The overall sentiment at this year’s IAAPA was that Orlando's attractions business is poised for a post-pandemic bounce

Meeting new friends at IAAPA
Meeting new friends at IAAPA Photo By Seth Kubersky

One year after the international amusement park industry's annual Orlando convention was canceled due to the coronavirus, the IAAPA Expo returned to the Orange County Convention Center last week.

Although the show floor was somewhat scaled back from its 2019 peak — with curtains concealing vacant corners that formerly overflowed with display booths, and my beloved BeaverTails pastries nowhere to be found — the overall sentiment among attendees seemed to be that the attractions business is poised for a post-pandemic bounce.

As usual, even though Central Florida is home to an ever-increasing number of important attraction manufacturers, the majority of the big new rides announced at IAAPA are headed elsewhere. However, attention seems to have shifted away from parks in the Middle East and Asia and back to North American destinations.

For example, Jacksonville-based Sally Dark Rides is creating both a new interactive pirate-themed ride for Monterey Bay's Cannery Row in California and an ambitious volcano adventure for Iowa's upcoming Lost Island theme park, while Triotech's new "Chaos Carnival" HyperRide is headed to Clifton Hill at Canada's Niagara Falls. Even the Orlando-based Fun Spot chain is having Rocky Mountain Construction build their new record-beating ArieForce One rollercoaster at their Atlanta location, instead of on I-Drive.

The good news is that, without quite so many international vendors vying for attention at IAAPA, some smaller local companies were able to grab the spotlight for a change.

Lakeland's Legoland kicked off the convention by unveiling a wheelchair-accessible balloon-ride vehicle for the new Peppa Pig Theme Park, which will be a certified autism center. And Give Kids the World Village will soon be home to a THEA Award-winning AniMakerspace by Garner Holt Productions, where families can learn about designing and programming audio-animatronics from the company that makes Disney's robotic characters.

Simulators and virtual reality continue to be big buzzwords at IAAPA, with attractions using moving platforms and 3-D headsets expanding into hot air balloons, monster trucks and even a virtual rollercoaster whose track rises and falls with the price of Dogecoin cryptocurrency. (I'm not certain that last concept for EnterIdea Group's AT360 spinning simulator is gonna make it to the moon.)

As a VR fan, I was most intrigued by the 360-degree wildlife documentaries produced by Immotion, creators of the Undersea Explorer experience recently installed at Icon Park's SeaLife Orlando aquarium. The intimate footage of humpback whales and Rwandan gorillas (filmed in cooperation with the Dian Fossey Fund) was astounding, despite the distraction of blocky encoding artifacts. I can't wait until virtual video can fully do justice to nature's reality.

My favorite discoveries at IAAPA typically don't come from the big-name brands, but rather from the upstart entrepreneurs trying to break into the business.

Steamroller Studios is an animation team headquartered in Mount Dora that's worked anonymously on projects for the major parks, but this year they were showcasing their talents under their own banner with one of the best demonstrations I found on the convention floor. Visitors to "The Haunting of Olivia" entered a Victorian sitting room, were strapped into a motion-simulating couch, and used handheld augmented-reality screens to hunt digital ghosts that caused physical objects to fly off the walls. Universal experimented with similar high-tech horrors in past years, but Steamroller's proof-of-concept takes haunted houses to a whole new level.

Another local up-and-comer to look out for is Josh Cohen, founder of Lake Mary's Immersive Arts, whose heart-stopping concept for an unharnessed freefall contraption — which sends brave riders plunging through a trap door into a computer-controlled net — was named a runner-up in the Innovation Awards from industry publication Blooloop.

Saving the best for last, my visit to the 2021 IAAPA Expo ended with the annual Legends Panel hosted by Bob Rogers, which reunited A-list theme park designers Thierry Coup, Phil Hettema and Scott Trowbridge to reminisce about creating Islands of Adventure's Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man attraction, which is still recognized as one of the world's best dark rides 22 years after its debut.

Trowbridge, who has since gone on to helm Disney's Star Wars lands, advised attendees to "work with people you like, and never grow up!" as the trio shared inspiring stories from Spidey's scrappy origins, when all the experts told them that mixing 3-D with moving ride vehicles was "impossible." Believe it or not, this Marvel-based blockbuster was originally supposed to star DC Comics characters before a deal with Warner Bros. to build "Cartoon World" fell through. The $100 million project was first mocked up in nondescript warehouses using hand-pushed vehicles built from 2-by-4s, with Bed Bath & Beyond curtains serving as rear-projection screens.

But nothing at IAAPA was as shocking or gratifying as Coup's response when asked to name his worst career mistake: "I wish I had stopped senior management from building the Fast & Furious ride."

Coup's mic-drop remark elicited roars of approval from the room. Let's just hope that his boss, Mark Woodbury, who is taking the reins of Universal Parks and Resorts from retiring CEO Tom Williams, feels the same way.

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