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Virtual uncertainty



At theme patks of the future, will corn dogs still be bad for you?

What do you see in the future as attractions for amusement parks? I ask. The gypsy fortune teller sways inside the glass booth like a drunk. She utters some words about the hand of fate and a neon pink card drops out of the box. The future is on the floor.

Will there be bigger roller coasters? Better rides? Games you can actually win? The message reads: This card entitles you to receive a free set of 100 fortune cards with the purchase of a new "The Fortune Teller" game. The gypsy is still again and people continue to stroll by, looking at the rides and games that are, for now, in their immediate futures. So it looks as though in the future, amusement parks might not be that different after all.

This is the scene at the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) convention recently held in Orlando, and let me tell you, it's the greatest day anybody besides Hugh Hefner has ever spent at work. Except for the vendors at this gargantuan display, the rest of us are really at the fair. As far as jobs go, today I've grabbed the brass ring.

Brass rings and things of that old carnival nature would seem, according to an IAAPA press release, to be on their way out. And any group with a staff of 20 and a budget of $9 million should know what it's talking about. Aside from the timeless quest for a roller coaster than makes you feel most like a trailer in a twister and the public love of anything with a movie or TV character in it, IAAPA heralded virtual reality as "this year's must-do's." Not only this, but we're told that salads and frozen yogurt are now being gobbled up by amusement park-goers, too. Does this mean that melodious cries of "SEE the amazing HEADLESS WOMAN!" are a thing of the past? My god, are they going to take away our corn dogs?

Strolling around the IAAPA floor, it sure doesn't seem that way. There's nothing virtual about all this stuff, except for maybe the Celebrity Heads, a lightweight sculpture that performers wear like masks. So what you get are Cher, Mikhail Gorbachev, Dr. Ruth and Jack Nicholson as if they had encephalitis.

The House of Horrors not only has escaped hokiness as time marches on, but improved special effects have made it more gorgeously grotesque. Ungodly realistic mutilated bodies hang from a scaffold over the crowd, but the scene stealer here is the half boy. Sitting in a box over the heads of the crowd, there is nothing below his torso and, outfitted in Igor-style harnesses, he moves robotically. Most of us just think it's clever movie magic until one person in the crowd says, "He's real. Look behind the box. You can see his legs." Just as I'm about to do this, the alleged animatron reaches out to a woman in the crowd and scares the bejezus out of her. He is real, the trick is done with mirrors, but even having seen the rest of him, you look directly at him and swear he's only half there. Seduction is that much more seductive when you're shown how it's done and it still works on you.

Still curious, nay, concerned, about virtual reality overshadowing such a wondrous display as this, we cornered one buyer, William Diggan, from the Street of Fun in Niagara Falls, Ontario, a place that knows an awful lot about goofball amusement. Was VR really IN?

"Nobody's gotten virtual reality to the point where it's marketable," he says. "You can't get the numbers through it in enough time to make it profitable. It's a static attraction." If not virtual reality, what's he looking for? "You don't know what you're looking for when you come in, but you become creative when you're here."

There's too much stimulation to really consider simulation, so despite my curiosity about the virtual reality thing, I decide to go looking for creativity and find what will end up being my absolute favorite vendor.

The company is called Toyworks, out of Benicia, Calif. All you need to hear is that they have a game called "Surgery." You don't get your own scalpel and mail-order degree; it's not that involving. It's basically a giant version of "Operation" from Milton-Bradley, where you used metal tweezers to pluck the organs, but if you touched the sides, the patient's nose lit up and a buzzer would sound, meaning you blew it, Charlie. This version is the size of a banquet table and 120 people an hour can play, beating virtual reality by about, oh, 116 people.

But the best Toyworks invention by far is the simplest. Ten feet in front of you is a seven- foot-long pretend shark with its immense jaws open so that a fair-sized swimmer could fit in. Directly before you is a small catapult and at your feet is a bucket full of feet, hands and other severed limbs. How many body parts can you fling into the shark's mouth in the allotted time? That's creative gaming, geared to the minds of our psychopathic youth. And it was the most fun of the entire day.

Despite the threat of salads and yogurt, we were delighted to see that funnel cakes and greasy burgers still were readily available. And vendors actually have come up with new and tastier ways to jack up your cholesterol level. Zartic Inc., of Rome, Ga., has invented Sirloin Steak Nacho Chipz -- kind of like Chicken McNuggets, only with sirloin steak on the inside and nacho chip coating on the outside. They're super tasty and excellent for walking around, pointing and taking the occasional grab out of someone else's batch. Try that with a salad.

Now about the corn dogs. No corn dogs, no fair. You wouldn't think that anything could improve this white-trash delicacy, but State Fair Corn Dogs out of Dallas, Texas, has invented bite-sized corn dogs and corn dogs with jalapeño and cheddar crammed inside. The State Fair vendor say she's sold a lot to school systems. Gives you a warm, greasy glow, doesn't it?

"In our industry the tactile things are still the most popular," says the IAAPA's Susan Mosedale in a post-convention phone call. But she also says that high-tech fare, "not just virtual reality, but motion simulators, animatronics, movie- themed attractions and screen games," are gaining popularity. Ambling around the giant Orange County Convention Center we didn't see much virtual reality, but that's part of that style of amusement: you can't see it unless you're in it. There was a whole section dedicated to high-tech that I completely missed, lured by the blinking lights of reality. I was not alone. "We had 1,100 companies exhibiting for four full days ... It's almost impossible to see everything," Mosedale says.

But I did find something tactile: a shooting gallery. Steve Ehlers, of Ehlers Star Galleries, assured me that even if I was a lousy shot, I should give it a shot. It's always therapeutic to pick up a gun, and since shooting galleries kind of went out with pinball and 8-tracks, it was great to find one, especially a new kind that picks up your shot with a light sensor and, when you connect, a frog croaks (not literally), or something like that. As I was having trouble handling a rifle of that size, the flirtatious, funny Ehlers, who from what I can see can't see at all, tells me, "Hold it close to you, don't be scared. You want to nuzzle the gun."

Now that's what I call reality. And very, very amusing.

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