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Economy chills the thrill at theme park trade show in Orlando

ORLANDO — Zamperla debuted its new Surf's Up thrill ride at $365,000, a new whirling Barnyard kiddie ride at $267,000 and, specifically for the budget-obsessed during these trying economic times, a smaller version of its decade-old Kite Flyer at three-quarters of the old price.

"The buyers are very tentative," said Ramon Rosario, the Italian ridemaker's sales director. "But it cannot last, because the parks always must have something new."

About 1,100 vendors in a space the size of Tyrone Square Mall did their best Tuesday to woo buyers to their booths filled with the latest, greatest and sometimes the strangest at the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions annual expo.

Possibly coming to a theme park or arcade near you:

• The walk-in Haystack Dryer. The answer to park patrons drenched by rides who don't want a day of soggy shorts. For $2 or so, it dries a family of five in three minutes with infrared heat and fans. In Britain, the $50,000 unit is touted to pay for itself in a year.

• A $17,000 coin-operated Guitar Hero. After 30-million home versions were sold, the rock star game is headed for arcades, bars and movie theater lobbies.

• More realistic shooting games. The first shooting gallery to use plastic BB-size pellets as ammunition for a fake M16 or pistol hit the market. The triggers work only when pointed at the target wall.

• Help finding lost children. One system uses a leash-like harness. A Celebration-based company offers a temporary tattoo, so parents can paint their name and phone number on arms.

• Flogo. Helium-filled bubbles that form cloud-like custom shapes up to 4 feet wide visible up to 5,000 feet. Flogo debuted at the Olympics where it filled the sky with floating clouds in the shape of the Olympic ring logo. It's been seen in shapes of the VW logo and Mickey Mouse ears.

"We developed this just because of the poor economy," said Francisco Guerra, president of Snow Masters Inc. "That's when the parks need something new and different the most. We call it skyvertising."

The abundance of new products and ideas could not dampen the No. 1 topic for everyone in the amusements business — from the neighborhood game arcade to Walt Disney World. How long and deep will the recession be?

"Everybody is braced to get a haircut," said Bob Rogers, whose BRC Imagination Arts designs attractions for all the big Florida theme park companies. "The debate is whether it will hurt big destination parks or the small parks hardest, and how quickly things turn around."

Already Florida's big parks feel the slowdown. Walt Disney Co. reported decreased profits at Disney World in the third quarter and a bookings decrease for this winter. Universal Orlando reported a small loss and slightly reduced attendance.

Busch Entertainment Corp., which recently opened Junagala at Busch Gardens and the Aquatica Water Park at Sea World, fared better. "It may be just dumb luck, but we'll have attendance increases this year thanks to new attractions in what otherwise was a crummy year," said Jim Atchison, president of Busch Entertainment Corp.

Things are expected to get worse before they get better. The $400-million Hard Rock Park in Myrtle Beach is being auctioned off by a bankruptcy judge after its inaugural season. The owners of Cypress Gardens are trying to unload their 37 rides in hopes of raising enough cash to pay off $14.5-million they paid for the historic Winter Haven park that won't reopen until spring.

It's more than consumer spending. Big-ticket financing remains tight, and Fortune 500 corporate turmoil threatens lucrative sponsorships — General Motors pays Disney $10-million a year for Test Track at Epcot.

It's hardly that escapism is out of style. Most Americans still plan vacations. But they are cutting weeklong trips short to extended weekends. They vacation closer to home. They are driven only by deals. In Florida, the big parks cannot rely as much on the Europeans to save them this year as the recession spreads to other countries and the dollar strengthens.

"The economy shifted dramatically from irrational exuberance to irrational fear that has people too scared to spend, but it's cyclical," said John Robinett, senior vice president of Economic Research Associates, which did the feasibility studies for most big Florida theme parks. "Smart park operators are planning now for post-recovery."

Staff writer Mark Albright can be reached at Albright@sptimes.com or 727-893-8252.

Economy chills the thrill at theme park trade show in Orlando 11/18/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 19, 2008 8:01pm]
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