VISITORS WILL FIND FEW new cutting-edge rides at the nation's amusement and theme parks this summer, despite starring roles in attractions based on the Mummy, SpongeBob SquarePants and Crocodile Dundee.
Industry leaders say this year is one of the least thrilling in a while when it comes to innovative rides. Many of the parks are still recovering from flat attendance during the past couple of years and are coasting off past investments or putting money into sprucing up restaurants, bathrooms and other amenities.
Only about $500 million was invested in parks around the nation for this year, compared with as much as $800 million in past years, estimated Dennis Spiegel, president of International Theme Park Services Inc. in Cincinnati.
"The attendance over the last five years has been flat, especially since 9/11," Spiegel said. "It has definitely had an impact on the business and how they spend money."
Summer is the most important time of the year for the nation's $10.3 billion amusement park industry.
Revenge of the Mummy
The ride generating the most buzz for this season is Revenge of the Mummy, a dark-ride roller coaster opening at a cost of $40 million each at Universal Studios' parks in Florida and California. The ride uses technology found in magnetic levitation trains to take riders through a faux-Egyptian catacomb inspired by the movies "The Mummy" and "The Mummy Returns." The ride is filled with humanlike robotics, screens that re-create walls crawling with beetles and a track-switch that allows cars to zoom backward into a drop.
"Those movies were ... a great mix of action, adventure, thrills, humor -- everything we thought we could take and create a physical version of," said Scott Trowbridge, vice president of design and creative development for Universal Parks & amp; Resorts.
Another stomach-churner opening this month is Hersheypark's Storm Runner, a coaster with a hydraulic launch that sends riders speeding up to 72 mph in two seconds. The $12.5 million ride at the Pennsylvania park has a 180-foot drop, two corkscrew rolls and a 135-foot Cobra loop.
Universal's primary competitors in Orlando -- Walt Disney World and SeaWorld Orlando -- passed on opening any new rides for the summer.
But their sister parks in California are replicating popular attractions from the Florida parks. Disney's California Adventure is opening the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, a free-fall ride that is one of the most popular at the Disney-MGM Studios park in Orlando. SeaWorld San Diego opens Journey to Atlantis, a combination water flume and roller coaster that first put SeaWorld Orlando on the thrill ride map four years ago.
Anheuser-Busch-owned theme parks Busch Gardens in Tampa and SeaWorld Orlando have emphasized shows over rides this summer.
Busch Gardens launched "KaTonga," a Broadway-style, African-themed musical while SeaWorld Orlando for the first time is offering an outdoor night show. "Mistify" projects images on a screen of mist and uses dancing fountains, underwater light shows and fireworks. Next door, sister park Discovery Cove is allowing guests to swim with bottlenose dolphins at night and offering a gourmet dinner afterward for $249 per person.
Hope for good weather
At the nation's regional parks, officials are hoping for better weather than last year, when frequent rain kept visitors away for half the summer.
After more than a year of being shuttered, the 68-year-old Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven, Fla., reopens in July as a hybrid of a thrill-ride park and botanical gardens.
For this season, Ohio-based Cedar Fair, which owns seven amusement parks and five water parks, invested about $27 million, compared with close to $45 million last year.
At the end of the year, though, the company plans to open a $22 million indoor water park, Castaway Bay, at its Cedar Point park in Ohio and a $16 million inverted roller coaster, the Silver Bullet, at its Knott's Berry Farm park in California.
Cedar Point, which bills itself as the roller coaster capital of the world, spent a large chunk of its summer money improving hotel accommodations rather than on rides.
Six Flags Inc., the world's largest regional theme park company with 29 parks in the United States, invested only $75 million this year. In past years, the company has put in as much as $350 million.
Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington is introducing SpongeBob SquarePants The Ride 4-D, a 100-seat theater that combines a 3-D film with other sensory effects.
Paramount Parks, which owns five parks in North America, is looking to a 1980s movie hero, Crocodile Dundee, as inspiration for two water parks. Paul Hogan, the actor who played the Aussie outbacker, has signed on as a spokesman for the Australian-themed water parks called Boomerang Bay. The water parks have opened at Paramount's Great America in California and Paramount's Kings Island in Ohio.
Other new Paramount rides include an interactive Scooby Doo ride that lets riders zap ghosts to collect points at Paramount's Kings Dominion in Virginia, and Borg Assimilator, the first Star-Trek themed roller coaster, which is opening at Paramount's Carowinds in North Carolina.
The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions has started a Web site to make it easier for visitors to find parks and rides in one place. The Web site (www.ticketforfun.com) debuted Friday.
XFor more information, visit the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions at www.iaapa.org.
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