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Thrill makers take a bumpy ride 

If you go by the press releases, the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions convention next week at the Orange County Convention Center sounds like it's going to be one hell of a show. More than 1,300 companies from 100 countries are expected to take part. Nearly 640,000 square feet of the center's cavernous exhibit halls will be filled with elaborate displays sponsored by nearly every major attraction-manufacturer in the business.

Those who attended IAAPA's last Orlando convention back in 1997 described the event as being completely overwhelming, a sort of a "Fellini meets P.T. Barnum on acid" experience. Many participants cited the convention's Magic Midway -- the enormous outdoor-attractions showcase where the theme-park technology of tomorrow is used to make people throw up today -- as being one of the real high points.

Sounds like a pretty fun place to spend a few days, right? Well, think again. The mood among many of the attendees who are already in town can best be described as grim or somewhat resigned. While these folks are eager to glimpse all of the cutting-edge technology that will be on display, a great number of them just came to Orlando because they're looking for work.

Take a gander out on the convention- center floor, and you're sure to see dozens of Imagineering's brightest and best -- talented folks who used to work for the Big Cheese until the Mouse began nibbling away at its staff. Many of these people have been out of work for months now. So here they are, résumés in hand, making the rounds at IAAPA, hoping to land work with even the most minor of players in the theme-park industry.

The only problem is that it looks like no one's hiring. Why? Well, it has been a pretty lousy year for the entire outdoor- entertainment industry. The big players here in Central Florida are trying to ride out the tough times by coming up with clever ways to deal with their cash-flow problems. Witness Sea World Orlando's new EZ Pay plan (which allows Florida residents to buy annual passes to the theme park on an installment plan) or Universal's decision to shutter one wing of its Portofino Resort temporarily. Not to mention Disney's decision to postpone indefinitely the opening of its Pop Cen-tury Hotel or to mothball the French Quarter section of its Port Orleans Hotel for the next few months.

But what happens when you can't be clever with your finances? Sadly, you close. Which is what happened to a lot of little amusement parks around the U.S. this year. Great old historic places like Whalom Park, which has been entertaining folks in Central Massachusetts for nearly a century. Or brand new beauties like the Bonfante Gardens theme park in North California, which barely managed to limp through its inaugural season.

And the financial tough times are sure to get tougher in the year ahead. In the wake of September's terrorism, the entire theme-park industry is just now learning that it's going to have to spend tens of millions of dollars more on security and higher insurance premiums. Not to mention the additional millions that these operations will have to lay out for extra advertising and discounts to lure back nervous would-be travelers.

These unanticipated additional operational costs are sure to force even more of the smaller amusement parks to close. Which might explain the rather grim sense of humor that many of the IAAPA participants have this year.

Take, for instance, this faux questionnaire that is making the rounds among arriving delegates. It includes such cutting inquiries as:

I am here at the IAAPA 2001 Convention and Trade Show because:

a) Desperately seeking new job.

b) Made reservation before business tanked; thought what the hell.

c) Given the current national crisis, thought it would be a great place to avoid crowds.

d) Still (barely) holding onto job, want to lord it over poor wretches clutching résumés in sweating hands while I still can.


I would describe the current state of the themed entertainment business as:

a) Horrible

b) Abysmal

c) Catastrophic

d) Oh the HUMANITY!

Mind you, the folks in charge of the convention are trying to put the best possible face on the situation. IAAPA Pres-ident Bret Lovejoy insists, "We have registered more attendees and exhibitors for this year's show than any" in the past.

Which may be true. But how many of the delegates are on hand to try to sell their skills rather than to buy for their parks is another question entirely.

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