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February 2014

Vote of the Week: Shanghai Disneyland signs with Pepsi; Which company's soft drinks do you prefer?

By Robert Niles
Published: February 28, 2014 at 2:32 PM

Pepsi products are coming back to a Disney theme park.

Shanghai Disneyland announced this week that Pepsi will have the pouring rights at the Chinese theme park, which is expected to open late next year.

Wait a minute — "coming back?", you might ask. Theme park fans who know Walt Disney World and Disneyland as exclusive Coca-Cola territory might be surprised to learn that those parks once poured Pepsi soft drinks, too.

The Pepsi-Cola Company was the original sponsor of It's a Small World at the New York Fair and of the Country Bear Jamboree at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World, as well as the Golden Horseshoe in Disneyland, which the cola company continued to sponsor until 1990. For some years, the simple rule was that you'd find Pepsi poured on the west side of Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom, while you'd get Coke on the east side. Eventually, Coke bought the exclusive pouring rights for all Disney theme parks in the United States, and Pepsi disappeared from the parks.

It's a Small World, in New York
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Elsewhere in the U.S., Coke's been pushing Pepsi out from other theme parks in recent years, too. Three years ago, Coke acquired the pouring rights for the SeaWorld/Busch Gardens theme parks, again replacing Pepsi. You might not think this is a huge deal, but given the ridiculous profits that businesses can make on soft drink sales, pouring-rights deals often count into many millions of dollars. The SeaWorld/Coke deal is whispered to have helped finance a good amount of the expense of building SeaWorld Orlando's new Antarctica pavilion, for example.

We surveyed Theme Park Insider readers when SeaWorld made the switch and a plurality approved of the change over to Coke products. Now that Disney's made a step back toward Pepsi, let's ask the question again. Which company's soft drinks would you prefer to drink at your favorite theme park?


Fight the Great Soft Drink Flame War, in the comments. And before we start hurling fizzy drinks at one another, allow me a moment to thank you all, once again, for being part of the Theme Park Insider community. I'm always amazed at the diversity of theme park fans we attract from around the world, and want you all to know that you're always very welcomed and appreciated here.

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Universal Orlando 'leaks' some Diagon Alley food photos

By Robert Niles
Published: February 28, 2014 at 1:56 PM

The head of publicity at the Universal Orlando resort, Tom Schroder, tweeted some very interesting photos this morning.

Leaky Cauldron food

"Can you guess what I'm getting to try for lunch today ?" Schroder wrote, posting the photo above, which includes some classic British dishes, including fish n' chips, bangers and mash (sausages and mashed potatoes), Scotch eggs and cheeses, a pie, and what looks like a Toad in a Hole — sausages baked into, essentially, a Yorkshire pudding.

It doesn't take a wizard to figure out that these might be some of the items on the menu at The Leaky Cauldron when the restaurant opens with the rest of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida this summer.

But that wasn't all that Schroder revealed: "And dessert! Just some of the special items we've created."

Leaky Cauldron desserts

Here we have chocolate potted cream, apple red currant tarts, and a variety of cookies. Plus,

There will be a Florean Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour in Diagon Alley, in addition to The Leaky Cauldron.

What are you looking forward to eating at Diagon Alley this summer?

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Disney announces another 24-hour party at Walt Disney World and Disneyland

By Robert Niles
Published: February 28, 2014 at 10:31 AM

The Disney Parks announced their third 24-hour theme park party this morning, a costume party that will take place between 6 a.m., May 23 and 6 a.m., May 24 at Walt Disney World and Disneyland.

The Magic Kingdom, Disneyland and Disney California Adventure will be open for those 24 hours, with guests invited to dress up as their favorite Disney heroes or villains for the "Rock Your Disney Side: 24-Hours" event.

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Disney used 140 characters to announce the event. Literally.

From the official announcement:

The celebration on both coasts will feature a cavalcade of events showcasing the good-vs.-evil of classic Disney stories including character meet-and-greets throughout the parks, special entertainment, event merchandise and special food and beverage offerings.

Disney's also giving away a trip to the party. People who follow @waltdisneyworld and/or @disneyland on Twitter can enter by tweeting about "showing their Disney Side this summer" and including the hashtag #DisneySideSweepsEntry. The winner gets a trip for four to Walt Disney World, then to Disneyland, on May 20 through May 26, 2014. The trip includes three nights' hotel and a four-day park-hopper at each resort, plus one day with a tour guide on each coast. One tweet per Twitter account per day between now and March 31 will be considered for entry, and the winner will be selected randomly. The contest is open only to adults in the United States and Canada.

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What's the formula for value in the theme park food?

By Jacob Sundstrom
Published: February 27, 2014 at 11:20 AM

Food is the oft-neglected child of amusement parks in the United States. It’s a solution to a problem, or a cash cow that is bred in tight quarters with limited sunlight. Disney, Busch Gardens, SeaWorld and (to an extent) Universal make an effort to rise above mediocre burgers on a 40-cent bun, but that doesn’t help theme park fans who will only make it to their local Six Flags this summer.

Theme park food is overpriced. That’s not a secret and the proprietors of theme parks will tell you as much. The logic goes as such: Event pricing is an institution at places of leisure. Paying $10 for a beer at a Dodgers game is as normal as it is to pay $7 for a popcorn at a movie theater and the business owners point at their compatriots as backing for their own pricing. This is a form of institutionalized collusion. “Well, hey, everyone else is fleecing customers for parking and soft drinks! Why not us?”

That’s what opens up a crack of light for theme parks such as Holiday World to set themselves apart from their stingy cohorts. The Indiana-based theme park offers free sunscreen, parking and soft drinks to all of its guests; this identification, and subsequent exploitation, of market inefficiencies does not happen enough in the theme park business. That largely stems from a distinct lack of head-to-head competition for most theme parks.


From a food truck, not a theme park. Maybe that's a better idea?

Once you leave California and Florida behind, most theme parks are their own blip in their own market. Six Flags Great America is the only true amusement park in the entire Chicago area. Think about that: 9.5 million people in the Chicago metropolitan area are being serviced by a single theme park. Obviously Great America is competing against other leisure activities more-so than another theme park, but that prevents a direct comparison with another theme park for most people.

When a guest goes to a theme park, the park is battling against the stereotypes of an amusement park. The food sucks, everything is overpriced, the staff is rude and incompetent...the list goes on. Note the way I am using stereotypes here is not in the new-traditional sense. These stereotypes, unlike the ones often used to marginalize a group of people, are certainly rooted in fact. They are often a bit over the top, but that’s the bed amusement industry types made for themselves when they decided to overcharge for mediocre food and underpay high school kids to work at their theme parks. Tough beans!

So about the food: Why is it bad? Or, perhaps more importantly, why is it bad and STILL so expensive? Taco Bell does not serve great food, but it doesn’t matter much because it’s inexpensive and convenient. The formula by which you can judge a quick service restaurant is something like this:

Happiness = Taste + Speed - Cost

Are you charging me an arm and a leg for a bad hamburger that takes a long time to get in my hands? Cool, you just increased the chances of me sneaking in a sandwich next time I visit your park. If theme parks don’t want to put in the time and effort to serve good food, they should at least work on perfecting the efficiency with which it is delivered to guests and the price that is charged.

There are a few common reasons why lines are long at quick service theme park restaurants; one of them is an understaffed stand. When I worked at a movie theater the hierarchy of importance read like a Drake song: Money over everything. The same employee rang up the customer, got the drink, got the popcorn and went to the back to put in hot food orders. Paying an extra two employees could cut this time down to quicker than five minutes — but the business values the extra money more than the extra happiness that could be provided to their customers.

This isn’t exactly a revelation to people who have been going to theme parks for a long time. As I mentioned earlier, this type of treatment has set a low bar of expectation for guests — so why would any park change? Theme park food could be the next great market inefficiency.

Think about the way food trucks have changed what is possible for restauranteurs: Low overhead costs combined with a high valuation of innovation and experimentation. Why can’t the same thing happen at a theme park? Hell, why haven’t we seen food trucks at a theme park? The Los Angeles Coliseum hosts USC Football games seven times a year and they surround the stadium with food trucks offering all sorts of fare. Disneyland brings in food trucks backstage solely for their cast members. [Editor's note: Disney brought in food trucks for guests during the first go-around of what is now the Mad T Party at DCA. Then Disney kicked 'em out to take over the food service at the party for itself. And Downtown Disney in Orlando now has a few "food trucks" that are really just glorified Disney quick-service stands. That's not the same as what Jacob's proposing.]

What’s to stop Knott’s Berry Farm from bringing in a Korean Barbecue truck on Tuesdays and a pizza truck on Wednesdays? When Cedar Fair decides it wants to serve food I can’t get at a mall, it could change the game. Or, at the very least, would ensure we can all enjoy stir fry that’s not found in a panda bowl next time we visit a theme park.

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Universal Orlando matches Disney World's price increase on one-day tickets

By Robert Niles
Published: February 26, 2014 at 11:29 PM

Universal Orlando today matched Walt Disney World's $4-a-ticket price increase on one-day/one-park theme park tickets. That raises the price of a one-day ticket to either Universal Studios Florida or Islands of Adventure from $92 to $96. Disney World is charging $99 for one day at the Magic Kingdom (up from $95) and $94 for its other three parks (up from $90).

Hogwarts
How much is that in Galleons, Sickles and Knuts?

Opting for the park-to-park option at Universal adds $40 to the cost of a one-day ticket, $5 more than the one-day park hopper add-on at Disney. The two-day base ticket at Universal went up $9, to $155.99 while the two-day park-to-park ticket increased $29, to $195.99. That makes the difference between the two-day base ticket, where you can visit one park per day, and the park-to-park ticket $40 (again) — double the previous price difference of $20.

Disney charges up to $60 for its park-hopper option, on tickets of four days or more. But remember that Disney offers four theme parks to Universal's two. The big increase in the price of going between the two parks in one day at Universal surely reflects Universal's expectation that demand for that option will surge after the Hogwarts Express train starts carrying visitors between Islands of Adventure's Wizarding World of Harry Potter and the new Diagon Alley land in Universal Studios Florida this summer.

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Tuesday theme park news round-up: Avengers run through Disneyland, and changes are coming to the Magic Kingdom hub

By Robert Niles
Published: February 25, 2014 at 6:44 PM

RunDisney today announced its newest running event: an Avengers half-marathon weekend at the Disneyland Resort in California. The November event will be the third annual running weekend at the Disneyland Resort, joining the Disneyland Half-Marathon in August, and the Tinker Bell Half-Marathon Weekend in January. RunDisney's first Marvel-themed weekend also will be the first character-themed Disney running event not targeted specifically toward women. (The other character themed event, in addition to the Tinker Bell weekend, is Walt Disney World's Disney Princess Half Marathon, which completed this past weekend.) Of course, any Marvel-themed RunDisney event would have to happen as Disneyland, as the Universal Orlando deal prevents Disney from including its Marvel characters inside the Walt Disney World theme parks. Registration starts online on March 25 for the event, which happens Nov. 14-16.

Alice in Wonderland ride
Ditch these tarps, please!

Also in Disneyland news, the park confirmed again today that its Alice in Wonderland ride will be getting its long-awaited exterior makeover, closing March 9 for an extended refurbishment that will last through summer. Alice in Wonderland joins Big Thunder Mountain, It's a Small World, and the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage on this year's extended refurb calendar, though Thunder's in testing and could be returning any day now.

Wrapping up on the West coast, Disneyland also welcomed the semi-annual "Dapper Day" this past weekend, when thousands of park guests go old-school by dressing up in what a previous generation called "their Sunday best" for their trip to the parks. (Way back when, many people dressed up to visit Disneyland. Or, at least, they dressed up relative to today's, uh, rather casual apparel standards.) Dapper Day is coming to Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom on March 9. If you're interested, you can get convention-rate discounted tickets to the MK that day via the Dapper Day website.

Looking for another Orlando-area ticket deal? SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa are offering $50 weekday tickets, now through May 5. You must use the ticket by that date, and U.S. residents must purchase them in advance via the parks' websites or by calling 888-800-5447.

Of course, the best discount is getting something for free. U.S. rail service Amtrak grabbed some attention this week for okay'ing a couple of writers' pitch to give them free tickets to write while traveling on Amtrak. That inspired Gawker to come up with some alternate travel-related "writer's fellowships," including the "The Six Flags Over Georgia Ninja Roller Coaster Distinguished Writer Fellowship" for seeking a "creative jolt" to "write provocative reflections on the illusory distinctions between up and down, left, and right." (And thanks for the link, guys!)

Finally, work's getting underway for some changes to the hub at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. The plans apparently call for filling in the section of the old Swan Boat waterway between the Crystal Palace and the Tomorrowland Terrace, creating space to help lay down a second pavement ring, with a wider circumference, surrounding the existing hub roadway. That will create more paved space for people standing (or sitting) to watch the nightly fireworks, and provide some crowd control relief after those shows. On busy nights in the MK, audience control cast members have created makeshift pathways through the grass on the hub to hep exit the large crowds. This refurbishment will create additional permanent pathways around and exiting the hub, including two pathways leading from the new outer hub ring to the alternate exits on either side of Main Street USA.

Update: Disney's just posted a video:

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The Olympics, roller coasters, and the human need for thrills

By Jacob Sundstrom
Published: February 25, 2014 at 12:20 PM

Why do people go to theme parks? If this seems like an odd question, perhaps it’s because the idea of going to a theme park is a natural part of our cultural experience in the United States (and the world at large, of course).

But when you deconstruct the concept of a theme park to its roots: A bunch of engineers (you know, the guys who make factories and spaceships and automobiles) designing complex (and expensive) machines for the amusement of the world. It’s manufactured fun at its most pure; which would be weird, if they weren’t so damn fun.

With the Olympics wrapping up in Sochi last weekend, it’s fair to say that Russia has been on the mind the past two weeks. I’ve watched more than my fair share of elite athletes compete in sports you don’t see on ESPN every day. Take luge, for instance. Men and women strap themselves to sleds and hurl themselves down icy mountains at incredible speeds for...fun? Are they crazy?

Maybe not.

Perhaps their thrill-seeking desires are just more finely tuned (and extreme) than the ones we exhibit when we strap ourselves into the newest Bolliger and Mabillard creation. After all, the modern day roller coaster was born on sheets of ice in the very country where athletes like Noelle Pikus-Pace competed this past week.

Russian ice slides are the patient zero of the roller coaster epidemic. While luge did not become an Olympic sport until 1964, ice slides came into popularity in the 17th century; perhaps the sport of luge descended from this early form of amusement?

Regardless of their origin, these slides struck a nerve amongst the upper and lower classes alike. Of course even a country known for the cold like Russia couldn’t sustain a wooden ramp covered in ice year round -- not over a hundred years before refrigeration was invented. This wasn’t the only problem, of course. While sliding down a sheet of ice while sitting on a block of ice may sound fun, it’s not exactly the safest way to spend one’s leisure time.

From the perspective of a business, making an attraction that appeals to more guests means more money. Walt Disney World isn’t the most successful theme park in the world just because of Mickey Mouse. It’s a theme park where people of all ages can find something of value — which means people of all ages will hand over their money for it. Capitalism!

Wooden slide in France

Next came an ice slide without ice. In France, large wooden slides were built and wheels were attached to sleds to make carts. The problem? No track. Sliding down an icy hill with no track is one thing, but down a wooden ramp in wagon? Well, let’s just say OSHA wouldn’t be impressed. The solution came with “Les Montagues Russes a Bellevilles” in 1817. Tracks were constructed that locked wheels in place, creating the first true roller coaster.

From there came The Scenic Railway in the 1850s. What was originally designed as a transportation system at large mines became an amusement attraction on slow days. LaMarcus Adna Thompson then took that concept and created The Switchback Railway, which opened at Coney Island in 1884. From there, roller coasters grew more elaborate, culminating with the first golden age of roller coasters in the 1920s.

The Switchback Railway

That whole “great depression” thing or whatever really killed the mood in the 1930s, but thanks to World War II (yay wartime economy!) things got back into gear in the 1950s. Then came the invention of tubular steel track which led to the second golden age of roller coasters, which was spearheaded by Arrow Dynamics.

Alpine bobsled coaster

In 1984 it all came full circle as the Olympics inspired theme parks. Six Flags opened two bobsled roller coasters: One in Six Flags Great Adventure and the other at Magic Mountain. Both were named after the 1984 Sarajevo games and both were moved from their current parks just in time for the Calgary games in 1988 (a coincidence, I’m sure). Of course, both of those roller coasters are in better shape now than their namesake.

Six Flags didn’t rush to brand a “Sochi Slides” concept to celebrate the most recent winter games, but the Olympics, Russia and roller coasters will be permanently intertwined.

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Universal Orlando's Mardi Gras 2014: A photo gallery of the French Quarter courtyard, food and floats

By Krista Joy
Published: February 24, 2014 at 11:03 PM

On February 22nd, 2014 Universal Orlando hosted yet another fantastic press event. This one was all about Mardi Gras 2014 - and ThemeParkInsider.com has your photo tour of the French Quarter Courtyard Food and Floats! Just to review, Universal Orlando’s Mardi Gras celebration combines entertainment with an elaborate Mardi Gras parade, dozens of colorfully costumed performers, authentic New Orleans bands, delicious Cajun cuisine, and live concerts. The fun happens on Saturdays and other select nights from February 8th through May 31st, 2014.

Universal

The heart of Mardi Gras is the Universal Studios "French Quarter Courtyard." Tucked away and a little bit off to the side, this is where the celebration continues and the New Orleans-inspired food creations begin. As you approach, the wonderful aroma of the food beckons you to come closer. 

universalcourtyard

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Booths are colorful and have wonderful signage so there is no doubt as to what you're standing in line for. I spoke with some friends who said they didn't' think it was quite as good as the real thing, but it was obvious Universal worked very hard to make this food as authentic as they could, right down to every last detail. The jambalaya, pasta, beignets, and shrimp po boys were crowd favorites.

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Here in the French Quarter Courtyard, there is also a terrific bonus in the nearly twelve hand-picked, authentic New Orleans bands that perform the best of New Orleans Jazz and Zydeco. Guests have been grooving to the soulful sounds of these authentic New Orleans bands every night before the headliner concert since 2006. In fact, more than 20 bands have traveled straight from The Big Easy to Universal Orlando to perform music for party-goers, and I think it really adds to the authenticity of Universal’s Mardi Gras celebration. The French Quarter Courtyard opens at 4:00pm and closes at concert time, but (hooray!) the food booths may extend their hours if it is a busy night.

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Our next leg of the event took us backstage to view some of the re-designed and totally brand new floats. In case you were wondering, 2014 brings us  three new floats and one revamped float, to be exact. Blaine-Kern Studios has been the face of Mardi Gras since 1947 and builds floats not only for Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but also for Mardi Gras at Universal Orlando. When they say they have authentic Mardi Gras parade floats at Universal, they mean it. The authenticity and detail of the float designs are just as intricate as they are in Mardi Gras in New Orleans, the only difference being that they are built to be used for months instead of just once.

"One of the things we wanted to focus on this year is we wanted to tell a story," said Patrick Braillard, Creative Development and Show Director at Universal Orlando. Braillard and Curtis Hopkins, Senior Scenic Designer for Universal Orlando, were talking about stories they wanted to tell through the Mardi Gras parade and suddenly the team had an epiphany. "We knew we had the previous floats from last year, which were from China, India and Mexico and we thought, well, that’s kind of a tour around the world so we thought, 'Oh, around the world in 80 days.' That gives us the opportunity to turn our theme park and the parade into a steampunk turn-of-the-century, fun-filled spectacle." So there you have it, that is how this year's theme became "Around the World in 80 Days" based off of the Jules Verne book of the same name. The different floats feature many modes of transportation on land, sea, and air.

Universal updated its iconic jester float featuring multiple masks, jester images and lots of glitter. "The jester float is a mainstay at our parade and we wanted it to be brighter and more vivid," Braillard said.

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The Lissa is named after Braillard's beautiful wife. The crowd chuckled when he mentioned his wife was flattered at first, but later picked on him a bit for thinking of her when he created something this large!

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If you are looking for a more family-friendly party atmosphere and parade, you can easily steer clear of the Music Plaza. The Little Jester’s Parade Viewing Area has been set up just for kids. It is located next to the Terminator 2: 3-D attraction and it opens one hour before the parade starts. They really thought of everything because Universal has even put this special viewing area right next to the park exit  to make it a little easier to leave with your kids once the parade passes.

Every spring, the fun and excitement of The Big Easy makes its way to Universal Orlando Resort for Mardi Gras – an authentic celebration that completely transforms Universal Studios Florida into a family-friendly version of the famed New Orleans street party. I hope you have enjoyed this photo tour of Universal Mardi Gras with a focus on the French Quarter Courtyard, Food, and Floats.

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On the Road to Diagon Alley: The London Embankment

By Robert Niles
Published: February 24, 2014 at 3:28 PM

Visitors to Universal Studios Florida already can get a first look at the London Embankment, the facade under construction in the park that hides The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley.

London Embankment at Universal Studios Florida
Concept art courtesy Universal Orlando

Universal's concept art for the embankment shows that there's quite a bit of space between those construction walls and the building facades themselves, space that ultimately will provide an urban park. In the park, you'll also find the Knight Bus, a triple-decker, purple AEC Regent III RT bus that carried Harry Potter to the Leaky Cauldron in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Knight Bus
The Knight Bus in front of Universal Studios Florida, before the Wizarding World of Harry Potter premiere in June 2010.

Eventually, the Knight Bus is planned to provide some interactive animation elements for visitors (the talking shrunken head, perhaps?), though I've not heard recently how close those elements are to being ready for the land's opening this summer. Nevertheless, the bus will provide an attractive photo op for Harry Potter fans visiting the new land.

But let's look at the elements of the London Embankment facade itself. We've already written about King's Cross Station, located at the far left in the concept art. Let's continue down the embankment from there.

The next element, to the right, is the Leicester Square tube station, which will provide the entry and exit for Diagon Alley. For those unfamiliar with London, the tube, or London Underground, is what Americans would call the subway system. (In the UK, a subway is a sidewalk that passes under a street.) Passing through the entryway of the station will bring you to a zigzag that will recreate the experience of the bricks opening to reveal the passage into Diagon Alley, as Harry experienced in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's (Philosopher's) Stone. Behind the Leicester Square facade, and to the left as you enter Diagon Alley, you'll find The Leaky Cauldron restaurant, which will have a slim facade tucked between Leicester Square and King's Cross on the Embankment itself.

Leicester Square tube station
The real Leicester Square tube station entrance, in London. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

To the right of Leicester Square station stands Wyndham's Theatre, a London landmark that really does stand next to Leicester Square in real life. A West End stage theater opened by actor Charles Wyndham in 1899, Wyndham's Theatre over the years has offered performances by Tallulah Bankhead, Alec Guinness, Vanessa Redgrave, Jeremy Irons, and Maggie Smith (Harry Potter's own Minerva McGonagall). There's no theater here in Orlando, of course, Universal's Wyndham's Theatre facade stands in front of the Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes joke shop in Diagon Alley.

Wyndham's Theatre
Wyndham's Theatre in London. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Continuing down the facade, we come to the final element in the London Embankment — the townhomes of Grimmauld Place, where the Order of the Phoenix met in Sirius Black's home at No. 12. Of course, No. 12 is hidden to Muggles, who've simply accepted the oddity of No. 13 standing next to No. 11 on the street. While Grimmauld Place is a fictional location, unlike the very real locations found elsewhere on the Embankment, the Grimmauld Place scenes in the Harry Potter movies were filmed at Claremont Square in London, which is actually located several miles from Wyndham's Theatre.

Claremont Square, London
Claremont Square, London. Photo via Google Maps.

Universal and its partners have recreated these real-life landmarks in convincing detail, allowing Universal Studios Florida visitors to see London rising on the banks of the park's lagoon, while they await the opening of the newest Wizarding World of Harry Potter this summer.

Previously:

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Disney Imagineer Dave Minichiello talks about Walt Disney World's new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train

By Robert Niles
Published: February 24, 2014 at 1:15 PM

Disney Imagineer Dave Minichiello, the creative director on the Magic Kingdom's upcoming Seven Dwarfs Mine Train answered questions about the new family roller coaster dark ride attraction during a live online chat today.

The questions were screened by Disney PR reps, but we've included some of Dave's most notable responses and comments about the ride, below.

Seven Dwarfs Mine Train
View from the station, under construction, provided by Disney

"Pretty much every day is a milestone and some major ones that I’d like to mention are the Dwarfs Cottage, which is going quickly and looking amazing. The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train being a part of the forest - we’re starting to see it as a part of the forest with the tree planting. We’re finally starting to see it all come together."

"The top of the mountain is being planted with trees, the final rockwork is being completed as well as thematic painting of the rockwork. Ride testing continues daily. Now what’s really nice is the propping the attraction both inside and outside."

"What’s special about Seven Dwarfs Mine Train is the journey. You travel through the forest and explore the mine where the dwarfs are working, but we’re seeing the mine in a grander scale in a way we’ve never told the story before."

"We do have some interactive elements in the queue. Part of the “scene one” in the queue area helps us start to tell the story. We have an area where guests can sort and wash jewels, and for the first time, we’re taking guests into the vault as seen in the classic film ‘Snow White.'"

"The queue has a surprise song in it that was originally written for the film called ‘Music In Your Soup,’ which we’ve recorded in instrumental version and added to our queue area. All of the music in the queue area is all instrumental, and we wanted to give it a feel that it was played by the Seven Dwarfs."

"It’s a family coaster and it’s a unique experience unlike anything else in our parks. This attraction is more innovative in its ride system and vehicle. It is for the entire family. It gives the guests a new sensation they’ve never had before. And we felt that uniqueness was the best way to tell our story."

"It has proven to be pretty amazing and a very smooth attraction. It’s a completely new experience - not only having the sensation of pivoting back and forth and it varies throughout the attraction. You feel differences in the various terrain around the mountain."

During the chat, Disney posted a YouTube video that included a side-by-side view of a CGI design ride-through of the attraction, along with a GoPro camera view of the ride, taken a few weeks ago. Note that there is a dissolve edit in there, so we might not be seeing the whole length of the attraction. And the GoPro footage does not show the installation of all on-ride animation and effects, which might not be complete yet.

"What’s interesting about the video is that there’s a CGI model, which was the first concept model that we developed for this show. What’s amazing is seeing how accurate it was to our initial concept and vision. What’s amazing is how accurate the sight lines are, the staging, the scaling, the variable speeds. We’re fortunate to use innovative technologies during the development of our attraction."

"The reason the train slows is to allow the guests to enjoy the details of the scene. We wanted to let our guests discover their favorite dwarf. All seven are hard at work in the mine scene - and we do have some hidden stuff in there."

Dave reported that the ride will have a 38-inch height requirement. He did not give an opening date for the ride, beyond reiterating Disney's previously announced "spring" opening.

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Walt Disney World raises ticket prices. One day at the Magic Kingdom up to $99

By Robert Niles
Published: February 22, 2014 at 7:18 PM

It's already that time of year again — time for the annual Walt Disney World theme park ticket price increase.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, Disney World will raise its one-day, one-park ticket prices by $4, taking the price of a one-day ticket to the Magic Kingdom to $99, with a day at Epcot, Disney's Hollywood Studios or Disney's Animal Kingdom rising to $94.

Magic Kingdom

If this price increase seems like it's coming earlier this year, it is. Last year, Disney raised its ticket prices in June, with prices rising at both the Walt Disney World and Disneyland Resorts. Last year's increase raised one-day tickets from $89 a day for all four WDW parks. The four-day base ticket went up $23. No word yet on what the new price of that ticket will be. The new prices go into effect tomorrow (Sunday).

We've not yet heard any news of a Disneyland price increase for this year, so this round of increases appears to be for Walt Disney World only.

Interesting side note: The news of the price increase leaked Saturday evening during a Universal Orlando press event, when pretty much everyone who covers theme parks in Central Florida was over at the Mardi Gras event at Universal. In journalism, there's a cliche about dumping bad news late on Friday afternoon, when reporters are going home for weekend and news breaking then will end up on the late Friday broadcasts and in the Saturday morning papers — the least watched and read of the week. Breaking news on a Saturday night during a rival's press event takes that to a new level though.

Final point, anticipating the comment flame war that inevitably breaks out online following any news of a Disney price increase: As long as more people keep going to the parks each year, theme parks will keep increasing their prices. Disney World's attendance is up, so it's just supply-and-demand for Disney to raise its prices. If you think Disney World's gotten too expensive, don't bother complaining. Disney's looking at attendance numbers when setting prices, not people moaning online. Look for an alternative where to spend your money instead. The one-day prices at Disneyland and Universal Orlando are holding at $92 a day. (So far. Expect a price increase before the opening of Diagon Alley at Universal Orlando, at least.) A one-day ticket to Disneyland Paris is US$87. Tokyo Disney's one-day ticket is just US$60.50. (Its next price increase will come April 1, to US$62.45.) Better deals are almost always available on multi-day tickets and even annual passes, if you're willing and able to visit often.

Update: Here are the new prices:

  • A one-day, one-park rises from $95 to $99 for the Magic Kingdom, and from $90 to $94 for the other parks
  • A four-day base ticket (one park per day) rises from $279 to $294
  • A 10-day base ticket rises from $339 to $354
  • Am I reading this right? No, I wasn't. Park hopper prices didn't go down across the board. Correct information follows. Adding the park-hopper option to your pass rises from $59 to $60 for 4-day to 10-day tickets. It's $49 for 2- and 3-day tickets, and $35 for a one-day. Adding the park hopper option is just $15 for Florida residents on a one-day ticket, $24.50 for a 3-day and $30 for 4 days.
  • A four-park Annual Pass rises from $609 to $634 for non-Florida residents and from $464 to $485 for Florida residents

The one-day ticket prices appear steep, of course, but let's remember that Disney World created its pricing structure to encourage longer stays. That means Disney World tickets start at $35.40 a day on a 10-day ticket, and cost just $73.50 a day if you spend four days to go to the four parks.

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Where to Eat? Lunch at Disneyland's Harbour Galley

By Robert Niles
Published: February 22, 2014 at 12:49 PM

Thanks to a crash in lobster prices last year, lobster rolls have appeared on quick-service menus at both the Walt Disney World and Disneyland Resorts. But which park serves the best lobster roll? Last year, we tried the lobster roll at the Magic Kingdom's Columbia Harbour House. And this week, we put the lobster roll from Disneyland's Harbour Galley to the test.

Disneyland's Harbor Galley

We wrote that Disney World's lobster roll "impresses with its size -- a thick, split New England-style roll stuffed with aggressively dressed lobster meat. It's more than you can wrap your mouth around. I ended up using a fork to pick off some of the lobster from the top until I could handle the rest of the sandwich." But we noted that the lobster meat "practically swims in mayonnaise, though, with celery and lettuce added to the mix."

Disney World Lobster Roll

Still, at $9.99 served with chips, we considered Disney World's lobster roll a good deal.

Disneyland's lobster roll costs more — $13.99 — and comes on a traditional hot dog bun, rather than the large version of a New England-style bun found at the Magic Kingdom. Disney's dressed its west coast roll differently, too. There's no lettuce to be found, less celery and just enough mayonnaise to hold the lobster meat together.

Disneyland Lobster Roll

If Disney had stopped there, this roll might have been fine, or even superior to the Disney World version. After all, a lobster roll ought to showcase the sweet flavor of lobster and too many condiments just get in the way. My daughter goes to school in Wiscasset, Maine, and the best lobster roll I've ever had came from Red's Eats in that town.

Lobster Roll from Red's Eats in Maine

It's a pound and a half of buttered lobster atop a toasted roll. No dressing. And it cost $17.99 last summer (the price varies daily). It's not fair expecting any theme park outside New England to match that combination of lobster volume, freshness, and price, but ideally, a lobster roll ought at least to remind me fondly of one of these Maine beauties.

Alas. Disneyland's covered its lobster roll with an aggressive dusting of Old Bay seasoning. No, no, no, no; a thousand times, no.

Old Bay works on the shell of sturdier crab or shrimp meat, where your fingers can pick up the tangy spice as you crack or peel open the shellfish and eat it with your hands. But applied directly to the sweeter, more delicately flavored lobster, the salty Old Bay just dries the meat and makes the whole roll taste like a mouthful of sawdust. It left me longing for some of that extra mayo on the Disney World roll, just to add some needed moisture. Send this Old Bay back to its Maryland home. It doesn't belong on Maine lobster.

Disney's sprinkled the Old Bay all over the house-made chips that accompany the roll, too, and Disney should have left it at that. Old Bay on chips is one of God's gifts to seafood fans, imparting a crabby tang to each crunch. Earlier this week, Amanda Jenkins endorsed the house-made chips at the Walt Disney World Resort and these chips are keepers, too. I'd rather Disney had just kept the lobster roll and filled the plate with these chips, instead.

If you're looking for a nice lunch at the Galley, skip the lobster roll and order the Barbecue Chicken Baked Potato.

Barbecue Chicken Baked Potato

I added the potato on a whim as I ordered my lobster roll, figuring I'd take a picture of it, try a bite, then throw in a mention at the bottom of my review. Instead, I bailed on the lobster roll after a couple bites and turned my full attention to the potato.

A generous helping of tender barbecue chicken sits atop a split baked potato, with a cool scoop of creamy, crispy slaw atop that. Another drizzle of the barbecue sauce finishes the potato, which melts into a warm mash with the hot, saucy chicken above it, and garglshfshmuncgrbsmslh…

Sorry, I had to clean the drool from my keyboard there.

At just $6.39, the potato delivered far more than double the taste at less than half the price of the lobster roll. So, in the battle of Disney lobster rolls, the clear winner is — the baked potato.

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Vote of the Week: What's your favorite type of water ride?

By Robert Niles
Published: February 21, 2014 at 11:58 AM

Earlier this week, our Russell Meyer looked at some of the popular ways that theme parks use water to move visitors around on theme park rides.

Kali River Rapids
Kali River Rapids at Disney's Animal Kingdom

As Russell wrote, water rides come in many different forms, from slowing moving boat rides such as It's a Small World, to underwear-drenching rapids rides such as Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges. Log flume rides have been theme park staples since the early 1960s, and many theme park fans enjoy visiting water parks, too, where they can zip down a variety of water slides.

Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls
Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls at Universal's Islands of Adventure

But which of these types of water rides is your favorite? I suppose that the answer might depend upon the weather when you visit a park. A rapids or log flume ride that splashes sweet relief on a hot day probably won't seem as refreshing when the weather's cool and overcast. So let's imagine that you're riding each type of ride at its ideal time and place. Which one do you pick then, if you had to choose just one more ride for the day?


Please share a favorite water ride experience, in the comments. And, as always, thank you for reading and being part of the Theme Park Insider community!

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The top 15 food and snack cravings at the Walt Disney World Resort

By Amanda Jenkins
Published: February 20, 2014 at 11:47 PM

Ah. The lovely weather that has been sweeping the entire country has most likely caused everyone to desire a trip to a warm theme park. Strangely enough, I live in what I refer to as the Bermuda Triangle of winter weather. Memphis is a city where snow and ice fall north, south, east, and west of us. It will be sunny with freezing temperatures, then rain with temperatures staying right at 33 degrees. No snow. Nothing pretty to look at. We have now gone from freezing temps to weather nearing 70 degrees. Tornado warnings and basic weather for pneumonia are here. Yippee. Along with our weather, we have been a house of sickness and recuperation from surgery. While recovering, I have begun to dream and crave food that makes a trip to Walt Disney World all the more needed. Trips are being planned as I speak along with itineraries that involve stops for certain foods. Here are a list of goodies you may yourself love or may want to try on your next trip.

Dole Whip1. Dole Whip. Come on. Did you really think any list on the foods one craves would not list the one that is the equivalent of illegal drugs for many Disney fans? You can hardly beat the cool, sweet, mouthwatering pineapple frozen treat. Strolling through Adventureland with one of these babies completes a trip to the Magic Kingdom. Dole Whip...you complete me.

2. Nothing says summer like strawberries. There are two must tries for folks traveling to Epcot. The first is a limited time offering that was introduced last year at Epcot's Flower and Garden Festival. I was able to attend last year and purchased the Beijing-style candied strawberries. These are delectable. You get three to four on a kabob which are perfect for sharing. I am thrilled to see these returning to this year's festival. The other must have strawberry from Epcot is from Karmell-Kuche, in the German Pavilion. Chocolate caramel covered strawberries...oh my. These are huge and wonderful. Plus, the smell that hits you when entering in is tantalizing. Epcot...you tempt me.

Ice Cream

3. Ice Cream. While many would immediately think of a Mickey Mouse ice cream treat, I don't. I think of the ice cream sandwiches you can have made with homemade cookies. My boys love the ones made with chocolate chip cookies, while I am an oatmeal cookie ice cream sandwich girl. The guys also love ice cream in a waffle cone to enjoy while walking through Animal Kingdom. Something about this particular park just cries out for a frozen treat. The other ice cream treat I crave is the raspberry sorbet from the Plaza Ice Cream Parlor and Restaurant in the Magic Kingdom. If purchasing to go, you get two chocolate "Mickey Ears" on your scoop. Yum.

Pumpkin Cupcake

4. Cupcakes!!! Yes, that deserves multiple exclamation points. Many of the cupcakes I crave are only available during certain times of the year. This makes them all the more special. First off, Disney cupcakes are so big that it doesn't make one feel cheated if asked to share. The one cupcake I am craving right now, that I can not wait to get on my trip in November, is the pumpkin cupcake with maple frosting. I found this beauty at Contempo Café at the Contemporary Resort. It is incredibly moist, not too sweet, and just...perfect.

5. Frozen Lemonade and Frozen Raspberry Lemonade drinks. It never fails. Every visit to Disney Hollywood Studios finds me going to all the kiosks and purchasing a frozen lemonade drink. I love lemons. I love frozen slushy drinks. Combine the two and I am one happy theme park visitor. I have also found that these seem to help settle a stomach that has been jostled about after four times in a row of riding Rock 'n' Roller Coaster. The frozen raspberry lemonade can also be found at Cheshire Café. I love purchasing this while taking a break and just people watch. This is close by the Spinning Teacups, thus allowing me to observe the resigned looks on parents being pulled mercilessly by their children and forced to endure a swirling vortex of torture. I feel your pain, especially while experiencing a brain freeze from drinking these too fast.

Pretzel in Epcot

6. Pretzels. Disney parks have a variety of pretzels to meet your palate's needs. I personally have fallen head over heels in love with the sweet cream cheese pretzels. Pretzels filled with warm cream cheese and hints of sweetness are without a doubt a marvelous treat to walk and munch. It definitely hits the spot when in between meals.

Croissant

7. Now this next one is more like a quick little meal. Toasted ham and cheese croissant from Boulangerie Patisserie, located in Epcot's French Pavilion, is a very satisfying change from the typical hamburger. To finish off this meal, one needs a tart. A lemon tart. Crispy crust with lemon cream, topped with toasted meringue... this has Vive La France written all over it. Epcot...you tempt me yet again...

8. House-made chips from the resorts. Sometimes, you just don't want French fries. You want something salty, yet something different and new. These kettle cooked chips offered at many of the resorts are a must have either with your meal or by themselves. They are crispy, slightly salty, and just appetizing. While the dole whip is my drug of choice, these chips are my husband's. He orders them each chance he gets.

9. Salads. When it is hot, the last thing I want is something heavy and greasy. Disney offers many different types of salads, but one that has won me over the most is the Smoked Chicken Salad from Flame-Tree BBQ in Disney's Animal Kingdom. The chicken is cold, the salad is huge filled with leafy greens, tomatoes, beans, and drizzled lightly with chipotle ranch dressing. Granted, this is more of a meal, especially when you see the size of the bowl. Yet this is still a very crave worthy item. It is a filling treat and easy on the stomach when you are on your way to see the disco yeti.

10. Baked Potato. I know, I know. I've been talking summer time treats. But when it is cold outside (even in Florida), there is no greater comfort food than a hot baked potato with butter. I love getting these at the Liberty Square Market in the Magic Kingdom. Sitting there with the patriotic music, with views of the Haunted Mansion and Big Thunder Mountain, is so...comforting and peaceful. Yes, I could easily make this here at home, yet I wouldn't have the ambiance that accompanies this particular treat. Setting is everything.

11. Strawberry Tarts. These homemade goodies are some I grab every trip. I usually consume these pastries when eating breakfast at Tusker House in Disney's Animal Kingdom. While my boys are bouncing around visiting the characters, I am in my happy place, enjoying the buttery crust and sweet strawberry filling. Pop-tarts can't hold a candle to these. It is like dessert for breakfast without all the guilt.

Cinnamon roll and pork shank
Numbers 12 and 15!

12. Gigantic Cinnamon Rolls. No one is like Gaston. His tavern in Fantasyland proves this point even more so with their huge, easily able to feed a multitude of people, warm, gooey, cinnamon rolls. I can only say, bless you Gaston! If he had these cinnamon rolls in the movie, there is a very good chance that Belle might have agreed to marry him. Ah. Cinnamon Rolls.

13. Chocolate Shake. Wait! You mean this gets it own place away from ice cream treats? Yes, but only if it is from Ghirardelli Soda Fountain and Chocolate Shop in Downtown Disney. While the kids drool over the toys in the World of Disney Store, you can drool over your shake... if you can get your lips away from the straw.

These last two come from my husband and sons. They decided that there were two items I was leaving out.

Free Christmas cookies
Are the best Disney cookies free Disney cookies?

14. Cookies. My boys both agree that there is not a bad cookie to be found in Disney World. They love them all, especially the size of them. Having them Mickey Mouse shaped also causes delight for these two.

15. Pork Shank and Turkey Leg. Along with the house made chips, the pork shank from Gaston's Tavern and the infamous turkey leg cause my husband to just about do a happy dance. He loves how tender these are and how they are smoked to mouthwatering goodness.

So theme park fans, what are the foods you crave while away from Disney World? What do you think one needs to try to get that special experience in the parks and then leaves you in need of a rehabilitation to get over the withdrawal symptoms?

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The Lego Movie Experience opens at Legoland California

By Robert Niles
Published: February 20, 2014 at 8:53 PM

Everything is awesome for Lego these days, as The Lego Movie cruises past US$200 million in international box office in just two weeks, while earning a 97% "Fresh" rating from Top Critics on RottenTomatoes.com, a score that beats all of the Academy Award nominees for Best Animated Feature this year. (The Lego Movie will be eligible for next year's Oscars.)

So, of course, Legoland needs to get in on the action. We've been talking on the Theme Park Insider Discussion Board about how Legoland could use The Lego Movie in a dark ride, but those attractions can take years to develop. In the meantime, Legoland California is offering movie fans The Lego Movie Experience a walk-through exhibit of "sets" from the movie, re-created in 3 million Lego bricks. The attraction opened today at the Carlsbad park, with some special guests.

Emmet
Emmet meets a fan at today's opening

Jadon Sand
Actor Jadon Sand, who played Finn, was there, too.

The Lego Movie Experience
Inside Legoland California's The Lego Movie Experience. Photos courtesy Legoland

The exhibit includes 116 buildings, 165 vehicles, 61 micro managers, 15 spaceships, and 3 dragons, as well as 1,423 minifigures, according to the park. Here's a video of today's opening:

The Lego Movie Experience is now open in the park's Explore Village land, near the Water Works.

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Dreamworld's Corroboree illustrates Australia's Indigenous history and culture

By Robert Niles
Published: February 19, 2014 at 11:07 PM

We're written recently on the potential of nonfiction attractions in theme parks, so we'd be remiss not to note a non-fiction attraction opening tomorrow in Australia.

Dreamworld, on Australia's Gold Coast, is opening Corroboree on Friday. Designed by Earthstory, working with Indigenous consultants, Corroboree is "Australia's first dedicated Indigenous theme park attraction."

Corroboree theater

According to a statement from Earthstory, the attraction illustrates Australia's "human history with an immersive walk-through experience celebrating 50,000 years of historical and contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. Fascinating subjects such as totem culture and sacred creation stories are explored, while the challenging issues of European colonisation and the Stolen Generations are given their due respect."

Creation of the Gold Coast
Illustrations courtesy Earthstory

The attraction's centerpiece is a 4D theater, playing a film produced by an Aboriginal artist, featuring the story of the local Yugambeh people. A walk-through will also offer hands-on activities including fire making, weapon throwing and music making. The attraction also will include live-animal exhibits, from koalas to crocodiles, to illustrate their importance to Native culture.

If you're looking for a similar attraction in the United States, you might be in for a long search. The closest comparison might be with Knott's Berry Farm's Mystery Lodge, a BRC Imagination Arts production that features a North American native storyteller. Epcot's American Adventure nods toward Native culture with a brief appearance by Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, but non-fiction looks at Native cultures are a tough topic for entertainment. Face it, people don't want to look in the mirror and see the face of the bad guy oppressor.

Ultimately, as we wrote earlier, job of a theme park attraction is not to educate. It's to entertain. But wonderfully diverse Native cultures provide rich opportunities for engagement. And in doing that, themed entertainment should create a spark of interest, a moment of lasting affinity which leads a visitor to want to learn more, providing the opportunity that an educator, in a school, a museum or elsewhere, needs to do her or his work. If that happens within the attraction itself, all the better.

Have you visited Dreamworld? Tell us about your trip, and offer your suggestions to potential visitors, in the comments.

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El Loco roller coaster debuts at Las Vegas' Adventuredome

By Robert Niles
Published: February 18, 2014 at 11:43 PM

LAS VEGAS — We returned to The Adventuredome at Circus Circus in Las Vegas for the first time in a long time today, for the debut of the indoor amusement park's new El Loco roller coaster, from S&S Power.

El Loco

At just five acres, Adventuredome's a tight fit compared with the outdoor theme parks we typically cover here at Theme Park Insider. So don't look here for rides with a massive footprint, and El Loco's no exception. But while the coaster might look at first glance like just another Wild Mouse, a closer inspection reveals some unexpected, un-mouse-like elements, including overbanked turns and a couple of inversions.

Let's go to the video, as S&S Power Project Manager Chad Severance tells us a little about the unique features on this coaster, then ride along with some POV video from my trip on the coaster this afternoon.

It's a quick trip, sure, but with some unique elements that will reward coaster fans when they're in Vegas. Located inside the Circus Circus resort, Adventuredome is free to enter, with rides available with individual ticket purchases, or through buying an all-you-can-ride wristband (by far the better deal).

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Theme Park Tech – Water, Part 1: Liquid Propulsion

By Russell Meyer
Published: February 17, 2014 at 11:44 PM

Theme park fans probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it, but every major theme park in the world uses water in multiple ways. The applications are actually so vast that I need to split this column into two parts to adequately cover water’s use in theme parks. From propulsion to special effects, to landscaping and ambiance, to cooling and hydration, water and other liquids are as necessary to the life of a theme park as they are to human life. This first part of my elemental series dedicated to water will focus on the use of water as a method for propulsion and motion in rides.

Aside from roller coasters, just about every major amusement park of the 20th century had some sort of flume ride. Flumes date back over 150 years, originating as a method to move heavy objects. Man has been using flowing water to move things for centuries, but the idea of creating artificially sloped “V” shaped trenches filled with running water to eliminate “log jams” is credited to James W. Haines in 1868. It took until the 1960’s before modern log flume rides were perfected, but the three main types of water rides -- Shoot the Chutes, Rapids, and Log Flumes -- all draw on technology from industrial log flumes.

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Modern log flumes were developed initially by Arrow Dynamics in the 1960’s, and much of the design has remained relatively unchanged. Guests ride in elongated vehicles that are typically shaped and themed to look like logs, and are pushed by water that is pumped into different parts of the course by high flow-rate pumps. Most log flumes also use some type of conveyor belt lift, and also use gravity to help propel the logs and water down the course. A majority of log flumes have some variety of drop, which creates a splash, getting guests wet. Quite a few parks have chosen to use the long course of a log flume to tell a story, and many are elaborately themed like Disney’s Splash Mountain,

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Knott’s Timber Mountain Log Ride, and Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls at Islands of Adventure, quite possibly the wettest log flume on the planet.

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In recent years, the old-fashioned log flume has been getting some upgrades as theme parks have been merging log flume and roller coaster into what is now referred to as the water coaster. The integration of roller coaster wheels and track with standard log flume technology allowed designers to create different sensations and greater downhill speeds. Skull Mountain at Six Flags America was one of the world’s first water coasters, and while the ride no longer exists, water coasters are still being built around the world with one of the best being Journey to Atlantis at SeaWorld Orlando.

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Shoot the Chutes rides are some of the oldest water rides that have been developed for theme parks, and typically represent the easiest way to get wet in the theme park. Some are a simple lift hill followed by a steep, soaking drop, while other have integrated the technology into far more than a simple giant splash like Jurassic Park the Ride

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and Escape from Pompeii.

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However, just about every one of these rides has a splash down section that not only soaks the riders, but also drenches guests watching nearby. Some of the most famous theme park rides in the world utilize technology derived from the standard flume -- for example, Pirates of the Caribbean and It’s a Small World, and while riders of these slower dark rides typically don’t get wet, water is critical to the ride’s operation. Disney is rumored to be making even more advancements with this technology for the upcoming Avatar boat ride.

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Rapids rides, one of the most likely places to see soaked guests in a theme park, use water as the primary source of propulsion. Rapids rides typically take up much larger footprints, require more complicated grading, and far more water than log flumes or Shoot the Chutes rides. Entering round rafts, riders are propelled down a river-like course featuring hills and rapids created by bumps and projections into the river. These rides also typically feature geysers, water canons, and/or waterfalls to ensure every guest in the raft gets equally wet. Grizzly River Run and Bluto’s Bilge Barges are two of the best and wettest rapid rides in the country.

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Now, using water to literally push a boat down a course using pumps or gravity is not the only way to use liquids to move ride vehicles. Hydraulics are a technology that’s been around a long time, but is relatively new to theme park attractions. Similar to pneumatics, ride vehicles can use hydraulic motors to compress hydraulic actuators to move the vehicle in different directions. Typically hydraulics are used in stationary motion simulators like Disney’s Star Tours,

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the former Star Trek: The Experience,

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and SeaWorld’s Wild Arctic. Hydraulics are used for these stationary motion simulators because the weight of the vehicles is not an issue, unlike track-based motion simulators like Transformers and the Amazing Adventure of Spider-man, which use lighter pneumatic systems.
One of the newest and most intense forms of ride acceleration using hydraulics was developed by Intamin 12 years ago, when they introduced the world’s first hydraulic launch roller coaster, Xcelerator. While the roller coaster doesn’t actually use water for its propulsion, it instead uses a high viscosity hydraulic fluid to create the 10,000+ horsepower needed to accelerate trains from zero to 82 miles per hour in a little more than 2 seconds.

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What coaster enthusiasts didn’t know was that Xcelerator was just the prototype for what would eventually hold just about every roller coaster height and speed record for the past 10 years. Starting with Top Thrill Dragster in 2003 (120 MPH and 420 feet tall)

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to Kingda Ka in 2005 (128 MPH and 456 feet tall)

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to Formula Rosa in 2010 (149 MPH and 176 feet tall), Intamin accelerator coasters have held the record for over a decade now. In addition to using hydraulics to launch trains to insane velocities, water is now used to cool the steel cable that pulls the train down the launch track, due to incidents involving overheating and shredded cables.

So, the use of water and hydraulics to move and propel vehicles is widespread in the theme park industry. As evidenced by Disney’s recent patent filing for modifications to the standard Shoot the Chutes technology, it’s something that will continue to be used and perfected to deliver more realistic and intense experiences for guests.

Previously on "Theme Park Tech":

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Hong Kong Disneyland plans third hotel, following reports of record attendance and profit

By Robert Niles
Published: February 17, 2014 at 12:38 PM

Hong Kong Disneyland's Mystic Manor not only was the best new attraction in the world last year (according to Theme Park Insider readers), it's become the catalyst for continued expansion at the Asian theme park.

Once derided for a lack of attractions and resulting poor attendance, an aggressive expansion effort, culminating in last year's debut of Mystic Manor, has driven record attendance and profits at Hong Kong Disneyland. Now the park's adding a third hotel on site, expanding its capacity from 1,000 to 1,750 rooms.

Site of third hotel for Hong Kong Disneyland

The park reported its first profit in 2012, and that doubled last year, to more than US$31 million. Attendance increased to 7.4 million visitors, closing the gap with Hong Kong's Ocean Park, which welcomed 7.7 million people last year. A strong Asian economy has helped, but the addition of Toy Story Land, Grizzly Gulch, and Mystic Point, as well as special events such as its Halloween party, have helped make Hong Kong Disneyland a more attractive destination throughout the region.

To accommodate those extra visitors, Disney and Hong Kong, which share ownership of the resort, will begin construction on a third hotel, to be completed in 2017. The theme will be similar to Walt Disney World's Polynesian Resort (and maybe the Disney Vacation Club's Aulani resort in Hawaii), with an "exotic destinations" theme.

Satellite view of Hong Kong Disneyland
A Google Maps satellite view of the Hong Kong Disneyland resort. The site of the third hotel is the left half of the empty space in the bottom left corner of the image.

There's room for much more expansion on the site, with an obvious spot for a fourth hotel between this new one and the Hong Kong Disneyland Hotel. And a large empty space immediately to the east of the park could eventually provide the home for a second gate (and more hotels) at the resort. Hong Kong Disneyland's already announced plans for an Iron Man-themed attraction and has hinted at more Marvel-themed attractions to come.

Thinking about a visiting Hong Kong Disneyland? Please take a look at our guide to planning a trip to Hong Kong Disneyland.

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Vote of the Week: Should Kong return to Orlando in animatronic or digital form?

By Robert Niles
Published: February 14, 2014 at 10:59 AM

Universal Studios Florida closed Kongfrontation in 2002 to free its show building for the construction of the Revenge of the Mummy ride, which opened in 2004 and remains one of the park's more popular rides. However, King Kong fans haven't forgotten the Big Ape, and many long for a Kong's return to the park.

Kongfrontation recreated and expanded the original King Kong Encounter from the Studio Tour at Universal Studios Hollywood. That staged event on the park's backlot tram tour featured an encounter with a 30-foot-tall Kong animatronic, designed by Bob Gurr. (Yes, the Disney Legend who created ride vehicles for so many Disneyland attractions.) That version of Kong remained open for six years after the closure of the Orlando version, until a fire on the backlot in 2008 destroyed the attraction.

King Kong Encounter
The original, animatronic Kong at Universal Studios Hollywood. Photo courtesy Universal.

After Kong's demise, Universal Studios Hollywood decided to return Kong, but in digital form. Working with filmmaker Peter Jackson, who directed the 2005 film version of King Kong, USH opened King Kong 360-3D in 2010, in which Kong saves (well, most of) your tram from attacking dinosaurs on Skull Island.

King Kong 360-3D
The new, digital Kong. Illustration courtesy Universal.

Kong fans in Florida have remained jealous ever since. Over the years, designers at Universal Creative have thought about several ways to return Kong to Orlando. Rumors persist about converting the Disaster! attraction to an east-coast version of King Kong 360-3D, or building a new Kong animatronic on that site, on in a new Skull Island land in Islands of Adventure.

This week on the Theme Park Insider Discussion Forum, Daniel Etcheberry asked whether you'd like to see Kong return to Orlando in animatronic or digital form. That's such a great question, I thought we'd ask it for our Vote of the Week.

Let's consider the pros and cons of each medium. You can't experience Animatronics on a big screen at home, but they're expensive and tricky to maintain, especially in Kong's immense size. (See, Disney's Yeti.) Digital's more reliable and allows for much more narrative freedom, but the form's less unique and with rapid advances in digital technology, you'll have to budget for frequent projection updates to keep the images state-of-the-art. (USH's Kong already looks a little less sharp than the park's new Transformers ride.)


Please jump into the comments to make your best case for the return of Kong, in your preferred form. Or if you'd rather see Universal spend its money on something else, make that case in the comments, instead.

And allow me to offer one more reminder that we have a new Discussion Forum on Theme Park Insider, one where registered members no longer need to wait to have new threads approved. So please feel free to use this new board share your trip reports, ask questions about an upcoming trip, and share any news or rumors you pick up from the parks or around the Internet. As always, thank you for being part of the Theme Park Insider community!

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No, Universal isn't buying Warner Bros.

By Robert Niles
Published: February 13, 2014 at 5:22 PM

Theme parks fans are buzzing about a proposed deal between NBCUniversal parent Comcast and Time Warner Cable. But let's slow down and pay some extra attention to that last word.

Comcast has made an offer to acquire Time Warner Cable for $45 billion in stock. That's Time Warner Cable, not Time Warner the entertainment conglomerate.

What's the difference, you ask? Time Warner Cable used to be the cable television subscription arm of Time Warner, but the parent company spun off its cable operations in 2009, and today Time Warner Cable is just another company, one using the "Time Warner" name under license from its former parent. (For another, theme park-related example, the Busch Gardens theme parks are using the "Busch" name under license from their former owners at Anheuser-Busch InBev. Today, they're owned by the independent company SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment.)

If/when Comcast gets ahold of Time Warner Cable, it'll be buying just several million cable subscribers around the country, not any of the IP [intellectual property] that former parent company Time Warner owns. That means no DC Comics characters or other Warner Bros. properties are coming under NBCUniversal's control under this proposed deal.

Obviously, Comcast thinks it the deal puts the company in a stronger long-term position, or it wouldn't have made the offer. Who knows what Comcast might do in that stronger position? For now, though, that's just speculation. (Of course, we theme park fans excel at that, don't we?)

Nevertheless, when other fans get excited about Universal theme parks getting the right to Batman and Superman, tell 'em that's not the deal that's happening. Universal isn't buying Warner Bros. Just another cable company.

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On the Road to Diagon Alley: How will Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts differ from Spider-Man and Transformers?

By Robert Niles
Published: February 13, 2014 at 11:02 AM

So how will Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts differ from Universal's previous 3D motion-base rides, Transformers and Spider-Man? That's the question I faced in this week's Parkscope podcast, on which I was the "special guest."

Universal's Amazing Adventure of Spider-Man, Transformers: The Ride 3D and Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts each features motion-base vehicles traveling on a track through a show building, while riders view 3D film scenes on screens built into practical scenery on the ride. So what will make Gringotts a substantially different experience from the other two?

Universal's concept art for Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts

We won't know for sure how Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts compares with other popular theme park attractions until we've had the chance to ride it. But Harry Potter isn't Transformers, or even Spider-Man. As popular as both those franchises have been over the years, neither has elicited the love from its fans as Harry Potter has. Nor has either appealed to as broad a collection of fans around the world. Theme matters. (Just ask a Disney theme park fan if s/he would rather see a Star Wars Land or an Avatar Land!)

Of course, theme alone can't elevate a ride to a beloved classic. Thanks to the Christopher Nolan trilogy, the Batman franchise ranks among the most popular in film history, measured by gross box office revenue. But Six Flags' effort to bring Nolan's version of Batman to its theme parks — the Dark Knight Coaster — has languished among the worst-reviewed rides in the world by Theme Park Insider readers ever since it opened.

Ultimately, the combination of narrative and experience determines how the public will react to a theme park attraction, for good or bad. We've described the narrative of Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, and although it retains the "something goes terribly wrong, but then the hero saves us" trope that defines so many theme park rides, Gringotts offers a unique moment at its climax that differs substantially from the finale of both Spider-Man and Transformers.

On both those other rides, our adventure concludes with a fall from great height. We're dragged or thrown toward the top of the cityscape, then tossed off the building toward our demise below. But the hero captures us at the last moment, breaking our fall and saving our lives.

On Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, we also will experience a "falling moment." But that will happen earlier in the narrative, when trolls attack our vehicle and knock it deeper into the caverns. In the ride's finale, we won't fall farther. Instead, Harry Potter will throw a chain to our coaster car and drag us up out of the caverns and on to safety.

Nor will this moment be simply a motion base effect, visually amplified by the surrounding film screens. In the finale of the Gringotts ride, our coaster car will launch up a track incline as the 3D/360-degree film shows the caverns falling away behind us and a section of the screen pulls away to reveal the tunnel through which we will return to the ride's load station. The combination of visual effects and physical sensation should help further amplify the feeling of taking flight.

It's that difference between falling and rising that distinguishes Gringotts. Think about falling, and you're probably imagining some bad things: a loss of control, despair, hopelessness, peril. But when you think about rising or flying, your emotional associations likely are much more positive: overcoming, joy, hope, triumph.

Sure, on Spider-Man and Transformers, we're saved from the fall and feel that moment of gratitude that we've come through. But on Gringotts, we're going to fly out of the climatic battle and soar. How much more satisfying might that feel?

Previously:

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Beware of the 'Disney side'?

By Robert Niles
Published: February 12, 2014 at 12:31 PM

Do you have a "Disney side?"

That's the question Disney's asking with its latest social media campaign, which uses blog posts, videos, and sponsored events to encourage people to show their affinity for all things Disney. It's a brilliant way to get fans to become more active, by showing off their love for the company. And, of course, it doesn't hurt merchandise sales when people show their "Disney side" with buying more hats, shirts, and other apparel and becoming walking billboards for Disney.

Robert on the Magic Kingdom parade rourte
Yours truly, showing his 'Disney side' — when he worked there.

Yet while some fans and business analysts might see the brilliance in the "Disney side" campaign, the efforts might strike others as a bit, well, creepy. Think about the campaign's name for a moment. Are we really so willing to devote a "side" of our personality, a portion of our very existence, to a company like this? It's one thing to be a fan. It's something else to assign a company, a team, or an artist, with part of our identity. Yet that's what the "Disney side" campaign calls us to do.

But, let's face it, people do this stuff all the time. (Just go wander around the parking lot tailgate parties before a big football game if you doubt it.) If Disney wants to exploit that enthusiasm, they're a business and have the right to give it a go. Yet, the "Disney side" campaign is worth considering here because it illustrates something important for theme park fans, in particular, to remember.

Disney might be the world's market-share leader in theme parks. But this campaign shows that Disney doesn't really see itself as being in the theme park business. The "Disney side" campaign illustrates the company's belief that its product is not theme parks. Nor movies. Nor TV shows. Disney's product is "Disney" — a brand unto itself, reflective and inclusive of all the company's products.

That is why Disney as a company, ultimately, doesn't care what Universal does with Harry Potter. It doesn't care how much other companies are spending on new attractions, hotels, or anything else. Because those other theme parks, those other companies, are not and never can be "Disney" — the product that Disney ultimately sells. You see fans echoing this belief in persistent online dismissals of Universal and other theme parks for lacking "magic." That's just code for "not Disney."

It's the leader's prerogative to focus on its own performance and worry not at all by those competitors behind it. But theme park fans might hope that Disney not forget what pushed the company to that leading position in entertainment. The "Disney side" campaign might help activate existing enthusiasm for the company, but it doesn't create much new passion for Disney. It's new movies, new TV shows, and, yes, new theme park attractions which do that.

It's great for Disney — and its fans — that the company has managed to cultivate this powerful brand identity. But the power of this brand can become a threat as well as an asset for Disney. The brand, developed to this level, can by itself deliver value to the company. But to remain at that level, eventually the company must invest new value in that brand.

Frozen is a great new investment in that Disney brand, one of the more powerful the company's made in years. Cars Land and Buena Vista Street were great investments for Disney at Disneyland. Mystic Manor invigorated Hong Kong Disneyland. Ratatouille: The Ride promises to do the same for the very needy Walt Disney Studios Park in Paris. For globe-hopping theme park fans, the company's never done better at protecting and extending its brand.

But you might notice that I didn't mention Florida. Disney World fans get more animated these days when complaining about what they see wrong with the resort than when lauding what they see going right there. Sure, many fans will mount a defense of what remains the world's most popular theme park destination, but you simply don't see the same passion in their comments online these days as you do when the verbal knives come out over long Fastpass+ return queues, the lack of new attractions in Epcot, and delays in developing Star Wars Land.

Disney wants you to show your "Disney side" — so long as that involves wearing Mickey ears, putting together character-inspired "Disney-bound" outfits, and posting your WDW vacation videos online. But if "showing your Disney side" becomes an act of complaining about what's missing or now frustrating at the Walt Disney World Resort, well, that's not a side of its fans that Disney should be proud to see.

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Six Flags Magic Mountain announces a new kiddie coaster

By Robert Niles
Published: February 11, 2014 at 10:59 AM

Six Flags Magic Mountain announced today that it will open a new roller coaster in a revamped kids' area this summer.

Speedy Gonzales Hot Rod Racers will be the park's fourth kiddie coaster and 19th overall, extending Magic Mountain's lead as the amusement park with the most roller coasters in the world.

Speedy Gonzales Hot Rod Racers
Illustration courtesy Six Flags

From the park's description of the new ride:

Sitting in miniature hot rod race cars, riders will enjoy an action-packed adventure with plenty of drops and thrills on a roadster-themed racetrack. Kids and parents can ride together as they take a sprint around the grand prix track. Joining 11 other rides and attractions, from flying airplanes to pint-sized trucks and trains, Speedy Gonzales Hot Rod Racers will debut in early summer.

Rival Knott's Berry Farm, in Buena Park on the other side of the Los Angeles metro area, is revamping its Camp Snoopy kids' area for this summer, so Magic Mountain's extra attention to its Bugs Bunny World area will give local families another option in a summer when area industry leader Disneyland isn't adding anything new.

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Walt Disney World previews its new Festival of Fantasy parade units

By Robert Niles
Published: February 10, 2014 at 4:47 PM

Walt Disney World is cranking up the publicity in anticipation of the debut of its new Festival of Fantasy parade in the Magic Kingdom next month, today releasing new photos and details about the upcoming production.

Here's what you can expect when the new parade starts rolling down the Magic Kingdom parade route in March, with float descriptions from Disney's press release.

The Princess Garden – This pageantry of princesses celebrates Disney royalty. Cinderella, Tiana and Belle accompanied by their respective princes, ride in a garden of topiaries with woodland creatures, birds and more. Cinderella’s dress playfully twirls like a turntable, while Swan Court couples lead the 50-foot-long majestic float, capped off with a special appearance by Anna and Elsa from Disney’s hit animated feature, “Frozen.”

Tiana

Tangled – A massive long ship on the high seas showcases Flynn Rider and Rapunzel in search of adventure and another Best. Day. Ever! Rapunzel’s iconic tresses weave throughout this 36-foot-long float decked out with swaying pendulums carrying dastardly thugs.

Little Mermaid – Ariel and her friends sit atop a colorfully kinetic seashell music box that boasts an enchanting musical jubilee. There’s no shortage of whimsy on this Under the Sea float with conga dancing fish kicking up their fins and bubbles galore. Shimmering fabrics and intricately designed costumes for the Lion Fish, Coral Fish, Seashell and Sea Horse performers are runway-inspired.

Seashell Girl

Peter Pan – Straight from Never Land come Peter Pan and Wendy soaring high aboard the famous Jolly Roger pirate ship complete with smoke effects and special surprises. A rainbow arch shines over Skull Rock and Tinker Bell nestled among giant flowers, while Captain Hook takes center stage on a swinging anchor. “Newsies-inspired” Lost Boys kick up their heels to high-energy choreography.

Lost Boys

Brave – Celtic couples and a vessel shaped like an enormous bagpipe announce the arrival of Merida perched high on her majestic crown. Scottish dancers step to melodies of the Great Highlands in celebration of the popular Disney*Pixar film, “Brave.”

Sleeping Beauty – The heroic Prince Phillip battles a Steampunk-inspired Dragon as the wicked Maleficent. This float stretches 53 feet in length and 26 feet tall with a prickly spinning wheel dead center of the float. With fiery eyes and glowing effects the spectacular dragon was built on an articulating chassis allowing the float to bend and flex as it moves along the parade route – a first for Disney parades. This float was designed in a partnership with Tony Award-winner Michael Curry. There’s Prince Phillip, thorn-inspired stilt performers, dramatic raven dancers, plus the three good fairies, Flora, Fauna and Merryweather glide along the parade route.

Dragon float

Finale and Mickey’s Airship – The parade culminates with a 90-foot-long magical caravan of characters featuring Pinocchio, Dumbo, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the Mad Hatter, Pluto and more in a splashy carnival of color. There’s Pegasus horses, dancing hippos and sassy Bubble Girls with cotton-candy-like hair celebrating Storybook Circus in New Fantasyland. Sporting zany new costumes Mickey and Minnie Mouse sit sky high in Mickey’s Airship — a giant hot air balloon that rounds out Disney Festival of Fantasy Parade.

Disney used 3D printing to create some of the unique costume pieces from the parade, bringing to life designs by Mirena Rada, who has created costumes for the Disneyland Resort, Tokyo Disney Resort and Hong Kong Disneyland Resort, in addition to this production now for Walt Disney World.

Again, the parade will debut sometime next month, though Disney's not yet announced a specific date.

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Where should Disney build a 'Frozen' theme park attraction?

By Robert Niles
Published: February 8, 2014 at 1:07 PM

With Frozen overtaking The Lion King as Disney's top-grossing animated film of all time (not adjusting for inflation), Disney executives cannot wait to find new ways to extend their income from this wildly popular movie.

Theme park presence will be part of that mix. Disney's already introduced Frozen meet-and-greets in Disneyland's Fantasyland and Epcot's Norway pavilion at Walt Disney World. And Disney CEO Bob Iger has promised more for Frozen. So theme park fans are led to ask: What would a Frozen theme park attraction look like? And where would it go?

We've already addressed some of the problems with placing a Frozen attraction in Epcot's Norway pavilion. Furthermore, Frozen is set in a mythical kingdom called Arendelle, not Norway. Sure, both have snow and ice, but if that's the sole criterion for placement, you might as well put Disney's Frozen ride in the Hoth section of Star Wars Land as in Norway.

(Hold that thought, actually….)

But let's back up for a moment. The following is based on no insider information, but represents an attempt to logically think through Disney's options for putting a Frozen attraction in its theme parks, examining available locations and feasible concepts.

Let's start with the question of what a Frozen attraction might look like, and include. The movie takes place in two main locations: the castle in the port of Arendelle, and Elsa's ice palace, high in the mountains overlooking the port. The ice palace is supposed to be remote and relatively inaccessible, making it a more appropriate destination within a Frozen ride than the setting of the ride's entrance. Therefore, one might presume that the the facade of a Frozen attraction would recreate the castle and port of Arendelle.

To create that, Disney needs a body of water for the port, with mountains in the background, overlooking that setting. Obviously, those aren't inexpensive locations to create, so it makes sense to first look for an under-utilized location in a Disney theme park which already fits that description.

Actually, Disney has a couple of options here, one of which is so ideal that it's hard to believe it wasn't designed with Arendelle in mind. So where is this ideal setting for a Frozen theme park attraction?

Well, you've heard the phrase "the rich get richer"? That applies here, because the ideal existing setting for an Arendelle attraction would be in the Cape Cod section of the American Waterfront land of what is already Disney's best theme park, Tokyo DisneySea.

Tucked in between the the park's Port Discovery and main expanse of the American Waterfront (which is dominated by the Tower of Terror and S.S. Columbia), Cape Cod today is best known as the home of Duffy the Disney Bear. That might seem inconsequential to American Disney fans, but Duffy is big, big, big business in Japan, where Duffy merchandise outsells everything else at the Tokyo Disney Resort. Still, there's no Duffy ride in Cape Cod — it's just a restaurant with a show stage, next to a meet and greet area. It is a huge restaurant, though, providing the area necessary for at least a space-conscious attraction.

Cape Cod in DisneySea

The Oriental Land Company, which owns and operates the Tokyo Disney Resort under license from Disney, couldn't, and wouldn't want to, evict Duffy from Cape Cod in favor of Frozen. Heck, the movie doesn't even open in Japan until next month. But if Oriental Land were to find a new home for Duffy in the park, say, nearer the park's new Toy Story Mania ride on the other side of American Waterfront, that would make Cape Cod available for Frozen.

The existing Cape Cod buildings surround a small cove, and Disney could reskin these buildings to create the Arendelle castle. The park's iconic Mount Prometheus stands in the background, providing the mountain backdrop. As Cape Cod stands on the opposite side of Mount Prometheus from the mountain's Mysterious Island setting, Disney might be able to cover the backside of Mount Prometheus with some "snow," further developing the transformation of Cape Cod into a Port Arendelle land without disturbing the look of the mountain from Mysterious Island or the park's Mediterranean Harbor entrance.

Aerial view of Cape Cod in DisneySea
An aerial view of Cape Cod, from Google Earth

So what, then, goes into this castle? As we mentioned, space is a big tight — the footprint is wide but relatively shallow, with the DisneySea Electric Railway in the back — so Disney likely couldn't develop a massive, Indiana Jones-style indoor ride for this Frozen attraction. But let's think about some options.

The purpose of a Frozen attraction should be to create opportunities to spend time with the movie's main characters. A permanent meet-and-greet location for Elsa and Anna is a must, and would fit well into the castle's ballroom. But what about that fabulous ice palace? And the wonderful wintery backcountry? And the trolls?

Here's an idea: We take a ride on Kristoff's new sleigh, pulled by Sven the reindeer and accompanied by Olaf the snowman. We're heading into the backcountry to pick up a load of ice, when we're sidetracked by the bad guys from Weselton, once again trying to sneak their way into the kingdom. With the help of the trolls, we evade the bad guys. Along the way, we make it to the ice palace, we hear Elsa sing "Let it Go," Olaf cracks plenty of jokes, and we back it back, safe, sound, and well-entertained.

To work this ride into the available space, Disney might need to take a page from Universal's playbook and use motion-base sleighs with accompanying screens, a la Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, to create the visuals for the story. The even cheaper alternative is to go with a Star Tours-like motion base theater for the ride, but I'd rather see Disney try a mix of screens and practical sets here.

In addition to the available setting, Disney has another advantage with launching this attraction at DisneySea: it puts the initial capital design and development on Oriental Land's books, rather than paying for that development solely from its own pocket. That would give Disney a head start on adapting these plans to other parks at a lower initial capital expense.

But where else could Disney build a Frozen land? I mentioned two possibilities. The second isn't as ideal as DisneySea's Cape Cod, but still provides an under-utilized body of water with a mountain in the background. It's the old Motor Boat Cruise lagoon in Disneyland's Fantasyland.

Not familiar with that site? Today it's mostly hidden behind the old "Light Magic" stage next to It's a Small World, and the smoking area across from the Matterhorn. There's no room at all for an attraction show building here, as Autopia consumes the land on the far side of the lagoon.

However….

If Disney really is considering taking the Autopia space for a Star Wars attraction in Tomorrowland, it's conceivable that Imagineers could leave enough space to accommodate Arendelle on the far side of that Star Wars ride, facing the lagoon in Fantasyland. (Okay, it's not exactly placing Arendelle on Hoth, but hey, it's close enough to crack the joke!) The Matterhorn would provide a wonderful accompanying visual to one side of Arendelle castle, while an additional "mountain range" backdrop could provide a visual barrier between Arendelle and whatever the Star Wars ride turns out to be. The huge problem here is the monorail track, which provides another reason why the site isn't as ideal as DisneySea's. The monorail would have to move to make this work.

Just imagine, though, the one-two punch of a new Star Wars ride in Tomorrowland and a Frozen attraction in Fantasyland. That would provide a more than compelling response to Universal Studios Hollywood's new Wizarding World of Harry Potter and billion-dollar-plus "Evolution" redevelopment.

What about Disney's other theme park resorts: Walt Disney World, Disneyland Paris, Hong Kong Disneyland, and Shanghai Disneyland?

If Epcot's off the table at Walt Disney World, Animal Kingdom is getting Avatar, and Disney is just finishing tricking out its Fantasyland, it would seem that Disney's Hollywood Studios might be the preferred site for a Frozen attraction, perhaps again abutting the Star Wars land now in planning for that park. At Disneyland Paris, the woeful Walt Disney Studios Park certainly could use another richly-themed new pavilion to accompany its upcoming Ratatouille ride, and there are plenty of easily-forgotten attractions that Disney could rip out to make way for Arendelle there. Hong Kong Disneyland's rather cramped, but has space for a second gate, so perhaps Frozen could go there. And, finally, Disney just needs to get Shanghai open before developing any expansion there.

What do you think? What would you like to see Disney do in its theme parks with Frozen. Let's play Imagineer and share our best ideas, in the comments.

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Your guide to the best deals on Season Passes at Six Flags and Cedar Fair amusement parks

By Martin Lewison
Published: February 7, 2014 at 1:16 PM

There are some very lucky people in the world who live in the Orlando area, and there are other very lucky people who can afford to jet to MCO at a moment's notice to get their theme park fix. Unfortunately, the rest of us have to wait for those special trips to Florida every year or two (or three), so we're left with the alternative: visiting our local/regional amusement park.

Sarcasm much? Really, I should turn it down a notch. The truth is that there are some really amazing parks all around the U.S.A., and true enthusiasts make it their business to check them out, even if they don't fall into the special category of "global destination park." And yes, some of these great parks are even part of the *gasp* big regional chains. Don't let that stop you from having a great summer of fun. For sheer thrills, it's hard to beat Six Flags and Cedar Fair when it comes to big and scary roller coasters. Far ahead of anywhere for theming and dark rides, Orlando's actually a little behind the curve in the big coaster department, both in numbers and variety, while Six Flags and Cedar Fair clearly lead the way.

Six Flags Great America

So if you've resigned yourself to a thrilling summer of staycationing at your local Six Flags or Cedar Fair park, you must first ask yourself the question: Are you going to make more than one visit to the park over the season? If so, then common sense says that you should consider getting a Season Pass. But what kind of Season Pass? Silver, Combo, Gold, or Platinum? Should you go for the pass that includes the waterpark? What about the payment plans that the chains offer? Are they worth it?

Well, we've got the answers right here with your guide to Six Flags and Cedar Fair Season Passes for 2014.

What's a Season Pass?

Does a Season Pass make sense for you? It depends on the number of times you're going to visit the park, and it may also depend on whether you are going to visit any other parks in the chain. Let's first start with a bit of nomenclature because not all Season Passes are created equal. For example, all of Cedar Fair's parks offer Silver and Platinum Passes. Silver Passes are "standard" season passes, which I'll explain in a moment. Note that, depending on which is your home park, you may be able to get a discount for buying four or more passes, for being a Senior or for being under 48 inches tall, or for buying a Silver Pass renewal. A "standard" Silver Pass generally comes with unlimited admission, which may or may not include waterpark admission, and admission to Halloween events as well. It's dependent upon the park. That's the basic, "standard" package.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Cedar Fair Platinum Pass. It's a lot more expensive, but it comes with a lot more stuff, like waterpark admission if there is a waterpark, free parking, discounts on food and merchandise, special perks like Exclusive Ride Time (ERT), and, the big one for travelers, admission to any park in the Cedar Fair chain. Some Cedar Fair parks also offer a middle ground, called the Gold Pass. You get most, if not all, of the perks of the CF Platinum Pass, but you cannot use your pass around the chain. Naturally, it's priced between Silver and Platinum.

Six Flags calls its passes Regular, Gold, Combo, and Combo Gold. Regular passes get you unlimited visits to any Six Flags park, a great feature for the well-traveled and for which Cedar Point charges an arm and a leg. You also get a coupon book, discounts, bring-a-friend-free days, ERT, and other perks. Six Flags Gold Passes get you all of the fancy extras like free season parking both at your home park and around the chain, extra bring-a-friend-free coupons, and VIP early entry. The Six Flags Combo Season Pass and the Six Flags Combo Gold Pass are the same as above, but they also include waterpark admission where a sister waterpark has a separate admission gate. Some Six Flags parks have their water park inside the amusement park, like Six Flags St. Louis, while other Six Flags have separate entrances for the water park and amusement park, like Six Flags Over Texas and nearby Hurricane Harbor.

Sure, it sounds confusing, but the basic offer is a reasonable value proposition for the typical theme park visitor. For example, a single full price admission at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey is currently $65.99, although there will probably be at least a $5 discount during the season for purchasing online or for bringing in a coupon on a Coke can, so let's use $60.99. The Six Flags Great Adventure Regular Season Pass price is $79.99 per person, so if you're going to visit at least twice, the Regular Season Pass is obviously a better deal than paying twice for admission. It's an even better deal if you're buying four or more passes, because Great Adventure will give you $5 off on each pass, plus they'll throw in a season parking pass (worth $65), as long as you have your passes processed at the park by April 27th.

Going for Gold?

Is Gold worth is? The Six Flags Great Adventure Gold Season Pass comes with season parking for each Pass issued, as well as free parking at every other Six Flags park. If you make the rounds like I do, that parking pass at other Six Flags parks can come in handy. And the Gold Season Pass has those other perks, like VIP early entry, but you'll have to decide if those add-ons are worth the $10-$25 additional cost per pass over the Regular, depending on how many you buy. The upgrade is cheaper per pass if you're buying four or more.

One thing that I love about Six Flags Season Passes, even the plain old Regular Pass, is that every pass can be used at every park, no matter which park you buy it from. That's significant, because each park prices its Season Passes appropriately for its market. In large markets, parks price their Season Passes more expensively than in smaller markets, and this practice is true of both Six Flags and Cedar Fair. But only Six Flags lets you use any pass at any Six Flags park. Last year I was able to get a Regular Season Pass at Six Flags Mexico in Mexico City for less than US$40! I used that pass again at Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington, Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio, and Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, California. The only real limitation is that you have to get the passes processed at the park where you bought them, so Dad can't really pick up an armful of cheap Season Passes while he's on a business trip if he doesn't already have the kids in tow. But if your home park is in a major market and your first Six Flags visit of the year is at a smaller market like Maryland or St. Louis, you can save a few bucks on your Season Passes. Unfortunately your book of coupons is only useful at the park where you get your passes processed. You can make a friend by giving it away during your visit. And if you are from a small market, a Season Pass will save you some money if you visit the bigger flagship parks.

Buy or Lease?

Before I move on to Cedar Fair, I need to point out a major new payment plan scheme introduced by Six Flags for the 2014 season. Six Flags now offers something called "Membership Passes." They work exactly the same as the Season Passes, but you buy them on a monthly basis, as you would pay for a gym membership. It's a lot cheaper than plunking down the full cost of a Season Pass up front, but expect to pay a lot more over time in exchange for the convenience of low monthly payments.

It's something to think about, because the payments are really low! Let's look at Six Flags Over Georgia, for example. Let's say you bought four Regular Season Passes for your family of four. That's going to set you back $219.96. Now suppose you opt for "Membership Passes" instead. You could bring the family of four to the park on that first visit for only $24.36! That's a pretty attractive price point for that first visit. It's also tempting to top up that membership all the way to Gold Combo, which includes all of the extras like access to White Water Atlanta waterpark and a season parking pass for both the amusement park and the water park. Your first payment would only be $29.34, less than $5 more. For the modern American family, trying to stretch their entertainment dollar, it looks like a great deal. Bring the whole family to the park with all the perks for less than the price of one adult $59.99 single admission.

But there's the catch: "First Payment". Six Flags' Memberships are convenient and inexpensive on a monthly basis, but now Six Flags has got you on the hook for 11 more payments after the first. If you buy a Membership Pass in April, you'll still be paying for last summer when February's cold snows blow in. Cancellation before the 12-month period comes with a cancellation payment that's probably equal to the remaining payments. If you haven't done the math yet, I'll oblige. Looking back at the Regular Membership Pass, you end up paying $292.32 over 12 months instead of the $219.96 you could have paid at the beginning of the season. It's a very attractive first entry price for the guest, as I said, but it's also a very sweet deal for Six Flags. Six Flags is taking some risk by letting the season pass buyer stretch the payments out over time, but they're also making sure that they're being compensated. On the other hand, if a guest is cash short at the moment, the Membership Pass provides a lot of flexibility.

By comparison, Cedar Fair's payment plan is a lot more straightforward. Cedar Fair Season Passes have to be paid off in six months, but the total payments add up exactly to the original price. Cedar Fair is even losing a little bit on the deal because they're giving you a six-month interest-free loan!

Cedar Fair's Value Proposition

Cedar Fair's basic value proposition on Season Passes varies from park to park. A Silver Season Pass at Valleyfair in Shakopee, Minnesota pays for itself in two visits, as do the Silver Season Passes at Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, California and at Kings Dominion in Doswell, Virginia. But not at Cedar Fair's flagship park, Cedar Point, in Sandusky, Ohio. You'll need at least three visits to cover the Silver Season Pass cost, as you will at Dorney Park in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and at Kings Island in Mason, Ohio. And unless you park hop around the country, the cost of those Platinum Passes are difficult to justify. The only benefit to the Platinum Passes not available to the other Pass types is the ability to use them at all of the Cedar Fair parks. The Platinum Pass made sense for me once, in 2011, when I visited Dorney Park, Kings Dominion, Canada's Wonderland (Vaughn, Ontario), and Cedar Point in one year. If you have a marathon park run planned out, it might make sense for you.

Conclusion

Well, there you have it. Buying Season Passes at your local regional chain park can be a little overwhelming, but hopefully I've laid out a little map to help you analyze your choices. With a bit of planning, you can figure out the best ticketing and pass strategy for you and your loved ones. America is filled with some really great amusement parks, so if you're in it for the fun, get yourself there and check out all the great rides and attractions that the regional parks have to offer.

(Full Disclosure: I am a shareholder of FUN and DIS, but I do not hold shares of SIX.)

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Take a closer look at Universal Orlando CityWalk's new Antojitos restaurant

By Krista Joy
Published: February 6, 2014 at 8:37 PM

Universal Orlando invited a select group of media to sample the food, entertainment and specialty drinks Wednesday night for the official grand opening of Antojitos Authentic Mexican Food at CityWalk. As we approached the building, the bright, bold colors on the outside coupled with a roaming mariachi band playing contemporary pop hits, immediately signified to me that this wasn't my Abuela's ordinary Mexican restaurant.

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These elements of the restaurant could be all be a separate posts on their own. But for now we will just focus on the REALLY important stuff - the food, drinks and pricing. All prices that I will mention here are subject to change and do not include tax or gratuity. Also please keep in mind that this restaurant is very new, so adjustments and menu changes can happen at any time.

Let's start with the specialty margaritas. You won't find pre-made mixes at Antojitos. It's all fresh or muddled and concoctions you won't find anywhere else. Modesto Alcala, vice president of revenue operations at Universal CityWalk has his favorite drink already picked out. "I have to go with our signature drink, which is the Antorita," Alcala said. "It has blanco tequila, Grand Marnier, Gran Gala. We squeeze fresh lime and oranges and lemon in it, and we make it fresh."

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Here is a photo of the Antorita that I got to sample. Isn't the glass beautiful?  I am not an expert by any means, but even I could tell everything in this drink was fresh. It had a wonderful flavor, and I would not hesitate to go back and get another one for the $9.50 price tag.

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Don't adjust your screen! What you are seeing here is actually an outdoor VW Bus, ready to serve you the very same Antojitos cocktalis and cervesas you can find inside the restaurant. I've never seen anything like it. Imagine yourself relaxing outside and enjoying the patio on a beautiful Orlando evening, sipping your drink from the VW van! I don't know of another place in town where you can do that.

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If you enjoy a good tequila, there's no shortage of them at Antojitos! The list was extensive so I have only showcased a portion of it here. Check out the celebrity brands!

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Look for specialty cocktails like the Handsome George made with agave nectar, fresh lime juice and of course George Clooney's Casamigos Tequila! Not surprisingly, those good looks come with a price, so this drink will set you back about $12.50.

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You can also order a Big Apple in Mexico for $9.50.

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The Horse You Rode In On was a strong and tasty drink. Members of the media sitting near me said that the best part  was the  amarena black cherry at the bottom. This cocktail has a price point of $10.00.

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I didn't taste this one, but The Repo Man really looked appealing! Made with Patron Reposado tequilla, strawberry puree, ginger syrup, fresh lemon juice and apples - it would make actual repo men really proud. This one is priced at $12.00.

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Thirsty for something non-alcoholic? Check out the Auguas Frescas in flavors like Horchata and Hibiscus. These are light and refreshing with a touch of sugar. Universal executives visited Mexico and were inspired by these infusions sold by street vendors, bodegas and restaurants, so they made sure to feature them at Antojitos. These will run you about $3.50 each.

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Crowd favorites also include Hecho En Mexico - Coke, Sprite and Orange Fanta. These are glass bottled in Mexico with pure cane sugar. A gentleman I spoke with said the Coke made him feel like he was in heaven. Not a bad deal for $3.50. Your standard American formulated Coke products are also available with free refills for $3.19.

Are you hungry yet? Well, there's great news. Guests can choose to dine downstairs and enjoy a more casual dining experience that includes items like carnitas al pastor tacos (made with beer and chile braised pork, grilled pineapple and guajillo salsa) and oaxaca enchiladas (chicken tinga and house made mole sauce, queso fresco and lime crema). Upstairs, guests can enjoy a more refined dining experience that includes menu options like carne asada brava (coffee crusted ribeye with fire roasted vegetables) and menonita shrimp (bacon wrapped shrimp stuffed with menonita cheese, manchego corn pudding and a poblano chorizo sauce). No matter which level you choose, diners can watch as fresh guacamole is prepared table-side for $13.95. The stations are called guac "cubes", and you will notice they have one to match the themeing upstairs, and one to match the themeing downstairs. 

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Here comes dessert!

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Finally, we have the downstairs menu:

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And a portion of the upstairs menu:

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Antojitos Authentic Mexican Food is now open nightly from 5 p.m. to midnight.  Antojitos is the next venue to debut as part of Universal CityWalk’s historic expansion, which will include the addition of eight new venues to the complex’s already popular collection of national brands.  Other venues to join Antojitos this year include Hot Dog Hall of Fame, VIVO Italian Kitchen, Cold Stone Creamery, Menchie’s, and The CowFish.

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Disney's theme parks set attendance records while hauling in more profits

By Robert Niles
Published: February 6, 2014 at 10:30 AM

The Walt Disney Company reported this week that it's taking in more than a billion dollars a month from its theme parks, for more than $600 million in profits for the first three months of the company's current fiscal year. Disney reported record attendance at Walt Disney World, Tokyo Disney and Hong Kong Disneyland, offsetting attendance dips at Disneyland and Disneyland Paris.

Bob Iger
Disney CEO Bob Iger is probably a very happy man, given Disney's recent financial performance.

It's great news for Disney, which is also hauling in the cash from its media divisions, thanks in part to the overwhelming success of Frozen. But theme park fans might also be interested in a couple of other tidbits from Disney's earnings call.

First, Disney's reporting that it spent $539 million on capital investments for its theme parks during the quarter. Remember that Universal's been earning widespread praise from theme park fans for declaring that it will be spending $500 million a year in new capital on its parks. If Disney continues to invest at the same rate it has this quarter, that would put Disney on pace to be spending more than $2 billion a year on its theme park and resort expansions and improvements.

Of course, Disney's got a lot more capital to support, with six wholly-owned theme parks (all in the United States) to Universal's three. Plus, Disney has spending on international parks outside Tokyo (including the new Shanghai park), the Disney Vacation Club properties, and the Disney Cruise Line falling under the Parks and Resorts' capital budget, so one should expect Disney to spend more than Universal overall. But this week's report suggests that Disney's spending just as aggressively as Universal, if not more, on a per-park basis.

Disney's Chief Financial Officer, Jay Rasulo, also noted that Disney World's MyMagic+ system allowed the resort to handle more than 3,000 additional guests a day in the Magic Kingdom during the recent holiday period. That might sound like an impressive justification for the expensive new reservation management system, but let's consider this perspective: 3,000 people per day when the park is operating from 8am to midnight works out to an effective capacity increase of about 188 people per hour. An off-the-shelf spinner ride could deliver that same capacity increase for a fraction of the cost of developing and implementing MyMagic+.

Disney's got plenty of reasons for developing this system beyond better capacity management. But adding the capacity of an extra B-ticket ride isn't Disney's strongest argument in favor of this system.

Finally, Rasulo said that the Magic Kingdom's Seven Dwarfs Mine Train would open "in a few months," further fudging the attraction's once-promised "spring" opening date. At this rate, a cynic might joke if Shanghai Disneyland's version of the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train might see its debut before the Florida version.

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Let's walk through Busch Gardens' Pantopia for a Falcon's Fury construction update

By Bob Emanuel Jr.
Published: February 5, 2014 at 8:41 PM

Falcon's Fury, the towering behemoth in the middle of Busch Gardens Tampa's soon-to-be opened Pantopia promises to be a massive thrill ride.

Wednesday morning, officials from the theme park led a media tour through the construction areas of the land, formerly known as Timbuktu. While the mythos created around the new area was impressive, as were the dining and shopping plans, the giant, 335-foot yellow and blue tower dominated the landscape and the conversation.

Falcon's Fury, under construction

Although the ride vehicle was not yet installed, the attraction will feature an octagonal structure, with each side consisting of four seats for a total of 32 riders. The vehicle will be whisked skyward, and each passenger will be approximately 300 feet off the ground - the equivalent of a full-length NFL field. Once the vehicle reaches its maximum altitude, the seats will shift forward, leaving the riders staring straight down at the ground - similar to the ride experience of Manta at SeaWorld Orlando. A random clock will keep the passengers suspended for several seconds before the vehicle is released in a free fall with speeds reaching 60 miles per hour and lasting approximately five-six seconds. As the brakes engage, the vehicle will shift back to a normal seating alignment to cause a whopping 3.5 Gs.

"This is the nation's tallest free-standing drop tower," said Jeff Hornick, Busch Gardens Tampa's director of design and engineering and project manager for the Falcon's Fury and the Pantopia land renovation. "That's 335-feet tall. Now, to put that in perspective, look out in the background there, and we've got SheiKra. SheiKra is 200-feet tall and the add the Cheetah Hunt wind catcher tower on top of that. That's 102 feet tall. Then on top of that you put the Air Grover roller coaster. This is taller than all of those combined. So anybody that's been on SheiKra before, you know you get some great views and vistas. This one is going to kick it up a notch."

Falcon's Fury will be the signature ride of Pantopia. Many of the former structures that comprised Timbuktu will remain in place, although a drastic color-themed make over is underway. Bright, vibrant colors will differentiate distinct areas within Pantopia, from the blues of a frozen snack stand to the fire-tinged reds of an outdoor grill.

Pantopia
Concept art from Busch Gardens of the new "Pantopia" land that will be the home to Falcon's Fury, and replace Timbuktu

Each location within Pantopia will have a story associated with it, from the pretzel bakery to the tile adorning the walls. The newly created mythology will be available for guests to purchase and read to make subsequent visits to the land a deeper experience. From the newly designed canopy for the carousel to the keys and jewels that will adorn the walls to the new animal show in Pantopia's theater, guests will be treated to an exotic adventure that park executives hope will live up to the name Pantopia.

"We looked at a bunch of different names, and we knew what this place was about," said Brian Morrow, SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment's corporate director of theming. "We knew the story of the land, and we came up with Pantopia which is a mix of Pan - the word for earth and the continents - and Utopia. So it's really a place of bliss and unification."

Pantopia and Falcon's Fury are expected to open in late spring or early summer.

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What's in a name? Is it Despicable Me: 'Minion Mayhem' or 'The Ride'?

By Robert Niles
Published: February 5, 2014 at 11:54 AM

Sure, it's frustrating for some theme park fans to hear other park visitors get the names of attractions wrong. ("Hey, let's go to the Spooky Mansion next!") But what are fans to think when the parks themselves can't settle on the names of their attractions?

Disney fans encountered this several years ago, when Walt Disney Imagineering completed Toy Story Midway Mania at Disney's Hollywood Studios and Disney California Adventure. However, advertisements and press releases for those carnival-inspired shooter rides called them "Toy Story Mania" instead, dropping the word "Midway."

To this day, the disconnect continues. The marquees above both rides use all four words, but Disney World's website references both versions of the ride's name on the same page.

Now it appears that Universal is embracing the same type of confusion with its newest attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood. For months, we've been watching the construction of USH's version of Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem, which Universal is building on the old Terminator 2: 3D site. The construction signage and new attraction marquee have used the same name as the original version of the attraction, from Universal Studios Florida.

Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem, under construction at Universal Studios Hollywood

However, this week, ads started appearing online for "Despicable Me: The Ride."

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So which is it? "Minion Mayhem" or "The Ride"? As we did with Toy Story Midway Mania, we defer to the ride designers over the PR people when there's a conflict over the name of the attraction. So long as the ride marquee and the Universal Creative people use "Minion Mayhem" instead of "The Ride," that's how we will list it here on Theme Park Insider.

It's understandable that a park would want to use a new attraction's name to tell people what to expect. Let's not forget that Universal's new Transformers ride debuted in Singapore as "Transformers: The Ride" then became "Transformers: The Ride 3D" when it opened next, at Universal Studios Hollywood. For whatever reason, Universal executives decided that the ride needed that "3D" element in there to appeal better to American fans.

But there's got to be a limit. After all, Disney didn't call what's probably its most popular attraction "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Singing Animatronic Indoor Boat Ride." (Which, one supposes might now be called "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Singing Animatronic Indoor Boat Ride, now with Johnny Depp!")

Let's play focus group for Universal. What do you suggest Universal should call this ride?


Tell us how you'd like to rename some popular theme park rides, in the comments.

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Why America needs Epcot... and other 'non-fiction' theme parks

By Robert Niles
Published: February 4, 2014 at 11:27 AM

Should Disney replace Epcot's Maelstrom with a Frozen-themed attraction? Should it put a clone of Disney Studios Paris' upcoming trackless Ratatouille ride in the park's France pavilion? What about an Alice in Wonderland ride for the United Kingdom?

Many Disney fans have tried their best to fuel rumors about each of these ideas, no doubt reflecting a frustration with a park that's not added a new national pavilion since before the collapse of the Soviet Union. But beneath the issue of whether Disney should develop these specific attractions lies a deeper question: Should Disney develop Epcot as a non-fiction theme park?

Mission Space
The Mission: Space pavilion at Walt Disney World's Epcot

Epcot was Disney's first theme park that didn't copy the original Disneyland "Magic Kingdom" template. Inspired by World's Fairs, Epcot offered a blend of corporate-supported, forward-looking exhibits promoting technology coupled with national pavilions celebrating the cultures of selected nations around the world. What Epcot didn't offer was Disney characters. The stories Epcot told were non-fiction. Sure, the national pavilions might reference their nation's folk tales, but that was done within the context of a non-fictional look at each nation. (Disney created new cartoon characters for Epcot's Imagination pavilion, but imaginary characters are as necessary in an Imagination pavilion as plants in The Land and fish in the The Living Seas.)

Not long after the park's opening, Disney accommodated visitors' many requests, and scheduled regular appearances by Mickey and friends in Epcot. But the non-fiction focus of the park remained otherwise non-diluted until the Finding Nemo overlay of The Living Seas pavilion in late 2006 and Gran Fiesta Tour Starring The Three Caballeros revamp of El Rio del Tiempo in 2007. Still, these fictional characters served as "hosts" of what remained, at their heart, non-fictional tours of real places.

While a Frozen ride might fit well thematically within Epcot's Norway pavilion — and any well-executed new attraction would provide a welcomed upgrade from the unloved Maelstrom — Epcot would cross a line that separates it from other non-animal theme parks by introducing an attraction driven by a fictional narrative, with fictional characters, in a fictional setting. That's the realm of the Magic Kingdom, Islands of Adventure, and all other narrative-driven theme parks.

Why is this important? Wouldn't fans love the introduction of additional wonderful stories and characters in complementary settings within Epcot? Of course they would. But there's an opportunity cost to those additions.

A devil's advocate might consider non-fictional themed entertainment to be the work of museums, not theme parks. And many museums have hired creative design firms that have worked on theme parks to develop exhibits for their facilities. (Look at BRC Imagination Arts' award-winning work on the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum for one example.) But museums' first responsibility is to educate —, to engage the mind, even if it sometimes goes for the heart to get there.

Theme parks flip that script. They work first to entertain, and that allows theme parks to serve a complementary role to museums. Talking with many people who worked with Walt Disney, it becomes clear that one of Walt's distinguishing characteristic was an insatiable curiosity. Walt loved science and technology. The world fascinated him. He devoted episodes of his Disneyland TV show to space exploration, working with rocket scientist Wernher von Braun. Disney produced more than a dozen True-Life Adventures nature documentaries. Disney both reflected and helped cultivate a Modernist viewpoint in popular culture that inspired curiosity about the world around us as well as the belief that we, collectively as a human race, could help make that world better.

Of course, Disney didn't create these projects just to satisfy his curiosity. Those projects created IP [intellectual property] that helps populate the Tomorrowland and Frontierland sections of Walt's Disneyland park. As Imagineer and Disney Legend Tony Baxter said in his interview with Theme Park Insider last fall, everything that went into Walt's theme park reflected some company IP. If the park designers wanted to do something original, Walt and his team worked to create some IP in other media to support the project in the parks.

Such as it should be (and, financially, would have to be) with any new "non-fiction" attractions in Epcot. Any new project in Epcot, or any other theme park, needs to make money for the company. But producing non-fiction entertainment lies within the Walt Disney Company's DNA, from yesterday's True-Life Adventures and Disneyland episodes to today's DisneyNature feature films and ESPN "30 for 30" documentaries. If the Walt Disney Company wanted to create non-fiction IP to support a complementary attraction at Epcot, it employs and contracts with the talent to do that.

And it should. Why? Because we don't live in Walt Disney's world anymore. Popular curiosity in, and support for, science and culture can't be taken for granted, as it could in the United States more than a generation ago. While Walt Disney's passion for science and culture reflected his Modernist era, public figures today too often embrace hostility toward science, education, and multi-culturalism — the thematic foundations of Epcot. Just look at the increasing number of attempts to attack the teaching of science in our schools, the harassment of climate scientists, and, most recently, the xenophobic freak-out over a mere soft-drink ad, for heaven's sake.

Forget about teaching people about the world around them. We need someone to step up and help people fall in love with the very idea of learning something about that world, first. Unless people open their minds to discovery, they'll never bother to listen and learn. And the best way to get people to open their minds is to start by touching their hearts. Love, then learn.

That is why we need a non-fiction theme park. A society where science, education, and cultural diversity are under attack needs a place where people can fall back in love with the wonders of discovery. Museums can teach, but theme park entertain, and in doing so, have a wonderful opportunity to create emotional connections between people and ideas. (Update: I first decided that I liked history not because of any class in school, but because of Mr. Peabody and the Wayback machine. And my first thought of science being something cool was when the Mighty Microscope "shrunk" me in Disney's Adventures through Inner Space.)

No company has done a more effective job of that over our lifetimes than Disney. Walt Disney knew that his creative team could make people fall in love with Mary Poppins, Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan, and Mickey Mouse. But he knew that team could make people fall in love with space exploration, nature, chemistry, and other non-fiction topics, too. We could use a little bit more of that love in America today. A reinvigorated Epcot could help cultivate that love. And that is the opportunity cost of letting Epcot slide into just another cartoon-character theme park.

Update: [Feb. 5, 5:22 pm] I chose in this piece to make explicit some example of how modern American society disrespects science rather than just playing it vague. Aaaaaand, predictably, some Theme Park Insider readers who get their information from people who don't stand on the side of science have reacted negatively in the comments.

Theme parks, obviously, don't want such conflict among their fans. They want happy customers, spending money. So ditching non-fiction themes in favor of cartoon characters allows them to keep everyone happy and spending. That gives Disney many millions of reasons to bring in Frozen and let the World's Fair stuff go.

But if I could quote a Universal-licensed property for a moment and reference Harry Potter: "We must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy." Those who oppose science can't win because they have no evidence on their side. They can, however, gin up an ugly "controversy" that kind, reasonable people would rather avoid. And by conditioning people to avoid all those "controversial" things that science discovers, they turn a society away from science. Mission accomplished.

So Disney faces a choice with Epcot: To do what is right, or to do what is easy. The easy thing is to bring in the 'toons, and quit talking about science. (As the easy thing for me to do as a publisher would be to avoid this issue altogether.) But that, alas, is not the right thing to do for a society that needs to reconnect with the enlightenment of great science, once again. That's why I wrote this post. And that's why I hope the Walt Disney Company rediscovers its founder's love of science and world around us and starts using its theme park story-telling talents in the non-fiction realm once again.

(And, by the way, we love *all* our readers here. Everyone is welcomed to participate in the community. Just play nice, as Woody says.)

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On the Road to Diagon Alley: Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts

By Robert Niles
Published: February 3, 2014 at 2:29 PM

We first described Diagon Alley's Gringotts ride back in December 2011, but we've learned much more since then about this roller coaster/dark ride and its queue.

Visitors to Diagon Alley will see the Gringotts facade rising at the end of alleyway, with a fire-breathing dragon atop. You're visiting Gringotts to open an account and get your own vault but, of course, because this is a theme park, you can expect something to go terribly wrong. (Update: Perhaps it should have gone without saying, but if you don't want to know what happens, for heaven's sake, quit reading this post now!)


The Gringotts Bank exterior, from the Harry Potter films.

Walking inside the bank building, you'll step into a small Entry Hall with three chandeliers before entering the Bankers Hall, the elaborate main hall filmed inside London's Australia House for the Harry Potter movies. The Bankers Hall will be lined by animatronic goblins behind the tellers' desks. From this room, the queue will split, with the regular queue heading outside to a large supplementary queue located behind the Gringotts show building. Universal wants to keep the line of waiting visitors out of Diagon Alley, given its tight spaces, so the back-of-house, exterior queue will expand as needed to keep the start of the line at the Entry Hall. Universal Express pass holders will skip this exterior queue and go straight from the Bankers Hall into a hallway of Gringotts offices, where the "regular" visitors will end up after navigating the exterior queue.

The offices will include a Security Office where you'll have your picture taken (yes, more souvenir sales!), before ending up in Bill Weasley's office. Here the queue will split again, though both lines will see the same show in this office. Bill Weasley (portrayed by Domhnall Gleeson in the movies) will appear in his office, much as Christopher Walken appears on stage next door at the Disaster! attraction. Weasley will welcome you and tell you about how to get your own vault at Gringotts. After his presentation, the doors on the far side of his office will open, leading your half of the queue to one of the two waiting elevators.

These elevators will take you down 30,000 feet to the subterranean Gringotts vaults — juuust like those "hydrolators" at Epcot's The Living Seas used to bring you up from the bottom of the ocean. ;^) Once "down" at vault level, you'll pick up your 3D glasses in a tunnel-like room, before climbing a spiral staircase to the load platform. (I'm still looking into what the wheelchair bypass will be. Update: There's an elevator for that.)

The loading area is a large cavern, with stalactites hanging from the ceiling. (You'll find a child swap waiting area off to one side, in a holding cell.) There are two track channels for the ride and the ride vehicles are twin, 12-person, open-air cars, arranged in three rows of four. Each row is placed slightly higher than the row in front of it, in a "stadium seating" effect. The look of the cars is very Victorian, with a smokestack on each car, individual lap bars, and six Dolby speakers per seat for on-ride audio.

Gringotts ride vehicle
The ride vehicle for Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts

You're to ride your car down to see your newly opened vault. After the load platform, the two track channels merge to the south, then bearing to the left and entering Scene 1. In this scene, you'll face a brick wall, with two tunnel entrances, to the left and right. You're really facing a 3D screen, though, and here's where it all starts to "go terribly wrong."

Bellatrix Lestrange and Voldemort appear, cursing you and declaring that you'll never emerge from the vaults alive. Actuators will make your car bump up and down before the track below the first of the twin cars will drop, coming to rest at a 40-degree angle. Then, the track under the trailing car will begin to rise, matching the 40-degree angle of the leading car.

Within a moment, the car then drops 70-80 feet into the tunnel, for a kinetic ride section through a stalactite-filled cavern, with a small bunny hop and a hard right turn before we hit a block brake in preparation for the next scene. On a 3D screen, a car with Bill Weasley pulls alongside us, then we're also joined by another car, with Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Trolls attack, knocking Bill, Harry, Ron, and Hermione out of the way before attacking us. Shaker tables rattle the cars before we go through the Thief's Downfall, with its fogscreen and water spritzers.

Perched on the edge of a cliff, trolls attack again, knocking us off the cliff as the motion base shakes our car, simulating a free fall. Fortunately, Bill Weasley comes to our rescue, saving us before we hit the cavern's bottom. Unfortunately, the white dragon from the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is waiting for us, attacking us with its fire breath. Bill casts an aguamenti spell to save us, again, as guards run into the scene, shooting at us and the dragon.

The dragon climbs away, and we're launched into the next scene, which will bring us to Sirius Black's Vault. We hit a fog blast before entering the vault, where we see illuminated treasure ahead. The car makes a turn to the right, where the physical show scenery opens up a bit, with a large vault area projected along the far wall. We then bear to the left, turning into the next scene, where Bellatrix reappears, casting the Avada Kedavra killing curse at us. Voldemort and Nagini also appear, as he, too, casts the Avada Kedavra at us.

Escaping the killing curses, our car shoots around the corner into the next scene, inside a large 360-degree projection dome. With lava pouring around the darkened room, Harry arrives, riding the dragon. With Bellatrix hiding behind him, Voldemort attacks the dragon, which fights back with his fire breath. Harry then throws a chain onto our car, to haul us out of danger as he flies the dragon away, and Voldemort and Bellatrix disapparate. A Kuka arm pulls away part of the screen, clearing the path to launch us up through a dark tunnel into the final scene. (This is the first change in actual track elevation since the ride's initial drop.)

In the final scene, Harry, Bill, Ron, and Hermione bids us farewell on a screen behind a knocked-out wall, before we emerge back into the loading station. Once out of our car, we will exit down another spiral staircase into the gift shop.

In short, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts is Revenge of the Mummy meets Transformers: The Ride 3D, with a Harry Potter theme. So, who's ready to ride?

Previously:

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Getting from your car to the front gate: Which parks make that easiest for visitors using wheelchairs?

By Daniel Etcheberry
Published: February 1, 2014 at 9:24 PM

The access from the parking lot to any theme park entrance gate is a very important issue for people in manual wheelchairs. I will mention three peculiar examples.

Magic Kingdom has the distinction of having a monorail between the parking lot and the park’s entrance. It has cast members who place a folding ramp, so one can get the wheelchair inside the monorail. But this option is far from perfect; in order to get into the monorail station, one must deal with a long and steep ramp, and the same kind of ramp awaits at the other station next to the park. I know people in wheelchairs who prefer to take the ferry boats because there is no big ramp.

Universal Studios Orlando send guests with an ADA license plate or tag to the parking lot area that is at the same level as the walking bridges that connect to CityWalk. There are moving sidewalks, but wheelchairs are not allowed. The trip to the two theme parks is a long one as one has to cross CityWalk.

Finally, Busch Gardens Williamsburg has the most challenging entrance of them all. Between the parking lot and the park’s entrance, there is a very steep hill. My advice: go sideways when going down. When going up, well, I hope you have Schwarzenegger’s arms or someone who really loves you.

Do you use a wheelchair, or travel with someone who does? Tell us about your best and worst experiences getting from your car to a theme park's front gate.

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Keep reading: January 2014 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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