Robert Niles: Good morning (or afternoon) everyone! Greetings from Pasadena, California, where I am typing this morning. It's 9 am here, so please, type loudly to help wake me up! LOL.
Let's talk theme parks!
Hemet, Calif.: We (2 adults and 2 children) are going to Universal Studios. What are the best choices to make food-wise? I'm taking a cooler with snacks and drinks for the ride home because it's expensive to go to a restaurant after everything we spend at the park. Thank you for your information, Dawn
Robert Niles: From your location, I assume that you are going to Universal Studios Hollywood, and not Universal Orlando in Florida. In either case, though, I would check out Universal's All-You-Can-Eat pass, which gets you, well, all you can eat at five of Universal's restaurants all day. You can buy the pass online in advance for $22 for adults and $13 for kids: universalstudioshollywood.com/tic_ayce.html
Dallas, Tex.: When do special discount packages make sense? And which is smarter-- to book directly on a theme park's website, to arrive at the gate, to book with a third party like Expedia, to use coupons at a grocery store? How can I save money? Thanks!
Robert Niles: You *always* want to have your tickets in hand when you get to the park. The biggest waste of value in your day is the time you spend at a ticket booth in the morning. You should be in the park, riding rides before the lines get too long. Plus, buying at home allows you to take the time you need to investigate all the options.
I almost always buy through theme parks' websites. They tend to have the best deals, including last minute discounts not available elsewhere. In California, you often can buy discount tickets at grocery stores (not coupons redeemable at the gate, but actual ticket.) Those can be good deals, too. But always decide and buy before you get to the park.
New York, N.Y.: What's the most interesting "immersive" experience out there, where my kids can jump in and participate? Something more than playing with the dolphins. I hear that the Men in Black ride lets you shoot at some bad guys. Anything new or recent like that? A trend?
Robert Niles: Well, under that description, I would say that Legoland California is the most immersive park out there for kids. I love attractions like Fun Town Fire Academy, where the entire family has to work together and cooperate. (My daughter described that ride as being like a tribal challenge on the TV show Survivor.) The Driving School there is another outstanding, hands-on experience that can be great fun.
But, yes, more interactive attractions are the trend in the industry, as theme parks look to appeal to video game fans, who demand interactivity. Men in Black is, in my opinion, the best of these video game-inspired rides, with great scenery, theme and shooting action.
Washington, D.C.: Some parks offer "line-jumping" services; pay more to get to a shorter line. When does it make sense to take advantage of that? Any rough rule of thumb?
Robert Niles: I just got back from Orlando, where we stayed at the Royal Pacific Hotel, on-site at Universal Orlando. One of the perks of staying at Universal's three on-site hotels is that you get unlimited "front of line" access to all (okay, all but one) the rides and shows at the two Universal Orlando theme parks, for no extra charge.
I tell you, that was the best value I've ever had in a theme park vacation, and I'm going to have a hard time going back to Universal without that perk. The key, though, was that the perk was unlimited. With many paid line jumping services, including the one Universal offers to non-hotel guests, you get only a limited number times to skip lines.
I'd try instead to visit the parks on a day when attendance is not that heavy, and to arrive first thing in the morning, when lines haven 't built up yet. That's a better deal than spending money on the skip pass. But If I were visiting on Fourth of July, or another busy weekend, I'd definitely consider buying one.
New York, N.Y.: I'm torn when I visit parks. On the one hand, there are more shores and street entertainment and parades, it seems like, but I always feel like, to max out my dollar, I should stand in line for the hottest, most expensive rides, because ticket prices feel so high. What are your thoughts about this, if any?
Robert Niles: Once, you've bought your ticket, it is what economists call a "sunk cost." (Sorry, but I gotta throw those terms around now and then so I feel like I got something outta that 8 am college econ class.) In plain English, you've already paid, so quit worrying about it. Go have fun.
Arrive before the park opens and do the "biggest" roller coasters and thrill rides first. Then move to the higher capacity dark rides and shows. Get the big stuff out of the way before lunch, they you can enjoy the rest of your day, wandering around doing whatever catches your eye.
Chicago, Ill.: Robert, You're a journalist as well as a theme park insider. Is there a common mistake that the media makes when it covers theme parks?
Robert Niles: Most major news outlets don't pay theme park enough attention. (Which is great for me; it keeps my website's readership up! LOL!) This is a multibillion dollar industry, employing thousands of people in each community where theme parks exist. Tens of millions of people visit parks each year. I started my site because I think that people should be able to read reviews and get consumer news about theme parks. Fortunately, in no small part due to the success of such websites, the "Big Media" folks are coming around and paying more attention to parks.
Beaumont, Calif.: Now that Toy Story Mania has been opened at Disney's California Adventure to rave reviews, how do you feel about the upcoming changes to the park as well as the rest of the Disneyland Resort? Is there such thing as a scary roller coaster or thrill ride or it is just in the mind of the person? What is the most thrilling thrill ride ever concieved? Rock 'n' Roller Coaster simulates a wild ride through Southern California. What if all of the freeways were replaced with a system of roller coasters?
Robert Niles: Ahhh! So many questions!
First, I'm excited about the plans for Disney's California Adventure. Pixar's John Lasseter is calling the creative shots now at the Disney theme parks. He's a former Disneyland employee and a real theme park fan, which is what you want in a corporate boss! The plans are to revamp the look of much of the park, and to add a massive new land based on the movie "Cars." The plans look spectacular, and Toy Story Midway Mania is just the first step.
Scary is in the mind of the rider, but c'mon, 70 mph and 200-foot sheer drops are... 70 mph and 200-foot sheer drops. If you can't get excited by that, well, then, you scare me....
Replace freeways with roller coasters? I'd be happy with more mass transit. But an optional track with a few twists and turns would be nice on a Friday night ride home. :-)
New Jersey: Six Flags seems to differentiate its parks by marketing their roller coasters and thrill rides. Is that accurate? And when you think children's rides--what park is best? For teens? For adults? For roller coaster lovers? Thanks!
Robert Niles: Six Flags' management is trying very hard to move away from its old, thrill park image. At the same time, that's what their parks were built for, so the transition is going slow. Six Flags has added Thomas the Tank Engine and Wiggles attractions at many of its parks, and continues to promote its Bugs Bunny and Warner Bros. toons, too. But those appeal more to younger kids. There's still a gap there for families with older elementary kids, that Six Flags is not yet appealing to.
From what my readers tell me, Six Flags' best park, overall and for families, is Great Adventure in New Jersey, though Magic Mountain here in LA has improved dramatically under the leadership of park president Jay Thomas. I'd pick Magic Mountain if all I wanted was coasters, too.
Stuart, Fla.: Expedition Everest was the "next big thing" in central Florida back in 2006. What's the next big thing in the area now?
Robert Niles: Toy Story Midway Mania at Disney's Hollywood Studios (formerly Disney-MGM Studios) and The Simpsons Ride at Universal Studios Florida are this year's two new big attractions. Later this year, look for an American Idol attraction at Disney's Hollywood Studios, where park guests compete on stage.
Next year, Universal will debut its Hollywood, Rip, Ride and Rockit roller coaster and Sea World will debut its Manta coaster. And, of course, the Big One arrives in 2010 in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal's Islands of Adventure.
Chicago, Ill.: How will the ongoing construction of "Harry Potter's Wizarding World" at Universal's Islands of Adventure affect attendance at the surrounding parks in Orlando? Will it really draw a lot of people away from Disney?
Robert Niles: I think that a lot of people will put off visits to Orlando in late 2008 and 2009 to wait for Harry Potter in 2010. Especially with gas prices high and the economy weak now. Harry Potter's debut makes it easier for people to say, "hey, we can't afford it this year, but let' wait fir Harry Potter anyway." That's why I think you'll be seeing more deals coming from the parks as they try to keep attendance up in the meantime.
I also think that there remains a lot of confusion in the marketplace about Harry Potter. Many theme park fans think that it is going in somewhere at Walt Disney World, which is not the case. Every time I've visited WDW over the past two years, I have overheard guests talking about Harry Potter. A lot of fans are awaiting Disney's response.
San Antonio, Tex.: I hope to be in Orlando in two months. Why do Universal Studios and Sea World close so early? (6 pm)
Robert Niles: After Labor Day, it's the slow season for the Orlando theme parks, until Thanksgiving. Universal and Disney will have Halloween events in the evenings in late September and October, but those require separate tickets, and the parks close early to accommodate those events. Information about Universal's is at halloweenhorrornights.com. Disney's is Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party, and you can find info at DisneyWorld.com.
Memphis, Tenn.: We are going to Walt Disney World in September. Is Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party a fun event for couples? Thanks, Amanda
Robert Niles: It's geared more toward families than singles and couple without kids, but it is still Disney, so it's still fun. If you are looking for a more "grown-up" alternative, with more scares (but a lot of campy humor, too), Universal's event would be a better choice.
Los Angeles, Calif.: What's the biggest mistake that families make when they take kids to a park?
Robert Niles: Expectations. Parents try to get "full value" from the tickets and march their kids through the park like they are Sherman headed through Georgia. Plan for a sit-down lunch, time in the afternoon back at the hotel pool or taking a nap and don't push the kids too hard during the day. Look for playgrounds (like Disney's Tom Sawyer Island) where kids can run around, too, instead of just waiting in line and line.
Miami, Fla.: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is not too far away but Universal's 3 on-site hotels won't be able to handle half the prospective visitors who will want to stay on-site. Are they going to construct a new resort in time for the opening?
Robert Niles: Not that I've heard. I suspect that prices will, uh, be going up at those hotels in 2010, though, in response to the demand. So late 2008 or 2009 will see some bargains available for people who want to visit Universal before HP, and get that front of the line pass.
Washington, D.C.: Disney passes are supposed to be good forever. Will there be any way to redeem Pleasure Island passes after Disney closes PI in September?
Robert Niles: Disney will credit you the value of unused Pleasure Island tickets toward the purchase of some other Disney ticket. Bring them to any Guest Relations booth, or call Disney's guest relations number, (407) 939-6244, for details. If you have one of the Magic Your Way tickets with the Pleasure Island add-on, those still expire two weeks (I think) after first use.
Independence, Mo.: If Cedar Point were not located in Sandusky, Ohio, where it is closed half of the year due to the weather, but instead was located in the vicinity of Orlando, Florida, would it become the most frequented theme park in the world, taking the mantle from the Magic Kingdom? Why, or why not? What is it about that Magic Kingdom that keeps pulling the huge crowds every year?
Robert Niles: I think that it would have higher attendance, but not much higher. A large part of Cedar Point's appeal is its connection with the Greater Cleveland community. My wife is a Cleveland native, and the last time we visited her family there, a great aunt (in her 80s!), went on about her love for Cedar Point. And I don't think she'd been on a ride there in years.
Take Cedar Point away from Cleveland, and you break that connection. It'd still draw millions of roller coaster fans in Florida, but there are more people interested in the theme, the setting, the overall experience and the variety of rides and shows available at a park like the Magic Kingdom than in the line-up of roller coasters available at Cedar Point.
Independence, Mo.: The Wonders of Life Pavilion at EPCOT and the attractions inside, at least one of them (Cranium Command) considered a hidden gem, have been closed for some time. Except for the occasion flower show, Disney seems to be using this pavilion for storage, leaving a tragic hole in the park that once served the entertainment purposes of paying customers. What, if anything, is Disney doing to resurrect the Wonders of Life pavilion, and what can Disney do to prevent such atrophy at other pavilions within EPCOT?
Robert Niles: That was a cost-cutting move by Disney, and yes, you are right, that's means less value for Disney customers. The rides in that pavilion, while nice, were not among the more popular at Epcot, and being a little tucked out of the way, made it an easy target for off-season closure. Then, "off-season" grew into "most of the time" and is now "almost all of the time."
If attendance goes up significantly and the lines get too long throughout the park, then Disney will give a hard look at keeping Wonders of Life open more often. Or, to scuttling it and building something new in the space.
Palm Coast, Fla.: I'm of the opinion that Spiderman is one of the greatest attractions ever made, and I'm not alone, as TPI retired the award for best attraction because it kept winning year after year. My question is why it is that nothing has been able to come close to or surpass Spiderman, which was built back in 1999. Also, I'm wondering what kind of odds you would place on one of the new Harry Potter attractions taking the mantle from Spiderman ? Thanks for all you do. -Dan
Robert Niles: The Amazing Adventure of Spider-Man at Universal's Islands of Adventure truly is a great ride. But Disney's Twilight Zone Tower of Terror won our Best Ride in America tournament earlier this year and a handful of other rides approach Spider-Man in rating popularity, including Expedition Everest and Disneyland's classic, Pirates of the Caribbean.
Still, I know that many people are looking for a world-class ride from Harry Potter and I can't wait to see what Universal delivers.
Robert Niles: Okay, everyone, it's 1 o'clock Eastern and time to wrap this up. It's been great fun chatting with you, and I thank BudgetTravel.com for the opportunity. If I didn't get to your question, or if you have any other questions about theme parks and family vacations, you can find me online at themeparkinsider.com, where we are always taking, rating and reviewing theme parks. Thanks for reading, and... I'll see you in the parks!