Amusement Expert Rates Theme Parks

Robert Niles of ThemeParkInsider.com offers a look at the best theme parks and what makes them great. Also, tips on how to save money and have a better time.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MIKE PESCA, host:

It's summertime, and millions will allow the Timber Terror, Thunderhead or the Ozark Wildcat to take up some of their time. What are these, you ask? Cocktails, specific types of bone fractures, new entries in the Kama Sutra? No, they are roller coasters, and theme parks are our theme. The price for a day of theme park family fun? Hundreds of dollars, not to mention stress, motion sickness, and the intense intestinal consequences of food on a stick. So, you had better pack and think carefully.

For help, we're talking with Robert Niles, who edits themeparkinsider.com. The site has won many awards and that is great, but to be honest, the site vaulted to the BPP's attention once we saw that the Simpsons Ride was named best new attraction this year.

(Soundbite of theme park ride The Simpsons Ride)

Mr. DAN CASTELLANETA: (As Krusty the Clown) Hey, hey, theme-park-ride lovers, excited children, dragged-along parents, and foreign tourists who have no idea what I'm saying. Welcome to Krusty's all new, thrilltacular (ph), upsy-downsy (ph), spins-aroundsy (ph), teen-operated thrill ride.

PESCA: Robert Niles, hello.

Mr. ROBERT NILES (Editor, ThemeParkInsider.com): Hello. Good morning. How are you doing?

PESCA: Good. Did you like the Simpsons Ride.

Mr. NILES: Yeah, it was, it was a lot of fun. I enjoyed it. It's out in Orlando and it's out here in Los Angeles, too, where I'm based.

PESCA: And it's part of what? Universal Park?

Mr. NILES: It's part of the Universal Studios Theme Parks, correct.

PESCA: Interesting, and if you just took away the fun stuff, would it be a good ride, period? The actual...

Mr. NILES: It's actually built on the same platform that their old "Back to the Future" ride was on. So, it's kind of one of those motion-flight-simulator-type rides. But it's in front of a huge IMAX screen, as well. So, it's not only just a fun story to watch on the screen, but it's also a nice, little thrill ride, as well.

PESCA: When you go to the park, do you wait on line like everyone else, or are you treated like a celeb?

Mr. NILES: No, our policy is that we go in there like a normal tourist, completely incognito, buy our own ticket, go on in and wait. However, we try and do it in a way that we wait on as few lines as possible and then we can pass that information along how to do that to our readers.

PESCA: Right, so we will get some of those tips. But first, just in general, give me some overlooked gems of theme parks.

Mr. NILES: Well, there are a lot of really great regional parks out there, outside of the Disney/Universal sphere. One of the great ones here in Southern California is LEGOLAND, which is just a terrific park for families with elementary-aged kids. It's a really interactive park. It's not so much you just sitting down and watching a show or riding in a ride, but you're actually kind of getting out and playing with your kids, which is a great thing, if you like your kids.

Another great regional theme park is actually Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. We've got a lot of really passionate fans for that park on our website. They love some of the new rides that they've put in there, the customer service, and then even some of the food and entertainment, as well. So, those are a couple of really nice ones. There's also Busch Gardens Europe in Williamsburg, Virginia. That park actually won our award for best theme park in the world for two years.

PESCA: Really?

Mr. NILES: So, you know, people really love the setting of that particular park. It's just a gorgeous facility, and they've got some really nice thrill rides that they've put in there, as well.

PESCA: Right, and there's that whole broad aspect. Hey, one day at Busch Gardens the theme park, kids, and then you do Colonial Williamsburg the next day, and we get some education in.

Mr. NILES: Absolutely, it gets them into the car without a fight.

PESCA: Mm-hm. And, you know, you mentioned Dollywood. I pine for the passing of a place called Opryland, which I liked very much.

Mr. NILES: Yeah.

PESCA: There is no more Opryland. What are some of the good ones - I don't know what you thought of Opryland, but what are some of the great ones whose time has come and gone?

Mr. NILES: Yeah, I think Opryland might be the most mourned theme park in the country. We actually did a poll on the site awhile back about, what places do you really miss? And Opryland was one of the...

PESCA: The Wabash Cannonball, that was a great ride.

Mr. NILES: Absolutely. There was some really nice stuff there. Unfortunately, the owners of the park didn't see it that way, so now we've got a shopping mall. Another one that a lot of people pine for was the old Busch Gardens in Los Angeles. That's a park I went to a lot when I was a kid, but...

PESCA: Well, the one in Tampa is Africa, right?

Mr. NILES: Yes.

PESCA: And the one in Virginia is Europe.

Mr. NILES: Europe.

PESCA: Europe, right.

Mr. NILES: Busch Gardens Europe is in Virginia. Busch Gardens Africa is in Tampa.

PESCA: And so what was the L.A. one?

Mr. NILES: That was just Busch Gardens Los Angeles. They changed the name of these parks several times.

PESCA: Exotic.

Mr. NILES: We're wondering where they're going to end up building Busch Gardens America. I suspect that will be in Dubai.

PESCA: Do the high gas prices make people go to theme parks instead of, say, flying or driving far away, or does it actually depress attendance?

Mr. NILES: It doesn't help attendance. That's for sure. If you're parking and you don't have the new attractions this summer, it's really going to be hard for you to keep your attendance up with the situation with gas prices right now. And it if you do have a new attraction, that does help you bring more tourists in, but I think they're finding that there's a little bit of shift in who's going where. Maybe if a family from the Midwest might have driven to Florida to go to Orlando theme parks, maybe this year they go to King's Island or someplace a little bit closer to home.

And at the same time, the Orlando theme parks, even though they might be losing some of these domestic drive-in visitors, the dollar is so weak right now that they're getting a lot of people coming in from Europe and South America who are taking advantage of the exchange rate right now. So, you're seeing a higher percentage of foreign visitors in the Orlando parks. So, ultimately, it comes down to, what kind of value are you providing for peoples' dollar? And if you've got something new this year that people want to see, I mean, your attendance is holding up.

PESCA: Are there enough imagineers out there, or enough suits who say to the imagineers, yeah, go for it, or are theme parks becoming overly formulaic?

Mr. NILES: I think that was a real problem about five to 10 years ago, but you're really beginning to see some creativity come back in to the parks in the last few years. I think things are really beginning to get better. I don't think you can underestimate the impact of Disney buying Pixar and bringing John Lasseter in, who's basically the creative force in the company.

He's a former theme-park employee. He got a start working at Disneyland. He loves these places. He loves to see, you know, Disney invest in high-quality theme-park attractions, and you're seeing Disney do that. Disneyland, actually, ended up winning our award for best theme park in the world this year, recapturing that crown, and the rest of the industry reacts to what Disney does.

And if they're kind of throwing down the gauntlet for better creativity, everybody else is doing that. So, that's what you're seeing. You know, you're seeing some really great stuff coming from Universal. It's great stuff coming from Busch. You're seeing some of the smaller parks, like Dollywood and LEGOLAND, really offer, you know, some creative things on their own. So, I think we're in a little bit of a renaissance right now.

PESCA: Now that I have you as an expert, I want to ask you something I always wondered about it. Give me your take on flume strategy, because if you go to the flume too early, you walk around with a wet shirt, but if you go too late, it's dark and you could get cold. And that sort of dovetails with, I think, the least enjoyable about the theme-park experience, too many guys walking around shirtless. So, how do you think about the flume? When should you do it? Should they even ban the flume rides?

Mr. NILES: Absolutely not. I love the flume rides, but you're right, you've got to have the right strategy with that one. I'm a big fan of getting to theme parks early. Get there in the morning before the lines get too bad. Ride a bunch of stuff in the morning, and then take an afternoon break, and the flume is a great ride to hit just before you go take that afternoon break. So, you get nice and wet. Go back to the hotel. Change out of that into a swimsuit. Hit the pool, you know, go back. Change. Take a shower and nap or something, but hit that thing just before you take your afternoon break.

PESCA: That makes sense, and this is the other thing that's puzzled me. Six Flags, is this a rating system? Is it just a corporate name? Was there a Five Flags they've done on better than?

Mr. NILES: No, actually, it's named for their original park, which was in Texas and it was called Six Flags over Texas, for the six different countries that have ruled over that state at some point in its existence.

PESCA: Now it makes sense. But Six Flags over New Jersey makes no sense.

Mr. NILES: Not unless there's going to be some type of impending invasion.

PESCA: Yeah, which we don't know about, and if it does, it'll probably come from the Martians. Although, I've got to tell you, everyone in the Northeast doesn't call it Six Flags. We just call it Great Adventure.

Mr. NILES: Absolutely.

PESCA: Robert Niles, editor of themeparkinsider.com. That was great. Thanks a lot.

Mr. NILES: Well, thanks for having me.

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