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Theme Parks: The Creation of New Rides

Fasten your seat belt for a tour through the top theme parks, where we'll look at how they unleash money, technology, and imagination to create new rides. You'll see that their biggest asset has always been a good story. It's a smart world after all.

riders in seats at Disney World's Test Track, image
Photo caption
Bumper cars meet virtual reality at Disney World's Test Track.

It was a balmy morning in Central Florida, and snowflakes fell on Joe Rohde's shoulders like magic dust in a fairy tale. Unusual weather for Orlando, but nothing outlandish for Disney World. Standing on a stage, surrounded by a costumed cast of Disney characters, Rohde warned a gathering of reporters that more wintry conditions were to come. "We're going to take you high and it's going to get very cold," he said. "And you're going to see a large shaggy creature that you can only see one place in the world."


That place, said Rohde, one of the leading designers for Walt Disney Imagineering, was Expedition Everest, a roller coaster-style ride that would take visitors to the rooftop of the Himalayas, where the snow falls in blankets and the legendary abominable snowman dwells. When Rohde finished, cameras flashed, rousing band music blared from speakers, and Mickey and Minnie began to dance. The grinning figure of Goofy rose above the stage in a mountaineering outfit, an artificial blizzard swirling around him, and called through the clamor in his yuck-yuck voice, "Hey, everybody! Brrrr. It's cold!"

It was all quite a production for an attraction that wasn't scheduled to open for another three years.

In the theme park business, it is rarely too early for self-promotion. But sometimes it's too late. Even as the buzz was building around Everest, 30 miles away at Cypress Gardens, only the crickets trilled. One of the state's oldest theme parks, Cypress Gardens had shut down just nine days before, its era of strolling Southern belles and acrobatic waterskiing shows now defunct. Media postmortems blamed the park's death on a slow economy and increased competition. Perhaps it's more fitting to say that creatures like the yeti helped to do it in.

However whimsical its output, the theme park industry is tuned to the rigors of modern times. It is a highly competitive arena, increasingly controlled by large corporations and driven by cutting-edge technology. At the biggest parks, designers are in a constant push to outdo themselves—and the other guys—with never-before-seen attractions and rides. The rides they create are seamless examples of cross-marketing, designed for selling as much as for thrilling. They often cost more than blockbuster movies and rely on many of the same innovations deployed on the front lines of Hollywood, in Silicon Valley, even on military battlegrounds.

"If you're looking for a theme for theme parks, I've got one for you—the arms race," says Bob Rogers, chairman of BRC Imagination Arts, a Burbank-based company that designs and produces theme park attractions. "We're all on the lookout to use the latest technology to do something really new."

This year alone, at parks in Japan, Florida, and California, Universal Studios unveiled Shrek 4-D, a 3-D film shown in a futuristic theater where the seats move in concert with the action on-screen. The story picks up where the original hit movie ended and leads up to the moment where the forthcoming Shrek sequel will begin. At Paramount Parks, visitors can for the first time enter the simulated world of SpongeBob SquarePants 3-D, another moving-seats attraction, this one built with backing from Nickelodeon and playing off its popular children's show. And at Disney World, while fans wait for their chance to summit Everest, they can ride the newly opened Mission: Space, which was developed with former NASA astronauts and scientists to re-create the experience of being launched into space. Cypress Gardens' water-skiers were perfectly pleasant, but they stood little chance against that lineup.

The climate was less competitive in 1955, when Walt Disney commissioned his Anaheim castle and the age of the big, modern theme park began. Following Disneyland's lead, park operators around the country began to dabble in themed entertainment. But Disney's closest rival came from just down the street and from another Walt—Walter Knott—who was also the first person to market the boysenberry. More than a decade before Disneyland opened, Knott had transported buildings from abandoned Western towns to create his own Ghost Town to entertain patrons while they waited to buy his wife's fried chicken and boysenberry pie. In the 1960s, Knott's Berry Farm added two pioneering rides: Timber Mountain, an early log flume ride, and Calico Mine, a "dark ride" in industry parlance that toured a gold mine. Its design—narrow shafts opening onto large decorated caverns—would inspire later Disneyland attractions.

"You never wanted to copy what the other guy was doing," says Ed Feuer, a former Disneyland engineer who helped build many of the park's early attractions and now runs his own design company, Ride & Show Engineering. "But when Knott's came out with the log ride, we said to ourselves, 'Darn, why didn't we think of that?' "

What Disney did think of was Pirates of the Caribbean, which opened in 1967 and shook the industry like a cannon shot. The attraction featured a plunging boat ride that spilled through the heart of an action-packed show of pirates on the plunder. Not real pirates. Not even real people. The figures were audio-animatronic—a fancy term for robotic—a technology that Disney first unveiled more modestly with robot parrots, which still flit about the Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland today.

If this was an arms race, Pirates left no doubt of Disney's superpower status. The company's one-two punch of money and imagination made it a force that few could hope to compete with. "Until that point, anybody who did a rational comparison would have told you that Disneyland was vastly better promoted, but Knott's Berry Farm was the better park," says Bob Rogers, who worked at Disney before founding BRC Imagination Arts. "When Pirates opened, Disney finally had something that eclipsed Calico Mine as the greatest dark ride on the planet."

Except that Disney didn't call it a ride. The term was forbidden. Marty Sklar, who has been with Disney since 1956 and is now vice chairman of Walt Disney Imagineering, insisted that adventure or experience be used instead. Such language is still important to park operators, who draw lines between parks that are blurred to most visitors. Animal parks. Water parks. Kiddie parks. Amusement parks. A popular industry term is iron ride park (Tilt-A-Whirls, roller coasters, and the like), which should never be confused with theme park. One is designed to make you lose yourself in fantasy. The other is designed to make you lose your lunch.

"We're in the business of telling great stories, and great stories never grow old," Sklar says. "In the end, a roller coaster is just a roller coaster."

Nowadays, when a big park builds a big attraction, it's expected to last at least 10 years. Longevity is vital, especially since the price tag is so high. Nearly 50 years ago, Disneyland was built for $17 million. Today, a single ride like the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man—which opened four years ago at Universal's Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Fla., and is widely regarded as the most spectacular themed attraction on the planet—can cost more than $100 million.

The outsize budgets are suited to the gigantic corporations that control the $10 billion theme park and attraction industry. Although small operations still flourish in certain pockets of the country, the lion's share of the profits goes to the kings of Florida and California—Disney, Universal, and Anheuser-Busch. Of the top 10 most visited U.S. theme parks last year, nine belong to Disney and Universal. The exception: SeaWorld Orlando, owned by Anheuser-Busch.

Staggering amounts of money allow these companies to create amazing things. Their rides are designed by the world's top engineers, their films produced by Oscar-winning movie studios. Universal's Shrek 4-D draws on the animation talents of PDI/DreamWorks. Disney World's Mission: Space, says Marty Sklar, is fueled by more computing power than the space shuttle itself.

The snazziest attractions are packaged with slick advertising—critical to offsetting their enormous cost. Disney World's Test Track, which lets riders play crash-test dummy, empties into a GM-sponsored assembly plant. When you climb aboard Star Tours, Disneyland's simulated Star Wars voyage, a voice intones, "May the force be with you." When you disembark, a billboard reminds you to keep your batteries Energized.

But the forces that most shape theme park attractions are the movie and TV characters that inspire them. The Incredible Hulk spawned a green high-testosterone roller coaster. An in-your-face animated character, Shrek, sparked an in-your-face animated 4-D film. The popularity of an attraction relies on the power of youth culture. No matter how well it fared at the box office, you will never board a theme park ride based on A Beautiful Mind.

Shrek is another story. On a cloudy afternoon early this spring, Scott Trowbridge sat in a darkened theater at Universal Studios in Hollywood, overseeing a test run of what the park was hailing as "full-sensory ogre-load." As a frantic chase scene unfolded on the screen, the theater seats bucked and rolled. Air nozzles on a seat back gave Trowbridge a blast of wind. When Shrek plunged into a raging river, water squirted Trowbridge in the face.

Shrek 4-D illustrates what some in the industry call thrill convergence. The fourth dimension is not time travel (that would really boost admission prices) but rather a combination of sights, sounds, and physical sensations. Given the right budget, theme park designers will stop at almost nothing to achieve this effect. Trowbridge, vice president of Universal's creative division, even considered adding aromas to the Shrek attraction—the smell of the forest, the smell of the river, the smell of the flatulent ogre passing gas.

"We were going to have it smell like roses," Trowbridge says. "What we found was that creating the smells wasn't hard, but getting rid of them was. They end up layering on top of each other, and you lose the effect."

Universal describes Shrek 4-D as a technological departure. Actually, it's the next stage in an evolution. Motion-based theaters have an ancestry dating as far back as the 1950s and horror films like William Castle's The Tingler, which literally shocked viewers—it was shown in theaters outfitted with electrified seats that jolted moviegoers on cue. A 3-D movie with shaking seats and other stimuli has been employed in other theme park attractions ranging from Disney's Honey, I Shrunk the Audience to Universal's own Terminator 2: 3D.

It's true that Shrek 4-D employs the latest in digital audio and animation. But these aren't the kind of details the average visitor notices.

Advances they do notice turn up in another Universal attraction, Spider-Man. When it opened, Spider-Man was as groundbreaking as Pirates of the Caribbean had been more than 30 years before. Theme park designers talk about it in reverent tones.

Prior to Spider-Man, plenty of parks had 3-D attractions for stationary audiences, but no one had created a 3-D attraction in which the audience moved around. On Spider-Man, riders breeze about in a car, following the web spinner through a cityscape, hurtling along side streets, plummeting over the edge of buildings. Trowbridge and his colleagues figured out a way to time the 3-D projection so that the rider's perspective changes throughout the ride. (By contrast, if you move around the theater during a conventional 3-D movie, the 3-D images remain the same.)

"People said it couldn't be done," Trowbridge says. "But the truth was that no one had tried hard enough."

Spider-Man has yet to inspire other similarly styled 3-D attractions, but that is likely just a matter of time. In the theme park business, new turns in technology come in bunches. The 1960s was the decade of the log ride. After Space Mountain in the mid-1970s, construction of dark coasters picked up speed. The 1980s brought a wave of simulators; the 1990s, 3-D theaters with moving seats.

But as fast as technology evolves, imagination still outpaces it. When Disneyland first opened, all of its attractions were created in-house. Theme parks today frequently rely on outside companies whose sole occupation is to dream up new ways to wow. Bob Rogers of BRC Imagination Arts can envision many things that can't yet be done.

"A zero-gravity room," he says. "We can achieve that effect for a moment, right when a roller coaster comes over the crest. But what if we had a room that created that sensation all the time?"

Other designers say the future lies in such attractions as Pooh's Hunny Hunt at Tokyo Disneyland. It operates on a trackless system that lets riders have more control over where they go. There may come a day when you don't have to go to a theme park at all—the theme park will come to you. Japan is now home to a roving attraction called the Jurassic Park Institute Tour, where visitors learn about dinosaurs (and get attacked by robotic versions of them). It opened in Tokyo's Yoyogi Park this July and will soon be moving about the country.

"A lot of times what we do best isn't creating new technology," says Craig Hanna of Thinkwell Design & Production in Pasadena, which built the itinerant attraction. "It's tweaking existing technology so that it feels completely new."

Disney World is doing just that with Expedition Everest, slated to open in 2006. A highlight of the attraction will be a giant animatronic snowman that operates on technology which Disney has been toying with for nearly 50 years. The difference, says designer Joe Rohde, is that "you've never seen something so big move so fast."

The new yeti will be light-years ahead of Disney's existing snowman, which roars at riders on the Matterhorn Bobsleds, a ride that's been around since 1959. That furry, fiery-eyed creature hardly moves at all and has the hokey look of a costumed monster on Scooby-Doo. Not that anyone seems to care. The ride is a classic, one of Disneyland's most popular, and that's a lesson for theme parks everywhere.

"For all the advances, in the end what you want to do is show them a good time and tell them a great story," says Rogers. "That's been true since the Greeks. So, in that sense, nothing has changed at all."

Rides of Your Life

Hold on to your hat, keep your arms and legs inside the car, and get ready for a thrill on the rides that rock our world. The following attractions are VIA's favorites.

Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, Universal's Islands of Adventure, Orlando, Fla. This awesome— OK, amazing—attraction is the most sophisticated on the planet, combining a track-based motion simulator with 3-D effects.

Columbia Carousel, Paramount's Great America, Santa Clara, Calif. This double-decker fantasy is the tallest merry-go-round in the West, if not the world, standing 100 feet from base to pinnacle. The intricate decorations atop the 12 pillars are from the set of The Swan, a 1956 film starring Grace Kelly.

GhostRider, Knott's Berry Farm, Buena Park, Calif. You'd better buy a jar of Mrs. Knott's preserves, because on this wooden coaster you're toast! The two-minute ride is smooth, speedy, and full of stomach-lurching drops. Ride in the evening when the track is lit up.

Indiana Jones Adventure—Temple of the Forbidden Eye, Disneyland, Anaheim, Calif. Board a Hummer-like vehicle and charge into the ancient temple—dodge poisonous darts, cross a rickety bridge over spewing lava, and nearly get crushed by a giant boulder.

Pirates of the Caribbean, Disneyland, Anaheim, Calif., and the Magic Kingdom, Orlando, Fla.Cannonballs whistling overhead, a pirate galleon on the attack, and swashbuckling buccaneers looking for treasures to steal, wenches to auction, and rum to drink—possibly the best dark ride ever, even after 36 years.

Shrek 4-D, Universal Studios, Hollywood, Calif., and Orlando, Fla. This rollicking romp combines a 3-D animated movie with sensory effects. Feel the gallop of a wild horse chase and the splash of a waterfall as you follow Shrek and Princess Fiona on their honeymoon.

Soarin' Over California, Disney's California Adventure, Anaheim, Calif. Embark on a fanciful flight over state landmarks in an IMAX-style hang glider simulator. Smell the citrus as you swoop over orange groves.

Splash Mountain, Disneyland, Anaheim, Calif., and the Magic Kingdom, Orlando, Fla. The cuddly critters and zip-a-dee-doo-dah tunes will almost make you forget the finale: a five-story drop down a whooshing waterfall.

Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Disney-MGM Studios, Orlando, Fla. A trip through the 1930s Hollywood Tower—an abandoned hotel with a mysterious past—transports you to the Twilight Zone. Rod Serling, the TV program's creator, narrates the journey, which culminates in a series of terrifying drops down an elevator shaft.

X, Six Flags Magic Mountain, Valencia, Calif. On the world's first "four-dimensional" coaster, riders race in vehicles that spin 360 degrees as the train plummets 200 feet on the first drop—headfirst!

Amusement Park Time Line

Ever since our first cave-dwelling ancestor let out a Fred Flintstone-like "Yabbadabbadoo!" and slid down a brontosaurus tail, humans have been pursuing higher, faster, and more stomach-churning amusements. From the quaint days of the early carousel to the 21st-century supercoaster, it has been, well, quite a ride. And you don't even have to be at least this tall to check it out.

A.D. 500

Byzantine sculpture from this date gives the earliest known depiction of a carousel device.

Rushin' Russians: Ice slides, 70 feet high and supported by heavy timber, are built in St. Petersburg; patrons pay to ride sleds down 600-foot runs.


London's Vauxhall Gardens (below) establishes a one-shilling admission price and also issues the first season pass, a silver ticket designed by the celebrated caricaturist William Hogarth.


First looping coaster opens at Paris's Frascati Gardens.


The Switchback Railway is introduced by LaMarcus A. Thompson at New York's Coney Island. Modeled on ore cars used in coal mines, it is the first true roller coaster in the United States. Cars reached a top speed of 6 mph. Rides cost a nickel.


George Ferris's 264-foot-high Ferris Wheel creates a sensation at the Chicago Columbian Exposition.


Irish-born adventurer Paul Boyton (who once swam the English Channel in a rubber flotation suit) opens Coney Island's Sea Lion Park, the first amusement park to be enclosed and charge admission.


Walter Elias Disney born December 5 in Chicago.


John Miller—"the Thomas Edison of roller coasters"—introduces the under-friction roller coaster. New method of holding coaster to tracks revolutionizes the industry, allowing higher, steeper drops and faster speeds.


Golden age of roller coasters welcomes ever taller and speedier rides, including the Crystal Beach Cyclone in Ontario, Canada, which towered 96 feet and featured its own on-duty nurse.

Photography courtesy Disney


This article was first published in September 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.