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There are few seasons busier than the start of summer for things to happen in the Orlando parks. Everyone wants to roll out the latest and greatest, and it really is hard to keep up with all of it. Orlando itself is also just bursting with stuff to do.

Today I’ll cover four of the biggest stories of the past week (castle projections, Meet Merida, Legoland Water Park, Spongebob Storepants), with more on my personal blog, which I now update on a daily basis. Stop by if you get a chance!

Read what you’re missing...

104 Days of Summer Vacation

Phineas and Ferb famously try to find things to do with their summer vacation, so they are a natural to introduce the newest addition to the “Magic Memories and You” projection show on the castle. These projections started last year and have been updated for seasonal events (Christmas, Valentine’s Day), with the Valentine’s Day addition still part of the show even now.

The new segment honors summer activities: sand, surf, and ocean mostly. We see a “sand castle” briefly, and hard-to-see images of Goofy doing things like surfing. I heard Crush (from Nemo) at one point, and the castle kind of floods up with water. There’s a segment featuring the Lion King characters – apparently, summer means “no worries” (I get it!) And the fun-emphasizing song “Under the Sea” has a mostly watered-over castle, with Ariel prominently displayed.

I liked the way the Sand Castle looked. So much better than a cake castle!

I don’t quite get why the Valentine’s Day romance section is still here. Do they like it better than the original? I admit that it seems to be testing well – most folks I speak to like that part, probably more than I like it, in fact. I do appreciate that the show is not static. It costs money and effort to update it, and I appreciate that they keep trying, even though I feel the results have been uneven. The Christmas update was dynamite, but the others less thrilling in my view.

I’m not sure what this colorful ensemble is supposed to be, but I like it, too.

I had originally assumed the point was to have different seasons highlighted, so that once the show is programmed, year after year after year it’s a cinch to just throw the switch, and play the new version. In essence, I assumed we’d be holiday-hopping. But the inclusion of the romance section throws a wrench into that.

Ariel will be calling the Magic Kingdom home soon enough!

In a way, the show is just evolving more and more. It is actually more like Fantasia’s original concept than the real Fantasia movie series itself is. That movie was meant to be constantly updated with new segments. That only happened once with Fantasia 2000, but it is happening on the castle.

Meet Merida

The movie’s not out for three weeks still, but you can meet Merida from Brave now. And you probably should. The lines are manageable at the moment, even short, but this is sure to change once the movie comes out.

Merida’s realm

It’s a pure meet and greet – there is no activity here like the dance-along with Rapunzel. But while you’re in line to meet her, your kids can go color on the still-there stone table, or take part in the archery practice (the bow is normal enough, but the arrow has a big square felt tip rather than a point, and there are nets behind the target to protect everyone).

There are animatronic bears behind Merida, which will make more sense when we’ve all seen the movie. It’s not clear to me if these are controlled in some fashion; they almost seem to react to the environment. There is a camera on a pole in the back, so someone could easily be watching (and listening).

She speaks with a Scottish accent.

Merida’s got a presence in Epcot, too, along the rose garden path. They left the playground here from Flower and Garden, while across the walkway they replaced the Chimpanzee sand sculpture with a Brave sand sculpture. Part of the grassy zone here will be given over to kids playing games similar to the archery at the Magic Kingdom.

Legoland Water Park

I like that Legoland resisted the temptation to name their water park something catchy, like Splash! or Bubbles or Buddy’s Ocean. They called it “Water Park,” because that’s what it is. But this park-within-a-park has few other surprises. You can only visit when you’re already inside Legoland, and pay the $12 upgrade (unless you’re two years old and younger). One reason this may strike some as expensive: the offerings here are unchanged from when this was Cypress Gardens Water Park, and back then it was free and included with the price of regular park admission.

Welcome! That will be $12 please.

There is a small lazy river, a wave pool, a kid splash zone (water playground and slides), a tower with raft slides, and a tower with a couple of speed/thrill slides. The vast majority of that real estate is unthemed. The theming here is lighter than elsewhere around Legoland; it looks like they tried less here than they did everywhere else in converting the park from Cypress Gardens.

The real reason that’s a problem is that so many of the Legoland visitors will be locals (those closer to this park than to Walt Disney World). And that’s a group of people who remember when the water park was included for free, so they may not pay to upgrade to the premium annual pass on principle alone. I know that the California park has a similar setup, but they have a different base of locals (and many more of them). Plus those locals never got “spoiled” to have the water park included.

Not unthemed, but not deeply themed, either.

We visited on Memorial Day, which was threatening rain. It rained hard, stopped, then rained hard again (this time with winds). They closed the water park down, and just as they promised on numerous signs, they issued no refunds despite it being only 1:30 in the afternoon. Traveling tourists are advised that they mean business with this policy, and if the usual Central Florida rains are going to make the park operators as skittish as this storm did, I would suggest to tourists not to upgrade, lest they feel that they wasted their money. I’m local and can come back with our passes, but those from out of town might not be so lucky.

SpongeBob StorePants

I have to admit, I love the name of this new store in Universal Studios Florida (replacing an old store between E.T. and the pet stadium). It’s catchy, but more to the point, it stays true to the tenor/tone of the SpongeBob show’s sensibilities. Quirky and offbeat, but hard to shake out of your head once you’ve heard it.

I can just hear SpongeBob saying it.
Before it was selling Dora stuff and other kids shows.

But far more important than the store’s name is the store’s appearance. It’s shockingly well themed. It feels like you’ve stepped into a store in Disney property, so heavy and omnipresent are the set pieces. They are no flimsy wannabe sets, either – these are the real deal; it really looks like a Disney project, except with a different universe of characters.

Inside the StorePants.

Universal has been stepping up its game lately on all fronts: the decent lagoon show, the Disney-quality parade, this Disney-quality store, the Disney-quality Spider-Man (heck, it’s better than Disney), and the 800 pound gorilla, the Potter land that still mints money. Not to mention the coming Potter sequel land.

The backside of a character photo op location inside StorePants.

Competition like this is invariably good for the consumer. It’s a great time to be a theme park fan in Orlando!

Our Kingdom of Dust

The author of the well-received Dark Side of Disney book, Leonard Kinsey, is back with another book (disclosure: I was sent a review copy). “Our Kingdom of Dust” is not another insider’s look at Disney. It’s not even non-fiction. It’s a novel. I wasn’t certain that a good non-fiction writer could also function well as a novelist, and since Kinsey certainly knew how to pluck at expectations in the nonfiction realm and then outstrip them, I assumed his freshman novel would be weak. But it’s not weak. It’s pretty compelling.

The opening pages will grab you by the jugular and thrash you around until there is no escape; it’s a hard book to put down. It’s easy to get hooked into the story of 30-year old Blaine McKinnon: a young millionaire who returns to Disney World after a long hiatus, with a serious yen for nostalgia and a bulging wallet. He finds lots of things—there’s drama aplenty here—and Disney fans will certainly chuckle at his dawning realization that the EPCOT Center of his dreams has been insidiously replaced by something altogether more cartoony and less inspirational, bit by horrifying bit. The book pushes us toward the denouement, sometimes more strongly than at other times, but always inexorably forward. I wasn’t always a fan of the chapter lengths—many were too short and seemed abrupt—but in terms of pacing and plot I definitely felt pulled along.

Let’s Discuss!

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Kevin Yee may be e-mailed at [email protected] - Please keep in mind he may not be able to respond to each note personally. FTC-Mandated Disclosure: As of December 2009, bloggers are required by the Federal Trade Commission to disclose payments and freebies. Kevin Yee pays for his own admission to theme parks and their associated events, unless otherwise explicitly noted.

© 2012 Kevin Yee

Find Kevin on Social Media

Readers are invited to join Kevin on Facebook, where he offers regular "Where in Walt Disney World" photo quizzes.

On his public Facebook page, Twitter feed, and Google+ account, he also offers regular smaller updates on the parks.

Kevin’s Disney Books

Kevin is the author of many books on Disney theme parks, including:

  • Jason’s Disneyland Almanac (co-written with Jason Schultz) is an exhaustive listing of every day in Disneyland history, from 1955 to 2010. You’ll find park operating hours, weather and temperatures, and openings and closings of any park attraction, shop, or restaurant… for every day in the park’s history.
  • The Unofficial Walt Disney World ‘Earbook 2010 is a photo-rich volume of 70 pages that park fans will find especially useful if they want to know what’s changed at WDW since their last visit.
  • Walt Disney World Hidden History: Remnants of Former Attractions and Other Tributes As the title implies, this is all about those little things in the parks that have significance to insiders and long-timers, but are never explained or highlighted.
  • Your Day at the Magic Kingdomis a full-color, hardcover interactive children’s book, where readers decide which attraction to ride next (and thus which page to turn to) - but watch out for some unexpected surprises!
  • Mouse Trap: Memoir of a Disneyland Cast Memberprovides the first authentic glimpse of what it’s like to work at Disneyland.
  • Tokyo Disney Made Easy is a travel guide to Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySeas, written to make the entire trip stress-free for non-speakers of Japanese.
  • Magic Quizdom offers an exhaustive trivia quiz on Disneyland park, with expansive paragraph-length answers that flesh out the fuller story on this place rich with details.
  • 101 Things You Never Knew About Disneyland is a list-oriented book that covers ground left intentionally unexposed in the trivia book, namely the tributes and homages around Disneyland, especially to past rides and attractions.

More information on the above titles, along with ordering options are at this link.