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  • Let's Try Disney's New Smokejumpers GrillWe review the burgers at this new restaurant in Disney California Adventure
  • Leaders Gather for Annual Thea AwardsThe themed entertainment industry came together for the annual TEA Summit in Anaheim
  • Busch Gardens Williamsburg Announces TempestoThe Sky Rocket II coaster from Premier Rides will open next month
  • The Wizarding World of Harry PotterRead our complete guide to Universal's Harry Potter theme park lands
Let's Try Disney's New Smokejumpers Grill Leaders Gather for Annual Thea Awards Busch Gardens Williamsburg Announces Tempesto The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
Robert Niles

Hacking the Future of Theme Park Entertainment, This Weekend at Universal Orlando

Published: March 26, 2015 at 4:57 PM

This weekend, about 300 software developers and other creative professionals will gather at the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at the Universal Orlando Resort for NBCUniversal's latest "Hackathon." The participants will be challenged to develop new applications that can lead to improvements in the guest experience in Universal's theme parks in Orlando and Los Angeles.

"Hackathon is a fantastic way to engage innovators -- to engage them to innovate in some specific areas," said Sanjay Macwan, Senior Vice President & Chief Technology Officer of NBCUniversal Media Labs. The Hackathon gets underway at 9am this Saturday, with the 24-hour competition beginning at noon. Sunday afternoon, teams will present their proposed solutions to a panel of judges drawn from executives in NBCUniversal's business units.

Photo from a previous NBCUniversal Hackathon, courtesy NBCUniversal

Participants will develop potential solutions to six challenges, with the best solution in each challenge awarded $1,500. The best overall solution will be named the Grand Prize winner and claim a $10,000 award.

But getting insight into challenges facing the theme park industry isn't the only reason for the Hackathon, Macwan said.

"First, we have set up challenges, and we're looking for great ideas to solve those challenges. Second, this is a fantastic forum to recruit some talent, and we have recruited good talent from our previous Hackathons, so we expect to recruit some great talent from this one, as well. Our HR team will be on site, talking with interested innovators and explaining our various businesses, theme parks primarily."

The four theme park challenges will be (descriptions via NBCUniversal):

Marketing Challenge - We’re Here, Come and Experience!
Universal Parks compete in marketplaces like Orlando and Los Angeles that are crowded with things to do, see and experience. Many visitors to these cities come and go without exploring the many entertainment, attractions and immersive experiences we offer at our theme parks and resort destinations. We challenge you to leverage mobile, geo-location, and IOT technologies to attract consumers who are visiting Orlando and Los Angeles to experience our Parks and Resorts.

Technology Challenge - Enhanced Entertainment Experience for The Visually Impaired
At Universal Orlando Resort we provide services for guests with special needs to deliver a positive vacation experience. One of our recent additions to our portfolio of products to deliver a unique guest experience is our Universal Orlando Mobile App downloadable from the iTunes Store or Google Play. We challenge you to design creative ways to enhance the in-park experience of visually impaired guests through the use of native capabilities of an iOS or Android mobile platform plus any complementary technologies that could be deployed at attractions (i.e. beacons) or available in the park (GPS, Wi-Fi network). These capabilities may include enhancing existing functionality available within the Universal Orlando Mobile App, or introducing new capabilities that can range from informative, engaging, and fun to transactional features.

Creative Challenge - More Time for Story: Changing or Eliminating the Standard Queuing Experience
Many guests will stand in a queue upwards of 30 minutes prior to experiencing an attraction, for multiple attractions per day. We challenge you to develop a solution to queue guests such that they are not confined to one space, yet are still immersed in the story of what they will experience. Could guests be virtually interacting with characters from the attraction while they wait? Focus on the system behind the story, allowing for modifications between seasons or as interests change.

Entertainment Challenge - Revolutionary Entertainment: The VR, AR, ACR, 360, RFID, Beacon Mashup
Technology is revolutionizing how we experience entertainment. Storylines, characters, video/audio blurbs and more help tell the story of areas of the park that guests visit, and the ability to make these experiences interactive, immersive and shared creates unlimited possibilities. We challenge you to leverage technologies like augmented reality, virtual reality, beacons, geofencing, audio watermarking and RFID tagging to create compelling content for guests, delivered in totally unique interactive and immersive ways. Using existing in-park locations, this technology could allow, for example, a guest to “step into” the various themed exteriors around the park and explore the worlds inside, or engage other patrons in a shared gaming experience, or unlock clues to hidden treasures. It’s all up to you.

In addition, the Hackathon will include challenges focused on developing products for Telemundo and GolfNow, two other NBCUniversal business units based in Florida.

So when might theme park fans see the results of the work started at the Hackathon? It depends, but might not take too long, Macwan said.

"A really cool new innovative idea that happens to be an experience on a mobile app for the guest as they come into the theme park -- those things are relatively easy to develop on a short time frame, compared to something that involves serious hardware, firmware, and engineering that might add to an attraction, which obviously would have a longer time cycle."

I asked Macwan about the Entertainment Challenge, which seemed especially rich for creative opportunities to expand the nature of theme park attractions. He said that Universal's already at work in this area, and looking to expand its efforts via the Hackathon.

"We are working with the parks technology team on a number of ideas related to this technology platform and we believe there is a rich opportunity to do a lot more with this, which is why we opened up this challenge," he said. "Virtual reality is a very exciting technology, especially in the theme park space. We believe that we can use that technology in a very creative way to enrich the guest experience when they are in an attraction. Similarly, the Beacon technology, the automatic content recognition (ACR) technology."

And Macwan offered some hints about what might soon be coming from Universal in this space.

"In fact, we just finished a project that we are now testing using ACR, and my team and parks technology team believe that we can do a lot more with that," he said. "That's really the reason why we're opening this up. So, the short answer is that we're already working on all this technology, we have a number of different concepts that are already being worked on, or that are in testing, and at the same time, we believe that there is a really great opportunity to get additional ideas and additional concepts on this platform from other people from outside the company."

Macwan said that NBCUniversal is planning future Hackathons, next in London, then cycling back to New York, Los Angeles, and Orlando, as well as potentially to other communities where NBCUniversal has businesses. To learn more about the Hackathon, or to sign up to participate, visit

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Robert Niles

Disney Announces Tomorrowland Movie Previews for Disneyland, Disney World

Published: March 26, 2015 at 10:20 AM

Disney is bringing Tomorrowland to Tomorrowland.

The company confirmed today that it will run a preview of the new Brad Bird film, starring George Clooney, in the Tomorrowland Theater at Disneyland Park, starting next month. Walt Disney World visitors will get to see the preview at Epcot's Imagination Pavilion theater.

Tomorrowland movie trailer clip
A shot from the latest "Tomorrowland" trailer, including a sight familiar to theme park fans

Both theaters had been home to "Captain EO," the 4D musical that Disney brought back following the death of star Michael Jackson. Disney stopped showing Captain EO in the Disneyland theater a while ago, choosing instead to show previews of upcoming film releases. However, at the Walt Disney World Resort, the movie previews have been showing at Disney's Hollywood Studios, allowing Captain EO to continue showing in the Imagination Pavilion.

With Tomorrowland evicting the Captain for this preview run, one wonders if we'll ever again see the Michael Jackson movie at a Walt Disney theme park. Tokyo Disneyland's already closed the show to make way for its new Stitch Encounter attraction, and there's no sign that Captain EO ever will return to the Tomorrowland Theater in Disneyland.

Meanwhile at Disneyland, in addition to the Tomorrowland extended clip that will play in the theater, Disney's promised an accompanying exhibit featuring props and production art from the film. Tomorrowland opens in theaters on May 22.

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Robert Niles

Has Disney World Started Work on the New Entrance for Hollywood Studios?

Published: March 26, 2015 at 8:34 AM

A reader drew my attention to some interesting work going on around the Disney's Hollywood Studios parking lot. Let's pull up Google Maps are take a look at the aerial view of the site.

Studios parking lot before

That's an older satellite image, showing the wooded area to the east of the Disney's Hollywood Studios parking lot, with the Caribbean Beach Resort off to the far right. But things get more interesting when you compare that view with a more recent image of the same location.

Studios parking lot after

You can see where Disney has created a new right turn lane at the intersection of Buena Vista Drive and Victory Way, at the top right. But look a little below that. See that dirt roadway, extending west from Victory Way into the woods, toward the DHS parking lot?

Yeah, that.

On both images, you can see an interruption in the trees along the pathway of that new road, suggesting that its ultimate destination is the parking lot. So what is this road for?

Insiders have been telling us for some time that Disney's ultimate plan for the Studios theme park calls for the removal of its current entrance off World Drive. The plan is for the access into the Studios' parking lot to change to come from Victory Way.

The park's current second entrance, off Buena Vista Drive, then would be restricted to buses only. Cars would enter and exit the Studios lot from a new access road connecting to Victory Way, pushing traffic exiting the Studios more directly toward the Osceola Parkway. This would eliminate the current bottleneck when guests exiting the parking lot are stuck at a traffic light to get onto Buena Vista Drive, where they then often face additional back-ups to get onto World or Epcot Center Drive.

The crush of vehicles waiting to exit the park after big events such as the Villains parties has demonstrated that Walt Disney World simply can't add anything to that will draw more visitors Disney's Hollywood Studios without first addressing the traffic problems in and around the DHS parking lot. With Disney planning to build a Star Wars Land at Disney's Hollywood Studios, along with the potential for a major new Pixar-themed land at the park, Disney's got to get moving with fixing this parking and traffic problem ASAP.

This dirt road on the satellite image is the first sign that Disney's started work to connect the Studios parking lot with Victory Way. Whether this is the start of construction on the actual new public access road to the parking lot, or simply a construction or maintenance support road for the project, remains to be seen. (If you ask us to place a wager, we're betting on the second explanation.)

Creating a new entrance and exit for the parking lot not only will help smooth the flow of traffic into and out of the park, it will allow DHS to expand onto the land currently used for parking access road leading from World Drive. That road runs right past the back of Star Tours, effectively cutting off access to the expansion space the park will need for Star Wars Land. So the Victory Way approach allows Disney to solve two problems at once: fixing the auto traffic flow problems with the park, and clearing access to the space needed to expand it.

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Russell Meyer

Fury 325 is Creating Buzz at Carowinds

Published: March 25, 2015 at 8:30 PM

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Robert Niles

Universal Orlando Installs Metal Detectors at Rip, Ride, Rockit

Published: March 25, 2015 at 7:59 AM

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Robert Niles

Bonus Vote of the Week: The Best New Coaster of 2015, Part Two

Published: March 24, 2015 at 4:33 PM

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Robert Niles

Where to Eat? Lunch at Smokejumpers Grill in Disney California Adventure

Published: March 24, 2015 at 10:31 AM

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Robert Niles

Weekly Top 10: The Best Disney Attractions

Published: March 23, 2015 at 10:01 AM

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Robert Niles

Creative Leaders Come Together for the Annual TEA Summit and Thea Awards

Published: March 22, 2015 at 8:18 PM

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Russell Meyer

Busch Gardens Williamsburg Officially Announces Tempesto

Published: March 22, 2015 at 3:13 PM

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Robert Niles

Vote of the Week: Which New Coaster Excites You Most?

Published: March 20, 2015 at 1:50 PM

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Robert Niles

Universal Studios Hollywood Announces Opening Date for Fast & Furious

Published: March 20, 2015 at 11:41 AM

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