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SeaWorld Gets the Deep Blues

Joel Manby’s out as SeaWorld’s CEO, replaced in the interim by long-term company executive John Reilly. The company’s Chief Creative Officer, Anthony Esparza, is also out. At the same time, Mike Denninger, another company veteran, has been promoted to Senior Vice President of Attractions. Is this a case of the old guard regaining control of the company and kicking out the new guard?

Yes and no.

Esparza is quite a talent – just look at his achivements for Herschend Family Entertainment. But his departure is indeed a byproduct of Manby’s resignation, as he was one of the highest profile Manby hires.

On the other hand, rather than replacing Esparza, Denninger’s promotion appears to be a consolidation of job duties within SeaWorld’s Deep Blue Creative design studio, picking up the slack created by the departure of Brian Morrow, who ran the US theme park design division in conjunction with Denninger.

Morrow’s departure to open his own design studio, b morrow productions, which had been months in the planning, had the unfortunate timing to coincide with the departures of Manby and Esparza, making it appear to some that the departures were all related – which they were not.

So, to summarize the current situation at SeaWorld’s Deep Blue Creative design studio:

  • Joel Manby out
  • Anthony Esparza out as a result of Manby’s departure
  • In a long-planned retirement, Brian Morrow leaves to establish own company
  • Mike Denninger promoted to consolidate his duties with Morrow’s.
  • To the best of my knowledge, John Linn, another veteran from the company’s Busch Entertainment Days, continues to run the Global Theme Park Development division.
  • Up in the air remains Steve Iandolo, Vice President of Resort Development, and another Manby hire from Herschend.
  • Nancy Hutson, Corporate Vice President of Events and Entertainment, left the company in December to become a Production Consultant for Norwegian Cruise Lines.
  • In October 2017, Crystal O’Hea, Senior Director of Expedition X, moved to SeaWorld’s marketing department, where as Senior Director, Brand Experiences & Innovation, she is responsible for, among other things, integrating the company’s Park to Planet marketing campaign. Expedition X was the part of Deep Blue Creative that sought to identify trends, innovative technology and unique partners who can boost SeaWorld’s creative firepower.

This leads to a few questions:

  • Has Deep Blue Creative been eliminated with its various divisions rerouted to other company departments?
  • Or has it been downsized to concentrating on attractions and resorts?
  • And with the departure of Esparza as CCO, who’s running the overall design studio?

Is the old guard taking control and the Manby folks parting ways a good thing? Depends on what you consider a good business plan. If you’re against captivity, then any business that holds animals has a bad business plan. If you’re a SeaWorld fan, then you can hope for the best and a return to what made you a fan to begin with. Ironically, one of the biggest questions I receive comes from both animal rights activists and SeaWorld fans: will the company resume the breeding of killer whales?

Stateside, that’s a bit of dilemma. Although breeding is now illegal in California, it is still permissible in Texas and Florida. The company would need to walk a fine line on the public relations front after having voluntarily committed itself to ending its killer whale breeding programs. However, resuming breeding would fill a gap caused by the 2017 transfer of six whales in its care to the Spanish zoo Loro Parque and the deaths of three whales stateside during the same year.

On the international front, if we are to believe, as I do, that SeaWorld’s library of killer whale genetic material was removed from California prior to the implementation of the state’s new law, the company would be able to artificially inseminate whales housed at Chinese facilities, with the offspring finding their way to Zhonghong’s SeaWorld branded parks in China without the whales having ever been on US soil. As I’ve mentioned before, the marine life park industry is booming in mainland China and killer whales are the next big thing (I expect between seven and ten killer whale show facilities in mainland China over the next decade). Since the majority of mainland Chinese who are familiar with the US SeaWorld parks associate the brand with killer whales, for Zhonghong to open its parks without killer whales means they lose a competitive edge in the market.

As profiled in the recent ThemedReality PowerPoint video (above), SeaWorld is undergoing an identity crisis and needs to determine the direction it wants to go – regional theme park company or operator of international destinations. Attendance is down year after year across the board due to a number of factors, including poor weather, increased media saturation by animal rights campaigns, new blockbuster attractions at higher profile competitors Disney and Universal, and increased competition from LEGOLAND and its associated Merlin brands.

One factor that has rarely been mentioned on earnings calls or reports is the negative impact that Manby’s decisions had on the company’s fan base, with SeaWorld finding itself offering substantially discounted tickets and season passes to offset losses caused by instituting the killer whale breeding ban, establishing its controversial partnership with the Humane Society of the United States, and the elimination of theatrical killer whale shows in California, all actions many of the park’s longest fans considered heretical and succumbing to the demands of animal rights activists.

When we look at the 2017 over 2016 revenue changes for the top seven publicly traded companies that operate theme parks in the United States, something is very obvious. All are up, except for one.

Merlin Entertainments up 11.6%

Universal Theme Parks up 10%

Disney Parks up 8%

Six Flags up 3%

Cedar Fair up 3%

Parques Reunidos’ fiscal year runs Oct 1 – Sept 30. Although fiscal year 2017 revenue was barely up 0.1% over 2016, the first quarter of the 2018 fiscal year, which ran from Oct 1 – Dec 31, 2017, was up 7.6% for the same quarter a year earlier.

On the other hand, 2017 revenue for SeaWorld was down 6% over the prior year.

Being the only major publicly traded operator with negative year over year results is a red flag. For the company to turn around, it will not only need to control costs and spending, but it will need to become enticing once again to the dedicated fan base it lost. At the same time, in order to pull in new clientele, it will need to become a value-based secondary park to Disney and Universal. Right now, the company’s competition isn’t the big two. It’s LEGOLAND.

Time will tell  if the old guard, in conjunction with the company’s new primary owners, can make that happen.

Now, there is one little gem hidden in SeaWorld’s annual report. In my 2015 article “SeaWorld’s Future Lies Not With FUR, But With FIR,” which appeared in English at InPark Magazine and in Italian on parksmania, I argued the need for SeaWorld to add hotels integrated with its parks in order to establish fully integrated resorts, a necessary step to successfully compete with other brands in its market, such as Disney, Universal, LEGOLAND, and Knott’s Berry Farm, which already have on-premises hotels and (with the exception of LEGOLAND) entertainment/dining/retail complexes. In January 2018, according to the annual report, SeaWorld Entertainment and Evans Hotels established a limited liability corporation in order to develop and build a hotel on the SeaWorld San Diego property (and contrary to media reports, the hotel location is on the far side of the property from the toxic dump, something I covered in an earlier piece on the now-canceled Blue World Project, and is unaffected by it – you can see the location for the hotel in the FIR article). If all goes according to plan, it could open within five years.

The Day Superman Become a Pedophile

On Sunday, January 6, 1991, CBS aired the television movie “Bump in the Night.” It starred Meredith Baxter-Birney as an alcoholic mother whose young son is abducted, as she reunites with her ex-husband, played by Wings Hauser, to locate him. The network advertised the film as “you’ll see Christopher Reeve as never before.” And they sure were right. Four years after his last foray as Superman, it was difficult for me to take in this role. Here was a childhood hero of mine, playing the abductor of Baxter-Birney’s eight year old son, an atrocious  man who was both a pedophile and a child pornographer.

I feel the same conflict with Gary Goddard, who spearheaded some of my favorite theme park projects from Monster Plantation to Star Trek: The Experience, and with John Lasseter, who helped turn Pixar into an animation powerhouse and later helped turn around Walt Disney Animation.  Plenty has been written about the accusations against both in the mainstream press, so I won’t discuss them here, other than to say that I refuse to take the Donald Trump route, where he considers those accused of sexual misconduct or physical abuse of a spouse to be innocent only because they say they’re innocent. Rather, I’ll simply state that I’ve heard enough stories from enough credible sources over the years to keep an open mind and accept that there just might be some credence to the current claims

Throughout the corporate world, there has been a continued practice of silence and shaming when it comes to workplace sexual harassment and sexual abuse. As the cases of Goddard and Lasseter show, the issue exists within the creative design community as much as anywhere else, and it’s much more extensive than just the allegations surrounding these two individuals. The problem is also very extensive on the operational end of attractions, theme parks, waterparks, and museums, where just within the past few months, a major waterpark executive was asked to resign over allegations, among other things, of an inappropriate sexual relationship with a subordinate.

Why the silence? Among many, there’s an idolization of the individual for his or her accomplishments. Some of us begin to doubt the accusations because they don’t coincide with how we envision the accused. Some of us don’t want to be “that guy” who speaks up and destroys a legendary career. Somewhere within, there is a fear that, by accepting the truth, we destroy the person’s legacy, and with it a major legacy within our industry. Many times for the victim, there is fear of retribution, of a smear on their reputation.

Sexual harassment is a crime. Sexual assault is a crime. It does not matter the sex (I speak here of biological sex rather than gender, which has many more more options than just A or B), both can be committed by anyone on anyone – male on female, female on male, or same-sex. One of the biggest problems with claims is that, unless there is physical evidence, it becomes a case of the accuser saying one thing and the accused another.

And sometimes there is valid doubt as to when a claim has merit or when it’s true intent is retribution or grandstanding. When allegations arose about possible sexual assault perpetrated by the comedian Aziz Ansari upon a young photographer, a very staunch feminist friend of mine, a victim of sexual assault herself, shared her thoughts. “This young girl’s trying to take advantage of the #metoo bandwagon and get herself some press. She wasn’t sexually assaulted. She had a REALLY bad date.”

The issue of proof is compounded by outdated laws in the United States. Since the 1986 Supreme Court Decision in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, federal sexual harassment policy has primarily fallen under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, Title VII limits federal complaints to companies with fifteen or more employers and it does not allow the victim to sue the alleged harasser, only the company. What this has resulted in is a corporate culture where sexual harassment policy is centered around the company’s liability, rather than the best interests of the staff. And worse yet, Title VII does not even address the criminal aspects of the act.

Workplace sexual harassment and sexual assault are part of a larger picture – they are tied in with religious rights, gender identification and preference rights, ethnic rights, skin tone rights, immigrant rights, you name it. Pretty much anything that’s not the traditional white male heterosexual (primarily Christian) stereotype of corporate America, where intimidation and subjugation are utilized to maintain the status quo. This is part of a bigger conversation on equality and inclusion in an America that’s becoming increasingly divisive and isolationist. The big picture includes issues ranging from wage disparity to hate killings.

The issue of workplace sexual harassment can be fixed, but it must be fixed in three distinct areas.

First, on the federal government level, Title VII must be strengthened. The fifteen or higher employee rule must be abolished, penalties must be strengthened, and additional penalties and jail time must be added in, especially to deal with those instances where sexual harassment develops into sexual assault.

Second, companies must redefine their policies not to protect themselves, but to support their employees’ needs.

Finally, there must be many discussions within the community between employers and employees on the issues surrounding workplace sexual harassment and sexual assault. Industry trade organizations need to take a leading role in fostering such discourse.

One such discussion will take place on April 5, when a session on gender inclusion takes place during the Themed Entertainment Association’s annual Summit at the Disneyland Hotel.

It’s a start. Eventually, we’ll get to the place where when someone’s accused of sexual misconduct, instead of the ones who know something staying silent to avoid being “that guy,” they’ll join others in raising their hands and say #metoo.

PHOTO FROM: “Arms and the Man: A Sampling from Among the 48 Hugs Administered by Pixar Chief John Lasseter During WSJ’s Daylong Adventure With Him.” Wall Street Journal. May 26, 2011.












A ThemedReality video!

A few months ago, I was asked to make a presentation on risks facing North America’s attractions industry. One topic I covered was new and proposed laws governing the holding of whales and dolphins. Because there’s a lot going on with the marine life park industry right now that will affect its future, I’ve expanded it to this video. It’s kind of long and might be boring to some, but a hot cup of Starbucks or Timmies should help get you through it.

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I’m going to approach Disney’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox through speculation – a speculation based on past business decisions by Disney involving other acquisitions and the company’s history of handling synergistic branding over the past three decades (something I first started studying in the mid-90’s when a Disney marketing executive pointed out during a presentation that a banner for Tarzan at the X-Games was strategically placed to appear in a brief shot in the IMAX film Ultimate X).

First thing to understand is that often Disney will purchase a company for certain, but not all, of its assets. This usually entails the entire company being dissolved and key assets, especially technology, being integrated into other Disney divisions. Dream Quest Images, renamed by Disney as The Secret Lab, is an example of an entire company that was dissolved. Lucasarts is an example of a dissolved division of an acquired company.



Ice Age themed hotel room at Alton Towers Resort


Within Fox, two particular divisions come to mind as candidates for dissolvement. First is Blue Sky Studios, the animation house behind the Ice Age and Rio franchises. Blue Sky is not as strongly marketed an animation studio as Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, or even Universal’s Illumination. This is partially due to Fox having concentrated its marketing and distribution efforts on DreamWorks Animation pictures once it acquired distribution rights to that studio’s films. Ultimately, Blue Sky is more valuable for its intellectual properties than for the studio itself.

If Disney opts to continue producing animated films under the Peanuts or Dr Seuss animated franchises as begun by Blue Sky, it will need to consider that other theme park companies hold the licenses for those brands.




The other unit that will likely be dissolved is FoxNext, a newly created division of Fox overseeing gaming, virtual and augmented reality, and location based entertainment, including theme park development and attraction licensing. The division will likely be discontinued as much of what FoxNext does is already handled internally by several existing units within the Walt Disney Company.

Porting Fox IP into the Disney parks, I expect the following:

Most Fox properties will show up within Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida, Disney California Adventure, and Walt Disney Studios Paris, unless they can be thematically linked to an attraction or land at another park.



Make sure to take the escalator ride to Epcot’s newest attraction – a branded logo.


Blue Sky properties Ice Age and Rio will likely find homes within Animal Kingdom and Epcot. Those two parks will also see a National Geographic branding overlay as Fox holds majority control over National Geographic Partners and its branded attractions, including the new Ocean Odyssey that just opened in New York’s Times Square.

Existing Blue Sky licenses to third parties, such as Merlin Entertainments and SimEx-Iwerks, will need to be reevaluated.



This is not the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. It’s a typical night at Universal Studios.


Over the past few years, Fox has had a successful partnership with Universal on Halloween Horror Nights with such franchises as Rocky Horror Picture Show, Aliens v Predator, and American Horror Story. With the purchase of Fox, Disney now has enough horror franchises to hold two events at each of its American resorts each year – one a traditional family festival at one park and the other another park for more mature guests, allowing the Disney resorts to compete against leaders in the theme park haunt market within their regions, such as Universal, Cedar Fair, and Six Flags.



Artists’s conception of Miami Wilds theme park. Also planned were a waterpark, entertainment district, resort hotel, and I’m pretty sure I saw youth soccer fields in the blueprints.


Disney will likely announce that it is pulling out of Miami Wilds, a $930 million Fox themed resort located next to ZooMiami. The project has been delayed for some time due to concerns over endangered species on the property. The cancellation of the project will have an adverse effect on the Miami Seaquarium, which was purchased by Parques Reunidos at the same time that Fox won the rights to build its resort. Miami Wilds, designed by Hettema Group, was to be managed by Parques Reunidos, which would have brought the company $5 million on average in management fees once its theme park and waterpark were fully operational. With Miami Wilds no longer in the picture, Parques Reunidos will need to re-evaluate its plans for the Florida market.

There is the possibility that as the Miami Wilds waterpark was themed to the Ice Age franchise, elements of its design could see new life as an overlay of Disney’s existing Blizzard Beach waterpark.

Marvel is a given. Except in Florida.



Mr. Sparkle. No relation to my theater major sister’s cat.


The Simpsons is a different issue, with Universal having invested heavily in Simpson-themed lands in Florida and California. However, the lucrative franchise will likely find its way to Disney’s overseas parks, such as in Japan, home of Mr. Sparkle.



A recent photo of Fox World in Malaysia, located at Resorts World Sentosa. Sorry, that’s the home of this casino company’s other theme park – Universal Studios Singapore.


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.



Brought to you by Cobb Salads. For every Cobb Salad purchased, Dave Cobb of Thinkwell gets a new t-shirt.

Congratulations to the 2018 TEA Thea Award Winners

Especially the Universal Orlando Resort on its unprecedented twelve Thea Awards for “Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon,” “Skull Island: Reign of Kong,” and Volcano Bay.

No. I didn’t make an error. I made a point.

Tapu Tapu indeed.

Oh Gary, Where Aren’t Thou?

Noticeably missing from the IAAPA Attractions Expo was Gary Goddard, following allegations of breaking zoo rules and touching a Goose.

The company, however, maintains a strong relationship with its clients, has a new and well talented President, Taylor Jeffs, and may soon undergo a rebranding. We look forward to seeing what the talented artisans at Goddard Group bring us in Mexico and China.

Abu Dhabu Du

Numbers this year have been far less than projected for the new theme parks in Dubai – IMG, Motiongate, and Bollywood, resulting in FOX cancelling its plans for a Dubai park.  Two things came to light through the ThemedReality InfoSpies (trademark pending, and yes, Dave Cobb will get an InfoSpies t-shirt if enough Cobb salads are purchased) embedded at this year’s IAAPA Attractions Expo in Orlando.

First, Dubai Parks and Resorts may turn its theme parks into seasonal operations. Second, SeaWorld Abu Dhabi could be mothballed if the Warner Brothers theme park opening next year on Yas Island underperforms.


Speaking of SeaWorld, just a little worried about riding Intamin rafts following the 2016 and 2017 deaths at DreamWorld and Drayton Manor. But this is SeaWorld, and nobody ever died on a ride at SeaWorld – except of boredom on the revised mermaid-less version of Journey to Atlantis.


Lots to share, so let’s dive in….


My heart goes out to the victims of the tragic Las Vegas shooting. Someone I personally know, a member of my congregation, was among those shot and has gone through multiple surgeries. It’s the third such case where I’ve known someone to be shot in a mass shooting incident – the others being the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and Luby’s cafeteria in Texas. I’ll be writing another post comparing banning guns versus gun control and why physical incidents like this strike more fear into the populace than perceived threats, like our current one for nuclear war.

Law enforcement was fortunate with this incident in that the gunman decided to shoot from that particular hotel at that particular target. If reports are accurate that he attempted to check into the Ogden in downtown Las Vegas during an 18-block wide music and culture festival a few weeks ago, or that he rented a room in Chicago overlooking the Lalapalooza festival (above photo, which personally bothers me as my good friend Lauren was attending with her husband and teenage daughters), the results could have been more catastrophic. As it is, with both the Mandalay Bay resort and the Las Vegas Village festival grounds being owned by the same company – MGM Resorts International, law enforcement’s access to facilities, surveillance, and assistance has been streamlined in a way that’s accelerated the pace of the investigation, a benefit that would have been lacking had he either shot from a non-MGM hotel (such as the Tropicana) or in one of the other festival locations.


Matt Ouimett is taking control of the board and Richard Zimmerman will be the company’s new CEO. I wish them the best. This change looks primed for continued Cedar Fair expansion, but I can’t help but remember that the last time something like this happened at a major theme park chain (Six Flags), it didn’t necessarily work out.


While monitoring more than 20 zoos, aquariums, animal attractions, and sanctuaries in Central and South Florida during Hurricane Irma, there was one I couldn’t access on either its website or social media – the Ringling Center for Elephant Conservation. Entering the web address rerouted me to the Feld Entertainment homepage, where all mention of the elephant center has been removed.

I have since confirmed through multiple sources that Feld is now officially out of the elephant game and has sold its collection to White Oak Conservation near Jacksonville. Once the elephants have all been relocated, the Center for Elephant Conservation will close shop.

What does this mean? There have been well-founded rumors for quite some time that Feld has been in talks to be bought out by a larger company – Disney is the name that is most often mentioned – and that the elephants had been a sticking point in negotiations. If this is the case, I anticipate a buyout announcement within the next six months.


Speculation has been running rampant throughout the media and investor sites that Merlin Entertainments has submitted a bid to purchase SeaWorld Entertainment.

As reported previously on this blog, Merlin is not interested in the entire company, but rather the two Busch Gardens properties and their waterparks. Although the land for SeaWorld-branded properties in San Antonio and Orlando is quite valuable – the recent settlement with the tax assessor shows the property value of the Orlando parks is around $170 million – a purchase of the SeaWorld-branded parks would place Merlin in a difficult spot as the company’s anti-cetacean captivity policy would conflict with owning the world’s largest collection of captive cetaceans.

The easy answer is always “stick them in a sanctuary.” But is that practical for Merlin, a company that has been working for eight years with Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) to establish a sanctuary for its four dolphins from Heide Park and Gardaland? Meanwhile, those four dolphins continue to perform at the Nuremberg Zoo and the Genoa Aquarium.

HOLD ON A MINUTE….some late breaking info….one of Merlin’s Heide Park dolphins was shipped last year to ZooMarine in Portugal for breeding and swim with dolphin programs.

I don’t know what to say….I’m at a loss of words…I mean, doesn’t this go against everything Merlin says it believes about dolphins in captivity?

And that’s why Merlin shouldn’t buy SeaWorld as a whole and won’t. Those parks are going to the Chinese anyway.


See you real soon!


While researching an unrelated piece, I began realizing that for a number of years, Falcon’s Creative Group has been at the forefront of redesigning the aquarium and marine life park experience – through virtual worlds, real animals, or a combination of the two – ranging from an interpretive coral reef experience at the Florida Aquarium (above) to a concept for an innovative live killer whale exhibit (below).


Following are a gallery of photos, videos, and conceptual artwork for some of the biggest marine life projects to come from this Orlando-based creative design and media production company.

TurtleTrek, SeaWorld Orlando

Following a journey through two aquariums, one with rescued manatees, the other with rescued sea turtles, guests experience a 360 degree dome presentation in 3D showcasing the life of a turtle, encouraging them to become everyday heroes in protecting the environment.

Manta, SeaWorld San Diego

After visiting a gallery with real rays, guests board a roller coaster car and are launched from a media tunnel where they experience life under the sea with a school of animated mantas. The launch tunnel was overseen by Falcon’s.

Media Canopy, Chimelong Ocean Kingdom

Five distinct storylines appear on the 300 foot long, 100 foot wide media screen that covers the entrance to this Chinese marine life park.

Deep Sea Odyssey, Chimelong Ocean Kingdom

The ride attraction integrated into Chimelong’s world record-breaking aquarium tank, Deep Sea Odyssey combines animatronics, animation, projection mapping, and real whale sharks into a single experience.

Ocean Odyssey, National Geographic Encounter

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ENCOUNTER is a first-of-its kind immersive entertainment experience that harnesses ground-breaking technology in new ways to transport guests on an incredible underwater journey. Visitors walk through the experience with friends and family, journeying across the Pacific Ocean to interact with and encounter the ocean’s greatest wonders and mightiest creatures. Guests will come face-to-face with humpback whales and great white sharks, Humboldt squid and sea lions, and animals you’ve never dreamed of…in ways they’ve never seen. Opening October.

Atlantis Sanya Resort

A joint project of Chinese company FUSON (owner of Club Med and Cirque du Soleil – Blue Man Group) and Kerzner International (Atlantis The Palms Dubai), this is one of three marine life parks currently under construction in the Sanya resort area of China’s Hainan Island. In addition to the traditional Atlantis animal attractions of a swim with dolphins program and a waterslide descent through an aquarium tank, Sanya will feature a number of firsts for the brand – including belugas, whale sharks, and a dolphin performance arena. Opening 2018.


ABOVE: Rescue efforts at The Texas Zoo. Source – San Antonio Zoo

There are a number of ways to help attractions, museums, zoos and aquariums, and their staff who were impacted by Hurricane Harvey, along with ways to help others effected in Texas and Louisiana.

If you’re looking for ways to contribute to the people in Texas and Louisiana directly impacted by Harvey, Charity Navigator has a list of reputable charities providing support in the aftermath, for both humans and animals:

IAAPA encourages donations to the American Red Cross for Hurricane Harvey relief efforts and to the Macau Red Cross for relief efforts in Hong Kong, Macau, and Zhuhai, which received a direct hit from Typhoon Hato on August 23.

The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) is encouraging support of efforts by both the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) and The Association of Children’s Museums (ACM).

AASLH has set up a cultural relief fund and is seeking those trained or experienced in dealing with disasters to volunteer in assisting museums and heritage sites in the region. Additionally, attendees to the AASLH annual conference Sept 6-9 in Austin are encouraged to sign up for volunteer trips to help in the storm damaged areas.

ACM has set up a fund to assist local children’s museum staff who may have been personally impacted by the storm. This includes staff from Galveston Children’s Museum, The Woodlands Children’s Museum, Children’s Discovery Museum of the Golden Crescent, Children’s Museum of Houston, Beaumont Children’s Museum, and The Children’s Museum of the Brazos Valley.

The San Antonio Zoo has been spearheading efforts with other Texas zoos and aquariums to save animals at the Downtown Aquarium Houston and The Texas Zoo in Victoria, both of which were isolated by storm water and suffered facility damage. My interview with the Zoo’s Executive Director Tim Morrow, which includes a link where you can donate to the effort, is below:

The AZA has also set up a fund to assist those Texas zoo and aquarium staff and their families personally impacted by the storm.

For those of you new to the blog, welcome. For those of you returning, you’ll notice a few changes.  Instead of doing a blog post on one or two topics, I’m switching over to a new format, which I’m calling “The Other Side of the News.” This format, which will run monthly (and on occasion, more frequently than that), will look at attractions industry news items you may not be aware of, or elements of news stories typically not covered in conventional media.

This blog is notorious for its sarcastic and sardonic approach, and that will remain, although it will be toned down a bit in order to concentrate on the news at hand. The Other Side of the News should not be considered a news article. It’s an opinion piece and is based on my analysis of the facts publicly available (unless stated or implied otherwise). There’s a disclaimer tab at the top of the page and I recommend taking a look before proceeding because…well…lawyers gotta be paid for something.


Some big news coming out of Disney’s D23 Expo was that Universe of Energy (AKA Ellen’s Energy Adventure) is being removed to make room for a Guardians of the Galaxy Ride. Almost immediately, Disney fans started protesting and griping all over the Al Gore Webosphere.  So here are some of their arguments and why they’re wrong:

Walt would have never changed an attraction like this during his lifetime.

NOT ONE single Disneyland attraction that opened in the 1950’s, 1960’s, 1970’s, 1980’s, or 1990’s retains its original appearance – and a number of these changes happened during Walt’s lifetime. If it wasn’t the attraction’s narrative or scenic elements, it was via improvement in lighting, sound, show control, animatronics, or safety systems. Imagineers from the very beginning have had a long history of removing elements that haven’t worked and of looking for ways to improve attractions wherever they could.

They can’t get rid of the dinosaurs! Those are a part of EPCOT!

Tell that to Dreamfinder. Regardless of the fact that these are NOT the original 1964 World’s Fair dinosaurs, which reside on the Disneyland Railroad in Anaheim, Disney has a history of recycling its attractions. They could end up in Animal Kingdom, fleshing out the Dinosaur ride that’s already there. Perhaps they’ll be donated to a science museum. My money’s on them being reskinned as alien beasts and staying in the attraction.

A movie franchise like Guardians of the Galaxy has no place in EPCOT

In 1987, Disneyland’s Tomorrowland was the West Coast’s Epcot Future World of its day, with semi-fact based attractions such as Circle-Vision, America Sings, Mission to Mars, and the Submarine Voyage. Then a certain attraction called Star Tours opened, replacing the semi-educational Adventure through Inner Space. The moral: It’s happened before. And you loved it.

The stars of the latest incarnation of the Universe of Energy, Ellen’s Energy Adventure, are as relevant today, if not more, than they were at the time of the attraction’s opening in 1996. But today, they’re relevant for different reasons. Ellen is no longer a sitcom star. She’s become an iconic trailblazer for civil rights and the oppressed. Jamie Lee Curtis was still a few years off her sexy turn in James Cameron’s “True Lies.” She now encourages women to embrace their bodies and their natural beauty. Bill Nye has moved on from children’s science shows to become CEO of The Planetary Society. And Alex Trebek died a few ago and was replaced by a semi-autonomous android designed by IBM’s Watson supercomputer. All four have expressed concern with climate change and with the continued use of fossil fuels, so it makes no sense to continue having them in an attraction that actually espouses the merits of coal mining, fracking, and oil drilling.

Look, change happens all the time at theme parks. It’s part of the evolutionary process and necessary for enticing new guests to visit while encouraging existing guests and passholders to return. If you can’t retain guests, you can’t stay in business. Thinkwell’s Cynthia Sharpe and Dave Cobb have written a fantastic blog piece on the importance of theme park change as a reflection of changing social mores. And remember, each Cobb Salad you buy at Denny’s gives Dave Cobb double frequent flyer points! (see disclaimer, top of page)


2006 was a huge year for Whoopie Goldberg. Having been banished years before from Superstar Limo, Califia herself became the new on-screen host of the the Universal Studios Tour. So for a brief few years, Whoopie could be seen on screen at two competing Southern California parks. But of course you know that, so it’s not surprising that Whoopie just did something highly commendable across the street from her old “Golden Dreams” theater.

While being interviewed during the Disney Legend (also known as the One Arm Bandit) induction at D23, Whoopie brought up the Disney films “Dumbo” and “Song of the South,” stating that it’s time they be embraced and discussed for what they are. I have to agree.

There’s been a double standard at Disney where “Song of the South” has never been released on DVD and “The Martins and the Coys” segment of “Make Mine Music” was removed for being stereotypically offensive, while at the same time the limited edition DVD series “Walt Disney Treasures” contained cartoons offensive to modern standards (such as Pluto appearing in blackface as Aunt Jemima). But I guess that’s ok, as long as your limited run of DVD’s is only being bought by fans and cinephiles and includes an explanatory video introduction about how times were different back then by Leonard Maltin.

I want to go one step further than Ms. Goldberg (who I do hold in high regard).

James Baskett’s status as a Disney Legend (2010) is overshadowed by the continued withholding of his most famous work. 

He needs to be recognized for it. Yes, doing so will necessitate Disney releasing “Song of the South” on video, a film for which he was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1948, and it will necessitate discussion in a public forum. It’s important, in this time and age when we as a society explore race, race relations, and racial heritage, that children understand the song “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah” did not come from a bunch of animatronic animals on a teetering showboat viewed from flume logs. It was Mr. Baskett who introduced the song into American culture – it was on the shoulder of Uncle Remus, the character he played in the film, that Mr. Bluebird landed. Seems to me it’s a lot easier to deal with a bluebird on your shoulder than to continue dealing with a monkey on your back (and I’m going to be preemptive because I know there are some who will see what I just wrote and be astounded that I allowed such a racial epithet to go through, when in fact it’s not. The phrase “monkey on your back” derives from the Fifth Voyage of Sinbad in the 12th century version of the Arabic classic “One Thousand and One Nights,” wherein “The Old Man of the Sea” attaches himself to Sinbad’s shoulders and will not let go. Eventually, Sinbad is able to get the Old Man to loosen his grip and he promptly smashes his head. The 1893 English language children’s version of the book, “Fairy Tales from the Arabian Nights,” edited by E. Dixon – which actually mentioned the head smashing – featured an illustration by J.D. Batten of the Old Man as a grotesque ape like creature. Whether Mr. Batten’s conception was rooted in the racism of the era is not known – I could not find any indication of racist leanings. However, this is why it’s important to maintain open discussion on art – and film – and to make the original material available to review in context.)



I recall the one trip I made to the Johnson IMAX Theater at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. I was there for an industry preview of the IMAX film “Coral Reef Adventure” and I remember three things vividly: First, it was 2002 and the theater, only three years old at the time, was absolutely beautiful, and even had a retractable stage. Second, they took away our wine as we left the atrium and entered the theater. They would not allow us to carry it inside. Third, Jean-Michel Cousteau sauntered up to the podium with a glass of wine in hand. I remember being very upset and wishing that one day they’d tear down the IMAX and expand the cafeteria.

Well, unfortunately, my wish has come true as the Smithsonian plans to do just that, claiming that the theater is often only at 20% capacity. I know the people who manage it and the people who market it, so I can’t really conceive why this is happening. But I do have a couple of general ideas of developments that may have contributed:

  • The vast majority of giant screen films available to smaller digital 3D theaters and planetariums are of the same natural history variety shown in the Johnson theater, while aerospace-themed giant screen films tend have a smaller foothold, mainly aerospace museums and science centers. Oversaturation in the overall market affects tourist choices when time is limited (why should we see Dinosaurs Alive! in the IMAX theater when we just saw it on the much smaller screen at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science?)
  • As a longtime giant screen veteran reminded me, at a certain point, the programming and operation of giant screen theaters went from being  mission-based to being profit-based. A programming model where a film might run a full year has given way to rapid turnover, especially with Hollywood fare. From a financial standpoint, it’s a necessity to remain competitive against an ever-increasing number of smaller 3D theaters, high definition full dome planetaria, and HD television channels. From an educational standpoint, it makes things more difficult as more resources must now be expended to accomplish much more in a shorter amount of time.

The group Save Our IMAX is fighting to stop the closure. I completely applaud them and encourage you to join their cause. However, the campaign is far from perfect and I would like to offer the following suggestions in this open format:

  1. With the exception of Diane Carlson, who recently retired from the Pacific Science Center, all the principals involved in the Save Our IMAX campaign are film directors or producers. This creates a bit of confusion as to who exactly the theater “belongs” to.
  2. This should really be a community campaign. Community educators and leaders from around the DC region should have an equal say in the campaign. Instead of it being the filmmakers’ IMAX, make it the community’s IMAX. Or better yet, the Nation’s IMAX. Perception is everything. Now, you do have the great Christ Palmer, a local university professor, on board, but he’s also the producer of such IMAX classics as “Wolves,” “Bears,” “Snails,” and “Dolphins.”
  3. Make sure this is about content being available in the DC marketplace and not about losing a single IMAX theater, especially important as we just lost another IMAX theater in Tampa as MOSI downsizes.
  4. The Smithsonian is a government agency. ENGAGE CONGRESS!!
  5. If the issue of closure is one of content in the marketplace, request the Smithsonian look into constructing a smaller venue. If it’s one of format, there’s always that Bible museum opening up the street. Maybe they’ll build an IMAX and show the Darwin film.

SeaWorld canceled its Blue World Project, a series of huge killer whale tanks, and instead did this thing called Orca Encounter in San Diego, which is a show, but it’s not really a show. It’s a documentary film accompanied by live whales, and it’s not working. Neither is Ocean Explorer, the park’s attempt to compete against LEGOLAND California and its SEA LIFE aquarium. I know this because during the recent Q2 earnings call, SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby said the company does not expect to see a return on investments on the California attractions.

Here’s some other exciting things I picked up on during that earnings call:

  • SeaWorld’s new virtual reality coaster in Orlando, Kraken Unleashed, is having throughput issues with far fewer people than projected being able to ride (as a side note, may I suggest parks considering a VR overlay to their existing coasters also expand the load station to be able to handle two trains at once).
  • Going into the future, the company expects 1/3 of its cost savings to come from reduced attendance and revenues. The simplest way to interpret this is that the money-losing San Diego park will transform from a year-round to a seasonal operation, similar to the San Antonio park.
  • The company is spending less money to build more rides and attractions and is no longer competing with Disney and Universal, doing its own thing in its own way.

I noticed two things really missing from the press release and earnings call, although one was very explicitly addressed in the SEC filing.  There was barely any mention of Zhonghong, the Chinese company that had just purchased Blackstone’s 21% stake in the company. Manby basically told analysts if they had questions about Zhonghong, they should contact Zhonghong, adding that the two Zhonghong directors on SeaWorld’s board were well engaged and a pleasure to work with.  Something felt off. Something was missing.

Then I was told by a source who would be in a position to know, speaking on grounds of anonymity (see disclosure tab at top of page) that Zhonghong had at the last minute decided against tendering for the time being an offer to buy SeaWorld, which required SeaWorld to make sure no documentation had any indication of any buyout, and all at the last minute. Which is why the press release for the second quarter financials came out almost two hours after its usual wire service distribution time, and why the SEC filing was not done until end of day the following day, almost thirty-six hours later.

Just prior, Zhonghong had placed a $3 billion acquisition of Brookdale Senior Living on hold after Chinese banks (if you’re a Chinese company, you must secure financing through Chinese banks) downgraded the company’s credit rating to “unfavorable,” resulting in Zhonghong being unable to secure financing to complete the Brookdale acquisition.  Scouring the ChinaWeb, I’ve come across a document which is either a complaint or a legal filing (not sure yet which), alleging fraud on Zhonghong’s part with a 2016 residential development near Beijing. The claims are eerily similar to a 2016 SEC fraud investigation regarding Comcast’s purchase of DreamWorks Animation (DWA). Although Zhonghong is not mentioned as being investigated or as a defendant in the SEC case, it is mentioned by name as a co-suitor to purchase DWA with one of the defendants. Although I can’t be certain any fraud investigation has affected Zhonghong’s purchase of American companies, Zhonghong certainly has been effected by the same Chinese government investigation on lending for foreign investment that saw Dalian-Wanda group drastically reinvent itself. My source also tells me that both Manby and Board Chair David D’Alessandro will stay on through at least the end of the year, by which time the acquisition is expected to be back on and nearing completion.

At the same time, private investment firm Hill Path Capital continues to buy shares of SeaWorld, to the point that it is in the top four in terms of company ownership. According to a Merlin Entertainments call the day before SeaWorld’s call, Hill Path is pushing SeaWorld’s management to sell off the two Busch Gardens parks in order to obtain immediate revenue. SeaWorld was very explicit in its Q2 SEC filing that it wants Hill Path to have no part whatsoever in any board or management decisions.

These past forty-five days have been difficult for SeaWorld, with the stillbirth of a beluga calf, the death of what was advertised as “the last SeaWorld orca born in captivity,” and the euthanasia of one of the company’s most revered orcas. I’m not going to discuss welfare or health issues here. If that’s your cup of tea, there are plenty of other sites on the interweb covering both sides of the argument. One in particular caught my attention.

Michael Mountain writes on the Whale Sanctuary Project website about the death of the killer whale Kasatka. He schools SeaWorld for their interpretation of the term “family,” disputes the company’s healthcare and medical diagnoses, questions if her trainers loved her, and then implores SeaWorld to release their whales into a sanctuary, perhaps the very one his group plans on building.

I felt like I was reading a SeaWorld of Hate piece – you know, PETA’s anti-SeaWorld page, since this followed the traditional PETA anti-Seaworld layout – call out SeaWorld on everything they do, then implore them to move their whales to a sanctuary.

I don’t think it was a wise move for the Whale Sanctuary Project, and here’s why.

You need whales for your whale sanctuary and there’s only two ways you’re going to get them – through the courts or building bridges with the whales’ owners. You can have Kiska in Canada, but right now the law prohibits her being moved out of Ontario. You could have had Lolita in Miami, but certain lawsuits and Endangered Species Act recognition means lots more red tape and hurdles to jump through.  I’m pretty sure you want Morgan from Loro Parque, but first you’ve got to figure out just who owns her (I’ve seen Loro Parque say she’s a ward of the Dutch government, their whale, and SeaWorld’s whale. Guess it depends on the day). That leaves the SeaWorld whales. And with posts like this, you’re burning necessary bridges far faster than you can get the materials to build new ones.


Marineland of Canada released quite a few press releases last week. One was about the death of the beluga calf Gia.  Along with it was a link to a video on Marineland’s animal husbandry. I recognized the licensed music in the video. It was the same selection that Comcast’s customer service office uses. I found myself automatically headed to the bathroom thinking I was going to be on hold for 20 minutes.

But what Marineland’s doing is far more interesting than listening to a pre-recorded ad for Comcast’s Xfinity internet service play eighty times in a row while you’re internet’s down. Marineland has chosen it’s enemy as it’s become confrontational with the Ontario SPCA, going so far as to state in January:  “The OSPCA is continuing a publicity campaign at the behest of a band of discredited activists with little relevant expertise or knowledge, in an effort to avoid further embarrassment related to an ongoing investigation into the OSPCA’s perceived failure to protect animals that is being led by the same activists they are now firmly in bed with.”

Yes, the OSPCA is a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, much like many other SPCA’s or humane societies throughout the world. What makes it unique is that in addition to being a charitable organization, it is also the government mandated enforcement agency overseeing animal welfare issues in the province of Ontario.

Whereas something like a complaint being filed by, say PETA or the Animal Welfare Institute against a zoo or animal-based theme park would be a civil complaint, a complaint from the OSPCA is a criminal complaint. It is up to the Crown prosecutor to act on the charges and, in the most recent case, the charges were dropped.

Marineland continues to counter the OSPCA’s claims through press releases over the wire services, even callign the OSPCA’s Senior Manager of Communications a “self-proclaimed ‘PR (public relations) pro & writer by trade’ with no actual involvement in delivering Ontario SPCA’s animal welfare mandate.”

So, after treatment of this kind in the media by Marineland and other private zoo owners, it’s not a surprise that the OSPCA released an announcement that:

The Ontario SPCA believes that animals on exhibit in zoos solely for commercial gain is an antiquated business model that must be stopped. The time to begin working towards this goal is now, if we work together to ensure our expectations are clear for elected officials.

The Ontario SPCA advocates that the Government of Ontario put in place the following, on behalf of animals in zoos:

  1. Develop and proclaim‎ new or amended legislation to regulate zoos permitted to operate in the province, prohibiting any zoo exhibiting animals solely for commercial gain,
  2. Provide at least four Crown Attorneys to specialize in animal welfare law so that charges are seen through to justice and the public interest is served,
  3. Provide sufficient funding and resources for increased and ongoing inspections of zoo facilities, and for the eventual closure of zoos that exist solely for commercial gain,
  4. Allow the current Provincial Zoo & Aquarium Registry to be made public and available on the Government of Ontario’s website.

So…the gloves are off….on both sides.


Christian Dieckmann and Howard Newstate have left Cedar Fair (to 3D Live and Holovis, respectively). What does this mean for the chain? Well, we’re likely to see less of the high tech attractions (VR is still gonna be around) like Iron Reef, Wonder Mountain’s Guardian, Mass Effect, and Plants v Zombies.

So what’s taking their place?

I’ve spoken extensively with the management of California’s Great America and with Clayton Lawrence, who was recently promoted from his post at Great America to become Cedar Fair’s Corporate Manager of Live Show Development. The company’s taking a back to basics approach. It’s looking back at the history of its parks and the communities in which those parks exist and honoring both. Food service is being upgraded, accommodations are being improved. The company will present a whole slate of live entertainment with a unified standard across all parks. And most exciting of all, festivals and events are going to be a special emphasis, from craft beer festivals to beach parties, Haunt, and Winterfest, Cedar Fair will be creating multiple reasons to visit year round as they put the amusement back in the park (yep, there’s a disclaimer at top of page).


Six Flags Over Texas was named after the six flags that at various times flew over the state of Texas –  Spain, France, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the United States of America, and the Confederate States of America.  In light of the recent events in Virginia and elsewhere, Six Flags opted to remove the Confederate flag from its flagpole. Then they did one better – they removed four more of the flags and replaced them all with American flags.

In Canada, after a mother posted a Facebook photo of a carousel horse at La Ronde, Six Flags’ theme park on the Expo 67 site in Montreal, the company agreed to remove the horse, which featured the severed head of a Native American. While America deals with its racial unrest, Canada is dealing with its own legacy of abuse of First Nations tribal members. The history is a long and hard one that spans from the forced relocation to and abuse at residential schools – an attempt to “educate” the native out the native culture – to today’s epidemic of young aboriginal women disappearing and being killed.

I applaud Six Flags and its individual park management for doing the right thing.


The day after Thanksgiving 2016, large crowds resulted in average lines of between one and two hours per attraction at both of the Disneyland Resort’s parks.  As I was nearing the halfway point of a ninety minute queue for the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, I began to hear shrieks and screams – not from the tower hidden above me behind a brown construction tarp, but from two young children in line behind me.

“I’m scared,” said one.  “I don’t want to do this,” chimed in the other.

The young lady accompanying them did her best to reassure them.  “It’s a frog hopper,” she told them, “Just like at the fair.  Except here they’re going to do some magic tricks to make it seem scarier than it really is.”

As we entered the lobby, the Silver Lake Sisters, a trio of beauties belting out hits from the 30’s, livened up what was otherwise a decrepit and abandoned space.  Then it was on to the library for the intro video, followed by the Tower’s boiler room.  After that, everything was abnormal.

With just over a month left before the attraction’s closure, the park was offering “Late Check-Out.”  When the doors opened to the two visual effects rooms on the ride, everything was dark.  I could hear the soundtrack and see the outline of the screen and the physical props, but not a single light shone.  It was disconcerting. I felt like the ride was malfunctioning.  For the first time on any of the Tower of Terror attractions, I held onto my handle for dear life.

As I stood in the exit hallway, looking at my pose in the souvenir photo, the two children showed up.  Both were shaking, but both had a big grin from one cheek to the other.  They had survived the Tower.



When I first visited California Adventure in 2002, the park was much different.  If EPCOT was the Disney Imagineers’ version of a permanent World Expo, then California Adventure was their concept of a state fair. Most guests entered the park missing out on its biggest illusion. If you knew where to stand in the esplanade between the parks and what you were looking at, you’d realize that the giant letters spelling CALIFORNIA in front of the entrance, the murals on each side, the condensed Golden Gate Bridge crossed by the monorail and the giant sun sculpture at the end of the entrance walkway all combined to form a giant postcard.

To the right, past the entrance corridor, known as Sunshine Plaza, and its 1950’s train, was the Golden State zone, comprised of Bountiful Harvest Farm, Pacific Wharf, Golden Vine Winery, Pacific Wharf, Bay Area, Grizzly Peak Recreation Area, and Condor Flats.  Past Golden State was Paradise Pier, the park’s homage to seaside amusement parks.  On the left side of Sunshine Plaza was Hollywood Studios Backlot, the park’s representation of a Hollywood studio, with backlot sets and soundstages.  There was no thematic connection between the Backlot Studios and the rest of the park, with the giant sun sculpture placed between it and Golden State.  This would later be remedied with the 2012 redesign of Sunshine Plaza into Buena Vista Street and small cosmetic overlays that converted the movie studio motif of much of Hollywood Studios Backlot into Hollywoodland, with the two linked not only by architecture, but by a new electric railcar that traversed both lands.

In 2002, there was no Tower of Terror. If you were looking for a tower thrill ride, it was the Maliboomer, an S&S Space Shot with the unique addition of plexiglass face shields to quell rider’s screams.  This ride was one of many attractions throughout the park where themed off-the-shelf rides existed without story (a giant orange called the Orange Stinger with swings inside themed to bees being another).  As a result, attendance at California Adventure after its first year of operation was far below predicted numbers and Disney was doing all it could to build up visitation.  That Summer, a dirt arena was built next to Pacific Wharf with a motocross exposition themed to ESPN. The roar of the engines could be heard throughout the park.  A concert series was set up on the shores of Paradise Lagoon.  On the day I visited, the narration of Whoopi Goldberg as Califia, the Spirit of California, in the park’s flagship film Golden Dreams (its version of American Adventure) was drowned out by the spirited tunes of Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones just outside the theater’s exit doors.

Disney knew that motocross exhibitions and concert series would not be enough to turn around attendance and work began immediately on two big money projects – Bug’s Land, which would take up the majority of Bountiful Harvest Farm, and a new version of a Walt Disney World favorite, the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.



Opened in the Summer of 2004, The original Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney’s Hollywood Studios was the focal point and terminus of that park’s Sunset Boulevard expansion.  Much like the Haunted Mansion, which is a guided tour of a haunted house and graveyard, the Tower involves riders as participants in a “lost episode” of the classic television show “The Twilight Zone.”  After queuing through the lobby, guests enter a library where an introduction to the episode, about the disappearance of part of the Hollywood Hotel and five guests in an elevator, is told by series host Rod Serling.  They then enter the hotel’s boiler room and board one of the service elevators for their own trip into the Twilight Zone.  As the doors open, the five elevator passengers of the storyline appear, then disappear into a flash of electric charges.  Seconds later, the room turns into a starfield and a special effect from the show’s opening credits appears.  One floor up, the elevator, actually an autonomous vehicle, leaves the shaft and travels forward through the Fifth Dimension room to enter the drop shaft, where it goes up and down via random programming, with doors opening at the top of the shaft for a view of the entire park.

In Florida, four boarding/show shafts merge into two Fifth Dimension rooms leading to two drop shafts, which end at the ride exit.  The vehicle then returns unoccupied to the boarding position. At California Adventure, the Fifth Dimension room was dropped in favor of three single shafts.  Boarding took place on two levels, with the ride vehicle traveling a few feet back and forth between the single load/unload position and the elevator shaft.  This allowed two vehicles to operate per shaft – one loading on either the first or second floor while the other was in the shaft going through the ride cycle.  A second effects room was also added, this one with a mirror showing the attraction’s riders, who suddenly disappear in a visual effect.  The California Adventure layout is also used in the Tower of Terror attractions at Walt Disney Studios Paris and Tokyo DisneySea, which has a unique storyline involving an evil idol and the disappearance of hotel owner and international explorer Harrison Hightower, who also makes an appearance at Hong Kong Disneyland’s Mystic Manor.

On January 2, 2017, California Adventure’s Tower of Terror took its final riders into The Twilight Zone.  It will be replaced in the Summer with a new attraction themed to Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy.  This is not the first time that the Disneyland Resort has conducted a thematic layover to the existing infrastructure of an attraction, be it promotional (Disney Afternoon Avenue), seasonal (Haunted Mansion Holiday), or permanent (Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage).  It is, however, the first time in decades that an E-Ticket attraction will open in sync with the film it promotes, a somewhat rare occurrence these days.

When the Tower first opened in 2004, it was a bit out of place.  Hollywood Studios Backlot was a cacophony of concepts and attractions (about half of it still is), evocative of what one would find on an actual Hollywood studio lot.  Take a stroll to the end if its main thoroughfare and one encounters the Broadway-caliber Hyperon Theatre.  What appears to be the theater entrance at the end of the road isn’t real, it’s a façade, and there’s no grand lobby like one would find at the Pantages in Hollywood.  Instead, there’s an outside courtyard on the right side of the building where guests wait for the doors to open, with stairs on the exterior side of the building to take them to higher levels of the auditorium.

By contrast, the Hollywood Tower Hotel, the Tower of Terror’s alter ego, wasn’t designed as a recognizable physical illusion. It was fully imagineered to convey its story and ambiance, both in its external queue and within the building itself.  When it opened, it was an outcast on the far edge of the park, with only the vague notion of Hollywood linking it to the rest of its land.  One could argue that the Tower was the first stage in the evolution of the park, a move away from creating suggestive theme out of limited symbols and icons to creating a solid place with a backstory all its own.  It was followed by the redesign of Paradise Pier, the integration of Condor Flats into Grizzly Peak, and the new lands of Cars Land and Buena Vista Street.  It was the catalyst for the transformation of a Hollywood Studio (for half the land at least) into Hollywood itself.

There is a running line in the film “The Big Lebowski” concerning a stolen rug – “It tied the room together.”  In many ways, the Tower tied the park together, especially after the 2012 opening of Buena Vista Street.  No matter where you saw it from, it just seemed to fit.  It fit perfectly behind the Carthay Circle Theater.  And it fit perfectly seen from Bug’s Land, ironically not because of the film “A Bug’s Life” on which the land was based, but a competing studio’s film about ants – “ANTZ.”  The Dreamworks/PDI film ends with the camera zooming out, where we learn that the ants live in the middle of Central Park and that it’s surrounded by tall towers.  Had that been California, the Hollywood Tower Hotel could easily have been one of them.



The new Guardians of the Galaxy attraction threatens this synergy.  Even though architecturally the building does seem to fit the Hollywoodland theme with its strange pipe-encrusted art deco design, something feels off.  Marvel executives and Imagineers are quick to point out that in the Marvel universe, anyone and anything can suddenly appear out of nowhere from anywhere in time and space, adding that such is the case here.  But, if I understand properly from reading the comics and watching the film over and over, this attraction will take place during modern times in a futuristic outer space environment supported by an 80’s rock music soundtrack, all in a land designed to evoke Hollywood of the 1930’s.

There’s little doubt the ride will be a hit.  As such, it could be the catalyst for even more change at the park – such as the conversion of Hollywoodland into a Marvel land.  The newly opened Iron Man Experience in Hong Kong would be quite easy to port over with a California-centric film.  The Animation building has the space for such a ride and precedent exists for closing a popular animation attraction, such as the one at Walt Disney World, which was replaced by a Star Wars showcase.  As for the role of a Hyperion Theatre in a Marvel land – Spider-man seems to be popular in the musical genre (“Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark” on Broadway and “Spider-man Rocks” at Universal Studios Hollywood), while a new effects laden Doctor Strange stage show will be premiering in the Disney Cruise Line’s Walt Disney Theatre during Marvel Day at Sea.

Of all the lands at California Adventure, Hollywoodland, where only half the land has a coherency, is the one most in need of direction.  Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout has the potential to become the template of a new land of adventures and discoveries in much the same way the Tower of Terror redefined the entire park.  Whatever happens, one thing won’t be changing.  Young kids will still be scared to ride, and they’ll still exit shaking and grinning.


In 1915, the Panama Canal opened, linking the Pacific to the Atlantic through center of the Americas. To celebrate this momentous milestone, the city San Diego held a glorious world’s fair.  Here, the exotic animals that would become the basis of the San Diego Zoo could be found in cages for visitors to see up close.  As could aboriginal men, part of an analysis (true to scientific thought of the day) of what caused mankind to change from savagery to civilization.  Yes, men were on display in cages as a scientific display one hundred years ago.


Last month I attended the California Association of Museum’s annual conference in Sacramento, as a journalist intent on learning what the latest trends are in the museum community.  I found common themes of inclusion, race, diversity – not ironically the same themes that will appear over and over again at the American Alliance of Museum’s annual meeting next month in St. Louis.

During a session titled “The Work Inside: Case Studies in Developing Conversations about Race, Equity and Inclusion,” Jason Porter, the Director of Education and Public Engagement at the San Diego Museum of Man spoke about the radical transformation that the museum has undergone in the past few years – from being about what biologically makes us “human” to what entails “humanity.”  Playing a major role in this revised mission is an exploration of race and racism, with a permanent installation of the American Anthropological Association’s exhibit “Race: Are We So Different?” as its centerpiece.

Combined with the former traveling exhibit are artifacts showcasing the history of race and race perception in San Diego – among these, a photo of an anthropological exhibit of live men in cages during the 1915 Panama-California Exposition.

Humankind has always been beleaguered by beliefs of superiority of one group over others – be it nationality, ethnicity, religion, sexual preference, gender, gender identification, height, weight, hairstyle, piercings….the list goes on.

This behavior is not unique to humans. In the natural world, prejudices exist within other species as well.  There is ageism, discrimination against the disabled, against those that look different, against those who act different.  One of the biggest differences between animals and humans is that we, as a species, take those prejudices and code them into law – be it religious, civil, or a combination of both.

It is not a coincidence therefore that both the San Diego Museum of Man’s exhibit on race and the Oakland Museum of California’s exhibit on the Black Panther movement featured redline maps of their respective cities.  Instituted in 1934 by the newly established Federal Housing Administration, the practice of redlining utilized “residential security maps,” where ethnic and minority communities were distinguished on the map as being ineligible for financial services, resulting in continued impoverished conditions while artificially inflating home and property values in white neighborhoods.

Museums are now looking at the past to create dialogue about our present and our future. One could say this is a response to the Trump presidency.  Certainly, there have been plenty of cries of racism during Trump’s first few months in office.  But racism did not begin with him.  Ferguson and Black Lives Matter took place under a different president.  Women’s equality did not begin with him.  The SONY hacks showing unequal pay took place under a different president.  Native American rights did not begin with him. The protests at Dakota Access happened under a different president. And countless incidents on the same topics happened before under numerous governments going back decades, if not centuries, within the United States and around the world.

As keynote speakers Gail Dexter Lord and Ngaire Blankenberg of Lord Cultural Resources showed, museums are changing their missions and the design of their exhibits as they shift from a hard power to a soft power philosophy of operation.  The difference is night and day and comes from the world of international affairs, where “hard power” refers to military action, while “soft power” refers to diplomacy.  In the museum world, the “hard power” model has a collection made of animal and artifact trophies collected around the world, explores the traditional hierarchies of empires, and the “great men” of note in history.  A “soft power” museum influences through persuasion, attraction, or agenda setting.  It becomes the catalyst for activism and community change on one end and discussion within the community on the other.  Most “soft power” museums fall somewhere in-between on the spectrum.

Museums are not the only place “soft power” can have an effect.  In just a few days, a “soft power” moment will be taking place with the world’s leading themed entertainment designers.


As has been discussed previously on this blog, there can easily be confusion between museum exhibit design and themed entertainment design.  Themed entertainment is often equated with the fun to be had at theme parks.  But it’s much more, and museum exhibit design is actually a subset of themed entertainment design.  A theme is a topic or a setting.  Entertaining is another way of saying engaging – engaging the mind through sensory or intellectual stimulation.*

If there’s a theme to this blog post, it’s intolerance and how we examine it. On Thursday, themed entertainment producer Kile Ozier will be sitting down with Olympic Gold Medalist Greg Louganis during the 2017 TEA Summit to discuss the fact that being HIV positive in many nations where TEA members do business is illegal, and could result in prison (thus the men in cages analogy) and career destruction.  Kile goes into more detail of his own issues working within the UAE in this excellent blog post.

But the HIV restrictions in the UAE, a theological monarchy, are not just for health purposes.  They are a way of circumventing a human rights issue.

As a teenager growing up during the advent of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980’s, I was taught there were three ways you could get the HIV virus – homosexual sex, needles, and sitting on a public toilet.  Yes, we were actually taught in public school the importance of keeping our rear ends suspended at least an inch above the toilet seat.

By my twenties, it was well known that anyone could contract the virus.  I recall seeing a fax to a government official staying at a hotel I was working at.  Without disclosing the most confidential of details, the one line that caught my attention stated simply: “Magic Johnson is going to announce tomorrow that he’s HIV positive.”

Later that year, one of my co-workers was hospitalized and passed away.  We didn’t know until afterwards that he had died of AIDS.  We found out only because his wife sued the hospital.  According to her, he had been afraid to disclose the HIV to his family, co-workers, or his congregation because in the Conservative, Bible-thumping South, he feared that they would associate it with the lowest rungs of their perceived moral ladder – homosexuality, drug abuse, adulterous sex.  The lawsuit, which was settled out of court, showed that he had acquired it through tainted blood in a transfusion after a car accident.

But saying that HIV doesn’t affect just the gay community poses the same risks as saying “All Lives Matter,” when such a statement evades four hundred years of civil rights oppression among the African-American community.  HIV has had an altering effect both within the gay community as an epidemic and all too real threat and from without as an associated tool for bias.

As a straight man, I’ve had gay friends, gay co-workers and bosses, and gay relatives all my life, but I didn’t understand HIV’s effect on the community until about a decade ago.  It took the collaborative efforts of a playwright, director, actors, production designer, lighting designer, sound designer, costumer, and dozens of craftspeople and crew – a collaboration of the creative and the technical arts – for me to understand.

When I was the Audience Services Director at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, we suddenly changed our last production of the season to Steve Yockey’s play “Octopus.”  The plot is simple – an older gay couple has a one night tryst with a younger couple.  One of the older men acquires AIDS and dies.  But the anguish of both the surviving partner and that of the dead one – floating forever in an undersea abyss fighting off the eight-tentacled monster of the disease encircling him – are forever etched in my mind.

The arts and themed entertainment design have an ability to bring people together, to let them discover others and themselves in new and inventive ways.  From Parc de la Gorge de Coaticook’s “Foresta Lumina,” which uses universal concepts of folklore, to the moving 7/7 tribute and dance number during the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremonies (not seen in the USA as NBC opted to switch to paid advertising during this segment), there is an ability to transgress boundaries.

It would be great if theme parks could take on the great issues of our day.  But outside of conservation and environmentalism, they’re prone to leave societal issues to museums.  Even Epcot, founded as a showcase of the great power of humanity working together, years ago eliminated two attractions where questions of race and inclusion could be discussed – Electronic Forum and Wonders of Life.

What Kile is doing is a first step – and I applaud him on that.  He’s creating a dialogue within the creative community.  If it succeeds – if the industry can place pressure on governments or become a political force and encourage the US, Canada, and European governments to exert the pressure – the soft power moves towards advocacy.  And it can lead to advocacy on many other things.  Once the foot is in the door, it has two ways to go.  It can back out.  Or it can go further.

And maybe one hundred years from now,  a man with HIV in a cage won’t be a reality, but a photo of antiquated practices of the past in a display about humanity in a UAE museum.

*One important differentiating factor of themed entertainment, which is why it is inclusive of museums, is the OOH! Factor (trademark pending).  It takes place Out Of Home in an environment where strangers can congregate for a shared experience.