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January 2014

Tokyo Disney invites you to climb aboard the Duffy bus

By Robert Niles
Published: January 31, 2014 at 9:56 AM

The Tokyo Disney Resort laughs at Walt Disney World's "Tronorail" and Disneyland's Cars-inspired monorail trains and outdoes all previous Disney transportation wraps with this:

The Duffy Bus

The Duffy Bus.

Step aboard and enjoy all the furry fun!

The Duffy Bus
Inside the Duffy Bus. Photos courtesy the Tokyo Disney Resort.

From February 20 through March 31, the Duffy Bus will be making promotional appearances around Japan. Mickey's "Teddy Bear" first became wildly popular in Japan, and Duffy dominates the merchandise sales at Tokyo DisneySea, where there's a Duffy-themed show and restaurant in the "Cape Cod" section of the park's American Waterfront land. Here's Tokyo DisneySea's press release, for those of you who read Japanese, and the Google Translate version, for those who would like to laugh at a machine's attempt to translate Japanese to English.

All aboard for Duffy! ;^)

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Happy Chinese New Year!

By Robert Niles
Published: January 30, 2014 at 10:38 PM

Happy Lunar (Chinese) New Year! Disney's making the Paradise Gardens at Disney California Adventure its go-to locale for holiday-themed activities, and is celebrating Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese cultures with dancers, character meet-and-greets and craft stations from 11am-5pm from Friday through Sunday. No word on any special food items at DCA, though Disney's offering extensive New Year's offerings at Hong Kong Disneyland.

The Year of the Horse
Celebrating the Chinese New Year at Hong Kong Disneyland

Speaking of Disney and China, work progresses on Shanghai Disneyland, in preparation for an expected opening late next year. Disney's topped off the first of its two hotels for the new theme park, and has "gone vertical" on construction for the park's "mountain" attraction.

With so many knock-offs of existing Disney attractions already in China, Disney's not about to give the copy-cats a head start by revealing too much about what visitors will find in its Shanghai park. But we've heard that the "mountain" now under construction in the park will be a copy of California Adventure's Grizzly Peak, and will be joined in the park's Adventure Isle land by the new, global version of the Soarin' attraction.

We've already heard about the centerpiece Gardens of Imagination, which will stand in front of the park's Enchanted Storybook Castle and provide the home for Shanghai Disneyland's carousel and Dumbo rides. A boat ride will be included in the castle itself, and a copy the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train from the Magic Kingdom is said to be in the plans for Fantasyland, as well, joined by Peter Pan and Winnie the Pooh rides.

A Toy Story Playland, a Pirates of the Caribbean ride (with a unique ride system), and a Tomorrowland featuring a Tron lightcycle-themed roller coaster, Stitch Encounter and a Buzz Lightyear ride round out the initial line-up for the park, which is expected to open in late 2015.

But for now, may you find good fortune in the "Year of the Horse." (Hey, maybe that's a good sign for this family of former Denver residents!)

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Cell phones vs. MagicBands: Which offers more for theme parks and their fans?

By Robert Niles
Published: January 28, 2014 at 12:52 PM

Starwood Hotels' Aloft brand soon will enable visitors to use their cell phones as their room keys at two of its hotels, allowing guests to bypass the check-in desk entirely. (Which also means that those hotels can do away with maintaining and resetting electronic room keys.) By the end of next month, visitors simply will tap or scan their smartphones to enter their rooms.

Disney and Universal both are developing alternates to the traditional room key for guest access on their properties. Disney's already started rolling out its MagicBand system, which integrates a room key, theme park admissions, charging privileges, and reservation management in an RFID-enabled wristband. Meanwhile, Universal has filed a patent application for a system that could use cell phones and/or wristbands to replace theme park admission media and reservation tickets. (Universal Orlando's hotels are operated by Loews Hotels.) SeaWorld's also begun enabling the use of cell phones for theme park admissions.

But here's the question: Would theme park fans rather have a dedicated "thing" for admission access, such as Disney's MagicBand, or would they prefer simply to use their cell phones for those tasks? It's literally a billion-dollar question, as Disney's said to have invested that amount in its "NextGen" project, for which the new MyMagic+ access system is the centerpiece.

iPhone or MagicBand?

The answer to that question will help resolve whether Disney made a costly mistake in pushing ahead with MagicBands, rather than waiting for the hospitality industry to develop a industry standard for the use of cell phones as room keys. If Starwood's trail works well, the chain could move to implement the system at its other brands, including Sheraton, Westin, Four Points, and W Hotels, which likely would push other major hotel operators to introduce the same functionality at their properties.

After all, the upside for hotels in supporting phone-based key media is to get the hotels out of the business of maintaining physical key media, as well as to reduce the amount of labor hours devoted to checking in guests at each of its hotels. Hotels would need to maintain some on-site personnel to handle problems and other customer service, but much of check-in support could be automated or handled by a central office, as airlines now do.

Switching one form of hard media (room keys) for another (wristbands) minimizes that payoff for hoteliers. You can still handle some of the check-in arrangements in advance, as Disney does with MagicBands, but you're still paying for all those wristbands. Why would Disney spend a billion dollars to do this?

Let's go to the medicine cabinet and pull out Occam's razor. Either Disney is impatient and/or foolish… or MagicBands are intended to support much more than admission and key media, justifying the extra expense in developing this custom system.

That's a hypothesis we've offered before, but that sometimes get lost in fans' complains about MyMagic+. Sure, you could use a cell phone to get into your room, or a theme park, or to confirm your reservation time at a ride, restaurant, or show. But what if a theme park wanted to enable something to react to you, without requiring you to do anything more than enter a designated area?

Mobile technology experts long have predicted that manufacturers would equip mobile devices with RFID and NFC tags, and release programming structures to enable their use in applications. But who will makes the rules and exercise the control over that access? The manufacturer? The user? The application developer? The manufacturers, developers and/or users collectively, via government?

By developing its own system with MagicBands, Disney becomes the manufacturer and developer, consolidating its control of the use of the system. And Disney's limiting its users ability to control their MagicBands. You can make reservations, but can't turn them on or off or limit which readers can access them, they way you might with a cell phone-based system.

Fans can argue about privacy, though businesses long have tracked customers on their businesses property (say 'Hi' to the security cameras, everyone!), but fans also ought to admit that such as system opens immense potential for creative use by park designers. Imagine attractions, even landscapes, that adapt to the visitors within them. How about a Star Tours-like ride that, instead of selecting randomly from 54 potential ride combinations, is designed to deliver a combination that no one on the ride has experienced before? How about interactive park signs that change to point you toward the location of your upcoming reservation time? Or a Men in Black-like ride that offers more advanced levels of play for experienced riders? The gamification of theme parks could begin.

Would that be possible with an admission system based upon another company's cell phones, regulated both by industry convention and potentially more restrictive government rules? Maybe, but maybe not. That's something fans should consider as they look toward the future of theme parks, and vacation travel in general.

Let's get the conversation started:

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An Insider's look at the merchandise from Weasley's Wizard Wheezes in Universal Orlando's Diagon Alley

By Krista Joy
Published: January 25, 2014 at 3:48 PM

During the Harry Potter Tribute on Day 1 of the Harry Potter Celebration at Universal Orlando, some of the cast was on hand to reveal new concept art that will be available to purchase in Weasley's Wizard Wheezes in Diagon Alley. Let's review how and in what episode/game each item is portrayed, and then reveal exactly what was said during the event about the actual merchandise. Now if you just can't wait for  the Summer of 2014 opening of Diagon Alley at Universal Orlando, I have some suggestions on how to get crafty and create some at-home versions to help ease the wait for the real thing.

Decoy Detonators

As a reminder, Decoy Detonators are black horn-like objects designed to create a diversion from the user. After being dropped, the decoy runs a fair distance away, makes a noise like a loud bang, and releases clouds of black smoke. The Decoy Detonator makes an appearance in the film Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1. If you recall, this enables Harry to break into Delores Umbridge's office at the Ministry of Magic. It serves the same purpose as in the book, but in the film the device is made a little more exciting by multiplying itself and causing widespread confusion. However, one could that this was a magical effect added later on by Harry or Hermione, similar to Geminio. In LEGO Harry Potter: Years 5-7, both Fred and George Weasley have Decoy Detonators as controllable "pets." In the Magic Mischief game in The Road to Hogwarts Sweepstakes, Decoy Detonators can be used to distract an enemy to continue in the game.

Quote from the event: "When you need a diversion, just drop one of these and it will run off, create a loud bang, a terrible smell and some black smoke. That is definitely the Decoy Detonator."

Not much to go on here, but check out these ideas on how to make your own non-mobile version of a Decoy Detonator at home.

Umbridge on a Unicycle

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was where this item made its first appearance. If you recall Fred and George Weasley's shop, Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes, features a toy version of Dolores Umbridge that rides around on a unicycle across a tightrope, balancing with buckets of liquid, saying phrases such as "I will have order," and "I really hate children." It is unknown if it was a decoration, or for sale. Now, we have an idea of what it might have been because of the quote from yesterday.

Quote from the event: "Next we have the Umbridge on a Unicycle, which is on a prominent display at the Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes. This miniature Delores Umbridge on a Unicycle travels aimlessly about spouting useless information just like Delores herself."

The important words here are "prominent display." My guess is that this will not be something you can buy, but actually something to view or marvel at while inside the store.

Nose-Biting Teacup

As a refresher, the Nose-Biting Teacup looks just like any ordinary teacup. However it has actually been jinxed to bite the nose of anyone who tries to drink out of it. Ron Weasley and Harry Potter each bought one at Zonko's Joke Shop on a trip to Hogsmeade in 1994. Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes also carried its own version of this product, so one would expect this will be an actual item you'll soon be able to purchase at Universal Orlando.

Quote from the Event: "Tired of your friends stealing your tea? Serve them one of these and that will stop that real quick."

Skiving Snackboxes

As would be expected of Fred and George, one of the first things they invent for their joke shop is a way of escaping from classes. Skiving Snackboxes, which are under development throughout Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, gives them that escape. Typically, a Skiving Snackbox is a candy with two colored ends; eating from the one end will bring on some sickness, eating from the other end will cure it. In order to secure the fastest escape from class, illnesses caused by Skiving Snackboxes are designed to be dramatic. Skiving Snackboxes we expect to be found at Universal include versions of Puking Pastilles, Nosebleed Nougat, Fever Fudge, and Fainting Fancies.

Quote from the Event: "Can I start and say they won't make you sick...unless you quite eat a LOT and go on the Forbidden Journey or something. It's kind of...whenever we speak to anyone about the Weasleys' Wizarding Wheezes Joke Shop...they always say I wish I could have a snack box…. As you can see they are pretty authentic looking. Um, so I can't wait to...I am strangely intrigued to see what the Puking Pastilles taste like."

"Also these were...our favorite props from the whole movie. So when we learned earlier that these were going to be available we were really excited." 

Although I am sure these recipes are quite different from what you will actually be able to enjoy at Universal Orlando, I did find these interesting and I hope you will too. ThemeParkInsiders.com is not responsible for any results of making or eating these magical items at home!

Puking Pastilles:  In the movie, this makes the eater vomit within seconds of eating it. The orange ends are to make the eater vomit and the purple ones to stop them. You can find a make at home version here. Eat the orange half of these double-sided candies at home, and you'll experience a strange queasy feeling due to the unfortunate combination of anise (black licorice flavor), garlic, and sugar.  Once you have felt the impacts of this gut twisting flavor, it is said that you can calm your tummy with the delightfully minty purple half.

Nosebleed Nougat: Nosebleed Nougat, also known as Blood Blisterpod, was designed to make the eater's nose bleed heavily within seconds of eating it. Eating the orange sweet would cause the nosebleed, while the purple sweet would stop it. In this version, the red side delivers a blood-inspired flavor rather than a bloody nose.  It starts out tart and gets salty while delivering a hint of umami.  Opposite the red side is a nice vanilla banana flavor that's a pleasant counterpoint to the sensations created by the red.

Fever Fudge: Inspired by the inventions of the Weasley twins in the Harry Potter books, these two-sided confections are the perfect blend of hot and cool.  Eating the red half will cause the heat to rise in your head.  Cool the heat by biting into the blue half.  This version of Fever Fudge may not affect muggles as strongly as it does wizards. Get the recipe here.

Fainting Fancies were also mentioned, and you can find out how to create these at home by clicking here.

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Universal Orlando's Diagon Alley: Getting the lay of the land

By Robert Niles
Published: January 24, 2014 at 3:30 PM

With the line-up of attractions, restaurants and shops now confirmed for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida, some of you have asked about the layout of the land: Where will these elements be located, relative to one another.

Universal has created an excellent interactive "walk through" experience on its Harry Potter website, but it only allows you to walk up the main path of Diagon Alley. It doesn't give you much information about the relative location of other features in the land. And good luck getting it load, with the traffic it's been getting the past two days!

As long-time Theme Park Insider readers know, I first saw the plans for Diagon Alley back in December 2011, and have seen more detailed versions of the land's blueprints since then. I agreed not to publish those plans, but with Universal's recent announcement, I think it's fair if I share my own (crude) attempt at a map of the land.

Map of Diagon Alley

The main entrance (and exit) for the land will be through the Leicester Square Station facade. I've left the area for Knockturn Alley blank, but that's simply because my limited drafting skills do not allow me to reproduce the elaborate, twisting collection of paths and stairways you will find in that section of the new land. Do note that Knockturn Alley will be covered, as will the Carkitt Market area, so even in Florida's afternoon thunderstorms, Diagon Alley will provide not just mood-appropriate settings, but protection from the elements.

I've also not included detail about the various facades you will find on these buildings, simply because I don't have space on this page to accommodate that level of detail. The Ollivander's building will include facades for the Daily Prophet, Wands by Gregorovitch, Flourish and Blotts, and more. (The Hogsmeade Wizarding World also includes multiple such "fake" storefronts.)

As I mentioned yesterday, plans call for a beverages stand in the middle of the Carkitt Market area, which I suspect will be Diagon Alley's version of the Butterbeer cart. There might be additional portable merchandise and food and beverage stands in that market area, as well.

The sketch above also should provide you some idea as to the relative location of the Hogwarts Express to the rest of the land. Platform 9 3/4 will be a bit of a hike through Kings Cross station from the entrance on the London waterfront. Plenty of room for a long queue there!

In yesterday's presentation, Universal Creative President Mark Woodbury teased more details to come about Diagon Alley. One detail Universal's not yet mentioned has been the new interactive wand that it's been developing, which would have the ability to trigger multiple "magical moments" within Diagon Alley. Knockturn Alley is designed to be filled with these interactive elements, as are some of those other false storefronts I mentioned above. Whether this functionality is ready for the opening remains unclear, but Universal is working on it for the future of the land.

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Vote of the Week: Warm Butterbeer at Universal Orlando?

By Robert Niles
Published: January 24, 2014 at 8:50 AM

Universal Orlando this morning announced that it is serving warm Butterbeer to selected guests.

Warm Butterbeer? Let's go to the meme:

We've got Leo's attention

Warm Butterbeer might be more authentic to the United Kingdom, as many popular English and Irish beers are served warm, or, at least, room temperature. But the weather in Orlando more often than not calls for cold, even frozen, drinks.

We've not yet heard from anyone fortunate to try one of the warm Butterbeer samples this morning. (If you did, we'd love a photo and your thoughts, via themeparkinsider@gmail.com!) While we await feedback, let's put this new idea to a vote:


As always, thank you for being part of the Theme Park Insider community. And one more reminder, please take a look at our new and improved Discussion Forum, which we opened this week. Thanks again.

Update: Theme Park Insider reader Rob T. sent along some photos of the warm butterbeer.

Warm butterbeer

"We're at USF's Harry Potter Celebration and had a chance to sample the warm Butterbeer this morning. While the topping is identical to the cold versions, the liquid is a milky color with a creamy consistency like hot chocolate. It has a very strong and sweet butterscotch flavor similar to the cold versions. Verdict: yummy if you really like sweet drinks."

Drinking warm butterbeer

"The warm butterbeer is only available to those with breakfast reservations at the Three Broomsticks this weekend."

So there you go. Perhaps this will make its way on to the regular menu at Universal, maybe as a seasonal item. Thank you to Rob for the report!

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Universal Orlando reveals details from The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley

By Robert Niles
Published: January 23, 2014 at 8:30 AM

In a media event webcast from Universal Studios Florida, Universal Orlando today revealed details about its new Harry Potter land.

Universal Creative President Mark Woodbury welcomed Senior VP Thierry Coup and Harry Potter actors James Phelps (Fred Weasley), Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom), and Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood) for the webcast, which confirmed the names of the attractions, restaurants and shops in the new land.

On the set
Matthew Lewis, James Phelps, and Mark Woodbury

Attractions

Gringotts
Concept art of the Gringotts exterior, complete with fire-breathing dragon

Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts — Woodbury revealed the name for this roller coaster-like dark ride through the caverns and vaults underneath Gringotts Bank. We first revealed the details of this ride back in December 2011.

Gringotts
Concept art of the Gringotts interior

Hogwarts Express — A train ride that will connect Diagon Alley with the original Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Hogsmeade, in Universal's Islands of Adventure. Riders will board the Hogwarts Express in Universal Studios Florida through the Kings Cross station adjacent to Diagon Alley.

On the train
Evanna Lynch with Thierry Coup on the Hogwarts Express

Ollivander's — Diagon Alley's version of the wand shop show in Hogsmeade will include more "wand chooses the wizard" theater rooms, to reduce the long waits often found over in Islands of Adventure.

Restaurants

The Leaky Cauldron — Diagon Alley's main restaurant will serve a variety of English-inspired fare, though Universal did not reveal any specific menu items today. (Got any menu suggestions?)

Florean Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour — Located near the entrance to Gringotts.

Shops

Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes — Zonko's at Hogsmeade will close and its merchandise will instead come to this expanded joke shop in Diagon Alley.

Madam Malkin's Robes for All Occasions — "where guests will find a variety of wizardwear from Hogwarts school uniform ties, scarves and jumpers, to authentic wizard’s robes and character costumes"

Wiseacre's Wizarding Equipment — Located at the exit of the Gringotts ride.

Scribbulus — "featuring authentic writing implements and products such as feather quills, ink and inkwells, bookmarks, journals, parchment paper, seals, stationery sets and postcards"

Magical Menagerie — "features a collection of plush animals, such as owls and Hippogriffs"

Quality Quidditch Supplies — "offering a wide assortment of apparel and equipment including Quidditch sweaters, brooms, Golden Snitches, Bludgers, Bludger bats, Quaffles and more"

Borgin and Burkes — the centerpiece of Diagon Alley's Knockturn Alley section. "A shop specializing in the Dark Arts that will offer a wide variety of Dark objects, such as Death Eater masks, skulls, and other sinister items"

Woodbury did not provide a specific opening date for the expansion, simply offering "summer" as the opening. He also said that more details about the new land will be revealed later. Universal also today revamped its Harry Potter website to include the new information about Diagon Alley: universalorlando.com/harrypotter.

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Top 7 revelations we need from Universal's Harry Potter announcement tomorrow

By Marc Kleinhenz
Published: January 22, 2014 at 2:26 PM

Tomorrow is the long-awaited webcast, hosted by the Harry Potter movies’ James Phelps (Fred Weasley), in which Universal will finally announce some specifics about its new land at Universal Studios Florida, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley. The two-years-in-the-making event has Potter fans and theme park enthusiasts both atwitter with excitement, as word on the street has Diagon Alley pinned as one of the most immersive, detailed, and impressive attractions ever devised.

Diagon Alley
Concept art courtesy Universal

While there is a good chance that Universal will, indeed, reveal most, if not all, of the land’s secrets tomorrow – the new Wizarding World is opening this summer, after all – it’s also just as likely that the company will decide to only divulge the bare necessities in an effort to drag out the marketing phase as long as possible. Recognizing this, here is a list of the most pertinent or, simply, most salivating details that Universal can offer up to us, put in descending order for a little dramatic effect and theatrical flair. (Why seven? That’s how many books there are in the series and, well, why not?)

Agree or disagree? Let us know in the comments section.

7. When is the (real world) date?

The most basic piece of information that Universal could ever cough up just so happens to also be one of the most frequently asked questions currently making the theme park rounds: just when is Diagon Alley going to open, anyway? Realistically speaking, this could be the only concrete piece of information on tomorrow’s webcast, delivered amongst a plethora of new concept art and “testimonials” from the films’ cast and crew. If so, everyone’s sky-high expectations may come crashing down hard, but at least we’d be able to walk away with something substantial to pin our hopes on – and the real countdown can begin in earnest.

6. Setting foot inside Diagon Alley

Beyond the specifics of ride names, attraction types, or food and beverage menus, there is the more ephemeral desire that keeps would-be Wizarding World tourists glued to their computer screens: a glimpse, no matter how fleeting, of just what Diagon Alley will look and feel like. We got our first glimpse just last month, and a steady stream of over-the-construction-wall photos has been keeping us buoyed since, but something more official is in order. Universal really can just show off more detailed concept art and score some major points, but rolling out the exact layout of the land, replete with every attraction and (at least) shop name, would be ideal.

5. What, if anything, will happen to Hogsmeade?

Some of the most exciting rumors from the past few weeks have absolutely nothing to do with the new Wizarding World and everything to do with the first: Hogsmeade over at Islands of Adventure is supposedly going to be seeing some changes itself, starting as soon as this summer. The biggest culprit seems to be Zonko’s Joke Shop, which has some impeccable theming (and lovely in-jokes) but not the most compelling lineup of souvenirs, as its sales have consistently lagged behind Honeydukes’s sweets and Dervish and Banges’s wands (the fact that Zonko’s offers mostly Weasleys products, and that Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes is expected to open at Diagon Alley in just a few short months, doesn’t help much, either). Current scuttlebutt has the joke shop shutting down and being replaced by a brand-new venue, possibly an expanded Honeydukes.

And lest Zonko’s feel lonely, whispers indicate that Universal may also axe the Ollivander’s wand “show” there, given that (a) there is no Ollivander’s “branch location” in Hogsmeade in the novels/films and (b) the real Ollivander’s Wand Shop will be opening, bigger and better than ever, in Diagon Alley. Would anything replace the one-room experience at Hogsmeade? The webcast may tell us tomorrow.

4. When is the (in-world) date?

Hogsmeade is, according to Universal Creative, officially set “in a moment frozen in time” sometime between the start of book/movie four, Goblet of Fire, and the end of book/movie five, Order of the Phoenix (although careful analysis shows that it actually takes place during the first half of Goblet, what with dragons running around and all). It has been suggested that, due to contractual obligations, Diagon Alley will be moved to later in the timeline and be placed amongst the last two books/three movies, Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows (Parts 1 and 2), a time when the dark wizard Lord Voldemort is openly waging war in the magical community and even ultimately ascends to power over it.

Such a setting causes some excitement – Harry, Ron, and Hermione being on the run as fugitives could very well be part of the story of the Gringotts Bank ride – but also some complications, as taking a leisurely stroll down a deserted Diagon Alley with all of its shops boarded up isn’t the most ideal scenario for a theme park land. Just how the designers manage to strike a balance between these two will be fascinating to see – and exciting to experience. Here’s to hoping we’ll get our first glimpses tomorrow.

3. Shedding light on Knockturn Alley

Although never officially announced by Universal, there have been enough insider accounts and, even, possible locations on leaked blueprints to confidently say that the illicit, dark wizarding alleyway will be making some sort of appearance in the new Wizarding World. We may know where and what it is, but we have absolutely no clue as to how it will function. Borgin and Burkes, the only “visited” location at Knockturn, would seem to be the most likely presence in the sub-area, which would mean that shopping is a given (just imagine buying cursed necklaces or an animated Hand of Glory!) – but what of a walk-through experience, in which guests may make use of the store’s “confidential valuation service for unusual and ancient wizarding artifacts”? Or might some sort of show be staged there, using the location as a backdrop? Or will Universal go the Disney route and use the elaborate venue as a character meet-n-greet, possibly with the likes of Hagrid (less likely) or Mr. Borgin (very possible)? If Universal really wanted to turn some heads and kick the hype of its expansion into overdrive, it’d start right here.

2. Riding the Hogwarts Express

Once both Wizarding Worlds are open and the Hogwarts Express shuttles visitors back and forth between them, it will be literally the only game of its kind in town, offering a unique, seamless experience between multiple locations. And, indeed, the King’s Cross Station show building is already a mammoth structure, hinting at an impeccably immersive queue (if Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is anything to go by) and even promising some sort of magic at the entry point to Platform 9¾. Just how Universal is going to pull all this off – and, even more importantly, just what type of adventures will be had once aboard the train – is a complete unknown. Rumors hold that there will be a possible Dementor attack on the way to Hogsmeade, but what could happen on the way back is a blank slate. And will the revolutionary attraction really employ a randomized ride experience, like Star Tours: The Adventures Continue? It’s hard to imagine a more explosive announcement during the webcast, which means smart money should go here.

1. Opening Gringotts’s vault

If Universal wants to have the best possible reveal it can, maximizing press coverage and enthusiast chatter for the next five (or so) months until opening day, it only needs to do one thing: talk about Gringotts Bank.

It’s been over two years since the Gringotts ride was initially leaked, and we still have more questions than answers on what will not only be the centerpiece of the new Wizarding World, but will also easily become the flagship ride of all of Universal Orlando Resort (and all of Orlando, as well? Just possibly). Rotating ride vehicles, massive 3D projection screens on giant KUKA robotic arms, and the most breathtaking queue ever devised are all in the works, but what of the narrative that will tie them all together into one (hopefully) cohesive whole? It’s been suggested that visiting Muggles will be on the market for a subterranean bank vault of their very own when something goes terribly wrong, but the story could just as easily be lifted directly from Deathly Hallows (Part 2), when Harry, Ron, and Hermione sneak into the Voldemort-controlled bank to steal away one of his precious Horcruxes. If Universal can confirm even just a few of the details just listed, hint at the ride’s premise, and then – best of all – grandly announce its name (the latest intel points to “Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts,” which is, all things considered, rather bland), it’ll have a slam dunk on its hands, regardless of whatever other tidbits it may (or may not) have announced.

Sound good? We’ll find out in less than 24 hours…

Marc N. Kleinhenz has written for 22 sites, including The Huffington Post, Orlando Informer, and Orlando Attractions magazine. He’s co-created and -hosted two podcasts and has even taught English in Japan. He also likes mittens.

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Tuesday theme park news round-up: Diagon Alley, Disney & SeaWorld videos, plus a new Discussion Forum

By Robert Niles
Published: January 21, 2014 at 3:07 PM

Universal Orlando has released another teaser video for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley, opening in June at Universal Studios Florida.

Universal will unveil more details about the new land in a webcast on Thursday morning. Check here on Theme Park Insider for coverage and a wrap-up of the webcast.

Disney's showing a bit more about the development of its new "Festival of Fantasy" Parade, stepping off this spring at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom.

If you've visited SeaWorld San Diego, you've seen the construction as the park rebuilds its entrance for its 50th anniversary. The new "Explorer's Reef" debuted March 21. Here's the park's latest promotional video:

Finally, some Theme Park Insider site news. If you haven't yet heard, this morning we debuted a new Discussion Forum. You no longer have to wait for an editor to approve new discussions — they'll go live immediately. And that's just one of the improvements to our new forum. (Here's an overview.) If you've got a question, a trip report, or an observation you'd like to share with your fellow theme park fans, please go ahead and start a new discussion. We think our readers are one of the best communities online and we hope you will make good use of our new forum.

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On the Road to Diagon Alley: The Hogwarts Express

By Robert Niles
Published: January 20, 2014 at 11:26 AM

Young Harry Potter took his first steps back into the Wizarding World when Hagrid brought him to London's Diagon Alley in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in America). But Harry met the wizards and witches who would become his lifelong friends and allies in Kings Cross station and on the Hogwarts Express.

We looked at Universal's version of Kings Cross station last week. This week, we'll examine the upcoming Hogwarts Express ride.

Universal's Hogwarts Express

In the Harry Potter books and movies, the students of Hogwarts travel to and from the school via the Hogwarts Express train, which leaves Kings Cross station in London at 11am on September 1, with additional trips between Kings Cross and Hogsmeade stations at the end of the fall term, the beginning of the spring term, and the end of the year. Some students don't bother taking the Hogwarts Express home for the Christmas holidays, and opt instead to remain at school for the break.

In Pottermore, author J.K. Rowling explains that the Ministry of Magic devised the Hogwarts Express to solve the problem of how to transport hundreds of students to and from Hogwarts without detection by Muggle, and while protecting the castle's security.

Where exactly the Hogwarts Express came from has never been conclusively proven, although it is a fact that there are secret records at the Ministry of Magic detailing a mass operation involving one hundred and sixty-seven Memory Charms and the largest ever mass Concealment Charm performed in Britain. The morning after these alleged crimes, a gleaming scarlet steam engine and carriages astounded the villagers of Hogsmeade (who had also not realised they had a railway station), while several bemused Muggle railway workers down in Crewe spent the rest of the year grappling with the uncomfortable feeling that they had mislaid something important.

Some Harry Potter fans remain curious whether the Hogwarts Express truly is the only means of transport to and from Hogwarts. After all, it seems a bit silly for young wizards and witches in, say, Edinburgh, to have to travel to London to board the Hogwarts Express, only to ride back to Hogsmeade in the Scottish Highlands. Of course, to reach Universal Orlando's Hogsmeade, you will have two options: Ride the Hogwarts Express from Kings Cross station in Universal Studios Florida, or just take the old way of walking in from Islands of Adventure's front gate. ;^)

The Hogwarts Express will be the first amusement attraction that carries visitors from inside one theme park to inside another. As a result, you will need to have a park-to-park ticket to ride the Hogwarts Express. (There's ticketing space designated in the blueprints for Kings Cross station where you can upgrade your single-park ticket to park-to-park, should you wish to ride.) Universal has two Hogwarts Express trains, both pointed toward the Hogsmeade station, that will shuttle back and forth between the parks on an elevated track though Universal Orlando's backstage area. (The track splits in two for a bypass in the middle, to allow the trains to pass one another.)

You won't see the backstage area while on board, of course. The "windows" on Universal's Hogwarts Express won't really be windows — they will be digital screens made to look like windows, upon which Universal will show images of the English countryside and Scottish Highlands, visually recreating the trip between Hogsmeade and Kings Cross. With digital technology in play on the train, Universal will be able to throw a bit of special effects excitement into the trip as well, including a Dementor attack inspired by the Dementors' appearance on the Hogwarts Express in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. It's not yet known if Universal will offer multiple special effects programs on its Hogwarts Express, creating the possibility of encountering a different experience on each ride.

In addition to the Kings Cross station in Universal Studios Florida, Universal is building a station for Hogsmeade next to the Sindbad theater, extending the original Wizarding of World of Harry Potter to the east within the park.

The Jacobite, in Scotland
The 'real' Hogwarts Express - the 'Jacobite' train. Photo courtesy West Coast Railways

If you'd like to ride the "real" Hogwarts Express, West Coast Railways in Great Britain offers an 84-mile round-trip from Fort William to Mallaig in Scotland, along the same tracks featured during filming for the Harry Potter movies, on the same type of train used as the Hogwarts Express in the films.

Previously:

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Saturday Night Live takes aim at Walt Disney World

By Robert Niles
Published: January 19, 2014 at 8:27 PM

Saturday Night Live had fun with Walt Disney World last night:

Drake played a Disney World cast member at Hollywood Studios' Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular and did a solid job capturing the hopeless enthusiasm that theme park employees have to bring to the show when working with an audience volunteer, uh, doesn't go so well.

It might be worth noting that Saturday Night Live airs on NBC, which is owned by Disney's archrival NBCUniversal, and the whole audience volunteers schtick traditionally has been more Universal's thing. But Universal's been backing off that in recent years, so hey, why not spoof the Disney show?

What did you think?

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Vote of the Week: Disney World completes the Fastpass+ switch... but which system would you prefer?

By Robert Niles
Published: January 17, 2014 at 4:45 PM

Walt Disney World has closed its paper-ticket Fastpass ride reservation system at the Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom in favor of its new, online Fastpass+ system. Now we're hearing that the switch will happen at Epcot at Disney's Hollywood Studios next week.

Toy Story Midway Mania

With Fastpass+, visitors staying at one of Walt Disney World's on-site hotels can make ride and show reservations in advance of their visit to the Walt Disney World Resort. Guests not staying on-site can make reservations the day of their visit, using kiosks located throughout the park.

Unlike the old Fastpass system, you don't get a paper ticket with a return time when you make a reservation at one of these new kiosks. Your return time now is associated with your park admission ticket (or MagicBand, if you're staying at a Disney hotel) in a central database. So you just touch your ticket or MagicBand to the Fastpass+ stanchion at the attraction's entrance at your designated return time, and you're good to go.

That means that some visitors using admission tickets they bought years ago will need to swap their old tickets for the new chip-carrying ones. Even if you're not planning to use the Fastpass+ system, you'll need the chip-enabled tickets to get past the parks' new entrance system. So if you're using old no-expire tickets for your next Walt Disney World visit, plan to arrive earlier to make that switch at any park ticket booth.

Magic Kingdom MyMagic+ entrance

Two other big changes from the old Fastpass system: You can select (and change!) your return time — it's no longer the take-it-or-leave-it next-in-order time that Fastpass gave you; and (here's the big one) you're limited to just three reservation return times per day. Right now, all three Fastpass+ reservations have to be in the same park, but that's expected to change eventually. But the new three-reservations-per-person limit will change the way that many experienced Disney visitors will go through the parks.

Under the old system, you could get just one Fastpass per admission ticket when you entered the park. You could get another Fastpass two hours after that (or less, if your Fastpass return time was less than two hours in the future). By devising or following sometimes complicated schedules through the park, many well-informed Disney visitors could get half-a-dozen to a dozen, or more, Fastpasses during the day.

Since it's a change from the familiar, Fastpass+ might seem more complex than the original Fastpass system. But since you're limited to just three FP+ reservations per day, and can make them all at once, the new system actually simplifies a Disney World visit considerably. Forget about sending one member of your party ahead with a handful of your admission tickets to go get Fastpasses for everyone, several times a day. If you're staying at a Walt Disney World hotel, you can make all your reservations online, before you leave home. And if you're not, you can take care of all your reservations for the day at once, when you enter the park. You don't need to keep track of when you're eligible to get another Fastpass, or hike all the way across the park to get the Fastpasses for the ride you want reservations on next, either. You can make or change Fastpass+ reservations at any Fastpass+ kiosk, or, if you're staying on-site, with Disney's My Disney Experience mobile phone or tablet app.

Even though you can use only three Fastpass+ reservations per day, but that doesn't mean you can only make three reservations. Remember, you can change Fastpass+ reservations. So if you get to a location where you have a Fastpass+ return time, and see that the ride or show is a walk-on, don't waste one of your three return times by using it then. Look for a nearby kiosk, or cast member with a iPad, and switch that reservation to another attraction — one with a more substantial wait time.

For visitors, the point of Fastpass+, like Fastpass before it, is to save you time waiting in line. So you'll want to use your three reservations on things that otherwise would have demanded a long wait time during your visit. In addition to popular rides with traditionally long waits such as Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, Soarin', Test Track, Midway Mania, and Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, consider spending your Fastpass+ reservations on things such as reserved viewing spots for the Magic Kingdom fireworks and slow-moving character meet 'n' greets, if those time spots are available.

If you're not staying on-site, you'll improve your chances of getting these most useful reservations is you go to one of the Fastpass+ kiosks as soon as the park opens. Here's where you will find the kiosks:

Magic Kingdom

  • Main Street — Town Square Theater
  • Tomorrowland — Stitch's Great Escape
  • Fantasyland — Storybook Circus
  • Fantasyland — Mickey's Philharmagic
  • Frontierland — Near the restrooms next to the Diamond Horseshoe

Epcot

  • Future World — Next to the wait time tip board
  • Future World — Innoventions West Breezeway
  • Future World — Innoventions East Breezeway
  • Future World — Mission: Space
  • Future World — Soarin
  • World Showcase — International Gateway

Animal Kingdom

  • Discovery Island — Creature Comforts
  • Discovery Island — Disney Outfitters
  • Africa — Kilimanjaro Safaris
  • Asia — Kali River Rapids
  • Asia — Expedition Everest
  • Dinoland USA — Primeval Whirl

Hollywood Studios

  • Hollywood Blvd — Next to the wait time tip board
  • Sunset Blvd — Twilight Zone Tower of Terror
  • Animation Courtyard — Voyage of The Little Mermaid
  • Streets of America — MuppetVision 3D

Keep in mind that you might find a shorter wait to use the kiosks by heading to the back of the park, if you're not among the first in to use the ones nearest the front.

If you are staying on-site, you might think that you don't need to get up early to beat the crowd any longer, now that your Fastpass+ reservation times are secured in advance. You could sleep in, but you'll be missing what might become an even better time to ride the park's most popular attractions, as Fastpass+ pulls many "day visitors" straight to the kiosks first thing in the morning, keeping them from the attraction queues.

Over the next months, we'll learn how Fastpass+ affects guest flow through the parks, as hard-core Disney fans are now limited to three reservations, and Disney keeps fine-tuning the distribution of Fastpass+ times among hotel guests and day visitors as well as how much capacity to leave for visitors in stand-by lines.

Our question for you is this: Which system do you think you will prefer? Would you rather have seen Disney stick with the old, take-it-or-leave-it paper Fastpass system, or more flexible, online, but limited-to-three-total Fastpass+ system?

We're pushing the leaners here, with no options for "Neither" or a Universal-style unlimited front-of-line pass. We're asking you to pick one or the other, based on your experience and what you've read about the systems.


Let's hear your thoughts about Fastpass+, in the comments.

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Extreme theme park makeover: Universal Studios Hollywood edition

By Robert Niles
Published: January 16, 2014 at 4:27 PM

Have you visited Universal Studios Hollywood recently?

Construction
Is "CAT" Universal Studios Hollywood's current mascot?

Yeah, there's a lot of construction going on, as Universal has torn up about half of its Upper Lot as part of its ongoing $1 billion-plus "Evolution" plan to remake the Universal City property. This month, Universal tore down the old Doc Brown and Cantina restaurants, making them the latest in a growing string of closures in the park. Our Universal Studios Hollywood page might have the shortest list of attractions and restaurants of any major park in the world since we started accepting reader ratings and reviews of theme park locations back in 1999. As of today, the park has just 11 attractions and eight restaurants, all counter-service eateries.

Compare that with Universal Studios Hollywood's big Southern California competitor — Disneyland — which offers 44 attractions and 22 restaurants.

A simplistic calculation might lead you to think that USH offers just one-fourth the park that Disneyland does. But let's take a closer look at what's left inside Universal Studios Hollywood:

  • Two walk-throughs (House of Horrors and the Universal Experience)
  • One 4D movie (Shrek)
  • Three live shows (Waterworld, Special Effects Stage, and Animal Actors)
  • Five rides (Transformers, Jurassic Park, Simpsons, Mummy, and the Studio Tour)

What's missing from that list? How about spinners, or any other off-the-shelf amusement rides? We wrote yesterday in our #IfIRanAThemePark post about running a park without any spinners, the often low-budget carousel and scramble rides that parks often use to pad their attraction counts. Universal Studios Hollywood is just one of three major U.S. parks without any of those rides. (FWIW, Epcot and Disney's Hollywood Studios are the others. Universal Studios Florida used to be on the list, but dropped off when it added the Kang n' Kodos spinner ride to its new Springfield land last summer.)

Carnival rides might soon be coming to Universal Studios Hollywood, with the debut of the Super Silly Fun Land area that will stand next to the park's new Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem ride that will open in April. But for now, Universal stands as a test case, a response to the once-hypothetical question: What might a theme park be like without all the filler?

Even Disney's California Adventure, during its billion-dollar refurbishment, left more on its table than Universal Studios Hollywood has. This is a park stripped to its foundation, awaiting the additions that will transform it into something very different than it's ever been. Within a few years, Universal on its Upper Lot will have complete lands devoted to Despicable Me, The Simpsons, and Harry Potter. The Evolution plan calls for new attractions to replace Special Effects Stage, Animal Actors, and Waterworld, as well — clearing space for up to two additional themed lands. (Shrek's days likely are numbered, too.) The new Universal Plaza provides the park with a much-needed physical focus, a place to "hang out" and simply enjoy the energy around you. Universal always lacked that central design focus, before.

Universal could use some better "placemaking" on the Lower Lot, with more impressive facades for Mummy and Transformers, as well as creating some social spaces for people to sit and enjoy their time in the park. And a signature table-service restaurant somewhere in the park would help, too.

But, for now, hey, this is the moment of calm before the chaos, the chance to visit Universal's core attractions before the expansion crowds this park with millions of additional visitors a year. If you've visited USH recently, please share your thoughts about the park's transformation, in the comments.

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#IfIRanAThemePark - Fans share their top ideas for making theme parks better

By Robert Niles
Published: January 15, 2014 at 12:00 PM

Yesterday on Twitter, we had a little fun with other theme park fans imagining what we'd do if we had the opportunity to run a theme park.

Using the #IfIRanAThemePark hashtag, I offered a few ideas of mine, and then many of you responded with ideas of your own. Here are our Twitter followers' top 15 ideas from our @ThemePark feed, ranked by the number of retweets and favorites each idea elicited:

Tokyo DisneySea
#IfIRanAThemePark I'd want my park to look like this.

#IfIRanAThemePark My in-park app would tell you the name of the song playing on the speakers nearest you. And let you buy it.

#IfIRanAThemePark Free WiFi throughout the park. Seriously, people, it's 2014 now.

#IfIRanAThemePark Christmas decorations would go up the day after Thanksgiving. No earlier.

#IfIRanAThemePark We'd never buy or install a spinner ride.

#IfIRanAThemePark Kids who meet the height requirement *exactly* go to the front of the line.

#IfIRanAThemePark All dark rides would include an original song.

#IfIRanAThemePark All food would be themed to its location in the park.

#IfIRanAThemePark Our employees never would have to take home or clean their own costumes.

#IfIRanAThemePark We'd create a custom ice cream flavor, available only in the park.

#IfIRanAThemePark We'll have plenty of benches throughout the park, and something interesting to see from every one.

#IfIRanAThemePark After-hours, hard-ticket event where everyone is *required* to come in costume and portray some character.

#IfIRanAThemePark It'd have a richly-landscaped, themed play area.

#IfIRanAThemePark All meals would be served on real plates, with real tableware.

#IfIRanAThemePark I would need to do a "research" trip to Tokyo Disney every year.

#IfIRanAThemePark It'd probably go bankrupt in a year, but it'd be a spectacular year.

Here are some our readers' top responses, again, ranked by retweets and favorites:

@futureprobe1982 — #IfIRanAThemePark No FastPass, no ExpressPass, no virtual queuing systems, period. Just lots of high-capacity rides to handle the crowds.

@Majrhavoc — #IfIRanAThemePark My Yeti animatronic would animate.

@futureprobe1982 — #IfIRanAThemePark It would be EPCOT Center, and I never would’ve ruined it in the 90s.

@Ademir818 — #IfIRanAThemePark I would not charge an arm and a leg for admission

@Jackintosh35 — #IfIRanAThemePark My annual pass would give me unlimited front of the line passes

@n8creative — #IfIRanAThemePark there would be only darkrides.

@JoeDrews — no lines. Only interactive waiting areas immersing you in the theme of the ride before you are called. #IfIRanAThemePark

@brettkyle — #IfIRanAThemePark Animatronics would take precedence over screens

@A_Coaster_Story — #IfIRanAThemePark I would never run a coaster with only 1 train.

@IndyMuttMom — Complimentary foot massages #IfIRanAThemePark

@thrillseekertx — #IfIRanAThemePark All my rides would have unique names, no exceptions. #whichViper #whichGoliath #whichSuperman

@SpaceScreamJohn — #IfIRanAThemePark every roller coaster would have on-board music

@urzishra — #IfIRanAThemePark make sure you can't see the parking lot from any of the rides.

@Majrhavoc — #IfIRanAThemePark I would not buy a Vekoma Boomerang.

@Stormin1977 — #IfIRanAThemePark I'd put full time restroom cleaners in each restroom.

What do you think about these suggestion? What would you do (or not do) if you ran a theme park? Let's keep the conversation going, in the comments, or on Twitter using the #IfIRanAThemePark hashtag.

And, by the way, if you actually do run a theme park, allow me to remind you that for any theme park improvement idea you see here on Theme Park Insider, you're free to take and implement it at your park.

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Knott's Berry Farm announces three new Camp Snoopy rides

By Robert Niles
Published: January 14, 2014 at 11:31 AM

Knott's Berry Farm has revealed three new children's rides that it will to its Camp Snoopy land this summer, as it renovates the iconic children's land for its 30th anniversary.

New Camp Snoopy
Concept art showing Pig Pen's Mud Buggies (left), Charlie Brown's Kite Flyer (right), and Linus Launcher (in back). Image courtesy Knott's.

Charlie Brown's Kite Flyer will be a children's Wave Swinger ride, with 16 two-passenger swings that rise up to 18 feet off the ground. Watch for Charlie Brown in the kite-eating tree at the top.

Linus Launcher places 24 riders on "blankets," lying down for a spinner ride that rises up to 10 feet in the air.

Pig Pen's Mud Buggies is another kiddie spinner, where "six four-seater ATVs will spin, bounce, and bump up to 24 guests at a time, while Pig Pen looks on from his center perch."

To make way for the new rides, Knott's is removing the Snoopy Bounce, Charlie Brown’s Speedway, and the Log Peeler. The three rides will go in those old attractions' places — Kite Flyer in the Snoopy Bounce spot, Linus replacing the Speedway, and Pig Pen taking the Log Peeler spot. Knott's said that it will reopen the newly refurbished land in "early summer."

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On the Road to Universal Orlando's Diagon Alley: King's Cross station

By Robert Niles
Published: January 13, 2014 at 9:55 PM

We're starting a new series today, looking at some of the major elements Universal Orlando is including in its new Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley, opening later this year at Universal Studios Florida. In this series, we'll looking at both the plans for Universal's Diagon Alley as well as the "originals" from the Harry Potter books and movies that have inspired these Universal Orlando creations.

First up: King's Cross station.

King's Cross
The real King's Cross station, in London. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

King's Cross might be the most prominent "real" location in the Harry Potter world. In the books and movies, it's the London train station where Harry Potter and the other Wizarding children board the train to Hogwarts each fall. Harry met his best friend, Ron, and future wife, Ginny, on the platform at King's Cross, where Ron and Ginny's mother showed Harry how to access the Hogwarts Express' "Platform 9 3/4," hidden by magic between the station's platforms 9 and 10.

From Pottermore:

When Ottaline Gambol commandeered a Muggle train to serve as the new mode of transport for Hogwarts students, she also had constructed a small station in the wizarding village of Hogsmeade: a necessary adjunct to the train. The Ministry of Magic felt strongly, however, that to construct an additional wizarding station in the middle of London would stretch even the Muggles' notorious determination not to notice magic when it was exploding in front of their faces. It was Evangeline Orpington, Minister from 1849-1855, who hit upon the solution of adding a concealed platform at the newly (Muggle) built King's Cross station, which would be accessible only to witches and wizards. On the whole, this has worked well, although there have been minor problems over the ensuing years, such as witches and wizards who have dropped suitcases full of biting spellbooks or newt spleens all over the polished station floor, or else disappeared through the solid barrier a little too loudly. There are usually a number of plain-clothed Ministry of Magic employees on hand to deal with any inconvenient Muggle memories that may need altering at the start and end of each Hogwarts term.

In real life, King's Cross is one of London's busier rail stations, the terminus of the East Coast Main Line, which runs from London to Edinburgh, Scotland. After the Harry Potter books became huge hits, so many tourists queued for photos on loading platforms that station officials created an official "Platform 9 3/4" photo op. It's moved a couple of times to accommodate station renovations, and today stands in the western departures concourse, just outside a bookstore stocked with Harry Potter volumes.

Platform 9 3/4 at London's King's Cross station

The Harry Potter movies filmed several King's Cross scenes inside the station, though the exterior of adjacent St. Pancras station was used as the exterior of King's Cross in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. St. Pancras is the London terminus of the Eurostar train, and is connected to King's Cross via pedestrian tunnels and a common London Underground station.

St. Pancras station
St. Pancras station. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

In Orlando, Universal is recreating the King's Cross exterior for its version of the station, not the St. Pancras stand-in. Located on the south side of the London facade to Diagon Alley (nearest the Disaster! ride), King's Cross stands outside Diagon Alley, given its position as a "Muggle" landmark.

Visitors will enter King's Cross station via the London promenade, entering into a ticket hall, where they can upgrade their tickets to the park-to-park admissions that will be required to ride Universal's Hogwarts Express to the Hogsmeade in the Islands of Adventure theme park. (We'll write more about the Hogwarts Express next week.) From the ticket hall, visitors will proceed through a connector subway into the main terminal building. The Hogwarts Express loading platform will be located on the upper floor of the terminal building, above the queue.

From the plans for the new development, it appears that visitors riding over from Hogsmeade will exit the Hogwarts Express via the loading platform before descending into the connector subway and exiting through the King's Cross station facade onto the London waterfront. So, no, riding the Hogwarts Express won't provide a "shortcut" into Diagon Alley, should Universal hold a queue of waiting visitors outside the land, as it did over at Islands of Adventure for many weeks after the original Wizarding World opened.

Unlike most theme park recreations of famous landmarks, which simply house rides or attractions that ultimately go nowhere, Universal's King's Cross station will serve as an entry and departure point connecting the two Universal Orlando theme parks. In this way, Universal's King's Cross not only will reflect the look of the London original, it will reflect its actual function, as well.

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Disney breaks ground on Avatar at Walt Disney World's Animal Kingdom

By Robert Niles
Published: January 10, 2014 at 1:31 PM

Walt Disney World todaythis week officially broke ground on the new Avatar land for Disney's Animal Kingdom.

The last remnant of the old Camp Mickey-Minnie land closed last week with the removal of the Festival of the Lion King show, which eventually will move to a new theater in the park's Africa land. That cleared the way for the official start of construction for Pandora, which Disney will build on the old Camp Minnie-Mickey site.

Disney released concept art for Avatar last October at the D23 Japan event. We heard our first details about the land a year before that, and got a look at the blueprints for Avatar's movie ride a couple of months ago.

Disney first announced Avatar in 2011 and the first phase of the land is scheduled to open in 2017.

Groundbreaking
Kudos to Matthew Gottula for his inspired caption of this Disney hand-out photo: "Well this is awkward. The Na'vi fought against man's destruction of nature, and yet here is one holding two shovels."

Okay, doubters. It's Vote of the Week time!


What do you think? Are you excited for this project?

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Say goodbye to paper Fastpass tickets at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

By Robert Niles
Published: January 10, 2014 at 11:10 AM

Walt Disney World cast members are reporting that the Magic Kingdom next week will begin eliminating its paper Fastpass tickets. Visitors not staying at one of the Walt Disney World resort hotels will need to make their same-day ride reservations at one of the Fastpass+ kiosks in the park.

Instead of getting a paper ticket with a return time, as they would from one of the old Fastpass machines, visitors now will be assigned a return time that will be directly associated with their park admission ticket. To get into the ride or show at their appointed time, visitors will tap their park admission tickets at the Fastpass+ return stanchion, where resort guests tap their MagicBands.

Tap to enter at the Magic Kingdom
Tapping an admission ticket to a new Magic Kingdom "MyMagic+" entrance stanchion.

Cast members are reporting that visitors will be able to use the Fastpass+ kiosks to select and modify their reservations times, which is a big change from the existing Fastpass system, which spit out a take-it-or-leave it return time and then blocked you from getting any other Fastpass reservation for up to two hours. Now, you'll be able to select your three return times at the beginning of the day. You'll also no longer need to worry about losing those paper Fastpass tickets.

Visitors not staying on-site at Disney will not be able to make reservations in advance, and will not be allowed to make or modify reservations using the My Disney Experience mobile app. It's the kiosks on the day of your visit or nothing for attraction reservations. Of course, with "day" visitors getting the ability to make multiple reservations first thing in the morning, it's likely that attraction reservations will "sell out" earlier in the day than they did under the old Fastpass system.

Disney's been testing this new way of handing attraction reservations in Animal Kingdom for several weeks. With the Magic Kingdom coming online next week, we recommend making a visit to a Fastpass+ kiosk your first stop in those parks in the morning. Pick the three available attractions you most want to do, then go enjoy the rest of the park, knowing that you're guaranteed in at those rides or shows with a shorter wait. (Disney is expected to eliminate the paper Fastpass tickets at Epcot and Hollywood Studios within the next couple of months.)

Visitors will now have more options for reservations than under the old Fastpass system, which was limited only to the most popular rides. To use the new system most effectively, you should try to select rides that have the longest mid-day waits, either due to high popularity or low capacity (or both). There's no sense in using a Fastpass+ reservation on a ride or show that's a walk-on or under 20-minute wait at mid-day. Those are the attractions you should be visiting in the middle of the day when you aren't using your Fastpass+ reservations.

The most useful Fastpass+ reservations might be places in the no-wait, reserved seating areas for parades and fireworks shows, but it's not clear if any of those will be available to visitors who aren't staying at a Disney hotel. Those reservations have been available only on an intermittent basis to resort guests up until now, and get snapped up quickly when they do. It's hard to believe that many would be available to "day" guests, but, who knows?

Ride reservations are ultimately a big math problem, as Disney weighs the percentages of each ride's hourly capacity to devote to advance reservations, same-day reservations, and walk-up visitors. Disney's tweaked those percentages in the past and it's likely that the company will continue to do so as it continues its transition to Fastpass+ and the MyMagic+ system.

Have you used Fastpass+, either as a resort guest, or a day visitor in the Animal Kingdom? Please tell us about your experience, in the comments.

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Theme Park News Round-up: Blackfish director lied to film's sources; Meryl Streep doesn't know what she's talking about

By Robert Niles
Published: January 9, 2014 at 9:56 PM

A former SeaWorld trainer who was one of the sources for the anti-animal captivity movie Blackfish is now saying that the film's director lied to her to entice her participation in the movie.

Bridgette Pirtle, who worked for SeaWorld San Antonio for more than 10 years, said in an interview that she began working with the movie's director, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, because she wanted to honor Dawn Brancheau, the SeaWorld Orlando trainer killed by one of the chain's orcas in 2010. But when she saw the movie at its Sundance Film Festival premiere, she found a very different result.

One Ocean show at SeaWorld Orlando

"Blackfish was a complete '180' from what was originally presented to me," Pirtle told MiceChat. "Now, it's almost like my worst fears are unfolding in front of me. When I first spoke with [executive producer] Tim [Zimmerman] and Gabriela, I truly felt like they were as passionate about the animals' welfare as I was. I felt they believed in the relationships and respected my experiences and insight."

Today, Pirtle said she believes that the filmmakers' goal was not to honor Dawn or to improve the lives of animals, but "To win the Academy Award. Once it was apparent that there was no real interest in revealing the whole truth, I knew it was another person's attempt to capitalize on the tragedy of the story of Dawn," she told the website.

Pirtle spoke of attempts to silence any criticism of the film.

"I know firsthand that any attempt of an experienced trainer looking to speak on behalf of the animals was quickly dismissed. Attempts to publish articles that presented a more fair, honest and unbiased perspective were eventually nixed at the very last minute. It was naive of me to seek to expose the truth that contradicted many of those within the film via CNN, the company which had a vested interest in the success of the film.”

The most damning line in the post? "When Gabriela Cowperthwaite found out that Bridgette would be speaking out about the film, Gabriela called Bridgette and reportedly told her to, 'Please wait until after award season to criticize Blackfish.'"

A personal note: As some of you might know, I used to work as a media critic and journalism instructor for a major journalism school. And more than a year ago, I served on the advisory board of a documentary film that examined my local public school district. (My son worked as a director on the film and captured the quote cited in the lead of this review.) So I have some professional experience to draw upon when I say that the first rule of documentary filmmaking is (or, at least, ought to be): tell the truth. There's no shame in a film having a point of view. Many journalists and documentarians reject the "view from nowhere" philosophy that reduces our media to stenography. But the reason for a story to portray a point of view is to endorse a reported truth while defending against the falsehoods that attack the truth.

If documentarians, or journalists, have to resort to lies to report or tell their stories, they're no longer serving the truth. And they're no longer worthy of discerning readers' attention, much less honor or award. The Motion Picture Academy declined to honor the film Waiting for Superman when that movie was exposed for duplicity. But will it do the same for Blackfish?

Keeping on the topic of rebutting lies, the Walt Disney Family Museum has offered a rebuttal to several enduring slurs about Walt Disney, who died in December 1966. This week at the National Board of Review awards dinner, Meryl Streep honored Emma Thompson for her portrayal of P.L. Travers in Saving Mr. Banks and used the occasion to launch an attack on Walt Disney, calling him anti-Semitic and a "gender bigot."

The Museum took on both charges, noting Disney's support for Jewish artists within the company (including Marty Sklar) and his honor from B'nai B'rith, and publishing the letter to a female applicant that spawned the "gender bigot" charge, while also noting Disney's support for female artists including Mary Blair, Alice Davis and Harriet Burns.

The Museum also threw in a rebuttal to ongoing rumors that Walt Disney was cryogenically frozen following his death, noting that his body was, in fact, cremated. (Pretty much the opposite of cryogenic freezing, isn't it?) Disney's cremains are interred at the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California.

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Universal 'doubling down' on theme park investments, while Disney shrugs

By Robert Niles
Published: January 8, 2014 at 11:37 AM

The head of Universal's parent company is "doubling down" on theme parks and going after the Walt Disney Company's market share. But not only does Universal's braggadocio not seem to phase the industry leader, Disney is continuing to take its sweet time in proceeding with several major theme park projects.

"We think that there is a lot of 'there' there in the theme-park business for many years to come and that we have a low market share — and only one way to go," Comcast Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts told analysts in Las Vegas this week. Comcast owns NBCUniversal, the parent company of the Universal theme parks. NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke (a former Disney executive) previously declared Universal's intention to build up to 12,000 additional hotel rooms at Universal Orlando, while investing half a billion dollars a year in its theme parks worldwide.

Diagon Alley
Diagon Alley, under construction at Universal Studios Florida. Photo submitted by Michael B.

Universal Orlando will open its new 1,800-room Cabana Bay Beach resort hotel later this spring and a second Harry Potter land, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley, at Universal Studios Florida, likely in June. Universal Studios Hollywood is working on a billion-dollar-plus "Evolution" makeover of its property, with a new Despicable Me-themed land opening this spring (likely April) and a Wizarding World of Harry Potter also under construction. The Wizarding World will debut at Universal Studios Japan later this year, and a Universal theme park is proceeding toward construction in China, too.

Disney's reaction? To "no comment" to the Orlando Sentinel, when it asked about Roberts' comments. And Disney continues to keep its plans for new Star Wars-themed lands at Disneyland and Disney's Hollywood Studios in Florida on the shelf, according to one online report.

Outside the CEO suite and the PR offices, many Disney cast members are eager to fight back against Universal's efforts. Disney Imagineering Chief Creative Executive Bruce Vaughn said "bring it on" when asked at last year's D23 convention about competing with Universal. Imagineering teased its Star Wars lands at that gathering, and Disney's attraction designers have developed plans for a wide variety of themed attractions to match Universal's new developments.

But Disney's executives haven't yet given their approval to proceed, as the company diverts budget allocations toward making its MyMagic+ initiative work at the Walt Disney World Resort.

Disney's beaten every competitor that's stepped up to fight it since Disneyland opened in 1955, from Six Flags in the 1960s and 70s to Universal today. But those victories have come from great effort. No competitor yet has spent the money that Universal's now devoting to taking Disney's theme park market share. Will a new reservation system for the same old rides continue to allow Disney to protect its market share in Orlando and beyond? Or, at some point, will Disney's executives need to open the budget and spend the money to develop its Star Wars, Marvel and other theme park plans? Theme park visitors will answer those questions by where they spend their money in the year ahead.

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Alone in a theme park…

By Brian Emery
Published: January 7, 2014 at 4:55 PM

I was outside shoveling some snow on Friday night at 11:30 pm and I noticed how quiet it was, no one on the streets, no one walking a dog, not even one car passed. I took a moment to enjoy the serenity of the night. All was very calm, quiet and peaceful. I thought how nice it was to be outside and alone which does not happen often in this crowded world. It was truly an enjoyable moment.

Then I started to think about being in places usually flooded with thousands of people and what it would like to be alone. Just imagine walking down Main Street USA in Walt Disney World and you are by yourself. Or walking down the Las Vegas Strip by Caesar’s Palace and there are no cars anywhere. What would it be like?

Empty Main Street at Disneyland

Would you be intimidated, scared, overwhelmed? Would you enjoy the silence? Would it be almost like a religious experience and Only the Truth shall set you free?

I am sure some Maintenance folks have be close to alone on a few occasions, but I am talking about alone, just you…. I bet it would be nice…

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Some notes on a trip to Orlando: Airports, outlets, and coffee

By Robert Niles
Published: January 7, 2014 at 12:42 PM

We just returned from a short trip to Orlando to visit family over the New Year's holiday. Here are some observations for your consideration:

Is LAX now a better airport than Orlando International?

Orlando and Los Angeles airports rank among the nations' busiest, with Orlando 13th and LA third in the country for annual passenger boardings, according to the Federal Aviation Administration [PDF]. But Orlando's long enjoyed a much better reputation than LAX has. Neither airport cracked last year's list of the world's top 100 airports (topped by Singapore's Changi Airport), but in its most recent rankings, Travel + Leisure magazine named LAX the nation's second-worst airport, while declaring Orlando the fourth best.

But LAX has been fixing itself, building a new international terminal, renovating domestic terminals and awarding new concession contracts which have brought new restaurants into the airport, including some local favorites.

At the same time, Orlando's remained stagnant, planning for the future while enduring a present that's left the airport with a layout that doesn't fit modern travel patterns, and some of the nation's longest TSA security checks waits.

Here are four criteria for judging airports:

  1. Ease of getting there
  2. Ease of finding and making connections
  3. TSA waits
  4. Quality and availability of concessions

Orlando and LAX both fail on number one — mass transit to both airports is limited to city buses, with no rail options. For theme park fans traveling to a Disney hotel, Orlando gets points for Disney's Magical Express option, but for everyone else, Orlando loses points for having its main road access be toll roads.

Both Orlando and LAX are destination airports for me, so I can't judge them for making connections. That leaves TSA and concessions. On both, LAX now beats Orlando. LAX spreads its operations among nine terminal buildings, each with its own TSA checkpoint. That better distributes the load of passengers when compared with Orlando, which offers two TSA checkpoints, one each for the A and the B sides. In our experience, security checks at LAX take no more than 5-10 minutes, and personnel are helpful. In Orlando, however, we've never gotten through TSA in less than 15 minutes, often taking more than 20. (Nearly half an hour on this trip.) And my wife and daughter claim that they seem to get singled out for extra screenings more often in Orlando than at any other airport (a complaint we've heard from other female passengers).

As for concessions, Orlando has a large food court and abundant retail. Unfortunately, they're located before the security checkpoint, minimizing their use to passengers. Who wants to risk missing a flight due to long security lines? That's why today's airline passengers often choose to go through security as soon as they are checked in, rather than linger outside the checkpoints. In Los Angeles, all the concessions are located behind the checkpoints, where they're available to you until you board your flight. Most of Orlando's food and retail may as well not exist once you've gone through its nasty TSA check.

A few years ago, that really didn't matter much in Los Angeles, which offered a limited selection of tired quick service restaurants. But this time, we could choose from local restaurants such as Campanile, La Provence Patisserie, Real Food Daily, and Homeboy Cafe. Compare that with the Qdoba, Wendy's and a Ruby Tuesdays (that was out of fish, bacon, and burger patties) that we found in Orlando.

Five years ago, I used to look forward to visiting Orlando International, and dreaded my time in LAX. Today, it's the opposite.

An outlet shopping alternative in Orlando

If you want to include outlet shopping during your Orlando visit, you're probably familiar with the hassle of getting into and parking at the two major outlet malls near the theme parks: the Orlando Premium Outlets on International Drive (close to Universal) and on Vineland Avenue near Lake Buena Vista and Disney. But on this trip, we found a much more accessible alternative — The Lake Buena Vista Factory Stores, located on State Road 535, between U.S. 192 and the Central Florida GreeneWay toll road.

On a day when it took us more than 20 minutes to make one circle around the Vineland outlets' parking lots, finding no empty spaces, we found abundant available parking at the Lake Buena Vista stores. It's smaller than the Vineland and I-Drive outlet malls, but it's got many of the biggies, including Nike, Eddie Bauer, Gap, Old Navy, Timberland, Izod, etc. It'll be our first stop next time we want to go shopping in Orlando.

Epcot's Fountain View: The best Starbucks ever?

Okay, we've not sampled nearly enough Starbucks to make that declaration. But Epcot's new Starbucks location did quite well for us on our recent visit, when temperatures plunged into the low 40s and visitors crowded into the store in search of hot drinks.

Fountain View Starbucks at Epcot

Despite visiting on Jan. 3, the store still has eggnog lattes available, a seasonal favorite that had long since disappeared from every other coffee store we'd visited since Christmas Eve. And the baristas at this Starbucks actually spelled Laurie's name correctly, something she hadn't experienced at a Starbucks in ages (Lori, Lorie, Lorrie, Lorry, Laury — you name it). Perhaps it takes Disney's high-volume inventory clout and cast member training, but Fountain View provided the best Starbucks experience we've had since visiting, well, the Fiddler, Fifer and Practical Cafe at Disney California Adventure.

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Monday theme park news round-up: Attraction closures, plus Disneyland SoCal resident ticket deals

By Robert Niles
Published: January 6, 2014 at 12:37 PM

The new year brings several notable attraction and restaurant closings at major theme parks around America.

Beetlejuice's Graveyard Revue has closed at Universal Studios Florida, to be replaced with a new monster musical production later this year.

Festival of the Lion King

Festival of the Lion King has closed at Disney's Animal Kingdom, as Disney eliminates Camp Minnie-Mickey to make way for the new Avatar land. Festival of the Lion King will reopen in a new theater in the Africa section of the park, later this year.

Doc Brown's Fried Chicken has closed at Universal Studios Hollywood, as the last hold-out of Back to the Future goes away to clear the way for what we hear will be a new Simpsons-themed eatery, inspired by the wild success of the Springfield Fast Food Boulevard at Universal Studios Florida.

And the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage has closed at Disneyland. Disney's calling this an extended refurbishment, but given that the subs are wildly expensive to operate when balanced against the relatively small crowds that they can handle, coupled with ongoing Imagineering plans to bring more Star Wars to Disneyland's Tomorrowland, many fans are skeptical that we'll see the subs return. Keep your eyes on this one. If the subs sit around for months with no sign of work, that's not a good sign for their return.

Speaking of Disneyland, the California resort has announced its annual ticket deal for Southern California residents. Southern California residents can buy a 2-day ticket (one park per day) for $129, a 2-day Park Hopper for $164, a 3-day, one park per day ticket for $159, or a 3-day Park Hopper for $194. All days must be used by June 6, but Disneyland has not said anything about having to use all the days within 14 days of the ticket's first use, as it has required in the past. March 31-April 20 is blocked out for these tickets, however. Tickets are available at Disneyland.com, resort ticket booths, and many local grocery store checkout lanes.

Update: For comparison, Florida residents can buy a three-day Walt Disney World pass (one park per day) for $129 plus tax. Four days is $149 under the WDW resident deal.

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Is Universal Studios China on its way?

By Robert Niles
Published: January 4, 2014 at 7:20 AM

A Universal Studios theme park in Beijing appears one more step closer to happening, according to a Chinese report.

Blooloop found a report from Shanghai Securities News that officials from the National Development and Reform Commission in Tongzhou District in Beijing have filed an application to begin construction on the park in the fourth quarter of this year.

The project's budget is estimated at US$2 billion (RMB12 billion). Demolition is underway at the site, and the report says that construction would be completed by January 2018.

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Vote of the Week: What's the coldest day you've spent in a theme park?

By Robert Niles
Published: January 3, 2014 at 7:33 AM

ORLANDO — Today's forecast high temperature for the theme park area in Orlando is just 52 degrees. The hourly forecast temperatures for most of the day will be in the 40s. By Florida standards, it's gonna be a chilly one in Orlando today.

Cold morning in Tokyo
Disney fans in Tokyo bundle up on a cold morning at Tokyo DisneySea

Most fans associate theme parks with warm, summer temperatures. And for most of the year, warm temperatures persist at the Orlando and Southern California temperatures, where daily high temperatures tend to remain at least in the low 70s even during the winter months, allowing those parks to remain open throughout the year. But cold snaps happen. Heck, I worked at Walt Disney World one day when it snowed.

Cold temperatures, even snowfall, are no strangers at Disney's theme parks in Tokyo and Paris. But theme park fans traveling to Florida don't expect to have to use heavy coats and sweaters when they visit the parks.

What's the coldest daily high temperature you've experienced during a theme park visit? If you spend most of your visits going to regional parks, which are open only during the summer, you might not have spent much time in a cold theme park. Nor if you've been fortunate enough to avoid the occasional cold snaps on visits to the Orlando or Los Angeles areas.

But if you're a regular at the Florida or California theme parks, or you've traveled outside the United States, you might have had quite a few cold days in theme parks. Let's make this our Vote of the Week. For the vote, consider the lowest daily high temperature during one of your park visits. In other words, don't count nighttime lows here. Even on sunny 80-degree days in Anaheim, the temperature often dips as low at the 50s at night. Let's not count that for this vote. We're only looking for what's the lowest "high" you've experienced in a park. And since we're a US-based website, we're talking Fahrenheit here, not the Celsius scale used pretty much everywhere else in the world.


In the comments, please tell us one of your favorite cold-weather theme park stories. And if you're in Orlando today, bundle up and have a great day in the parks!

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Lusting for some controversy? The awkward history of Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean

By Matt McDonough
Published: January 2, 2014 at 8:39 PM

As a kid I was fortunate enough to grow up near Disneyland and made the pilgrimage a couple of times a year. I loved visiting Disneyland and made it my mission to try and hit as many rides as possible each visit and take in all the sights and smells of that incredible park. Although I now live and work on the east coast, I still visit family in southern California and every once in a while we make the trek to Anaheim. The park has always held a special place in my heart and I even proposed to my wife in front of the castle. This year was the 10th anniversary of that proposal and we decided to commemorate the event with another visit. While I have ridden dozens of rides at a variety of theme parks none have captured my imagination better than the west coast original, Pirates of the Caribbean.

This ride is awesome in too many ways to count, from the queue which features portraits of real notable pirates, to boarding at "Lafitte's Landing" (an often-overlooked nod to the French Pirate who helped turn the tide at the Battle of New Orleans), to the battle that rains cannonballs around you. As a kid, this always was my favorite ride and helped inspire me to become a historian. Upon the latest ride, I was reminded of some scenes that have changed drastically over the years. That has a lot to do with how we choose to remember and interpret history.

We wants the redhead!
Photo submitted by Brandon Mendoza

Of particular note is how the pirates have been portrayed when it comes to their lustful reputation. Pirates operating in the Caribbean during the Golden Age of Piracy (early 18th century) were known to frequent brothels and were no strangers to sex and raping. In its original incarnation, Disney's ride did not gloss over this aspect. Instead, several scenes depicted the pirate lustfully chasing after female villagers. This clip features the original ride's promo video (the pertinent scenes are from 3:58-5:30):

Three scenes are of particular note. The first showcases the famous pirate auction where Pirates are encouraged to bid and "take a wench for a bride." This scene is mostly identical now as it was when the ride debut in 1967. The next scene featured pirates chasing townswomen around, trying to capture them. In addition there was the infamous "pooped pirate" who has tired from his skirt-chasing and converses with the guests. Asking if they have seen the fine wench he is pursuing, what he would do to her and even offers to "share" her (considerate pirates are so rare these days.) Starting in the 1990s, public opinion berated Disney for these sexist scenes and they were altered repeatedly. Now, the women chase pirates who are carrying looted goods. The wannabe rapist pirate has now been replaced with a buccaneer searching for a treasure map. Yet the auction scene has escaped most change. It still features women being bought and sold, including a weeping girl at the back awaiting her fate. Perhaps this scene is still acceptable since the pirates are agreeing to marry the women and make them "honest."

All of this does bring up some rather interesting points. In my last article I discussed the failure of Disney's America and how one reason for its demise was the charge of "Disneyfication" — that Disney could not do justice to history and thus would ruin the experience by whitewashing sensitive subjects. Yet in the case of Pirates of the Caribbean, the opposite occurred. The lustful pirate, while historically accurate, was deemed insensitive and thus removed to make the attraction more family friendly. But when we really think about it, the ride is far from family friendly. The altered chase scene now features pirates who have looted goods. The pirates still set fire to the town and then, toward the end, we are greeted by the sight of drunken swashbucklers recklessly shooting firearms at each other in a room full of explosives. Thus according to the current mindset alcoholism, attempted murder, robbery, theft, and arson are all acceptable but a pirate chasing a girl crosses the line. The main question still remains — can history and theme parks co-exist, or are we doomed to jump from controversy to controversy whenever the two meet?

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Disney World visitors in wheelchairs now getting to enjoy all of the Haunted Mansion

By Daniel Etcheberry
Published: January 2, 2014 at 6:32 AM

I have two items of good news for Disney World fans who are in wheelchairs.

Haunted Mansion is letting people in wheelchairs go to the stretching room; before, wheelchairs entered directly through the exit. Now, they can experience the interactive queue and the famous room. When exiting the stretching room, a cast member will open a door that takes you to the ride’s exit. It was the first time that I go to that room since I was body-abled in the 90s.

Haunted Mansion

The other good news is a tip that I got from a blogger who is in a wheelchair and who writes about Disney World for people with disabilities. Test Track is very difficult to transfer because the vehicle’s seats are lower in height than the loading platform. But if you ask a cast member to let you transfer in the seat belt checking area, the vehicle will be at your same height. I really have to thank Melissa Knight for this and many other interesting tips.

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SeaWorld, Universal Studios Hollywood enjoy time in the spotlight at the 125th Rose Parade

By Robert Niles
Published: January 1, 2014 at 7:11 PM

For the first time in 14 years, we weren't in Pasadena for the annual Tournament of Roses Parade this morning. But since Rose Parade coverage has become a tradition here on Theme Park Insider, we'd like to wish you a happy new year with a couple of photos of theme park-related floats, courtesy the Tournament of Roses.

Universal Studios Hollywood enjoyed a prominent place atop The City of Los Angeles' "Endless Entertainment" float, with the Universal globe rotating atop a pedestal inspired by Hollywood's Chinese Theater.

Los Angeles 2014 Rose Parade float

And SeaWorld celebrated its upcoming 50th anniversary year with a "Sea of Surprises" float, which won the Presidents' Trophy for "most effective floral use and presentation."

SeaWorld 2014 Rose Parade float

Local law enforcement officials surrounded the SeaWorld float, due to threats from anti-animal captivity groups. But, of course, no protestors showed up, just as no one showed up to protest the other "controversial" float in the parade, the AIDS Healthcare float that celebrated the wedding of two men, which took place atop the float during the parade*. Seriously, journalists need to stop writing stories about "planned protests." Anyone can "plan" a protest. But unless people can actually put feet on the street and show up with big numbers, they're not worth a story. (*Update: Looks like a dozen or so people did show up for staged photo-op arrest at the beginning of the parade. But nothing that affected the actual parade itself. See comments for more.)

For what it is worth, SeaWorld's getting off to a great start in its anniversary year. The Orlando Sentinel reported that SeaWorld Orlando enjoyed its second-busiest day ever on Monday. All of the Orlando parks have been packed all week, with hours-long waits for even "average" attractions.

Have you been in the parks this week, in Orlando, Southern California, or elsewhere around the world? Please tell us in the comments about your visit.

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Keep reading: December 2013 Archive



Stories from a Theme Park Insider

Stories from a Theme Park Insider

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