An amusing summer

Here's what's new at theme parks

Published: Sunday, May 30 2004 12:00 a.m. MDT

Passengers on The Beast roller coaster at Paramount's Kings Island take a stomach-churning ride around the amusement park.

Associated Press

ORLANDO, Fla. — Visitors will find few new cutting-edge rides at the nation's amusement and theme parks this summer, despite starring roles in attractions based on the Mummy, SpongeBob SquarePants and Crocodile Dundee.

Industry leaders say this year is one of the least thrilling in a while when it comes to innovative rides. Many of the parks are still recovering from flat attendance during the past couple of years and are coasting off past investments or putting their money into sprucing up restaurants, bathrooms and other amenities.

"There doesn't appear to be anything that's new and unique," said Bill Coan, principal of ITEC Entertainment Corp. in Orlando. Coan did not include Universal Studios' new Revenge of the Mummy ride in Florida and California in his thumbs-down assessment; his firm worked on the Mummy ride.

Only about $500 million was invested in parks around the nation for this year, while in past years that figure has been as much as $800 million, estimated Dennis Spiegel, president of International Theme Park Services Inc. in Cincinnati.

"The attendance over the last five years has been flat, especially since 9/11," Spiegel said. "It has definitely had an impact on the business and how they spend money."

Summer is the most important time of the year for the nation's $10.3 billion amusement park industry, which earns most of its business during the months when children are out of school. It is the time for the parks to show off their newest, heart-pounding rides.

The ride generating the most buzz for this season is Revenge of the Mummy, a dark-ride roller coaster opening at a cost of $40 million each at Universal Studios' parks in Florida and California. The ride uses technology found in magnetic levitation trains to take riders through a faux-Egyptian cat-

acomb inspired by the movies "The Mummy" and "The Mummy Returns." The ride is filled with humanlike robotics, screens that re-create walls crawling with beetles and a track-switch that allows cars to zoom backward into a drop.

"Those movies were . . . a great mix of action, adventure, thrills, humor — everything we thought we could take and create a physical version of," said Scott Trowbridge, vice president of design and creative development for Universal Parks & Resorts.

Another stomach-churner opening this month is Hersheypark's Storm Runner, a coaster with a hydraulic launch that sends riders speeding up to 72 mph in two seconds. The $12.5 million ride at the Pennsylvania park has a 180-foot drop, two corkscrew rolls and a 135-foot Cobra loop.

Universal's primary competitors in Orlando — Walt Disney World and SeaWorld Orlando — passed on opening any new rides for the summer.

But their sister parks in California are replicating popular attractions from the Florida parks. Disney's California Adventure is opening the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, a free-fall ride that is one of the most popular at the Disney-MGM Studios park in Orlando.

SeaWorld San Diego opens Journey to Atlantis, a combination water flume and roller coaster that first put SeaWorld Orlando on the thrill ride map four years ago.

Anheuser-Busch-owned theme parks Busch Gardens in Tampa and SeaWorld Orlando have emphasized shows over rides this summer.

Busch Gardens launched "KaTonga," a Broadway-style, African-themed musical that features costumes and life-size puppets reminiscent of the musical, "The Lion King."

SeaWorld Orlando for the first time is offering an outdoor night show that will entice visitors to stay past dinner time. "Mistify" projects images on a screen of mist and uses dancing fountains, underwater light shows and fireworks over its waterfront. Next door, sister park Discovery Cove is allowing guests to swim with bottlenose dolphins at night and then offering a gourmet dinner afterward for a cool $249 per person.