Are roller coasters recession-proof? No. But attendance at major theme parks in North America rebounded 2.9% last year, and globally the figure rocketed past 198 million--a 4.8% increase over 2010. Spurred by the popularity boost, almost every major theme park has raised prices this year. One-day passes to Disney World and Universal Studios Hollywood now sell for $89 and $80, respectively, both up at least 4% over 2011, as the parks rein in discounting. Here are the bigger, bolder attractions theme parks are offering to raise the thrill-per-dollar value.
"This is the big steel year," says Palicki, noting that parks are placing more emphasis than ever before on signature attractions. Dollywood's new winged coaster, for example, has seats that jut out on both sides of the track. Meanwhile, a new ride at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, Calif., blasts thrill seekers at 60-plus m.p.h., and one at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, Calif., drops them 400 ft.--the biggest plunge in the world
Seaworld San Diego
The coaster is an interactive manta-ray experience
Pleasure Pier, Galveston, Texas
Touts a 100-ft. lift, a diving loop and 50-m.p.h. speed
Six Flags, Gurnee, Ill.
The 3,000-ft.-long winged roller coaster touts a 12-story drop and five inversions
Six Flags, St. Louis
Riders shoot through 290 ft. of clear tubes and 360-degree loops before splashing into the water
For media companies that own theme parks, like Disney and Universal, it has always made sense to build rides around popular movies. But this year especially, everyone wants in--no matter the cost. "It's easier to tap into an existing fan base," says Martin Palicki, editor of InPark magazine, referring to new rides based on Superman, The Avengers and others.
New U.S. theme-park attractions
600,000 NUMBER OF U.S. THEME-PARK EMPLOYEES
Two Man of Steel attractions open this summer at different Six Flags in California
$300 COST OF A FIREBOLT BROOMSTICK AT WIZARDING WORLD OF HARRY POTTER
ANGRY BIRDS LAND
Opens soon at Finland's Sarkanniemi Amusement Park
Opens June 15 at Disney California Adventure Park in Anaheim
150 m.p.h. Speed of Abu Dhabi's Formula Rossa, the world's fastest coaster
$100 million Cost of building Transformers: The Ride--3D at Universal Studios Hollywood
"We're always drawn to spectacle," Palicki says. That's clear in Asia, where live shows boosted attendance at major theme parks past 105 million last year, a record high. And the U.S. is following suit: Iceploration, an elaborate ice show at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, opened this spring, as did Cinematic Spectacular, a nighttime pyrotechnics show at Universal Orlando that celebrates the studio's 100 years of making movies.
A show at SeaWorld San Diego boosted attendance by 13%.