From thrill rides to systems implemented behind the scenes, amusement parks continue on a trajectory of technological innovation.
In rides, faster, louder and more daring than ever appear to be the watchwords. New for the 2012 season at Busch Gardens-Williamsburg in Williamsburg, Va., is the Verbolten roller coaster, which is based on the theme of a car ride through the German countryside. Within a three-minute interval, passengers experience a lurching, swerving ride, a free-fall indoors in the dark at speeds of up to 53 mph, and an unexpected detour into the Black Forest behind the park’s Autobahn bumper cars, topped off by a 90-foot drop over the “Rhine River.” A linear synchronous motor (LSM) permits Verbolten’s 16-passenger cars to achieve high speed in a short distance. The same technology is used in roller coasters whose speed exceeds 100 mph.
“It uses exit speed independent of mass,” explained Larry Giles, the park’s vice president for design and engineering.
For its part, Hersheypark in Hershey, Pa., has augmented its roller coaster lineup with the addition of Skyrush, a $25 million “mega/hyper’ coaster with winged seating. The tallest, fastest and longest coaster in the park, Skyrush is 200 feet tall, reaches speeds in excess of 75 mph and travels along 3,600 feet of twisting and turning steel track. Its cars offer what Spokesperson Kathy Burrows deemed “one-of-a-kind” inner/outer seating with two platform, floored seats flanked on each side by a floorless, winged outer seat that provides a 270-degree panoramic viewing perspective.
The Skyrush train begins its skyward climb at 26 feet per second before it leaves the station. Upon cresting the track’s peak, it plunges down an 85-degree descent and sends riders rushing into the first of four high-speed, high-banked turns as they travel at speeds in excess of 75 mph. Riders feel the rush of five zero-G airtime hills and transition from positive to negative gravity as they cross over the entire length of Hersheypark’s Comet roller coaster and more.
A computer serves as the “brains” behind the operation, noted Burrows, adding that there have been long lines to ride Skyrush since the day it opened and that many visitors reported it is the most intense roller coaster they have ever ridden. The computer drives the 1,500-horsepower motor, speeding it up and slowing it down to give passengers the impression that they are always about to “take off.”
Across the country at SeaWorld in San Diego, Calif., Manta, a marine-themed roller coaster, is garnering an equally positive reaction from visitors, 350,000 riders in its first month of operation, noted a spokesperson. Including 2,835 feet of track, the coaster incorporates a variety of multimedia. As the train enters the ride’s “launch building,” guests see a 270-degree multimedia screen onto which 22 high-definition projectors project the image of a coral reef. The projected images impart the feeling of being underwater, with progressively larger, faster-swimming manta rays emerging from behind the reef and scary music becoming louder. Once the music has reached a crescendo, the doors to the track open and the train zips out of a tunnel, moving at a speed that increases from zero to 43 miles per hour in two seconds flat.
In a similar, non-roller-coaster related development, WindSeeker, a new, $6.5 million attraction at Kings Dominion in Doswell, Va., features a 301-foot-tall tower that spins riders nearly 30 stories above ground. Seated in two-person swings that allow their feet to dangle, riders slowly begin rotating in a circular motion as the swings ascend the tower. At the top, the swings reach speeds of between 25 to 30 mph, flaring out almost 45 degrees from the tower. Nineteen music tracks play throughout the ride, and LED lights provide illumination at night.
“Soaring and swinging almost 300 feet above Kings Dominion and the adjacent countryside is an amazing ride experience for our guests,” said Pat Jones, vice president and general manager. “I have no doubt it is one of the more popular rides.”
Getting Into the Act
Meanwhile, continuing another trend of recent years, amusement parks are introducing ever-more-sophisticated animatronics and multi-dimensional technology to their cadre of guest enticements. Kings Dominion represents a case in point. Its new, 6,000-acre Dinosaurs Alive!, multi-sensory, dinosaur park features 36 full-size, fully-articulated dinosaurs, including three interactive models, that “come to life” with sound and movement in seven different “scenes,” including “Pack Attack,” “Fish Eaters,” “Predator Trap,” “Predator Ridge,” “Flash Flood,” “Frills, Clubs, Plates” and a kids’ paleontological dig site. Jones said the park has been popular with visitors, despite a separate $5 admission fee that applies even to season pass holders.
In Orlando, Fla., Fantasyland at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom is undergoing a major expansion and upgrade that got underway earlier this year, will open in phases through 2014 and encompasses, among other initiatives, the addition of two major areas, Storybook Circus and Fantasyland Forest. The centerpiece of Storybook Circus is the iconic Dumbo the Flying Elephant ride, which, as does a second, twin Dumbo platform that debuted in July, flies above a pool of water whose integrated fountains and flashing colored lights create a nighttime spectacle. Instead of queuing outdoors to board either of the two rides, guests now wait inside a big-top circus tent with interactive, Disney-themed games. Each party receives a pager to inform them when it is their turn to enjoy the attraction.
Also in Orlando, early July marked the unveiling of Universal Orlando’s Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem, based on the animated film “Despicable Me” and its upcoming sequel. As occurs with other motion simulator attractions, action projected onto the screen syncs with the motion of passengers’ seats. However, action is presented in 3-D CGI animation, with digital animation rendered in 4K high definition said to yield ultra-high resolution footage with stunning clarity and, in turn, a more immersive experience.
Moreover, LEGOLAND Florida in Winter Haven, Fla., has incorporated an Imagination Station attraction where, in addition to engaging in other, non-technological interactive activities, children can build LEGO models using computers. Kim Isemann, the park’s director of sales and marketing, said parents and children alike perceive the attraction as a perfect complement to the more low-tech interactive experiences available at the park, such as building their own rafts from giant LEGO pieces and using them to float down a lazy river.
Beyond the Rides
But technological innovation at amusement parks isn’t being limited to rides and other attractions. Rather, it is, increasingly, infiltrating the admissions, ticketing and foodservice segments.
Notably, some facilities have recently implemented radio frequency identification (RFID) systems such as those used for toll collection on many highways nationwide. On the amusement park front, microchips loaded with data (for example, payment information) and embedded into stickers, wristbands and the like are “read” in wireless, contactless fashion rather than physically scanned, as is the case with bar codes.
At Hersheypark, guests can now purchase Easy Pay wristbands introduced at the start of the 2012 season. Individuals opting to avail themselves of the system can use cash or a credit card to electronically load funds onto waterproof, RFID-enabled wristbands, which can then be presented as payment for any purchases made throughout the facility. A minimum of $20 and a maximum of $300 may be loaded onto the wristbands, but funds do not expire.
The introduction of the cashless POS system marks Hersheypark’s second foray into RFID technology. Four years ago, Burrows said, the facility implemented RFID-enabled lockers accessible to guests via PDC Smart Band® RFID wristbands. Based on the success of the current RFID installations, additional applications are being reviewed for use in the future. –