This year, I'm going into Turkey Day thankful for having survived my 13th visit to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions' annual IAAPA Expo. Fueled by little more than free samples of unidentifiable fried objects, I put in over 20,000 steps crisscrossing the Orange County Convention Center seeking out sneak peeks of the future of themed entertainment. Here are some of the intriguing innovations and up-and-coming trends that caught my eye:
As usual, Universal and Disney didn't make an official appearance on the show floor, but a Legends discussion panel hosted by Bob Rogers of BRC Imagination Arts offered some in-depth insight into the new Star Wars Galaxy's Edge from the Imagineers who created it. Creative director Chris Beatty drew some backlash on my Twitter feed for suggesting that the impressively detailed land itself is the "third attraction," after the Millennium Falcon simulator and the yet-to-open Rise of the Resistance dark ride. But project lead Scott Trowbridge promises fans, "We're just getting started," saying that further additions are "coming down the pike" beyond the previously announced Galactic Starcruiser hotel and implying that more live entertainment and Datapad interactive missions are in the works.
Some of the biggest unveilings on the IAAPA show floor were of ride vehicles for upcoming Florida-bound roller coasters. Premiere Rides showed off a teal two-by-three-seat train with over-the-shoulder restraints for Icebreaker, an Arctic-themed quad-launched coaster coming to SeaWorld Orlando in spring 2020; they also distributed a technical fact sheet revealing a surprisingly small hourly capacity of 680-810 riders per hour. Rocky Mountain Construction showed off the stylized crocodile-shaped cars (with lap restraints only) that will ride Iron Gwazi's rails once conversion of Busch Gardens Tampa's defunct wooden coaster into a steel hybrid is completed next year. And Shaq himself showed up to squeeze onto the jet ski-style vehicle for Bolt, the first-of-its-kind powered coaster being installed aboard Carnival's Mardi Gras cruise ship, which sets sail out of Port Canaveral next fall.
Although the trackless vehicle that ETF unveiled for Legoland's Lego Factory Adventure is only announced for the under-construction New York resort, the ride – or at least the Holovis video technology used to transform guests into yellow mini-fig toys – would be a perfect fit for their Lakeland park. One ride I pray isn't coming to Florida: SBF Visa demonstrated a small roller coaster whose car spins vertically, randomly flipping riders head-over-heels like a possessed hamster wheel. I took one for the team, and limped away with a throbbing collarbone. Fun Spot representatives were spotted checking out the booth. For the sake of their guests' spines, I hope they were only kicking the tires.
Now that any consumer can pick up a $400 stand-alone Oculus Quest virtual reality headset (which I saw being used in several IAAPA demos), VR is being passed over by the major park players, instead finding a home in smaller location-based experiences and arcades. However, there's still some exciting potential in augmented reality, which blends CGI with the real world. Korea's Lotte World showed off their charming Micro Venture dark ride simulator, where riders experience the real-time POV of a miniature train traveling through an elaborate model. Playbox brought carnival pitch games into the digital era with a tractor-trailer-sized display that lets you toss balls at approaching zombies. ValoMotion offers rock climbing walls and trampolines enhanced with interactive projection mapping. And in a tent outside the main convention hall, B-Back Inc. demonstrated lenticular "hologram displays" that generate a convincing pop-out 3D effect without glasses; if these had caught on, home 3DTV might not have died such a quick death.
Free fair food is always an important factor at IAAPA, and once again Beaver Tails drew the longest lines with hot samples of their chocolate-smothered doughy delights. This year, they doubled down by dousing them in frozen ice cream balls from Dippin' Dots, who brought their cuddly new mascot "Frozeti" to the expo. My favorite freebie, however, was the generously full-sized sample from Ben's Soft Pretzels, an Amish-inspired outfit from Indiana making their first appearance at IAAPA.
While Orlando remains the center of the theme park universe, the majority of new projects are bound for the Middle East and Asia – even an All-American IP like Sally Dark Rides' Garfield attraction is going first to Six Flags in China. Dynamic Attractions headquarters their design business in Orlando, but their latest blockbusters – like the Batman robotic arm simulator at Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi and the dueling motorcycle-powered coaster at Resorts World Genting in Malaysia – have all landed overseas. So why do industry leaders stay in Central Florida?
As Dynamic's communications director John Kageorge told me, "This is definitely fun central, and there are so many suppliers that collaborate in a very friendly way. Sometimes there's no dollars that exchange at the end of the day, but a concept moves forward. You can't find those conversations in a bar in Romania or a cafe in Buenos Aires, but it happens here in the Starbucks line in Orlando."
– This story appears in the Nov. 27, 2019, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.