A giant pendulum, an immersive panda show and a gut-twisting coaster: Theme parks spend big to lure summer visitors
An immersive theater attraction starring a chubby panda, a 17-story pendulum, a gut-twisting ride with an ultra-steep drop and a roller coaster beset by a mischievous superhero baby are among the investments Southern California theme parks are unveiling this summer to draw new visitors.
The attractions unveiled by Universal Studios Hollywood, Six Flags Magic Mountain, Knott’s Berry Farm, Disney California Adventure Park and others reflect optimism among park operators that demand for vacation travel and theme park rides will remain hot this summer.
“They are bullish right now on the marketplace,” Bill Coan, chief executive of Itec Entertainment, a developer of theme park attractions and shows, said of theme parks.
For good reason. Demand for airline tickets and hotel reservations has been rising steadily for several years. A trade group for the nation’s airlines predicted that a record 246 million people will fly on U.S.-based airlines this summer, a 3.7% increase over last year’s record total.
The investments also point to a longtime division in the industry: Large theme parks with big budgets usually put their money into advanced technology for their attractions while regional parks with modest bank accounts often stick with classic thrill rides, such as roller coasters, to draw return visits.
“If you are not adding and enhancing, it’s hard to draw attendance back to these parks,” Coan said. “You’ve got to offer something new or fresh.”
Theme park representatives declined to disclose how much the parks invested in their latest offerings, but industry experts said the price tag doubtless was hefty — and money well spent. That’s because both old-fashioned thrill rides and high-tech attractions that rely heavily on special effects are sure to pay off with theme park fans hungry for novel diversions, the experts said.
For park visitors, there is a price to pay for the high-tech fun, as major theme parks like Universal Studios Hollywood and Disneyland can charge up to 35% more for admission than regional parks like Knott’s Berry Farm.
“Both extremes work,” said Bob Rogers, founder and chairman of BRC Imagination Arts, a Burbank producer of theme park and museum attractions. “What both have in common is total immersion in the immediate experience.”
Among a handful of thrill rides featured this summer is the newest roller coaster at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park — a ride that carries passengers to the top of a 150-foot tower and then shoots them down a 96-degree drop, which makes the tracks disappear for a split second.
The coaster, called HangTime, one of nine coasters in the park, travels at a maximum speed of 57 mph. It opened May 18.
“HangTime, while being a more traditional coaster, is the first of its kind in California, featuring a 96-degree drop, which is the steepest in the state,” park spokeswoman Cherie Whyte said.
Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia also is investing in thrill rides this summer by opening the world’s tallest pendulum ride. The attraction, known as CraZanity, will swing 40 passengers as high as 172 feet off the ground, at speeds of up to 75 mph. An exact opening date has yet to be announced.
Universal Studios Hollywood plans a June 15 opening for an immersive attraction that features some of the industry’s newest high-tech effects.
Visitors sit in a theater equipped with projection mapping — a technology that projects moving images on uneven surfaces. The theater seats gyrate and shift to bring to life the scenes featuring characters from DreamWorks’ “Kung Fu Panda” movies.
The attraction, called Kung Fu Panda: The Emperor’s Quest, also employs other effects, such as water, smoke and wind in the theater. It replaces a similar theater attraction based on the DreamWorks Animation flick “Shrek.”
In September, Universal Studios Hollywood plans to close its 22-year-old Jurassic Park attraction so it can be overhauled using “uncompromised state-of-the-art technology.” It will reopen next year with a new-ish name: The Jurassic World Ride.
At California Adventure Park, Disney Imagineers are trying to combine classic thrill rides with modern technology.
The theme park’s old-timey Paradise Pier boardwalk, closed since January, is scheduled to reopen June 23 after an overhaul to incorporate characters and themes from Disney’s animated movie studio Pixar.
The area — dubbed Pixar Pier — will feature a roller coaster that previously was called California Screamin’ and is being remade with characters from the Pixar movie “The Incredibles.”
A team of Disney Imagineers, headed by Jeffrey M. Shaver-Moskowitz, have added a story to the ride: Jack-Jack Parr, the baby of the “Incredibles” family, gets loose on the roller coaster, forcing the other superhero family members to try to wrangle him.
The story is told through video, projections, sculptures and even a cookie scent piped into one of the tunnels the coaster travels through, Shaver-Moskowitz said.
Still, he said, the biggest thrills come from the ride’s dips and loops.
“With a roller coaster, there is still a visceral thrill that you can’t replicate,” he said.
In San Diego, SeaWorld added a roller coaster to its entertainment lineup, as part of its effort to reverse declining attendance numbers after heated controversy over the treatment of its orca whales. The Electric Eel ride opened May 10.
Legoland in Carlsbad is set to unveil a submarine ride that puts riders in a 300,000-gallon tank filled with thousands of live sea creatures. The Lego City Deep Sea Adventure Submarine Ride opens July 2.
To read more about the travel and tourism industries, follow @hugomartin on Twitter.
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get the day's top news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.