to the Dr. Falls joke, and "I guess Santa won't be landing here" to the Danger dock bit. That's it.) The quality of the Jungle Cruise experience always has depended upon the quality of your skipper — it's the most inconsistent attraction in the theme park business. But if Disney's going to promote Jingle Cruise as different enough from the Jungle Cruise to merit a tweak to its name, then the skipper needs to deliver something other than the same old spiel. If Disney's not going to care enough to try with Jingle Cruise, why should visitors care enough to take their chances with it?

Stick instead to Disneyland's established holiday overlays. Disney's added a new projection display to the Small World facade this year for It's a Small World Holiday. Here's a look, followed by a ride-through of the attraction:

Disney's most popular holiday attraction overlay remains Haunted Mansion Holiday, the Halloween/Christmas mashup that's been playing this year since September.

Haunted Mansion Holiday

If you're visiting with children, consider a stop by the Jingle Jangle Jamboree at Big Thunder Ranch.

Big Thunder Ranch at Christmas

Disney's been making more aggressive use of the old arena space behind the ranch in recent years, filling it with a variety of activities for kids during Halloween and Christmas. Insiders know by now that the Thunder Ranch festivals also are often the easiest places in the park to meet Mickey, Goofy and the other popular Disney characters with little or no wait.

Santa Goofy

Near the end of the day, Disneyland continues its annual performance of the "Christmas Fantasy" parade. Here are a few highlights, featuring the princess segment, as well as Santa's appearance at the end.

A final recommendation: Back over at California Adventure, Disney's introducing a "Viva Navidad" celebration this year at the Paradise Gardens. Clearly aimed at Southern California's immense Latino community, Viva Navidad plays to one of the resort's strengths: seasonal food specials. With so many off-property restaurants in easy walking distance, and so many visitors being locals who drop in for short visits, Disneyland can't take guests eating in the parks for granted. So the resort competes much more aggressively on food price and quality than Walt Disney World seems to. And seasonal menu changes are part of that strategy. For Viva Navidad, Disney's introduced a new Latino-themed menu at Paradise Garden Grill and Boardwalk Pizza and Pasta.

Viva Navidad menu

I sampled several of the Viva Navidad offerings during a reception after the Winter Dreams premiere: a sweet tamale with jalapeno cheese, a shrimp cocktail, pozole, and chicken mole over rice.


The shrimp cocktail included avocado, which I can't eat, so I can't give a fair assessment of that. The pozole didn't do much for me, though, frankly, at the end of a 90-degree day, I just wasn't in the mood for a hearty pork-and-hominy soup. I liked the simple tamale, but I'd order a whole plate of the mole — a dish with a flavor profile way more complex than you typically find in a theme park, with a nice blend of decadent savory chocolate heated with peppery spice.

For dessert, I sampled a "chocoflan," Mickey-shaped Conchitas, a fruit empanada, and Buñuelos con Cajeta (the cinnamon-sugar-dusted fried dough with caramel sauce).


The Chocoflan was my favorite. I'm not a huge fan of custardy flan, but this tasted more like a chocolate coated cheesecake with caramel pooled at the bottom.


Viva Navidad also will feature live performances by Mariachi and Norteño music groups on the Paradise Garden stage, as well as a "street party" parade with dancers, giant puppets, and the Three Caballeros.

Disneyland's holiday festivities continue through January 6, 2014.

Comments (5) | Archive Link

World of Color: Winter Dreams debuts at Disney California Adventure

By Robert Niles
Published: November 14, 2013 at 11:04 PM

Disney California Adventure tonight premiered its latest incarnation of "World of Color": World of Color Winter Dreams.

World of Color Winter Dreams

Unlike most previous tweaks to California Adventure's nighttime fountain and projection show, Winter Dreams is a completely new production, featuring Olaf, the snowman from the upcoming Disney animated film Frozen. Olaf serves as host for the show, which kicks off with a new song, "Glow," written for and performed by a 150-member "Virtual Honor Choir" of online fans who recorded their parts separately, to be edited together for the performance.

Olaf the snowman

After this rather earnest introduction, it's Olaf's turn. After a quick welcome ("I love warm hugs!"), the silly snowman turns it over to Bambi and Thumper on that frozen pond, before Olaf's co-star Elsa the Snow Queen (voice of Idina Menzel) appears to belt her show-stopper "Let it Go."

A montage of Christmas cards (some created by fans) follows, along with the fountains' turn in the spotlight. But most of that's forgotten when the Toy Story characters appear to steal the show.

"Toy Story Nutcracker" blends Tchaikovsky's enduring ballet music with all the cheeky mayhem you'd expect from Woody, Buzz, Jessie, and the gang. Sending up Disney's classic Fantasia treatment of the ballet as much as the original itself, the Little Green Men take the place of the dancing mushrooms for the (Chinese) Tea Dance, then Jessie and Buzz blend genres by getting their Tango on for a wild Waltz of the Flowers.

Olaf tries his darndest to follow, with a wistful ballad about getting to enjoy the summer ("Winter's a good time to stay in and cuddle. But put me in summer and I'll be a — happy snowman!"), then by leading a wacky audience sing-a-long ("just follow my bouncing butt!"). Disney tries to push its multicultural buttons here, including the Dreidel Song and Feliz Navidad, along with Jingle Bells. A rousing finale completes the show, which is punctuated by the addition of 600 lights on the California Screamin' track and elsewhere along the Paradise Pier promenade.

One might expect a holiday show to tug at the heartstrings, especially when its the younger sibling of the original World of Color, which offers its share of gut-wrenching and tear-wringing moments. But, like its host, Winter Dreams gets more laughs than warm fuzzies. This is World of Color's funny younger brother, cracking up the family around the Christmas dinner table.

Update: Video is up!

Comments (7) | Archive Link

Disney opening Avatar in phases: Terrible idea, or no big deal?

By Robert Niles
Published: November 13, 2013 at 11:08 PM

Disney's going to open its new Avatar land in phases, as we reported yesterday in the news round-up. Will that be a big deal for theme park fans?

Avatar land
Avatar land concept art courtesy Disney

Opening New Fantasyland in phases didn't hurt Disney's bottom line. Disney's theme park division earlier this month reported big earnings for the year, driven by increased attendance at the Magic Kingdom, where a big ticket price increase didn't trim the crowds. It only added to the money that New Fantasyland helped the company earn.

Also to consider: If you're willing to stretch the definition of the word, all theme parks develop in phases. Theme parks stop developing new lands and attractions only just before they close forever. The huge costs of some theme park developments force companies to spread the work, so that plans often come to life in stages, even if they're not always sold to the public that way.

Would fans rather see four new attractions open over two or three years, or settle for just one or two attractions at once? Obviously, the most enthusiastic fans would like to see everything, all at once, but that's almost never an option.

The challenge for theme parks is to manage fans' expectations. Insider reports suggest that Universal had a phased plan for its development of Harry Potter all along, one that would begin in Islands of Adventure, then expand to Universal Studios Florida. But no one thoughts of the original Wizarding World of Harry Potter as "phase one" of Universal's plan. Fans saw it as a complete work, unto itself, and embraced it as such. Universal kept its entire focus on the initial development, and word of "phase two" didn't leak until well after the Wizarding World's debut. (Though, in hindsight, the way that Universal branded the Wizarding World almost as a separate entity instead of making it subordinate to Islands of Adventure should have provided a big clue that Universal had grander plans for the development — plans that extended beyond IoA.)

Getting fans to see a project as complete is key. Fans understand that theme parks aren't complete works, but platforms for an ever-expanding and often-changing line-up of attractions. But fans don't want to feel ripped off by paying for incomplete attractions within those parks.

That's the big problem with Walt Disney World's approach to New Fantasyland. Disney built the edges of New Fantasyland first, and left the middle for last. The literal centerpiece of the new land, the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, will be the last thing to come online, more than two years after New Fantasyland's first elements opened to the public.

That created an impression of an unfinished land for many visitors. If Disney had completed the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train first, then waited two years to open, say, The Little Mermaid ride, one suspects that many fewer fans would have taken to the Internet to complain. New Fantasyland would have felt complete upon the opening of the Mine Train, and then felt as though it was simply growing even bigger when Mermaid opened. Construction that way would have proceeded at all times beyond the park's apparent boundaries, instead of happening so conspicuously within it, as has been the case for the past several years.

Mine train construction

If Disney builds Avatar in phases that gradually extend Animal Kingdom's boundaries, most fans might not even notice the phased implementation. But if phase one leaves a giant, under-construction Tree of Souls in the middle of the land, surrounded by wooden walls and a solicitation to come back in three years to see the rest of Avatar, Disney ought to brace itself for a flood of fan complaints.

Still, as we mentioned, Disney's experience with New Fantasyland suggests that such a flood of complains won't stop the flood of those visitors' money.

Comments (45) | Archive Link

Theme Park History: A look back at the inventor of just about everything, Arrow Dynamics

By Jacob Sundstrom
Published: November 13, 2013 at 2:18 PM

We owe a lot to Arrow Dynamics — yes, a lot more than backaches and sore necks after disembarking what once was the pinnacle of the roller coaster universe. Arrow brought us the first golden age of steel roller coasters during the late 1970s and early '80s — a time when its twisted-coat-hanger-inspired creations were the hottest commodity in the theme park universe.

Arrow came from humble beginnings as a small metal shop that specialized in building carousels after the second World War. But it got its big break when Walt Disney decided he wanted to turn the theme park business on its head. Arrow was tasked with building several of the Fantasyland creations still bringing joy to guests today, but its most famous creation rests on the border of Tomorrow and Fantasy — which is fitting.

The Matterhorn Bobsleds get a bad rap for being a little rough-and-tumble. Those complaints aren't all wrong by any means, but perhaps we expect too much out of the first tubular steel roller coaster ever built. We don't think of Disneyland as a pioneer in thrill ride technology, but it was Walt Disney who kicked off the great roller coaster revolution by bringing a smoother ride to the famous thrill machines.

Developing ride systems for Disney isn't a bad way to grow your burgeoning ride design business, and Arrow created the systems for It's A Small World, Journey Through Inner Space, and the Haunted Mansion, while inventing the log flume on the side. The first log flume was built at Six Flags Over Texas in 1963 and is still in operation. El Aserradero [The Sawmill] was one of Arrow's earliest partnerships with Six Flags, but it wouldn't be the last.

The first log flume

The first modern inverting roller coaster opened at Knott's Berry Farm in 1975 and the aptly named Corkscrew changed the way roller coasters were designed over the next 20 years. America's infatuation with the inversion had begun. Fourteen of Arrow's corkscrew model were built, according to RCDB.com, and 10 still operate today. But the simple double corkscrew model was just the beginning of what Arrow would achieve.

Both of the Great America parks ordered a coaster that gave them both a double corkscrew AND a double loop — and both Demon roller coasters still operate today. When that became old hat, Arrow designed the batwing maneuver, which splices a loop and a corkscrew together and then doubles it. No word if Ron Toomer made this with a wire coat hanger or not, but I like to believe that he did.

While Arrow is most famous for its standard sit-down coasters, it's also the father of the inverted roller coaster. The first suspended coaster opened at Kings Island in 1981 and the outright intensity of The Bat created a legend, while the resulting physical stress on the equipment eventually led to its closure. Not dissuaded by its initial failure, Kings Island opened Top Gun — another suspended roller coaster that will become The Bat next year after toiling under the name Flight Deck for the past few seasons.

Only five of Arrow's 10 suspended coasters are still operating, but all but one of them are in North America. With the Big Bad Wolf's closure at Busch Gardens Williamsburg a couple years back, we may be looking at this breed of coaster going extinct in the near future.

Arrow briefly left the inversion genre to try out hyper coasters. From 1989-94 it built five hyper coasters and all are still operating today. These are not the graceful rolling hills we've become accustomed to on B&M hypers, and they lack the intensity of a hyper built by Intamin, but their rawness inspired the creations that would come later.

In 1990, Arrow might have reached its peak, when Viper opened at Six Flags Magic Mountain and the sprawling, inversion-filled monster raised the bar of what was truly terrifying to a whole new level. It is the only of Arrow's three seven-inversion coasters still operating, and today stands over the Magic Mountain skyline as a sort of dinosaur skeleton — reminding us what preceded the coasters to follow.


When it opened, Viper was the tallest and fastest roller coaster in the world, with a height of 188 feet and top speed of 70 miles per hour. It also held the record for the "tallest loop" until Full Throttle smashed it this past summer. Riding it now, it's hard to think of a time when this was the pinnacle of the thrill ride experience, but I can appreciate the history as I brace myself for the head banging that comes during the two-minute attraction.

Arrow might have hit its pinnacle in the early 90s, but it also saved its most ambitious work for last. The company was in dire financial straits when it built X — the world's first 4th dimension roller coaster. (It's now been rebuilt as X2.) The ride was unlike anything experienced before. You are strapped into seats that extend from the side of a large center chassis, and as you traverse the course the seats flip forwards and backwards in pre-determined patterns. But with great innovation come great risk and as mechanical problems mounted in X's first season, Arrow went bankrupt and was sold.


The company was scooped up by S&S Power, which has gone on to use some of Arrow's designs, including the 4th dimension coaster, but the Arrow brand died with the company in 2002. Unable to compete with newer firms like B&M and Intamin, Arrow is now relegated to the history books; but my goodness what a history it created for us.

Comments (10) | Archive Link

Testing wheelchair accessibility on selected attractions at SeaWorld and Busch Gardens

By Daniel Etcheberry
Published: November 13, 2013 at 11:33 AM

I decided to take advantage of SeaWorld/Busch Garden's $50 weekday ticket offer for Florida residents and experience Antarctica as well as the Serengeti Safari, which I had not experienced before.

I went first to SeaWorld Orlando. Antarctica's queue is wheelchair accessible. You have to choose between mild and wild for the ride portion; I chose mild since everyone went to the wild option. I had no one in front of me, and I went directly to the ride's vehicle. One is able to get the wheelchair next to the vehicle, and the seats are on the same level; it is an easy transfer.

Antarctica ride vehicle

The mild version moves in a gentle way from side to side and around the rooms; no spinning or tilts. I watched the other vehicles, and they not only did spin, but they also tilted in a way that would have been uncomfortable for someone like me with upper torso weakness. I found the mild version to be a relaxing preview to the penguin exhibition. You can skip the ride, but I recommend it as part of the experience. As for the exhibit itself, the point of view of a wheelchair is as good as anyone else's point of view. I brought a sweater with me, and that was enough to feel comfortable for fifteen minutes. There is an elevator that will take you to the lower level where you will see the penguins underwater. To exit, you get to the same elevator and return to the main level, and then you have to exit through a different door than the rest who use a revolving door.

Antarctica penguins

I also went to TurtleTrek. I warn wheelchair users that there is a long and steep pathway going down to the theater, and then the same type of pathway going up from the theater as you exit. Park employees will get you inside the theater before the rest of people, and any spot is a good one to watch the 360 degree movie.

Finally, most of the wheelchair spots at the Shamu Stadium are in the wet zone; don't worry though, since the splashes don't get to that area (not even close).

My second trip was to Busch Gardens. I live in Tampa and I have been to this park many times, but for some crazy reason I never did the Serengeti Safari before. Well, it was time to do it. First of all, the open truck is wheelchair accessible; the loading area is at the same level of the truck. There is a ramp between the truck and the platform, and rolling inside is very smooth. Park employees strap the wheelchair to the side of the truck, and they lower the side so it doesn't obstruct the view. Even if the terrain is uneven, I never felt to be in any danger; my wheelchair didn't move at all. The views of the animals are magnificent, but it is the giraffe feeding that makes this tour a unique experience. The guide gave me lettuce, and one giraffe approached the truck. What an experience to hand feed a giraffe! Not to be missed.

The Serengeti Safari has an additional charge [$19, online].

Comments (2) | Archive Link

Tuesday theme park news round-up: Who's ready for a theme park Hunger Games?

By Robert Niles
Published: November 12, 2013 at 6:14 PM

In this week's fake theme park news, hundreds of news outlets hyperventilated over the idea of a "Hunger Games"-themed theme park being built. It's the latest example of how too many news organizations cannot or will not distinguish between a theme park attraction and an entire theme park. (Google "Harry Potter theme park" sometime.) The story emerged after Lionsgate CEO Jon Feltheimer said in a Wall Street conference call that the studio has been "approached in two territories about potential theme park opportunities" for the film franchise.

Who knows who those parties might be, and what they might have in mind? After all, does anyone really want to spend time in Panem?

But let's not let that stop the rumors. Hey, what if Disney secretly has a deal with Lionsgate? And what if MyMagic+ was simply the groundwork for reducing the entire Disney World vacation experience to a massive reenactment of the Hunger Games? C'mon, it's not too farfetched. As we wrote last night on Twitter, you said that you'd "kill" for those hard-to-get Cinderella's Royal Table reservations. What if Disney gave you the chance to prove it? ;^) Have you been to a summer morning rope drop recently? How far are we now from just rounding up 24 "tributes" from the families gathered at the park's entrance and just letting 'em fight it out over four Midway Mania Fastpasses?

Probably closer than we are to seeing an actual Hunger Games attraction in a major theme park.

In real theme park news, Aquatica Orlando's revealed the name for its new water slide for 2014: Ihu's Breakaway Falls. The park said today that "the drop slide will be the tallest, steepest and only multi-slide ride of its kind in Orlando. The slide is named after Ihu, Aquatica Orlando's colorful gecko."

On the west coast, SeaWorld Parks also announced today's birth of a baby dolphin at SeaWorld San Diego. That means... cute baby animal photo!

Baby dolphin

Back to Disney, we already know that we won't be seeing the Marvel characters at Walt Disney World anytime soon, thanks to Marvel's old deal with Universal Orlando. But here's another place you won't be seeing the Marvel characters anymore: casinos. In a reported effort to avoid charges of hypocrisy, Disney -- which long as lobbied against the expansion of gambling near Walt Disney World in Florida and is unique among major players in the cruise industry by not offering gambling on any of its ships -- is putting a stop to future licensing deals for Marvel characters on slot machines and lottery tickets.

Also from Disney, we're hearing from insiders that Animal Kingdom's Avatar land, slated to open in 2017, actually will open in stages, a la New Fantasyland.

Finally, we now have a better idea of when Walt Disney Studios Paris will open its new Ratatouille-themed trackless dark ride. In a radio interview last week, Disneyland Paris President Philippe Gas revealed that the attraction will open sometime in late June or early July. Now, who's ready to fight to be the first in line?

Comments (10) | Archive Link

Theme Park Insider interview with Disney Legend and Imagineer Tony Baxter: Part Two

By Robert Niles
Published: November 12, 2013 at 1:20 PM

Last week, we brought you Part One of our interview with legendary attraction designer Tony Baxter. Today, it's time for Part Two, when we talk about how to get hired in the business, the creative use of misdirection, and the birth of Epcot's Figment.

[Update: The audio file is now online!]

Tony Baxter

Robert: So along the way, you had to pick up an engineering education, as well?

Tony: Well, an innate engineering education. I had gotten in here through my portfolio from school and also with a crazy thing that I'd been nurturing since high school — it was kind of a maze with steel ball bearings. You pushed the first one in and it went through a trick and the last thing it would do is trigger another one, and another one, until 10 of them had gone through: roller coasters and music boxes and carts and whatnot. And finally a curtain came down, saying 'The End.' I brought that in as a back-up. After looking at my portfolio, I could tell that 'adequate' look — it was kind of like, 'we have people like Herbie Ryman and Marc Davis and you're merely… adequate.' So I said, 'I have something else in the car,' and we brought it in the back and I ran it and the next thing I knew there were people continually coming through from about 2:30 until they closed at five or whatever. They would go back to their offices and say 'you've got to go down to the model shop and see what this kid has brought in.' I know this because for a year afterward people would come up and say 'you're the kid who brought in that thing.'

It had a huge impact, and the thing that I think that I learned from it — and I tell young people here — is 'what is it, beyond what you do that is extremely good or well done, what is it that's going to distinguish you from all the other applicants, and make them say, 'well, we could hire A, B, or C, and we get an adequate illustrator, but if we hire C, we also get someone with obvious engineering ability'?' That's the business we're in. I tell people, in today's world, do you speak Mandarin Chinese? Because if you do, and you're a good estimator, or architect, or whatever, it's going to be the sway point since so much of our effort right at this moment is in Asia.

So that [engineering know-how], for me, was very helpful, not only for Indiana Jones, but also my first project [which] was Big Thunder, which was a gravity ride and that's exactly what I used for my marble machine: gravity. I wouldn't say that I was the engineer on the track, but I kinda knew intuitively what I was going to have to do to make the engineers happy with the track. I'd do an aesthetic concept and then we'd turn it over to them and they'd say, 'well you're going to have to move that butte over here,' and then we'd say, 'that's going to be ugly and it doesn't work well,' and then I'd try to figure out what is it that you're trying to tell me: 'why I have to move that?' 'Well, you're out of energy at that point, unless you get it closer, you'll never be able to get all the way to the pick-up point.' Ah, okay. So then I would be able to work within that.

Sometimes I would use very simplistic ways, and an engineer would stand there and almost go blank face. One of them was for a length of track. I was trying to get what the essence of the problem is. 'We don't have enough energy to get there? Okay, well, what is that? Four hundred feet of track? Yeah. Well, that could be a string, and to scale, 400 feet would be 400 inches.' So you could put it on a table, and figure out where could it be. The string stretches over here, and now that has to go over here, and real quickly, I could get an idea of where I could get it to go with that piece of string. And they'd look at me, like, 'he did that with a piece of string?'

The other one was an even better one. On Splash Mountain, we got into a big estimating disaster. They misdiagnosed the amount of rockwork by about half. If you had a surface, if there was a cave inside of it, the cave wasn't estimated. Just the surface. And where we had grass growing on the top, they said that wasn't rockwork. But in fact it was a pan that had to be even stronger than the rockwork because it had to hold dirt and whatever else. So that wasn't caught. What I did, I said get me some Reynolds aluminum, and cut it into 10-inch squares. So we got a big stack of squares. Then I just molded it over the rocks [on the model], and then we counted the sheets of 10-inch foil, and that told us how many square feet [of rockwork we needed]. Now we can do all this by scanning in a computer, but this is back in the analog days.

Robert: But that takes the fun out of it.

Tony: Yeah. If you didn't use a quarter of that square, we'd rip it off, then you'd put all the ripped parts [aside], and after you'd counted all the tin foil, you subtracted the ripped-off pieces. Once we had the thing all silver with tin foil, and there was no rockwork showing, I said, okay, that's it. So I didn't have to deal with any numbers that way. It was all just counting.

Robert: What are some of the big misconceptions you see out there about Disney attractions, where people say, 'oh, Imagineering did this,' when, in fact, you never really did think about that? Haunted Mansion has so many legends of being filled with things…

Tony: Haunted Mansion is the hologram one. Even fairly astute directors, I won't go into any names, but they're shocked when they find out the simplicity. Disney relied on misdirection a lot, so if you're in a place that's about ghosts, then you're predisposed to see things that are normal that way. That was a lesson that Yale Gracy was a master at. The simplest gags are fine as long as the guest is not looking at what he's really seeing, but looking at what he thinks he's seeing.

When we did Indiana Jones, I had stored in the back of my mind a phenomenon I had observed. It's one of those wonderful things — even though you know what's going on, you still perceive it to be what it is not — that's riding through those car washes where you put your car in neutral and then the room moves around you. It invariably feels like you must have put it into drive and instead of park, because my car is moving forward. Brain-wise, we're conditioned to believe that cars move, and rooms do not. I don't know if that's in-born, or it's a learned thing, or evolutionary, or whatever it is. But that is one of the laws of nature that we can't avoid. So when we take people into the rolling ball scene at the end, and the physics of the ride system are that it's got to keep moving forward, even if it's slowly, and you have Indiana Jones saying 'back up, back up,' the rolling ball is coming, by having the whole room go that way, it feels like you are trying to pull backward. It's a little kick in the car, and you hear the engine, and everybody buys right into it because all the cues are that's what's happening, even though that's not what's happening.

Robert: And the doors at the beginning.

Tony: Yeah. All of these things are kind of like what a magician does, which is throwing the focus. I think Disneyland has mastered that. Probably the simplest one is Peter Pan. I've got sit down and measure the square footage on that. I would say it's probably no more than a large home; it's pretty small. There's about three rooms in there. But by turning out all the lights and telling you that you're flying out of a bedroom window, out over London, and then off to the stars, it can go so profound as to get someone like Ray Bradbury to write Walt and say just that: 'today, I will be eternally grateful because I flew out of a child's bedroom window, out over moonlit London in a galleon on its way to the stars.' You're thinking about this poet, this writer, this inspirational mind, who was completely captivated by that. It's weird to me because obviously ride technology and sophistication are way, way beyond Peter Pan, but I can tell you, right now the park is open and there's about 40 minutes of people waiting in line for it, — I can guarantee that without being at Disneyland. People are willing to suspend that disbelief and buy into what it does offer because the thought of doing that is so compelling. It's such a compelling experience that they're willing to overlook the shortcomings of it.

Like the submarine ride — I don't think that the public thinks about it being in the largest building in Disneyland. And I learned from that when we did Splash Mountain. When we were under construction, we had a building that was towering over the Haunted Mansion, which is supposed to be stately and there on the edge of the wilderness, and everybody said, 'what have you done?' And I said, it's not going to look like a building, it's going to look like a place. A lot people can't see that until grass is planted on it, and it is now no longer a threat to the stateliness of the Mansion.

But the submarine ride: I remember that Bob Iger couldn't believe how it is costing so much. Because he thought that it's just a little pond there, so he came down one day and asked 'where is this money being spent, because I know that ride and it just goes around.' We walked him in, and I remember there was haze because of all the welders, and the haze diminished the depth down to infinity in there, and it looked like a giant convention center. It's two rides, because you have the left ride and the right ride, whereas in rides like Pirates, and Haunted Mansion, and Indy, everyone's seeing the whole thing. In that ride, half the people are seeing this ride, and half the people are seeing [the other], so the building has to be twice as big. So we walked in there, and he said, 'okay, I get it.'

But he had to see that, because Disney is so good at misdirecting that you almost have to force yourself to pull out of the experience and clinically analyze it. When I was doing a tour for designers, we stopped very close to the gate between City Hall and the Emporium, and I said, just listen for a minute. Invariably, you can hear the natives in the Jungle [Cruise], which is 30 feet away from us. One of the deceptively beautiful things about Disneyland is that you're going to spend the next two hours getting over there and getting to that point, and you're 30 feet from where you began. But your brain is somewhere else, at the deepest, deepest point in Adventureland. In many ways, it's beautifully laid out in keeping the audience guessing what's really going on. I think some of the later efforts allow too much exploring. Indiana Jones is a great example — here's this little temple in the tiniest land in Disneyland. Adventureland is about half the size of any of the other [lands], but it houses the biggest ride we've ever built. It was a negative liability that we had about an eighth of a mile between the start of the attraction there in Adventureland and the actual physical experience. I think it actually became a positive because it really takes you out of where your mindset was back when you decided to go on this ride and gets you prepared for something entirely of another world, when you finally arrive.

For me it's not so much about misconception, I mean you could go into those, but it's kind of like trivia: How many leaves are on the treehouse, and just make up a number, because nobody knows. I always laughed at that. How do they know? The last thing you do is spend money having somebody count leaves. Then if one broke on the assembly, it's all off anyway. There's the things like "5/8ths scale," no, it's whatever scale was practical. You've got to get people in the building. You couldn't walk through a 5/8ths scale door, so the first floors are nearly reality and as it goes up it varies to whatever looks good. I think most artists versus architects approach it not so much with a ruler saying 'it's gotta be 5/8ths scale,' it's like 'what feels right?' What is the right way to do that? You might exaggerate more on this building because of its verticality and then on a stumpier building you wouldn't need to do that. So you just play with it to make sure that they all look believable in the end.

Robert: Obviously, all projects change in between concept and actually getting built. But is there one out there with a really good story of changing radically between the time somebody thought of it and the time it actually got developed?

Tony: (Laughs) They all do! I told you a little about Star Tours beginning life as a roller coaster and I think that's pretty typical. My journey through Epcot I think is one that has an evolution that's kind of interesting. It started with The Seas pavilion and I always try to find some way of creating personality because I think through personality people know what to hang on to. If it's just stuff, without someone who's appealing to you, it's like the Jungle Cruise without a jungle guide. If you took the skipper off and put the boat on auto-pilot and you went through and just saw animals, it wouldn't be nearly the ride. We started with The Seas pavilion and this was before Little Mermaid, and I thought wouldn't it be cool if we had Poseidon who opened up the world of the sea and dared Man to experience it from his realm. And to do that I thought, well, I always look for a starting point that I can hang my hat on. I remember DeMille and The Ten Commandments having Moses stand on the rock and part the Red Sea. I thought that if you could have Poseidon raise up out of the water, kind of angry at Man, and it's because you don't know what it's like, and you haven't been a part of it, and beckon everybody in the audience to step out of humdrum Epcot theater across this threshold of water that pulls back and we go out and enter the kingdom of the sea. Then it got morphed into a thing that was more technologically oriented which was… I didn't like it as well.

I went on to The Land pavilion, and I still had that need to personify it. We created a character called The Landkeeper, who wasn't quite as dramatic — he was more humble. He wasn't like a big sea god who was 30 feet tall, a massive Yeti-sized Audio Animatronic. This was a kindly, kind-of Professor Marvel from The Wizard of Oz, who knew all about the land and caring for it, like everybody's grandfather farmer. And he was going to take us through the story of The Land. And that didn't go, and they moved away from what was basically an ecologically-oriented story that was ahead of its time to one that was more based on food production.

So now I had this cast of characters floating around in my mind and Big Thunder kind of happened and we went on hiatus for a while, and when I came back it was for Journey Into Imagination. It was not like something [where] you could go to a book and see what the world of energy or the world of transportation or the land or the sea was. It was a world that only existed mentally, philosophically. So it was absolutely imperative that it had to have characters. Otherwise, if I try to tell you how you imagine, or how I imagine, it's just someone's opinion. But if you create a character and say that's how he imagines, well, by the way, you might get something out of this by emulating or seeing the value in what they do. So we developed the Dreamfinder from the Landkeeper from Poseidon, I guess, is the evolution. He was the keeper of all knowledge of imagination and out of him we quickly developed 'what is the story going to be?'

[It's] like what you're doing right now: You're gathering information from me, you're going to combine it with other things that you already know now, and you'll create something new out of it. We tried to test that on everything from baking birthday cakes to atomic bombs, and everybody more or less goes through the same process of creating new things. But something was missing. It was very knowledgeable and all that, but imagination is supposed to be this fun thing. There's this child thing — really, I think one of the sad things about school and maturing and everything that happens, the innocent spontaneity of a child is more or less learned out of you, into being a responsible adult person.

There's an unbridled chaos that I think the movie Big — which was after our Imagination pavilion, so I didn't have that for inspiration — [illustrates]. In that movie, you've got a 12-year-old Tom Hanks in a toy factory, as a vice president, and everyone there is just eager to strangle his neck because he has that unlearned, no discipline, attitude of not sitting through the meeting, listening to the charts and graphs about why we think children will like this, but he's sitting there playing with a toy, and he immediately knows that it's not any fun. He goes 'I don't get it. What's fun about a robot that turns a building? That's not fun.' And they go, 'didn't you read your graph that shows if we can get into this…?' Right there in that movie, I think it should be required. It's probably more important to me, that movie, than anything we learn in school. In art class, I would start with that. I would say, against all the learning that you've already had, you have to allow that to still survive.

I see examples of it over and over again. You think of Steve Jobs — here's a guy who changed the world. When he was 12 years old — I think 12 is kind of an interesting year: you're very knowledgeable, you're very educated, but you're still young enough that you haven't been beaten down, you haven't had the hormones kick in, you've got this cocky attitude, unbridled absorption of knowledge. Well, when he was 12, the movie 2001 came out. And in that film, there are clearly iPads on the table while everyone's eating. The HAL computer? Look at it and look at the dynamics of an iPod — they're identical, the shape of it, everything, the pod, the circle, all this stuff is exactly that. I think what he saw was a negative world that was controlled and ruled by computers, but it fired that 12-year-old brain to not say 'here's why that won't work,' but to say, 'I think it would be very cool to have these flat things, and talk to a computer that does everything for you.' That framework stayed in his brain for his whole career. You see that in the movie Big, when Tom Hanks envisions a computer comic book, where the kid writes where the thing is going to go, well, that's the basis of every video game today. You put the thing in, and then you go wherever you want to go. I remember when that came out, and they said, well, we think it'll be like $39.95, and I went '39.95? (laughs) If they get it down to $3,995, that would be crazy, but nothing like that is ever going to happen.' So here we are, and the graphics in these things are as good as reality.

We started with thinking about Dennis the Menace. I brought in a comic where Dennis, on Christmas morning, has opened all the packages and his parents are waiting there for him to say 'gee, you're wonderful parents,' instead he goes, 'is this all? Is this all I get?' and the room is just filled with clutter. That's that child thing — it's absorbing so much and all it can think of is more — not limits and all the things we adults see. So we need a child — how do we create that child?

Steve Kirk had done a thing, a steampunk, crazy project he had worked on — it was a snarly, long-necked, snaggletoothed dragon, and I grabbed it and I showed it to the Kodak Company that was working with us, and they liked it a lot. Again, it was one of those things where I went, that'll never be approved as Disney. It's not going to go. But they picked it up, and ran with it and suddenly it was in a corporate book saying these two characters will be taking you on this Journey Into Imagination, and I got called into the office. I said I didn't know they took a picture of it.

We had the Dreamfinder name, [but] we just had the dragon. As they were evolving and getting more Disney — it seems so obvious now that its name was Figment, but it wasn't. I was watching a Magnum P.I. and they had hidden a goat in the garden, and the old butler was mad as hell, and Magnum was trying to sooth him and hide the fact that he had the goat there, and they got into a big argument and Higgins, the butler, said, 'well, figments don't eat grass.' Magnum had said it was just a figment of your imagination. It's one of those things that gets dropped into your lap and that nobody owns, but it's ripe to say, 'we're going to own that, That's going to be ours.' I came in that next day and I pulled the little snaggly model out and said 'meet Figment.'

It was funny. Everyone said, 'well, of course, that's Figment.' The amazing thing now, is that if you Google word on Images, up comes that little purple dragon. Disney more or less has taken the valuable mental real estate of that word, figment, and owned it the same way as the word mermaid, through Ariel, or pirates, with Johnny Depp. You can go down the list. People overlook the valuable mental real estate that is available is free. It's out there. For all the years that aquariums existed, somewhere buried in the back there were clownfish. They're now out in the front and the children don't go, 'oh, mommy, look, it's clownfish.' They go, 'Nemo!'

When we were building Paris, part of my ritual for friends who came over was the tour on Saturday of going to all the sites. We'd go up in the bell tower with all the gargoyles and look over Notre Dame. Until Hunchback came out. Then all of a sudden, there's a long line. I said, 'oh, we must have hit it just wrong and a tour bus or something unloaded.' As we stood there, and you're hearing the different languages, I picked up on one, and the little boy was going, 'are we going to see where Quasimodo lives?' So suddenly now a character took a place — and I was saying this earlier — and personified it. Going up the steps and looking at the gargoyles, this child now can related with that. It transformed it from being of limited interest to a very, very important thing to him, because this is where Quasimodo lived. I think this mental real estate, finding it, nurturing it, making it meaningful for people, is great, because in the end it strengthens something that exists and gives it purpose.

Next week: We wrap up our interview with Tony in Part Three.

Comments (9) | Archive Link

How are theme park visitors are using their smartphones in the park?

By Robert Niles
Published: November 11, 2013 at 4:41 PM

How do you use your cell phone when you visit a theme park?

The design pros over at Thinkwell Group have been asking that question of theme park fans. Today, Thinkwell released its first "Guest Experience Trend Report," detailing the results.

Thinkwell Mobile Theme Park Report

More than three of four survey respondents said that they'd brought a smartphone or tablet on their last theme park visit. Most visitors used the phone off and on throughout the day, rather than "actively engaging" with it. Only one percent said they spent more time with the phone than enjoying the park.

People took photos with their phone more than doing anything else with them, with talking, texting and checking email the next-most popular uses for the phones. About a third of respondents said that they searched for information about the park while visiting it.

When Thinkwell asked respondents to rank eight enhancements they might like to have for their mobile devices when visiting a theme park, "front of line access" came out on top, followed by checking queue times, and using GPS to locate family and friends.

Of course, parks are working on that functionality already. One of the big features of Disney's MyMagic+ system is using your phone (or computer at home) to access Fastpass+ ride and restaurant reservations. And many theme parks' existing apps allow you to find current wait times for attractions throughout the park.

(And you want to use GPS to find friends and family, well, several apps already allow you to do that, too.)

The big challenge to theme parks and their designers is to develop those new applications for interactive wireless technology that allow people to make use of the theme park platform in creative, engaging ways that visitors don't yet know that they'll end up wanting and loving. It's hard to express a demand for something that's not yet been invented. But the Thinkwell report further establishes that people are engaging on mobile devices in theme parks, and that the demand for an enhanced experience using those devices exists. The question is: Will that "enhanced experience" lead visitors to use their phones and tablets in ways that turn their attention outside the park, or further within it?

Comments (20) | Archive Link

Theme Park History: L.A. Thompson, the father of the themed roller coaster

By Derek Potter
Published: November 10, 2013 at 3:08 PM

Lamarcus Adna Thompson was born in Jersey, Ohio on March 8th, 1848. The man who would later be known as the "father of gravity" started life first as a carpenter, then a successful businessman. Lamarcus Adna ThompsonBy the age of 35 he had made a fortune after founding a company that manufactured women's stockings. The hosiery business took a toll on Thompson's health, and so he left the business. After a trip out west, he found himself in New York in the early 1880's.

It is said that L.A. Thompson was inspired by a trip to the hills in eastern Pennsylvania, where a railroad line running through Carbon County had been converted from a coal transport into a tourist attraction. The Mauch Chunk Switch Back Railway was an 18 mile, mostly downhill course that featured a 2300 ft long, 665 ft high drop at the end. The railway was a rousing success with tourists, who came by the thousands to ride every year. Thompson's idea was to capture the essence of Mauch Chunk in a smaller package.

And so it was that the first authentic American roller coaster was built. Borrowing from previous unfinished designs and applying his own ideas, Thompson obtained patent no. 310,966 for his "Switchback Railway." The ride opened at Coney Island in 1884 and was an immediate success. Charging 5 cents a ride, Thompson was clearing $600 a day in profits almost immediately. The ride was very modest by today's standards, standing just 50 feet tall, 600 feet long, and about 10 mph, but it was also something that had never been seen before. Riders boarded bench-like trains and coasted to the bottom on mild, undulating hills, and then repeated the journey in the opposite direction.

Switchback Railway at Coney Island

Before the 1884 season even ended at Coney Island, Thompson already had competition. Rival builders capitalized on his success with designs of their own, each a little bigger and faster than the last. In just a few months, two more coaster builders appeared at Coney with a new creation, followed by several more in coming years. Thompson spent the next three years improving his design, obtaining another 30 patents and building the coaster in cities across the country. In just four years, he had built 50 of them.


While his competitors were focused primarily on making their rides higher, faster, and steeper, Thompson began to experiment with visuals…first with tunnels and lights, and then with scenery to create a new type of ride. The LA Thompson Scenic Railway combined elements of his earlier creations with visuals. The first one opened in 1888 with great success, leading him to form his own company, opened for the express purpose of building Scenic Railways around the world. Each version of his Scenic Railway was more elaborate than the previous version, containing more and more visuals. The most notable was the installation in Venice, California. Opened in 1910, the track ran among artificial hills lights, and replicas of temples, foreshadowing attractions that would be built by Disney decades later.

LA Thompson Scenic Railway

Thompson the man was himself a visionary. Similar to many of his contemporaries and those who followed, he thought many of the leisure pastimes of his day to be unsavory. The saloon and the brothel were popular attractions of the day, and the cities were crowded and dirty. He envisioned the amusement park and the rides as a more wholesome alternative form of entertainment and a place to escape. L.A. Thompson passed away in 1919. One of his designs lives on in Melbourne's Luna Park in Australia, although much of the scenery has long since been removed.

While not actually credited for being the inventor of the roller coaster, Thompson was the one who introduced it to the masses, entertaining people and inspiring others to build their own, creating a ride that would one day become the king of the midway and pioneering the art of the themed ride.

"Many of the evils of society, much of the vice and crime which we deplore come from the degrading nature of amusements…to substitute something better, something clean and wholesome, and persuade men to chose it, is worthy of all endeavor. We can offer sunshine that glows bright in the afterthought, and scatters the darkness of the tenement for the price of a nickel or a dime." — L.A. Thompson

Comments (8) | Archive Link

Weekend theme park news round-up: Ferrari World, Gardaland, and more

By Oak A
Published: November 10, 2013 at 2:58 PM

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates- Ferrari World, recently in the industry news for a proposed theme park to be constructed in South Korea, has announced a new attraction for 2014. The announcement, made at the 2013 World Travel Market event in London, details plans for the first electric go-karts in the region. Says Bruno Wiley, sales director at Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, "We return to WTM [World Travel Market] this year with more to showcase... We’re preparing to launch a brand new attraction later this year. Karting Academy will be the first electric powered go-karts in the region." Last month, Ferrari World announced a new 7-day operating schedule to meet rising attendance.

Gardaland, Italy-Gardaland's new roller coaster, expected to arrive in 2015, is now believed to be a dive coaster. TheParks.it (be forewarned, the source material is in Italian) informs us that the coaster is expected to reach a height of 42 meters (about 138 feet). Merlin Entertainments, the proprietor of the park, who, in unrelated news, recently had a successful London Stock Exchange IPO, has constructed dive coasters in both Heide Park and Alton Towers, in both instances contracting B&M.

Chuncheon, South Korea-It seems as though the awaited Legoland South Korea proposal has been green-lighted, at least according to this news source. The development, expected cost around USD 470 million, will be jointly funded by Merlin Entertainments (yes, again) and the local government. Once completed, the park is estimated to draw 2 million visitors per annum.

Shanghai, China-Finally, as reported by Xinhua, the Shanghai Metro has released the artwork of 6 proposed artistic design plans for the Disneyland metro station. The decoration plans, which are not visible on the source page, are to contain elements of Chinese design, Shanghai culture and Disneyana, as it is known.

Archive Link

'One Man's Dream': Italy's Ai Pioppi, the personal theme park

By James Koehl
Published: November 9, 2013 at 12:49 PM

While traveling down a tree-lined road through a forest near the northern Italian town of Treviso, drivers start to see row-upon-row of wooden picnic tables through the trees. A tall metal slide whose top is hidden in the canopy of leaves appears. Swings, hand-powered merry-go-rounds, even a metal roller coaster seems to have grown up out of the forest. An open-air restaurant causes the smells of cooking to blend with the smells of the forest. And a man with the facial lines of an eighty-year-old and the infectious smile of an eight-year-old can be found welding in a ram-shackle workshop. The man's name is Bruno. He built this place.

This is Ai Pioppi.

Ai Pioppi

Bruno started Ai Pioppi in 1969 with two jugs of wine, some sausages and a salami. He hung the meat from a tree branch, set up a small grill, and declared his restaurant open. Since that day this restaurant in the forest has grown into a popular family attraction, both for the good, basic menu and for the unique attractions that Bruno has built to attract diners to his restaurant. (Sound familiar?)

Is Ai Pioppi an amusement park? Not in the traditional sense that most of us would think of, but perhaps it is an amusement park in the purest sense. It is a place when guests find joy, fun and a child-like thrill while playing on an amazing mixture of unique playground equipment and one-of-a-kind amusement rides, all constructed by Bruno himself in his on-site workshop. Some are as simple as a basic slide while others are actual roller coasters, but everything at Ai Pioppi was born in the mind of Bruno. They say that Walt Disney built Disneyland — Bruno actually constructed Ai Pioppi with his own hands, welding the metal and creating the attractions to appear to be part of the forest itself.

It is hard to imagine what such a place as Ai Pioppi is like without experiencing it, but a trip to northern Italy is not practical for most theme park fans, and to be honest Ai Pioppi is probably not a "destination park." As unique a place as it is, it would probably remain a local attraction with little exposure to the outside world were it not for Fabrica, a communications research, studio and school located in Italy. They recently completed a short documentary about Ai Pioppi, thus bringing this remarkable amusement park to the attention of the theme park world.

The video was directed by Luiz Romero, Coleman Guyon and Giacomo Pennicchi. It was written by Luiz Romero and scored by Coleman Guyon.

Most of us think of amusement/theme parks as big, flashy, carefully detailed entertainment worlds where the motto "bigger, better, faster, higher," etc. is what they brag about and aim for. A park such as has been created by Bruno at Ai Pioppi is as foreign a concept as northern Italy is a foreign country to most of us. Perhaps Bruno has created a new kind of theme park, one that is inseparable from the forest where it stands and where it was created. The broad smiles of the visitors, the laughter of the children and the look of child-like delight on the faces of the adults who are enjoying this experience tells me that this place is important, a valuable addition to the concept of the theme park.

It truly is "One Man's Dream," a dream brought to life in a northern Italian forest by a man named Bruno with a ramshackle workshop, a welding torch and the vision to bring his dream to life and share it with the world.

Comments (4) | Archive Link

Paramount Park Spain awards construction contracts

By Robert Niles
Published: November 8, 2013 at 6:02 PM

It looks like the proposed Paramount Park in Spain might actually happen. The developer behind the proposed theme park, which would be built outside Alhama de Murcia, in southeast Spain, last week awarded two construction contracts for the park, valued at US$100 million.

Paramount Park
Artist's concept of Spain's Paramount Park

The smaller contract, worth about US$30 million, is for access roads and site prep for an accompanying commercial retail and hotel development. The other, US$70 million contract to Spanish construction company Ferrovial, is for the theme park itself.

Let's presume that the construction contract is simply for park site development and core facilities, and does not include actual attractions. The developer's press release promises "Murcia's Paramount Theme Park will have 35 to 40 super high tech attractions and hopes to welcome upwards of three million visitors each year from around the world."

Seventy million dollars buys you about one "super high tech attraction," not "35 to 40." Earlier press releases, from 2011, portrayed an ambitious line-up of attractions for the park, including four themed lands, a Spider-Man-like motion-base ride, a Star Tours clone, two shooter dark rides, at least one 4D show, an indoor boat ride, a rapids ride, and a high-speed launch coaster.

Skip to 3:11 in the video for an overview of the park, in Spanish:

The video describes four lands: Paseo Paramount, Rango's West (based on the animated film), Woodland Fantasy, and Plaza Futura. Hmmm, a main street, a frontier land, a fantasy land, and a tomorrow-themed land — where have we seen that before?

Highlights include a Mission: Impossible-themed motion base ride, Rango's Rapids, a Star Trek-themed Star Tours clone, and the space-themed roller coaster. If the park were to meet expectations and draw three million visitors a year, that would make it Europe's seventh-most popular park, behind the two parks at Disneyland Paris, Europa Park, Efteling, Tivoli Gardens, and Spain's Port Aventura, which is located more than 300 miles up the coast from the Paramount Park site.

The park's slated to open in late 2015. Thoughts?

Comments (6) | Archive Link

Vote of the week: Where else do you visit in Florida?

By Robert Niles
Published: November 8, 2013 at 2:05 PM

We are wrapping up the final edits on our Theme Park Insider Orlando guidebook, which should be available on Amazon.com by the end of the month. (Add it to your Christmas lists!) The book includes a section on some of the top attractions outside the Orlando area that theme park fans often include on their Florida vacations, such as Busch Gardens Tampa, Legoland Florida, the Kennedy Space Center, or the beach.

Busch Gardens Tampa
Many theme park fans include a side trip to Busch Gardens in Tampa on their Orlando vacations. Photo by Joe Keenen.

Which of those is your family's top choice for a vacation destination, outside of Orlando? Or do you not venture beyond Orange and Osceola counties when you visit Florida?

Busch Gardens offers a superior collection of roller coasters and thrill rides for theme park fans who are wanting more physical thrills in addition to visiting the Orlando-area theme parks. Legoland offers a more focused alternative for families with elementary-aged kids, who might feel a bit squished in the crowds of so many older kids and adults at the other parks. KSC offers grand history and a window into the science of spaceflight that Disney's Epcot only suggests. And the beach is, well, the beach — an often-tranquil getaway from the sensory overload of a modern theme park.

It's an hour or so in the car, each way, to these destinations, but many families enjoy the alternative when they're visiting the Orlando area. What about your family?

Please tell us in the comments what else you do, besides the theme parks, when you visit Florida. And thank you, again, for reading and being part of the Theme Park Insider community.

Comments (12) | Archive Link

SeaWorld launches new website for animal live cams

By Robert Niles
Published: November 8, 2013 at 10:18 AM

SeaWorld has launched a new website for live cams showing animals in three of its theme parks. AnimalVision.com features live looks at the penguins in SeaWorld Orlando's Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin post-ride habitat, sea turtles in SeaWorld San Diego's Turtle Reef, and stingrays in the Aquatica waterpark at SeaWorld San Antonio.


From SeaWorld's press release:

The cameras at SeaWorld Orlando’s Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, show four different species of penguins — gentoo, rockhopper, Adelie and King — both darting through the water and above water on the ice. At Aquatica, SeaWorld’s Waterpark in San Antonio, more than 200 stingrays and tropical fish, including various species of angel, tang and butterfly fish, are seen from shallow and deep underwater viewpoints. Turtle Reef at SeaWorld San Diego features more than 40 threatened green sea turtles ranging in age from four to 50 years old with a view into the 280,000-gallon aquarium they call home.

Website visitors can switch between the three habitats as well as access reference information about the animals. So here's one more thing to keep theme park fans from getting anything done at work. ;^)

Archive Link

Disney keeps raking it in: $2.2 billion in theme park profits for the year

By Robert Niles
Published: November 7, 2013 at 8:18 PM

Disney's theme parks again are making billions of dollars in profits, thanks to charging visitors more than ever for tickets, food, hotel rooms, and merchandise. Disney reported its fourth-quarter and year-end financial results this afternoon, and the company's theme park division contributed $2.2 billion to the company's $6.1 billion in profits for the year ending September 28, 2013.

Disney reported that theme park revenue increased 9% during the year, to $14.1 billion. The company reported that both Walt Disney World and the Disneyland Resort hit record attendance numbers for the year, though attendance was down at the Disneyland Resort during the last three months of the company's fiscal year, when compared with the same period last year. Remember, July-September of 2012 were the first three full months that Cars Land and the new California Adventure were open to the public, and Disney didn't offer any major new openings for visitors this year.

Attendance also was down at Disneyland Paris, but for the entire year there — off 6.9 percent, from 16 million to 14.9 million visitors. But revenue at the Paris theme parks and hotels was down just 1.1 percent, thanks to higher spending per guest.

The story was the same across all of Disney's theme park resorts. Higher prices for tickets, hotel rooms, food, souvenirs led guests to spend more on their Disney visits. But the increased prices haven't hurt attendance at Walt Disney World, which is up for the year and for the latest three months. Recent declines at Disneyland haven't been enough to drag down overall revenue there, either. So long as people keep showing to pay higher prices, one should expect that Disney will keep raising them.

Here's the company's official statement on its theme park division:

"For the year, operating income growth reflected increases at our domestic parks and resorts, Disney Vacation Club and Hong Kong Disneyland Resort, partially offset by a decrease at Disneyland Paris and higher pre-opening costs at Shanghai Disney Resort.

"Operating income growth at our domestic parks and resorts was due to increased guest spending, attendance and occupied room nights, partially offset by higher costs. Increased guest spending was due to higher average ticket prices, food, beverage and merchandise spending and average daily hotel room rates. Cost increases were driven by spending on new guest offerings and labor and other cost inflation. Significant new guest offerings included MyMagic+, the expansions of Disney California Adventure and the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort and Disney's Art of Animation Resort. The increase at Disney Vacation Club was primarily driven by sales of The Villas at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, which is a higher margin property.

"Operating income growth at Hong Kong Disneyland Resort was due to higher guest spending and attendance, partially offset by higher costs driven by resort expansion and labor and other cost inflation. At Disneyland Paris, increased guest spending was more than offset by lower attendance, fewer occupied room nights and labor and other cost inflation. Increased guest spending at our international resorts was due to higher average ticket prices, the opening of the World of Disney store in July 2012 at Disneyland Paris and increased average daily hotel room rates."

In other company news, Disney announced that Episode VII of Star Wars will debut December 18, 2015. That freed the May slot on Disney's 2015 release calendar, which now will go to the theme park-themed Tomorrowland movie, written and directed by Brad Bird and starring George Clooney, which is soon to be filming in Orlando.

Comments (15) | Archive Link

Trackless is more: Disney rides that go off the rails

By Bryan Wawzenek
Published: November 7, 2013 at 11:08 AM

Tracks have always been a mainstay of theme park attractions. Trains run on tracks. Roller coasters run on tracks. Dark ride vehicles run on tracks. When the Imagineers behind the Disney parks created new ways to get more guests on moving rides, these innovations were track-based. For example, the water jet-propelled boats on It's a Small World run between two rails and the Haunted Mansion's Doom Buggies continuously move on a track.

As attraction technology improved, some rides were able to do away with a big, clunky, metal track. In the case of Epcot's Universe of Energy (which debuted in 1982), cars were guided by a less-obvious 1/8 inch wire through the dinosaur swamp. About a decade later, the elevators on the Walt Disney World version of The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror were able to move on a set path from one shaft to another due to wireless transmissions. Although these cars still ran on a small wire track, the wireless communication element pointed the way to Disney parks' trackless ride breakthroughs in the new millennium.

I recently completed my theme park travel checklist of riding all of Disney's trackless wonders: Pooh's Hunny Hunt at Tokyo Disneyland, Aquatopia at Tokyo DisneySea and Mystic Manor at Hong Kong Disneyland. Yes, they all exist outside of the U.S. (That streak will continue when a fourth trackless attraction arrives next year in Paris' Walt Disney Studios Park. It's a "Ratatouille"-themed ride called something like Remy's Discotheque du Fromage. Or maybe it's called Ratatouille: L'Aventure Totalement Toquee de Remy – I like my title better.) Before I get too off-track – or, in this case, would it be on track? – let's begin with Disney's first totally trackless attraction.

Pooh's Hunny Hunt (September 2000) (Follow the link for on-ride video.)

To theme park outsiders, this dark ride might seem like all of the other Winnie the Pooh attractions in Disney parks. There's a blustery day, a bouncing Tigger, plenty of hunny, plus Heffalumps and Woozles. So, sure, all of Pooh's greatest hits are present, but the way you experience them is totally different than in other rides, thanks to the first-of-its-kind trackless ride system, developed by Walt Disney Imagineering.

Pooh's Hunny Hunt

Here's how it works behind the scenes: there are electronic sensors placed throughout the floor of Pooh's Hunny Hunt. A computer, drawing on a local positioning system, communicates with all of the ride vehicles, directing them on unique routes based on the floor sensors. Because of this, up to eight vehicles can exist in one ride scene, in which they all perform the same way, go in different directions or appear to "dance" together.

Now, here's how it works when you're actually experiencing the ride: three attraction vehicles are launched at a time and they're all shaped like hunny pots (yes, we're sticking with Pooh's spelling of honey). The three pots gather in a triangle in front of the ride's opening scene, then each follow their own path through the large "blustery day" room. It's here where the magic of the trackless system comes alive, in tandem with fully immersive theming. While your pot might be following Pooh as he and his red balloon get blown from one side of the scene to the other, another vehicle might be hanging out with Owl and his rickety tree house. You might take a left turn, double back, spin around a tree – there's no track in front of you to indicate what will happen next.

Eventually, the three pots gather again to bounce along with Pooh's most excitable pal, who tells us the wonderful thing about Tiggers (as long as you understand Japanese). And then it's off to Pooh's house before we emerge into the world of Heffalumps and Woozles. From a trackless perspective, this is the most interesting scene in the attraction, because it offers the most varied ride experience. As you enter the playfully chaotic room, pots from previous batches of three appear to be swirling every which way. Then, you break off on your own path, destined to get shot by a Woozle's cannon or see a hunny-sucking Heffalump steal some liquid gold from your pot. Before too long, you regroup with the other two pots, Pooh gets his hunny and the story ends happily (except for the fact that you'll never fully enjoy one of the other Pooh dark rides again).

As one of the most technologically advanced (as well as one of the most enjoyable) attractions in Tokyo Disneyland, Pooh's Hunny Hunt usually maintains lines of more than one hour. It also boasts the second-hottest Fastpass in the park – following another Tokyo exclusive, Monsters Inc. Ride & Go Seek. With some luck and planning, I was able to take a few spins on the ride, each one revealing new facets of the attraction (oh, there's Gopher!) as well as a basic pattern.

It appeared to me that, despite talk of "random paths," there are three basic experiences for the Hunny Hunt pots. Which one you get depends on which of the three pots you sit in at the load station. Each one offers a unique perspective on the "blustery day" and "Heffalump and Woozles" scenes. If pressed for a favorite, I'd pick the first pot, which seems to allow you the most time and interactions with Pooh's nightmare creatures. But, really, you shouldn't say "no" to any of these pots. No matter which vehicle you're in, it's evident that this is the best Fantasyland dark ride on the planet.

Aquatopia (September 2001)

While the divergent paths within Pooh's Hunny Hunt can be boiled down to three different routes, no such simplicity exists in Aquatopia, which debuted with the 2001 opening of Tokyo DisneySea. The retro-futuristic Port Discovery attraction features the same computer-run local positioning system as Pooh, but it appears to get more of a workout here, with dozens of routes that appear to shift constantly.


Although its name suggests that the attraction is an update of Disneyland's Autopia, there are few similarities, other than both rides are outside and set in futuristic lands. Instead of allowing guests to drive a car connected to a track, Aquatopia takes the control (and the track) away from riders, who sit in "hovercrafts" that rove around a small body of water, at least when it comes to depth. The pool is about two inches deep – enough to cover the surface while allowing the wheels of the ride vehicles to touch the ground.

The illusion of Aquatopia doesn't quite, ahem, hold water. Sure, much of the shallow liquid is kept moving with whirlpools, jets and waterfalls, but you can easily see the bottom the second you sit down in your hovercraft. And while there's no track to spot, you can see the clear outlines left from the millions of circuits completed by the vehicles. Not that it makes the ride predictable. During my ride on Aquatopia, I couldn't help but try to guess which way we'd go next and I was almost always wrong, especially when our next move was spinning in place or going backward.


In the summer months, Aquatopia boasts an extra feature: you can get really soaked on the ride. Given the shows and parades that turn giant hoses on Japanese theme park guests, this is something that most visitors get pretty excited about. Before I visited, I read that Aquatopia would offer "dry" and "wet" courses, which in practice turned out to be more like "wet" and "wetter." To Tokyo DisneySea's credit, about six cast members were positioned outside of the ride at all times to make sure this wasn't a surprise. (We picked the less-wet course and managed to make it through the ride with barely a spritz. But others on the same course didn't end up so lucky – or were luckier than us, depending on your perspective.)

Soaked on Aquatopia

Even if Aquatopia takes fantastic advantage of the trackless ride system (it's the least predictable experience of any of Disney's trackless attractions, by far), the results are lackluster. Like I said, the illusion doesn't really work, the ride doesn't move fast enough to provide much of a thrill and there's really nothing to look at, other than some bits of rockwork and other hovercrafts. This isn't helped by the attraction's location in Port Discovery, the least detailed of DisneySea's otherwise immersive ports.

I actually had a better time watching the ride than going on it. Sure, it didn't hurt that many riders were expressive Japanese guests that were reveling in the experience of getting drenched. But it was interesting just to watch Aquatopia go, like some water-logged Rube Goldberg machine. Although I tried, I was never able to divine any sort of pattern for the hovercrafts. Maybe if the guy who memorized the "Press Your Luck" gameboard was still around, he could figure it out.

Mystic Manor (May 2013) (Follow the link for on-ride video.)

For more than a decade, if you wanted to ride one of Disney's trackless rides, you had to visit Tokyo. That changed earlier this year when Mystic Manor opened its doors as the culminating triumph in Hong Kong Disneyland's busy era of expansion. The fantastical dark ride, which Theme Park Insider readers named the year's best new attraction, takes visitors on a tour through the antiquities collection of Lord Henry Mystic and his chum, a monkey named Albert.

Mystic Manor

(Before we get to the ride experience, I should mention that Mystic Manor has a meticulously designed queue that provides clues to the attraction's scenes through pictures of Lord Henry's adventures and includes a few easter eggs for fans. These include a painting of "maestro" Danny Elfman – who created the ride's soundtrack – and a group shot of Lord Henry with the Society of Explorers and Adventures, including one Harrison Hightower, from DisneySea's Tower of Terror.)

Society of Explorers and Adventures

Mystic Manor features a newer version of the technology employed in Tokyo, reportedly functioning on a barcode system (yes, like at the supermarket) that works in conjunction with signals sent via WiFi. In terms of functionality, it's a lot like Pooh: four Mystic Magneto-Electric Carriages are simultaneously dispatched from the load station, you gather together for the first scene and then each car has a slightly different ride experience.


Notice that I said slightly, which is where Mystic Manor differs from Pooh's Hunny Hunt – at least from the perspective of a trackless ride experience. After being gathered for the first two scenes, and before regrouping at the attraction's exciting climax, the carriages more or less follow each other, Haunted Mansion-style. (That's not the only reference to the Disney classic; a lively Medusa painting and some familiar-looking busts also call Mystic Manor home.) The vehicles never criss-cross or almost hit each other in the way that makes Pooh's centerpiece scenes so fresh and exciting. The ride experience is surprisingly similar, no matter which carriage you're seated in. For me, the first vehicle is the winner, because the back carriages sometimes enter a room while the event is already happening. If you're in the front, you get to actually see each scene come together. On the other hand, if you're towards the back, you get to linger in some areas a little longer. Given the manor's detailed delights, that can be a plus, especially if it's not your first time on the ride.

Albert in peril

Ride variety aside, Mystic Manor's trackless system serves as a wonderful delivery system for the fantastical thrills found around every corner. Nothing on a track could move as swiftly – and smoothly – as the ride brings you face to face with a Tiki god, envelops you in the gale force winds of the Monkey King or puts you in the firing line of a cannon. (Cannons seem to be popular on trackless rides; how are they going to fit one in Remy's world?) In a way, if the trackless element was too showy, it could detract from the story, the characters and the wonderful effects that deserve to be the focus of this first-class attraction. The trackless system is merely the best way to experience all that Mystic Manor contains.

And if you ever want a more obvious display of random ride patterns, there's always a two-inch-deep pond waiting for you in Tokyo.

Comments (10) | Archive Link

My family's first visit to Disneyland: Part Five

By James Rao
Published: November 6, 2013 at 9:02 PM

[Editor's note: A few handy links to our first four installments: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four. Go read those if you haven't yet. No cheating!]

With our daily visits to Disneyland and DCA complete, we had one more trick up our sleeves: Mickey's Halloween Party at Disneyland, a separate ticket event for Friday night, September 27. With our special tickets, we were not allowed to enter the park until 4:00 PM, so we busied ourselves that morning by washing clothes in the guest laundry, getting packed (we would check out of the Paradise Pier Hotel the next morning), and enjoying some relaxing swim time in the resort pool. We also spent a couple hours exploring the other two Disney hotels (both amazing as well) and Downtown Disney. Finally, around 2:00 in the afternoon we moseyed into Trader Sam's Enchanted Tiki Bar at the Disneyland Hotel for lunch.

Trader Sam's

Trader Sam's is a small cocktail lounge with a great tropical setting. If you are a fan of the Jungle Cruise, the original Tiki Room, or the now defunct Adventurer's Club, you will love this joint. The walls are covered with photographs and souvenirs, supposedly collected by Sam himself, or sent to him by his many friends. The place is very unique and fun, with the bartenders ringing bells, performing a variety of gags, and calling out catchphrases known only to those regulars who endlessly straggle in and out while my family looked on in wonder wishing we were "in the know" as well. The food is relatively authentic with many Polynesian-style dishes offered. We ordered the Hawaiian Cheeseburger with Sweet Potato Fries and the Grilled Mahi Mahi Fish Tacos. Both were quite delicious, however the fish tacos were on the small side so they might be best served as an appetizer for the main course. For those who have the time and inclination, I highly recommend a visit to Trader Sam's.

After Trader Sam's we made our way to Disneyland to get in line for the 4:00 early entry to the Halloween Party. We weren't the only ones with this idea. By the time the park opened to party goers, the lines (filled with costumed Disney fans) stretched out across the esplanade all the way to DCA's entrance – so much for avoiding the crowds at a separate ticket event!

Once inside the gates we were each given a shiny orange wrist band (required to stay in the park after 7:00 PM) and a small bag for trick or treating. One word of advice for these parties: bring a large bag of your own for candy because Disney cast members are wonderfully generous with the portions they give out and the bags Disney supplies will not suffice. We brought a pillow case and a back pack – both of which were mostly filled after just 90 minutes of trick-or-treating. We also got a map for the party and a list of events and event times.

Our plan for the evening was to visit some of our favorite attractions until about 6:00, get a quick bite to eat at the Hungry Bear restaurant, then set about trick-or-treating until 9:00PM, followed by the Halloween Screams fireworks, the Mickey's Costume Party Cavalcade (parade), and then a series of final rides on our favorite attractions (Space Mountain, Indy, and Pirates). Keep in mind that there are many other Halloween festivities at the park including meet and greets, dance parties, a Toontown pre-party (where you can meet Roger Rabbit), and the like. However, with only five hours of actual party time, and fairly significant crowds at all the party specific events, our goals were set accordingly.

When we got inside the park at 4:00 the place was packed due to the day crowd overlapping with the party crowd, and for the next couple of hours we saw attraction wait times soar. For example, Ghost Galaxy had a 75-minute wait, Pirates was 30 minutes, and Indy was 45. So, plans changed. We grabbed Fastpasses for Indy first, and then scouted out the Jack Skellington character greeting area in the French Market. Note, Jack and Sally are greeting guests throughout the day, and are not exclusively tied to the Halloween Party itself. However, the line was very long, so we just nabbed a few pictures then busied ourselves with some last day souvenir shopping before heading back to Indy when our Fastpasses became active. What a great ride!

Jack Skellington at Disneyland

After Indy we headed to TomorrowLand and nabbed Fastpasses for Star Tours. Our return time was a ways away, so we crisscrossed back to Critter Country utilizing the Walt Disney Railroad (in order to view the Primeval World Diorama) and bought a light dinner at the Hungry Bear restaurant (we weren't very hungry just needed something more substantial than a snack). We shared a Fried Green Tomato Sandwich, a Pioneer Chili Cheeseburger, some Zesty Slaw, and a Lemon "Bumblebee" Cupcake. The food was good, but not great, and I definitely wish I had asked for extra fried green tomatoes. The cupcake looked beautiful, but did not taste as good as it looked. If you prefer a light-tasting cupcake, then you'll like this one, but I was hoping for something sweeter. Luckily, Pooh's Corner was nearby so we went in and grabbed a couple of delectable dessert treats to share (the oft ballyhooed Peanut Butter Sandwich and Peanut Butter Heaven are wonderful snacks). Satiated at last, we headed back across the park to ride Star Tours.

After Star Tours, we did a bit more shopping in Tomorrowland then positioned ourselves for our first trick-or-treat location. At 7:00 PM sharp, cast members started politely tossing folks out of the park who did not have party wrist bands. And for the first hour or so, wristband checking was preformed quite frequently around the park. Crowds, while still significant at the trick-or-treat stations and some of the headliner attractions, thinned appreciably as the night moved forward.

Cadaver Dans at Disneyland

For those who have not been to a Disney Halloween Party before, there are about a dozen trick-or-treat paths spread throughout the park. These paths consist of several stops along a predetermined route where friendly cast members dump loads of candy into whatever container visitors happened to bring along. And we're talking the good stuff: Milky Way, Almond Joy, Snickers, Twix, Hershey bars, etc., and tons of it. The candy flows freely at Disney. Over the next 90 minutes we visited a half dozen different trick-or-treat paths which provided an estimated 35 pounds of chocolate for my soon-to-be-diabetic family to snack on for the next few months. SCORE!

Note: One of the nice things about going on some of the trick-or-treat paths is that they wind through attractions that most folks with a limited amount of time to spend in the parks don't get a chance to visit (unless they are annual passholders). For example, the Toontown trail went through both Minnie and Mickey's houses, and the Frontierland trail went through the Golden Horseshoe. So we were able to at least see the inside of these attractions which otherwise we would have completely missed.

Halloween at Disneyland's Rivers of America

After 90 minutes of trick-or-treating, we positioned ourselves at the end of Main Street just outside of the Central Hub and prepared for the Halloween Screams fireworks show. I grabbed a couple hand dipped corn dogs from the nearby Little Red Wagon to snack on while we waited. Hand dipped is definitely the way to go! The fireworks were supposed to start at 9:30, but maintenance delays (a common theme for our vacation) extended that start time to 9:45. Once the show finally began it was pretty cool. Jack Skellington hosts the show and his dog Zero makes several flying passes above Sleeping Beauty Castle. The fireworks start when the song Grim Grinning Ghosts begins and proceed as several of Disney's infamous villains (Ursula, Oogie Boogie, and Maleficent) arrive on the scene with their own montage of classic Disney songs. Jack and Zero return at the end to usher in the Scream-Along finale. It is a good show, worth the investment of time, but from what I understand it is very similar to the Hallowishes show at Magic Kingdom. (I can't confirm that info though since I have not attended the Halloween party at WDW).

We hung out after the show waiting for the 10:30 parade. We had really good seats and thanks to the delay in starting the fireworks we only had about thirty minutes to wait. We finished our corn dogs and soon Mickey's Costume Party Cavalcade began. After hearing so many good things about the Magic Kingdom's Boo To You parade, I must admit I was very disappointed in what I witnessed at Disneyland. Where was the Headless Horseman's pre-parade ride? Where were the grave diggers with their shovel scraping act? Where was the cool Haunted Mansion float? I guess I should have done more research, because I was definitely underwhelmed by this fairly standard, fairly short (maybe a half dozen floats is my guess), Halloween parade. I am not saying it was bad per se, but it was not what I expected or wanted to see.

After the parade we had about an hour and 15 minutes to pay our last respects to this grand old park, our favorite attractions, and our SoCal theme park adventure. We used our time wisely to visit Ghost Galaxy (the wait was down to about ten minutes at this point), Indiana Jones, and the attraction that really started our whole trip, Pirates of the Caribbean. Finally, exhausted, loaded with candy, and satisfied with all our hard work, we headed back to the Paradise Pier Hotel and crashed.

Halloween Trick-or-Treat Take from Disneyland

The next morning we left the Disneyland Resort to begin the second half of our SoCal vacation – the non-theme-park half. Overall, we had a wonderful time. There were a few bumps in the road, but those bumps were minor compared to the amazing adventures we experienced and the memories we made – memories that will last a lifetime. I do not know when, if ever, the Rao Family will have the wherewithal to make it back to the Disneyland Resort and Walt's original park, but at least we can hang our hats on the six days we thoroughly enjoyed in September of 2013. Six days that proved the old "Horizons" adage is true: If you can dream it, you can do it.

Welcome to Cars Land!

Comments (21) | Archive Link

Theme Park Insider interview with Disney Legend and Imagineer Tony Baxter: Part One

By Robert Niles
Published: November 6, 2013 at 2:36 PM

Disney's Tony Baxter was the lead designer on many of the theme park industry's most beloved attractions, including Splash Mountain, Star Tours, and the Indiana Jones Adventure. Earlier this year, Disney honored Baxter as one of the company's Disney Legends, and last week, the company unveiled a window tribute to Baxter on Disneyland's Main Street USA.

Tony Baxter and his window
Tony Baxter, with his window, Mickey Mouse, and Disney Parks chairman Tom Staggs. Photo courtesy Disney.

Last month, Baxter invited me to his office at Walt Disney Imagineering in Glendale, California for a conversation about his career, how his many projects came to be, and the current state of attraction design. We will present the interview in three parts, starting today and continuing for the next two weeks.

Did you know that Star Tours was first designed as a roller coaster, where Yoda would use The Force to launch your coaster train? Or why it's so cold when you board the Jeeps on the Indiana Jones Adventure? Read on to learn more….

[Update: We just posted the audio of Part One to the Theme Park Insider Podcast.]

Robert: How, and perhaps more important, why did you get into this business?

Tony: I don't think it was one exact thing. It was encouragement that began in sixth grade, when I was probably a year younger than most of the kids in my class, so I was always competing in a negative way, physically. But I had a teacher who went out of his way to compliment me on art work and put me in charge of design for the boards, and everything. And I think that was a way of finding my place that up until then was tentative. I probably should have been held back a year (laughs), because I started kindergarten at four. It's funny, because when I go back to reunions now, I'm taller than most of the football players that I looked up to and was intimidated by.

I think that pushed me into the art area, and as Disneyland came along, it became more and more from just a fun place to go as a kid to something that I dreamed about working at. I thought that it could pay for my college, and at the same time I would be working at Disneyland, getting to go there for free. So that was the first goal, but I didn't realize at the time that 17-year-olds are limited to very few choices there, which basically amount to food and sweeping or whatnot. So I took the job, not because it was scooping ice cream that was important. It was scooping ice cream at Disneyland that was important. As soon as I could, I transferred over to operations, and now the dream was to get into a fabulously thematic attraction, like Pirates or Haunted Mansion, instead of being on Autopia (laughs). I managed to get into a couple of those: Adventure Through Inner Space, that was a really fun ride to work.

As I completed my college during that time, then I thought, what the heck? I had done a portfolio piece that I'd shown around to friends and supervisors at Disneyland, and they encouraged me to take it up, and I did. I got kind of a mid-course correction to take more art classes and I actually changed schools from architecture at Cal Poly to theater design at Long Beach. And that worked really well. I did my final project aimed specifically at Disney — I was really rolling the dice, because if I hadn't gotten [the job], it wouldn't have been of much value anywhere else. But I did get in here, and I hired into what at the time was called the Model Shop — it's now the Dimensional Design department. And I've been here ever since.

I started at Disneyland in 1965, so I was there for a year and a half with Walt. Not in any relationship, which is a sad thing, because I think all the stuff I've done since then would have been in partnership or he would have been there — I can't even imagine what that would have been like. But I did see him around the park, and was very impressed with his involvement in the nuances of Disneyland, coming around to my little ice cream window and whatever. I thought, 'man, he's got Florida started and he's got the New York World's Fair just wrapping, and he's got Mary Poppins, his biggest film, and Jungle Book is under his work,' so it was pretty amazing thing to see someone like that. But his interests were in Disneyland. People who see it as a business don't understand that, for Walt, it was his pride and joy. It was his toy, his center of the universe. Going there every weekend wasn't like punishment, it was like he could hardly wait for it to be Friday night, so he could he could go down and spend the weekend in the apartment, and drive the Carnation truck around Main Street, and stuff like that.

In all the people I've worked with over the years who had a one-on-one relationship with Walt, I think if they thought like that, if they shared that wonder and mystique [for Disneyland] that Walt enjoyed, then they had a great relationship with him. Then I've talked with other people who were intimidated and frightened and who talked about hearing the cough coming down the hall with panic and fear, knowing that Walt was about to descend on them, and I think that's because they didn't enjoy the same sense of involvement with the Disney things. They were great and accomplished artists, but with their own interests. They were always wondering if they were in synch with Walt. But people like Claude Coats and Marc Davis, they didn't have that problem. They knew that they could just dialogue and the ideas would build.

When I landed here at Imagineering, it sort of centered around Claude. I think the difference between Claude Coats and Marc Davis was that Claude was very open to absorbing ideas and building upon concepts with the input of the people he worked with. Marc was more knowledgeable about what he wanted to do himself: 'I will use people here to help make this idea reality.' But there wasn't much room with Marc to be a contributor, other than finishing or forwarding his concept.

So I gyrated more in Claude's direction, because I wanted to do my own thing, I guess (laughs). And he allowed that. I remember working on mundane things for Snow White, the dark ride in Florida, and he'd say, 'why don't you take that little area to your office, and fiddle with it, come up with an idea, bring it back, and we'll see what you've got?' I remember going back to my desk and saying, 'I can't believe this. I'm working on the Snow White ride, and I'm only 22 years old, and he's letting me design something for it.' And if he liked it, it wasn't like, okay, now it's Claude's design. Card Walker, who was the president of the company at the time, was touring and Claude was showing off. He'd saying, 'Tony, come on over. I want you to meet Card,' and 'show Card what you came up with. I think it's really, really unique.'

Now, looking back at it, I think the healthy thing that I enjoyed in my second generation of Imagineers is that the first generation, the guys who worked with Walt, were old enough that they weren't threatened by us 20-year-old upstarts. They're in their 60s, early 70s, and we were in our 20s. It was really, to them, 'how much can we move them along before we end up dropping out?' From my end, there was no 'why don't you guys leave so we can take over?' I was scared to death, as were all of us, of what happens when they're not here anymore? What I think you see today in most industries is there's a fear of letting those big gaps develop, but I think they're healthy. When you've got 70s, 60s, 50s, 40s — they're all fighting one another for the limited amount of spotlight. So, therefore, there isn't that camaraderie, or this transfer of knowledge, or this partnering. Mentoring is sort of false term when it's applied in the sense of a young person comes to you and you give them advice. Mentoring is where the two of you work together on something. And you benefit from new ways of thinking, getting you infused in the idea, and the transfer of knowledge of what works and what doesn't work, from years of experience. That combination makes incredible progress. I think when there's a little close-chestedness — 'I'm not going to share my idea because I might lose it' — that becomes hard to overcome when you're all fighting for the same growth. So I think I was very lucky to be a part of the generation that benefitted from that.

There were so many programs here for learning — Marc would come in and teach us, or Sam McKim or X Atencio — all these people who were legends. I just wish that we had video equipment back in that time. There's about two hours, that's all that exists from [then]. I think we have Harper Goff and a little bit of Davis. That's it. But what a wonderful opportunity and time to get started.

Robert: Your generation didn't get to start with a blank slate. Disneyland was built. The New York fair has happened. You've already got an existing infrastructure in place. There's this existing narrative that is Disneyland that you have to work with now. Not only that, the public has some expectations now. It's not 1955 anymore, when they didn't know what to expect. People have expectations about a Disney theme park, and they're rising. How did you and your generation adapt to this change in what it meant to be a Disney Imagineer? You're not just building it from scratch anymore. You're care-taking what's already there, then trying to take it to another level, which can be a different task.

Tony: It's got advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that there is a layout, and the Disneyland layout is the finest one we've ever done. Everything else has been trying to work around it and avoid the cliche of using it again, so you've got a lake in Epcot, you've got kind of a randomness about the Studio Tour, and maybe even Animal Kingdom, that I don't think is as clear to the public. When you walk into a world of fantasy versus adventure or tomorrow, it's strikingly clear. And it was indoctrinated into people on television, with the Disneyland TV show.

I have values about Disneyland, Florida, and Europe that I try to impose if we, say, were to do one design that was to go into all of them. It would be that Disneyland is charming, Florida is spectacular, and Paris is beautiful. In that way, if you were doing a concept like Thunder, you would tweak it a little bit to reflect that, otherwise one of things I fear is people saying 'it feels like a scar.' The best praise I get is when I overhear a guest say 'oh my gosh, it looks like this was always here.' It's almost like reassurance to them that we haven't wrecked it, that's there's not going to be this horrible slice where it doesn't look like it belongs there. So every time you can, replace something with something that's, hopefully, better, but in no way looks like it damages or isn't consistent with the palette that Walt Disney laid out. I think, for me, all of that's a positive thing.

The aspects that became difficult would be difficult whether you were working off of a draft that already was there, like Disneyland, or being part of creating a draft like Epcot where all he left us was that you're going to live a life you couldn't live anywhere else (laughs), and that everyone on the planet wanted to move there because the model at Disneyland in the General Electric building showed this city that looked like out of The Wizard of Oz or something. I was convinced that I was going to move to Florida [to work on Epcot] until I got a sense of the summer humidity there (laughs). You'd have to live indoors to survive. Really, when you get down to it, that was a blank sheet of paper for Epcot.

Yet there was the chance to continue to add to Disneyland, where working within a footprint was a challenge, but, I think, an easy one. The tough one was, as you said, not only was the audience expecting more, but our competing media, like film and television, were becoming more sophisticated, too. If you could see it in a film, you expected to see it in a theme park. That was maybe conceivable when your competitor was doing puppet animation and whatnot, like Star Wars, the first one. But once we moved into the world of CG [computer generated imagery], creating worlds like that [in a theme park] is darned near impossible. Then you start to say, what avenues do we do better, and try to avoid direct competition where we're going to be short in. Ultimately, putting guests in the middle of a real thing is going to be stronger than sitting in a chair eating popcorn while watching a flat screen or a 3D screen. That became the issue.

And you were in danger in the 1970s, that you had a park that was perfectly in tune with the 1950s and 60s generation — the Baby Boomers — but absolutely had no value for kids who came of age during Star Wars and ET and Indiana Jones. So we got into that situation where, for whatever reason, I drew that straw and got to go over and talk with management about for the first time ever getting outside the comfort zone of Disney-generated IP.

We had combed the archives and had settled on Song of the South as the one remaining traditional Disney thing that had theme park qualities, because it went to incredible places, it had great characters, and it had great music. There were a lot of other films but, like, Cinderella doesn't lend itself to going through place, because you've basically got a castle and a cottage. You need to find these rich environments that not only are intriguing to go into but also reflect places that Disneyland supports. So Splash [Mountain] had so many things going for it, in that it could be part of the south, where we start with New Orleans [Square] and kind of progress out to the plantations and there's the backwood quality of Critter Country/Bear Country, and so that, and the music, and the characters, that was brewing in my head. But I knew we were going back to a previous generation. It was a film that, for a lot of reasons, isn't shown, so you'd have no ability to reflect on a modern audience with it. So it had to stand on: Is it fun to go in on it? Is the music fun to listen to? Are the characters engaging?

But I knew for the relevance thing that we had to get either [Steven] Spielberg or [George] Lucas, and it turns out that Spielberg's pretty tight with Universal, and, honestly, I think that George had a stronger connection with the audience at that point in time and, I think, was more akin to Walt Disney. I think the whole idea of producing things fascinated George. Pixar and ILM [Industrial Light and Magic] and all that began in his little incubator. So I think that marriage was fantastic. [Then-Disney CEO] Ron Miller agreed to host the first meeting, which was up at Silverado Vineyards, and that day, I've said it in a million interviews, but standing there, dishing up a potato salad with Diane Disney Miller [Walt's daughter and Ron's wife] serving as hostess and Ron there and George Lucas behind me in the line, I said 'how did this happen?' (laughs)

George was very gracious. He said, egotistically but rightly so, that his product was A+, and so was Disney, and if he couldn't do it himself, the only place he'd be confident seeing his products would be at Disneyland. So that's where we left. Unfortunately, the next six months were chaotic here at Disney. There was corporate raiding going on, and we thought that the company was going to be disbanded. Out of all that came the reorganization that led to Michael Eisner and Frank Wells.

The things that I had been fighting to push forward — because it was fearful to make such a radical change, signaling that The Black Hole didn't quite work, or Tron didn't quite work, or whatever, and therefore we had to go somewhere else — that was hard to fathom. But when you brought in Frank and Michael, it was the normal way Hollywood was running then. The fact that Walt Disney hadn't made a movie since 1966 was a reality to them, and therefore there were new people who made movies, and they brought them in and the company turned around. It was natural. Michael had worked on Raiders of the Lost Ark with Paramount, so the connections were there, and we were off and running with both Star Wars and Indiana Jones.

When you talk about "no template," I think that's where we began — the thing I wrestled with was that I've got one group of people that's ready to strangle me for taking us outside of the Disney universe, and the other thing that I know that those people desperately don't want to realize is that their generation is not the generation that's in need of Disneyland being relevant. It is still relevant to them — we still have Peter Pan that they grew up with, and Sleeping Beauty Castle, which they grew up with, and Swiss Family Robinson, which they grew up with. But we have nothing for the people who are they age that they were when Disneyland was created.

I knew that once it opened, it had to be good enough and broad enough in its appeal that I would win them over when they rode it. So the people who said, 'how dare they tear out Adventure Through Inner Space' were going to come back and say 'well, you know, I've been on the new Star Wars thing, and it's really pretty good after all.' I think Michael understood that. He was a brilliant marketeer. I remember that when we talked about if we should have six cabs or four at Disneyland because the space there is so limited — it would have been very, very hard to add two more, he says, 'no, let's open with four. It'll be the first Star Wars, the only one for a while, and I think the idea of a line going all the way out the park and people lined up on Harbor Blvd. is good.' It really says that Disneyland has changed — it's reinventing itself and I've got to see this change. So we did open that way, and that did happen and they were panicked, so they left Disneyland open for three days (laughs), which was pretty cool and everybody was happy. We let the press interview at the exit of the ride and after waiting five hours or whatever it was, and it was incredibly positive.

Robert: But Star Tours wasn't popular just because it was that IP, which was powerful and relevant and remains so to this day, but that it was a radically different ride system. And for both Star Tours and Indiana Jones. These weren't Omnimovers anymore. How did you find those ride systems and how did you decide that, okay, this could work in a theme park environment?

Tony: Well, Star Wars was the first, and the most important one, IP-wise. I remember the jubilant ride back on that plane, thinking, my life is going to change forever, after meeting George. Then we sort of looked around and went, now how are we going to do this? We already had Space Mountain. That's up and running. It's dark. It's outer space. Guests are really good at finishing the suspension of disbelief. They know that's a wall there, and they're in a building that's shaped like a pyramid. Yet they want to buy into that. With Star Wars, you've got that authenticity and it's got to feel like that galaxy far, far away and limitless. We started with a roller coaster and we had some great bits where just before you launch we had a room where Yoda was there and looking at our car and saying 'oh, The Force is really strong with this group.' And then he's going this lift-up motion. And what we did, we took the whole room on Dagobah and it started sinking down into the bog. Well the track was just flat and darkened out, so it felt like the car was lifting up, and when it got to this opening in the trees, it accelerated forward out of there. We thought that was great. And then the main gist of the ride was that there were two or three decisions where you had to figure out which way The Force wanted you to go. Of course, that meant dual tracks and twice as much room and bigger boxes and by the time we were done, we had like a five-acre building.

A friend of mine who worked here, Randy Bright, was head of all the films at Epcot, and he came back from some filming, and he said, 'we were in London and we went out to this site where they train pilots, and you really ought to see this thing.' So we went to England. I took Dramamine; I was so worried I was going to get sick on [the flight simulator]. It took us about 25 minutes to get up ladders and get into this cockpit and get all strapped in. And they ran a couple of simulations, but those are basically smooth. The pilots are there to train how to fly smooth. Then they did a roller coaster, but we learned as we got into this that you cannot make a film then try to make the machine track it. You've got to learn what the machine can do then develop a piece of media that fits what the machine can do. Otherwise, you run out of energy. You're still barreling down the thing and we've hit the bottom of the cylinders and your brain is getting a conflict between the feelings your body is experiencing and what your eyes are seeing. That's where the poorer versions of these would make people sick. So we put a tremendous amount of effort after settling on this in creating what we called our bible of what kind of move can follow what kind of movement. One of my favorite examples was when we were completely exhausted midway through the first Star Wars ride, and we needed about 10 seconds to get all the cylinders packed with oil again, we created that scene where you're pulled toward the destroyer by a tractor beam. 'Uh, oh, we're caught in a tractor beam!' and then you're hit with Darth Vader's theme, and all we could do was tilt back a little bit, which pushed you back in your seat and gave you the sense that you were being magnetically pulled. I thought it was one of the better pieces in the whole show and it was one of those things that was because you had to do this certain thing [reset the hydraulic cylinders]. Now, if you ignored that and made a great film, and got to that point when you have to recharge, you'd be left where something happening on the film and the only thing you could do [physically] would be to sit there.

What I was aware of was that we could keep the same limitless universe that you were used to in film. Film uses music and it uses lighting and special effects and everything to help tell a story while everyone's screaming and yelling. But in a ride, you have this problem that people would be doing whatever they want to be doing. They're not as focused as they are in a movie theater or at a play. So how do we add something really powerful that tells a story without intruding on dialogue, which becomes pedestrian. After you've ridden something 30 times, the dialogue can be really obnoxious if it's too prominent, too important. Then you go 'yada, yada, yada,' and you hear people doing a sad parody. I thought, here's the trick that really is new in this, and that is you're going to feel the story. And when the pilot Rex said, 'I've always wanted to do this' and we head down into the trench [on the Death Star], in the theater eating your popcorn, you think, 'wow that would be cool,' and now for the first time, you felt the bank and then you felt that leveling out and then the pillowing as you went through, and diving up out after — I think that, really, to me, the story now was not just a visual thing, not a sound impact thing, but it was a physical thing. That moves it out of the theater and into theme park technology.

Of course, the delight in that was stored because it was going to be the generator for doing Indiana Jones, which was to free us from the movie screen that we had in Star Wars. The nice thing about Indy's world is it is a contained world. It's a world in which the most exciting parts exist in boxes, whether they're in a temple, or they're in a shrine, or under a catacomb, or wherever it is. They're very tight, theme park-y boxes that are darkly lit and everything. It's an ideal habitat, if the process of using motion as a storytelling device, using physical cues, can be put on a portable device. That was no easy task, since cooling the hydraulic fluid is one of the big challenges. That isn't such a thing in the military application, because if you're trying to keep the ship still, and keep it level with all these adverse conditions — and a good pilot does that — then the exercise of the hydraulic fluid is minimal, so that overheating of it is nil. But in a theme park situation, which is completely doing every chaotic move that you can do, you're literally thrusting the oil in and out, in and out, in and out, and with every action there's a reaction, which here is heat. And so the biggest challenge for Disney was to figure out a way to cool that fluid, which we do easily in Star Wars because it could be taken out of the system and put through chillers and brought back in. Not so on Indiana Jones. We had to develop a way, while they're in the station, of lining up the cars perfectly with inputs that are freezing the oil while you're boarding, because that's the only time we can connect it. That's why it's a little chilly when you board. I don't think anyone notices because you're kind of heating up with anticipation.

Next week: We'll continue our conversation with Tony Baxter in Part Two of our interview with the Disney Legend.

Comments (7) | Archive Link

My family's first visit to Disneyland: Part Four

By James Rao
Published: November 5, 2013 at 7:15 PM

[Editor's note: We're enjoying Part Four today of James' trip report. If you came to the party late, here are Part One, Part Two, and Part Three. Go ahead and catch up, and we'll wait for you here.]

After a couple re-rides on Tower of Terror we headed to the attraction formerly known as Superstar Limo (one of the worst attractions WDI ever imagined): Monsters Inc. Mike and Sully to the Rescue. What a pleasant surprise this dark ride turned out to be! Visually stunning, well imagined, paced, and presented, Mike and Sully to the Rescue is a hidden gem. Even the queue area (once you get inside the building) is creative and fun. Along the ride I found the doors room to be especially interesting which leads me to expect big things from the oft rumored flying doors coaster that will eventually make it to DCA as part of the upcoming Monstropolis expansion.

Side note: it strikes me that Disneyland Resort's Imagineers are very good at second chances. First they built the debacle that was Superstar Limo, but realizing their error, they rebuilt it into a Monsters Inc. dark ride that is pretty amazing. Similarly, the first incarnation of DCA was like a clean version of a basic Six Flags park, but the rebirth, $1.2b later, has catapulted the park to be in the top five of all the North American parks, which should make any theme park operator proud! Once these guys own up to their mistakes, they produce amazing stuff! Anyway….

From Monsters Inc., we headed back to Paradise Pier and rode the Little Mermaid dark ride. It was okay. The ride itself is definitely too short, the narrative stilted, and while the animatronics may be superb, to me they just looked a little bit creepy. Maybe the inclusion of another scene or two would really help things out, but as it is, I can see why some folks are disappointed in this attraction. The Little Mermaid is definitely not an E-Ticket, and probably not much more than a C-Ticket in my humble opinion.

After the Mermaid letdown, we visited the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail. This playground is very well done. I have always felt that Camp Jurassic at Islands of Adventure was the best attraction of this type but Redwood Creek sets the bar even higher. Rope bridges, slides, rock walls, caves, this play area has it all. I was thoroughly impressed. And for the younger kids the cast members hand out a list of things for which they can search and when they have completed their searching the kids earn Wilderness Explorer Badges as a reward. Even my kids, a little older than the target crowd, had fun running around and burning off steam. I highly recommend the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail to families with kids of all ages.

DCA's Redwood Creek Challenge Trail

Today was our wet day, so our next stop was Grizzly River Run, DCA's much-vaunted white water raft ride. Now, I have long considered Popeye and Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges to be the king of white water rides, but after riding GRR several times in a row, I can boldly state the king is dead and a new king occupies the throne. GRR's watery course is absolutely beautiful and quite stunning (although it would be so cool if there were a few animatronic bears along the course). The raft winds around and though Grizzly Peak, passing though dark caverns and along the peak's edge before it takes its final plunge (there are two) spinning down a 22-foot drop to a big splash down. GRR is a heart thumping ride, easily the best of its genre, and I believe it has set a new standard that won't be bested in the near term future.

After a couple re-rides on GRR we were thoroughly soaked, so we skipped out the back exit of DCA, passed through the Grand Californian and went back to the Paradise Pier Hotel to clean up, dry off, and change. Thirty minutes later, we were back in the park and on our way to Radiator Springs, the gem of DCA's $1.2B crown.

Cars Land VIA the Pacific Wharf

Being Theme Park Insiders, we have long known that the best "reveal" for Radiator Springs is when you enter through the Pacific Wharf section of the park, which is the dining center of California Adventure. Think of it as a fancy, outdoor food court. Choices at the Wharf range from Ghirardelli's to Boudin Sourdough Bread, plus some Mexican and Chinese food, and a pretty fancy Italian restaurant to boot. The Wharf also houses the Blue Sky Cellar which features a look at some of the Imaginers' upcoming attractions (although currently it's closed). Lastly, and most importantly, the Pacific Wharf features a back door into Cars Land with an unbelievable view of Ornament Valley. I highly recommend first time visitors to DCA use this approach as it is truly amazing.

After many pictures, we proceeded into the packed streets of Radiator Springs. WOW. Cars Land is truly a state of the art example of Disney Imagineering at its finest. A place that makes visitors feel as though they have been transported to another place and time. Only the most jaded haters would have anything bad to say about this part of DCA. Cars Land is just amazing, even better than I anticipated and expected.

Cozy Cone Motel at Disney California Adventure

Our first stop was the Cozy Cone Motel. I had one thing on my mind: Red's Apple Freeze. Remembering how much my family liked the Boysen Apple Freeze I was anxious to get my hands on the DCA version of this frozen concoction with its toasted marshmallow flavor in place of the boysenberry flavor used in the Disneyland version. Red's Freeze was equally compelling, though much sweeter and less refreshing. Tip: ask for an extra shot or two of the marshmallow flavoring, as it really sets the beverage off and makes it quite addictive. In my mind, it is a toss-up between the two signature drinks, but if push came to shove I would probably prefer the more refreshing Boysen Apple Freeze to its sweeter DCA counterpart. While at the Cones, we tried several other drinks and snacks, and despite all of them being good, Red's Apple Freeze was the standout.

Red's Apple Freeze at Disney California Adventure

Drinks in hand we headed across the street to Flo's V8 Café for dinner. Another well executed restaurant, Flo's is one part table service dining (real silverware), one part counter service, and all old school diner. Quite a unique eatery for a theme park! We ordered several entrees and shared. The Pork Loin with Coca-Cola BBQ Sauce was quite good, but so was the Citrus Turkey Breast with Old Fashioned Turkey Gravy. The surprise of the meal was the Veggie Tater Bake (roasted veggies, bulgur wheat, soy crumbles, and smashed red skin potatoes topped with cheddar cheese) which was very good despite the absence of the meat we all love so darn much! Still nursing our collection of beverages from the Cozy Cone Motel, we skipped dessert, though the offerings looked very good. I recommend a stop at Flo's for anyone not happy with standard theme park fare and willing to try something a little bit different. Flo's is great.

Bellies full, it was time for a spin on Mater's Junkyard Jamboree. This take on the traditional whip ride is actually a very good family attraction. The ambiance of the ride is great, the songs a lot of fun, and the motion of the whip is exciting but not forceful enough to cause anyone to lose their lunch (or dinner, in this case). I was also impressed by the number of ride vehicles, turning a typically slow loading attraction into a real people eater. While not worth a long wait, Mater's Junkyard Jamboree is a fun diversion for the whole family.

Next up, we went to the infamous Luigi's Flying Tires, which, even with no wait, was lousy. Sorry, John Lasseter, but this concept and this ride just need to go away. We rode the darn thing twice to make sure we gave it a fair shake, but it really is not fun. I mean, even when you do get your tire moving, it goes SO SLOW there is no thrill. And once you hit someone else, it takes another 10 -15 seconds to get moving again. Full disclosure, I hate bumper cars, but I would rather ride bumper cars than Luigi's Flying Tires. This attraction is just a waste of a time – pretty and well decorated, but a waste nonetheless. I am not sure what Disney should put in its place, but something needs to be done, and soon.

About this time, dusk was setting in so we stationed ourselves at the center of Radiator Springs to catch the evening lighting ceremony. Remember in the movie Cars when Lightning McQueen arranges to turn on all the neon lights and make Sally's wish come true? Disney California Adventure has captured that excellent moment in a neon lighting ceremony set to the song "Shh-Boom (Life Could Be a Dream)". Attraction by attraction the neon lights come on as the town of Radiator Springs is brought to vibrant life. We watched it live, and it was very cool.

Radiator Springs Racers Entrance

Finally, the moment of truth had arrived – it was time to experience the crown jewel of Cars Land, Radiator Springs Racers. We used our Fastpasses and sped past the waiting throngs up to the point where four lines merge: Fastpass users, single riders, those who need special assistance, and the outcast stand by riders. Disney cast members did an AMAZING job of managing all these lines. It was impressive to watch. These folks must have been the best of the best as they were efficient, fair, and completely cool under the pressure of thousands of folks waiting to visit this signature attraction.

About 10 minutes after getting in line, as darkness swept over the park, we boarded a red, six person convertible, and began our scenic tour of stunning Ornament Valley. As the music swells, the car rolls past massive rock formations and a stunning waterfall, then proceeds into the show building where we encountered the residents of Radiator Springs. While the show scenes were not the same type of expansive, awe inspiring sets you find in Pirates of the Caribbean, they were impressive nonetheless. And on this particular ride, it looked like everything was working, including the tipping tractors. We then moved on to the next section of the ride where your car is prepped for today's big race. Paint job or new tires? For us, it was the paint job, then after some advice from Doc Hudson we lined up opposite another carload of guests and waited for Luigi's countdown. The last third of the attraction is a race over camelback hills, under outcrops, and around banked curves where a randomly chosen car wins the race. It was an exhilarating rush, and while not as fast as Test Track at Epcot, the close quarters of the rock wall, those sharp turns, the air time humps, and that nearby competing car, all combine for an amazingly fun and thrilling ride. Everyone in our car was cheering, "Go Go Go!" and pumped their fists high in the sky when our car blasted through the finish line first. What a rush! Just amazing. Sometimes you experience an attraction that reminds you why you like theme parks in the first place, and Radiator Springs Racers is that type of ride. It renews your faith in Imagineering and gets you excited for great things to come. WDI may have been down, but they were not out, and they proved with RSR that they still have it when they need it. Wonderful. Radiator Springs Racers is a poster child for an E-Ticket attraction. If you don't have plans to visit DCA and experience Radiator Springs Racers first hand – why not? It is an absolute must do. Wow.

Radiator Springs Racers!

Coming down from our high, we headed laughing and cheering to our last stop of the night, World of Color. And as much as we had enjoyed everything about DCA on this our first visit to the park, and as excited as we were after winning our race just a few moments before, there was no end to the disappointment we felt when we experienced Disney's handling of the World of Color viewing area. It was just a total mess of gridlock and lost people wandering without direction or clue into an area far too small to comfortably support the large number of people who wanted to see the show. What a debacle of unbelievably bad planning, and un-Disney-like customer service. I was shocked and for a moment, just a moment, I thought I was in a Six Flags park. Ugh. Horrid.

Thankfully, I had completed my research before ever stepping into the park, and I already had a plan in place. So I gathered up my family and quickly worked my way to a centrally located spot at the top of a flight of stairs where we waited, unmoving for the next 45 minutes as the masses swelled around us. We had a great, central view, and we were up high enough that people in front of us could not block our line of sight. While there is no doubt the World of Color viewing area would be a nightmare for people with claustrophobia, my family does not suffer from that ailment. We waited patiently, chatted with some nearby Disney fans, and bided our time.

Crowding Issues at World of Color

Once World of Color started, the disappointment of the viewing area, and the total lack of Disney-quality customer service and people moving management, was forgotten. World of Color is simply breathtaking. The technology of the show is stunning with more than 1,200 fountains spanning the length of Paradise Bay that shoot bursts of water upwards of 200 feet in the air and showcase a 50-foot-high water screen that stretches out to almost 400 feet wide. Additionally, dozens of flame cannons are used judiciously throughout the proceedings, with lasers and lights bringing the vibrant colors alive per the shows moniker.

However, as the show unfolds, the technology of World of Color fades into the distance and the audience is immersed in the timeless sights and sounds of Disney Magic from films past and present (and sometimes future, though not on this occasion). And while the presentation is a series of unconnected vignettes instead of a linear story, the transitions are smooth, flawless, and transparent. The viewer is caught in a gentle wave of emotions that ebb and flow just as the fountains ebb and flow, raising to plateaus of complete delight (the Pirates scene) and falling into the depths of sadness (the Lion King death scene). World of Color is an awesome spectacle, unlike anything my family has ever seen before. It is majestic, inspiring, thrilling, and quite simply the best way I can think of to end a day at a park. To say World of Color is better than Fantasmic or Illuminations is like saying chocolate is better than mud. It is an understatement of Biblical proportions. While Disney may have a crowd control nightmare on its hands, and while fans may get irritated at the completely unorganized mess that is the viewing area, the show certainly does not disappoint. And as you watch, all your frustration and irritation will fade as you realize World of Color is exactly what we expect from Disney: pure magic. Furthermore it is a show I am certain no other theme park could produce. It is exactly the kind of attraction that makes Disney the King of the Hill, and leaves everyone else following in their wake. Do not miss World of Color when you visit DCA, no matter how much of a pain it is to navigate to a good spot in the viewing area. It is worth the frustration, I promise.

Once World of Color ended and we figuratively descended back down to earth, it was time to go back to the hotel. How could we ever top such a wonderful day? To be honest, we couldn't. But we could certainly match it if we tried, and try we would. We had three more days on this vacation, and while we had obviously reached a peak of sorts, there was still a lot of fun to be had.

We visited DCA one more time on this trip, two days later on Thursday, September 26th. It was essentially a "best of day" for us since we are not completists and we saw no reason to waste time riding attractions like the Silly Symphony Swings that are common at iron ride parks across the nation. Instead we revisited favorites like Radiator Springs Racers (we rode a total of six times thanks to the single rider line and won 50% of the time), California Screamin' (we sat in a variety of seats in a variety of different colored trains), Tower of Terror (ah, those amazing cast members just kept us coming back for more) , Soarin' (we finally got the top row for once – and to be honest I think the middle row, center offers the best ride), and Monsters Inc. (wow, what a pleasant surprise). We also visited It's Tough To Be A Bug (identical to the excellent 3D show in Orlando), and rode in the swinging cars on Mickey's Fun Wheel (quite a neat feeling as your swinging car falls, weightless during the spin, but sadly it only happens once per cycle which makes the attraction a complete waste of time). And while we enjoyed our best of day it did not include another show of World of Color so there is no way it could beat our initial visit (however, we did watch World of Color from our hotel, which was quite an amazing view in its own right).

Corn Dog Castle Perfection!

Our second trip to DCA included a few different dining choices as well. We visited the Paradise Garden Grill with its wonderful, open, spacious courtyard and had beef gyros with rice pilaf which were made to order fresh and very flavorful. We also stopped by the Corn Dog Castle and shared a Hot Link Corn Dog and a Cheddar Cheese Corn Dog (the hot link was delicious, but I wasn't crazy about the cheese dog). For dinner we ate a variety of soup bread bowls at the Pacific Wharf Café. Again, fresh, flavorful, and totally unexpected from a theme park venue. And of course, we couldn't resist more of Red's Apple Freeze, or some Churro Bites with cinnamon spiced chocolate sauce. Finally, we closed the night by sharing a couple sundaes from the Ghirardelli Soda Fountain and Chocolate Shop. My favorite was the Gold Rush which was basically a peanut butter hot fudge sundae (reminiscent of the No Way Jose at Beaches and Cream at WDW), but the Sea Cliff, essentially a hot fudge sundae served over a warm chocolate chip cookie, was no slouch. Overall, the food at DCA is really very good. I was impressed. Sure, the food is expensive, but no more than at any other theme park. Haters can complain all they want, but as long as theme park companies provide variety, high quality, and great flavor, I don't mind paying a little extra to eat on site. Disney has obviously invested a lot of time, research, and effort into its food offerings at the California resort and it shows.

Ghirardelli Soda Fountain and Chocolate Shop at DCA

So, my closing thoughts on DCA are that it is a wonderful theme park, reflecting Disney's high standards in most everything it presents. However, the park is not perfect. As I wrote previously, more work needs to be accomplished in the Paradise Pier area by removing common midway rides and replacing them with world class attractions. The World of Color viewing area situation needs to improve. Bugs Land needs to disappear forever (but keep It's Tough To Be A Bug, if possible). Monstropolis must go forward to flesh out the Hollywood Land area and provide another headliner to take some pressure off of RSR. Luigi's Flying Tires needs to be slashed and removed, replaced with something worthy of the rest of this amazing new land. And Grizzly River Run needs some animatronic grizzly bears to flesh out the story. But, even if none of these changes ever happen I can whole heartedly recommend a visit to DCA to any fan of theme parks. You will not be disappointed. When DCA's attendance climbs into the North American top five by the end of 2013, I for one will not be surprised. It is a great park, one of my favorites, to be sure.

Tomorrow: The finale, with a visit to Mickey's Halloween Party

Comments (18) | Archive Link

Tuesday theme park news round-up: Time to take back Thanksgiving?

By Robert Niles
Published: November 5, 2013 at 11:15 AM

It's the first week of November, so of course that means the start of the Christmas season at theme parks and retail stores throughout America (and maybe elsewhere). Christmas trees, garlands, and fake snow are appearing at many of the Disney theme parks, and the Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party starts at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom this Friday night.

Is it time for a national movement to reclaim Thanksgiving? Who would like to see Christmas decorations stay in the box until the day after Thanksgiving? How about making the day after Halloween the day that the Thanksgiving decor goes up, and we give over the month of November to the build-up for the great national feast, instead? Disney could still offer hard-ticket evening parties, but they'd feature Thanksgiving dinners as well as the expected parades and fireworks. ("Mickey's Very Cranberry Thanksgiving Party?") Who wants November to be less Santa, and more Stuffing?

But Christmas will come eventually, and parks are unveiling this year's special holiday offerings. Dollywood is adding a new production of "Dollywood's A Christmas Carol" to its Smoky Mountain Christmas celebration, which kicks off this Saturday. The show features eight new songs written by Dolly Parton, as well as a "hologram" performance by Dolly herself as Ghost of Christmas Past.

Speaking of new shows, Universal Studios Florida has posted an internal casting call for a new musical production to replace its Beetlejuice show. The new show will continue to feature Beetlejuice and the Universal Monsters, but that's all we know about the new production at this point.

In more Universal Studios Florida news, work continues on the Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley, for an expected late May or early June official opening. Reader Michael B just posted some new construction photos of the Diagon Alley facade:

Harry Potter Diagon Alley construction photo

Another Harry Potter Diagon Alley construction photo

One more Harry Potter Diagon Alley construction photo

We've got more over on our Gringotts Coaster photos page.

In less encouraging theme park news, Alton Towers in the United Kingdom has had to close its new Smiler roller coaster once again, after a guide wheel blew, spraying fragments onto four riders. No one was seriously hurt, but it's another problem for the park to fix on this ride.

Back in the United States, the "Toontown Bomber" has been sentenced. The now-former Disneyland employee who placed a dry ice bomb in a Toontown trash can as a prank last May, leading to an evacuation of the land and a media freak-out, is facing 36 days in jail and a lifetime ban from the park. Which raises an interesting question: Which punishment is worse? Would you take a lifetime ban from Disneyland to avoid a 36-day jail sentence? Or would you rather take 36 days in jail to avoid a lifetime ban from Disneyland? (Of course, this guy's facing both.)

Comments (8) | Archive Link

My family's first visit to Disneyland: Part Three

By James Rao
Published: November 4, 2013 at 6:57 PM

[Editor's note: In case you missed them, here are links to Part One and Part Two of James' trip.]

Before I move on from Disneyland to my Disney California Adventure report, I thought I should comment briefly on our stay at the Paradise Pier Hotel.

All three Disney hotels (Grand Californian, Disneyland Hotel, and Paradise Pier Hotel) are within easy walking distance (or monorail distance in the case of Disneyland) of the parks and Downtown Disney. They are expensive, but if you never want to leave the magic they are worth it, IMHO. We were at the Paradise Pier for six nights and loved every minute of the stay - wonderful hotel. It doesn't have much of a theme, mind you, but it is top notch in every other respect (except shower water pressure – which is a little bit low).

The View from the Paradise Pier Hotel

Over the course of my six days, I jogged around the whole resort area every morning and did not see any non-Disney local hotels/motels within walking distance that I would have preferred over Paradise Pier. And while some of them were much cheaper and as close to the action, I did not see any that were substantially closer. Not enough to sway my opinion, anyway. Besides, for us this trip was likely a once in a lifetime adventure - so I wanted to make sure the place we spent all our downtime was more than just a cheap place to sleep and shower. It had to be part of the experience, and in that respect the Paradise Pier Hotel was a huge success.

Moving on…

Tuesday, September 24, 2013, was our very first visit to Disney California Adventure Park. As was our strategy the whole week, we eschewed the early entry park for onsite hotel guests, slept in an extra hour, and did the opposite, visiting the non-early entry park each day of our adventure. Still, being theme park insiders, we knew we needed to line up an hour before park opening (10 AM) if we wanted to be among the first to enter the park.

We left the Paradise Pier Hotel promptly at 8:50 AM, and were in pole position at the DCA entry plaza by 9:00 AM sharp. On-site guests can use the Grand Californian's alternative entrance to DCA if so desired, but its placement, between Soarin' and Grizzly River Run, was not the best option for my touring plan. Disneyland, which had early entry that morning, was already packed, with lines stretching to the middle of the esplanade. After one look at those lines, I was feeling pretty good about my avoid-early-entry strategy, and settled in for the 45 minute wait to get into DCA. Of course, being surrounded by Disney fans, we quickly made new friends and passed the time breezily discussing the theme parks, movies, music, and cartoons we all love so dearly.

We entered the park about 20 minutes before official opening and headed en masse to the Carthay Circle central hub. From here we diverged from the crowd and instead of waiting with the droves of people heading to Cars Land or the Radiator Springs Racers Fastpass booth, we turned right and got situated for Soarin' Over California. Everything I had read and studied about Cars Land emphatically stated this new area of the park was best toured in the evening. So my plan was to hit Soarin', grab World of Color Fastpasses, and then head back to the Paradise Pier area of the park until about 11:00. At that point I would make a beeline for the RSR Fastpass booth in the hopes that we could lock down a return time during the last hour of park operation. It was a risky play, but I wanted my family to experience Cars Land at its absolute best that first day.

Carthay Circle Hub

While we waited for the main part of the park to open, I took note of my surroundings. DCA, despite being a smaller park, has a lot in common with the WDW parks with its wide open walkways and a decidedly modern feel. I was a bit more at home here, just because I am more used to WDW than Disneyland. It seemed as though DCA was engineered to handle crowds much better than Walt's original park, which proved to be true in every case except the World of Color viewing area – more about that debacle later. Regardless, DCA may have been the punch line of a bad Disney joke for its first decade, but now, it was easy to see, the park had been reborn and was looking forward to a bright future indeed.

At 10:00 AM sharp the rope dropped and we headed off to Soarin'. Sadly, as was the M.O. for this trip, our first planned attraction of the day was 101. So much for those much ballyhooed DLR maintenance and upkeep standards. We moved past Soarin' to Grizzly River Run where the World of Color Fastpass booths are situated. We obtained our Fastpasses for the show (Blue Section) then headed off to the Paradise Pier and California Screamin'.

Screamin' is presented as an antiquated wooden coaster, but is in fact a modern steel looper with a 0–55mph launch, some nice drops, a single elliptical loop, several camelbacks toward the end of the course, and a nice 2.5 minute ride length. We enjoyed this coaster about a half dozen times over the course of our two visits to the park, and while it doesn't set any thrill records, it is a fun ride and something the whole family should be able to experience together. I will note that the cast members here are very efficient at filling each available row and seat, but you can request the front row if you so desire. Just be prepared to wait a few extra minutes for that choice location. We did wait for the front once, and while it provided a great view of the proceedings, pretty much any seat offers a fun ride.

Following Screamin', we headed to Toy Story Midway Mania which already had a 20-minute wait. I noticed very little difference between this version and the version at Hollywood Studios except that the queue in Orlando is vastly superior in every respect. The rides themselves are, as far as I can tell, identical. I still regard this attraction as the most addictive shooter ride I have experienced. I know Men in Black fans would argue against this stance, but I hold fast to my opinion.

Next up we strolled disdainfully past all the midway games and off-the-shelf rides situated along the Pier. Sure, these seaside amusements have been softened with some fancy Victorian-era styling, but underneath all that lipstick, they are still the same tacky carnival attractions found at iron ride parks across the nation. Walt Disney built Disneyland as an alternative to parks with a carnival atmosphere and common midway attractions. He raised the bar and proved that in order to separate from the pack and achieve the greatest success attractions must be unique experiences people will remember for a lifetime. To that end, there are still a few changes required in the Paradise Pier area of DCA if Disney wants it to be something fans like me and mine will fully embrace.

Paradise Pier at DCA

Just for the sake of coaster credit, we visited Goofy's Sky School as we circled the Pier. This coaster is an off the shelf wild mouse, and while it is pleasantly themed and fairly smooth, it is the same old, mediocre, start and stop coaster you've ridden at dozens of parks across the nation. If you like "yay" / "ouch" rides, you'll like this coaster. We got our credit then moved on, never to return.

We then headed back to Soarin' which was working again. Again, I noticed nothing different about this version of the attraction compared to the copycat ride at Epcot. They are, as far as I can tell, identical. Still, Soarin' is perhaps the finest, most accessible, and pleasant flight simulator on the planet, and definitely a must-do at either park.

After Soarin', we headed back to the Carthay Circle hub where I dropped off the family at the Fiddler, Fifer, and Practical Café (named after the three pigs who built their own houses with straw, sticks, and bricks respectively) for lunch, while I ran off to pick up RSR Fastpasses. I had almost waited too long as it was 11:30 by the time I got to the Fastpass booths, but was lucky enough to obtain five of the last passes offered before the booths were taken offline. Our return time: 6:35 to 7:35… perfect! (Note: this same strategy failed miserably when we returned to the park the following Thursday since Fastpasses were gone before 11:15 AM – so be careful if you try something similar – 11:00 is probably the cutoff for trying to time your RSR Fastpasses in this fashion).

Radiator Springs Racers Fastpass - Perfect Timing!

Back at FF&P we each had a roast beef sandwich with Provolone cheese on a pretzel roll with lettuce, tomato, onions, and a side of horseradish aioli. They were served with fresh fruit, and while the sandwiches were part of an already prepped box lunch, they made for a nice, quality meal, filling but not heavy. We enjoyed our lunch and we especially appreciated the openness of the dining room where its high-back booths and roomy tables are nicely spread out making this one of the most comfortable and peaceful places we ate the whole week.

After lunch we stepped back out into the Carthay Circle hub to continue our trip. I should note at this point, that DCA is a beautiful park. Standing outside FF&P near the fountain in Carthay Circle, we could see its namesake restaurant looming across the way, the Red Car Trolley making its way down Hollywood Blvd, Cars Land in the distance, Grizzly Peak rising up to our right, and Tower of Terror off to our left. It is a great view from the central hub, and quite remarkable. There is no doubt that even with DCA's remaining warts (too many carnival experiences, too few unique attractions, lousy viewing area for World of Color) the park is now among the best of the Disney parks. I was impressed.

Pressing on, we headed into Hollywood Land and grabbed Fastpasses for the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. There really was no need for these passes, though, since the standby time for the attraction was 13 minutes, which means, as theme park insiders know, there is no wait. Still, we were going to watch a 60-minute Aladdin musical, so having Fastpasses is good insurance against an influx of visitors while we are otherwise occupied.

DCA's Hyperion Theater

Fastpasses in hand, we headed into the Hyperion Theater to see Disney's Aladdin – A Musical Spectacular. The theater is large and beautiful, as good as any venue I have visited to see a musical (including the Majestic and Winter Garden Theaters in NYC, and the Kennedy Center in Washington DC). I was suitably impressed. We sat down in the middle of the theater just past the section break. A nice lady sitting next to us, who had seen the show countless times as a long time annual pass holder, assured us these seats were the best in the house. Wearing my "Follow me, I know what I am doing" TPI T-shirt was a great idea that day! At any rate, what ensued was amazing to behold: a Broadway caliber, lavish, 60-minute tour de force of delightful songs, spectacular dancing, amazing props and special effects, sweeping romance, and tremendous fun. A breezy, truncated live version of the Aladdin animated film, this show features all your favorite songs from the film, plus one new ballad, and yes, a "real" flying carpet. What a wonderful show, one of the, if not the most elaborately staged shows at any theme park. Yeah, the genie steals every scene, but the rest of the cast are not chopped liver, they do a wonderful job, too. Honestly, I could have paid $50 a person to see this show and not been disappointed. I am shocked Disney has not expanded the production and moved it to Broadway. Disney's Aladdin – A Musical Spectacular is a stellar attraction and one not to be missed on any visit to DCA.

Bursting forth from the theater with renewed enthusiasm for the possibility of a whole new world we sped quickly to the Tower of Terror as there was only five minutes left on our Fastpasses. With a wait time continuing to read 13 minutes, we still did not need them, but we took the shorter line and walked right into the preshow room to watch Rod Serling describe how we came to be part of the Twilight Zone. Moving past the preshow we headed up some stairs to the dimly lit loading platform, and it was just us, me and my family, waiting for our elevator. Oh, and some totally creepy (in a fun way) cast member who did a delightful job of building up the suspense for our adventure.

As an important side note, the four or five cast members we encountered at the Tower of Terror during our two days of touring at DCA were funny, scary, creepy, and just plain entertaining. I don't have many stories to tell you regarding great cast member experiences during this trip (nothing bad to say about them either) but the gentlemen working the maintenance elevators were amazing. They made the ride even better with their words, deeds, and well-timed humor. Very impressive.

As more people arrived we climbed into our maintenance service elevator, sat in the front row, then embarked on our adventure. Yes, the version of the ride at DCA does not have the extended Fifth Dimension movement of the classic Orlando original, but when Rod Serling says, "One stormy night long ago, five people stepped through the door of an elevator and into a nightmare. That door is opening once again, but this time it's opening for you," and your elevator starts to work its magic, the missing 5th dimension scene doesn't matter because the Tower of Terror flat out rocks in any form. It is still immersive, exciting, and transcendental. It is still the ride that made all other drop rides obsolete. And it is definitely worth a re-ride… so we got back on again immediately!

Tower of Terror - DCA Style

Coming Tuesday: Part Four, with the rest of California Adventure, including Cars Land.

Comments (22) | Archive Link

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Disney's Magic Bands

By Anthony Murphy
Published: November 4, 2013 at 2:30 PM

Walt Disney World is still in its testing phase for its Magic Band program, but it has spread to nearly every resort. I was lucky enough to have my family as a test group at Old Key West. My family had mixed reviews on this program, so that's why I am breaking it down this way:

The Good

Disney gave us warning in advance if we wanted to be part of this program and allowed us to pick our own Magic Band colors and have our name printed on the back. It costs nothing, but it was a fun touch. If general efficiency is the name of the game, this is a godsend. Instead of fumbling around with multiple cards for Fastpasses, room key, ticket, and Photopass, you now have everything on your wrist. They currently still give you a room key as backup just in case, but putting your wrist to registers, cameras, and room door really make the vacation a little easier. I found it helpful when I was carrying groceries up to our second floor room at Old Key West. Just a tap of the wrist opened the door. The wrist band also can work on some attractions like Test Track. Disney links everything though My Disney Experience while also allows you to make extra Fastpasses (Fastpass+) if you are staying at a Disney resort. This is particularly helpful because it also knows when your dining reservations or other special events are happening and will spit out a time that should work for you and your family. It also is nice because if there are attractions you really want to experience (Everest, Soarin', heck, Captain EO), you now have the ease of knowing you will get to ride. The two aspects that never failed when we were there were the Photopass and the room key.

Magic Band

The Bad

Things that I am considering "bad" were things that worked sometimes, but not consistently. This is the case with the Fastpass+. On the surface, Fastpass+ works beautifully when making your selections for up to a week in advance. However, it appears that you always have to pick three attraction (no more, no less) and they have to be from the same park. This does spread guests throughout the park, but I found it greatly increased traditional Fastpass times (which you can still do, but only one at a time). The problem is that guests are really not penalized if they do not show up to the Fastpass+ times. At least the traditional Fastpasses lock you out for about an hour. Changing Fastpass+ times due to down attractions was a bit of a nightmare. My Disney Experience would drop some of my family from Fastpass+, change the times, and lock us out from making changes. If you had proof on your phone for the times, Cast Members gave you the benefit of the doubt and wrote down your band number for a "problem" in the system. Their list was a bit long. I am pretty sure that Disney can fix this, but the system is a bit buggy. The register scanners sometimes didn't work (20% of the time), but that could have been just a fluke.

The Ugly

If there is one person that you do not want to ask about the Magic Band experience, it is my mother. Because she is the DVC member, she made the reservation on her Disney account. I made the dining reservation. While everything transferred over to my account, the system could not reconcile that "Laura Murphy" was on two different Disney accounts and basically crashed her Magic Band before stepping into our first park. It took 45 minutes to check into Old Key West because they could not get her band to work. In the end, they had to give her a new gray generic band so that she could open the room and link her tickets. For some reason, she had to use her Key to the World Card to charge. She was not happy. Also, because we are Annual Pass Holders, we had to get the bands linked not at OKW, but at our first park (DHS). That took another 45 minutes for three people because they were "having trouble with the system." As we entered the park, my mother's and my Magic Bands would not let us into the parks. They scanned the wristband with their iPads and let us in. It took another 10 minutes before our Fastpass+ came up for us to make selections. We also noticed that whenever we tried to get paper Fastpasses (using our Annual Pass ticket card -- given just in case!), it would not accept my mother and my ticket. The next day, we went to EPCOT and found out that they messed up our cards and had to issue new ones (which then had to be linked to the Magic Bands). All in all, we wasted nearly 3½ hours of our vacation getting this bands to work. We are pretty knowledgeable about Disney World so if it took us 3½ hours, what about the guest coming for the first time? We found out that we were not the only people having problem with the bands as we heard from other DVC members who were cursing the program. Cast Members also looked perplexed with the bands making me think that we were not the first to complain. They also appeared to be pretty uneducated about the program with only have two (yes, TWO) cast members per park that were assigned to help with the bands. I have never seen such long lines out of Guest Services in the life.

I really don't know how I feel about the Magic Bands. They either worked very well or majorly failed, with nothing in between. It is still in its testing stage so it is being actively worked on. If you are a new guest to Walt Disney World, you should still do it since you are starting out fresh with Disney. If you are like us who have DVC, annual passes, and Tables in Wonderland, I would tread with caution until the bugs are worked out.

Comments (13) | Archive Link

My family's first visit to Disneyland: Part Two

By James Rao
Published: November 3, 2013 at 4:36 PM

[Editor's note: In Part One, James and his family set out for California, checked in to Disney's Paradise Pier Hotel and started their Disney visit with the afternoon parade and dinner at Café Orleans. We'll rejoin the Raos after diner in New Orleans Square.]

For those who have only experienced the Orlando version of Pirates of the Caribbean, you really are doing yourself a disservice. The Disneyland version is longer, a bit more thrilling, and bigger (in both physical sets and story) than the hacked version at the Magic Kingdom. The difference is like night and day. A ride on Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean, for those who have not had the pleasure, is quite simply worth the price of admission to the park. It is a masterpiece of animatronics, story, and song, an attraction that transcends age, gender, nationality, theme park bias, and time. It is one of the few attractions that I believe will still be standing in 2067 (its 100th anniversary). It is the definition of a classic. All my great memories and braggadocios comments about the greatness of Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean were justified in one ride on that one glorious day in September.

Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean

As much as I was looking forward to re-experiencing Pirates, the next attraction on our list, Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye, might have been even more highly anticipated. And, wow, what an amazing, wonderful, thrilling, outstanding attraction it turned out to be. Yes, it is the same track and ride system as Dinosaur at Animal Kingdom, but from its immersive queue to its intro movie to its action packed race through the darkness, Indy and the Forbidden Eye simply cannot be beat. It is as close to a perfect attraction as I can imagine – no matter what a recent panel of jaded TPI experts might have said on the Theme Park Insider podcast. I could not disagree with them more. Yes, the technology has been around awhile, and yes, the special effects aren't always perfect, but there is probably no better modern day example (except maybe Radiator Springs Racers) of Disney Imagineering just getting everything right. I love Dinosaur, I really do, but Indiana Jones just blows it away. The difference is quite simply astonishing. Wow. As excited as I was to experience Indy, and as much as I expected from it, I was still blown away by the actual experience, it is just an amazing attraction. FWIW, I offer a standing ovation to Tony Baxter and WDI for a job well, well done.

While we knew Pirates and Indy would be frequent stops during this vacation, my primary goal for this first night was to knock out all the attractions in Adventureland, in order to keep the touring plans on the following days a bit more streamlined. So, next up we headed to the Jungle Cruise. While I am not a huge fan of TH Creative's favorite boat adventure, I figured a night time excursion would be worth a shot. Sadly, it was not. First off, the ride went 101 just as we stepped into the line (for all the talk of Disneyland's superior maintenance record, we experienced far more ride closures during this trip than I have ever experienced in one visit to WDW). Secondly, when the ride came back online an hour or so later and we rode it, the sound system on the boat was so bad it was nearly impossible to hear the Skipper's spiel. Jungle Cruise is a pretty lame attraction anyway, but when you can't hear the spiel, it is even worse. Ugh. As I have stated many times in the past, for all its history and nostalgia, Jungle Cruise needs a significant overhaul. It, like Burgess Meredith in that classic Twilight Zone episode, is obsolete. Sorry, TH. I really wanted to enjoy the original version of the ride, but it was not meant to be.

The Dole Whip Pineapple Float at Disneyland

While Jungle Cruise was 101, we visited the Enchanted Tiki Room. This attraction is a pleasant diversion, but even in its original incarnation, it is not a must do. However, because the Disneyland version sports an in-queue Dole Pineapple Float stand, I highly recommend a stop. And here's a tip: if the line for Dole Pineapple Floats outside the attraction is intimidating (as it usually is), go ahead and enter the queue and try that side of the counter instead. Usually the line is much shorter, and sometimes it is completely open. Even if you don't want to visit the Tiki room you can use this tactic and simply exit the queue when you have your wonderful treat in hand.

After the Tiki Room and Jungle Snooze, we visited Indy one more time before touring through Tarzan's Treehouse. Meh. I would love to have this massive tree house in my backyard, but at Disneyland it is simply something to do when all the other lines are too long. However, the views from the top are pretty neat, if the people slogging behind you are patient enough for you to wait and enjoy them. Following Tarzan's Treehouse, we rode Pirates again (Yo Ho Yo Ho the Pirates life for me!), then prepped for Fantasmic.

Tarzan's Treehouse

There were two showings of Fantasmic that night, with a fireworks show in between. So, we took the advice of theme park insiders everywhere (as well as the extremely helpful concierge at the Paradise Pier Hotel) and planned to see the second show. Our strategy was very simple: while the first showing of Fantasmic was underway, we busied ourselves by taking pictures of the current entrance to Club 33, visiting the Court of Angels (the secluded rest area that will soon be the new entrance to Club 33), and getting Mint Juleps at the nearby counter service area. Once the first showing of Fantasmic completed, people exited the viewing area in droves providing ample room for newcomers. We moved in, picked a good spot and waited for the evening fireworks to begin. While the Fantasmic viewing area is not the best place to watch the evening fireworks, it is serviceable enough. And, once the fireworks were complete the area emptied out even more so we had our choice of spots from which to watch the show. Please note: I do not recommend the very front of the viewing area because the safety rail between you and the Rivers of America makes it difficult to see the action on Tom Sawyer's Island. A better option is to stand at the back of that same section where you will have a great view of the proceedings.

Disneyland's version of Fantasmic is better in every way (except seating) than the version in Orlando. I was especially impressed at how the Sailing Ship Columbia was used during the Peter Pan sequence, and with Murphy the Dragon, whose fire breathing antics were amazing. My whole family agreed the show was terrific. Well worth the discomfort of sitting on the damp, hard, ground.

Fantasmic was the exclamation point to an amazing first night. I could not have hoped for a better beginning to our Disney adventures. We walked cheerfully out of the park and back to our hotel where we crashed for the night, unable to sleep due to a steady flow of adrenalin and joy.

Over the course of the next week, we toured Disneyland two more times from park open to park close. In order to save some time, and keep the few folks still reading this narrative from passing out with boredom, I will summarize my observations from those two days.

As any Disney fan worth his salt knows, Walt's original park is small, cramped, and simply cannot handle crowds as well as the Magic Kingdom. Don't get me wrong, Disneyland's attractions are expansive and wonderful, but the walkways and queues, not so much. Touring the park, at times, can be less than relaxing even though the crowds when we visited were what Disney considers small (headliner attraction wait times never went beyond 30 minute). The combination of small walkways, tight, unthemed switchback queues and the masses of after work, local, season pass holders arriving on the scene made for some very congested touring. Don't get me wrong, the park is still quite amazing, but there is a reason Walt and Company made much bigger parks when they set up shop in Orlando. Other theme park companies with lower attendance numbers can get away with being small, but Disney cannot. I would not want to visit Disneyland when it is truly crowded as I cannot imagine the claustrophobic conditions that would ensue.

The Easily Congested Walkways of Disneyland

I mentioned earlier that Disneyland's maintenance record is often touted over that of its sister parks in Orlando. However, during our visit no less than a half dozen attractions went 101 (Jungle Cruise, Splash Mt, Mr. Toad, Roger Rabbit, the Tangled stage show, Mickey and the Magical Map, Winnie the Pooh, and a couple more). I was shocked. Granted, the downed attractions were usually back up and running quickly, but for a park that is lauded as a maintenance mecca, my experience was quite the opposite (note, DCA did not have nearly as many attraction 101s, but it did have a few, Soarin' and California Screamin' most notably). I have visited WDW many times since 2003 and have never seen so many rides go down in one visit. Maybe my timing was bad, but methinks Burbank has a ways to go to live up to the wonderful reputation fans of the park give it.

The Halloween Ghost Galaxy overlay for Space Mountain is excellent. Essentially, there is a space ghost (not the one from the old Saturday morning cartoons) who chases you throughout the course of the ride. It is a very cool effect. My whole family loved Ghost Galaxy and we rode it several times. I also loved the way the onride music ebbed and flowed with the track layout, and how it swelled whenever the ghost appeared. Many people say the Disneyland version of Space Mountain is better than the Florida version, but both versions are a whole lot of fun, and are different enough that they can mutually coexist. If I was forced to pick one or the other I guess I would give a slight nod to Disneyland's version, but my wife says the opposite. Either way, Space Mountain continues to be a fun and invigorating coaster.

Space Mountain Ghost Galaxy

Another holiday overlay that was in place when we visited was the Nightmare Before Christmas version of the Haunted Mansion. It too was very cool. We enjoyed the overlay quite a bit, but overall I think WDW's version of the Haunted Mansion, overlay or not, is the better attraction.

Speaking of the Haunted Mansion, I am reminded that for the most part, the queues at Disneyland are awful. Only the Indy ride, Roger Rabbit, Star Tours, and part of Space Mountain use their queues to fully immerse you in the attraction the way WDW does with their queues. Furthermore, most of the Disneyland queues are simple chain link switchbacks like you would find at any iron ride park. And they are mostly cramped and, generally, uncovered. Standing in the midday sun waiting for the Storybook Land Canal Boats was quite a un-Disney-like experience. I was very disappointed in most every queue at Disneyland.

While I am picking at this wonderful theme park, a few other disappointments included the Matterhorn (working Yeti or not, this coaster is a real dog), Splash Mountain (a lesser version than the one at WDW, and just as broken during my visit), Winnie the Pooh (my ride vehicle was broken and did not hop when Tigger hopped), Alice in Wonderland (I like that it spans two levels, but the outdoor portion is just lame – and dirty), Captain EO (quite possibly the worst attraction currently in existence at any Disney park), and the Nemo Subs (I'm sorry, Mr. Baxter, but this mediocre attempt just never serves to capture the imagination the way I had hoped). I don't want to pick at Disney, by any means, but for those WDW fans traveling to SoCal for the first time, any and all of the listed disappointments can be skipped during your visit if you need to save time.

Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln

On the other hand, some really nice surprises included Mr. Toad's Wild Ride (a fast and furious dark ride), Roger Rabbit's Cartoon Spin (very imaginative and wild, with some great set pieces), the aforementioned Storybook Land Canal Boats (a unique diversion), the Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough attraction (another pleasant diversion), Pirates Lair at Tom Sawyer's Island (a tragically overlooked and excellent playground), and Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln (a combination history lesson / animatronic stage show). Great Moments was especially good, and, IMHO, should be required viewing for all Americans. Sadly, when we attended the show, the theater was largely empty. Why people continue to squander the opportunity to see pure Disney Magic at work in such an edutaining way is beyond me. It is a real shame that these types of patriotic attractions are tragically rare and pretty much exclusive to Disney theme parks. I regard Great Moments as an E-ticket caliber treat, and find it to be far superior to (and less polarizing than) Magic Kingdom's Hall of Presidents, and at least on par with Epcot's The American Adventure, if not better. When you visit Disneyland, do NOT miss any of the attractions I just mentioned, especially the one of a kind experience that is Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.

As far as shows go, we saw two and a half of them. Both the Tangled and Beauty and the Beast shows in the Royal Hall area were great. The performers were outstanding, the songs were fun, and the humor was top notch. Sadly, the Tangled show was canceled mid performance due to sound issues, but even as technical issues occurred, the performers were outstanding in every respect. I was very impressed. The other show we watched was Mickey and the Magical Map. It too was very good, but much larger in scope and size than the small shows at the Royal Hall. The show itself was an amalgamation of classic Disney songs, combined with a very cool magical map - a series of video screens that uses various images to enhance and advance the story. We liked Mickey and the Magical Map quite a bit, especially for the part when Pocahontas, Mulan, and Rapunzel were on stage at the same time – that scene was simply breathtaking. One note about the show: the sound was rock-concert loud, which I enjoyed, but be aware if you have sensitive ears.

Our dining experiences at Disneyland were all very, very good. I was extremely impressed with the quality and flavor of the in park counter service food across the board at the resort. One day we ate lunch at Pinocchio's Village Haus where the stand out item was the BLT Flatbread pizza. Later that same day we had dinner at Redd Rockett's Pizza Port. Based on the recommendation of one Mr. Robert Niles we ate Count Down Chicken Fusilli, which is an amazingly addictive mac n' cheese with something akin to Alfredo sauce instead of cheddar cheese sauce. YUM. And the portion size is immense, so feel free to share.

Disneyland's Matterhorn Macaroons

On a subsequent day we visited the Jolly Holiday Bakery and had a variety of sandwiches, all good, and topped them off with some Matterhorn Macaroons, which came close to being our favorite Disneyland dessert, running second behind the Boysen Apple Freeze found at Maurice's Snacks in the new Fantasy Faire area of Fantasyland. This delectable dessert beverage was an instant hit with my family, something we purchased each time we visited the park. It is similar to Red's Apple Freeze/LeFou's Brew at DCA/MK, but in addition to the frozen apple juice and passion fruit foam topping, this signature beverage has several shots of highly addictive boysenberry flavoring. The combination of sweet and sour flavors made for an amazingly refreshing and sweet-tooth satisfying dessert. We give the Boysen Apple Freeze the Rao Family Seal of Approval and offer two thumbs way up for this winning combination of flavors. Outstanding.

Boysen Apple Freeze at Disneyland

Overall, Disneyland is an amazing, transcendental park. It has its flaws, mainly being that it simply was not designed to handle the 15 million people that storm through its gates every year, but those flaws, as the cliché goes, are what make the diamond so precious. We thoroughly enjoyed our adventures at Disneyland, and would not hesitate to return someday should the opportunity present itself.

Coming Monday: Part Three, with more on the Paradise Pier Hotel, plus California Adventure!

Comments (22) | Archive Link

My family's first visit to Disneyland: Part One

By James Rao
Published: November 2, 2013 at 6:32 PM

Many events of great significance occurred in the year of 1981:
  • Iran released 52 American hostages, held for 444 days
  • A whack job named John Hinckley, Jr. failed in an assassination attempt on President Reagan
  • The wreck of the Titanic was found Nintendo released the first incarnation of a Donkey Kong video game and Mario becomes a household name!
  • The first American test tube baby was born
  • MTV was launched (and actually showcased music videos)
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark was released, marking the end of George Lucas’ creative career
But the most significant event of 1981 was when an 11 12-year-old boy named James Rao, in preparation for a cross country move from California to Virginia, made his last visit to Walt Disney’s original theme park – Disneyland. Thirty-two years later, in September of 2013, that now 45-year-old man would triumphantly return to the park that started it all. This report details that triumphant return.

I started planning this trip almost five years ago, prompted by Disney’s announcement to spend $1.2 billion to turn Disneyland’s much maligned expansion park, Disney California Adventure, into one measuring up to the standards normally associated with the Disney brand. Don’t get me wrong. I desired to return to Disneyland for many years, but WDW is closer (in distance), cheaper (more discounts), and more accommodating to tourists (more on property resort options) than DLR. Plus, I was quite happy visiting WDW, as it is a truly magical place. But the desire to show the park that stated it all to my wife and kids never went away completely.

Speaking of my wife and kids, I guess I better introduce the cast of this report. First, there’s me, James, the Clark Griswoldian Father. I was 45 years old at the time of this trip and have been a theme park fan since I first rode the Calico Mine Train at Knott’s Berry Farm years and years ago (I was too short to ride Corkscrew, blast it!). My wife of 22 years is Robin. She embraces my theme park addiction because I do, but in all honesty says she prefers natural mountains to the ones constructed by Disney Imagineers…yeah, whatever. My wonderful children, who have never known a vacation that did not involve theme parks, are: Jacob (15), Jeremy (13), and Emma (10). As a family, we are seasoned veterans of theme park vacations, having been on many trips over the years. We love to drive to our destinations, experience all the non-upcharge attractions the parks have to offer, and don’t mind sharing lots of different types of food since it means that: a) we get to try more stuff, and b) we always have enough money in the budget for dessert. Above all, we share a disdain for common, midway style amusement parks. For example, Cedar Fair’s Worlds of Fun, a stationary carnival just 20 minutes from my house, is largely ignored, while Silver Dollar City, a true theme park four hours away in Branson, MO, is our adopted home park. And above all, my entire family earnestly believes that the only magic that exists in this morally, socially, and fiscally bankrupt world is Disney Magic.

My original plans for this adventure incorporated several parks in the SoCal area: Disneyland, California Adventure, Knott’s Berry Farm, Magic Mountain, and Universal Studios Hollywood. USH was the first park I crossed off my list. Eighty-five dollars plus per ticket to ride Transformers and the Backlot Tour, although both appear to be great attractions, is just too rich and too limited for my blood. Knott’s went next when I realized the operating hours for the park plummeted down to 10:00 to 6:00 on weekdays in September. Same ticket price as usual and a lot fewer hours made Knott’s hardly worth the expense. Despite a similar short-hours problem at Magic Mountain, I kept that park in my plans as long as possible because I am a huge coaster fan, and Magic Mountain is the current Coaster Capital of the World (sorry Cedar Point, the King is dead, long live the King). However, when X2 went down with a busted lift chain, and the folks at MM had no clue as to when it would be up and running again, the Coaster Crapital went out the window as well.

The Coaster Capital of the World - Six Flags

So what to do with all that extra time now that my list of parks was down to two? Well, since I was born and raised in SoCal, I of course set aside time to visit family (my aunt and cousins live in the Bakersfield area). Plus, I couldn’t deprive my kids of a chance to see the Pacific Ocean (San Simeon, Cambria Pines, Morrow Bay, Avila, and Pismo). And how could I possibly drag my wife on another theme park trip without letting her see a few natural wonders on the way (more mountains than a Yeti can climb and more sequoias than Paul Bunyan can conquer)? Thus the second week of my vacation was thoroughly booked outside of the parks among mountains, the ocean, and requisite trips to Dewar’s Ice Cream, and a See’s Candy location, of course. What about the first week? Do I really need a full week at Disneyland Resort?

My initial touring plans indicated that three days should be sufficient (two days at DL one at DCA), but after all the glowing reviews for DCA’s brilliant Cars Land expansion, I knew we would need at least four days. I began to cement the budget for both my money and my time, and I started drawing up realistic park touring plans (thank you touringplans.com). As I ironed out the details, it became quickly apparent that I would indeed need almost a full week at the Resort (keep in mind, my last trip to WDW was a ten day trip, and I was still left lamenting the fact that a few planned experiences were left on the cutting room floor). So, I used my accumulated Disney Visa Reward points to buy five day single park passes for my whole family (~$1300 in rewards) and set out researching the various hotels and motels within walking distance of the resort. Finding nothing that my wife and I could both agree on, we decided to look at the more expensive, on property Disney hotels. We settled on Paradise Pier (the least expensive of the three). Lastly, I added a sixth day in the parks by including Mickey’s Halloween Party (a separate ticketed event) on September 27th, our last night at the resort. With planning complete, I finalized the budget to save the money needed for our six nights at the Paradise Pier Hotel. Sometime later in March of 2013, I contacted Mousefan Travel and worked with Stephanie Hudson (who booked my 2010 WDW vacation as well) to lock in my hotel. Once complete, the only thing left to do was wait until September to begin the adventure.

Let Your Mickey Be Your Guide

After I got home from work, we started the long drive to Anaheim (total time: 24 hours) on Sept 18, 2013. We only went two hours that night, stopping over at my folks’ house just outside of Topeka, KS. There we ate, watched a movie, and slept. My mom was tagging along on this adventure, but she would stay with her sister (the aunt I wrote about earlier) during our week at the parks. She says she’s not a big fan of theme parks despite the fact that we visited them quite a bit in my youth. I sure wish she and my father would at least come with me to Epcot sometime, because I know they would LOVE it. But I digress….

Our first stop was in Denver at Tocabe, an American Indian Eatery. I bring this place up simply because our food, Bison Ribs with seasonal berry barbecue sauce and Indian Tacos, was amazing. Feel free to stop at Tocabe when you are in Denver, and try all their toppings and sauces because their food is just delicious.

Delicious Indian Taco at Tocabe

After Tocabe, we continued on for a couple hours to Eagle, Colorado, where we stayed at a fairly nice Comfort Inn. The following day we made it to Hurricane, Utah, and another Comfort Inn. We had to settle for Arby’s that night since our first choice, Main Street Café, was closed by the time we arrived, and Sonny Boy BBQ, while touted as the best in Hurricane, was not going to be good enough to justify the 45 minute wait to get a server to come to our table (we walked out after waiting fifteen minutes, so we at least gave it a try).

On day three we passed through Las Vegas where we ate at Smashburger (excellent, fast food burgers, better than both Five Guys and In-N-Out, IMHO), then proceeded on into Bakersfield where we sequestered my mom at her sister’s house and crashed for the night. Overall, the drive on I-70 after Denver and before you hit CA-58 W into Bakersfield is really quite amazing. The mountains and canyons are a sight to behold, and seeing Las Vegas (and New York, New York) rise up out of the desert is pretty cool. I very much enjoyed the trip out to California, as did the rest of my family. Plus we were able to listen to an excellent reading of the first two Artemis Fowl books (by Eoin Colfer) during the trip, which were both very good stories. Looking forward to the Disney movie forthcoming….

Las Vegas - New York New York

The following day (Sunday, September 22, 2013), my family of five loaded up the Sienna and headed down I-5 to Anaheim. We cruised through the Grapevine, blitzed past the SBNO X2 and Sux Flags, got caught in loads of traffic on the worst stretch of highway I have EVER had the displeasure to travel (I-5 passing through Los Angeles), shot like a cannonball past not one, but two completely unused Knott’s Berry Farm exits, and arrived at Disneyland Resort around 2:00 PM. We followed the clearly labeled signs and directions to the Paradise Pier Hotel’s parking garage, found a convenient parking spot, jumped out of the van, and proceeded into the hotel, visions of Pirates and Princesses dancing in our heads.

There was a short line at the check in counter, but no sooner was I in that line when a cheerful cast member came over and directed me to the concierge desk which was open at the time. I love efficiency and good service, and it was these two qualities at which the cast members of the Paradise Pier excelled. Throughout the week I received remarkable service whenever I needed anything at the hotel. In fact, the cast members at the Paradise Pier were the best and friendliest cast members I encountered the entire week.

We checked in, received maps and directions to the parks and Downtown Disney, and then were told that since our room was not quite ready (check in is officially after 3:00 PM, so we were a bit early), we could store our gear at the front desk and head on into the parks if we so desired. We decided to explore for a bit instead, walking around the resort, checking out the pool area (expansive and insanely clean, but pretty much devoid of theme), the exercise room (spacious), the laundry (a bit small but functional), and the hotel’s restaurants (we never did end up eating in the hotel, so I do not know if the food is good or bad, but the eating areas looked fine). We also trekked over to the Grand Californian (directly across the street) and familiarized ourselves with the path to Downtown Disney and DCA, both within 5 – 7 minutes of the Paradise Pier Hotel. I then received a page and a phone call that our room was ready, so we headed back to Paradise Pier and got our room keys (6th floor) before heading back to DTD, past the security checkpoint, and finally into the park that started it all: Disneyland.

Disneyland: The Park That Started It All

I was hit with a flurry of emotions when I entered the park: joy, relief, excitement, pride – they all raced through me as I slowly led my family into Walt’s first magic kingdom. I had spent so long dreaming of and planning for this trip that I was momentarily overwhelmed by the fact that I was really here. Disney fans know what I am talking about when I write that the feeling of being home coalesced over me in a very powerful and emotional wave, bringing me to a sudden halt. I just stood there, taking it all in, savoring the moment and committing it to memory the same way a father locks in the birth of his children – shock and awe, baby, shock and awe.

Our first attraction was to be the 4:00 parade, so waking from my momentary stupor I led the troop into Disneyland, up some stairs to a viewing area in the Main Street Train Station. From this excellent vantage point we took in the sights and sounds of Disneyland. We witnessed the hustle and bustle of people coming and going, we saw folks everywhere laughing, celebrating, taking pictures, making memories, and waiting anxiously to meet Minnie Mouse who was greeting guests in front of Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. The grandeur of it all was still a bit overwhelming to me, but the sound of the train whistle brought me back from my reverie just in time to notice the distant sound of the parade coming down Main Street as if its sole purpose was to welcome the Rao family to the Happiest Place on Earth.

I am sure the parade was really nothing spectacular, nothing earth shaking, I am sure it was really no better than any other outstanding Disney parade, but in that moment, it was quite simply the best parade of all time. We were so fired up to see all the Disney characters and Princesses that as each float passed by our waving and catcalls went on unabated. And what a joy it was when Ariel noticed my frantically waving daughter and took time to acknowledge her, or when Mickey and Donald seemingly waved at us and us alone. I am sure others have experienced a similar euphoria when they have returned to the Disney Magic after a long absence, and it is to those fans I say: there is nothing quite like the feeling of, as I said before, being home. The parade was magnificent.

Tangled Float in the Disneyland Parade

Parade ending, we breezed onto the train (after a Chris Paul [LA Clippers basketball player] sighting) and rode it up one stop to the New Orleans Square depot. From there we headed to Café Orleans, the one table service reservation I had made for the entire trip. It was about 5:00 PM. We were seated promptly and had a great table near the railing on the Pirates of the Caribbean side of the restaurant. From our vantage point we had a great view of Tom Sawyer’s Island and all the people making their way through this classic park.

We requested two orders of Pommes Frites (French fries laced with edible crack), extra dipping sauce, a Monte Cristo, a Three Cheese Monte Cristo, and a Mardi Gras Chicken Sandwich (for my wife who is not big on heavily fried foods). The Pommes Frites were light, airy, and full of flavor, as amazing as everyone said they would be, and they were gone in minutes, which was fine since the main course arrived in record time (the wait staff was exceptional). The kids and I shared the two Cristos and enjoyed them, although the consensus opinion was that the Three Cheese version was not in the same league as the standard turkey, ham, and Swiss version. My wife’s sandwich was expertly prepared, full of flavor, and tasty, so if you are looking for something a bit less heavy and not fried, you can’t go wrong with Mardi Gras Chicken Sandwich. For dessert we ordered Mickey Beignets (of course) and a special Halloween demitasse pumpkin cup, which was filled with pumpkin and chocolate mousse. Both desserts were delicious, although the Beignets were pretty messy, so have plenty of napkins on hand when you partake.

Pommes Frites at Cafe Orleans

Leaving Café Orleans we meandered over to the most important stop on my itinerary: the one, the only, the first, and the best, Pirates of the Caribbean. The line was short, ten minutes, so we quickly boarded the attraction and set about on our adventure. I have often touted the virtues of this particular version of Pirates to any and all who would listen, clinging to my circa 1981 memories and my belief that it is the best attraction in the world. Was it really as great as I remembered? Would the kids agree? Was it just the nostalgia of memories from long, long ago? The moment of truth was at hand, but as our cruise through the Blue Bayou began, I knew instantly that neither I nor my family would be disappointed. This wonderful, timeless attraction could never and would never be anything less than amazing.

Tomorrow: Part Two

Comments (19) | Archive Link

Theme Park History: Disney's America and the historian's dilemma

By Matt McDonough
Published: November 1, 2013 at 7:44 AM

Twenty years ago a debate raged between Disney and some concerned Americans on the relationship between history and theme parks. The Disney corporation hoped to tap into the tourist market that visited Washington D.C. and northern Virginia and began marketing the proposed park as a complement to the many museums and battlefields in the area. The actual construction spot was to be just a few miles away from the Civil War site of the Battle of Manassas (Bull Run for you Northerners) in Prince William County, Virginia.

Disney's America

The proposed park was entitled Disney's America and would have featured several lands, each depicting a different era of American history. The focal point to the park featured the turbulent 1860s. This area came complete with a Civil War era town and a military encampment with costumed Union and Rebel soldiers and a Rivers of America-esque lagoon where patrons could witness a fight between the ironclads Monitor and Merrimack (technically the CSS Virginia for the historically minded).

From there visitors could explore President's Square which centered on the nation's origins and included a Hall of Presidents show. Victory Field played to the nostalgia of the Greatest Generation and depicted all manner of aircraft utilized in the World Wars. The thrill seekers in the crowd would have enjoyed Enterprise Town which depicted America's history of industry and innovation, including the roller coaster "Industrial Revolution" which promised to fling riders around a steel mill, complete with blast furnaces.

To cool off you could check out Native America which would have included a white-water rafting ride emulating the Lewis and Clark Expedition. (No word if an audio-animatronic Sacagawea would have made an appearance but I would like to think so).

There was even a good old fashioned State Fair area that showcased how Americans could unwind even amidst economic turmoil such as the Great Depression. Patrons could also celebrate the multi-cultural heritage of America by visiting a recreation of Ellis Island in the We the People

We the People

But it was not meant to be. Some local residents of Prince William County balked at the massive proposal and feared the new park would lead to an abundance of gaudy hotels and restaurants unsuitable to their quiet county. Opposition groups also feared the natural beauty and environment would forever be overshadowed by the giant mouse barreling toward them. Historians likewise entered into the fray and offered professional credibility to the citizen opposition groups. Even famed documentary producer Ken Burns came out publicly against Disney.

Opposition advocates efficiently organized and founded Protect Historic America to bring their grievances publicly. They feared that tourists would now skip actual historic sites like Manassas and just get their history from Disney. Worse still, the popularity of the park would lead to further growth which could start to jeopardize historical preservation. They railed against the "Disneyfication" that would take place if such a park
were allowed to be built. The theme park would be showcasing America but a dumbed down, historically inaccurate picture of the nation's heritage. Would the Amero-centric and jingoistic concept alienate visitors from other countries? How could Disney accurately capture the horror of slavery in their Civil War era town? Would Enterprise town explore labor unrest and detail the long, arduous fight for an eight hour workday? How would the premier attraction in Native America, the Lewis and Clark rapids ride, deal with the long line of broken promises and treaties? The answer, unsurprisingly, is that Disney would not address these issues and instead would opt to ignore them completely and offer a whitewashed, sterile version of American history. Delving even deeper, the whole tone of the park was misguided. This was great white man history that merely gives passing reference to immigrants and Native Americans and neglects women and African-Americans. Ultimately, the opposition prevailed.

The outcry against Disney reached such a level that Eisner in 1994 cancelled the proposal. (Some of the ideas, like Victory Field and the rapids ride were resurrected and re-themed for use in California Adventure.)

The controversy reveals a much larger question than simply where the next theme park should be built. The bigger question asks are we sharers or guardians of history? Everyone is a historian to some extent as we all must know the past to understand ourselves and must wrestle with this concept.
A guardian is a protector of historical interpretation. Historians exist to set the record straight (though "truth" in history is often elusive), refine our understanding of the past so that we may influence the future. Without critical assessment of one's past, you can easily fall into the trap of super-patriotism which can border into dangerous xenophobic ground. To constantly present the United States as savior of the Earth, through our innovation, welcoming attitudes and can do spirit oversimplifies a complex topic and downplays the legitimate contributions of countless Americans who sought to solve our nation's issues. To ensure we do not make the same mistakes of the past we must look in the mirror and acknowledge our shortcomings without forgetting our strengths.

But Enterprise town may have inspired a kid to learn more about the time period and dig deeper than what Disney portrayed. Would that modicum of interest been absent without a ride on the "Industrial Revolution." The sharing of history is no less important than guardianship. In order for history to stick and remain relevant with most people, it must be presented in an entertaining and thought provoking manner. But while walking through a marketplace where a slave auction is taking place may be historically accurate it is not an activity that most tourists will want to flock to on a bright Saturday morning. Simply put, can history be fun? Was there a way for Disney's America to succeed as both tourist destination and accurate representation of history or was it mutually exclusive? Disney can masterfully transform an area into another place though immersive environments. Can they also take us through an accurate representation of time or should they stick with fantastical places like the upcoming Avatar land? Please post your thoughts in the comments section.

All concept art comes from disneyandmore.blogspot.com and www.disneydrawingboard.com. For additional information on the debate over Disney's America seechotank.com/disneyrom.html

Comments (21) | Archive Link

Keep reading: October 2013 Archive