IAAPA. Say it with me, please: "eye-AP-pah." It's the sweetest sound in the theme-park business. Take the entire north and south wings of the massive Orange County Convention Center and fill them to capacity with every product imaginable that's offered at an entertainment attraction, then set loose a sea of polo-shirted salespeople for a week of networking and negotiations. To an industry outsider, it's like a free day at the fair, except the carnies have business cards and there are grown men in ties on the kiddie rides.
Since 1918, the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions has been an advocate for the "common defense and common advancement" of amusement-park operators. But this year's expo came on the cusp of the most challenging economic environment in a generation. On the surface, everything appeared much as it did at last year's convention, with only a slightly detectable decrease in attendance. But in the two days that I spent on the expo floor (still not nearly enough time to examine every exhibit), I detected a chill wind whistling through the carnival tent.
I saw less emphasis this year on the "next big thing," and more on making the most of what attractions already have in play. There were few ambitious new domestic projects; the most impressive concept art displayed at the convention will be realized in places like Dubai and China. Many attraction offerings were from the bargain bin, with Ital International and Rides-4-U heartbreakingly advertising Coney Island's and Cypress Gardens' stables of "high-quality rides in search of new homes." Instead, I saw less expensive but still innovative ways for park operators to "plus" their products and hopefully pull more coin from visitors who can still afford a vacation. Here's my subjective sampling of products and proposals that may impact your parkgoing experiences in the years to come:
At last year's convention, ride manufacturer Zamperla took the thrill-king crown with its oversized exhibit. The powerful Parachute Drop was back this year, but a simple circular flyer replaced the award-winning Kang-A-Bounce, and the fun-but-tame Surf's Up substituted for the far-wilder Disk'O Coaster. This backed up a general trend away from the terrifying and toward the family-friendly instead. The biggest, most awesome ride on the convention floor this year was Felimana Luna Park's fabulously old-fashioned three-story classic carousel. Other signs of tough times included Premier Rides, still proudly displaying the Maximum RPM! Ferris-wheel coaster they built for the short-lived Hard Rock Park, and Sally Rides' fantastic Forbidden Island dark ride, which remains a blue-sky concept in search of a buyer. One notable exception was Maurer Söhne's scale model of Universal Orlando's under-construction Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit, which finally provided concrete confirmation of the prototype coaster's groundbreaking track layout.
Food freebies took a big hit at this year's expo, both in quantity and quality. As it was last year, the longest line was for the Noble Roman's Bistro, which can reportedly turn out 4,000 pizza slices an hour. I also saw a machine that shot out piping-hot flat cakes at an astounding velocity and volume; shame they tasted like freeze-dried ass. The best thing I tasted was old-fashioned sarsaparilla served from Chuck Wagon Soda's wooden barrels — probably because the Pennsylvanian company uses real sugar instead of crappy corn syrup.
4D and interactivity
While there were fewer low-end simulators shown this year, the buzz around 4D and interactivity continues unabated. Many vendors were offering incremental upgrades to existing products, like Alterface, which demoed a new Pirate's Plunder program for their excellent Desperados horseback simulator/light-gun video game. Everyone and his brother had a 3D movie with rocking seats and spritzing water; I wish local parks had the peripheral-vision-friendly wraparound glasses offered by FantaWild Adventure, a jaw-droppingly detailed park in Wuhu, Anhui, China. The only thing I experienced that felt like a true breakthrough was the Augmented Reality demoed by Total Immersion, where guests used digital "binoculars" to experience well-rendered CGI creatures interacting with physical sets in real time. Already in use at France's Futuroscope park, this technology looks like the next evolutionary step beyond clunky '90s-era virtual reality.
Many vendors at IAAPA don't make theme parks; they make theme parks better (or at least a tad more expensive). I chatted with the big man at Colorvision International, vendors of the photo ops offered as you exit Universal's attractions. He showed me an e-mail-enabled kiosk intended for the Simpsons Ride (installed only in Hollywood because Orlando didn't ask in time). And he explained why the scores disappeared from the Men in Black photos: They suppressed sales to the losers. He also confirmed that his company will handle the cutting-edge cameras being installed in every seat of the new Rockit coaster (though he wouldn't let slip if said souvenir would be delivered on DVD or virtually via YouTube).
Most interesting upcharge opportunity: Haystack Dryers' speed-drying booths, coming soon to a water park near you, can take an entire family from drenched to bone-dry with just three minutes of hot firstname.lastname@example.org