This week’s SATURDAY SIX presents the Inaugural 2015 Theme Park Awards. This weekend, while the rest of the world is preparing for The Oscars and spending hours watching awards given to films they haven’t even heard of, let alone watched (not to mention the outright Best Picture snubs of Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America: Winter Soldier), readers of this column will be able to see their favorite theme park attractions get the attention they deserve. The Golden Burgy, theme park media’s highest award, is being handed out to the rides, shows, restaurants, and experiences that truly stood out over the past year.
Just as the Academy Awards hand out their lesser prizes before the main show, we’d like to present two of our minor awards before we get to the big ones. First, a Golden Burgy goes to the Holy Land Experience in the category of Best Theme Park Food Pun for their Garden of Eaten Chicken Salad Sandwich. Interestingly enough, Holy Land had all the nominees in this category including JerusaLamb, Land of Milk (no honey,) and My Cup Overflows Souvenir Refillable Cup. The category of Biggest Theme Park Free Fall experience was the tightest race of all the nominees. Falcon’s Fury at Busch Gardens was the favorite to win, but the coveted Golden Burgy instead went to SeaWorld’s stock price. Now that’s a drop.
With those out of the way, allow us to present to you the Inaugural SATURDAY SIX Theme Park Awards, starting with…
# 6 – Best New Ride Experience – Diagon Alley’s Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts
What else needs to be said about Universal’s newest E-Ticket attraction? The queue for Escape From Gringotts is one of the best in theme park history, loaded with magical details from the Harry Potter films. There are incredible goblin animatronics and million dollar chandeliers hanging above that make the Gringotts Bank lobby almost an attraction by itself.
Unlike IOA’s Forbidden Journey’s “best of” trip through the first four Potter films, Escape From Gringotts places guests directly into events from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II. Ingeniously showing a movie scene from another perspective, Escape From Gringotts takes Universal’s motto of Ride The Movies to the next level.
Worst New Ride Experience – Being attacked by bees on Rip Ride Rocket
While just a minor blip on the radar in 2014, the story of Rip Ride Rockit having a minor problem with bees was enough for us to envision the plot of a new horror film.
# 5 – Best New Voice – Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees
With song titles created by J.K. Rowling herself, Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees belt out wizarding world tunes in a show that has quickly become one of the best live acts in theme park history. The character of Celestina Warbeck was one that was only mentioned briefly in the Potter books (J.K. Rowling has since gone on to write a small historical essay on Celestina for Pottermore) but Universal Creative took that small piece of coal and pressed hard enough to produce a true diamond.
Worst New Voice – Hermione Granger on the Hogwarts Express
With as pitch perfect as everything in Diagon Alley is (Kreacher at 12 Grimmauld Place, Knockturn Alley, and King’s Cross Station to name just a few examples), it’s a shame that the voice actor Universal got to play Hermione Granger is so off key. For a quick scene on the Hogwarts Express, voice actors did the dialogue for Dan Radcliffe (Harry Potter) and Emma Watson (Hermione Granger,) and while the new Harry is passable, the Hermione voice is so off that it becomes distracting. How this has not already been fixed is mind boggling, and we here at the SATURDAY SIX offices will volunteer our services to voice a new track.
# 4 – Best New Place to Sleep on Property – Cabana Bay Beach Resort
Just as the original Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade changed what theme park fans can expect from a themed “land” inside a park, Cabana Bay Beach Resort has redefined what we should expect from a value resort. From a lazy river, to a bowling alley, to already having multiple designs for it’s refillable mugs (please take note, Disney), Cabana Bay provides an amazing amount of amenities at a price point that you can’t say no to. Need more reasons? How about multiple bars (including one that serves PBR in a paper bag coozie), a sandy beach, and multiple fire pits to cook s’mores at. Cabana Bay is the new gold standard for value resorts in Orlando, period.
Worst New Place to Sleep on Property – Anywhere but a hotel at Walt Disney World
We don’t know what they are putting in the water at Walt Disney World, but lately the parks have reminded us of the planet Mal and the gang visit in Serenity, with people just going to sleep regardless of where they are. This one is hard to figure out, because no matter how tired you are, isn’t it worth the effort of getting to an actual bed? As gorgeous as the four Disney parks are to look at, none of them are all that comfortable to sleep in. (In fact, Disney has made efforts to make even sitting more uncomfortable, as it gets people in and out of their restaurants faster.)
# 3 – Most Plussed Area of Any Property – Universal Orlando’s City Walk
Red Oven Pizza Bakery. Antojitos Authentic Mexican Food. VIVO Italian Kitchen. Hot Dog Hall of Fame. Bread Box. Cold Stone Creamery. A new and improved Starbucks. The Cowfish. Let me repeat that last one, The Cowfish. One last time for those who haven’t got the memo, The Cowfish.
Universal completely redid its CityWalk dining last year, and we haven’t seen this many home runs since Barry Bonds popping the Clear like a Pez dispenser. Amazing pizza at Red Oven… the must-try table side guacamole at Antojitos… the Buffalos and Bacon cocktail at The Cowfish… the delicious Nutella shake at Bread Box… Nonna cake at VIVO… the mustard bar at Hotdog Hall of Fame… all this and more combine to make me almost forget Universal got rid of my beloved NASCAR Sports Grille. (#TooSoon)
Most Minussed Area of Any Property – Disney’s Hollywood Studios
The American Idol Experience. The Legend of Jack Sparrow. The Studio Backlot Tour. Even the park’s icon The Sorcerer’s Hat. All gone to join Sounds Dangerous! in that great big Disney landfill in the sky, with not a word of a single replacement.
# 2 – Best Attention to Detail – Diagon Alley’s Dragon
The theme park weenie to top all theme park weenies, the dragon sitting tall atop Gringotts Bank in Diagon Alley is impressive from afar, but gets even better the closer you get. Once you get beyond the massive wingspan and the fact that this dragon BREATHES ACTUAL FIRE, you start to notice all the little details. The dragon’s neck, which has been rubbed raw from years of being chained up. The weathervane which would have been at the top of building crushed by the dragon’s belly. Even more spectacular, the theming of the dragon goes all the way to the back, even though no park guest will ever see it.
Walking into Diagon Alley from the London Waterfront is one of the biggest “wow” moments in any theme park across the world, and looking up to see that dragon is a major part of it. Usually, the closer we get to things in the park the more we spot the imperfections… the wires… the “man behind the curtain” if you will. But the closer we get to the dragon inside Diagon Alley the more real it becomes. That’s true magic.
Worst Attention to Detail – Disney’s Art OR Animation Resort
No one is a bigger fan of Disney’s Art of Animation Resort than us, so when Twitter user @FairestRunofAll got this picture during runDisney’s marathon weekend, we just had to shake our heads. Hey, typos happen. At least it wasn’t Boredwalk or Pork Orleans.
# 1 – Best New Theme Park Troupe – Tales of Beedle the Bard
We haven’t seen an awards sweep like this since Titanic in 1998, but Diagon Alley continues its theme park dominance with the live performances of the Tales of Beedle the Bard. The Wizarding Academy of Dramatic Arts (WADA), a roaming street troupe, performs hourly in Diagon Alley to recreate the tales from Wizarding World’s equivalent of Aesop’s fables. Using Michael Curry puppets (Finding Nemo: The Musical, Tapestry of Nations, many Olympic performances) WADA brings to life the morality plays central to the Wizarding World.
The Tale of Three Brothers is a parable about the power of wishes and instant gratification (and the basis of the Deathly Hallows,) while The Fountain of Fair Fortune is an inspirational tale about the rewards of overcoming ones hardships and setbacks. Performances from the talented, comedic cast celebrate the many types of dramatic personas to create a real personality that melds with the the stories. This unique style adds style and texture to an already realized world. Highest possible recommendation.
Worst Much Better Than We Thought They’d Be New Theme Park Troupe – The Canadian Lumberjacks in World Showcase
We’ll always miss Off Kilter, and while we wanted to hate this new lumberjack troupe in Epcot with the burning rage of a 1,000 suns, we have to admit it’s not as bad as we thought (hoped?). The cast is pleasant enough and the addition of the log rolling competition was a good one. Making it Team Red vs. Team Blue was a simple, but effective way to get the crowd invested into the show and allow us to root for someone even though most of us know absolutely nothing about any of the lumberjacks (or lumberjills for that matter. Or is it lumberjanes?)
Drinking a cold La Fin De Monde while watching the lumberjacks in the Canada pavilion? We can think of worse ways to spend our time.
HONORABLE MENTION – Best Addition to Downtown Disney – The Parking Garage
Many guests have simply stopped coming to Downtown Disney over the past 18 months because of how miserable the parking situation had become. It was already the worst at the entire Walt Disney World resort, but it got ten times worse when Disney finally bit the bullet and closed down several of their lots to build a parking garage. While not completely finished, the garage opened at the very end of last year and has made getting to Downtown Disney a lot easier for most guests. Recently the garage has activated its light system, which alerts guests to open spaces and can save a lot of time fruitlessly driving up and down lanes looking for a spot.
Worst Addition to Downtown Disney – The Parking Garage
It certainly didn’t help that as soon as the garage was partially open, Disney closed down even more lots to start building a second garage. There is also a ton of roadwork going on right next to parking garage, all of which combines into some road rage conditions just trying to get to garage. However, all of this is something that had to be done, and at least the majority of people are having an easier time parking at Downtown Disney then they have in years.
That said, getting out of the garage is another story and we’ve already heard plenty of nightmare stories from people being stuck in the garage for 30-60 minutes. Just as standing in a Disney bus line without having any idea when the next bus is coming seems to make time stand still, sitting in a parking garage unable to move (and having no idea why) can drive even the most patient person insane. At least on the highway when you are backed up and standing still you can assume there has been an accident. A parking garage that doesn’t even charge people getting this backed up? In a word, frustrating.
The NASCAR Sports Grille Memorial award for most maligned theme park attraction – TWISTER…Ride It Out!
It never fails, no matter how many times I tell visiting friends and family to skip Twister during their one day trips to Universal Studios Florida, they are drawn to it like flies to bug zapper (meanwhile I have to beg them to see the criminally underrated Horror Make-Up Show.) So, instead of fighting the tide at every turn, I have decided to embrace Twister and go Full Paxton™.
Be sure to read this article on the “Secrets” of the Universal Orlando Resort, where you can learn more about taking the Control Room tour of the attraction and check out Mark Kleinhenz’s Best Worst Attraction article on Twister. Lastly, be enthralled by Len Testa’s ode to Bill Paxton.
So there you have it: The Inaugural 2015 SATURDAY SIX Theme Park Awards (AKA “The Burgys”). See you next weekend for the latest installment of the SATURDAY SIX, where we’ll look at something fun from the world of Disney and Universal. If you had fun, be sure to check out The Magic, The Memories, and Merch! articles, or, for your listening pleasure, check out the Pardon the Pixie Dust podcast. You can also catch Your Humble Author’s attempt to make 1,000,000 typos on Twitter: @derekburgan
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Special thanks to crack staff photographer Brandon Glover, Parkscope Joe, Best Week Ever’s Daisy Lauren, photo wunderkind Mike Sperduto, MASTER photo manipulator Matt Cleary, and Megan Stump for their invaluable assistance with this article. Be sure to also check out Brandon on The Park Blogger podcast with co-hosts Aengus Mackenzie and Brian Carey.