Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure Review

I finally had the opportunity to experience #HagRide at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort. After two previous attempts to ride the mindblowing attraction, I was able to mount my motorbike and be hurled into a world of adventure. My experience was enhanced because my sister and brother-in-law were visiting, and we got to ride it together for the very first time! Additionally, I was able to share the experience with my friend Dani (her review here) because she was just 30mins ahead of us in queue–we found out each other was at the park in queue for HagRide on Twitter–small world! If you’ve heard it characterized as a storycoaster, you’ve heard correctly. HagRide represents the best of coaster and dark ride technologies all rolled up into one innovative attraction that is unparalleled by any other I have experienced. And if you’re like me–averse to the proliferation of screen-based attractions–then you’ll be immensely delighted that this storycoaster is full of practical effects, sets, props, and groundbreaking animatronics. And to answer the question that is likely on your mind, I only waited for 1.75hrs. Would’ve been 1.5hrs but it was momentarily delayed–no surprise there. Is it worth the 3+ hour wait that many are still reporting? For that, I will not provide commentary; however, my brother-in-law who isn’t a big theme park fan because of the wait times said, and I quote, “that was worth the wait.” Thankfully we had unlimited Express Passes because we were staying at the Royal Pacific Resort, but HagRide does not offer an Express Pass queue nor does it open during the hour-early resort guest hours. Bottom line, this coaster is one that you do not want to miss during your visit to Wizarding World Orlando!

I feel that I have been in the Forbidden Forest ever since I began receiving the Press Releases containing artwork, progress photos, and descriptions of the highly anticipated addition to Hogsmeade at Universal Orlando. Every time I read about a new magical creature or the animatronics, I grew increasingly excited. Unfortunately yours truly still isn’t important enough to Universal to be invited to the media events, but I am glad that I at least get the media emails from the resort to keep up with the goings-on at the park. Thankfully, I can now provide you with the review of my first time on the motorbike (I rode the motorbike, my sister and brother-in-law were directly behind me in the motorbike/sidecar respectively). Although it is not fair to compare it to any existing theme park attraction because of its uniqueness, if you compare it to the two existing Harry Potter attractions, then it has the ride vehicle innovation of Forbidden Journey and the storytelling of Escape from Gringotts. The queue and attraction include more than 1200 live trees to truly immerse you in the forbidden forest. Longtime visitors to Islands of Adventure will recognize parts of the queue as belonging to the former Dueling Dragons turned Dragon Challenge coaster. I love looking for the remnants of the past as incorporated into new attractions.

The story begins in the queue–specifically–the preshow (from which, you are looking at 45mins to 1hr wait). Just as Dumbledore opened Hogwarts to muggles, the premise for the story found in Forbidden Journey, Hagrid opens his Magical Creatures class to muggles! Love the parallel there. During your tour, you will encounter magical creatures with which you are familiar and a brand new hybridization created by Hagrid known as Blast-Ended Skrewt. During the preshow, you also get a first-look at your ride vehicle, Sirius Black’s flying motorbike (that you can also see in the video on the Hogwarts Express as you travel from Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade). After the preshow and prior to mounting your bike, you continue to meander the labyrinth of hallways filled with dragon and other creature eggs, graffiti from Hogwarts Students dec the walls, yes even venders selling food and drink in queue because of the long wait time. Because Hagrid loves the students, their sneaking around and all, he is wokring with Arthur Weasley to finish the train of motorbikes that will take students and you out into the Forbidden Forest in large groups to see the Blast-Ended Skrewt. Of course, something goes terribly wrong and hijinks ensue! Prepare for the ride of your life as there are launches, twists, turns, and even some pitfalls along the way.

HagRide excels in both its delivery of the narrative and spectacle. It is both impressive from a technical marvel perspective and experiential one. The long and short of it is that HagRide is FUN! You will want to ride it again and again. Although you will probably not want to wait 3+ hours, time and time again. Whereas I do not typically scream on or truly get lost in an attraction, this one successfully transported me to the Forbidden Forest in both mind and body. I screamed and whoah’d multiples times! Not knowing what lies ahead held me in suspense, and delivered in spades, after every windup. I was holding onto the handlebars of the motorbike as if I was actually on one. If I closed by eyes, I’m confident that I would truly feel that I was on a motorbike zooming through a forest. Every moment, every prop, set piece, and turn earns your screams and laughter! You’ll be captivated by the production design and incredible animatronics the entire time and even after you exit the attraction!

Impressive. That is the one word, aside from fun, that truly captures what it is like to experience HagRide. The combination of technologies integrated into the design of the attraction has never been seen before. No flight simulator can replicate what Universal Orlando Resort was able to deliver in this attraction. There is even a moment that you shot up a nearly vertical ~70ft track section, just to pause for a few seconds then shot backwards through the dark–think Expedition Everest, but BETTER and more intense. That’s not the surprise that awaits you on HagRide, there are seven launches and a 15ft drop (won’t tell you were it is). There was such a huge possibility that the focus could have so easily been on the technology–see what we can do now–but I am pleased to report that the technical advancements never take away from the narrative. There is a perfect balance of spectacle vs narrative; the show and ride technology serve the park guest by enhancing the experience. HagRide effortlessly weaves the story into the mechanics of the attraction in such a manner that you will truly want to experience it again and again to witness what you may have missed on the first time around. I certainly need to return for more re-rides to continually take everything in.

With so much to see on HagRide, you will likely notice some detail in the queue or on the ride that you may have missed before. Definitely make the time to experience Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure!

You can catch Ryan most weekends at Busch Gardens Tampa, SeaWorld Orlando, Universal Orlando Resort, or Walt Disney World. So if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him in the parks.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa and has been writing on theme parks for more than five years. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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Twitter: RLTerry1

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Busch60! Busch Gardens Tampa Bay Celebrates 60 Years

March 2019 marks Busch Gardens Tampa Bay’s 60th anniversary! Opening on March 31, 1959 as a free-admission destination with a tour of the Anheuser-Busch brewery, tropical gardens, and a bird show, this one-time tourist stop offering free beer has become a world-class theme park known for its figure skating and animal shows, train safari, but mostly its exhilarating roller coasters, some of which are regularly ranked amongst the best in the world. Predating the opening of nearby Walt Disney World by more than a decade, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay has undergone name, identity, and leadership changes over the decades to become the theme park that it is today. Surprisingly, there are remnants of the original Tampa Anheuser-Busch park in plain sight. But what is the Busch Gardens story? And just how did it go from a free-admission brewery offering free beer to the word-class destination that it is today? Time for a history lesson. Let’s grab a beer and hop in our time machine to explore the history of Busch Gardens Tampa Bay.

In 1959, roller coasters were not thought of, but there was certainly a foreshadowing of what was to come. With the opening of the brewery, the Anheuser-Busch property featured a facility tour, free beer, exotic garden, and aviary. In addition to the aforementioned, there was also a “kind of a ride,” As Jurassic Parks‘s John Hammond would put it. This then-attraction was known as the Stairway to the Stars. At 80ft long, it was the longest single escalator in the world at the time. Not seen as a ride per se at the time, looking back, it is clear that Busch Gardens was always concerned about the guest experience and providing more than just the beer it produced. You can liken what Anheuser-Busch was doing with the Tampa brewery to the Coors Brewery tour in Golden, CO (near Denver). Instead of mountains for the guests, the Busch Brewery provided a tropical environment in order to immerse the guests into the world of the Tampa brewery. Although the brewery is no longer in existence, the Hospitality House, where guests exited the tour, is still there! You know it as The Garden Gate Cafe where Guests 21+ can enjoy complementary beer. This hospitality business model would continue until a pivotal change in 1965.

What was to open in 1965 would completely alter the hospitality facility, and set it on the course to become the Busch Gardens we see today–and can still experience. What I am speaking of is the world-famous Serengeti Plain! But before the African animal habitat opened, the 1960s also brought about other changes that paved the way for the still-popular attraction. Now named the Serengeti Overlook Restaurant, the Old Swiss House opened in 1964. In the same vein as today, this restaurant offered a cafe on the main level and a full-service upscale dining restaurant on the upper floor. In fact, it was recognized as one of the finest dining experiences in Tampa. To this day, you can enjoy a quick service restaurant in the pub and an upscale buffet on the top floor.

Years 1965-66 delivered guests attractions that began the transformation from a brewery to a theme park. In 1965 the Serengeti Plain, the first habitat of its kind, opened! Never before had an expansive animal habitat opened providing guests with the opportunity to observe exotic animals in their quasi natural environment. There was no Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Zoo Tampa was still evolving from a municipal animal park to a formal zoo. This unique offering began the transformation from elaborate brewery tour to zoological attraction! To provide guests with an up close and personal view of the African animals, it opened a monorail! That’s right, before Walt Disney World’s famous monorail opened in 1971, the Busch Gardens monorail was transporting guests through its highway in the sky five years prior. The monorail was not included in the brewery tour, but was a nominal $1.50 for adults and $0.75 for children. Think of Busch Gardens at this time as a state park that has a cheap admission with a la carte attraction offerings. The motto for the monorail tour and Serengeti Plain was “where people are caged and animals roam free.” During the 1960s, Busch Gardens was the No.1 tourist attraction in Florida!

The 1970s would introduce major competition just east of the park. What could have possibly opened in the 1970s that would drive up the competition exponentially? You guessed it, the opening of Walt Disney World on October 1, 1971. The 1970s and into the 80s saw massive expansions to keep the guests coming to the park with Disney World being just an hour away. In addition to the monorail experience, Busch Gardens added the Trans-Veldt railway (now the Serengeti Express, and during Christmas Town the Sing-a-long Express) to transport guests around the perimeter of the Serengeti Plain. In addition to the iconic train, Busch Gardens added the Moroccan Village, featuring performers, vendors, and artisans, which now functions as the entryway into the park. Stanleyville was opened to provide a space for additional animal encounters, shows, and gardens. Still, Busch Gardens had no rollercoasters. It had the Stairway to the Stars, monorail, and train, but no thrill rides. That would change in 1976 with the introduction of Python! Python would be the first rollercoaster at Busch Gardens, and it included two inversions (corkscrews). Elsewhere in the park, Skyride, Stanley Falls log flume, and the African Queen boat ride (similar to Magic Kingdom’s Jungle Cruise) were opened.

With all the African-centric animals, attractions, etc being added to the park, Busch Gardens began using the name Dark Continent, later changed to Busch Gardens Africa. During the 1970s, Busch Gardens Dark Continent changed from a free general admission plus a la carte pricing for all the attractions to a similar setup at Magic Kingdom in its early days. The general admission would be nominal and some offerings were included, but there were upgrades for many of the more elaborate attractions. What could have been a decade of setbacks, with the opening of WDW, was actually the most expansive in Busch Garden’s history! In order to support the growth of the theme park, Anheuser-Busch incorporated Busch Entertainment Corporation in 1979. Later that year, Busch Gardens Williamsburg opened, and the one-time brewer was now a theme park conglomerate.

 

The 1980s saw more expansions and attractions. Most notable is the addition of Timbuktu (now Pantopia), the largest (in land area) expansion at Busch Gardens to date. Attractions in Timbuktu included the kiddie coaster Scorpion and the Phoenix. Not far from Timbuktu,  the Congo area was added with the main attraction Congo River Rapids. Over in Stanleyville, Busch Gardens opened the Stanleyville Theatre, which offered a variety show. Between Stanleyville and the Bird Garden, the Dwarf Village, designed for children, opened. Many expansions during this time! And both kids and older guests where thought of in order to give everyone a quality experience.

Located where Sesame Street is now, the Dwarf Village featured a rustic, wood-shingled tree house, equipped with a tube slide, webbed rope for climbing, a miniature car ride, a canoe ride, a “cloud bounce” air mattress made for jumping, a ball crawl, and a tunnel maze, among other attractions. It also contained statues of dwarfs, mushroom houses, and Leprechaun Lane where the little people are busy all day long. Bringing Broadway to a theme park, the Moroccan Palace Theatre opened with the show Kaleidoscope. This show was regarded as the most lavish Broadway style attraction in any theme park in the world, at the time. During this time, the old monorail cars were replaced with newer versions that resemble the monorail at Disney World. The last part of the decade saw the African Queen boat ride close–well, get a refurbishment. It became the former Tidal Wave attraction, which has sense been replaced by the Tigris coaster opening this spring. Closing out the decade, Busch Entertainment acquired the Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Park Group that included neighboring SeaWorld and Cypress Gardens (which would eventually become LEGOland Florida). At this time, the Busch Gardens park in Florida was seen as the flagship park.

One of the biggest changes in the 1990s was the remodeling of the Moroccan Palace Theatre. The stage was converted to an ice stage, and Around the World on Ice debuted! To this day, there is a daily figure skating show at this unique venue. Busch Gardens would see–yet–another name change. This time changing to the name it has today Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. Coaster fever hit the Busch parks. In 1993, Kumba came roaring in, welcoming thrill seeking guests. Fortunately, this is a coaster that can still be experienced today. And I’m pleased to write that after some refurbishments, Kumba is much smoother than it used to be.

Across the park in Timbuktu, the Dolphin Theatre was added; this was a daily dolphin show similar to the one at SeaWorld. The Moroccan Palace Theatre also saw changes; the Around the World on Ice changed to Hollywood On Ice, a show featuring music and moments from classic Hollywood! The 90s was also a time of closures. The Stanleyville variety show, monorail, and Stairway to the Stars, the park’s very first “ride” closed. Due to leadership changes at Anheuser-Busch after the acquisition by InBev, it was decided to close the Tampa brewery. The last handful of workers punched out for the last time in December 1995. With the closure of the brewery, it seemed the heart of the park stopped beating. Although there was no more brewery to tour, the free beer would continue and guests could still visit the stables where the famous Clydesdales resided. Other closures included The Dwarf Village, which was replaced with The Land of Dragons.

The mid to latter 90s would also see another land expansion. This time, the park was turning to the pharaohs. Opening with the new land of Egypt is a coaster that is still ranked as one of the best in the world–Montu! As Busch Gardens has always had a commitment to education, a replica of King Tuts Tomb opened in the Egypt area. The ice show at the palace would change from Hollywood on Ice to World Rhythms on Ice in 1998. The ride simulator Questor was changed to Akbar’s Adventure Tours starring Martin Short. This attraction took park guests on a wacky tour of Egypt. In the center of the park, Busch Gardens erected a dueling wooden rollercoaster in 1999 that has since closed, but will be reimagined as a new hybrid coaster in 2020. You guessed it, this wooden coater is Gwazi. It was built on the former site of the brewery.

Probably the biggest addition to the park in the early 2000s came in 2000 with the inaugural year of Howl-O-Scream! Busch Gardens’ premiere Halloween seasonal event is still the biggest seasonal offering to date, drawing guests from all across the region and other parts of the country. Other additions in the early 2000s included the comedy safari themed Rhino Rally (an attraction that I sorely miss). If you were to take the Jungle Cruise and Kilimanjaro Safari from WDW, and combine them, this is the attraction that you would get! After a few years run, the Dolphin Theatre was closed and remodeled to be the Timbuktu Theatre.

The first attraction to call the Timbuku Theatre home was the former R.L. Stine’s Haunted Lighthouse 4D, but it was replaced with Pirates 4D early on. Rhythms on Ice closed to make way for Katonga. Coaster fever hit the park again, and the drop coaster Sheikra was opened! Not only was it the tallest coaster in Florida at the time, it was also the first dive coaster to include an inversion. More sad closures hit the park, the park’s very first coaster Python was closed after 30yrs of operation to the day (plus one). Midway through the 2000s decade, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay changes its name to Busch Gardens Africa. In place of the Python coaster, Busch Gardens created the Jungala area, which is home to the tigers and Congo River Rapids, along with smaller attractions for the younger guests at the park. In addition to the rides, Busch Gardens also added a streetmosphere show with characters on stilts in elaborate costumes. Towards the end of the 2000s, Busch Gardens Africa was renamed Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, the name it still holds today. In 2007, Anheuser-Busch (parent company to Busch Entertainment) conducted leadership changes and promotions. As a result, most of the executives were in Orlando as SeaWorld Orlando was now seen as the company’s flagship park, so the company headquarters was relocated to Orlando.

In 2009, InBev (owner of Anheuser-Busch) decided to divest itself of all the Busch Gardens and SeaWorld parks. It sold them off to the Blackstone Group. Over the next several months, the park removed the Anheuser-Busch branding, famous clydesdales, and the free beer. The company name changed from Busch Entertainment to SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment. As part of the acquisition, Anheuser-Busch licensed the name Busch Gardens to Blackstone in perpetuity. Other than the Garden Gate Cafe, Crown Colony House, and Skyride, very little of the early park was left. Land of Dragons, which was the Dwarf Village, was once again rethemed. This time, to Sesame Street. Across the park near the Garden Gate Cafe was a new area with Australia theming and animals! Walkabout Way, an area where you can get up close with kangaroos, wallabies, emus and more! Fans of Rhino Rally are going to remember this date development. In order to plan for the next big coaster, part of the former Rhino Rally had to be closed. The area closed was the water features. Using the old monorail building as the guest load and unload area, the launch coaster Cheetah Hunt was opened.

In the Moroccan Village theatre, Busch Gardens created the Motor City Groove show that entertained guests with a’cappella covers of some of the best music out of Detroit. Replacing Katonga at the Moroccan Palace Theatre was IcePloration! A spectacular combination of acrobatics, aerial acts, and of course figure skating that explored different parts of the world! 2012 was the inaugural year for Christmas Town, a hard-ticketed event that celebrated the season with a fabulous mixture of the traditional and contemporary Christmas music, decorations, light, shows and more! Since 2015, Christmas Town has been included in day admission.

From Timbuktu to Egypt, 2013 brought about more closures including the Pirates 4D show and King Tut’s Tomb. Timbuktu would see an identity change as well with the opening of the drop tower attraction Falcon’s Fury. When Falcon’s Fury opened, the land of Timbuktu became Pantopia. With the name change, the Timbuktu Theatre became the Pantopia Theatre. And this theatre would welcome a new show called Opening Night Critters. This show was quite similar to the Critter Castaways show that was in the old Bird Gardens theatre, but a few changes were made in order to freshen the show. After the opening of Pantopia, Rhino Rally closed permanently. The ride that replaced the iconic brewery, would see its own closure in 2015. And remains closed to this day until the newly reimagined Gwazi opens in 2020. The brewery tour lasted 36yrs; Gwazi was around for 10yrs. Just sayin. With the popularity of food and wine festivals increasing exponentially, Busch Gardens started its own festival in the spring of 2015. Back over in Egypt, a new family spinning-style coaster opened–Cobra’s Curse. The queue for the attraction was the park’s first indoor queue and used the old King Tut’s tomb. In fact, the main chamber of the queue is the former burial chamber of King Tut. To make preparations for the park’s next coaster, the Tidal Wave attraction, which was once home of the African Queen boat ride closed permanently.

The Moroccan Palace would once again see the ice show change, this time to a post-modern extravaganza of popular music and award-winning stunts. In May of 2017, the stage was completely renovated to make way for Turn It Up: the Hottest Show on Ice! The beauty of this show is that the music and choreography can be updated every few years without having to completely redo the show. Last year (2018), Busch Gardens brought back the complementary beer and an entire Bier Fest in the late summer to bridge the gap between Summer Nights and Howl-O-Scream. The biggest news lately is the upcoming opening of Tigris, which is being built on the location of the old African Queen boat ride turned Tidal Wave, turned queue for HOS house, now coaster. That land has certainly seen a variety of uses. Fortunately Tigris looks to be one of the most thrilling coasters anywhere around! It’s fast, has launches, drops, and more. Looking forward to experiencing the newest addition to the park this spring.

There you have it, folks! A history of Busch Gardens from 1959 to 2019. Although the park has undergone many changes over the decades, you can still visit places like the Garden Gate Cafe and Serengeti Overlook to walk where the park’s first guests experienced this outstanding park. With so many events going on at Busch Gardens for #Busch60, the 60th Anniversary of the park, you will want to upgrade your day ticket to an annual pass! Every month, there is something new to experience as Busch wants you to help celebrate in the festivities!

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa and works in live themed entertainment. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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SeaWorld Christmas Celebration 2018 Review

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again, no theme park does Christmas better than SeaWorld! From the food to shows to lights, SeaWorld Christmas is a spectacular event. With so much to see and do, you’ll want to experience it multiple nights in order to make sure you create memories that will last for a lifetime. Although I’ve attended Christmas Celebration in the past, it is so magical that I just love experiencing it again and again. Perhaps you are like me in that you attend as many theme park and resort events at possible at Christmas, but if you can only select one for you and your friends/family, then I highly suggest SeaWorld Christmas Celebration!

Before we get into the shows (which are largely unchanged from previous years), I want to talk about the food. Oh, and speaking of food, you’ll want to treat yourself to the sampler lanyard (5 or 10 items) for all the delectable food and drink cabins. My invitation to the media event came with the 5 item sampler, but I can see the advantages of the 10 item option if you plan to attend multiple nights or are there with another person or group. As far as the 5-item lanyard, my friend Dani and I were able to share it and had plenty to eat and drink. Prior to setting out into the park, the SWO public relations team provided many food and drink items for us during the media mixer. My favorite is the s’mores waffle cone! Absolutely delicious. We also had the Christmas dinner and candied popcorn. Out in the park, we had the donut pulled pork sandwich (not included in the sampler), brisket macaroni and cheese, and chicken and waffles! Yes! Chicken and waffles, you heard me. For drinks, we had the Jingle Juice. All the speciality beverages I saw were hot (just FYI). For a cold beverage, there are options but they are not the specialty drinks.

We attended Clyde and Seamore’s Countdown to Christmas, Winter Wonderland on Ice, and Shamu’s Christmas Miracle. Unfortunately, we did not attend O Wondrous Night because of scheduling conflicts. Of course, we also enjoyed the Sea of Trees show on the lagoon that runs throughout the evening. Clyde and Seamore’s show is always hilarious!! You are in for a laugh for sure. Since we were attending during the same showtime as O Wondrous Night, it wasn’t terribly packed but was nicely filled. Largely unchanged, this show is pretty much the same as it was last year, but it is still such a fun show and will have you laughing the whole time. One of my favorite parts of the show is actually the pre-show when the audience all joins together to sing familiar Christmas songs and carols. Although it is a show geared towards the younger members of the audience, there are jokes and references for us adults to chuckle as well. At one point, one of the trainers forgot his line, and there was a comedically self-aware moment. And the Frozen jokes were great. New for this year were some meta jokes about the stores in the mall. So incredibly funny! Poor Blockbuster haha. Do yourself a favor and sit down for a heaping helping of laughter and merriment as Clyde and Seamore Countdown to Christmas!

Winter Wonderland on Ice returns this year! Arrive early for the preshow! Enjoy the beauty of the violin as a fantastically talented violinist plays Christmas music as you wait for the show to begin. Much like the Christmas on Ice show at Busch Gardens, this show features many talented figure skaters in beautifully choreographed skating numbers to your favorite Christmas songs. To be honest, I still prefer the Busch Gardens show, but those skaters are at the park year-round so they can put more time into the show design. That being said, with SeaWorld placing the show on the water’s edge, the exquisite Sea of Trees can be seen behind the ice stage. Since the show is outdoors, SeaWorld is able to integrate some lite pyrotechnics in the show! As a figure skating hobbiest, I have a high degree of appreciation for these shows. I love watching the movements and picking out the ones that I am able to do! Note: I still have a long way to go haha. Bayside Stadium is packed for this show, so make sure to arrive early.

The Christmas Village at Port of Entry is always a treat! With special a’cappella groups, the Christmas village train set, and of course, you can meet Rudolph and Friends! This is the area where you can also enjoy hot chocolate, eggnog, craft beer, and cookies! Located near the Christmas Village is Santa’s Base Camp where you can meet the big man himself. With many places to sit down and relax, this is a great place to slow down and take in the smells and songs that make this “the most wonderful time of the year.” I came across the most adorable plushies, once of which is a promotional item! I saw a Shamu with a Santa hat and a Santa Sloth!! There is also a hedgehog and other cuddly plushy animals that will be hard to resist.

Merry Christmas!

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa and works in creative services in live themed entertainment. He’s also published prolifically on theme parks and produced a peer-reviewed study. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW him!

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Twitter: RLTerry1

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Theme Park or IP Park?

With all the recent, present, and future changes coming to the legacy theme parks of Central Florida and Southern California, are we witnessing the next evolution in theme parks? I’ve been tossing around the idea of exploring this trend, and those same feelings were echoed recently on the No Midnight Podcast (a Disney-centric podcast that unpacks history and discusses current happenings in the parks). After listening to the episode, it’s become clear that this anecdotal observation I’ve made is shared by others. As I love exploring the history of the parks from a scholarly perspective (as evident in my past articles and book), this is a topic that deserves consideration.

In order to truly explore this trend that some of us in the theme park blog and podcast communities have observed, it’s important to take a brief look at the development of the very concept of a theme park. And before you think that Disneyland was the first theme park concept, think again. Contrary to popular belief, Universal Studios Hollywood was the first to pioneer the idea of a theme park. More than 40 years before Disneyland was opened, the founder of Universal Studios (studio) German immigrant Carl Laemmle, opened his 250-acre-movie-making ranch, just north of Los Angeles, to the public for a mere $0.25. More than side income for the trailblazing studio, most well-known for its pioneering of the horror film, the original studio tour began on the outdoor backlot in March 1915. Laemmle desired to immerse guests into the magic behind the screen. The happy marriage, however, was not to last very long. Upon the introduction of cinema sound, Laemmle was forced to close the studio “park” to the not-so-quiet guests in order to facilitate appropriate recording sound for the motion pictures. The Universal Studios tour would remain closed to the general public for over 30 years. But, in 1961, the studio would once again open its gates to a new generation of movie lovers through the still world famous studio tram tour.

Combining inspiration from what Laemmle began 40 years prior, visionary Walt Disney made the decision to create an entire land that would immerse guests into the world (or land) of Disney. More than an amusement park, Walt Disney set out to create a multi-dimensional experience complete with continuous coherent storytelling from the architecture to the attractions and restaurants themselves. Even before the park would open its doors in 1955, Walt Disney produced a television special that sought to energize enthusiasm for the groundbreaking concept that took the stories, settings, and characters from the screen and translated them to exist in the real world. Disneyland was so popular that Walt began to develop an idea that would forever change the theme park business forever. The “Florida Project,” as it was called, would eventually become Walt Disney World. Sadly, Walt passed away before the park would open, but Walt Disney World is the manifestation of Walt’s ultimate dream. Disneyland was first and is the park that Walt built, but Disney World is truly what Walt envisioned when he dreamt his innovative idea inspired by his imagination.

In the mid 20th century, Universal Studios Hollywood, Knott’s Berry Farm, Busch Gardens parks, SeaWorld parks, and later in the 20th century Universal Studios Florida were all opened to eager crowds! Each of these parks had a distinct theme, a specific story into which guests were immersed. With the cases of Busch Gardens and SeaWorld parks, the storytelling was also accompanied by a conservation message. Attractions were built that matched well with the theme of the respective land. It’s important to note that, for the most part, there was significant thought put into an attraction fitting into the design (architecture) of the land in order to never take the park guest out of the overarching theme of the area FIRST and the whether or not a particular intellectual property (IP) works in that land second. Make the attraction fit the theme, not retheme the area to match the attraction. Whereas I am oversimplifying this practice or concept, the point is to get you thinking of how theme parks processed new attractions for the longest time; that is, until Universal Studios Islands of Adventure redefined themed entertainment.

Entire volumes of articles could be written on how Islands of Adventure (IOA) redefined themed entertainment; but for the sake of argument, the impact will be streamlined. Prior to IOA, theme parks, including Disney and Universal, were largely built with theme first and properties second. Now, themed entertainment designers are busy taking major IPs, placing them in the park, and then rethemeing around it. Each land or area is themed to the attraction versus the attraction designed to fit the theme of the park area. But in doing so, does this negate the very concept of a theme park, traditionally speaking? What happens when the movie is no longer relevant?

Unlike the other theme parks, at the time, Universal’s IoA was different in that it took popular IPs with entire universes (or worlds) if you will, and built vast lands in which there are attractions based on the movies/books represented. Prior to this, the closest examples were Disney-MGM Studios and Universal Studios. But even with the two aforementioned examples, they weren’t concerned with lands of the movies, but integrating the movie properties into the backlot look and feel of the park. With Disney-MGM (now Hollywood Studios, until it changes again) and Universal Studios Florida, the theme was a combination of Hollywood and the magic of motion pictures. So individual movie or TV properties were included as part of the them park experience, and guests were prevued to studio audience opportunities or the ability to audition to be on a show (think Nickelodeon Studios). The theme was “the movies” or “Hollywood.” From the architecture, to street names, to real-life locations, both of these parks that incorporated different movies or TV shows into the layout and design. The location was largely Hollywood, but could include New York City, San Francisco, a canyon in Arizona, or Amity Island. The attractions were built into the existing landscape versus selecting a property then changing the environment to match the IP. As these “movie parks” have been moving away from the magic of moviemaking to more immersive experiential environments, the “theme” has been changing rapidly. One could draw the conclusion that the “theme” of these parks is now an anti-theme. An anti-theme in that there are a variety of experiences that do not exist within a themed landscape that connects them together.

The theme of Islands of Adventure was just that, islands of adventure. Each island around the lagoon was a different land inspired by a different IP. Personally, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter, and Seuss Landing are my favorite islands! Arguably, Jurassic Park was the centerpiece of the then-innovative concept as it was the biggest fandom represented. Today, that crown rests on the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (since 2010). Not only was IoA the first to pioneer this concept of individual themes within the park, it was the first to create an immersive world in extreme detail. And it was the Wizarding World of Harry Potter that completely changed the theme park game, rewrote the rules, and began the trend away from “theme” parks to IP parks. Instead of a collection of attractions around a shared theme (or collection of themes), now parks are trending toward a park that is a collection of disconnected IPs. While Magic Kingdom has the different themed lands, the overall theme of magic kingdom was largely fantasy and adventure not connected to any specific singular IP. And in each of the lands, there were attractions that fit the theme of the lands, some of which had movie counterparts. But the focus was not on the individual movies as much as it was the idea of escaping to, being transported to a world of high flying adventure or whimsical fantasy.

Ever since the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened, Disney and Universal parks (mainly) but also joined by Movie Park Germany and MotionGate Dubai are principally concerned with attaching movie and literary IPs to the park for the guests. Reminiscent of the space race between the US and Russia of the mid 20th century, the race for theme parks is for IPs for the parks. This pattern continues into the film distribution and production company interests for new content–content that will lend itself to successful translation from screen to park. It’s more important than ever for media conglomerates and umbrella companies that have theme park and distribution interests to know what movies or entire franchises make for viable theme park lands and attractions. I cover this very topic in my study and book On the Convergence of Cinema and Theme Parks, which you can buy an Amazon! Just because a movie or entire franchise is popular, does not mean that it is material for a theme park. For more on that topic, checkout the book.

While building entire lands based upon a popularly established IP to create an immersive environment looks and sounds like a great idea to draw the enthusiastic crowds and significantly increase revenue, there is a darker side to this that will not be realized or observed for years down the road. With the more traditional theme park design, attractions can be changed out of the show buildings far more easily than having to retheme and rebuild an entire land. But why would thinking about the ability to change a land be important? Because it is not unreasonable to arrive at the conclusion that a particular IP may not continue to be popular after an IP has had its run. Although not as big as Star Wars or Harry Potter, the former A Bug’s Life is an example of the lengths a park has to go to to remove and rebuild. Razing to the ground and rebuilding is always more costly than building a’fresh. But this does not seem to detour the parks from moving from the traditional theme park concept to an IP park. A collection of IPs that a company either owns or licenses. In the concept of a collection of IPs, is there actually an over all theme? There appears to be more evidence to suggest that theme, in the traditional sense, is lost when focusing on attaching IPs.

With the continuing trend to focus on IP acquisition instead of original themes, it would appear that the traditional theme park may be dying in exchange for IP park. Take Disney’s Hollywood Studios for example. The theme was “Hollywood” or movie-making. What is the theme now? Well, to be honest, the answer that query is vague at best. You’ve Star Wars land on one side of the park, Toy Story in the middle, and a little bit of Hollywood in the front. No consistency in theme. With the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Aerosmith being licensed from CBS (Sony), and the facade of the Chinese Theatre licensed from TCL, the theme is NOT Disney IPs. Same with Universal Studios, the theme is not Universal IP because other than the first two installments, all others are Paramount. Not to mention that Simpsons is Fox. Even the headliner Wizarding World of Harry Potter is Warner Brothers (AT&T). Looking at the Disney and Universal parks, I am left in a state of confusion when attempting to understand the theme of the respective parks. So, since a consistent and coherent theme cannot be identified, I am left with the conclusion that there is no theme–just a collection of original and licensed IPs.

While many may not see the differences between the concepts of a theme and IP park because, on the surface, they both look indifferent from one another, the difference seems to be the story or the diegesis of the park, as a whole, from entry gate to back of the park. So, it’s not a matter of semantics. Going from IP to IP, the experience is disrupted, and reminds you that you have not actually been transported to any of these worlds. Part of what makes the traditional theme park a powerful conduit of creating an experiential continuous story is the ability for the park to consistently suspend your disbelief. To understand the difference a little better, think of it this way: the trending IP park concept is a series of “theme parks” joined together by a unifying gate. Instead of the overarching unifying theme that connects all the areas of the park together in one coherent, continuous story, the IP park is a concourse that takes you to different themed lands. So, the importance is not in the theming of the park as a whole, but in the individual lands within the gate. Think of it as a mall. A mall is a “single gate” structure (whether indoor or outdoor mall) that has many different stores. No two stores are the same (even if carrying similar products). The entryways and hallways/concourses are glorified conduits for transportation to and from the various anchor and supporting stores. That’s not unlike the IP park. Wizarding World of Harry Potter Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, Toy Story, Pandora, and Star Wars lands are examples of your anchor stores with the other areas as supporting stores.

There is a magic that is lost in transitioning from the theme to IP park. Not that the newly emerging IP heavy lands are lacking in a great experiential factor–obviously, that is not the case–but the park as a whole demonstrates a perpetual identity confusion. If you cannot state the theme of a park in a single statement (much like the logline of a movie), then it is does not have a theme, but a collection of IPs with individual themes. Each of the IPs (whether original or licensed) are incredibly fun, immersive, and innovative, but just because you have a collection of IPs does not mean they make a theme park. More like a theme mall. Whatever the case, it appears that there is a trend away from the conventional theme park to the emerging IP park and any studio-based theme park is transitioning away from any connection to Hollywood or the magic of moviemaking. We are at a transitional stage in themed entertainment, and we will see an increasing number of separate IPs housed around a series of concourses to each experience.\

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa and works in creative services in live themed entertainment. He’s also published prolifically on theme parks and produced a peer-reviewed study. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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Scream-A-Geddon 2018

You’ll want to experience the horror again and again. Scream-A-Geddon, located in Dade City, Florida is definitely worth the drive. No question. If you’ve ever wanted to visit one of those haunted house or Halloween events that you find in all those shows on The CW, then visit the houses and offerings of this “horror theme park.” With five exceptional houses, including a haunted trail, plus zombie paintball, and the fact you can make a homemade s’more over the open camp fires, this is by far a don’t-miss local haunt in Central Florida.

From the moment you enter the haunted grounds of Scream-A-Geddon, you will be faced with terrifying wandering scareactors standing in your way between you and the haunted houses and mazes. After confronting ghostly dolls and sinister clowns, you may have worked up quite the appetite. Good thing there are many food options. Of all the delicious “fair food” options, my personal favorite is the s’more kit. That’s right! Scream-A-Geddon offers many camp fires (not for warmth, it’s Florida haha) but for roasting marshmallows and making that quintessential autumnal treat. I had so much fun! Like, for real. I cannot remember the last time that I had the opportunity to make a real s’more with crispy graham crackers and an official Hershey bar.

After savoring every bite of my freshly made s’more, my friend Michael and I made our way over to the Zombie Paintball entrance! Taking the place of the former haunted hay ride, this is a premium offering requiring an additional nominal charge. But I assure you, it’s well worth it! We were ushered past the fair queue of guests to the bus and were greeted by the paramilitary commander who instructed us to take our seat on the bus. I was particularly excited about this opportunity because I had never shot a gun before. At least one that wasn’t attached to the shooting gallery at Magic Kingdom. Once seated, the bus began to take off. The commander informed us of our directions to kill the zombies before they overtake the town. With a great production design including set pieces from the former Haunted Hayride plus new additions and florescent paintballs, this attraction is highly interactive and immersive. It’s a not-to-be missed attraction at Scream-A-Geddon this year.

After taking-out more than a dozen zombies, we jaunted over to a new house for this year. Demon’s Revenge. Such an incredible haunted maze. Unlike the houses at HHN and HOS, the houses at SAG where you are on a figurative conveyor belt navigating the house, SAG only sends through small groups. This enables you to experience more scares without seeing them up ahead and the opportunity to get lost in the maze. Although it is ultimately difficult to get completely lost in the maze, there are plenty of twists, turns, and dead ends that you may encounter. Fortunately, whilst remaining in character, the scareactors will redirect you if you do stray too far from the path. The overall theme of Demon’s Revenge is an old church building that is now overrun with an evil witch’s coven. The costumes and effects are fantastic! You’ll find dragons, Poltergeist-like giant ghosts, and more in this claustrophobic labyrinth of narrow passageways and everything that goes bump in the night.

When we narrowly escaped the coven, and navigated our way out of the old church building, we walked over to test our wits against the Dead Woods. Unlike the simulated woods that are created at HHN and HOS, this horror attraction takes you through the woods–literally. Within only the stars and a glowstick as your source of light, you make your way down the dark pathways through a village inhabited by a cast of characters that typify hillbilly horror. Not one or two cabins in the woods await you, but several that you must pass through without becoming dinner–uhh, I mean asked to stay for dinner. Dead Woods returns for another year of effective scares! The concept of a haunted woods is something that I feel truly adds to the Halloween experience. Something about it feels like Halloween. It may have still been in the 70s or 80s as we braved the Dead Woods, but everything else about it screamed Halloween!

Another returning house this year is Infected: Ground Zero. But just because it is returning for another year of terror, that does not mean that you can plan for it to be the same. What IS the same, is the returning option for additional interaction with the scareactors. By opting for the glow necklace, you give the attraction permission to get up close and personal with you. This can be anything from a creepy body check to being placed in a body bad or even having your hair buzzed off to check for deadly spores (okay, you’re not really going to lose your hair). Another effective layout! Much like with the other houses, this one too feels like a legitimate maze. Be careful which way you go through this infectious diseases camp. You may find yourself face to melting-off-face with those who have already come in contact with the deadly disease.

Across the midway stands Blackpool Prison. A prison more notorious than Leavenworth, Alcatraz, or Shawshank. This prison is filled with the most vile of criminals, many of which are serving time for violent crimes. Like with Infected, this house is also an interactive one, when wearing the glow necklace. Enter if you dare, because you may not be able to break out of this prison. From the moment you enter the dark, dank prison walls, you will be confronted by ruthless and sinister prisoners. By wearing the necklace, you may also find yourself dragged into cells and forced to crawl through small openings in the walls in order to find the exit. In order to keep things warm at the winter, there is a furnace in which you may be thrown. One cell leads to another, with no end in sight. Terrifying imagery and scares await you around every corner, and where you least expect them. An A-class haunted maze experience.

Lastly, Rage 3D was a new addition for 2017 and return with its killer clowns this year. The 3D classes truly enhance the experience of this house. The production design is fantastically colorful! But the surreal effects do not stop there. By far, this is the best clown horror house I have ever been in, and I’ve been to some great ones at HHN and HOS. Next level scary! Scary because you are a little disoriented the entire time, all the while clowns are jumping out at you. You even have to pass through a mirrored room with both fake and real clowns, and you never know which is which. Walls will fall in on you and you’ll have to walk through a spinning tunnel. The lighting and color effects are what impresses me most about this house. Of course, the clowns are nightmarish themselves!

There you have it! Now that you’ve read about it, you need to experience it for yourself. Visit Scream-A-Geddon‘s website for details and tickets!

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Visit Scream-A-Geddon‘s website for details and tickets!