News Nuggets from Around Disney World – April 1 Edition!!

April 1 News Nuggets

It’s time for a special, April 1st edition of the Rope Drop [dot] Net News Nuggets! With so much to report on, we are going to jump right into the Nuggets, but please stay tuned for a special announcement at the end of the post!!

  • The Sorcerer’s Hat is Returning to The Studios – After a brief hiatus, the famed Sorcerer’s Hat is returning to The Studios. In order to allow for the new construction, The Great Movie Ride will be closing on April 15, 2016 to allow easier construction access to the courtyard. (NOTE: Rumors are the hat returning is only the beginning, and it’s just a matter of time until Epcot gets back its magic wand!)
  • Small World, Peter Pan, and the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh to close for refurbishment – After finally realizing that theme park guests universally prefer rides that involve sitting in nearly stationary vehicles while looking at a screen, Disney will be closing three of its signature attractions to replace them with ground-breaking technology that is referred to internally as “SCREENZ!”. When this transition is successful, Disney hopes to apply the same changes to its other attractions, starting with Kilimanjaro Safaris.
  • Illuminations to occur only during hard ticketed events – With the success of the yet-to-begin After Hours event at the Magic Kingdom, Disney has decided to expand its late night offerings to Epcot. In order to “plus” the event for its guests, Disney plans to move Illuminations to 2 hours after the park closes to regular guests. This later start time should give hard-ticketed guests a much better viewing experience of Disney’s classic nighttime show.
  • Park Hopper ticket now required to ride Splash Mountain, Tower of Terror, and Expedition Everest. – Following the success of Universal Studios’ strategy of making guests pay for tickets to 2 “quarter day” theme parks just to be able to ride on one of its rides, Disney will now require park hopper tickets to experience some of its most popular attractions. (NOTE: With the Park Hopper ticket now required to ride certain rides, guests will have to purchase the new “Preferred” Park Hopper ticket in order to actually “hop” between parks.)
  • Fulton’s refurbishment to include takeover by the staff of Lombard’s Seafood Grill – With so many restaurants at Disney Springs trying to raise the proverbial bar when it comes to dining, the owners of Fulton’s Crab House have decided to take things in a completely different direction. “What if we gave the crew at Lombard’s a clean slate?” a person familiar with the matter said. “Could they make a restaurant so bad that people would visit it just to see how bad it was?” It’s a lofty goal, but if anyone can set a new standard for horrific seafood, it’s the crew from Lombard’s.

That’s all for today’s special April 1 New Nuggets. Before we go, though, it’s big announcement time: After some recent articles on the interwebs, Elyssa and I now realize that (1) we’re too old to enjoy Disney World, and (2) we should be doing more “adult” vacations. So, we are happy to announce that we have started the process of rebranding the site to “Spanish Moss [dot] Net” to better align with our more “adult” focus. As part of this transition, you can expect more of our coverage be about the only theme park in Orlando for people “15 years old and older.” We hope you are as excited for these changes as we are!

(Sorry. No, really. I’m sorry. As bloggers, however, we are required to make horrible April Fool’s Day jokes. It’s in the code.)

Won't Epcot be Nicer without all these People?
Won’t Epcot be Nicer without all these People?

It might be a good time to buy your Disney World Tickets

Friend of the site, Josh Gonzalez, pointed out that Universal Orlando has raised ticket prices. Since a ticket price increase was expected, and since Disney normally raises its tickets around the same time as Universal, it might be worth considering buying your tickets now for any upcoming trips. The TouringPlans Ticket Calculator is a good place to find out where to get the best prices on your Disney tickets.

Rope Drop [dot] Net Interview – Ken Storey (Part 3)

Today we conclude our 3-part interview with Ken Storey. Since Part 1 was about Orlando’s (and Ken’s) past, and Part 2 was about Orlando’s present, it seemed to appropriate that Part 3 would be about Orlando’s future. (It also is quite timely, with yesterday’s discussions and votes about some of the area’s future projects.) Since I know none of you are here to read my intro, let’s get right to Ken:

Ken, using his powers for good. (Screencap via Chad Reno)
Ken, using his powers for good. (Screencap via Chad Reno)

Disney and Universal have already made major announcements about how they will be expanding their parks (Volcano Bay, Sapphire Falls, Star Wars Land, Toy Story Land), but have also announced some price increases in advance of those expansions completing. How do you see the landscape of Orlando evolving over the next 10–20 years?

It can really be summed up in five major parts: new visitors, density, harnessing local non-tourism industries, sports, and celebrating the existing neighborhoods.

The next 20 years will see Orlando shift from a second (or third) tier city into a truly world-class destination. While that may be good for locals (higher pay, more options, better services) it will also mean major price increases that will limit many Americans from coming as regularly as they do now. Demand, lowering travel costs, and more world class amenities will mean Orlando will see more high-income international visitors.

Unlike the international guests we now receive, I believe the focus will shift away from budget travel groups (like the ones Brazilian high schoolers use to come here with), and instead will focus on more customized, small group options. Volcano Bay has released one official piece of artwork and in it we see private cabanas. I interpret that as signal of who Universal Orlando will soon to be going after. While Cabana Bay is focused on the ‘American family’, and Sapphire Falls will be focused on the convention crowd, I expect new investments in the resort to focus more on the untapped, higher income guests.

Disney has already begun slowly but surely rolling out new, one-of-a-kind options for these kinds of guests. The key is to keep the authenticity of the theme parks intact while also allowing for more up charge options. I believe in 20 years you won’t have a simple gate fee ticket option. Instead, every ticket will be linked to meals, cabanas, extra parks hours, etc… via up charge options. Options that are currently baked into the cost of the ticket will also be separated from it. I will hate it, but I won’t be surprised if Magic Bands someday means an up charge for unlimited rides.

For example, I think Discovery Cove is a smart way forward but unlike there—where they provide that ‘resort like’ experience by limiting the number of guests—Universal and Disney will provide that same level of quality via technology, crowd flow, and other tricks.

While many of the changes on property will be hard to see without a TouringPlans-style super computer, off property the changes will be much easier to find. We’re already seeing foreign investment. Skyplex is harnessing the power of EB–5, the iSquare megamall is funded by a group of foreign investors, and Asians are leading the pack in vacation home purchases in numerous major neighborhoods in the region. With more high-income foreigners coming, we’ll see more major foreign investment. The new direct flights to Dubai have caused at least two major business expos (one in Dubai with Florida companies and one here with Middle Eastern ones). These new direct flights and the expansions at MCO will also help make Orlando another hub option between Miami and Atlanta.

The location of Orlando is perfect for connecting the United States east coast with South America, Africa, and beyond. Africa’s emerging economies will be major players within the next 20 years, and Orlando is already positioning itself to embrace that African nouveau riche. Just as we saw with the Europeans over the past 30 years, we’ll soon see with the Africans, South Americans, and Asians.

All of that is not to say ‘mom and pop’ from Kansas still won’t be coming, but, instead of a yearly trip, their trip will be every five or ten years. Also, when they come, they will encounter more ‘worldly’ and ‘big city’ experiences. The shift in dining options at Disney Springs and in Epcot testifies to that. The Orlando that was a pure escape with no worries is already gone. An Orlando vacation already requires more planning than a similar trip to most other equivalents in the U.S. (Orlando currently sits in between Kansas City and Indianapolis in population). An Orlando vacation will soon look more like a foreign vacation, where more extensive planning is required.

That will also mean more opportunities for visitors to go offsite. Non-bus mass transit is already in the works to link I-Drive, MCO, Miami, and downtown. Disney showed it was willing to link up to mass transit if it was done properly (even though that high-speed rail project ultimately died due to Tea Party interests). Disney also seems to be shifting away from the model of doing everything themselves. The new Four Seasons and the 3rd party hotels of Flamingo Crossing seem to be a better model. I expect more of that type of model in the future both on and off-property. I-Drive will focus more on convention and special events. South Florida will likely get full fledge casinos and—despite what many say—I’d expect at least 2 or 3 major destination casinos in the Central Florida region, especially along the coastline and in declining areas like 192.

We’re already seeing a changing of the guard in many of the smaller attractions around town. The older, lower quality attractions are dying (like CSI) while new, high-cost ones are being built (like Skyplex). This will mean that ‘mom and pop’ from Kansas will suddenly find themselves in a much more urban Orlando. The new I–4 Ultimate project that will include congestion based tolling lanes, digital signage, artwork, and ramp meters might be enough in its own to scare ‘mom and pop’ from ever renting a car in Orlando again. While this might not be good for today’s Boomers, Millennials seem to love urban areas and Orlando will shift to address that new ‘big city’ vacation desire of that generation. A shift we’re already seeing in the new density that is occurring along I-Drive and throughout downtown Orlando (which has a 95% apartment occupancy rate).

There will still be plenty of suburban areas, but even those will be less organic. Places like Winter Park and Celebration are working hard to grow while keeping their small town charm. The difference is these smaller ‘towns’ mean the region will soon have large bases of locals and tourists to harness in creating large scale special events. Celebration has proven these to be successful already with things like the nightly snow fall. Other communities in the region will find their own voice and special events. We’ve seen an increase in local farmers markets, holiday events, and food truck gatherings. I expect these types of community gatherings to grow and to work their way into Central Florida based vacations. I see no reason why—with a strong non-bus mass transit system—local weekly events couldn’t be as much of a draw for visitors as they are in places like Paris, London, or Hong Kong.

Orlando’s booming tech scene will also play a major role in the future of tourism here. All those new tech companies are looking for cool ways to showcase their goods and what better way than with new attractions or partnerships with existing ones. This is the model the mag-lev train is using, the train here isn’t designed to be a huge profit driver but instead will be used as a working sales example that others can visit. Harris IT did a similar thing with the Amway Center where they ‘pimped out’ the arena with their tech and making it the most technologically advanced basketball arena in the nation. The cool tech means visitors (and lots of Brazilians seem to be going to those Magic games) will remember their experience for longer. With MLS, NBA and rumors of another major league sports team moving here, sports will become a major aspect of Central Florida tourism.

This new diversity will also mean Orlando will find its own voice, linking up in part with Miami but also moving beyond just being known as that strip of land in between MCO and WDW.

The biggest question for me—and I understand that 20 years out might be a bit too soon for this,but I’ve yet to find a satisfactory answer—is how will public space tourism affect Central Florida? With a major space port here, will we see Land and Space vacations like we now see Land and Sea ones?

Conclusion

Wow. There is a lot to unpack in Ken’s response, but I’ll save for another day. I think Ken’s thoughts deserve to stand on their own. Instead, I’ll simply offer a huge, huge thank you to Ken for sharing all of this information with us. It was great to read.

If you enjoyed reading Ken’s thoughts, I’d encourage you to check out his podcast (the Orlando Tourism Report), his Orlando Weekly columns, or follow him on Twitter. After all, when it comes to knowledge about Orlando, you’re not going to find anyone better than Ken.

 

Since y'all demand it, here it is, one last time.
Since y’all demand it, here it is, one last time.

Rope Drop [dot] Net Interview – Ken Storey (Part 2)

As I mentioned in Part 1 of Ken’s interview, Ken’s knowledge of Orlando runs quite deep. In this part of the interview, Ken shows off that knowledge by delving into the “Orlando decade” of the 1990s. Let’s get right to it:

You talk about the 1990’s as not just the “Disney Decade” but as the “Orlando Decade”. Have you observed similar, wide spread growth over the past 10–15 years?

The 1990s were a very special time for Orlando. It wasn’t just the growth but the evolution of a small town into a global epicenter of entertainment. The 1990s growth slowed down dramatically post–9/11 and then all but stopped during the Great Recession. The 2000s growth was crazy but, unlike the 1990s growth, many of the plans never saw the light of day. I honestly felt very uncomfortable during the Recession, it was scary not seeing cranes in the skyline. It was odd passing empty fields that remained that way for seemingly years. It was very different.

Dazzling (Photo by Ken)
Dazzling (Photo by Ken)

I would actually say the growth we see now is more off property than on it. The 1990s (well 1989–1998) saw Disney World open 2 theme parks, 2 water parks, 11 resorts and major expansions to retail throughout the resort. Universal opened in 1989 causing major investments in that area of town. A lot of the focus during the 1990s was on the Big Three. We saw I-Drive and 192 open many hotels during that same time period but most of the focus was on Orlando coming to grips with it being a major global player. Most of the other growth in the region was new residents. By some estimates I’ve heard pre-recession Orange County saw 1,000 new residents per week move in.

The growth we see now is different because we now understand that this is a ‘big city’ and we will need to address the issues that arise (like homelessness, traffic, sustained growth, etc) in ways that big cities address them. Right now we currently have a metro population that’s comparable to Cincinnati or San Antonio but on top of the regular population we now have over a million tourists a week visit. The leaders (and residents) seemed easier to amaze in the 1990s with promises of cool buildings, new homes and increased tax bases. Now we’ve all grown up some, now we know what questions to ask and understand that not all development is good development.

I think that places like Gatorland do find it harder to exist in today’s ‘big city’ Orlando. Partly due to the increase in on-site offerings and due in part to the sophisticated tourist Orlando now attracts. The mom and pop tourist who drive in from the mid-Atlantic have given way to international tourist, tour groups and others who expect something more. When you pay thousands of dollars to fly here and stay here you expect more. That shift to flying also means a smaller percent of tourists have their own vehicles which make things like Gatorland harder to access. MCO is still the #1 car rental location in the world but even so many tourists are afraid to tackle the large, always crowded road network that has emerged around Orlando over the past 20 years.

I’m hopeful the shift to mass transit in the region will help tourist rediscover places like Park Ave, Mt Dora and downtown Kissimmee. I’m less hopeful places like Jungle Adventure can survive the shifts in demographics and travel patterns of the modern Orlando tourist. Gatorland is lucky as it sits next door to property being developed for a Phase 2 SunRail station (the Tupperware station), so while it would be a bit of a hike it will be accessible from rail transit.

Overall the growth we see now seems less magical, less over the top. Its more of in-fill, more of growth for things that are needed. I mean the Planet Hollywood building, the OCCC, the announcement to make Universal into a huge resort complex with 3 hotels and a 2nd theme park- we don’t see that type of growth today. What we see now is enhancements to the existing structures of the city. The exception to that might be Lake Nona but even that isn’t that odd when compared to things like Celebration. It’s not as ground breaking. Even UCF’s growth has become a bit common place at this point. That’s not to say any of this growth isn’t great, it’s just not a shocking as it was when it first really started to crank up. I honestly don’t know what could be announced for the area that would be as large as the developments in the 1990s. Luckily though we now know how to better sustain the growth and not completely pave over the natural environment that we were so quick to dismiss during that 1990’s growth.

Thanks again to Ken for taking time to put together such a comprehensive breakdown of Orlando’s “present.” We’ll be taking a look at Orlando’s future, tomorrow.

Once again, a "typical gator portrait" (Photo courtesy of Ken, Caption by @JoshGonz)
Once again, a “typical gator portrait” (Photo courtesy of Ken, Caption by @JoshGonz)

Rope Drop [dot] Net Interview – Ken Storey (Part 1)

This next entry in the Rope Drop [dot] Net Interview Series will be slightly different from what we’ve done on the site before. Ken Storey (who you may know from Twitter, the Orlando Tourism Report, his Orlando Weekly columns, or various other places on the internet) graciously agreed to be interviewed for the site, but, as the interview evolved, we realized that there would be too much content to include in just one post. So, today we are starting a 3-part series on Orlando’s Past, Present and Future. The first entry (Past) is included below (and features some background on Ken’s past as well), and the additional entries (Present and Future) will come Monday, November 30, 2015 and Wednesday, December 2, 2015, respectively. I hope you enjoy it.

Ken...Preparing for a "typical" gator wrestling show?
Ken…Preparing for a “typical” gator wrestling show?

Orlando (and Ken’s) Past

Many people who know you online think of you as someone with a great deal of knowledge of all aspects of Orlando, not just Disney and Universal. How did you develop such a wide range of knowledge?

It’s a bit of a long story. When I was in 6th Grade for Social Studies I was required to make a portfolio on the state that included things like the history, main economic drivers, etc. Well back in 1996 there wasn’t a lot of ‘internet’ and ‘smart phones’ to help me with the project so my mother took me to the Visitors Welcome Center just north of Leesburg on 441. It was a small wooden building with a tall roof that stuck out even then so I had always wondered what was inside. I met the most knowledgeable people there, got cool brochures on amazing places all around the state and left with a new fascination with the state. That was the final click broke me and created my obsession.

Looking back there have always been hints of it. Growing up I had always been told the stories of life in Florida. My mother, raised here from the age 1, grew up in Venice and was friends with numerous Ringling Circus families. Then as a teenager she moved to Central Florida and lived on what is now the Sanford Airport, for a time they even kept pigs on what is now the runway. These stories of her babysitting for E-Tickets, mixed with the magic of growing up in later 1980s/early 1990s Florida have always been my inspiration to keep going.

I was still in the womb the first time I visited Magic Kingdom (an awful July 4th, 1984 in which the transit system couldn’t hold the crowds forcing many, including my mother who was very pregnant with me, to walk from the front gates to the parking lot).

Ken has also always been into construction
Ken has also always been into construction

My father has always been in construction. He taught me how to read blueprints with a job he was bidding. It was an oddly simple blueprint plan, unlike most this one only featured enough details for what he was bidding on (the doors), that plan was for Mission: Space at Epcot. Some of my strongest and fondest memories growing up are memories of Epcot (it was the first place I witnessed webcams and saw a robot that could mow the grass on its own).

My parents, who both had been in Florida a number of years, had many friends working at the mouse and when that ‘new park’ (Universal) opened in town we were some of the first to visit it. Luckily for us that new park had a meltdown on most of their rides and we were given wads of tickets, the last of which I finally used in 2007. All those tickets meant that I was able to not only spend my childhood with the magic of Epcot but in this new park that did things a bit different.

After that initial visit to the Welcome Center I became a regular visitor there and any time I passed a thing of brochures I had to stop to pick a few (a habit I’ve yet to break). Soon my walk-in closet was redone as my very own ‘welcome center’ where I kept rows of brochures. When family would come to visit I’d make sure to advise them on all the cool stuff to do in town. Most other kids in school took up sports, odd collections of meaningless items like rocks or cards with random facts on them or other seemingly (to me at the time) pointless hobbies but I kept my brochures.

The 1990s were a very odd time for Central Florida. 4 major theme parks opened in the course of 9 years, it wasn’t just the Disney Decade- it was the Orlando Decade. And here I was growing up right in the middle of it. My father went from working at a local lumberyard to helping build entire new towns. Places like The Villages and Celebration appeared almost overnight. My father, knowing what was taking place, was smart in showing me the construction. I saw the cow fields that became Celebration and drove the endless roads filled with houses still under construction in The Villages and west Orange County. All of this inspired me, all this change happening more or less because of one person. We’re taught as children that we can change the world but here I was truly witnessing it, the entire reality of Central Florida rapidly changing and all thanks in large part to one guy.

So throw all of that in a blender and I think it’s pretty easy to see why I’m the completely obsessed with this ever changing region.

That’s it for Part 1. I hope you enjoyed getting a little more background on Ken and some early Orlando. The next installment will be up on Monday, November 30.

Cabana Bay to Add 400 Rooms Before 2017

Universal Studios announced a 400 room expansion to its Cabana Bay Resort that will open in 2017 along with the new Volcano Bay waterpark. This move will bump Cabana Bay up from 1,800 rooms (comparable in size to Disney’s All-Star Sports & Movies or Corando Springs) to 2,200 rooms (which puts it has larger, by room count, than any Disney resort except Pop Century.) Though I have heard really good things about this hotel, having that many rooms really makes me wonder how common areas (the pools, restaurants, etc…) will be impacted.

Universal Studios Announces Enhancements to the The Incredible Hulk Coaster

On its Close Up blog, Universal Orlando announced that The Incredible Hulk coaster will be closed from September 8 of this year through the summer for some enhancements:

I’ve been lucky enough to get a sneak peek at plans for The Incredible Hulk Coaster, and I can tell you the overall experience is going to feel more immersive and high-tech.

As always, I prefer announcements that actually outline what “enhancements” an attraction is going to be getting. I guess we are going to have to wait for that, however.