It took more than 12 hours over 3 days, and about 25,000 steps, for me to be able to say I saw almost everything at last week's International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions trade show in the Orange County Convention Center. IAAPA is ordinarily one of my favorite annual Orlando events, but even though this mega-convention of carnival contraptions and confections was bigger and brighter than ever, for the first time I found myself, unexpectedly, somewhat exhausted by the similarity of many exhibits. Perhaps I'm just getting jaded, or perhaps there's actually less innovation in the industry this year. Either way, I still found at least seven exciting ideas inside the vast expo hall that I'm hoping to see implemented inside Central Florida's attractions.
Funnel Sticks and Chilly Ribbons
First things first, let's start with what's most essential: the eats. With fewer savory samples (excepting Noble Roman's pedestrian yet eternally popular pizza) I was unable to fill up on freebies this year, but Funnel Sticks (fried dough with sugar … on a stick!) were by far my favorite new hot snack. And despite stiff competition from Philadelphia Water Ice and Hershey's Ice Cream Shake Shoppe (coming soon to the Fashion Square Mall), Chilly Ribbons – delicate sweetened shaved snow – took top treat honors in the frozen division.
In only a few short years, 3-D has gone from next big thing to an overexposed afterthought, thanks largely to the annoying glasses. While no one has perfected glasses-free 3-D yet, a couple of products are getting closer using lenticular filters, like the old-fashioned moving postcards. 3DMe's photo booth produced a picture with my head floating inside a frame (let me out!), and Whoosh3D combines a screen protector and an app to turn your iPhone into a 3-D screen … kinda sorta.
Inflatable obstacle courses
Inflatable playgrounds have grown far beyond the bounce house you had at your 8th birthday. Not only are some more than 40 feet tall, some models (like Galaxy Multi Rides' charmingly named Toxic Rampage) look ripped right out of Takeshi's Castle. Want to re-enact your favorite MXC episode? Just buy 50 yards of padded mazes with mechanized obstacles and your friends will think that Wipeout is filming in your backyard.
Water video games
Aside from Stern's stellar Star Trek pinball table and a kinetic Batman driving game, America's video game market is entirely exhausted, based on the oversized coin-op retreads of iPhone games like Jetpack Joyride and Plants vs. Zombies on display. Why pay per play when you can own it on your phone for a buck? But there's still some entertaining weirdness in the Far East's arcades; I especially enjoyed a couple of Asian shooting games that used a water gun instead of the usual laser, making for a more tactile experience.
"Immersion" is still the amusement business' favorite buzzword, and projection domes are an increasingly popular way of achieving it. Holovis and Barco partnered to produce the best version of the concept I've seen yet. Their three-projector system creates a seamless 270-degree image whose brightness and clarity surpasses the spherical screens inside Universal Orlando's Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride. They told me it could be adapted for 3-D projections, but even in two dimensions, it was more than immersive enough for me.
Interactive projection mapping
Montreal's Moment Factory, another partner of Holovis and Barco, showed off their projection mapping expertise on a snazzy scale model of Barcelona's Sagrada Família cathedral (search online for astounding footage of them illuminating the real thing in 2012). Alterface took the technology a step further, demonstrating a shooting gallery that mixes animated physical props with interactive video projections that seemingly bring static set pieces to life. African Magic, their shooting "GameRide" built around the concept, looks a lot more fun (and racist) than Disney's Toy Story Mania.
Speaking of Toy Story Mania, it's just one of the iconic E-Tickets (along with Soarin', Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones Adventure, Forbidden Journey, Spider-Man and more) that Fantawild shamelessly ripped off – er, paid tribute to – for their enormous empire of Chinese theme parks. Other ride manufacturers weren't much more creative this year, but S&S more than made up for it by announcing one of their first Polercoasters will break ground in Florida (they won't yet say exactly where) in 2014. At more than 500 feet tall, the observation tower will host the world's tallest roller coaster; waiting the 24 months it will take for the massive tower to rise might prove even more torturous than its record-setting first inversion.