Friday, April 06, 2001
Illusion drives the latest in scream machines
By Kevin Aldridge
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Riders on the Son of Beast roller coaster scream down a 218-foot hill at speeds topping 78 mph. Thrill-seekers plunge 26 stories on the Drop Zone ride. The Flight of Fear attraction catapults the bravest among us from 0 to 60 mph in just four seconds.
So what possibly could be next at America's amusement parks?
As Paramount's Kings Island opens its 30th season to weekend crowds Saturday, the search for the next thrill is as enduring as the one-third-scale replica of the Eiffel Tower that anchors the park.
Call it virtual danger or fantasy fear, the next generation of scream machines will use stories, 3-D animation and other special effects to produce pulse-pounding perils that don't really exist at all.
Kings Island is taking a first step into the new world of thrills with the opening this season of “7th Portal.”
Rather than relying on size and speed, the newest thrills will only make riders feel as if they are plunging 30 stories to their doom without actually lifting them more than a few feet off the ground, experts say.
If we keep building these taller, faster, longer roller coasters that thrash and shake us, eventually we are going to come up against some pretty serious physical limits, says Bob Rogers, chairman of BRC Imagination Arts, a Burbank, Calif.-based ride designer.
After all, the human body can only endure so many G-forces.
The search for cutting-edge thrills isn't just motivated by the physical limits that man and machine can manage. Competition for tourist dollars is so keen that parks must keep two steps ahead of ever-fickle crowds just to keep them coming back and park doors open.
The American public, when it comes to themed attractions, is the most sophisticated in the world, says Dennis Spiegel, president of International Theme Park Services in Cincinnati.
They know what they like, and they continue to push the envelope when it comes to thrills.
Kings Island is taking a first step into the new world of thrills with the opening this season of 7th Portal.
The superhero adventure ride combines 3-D computer animation with motion simulators to create an artificial comic book environment for riders. Guests, equipped with 3-D glasses and strapped into motion-based seats that move with action on a movie screen, embark on a five-minute, fast-paced digital adventure to save Earth from evil Mongorr and his vicious Nullifiers.
Riders actually want to participate in their entertainment rather than being strapped into a roller coaster, hanging on and screaming, Mr. Spiegel says. They want rides where they can fight the bad guys, shoot the aliens and be a part of the action.
You have to give people who come to these parks a totally immersive, visceral experience that they can't get at home, says Bill Coan, a partner of ITEC Entertainment Corp, an Orlando-based ride designer.
This new technology gives a park the opportunity to provide something other than just the two- to three-minute, roller-coaster ride.
The best example of cutting-edge technology today may be The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man ride at Universal Studios Islands of Adventure in Orlando.
It's the first attraction in theme park history to combine larger-than-life 3-D animation with gut-wrenching motion bases that tilt, sway and roll. Riders are tricked into thinking they've been swept into a raging New York City street fight between Spider-Man and a cast of ominous super-villains.
But even this ride includes remnants of the old thriller attractions. Unlike simulator rides where the motion base is bolted to the floor, Spider-Man vehicles zoom along a coaster track past 13 huge screens and vivid scene sets inside a large theater.
So real is the illusion that riders can feel the heat from bombs hurled at them.
Men In Black Alien Attack, another new ride at Universal Studios, fits the mold, too, Mr. Spiegel says.
Considered the world's first life-sized, ride-through interactive video game, Men In Black allows riders to determine the outcome of their ride experience. Riders, who take on the role of Men in Black trainees, score points by firing laser-sighted alien zappers at targets.
The aliens scattered throughout a huge indoor theater can shoot back, causing the rider's car to spin wildly out of control with each ricochet or direct hit.
Illusion of danger
Thrilling they may be, but why, exactly, do so many people seek out and pay billions of dollars a year to subject themselves to terrifying and seemingly dangerous experiences?
The answer is: the illusion of danger can be authentically good for you and it feels great, Mr. Rogers says. A good thrill lets the body remember its primitive heritage. A good thrill wakes up otherwise dormant biochemical pathways that energize, refresh, relieve stress and heal.
Besides that, he says, There is nothing as wonderful as looking death in the face and surviving.
Finding ride manufacturers that can produce death-defying rides that generate biochemical responses in people is one test for amusement parks.
Finding ways to pay for the technology is another.
The mega-projects at Universal cost the Florida-based parks about $60 million to $100 million each. Both are sizable investments, but reasonable for parks like Universal that are open year-round and draw 14 million visitors a year.
But for regional, seasonal parks such as Kings Island, Cedar Point and Six Flags in Ohio, such investments just don't make sense, Mr. Rogers says.
In Southern California and central Florida you don't get noticed if you don't spend $50 million or $60 million on a ride, he says.
He says regional, second-tier parks like Kings Island may try to figure out ways to do similar versions of these high-tech attractions for $10 million or $20 million.
Jeff Siebert, a spokesman for Kings Island, wouldn't comment about specific long-range plans, but says that motion simulators and 3-D animation are indeed the wave of the future here.
The worst thing that we can do in the theme park industry is try to predict the future, Mr. Siebert says. There are always new technologies out there, and someone is always finding ways to do things we think are just impossible.
Whatever the future, traditional thrill rides like Kings Island's roller coasters are in no danger of disappearing, he says.
And that's good news to people like Don Helbig, a Fairfield resident and member of the American Coaster Enthusiasts, a group that crisscrosses the country sampling roller coasters.
Myself, I prefer the bigger, taller, faster rides, says Mr. Helbig, who holds the Guinness world record for most rides on a roller coaster. I guess I'm what you'd call a traditionalist. Just give me a good piece of wood and I'm happy.
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