Summertime is the hot season for theme parks, rollercoasters and fun. Robert Niles, founder and editor of ThemeParkInsider.com joins host David Lytle to talk about the best new rides and attractions for Summer 2007. Niles dishes on the best parks you haven't visited, how to get the most out of your theme park day, and tips on saving money, time and your sanity.
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Top Tips from This Podcast
See transcript below for links to more information.
- Focus: Keeps your eyes open and focused on the track in front of you to help curb nausea.
- Sunblock: Remember to wear sunblock as you'll be outdoors all day.
- Be Early/Late: Get there first thing in the morning or closer to the evening when there are no built-up lines and the temperature is more comfortable.
- Top Parks: Busch Gardens Europe (Williamsburg, VA), Legoland (Carlsbad, CA), Disneyland (Anaheim, CA), Islands of Adventure (Orlando, FL).
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.Announcer: Welcome to the Frommers.com travel podcast. For more information on planning your trip to any one of thousands of destinations, please visit www.frommers.com.
David Lytle: Hi, this is David Lytle. I'm the Editorial Director of Frommers.com. Today we're talking with Robert Niles. He's an instructor at USC. He's the editor of the Annenberg Online Journalism Review. But the reason why we have him here today is that he's the creator and publisher of ThemeParkInsider.com. Hi, Robert.
Robert Niles: Hi. How are you doing?
David: I'm doing well. How are you doing today?
Robert: Doing just fine.
David: I have to say, you have a fantastic site. I'm a big fan of websites where there is this core audience of dedicated readers, and you have a lot of contributors who obviously love roller coasters, love rides, love theme parks.
How long have you been doing this? How did you get started with this particular topic for your own website?
Robert: Well, I'm an LA native. Some of my earliest memories are of going to Disneyland. I'm a lifelong theme park fan. It seems that whenever my family was going on vacations around the country, at some point we ended up at a theme park. I actually ended up working at Disney World for four years, while I was in college and graduate school.
I just know a lot about theme parks, love them to death. Also, I've been a long time computer geek. I was soldering together computers when I was in elementary school, back in the 70s. And I also work as a journalist. So this is the happy collision of all of those topics together.
I was editing a newspaper website in the late 1990s and I was really getting into reader contributed content. I thought this was just a fascinating, wonderful thing, that the readers could actually start contributing content to these publications. I really wanted to start an entire website that was just written and reported by readers. So I chose theme parks as the topic because it was a real passion of mine, and I knew enough about it that I could get things started. As I thought it was important not just to open up a forum, but to have some content there to elicit some feedback.
Robert: So in 1999, I started a site where people could rate and review each individual attraction at Disney World, and from there we added the other Disney parks and the Universal parks. In 2000, I rebranded the whole thing as Theme Park Insider, and we went global and started adding dozens of parks upon readers' requests, and the site's just grown from there.
David: Clicking on the "Browse Parks" tab at the top, you cover dozens of parks in the United States, but then you also have China, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the UK - this is not just limited to King's Island and Disney parks.
Robert: Right, absolutely. We're looking for parks that get a significant - we are talking two or three million English-speaking visitors a year. There are quite a few parks outside the United States that are getting that type of visitorship. We had people that wanted to contribute ratings and reviews on those parks, so we added them into the lineup as well.
And that's one of the things, is that the site is very much maintained by the readers. Each of our attraction entries is actually a wiki. People can go in and edit the attraction descriptions, as well as adding ratings and reviews of those attractions, and they can submit photos. We have people beginning to submit video as well. So it's very much a reader controlled experience, which helps bring the wisdom of the crowd, if you will, to the analysis of the parks.
David: Just to let our listeners know, I met you a couple of weeks ago in Los Angeles at a conference for the Society of American Travel Writers.
David: You showed one of the videos at your presentation. A guy was reviewing the first ride on a brand new coaster, and it really gives a visitor to the website the experience of what it's like on that roller coaster. In particular, it made me nauseous, because I am not a fan of roller coasters.
Robert: [laughs] Oh, no!
David: I mean, it's embarrassing. I wish that I loved them, and I become terrified as I get near them. At some point in my adult life I will have to get over this fear, especially now that I live in San Francisco and Six Flags is just a ferry ride away.
Robert: Well, actually it's interesting. One of the things we have got up on the site is we've got... safety is a very important issue to us. We started a feature in 2001, called Accident Watch, where people submit reports of injury accidents at theme parks around the world. So we've got one of the larger... because the government doesn't really track this data, but we've got a really large incident database.
But one of the really important pages on there is a page on how to stay safe at theme parks. One of the things we talk about there is also how you can really be more comfortable, as well as safe, riding roller coasters.
One of the things I tell people, that a lot of people don't do, is keep your eyes on the track in front of you. Because that really helps cut down on the nausea, because you see what's coming. Because the initial reaction is, "Oh, God, this is really scary. I want to close my eyes."
David: [laughs] Right. And then you just get the feelings.
Robert: If you close your eyes though you lose the visual reference that can help your inner ear, or whatever - I don't understand the physiology of it - but if you don't know what's coming, you end up getting a lot dizzier than if you do. So those are just some of the tips we have that you'll find sprinkled throughout the site to help make your trip that much more enjoyable.
David: Just obvious advice like: stay hydrated, wear sunscreen in a theme park.
Robert: That's the number one thing where people end up being miserable in a theme park, is that they just get fried! I mean you're outside all day, usually on blacktop, or some type of surface like that that just gets really hot. You're out there on your feet all day. It's just a physically exhausting experience even if you never go on anything. A lot of people really forget that.
So it's important to start drinking water, not when you get to the park, but the day or the night before. And bring a water bottle with you and just stay hydrated throughout the day.
David: Right, and wear a hat. Keep the sun off your head. You can always tell where the shade is in a theme park, because there are clusters of people just trying to squeeze into that shaded area.
Robert: [laughs] Absolutely.
The number one tip I'll give anyone for getting the most out of your day - and this helps your comfort too - is get there first thing in the morning, before the park opens so that you're right there, ready to get on the rides before any of the queues have built up, any of the lines have built up.
You're also there in the morning when it's a lot more comfortable. You can get a lot of stuff done the first hour or two of the day, and then you're not stuck in those big long midday, hour-plus long waits for rides. You can say, "Hey, I've done all the major rides. I'll go head back to the hotel, and take a swim or a nap or something."
Then come back in the evening, when the rides are beginning to go down, the sun's gone down, it's cooling off again, and bag a lot more rides then as well.
David: Do your contributors, do they offer advice like that, you know, "Here's an itinerary to take," let's say at Six Flags, "Do this ride first, do this ride second"?
Robert: Right, one of the things we've got on the site is a discussion board, and the discussion board is also broken down by theme park / resort. So if you want to see all the discussions we have on Six Flags Magic Mountain or Cedar Point or Busch Gardens Europe, you can click through and see that. And then you'll see a lot of trip reports from people, you'll see people asking for itineraries, people asking for discounts, trying to find coupons to get into the parks a little bit cheaper, advice, feedback, comments about rumors they're hearing about the park.
So if you're thinking about, "Well, should I go this year or next?" then you can find out if there's some really hot new ride coming in next year that maybe you want to wait for, or maybe you want to go this year because there's a really good discount program. All that type of stuff you can find on our discussion board, and that's all contributed by the readers as well.
David: Oh yeah, I'm reading one right now, "Ride Plans for Magic Mountain." The guy just divides it up into "thrill seekers" vs. "older folk."
Robert: Yeah, Magic Mountain is definitely a great park for thrill seekers. It and Cedar Point, I think, are probably the two best pure roller coaster parks in the country.
David: Oh, really?
Robert: But in both cases, they've got a fair amount of stuff for other folks. I know Six Flags is really trying to become more of a family-friendly destination under its new ownership, and they're adding a lot more shows and kid-friendly type of stuff to their parks as well.
David: Right, and you've also got an area where, basically, your site is giving awards to parks.
Robert: Yes! Yes, and that's coming up every year on the Fourth of July. We give out the Theme Park Insider Awards to the world's best in several categories, including world's best theme park, best new attraction in the previous 12 months, best restaurant, and best hotel.
David: How do the parks respond to that, when they receive an award?
Robert: Oh, they're very, very happy. They're just absolutely thrilled. Busch Gardens Europe, in Williamsburg, Virginia, won last year, which kind of came out of left field. Because normally when you're thinking about the really big, popular theme parks, you're thinking Disney World or Universal.
But kind of quietly, up on the Virginia coast, over the last few years, Busch Gardens has been adding some really world-class, highly themed attractions in a beautiful environment, and it's won over a core of very passionate fans. And with the Internet, they've been spreading the word about it...
Robert: And people who normally would head straight to Orlando have been stopping off in Williamsburg and saying, "Hey, you know, they're right, this is a really great park." And they got over the hump and got to the point where they were number one in the ratings last year, and they got the award. And they're up there real solid this year. We'll see who ends up getting it this year, but they're certainly...
David: Yeah, Williamsburg overall is having a good year.
Robert: That's one of the things, if you're someone who really loves the theme parks, you really love the atmosphere and the storytelling and the show and all of that, then you're the type of person who's really going to enjoy a trip to all the other stuff that they have in the Williamsburg area. I mean, this is the birthplace of American democracy, and there's a lot of really great immersive environments there.
So it ended up being a really great location for a theme park, and Busch, to its credit, has executed that well.
David: Yeah, and if you have a diverse range of interests in your family, you can promise the thrill seekers a day at the theme park, while somebody else is touring Colonial Williamsburg.
David: Yeah, actually, that's where the video was from that you showed at the presentation. It was the Gryphon, I believe, right?
Robert: Yeah, Gryphon. That's their new floorless dive coaster they've got. Basically you're in what amounts to a flying chair, because it's these roller coaster cranes that don't really have a floor or a side, they're just chairs bolted onto the track, essentially. And it's a 200-foot straight down drop at the beginning of it, with a variety of little twists and turns afterwards. And then they spray you with a bunch of water at the end so you get wet and keep cool.
David: Right, exactly.
Robert: For some people, they'll hear that and go, "I've got to go ride that." Other people are like, "Oh my lord, don't let me get near that thing." So we give you the information and then you can pick what you want to go to.
David: What's your favorite park?
Robert: I really love Legoland, in California - Carlsbad, California, located just up the road from San Diego. Part of that is I've got two kids that are the perfect age for Lego stuff - I've got a son who's six and a daughter who's nine - but what I really love about Lego is that it's such an interactive park.
A lot of theme parks, it's ultimately a lot of passive stuff. You sit down, you watch a show. You sit down, you ride a ride. At Legoland, there are a lot of things where you're really participating in the attraction.
They've got one really fun attraction there called the Funtown Fire Brigade. My daughter compared it to a challenge on the TV show "Survivor." Because it's like your whole family gets into this big - what looks like a big Lego fire truck.
Robert: And you've got to pump the little pump handle to drive it down the strip, and then you run out, and then you've got to go pump another thing to shoot water at a fake fire and put it out, then you've got to drive your car back, and you're competing with three or four other families that are doing the same thing.
David: Oh, cool.
Robert: So it's something that really forces the entire family to literally play together, the grownups and the kids as well. It's not just, you're sitting there watching another show or riding another ride. And there's a lot of stuff throughout Legoland like that as well. So I really love that park.
I love Disneyland. It's really experienced a huge renaissance over the last five years. They've done a lot to really polish that park for its fiftieth anniversary last year. They just debuted a new "Finding Nemo" submarine ride. I mean, it's the granddaddy of all theme parks, really, and it's back on its game.
I also love Islands of Adventure in Universal Orlando, and Busch Gardens Europe. I think those are all really great parks you can't go wrong with at this stage.
David: How many trips a year do you personally make to theme parks?
Robert: Well, I live in southern California, so I'm visiting the parks out here multiple times a year, and I've got family back in Orlando, conveniently enough...
David: [laughs] Yeah.
Robert: So I head back out there and make this a family/work trip. That's the best part about doing this, is I go to theme parks professionally now. It's a work trip! I do that at least once a year. Then I try to get a trip elsewhere in the country once a year or so. A couple years ago I went up to Cedar Point, and I'm trying to get out to Busch Gardens Europe again. We're talking... I probably visit more than a dozen parks a year.
David: Isn't that the American dream? You find out what you like and then you make it your job.
Robert: Absolutely. This is what I love about the Internet. There are so many people out there now who are just following their passion and sharing it with people, and quite a few people are making it their job now - or at least making it a hobby that pays for itself as opposed to one that's just a cost. It's so much fun to see people connecting with other people and sharing their passion and knowledge on particular topics. Not just theme parks but anything you can imagine.
David: Oh, right. It really is. The power of social networking that the Internet has provided, people finding like-minded people to discuss whatever it is that they love.
Robert: In the theme park space, I think it's really helping us have better theme parks. If you've got something like Busch Gardens Europe, which has traditionally been just a little regional park doing a great job, all of a sudden people around the world know about it and are more inclined to go book.
Or if you have a situation where parks are beginning to slip, which a lot of people thought was happening at Disneyland in the late 1990s, that gets spread and then there's public pressure to improve.
The turnaround at Disneyland in the last five to ten years has been spectacular. Would they have done that without people online talking about them so much? I don't know.
But certainly, in area after area, there is so much consumer rating and review happening that word spreads very quickly about things that are going well and things that aren't going so well. And it provides a very powerful incentive to business owners to improve and change and stay on top of their game.
I think this is the golden age of the consumer right now and the Internet is our weapon.
David: Yeah, absolutely. I agree with you. We have message boards, and I think any website worth its salt has a place where consumers can air their grievances, or heap praise upon the experiences that they've had. They can come on our site and criticize us or praise us and it's fair game. I know that businesses take this very, very seriously.
Robert: Absolutely. I know that people from all the parks we cover are reading ThemeParkInsider.com. They want to see what the feedback is. They know that the Internet is the way you spread the word about theme parks these days. It's nice to get 15 or 20 seconds on the local evening newscast about your new roller coaster or something, but when people are really making that booking decision, they're going online and they're looking for that information.
If they're getting bad reports, via Theme Park Insider or some other website, about what's happening at the park, they know that that's eventually going to affect their bottom line. They want to hear about it and correct it. I think that's just a great thing for consumers.
And it's also really important, why I try and encourage everyone I meet who goes to a theme park to come back onto ThemeParkInsider.com after your trip and submit some ratings and reviews. The site is only as strong as the feedback we get from people. I would love to get everyone in the country who goes to a theme park to come log on and submit ratings and reviews because the bigger the crowd, the wiser the crowd, in this situation.
David: Absolutely. Well, hopefully our discussion here will drive some traffic to your website as well. Because I think our listeners, especially those who are theme park junkies, if they haven't discovered this already, are really going to dig it.
There's a woman - I can't think of her name right now and I'm sorry for that - she runs a Disney discount site called Mouse Savers and she is able to scrape around and find every single available discount. We look to her on a regular basis to find out what the best discounts are so we can report them to our readers, because that's what she cares about.
Robert: Yeah. You've got so many eyes and ears out there, where you've got these passionate communities of online readers that can go dig up information that a professional reporter would take months of hard work to get to. You can get that information immediately when you've got the crowds working for you.
One of the things I wanted to say was that there is such a wide variety of sites out there. Theme Park Insider is a little unique in that we're so broad based. A lot of sites you'll find out there are really hard core Disney sites, or you'll find really hard core roller coaster sites out there. We're kind of in the space in between there. We cover the Disney parks but we also cover Universal, and Busch, and Sea World, and Six Flags.
If you're just a real hard core roller coaster junkie and don't particularly care much for the Disney princesses and that sort of thing, there are sites out there for you as well. Roller Coaster Database is one of the great, great websites out there for people who just want hard core information - the height, the speed, the elements of pretty much every roller coaster on Earth.
People are all the time talking about, "Theme Park Insider? That's pretty niche." I'm just like, "There are niches of niches at this point, online."
David: [laughs] Exactly.
Robert: And it's great. You can find exactly the community that fits what you're looking for.
David: We're running right up to our time limit here so I really want to say thanks for talking to me today. I think our readers are going to really enjoy this.
Robert: Well, thanks for having me on. It's been a thrill.
David: Sure. And we encourage everyone to go visit ThemeParkInsider.com.
Robert: Come on by. We'd be happy to hear from you.
David: Thanks. Have a good day, Robert.
Robert: Thank you. Take care.
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