Over the half-decade I've been attending the annual International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions trade shows at Orlando's Orange County Convention Center, I've observed up close the impact of the Great Recession as expressed in spin-and-pukes. Though always eye-popping, the weeklong exposition of carnival contraptions and entertainment equipment hit a ride-geek high back in 2007, when Italian manufacturer Zamperla demonstrated their then-new Disk'O and drop tower in the center of the jam-packed indoor midway. Each show since has featured fewer and fewer firsthand opportunities for fun, as manufacturers tightened their marketing budgets and buyers appeared more interested in extracting money from existing audiences than installing the next blockbuster ride. The result, at least since the turn of the decade, has been a run of IAAPA expos where you were more likely to get nauseous from eating pizza samples than enduring G-forces.
If there's any glimmer of hope that our economy might be on the upswing (at least as far as the leisure industry is concerned), it may be found in the return of honest-to-goodness thrill rides to the floor. As in days past, Zamperla led the way with a portable prototype of the Air Race ride they recently installed in Coney Island's revived Luna Park. I was strapped into an airplane-themed seat and sent yo-yo-ing upside down in random oscillations while spinning swiftly around a central tower studded with enough flashing LEDs to induce epilepsy in a stone. As enjoyably excruciating as that was, I liked Moser's Freestyler even better. You ride this one standing up as you swing on the end of an enormous pendulum, swiveling in circles as you shift your weight at the end of each arc; it was the closest I'll ever come to feeling like Tony Hawk on the half-pipe. And this year, along with the inflatable slides and geodesic domes, the event's outdoor annex included a Ferris wheel and other oversized attractions in the parking lot. I took a spin on A.R.M.'s Rock Star, and was pleasantly surprised by the sideways spinner's deceptively swift snap.
Of course, these old-fashioned, inner-ear-damaging erector sets are now competing with digitally driven thrills. The monopoly on simulator rides and 3-D films once held by Disney and Universal has long since eroded, and there are now clones of Spider-Man-style virtual reality attractions offered at every price point. The next big thing in dark-ride vehicles is the trackless simulator car, such as the one SeaWorld showed off from its upcoming penguin-centric Antarctica expansion. Wireless technology enables autonomous movement in endless variation, with rides able to adjust the intensity of motion. While SeaWorld's imposing eight-passenger sample was immobile, ETF put their smaller-scale example of the technology through its paces; it was mesmerizing to watch it slide and swivel untethered behind a white picket fence.
Unfortunately, the glut of motion-enhanced multidimension movies continues unabated. Triotech's Zombies shooting game-slash-ride gave the adrenaline rush of Walking Dead meets Call of Duty, but it was the rare exception. Most of the 4-D, 5-D, 7-D and X-D experiences I endured forgot the D's of depth, detail and dialogue. On the other hand, more traditional video games may be on an upswing – despite the well-publicized death of American arcades – judging by the next-generation Wizard of Oz pinball tables, Pac-Man coin-ops and Angry Birds plush prizes.
Still, it was heartening to discover that, despite the omnipresence of silicon-fueled high-tech fun, high-touch still has its place. At least a half-dozen firms were ballyhooing high-speed high-air adventures; Spectrum Sports' Mobile Zip Line provided me a 28-foot overview of the hall and an 80-foot slide back down. Climbing walls in every shape and size were spotted, and the sight of a tethered teen tottering atop a "staircase" of green telephone poles nearly gave me a heart attack.
And once again, Pale Night Productions' display of horror effects proved the most touching. I navigated their pocket-sized (but marvelously detailed) haunted house and left with a faceful of fake brains.
Finally, a word on the most important fun-fair factor: the fried food. Sadly, none of the snacks I sampled this year stood out, between the flavorless waffles, burnt candied nuts and knockoff Dippin' Dots. But the "RockTop" – a 15-cent plastic hot dog/nachos tray that snaps atop your fountain beverage lid – is so ingenious, I can't imagine how I've managed to eat at the movies all these years without one.