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Insider's Update: When will (fill in the blank) open?

Robert Niles

By Robert Niles
Published: April 19, 2014 at 10:57 AM

Universal Orlando has told its team members that NBC's Today show will be broadcasting from the resort next Friday, April 25. The consensus among team members seems to be that the visit is to announce the official opening date for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida. We've estimated an official opening on June 13 with a soft open on May 14, but now we're hearing that both might slip a week from those original projections. When Universal Orlando opened the original Wizarding World, it held an opening ceremony on Wednesday, June 16, 2010, a media day on Thursday, and the public grand opening on Friday morning, June 18, 2010. If Universal goes with the same type of schedule this time, that could put the ceremony on June 18 and the public opening on June 20. But we might know for certain on Friday.

Harry Potter opening day in 2010
Tom Felton, Daniel Radcliffe, Oliver Phelps and Rupert Grint greet fans at the opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Hogsmeade on June 18, 2010.

Meanwhile, the Walt Disney World Resort has scheduled a media event for April 30-May 2 to introduce the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. However, it appears that the ride has yet to be turned over to the attraction operations department for cast member training and check-out. Back in the day, ops cast members needed five days to check out and be cleared to operate roller coasters in the park. That leaves almost no time for any public soft open before the press event, even if the ride were to go over to ops immediately, which doesn't appear to be happening. In fact, there's some skepticism among cast members in the Magic Kingdom that the Mine Train will be ready to ride in fully functioning form in time for the press event, which Disney's now calling a "preview" anyway. Could Diagon Alley soft open to the public before the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train? It's looking like it might be close.

Busch Gardens Tampa has gone ahead and cancelled its media days next week for the debut of Falcon's Fury, citing construction delays. The park's not announced a new date for a media debut, though the park's still aiming for a public debut in early May.

Walt Disney World has started the countdown to the 25th anniversary of the Studios theme park, which opened May 1, 1989. The Disney Parks blog this week teased some of the merchandise that the resort is selling to commemorate the anniversary. Notice anything missing?

Anniversary logo

That would be the original name of the park, Disney-MGM Studios, and its original Mickey-Mouse-and-Leo-the-Lion logo. Disney no longer has the rights to use the MGM name or logo, so it can't issue any anniversary merchandise that includes it. So if you want a more authentic opening-day throwback tchotchke, you'd better hit eBay or Theme Park Connection.

Moving into Jeff's "Beyond CaliFlorida" territory, Holiday World in Santa Claus, Indiana, has confirmed that it will tear down the former Pilgrim's Plunge shoot-the-chutes ride. The ride featured a unique 90-degree-vertical lift to a 165-foot drop, which left riders absolutely drenched.

The lift and drop
The splash
The evidence

Last year, Holiday World removed the attraction from the Holiday World map, reassigning it to the Splashin' Safari water park and renaming the ride Giraffica to better fit the water park's theme. But the ride suffered from too-frequent downtimes and this year the park is throwing in the (very often used after riding) towel and removing the attraction entirely.

Wow. This has been a downer of an update. Let's hope for better news next week! If you'd like to keep in touch with Theme Park Insider throughout the week, we're on just about any social media network out there. If you haven't connected with us yet, please take a moment to follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, YouTube, Pinterest, Instgram, LinkedIn or Tumblr, or subscribe to our weekly newsletter. That way, you can get Theme Park Insider updates through those networks, as well as here on the Web. Thank you, as always, for being part of the Theme Park Insider community!

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Vote of the week: Which Hogwarts house are you?

Robert Niles

By Robert Niles
Published: April 18, 2014 at 11:03 AM

It's no stretch to declare: theme park fans love Harry Potter. After inspiring a new generation of kids to fall in love with reading and busting box office registers around the world, Harry Potter's success in driving theme park attendance shouldn't have surprised anyone. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter has helped attract record numbers of visitors to Central Florida, while helping Universal Orlando increase its market share relative to both Walt Disney World and SeaWorld Orlando. Record revenue from admissions, hotel bookings and merchandise sales helped NBCUniversal buy out its former partner Blackstone Group to take full ownership of the Universal Orlando Resort. Now Universal is expanding The Wizarding World around the Muggle world, with today's announcement that Universal Studios Japan will open its version on July 15 this summer, and the announcement earlier this month that Universal Studios Hollywood's version will open in 2016.

Harry Potter announcement in Japan
Photo courtesy Universal Studios Japan

It was nice to see Evanna Lynch, who played Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter films, staying true to Luna's Ravenclaw house during today's press event in Osaka, while all the other dignitaries around her jumped on the Gryffindor bandwagon. (That's former First Daughter and current U.S. ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy on the left, with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Universal Studios Japan president Glenn Gumpel in between.) Just once, for the lulz, wouldn't you love to see a politician rocking a Slytherin scarf at one of these events? Unless Tom Felton gets elected somewhere, though, I doubt we'll ever see that happen.

Part of the appeal of the Harry Potter franchise is the ease with which it draws people into its wizarding world, inspiring you to think of yourself as part of that world, and a member of one of those four Hogwarts houses. I love the story that Dave Cobb has told about finding Dr. Phillips High School students sitting around a table at the Three Broomsticks restaurant in Islands of Adventure, in full Hogwarts robes, drinking Butterbeer and doing their Muggle school homework in their daily afternoon ritual. It almost makes me wish I were in school again, to have a better excuse to do something like that! (FWIW, my sister went to Dr. Phillips, long ago, when it first opened, and we lived across the street from what was then only Universal Studios Florida and a huge parking lot.)

I'm willing to bet that many Theme Park Insider readers have a Hogwarts house scarf or T-shirt in their drawer or closet, a souvenir of a visit to Universal Orlando. Which house's stuff did you buy? Readers can find abundant "Which House are you?" quizzes littering the Internet, but we'll consider the House sorting questionnaire on J.K. Rowling's Pottermore site to be canon here. Whether you've been sorted as part of joining the Pottermore communtity or you've just decided on your own, tell us which Hogwarts house you consider yourself to belong.


According to Pottermore, I'm a Gryffindor, my son is Ravenclaw and my daughter Hufflepuff. Honestly, that's about right, as I consider our personalities. What's your favorite part of the Harry Potter franchise? Or tell us your Harry Potter-related travel plans, in the comments.

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Kings Island debuts Banshee, the world's longest inverted coaster

Derek Potter

By Derek Potter
Published: April 18, 2014 at 9:19 AM

Yesterday was a day of celebration for a few reasons. First, it seems that after a final gasp, the never-ending crappy winter weather has finally subsided in this part of the country. Second, after a whirlwind five months or so, I (along with my lovely wife) get a couple of much needed days away from life, a chance to recharge the batteries. There aren’t too many places in the world better for me than the park. Finally, it seems Kings Island had much to celebrate, for they’ve hit another home run with Banshee.

Banshee

The name is a bit curious. Once upon a time about 20 years ago it was even controversial, dumped at Cedar Point because people were offended by its connotation. In Irish folklore, the Banshee was a spirit; a wailing woman who would weep and mourn for the dead or soon to be dead family member…subsequent cultures would paint the character in a much darker and malignant tone. Perhaps it’s a more fitting name this time around, given it now sits where the much maligned (and now deceased) Son of Beast once terrified coaster riders and Kings Island’s accountants and lawyers. The graveyard in the queue even pays tribute.

Son of Beast in the graveyard

And then there’s the ride: 167 feet, 68 mph, seven inversions, billed as the longest inverted coaster in the world at 4124 feet. These aren’t necessarily mind blowing numbers when you compare them with the others. The B&M inverted coaster concept certainly isn’t new. It’s been over twenty years since the first one, and Kings Island is one of the last major parks to build one. All that being said, design is everything. With Banshee, ride designer Bolliger and Mabillard pulled everything out of the bag of tricks. Elements old and new are present, combined with newer trains and low profile restraints that give more mobility to riders and free them from the bondage of head knocking giant bars over shoulders.

Banshee track

The end result is pure, nonstop coaster goodness. Banshee is absolutely relentless from start to finish. After a sharp first drop that ambushes even the most seasoned coaster rider, the train sails majestically through flawless elements with lots and lots of power. Taking full advantage of the hilly terrain, the train doesn’t reach top speed until halfway through the ride. The slowest portion contains a zero gravity, low speed, heartline roll in which one literally floats inside their restraints before barreling into the final helix.

There isn’t a straight piece of track in the course, and the front seat (my preference) is about the closest most of us can get to being a fighter pilot. In the dark, Banshee takes on a whole different look thanks to extensive use of lighting effects, taking the haunted graveyard theme to another level. Don’t look for any Disney-like storytelling themes here, just unbridled, unapologetic thrills. Riders should beware of two things…the assigned seating (GAAAHHH!) and the inexplicable lack of storage bins in the loading station. If you are a backpacker or have loose articles, you’ll need a locker.

On ride

Bottom line, when it comes to coaster thrills, Banshee delivers the goods in a big way. It is an absolute must ride for thrill seekers, and fans of the park will love it. There is little doubt it will be at the top of many lists for best new ride of the year. As for its place among the inverted coasters, it likely goes straight to the top. Kings Island scores big with this ride.

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Wizarding World of Harry Potter to open at Universal Studios Japan on July 15

Robert Niles

By Robert Niles
Published: April 18, 2014 at 6:44 AM

Universal Studios Japan in Osaka announced today that its Wizarding World of Harry Potter will open on July 15. Caroline Kennedy (US ambassador to Japan and daughter of President John Kennedy), Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter films) and Harry Potter production designer Stuart Craig made the announcement in an evening ceremony today in front of the park's new Hogwarts Castle.

Harry Potter announcement date
Photo courtesy Universal Studios Japan

The park also announced a Twitter contest for early access to the new land, which will be the second or third Wizarding World of Harry Potter to open, depending upon when The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley opens at Universal Studios Florida. The Hollywood version will follow in 2016, leaving Universal Studios Singapore as the only Universal theme park without a Wizarding World under construction. For now, at least.

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Solo travel for theme park fans

Robert Niles

By Robert Niles
Published: April 17, 2014 at 10:54 AM

Have you ever gone on vacation by yourself? If not, have you ever thought about it?

Solo travel changes your vacation. It's not just the social aspect, either. When you travel alone, you change the economics of your trip. And that just might allow you to visit someplace you though you'd never be able to go before.

Solo travel in Singapore
Your truly, traveling solo to Universal Studios Singapore

Think about how much money you spend per person when you travel in a group. When you take a roadtrip alone, you're paying the same for gas and maintenance as you would if you had other people in the car with you. A hotel room often costs the same whether you're traveling alone or with a partner. That's why it makes sense to pile the family into the car and hit the road for a relatively affordable vacation.

But when you travel alone, the price per person of that hotel-filled roadtrip skyrockets. If you're used to traveling with your family and taking the car because you think it's the cheapest way to travel, it's time to rethink that assumption before a solo trip.

Here's when solo travel makes more financial sense — when you fly. Unlike driving, adding a second, third, or fourth person to the trip when you're buying airplane tickets sends the cost, as well as the passengers, sky high. Price the cost a single plane ticket against the cost of driving to that place you've always wanted to visit and you might find that flying is the better and cheaper way to go.

But don't stop there. Since flying is often cheaper than driving for solo travelers, why not take a look at the price of going even farther on your solo trip? Perhaps you'd never consider that dream trip to Tokyo Disney or to Disneyland Paris if you had to take the family. But what if you had the opportunity to go somewhere alone? Could a trip to Tokyo or Paris, or some other far-off destination, actually be affordable? You won't know until you start checking prices.

If you're flying to some far-off city, obviously, you'll need a place to stay. While the price of a hotel room for a single often isn't cheaper than when you bring a partner or the family, traveling alone gives you some flexibility in choosing a place to stay that you might not have when you go with a group.

Unless you know someone with a lot of extra space in their home, it's harder to bring the family to stay at someone else's home than it is for one person to claim a space on the couch or in a spare bedroom. (Even if you don't know anyone where you want to go, you can find available spare rooms and places to stay on sites such as AirBnB and Couchsurfing.) Hostels can provide a decent place to get a night's sleep for a solo traveler. Also consider that if you plan a trip to multiple cities, you can avoid expensive hotel costs by traveling at night — flying red-eyes or taking night trains from one destination to another. Never stay somewhere you're uncomfortable, but take the opportunity solo travel gives you to consider alternatives to the same old hotels you'd use as a family.

So where should you go? Theme parks provide an ideal destination for solo travelers who don't just want to get away from civilization and be alone. When you're in a theme park, you're surrounded by many other theme park fans, even if you've come to the park by yourself. Sure, you could just obsess over your cell phone's screen like many other visitors when you're going it alone, but you also could ask the person in line next to you if he or she's ever been on this ride before, then see where the conversation flows. No, you can't bond with your family or friends on a solo trip, but you can meet a world filled with other interesting, engaging people with whom you'd never have talked if you'd been there with your own family or friends.

And let's not overlook the great advantage of traveling alone to a theme park — single rider lines! Traveling alone, you can fly through a park, using every single rider line available, and doing the park on your schedule without having to wait for anyone else to catch up, take a break, or anything else that slows down a group trying to move through the park as one.

Who's going to take your picture, to show that you were there? You don't have to take selfies when you're a solo traveler in a theme park. Any park photographer will take your picture with your own phone or camera, in addition to snapping a picture with their pro outfit.

In Tokyo
At Tokyo Disneyland

Worried about eating alone? Don't be. It might be easier to find a single seat somewhere in a crowded counter-service restaurant than it is to find a table with enough seats for the group. in certain restaurants, you can eat at the bar, without having to wait for a table. But don't rule out other table service restaurants, either. Book your table for one, chat up the servers, and enjoy a little time with that cell phone or guidebook that you didn't get while waiting in line because you were sprinting through a single rider queue, or hanging out talking with the people around you in the regular one.

Have you ever traveled alone for a vacation? Please tell us about your experiences, in the comments.

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Keep reading: April 2014 Archive

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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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