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.
"If you think about the guest behaviors in our park, they love our daytime, but this is a way for us to really exploit the nighttime for the first time," said Dave Goodman, vice president of entertainment at SeaWorld Orlando.
Officials at the nation's regional parks are hoping for better weather than they had last year when frequent rain kept visitors away during the first half of the summer.
After more than a year of being shuttered, the 68-year-old Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven, Fla., reopens in July as a hybrid of a thrill-ride park and botanical gardens.
For this season, Ohio-based Cedar Fair, which owns seven amusement parks and five water parks, invested about $27 million, compared to close to $45 million last year. At the end of the year, though, the company plans to open a $22 million indoor water park, Castaway Bay, at its Cedar Point park in Ohio and a $16 million inverted roller coaster, the Silver Bullet, at its Knott's Berry Farm park in California.
Cedar Point, which bills itself as the roller coaster capital of the world, spent a large chunk of its summer money improving hotel accommodations rather than on rides.
"The big record-breaking coasters you can't build every year," said Brian Witherow, a spokesman for Cedar Fair.
Six Flags Inc., the world's largest regional theme park company with 29 parks in the United States, only invested $75 million this year. In past years, the company has put in as much as $350 million. The company is running a national television ad campaign for the first time in seven years.
"It's the right amount in keeping with . . . the downturn all of us in the business have seen in the past few years," said Debbie Nauser, a spokeswoman for Oklahoma City-based Six Flags.
Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington is introducing SpongeBob SquarePants The Ride 4-D, a 100-seat theater that combines a 3-D film with other sensory effects. Six Flags plans to open the SpongeBob ride at other parks that don't compete with Paramount Parks since Paramount opened its own version of the ride at its parks last year.
This year, Paramount Parks, which owns five parks in North America, is looking to a movie hero from the 1980s, Crocodile Dundee, as inspiration for two water parks. Paul Hogan, the actor who played the Aussie outbacker, has signed on as a spokesman for the Australian-themed water parks called Boomerang Bay. The water parks have opened at Paramount's Great America in California and Paramount's Kings Island in Ohio.
Other new Paramount rides include an interactive Scooby Doo ride that lets riders zap ghosts to collect points at Paramount's Kings Dominion in Virginia and Borg Assimilator, the first Star-Trek themed roller coaster, which is opening at Paramount's Carowinds in North Carolina.
The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions has started a Web site to make it easier for visitors to find parks and rides in one place. The Web site www.ticketforfun.com debuted May 21, in time for Memorial Day.
Strong attendance so far at the destination parks in Florida and California is a good indicator that the regional parks will fare well this summer, although one thing could stand in the way, said Jerry Aldrich, an Orlando-based amusement park consultant.
"You hope for good weather," he said.