Like San Diego's Comic-Con is for superheroes, and Las Vegas' CES is for electronics, Orlando's ever-expanding IAAPA Expo – held last week at the Orange County Convention Center – is the worldwide theme park industry's biggest annual convention. In honor of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions' 100th anniversary, I walked almost half a marathon around their show floor, covering countless press conferences seeking a sneak peek of fun's future.
After a dozen years of attending the show, I've given up on trying to predict which proposed products will become blockbusters and learned to simply embrace the surreal spectacle. After all, this year's most popular photo op was an inflatable bounce house shaped like a giant poop emoji. And the video I tweeted that went viral (7,000-plus views in the first 24 hours) wasn't of some new roller coaster or advanced animatronic ... but of a guy in an inflatable Tyrannosaurus Rex costume running Adventure Solutions' ninja warrior obstacle course. Welcome to 2018.
Universal and Disney don't exhibit at IAAPA (through Disney Parks chairman Bob Chapek showed off the spinning cars for Epcot's Guardians of the Galaxy "storytelling coaster" during a breakfast presentation), but SeaWorld Parks made major announcements for Central Florida. Premier Rides opens Tigris, which will be Florida's tallest launch coaster, at Busch Gardens Tampa in 2019; Aquatica is getting KareKare Curl, a ProSlide family raft ride with a vertical wave wall; and SeaWorld's upcoming Sesame Street area will include a Super Grover's Box Car Derby kiddie ride from Zierer. Unfortunately, if you want to ride Sally Corp.'s interactive Sesame Street dark ride (starring a flocked and feathered Big Bird animatronic), you'll have to fly to PortAventura World in Spain.
Legoland Florida lifted the curtain on their Lego Movie World expansion, which will add several new Bricksburg-based attractions. The land's headliner will be Masters of Flight, the first m-Ride by Brogent Technologies. This domed-screen flight simulator – which will be themed to Emmet's Triple Decker Couch – is similar to Disney's Soarin', but the seats rotate into position rather than lifting off the floor, which should be less scary for kids (or parents) who are afraid of heights. A new five-story, 150-room hotel is also on its way to the Winter Haven resort.
VR and 4D reached an apex last year, and 2018 brought a raft of ridiculously off-brand virtual ride platforms, including knockoff Tron lightcycles and shuddering egg-shaped seats. There were a few innovative advances on display, like Ultrahaptics' virtual touch projectors that let you feel invisible objects, and "Rabbids Team Battle" from Triotech and Ubisoft, where dozens of players compete simultaneously to shoot crazed bunnies.
IAAPA's best VR experience was actually outside the expo at Pointe Orlando, where Nomadic's first permanent location has just opened. Founder Doug Griffin formerly worked for ILM on Star Wars and Harry Potter films, and his attention to cinematic detail is evident in "Arizona Sunshine," a zombie apocalypse adventure inspired by the popular SteamVR title. Nomadic's tactile effects – not only wind and vibration, but physical objects from pizza crusts to corpses – are as immersive or better than The Void at Disney Springs, and the visuals and puzzles are far superior to Main Event's Zero Latency VR, my pick back in 2016.
This year's crop of arcade coin-ops relied heavily on familiar names from the past. Unis' magnet-driven physical "Pong," last year's hit created by crowdfunded hobbyists, returned in classic cocktail table form, while the new machines – "Tomb Raider," "Halo," "Rampage," "House of the Dead" – are all reboots of decades-old titles. For fresh ideas in gaming, look to escape rooms like Hero League: Attack of the Cyber Titan, the debut experience from Orlando-based Mobile Escapes. Creative director Dan Carro (who attraction fans may know from Gatorland or Old Town's Legends haunt) guided me through two superheroic adventures filled with moving hydraulics and multimedia effects, all cleverly crammed into a single-wide trailer. This one stood out not only for portability, but for logical puzzles that require communication and teamwork instead of obscure trivia or dumb luck.
Finally, at every IAAPA I'm wowed by the latest award-winning concept from Dynamic Attractions, which has a development facility here in Orlando. Frustratingly, whether it's a circular moving theater or self-driving off-road vehicle, few of their recent pitches have come to fruition. The good news is that Dynamic's latest invention – the "Dual Power Coaster," a launched motion-base coaster that looks like a cross between Disney's Dinosaur and Test Track ride systems – is actually opening next year at an undisclosed Malaysian park; my guess is 20th Century Fox World. Better yet, their long-gestating Mission Ferrari SFX coaster (think Gringotts on steroids) and Batman: Knight Flight robotic arm dark ride are both nearing completion in Abu Dhabi, and a new partnership with old-school carnival manufacturer Chance Rides will help them finish future projects quicker. Looks like 2019 might be the year for me to finally book that trip to the UAE.