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  • King Kong Construction UpdateWe have had our first look at the blueprints for the new Universal Orlando ride
  • Where to Eat? The CowfishYou don't have to choose between burgers and sushi at CityWalk's new restaurant and bar
  • Time for ThanksgivingOur Top 10 reasons to be thankful this year, as theme park fans
  • Our 2015 Orlando GuidebooksWe have two new guidebooks to help you plan your dream vacation!
King Kong Construction Update Where to Eat? The Cowfish Time for Thanksgiving Our 2015 Orlando Guidebooks
Russell Meyer

Busch Gardens Williamsburg Brings Holiday Joy with Christmas Town

Published: November 26, 2014 at 11:35 AM

As temperatures begin to drop in northern climates, and families begin their preparations for their annual Thanksgiving feast, some theme parks are also treating guests to holiday-themed events. Just as Halloween has become a lucrative business of hard-ticketed and full-capacity events for many parks, Christmas is becoming nearly as profitable. Year-round operational parks have been hosting Christmas events for years, but even some seasonal parks are getting into the act. Many parks located in colder parts of the country are limited to simply light displays and holiday themed shows, but in its sixth year, Busch Gardens Williamsburg has continued to expand its Christmas Town event. This event requires a hard ticket — it is not included in any season pass level, even Platinum Passholders.


My family and I were invited to experience opening night of Christmas Town as a contributor to Theme Park Insider and Busch Gardens Williamsburg Ambassador Blogger. Those who have experienced the event in the past will see much of the same, with millions of lights scattered around the park. Many of the familiar lands are tweaked, with Christmas theme like France overlaid with a 12 Days of Christmas theme and Germany accented with an O’Tannenbaum theme.


Only one of the park’s roller coasters, Verbolten, operates during Christmas Town, along with a number of the flat rides, but Christmas Town is not really about the rides; it’s about the decorations, lights, and shows. The shows cater to a wide variety of audiences, with a gospel-inspired retelling of the Biblical Christmas Story (Gloria) to the new Broadway-caliber staging of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, "Scrooge No More." The new show, staged in the recently renovated Globe Theater, takes advantage of the theater’s high-tech projection system and delivers some strong original musical numbers to present the famous story of the miserly man and his search for redemption. The excellent cast, particularly the lead, are engaging, and the staging is unique. "Scrooge No More" is likely to be extremely popular and is almost singlehandedly worth the price of admission.



Similar to last year, I was invited to experience Santa’s Fireside Feast, which is a buffet-style meal hosted by none other than St. Nicholas, along with Mrs. Claus and two of his elves. In addition to the all-you-care-to-eat dinner, guests are entertained by a rousing rendition of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and the opportunity to meet Santa. The buffet includes turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, corn, salad, and more. The cost ($31 for adults and $20 for children 3-9) is a bit pricey, but well worth it when compared to character buffets at many other theme parks.


Also new this year, Busch Gardens is launching a service called PhotoKey during Christmas Town. We had seen the service being offered at SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa last month, and it seems as if SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment is pushing the service to all of the parks in its chain. We were given access to the service during our visit, which is somewhat similar to Disney’s PhotoPass/Memory Maker. Guests can currently purchase access to the service for a single day or for the entirety of the Christmas Town event. Users are provided a lanyard with a unique QR code printed on it that links to their PhotoKey account. As guests walk around the park, there are numerous opportunities to have pictures taken, and park photographers shoot the QR code prior to taking the guest photo. Guests have the opportunity to view their photos at many of the PhotoKey locations, and can also view them through the PhotoKey app (currently available for both Android and IOS mobile devices). From our experience during the first night PhotoKey was being used, the park has a lot of bugs to work out. Because of the technology used, we experienced significant delays in being able to view photos within the app (we’re actually still waiting for a couple to show up), and we also ended up with a lot of photos in our account that were not ours. The service has promise, but at a price of $35 per day ($60 for the entire Christmas Town season), that’s a lot of money for a service that still seems like a work in progress, and is limited to just eight different staged photo locations around the park. It is interesting to see other parks attempt to compete with Disney’s popular and profitable PhotoPass/Memory Maker, but PhotoKey and Universal’s Photo Connect still have a long way to go.



Despite the chill in the air, our trip to Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s Christmas Town was an enjoyable one, and the weather actually helped to enhance the feel of the event. The event runs on select days through New Year’s Eve.

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Robert Niles

Turner Classic Movies Steps in to Sponsor Disney World's Great Movie Ride

Published: November 25, 2014 at 7:32 PM

The Great Movie Ride at Walt Disney World's Disney's Hollywood Studios will be getting pre- and post-show changes as part of a deal that the company will announce tomorrow with the cable television channel Turner Classic Movies, the New York Times is reporting.

Casablanca scene in the Great Movie Ride
Here's lookin' at you, TCM....

TCM, which is owned by Time Warner, will become the presenting sponsor of the attraction, whose Chinese Theater home will again become the main visual "weenie" in the park with the removal of the Mickey's Sorcerer's Hat that has blocked the view of the theater facade over the past decade.

The pre- and post-ride film montages will get TCM branding as part of the deal, with new clips hosted by TCM's Robert Osborne. There's no word that anything on the ride itself will change under the deal. The changes are expected by next spring.

In return, Disney will provide TCM with old "Disneyland" and "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color" episodes for a quarterly special programming block on the cable channel to be called "Treasures From the Disney Vault." The first block will run in the evening of Dec. 21.

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Robert Niles

Calorie Counts are Coming to Restaurant Menus, but Probably Not at Theme Parks

Published: November 25, 2014 at 11:58 AM

The United States Food and Drug Administration today announced its new rules that will require restaurant chains to post the calorie counts of their menu items on the menus themselves. Up until now, many restaurants have gotten around publication requirements by making calorie counts and other nutritional information either available by request on under-the-counter handouts, or by burying them under small links on their websites.

When governments first started requiring calorie count disclosure, some restaurants did publish the numbers on their menus, only to see sales decline as consumers stopped ordering high-calorie gut-busters. So restaurants starting looking for ways to publish the numbers in ways that most customers wouldn't ever see them.

Menu at Gru's
Many restaurant menus will need to start listing calorie counts along with prices. But theme parks might not have to.

The FDA made a point in its announcement today of stating that "(t)he menu labeling rule also includes food facilities in entertainment venue chains such as movie theaters and amusement parks." But it's difficult to envision which theme park restaurant actually will end up having to display calorie counts on their menus, given the other conditions in the new rules. As the FDA press release states:

"The menu labeling final rule applies to restaurants and similar retail food establishments if they are part of a chain of 20 or more locations, doing business under the same name and offering for sale substantially the same menu items."

I can't think of a single theme or amusement park chain in the United States that operates a food service facility that would meet those requirements. Not even Six Flags has 20 of the same restaurant locations across its chain, using the same name and serving the same menu. Even if a park chain did have that many identical restaurants, it simply could change of their names in an effort to get around the new requirements. If the FDA wants to consider entire parks as a "location," again, not even Six Flags has 20 parks across the country. Only if the FDA considered all of a chain's restaurants together could a theme park chain be subject to the 20-location condition, but again, those locations would be operating under different names and with different menus.

Where might theme park visitors see calorie counts on menus in parks, then? Perhaps at counter-service stands branded to outside fast-food chains such as Subway and Panda Express. But one wonders if Disney's Starbucks locations would be subject to the new rules, as they operate in the parks under unique names. Sure, there's a discreet Starbucks sign at the entrance and logos on the cups, but a lawyer could earn a few billable hours making an argument that those different names exempt the locations.

Ultimately, though, if the new FDA rule manages to change consumer behavior, as it is intended to do, theme parks might need to go ahead and start listing calorie counts anyway. If consumers come to expect to see the numbers next to selections outside theme parks, they might start demanding to see the same inside the parks, too. At some point it would be easier just to list the calories (and put out a self-congratulatory press release) than to deal with a persistent queue of complaints at guest relations.

Qualifying restaurants will have one year to start complying with the new requirements.

Do you want to see calorie counts and nutritional information before you make a decision about which food to order? Tell us in the comments.

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Robert Niles

Where to Eat: Dinner at The Cowfish at Universal Orlando's CityWalk

Published: November 24, 2014 at 6:04 PM

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Robert Niles

Monday Top 10: For Which Theme Park Fans Give Thanks

Published: November 24, 2014 at 1:17 PM

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Robert Niles

King Kong Construction Update, Plus a First Look at the Blueprints

Published: November 23, 2014 at 12:52 PM

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Robert Niles

Vote of the Week: Do You Play Carnival Games?

Published: November 21, 2014 at 11:42 AM

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Derek Potter

Master the Midway: The Theme Park Insider Guide to Winning Carnival Games

Published: November 21, 2014 at 9:57 AM

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Robert Niles

Looking Ahead to the Next Great Transformation in the Theme Park Industry

Published: November 21, 2014 at 9:05 AM

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Robert Niles

Disney Springs Construction Update

Published: November 20, 2014 at 10:12 AM

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Robert Niles

11 Things You Might Not Have Known About Disney and the 1964 New York World's Fair

Published: November 19, 2014 at 9:23 PM

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Robert Niles

Where to Eat: Lunch at Fulton's Crab House at Walt Disney World

Published: November 19, 2014 at 11:42 AM

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