Engineering the tallest and fastest in amusement park rides is giving way to immersive experiences using technology, putting the “theme” back in theme parks.
Six Flags Great Adventure here opened its newest attraction July 4, Zumanjaro: Drop of Doom, which plunges riders 415 feet straight down at 90 mph — the world’s tallest and fastest drop. But pursuit of the most extreme may be hitting up against the limits of human tolerance, said editor Robert Niles of Celebration, Fla.-based ThemeParkInsider.com, an online consumer’s guide to theme parks.
“You’re getting to the point where instead of making an attraction more popular by having it achieve some type of record, you’re actually limiting the audience for that,” he said.
Bret Ulozas, the New Jersey regional representative for American Coaster Enthusiasts in Grand Prairie, Texas, said once you begin to exceed 4 G’s of gravitational force, you start to see a safety concern. At this point you can “gray out,” almost like falling asleep.
Record-breaking rides face some financial drawbacks, too.
“Over the years, everybody tried to outdo each other because for marketing purposes it’s the best thing to say you have the biggest, tallest or fastest. However, they painted themselves into a corner because as you get higher, it gets more expensive,” Ulozas said. Six Flags does not release how much it spends on building rides.
Zumanjaro: Drop of Doom
Park patrons start their ascent on the new thrill ride July 11, 2014, at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, N.J., called Zumanjaro: Drop of Doom.(Photo: Bob Bielk, Asbury Park (N.J.) Press)
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios in Orlando is one of the most prominent of immersive-experience theme parks. Visitors there encounter the world of the widely successful Harry Potter novels and movies as they walk through Hogwarts Castle and other venues.
“When you see the success Universal is having with its Harry Potter attractions, I think there’s a pretty strong demand for story-driven theme park entertainment as opposed to just physical thrills,” Niles said.
Ulozas said parks are trying to come up with more unique experiences.
“I’ve been seeing a lot of parks coming out with new style wood coasters that actually go upside down now, like Goliath at Six Flags Great America,” he said. “This one takes it a step further and it has a different kind of metal hardware on the tracks so they’re able to take this wooden roller coasters where they’ve never been before.”
New experiences may be needed to help Six Flags (NYSE: SIX) shake out of its doldrums.
Six Flags disappointed investors with a second-quarter profit of 60 cents a share, falling short of expectations by 6%. Six Flags’ revenue of $376.6 million also missed views, by nearly 5 percent.
Zumanjaro inside Kingda Ka coaster’s tower
Six Flags Great Adventure piggybacked Zumanjaro onto the Kingda Ka coaster’s tower.(Photo: Six Flags Entertainment)
This is the third quarter in the past five that Six Flags’ profit has been short of expectations.
While high-profile injuries have occurred on amusement rides, the numbers of those hurt are quite small. 2012 had 1,424 injuries out of 324.1 million attendees — and 1.51 billion in ridership — for a rate of 4.6 injuries per 1 million in attendance, according to figures from the National Safety Council.
Jenny Mattaliano, 36, and her 10-year-old son, Donald, of Hamilton, N.J., weren’t thinking about safety when they rode Zumanjaro on July 11, just the thrill of the extreme.
“When you think you’re done screaming, you’re still falling,” Jenny Mattaliano said, still out of breath from the ride. “I love rides, and it’s probably the best ride here.”
New technology has opened the door for new and safer ride experiences, according to engineer Jim Seay, president of Premier Rides in Baltimore.
“You have the ability for rides to be unpredictable and have projection technologies that can put you in a very immersive environment,” Seay said. “When you combine all of these technologies, I think you’re going to get rides that can be highly personal and make you feel as if you’re part of the attraction.”