I grew up in Northeast Ohio, an area that, in its heyday, was a hotbed of theme park activity. My summers were filled with trips to Cedar Point, Geauga Lake and SeaWorld Ohio. But it became a highlight of my summers when my family, like so many others from the Midwest, packed up the minivan and made the trip to Central Florida.
Of course, our trips included the beautiful Gulf Coast beaches, and the quaint little beach towns with their rows of shops and cafes. I, however, was far more concerned with our annual pilgrimages to Theme Park Mecca. I would pore over the year’s edition of Birnbaum’s Guide to Walt Disney World, watch Universal Studios Florida vacation planning videos, and hoard SeaWorld Orlando brochures.
As I reflect on how I ended up a part of the themed entertainment industry, I realize that these trips, and all of the hours of planning and research that went into them, were just the beginning of what I expect to be a lifelong love affair with the industry. Those trips inspired me to make the move to Orlando and ultimately join the industry.
I came to Orlando, a bright-eyed college kid fulfilling a dream. My intentions were never to stay long, but much to my mother’s chagrin, a semester turned into a year, and a year into almost seven.
These past seven years have taken me on a wild journey as not only an employee of the industry, but a student of it as well. At the start, I was enamored by the idea of it all: theme parks are about vacations, fantastical worlds, thrilling rides, and constant entertainment. But quickly, I became fascinated by the inner workings of what I have learned is a massive and complex industry.
A professor of mine recognized this growing fascination and suggested that I join the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) as a NextGen member, which I did. The TEA became my inside track to the business of the creative business. Being a member has shed light on the creative process and the necessity for collaboration among creators, operators and vendors. At countless events, friends and mentors have shared my excitement for the industry. As fellow theme park nerds, they have taken me under their wings and taught me so much.
One learning that became immediately apparent as I immersed myself in the TEA was just how gigantic, and yet small, the industry is (more on this contradictory comment later).
This could not be made more apparent to me than at the 2014 IAAPA Attractions Expo. According to the IAAPA website, this year’s event saw 30,500 registrants and just over 1,000 exhibiting companies.
I like to describe the Expo as a one-stop shop for all of your themed entertainment industry needs. From custom rides to glow-in-the-dark carpeting, you can find it all at the IAAPA Expo. In short, it is theme park nerd heaven. I first attended in 2013, just a month away from graduating with my Bachelor’s degree. Last year’s Expo was all about the awe and wonder of finally making it to the legendary show floor. I had very little frame of reference, and so it was very much like a trip to an actual theme park: lots of wide-eyed, open-mouthed ogling at the nerd heaven before me.
This year’s Expo, however, was a different experience. This time around, I knew the drill. I had friends and mentors that I joined on the floor, AND I had an assignment from InPark Magazine! What follows is an account of IAAPA through my eyes… the eyes of a young professional seeing the IAAPA Expo through a completely different filter than before.
My first mission was to storm the gates and attend the Kickoff Session. I arrived at the Orange County Convention Center, coffee in hand at 7:30am. Despite the early hour, I was hardly alone, and on the way to the theater, I was struck by how diverse the crowd was.
Males and females were equally represented, and there appeared to be a good mix of young professionals and industry veterans. Perhaps more illuminating was a quick scan of the Attendee badges in my vicinity, which revealed that the Americas, Europe and Asia were well represented.
The Kickoff Session was wonderful way to reiterate the role of IAAPA as an advocate for the industry. Its international presence was highlighted by a roll call of the various Regional Vice Presidents. Each had their turn to address the crowd and share the last year’s developments in the region. Asia continues to be an epicenter of growth for the industry, and Chimelong Ocean Kingdom was celebrated for breaking five world records!
Another overarching theme of the session was the giving spirit displayed by IAAPA members. A fantastic recap video showed how the international membership participated in “The Ice Bucket Challenge.” The membership also remains heavily involved with Give Kids the World Village near Orlando. The charitable organization shared the story of its successful expansion in early 2014, and announced a charitable donation of accessible rides by Zamperla.
The Session ended with outgoing chairman of the board Mario Mamon handing the gavel off to Gerardo Arteaga Cerda.
On the floor
Following the Kickoff, I began to stroll the exhibit floor, and boy was there a lot to see! One booth that immediately caught my attention was Garage Graphics and Visuals. The Missouri-based custom fabrication company displayed a fantastic Steampunk-y aquatic theme. I was very impressed by the quality of the work, and excited by the creativity coming out of their shop.
As I said before, I am amazed by how massive yet tight-knit the industry is. I didn’t get far on the morning of Day 1 because I kept bumping into peers and friends: some I had seen just days before, and for others it had been a year. Together, we share a love of the industry, and are never short on related topics to discuss.
After strolling the aisles for a while, I made my way to the Dynamic Attractions booth for a discussion with CEO Guy Nelson. The company specializes in media-based, high-volume indoor attractions. These range from flying theaters to indoor coasters and trackless dark rides.
Says Nelson, “We’ve learned that the market is moving towards an immersive experience.” Nelson points to the growing video game world, which has helped to push the industry towards these immersive, shared experiences.
This was certainly backed up by what we saw at the Expo as multiple organizations unveiled immersive attractions: Six Flags, Sally Corp. and Oceaneering announced “Justice League: Battle for Metropolis” and Triotech announced “Voyage to the Iron Reef” for Cedar Fair. Both attractions are interactive shooter rides. Triotech’s contract for “Voyage…” represents its largest ever. It was a banner year for the company, which ended up winning its second Brass Ring Award this Expo.
The Themed Entertainment Association added some more awardees to the Expo floor when it announced the 2015 recipients of the Thea Awards (the formal Thea Awards Gala will take place March 21 at Disneyland Resort). Not surprisingly, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter-Diagon Alley walked away with three nods (for the interactive wands, Hogwart’s Express, and Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts). Chimelong Ocean Kingdom was recognized as outstanding theme park, and countless other international projects rounded out the roster. Some notable honorees stateside were the National September 11 Memorial Museum and the Grand Hall Experience at Saint Louis Union Station.
I ended my day at the Bolliger and Mabillard booth, where Holiday World unveiled what is said to be the first launched wing coaster in the US. The Santa Claus, Indiana-based park will send riders soaring in its 2015 season.
My second day of IAAPA started just as early as the first. I made my way to the TEA’s International Members’ Meeting, where I was happy to be surrounded by friends and mentors. Outgoing International Board President Christine Kerr addressed the membership one last time, as she called upon the Divisional Board Presidents to report on the previous year.
The Europe and Middle East board continues to engage a growing membership with a version of the SATE Conference called SATE Academy Days (SATE stands for “Storytelling – Architecture – Technology – Experience”). The Asia Pacific region also continues to expand its membership, as heavy-hitters like Disney and Universal become more pervasive in the region. In the US, both the Eastern and Western Divisions touted a year full of events.
It was a particularly exciting meeting for me as it was announced that I joined two others as Associate Members of the Eastern Division Board!
Following the meeting (and a brief meet and greet with the full Eastern Division Board), it was onto the floor to scope out more new finds. I was perhaps too excited to discover that AirStage was showing at the Expo this year. Ever since seeing their autonomous flying lanterns in Lotte World’s Let’s Dream parade, I have been obsessed with the technology.
A few samples of Dippin’ Dots later, I made my way to the Legends Panel, produced by Bob Rogers of BRC Imagination Arts and featuring Disney legends Marty Sklar and Bob Gurr, with WDI’s Tom Fitzgerald, talking about the legacy of the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. Like any theme park nerd worth his salt, I had already read Marty Sklar’s latest book, Dream it! Do it!: My Half-Century Creating Disney’s Magic Kingdoms. I was excited by the chance to hear from all of them.
Sklar and Gurr shared anecdotes about their time working on the 1964-65 World’s Fair. Fifty years on, most members of the industry have heard and could tell the stories of a world’s fair that had a lasting and significant impact on theme park history. It was magical when the two Disney Legends began to share their stories. My favorite from the panel came from Bob Gurr, about ride design:
The Ford Magic Skyway, designed by WED Enterprises, utilized real Ford cars as ride vehicles. Gurr explained that the cars were stripped down to reduce weight, but even still they could not make the various models have equivalent weights. This resulted in some vehicles overshooting, and bumping into the car in front of them, shattering countless taillights.
Instead of investing in a vehicle spacing system, Ford insisted there was another way to solve the issue. Someone got the idea that a baseball bat could be inserted between two cars at the load platform to stop them from ramming each other. And so, for the run of the World’s Fair, employees at the attraction carried around yellow bats that stopped the cars from crashing.
I left the Legends Panel with a smile on my face. It was apparent that after a lifetime in the industry, these men were still very passionate about the industry that they helped to shape. It gave me hope that I too, will one day look back and feel that I made a difference in the industry.
My last stop of the day was the Brass Ring Awards. Here, excellence in the industry is recognized. The awards are broad, covering Food and Beverage, Marketing, Human Resources, and Live Entertainment among others. Again, the breadth of the industry astounded me… I watched peers on the creative side of the industry being recognized alongside operators. It was a wonderful ceremony, and lots of fantastic organizations and projects were recognized.
At the close of the show, I thought back to those early summer trips to Orlando. I am proud to have become part of a fantastic industry, an industry that innovates and entertains. I can’t wait until the next IAAPA Attractions Expo brings us all together again, and in the meantime? I’ll be shopping for better walking shoes!
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