ORLANDO — Here's an economic indicator for you: Lizardman.
Ripley Entertainment Inc. hasn't had an amusement park trade show booth in 11 years. Yet Erik Sprague — a herpetologist with a surgically split tongue, pointy filed teeth and skin tattooed with green scales — appears in its booth today pitching a new Guinness World Records attraction.
"The economy is turning around and we are poised for the opportunity," said Edward Meyer, the top buyer for Ripley, which runs 31 oddities museums including Louis Tussaud's and Ripley's Believe It or Not.
Ripley joins 1,100 vendors this week at the sprawling International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions Expo in Orlando. It's the annual one-stop shopping mall where theme parks, zoos, museums, show people and arcades from 90 countries see the latest rides, midway games and foods, plus everything from climbing walls to ticketing systems.
And Ripley is evidence that for the first time since the recession began, vendors and attractions are acting like a slow economic recovery has taken root.
"It's been an ugly two years, but things are starting to pick up," said Ken Bell, president of Dollywood, a theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. "After sitting out capital spending completely in 2009, we're getting back in our regular cycle."
Attendance and vendor space are up slightly at this show, which offers a walk across just about everything new sold to the attractions industry.
"There's a sense of optimism. The parks want to spend, but it's partly offset by banks unwilling to lend," said Bob Rippy, chairman of IAPPA, who owns a Wilmington, N.C., water park.
Thrill-ride makers continue pushing the gut-wrench envelope. The world's fastest coaster just opened in Dubai, with a top speed of 150 mph. S&S Entertainment has a new 70-foot giant swing ride — armed with pneumatic power assist — that hits 55 mph and subjects riders to forces three times that of gravity. Straight-down vertical coaster drops are old hat. S&S claims the record now with a coaster that actually dives down, inward and slightly upside down at 113 degrees.
For $90,000, the New Zealand inventor of the Zorb globe, an 8-foot-tall clear plastic bubble that takes somebody tucked inside for a roll down a hill or a wild ride in a pool offers a new twist. He tosses three people and 20 gallons of water inside what he calls the Fishpipe, then spins the big clear plastic barrel on a rotisserie up to 45 times a minute.
"It passed the drunk test," said Kyle Kenworthy, who owns one of the first three in the United States. "We set it up near a bar at the Indy 500 and nobody threw up all day."
On the food front, an Italian company offers a frozen crepe that's ready to eat in 10 seconds. Dippin' Dots, the flash-frozen treat line, is adding coffees, frappes and three low-calorie, carb-free sour ices sweetened with stevia. Discovery Ice Cream debuted a coin-operated robot arm that dishes out custom, touch-screen orders of three flavors of ice cream and six candy toppings.
Technology will intensify other experiences, with better 3-D projections in sit-down attractions and small mobile simulator rides sporting special effects like smoke, spritzes and puffs of air. The movie Avatar now comes in a pinball game, Terminator Salvation is a big-screen video shooting game and the new Xbox Kinetic, Microsoft's controller-free answer to Nintendo's popular Wii, is headed to local video arcades with six games. That is, if arcade owners can be persuaded to pay $5,000 for a digital player.
Meanwhile, many parks are experimenting with smart phones and similar handheld devices that help patrons find their way around, check the length of ride lines, compare menus and sign up for line-dodging fast-pass systems. One outfits swimsuit-wearing water park patrons with a plastic wristwatch that tells time, works as a debit card and enables them to book times for busy slides.
"There will be no reason to stand in line again at a water park," said Steve Drake, chief operating officer of Orlando-based Lo-Q PLC.
The economy, however, means not everybody's buying new. One vendor was willing to take $199,000 for a 3-year-old Zombieland 3-D simulator ride.
Mark Albright can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8252.