Sunday, July 3, 2022

Epcot Updated: Musings and Thoughts

Epcot has never been EPCOT. Walt's 1960s vision of a techno-utopia in the middle of central Florida's swamps died with him. Throughout the 70s Epcot then became all of Walt Disney World - see you don't need a separate city when all the infrastructure we built is Epcot! After the semi-successful Lake Buena Vista Village, Disney then combined the proposed World Showcase located next to the TTC with a proposed technology-focused Worlds Fair park to form EPCOT Center.

The EPCOT of 1982, of course, was nowhere near what EPCOT the city would be proposed as. Instead, it was a park based on sponsorships, corporate and governmental, and all the baggage that comes with that. Think Exxon telling people about global warming was bad? Just imagine what would have happened if the prominent supporters of apartheid sponsored the South Africa pavilion. Yeesh. The park was well-liked by the general public despite its obvious flaws. Slow-moving dark rides, walk-through attractions, and theatrical presentations are the bread and butter of a Worlds Fair but generally disappoint people who just rode the new Big Thunder Mountain Railway at the Magic Kingdom.

Saturday, March 12, 2022

Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser – Weighing the Cost of a Miracle

How do you describe something that has never existed before and how do you assess the value of what it’s worth?

These are the two interlocking problems one runs up against while trying to talk about Disney’s new Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser immersive experience. Even that, “immersive experience”, what does that even mean? For people like myself who are deeply interested in theme parks, immersive theatre, weird art installations, and the like, it can conjure up images that get you in a similar zip code to what Starcruiser is doing. But for your average person, even your average Walt Disney World vacationer, I’m not sure it would sound like anything to them. And then you hit them with the punch that this thing – whatever it is – costs a little over $5,000. For two people. For two nights. That’s more than what 90% of American families spend on travel in any given year, and we’re still not totally clear on what on earth it even is.

Friday, February 25, 2022

Gearing up for Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser: Immersion 9 years in the making

Well, in just a few days, I will step aboard the Halcyon Starcruiser as part of Disney’s latest immersive interactive offering, that clearly has to to tell you it doesn’t go to space - which sits beside a theme park. Yet, the goal of the experience isn’t really to take you to that theme park, or go on a fake space cruise - it’s designed to be the next generation of storytelling - and represents the final vision of 9 years of experiments with WDI R&D.

Living in Southern California, and being a huge fan of theme parks, rides, haunts, and immersive entertainment - I feel like I’ve been playing in these spaces for almost my whole life - so I want to give you a leadup of my experiences before I cover the Galactic Starcruiser next week.

My Interactive Legacy

In addition to Disney stuff, I’ve also played and explored in Alternate Realities outside theme parks, here’s just a few of them:

Myst Online: Uru Live (2003)

I consider Uru Live to be my first real ARG (Alternate Reality Game). A failed concept by Cyan Worlds (of MYST fame), the idea behind Uru was that You Are You, and that you were playing in a massive online world, attempting to bring back to live a hidden city beneath the surface:

As part of the launch of this game, clues were hidden around the real world, including in the New Mexico desert. A kid without a car at the time begging my parents to drive out to the middle of the desert didn’t sit well with them - it was the first time I was exposed to what an ARG was - and how storytelling in the real world would captivate me.

Explore ages and solve puzzles with friends, Myst Online was a virtual “ARG”.

The online game itself would have many ARG like components. Specific meetups with characters in the virtual space, stories and puzzles you must solve with friends. I became a seasoned explorer also enough to join the Guild of Greeters - a specific group of people to welcome new visitors to the cavern.

The whole thing was a massive failure, and after being rebooted two times in 2004, and 2007 - it was never a failure in my eyes. That experience of exploring caves, talking to characters, and living out that fantasy in my life would be a common theme I would explore again and again. You can still play Myst Online for free - if you want to check it out.

Monday, February 14, 2022

Harry Potter NYC VR Experiences - What The?, Thoughts, & Review

 First and foremost, before you read this, please check out The Trevor Project. Read their site, learn some new stuff, share their materials, and if you can, donate to them. This project helps LGBTQ youth through hard times and helping fight back against anti-trans hatred, like the stuff JKR spews, is very important. We highly suggest reading Daniel Radcliffe's response to Jo on their site.

Your life matters no matter your racial, gender, or sexual identity.


Concept art for Harry Potter NYC store.

Harry Potter NYC is a two-story shopping destination located south of the Flat Iron in Flat Iron District.  The store features all sorts of merchandise you'd expect if you have visited the Universal parks in the past 20 years plus higher-priced items like Le Creuset cookware, jewelry, and Vera Bradley bags. This is New York, after all. Potter fans will also appreciate the exclusive MACUSA merch (hahah sorry I couldn't type that without laughing) and HP NYC branded items (which are very very cool). I personally bought some exclusive candles for myself and my sister. In addition to the merchandise is a small cafe selling Butterbeer at $10 a pop, Butterbeer soft serve, and other pastries.

The real unique factor are two virtual reality (VR) experiences offered at the store. One, Wizards Take Flight, is a simulated broom ride around Hogwarts and through London. The second, Chaos at Hogwarts, takes you from Platform 9 3/4 into Hogwarts as you help Doby deliver a suitcase to Dumbledore. Both experiences are booked online prior to visit and cost $34 plus tax per person.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Shrek Closing, Mummy Refurbishment, Pokemon in Japan, and More

Two weeks ago we shared that we had heard enough to believe Fear Factor Live is closing. At the end of the post we hinted there were other rumblings going around about other closures and new attractions. Today the other shoe fell with a behind-the-scenes note, confirmed by Universal Orlando, that Shrek 4D is closing January 10, 2022. We had heard this too was closing but have not heard from enough other sources to confirm at that time. While there are several rumors of what could be replacing Shrek we believe Alicia at Orlando Park Stop has it right: it's a Minions Villains Con experience. This, plus Minion Mayhem, will flesh out a nice Minions mini-land at the front of the park for families.

On the same note, and also confirmed by Universal Orlando, is a lengthy refurbishment for Revenge of the Mummy from January 7, 2022, through "late summer". While we haven't yet heard the amount of work being done it would not be surprising to see at least a partial track replacement, upgrades to the effects, and possibly upgrading the queue. This is great news for the attraction as Universal views the ride as saving and not one to replace.

Over in Japan, The Pokemon Company and Universal Studios Japan announced a joint partnership for medium-term and long-term entertainment projects. This announcement is unique in that it's with that one park and not with the overall Parks & Resorts division. My thoughts are Pokemon will be part of the very popular summer anime entertainment offerings featured at USJ. My guess is this is a test run with Universal and once the event goes well Pokemon will enter into a longer-term partnership with the other parks for new rides, shows, and attractions.

Finally, it seems the pre-pandemic plan to fix the Fast & Furious Supercharged problem seems to be still on and possibly the much-rumored escape rooms for CityWalk. There seem to be several projects of various sizes happening throughout the resort prior to Epic Universe that will keep the resort fresh before Epic Universe arrives.

Friday, September 24, 2021

The Fear Factor Live Theater is Closing Soon (For Real)

Ok, we’ve seen enough. The Fear Factor Live theater located in Universal Studios Florida is closing shortly after Halloween Horror Nights. It will be demolished for a future attraction. 

Yes, we’ve all been here before, most notably in 2017 when walls went up around ET Adventure during Halloween Horror Nights for the rumored Super Nintendo World. Of course, it’s 2021, and Fievel, Curious George, and Barney Dreamworks are still here. But in terms of closed attractions, this one feels sealed and delivered similar to when Jaws and Twister closed. 

So now for the actual info. We’ve heard for a while now that Fear Factor Live’s days were numbered, going all the way back to post-pandemic reopening in 2020. Late spring 2021 we began hearing about demolition prep going on in the theater and Universal started hiring for a new project to being soon. While we continued to hear a new attraction was on its way the theater wasn’t demolished and work began on Halloween Nightmare Fuel for HHN30. But now over the past week, we’ve heard louder and louder drum beats that the theater’s days are numbered. 

So what’s coming? Secret Life of Pets? Super Nintendo World? Nah, it’s very likely the Potter VR attraction original designed for Epic Universe. Sounds like the attraction was spun off from the park and moved to USF as a stop-gap attraction addition before the new park is built.  

While there are many questions that remain about the project we do not think it will physically connect to the interior to Diagon Alley due to backstage areas and access ways. Instead, we think the theming will extend from the current London waterfront down towards Men in Black to and the attraction will be accessed from outside Diagon Alley. This information is all conjecture based on what we’ve observed with theme park operations and safety and could be wrong. 

Fear Factor Live started as the Wild Wild Wild West Stunt Show with the park back in 1991. The show closed in 2003 for a revamp into the Fear Factor Live show which opened in 2005. Since then the show played intermittently in the park, outliving not only the original television show’s run but the REBOOT’s run. Fear Factor Live closed in March 2020 with the rest of the resort due to COVID-19 and never reopened. 

We also have heard of several other Universal Orlando projects in the works that will open prior to Epic Universe. We will share more as we can confirm our information.

Monday, September 20, 2021

One More Ride: Interview with Paul Ruben

Back in 2019, I sent emails and Facebook messages to a number of living coaster enthusiasts from the early days of that hobby's development for a piece I intended to write here on Parkscope. I had many theories and questions to ask: we don't always understand how fandoms develop and evolve (or one might argue, metastasize). Earlier in 2021, Paul Ruben, one of the subjects of my interviews, passed away at the age of 84. He had been actively travelling up to the pandemic, taking coaster trips and seeing the world through parks across the globe. Lots of people have surpassed his track record, but Ruben's influence was felt far and wide. He wasn't necessarily a loved figure in the hobby by a lot of people I knew, but he was important in a way few others were. 

PAUL RUBEN: First of all, I visited parks and rode coasters since I can remember, about 5 years old I rode my first, the misnamed Giant Coaster at Crystal Beach outside Buffalo. Old parks, which had been built around the turn or the last century at the end of trolley lines, become valuable suburban property as the nation grew. As an adult, in the 1950s I began to see these parks demolished and coasters bulldozed to make way for shopping malls and condominiums. I thought coasters would soon become extinct and began photographing them. I had edited my high school newspaper so know how to write, and sold a few photos with words to our local penny saver newspaper.

ME: You had started working with Charles Jacques Jr back in the 1970s on Amusement Business Journal before (?) ACE was in existence - how did you get in contact with him? 

PR: I read somewhere that Amusement Park Journal had begun publication, tracked Charlie down, told him I was traveling to San Jose on business, and asked if he would like a story from the region. Turns out Arrow Development was then located in the next town, Mountain View, and he asked me to write about them. He wanted more stories, so I became Associate Editor and wrote extensively about whatever park I would be visiting, and about it’s history. It was great training for what would come.

ME:  Do you have any memories of the first writers in mass media who wrote about coaster enthusiasm (e.g. Robert Cartmell, Marion Clark)?

PR: I knew Bob Cartmell well, as well as Gary Kyriazi, who wrote The Great American Amusement Park. I now have Gary as a contributing writer to Park World. Didn’t know Clark. Cartmell was an art professor at SUNY Albany, very intrigued by the art of wooden coasters, where form follows function. He wrote an art piece for me when I edited RollerCoaster! Gary worked awhile in sales for Arrow.

ME: When and how did you first come in contact with the founders of ACE? What were your thoughts about the organization?

PR: I joined as soon as I heard of them. I’m member 392. I thought it was a great idea, because most people know about their local park but have little knowledge of others. Turns out there are now major theme parks within a short drive on nearly every metropolitan area, and this was a good way to find where there were other coasters.

ME: Do you have any specific memories/thoughts on any of the founders (Greenwald, Brashears, Munch) or other notable old-timers in the hobby (like Marie Miller)? 

PR: Richard Munch is a stand-up guy, but Brashears and especially Greenwald had ulterior motives for forming the club (NOTE: I also reached out to Roy Brashears at the same time, and it would be fair to say there was a mutual feeling that each other had motivations beyond just going on rides. Given that this is intended more as a tribute, I've omitted that.). Marie was fun, a little crazy I thought, but now I’m her age and still like to ride. She just knew how to have fun. I’m up to having ridden 889 different coasters as of last week, not that I’m compulsive.

ME: Given how close you were with NCA/APCI (NOTE: Charles Jacques started two early amusment park related clubs in the late 60s/early 70s and was an early president of the NCA, the still existing National Carousel Association), did you perceive ACE at the time as a competitor or as complementary? What led to APCI's dissolution?

PR: I was not a member of NCA, but I was very active in APCI, organizing at least one of their conventions and writing for APJ. Charlie, a retired attorney, was more interested in writing, self-publishing, and selling his books about amusement parks. Since APCI was his creation, he chose to end it soon after I began to edit RollerCoaster! for ACE. We still exchange Christmas cards.

Unlike Charlie, I had planned a book about roller coasters using my photos, but I didn’t want to self-publish. I had a book outline and wrote the first chapter, but I wanted a contract to complete it. For awhile I had an agent, but found out there was not a significant market for a coaster book, or we never found a book editor who thought it was a money-making idea.

ME: How did you get involved with WYNCC (Western New York Coaster Club)? I've heard the suggestion that the regional clubs like it and GOCC(Greater Ohio Coaster Club)/MACC (Mid-Atlantic Coaster Club)/etc were complements to ACE often by ACE members. Is that an accurate depiction?

PR: Not really. I co-founded WYNCC with Greenwald at a meeting midway between Niagara Falls and Rochester, where we lived.

I was concerned that ACE had not published RollerCoaster! in over a year despite the fact we were paying for it. I was giving slide talks about roller coasters to civic groups, one of Greenwald’s friends contacted me, and we met to bemoan the lack of ACE publications and decided to form WNYCC in the absence of ACE. I soon learned Greenwald wanted to sell T-shirts to everyone in the club, then he was hunting for female members. We had a falling out when I discovered that during an early WNYCC convention he was pocketing money and accused him of doing so. Soon after the founding I attended an ACE convention, complained about the lack of publication, and I was asked to edit it. I refused twice, but agreed the third time, set up a staff of contributors, and edited it for four years. Near the end Park World came into existence and I contacted them. I sold them an article, they wanted more, and put me on retainer. All of a sudden I had a second part-time career, which blossomed after I retired from my first career. I had been in charge of lens design at Kodak, having designed optics for their many cameras and other products.

These days, while still a member, I’m no longer active with ACE. They are enthusiasts. I work with those in the business, but I’m still enthusiastic about parks and rides. For Park World I just returned from a 19-day 2,200 mile tour of Southeastern parks, collecting information for articles and news items, and riding at every opportunity. Flying out Friday to another park, then more a week later.

ME: Park World has had a highly successful run while magazines like Amusement Business and Inside Track have not. What do you attribute that success to?

PR: Inside Track was a one-person enthusiasts’ publication, and it was too much for one person to do.

AB just didn’t attack enough advertisers.

Park World is part of Datateam Business Media Ltd, England’s largest publisher of trade magazine. They have 40-50 different titles, but Park World is one of their most successful. Much to my dismay, they sell the front cover, and about half the magazine is glossy full-color ads. I think it is both colorful and more readable than its competitors. We write about a fun business, so the copy is often breezy.

PR: You were an amateur photographer before you started writing, per your interview with Season Pass. Have you considered doing any digitization of classic prints?

Season Pass? Don’t even remember doing that interview. I was interested in photography as a youth, started doing photos for my high school paper, then edited their sports page, eventually edited the paper. In high school I was good in math and science, good in English, and had to make a career decision. I went where the money was, into engineering. I learned there was a degree offered in Optical Engineering at the University of Rochester. Graduating, I soon learned lens design and have 41 patents on optical systems. But I always enjoyed writing and photography, and amusement parks, and eventually created this job as North American Editor for Park World. I tell people, find something you like to do, find someone to pay you, and now my job feels like a 52-week summer vacation. If I wasn’t writing I’d have to pay my way into the parks.

Not sure what you consider classic prints. I have about 18,000 color slides of roller coasters and amusement parks in my archives, now photograph with digital cameras. But I don’t digitize prints unless I need one for publication.

ME: The only other question I have for now: Long intro to something that can probably be wrapped up in a couple sentences I know, but I want to cover the bases. The industry has changed dramatically since you were first involved as a hobbyist obviously, from enormous growth in Asian and European markets to the 1980s liability insurance crisis to seeing a burst of North American regional theme park construction and subsequent maturation and M&A phase of the industry's life here. You yourself have, I'm sure as we all do in aging, changed to some degree as you've been able to monetize your interest in parks through Park World and transitioned into communicating with industry figures rather than the enthusiast community. Having encapsulated that 40+ years as best possible in few words: Do you think it is better, worse, or simply "different" to be an park guest, enthusiast, etc now than it was in the 70s? Both in the objective sense and the "If you could trade every Wanda park for Idora/original Elitch's/whatever to come back" ways. 

PR: Remember, I go back to the ‘40s. Since then, liability laws have necessitated a safer industry, but I sure do miss the old fun houses where girl’s skirts were blown with air jets and dark rides where things jump out at you. The advent of computers have made rides operate more efficiently. I appreciate family-operated parks with an interesting variety of attractions and mature trees, but today’s modern parks overall are much better. (The old Elitch's was a more comfortable park, but the new one has better rides except for the wooden coasters. Old Steeplechase park was dirty but fun. New Luna park is almost antiseptic. ) I just wish there was more originality, plus pay parking is offensive. You don’t pay to park and shop in a mall, so why should one be expected to pay for parking in a remote location just so you can patronize the adjacent park? Offer free parking and add the cost to the entrance price. Obviously, I’m unskilled in marketing.