Mid-November is IAAPA time, as the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions brings their enormous annual expo of theme park products to the Orange County Convention Center. The 2015 event, the second-largest IAAPA ever, seemed slightly less frenetic than some past years, but there was still plenty of free food to sample (I rediscovered Beaver Tails, flat funnel cakes once sold in Epcot's Canada), swag to collect (Lego toys and real pearls were this year's premium giveaways), and ... oh yeah ... new rides and games to test out.
Zippier zip lines
A couple of years ago, zip lines were all the rage at IAAPA. You'll still find a few, mostly integrated into increasingly popular indoor climbing courses. But Extreme Engineering stood out on the show floor this year with their Cloud Coaster, a full-circuit zip line that pulls dangling riders uphill before releasing them into a course of curves and drops. I've done roller coaster-style zip lines before (notably at Forever Florida) but the lift mechanism was a novelty, and whizzing through the air with my feet dangling just above conventioneers' heads was one of the best thrills I found on the expo floor.
Zombies are (still) coming to get you
Longtime horror fans may look at today's ongoing zombie renaissance with a mix of bemusement and exhaustion, but the living dead's popularity with the general public doesn't seem to be over yet. Zombie-inspired products at this year's IAAPA expo ranged from plush toys to a paintball-gun-festooned hayride truck, and animatronic lurchers sprayed "blood" in my mouth inside two separate haunted houses. The big zombie news was a partnership between Sally Corp. (creators of Six Flags' hit Justice League: Battle for Metropolis dark rides) and AMC Networks to build an interactive "very dark ride" based on The Walking Dead, with riders attempting to kill walkers while collecting supplies inside locations from the TV series. No theme park has claimed the concept yet, and (as with Universal's use of the license during Halloween) the show's living leads' likenesses aren't included, but the impressive robotic corpse on display made me optimistic.
Getting hands-on with Legos
Blasting baddies with a plastic gun is all well and good, and many manufacturers had shooting gallery attractions on offer. But Triotech has done away with the doodads and is allowing riders of their upcoming Legoland Ninjago dark rides to interact with nothing but their hands. I got a brief demo of their new Maestro technology, which uses a Kinect-esque sensor to let you fling bolts of 3-D lightning with a flick of your fingers. When finished, guests will glide past sets and video projections, waving their arms to launch colorful blasts at the blocky bad guys. It took a bit of trial and error to calibrate my aim (hopefully you'll be able to practice in the queue before boarding), but Maestro could be the most exciting advancement in interactive rides since Disney's Toy Story Mania.
The '80s are back in the arcade
Over in IAAPA's arcade area, it's looking more like 1985 than 2015, thanks to a revival of interest in icons from the Reagan era. Super Mario's new full-body Olympic simulator threatened to do to my middle-aged ankles what his early Nintendo games did to my thumbs, while Namco's World's Biggest Pac-Man machine is just like I remembered it, only on a screen taller than I am. My favorite gaming blast from the past was Ghostbusters, a new sit-down shooter blending computer graphics with physical ping-pong balls that players launch at Slimer and the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. Who ya gonna call ... when you run out of quarters?
More Ds are out, VR is in
I'm grateful to report that the Dimension Wars, which saw 3-D attraction vendors trying to top each other with extra Ds, seems to have died down. Although there was the odd Asian vendor still hawking "9-D" simulators, the D's day has passed, and VR is again ascendant. The new generation of virtual reality headsets, from Google Cardboard to Oculus Rift, was out in force to preview or enhance a number of advertised attractions. Dollywood is letting fans ride their Lightning Rod launched wooden coaster before it's built by way of a 3-D, 360-degree YouTube simulation, and multiple manufacturers demonstrated motion simulators whose screens were replaced by headsets (most of which I found too blurry or bulky for comfort). Mack Rides blew everyone else out of the expo by sending them up I-Drive to Fun Spot, where they temporarily rigged the Freedom Flyer suspended steel coaster with Samsung VR headsets. I took it for a spin, and was immersed in a sci-fi CGI cityscape under attack by a giant robot. As the coaster soared and swooped, I seemed to evade explosions and dodge collapsing buildings, turning a tame family coaster into an epic E-ticket. If this is the future of attractions, beam me up!