Where the fun begins: enormous amusement park trade show underway in Orlando

ORLANDO, Fla. – Have you ever wondered where your fun comes from?

The answer: here, at the International Association of Amusement Parks & Attractions expo.

The five-day trade show took place this week in Orlando, smack in the middle of the world’s biggest theme park corridor. It’s the largest such convention in the world, and people from more than 100 countries either attend, or exhibit, at the mind-bogglingly massive show.

A few numbers to explain the scale: Organizers sold out 500,000 square feet (46,450 square meters) of indoor show space. More than 27,000 people attended on the first day. If one were to walk the entire show floor, it would tally 9 miles (15 kilometres).

No wonder a man was spotted sleeping in a car parked in the convention centre’s lot mid-day on Wednesday. Or why another man could be seen on all fours on the floor, hunched over the show’s map (which is the size of a small table when unfolded).

Here, leisure is serious business.

“We’re trying to pick out what our customers are going to want,” said John Schweiger, the CEO of Coming Attractions Theaters, a four-state chain of movie houses and entertainment centres on the West Coast.

Schweiger was at the show looking for bumper cars and go-karts for a new indoor entertainment centre that he’s opening in Alaska.

“Our country needs fun right now,” he mused. “Everything else that’s going on puts you in a state of depression.”

There’s everything that a theme park, entertainment centre, zoo or museum could want at this show.

“You can buy something today and put it in your park immediately, or find a germ of a project for five years from now,” said Jeremy Schoolfield, the editor-in-chief of Funworld, the IAAPA trade magazine.

There were architects who design sleek museum exhibits and ones who design tropical mini-golf courses. Companies that manufacture wheels for roller coasters. Vendors of water slides and ziplines.

Tickets, trash cans, trampoline supplies. A mall-sized parking lot crammed with bounce houses. Animatronic giant bugs. A lifelike mechanical snake-oil salesman, made to look like something from the 1800s, that lip-syncs the song “Moves Like Jagger.”

A miniature version of a dark roller coaster that involves shooting zombies in 3-D.

Platoons of Hello Kitty.

Lots and lots of sugar.

“This is a brand new food category,” said Scott Colwell, the owner of the Orlando-based Chilly Ribbons, which is best described as tasty shaved snow sold from what looks like a mini ski chalet. “And it has less than 100 calories!”

This is Chilly Ribbons’ first year at the show, and like hundreds of others, Colwell hopes to do business with large parks and attractions by renting space at the expo, talking up the product and handing out free samples.

Cinderella stories have happened before at the IAAPA expo.

Take Ernest Yale, the president and CEO of Montreal-based Triotech, which creates immersive and interactive attractions.

Fifteen years ago, Yale drove to the show with four of his employees in a truck. They slept in the same hotel room and rented a small booth. The team sold one small arcade game three hours before the show ended — and Yale was up all night, programming it the night before.

This week, Triotech had one of the largest spaces at the Expo — about 3,600 square feet (335 square meters) — and are developing an interactive, dark roller coaster for Cedar Fair Entertainment Company’s Toronto park.

“We met them on the floor a couple of years ago,” said Matt Ouimet, CEO of Cedar Fair. Triotech’s coaster is scheduled to open at Canada’s Wonderland in May 2014.

Ouimet said that the IAAPA show is the place to find a new concept that will be a hit with guests in the future.

“This is where we come to find the new ideas,” he said.


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