Let the good times roll

BY TODD PACK
The Orlando Sentinel

Steve Birket keeps a drawing of a graveyard on a grease board in his Ocoee offices, the names of defunct competitors in the thrill-ride business printed on the seven tombstones. “It speaks well of us because we’re surviving,” said Birket, a principal in Birket Engineering Inc., which designs ride and stunt show safety systems.

But rather than working on groundbreaking attractions like it has in the past, the company is paying its bills by accepting more assignments to upgrade existing rides and shows. “We’re glad to have it,” he said of such meat-and-potatoes assignments.

Birket, like others in the business, said a scarcity of new large attractions, combined with a sluggish economy and a slump in travel, has made the past year as frightening as any haunted house. But there are signs this white-knuckle ride may be ending.

With the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions’ annual convention and trade show set to get under way today at the Orange County Convention Center, Birket and others say business is picking up.

Ride designers and park planners say they’re getting more inquiries from developers now than they did a few months ago, especially from overseas markets including China and the Middle East. And while few U.S. parks may be planning expensive new rides during the next couple years, demand for less-expensive family-friendly rides apparently is growing.

At this week’s show, which is expected to draw as many as 30,000 park planners, ride designers and concession-stand operators, at least 1,260 companies from around the world will market their rides and services on a floor that will resemble a carnival midway, with games and concessions serving to showcase new products. The largest rides will be set up outside the convention center. “It’s important to be here, because it’s the show for this industry,” said Dan Donohue, director of operations at Back Stage Technologies, a special-effects and pyrotechnics company based in Kissimmee. “If you’re not there, people will think you’re out of business,” said Steve Baker, a former Epcot executive who is president of Baker Leisure Group, an Orlando-based entertainment consulting firm.

It isn’t known how many amusement-park suppliers folded up their tents over the past 12 months — the trade association doesn’t keep count — but experts say 2002 hasn’t been a wipeout for everyone. Although some destinations have suffered weak attendance — the Walt Disney Co. said earlier this month that revenue at its parks and resorts was down 8 percent through the third quarter — regional and local amusement parks generally have had a good season.

Central Florida’s parks — Disney, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando — don’t disclose attendance, but “when all’s said and done, it’s going to be a better year for most parks,” said Tim O’Brien, Southeast editor for Amusement Business, a trade weekly. Of the 40 U.S. parks surveyed recently by the magazine, only 12 percent reported a decline in attendance from a year ago. Eighteen reported increases. “I think the worst is over,” said Birket, whose company has more projects in the works now than it had only a few months ago.

Bill Coan, a principal in the Orlando-based consulting firm ITEC Entertainment Inc., said he has seen a similar trend. “Usually, after a slow year or two, there’s a pent-up demand,” Coan said. “I think that’s what people in our industry are expecting to see happen in 2003, barring a war.”

If the United States goes to war with Iraq or if there are more terrorist attacks, all bets are off when it comes to tourism recovery in Central Florida — and across the world. Last year’s terrorist attacks were devastating to tourism. Business at the 2001 amusement industry trade show was unspectacular, in large part because it came barely two months after Sept. 11.

Some 28,600 people attended the Orlando show, but exhibitors complained of a lack of overseas developers. Since then, consultants say there has been renewed interested from overseas park developers, including the Persian Gulf region. “Dubai is booming in terms of tourism,” Baker said. “We’re doing a major park in Saudi Arabia.” Coan attributes the interest to changes in travel since the Sept. 11 attacks. People from the Middle East “aren’t traveling to the U.S. and Europe, so they’re going to bring their playgrounds closer to home,” he said.

But while business may be improving overall, it’s unclear whether parks are looking to spend tens of millions of dollars on bloodcurdling roller coasters and or similarly outsized rides. “What we’re seeing is more people getting away from building the biggest, fastest, scariest rides and trying to find something that’s going to bring in families,” O’Brien said.

Locally, Disney is building a simulator ride called Mission: Space at Epcot, and Universal Studios has announced plans for attractions based on the movies Shrek and on the Nickelodeon cable channel’s Jimmy Neutron franchise. Universal recently closed its aging Kongfrontation attraction, based on the King Kong movies, but hasn’t announced a replacement. SeaWorld is building a shopping and dining complex around the lake in the center of the park but has announced no plans for new rides. Carnivals, meanwhile, appear more interested in high-capacity rides that are both eye-catching and easy to set up.

Last year, “We got a ride called the Fireball,” said Jim Strates, whose family runs the Orlando-based Strates Shows, one of the country’s largest carnivals. Built by KMG of Holland, the ride, which is priced at about $675,000, stands 64 feet, holds 24 riders and is “beautifully lit,” he said. Strates wouldn’t discuss specific rides he’s interested in seeing at this year’s trade show but said a ride such as the Fireball “is the kind of thing people are looking for.”

Birket, the ride and show safety engineer, said he can’t help but be optimistic about the future. “Everyone wants to believe this is just a short-term dip because of the economy and security concerns,” he said. “If you look over the last dozen years of the theme-park business . . . the overall trend is really strong.”

Despite a decline in attendance at some parks, “everybody wants to be the best, and I don’t think that’s going to change,” he said.

 

© 2002, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).