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In November 2018, I visited Universal Studios Florida and Universal Studios Hollywood exactly six days apart. Now, I didn’t experience everything as the Orlando visit was for a private party during which only 1/3 of the park was open. However, as this was my first visit to a stateside Universal park in quite some time, many of the attractions were new to me and I noticed a lot more screens than there used to be.

BEHIND THE SCREENS

In each of these film-based attractions (I’ll use a term introduced in the 1990s – “ridefilms”), it is the characters, the shape of the screen, and the shaky mechanism for the seats that defines its uniqueness.

And also the plot.  Though the plots are so similar, there’s actually a key to defining them.

In the mid-1990’s, filmed attraction veterans Charlotte Huggins and Ray Spencer came up with the following formula, which is still followed to this day:  The genre is split into six plot categories: 1) Roller coaster/Track, 2) Flying, 3) Underwater, 4) Racetrack/One Plane, 5) Object/Person point-of-view and 6) Dark Ride. Within those plots, the following devices are most common: A) Sister Ship, B) Molecular Shrink, C) Time Machine, D) Crisis Landing, E) Something’s Wrong With Our Ship, F) Save the Planet, G) Oops! Wrong direction, H) Time Clock, I) Encounter an Evil Creature, J) Camera point-and-shoot and K) On-camera “host.”*  So…using the formula,the classic Universal attraction Back to the Future: the Ride comes across as 2ACDEFGHIK.

There are a few elements in each ride that, though most guests may not pick up on them, add to the uniqueness of the attraction. In The Simpsons Ride, the vehicle, disguised as a dark ride car, slightly edges forward as if about to go through a pair of doors, only to rise up into the theater. At the end of the experience, riders believe their on-ride photo is being taken. But it’s a trick. The actual photo comes a few seconds later.

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The other Kung Fu Panda film attraction. Publicity photo from MOTIONGATE Dubai.

The film in Kung Fu Panda Adventure is actually a clone of the one used on the Kung Fu Panda: Unstoppable Awesomeness 3D simulator attraction at MOTIONGATE Dubai. But instead of being a direct port, the 2D film in Hollywood expands around the interior architecture of the DreamWorks Theatre through the use of additional projectors and crisp image blending. The designers and animators took full advantage of this and guests will notice the architectural elements integrated into the film, such as faux windows that animated characters climb through.

PEOPLE CAN’T SEE THE DARKNESS

For almost all of its 3D attractions at both parks, Universal uses INFITEC technology, developed by Daimler Benz. INFITEC has its advantages – a single projector can be used and it can be projected onto a single white screen, rather than a silver painted screen to increase light gain.

INFITEC also has a major shortcoming – the filters drastically reduce light levels. One study I’ve read reported that light levels dropped by 94%. This means that for the setup in this study, researchers were only able to see 6% of the brightness of a 2D image when viewing in 3D. And that sucks.

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Photo credit: INFITEC

The 3D images at Universal are noticeably dark. For a movie theater that’s running Dolby 3D (Dolby has the cinema license for INFITEC), it makes sense to pump up the light level if you’re only showing a film four or five times a day. But if you’re a theme park operating an attraction nonstop for twelve or more hours each day, that becomes costly. So the easy way out is to limit light output and hope nobody notices or cares. (If you’re a Universal pass holder, ride Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem and then immediately go to The Simpsons Ride or Kung Fu Panda Adventure – you’ll see for yourself how dark the 3D image gets).

Now don’t get me wrong here – INFITEC is actually my favorite 3D technology. When done right, the images and the color are amazing. But to be done right, you really have to pump up the light levels. Hopefully, the next generation of RGB laser projectors will be able to fix this issue at Universal in the future.

There are two 3D attractions that stood out as being the exception to the norm – King Kong 360 and Fast & Furious: Supercharged, both on the Universal Studios Hollywood tram tour. As best I could tell, the glasses handed to us for the tour were not INFITEC, but rather polarized. The image that we had on both attractions was crisp, clear, and vibrant, making them my second and third favorite attractions at the Hollywood park. I wish I could say the same about the Orlando version of Fast & Furious, but that version of the attraction was not designed by humans.

THE RECAST AND THE EGREGIOUS

Ever since he was a young lad growing up near the port in San Pedro, Kevin had wanted to become an attraction designer for Universal Studios. As a teenager, he would cut class and take the bus to Hollywood, sneaking onto the upper lot, where he’d talk with KITT, dress like a Klingon, and take a tram tour through a spaceship full of Cylons.

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Kevin (center) and his design team for Fast & Furious: Supercharged at Universal Studios Florida

After thirteen years of intensive schooling at the California Institute of the Arts and an internship at Medieval Times, Kevin’s dream finally came true (sort of) when he was hired to work the mail room at Universal Creative.

Over the years, Kevin worked his way up through the ranks until one day, he was called into the office of the big boss himself, Mark.

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Mark. Source: Universal Parks and Resorts

“People are loving Fast & Furious: Supercharged in Hollywood,” said Mark. “I want to bring it to Florida – faster and more furious than ever. And Kevin, I want you to lead the project.”

Kevin knew he could do no wrong and he pulled together a crack team of theme park design and technology experts.

Among the first things Kevin wanted to do was to push the film franchise’s message of family. “I think we should bring in a couple of characters from the films for a pair of preshows and have them interact with support staff,” he told his team. “They can have serious, concerned conversations and make sure everyone feels like they’re part of the family.”

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Archive photo of Bob announcing his acceptance into the Walt Disney Imagineering intern program

“Brilliant,” said Bob, the attraction’s story writer. “But I have a big concern. If we have the actors from the film come in and exhibit emotion, interacting with trained Equity actors on stage, people might get too gushy about being in the family and never want to leave the preshow rooms.”

“I’m listening,” said Kevin. “Go on.”

“How about instead,” continued Bob, “we pay Ludacris and Jordana $10,000 and a cup of Starbucks each and just have them talk into the camera without any emotion? Then, instead of trained actors, we transfer some shirt folders from retail and have them interact on stage with the emotionless videos!”

“Brilliant!” said Kevin, “Let’s do that!”

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Archive photo of Stuart, taken at 2008 TEA Mixer at Walt Disney Imagineering, Glendale

Suddenly, Stuart, the attraction’s audio-visual integrator chimed in. “We can’t do this ride in 3D.”

“Why not?” Kevin asked.

“Because I only have one eye,” Stuart replied. “Besides, it will look better in 2D. The image will be 94% brighter!”

“Brilliant!” said Kevin. “Let’s make a blockbuster attraction.”

Kevin brought the final plans to Mark, who replied, “This is brilliant! We’ll start construction immediately.”

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The TEA surrounds Mark like Minions on a banana.

A few months later, the Themed Entertainment Association found out about the attraction. “Brilliant!” said all its members. And they bestowed a Lifetime Achievement Award upon Mark.

THREE TRUTHS AND THE THREE BROOMSTICKS
  1. Every park has that one attraction that ends up being sub-standard for any number of reasons (budget cuts, vendor and contractor issues, poor interdepartmental communication, The Jungle Book) – Journey Into YOUR Imagination, Rocket Rods, that General Electric ride at SeaWorld where you ride through the spin cycle of a washing machine with, for some reason, penguins.
  2. Mark Woodbury’s lifetime achievement award is very much deserved. He and his team have established remarkable new standards in the theme park and attractions industries.
  3. Where Universal excels is attention to detail in creating three dimensional 360-degree immersive spaces. Orlando’s Fast & Furious attraction was a beautiful piece of architectural design. Unfortunately, that means the thing I remember as being most remarkable wasn’t the preshows or the ride itself, but rather the exit ramp from the second preshow room to the station for the ride vehicles. Every time it snakes around, the ramp becomes thinner, siphoning guests from a large crowd into a single person line without the majority being aware this was taking place, or how.

Check this out. This is the ceiling of a restaurant:

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This is the Three Brooms Restaurant at Hollywood’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Not only was the food delicious, but the environment came alive simply through its scope and detail.

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Such attention to detail could be found throughout the Wizarding World. A trip to Olivander’s Wand Shop began with a visit to a secret room where a young wizard (a child-like guest) is fitted with a wand. This is a short and quite enjoyable show (with long lines later in day) that uses lighting, music, and physical effects.

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The audience is let out into the actual store itself, where they can purchase an interactive wand. Wandering around the land, they can then use the wand at various marked locations to execute spells. A small show leads to an impulse buy which leads to exploration, retention in the land and the high potential for increased purchase of retail and food & beverage. Genius.

And holy crap! A dead girl talks to you in the restroom!

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Springfield at the Hollywood park is a glorified food court. But oh how glorious it is. Behind this facade is the highly detailed second story seating area for Krusty Burger. We sat around the corner in the second story of Cletus’ Chicken Shack, enjoying well seasoned chicken tenders and a chicken and waffle sandwich in a fully rendered Appalachianesque shack turned chicken joint, complete with childrens’ overalls hanging on a wash line. Above us an oversized TV showed video of animated characters vomiting. I would expect nothing less from The Simpsons.

RATING THE ATTRACTIONS FROM 1 (VERY BAD) TO 10 (RIDE AGAIN AND AGAIN)
Revenge of the Mummy (Florida)

Fantastic as hell and a great use of the cavernous space once occupied by Kongfrontation. The projection technology is obviously a bit outdated, but this ride is due for an overlay. Unfortunately, did not get to experience the Hollywood version, which I understand has a much different profile. Rating: 9

Fast & Furious: Supercharged (Florida)

Ummmm……no. My riding companion, an analyst well known in the industry, has never seen the films and was very confused with the attraction. Without the stereo images behind them, the smoke and spray effects appear static. I will always remember how little of the film I actually could experience as the ride kept spraying me in the face with what, at worst, was water, and, at best, Grey Goose vodka. Rating: 2

Transformers (Florida)

Dark INFITEC images and a lack of emotional connection as found in the similar Spider-man ride kind of ruined this for me. But it was fun and the hidden rise to the second floor was really cool. For some reason, I recall it being brighter in Singapore. Rating: 6

Rip Ride Rockit (Florida)

Another holy crap! First of all, going through the metal detector and getting wanded made me feel like I was at a concert. Then I made the mistake of riding while wearing my glasses. I didn’t think it would be a problem. I had ridden all three coasters at SeaWorld Orlando earlier in the week and didn’t have an issue. Coming out of the first drop and into the inverted loop, my glasses started to fall off. I grabbed them, holding so hard I popped out a lens. So now, holding my glasses and the separated lens tightly with my left hand, I reached out into the air with my right hand and zoomed through the rest of this fantastic ride, all to the perfectly synched music of Daft Punk. Rating: 9

Race Through New York (Florida)

I love this attraction. Let me say that again. I love this attraction. There’s a lot of inside humor revolving around Jimmy Fallon’s version of The Tonight Show, but even you’ve never seen it, you’ll get most of the jokes. The first floor lobby shrine is classy. Only two problems – the INFITEC darkness again and, since the seats on the motion base are modeled after those in Fallon’s studio, the seat belt situation was a bit awkward. Rating: 9

Walking Dead (Hollywood)

This attraction is like a freebie from Halloween Horror Nights. The queue area features a fully 3-dimensional environment that includes hanging ceiling tiles and exposed wires. There was one part of the attraction – a loading dock – with a doorway leading to a backstage area. It was so realistically themed that the VIP tour guests in front us went through it thinking it led to to the next set and we ended up in front – just where you want to be in a haunt maze. Rating: 6

Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem (Hollywood)

The queue sucks. It’s a long, bland, boring switchback, and the video seems to repeat every 15 minutes. I would expect nothing less from Gru. The preshow rooms are cute. The Hannah Barbara/Jimmy Neutron theater from Florida seems to have been cloned here, taking over a spot once occupied by the beautiful Miles Dyson Memorial Auditorium. INFITEC darkness ruined what should have been a vividly bright ride. The dance area made no sense and even kids were ignoring it. The retail and food outlets were great. Greatest part of the area – Super Silly Funland. We discovered a new interactive game. Find your way through the splash zone to the cleanest, most enjoyable, least well known restrooms in the park – and find your way back – without getting soaked by a flipping bucket of water. Rating: 4 for the ride, 7 for Super Silly Funland

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Studio Tour (Hollywood)

The tour has become even more of a hodgepodge than it ever was. It’s become too reliant on video, which turns out to be a Jimmy Fallon skit here and there and a lot of special feature materials from DVDs. Earthquake is always fun, but the train didn’t come out of the tunnel. The flash flood and Jaws remain as the other two physical effect showcases. Kong 360 and Fast & Furious were amazing. It felt (unlike Fast & Furious in Orlando) that we were actually moving at high speed and, for Kong, that we were twisting in circles. Rating: 5 without the 3D attractions, 10 with.

The Simpsons Ride (Hollywood)

The queue sucks. It’s a long, bland, boring switchback, and the video seems to repeat every 20 minutes. I would expect nothing less from Krusty the Clown. I love how the preshow video briefly honors the Back to the Future ride. The other original video clips poking fun at theme park conventions were great as well.  Unfortunately, we became sick of them by the fifth go-around. The preshow rooms are fun, with some great Simpsons insider humor. Now,  I loved the ride – thank you Mark for not turning this into another INFITEC travesty – but had one small little problem.  It was a little weird to have the preshow all 2D animation and the ride animated in 3D (animated, not projected). Anyone who’s seen Treehouse of Horror VI (or IMAX’s Cyberworld 3D) knows that the Simpsons can only become computer animated characters by entering a dimensional gap hidden behind a bookcase and that it usually ends with Homer falling into a dumpster in our universe and entering an erotic cake store. This is true. Watch the episode on Hulu.  But darn was that a fun ride. Rating: 7

DreamWorks Theatre (Hollywood)

The night before Universal, we went to the Two Bit Circus Micro-Amusement Park in downtown Los Angeles, where they have this updated version of the arcade game Battlezone. You sit in a D-BOX seat wearing a virtual reality headset, shooting everything. This was kind of like that. You sit in what, by all appearances, is a D-BOX seat while a wraparound screen shows what I’m guessing is an XBOX ONE Kung Fu Panda video game being played by a six year old, who wins the game in the end. Having only seen the first film, I had no idea what was going on or why, but it sure was fun. Thank you Mark Woodbury for keeping out the INFITEC darkness. Rating: 7

Waterworld (Hollywood)

This show is as good as when I saw it opening week. It remains a worthy successor to the A-Team and Miami Vice stunt shows that preceded it in this location (I miss them both). Only one small problem, and it really is petty. The actress playing Helen had the brightest glowing bleached teeth I have ever seen in my life. Now, if I recall the international blockbuster film correctly, people in this distopian future urinate into a machine to get fresh water. So, if Helen’s brushing her teeth with that water, it makes me wonder what’s in the urine. Folks, this is ThemedReality, not Forbes. Rating: 9

Hogsmeade/Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey (Hollywood)

Thank you Mark Woodbury for removing INFITEC from this ride before I experienced it. I feel sorry for those that did.

I have never been a big fan of the Harry Potter franchise. I’ve long thought the books to be Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ripoffs and the overall story arc to be nothing more than Star Wars fan fiction.

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After entering this gate, I am a convert. Rating: 10

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ducati World, opening 2019 at Mirabilandia, a flagship Parques Reunidos theme park resort in Ravenna, Italy

These predictions are different than the ones posted on the ThemedReality Facebook page, though some of them do tie together. It’s important to keep in mind that although I have my reasons for believing these predictions may likely happen, they are only speculation on my part. If you share any of this info as fact before it becomes fact, that’s all on you. Don’t forget to click the disclaimer tab at the top of the page.

I’ll be traveling internationally for the first couple weeks of 2019 and although I will be conducting work for my clients during this period, I’ll also be giving ThemedReality a break. This means if you email or direct message me any questions or place questions for me in the comments section of Facebook or in a tweet, don’t expect a response until later in January.

That said, it’s time to open the floodgates and let the predictioning commence.

1. SETTLING IN

Disney, Fox and Genting will come to an out of court settlement on Fox World Malaysia. Disney will take ownership of the park, paying Genting a leasing fee on the property. The park will be redesigned by Walt Disney Imagineering to meet Disney standards and will either see a transitional phase to the new look after opening (akin to California Adventure) or Disney will delay opening until new theming is in place. Genting’s Theme Park Hotel will be given a Fox overlay.

2. هاري بوتر

Universal will announce a resort for the UAE. While it will not have any DreamWorks characters due to an existing licensing agreement for the market, it will feature plenty of Minions and the world’s fourth Wizarding World of Harry Potter, first in the Middle East and closest to Europe.

3. MUCHOS MUNDOS MARINOS

Parques Reunidos and SeaWorld Entertainment will merge and be taken private. SeaWorld’s interim CEO John Reilly will be named CEO of the combined company. Don’t think of Zhonghong as being involved – both Zhonghong Zhuoye, which owns 21% of SeaWorld stock and Zhonghong Holdings, which had the exclusive license to build SeaWorld branded parks in Chinese territories, are pretty much out of the picture. With Zhonghong Holdings’ shares now delisted, it appears that Zhonghong Zhouye can use some of those assets to pay off its debt for the SeaWorld stock. It appears the merger is being orchestrated by Hill Path Capital, which owns just over 15% of SeaWorld Entertainment with Hill Path partners on both companies’ boards. In conjunction with the merger, the companies, either independently or as a merged entity, will purchase Argentina’s Mundo Marino (which, ironically, translates into English as Sea World), obtain the management contract for the Schlitterbahn chain of waterparks, and sell SeaWorld’s Texas properties to Six Flags.

A FINAL THOUGHT

While there’s enough evidence to make me believe these three predictions could take place, I cannot guarantee they will. Markets change, politics change, corporate management changes, plans change. Nothing is set in stone.

Eleven months before the launch of the final Apollo mission, in a January 1972 interview on DC area radio station WMAL, the great Werner von Braun made a profound statement: “I’m convinced that before the year 2000 is over, the first child will have been born on the moon.”

 

 

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Read the correspondence between the Animal Welfare Institute’s Marine Mammal Scientist and SeaWorld’s CEO in a new blog post on our sister blog Final Days of Conventional Wisdom.

 

Zhonghongnomics 101

Confused over who takes possession of Blackstone’s old SeaWorld stock when Zhonghong defaults on a loan? We’ve created an easy to understand chart for you.

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Fox World Malaysia. Photo credit: Danny Yap

This just in from Asia….

Back in December last year I wrote about the Disney acquisition of FOX:

One of the biggest unknowns surrounds the Fox World theme park currently being built at Resorts World Genting in Malaysia. Construction is well underway, but would Disney allow a Fox-only theme park operated by a company that operates a Universal Studios-licensed park in nearby Singapore to exist? I expect that over the next six months, we’ll find out the fate of the Malaysia park – if it will continue as is under its current contract, or if Disney will sink its participation in the project faster than the Titanic attraction going into it, causing Genting to seek out another (or multiple other) studio(s) to partner with.

Well, it took a little longer than that as today Genting filed a lawsuit against Fox and Disney for many alleged acts of evil deedery. Click here to read the initial filing. I’ll share more about the case as the courts make more available.

Meanwhile, in Asia….
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Wang Yonghong’s photo in the China Rich List 2015. Credit: Forbes (he was worth $850 million at the time)

It appears that Wang Yonghong remains in self-imposed exile in Hong Kong. He’s the owner of Zhonghong Zhuoye Group, the majority shareholder of Zhonghong Holdings, in case you didn’t know. I’d say he’s also the majority shareholder of SeaWorld Entertainment, but things are afoot behind the scenes that I’m not yet ready to discuss. Statewide, while Yoshi Maruyama retains the position of Chairman of the Board at SeaWorld Entertainment, it appears that he is no longer doing so as President of Zhonghong Americas LLC.

As for Zhonghong Holdings, the stock delisting process started on Friday, November 16 and will be completed on the final trading day of the year, December 28. A government mandated meeting with creditors that had been scheduled for November 16 has been postponed indefinitely due to Zhonghong just not having the documentation and analysis ready to deal with the hundreds of parties that filed against the company as creditors.

And now, a short break for a behind-the-scenes look at how rumors become news.
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The internet is full of passionate people. When that passion conflicts with statements on the internet, the outcome resembles a rabid raccoon stuck upside down in a trashcan full of cocaine. Although I know a Loro Parque staffer I was speaking with was joking about the name, I figured what the hell, and posted this photo on Facebook with the caption, “Newly released photo of Baby Ingrid at Loro Parque.” 43,000 views and 28 followers banned.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Welcome to the funhouse known as ThemedReality.

Two executives within a company involved in the proceedings told me that Six Flags was in talks to purchase all or or part of SeaWorld Entertainment. I was given permission by these individuals to post this information on grounds of anonymity. I was given additional information confidentially by these sources, but I adhere very closely to my six rules, so don’t expect those juicy tidbits to be shared until they’re public record.

The first thing I did after speaking with these executives was to attempt to contact the corporate PR directors at both chains for comment. I didn’t receive a response from either and made the decision to post the statement on the Facebook page and monitor feedback.

Now, if you look at the disclaimers that appear on both this blog and its accompanying Facebook page (in the Our Story window), you’ll see that:

. . . READERS ARE ADVISED TO CONSIDER STATEMENTS MADE BY ANONYMOUS SOURCES AS SPECULATIVE

Within an hour after posting, a follower of ThemedReality who happens to be a self-proclaimed expert on orca captivity, and who operates a website with the domain www.fromthedolphinspointofview.com, decided to tip off a reporter with the Orlando Sentinel. Although the reporter appears to have looked at the Facebook page, she never contacted me (though I must credit her for attempting to contact the theme park operators). Neither did individuals reporting on my post for the Orlando Business Journal and Orlando Weekly. In journalism, contacting a source before running a story is called due diligence and it’s part of the vetting process.

Yet, although this practice may not be the norm in Orlando, once the Sentinel article had hit the newswires and become international news, I was contacted by a number of major publications from the US, Canada, and the UK (it’s not that hard to contact me, even if it’s through a Facebook or twitter instant message). I explained to these reporters how this was a non-news story, that it should be considered nothing more than rumor, and a statement too broad and ambiguous to accurately interpret. They all agreed and it did not run in those publications.

One of the more interesting comments I found on a discussion thread accused me of panicking when I wrote two additional Facebook posts – one breaking down and analyzing the statement and the other disclosing that I do not own stock in either company – a preemptive move as the non-news mainstream media spread rumor had now bumped up share value at both companies. While this individual may call it panic, I call it being responsible. But I’m thankful for the hyperlinks in his comment to my posts. I learned a long time ago that the more people you piss off or get to ridicule you, the more likely it is that someone opposed to your stance will link to your post. And more links = more hits. It doesn’t really help me out financially. I’m not making $58,200** doing this. I’m not running ads on the blog (if you see ads, the money goes to WordPress), and I’m not in it for the notoriety. After all, this blog and its Facebook page are nothing more than my personal opinion and observations (it’s in the disclaimer), which is why, for the life of me, I have no idea why this small little blog nobody’s ever heard of recorded 72,000 hits in the first ten months of the year. Someone must be reading.

So now, this thing’s gone national. There’s analysis on message boards, videos are being made, and even the Motley Fool’s weighing in. What I found most interesting in following this is how many people took the statement verbatim. Everything I read was off the mark – with the exception of analysis by the website Behind the Thrills, where I’m an occasional contributor. The site’s owners were kind enough to not only contact me, but to enter into lengthy discussions about what I could share with them. But as strange as this might sound, the bloggers that took their information from or plagiarized Behind the Thrills still got their facts very wrong.

So how can this be?

Without breaking confidentiality, I can share one of the techniques I use when researching a personal blog post or a professional article that I’m writing for the day job. Often, it’s a matter of reading between the lines, looking at how words are grouped, and finding the message that isn’t on the surface.

In the Facebook post, I wrote:

Reliable sources inform me that Six Flags Entertainment Corporation is in talks to purchase all or part of SeaWorld Entertainment. More as details become available.

I never mentioned who Six Flags was in talks with.

Now, in all fairness, if Six Flags, SeaWorld, or another company involved contacts me and states on the record that talks never took place, I will gladly post a correction. But three weeks after the initial posting, that has yet to happen.

Finally, in Asia…..

Osaka has been named the host city of the 2025 World Expo. Congratulations!

The blog Disney and more writes that this is huge news for Universal Studios Japan, located in Osaka, and very bad news for Tokyo Disneyland. I couldn’t disagree more, and here’s why.

The error lies in a gross misunderstanding of the business of world’s fairs and their impacts on local tourism economies. Whereas Olympic Games welcome the majority of their visitors from foreign territories, World Expos invite local populations to see the best that other countries have to offer.

For the 2025 Expo, organizers anticipate just over 28 million visitors – 3.5 million from foreign territories and 24.7 million from Japan. Japanese are very loyal to the Tokyo Disney Resort and it’s highly unlikely that a visit to Osaka would result in not visiting Disney, rather that Disney would be scheduled for a different trip. Many of these local visitors will be visiting the Expo on a day trip basis (Osaka is only 3 1/2 hours from Tokyo via bullet train), and therefore will probably hit Expo but leave Universal for another holiday.

As for foreign visitors, based on travel patterns from past world expos (and most of the foreign visitors to Osaka are anticipated to be from the Asia-Pacific region), they are expected to make multi-day, multi-city trips involving the Expo along other cities and attractions across the country, including Disney.

Another important factor is the kind of visitor to World Expos, which tend to be multi-generational families, and both Disney and Universal have figured out how to cater to that demographic. So, based on visitor composition, it could go either way based on preference – and the same problem exists in Japan as in the Southern California and Orlando market for families with limited time – Mickey Mouse and Wreck-it Ralph or Harry Potter and Nintendo?

**$58,200 is how much the US government paid an orca expert for a few months of research that was ultimately canceled. I’ll explain how and why in a future post.

Death Knell for Zhonghong

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As I write this, I’m awaiting word from the Chinese authorities on whether or not Zhonghong Holdings will be the first company to be delisted from a Chinese exchange for trading under 1 yuan for over a month. At today’s exchange rate, 1 yuan is aproximately 14 US cents. Zhonghong Holdings holds the exclusive license to develop SeaWorld branded parks and entertainment centers in China, Macao, Hong Kong, and Taiwan,

Meanwhile, a development just as big is taking place. China Securities Journal reports that Zhonghong Holdings’ 33 billion yuan of unpaid loans are being auctioned off. At today’s exchange rate, that’s US$4,762,890,000. According to the report, buyers are less interested in taking on the debt, so much as there are in acquiring the collateral – the Zhonghong Building in Beijing.

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Now the SeaWorld shares owned by Zhonghong Zhuoye are safe from what’s happening to Zhonghong Holdings – kind of. And I’ll get to that in moment.

First though, some quick background. As I’ve mentioned before, Zhonghong Zhuoye and Zhonghong Holdings are two different companies. Zhonghong Holdings is a publicly traded real estate development company. Zhonghong Zhuoye is the private investment company that owns a sizable stake each of  Zhonghong Holdings and SeaWorld Entertainment. So technically, they’re different companies and this is where things get tricky.

When looking at Zhonghong Holdings’ attempts at expansion, one thing becomes evident: it wanted to be like its competitor, Fosun.

Fosun co-founded and funded the film and television company Studio 8, after which Zhonghong Holdings entered into a partnership to try and acquire DreamWorks Animation.

Fosun partnered with Fortress Investment Group to develop senior housing in China. Then Zhonghong attempted to purchase Brookdale Senior Living in the US. It could not secure the financing and ended the attempt. After which, Fosun invested in Brookdale.

Fosun bought Club Med, Zhonghong followed by buying luxury travel company Abercrombie and Kent.

Most importantly, a year before Fosun opened its Atlantis Sanya resort in Hainan, a co-venture with Kerzner International, Zhonghong Zhuoye paid 33% above market to purchase Blackstone’s remaining shares in SeaWorld. As part of the deal, Zhonghong Holdings got the license rights for China.

Now there is a victim in all this – and that’s SeaWorld Entertainment. The company had nothing to do with the Zhonghong Holdings situation. It didn’t determine who bought the stock – that was Blackstone. And as for the rather lucrative shareholder and licensing agreements that were signed – David D’Alessandro was the Chairman of the Board at the time the agreements were formulated, and he was a Blackstone appointee. In fact, he had been appointed Chairman of SeaWorld’s Board in 2010, when the company was 100% owned by Blackstone. If you consider Blackstone and Zhonghong to be a rock and a hard place, then SeaWorld was indeed between a rock and hard place.

By all indications, Zhonghong Zhuoye’s not doing so good either. A good portion of its assets are tied up in Zhonghong Holdings and were frozen by the courts. A year ago, the auction house Christie’s sued Zhonghong Zhuoye’s owner Wang Yonghong for HK$120 million (US$15,357,600 based on the exchange rate of Sept 25, 2017) for the amount due on a Chinese vase won at auction.

With Zhonghong Holdings not being in a position to build SeaWorld parks, those contracts will likely be dissolved. And without the contracts in China, Wang most likely will want to increase his equity, and that’s done through the sale of his shares in SeaWorld.

But wait! There’s more!

Because Zhonghong’s tale is the gift that keeps on giving.

To finance the purchase of that 21% of SeaWorld stock, Zhonghong took out two external loans.

The first wasn’t technically a loan. Zhonghong Zhuoye issued 10,000,000 Class B preferred shares of Sun Wise UK to China Huarong Investment for $100,000,000. Sun Wise is the dummy company Zhonghong Zhuoye created to purchase the SeaWorld stock.

So why does China Huarong matter?

Meet Lai Xiaomin.

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He was arrested yesterday after a lengthy investigation by Chinese authorities. Charges include bribery and his firm dolling out billions of dollars in loans to companies they allegedly knew were unable to repay. His corruption trial is expected to be the biggest yet in modern Chinese history.

Lai Xiaomin was the Chairman of China Huarong at the time the SeaWorld shares were purchased.

And continuing….

PAG (formerly Pacific Alliance Group) loaned an additional $150,000,000 for the purchase. I highly suspect that Zhonghong Zhuoye, if it has not yet, will default on a loan payment to PAG. Around the middle of August, colleagues of mine in China began telling me to look for something happening between Zhonghong  and PAG (though they weren’t sure if it was Zhonghong Holdings, which has had business dealings in the past with PAG, or Zhonghong Zhouye). About the same time, a mysterious page appeared on the SeaWorld Entertainment website, only to be taken down the same day:

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A few days ago, I posted on the ThemedReality Facebook page that I had been informed by reliable sources that Six Flags was in talks to purchase all or part of SeaWorld Entertainment (click on the Disclaimer tab above for my policy on anonymous sources. A similar disclaimer appears on the Facebook page). The one line post was picked up by national news (I guess the elections and Jeff Sessions resigning weren’t important enough) and there were quite a few naysayers, which I’m comfortable with, since I advocate free speech.

Now, I have no reason to doubt my sources. At the same time, I understand the reasoning behind those that do doubt the statement.

If you look at the statement of Six Flags and SeaWorld strictly as a domestic transaction, it makes little sense.

But it does make sense if it’s part of a global strategy.

Teir 1 parks are a growth market in China. The biggest submarket of those are marine life parks – places like Atlantis Sanya, Chimelong Zhuhai, and Shanghai Haichang Ocean Park, which is opening next week.

In Hainan alone, which is now a visa free tourist zone for visitors from more than 50 countries,  we can expect eight to ten large scale aquariums and marine life parks within the next decade on an island the size of the US state of Maryland.

The 2017 AECOM/TEA Theme Index gives us an idea of how many people visited the two flagship SeaWorld parks last year: 3,962,000 in Orlando and 3,100,000 in San Diego. During the same period, 5 million people visited Hong Kong’s Ocean Park, while 9,780,000 visited Chimelong Ocean Kingdom in Zhuhai, up 15.5% from the year before.

Without a doubt, the world’s most well known marine life park brand is SeaWorld. Whoever has control of the SeaWorld brand in China stands to make significantly more than they would off the SeaWorld branded parks in the states. Owning a significant amount of shares in SeaWorld makes it easier to secure those licensing rights.

Six Flags talking with SeaWorld? It’s about much more than Six Flags Tampa Bay.

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BREAKING (10/19/2018): Today, trading of Zhonghong Holdings has been suspended by the Shenzhen Stock Exchange. The Exchange has begun the process of delisting the stock, which it must finalize within 15 days. Once completed, Zhonghong Holdings will become the first company to be delisted on a Chinese exchange. As of close yesterday, its stock was valued at CN¥0.74 or US$0.10 per share.

Zhonghong Holdings holds the exclusive license to SeaWorld branded parks in Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. Its largest shareholder is Zhonghong Zhouye Group, the privately held investment firm owned by Wang Jihong, which purchased Blackstone’s 21% stake in SeaWorld Entertainment.

On Tuesday, Wang tendered his resignation as Chairman and Director of Zhonghong Holdings, as did Zhang Jiwei, the company’s President.

At this time, there has been no reportable direct impact on SeaWorld Entertainment’s ownership or board composition as a result of these changes. Updates will be posted on the ThemedReality Blog and ThemedReality Facebook page (Facebook.com/themedreality) as this story progresses.

Check out this new post on ThemedReality’s sister blog, The Final Days of Conventional Wisdom

https://finaldaysofwisdom.wordpress.com/2018/10/18/final-days-synopsis-on-the-expanding-future-of-killer-whale-exhibition/

hargrove

A warning for fans of John Hargrove: This is not a touchy, feely appreciation of Mr. Hargrove. It examines statements made by the animal rights activist counter to his claimed cause. All of his statements come directly from his social media accounts.

A warning for SeaWorld and marine life supporters: This post will paint individuals you are opposed to in a positive light. This is not an endorsement, but rather a matter of fact – leading animal activists are often among the first to be contacted by government agencies to assist with rescues.

A note about racism: Two paragraphs down, I will be quoting Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda. This is not an endorsement of the ideology in any way. My grandparents’ cousins, uncles, and aunts were all killed during the Holocaust and I do not take racism of any kind lightly. The quote is being used because it perfectly exemplifies a concern of mine not related to the actions of the Nazi party. In this post, I will not be addressing claims of racism with regards to Mr. Hargrove. The introduction of the video wherein Mr. Hargrove uses a racist term was an act of deflection by SeaWorld from the publication of his book, rather than an act of defense against its contents. I have addressed this matter elsewhere on this blog and do not feel it pertinent to the immediate matters at hand and, thus, will not be revisiting it.

A note on orca sanctuaries: In December 2017, I wrote a blog post on why building a whale sanctuary in the Pacific Northwest was a bad idea. A number of people, including some key members of the Whale Sanctuary Project’s board, construed this to be a statement against the construction of a whale sanctuary altogether. That was never the intent, nor ever mentioned in the piece, which I continue to stand by, especially after the incident involving a fuel barge this past July in West Vancouver.

Since I get asked by some, while others just assume, here’s my personal stance on sanctuaries: I am strongly supportive of any facility that provides superior care and space for any animal. Where I become critical is when political agendas override the animals’ needs, and I have concerns that with apex animals such as elephants and orcas, it may be a case of, as Joseph Goebbels stated: ““He who controls the medium controls the message. He who controls the message controls the masses.” In this case, the species at hand is the medium.

For one such species, orcas, a number of populations are dying out. If you are currently in college, chances are that the AT1 Alaskan transient pod will be extinct within your lifetime. The pod is now devoid of females as a result of one of the largest marine ecological disasters in US history.

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If you’re currently in college, there’s a very good chance that during your children’s or your grandchildren’s’ lifetimes, the J, K, and L pods of the Southern Resident population will also die out.

We know the earliest capture for exhibition from the Southern Resident population took place in British Columbia in 1964, when Moby Doll was harpooned and then displayed by the Vancouver Aquarium. By comparing hydrophone recordings taken at the sea pen of Moby Doll with the distinct calls of the Southern and Northern Resident pods, Canadian cetacean researcher John Ford determined that this first capture came from the Southern Resident J pod. Over the next decade, J pod would lose roughly 1/3 of its population to capture for public exhibition.

According to an EPA study of the Salish Sea, 66 whales were counted during the first comprehensive orca survey of the Southern Residents in 1973. By 1995, that number rose to 98. It has decreased again – now at 75 (including Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium, listed under the ESA with the rest of the group) at the time of this writing.

It’s easy to blame SeaWorld and the rest of the marine life parks for the current situation facing the Southern Residents, but that’s one small part of a bigger equation. The Salish Sea, where the whales live, is an unhealthy environment – the result of poor management by a number of Federal, State, Tribal, and local agencies over decades. This is the next great ecological disaster on the level of Yellowstone and the Everglades.

According to the EPA’s “Health of the the Salish Sea” report, between 1984 and 2010, the chinook salmon (food for the orcas) population decreased by 60%; between 2008 and 2011, 23 new species indigenous to the Salish Sea were added to the Endangered Species list; marine dissolved oxygen is showing a long term decline in the waters of Puget Sound and in the deeper waters of Georgia Strait – this results in less oxygen available for marine life; 10 of 17 rivers surveyed that feed into the Salish Sea have shown decreased water flow during summer, impacting mineral deposits into the ocean needed for life.

And there’s the dam issue – caught up in a bureaucratic whirlwind. Which raises the question – if a breeding generation of young orcas had not been taken away, would the Southern Residents be in the predicament they are now?

Likely, without proper ecological management, a larger population would create a greater problem as we would now have more individuals vying for the same diminished amount of food.

Which is why NOAA decided to do something about it, bringing together experts from around the world to help and keep an ailing Southern Resident, J50, alive. And yes, that included veterinarians from SeaWorld and the Vancouver Aquarium.

NOAA convened two sessions to discuss the rescue efforts, one at Friday Harbor and the other in Seattle. With J50 being declared deceased, these were turned into public comment sessions, both of which (especially the Seattle one) quickly turned into SeaWorld hate sessions.

There is nothing wrong with exhibiting disgust at a company and asking it be removed from the partnership group due to its past actions, but throughout the sessions and through social media, a number of conspiracies came to light, none of which were presented with undeniable evidence. Among the most popular:

  • SeaWorld has paid off NOAA to allow them to capture J50 and keep her permanently at a SeaWorld park.
  • SeaWorld has paid off NOAA to jeopardize the rescue plan (IMHO, a very poor PR move on SeaWorld’s part, were it true)
  • SeaWorld has paid off NOAA and is currently running the rescue operation.

While it’s great to vent, the reality of the situation is that we should be looking at this as a post-SeaWorld issue. As Pete Bethune pointed out from the microphone in Seattle, this is really a matter of poor ecological management. The whales are a symptom of a sick ecosystem. One of my favorite conservation programs in the world was based on this principle. The SeaDoc Society, which was also a partner in the effort to rescue J50, was developed by the University of California, Davis Veterinary School to monitor and treat the Salish Sea as one large biological entity.

Whether SeaWorld is involved or not shouldn’t matter unless somebody has definitive proof of malfeasance. As hundreds cried foul, few noticed or mentioned one member of the rescue team who can be seen over the NOAA employee’s shoulder in the very beginning of this video stream:

So yeah, Ingrid Visser was out on the rescue boats. But it doesn’t matter. And yeah, Jeff Foster was out on the rescue boats. But it doesn’t matter. And yeah, NOAA announced at both sessions that the plan if they had to capture the whale was to take it to a Fisheries lab that had both a hard pool and a sea pen and that once rehabilitated or showing signs it could not be, it would be returned to its pod – that they had no plans to permanently capture her. But it doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter because SeaWorld was there too.

So where does this rumor come from that SeaWorld was paying off NOAA?

Most likely, a Sept. 12 piece in the Seattle Times, where former Washington Secretary of State Ralph Munro is quoted as saying, “What the heck is NOAA doing, accepting money from Sea World over the past few years? Was that ever told to the public?”

In the paragraph prior to his statement is a link to a press release from the National Fish and Wildlife Federation showing 2017 grants for research on wild orcas and orca conservation issued by NFWF and funded by a partnership of SeaWorld, Shell, and the US Fish & Wildlife Service. It’s impossible to tell without requesting an audit what amount specifically came from SeaWorld. Of the grants and matching funds, $560,631.00 went to two NOAA studies. This is out of a total of $2.18 million for eight overall programs.

And that is how SeaWorld bought NOAA.

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“He deliberately left you your boat because he wants to fight you alone on the sea.”

— Rachel Bedford (Charlotte Rampling) “Orca” 1977

Crackin McCracklins is right! And, to add water to fire, the Whale Sanctuary Project cannot successfully acquire and transfer SeaWorld’s whales without the cooperation of SeaWorld.

So, two things are either happening here. Either Mr. Hargrove is aware of some deal going on between the Whale Sanctuary Project and SeaWorld, or, more likely, he’s typing faster than his brain can compute logical connections.

Here’s a good example of how that works.

I’m not an animal rights activist, but I know two important precepts of animal rights:

  1. It is based on the ideals of human rights and the two are very intertwined.
  2. If you make a name for yourself arguing against mother whales being separated from their calves, you can’t ignore the same thing happening to human beings in your country (unless you happen to be an avid Trump supporter, which Mr. Hargrove emphatically is).

Thus, on the Fourth of July, as a lone human rights activist scaled the Statue of Liberty to protest the Trump Administration’s separation of migrant children from their parents, we got this:

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I’ve spoken with a number of full time animal rights activists in the aftermath of the Whale Sanctuary Project tweets. Carly Ferguson, President of Canada’s Ontario Captive Animal Watch gave similar sentiments to the others I spoke with when she said, “We’re very disappointed. Such messages are counterproductive to the future welfare of captive animals.”

Regarding his book, his appearance in Blackfish, his legislative testimony, and time as an expert witness for OSHA, Cal/OSHA and PETA (I’m inclined to mash the three into a superclient of his I’ll call POSH), he’s served a purpose for a movement. But maybe it’s time for that movement to move on. I’ve previously addressed Mr. Hargrove (yes, that’s him I’m referring to) in this piece on Barnum. David Neiwart’s excellent piece on why you can’t defend orcas and Donald Trump simultaneously is included within.

I should point out that Mr. Hargrove has blocked me from social media for some time. And that’s fine, that’s his right. But that hasn’t kept others from sending me tweets and posts over the years. Some, like the above, I include here because they were posted publicly. Others, such as Mr. Hargrove’s debate with a follower over Trump and the merits of the Holocaust, were posted under a privacy setting and I have made the decision to not make those discussions public.

For the Whale Sanctuary Project, losing Mr. Hargrove’s endorsement can be a mixed bag. When I review his social media posts, interviews and book, I see a pattern developing of an individual who not only is out to pay retribution to his former employer, but as an addict to captive orcas, rarely speaks beyond “his” whales at SeaWorld, Marineland, and Loro Parque (and Lolita, for whom he was paid $90 an hour to speak) – a man who does not understand that in the intrinsically connected world of the whales, saving the wild ones is just as important. A man, who by my interpretation of his tweets, would rather a whale die in the wild than have SeaWorld involved.

On the other hand, Mr. Hargrove has a lot of followers. Perhaps you’re one. Many of these followers believe every word he expunges.

So now the conspiracy is out there – The Whale Sanctuary Project is in cahoots with SeaWorld.

“We’ve all become great admirers of your work around here, but all good things must come to an end.”

— Randolph Johnson (August Schellenberg), “Free Willy” 1993

 

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I invite those I’m questioning in this post to respond. Answers will help direct future posts.

For Merlin Entertainments:

In your October, 25, 2112 letter to NOAA Fisheries objecting to the receipt of 18 wild-caught belugas by the Georgia Aquarium and its partners, Janine DiGioacchino wrote:

“. . . . cetaceans are not suited to captivity…no matter how spacious or well-designed
the facilities.

“They are wide-ranging, highly intelligent and social animals which suffer acute
sensory deprivation in any kind of unnatural confinement.”

If this is how the company feels about cetaceans, does it feel this way about other wide-ranging, highly intelligent and social animals? If so, why are you keeping and breeding just under a dozen gorillas at a theme park on the outskirts of London?

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For Zhonghong Zhuoye and Zhonghong Holding:
  1. Did your subsidiary Sun Wise UK default on paying its $150,000,000 loan issued by Pacific Alliance Group (PAG) and applied to purchasing Blackstone’s shares of SeaWorld stock? If so, is PAG taking ownership of those shares?
  2. Sources working within the attractions industry tell me that you announced the location of your first Chinese SeaWorld-branded park without first notifying SeaWorld that you had determined a location. Is this true?
  3. Why did you make an announcement on the 28th of this month that Jiaduobao Group and Yinyi Capital had agreed to invest equity in Zhonghong Holding, when the result was Jiaduobao announcing that it had never signed an agreement with you and Yinyi announcing that it was unaware of the contents of the agreement?
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For WDC:
  1. At the same time you were working on releasing Chinese belugas to a sanctuary, were you aware, as a member of the China Cetacean Alliance, that two wild-caught belugas had been transferred to Atlantis Sanya in October of last year, along with twelve (according to Ceta-base: 6 bottlenose, 4 Pacific White-sided, and 2 pantropical spotted) dolphins captured and transferred from Taiji earlier this year?
  2. Were you aware, as the adviser to Thomas Cook on cetacean welfare, that, regardless of the fact that the owner of this resort also has an ownership stake in Thomas Cook, the travel agency was planning to sell packages to Atlantis Sanya?
  3. Is there a reason, being that you are the adviser on cetacean welfare to Thomas Cook (per publicity issued both by yourself and Thomas Cook), that you did not ensure the company did an advance assessment of the facility prior to including it in its sales portfolio?

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For PETA:
  1. If it’s still called Barnum’s Animal Crackers, doesn’t it still pay homage to Barnum and his circus menagerie?
  2. Did you notice how the new art is reminiscent of classic circus art designed to deceptively pull in audiences by showing animals living together in the wild (see slideshow below)?

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  1. Was this a grassroots PETA campaign, or did you piggyback on another group’s work, as I’ve been told you’re prone to do?
  2. Did you forget about the statement you made regarding The Greatest Showman (accessible via this prior blog post of mine)?
  3. Considering you’re PETA, do you even care that your victory is incomplete?