By Robert Niles
One of our annual traditions at Theme Park Insider is our New Year's resolution list. Each year, we present a list of resolutions for theme park fans to try to keep during the year ahead.
The Dr. Seuss float from last year's Rose Parade, in Theme Park Insider's hometown of Pasadena, California.
If there's a single theme that unites these resolutions it would be the ideal that other people aren't your enemy. Don't fall into the trap of seeing everything in life as a competition, including your vacation. The people you'll find in theme park are fans, just like you. Welcome your opportunity to be in community with them, and with the employees who help bring the park to life everyday. That's a healthier way to live in life — and not just in theme parks.
Enjoy your advance planning, do your research, get to know your destination, and come prepared to have a good time. But never lose sight of the fact that this is the theme park community, and everyone has a better time in a community when no one's trying to beat it.
In that spirit, here are our New Year's resolutions for theme park fans:
Thank you to the Theme Park Insider readers who offered suggestions for this year's resolution list. It's not too late to add your suggestions, either. Just post to the comments with your ideas on how we all can help make 2014 a great year for the entire theme park community. Stay safe tonight, and Happy New Year!
By Robert Niles
Here are a couple notes for you to pass the time today, especially if you're stuck in long lines waiting to get into Universal Orlando:
Parkscope found an interesting patent application from Universal, detailing what sounds a lot like a MyMagic+/MagicBand-style reservation system. Universal's application describes a system where visitors can make reservations for themselves or for a group when they buy their theme park tickets, then use their cell phones or other devices (yes, including wristbands!) to access those attractions. Universal's system also would enable reserving rides on a specific date without specifying a particular time, and to allow the park or guests to reschedule missed reservation times. You can see the entire application on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's website.
Making a quick search on the trademark side of that website revealed a few other theme park-related applications. Universal on Dec. 12 filed a trademark application for "Aqua Drag Racer," detailed as for "Amusement park and water park rides; entertainment in the nature of a water park ride." Daniel Koch (formerly of Holiday World) filed for "Splashin' Sam" on Dec. 23, described simply as for "Amusement park and theme park services." And SeaWorld filed for "Pantopia," the new name for the former Timbuktu area at Busch Gardens Tampa.
By Robert Niles
What's your favorite thing to do at the Orlando theme parks on New Year's Eve?
If the week between Christmas and New Year's is the busiest of the year at the nation's year-round theme parks, New Year's Eve in Orlando is the most crowded moment of this most crowded week. You'll find midnight celebrations at many of the top parks, and visitors claiming their spaces for the event beginning in the late afternoon.
But which event to choose?
Let's take a look at the big options. Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom will launch its Fantasy in the Sky fireworks at a few minutes before midnight, with a countdown to the big midnight finale. Pyro's the attraction over at Epcot, too, where a New Year's Countdown Fireworks celebration surrounds the World Showcase lagoon. To make way for the midnight extravaganzas, both parks will push their traditional evening entertainment up to earlier start times: 7pm for the Main Street Electrical Parade and 8:30pm for the Holiday Wishes fireworks at the Magic Kingdom, and 6:30pm for Illuminations at Epcot.
Universal Studios Florida will celebrate the New Year with a special showing of Universal's Cinematic Spectacular at midnight. Meanwhile, CityWalk will be hosting a hard-ticket party with food, drinks and dancing at several of CityWalk's clubs.
Our final option is SeaWorld Orlando, which will be hosting another big fireworks celebration, along with entertainment throughout the evening.
Where's your go-to destination for New Year's Eve in the parks? Let's break down the pros and cons of each event, in the comments. And, Orlando locals, we'd love to hear from you some additional options for where to celebrate the new year.
By Robert Niles
Welcome again to the busiest week of the year at the theme parks in Orlando and Anaheim. You can expect many of the Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, and Disneyland Resort theme parks to hit capacity each day between now and New Year's. Many employees are blocked out of bringing guests into the parks, and many annual passholders wouldn't visit this week if you paid them.
But that won't keep hundreds of thousands of tourists from cramming the theme parks. Forget the strategies or approaches you might bring to a theme park visit the other 51 weeks in the year. There's no way to "beat" or even avoid crowds this big. So embrace the experience, instead. For this week, above all weeks, happy theme park visitors will focus on seeing the experience of just being in the parks as their big attraction.
That doesn't mean you can't follow at least some practical advice, however. An early start is essential this week not so you can get on to a bunch a rides with no wait — that won't happen. But you'll need to arrive early to ensure that you just get a parking space and get into the park. Because parking lots and front gates might close during the afternoons this week, forget about park-hopping. Plan to leave your car in one space, and for you and your group to enjoy the day in one park.
Obviously, some advance planning will have helped you to get the most from your day at Disney or Universal this week. This is the best week of the year to be staying at one of Universal Orlando's on-site hotels, as that front-of-line access those guests get with their rooms will allow them to enjoy something approaching a "normal" theme park visit this week. Over at Disney, making dining and Fastpass+ reservations months ago will help ensure those Disney visitors get to enjoy at least a few experiences without extreme waits.
Even if you don't have those perks, you still can enjoy your day at the parks this week. Just look at the crowds around you as an attraction unto itself. Hey, you're surrounding by tens of thousands of the coolest people in the world: theme park fans! Get into the spirit of the party and talk with the people who are stuck next to you in line. And don't forget about those theme park cast and team members, too. Many of you have loved our Stories from a Theme Park Insider book and columns. Here's your chance to hear some original stories, live, from employees in the park. Next time you're stuck next to some cast member for several minutes, while waiting in an immobile line, don't just stand there, staring at your cell phone. Talk to the park employees. Ask questions. They can't tell you how to get around the crowds — that's impossible this week. But they might be coaxed into sharing some fun stories about the parks.
Look for the little details you can find tucked away in corners and alleys throughout the parks. Consider a photo safari of the decorated nooks at the far edges of the parks. Can you find new places to take pictures that you've never captured before?
This is the week that parks will try to run at full capacity, meaning that a lot of seasonal food windows, stores, and attractions will be open this week. Why not take advantage? Check out some of the options visitors don't find open on a "typical" day.
In the spirit of trying new things, how do you feel about lunch at 11am, or dinner at 4pm? Or ditching traditional meal times and just grazing around the park during off-meal times? With so many crowds packing restaurants during traditional meal times this week, if you don't have a reservation time, you can save yourself some potential aggravation by eating at different times. Again, you'll find queues throughout the day, even for burgers at 3pm. But you can at least minimize your waits by avoiding food locations between noon and 1pm and again between 5pm and 7pm.
If you're looking forward to watching a parade, the fireworks, or Epcot's Illuminations show at the end of the day, remember that you'll need to stake your place early. If you're planning to watch the New Year's Eve fireworks from the in front of the castle at the Magic Kingdom you'll need to be sitting in place by 6pm that evening. Plan on arriving at least two hours in advance for any other evening shows this week. Heck, this week, the crowd for the 11pm Main Street Electrical Parade will swoop in to start claiming their spaces just as soon as the 9pm crowd leaves.
Whatever you do in the parks this week, don't get in the habit of complaining. Come into the parks with a competitive, combative attitude, and the parks will fight you back. You can't beat this crowd. But, in the words of a wise character who now belongs to Disney, there are alternatives to fighting. Exude patience, kindness, and optimism, and you'll find enjoyment awaiting you, no matter how crowded the parks get this week.
Have a great trip, and don't forget to share your trip reports with us here on Theme Park Insider.
By Robert Niles
In our continuing effort to provide entertainment for people stuck online during this Christmas week, we present the top dozen most-read stories from the past year on ThemeParkInsider.com. Presented in chronological order, they provide a look back at some of the biggest news and controversies of the year. Plus, pretty much anything we posted with the words "Harry Potter." Hey, we know what you like. ;^)
Theme Park Insider's photo of the year: Our first look from inside Diagon Alley under construction at Universal Studios Florida's Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Looking for video to watch? Here are a couple of our most popular new videos of the year, along with their corresponding reviews and features:
On-ride of SeaWorld Orlando's Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin
And Six Flags Magic Mountain's Full Throttle
But the ride of the year wasn't one of those — it was Hong Kong Disneyland's Mystic Manor, winner of the 2013 Theme Park Insider Award as the world's Best New Theme Park Attraction.
What was your favorite highlight from the past year in theme parks?
By Robert Niles
Christmas week is here, so let's offer a shout-out to all those readers stuck at work while their co-workers with more seniority take the week off. And to all those readers browsing the Internet while waiting out flight delays, killing time in the car on I-75 or I-95 riding south to Orlando, or waiting in line at the store with some final gift purchases.
Whatever the reason you're looking to waste time on the Internet this week, we've got you covered. Take a virtual trip around the world with us by reading our recap of trip reports from the Disney and Universal theme parks in Asia and Europe.
Sunset over Tokyo DisneySea's Mount Prometheus, taken from Mediterranean Harbor. Photo by David Weiss.
Hong Kong Disneyland
Universal Studios Japan
Universal Studios Singapore
Walt Disney Studios Paris
Have you been to a theme park outside the United States in 2013? Tell us all about it, in the comments!
By Robert Niles
An attentive Twitter user discovered an online contest that appears to have revealed the opening date for Universal Studios Hollywood's version of Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem. The attraction will open in April, according to this contest found and Tweeted by @jmillsgreen. USH's Minion Mayhem will be accompanied by a Super Silly Fun Land play area, a merchandise store, and a "Despicable Delights" food location.
In our new Orlando guidebook, Theme Park Insider: Orlando 2014, we talk about the "monorail or ferry boat" choice that Walt Disney World visitors face when traveling from the Transportation and Ticket Center to the Magic Kingdom. Starting January 21, and continuing through March, Disney will be closing the monorails on the Magic Kingdom route between 11:30am and 7pm on weekdays. That means it's ferry boats or buses for getting to and from the Magic Kingdom during those hours. Disney's doing maintenance on the monorail route, in an effort to cut down on the unscheduled downtimes that have been plaguing the monorails in recent months.
SeaWorld's finally fighting back against the creators of Blackfish and the Change.org campaigns to pressure musicians not to perform at SeaWorld Orlando. In a letter run as a full-page ad in several newspapers late last week, SeaWorld debunked falsehoods in the movie and defended its animal care practices.
In a twist, some theme park fans have started their own Change.org petition, trying to pressure Netflix to remove Blackfish from its streaming catalogue. The bands that Blackfish supporters targeted bailed from their SeaWorld gigs after those petitions received as few as 5,000 signatures. This new, pro-SeaWorld petition has about 500 signatures as of this posting. It'll be interesting to see if it can gain more signatures than the anti-SeaWorld petitions.
And if you would prefer to just put your brain on autopilot for the holidays and look at some pretty pictures, Disney's got you covered with a photo gallery of Christmas trees at Disney parks around the world. If you'd like to look beyond the Disney parks, we ran with the same concept on our Pinterest page last year: Christmas trees from around the world of theme parks.
By Robert Niles
[Editor's note: Thank you to the anonymous commentator who last week inspired this idea.]
As work continues on The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley, fans are looking forward to the new land's debut in June. But Harry Potter fans will face a choice when they first visit the Universal Orlando Resort after Diagon Alley opens: Which way will you go for your first ride on the Hogwarts Express?
Muggles should have more success getting to the Hogwarts Express at Universal Orlando than they do now at London's Kings Cross station.
Do you follow the narrative of the books and movies, and board in London for the trip to Hogsmeade, in Universal's Islands of Adventure? Or do you go with the spirit of the books, by starting with the familiar in the original Wizarding World, and traveling to the new and unfamiliar land?
You might consider some logistical issues, as well. Crowds are likely to pack Diagon Alley when it opens, making for a relatively shorter wait to board the Hogwarts Express via the Hogsmeade station. But there's much we don't yet know about the logistics of Universal's Hogwarts Express ride.
Universal has promised a variety of experiences on the ride, such as a Dementor attack. But will the direction in which you are traveling affect which experiences you get? In the books and movies, all the cool stuff happened on the way from London to Hogsmeade. The ride back to London always happened after the climax, and sometimes skipped in the narrative altogether.
Visitors planning to see Diagon Alley this summer might remember the hours-long waits that visitors faced just to get into the original Wizarding World when it opened in June 2010. They might consider starting in Hogsmeade and riding the Hogwarts Express to London as a "back door" way to skip the queue in Universal Studios Florida to enter Diagon Alley.
But that plan assumes that the Hogwarts Express will exit into Diagon Alley. Looking at the plans for the new land, that's not clear. The plans show a Great Ticketing Hall for the Hogwarts Express that fronts to the London Thames River promenade, next to the entrance to Diagon Alley. Remember that in the Harry books and movies, the Hogwarts Express left from Kings Cross Station in London — not from Diagon Alley. It would make sense, thematically, for Universal to place its Kings Cross station next to, but not in, the rest of Diagon Alley.
So it's possible that if you ride over to Universal Studios Florida from Islands of Adventure on the Hogwarts Express, you'd still need to queue to enter Diagon Alley once you arrive. That "back door" might not be open, after all.
(The reason we're waffling here is that the plans we've seen aren't entirely clear on the flow of guests through the Hogwarts Express station. That leads us to believe that Universal might be building itself some options here — it could force guests to exit outside Diagon Alley when the land is full, or switch the exit to allow direct access to Diagon Alley in the future, when the land isn't so crowded.)
Of course, when you get on the Hogwarts Express, you're leaving one Wizarding World land to go to the other. So perhaps you will base your choice on which land you'll want to visit first, then travel from that to the other for your first Hogwarts Express trip.
We suspect that many Harry Potter fans will end up traveling in both directions, going back and forth between the two lands as wait times allow. But for this question, we want to know which direction you're planning to travel first.
Update: Yesterday, Universal Orlando released its first teaser video promoting Diagon Alley. This morning, it dropped a second, with several clips from the movies of stuff you'll find in Universal's Diagon Alley.
By Robert Niles
When Disney returned Captain EO to its theme parks following the death of star Michael Jackson, the revival was supposed to be a limited run. However, up until now, we've heard no official word of a Captain EO run closing.
As you might have guessed, now we have. The Oriental Land Company, owner of Tokyo Disney Resort, has announced that Captain EO will close on June 30, 2014 at Tokyo Disneyland, to make way for a Stitch Encounter attraction.
Concept image courtesy Disney
Using the concept as Turtle Talk with Crush, Stitch Encounter at Hong Kong Disneyland allows audience members to talk with the former "Experiment 626," who will appear on a theater screen as he's in "outer space." This show is substantially different than Walt Disney World's much-maligned "Stitch's Great Escape" show. Tokyo Disneyland will bring the Stitch Encounter show to the Tomorrowland theater where Captain EO now plays, for a summer 2015 opening.
This won't be Stitch's first appearance in Tokyo Disneyland. The star of Lilo & Stitch already appears in Tokyo Disneyland's version of the Tiki Room: Stitch Presents 'Aloha E Komo Mai!'
We wrote more about that show during our tour of Tokyo Disneyland two years ago.
By Robert Niles
Orlando's I-Drive Live development, now under construction on International Drive, is ditching that name in favor of branding itself to its main attraction: The Orlando Eye.
The 425-foot-tall observation wheel, a sibling of the London Eye, is scheduled to open with its surrounding development in a little over a year — on New Year's Eve 2014. In addition to the observation wheel, the development is slated to include a Madame Tussauds wax museum and a Sea Life aquarium (all Merlin Entertainments properties), as well as a Ben & Jerry's, an Outback, Buffalo Wild Wings and a Yard House, among other restaurants and shops.
The same developer, Unicorp, also is developing an I-Shops project on the site of the Wyndham Orlando Resort at the corner of I-Drive and Sand Lake Road.
Update: A current construction photo, of the wheel strut installation, from TH Creative:
By Robert Niles
Universal Orlando will reveal more details about The Wizarding World of Harry Potter during a webcast on January 23. Actor James Phelps (Fred Weasley) teased the webcast in a YouTube video the resort released this morning:
Reporters will be sent an access code to the webcast, but Universal's also allowing fans to sign up for a link to the event, too.
If you just can't wait for Universal's announcement, last May we revealed the line-up of attractions, restaurants, and shops visitors will find in Diagon Alley when it opens late this spring. Based on Universal's annual pass blockout dates and hotel rate schedules, we're guessing that the official debut will happen around June 13.
Update: Just received my "Gringotts Vault Key" from Universal Orlando!
By Robert Niles
Twentieth Century Fox is getting back into the theme park business.
Today, Fox announced the name and broke ground for a theme park in Malaysia. Twentieth Century Fox World will open at Resorts World Genting in the southeast Asia nation in 2016.
Concept art: Fox Consumer Products & Resorts World Genting
The Resorts World brand ought to be familiar to theme park fans — Universal Studios Singapore is part of Resorts World Sentosa, another major casino resort development affiliated with Malaysia's Genting Group, which has developed casino resorts around the world under the Resorts World brand.
Genting Malaysia Chairman Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay said that the company will invest US$300 million in building the park, which will stand on 25 acres in the resort. (For comparison, Universal Studios Singapore is 49 acres.) Fox and Genting promise 25 rides and attractions in the new park, including ones based on Alien vs. Predator, Ice Age, Night at the Museum, Planet of the Apes, and Rio.
An "Ice Age"-themed family roller coaster ride. Concept art: Fox Consumer Products & Resorts World Genting
If you'd like to parse the concept art for additional clues about the park and its prospective line-up, here's a high-res version of the Twentieth Century Fox World concept art.
Fox previously had a Fox Studios Baja park in Mexico, a tour attraction located at the filming site for James Cameron's Titanic.
By Robert Niles
Could anti-animal-captivity activists be doing SeaWorld a favor?
SeaWorld's long been Enemy Number One of PETA and other organizations that want to end the practice of holding animals in captivity. As the world's leading brand in marine mammal parks, SeaWorld's a high profile target — one that established a practice of not fighting back against, and often, not even responding to, PR attacks. That allows anti-animal-captivity activists a free shot in news media, which they've been taking in launching a PR campaign against musical acts booked to play SeaWorld Orlando's annual "Bands, Brew, and BBQ" concert series.
Depending upon the count, seven or eight acts have pulled out so far, following change.org petition campaigns directed against them. Here's some perspective: Online petitions are probably the laziest form of activism imaginable. It takes next to no effort to gather "signatures" for an online petition. In fact, it's trivial to gin up an infinite number of "sock puppet" accounts to pad a signature total. If you want a better gauge of a movement's strength, look at its ability to put feet in the street or money in the bank.
On those counts, the anti-animal-captivity activists' campaign against SeaWorld has been a dud. Despite dozens of stories promising mass protests of SeaWorld's float at the Macy' Thanksgiving Parade, no significant number of protestors showed up — not enough to generate any major news coverage. SeaWorld beat Wall Street's estimates for the most recent quarter, and analysts have been upgrading the company's stock. With no feet on the street, and no ability to keep SeaWorld from putting money in the bank, all the activists have been able to do is drive bands away from the parks.
And even that, ultimately, might play into SeaWorld's favor. Concert series are one of many gimmicks that year-'round parks use to pump attendance during traditionally slower times of the year. In the summer and at Christmas, fans pack the park, without much need for special promotions. But when school's in session, theme park resorts turn to concert series, food festivals, merchandise events, conventions, and sports events to attract locals and tourists to the parks.
Among these, concert series featuring big-name acts might be the least cost-effective way to drive income in the parks. Participant-driven sports events, such as Disney's various half-marathon weekends, bring in thousands of visitors who pay their own ways to the resort. Conventions do the same for resorts with on-site hotels. Food and merchandise events are the best money-makers, though — attracting visitors looking to spend extra on food, drinks and souvenirs, which raises the park's all-important "average guest spending" number. But with big-name musical acts, the parks have to pay big appearance fees, and more often than not end up attracting visitors whose primary focus in on the band — and not necessarily spending money on extra stuff while in the park. It's nice to fill the park on what would otherwise be a lackluster attendance day, but companies would prefer to fill their parks with freer-spending guests if they could.
If the band boycott prompts SeaWorld to change the event's focus from the "Bands" to the "Brew & BBQ," the activists could be doing SeaWorld a huge favor. If SeaWorld can attract more fans who are coming to spend on food and beer, the company would be better off financially than it would be attracting fans who simply want to see a band. That helps boost park income. And if SeaWorld can keep the park filled while booking lesser-name or no-name musicians to complement the atmosphere, it will save on booking fees, too.
As usual, Disney provides the template. Epcot's International Food & Wine Festival helps pack that park during the otherwise-slow autumn months earning the company millions in additional food and alcohol sales, on top of the increased attendance. When Disney books musical acts to supplement the culinary entertainment, they're almost always no-name cover bands. The test for SeaWorld, therefore, is this: Can it earn more money with a event that skips big-name musical acts in favor of one that emphasizes money-earning food and alcohol sales, instead?
(Let's also pause a moment to note the irony of bands turning their back on SeaWorld over animal rights issues after initially agreeing to play a barbecue festival. That ain't tofu SeaWorld and its restaurant partners are cooking at this event.)
If SeaWorld ends up money ahead after this boycott, not only will it further embarrass the activists, it might also encourage more theme parks across the industry to reconsider the practice of booking big-name bands and celebrities in favor of other types of in-park events. Why spend money on something to promote your park, when you can promote your park with something that earns you money, instead?
Update (Dec. 20): On the animal care issue, SeaWorld finally has responded.
By Brian Emery
Recently I read a thread on the discussion board about theme park changes and suggestions, and I began to get into deep thought — almost a Zen-like state of mind. And then it hit me, alas an idea worthy enough of Theme Park Insider, award-winning site. (Nice plug, right?) Anyway, I came up with an idea about parking.
Each year we go to Orlando for eight glorious days, usually in April or May. What we have noticed each and every year is that the parking fees go up about a buck. We do like the fact that the fee and taxes are always included giving you a nice round number - $14 or $15. Imaging if they did not do this and how much longer the entry lines would be for each parking lot, if you had to wait for loose change.
Anyway, my simple idea is to have a lower daily parking fee for folks who pre-pay for parking. Also, the more parking days you buy, the cheaper it gets. Just like if you buy more Disney park entry days, the lower the average cost per day.
We can take it one step further — how about a Fastpass-style lane for those using an Easy-pass system, plus give them a small discount.
What do you think?
With the end of the year approaching I would like to wish you all great health in the future and happy holidays!
By Robert Niles
The new year will bring at least a couple of closures at major theme parks.
Disneyland has announced that the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage will close on January 6, 2014 for an "extended refurbishment."
Fans have speculated that the Nemo refurbishment will become a permanent closure, as happened with Tomorrowland neighbor Rocket Rods a decade ago. But Disney's PR reps are insisting that the attraction is scheduled to reopen in late 2014. The subs are the largest attraction in Disneyland, with a massive show building that extends under the Autopia course. Yet the attraction offers a relatively low hourly capacity for putting through riders, making it one of the more expensive attractions in the park to operate, on a cost-per-guest served basis. That, and the attraction's location in Tomorrowland, have made it a focus of speculation that Disney will choose to replace it with the new Star Wars attractions that Disney's considering for Anaheim.
Over at Universal Studios Hollywood, Inside Universal reports that Doc Brown's Chicken restaurant will close in January, as well. With The Simpsons Ride taking over the old Back to the Future ride several years ago, it makes sense that Universal would make the theme switch with the neighboring restaurant, as well. The Simpsons-themed Fast Food Boulevard's been a huge hit at Universal Studios Florida. Hollywood will be getting Butterbeer as the park is remaking its entire upper lot to bring in its version of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Will Doc Brown's closing clear the way for Hollywood to get Krusty Burgers, as well?
Universal Studios Japan also is building a Wizarding World, and the Osaka theme park soon will have a bundle of fresh cash to spend on that, and other projects. A Hong Kong-based private equity firms has invested US$250 million in the privately-held theme park.
By Derek Potter
Editor's note: Today is the anniversary of Walt Disney's death, in 1966 at the age of 65. In honor of Walt, we offer Part One of a history of what might be his most popular accomplishment — the Walt Disney World Resort.
When the Magic Kingdom opened its doors in 1971, it marked the beginning of an era for Disney, the theme park industry, and the state of Florida. The park would eventually eclipse its predecessor, both in size and popularity. The modest sized city of Orlando would quickly be transformed into an international city visited by more than 50 million people per year. Disney World's opening is a story over 10 years in the making. It involved a near five-year search for a site, secret land dealings, questionable business tactics, controversial political deals, a gargantuan engineering feat, and the death of Walt, the heart and soul it all. Disney World was not built as intended, meant to be not just another theme park, but also a city that would be a model for the future. While Walt's utopian would never come to pass, a different kind of utopia…the self proclaimed "Happiest Place on Earth" would be built in its place, and with it a piece of American culture that would eventually inhabit the world.
By 1958, Disneyland had long since gone through the early growing pains. Walt's ever expanding vision combined with imagination and some trial and error had transformed the industry. Just ten years before, the company had been struggling in the post war economy and was in financial turmoil. Disneyland alone had reversed their fortunes and the company was flush. It wasn't long after Disneyland's opening that there was talk of the possibility of opening another park. NBC was the first to approach Disney in this manner. Together they put together a study on the possibility of opening a park in New Jersey. The idea was canned because the climate would only support a short seasonal operation. A dozen other venues were considered over the next few years, some of them foreign, most of them east of the Mississippi, after another study concluded that less than 5% of Disneyland visitors were from the eastern half of the U.S. while 75% of the population resided there. Of all the early venues, St. Louis was the one that was the closest. After several meetings with city officials, plans began to form for a downtown indoor park in 1963.
The accounts of why this never happened vary. One legend is that Walt decided against the project after being insulted at a dinner party hosted by local St. Louis politicians and businessmen. It was there in early November 1963 that August Busch Jr. foolishly challenged out loud Disney's policy of no alcohol in the park. "Any man who thinks he can design an attraction that's going to be a success in this city and not serve beer or liquor ought to have his head examined." Walt was likely highly offended at this statement. He was a self-made man, and a successful one at that. He would have hated being called out like that, especially in a public setting. The next morning Walt and his associates were gone…the deal was off. While this little exchange might have played a factor in Walt's decision to pass on St. Louis, he also had his eye on other locations. For a while now he had been eyeing Florida as a possible site for his next project and had decided it was the place. Palm Beach was studied for a while, but it was Walt's ride over Orlando in a borrowed plane on November 22, 1963…the day JFK was shot, that planted the seeds for Disney World's birth. Walt saw two things that day in warm sunny Florida…acres and acres of empty land away from the oceans, and a highway system that could feed the massive amount of visitors needed to sustain the project.
For Walt, this particular project wouldn't just be another Disneyland, but something much bigger. Disneyland was no doubt a giant success, but that success had brought others. The park, once an escape in the middle of orange trees, was now surrounded by traffic, cheap motels, restaurants, and neon. This time it would be different. Walt didn't want the magic to be compromised. It would be not just a theme park, but also a community, a "city of tomorrow" where people could live and work. Walt had taken great interest in the idea of a planned community, and the Florida project would have to be shielded from the rest of the world. To accomplish this feat, Walt needed land, lots and lots of land. But again this wasn't Disneyland. Disneyland was a startup that was not only an unknown quantity, it was also a predicted failure. A few hundred acres had come pretty inexpensively to him then, but it was not nearly enough for this venture. For this they needed much more land. Being the shrewd businessmen they were, Disney and his associates knew that the prospect of the Disney Company purchasing thousands of acres could be an expensive one. Disney's success had made them high profile in the media, and if word got out that they were buying land, speculators would come and the price would skyrocket. This venture would have to be a secret one.
And so it was that "Project X" was born. Walt and his associates carefully selected a team within the company, and went so far as to set up secret phone relays, delay the official hiring of top level officials (keeping them as "unofficial consultants"), and also to number the internal memos so they could be tracked. They very carefully selected Paul Helliwell, an ex military intelligence officer turned lawyer, and Florida realtor Roy Hawkins to be their eyes and ears in Orlando. The Disney officials who conferred with them used fake names. Everyone was kept in the dark, right up to the Florida state government. Several dummy corporations, all of which are immortalized on the windows of Main St. were set up to make land purchases. Some were official sounding enough (Latin American Development and Management, Bay Lake Properties, Tomahawk Properties), others were a bit of an inside joke. Retlaw (Walter spelled backwards), the Ayefour Corp. (I4), and M.T. Lott Real Estate were also used. Using these corporations and Helliwell's firm as a third party, they began the long process of buying land. The first tracts were bought for $80 per acre…an astonishingly low price from today's perspective.
Naturally, local officials, citizens, and the press began to take notice of the giant land grab. As each deal was finalized, speculation grew as to who the mystery buyers were. Several large industrial companies were thrown about as the potential buyers. At one point, a TV station announced that the buyer was Ford, only to announce the next day that it was a hoax. Disney was one of the companies in the mix, but Walt continued to deny any involvement. As the media buzz in Florida continued to grow, little cracks began to form in the façade. A grocery store clerk quoted to the Orlando Sentinel that "strange men from California kept coming to get sodas from him". Another time, Walt himself was recognized by a waitress. He then cooked up a story about how his parents had been married there and he was taking a "sentimental trip". During a press gathering for Disneyland's tenth anniversary, Walt was blindsided by Orlando Sentinel reporter Emily Bavar. After being asked why he was spending time in the Orlando area, he froze and then babbled on…neither confirming nor denying anything. He had tipped his hand. Bavar was now suspicious, leading her to key in on Disney as the likely suitor. Some weeks later on October 21, 1965, Bavar published a story in her column predicting Disney as the buyer and a new theme park being built in Orlando. Three days later in the Sunday edition, the headline read "We Say Mystery Industry is Disney."
By the time the front page headline was printed, Disney had purchased over 27,000 acres of rural Florida swampland stretched across two counties, almost tripling their initial goal of 10,000. The average cost…$200 per acre. By the end of the land grab the cat was out of the bag, and the price had ballooned to $80,000 per acre. Disney's reasons for the vast land grab were many-fold. One was the ability to shield his park from the outside elements that had strangled Disneyland. The other reasons had less to do with theme parks and more to do with availability, politics, and the "city of tomorrow" project that Walt was planning. Disney would later use its reputation for success and the location/size of their landholdings to obtain unprecedented power from the Florida government in developing the property.
Knowing that the jig was up, Disney decided to come clean. The formal announcement came on November 15th, 1965 in the Cherry Plaza Hotel. Five hundred reporters were on hand, along with Governor Hayden Burns. Walt was somewhat vague and anticlimactic during his announcement, projecting an opening date in 1969 and promising an initial $100 million investment. Governor Burns called the date the "most significant in the history of Florida."
Everyone was focused on the idea of a new Disneyland in Florida…everyone except Walt that is. He had something much bigger in mind. Tragically the full vision would never come to pass…he wouldn't live to see the first shovel in the ground.
By Robert Niles
Universal Creative President Mark Woodbury and Universal Creative's Dale Mason, executive art director for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, talk with Stuart Craig, Production Designer of the Harry Potter film series, about the creation of Universal's version of Diagon Alley, in this video released today by the Universal Orlando Resort:
By Robert Niles
Walt Disney World today unveiled a new unlimited-download Photopass package, called "Memory Maker."
For $149, you can purchase an all-you-can-download Photopass package. That's a discounted price, which must be bought at least three days in advance of your visit. If you want to start getting your picture taken right away, the price is $50 more — $199. You can book the package in advance online, or on-site at Photopass centers and select shops at the Walt Disney World Resort.
In addition to photos taken by Disney's ubiquitous photographers, Photopass includes on-ride photos and now, photos taken of people wearing Disney's MagicBands. Visitors who've used MagicBands have reported that Disney's on-ride photo systems are "reading" their wristbands, taking the photos of them, and automatically adding those pictures into their Photopass account.
Disney's got so many Photopass photographers around in some locations, that one can't help but capture a picture of another one!
With the new Memory Maker package, you no longer have to go through and select which shots you's like to pay to download. You can just take the lot. Note that this package includes digital downloads only. If you want prints, you'll have to pay extra for those, though, with the digital originals in your possession, you can shop around for non-Disney options.
Some Disney visitors might not be aware that you don't have to buy a Photopass package to have those Disney photographers take your picture. They'll take photos with your camera or cellphone, too. That's good customer service, and probably a loss leader for the parks, too. It's likely that at least a few visitors have looked at their pictures taken by the Photopass photographers and decided just to leave the camera at home and let Disney take the pictures on their next trip.
Do you use Photopass on your Disney vacations? What did you think of it? Would you try this new option? Let's make this our Vote of the Week.
By Krista Joy
Universal Orlando announced the Diagon Alley expansion of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter some time ago, but today during a press event about City Walk, Universal officially confirmed one new detail.
The Leaky Cauldron will be part of the expansion, offering a place to sit down and enjoy a "great, authentic meal."
As Universal officials said it, this photo from the film was presented. Universal executives noted that in the movie, you can only see what the camera allows you to see. The Leaky Cauldron at Universal will include new details that will make it more of a 360-degree experience. The ceiling will even have detailing that will encourage guests to look up.
As we've reported on Theme Park Insider before, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley also will include a London waterfront area with the Knight Bus parked out front, and a working Hogwarts Express train that guests can ride between the two Wizarding Worlds, and a Gringott’s Bank ride.
Universal ended the Potter segment of the presentation by saying that Diagon Alley will be so much bigger than people imagine. The word "huge" was mentioned. This is exciting news, but it is good to know that more details are coming in the new year.
By Krista Joy
Universal Orlando today announced multiple changes to its CityWalk shopping and dining district, coming this summer.
By June 2014, Universal expected to have added a new Starbucks, a Cold Stone Creamery, a Menchie's Frozen Yogurt, Bread Box handcrafted sandwiches, Pranzo Italian Kitchen, Antojitos Mexican Food, Hot Dog Hall of Fame, and a Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar.
Here are some additional details about the new additions to CityWalk, with images and information courtesy Universal.
ANTOJITOS AUTHENTIC MEXICAN FOOD
This one is almost finished and will open soon! Antojitos Authentic Mexican Food is a place where guests can journey through the cantinas, street carts and markets of Mexico City for unique tapas-style dining at Antojitos Authentic Mexican Food. Only the freshest ingredients are used to create craveable, made-from-scratch Mexican street fare in a very authentic environment.
COLD STONE CREAMERY
For more than 25 years, Cold Stone Creamery has served up the finest, freshest ice cream, cakes, smoothies and shakes using only the highest quality ingredients and their signature process of preparing your custom ice cream creation on a frozen granite stone.
Starbucks will move to a lower-level location near the escalators so you can pick up your coffee conveniently on the way in...or the way out of the parks. It will grow to 130 seats, and will be located next to Cold Stone Creamery. With more than 18,000 stores in 62 countries, Starbucks is the premier roaster and retailer of specialty coffee in the world.
THE COWFISH and ITALIAN KITCHEN CONCEPT
Innovative sushi joins forces with creative burgers for an untraditional dining experience at this reincarnation of the popular North Carolina hotspot. The result: “Burgushi,” a cutting-edge fusion of burger and sushi. Burgushi items include sushi rolls created using burger components and sandwiches created using sushi elements. It may the first time you've heard the term 'burgushi,' but it won't be the last.
Immerse yourself in the essence of modern Italian cuisine at the Italian Kitchen Concept, created by Universal Orlando. Watch as the culinary team handcrafts your pasta from scratch to create fresh takes on classic dishes in a clean, contemporary dining atmosphere.
HOT DOG HALL OF FAME
Hot Dog Hall of Fame, an outdoor quick-service offering, will sit between Emeril's and Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville. Strike out your hunger with some of the most iconic hot dog creations from our nation’s most famous ballparks. Take a seat in the bleachers and enjoy a loaded Chicago dog with all the toppings, a perfectly charred Boston brat, a monster LA dog and more. Jeff Bornmann, vice president of development for the restaurant said, "We have everything from your basic dog to Chicago dog, New York dog, deli dog — which will have pastrami, sour kraut, Swiss cheese — two footlong versions and then barbecue dogs," "The goal is to feature dogs that are iconic dogs from every region of the country." Just don't expect ketchup...they don't have that here. Instead look for a mustard bar containing what is said to be the best mustards in the world.
With a Bread Box sandwich, you’ll be transported back to your childhood kitchen or your favorite street corner deli. Here you’ll find that the combination of quality meats and vegetables, fresh bread, and simple preparation can transform a sandwich into something more.
One of the world’s most popular frozen yogurt shops is coming to Universal CityWalk. The dream was to create a place where people from all walks of life and ages could enjoy themselves—not only with great tasting, quality frozen yogurt and an expansive self-serve toppings bar, but with a unique experience in a fun and happy environment that makes you smile.
RED OVEN PIZZA BAKERY
Red Oven Pizza Bakery is already open. You order at the registers and then a server will bring you your food as you are seated outdoors. Universal CityWalk's Vice President of Revenue Operations Modesto Alcala seemed particularly proud of this location. He took a small group of us on a personal tour of Red Oven Pizza Bakery.
UNIVERSAL STUDIOS STORE
The new businesses will replace Pastamore and Latin Quarter, as well as the previous Starbucks location. CityWalk's candy shop and the cigar shop recently announced that they would close, too.
By Robert Niles
Theme park fans often like to play the "what if" game? As much as fans love their favorite attractions, students of theme park history can't help but ask "what if" other, considered attractions had been built instead?
What if Disney had gone ahead with the Western River Expedition at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, instead of killing the project in favor of a stripped-down recreation of Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean? What if Disney's Animal Kingdom had included its planned Beastly Kingdom land? What if Disney had exercised the option on land in Long Beach, California, and built DisneySea there instead of in Tokyo?
Universal hasn't built as many theme park attractions as Disney, nor has its Florida resort been around as long as its competitor's, down the road. But Universal theme park fans have a few "what ifs" of their own.
When Universal Studios was building Islands of Adventure in the late 1990s, managers worried that the park might simply cannibalize traffic from the existing Universal Studios Florida, instead of bringing new visitors to the resort and encouraging all to extend their stay there. They wanted to do something to ensure that fans continued to want to visit USF, too.
So Universal decided that the Studios theme park would need a new attraction, too. The effort to create that new attraction became part of what was called the "Universal Orlando Millennium Project."
Ultimately, Universal decided to develop Men in Black: Alien Attack, a blend of dark ride and shooting game that took the concept Disney introduced with Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin to another, more richly detailed level. Based on the 1997 Will Smith/Tommy Lee Jones movie, Men in Black Alien Attack opened at Universal Studios Florida in 2000.
But what were some of Universal's other options for the Millennium Project?
It's time to play "what if?"
Inspired by the 1995 Tom Hanks movie, Universal's Apollo 13 would have been an indoor roller coaster, housed in a scaled recreation of the Kennedy Space Center's Vehicle Assembly Building. Universal wanted to add a thrill ride to USF to balance the three world-class coasters it was commissioning for Islands of Adventure: the Hulk and then-Dueling Dragons coasters.
Riders on Apollo 13 would have boarded Apollo-style capsules by walking across a gangplank and crawling into their ride vehicle, before blasting off on a coaster ride around the moon and back. In an industry where something always "goes terribly wrong," the Apollo 13 mission provides one of real life's best-ever examples of how people can recover from "something goes terribly wrong" and survive.
Another indoor coaster concept, this one would have been themed to the set of a disaster movie, when, of course, a real disaster happens, sending your ride vehicles on their way. The host of the attraction would have been a wild-eyed, maybe-he's-crazy movie director who ends up putting you in harm's way. (Universal reportedly considered Jim Carrey for this role.)
Featuring scenes from several of King's stories, including The Shining and It, this dark ride would have featured a false ending. Riders would approach an unload platform and hear a spiel, then the lights would flicker, and a river of blood would pour from the doors at "unload" platform (a la The Shining). Pennywise the Dancing Clown would then emerge from the control booth to attack the riders, who would narrowly escape as their vehicle lunged forward.
Fortunately for theme park fans, designers and their bosses very often can't resist great ideas, even if they choose to go in another direction on a specific development. Let's go back to those Disney "what ifs." The Thunder Mesa coaster atop the Western River Expedition soon came to life as Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Many of Marc Davis' interior scenes for Western River Expedition eventually became part of the Phantom Manor dark ride at Disneyland Paris. The designers of Beastly Kingdom took their plans to Universal, where they became The Lost Continent at Islands of Adventure, laying a foundation for what would become The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. And DisneySea did get built, in far more spectacular fashion, by the Oriental Land Company's money in Tokyo.
As for these unbuilt Universal ride concepts, many fans will see some elements of those proposals in current Universal attractions. Disaster became the name for Universal's reworking of the old Earthquake attraction, with Christopher Walken assuming the role of the crazy director. And the false ending in the proposed Steven King ride found its way into Universal Studios Florida's version of the Revenge of the Mummy ride.
What's your favorite unbuilt theme park attraction concept?
By Russell Meyer
This story will be a little different for regular Theme Park Insider readers, but should be of some interest to even the most casual theme park fan.
Saving Mr. Banks is a new film from Walt Disney Pictures that dramatizes the development of Mary Poppins. The screenplay, from relative unknown writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, follows the pre-production meetings and constant disagreements between author P.L. Travers and Walt Disney and his staff.
Academy Award-winner Emma Thompson (1992's Howard's End) plays the lead role of a writer wedded to her work but in need of financing. She has been receiving yearly requests for two decades to adapt her beloved children's book for a silver screen treatment by Walt Disney. After staring blankly at her typewriter and some nudging from her agent, she agrees to take a two-week trip to LA in 1961 to listen to the pitch. Thompson's Travers clings to her creation like a prized possession, and has a specific vision in mind for Poppins. She enters the meetings vehemently opposed to her character being given a musical treatment, and absolutely against it becoming an animated feature.
Walt Disney, played by Tom Hanks, does everything he can to woo the curmudgeonly stubborn writer. From a suite full of stuffed Disney characters and assorted gift baskets to cakes, donuts, and Mickey-shaped Jell-O at production meetings, to a private car with a charming chauffeur played by Paul Giamatti, Walt does everything he can do to make Mrs. Travers happy. Did I mention that Walt went to all of these lengths, along with oodles of pre-production, without even having a signed agreement giving his company production rights to the property? He did, after all, make a promise to his daughters that he would make Mary Poppins a reality. Disney introduces Travers to Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford of "West Wing" fame) and the Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak), who begin to lay out their vision for Mary Poppins. Unfortunately for them, Travers is disgusted with the treatment, right down to the mustache on the family patriarch's face.
The audience is left to wonder why Travers, an imaginative storyteller, would be so untrusting of Disney and his staff, and why is she so distant and reserved. Director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side and The Rookie) choses to reveal the development of Mary Poppins chronologically weaved in with flashbacks of Travers' childhood growing up in Australia with her parents (Colin Farrell and Ruth Wilson) and siblings. Farrell's father character lends insight into the source of Travers' imagination, but is far from a perfect role model.
Bring a period piece, Saving Mr. Banks features some wonderful costumes and props from Travers' childhood (turn of the 20th century) along with the early 60's. Disney and theme park fans will salivate over the level of detail in Walt's office and the look of the 60's-era Disneyland costumed characters. The producers even performed some principal photography in Disneyland, as in one scene, Walt invites Travers to the park to demonstrate his devotion to storytelling.
Travers initially scoffs at the invitation, calling Disneyland Walt's "personal dollar printing machine." Theme park fans are probably going to want to see more of Disneyland in this movie, but the park is rarely featured on film, and aside from Escape From Tomorrow, a film that may never get a wide big-screen release, Saving Mr. Banks provides the most extensive views of the park albeit for only about 6 minutes.
I don't think I'm giving anything away by saying that Travers eventually concedes to letting Disney make Mary Poppins, and the rest, they say, is history. Ultimately, the story is more about storytelling and family than the casting of Dick Van Dyke and animated penguins. Hanks' Disney is a little strange, probably caused by his identifiable look and portrayal of so many other historical figures (Jim Lovell, Carl Hanratty, Charlie Wilson, and the very recent captain Richard Phillips). He tries to summon Disney through his voice and characteristic syncopation, but it just didn't ring true for me. On the other hand, Thompson's Travers is mesmerizing, despite being an overly hyperbolic character. Farrell, Whitford, and Schwartzman provide strong supporting performances, but Giamatti was an under-utilized, yet key character.
The movie also features much of the music from the original movie, which audiences will be singing along with and humming long after the credits have stopped rolling. Scenes of the recently restored film (for its 50th anniversary Blu-Ray release) are shown at the end. Despite being a late-year release, Saving Mr. Banks probably won't garner any Best Picture award nominations, but it's possible that Thompson may receive recognition for her superb performance. Despite the limited length of Disneyland's appearance in the film, theme park fans, and especially Disney fans will really enjoy this movie.
By Robert Niles
More information continues to emerge about Shanghai Disneyland, now under construction. At a conference with investors, Disney Chief Financial Officer Jay Rasulo (the former head of Disney Parks) today said that Disney and its Chinese partners are envisioning a rapid expansion of the park after it opens in late 2015. "We're opening the park for a pretty healthy number of attendees but more importantly both we and our partners and the Shanghai government are eager and willing to expand rapidly after that," Rasulo said.
Shanghai Disneyland construction in September. Photo courtesy Stefan Zwanzger
Consider this a verbal Rorschach test of your optimism about Disney Parks. Does this mean that Disney's anticipating a hit, and making plans to follow up with even more attractions? Or that Disney's dropping yet another half-finished theme park on us in 2015 and already trying to pre-empt criticism with early promises of a fix?
Last week, Disney unveiled concept art for an 11-acre gardens that will stand at the hub of the park. Today, Rasulo said that the Shanghai Disney Resort will be 1,000 acres when it opens, third in size behind the Walt Disney World and Disneyland Paris resorts. But Rasulo said that Disney expects Shanghai ultimately could top Tokyo's 28 million annual attendance, placing it second behind only the Walt Disney World Resort. It's hard to imagine Shanghai doing that without a second gate. Is that the expansion Rasulo teased? We'll see.
Speaking of the Disney parks, Facebook has revealed the top 25 destinations worldwide for check-ins using the social media service in 2013. Facebook excluded airports and other transportation hubs to focus on destinations, instead. Four of the world's five Disney resorts made the list: Disneyland in Anaheim, California, Tokyo Disney in Japan, plus Disneyland Paris in France, and Hong Kong Disneyland. Curiously, the Disney resort with the most actual visitors — Walt Disney World — did not make the list. Does this that Disney World visitors are less likely to use Facebook? Or does it suggest that Facebook check-ins skew more toward locals on a day trip or night out than toward visitors on vacation away from home?
One more Disney item: Our new Orlando correspondent, Krista Joy, reports that the popular Beaches and Cream at Walt Disney World's Beach Club Resort will begin taking reservations December 18th.
Here's something for thrill fans: Adventuredome at Circus Circus in Las Vegas this week is planning to complete the track for its new El Loco roller coaster. This new S&S Worldwide model will allow "riders to enjoy movements never before experienced," according to a press release from MGM Resorts International, owner of Circus Circus. More details:
Accompanied by a customized soundtrack, El Loco’s unique elements will provide guests with a 72-second, adrenaline-pumping adventure, including:
The El Loco coaster car. Photo courtesy Circus Circus
The ride description and the car photo remind me of Universal's Rip, Ride, Rockit. Thoughts?
Finally, we're pleased to announce that our new Orlando guidebook, Theme Park Insider: Orlando 2014 is now available via iTunes! You can read Theme Park Insider: Orlando 2014 via the iBooks app on your iPhone or iPad. The guidebook also remains available for Kindle (and Kindle apps) at Amazon.com. Or you can buy the book in paperback. (Readers in the United Kingdom can buy the book via Amazon UK, too.)
If you've already gotten a copy, first, thank you! And, second, we'd certainly appreciate your reviews of the book, via Amazon or Apple. Positive reviews help encourage both Amazon and Apple to suggest the book to more readers, so please support your favorite authors by reviewing their books, no matter who they are!
By Robert Niles
Disney's launched a new online animated series inspired by its classic theme park attraction, "It's a Small World."
The first episode, It's a Jolly Holi Day, brings the "Small World" kids to India to celebrate Holi.
Disney also recently launched a new merchandise line featuring Small World-inspired dolls, representing the various nations depicted in the ride by Mary Blair's original designs.
In a recent interview with Theme Park Insider, Disney Imagineer and company Legend Tony Baxter expressed Disney's multimedia approach toward intellectual property. If a theme park attraction doesn't derive from another medium, Baxter said, Disney will create content in other media featuring the characters and themes of that attraction in order to support it. That's the attitude that led to the billion-dollar Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise, as well a multiple attempts to launch other movies based on Disney theme park attractions.
An online animated series is much less expensive to produce than feature films, or even TV specials, and provides Disney another opportunity to connect "Small World" with its pre-school and early-elementary target audience.
Have you watched "It's a Small World - the Animated Series"? What did you think?
By Anthony Murphy
We began our last trip to Walt Disney World with a trip to the much hyped Kona Café in Disney's Polynesian Resort. This smaller and open-air restaurant seems to have been created for overflow from the famous Ohana, but this restaurant has created a reputation for its breakfast.
When we arrived, we were promptly seated, but the place was full of people. We didn’t feel claustrophobic, but I could see some guests feeling a little close to each other in certain areas of the place. Reservations were not hard to get, but there were very few walk ups that were able to find openings.
We started our breakfast with some Kona Coffee and some Liliko’i Juice which was made with Orange, Passion Fruit, and Guava. My mother works at Whole Foods coffee section so she is familiar with Kona Coffee and she said that this was some of the best she ever had. My Liliko’I Juice was a little warm, but I didn’t mind because it told me that this was squeezed and made to order. It was one of the best juices I have ever had. Very tasty!
The main reason why I wanted to come here is the (Walt Disney) world famous Tonga Toast, a French Toast concoction that has been named best breakfast items by other travel and Disney websites. It is a banana stuffed sourdough French toast rolled in cinnamon sugar and topped with strawberry compote. Now, I am usually not a fan of French Toast since it is usually pretty soggy, but the Tonga Toast came out crunchy and left the softness to the fresh bananas in the middle. This dish lives up to its reputation. It was one of the most unusual and delicious items I have ever eaten for breakfast. It was outstanding without the compote, but adding it gave more flavors to the dish. It also came with a choice of a side (I got bacon).
My parents decided to share the Big Kahuna and it probably was a good idea. It was huge! It included French Toast (not Tonga), Pancakes topped with pineapple sauce, eggs, potatoes, ham, sausage, and bacon. I got to taste everything on this dish and the pancakes were really good. I am surprised that this is a dish for one person because it was easily enough for my two parents.
If neither of these items sound like your kind of breakfast, do not worry. Kona Café also has omelets, steak and eggs, and pancakes to name a few. What we really liked about Kona Café is we felt that the pricing for what you got was very good. Sure, you are still at Disney World, but the food did not appear to be overpriced. The Tonga Toast and Big Kahuna was around $13. If you are looking for a breakfast place that is really good and has more than just the common bacon and eggs, I highly recommend checking this place out!
If you don’t want to sit down and just are looking for some pastries and Kona Coffee, they do have a quick service right next to the restaurant. Sorry, no Tonga Toast there!
By Krista Joy
The 2013 holiday season is here, and Universal invites you to start "untraditional" holiday traditions at Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure.
This year I was very fortunate to attend on the behalf of Theme Park Insider for the opening of the 2013 holiday celebrations at Universal. You too can catch the festivities at Universal December 7 through January 4.
Grinchmas Wholiday Spectacular
The Grinchmas Wholiday Spectacular is the centerpiece of the Grinchmas celebration at Seuss Landing. It's a very sweet, live show starring the Grinch. The show also includes a colorful cast of Who-ville residents and music recorded by Mannheim Steamroller. As wonderful as the live actors are, an actual dog plays the part of the Grinch's dog Max, and he certainly steals the show at times. The Wholiday Spectacular is scheduled at various times throughout the day. You will want to check your in-park map for times. Something important to note is that there aren't any restrooms available inside the building — so be sure to plan accordingly. The show is really enjoyable and the Grinch makes the audience laugh quite a bit. I remember being a little frightened by the cartoon at a young age — but nothing about this show seemed to bother even the youngest kids, which was nice.
The Who-ville Tree as seen backstage when you are waiting for the show to open.
Who-ville residents are super excited that Christmas is coming!
Max rides on the sled that the Grinch has filled with gifts. To get the best view of this part of the show, you'll want to sit stage left.
The Who-ville Tree before the Grinch steals the ornaments...
Then afterwards...that naughty Grinch!
No worries, at the end of the show all is restored, and the Grinch is much more kind and gentle. However he does not lose his gritty edge. He is still that rebellious Grinch that we all know and love.
After the show, the media was treated to a question and answer session with the show director for Universal Orlando Resort, Lora Wallace, and John Piper, the vice president and creative director of the Macy's Parade. It really shows that they are very proud of just about every aspect of this beloved parade. The excitement and giddiness of these two business professionals was really great to see.
One of the things Lora and John told us is that the major change in this year's parade is the addition of Happy Hippo. Just like the song, "I want a hippopotamus for Christmas," Happy is really fun and makes everyone smile. You may recognize Happy from her TV appearance on the original Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York. She hasn't appeared in the parade since the 1940's — and she has had a makeover since then. She is now in Orlando, fresh from New York, with her newly updated girly pink toenails and eyelashes. In fact — she is such a star — that she was revealed to us in her very own mini preview. Doesn't she look fabulous?
This is the first time Universal Studios guests will be able to see a parade balloon before it's marched through the park. Happy will make a street appearance like this one near Mel's Drive-In each night. "She will walk out as low as we can possibly make her walk..." said Lora. Balloon pilots also delighted guests by making Happy "dance" and jiggle to the music. It is really funny to see. Happy will appear at 3:50 p.m. ahead of the 5 p.m. parade during Universal's event except from Dec. 26 to Dec. 31, when the parade will step off at 8 p.m., and Happy will appear at about 6:50 p.m.
Safety precautions were also discussed during the press conference. John told me that the New York and Orlando balloon pilots go through very extensive training. In fact, because the show here in Orlando has been running for so many years, some of the Orlando pilots are now training the New York pilots. Other members of the team in white suits with devices that measure wind speed can be seen everywhere before and during the parade. Universal turns all the traditional looking street lamps to the side, and any that have pointed decorations are covered in Santa hats as an added precaution.
Santa hats — not just for decoration!
This method has worked so well that many of the light posts wear jester hats during that other famous parade at Universal — Mardi Gras! Once the press conference was over we made our way to our parade viewing spot.
Along the way we saw Curious George
and these sweet faces behind us!
Macy's Holiday Parade
For many of us, The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is something most of us have probably only seen on TV. The beauty of Universal hosting this parade here in Orlando is that once the legendary New York City parade ends, many of its awesome balloons and (even the floats!) are sent down here to us!
Universal does a great job with this spectacular version of the parade. Here are some highlights:
By Robert Niles
A friend of the site recently sent me this photo, from inside the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley, under construction at Universal Studios Florida.
We've given you the full line-up of attractions, restaurants and shops you'll find in Diagon Alley at Universal. We've shown you construction photos from outside and above the site. And we were first with a detailed look at the land's centerpiece attraction, the Gringotts coaster, nearly two years ago.
Friends of Theme Park Insider have been sending me photos from inside the construction zone, but I haven't been able to share most of them with you. At least, not yet. But, frankly, if you've seen one photo of scaffolding in front of a gray wall, you've seen 'em all.
This was one of the first photos I've gotten that hints at the level of decoration we'll be seeing in Diagon Alley. Though this is an outdoor shot, much of the new land will be under cover, including most of Knockturn Alley. The experience will be both intricate and intimate — I'm certain that crowds will jam every inch of space in the new land when it opens. Diagon Alley was not some broad Paris boulevard, after all. It's a cramped London back alleyway, and Universal's version will reflect that.
But it will be one wildly entertaining alleyway, themed and decorated to a level of detail not otherwise found in American theme parks. I'm getting more and more excited for this new land, from the photos I've seen. So I'm happy to be able to share one of those photos with you.
By Robert Niles
Australia's Sea World Gold Coast park has debuted its new US$18 million Mack water coaster, called Storm Coaster.
Photo courtesy Sea World
Storm Coaster features a 98-foot drop and 44-mph top speed. The ride begins in and ends in a show building, with the roller coaster portion of the ride at the beginning, followed by a splashdown return to the show building. You can see a POV video from the park in this news report. (For those of you wondering, Australia's Sea World is owned by Village Roadshow and is not affiliated with the US-based SeaWorld parks. Note that space in the name.)
The ride's the second big coaster to open in Australia this season, following the debut of Abyss, a Gerstlauer Euro-Fighter coaster, at Adventure World in Perth last month.
Disney buys the film distribution rights for Indiana Jones. So what's that mean for the theme parks?
By Robert Niles
Disney today announced that it had purchased the distribution rights to the Indiana Jones franchise from Paramount Pictures. Disney had obtained the character rights to Indiana Jones when it bought Lucasfilm, but Paramount had retained the right to distribute any future Indiana Jones movies. With today's deal, those rights now go to Disney.
Which invites speculation that Disney now will produce and distribute a fifth Indiana Jones film. After all, there's no value to buying the rights to distribute a movie that no one's going to make.
With Disney almost certain to at least be pursuing a fifth Indiana Jones film, theme park fans ought to be excused for wondering what Disney's long-term plan for the franchise might be. When Disney bought Lucasfilm, which counts Star Wars and Indiana Jones among its properties, the company quickly began work on a new Star Wars-themed land for Disney's Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World and a new Star Wars overlay for at least part of Disneyland's Tomorrowland. With new Indiana Jones movies on the horizon, might Disney also increase its investment in Indy as a theme park franchise?
Certain Disney World fans long have desired their own version of Disneyland's Indiana Jones ride, wanting more of a presence for the franchise than the stunt show now playing at DHS. But Disney World already has the Indiana Jones ride. Sort of. The Dinosaur ride at Disney's Animal Kingdom uses the same ride system and track layout as Disneyland's Indiana Jones Adventure.
Disney's 2000 Dinosaur movie didn't launch an enduring franchise. Heck, Don Bluth had more luck with The Land Before Time franchise in attracting kids with animated dinosaurs. For grown-ups, Universal's locked up the market with the Jurassic Park franchise. If Disney wants to increase the theme park presence of Indiana Jones, it might get the most return on its investment by giving up on dinosaurs and retheming the Dinosaur ride into an east-coast version of the Indiana Jones Adventure. Disney could complete the transformation of Dinoland USA into an Indiana Jones land by removing the troublesome Primeval Whirl roller coaster and replacing it with the Indiana Jones et le Temple du Peril/Raging Spirits coaster now found at Disneyland Paris and Tokyo DisneySea. It's not an especially popular coaster, but it's a fun ride that would give Disney a second looping coaster at the Walt Disney World Resort. Heck, Disney could lift much of the design for DisneySea's Lost River Delta to create an Indiana Jones land at Animal Kingdom.
Of course, Indy's an archeologist, not a paleontologist. But Disney already blew up the park's theme with the announced addition of an Avatar-themed land. Indiana Jones at least would provide a second powerhouse franchise to help make Animal Kingdom an even more popular destination for theme park fans.
What would you like to see the Walt Disney Company do with the Indiana Jones franchise in its theme parks?
By Robert Niles
Did you stop to get a picture with a character the last time you visited a theme park?
Meeting Princess Tiana in Disneyland's New Orleans Square
Meet and greets have become wildly popular, especially at the Disney parks, where meet-and-greets with Mickey and Minnie Mouse or with the Disney princesses have moved into permanent attraction buildings of their own. You can even get Fastpasses to meet those characters now.
Even the so-called "minor" characters can draw huge lines. And they're often slow-moving ones, too, as families take their time with the character, often fumbling around with a camera, coaxing a reluctant child forward, or lingering trying to get that perfect shot. A while back, we offered some advice on How to meet and greet a theme park character, to help make the experience as rewarding as possible for everyone (including that hard-working cast member portraying the character!)
But not everyone takes time to meet Mickey, or a Minion, when visiting a theme park. For some fans, the characters are simply a distraction. For those park visitors, the best thing they can say about character meet-and-greets is that they pull other park guests out of the ride and show lines they're running toward.
What do you think about theme park character meet-and-greets? Do you make them a regular part of your theme park visits, or do you usually skip 'em? Don't think that this is simply a "thing" for families with small kids. Plenty of grown-ups meet the characters, too! (See photo above.)
Got a great character meet-and-greet story? Tell us in the comments! And thank you, as always, for being part of the Theme Park Insider community.
Update: Here's my story: My now-teenage daughter loved Buzz Lightyear when she was a toddler. She carried a little Buzz doll pretty much 24/7 for over a year when she was four and often demanded that her mother and I "talk like Buzz" so she could have a conversation with it.
So when we moved to Southern California and I started taking her to Disneyland, of course, she wanted to meet her hero. We went one Saturday, waited in line in Tomorrowland, and finally had our turn. But when my daughter faced Disneyland's five-foot-tall Buzz, she crumpled. She wouldn't look at Buzz, buried her face onto the ground, sobbing, and refused to move until I agreed to carry her away. She just couldn't reconcile this gargantuan Buzz with the little five-inch doll she carried around and saw, as the same size, on her TV screen.
By Robert Niles
Disney's slowly revealing more details about the design of Shanghai Disneyland, where the company appears to be making the most significant changes yet to its classic "Magic Kingdom" park design.
The centerpiece of the park won't be the traditional basic "hub," as found in varying sizes in the five other Magic Kingdom/Disneyland parks: Anaheim, Orlando, Tokyo, Paris, and Hong Kong. The Shanghai hub will be an 11-acre "Gardens of Imagination."
Concept art courtesy Disney
Disney tonight released more detail about one of the gardens in this area: the Garden of the 12 Friends, a grove of peach trees with tile mosaic murals of various Disney and Pixar characters depicting the 12 Chinese Zodiac characters. (Remy gets the first one, for the Year of the Rat, of course.)
When we talked with theme park designer Dave Cobb last summer, he discussed the challenges of adapting Western theme park designs for a Chinese audience. The 11-acre Gardens of Imagination will provide plenty of space for multiple generations of families who visit together to sit and take photos in a beautiful environment filled with a blend of Chinese culture and Disney whimsy. It's a big change from the stripped-down Anaheim clone that Disney built in Hong Kong to lukewarm reviews and attendance, before the company responded with a massive investment to expand the park that ultimately resulted in Mystic Manor, a wildly popular new ride filled with cultural touch points for Chinese families.
Disney appears to have learned its lesson and is responding with an original design that promises to better reflect the desires of the Chinese audience. We will see how well Shanghai Disneyland accomplishes that goal when it opens in late 2015.
By Robert Niles
The days between the weeks of Thanksgiving and Christmas might be the slowest time of the year for theme parks, with travelers staying home between the two holidays, and regional parks closed for the year. But theme park fans never take time off from at least thinking about the parks. What better time, as we approach the new year, to anticipate some of the great new attractions that await us in 2014?
From our list of What's Under Construction at Top Theme Parks, here are the top 10 new attractions we're looking forward to seeing in North America next year, plus one bonus new attraction from outside the United States and Canada.
In alphabetical order of theme park
Busch Gardens Tampa: Falcon's Fury
This 335-foot drop ride will offer the unique experience of dropping riders face down toward the Earth below. Falcon's Fury will be the centerpiece of a revamp of the park's Timbuktu section into the newly-branded "Pantopia" land.
Busch Gardens Williamsburg: London Rocks
London Rocks will play in a renovated Globe Theatre and feature a 25-minute live-action and multimedia tribute to the heyday of rock in England.
Canada's Wonderland: Wonder Mountain's Guardian
A 3D dark ride/roller coaster, Wonder Mountain's Guardian will start up the side of the park's icon mountain, before plunging inside for a shoot-'em-up adventure.
Dollywood: Firechaser Express
This Gerstlauer family coaster will feature two mild launches, as well as a backward section, on a themed track.
Kings Island: Banshee
This Bolliger & Mabillard roller coaster will be the world's longest inverted coaster and feature seven inversions and a top speed of 68 mph.
Six Flags Great Adventure: Zumanjaro Drop of Doom
Great Adventure will add a trio of 450-foot drop tower tracks to Kinga Ka's tower, making this the world's tallest drop ride.
Six Flags Great America: Goliath
A Rocky Mountain Construction coaster, Goliath will be the world's fastest, tallest, and steepest wooden roller coaster.
Universal Studios Florida: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley
Universal follow its wildly success Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure with this new London-themed Harry Potter land, highlighted by an indoor roller coaster ride through the caverns under Gringotts Bank.
Universal Studios Hollywood: Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem
Universal brings its popular Minion 4D ride to Hollywood, adding an impressive new facade and a Super Silly Fun Land play area next door.
Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom: The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train
The Snow White-themed centerpiece of the Magic Kingdom's New Fantasyland finally debuts this spring.
And here's that bonus new ride, from the Disneyland Paris resort:
Walt Disney Studios Park: Ratatouille: L'Aventure Totalement Toquee de Remi
The Paris Disney Studios park gets its version of a "Mystic Manor"-style trackless dark ride, themed to the third-most-famous rodent in the Disney family.
Which of these new attractions are you planning to experience in 2014? And which ones would you most want to read about on Theme Park Insider?
By Robert Niles
Are you worried about your privacy while wearing a MagicBand around the Walt Disney World Resort?
Photo courtesy Disney
Some visitors — and would-be visitors — have expressed concern. They're worried that Disney will be tracking their movements around the park, including what they do and what they buy throughout the day, and that Disney could use that information in ways that those visitors won't like.
MagicBands are the RFID-enabled bracelets that Disney's issuing to selected hotel guests as part of its new MyMagic+ system for managing Walt Disney World vacations. Visitors can use the MyMagic+ section of Disney's website or apps to make advance reservations for attractions, shows, and restaurants during their stay at Disney World, then use the MagicBands Disney supplies to access their hotel room, enter the theme parks or be admitted to their reserved ride, show, and meal times.
Visitors tap their MagicBands on their hotel room door or at checkpoints at park and attraction entrances. But the RFID chips in each MagicBand can be read from up to 30 feet away as well, as Kevin Yee detailed this week. Disney's already using that functionality to take on-ride pictures of MagicBand users on selected attractions. But inside sources have told us that the technology will play a part in creating interactive "moments" elsewhere in the parks, such as in Animal Kingdom's Avatar land, now in development.
Disney had planned to have expanded MyMagic+ to more visitors by now, but bugs and glitches as Disney attempts to scale up the system have slowed the roll-out. Yet it's clear from Disney's statements that it envisions more aggressive use of MagicBands in the future.
Let's face it: If Disney didn't track its customers while they were on company property, that would put Disney in the minority of large retail corporations. Smile for the security cameras next time you enter a store — they're there. And those discount cards you get from the grocery and other retailers? They're tracking every purchase you make.
Heck, when you carry a Visa or Mastercard credit card, you might as well be wearing a GPS device, as the card issuer is tracking the location of your payments, as well as their amounts. If you're carrying a cell phone, you are carrying a GPS device — one that cell carriers (and even the federal government) have the ability to track.
Want to go through life without being tracked? Use cash. Ditch the cell phone, the credit cards, and the discount "club" cards and carry nothing but cash. Walk up to the ticket booth and pay cash for a one-day, one-park ticket. As soon as you're through the front gate, throw that ticket away. Disney won't know who you are and won't be able to track anything you do.
Of course, that means you won't be able to use the Fastpass system for ride reservations. Nor will you be able to park-hop. Photopass pictures are out, too. But Disney will collect no data about your whereabouts and activities throughout the day, save for noting that one more (anonymous) person's ridden each ride you board, or that the company made those extra dollars for the stuff you've bought.
Most visitors, though, would like to have the opportunity to reserve no-wait ride times. Or to get on-ride photos automatically. (Or to get discounts when they go to the grocery store.) Such benefits are the price that companies pay to entice us to use systems that allow those companies to track us. Companies make that money back when their tracking efforts lead them to tailor offers or experiences that cause us to spend more money with those companies than we would have without those deals and discounts. In fact, Disney's facing lower-than-planned revenue in its theme park division now because MyMagic+ hasn't rolled out to the point where it's led to the big increases in guest spending that the company had anticipated.
If customers don't like the benefits of participating in a tracking system, they won't stick with them. Right now, the hassles of navigating MyMagic+ in beta testing have led many Disney hotel guests either to decline to participate, or to switch back to more traditional admission and room key cards, plus paper Fastpasses. But reports from in the parks suggest that's more due to people being unable to collect the benefits of MyMagic+ due to lost reservation times or dysfunctional MagicBands than to privacy concerns.
Let's not completely dismiss those concerns, though. While corporate tracking of consumer activity has become the norm in America, consumers ought to know more about who else will have access to that tracking data. We've raised concerns before about Disney cast members using MyMagic+ data as a "stalking app" to find out where individual guests they want to meet will be later in the day, then showing up off the clock to "just happen to bump into them." Disney should be making clear that anyone who tries something like that will be fired on the spot.
We've also wondered if Disney could use MagicBands to track alcohol sales more closely. Imagine getting cut off at Epcot because MyMagic+ has recorded that you've bought enough alcohol over the past couple hours to get an average-sized person to his legal limit. One of the challenges for tracking system is to ensure they don't feel creepy to the people who use them. While cutting off a drunk might be good practice (one that servers are supposed to be doing already), have a computer make that call automatically probably fails the "creepiness" test for many visitors.
Throw such concerns onto the pile of bugs, glitches, and challenges that Disney must overcome to make MyMagic+ scale to the level where it earns the company enough money to justify the billion-dollar investment. But if Disney fans and visitors object to the idea of Disney tracking their activity while on Disney property, well, they're going to have to do much more than refuse to wear a MagicBand to prevent Disney and other companies from tracking where they go and what they do.
By Robert Niles
Since I live in the Los Angeles area, we've long relied on readers around the country and the world to help us cover theme parks beyond Southern California. I used to live in Orlando, and still have family there, so I travel to Central Florida every few months. Several of our "Team TPI" correspondents also file reports from the Orlando parks throughout the year. But that's no substitute for having a reader living in Orlando who can cover events at the theme parks for us on a more regular basis.
So we're looking for an Orlando resident to write for Theme Park Insider as a freelance correspondent.
If you're interested, as we said, you'll need to live in the Orlando area — preferably on the southwest side of town, nearest the theme parks. And you have to be a theme park fan, too — someone who'd be visiting the parks on a regular basis whether you were writing for a website or not. We all came here to avoid reading professional travel writers who don't like theme parks, after all. Since you're reading this site, though, I'll presume that being a theme park fan isn't a problem for you. ;^)
If you have a "9-to-5" weekday job with no scheduling flexibility, this probably wouldn't be the right fit for you, though. Many theme park press events happen on weekday mornings (usually on Thursdays or Fridays), and we need someone who will be available to cover them for us.
We're looking for someone who can connect with their fellow Theme Park Insider readers, as Amanda, Russell, Derek, Bryan, and the other writers on the front page have over the years. So I'd love to call on someone who's already part of the TPI community, participating through the comments or the discussion board. Or, if not that, someone who at least gets what clicks with people. In other words, we're looking for someone who can write something about theme parks that you would want to read.
The pay's not huge, but I will offer a small amount per article. And if things work out, and you're willing and able to write more frequently than covering just the occasional press event, I can help out with covering the cost of renewing your Disney and Universal Florida resident passes, as well.
Finally, and this is usually the killer for us, if you work for a theme park company, you need to be able to write for us without losing your day job. I don't want to get anyone fired, so I won't let Disney cast members write for us about Disney, or Universal team members write about Universal. Maybe they can write about the other company, but I'd prefer to avoid that potential mess by sticking with people who aren't currently working for a park. Past employment at a park is a big plus for us, though. (I'm a former Walt Disney World cast member, for example.)
If you'd like to step forward, please send me an email via firstname.lastname@example.org. Introduce yourself, then tell me why you'd like to become part of Theme Park Insider's front page team, and what you could do for your fellow readers by taking on that role. We've got a couple of press events coming up this month that I'd like to get covered, so I'm hoping to make a decision soon. Thank you for considering this, and thanks again for reading Theme Park Insider!
Update: We've selected a writer to cover those events for us, and heard from many others who might be appearing on the front page with other stories, in the next few months. Thank you to everyone who stepped forward, and thanks for reading Theme Park Insider.
By Derek Potter
On the evening of July 17, 1955, Walt Disney sat down to dinner with friend Art Linkletter in his apartment above the Main Street Fire Station. They sat on the patio and watched the fireworks display signaling the end of the first night for his brand new playland. The grand opening of Disneyland, the park that would forever change the industry and permanently embed itself into the American lexicon had not gone smoothly at all.
In fact for Walt, the embattled first day was nothing new. The whole project had been a struggle from the start. Practically everyone thought that he had lost his mind. Critics and friends dismissed the idea. The amusement industry predicted it would be a colossal failure. Even his brother Roy thought he was nuts, so much so that he flatly refused at first to support Walt's project. But Walt had grown weary and somewhat discontented with the company he had founded 30 years before. He was tired…not as inspired as he once was, he was participating less in studio projects, missing the old days of creative collaboration, and growing more and more indifferent. The idea of opening an amusement park rekindled the fire. It had been with him since he was a boy visiting Electric Park in Kansas City and listening to his father's tales of working the 1893 World Columbian Expo in Chicago. All throughout his life the idea had stayed, through visits with his children to the Griffith Park carousel and other amusements, to train rides, to his plan for a small park in the back of the Disney studio. Now it had grown to something much bigger and grandiose, and he was ready to see it through.
The inception of Disneyland was a battle. Faced with going it alone, Walt Disney formed his own company and set to work. Using his small reserve of resources and mortgaging himself to the hilt, he founded WED Enterprises, rented a bungalow, and hired a small staff to work on his dream. He borrowed from his past, his hometown, his films, and other parks, obsessing about three things…control, cleanliness, and immersion. In place of the chaotic boardwalk would be an orderly, family friendly environment. Buildings were designed to make the children feel taller; rides were designed to completely remove people from reality. Everything, down to the trees, flowers, and grass, would be part of the story. Walt had earned a reputation for success in the past, so his plan eventually won some allies. After learning that investors were taking interest, Roy Disney jumped on board, and together they fashioned a deal with the brand new ABC television network to help finance the project. In May of 1954, the official Disneyland announcement came, and ground was broken two months later in July. The TV show that promoted the park for months began airing in October, and shot to the top of the ratings.
Construction of the park was a battle. It was frenzy of activity, brought on by Walt's highly ambitious one-year deadline and one of the wettest spring seasons in years. Walt the perfectionist made the deadline even tougher. He was constantly tinkering with, expanding, and changing things, sometimes after they were already built. On one occasion he ordered an already planted giant tree moved just a few feet because he thought it was too close to the walkway. Other times it was a fence being moved a little to improve the view, or changing details on a Main Street building after the buildings had been framed. There were also problems with several of the union crews. Some would strike; others sabotaged finished work so they could redo it themselves. Even the soil wouldn't cooperate. The Rivers of America kept running dry because of the sandy bottom.
As time passed and the project grew, so did the budget. It ballooned from about 5 million dollars into 12 million. To help pay for it all, Roy enlisted several major corporations eager to get in on the action to act as investors and sponsors for the rides. True to form, Walt didn't hesitate to quickly spend every penny coming in. His uncompromising vision had no room for sparing expense. As opening day approached though, the 12-million dollar budget had long since been passed, eventually topping out at 17 million. They were almost out of money and running short on time. In the end, Disney had to leave details out and some of the attractions unfinished for the sake of the deadline. Weeds were left to grow in some places, and other places encouraged by water in order to cover barren land. Tomorrowland was unfinished, leaving a path to nowhere that would confuse guests for a short time. A plumbers strike towards the end of the project left him in a particular bind. He had to make a choice between having running toilets or water fountains for the opening. Up until the last minute, Walt was working. On the eve of the opening, he stayed up all night with a crew with a spray paint can in his hand, helping to finish the giant squid.
And then there was opening day. July 17th, 1955 was a hot one. Invitations printed for the media, celebrities, and other chosen ones had been sent out. The printed tickets however, had also been counterfeited by someone. Instead of the park's designed capacity of fifteen thousand, a crowd of almost thirty thousand people showed up. Almost immediately the problems began. Uncured asphalt was still steaming from the 100 degree temperatures, and high heels became trapped. The hot temperatures also shed light on the lack of drinking fountains, as hot and thirsty customers were led to buy sodas instead of going thirsty. The overloaded Mark Twain vessel nearly tipped over on its first run. With twice the anticipated crowd, food shortages inevitably happened. A gas leak that afternoon closed much of the park. People tripped over the giant runs of cable from the TV cameras covering the event. The live TV broadcast was also full of glitches and miscues. At one point, co-host Bob Cummings was caught on camera kissing one of the dancers. At another point, Walt's Tomorrowland dedication had a false start. The magic that Disneyland would later become famous for wasn't there yet.
Some of the critics were pretty harsh. One reporter's account:
Walt's dream is a nightmare…I attended the so called press premiere of Disneyland, a fiasco the like of which I cannot recall in thirty years of show life. To me it felt like a giant cash register clicking and clanging, as creatures of Disney magic came tumbling down from their lofty places in my daydreams to peddle and perish their charms with the aggressiveness of so many curbside barkers.
Others who were unaware of the plumber's strike pointed to the lack of fountains as a money making scheme. Some weren't pleased with paying an admission price only to be charged again for the rides. Still others complained about the park was too clean and absent of real life. The crowd and the heat coupled with all the problems surely would have made for some unhappy guests. One wonders what a website such as this one would have written about what was later called "Black Sunday” by Walt and the management. Not all of the press was negative though. Many saw through the problems and looked to the potential and the ideas that were represented.
For his part, Walt was full of pride and joy the first day. During the opening festivities, he had a giant grin on his face and a tear running down his cheek. Oblivious to most of the chaos happening around the park, he was cool headed and carefree as he hurried from one location to the next for the cameras. His daughter Diane later remarked that she had "never seen a happier man.” Perhaps it was just the emotions of realizing a childhood dream, or maybe because he knew what his creation would become. In any case and despite the mess, the park known as the "world's biggest toy for the world's biggest boy” was open. As Walt sat with Art watching the show that evening, he was back to work taking notes, counting the number of fireworks being shot off to make sure they were all there. The rest as they say is history.
By Robert Niles
Thank you to USA Today for featuring Theme Park Insider in its travel section this morning, in the newspaper's list of 10 great theme parks for the holidays. We helped the paper put together the list, and provided several quotes about these Christmas and other other holiday celebrations.
We drew upon several Theme Park Insider reader discussions in offering our recommendations for the list, so your voices were heard! Some of the events featured in the piece include: Christmas Town at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Smoky Mountain Christmas at Dollywood, and Holidays at the Disneyland Resort.
Busch Gardens today uploaded a video of its "O Tannenbaum" light show from Christmas Town, to give fans who haven't visited the park a taste of what they can expect from its holiday celebration.
We'd also like to thank US City Traveler for including our new Theme Park Insider: Orlando 2014 guidebook on its list of "must haves" for travel-related holiday gifts. We're planning to join US City Traveler on its podcast to talk about the book, later this week.
By Robert Niles
Editor's note: The following is the first chapter to Theme Park Insider: Orlando 2014, our first guidebook, now available in paperback and eBook from Amazon.com.
Congratulations on starting a most exciting part of your next vacation — the planning.
I love planning vacations. Every moment I spend planning my vacation, mentally, I'm already there. Vacation planning takes my mind out of the office, away from staff meetings, out of the carpool and lets me think about a time when I can be enjoying every moment of my life. And I'm not limited to imagining just the place I'll end up visiting, either. Vacation planning allows me to think about traveling to an unlimited number of places around the country and the world, spending as much time and having as much fun as much as my imagination allows.
So enjoy this moment. Even as many families cut back their vacations — or stop traveling altogether — reading and dreaming about travel is a joy that anyone can afford.
But this book isn't about all of those wonderful destinations that await you around the world. It's about one, very popular vacation destination — Orlando, Florida. Even though Orlando is one of the world's most popular cities, it doesn't inspire a lot of love from travel writers. If you read a lot about travel (and as a writer, I certainly do), you'll find many books and magazine articles that look down on visiting theme parks for a vacation. You can almost see the writers crinkle their noses as they sneer at anyone who would think about visiting a place as, well, unnatural, as Orlando.
I wonder if those same writers look down upon watching movies, going to the theater, or even reading novels. Because, at its heart, a theme park is fictional entertainment, just like those other forms. But instead of reading a book, watching a movie or sitting through a show, Orlando's theme parks invite you into a world of immersive, interactive storytelling. Here, you walk through scenes from around the world and throughout time. You become part of the show that a cast of thousands of talented theme park designers, performers and employees have created just for you.
And Orlando's theme parks are among the world's best. Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld are to theme parks what Harry Potter is to novels, Star Wars is to movies, and Cirque du Soleil is to live theater. They're beloved by millions of fans around the world. Perhaps it's not surprising that Harry Potter, Cirque du Soleil and Star Wars are all featured in Orlando's theme parks, too. Excellence attracts excellence, after all.
So welcome to that club. By reading this book, you're stepping into the world of Theme Park Insiders — people who love theme parks and have taken the time to learn enough about them to find the very best of the best around the world. This book draws upon the experience of tens of thousands of ThemeParkInsider.com readers, who have been submitting ratings and reviews of the Orlando-area theme parks since 1999. After you've enjoyed your Orlando journey, we hope that you'll join us online at http://www.themeparkinsider.com and submit your thoughts about your vacation, too.
But for now, read and discover all that awaits you in Orlando.
We'll start by introducing you to each of the major Orlando-area theme parks. We'll take you on a written tour of these parks, looking at each of rides, shows and restaurants you'll find there. Some travel books jump right into the nuts-and-bolts of planning a trip - booking flights, hotels, buying tickets and so on. I think it's more important to take the time to select the very best destination for you and your family, first. So I want you to get to know the Orlando theme parks the way we Theme Park Insiders do. Yes, you're going to have to make some choices about your vacation, eventually. But we at ThemeParkInsider.com want all our readers to make informed choices.
Because the Walt Disney World theme parks attract the most visitors each year among the Orlando parks, we'll start with them. That's right, I said "them," not "it." Walt Disney World isn't just one theme park — it's four. And that's not all. Disney World also offers two water parks, a huge outdoor shopping center, campgrounds, golf courses, and dozens of resort hotels — from themed motels to five-star luxury spa resorts. It's enough to keep a theme park fan entertained for months! (If only you had that much time for your vacation.)
But you're missing worlds of delightful entertainment if you never venture beyond Disney on an Orlando vacation.
SeaWorld opened its Orlando theme park in the early 1970s, and for years it was the only other theme park in town, outside Walt Disney World. Today's SeaWorld has expanded into a world-class destination of its own. In addition to its namesake theme park, SeaWorld now offers one of the nation's most popular water parks, as well as an exclusive all-day destination called Discovery Cove — where visitors can get close to birds and marine animals while a staff pampers you with top-quality cuisine and service. You can even get into the lagoon and swim with dolphins!
Universal Studios joined the mix in 1990, with the opening of its first theme park outside the original studios in Southern California. Today, the two theme parks of the Universal Orlando Resort are the hottest in town, with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter land at Universal's Islands of Adventure drawing millions of new visitors to the Universal parks. But Universal offers much more than Harry Potter. This is the Orlando home of Transformers, The Simpsons, Jurassic Park and Spider-Man (ironically, the Spider-Man character is now owned by Disney, but Universal locked up the Orlando-area theme park rights long before Disney bought Spidey and the rest of the Marvel comic book empire).
So where do you want to visit? Disney? SeaWorld? Universal? Or all of them? We'll get into the details of how to plan your dream Orlando theme park vacation in the later chapters of this book. With so many options offered by the Orlando-area parks, you'll have plenty of chances to find a plan that fits your family's budget — and inspires your dreams.
Might I start with a few words of advice? Don't keep all this fun to yourself. Getting your family or your travel companions involved in the planning can help you avoid major headaches and conflicts down the road. This is especially true for children. It's great to surprise a child with an unexpected vacation. But once you've made the big announcement, why not keep the excitement flowing by involving your children in making your day-to-day plans? Parents who load their kids in the car or on an airplane without letting them know what's happening are parents who are going to spending a lot of time answering the kids' questions when they could be enjoying the wonderful destination they're visiting.
I like to get kids involved not just with picking and planning activities, but in budgeting for the vacation, too. My single least favorite moments on vacation were when my son or daughter would pick up a souvenir, run up to me with it, and beg, beg, beg for me to buy it. Why not use the vacation as an opportunity to teach a sneaky lesson about money, instead? Either give or help your children earn some money before the trip, so they have to spend their own money on souvenirs. Not only can that help put a stop to the begging (and believe me, all theme parks are designed to encourage you to buy, buy, buy), it gives you the chance to watch your children develop into little bargain hunters before your eyes, as they try to stretch their money as far as they can.
Talk with your children about safety, too. Now, don't alarm them. Theme parks are among the safest places in the world — if you follow the rules. Your children might be familiar with the safe way to cross a street. But I doubt that their kindergarten teacher told them about the safe way to board a spinning teacup. Please wait to board a ride, or to get out of a ride vehicle, until you've been told it is safe. Each ride at the Orlando theme parks will have posted safety instructions either at the entrance or in the line. And ride attendants are there to help, if needed.
Some families have special needs, too. The Orlando theme parks provide some of the world's most accessible destinations. Many rides and almost all shows can accommodate guests in wheelchairs, and many restaurants also accommodate visitors with special dietary needs. Travel shouldn't be restricted to young adults in perfect health. The Orlando theme parks make the joy of travel available to anyone.
That's why these theme parks have become some of the world's most popular vacation destinations. When I was finishing school, some of my (okay, really rich) classmates were planning post-graduation trips to Europe and Asia. I couldn't afford anything like that. I couldn't afford to go see the world. But I could afford to go someplace where the world would come visit me.
I went to Orlando.
After graduation, I spend more than a year working at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. I drove rafts to Tom Sawyer Island, welcomed visitors to the Country Bear Jamboree and even did a stint as a Pirate of the Caribbean. During my time at Disney, I met people from all over the world — extended families from India, little old ladies from England, tour groups of Brazilian teens — people I might never have encountered in many communities across the United States. Chatting with visitors from all over helped make that job into, well, a vacation — an opportunity to connect with people around the world.
So even when you get to Orlando, your journey's not complete. Don't be shy. Start some conversations. Find out where your fellow visitors are from. Travel the world as you travel the Orlando theme parks. It's like getting multiple vacations for the price of one.
That's what the Theme Park Insiders do.
That's why we visit Orlando.
* * *
Theme Park Insider: Orlando 2014 includes more than 200 pages of Theme Park Insider's reader ratings, tips, and advice for visiting Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, and SeaWorld. We've included our analysis of ticket options, dining plans, and front-of-line passes, as well as our tips on safety, budgeting, and navigating the parks. It's the best guidebook you'll find, from the best theme park community online!
If you're looking for another great Christmas gift, for yourself or another theme park fans, please consider our original book, Stories from a Theme Park Insider, a warm and funny look at what it's like to work at Walt Disney World. It's the highest-rated "cast member memoir" on Amazon and the Apple iBookstore — discover for yourself why so many readers love our insider stories by ordering a copy. ($2.99 for Kindle and $6.99 in paperback, from Amazon.)
Finally, we've signed up both our books for Amazon's "Kindle MatchBook" program where, if you buy the paperback from Amazon, you can buy the Kindle eBook version of the same title for just 99 cents. Amazon's already activated the MatchBook offer for "Stories from a Theme Park Insider." Since it's a new title, the MatchBook option for "Theme Park Insider: Orlando 2014" should go live within the next few days. But paperback purchases now will qualify for the 99-cent Kindle purchase when it does. Thanks for being part of Theme Park Insider, and we hope that you love these books!
By Daniel Etcheberry
I’m very curious about what the future of theme parks will be for the disabled. Are the new rides going to be more accessible or less? Looking at the new rides and the ones that are being built or shown in concept art will give a clue about the future.
The "traditional" Mystic Manor ride vehicle. Photo courtesy Disney
Let’s start with the most recent additions. Hong Kong Disneyland's Mystic Manor has a special vehicle that has space for a wheelchair to fit inside. On the other hand, the Antarctica ride at SeaWorld Orlando uses the same kind of trackless ride vehicle technology, but they don’t have a wheelchair-accessible vehicle. You must transfer into the vehicle's seat.
Now let’s see the rides that are under construction.
The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at Magic Kingdom is a coaster, so there needs to be a transfer; I have seen a picture of the train, and it has a very narrow space to get into the seats. If Disney doesn’t add a special row where the side can be removed for transferring, that ride will be off limits to people like me who needs to transfer with no obstacles between the wheelchair and the vehicle’s seat. I haven’t seen any picture of the Gringotts’ coaster vehicle at Universal Studios Florida, but looking at the concept art, the side opening looks wider.
Avatar’s concept art shows some promise for wheelchair users; if the boat ride doesn’t have any drops, it will be wheelchair accessible. If the other ride is like Soarin', it will be an easy transfer.
I haven’t seen much from the Ratatouille ride at Walt Disney Studios Paris, but it looks like it will have the same kind of access like Mystic Manor.
The theme park future for the disabled in America looks so-so; Americans prefer thrill rides (the two coasters mentioned above is an example), and for a disabled, thrill equates to transferring. But this can be balanced with creative ways to make that transfer easier. We will see.
Keep reading: November 2013 Archive
Stories from a Theme Park Insider
What's it like to work in a theme park? Stories from a Theme Park Insider takes you inside the famous tunnels and backstage at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom for a look at how theme parks really work, sharing the funny moments and embarrassments that can happen when your job is someone else's vacation.
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