Let’s face it: Tickets for theme parks are expensive. Every year, we have come to expect price increases that exceed inflation, and every year, we somehow find a way to pony up the extra bucks. With that said, I am under the belief that a visit to a theme park is a wise way to spend your discretionary entertainment dollar. With a bit of planning, you can really maximize your investment. If you live in Southern California or Central Florida, your choices are almost limitless. So where to spend that precious money this summer?
Let’s start with a disclaimer. My publisher for the The Disneyland Story: The Unofficial Guide to the Evolution of Walt Disney’s Dream is the guy who writes the best-selling Unofficial Guides to Walt Disney World and Disneyland. It is their philosophy (one that I share) that it is best to pay for everything and to avoid freebies. For example, at one point, I was offered a private tour of the savannah at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, but I declined because this was not something that was available to the general public. This is how Disney does it. Disney PR guru Charles Ridgeway once said: “Show them so they can see for themselves.” Accepting such an opportunity would be fun, but that means standing on a slippery slope and I don’t want to go for the ride. Thankfully, enough of you buy my books and read this column and that allows me to afford this monkey on my back.
Back to the original premise…who deserves your money this summer?
There is not much that is new this year, is there? Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is still under construction, the Fantasy Faire hype is over, and everything else seems normal. I am not usually a show guy but the new Mickey and the Magical Map show in Fantasyland is really good. This is an example of why nobody even comes close to Disney in entertainment. Since it is summer, the crowds are large but the mighty Disney machine seems to be in high gear and efficiency is the result. Personally, I wish they would just leave Billy Hill and the Hillbillies in the Golden Horseshoe instead of being exiled out back, but I am just glad they are still in the park at all.
DISNEY CALIFORNIA ADVENTURE
Last summer was the relaunch of the park, and, for the first time, this dog has started to have a real bark. Buena Vista Street and the immersive environment of Carsland remind us that Imagineering still has what it takes, at least as long as it is close enough for John Lasseter to visit frequently. The result is one of the really bright spots in Disney’s North American portfolio, both creatively and in attendance. If you have not visited, then this is the summer to go. Everything seems to be working. The bugs have been worked out (except those in A Bug’s Land, of course). The park is now a full day experience, with plenty to do from morning until late in the evening. This is a case of money well spent.
UNIVERSAL STUDIOS HOLLYWOOD
This is the first summer of a major transition, and they are not quite ready for prime time (and will not be for quite awhile longer). Universal has never been good with big crowds and now they are stuffed between construction walls and fewer things to do. If you have a child in a stroller, there really is nothing to do or see. If the weather is hot, there are few places to escape the heat. In an apparent move that makes the park less enjoyable, it seems they have assigned more people to try and upsell you on a front of the line (or VIP) pass than manning the parking lot. I get it. It seems that regular visitors are a burden at USH, but if you have the bucks…
The center of the upper lot is under construction and will become Universal’s version of the hub at Disneyland along with a performance space. This will be a good thing when done. For the first time, entering the park will be a positive impression. The construction continues on changing Terminator 2- 3D into the world of Despicable Me. I have been on the ride in Florida and expect the LA version to be the same. Not an E-Ticket but a cute ride, and something desperately needed in California. But that is for next year. This year, you get a retooled Special Effects Show that isn’t as good as it was before and an animal show that is comparable to one of the neighbors kids playing with their pets. Universal Studios Hollywood’s greatest weakness is the entertainment. The fact that this summer depends on them is the reason why you should go to….
KNOTT’S BERRY FARM
This park is doing everything right at the moment. First, they focused on improving the food, which is how the place got started in the first place. Although I think the fast food stuff is expensive, the sit down restaurants are some of the best in the business and a really good value. Just typing this is making me hungry for Boysenberry pie. Knott’s has cleaned up and repaired Ghost Town without removing any of the charm. Real flowers are everywhere and there is a renewed attention to detail. The three new rides are exactly what they should be; family friendly, familiar but with a twist. Mystery Lodge is still one of my favorite shows and I can’t get enough of Silver Bullet. And then there is the revamped log ride. Brilliant. A fresh update for one of the most important rides in the history of theme parks. Knott’s has kept their prices family friendly as well. You can get 2 family members in for the price of one day at Universal, and you most likely have a much more enjoyable time. Go.
SIX FLAGS MAGIC MOUNTAIN
I am as old as a mountain at Disneyland and must confess that I am no longer the demo for Six Flags. The park is cleaner than it has been in some time, and it does sport a world class collection of roller coasters. Tatsu is still one of my favorites. If you love coasters, then you must go at least once this summer. Thankfully there are many different discount programs (even a free ticket on My Coke Rewards) so take advantage. The fact that they have most expensive parking of all the theme parks did not go unnoticed.
SUMMARY: Visit Knott’s so they will continue on this positive path. Aim for Disney California Adventure and see what $1.2 billion will buy you. I could never say no to Disneyland but I am happy to take a pass on Universal Studios Hollywood this summer – but when Potter opens, all bets are off. And bring me those youth pills or some Dramamine and ride some roller coasters at Six Flags (but only with my free ticket from soda caps).
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