Today it is my great pleasure to interview Robert Niles, the founder and editor ofThemePark Insider, a consumers’ guide to the world’s most popular theme and amusement parks. ThemeParkInsider.com has been named the top theme park site on the internet by Forbes and Travel + Leisure magazines and it has been a finalist for the Webby Award; it is read by more than 200,000 people each month. Robert is a former Walt Disney World cast member who has since worked as a staff writer, editor and website producer at top newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. Theme Park Insider has been featured in the New York Times, ABC’s Good Morning America, Wall Street Journal, Readers Digest and Life Magazine.
Robert is the author of “Stories from a Theme Park Insider,” a priceless collection of stories that take you behind the scenes of the Magic Kingdom to give you an insiders look at how a theme park works, while also sharing funny and embarrassing moments from the world’s most popular theme park.
Hi Robert, thanks for doing this interview - I’m sure you will inspire many travelers to visit the world’s greatest theme parks.
What inspired you to create Theme Park Insider?
I started what became ThemeParkInsider.com in 1999 because I wanted to create a website where all the content was provided by the readers – a community where people shared information, instead of simply reading stories written by pro reporters. That’s a common template for the Web now, but in 1999 it was still somewhat radical.
I see that you are currently living in Pasadena, CA. What’s it like to live in Pasadena in comparison to Orlando? Is living next to a theme park all it’s cracked up to be?
Your question reminded me that I’ve actually lived across the street from both of Universal’s US theme parks – in Orange Tree across Turkey Lake Road from Universal Orlando and in the Oakwood Apartments across Barham Blvd. from Universal Studios Hollywood. Pasadena’s about 45 minutes from Disneyland, but it’s close to Burbank and Glendale, which is home to many attraction design firms. So that’s nice for me in doing reporting.
But, yes, it’s a blast living near enough to a theme park that you can get an annual pass and earn the value from it by going over the park on a regular basis. It allows you to experience the parks in a much less pressured way. Instead of trying to cram everything into a single trip, you can just go over and do one or two things, then head home. Or even just go to hang out and enjoy the atmosphere. And a churro, of course.
What’s the most memorable event you experienced while working at the Magic Kingdom?
Well, I wrote a whole book of them, but I’d have to go with the say that it snowed at Disney World. That was a surreal experience, with fog enveloping much the of the Magic Kingdom, tourists and cast members alike utterly unprepared for the cold and the massive crowd that packed into The Land pavilion at Epcot, because it was the warmest large space on property.
Which theme park is your favorite? Over the years, which theme park attraction has made the biggest impact on the industry?
Tokyo DisneySea, with Islands of Adventure and Disneyland close behind. No question at this point, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is roiling this industry like nothing seen in decades. Disney can’t throw enough money at attempts to blunt Universal’s momentum with Potter, which is a great thing for theme park fans. And Universal’s responding with a massive expansion of Potter into at least two more parks. Even SeaWorld’s stepping up its game to provide more attractions in Orlando. It’s just a great time to be a fan/
Other than theme parks, where else do you like to travel?
I love roadtrips, and we end up in a good number of national parks during the summer. But I love cities, too, including New York, Tokyo and Singapore.
Which part of the Magic Kingdom’s Fantasyland renovation/expansion excites you most?
The Beauty and the Beast restaurant. I know that’s heresy for a ride fan, but we’ve already got Little Mermaid here in California (and it’s a fun ride – people in Florida will love it. I’m looking forward to the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, but not as much as I’d love to see what Disney does with bringing the experience of eating a meal at the Beast’s Castle to life. That was the high point of the movie, and if Disney can create just a fraction of that magic in the dining experience, it could be a highlight of the park.
Here’s Robert’s On-Ride Video of The new Little Mermaid attraction at California Adventure:
What would you have done differently when reimagining Disney California Adventure Park?
Get it done two years earlier? Theme park fans in Southern California are voting with their money and their feet, and their message is clear – they want more Disney. Even when the expansion opens in June, Disney will still need more capacity at the Resort. If there was room, they could build and fill a third park, easily. As it is, they should be working on new expansions at both Disneyland and California Adventure, even beyond Cars Land. Disney simply can’t build fast enough to meet demand here.
Now, driving that demand is the fact that Disneyland is just beating up Disney World on show quality and attraction design right now. It’s by far my favorite of the two US Disney resorts.
What are you expecting from The Wizarding World of Harry Potter expansion at Universal Studios Florida and the all new land at Universal Studios Hollywood?
I think that the Wizarding World expansion into Universal Studios Florida will be a huge hit, and a turning point in the competition between Universal and Disney in Orlando. That expansion will make Universal a true multi-day destination, perhaps bringing a significant number of theme parks fans to Central Florida who won’t visit Disney at all on their trip.
As for Hollywood, I don’t know what to expect. There’s no sign in the park of Potter’s arrival, and I’ve not heard word one on where in the park it will go, or what to expect. I assume that the park and creative team are focused on getting Transformers open in May before moving on to Potter, but I think that Universal got cornered into making an announcement last December before it would have preferred to do so.
How do you think Animal Kingdom’s announced Avatar Land will compare to the never-built Beastly Kingdom?
Who knows? I think the Avatar plans are as undefined at this point as the USH Harry Potter plans. It’s way to early to tell what will happen. But it will be nice to see some more creativity put into WDW. It seems like Florida’s been just following Disneyland’s lead for years. It’d been nice to see the east coast get back in front on something.
Which item would you consider to be the most common thing people forget to bring with them to a theme park?
Patience. You’re supposed to be having fun. Forget the minute-by-minute attack plan, and allow yourself to have a good time. If you’re enjoying the park, then you’re using a good strategy. Relax.
Which theme park attractions do you look forward to see opening in the coming months?
Radiator Springs Racers. I think that Journey to the Center of the Earth in Tokyo is one of the two best rides in the world (after Harry Potter) and I can’t wait to see what Disney’s created using a similar ride system and indoor/outdoor setting in Anaheim.
After that, I just really want to be able to get a Butterbeer here in Southern California.