It's sequel summer at Southern California theme parks.
Park operators traditionally rip out aging rides to make way for fresh, cutting-edge offerings. But this season, local theme parks are rolling out upgrades of old stalwarts.
Six Flags Magic Mountain has reworked its historic wooden roller coaster with gut-churning twists and turns. Disneyland has enhanced its fireworks show, adding lasers and high-definition video projectors. Universal Studios Hollywood is slipping a 3-D racing feature into its famous studio tour.
By remaking existing rides, landlocked theme parks can avoid bulldozing popular attractions or buying more acreage to make room for a new ride. The cost and time it takes to freshen up an existing attraction is nearly half of what it would take to build a ride from scratch, theme park experts said.
"Sometimes a refurbishment make sense for these iconic attractions," said Melissa Ruminot, director of marketing and business development at the Nassal Co., an Orlando firm that builds features such as faux rock work and large character statues for theme parks. "There is a limited cost, but it provides a big impact to the guests."
How much Southern California parks have spent is being kept under wraps, but such investments usually pay off.
Attendance at North America's 20 biggest parks rose an estimated 2.2% in 2014, but crowd totals jumped much higher at those that launched new attractions, according to the Los Angeles engineering firm Aecom.
Universal Studios Hollywood, for example, had an 11% attendance increase in 2014 compared with the previous year, Aecom estimated. The boost came from the opening of the "Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem" ride and a hugely popular "Halloween Horror Nights" event.
"The goal of creating new attractions is not just to spend money but to spend money wisely," said Tony Christopher, president and founder of Landmark Entertainment Group, a design and production company for theme parks and live theater.
"It's a clever idea for the theme park industry to make sequels," Christopher said, "to bring people back again and give them a great experience."
By upgrading an existing attraction, theme park companies can save money for a bigger projects down the road.
The Walt Disney Co., for instance, will open a $4.4-billion Disneyland in Shanghai next year and add an "Iron Man" attraction at Hong Kong Disneyland, as well as a new attraction based on the blockbuster movie "Avatar" at its Animal Kingdom park in Orlando in 2017. Universal Studios Hollywood plans a spring 2016 unveiling of an attraction based on the wildly successful "Harry Potter" books and movies.
The remaking of popular attractions is welcomed by some theme park fans.
Executives at Six Flags Magic Mountain sparked backlash over plans to close the Valencia park's 36-year-old wooden roller coaster, Colossus. Instead, the ride was rebuilt with steel tracks and a new name: Twisted Colossus.
The new tracks allow the hybrid coaster to take riders upside down and through sharp banks, something wood alone couldn't accomplish.
"TheTwisted Colossus haslost the allure of a classic wooden roller coaster, but that has been replaced by crazy fun," said Duane Marden, a roller coaster fan and founder of the online Roller Coaster Database. "The original cannot complete with the longer, steeper drop, wacky inversions and all-around smoothness of the Twisted Colossus."
Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park has opened "Voyage to the Iron Reef," which lets riders shoot at 3-D targets. Although it is new, the ride was installed in an existing building that was formerly home to an aging dinosaur attraction.
"This is a very practical way of doing things," said Bob Gurr, one of Disney's original Imagineers and a theme park consultant who worked on the "Iron Reef" ride.
To celebrate Disneyland's 60th anniversary, the park's nighttime fireworks show got a boost from new lasers, music, fake snow and high-tech projection mapping that splashes moving images on buildings and attractions.
The park also has revived a nighttime parade similar to the "Main Street Electrical Parade" that it shelved nearly two decades ago. The parade, dubbed "Paint the Night," has been enhanced with 1.5 million LED lights and other new effects.
The park has also updated its Haunted Mansion attraction and Matterhorn Bobsleds ride with new or upgraded audio-animatronic characters.
At the adjacent California Adventure Park, the light-and-water spectacular "World of Color" has been reworked with new songs and images to tell the story of Walt Disney.
"We use the latest technologies to continually enhance the guest experience," Disney spokeswoman Suzi Brown said.
On the Studio Tour at Universal Studios Hollywood, the park has removed a dated section known as the "Mummy's Tomb," where the tram enters a cave that seems to spin around the guests.
In its place, the park has built a 3-D high-speed racing attraction based on the hugely popular "Fast and Furious" action movies.
Instead of entering a spooky haunted cave, guests riding the Studio Tour get the sensation that they are racing cars alongside the stars of the films. The attraction opens June 24.
"The addition of the all-new 'Fast and Furious — Supercharged' thrillride to the Studio Tour is an example of how we continually evolve and update this iconic attraction," said Larry Kurzweil, president of Universal Studios Hollywood.