Tuesday, October 31, 2017

YouTube Tuesday #17: The Secret World of Amusement Parks

The Secret World of Amusement Parks is another 1997-era manifesto from TLC that seeks to explore the fascinating underpinnings of the silly fun park world (TLC and Discovery really loved talking about amusement parks around 1997). However, much like many of the pre-1998 shows (I’m not sure what happened in 1998 to suddenly turn these specials more enjoyable) the show is astonishingly shallow compared to what it promises. Instead of the “secret world of amusement parks,” we get “the secret world of Morgan Manufacturing, amusement park history, community college physics departments, and turning walkways into loops.”

The show suffers from a massive lack of cohesion. In fact, for a show that purports to be about amusement parks, over 40 minutes (two-thirds) of the show is instead about roller coasters. And the only “behind the scenes” we get at the amusement park (which, by the way, is promised in the opening) is a quick chat with a facilities manager and a couple of ride operators. Seriously. That’s it.

In fact, it is very odd (to me at least) that TLC would call this show The Secret World of Amusement Parks in the first place. It is very obviously a show about rides, and roller coasters specifically. Why not just admit the main purpose of the show is to showcase amusement park rides and coasters? Did they really think it would lose viewers?

If you’ve been following our video postings for the last few months, I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that there is a definite presentation pattern to these sorts of roller coaster specials (and make no mistake, this is a roller coaster special). I will give this one a pass, since it was created at the beginning of the amusement park documentary craze, and thus is probably one of the Cro-Magnon forerunners that was copied by uncountable number of specials since. But the same style and presentation format that you’ve seen countless times exists here.

There’s the ubiquitous mention of amusement park history, especially Coney Island in the 1920s and Disneyland. There’s the history of roller coasters, and that means mentioning Russian ice slides and switchback railways and the Flying Turns (not sure exactly why that one came up. One of the experts is really obsessed with that one). We see the standardized explanation of G-Forces and how engineers have to blah blah blah and interview the maintenance manager who says how they have to inspect the ride each day and yadda yadda yadda. And of course we get the whole thing about the coaster wars in the mid-1990s, and how cool hypers and inverted coasters and stand-up coasters are, and how coasters bring in money to the park, etc. You know how you can tell this show is really about roller coasters, and not amusement parks? The show talks more about the Matterhorn being the first tubular steel coaster than Disneyland itself.

The Matterhorn segment though leads to a semi-interesting section going behind-the-scenes with Morgan Manufacturing, who discuss and demonstrate the roller coaster design process in more detail than most other shows. For some reason they also seem to be obsessed with break zones. We also get a nice segment on the early days of S&S, when ol’ Mormon Grunkle Stan reveals the two loves of his life: the Space Shot and the Turbo Drop.

This is a legitimate historical find for theme park documentary aficionados. After this point, half of Stan’s interview time during his segments would be concerned with the upcoming Thrust Air 2000 (which of course became Hypersonic XLC). But here, we get a very interesting discussion as to what led Stan to create S&S in the first place (his love for bungee jumping and the desire to create a “reverse bungee jump” to catapult people into the air). This led to the creation of the Space Shot, which is discussed here in loving detail, and then later the Turbo Drop. The highlight of this segment for me is to see the ORIGINAL Turbo Drop rides in action, pre-Power Tower. For the first year or so of Turbo Drop’s existence, it had that funky kiddy carnival-style logo of a smiley face dropping downwards and the unique color scheme.

We then get some almost interesting discussions of how ride designers look to lure guests in the parks to the coasters (unfortunately, only the “it’s big and cool and loud” and “we try to place them over walkways” discussions are had, nothing new here) before we get into the “we’ve-seen-this-a-million-times” segment of some community college physics professor teaching his class how roller coaster physics work (you can get an idea how cringe-inducing it is when the phrase “that’s right kids, that’s called inertia!” is actually used here). We then get the standard trip to Magic Mountain to ride Superman and float things in the air. It was cool the first thousand times. (BUT, to be fair, the kid on this trip hilariously throws the orange up instead of letting it float and completely whiffs catching it, sending it on a 400-foot vertical death spiral. Probably the highlight of the show).

The only genuinely interesting segment for me starts at around 41:35, where we meet the minds behind the Duell Corporation, the spatial master planners of over 40 theme parks worldwide. In this all-too-short segment (which actually should have at least been the beginning of the program, if not the longest segment, since this is really what the show should be about), Randy Duell and his associates discuss the thought that goes into the spatial design of the benches, bathrooms, food stops, water fountains, etc. of the parks and why certain designs are the way they are. Duell is famous for the “Duell Loop” formation of park walkways, which encompasses a half mile to a mile of walkways and is usually covered in 6-8 hours, which also happens to be the average time for guests to spend at a park. There is also a short trip to Magic Mountain to show the effect of plazas, curves and bends in the walkways, and the specific placement of trees and foliage. Honestly, WAY more time should have been spent showcasing these folks.

And finally, since this is a park special, at the end that means we get a glimpse into THE FUTURE OF THEME PARKS. And of course, since this is the mid-1990s, the future of theme parks is VR, video games, arcades (RIP DQ), and simulators. What’s nice is we get to see some attractions not seen in other park specials, such as the giant XS New York arcade (a precursor to DQ) and the New York Skyride simulator at the Empire State Building. We can’t wait for the future of fun!

Overall, as I stated before I give this special a pass because it’s obviously one of the earlier examples in the canon, and a lot of the shows following can be accused of somewhat plagiarizing the material and the presentation format. But still, for a show that pretends to be about “the secret world of amusement parks,” it tells us a lot about coaster wars and very little about amusement parks. But still, some good stuff if you know where to look. I feel like this could have been a great multi-part miniseries if given the chance.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

YouTube Tuesday #16: Coastermania

I’m not going to mince words: this is one of the most bizarre specials you’ll see. I don’t just mean roller coaster specials. I mean any special. Ever.

In a nutshell, Coastermania an hour of interviews with coaster fans/nuts/crazies, with musical interludes that are an inexplicable combination of Thus Spake Zarathustra from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Vangelis synthesizer soundtrack from Bladerunner, and feeling of cosmos-level expansiveness as we watch a train slow-mo through a cobra roll. There are interviews with priests and psychologists. There are interviews with people who got married on roller coasters. In case you couldn’t tell, there couldn’t possibly be more interviews.

One of the highlights of the show is the emphasis on Blackpool Pleasure Beach in the UK, a Cedar Point-level thrill park on par with the Cedar Fair parks and Magic Mountains of the world and is usually summarily ignored by the American-dominated cable media. This show must have been made in the 1997/1998 time period (perhaps 1996), so the Pepsi Max Big One is the real BIG NEW THING for this special. Another unsung relic from the mid-1990s coaster wars, a hyper on par with the Steel Phantoms and Desperados of the age.

I know we are all obsessed with roller coasters, but this special really gets you thinking why the living heck are we so obsessed with roller coasters? Believe me, you’ll meet plenty of people in this video who have your obsession licked. Well, at least the UK bus tourist group isn’t obsessed with Cedar Point’s Iron Dragon. They “boo” the ride on the bus on the way to CP.

Anyway, I could go on a bit about humanity’s quest for companionship and connect it to the forming of coaster clubs, or talk about the need to be challenged/need for danger/excitement/fear and adrenaline rush and everything else and how roller coasters are a form of safety valve for this desire. But, you know, filling up blog column inches with psychological analysis would somewhat legitimize this video, which is something that simply shouldn’t be allowed to happen.

So I present this video without further comment. Now enjoy Ron Toomer pontificate on the Desperado. 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Immersive Irony Experience Theme Park Podcast - Backlog BLOWOUT!

A three part bonanza! Yes THREE separate files! Alan is joined by Alex to talk Mean Streak, the Ohio State Fair fatality, Wonder Woman Golden Lasso, RMC, Lake Compounce, Balderdash, the SkyRide, Coney Island, Atlantic City, Jersey Shore, New England parks, closing out the last few trip reports of Summer 2017, and MORE!

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

YouTube Tuesday #15: Billion Dollar Fun: Creating the Film-Based Attractions at Universal Studios

Okay nerds. The Islands of Adventure design and construction footage is at 1:10, 25:10, 27:52, 40:00, and 44:45. We know that's why you're here. 

Jonathan Green (@JonathanGreen85):

Universal Studios Parks and Resorts, more specifically Universal Studios Hollywood was a playground for me growing up. My dad worked for Universal from 1969-1994 and for the last nine years of his tenure there, Universal was my home. My passion for the theme park industry began and my love for Universal was born. So many films that I grew up with, I wanted to experience and be a part of…from flying in a DeLorean to battling a Great White and even soaring to new worlds with E.T. When Walt Disney created Disneyland, his attractions weren’t only just based off of films. However, when Universal created its first park back in 1964, movies were the very foundation for which the tour was created.

Under the direction of Jay Stein and now Tom Williams, Universal Parks and Resorts have aimed at taking some of the more popular films and bringing them to life in new and inventive ways. But it didn’t quite start with either Jay or Tom; in fact it didn’t even start with Walt Disney. It began with Universal Studios founder Carl Laemmle. In 1915 Carl Laemmle moved Universal Pictures from New Jersey to the San Fernando Valley in California.

Carl Laemmle’s idea was to give paying customers a chance to see movies being made. As most already know, guests paid twenty-five cents and were given a chance to watch some of the many silent films that were being filmed on the Universal lot. On top of the opportunity they were also given a sack lunch. Since this was during the silent film era, multiple films would be shot on adjoining streets and guests could cheer and boo all they wanted. However, in 1927 the first talking picture The Jazz Singer debuted, which effectively ended the silent film and the opportunity for guests to get up-close and personal with the movie making process.

Fast-forward to 1964 and you come upon two men in Jay Stein and Albert Dorskind. Both Jay and Albert were the ones who decided to bring back what Laemmle originally wanted in giving the public a glimpse of what the movie process was like. However, Jay Stein didn’t stop at just the idea of creating a tour, he wanted an experience. And with that idea, the Universal Studios Tour was born.
There’s something intriguing about watching a movie being made, however, the connection with the audience won’t happen till the movie comes out in theaters a year or so later, the idea was then to bring to life some of the most memorable films of all time, so guests can be thrusted into their favorite films.

That brings us to this week’s YouTube Tuesday video. During the late 1990s TLC aired an episode of Billion Dollar Fun, which focused on Universal’s push into the real art of not only making movie based attractions, but to also figure out which films will be a success and turns those movies into high-quality attractions. The video takes a look at the early entries of Universal’s attraction such as King Kong, Earthquake, Jaws and even a few from the 1990s like Jurassic Park River Adventure, Terminator 2: 3D Battle Across Time and Twister: Ride it Out.

As a child of the 1980s, Universal Studios Hollywood Studio Tour had a profound impact on me. Every visit to the park had to include a ride aboard the tram. Where else could I come within three feet of a thirty-foot tall, six-and-a-half ton animatronic King Kong or experience an 8.3 Earthquake. These were just two of the many attractions you’d see aboard the Universal Tour. The complexities behind King Kong and Earthquake are incredible especially for its time.

During this time Universal was never satisfied with where they were. The competition was strong even in the eighties, so Universal went out and worked with some of the best talents in the industry like Gary Goddard from The Goddard Group and Phil Hettema who during the 1990s was Vice President of Universal Creative.

One of the first attractions Universal began working on while the film was being shot was Backdraft, which opened in the Lower Lot of Universal Studios Hollywood in July 1992. While the basic idea of going through several rooms before entering the final scene and boarding a ride wasn’t new, Backdraft stood out from the likes of Earthquake at Universal Studios Florida, where you entered the final scene which was a recreation of the climatic finale from the film, in which you experience a warehouse explode into a blaze of fire with catwalks collapsing and floors dropping beneath your feet.

While if you’d never been to Universal Studios Hollywood to see Backdraft in person (attraction closed in 2009), you probably experienced one of the many different versions based off of the same idea whether it be Twister at Universal Studios Florida, Light’s Camera Action Starring Steven Spielberg at Universal Studios Singapore or even Armageddon at Walt Disney Studios in Paris. They were all developed with the notion of putting you right in the middle of your favorite films or what a disaster film might look like.

When you’re a theme park and deciding which movie you want to be your next big themed attraction, usually you want some assurances that the film has done well at the box office and in turn will be a success at the parks. Universal took a major gamble when they began developing two attractions before the films had been released. Jurassic Park and WaterWorld, both ride and show respectively, were well in development before the films were released. One film was obviously a monstrous success while the latter (WaterWorld) ended up being the biggest theatrical flop in Hollywood history at the time. What’s funny about WaterWorld is that the theme park show is more popular than the film. The show is currently in its twenty-second year as of 2017.

Jurassic Park River Adventure, which was originally designed for Universal Studios Florida, but opened in Hollywood first in 1996 was being conceptualized during the production of the film, which Spielberg states in the video “It’s not that we’re anticipating a big success (film), but it was such a natural fit…What if the theme park (ride) is more successful than the movie.”

The video tackles two more important additions to Universal’s attraction count, Terminator 2: 3D Battle Across Time and Twister: Ride it Out. Terminator was an incredible task to undertake, many different versions were story boarded including one, where Terminator was to replace The Adventures of Conan inside the Castle Theater at Universal Studios Hollywood. Eventually the show was settled on for Orlando first then three-years later for Hollywood. The sixty-million dollar attraction for Orlando “marked the first time a film’s cast and creative team combined to bring motion picture to life” according to the official Universal press release. The show was the most expensive live action film ever produced as of 1996.

For Universal, it began with Steven Spielberg helping out in the design phase of attractions and within just a few years; entire films cast and creative were designing and starring in attractions. And now, it’s almost unheard of for a director or cast of a franchise to not be involved in the creative process for rides and shows.

Universal Parks and Resorts are an ever-changing beast. For fans that grew up with the parks, there’s not much left to hold on to as Hollywood only has two attractions on the Studio Tour left from the 1980s in Flash Flood and Earthquake and one show in Animal Actors. In Orlando, only The E.T. Adventure, Animal Actors and Horror Make-up show are left from opening day.

When you’re a theme park based solely off from movies, you must stay current with films that age well and have a long generational span. Which makes this video from TLC a worthy watch. To see the creative process in deciding not only which movies will be a success five or seven years from when the come out, but movies that will span decades.

"Billion Dollar Fun" should really be named "Universal Studios Florida Propaganda Film Late 90s Edition". This special has more similarities to Disney's own productions than prior TLC and Discovery Channel specials. Additionally "Billion Dollar Fun" is a lost tomb of theme park attractions and concept art that transcends beyond its limited theme park focus.

Of the attractions featured in this special only two remain: Jurassic Park River Adventure and The Incredible Hulk, and the Hulk was rebuilt with new show elements! Universal's willingness to rebuild and replace is both a boon and curse on the parks. The parks remain fresh and stinkers of attractions are replaced at a regular interval but no one attraction can transcend its own opening hype to become a classic. While a Disney's Hollywood Studios special produced in 1998 would be nearly identical to the park as it is run even just two years ago, "Billion Dollar Fun" produced around 1998 is completely out of date now.

"Billion Dollar Fun" focuses on the gospel of theme park attraction as movie marketing, not nostalgia fueled pieces of Americana. In a way, the lack of romance has been the differentiating factor Disney fans tend to dislike the most. Executives keep hammering home the idea of movie making and theme parks.

The actual show tackles five major Universal projects over the course of development: Back to the Future: The Ride, Jurassic Park River Adventure, T2:3D, Twister: Ride it Out, and all of Islands of Adventure. Each attraction's development process and history is covered and the now familiar talking points are covered: T2:3D is the most expensive film ever made per minute, Twister recycles tons of air, Jurassic Park ride was in development concurrently with the movie, and more. And Stan Lee's enthusiastic proclamation that Islands of Adventure's Marvel Super Hero Island will be so good that Universal should get tax exempt status because of the good it will bring to humanity (instead Universal just gets cuts and funding thanks to the "high crime" area laws). Seeing original concept video, concept art, and opening year video from the two Universal parks is also worth its weight in gold.

Overall the special feels flat and one note, it highlights the need for parks to constantly refresh (this should have been shown to Disney) with any and all justification being long lines. Interviews with Gary Goddard and others from Universal Creative are fun but lifeless in filming. These specials have changed so much in 20 years now focusing as much on guests and cast members as much as movie directors and attraction designers. "Billion Dollar Fun" is worth it for the rare footage and crazy interviews but not much else.

Film-based attractions certainly aren’t a new phenomenon. Even before Walt took us on electric busbar-powered trips through Neverland, Wonderland, and Toad Hall, there were exhibits and funhouses throughout the country’s amusement parks, expositions, and World’s Fairs to take audiences into the world of a movie. Even the premiere of Snow White at the Carthay Circle featured a Disney-sponsored miniature Seven Dwarfs cottage for kids to play in.

We’ve always been hungry to jump into the world of the movies. We’ve always wanted to roleplay the part of Luke Skywalker or Princess Leia or Han Solo and fight off the Stormtroopers. We’ve always wanted to immerse ourselves in a world that seems more exciting than the one we currently live in. And now, like video games and RPGs, theme park attractions can give us a chance to fully enter and interact with these worlds as if they were real.

If you were to tell someone living in the 1930s that they would be one day able to ride on a tram and be menaced by a stories-high King Kong, what would the reaction be? Talk to someone who has never been to a Disney or Universal park. Tell them they would be able to ride through Gringotts with Harry Potter, or drive through New York with Spider-Man. It’s everyone’s dream come true, really. To be a part of the magic. To be a part of Hollywood.

Walt Disney wasn’t the first to incorporate three-dimensional elements of popular movies, but he certainly was the first to mold it into the familiar theme park format we see today. After all, Indy and Tower and Mania all owe their existence to the seeds that were planted in that original 1955 Fantasyland. Sail through London and Neverland with Peter Pan! Ride through Wonderland with Alice! Quite a hook for an enterprise best known for beer carts and ferris wheels.

What’s interesting to me in the history of movie-based attractions is the fact that Walt and company practically abandoned the idea post-1958. It’s clear he tried to tie-in as many elements of Disneyland 1.0 as possible to pre-existing franchises, partly as a selling point for those unfamiliar to what Disneyland was to be, and partly because he thought it would be fun for kids to walk through Davy Crockett’s world. Remember, even the Jungle Cruise was subtly connected in media to the popular Bogart and Hepburn film The African Queen. But once we get to the Tomorrowland expansion in 1959, we don’t see another new film-based attraction until Pinocchio’s Daring Journey in 1983, with the exception of the Swiss Family Treehouse (and 20k if we discount the fact it’s a re-imagining of the submarine prototype). That’s 24 years with, at most, two new film-based attractions. TWO! Can you imagine if that were proposed at Disney today? Please make sure there are no flammable objects nearby!

And that gets into the real critique of this special, something that Joe also touched on. There’s a real stigma in theme park executive circles nowadays that everything must be based on a pre-existing movie franchise. Indeed, Billion Dollar Fun acts as if movie-based attractions are the only way to go. To be sure, this is mostly because the show is a Universal Studios propaganda piece, but it’s like watching a football analyst go on and on about a team’s high-powered offense without realizing offense alone is not what makes a winning team. With theme park attractions, it’s about putting the audience into emotional situations. It could be scary situations as in a haunted house, or thrilling situations as on a roller coaster, or dramatic situation as in the attractions with more character-based elements. But the film-based attractions are only one way to go of many.

We can easily see the reasons behind making film-based attractions. These attractions come with built-in recognition and emotions in the audience. The merchandise is practically pre-sold. And in an environment where the main cycle of action (aka the ride itself) is only about 4 minutes long, that initial familiarity with the characters can save a lot of time and effort in attempting exposition and setting up the scene. Realistically, it’s much harder to make another Pirates of the Caribbean than it is to make another Forbidden Journey. Creating characters and entire worlds from scratch is not something MBA-schooled executives have the time or the patience for when they can start selling merchandise NOW.

Which brings us now back to Billion Dollar Fun, and my observations. I agree with the show that today’s E-Ticket attractions share a lot in common with Hollywood blockbusters. Neither of them are released in short intervals. Each studio will have only one or two major blockbusters a year, and theme parks (since there is limited space to build and popular E-Tickets bring in far less immediate revenue than popular movies) only release E-Tickets once every 3-5 years (or in Epcot’s case, once every Peter Quill visit).

Both have become billion-dollar industries in themselves, and thus have captured the attention of movie studios. They’re always looking for more ways to make money after all. Especially if you’re, say, Paramount, and don’t currently own any theme parks, you could license popular properties such as Star Trek or Mission: Impossible to Universal for huge fees (plus a percentage of merchandise revenues of course) and have absolutely no downside if the ride flops, since you didn’t spend any money to build the thing to begin with. So this area is a potential cash cow.

I was very impressed with the number of major Hollywood and theme park players TLC was able to put on camera (it seems the earlier the special, the more celebrities were willing to be interviewed). In this special we get not only the ubiquitous Steven Spielberg and Douglas Trumbull Universal interviews, but also Stan Lee, Gary Kurtz (producer of the original Star Wars trilogy), Jan de Bont (director of Speed and Twister), Gary Goddard, James Cameron, and even Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich (directors and producers of Independence Day, Godzilla, and The Day After Tomorrow).

They all have some very good insights into what makes a film-based attractions so exciting and appealing, as well as where the idea of film-based attractions can go in the future. We’ve always wanted to go to the Chinese Theater to put our hands in the cement, or visit the soundstages where movies are filmed, because we want to get close to our favorite characters and movie stars. Douglas Trumbull relates how his work on 2001: A Space Odyssey prepared him for the potential of audience participation (apparently he had never gone to Disneyland). As we all know, the end sequence in 2001 is completely different from the rest of the movie, being a constant stream of images. It does not have a plot or character development. It is just pure visceral image. The idea being that the audience is the actor. It’s happening to them.

And that’s where film-based attractions, from Mr. Toad to Gringotts, succeed. It’s happening to you. You are Snow White, and in tonight’s episode, you are the star. Trumbull notes that rides are like dreams or out-of-body experiences. They exist in a hyper-reality so beloved by John Hench and other theme park philosophers. Jan de Bont chimes in by saying that audiences “want to be closer to danger.” Rather than simply see the shark attack on the screen, they want the shark to attack them, as long as nobody actually gets hurt, like a good magic trick. Rides based on films work best when a particular visceral action sequence can be identified and connected with the audience’s preconceived notions of the film on which the attraction is based. James Cameron adds that rides “break down the barrier” between the audience and the characters. The audience in T2: 3-D can see the characters jump from the screen onto the stage, and then back. Lines of reality are blurred. And lastly, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the producers of Godzilla say probably the most prescient item about this subject, when they mention that a film-based attraction has to be an extension of a movie, not merely the exploitation of a movie. Disney certainly has a lot to learn in that area nowadays. But it’s certainly correct. I’ll be nice here and point out that the most successful film-based attractions, especially recently (Forbidden Journey, Gringotts, Flight of Passage) are extensions of the movies they represent, with new scenes and actions by the characters. They are not merely there to be a “Harry Potter ride.”

So where is this technology taking us, or, more specifically, where does our celebrities think the technology will take us? Douglas Trumbull thinks that there is the possibility for an audience member to have a one-to-one encounter with Harrison Ford or Harry Potter, where the characters directly interact with you (you know, all these other people think I’m talking to them…). Jan de Bont wants to take the theme park potential beyond the berm and into the movie theater. For Twister, he wished every theater could have moving seats, blowing air, and the smell of the humidity so the audience can better feel what the characters were going through. I guess we still have yet to figure that one out. But things to think about for you future three-dimensional entertainment designers.

And finally, it’s time to comment on all the randomness found in the video. I know this is what you came here for. So, answer me this, nerds: what was that Batman simulator footage found at 00:45? Was that a simulator or a 3-D movie? WAS THERE EVER A BATMAN SIMULATOR AS SIX FLAGS?! Because that would have been the biggest “duh” of the early 1990s, but I can’t seem to recall any being there. Does anyone know? Because following the Batmobile doing ANYTHING, even picking up Taco Bell, would have been an E-Ticket simulator experience.

What is that James Bond 007 model behind Gary Goddard during his interviews (at 5:05)? Interesting that this has been in the works at Universal for so long. It looks like it was supposed to be a stunt show, ostensibly in the Waterworld/Miami Vice mold. Was it to be where the current Fear Factor is now? Was it originally supposed to replace Waterworld? Or the Wild West show? I’ve heard Bond is also a rumored replacement for T2: 3-D. Is this concept about to be resurrected?

There are also some juicy rumored “coming attractions” for Universal. Universal scholars will point out that around this time there were plans for an Apollo 13 simulator or roller coaster (or both) and a dark ride based on Stephen King’s horror titles. But I never knew that Lost in Space was considered for an attraction. Or Godzilla. In fact, the last few minutes of the video practically scream that Godzilla will be the next big ride coming to Universal. Oops. Funny how things look from the other side of the fence.

And then, of course, there’s the IOA construction footage. As Joe said, this is theme park gold. Starting at 1:10 we get to see early cinematics of Hulk and Dueling Dragons. Whether intentional or not, they seem like very old versions. They look nothing like B&M designs. The Hulk footage actually looks like a Steel Phantom-Arrow design, and Dueling Dragons I don’t even know what that is. Note that DD in this version only has one track, and flies around the spires of a castle, very Dragon’s Tower-like. At 25:10 we get the whole “building a theme park is like building a city” spiel, but we also get a clue that the video narrator has absolutely no clue about the details of IOA. He calls Dudley Do-Right “this water ride.” He calls JP “Jurassic Park Island,” and mistakes footage of Triceratops Encounter with that of the River Adventure. He also says the parking garages will be so big they will be seen from space (woof).

But the highlight is certainly the action starting at 44:45, aka the tour of the construction site. Here is the buried treasure people. The skeleton of the Hulk structure and the giant JP drop. The producers taking the first long down a half-completed Dudley Do-Right track. The interior of the Spider-Man building before the screens come up. The orchestra rehearsal for the IOA adventure theme and Dr. Doom queue music. And of course, Steven Spielberg being told that B&M SAID THE HULK WAS SUPPOSED TO BE THE KIDDY COASTER, AND THAT THE REAL COASTER WAS DUELING DRAGONS IN THE BACK OF THE PARK. Those were real words said to Steven Spielberg. On camera. You can’t make this stuff up. Only in Billion Dollar Fun. Now playing on your local desktop or mobile via YouTube. Be sure to grab a Coke, popcorn, and candy in the lobby. We hope you enjoy the movie!

--ParkScopeJeff (@ParkScopeJeff)

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

YouTube Tuesday #14: Amusement Parks: The Pursuit of Fun

I am very proud to present this week my all-time favorite amusement park special.

Yes, ever.

Discovery Channel started making these amusement park specials in the mid- to late-1990s, with each one upping the last in production values (and that certainly is not an exaggeration). Beginning in 1996 or so, these specials were very spotty in the beginning and looked like closed-circuit TV documentaries. The Discovery team eventually hit their stride in the 1999-2002 time period, which is far and away the “golden period” for these types of specials. But before 1999, we see the first specials, the ones that tread the new ground, like “Wild Rides,” or “Top Ten Coasters,” or “Billion Dollar Fun,” or “Funhouse.” These were the channel’s first attempt to explain the weird and wonderful science and art of the amusement park.

And in 1998, right as Discovery Channel was getting the hang of making these specials, there came a landmark catch-all show that perfectly summed up the complex thinking and exuberant enthusiasm written into the DNA of our favorite thrill places. This show was called Amusement Parks: The Pursuit of Fun.

The format of the show is brilliant. After exploring the excitement people have for amusement parks, and why people continue to visit in record numbers year after year, the show states that there are four major elements that make up a great park. The rest of the run time is given to exploring these four elements, with each section given its own explanation and tie-in with an existing amusement park, which gets the equivalent of a sort of mini-episode. The show features the very best of the old and new: Cedar Point, Kennywood, Knoebels, Busch Gardens, and Universal Orlando, each given its own segment tied into the show’s greater themes. It’s a tour-de-force of amusement park enthusiasm. It’s so hard for me to explain how perfect this 45 minutes is. All the major aspects of amusement parks are covered in a very limited time. Extended time is given to our favorite parks, almost like mini-specials. The whole thing is wrapped up in a very easy-to-follow package, and follows an exciting umbrella theme. And the amount of information presented here is mind-boggling. I would ask you, as an experiment, after you’ve seen the show in full, to just rewind to a random part of the show. Familiarize yourself with where you are, then skip ahead, say 30-45 seconds. Then just look at the time you skipped and realize how much information is packed into that 30 seconds. This is literally a show that forces you to watch every second! I wonder if the Discovery Channel team didn’t know how many more of these specials were to be made, and packed as much information into this one as possible. It certainly gives that impression. We see in-depth looks at Cedar Point’s coasters and midways, Kennywood’s groves and old-school rides, Knoebels’s carousels, coasters, and haunted house, Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s landscaping, and Universal’s new high-tech attractions. All in 45 minutes! It’s in some ways the Snow White or Toy Story for the Discovery Channel specials: a thesis statement and blueprint for all others to follow. And you won’t find an amusement park special better to emulate, that’s for sure.

The Pursuit of Fun perfectly sums up the reasons why we visit amusement parks year in, year out, and how the parks draw us in and entice us for more. Amusement parks are ostensively a place for us to enjoy ourselves, and to have fun with friends and family. The amusement park is designed to place us in situations for us to have “optimum fun.” Rides are built and designed with the question of “how can this be the most fun” in mind. These rides are placed apart at just the right distance so they are far enough away from other rides that we don’t get overwhelmed, but not far enough away to force us to walk a long distance, tiring us out. In between, there has strategically been placed areas for our comfort: benches, restaurants, shows, shops, fountains, boats. It’s all to provide the “optimum fun” for each guest. The choices have been laid out and given, it is now up to us to determine our own path to optimum fun.

And once we are out of the gentle walkways and onto the metal machines, how is our experience transformed? It is a great way to let off steam, first of all, and provide a momentary escape from the drudgeries of adult life. They’re certainly an adrenaline rush that cannot commonly be found in our day-to-day lives. But, as the show tells us, these rides also help us push our own boundaries, past what we felt we could experience before. Remember your first ride on a hyper-coaster? Or your first ride on a coaster with inversions? How did that ride feel? Every truly new ride we experience pushes our boundaries just a bit further. They meet our need to constantly be challenged, and to push ourselves into new territory. And best of all, we share this experience communally, with dozens of other screaming passengers on board. For amusement parks are, above all, a communal experience.

And how do these parks entice us to visit, and to ride? Walt’s weenie theory personally encapsulates this. For amusement parks, roller coasters act as a flashing neon sign, billboards towering over the horizon, advertising the fun to be had within, enticing us through the gates. They promise us bigger and better high-tech fun every year.

And why do we keep visiting, once we’ve spent a day? The main reason is certainly because we had so much fun we’d like to do it again. It also could be for nostalgia purposes, to experience the same rides we did back in the day with our kids. But the parks also entice us back with innovation. Whether bigger or better rides appear on the horizon every year, or there is a new technology available, parks invest in creativity and authenticity to bring us new and unique rides for our riding pleasure. These new technologies allow the parks to offer new and exotic rides every year to push our curiosity and entice us back.

The show’s excellent presentation structure delivers an encompassing amusement park experience in four major sections, presented as elements to the theme park experience: first, the hair-raising thrills, second, the wide midways with savory aromas and classic attractions, third, providing ways for us to cool down on a hot summer’s day, and fourth, providing a communal experience for us to share our fun with friends and meet new people. These four elements are an excellent starting place for those looking to understand the allure of amusement park fun. One could do worse than to stick to these simple ABCs when designing rides or entire parks.

The thrill rides portion is dominated by Cedar Point (Magnum and Raptor) and Kennywood (Steel Phantom and Thudnerbolt). In it, the show explains how and why the thrill rides are the main attraction in an amusement park visit, as well as the history of the thrill rides from the original Expos and World’s Fairs to Coney Island, then to Disneyland, then to the parks of today. The emphasis, of course, is not just on thrills but also on innovation. From the invention of the Ferris Wheel to the Magnum, innovation has always been a major part of the thrill landscape, a fact many designers somehow forget nowadays.

The midways of the amusement parks have many purposes. They must be wide and inviting to keep people moving, but also be high energy, with bright lights, kinesthetic motion like a good swing ride, and the coasters abutting the midway and roaring overhead. The midway section is not only packed with the history of Kennywood and Knoebels, but also the explanations of just how many components can be packed onto a midway. There are train rides, swing rides, and coasters. There can be action shows in man-made lagoons, or roving marching bands. Fountains. Carnival games. Woods and trees. Savory aromas and classic foods and treats. Flowers. Bells. Fiber Optics and statues. Old rides can provide kinesthetic amusement, like Kennywood’s Turtle Ride or The Whip. New high-tech thrills can soar over the midway, like the Skycoaster, providing good people-watching. Or, the midway can also provide quiet leisure, a place where people can reconvene after a ride, and where old people can sit on a bench. But the beating heart of the midway arteries, we are told, is the carousel. Knoebels’s famous brass ring carousel provides the example. The sound of a carousel organ is an amusement park staple. People are unconsciously drawn to the carousel, and a park cannot survive without it. It’s telling that, on some amusement park surveys, carousels are more closely identified with amusement parks than the roller coasters.

There is no better place for Discovery Channel to explain the process of cooling people off than Busch Gardens Williamsburg. Amusement parks are open during the hottest times of the year, and they are behooved to allow their guests to cool themselves off for maximum comfort. How many different ways can you think of to cool off at a park? You can grab some ice cream. You could dip your hand in a fountain. There are plenty of rides that get you soaked: log flumes, rapids rides, shoot the chutes, and inevitably some water squirt-gun action in the kids area. But did you think of the experiences that get you out of the heat? How about the Sky Tower? Or the simulators and 3-D movies? There are rides like the swings, the parachute drop, or the skyway that cool you down. And at Busch Gardens, the amazing landscaping provides excellent shade, the gigantic air-conditioned restaurants provide great entertainment, and Escape from Pompeii provides not only air-conditioning but also a giant splashdown. (Too bad this show was created before Islands of Adventure opened. Be careful not to drown this time, kids!)

We sometimes forget one of the best traits of an amusement park is the opportunity to have fun with friends and meet new people. And yes, parks do try to communize the experience as much as possible. After all, it’s a very rare ride that allows only one passenger per car. A typical coaster usually has more than a dozen. And with this experience, parks also have certain ways to get people closer together. The classic example, of course, is the bumper cars. But there are also fun houses, carnival games, dark rides, and haunted houses. These experiences create memories real fast, and can introduce you to some new friends who share in your excitement or sheer terror.

Finally, as if the show hadn’t explored the amusement park world enough, it ties back to the original segment of innovation, surviving danger, and pushing our limits of trauma by diving into Universal Orlando and exploring the techno-rides available there, from T2 to Jurassic Park, and how they tie in all the elements that have been explained so far.

I hope you’ll agree that Amusement Parks: The Pursuit of Fun is a perfect example of what the blueprint of what a good amusement park documentary should be. I usually watch this show every Memorial Day weekend, right as the coaster season begins. I’ve never seen any show that gets me more pumped to visit the parks than this one. Off to ride!

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Hidden Rides and Themed Attractions of...New York

Home to what is probably the cultural capital of the world, New York City, and also somewhere there's a bunch of other urban areas you frequently forget about (Albany, Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester, and more!), New York is neither New England, the Rust Belt, nor the Mid-Atlantic. It's all of those things at once. Amusement and theme park culture in America was born here at Coney Island, a beach community in the borough of Brooklyn back in the later half of the 19th Century, and the area around it became home to many of America's major ride manufacturers. Coney Island is still there: the Cyclone and Wonder Wheel (on which Mickey's Fun Wheel is based) are National Historic Landmarks and still plugging away, surrounded by a ton of new rides from the folks at Zamperla who've helped revitalize the region and bring it to a glory it hasn't seen since the 1950s. 

The "known" of the state ties back to Six Flags: Darien Lake used to be part of the empire, but it has since been dispensed of and gone through a series of private equity owners interested in its unique combination of campground, hotel, concert venue, and amusement rides. Standouts include the world's first Intamin hyper coaster, Ride of Steel (Superman branding disappeared with the six flags) and the wacky cult favorite kids ride "Moose on The Loose." Still part of the corporation is Great Escape in Lake George: formerly a family run storybook park, Premier Parks bought it from the Wood family in 1996. There haven't been that many changes to it since, with the park still retaining a family park feel instead of a big thrill facility. The Schmeck Comet, formerly operational at Crystal Beach, runs here and is still lauded by many as one of the best classic wood coasters in the world. 

But there is more: so, so much more. With perhaps the exception of Pennsylvania, no state in the union has a better attachment to the history of amusements than New York. It then unsurprisingly contains many examples of classic rides, attractions, and even shows that are often otherwise lost to time. Lake George is home to one of these examples in another storybook park called Magic Forest. An accompaniment of fairly general kids rides, the "safari" train ride with its statues, and fairy tale displays with primitive animatronics are, in and of themselves, rarities. But then there's the diving horse. Yes. A diving horse: one that jumps off a ledge into a pool of water. West of Magic Forest is another storybook park with a strong aquatic retro feel, Enchanted Forest Water Safari in Old Forge. Rather than diving horses, it has an unmatched array of classic concrete water slides; most with heated water!

Western New York has plenty of history to celebrate too. The Herschell Carousel Factory Museum in North Tonawanda details the history of one of the most important ride manufacturers in American history featuring both fully restored and operational kiddie rides as well as a full size carousel. Midway State Park features a small amusement park operated by government this way too on the banks of Chautauqua Lake. Perhaps its most impressive feature is the roller rink/ballroom, a gorgeous facility that closed when the park transferred to public hands in the 2000s but is kept maintained for the time being. Amusement rides and games are still available. Another lake (Oneida) is the location on which Sylvan Beach runs. This complex is actually operated by multiple concessionaires, and there's a 100+ year old carousel, electromechanical games of chance such as Fascination, and a full size steel roller coaster. The park is probably most well known for its Pretzel dark ride, Laffland, mostly untouched in the many decades since its construction.

Two "full size" parks also celebrate the history of amusements in the region. Seabreeze outside of Rochester opened its gates back in 1879, and features all sorts of goodies. There's Bobsleds, a junior wood coaster that was converted to tubular steel in the late 1950s. There's the Jack Rabbit, a terrain wooden out-and-back from Miller and Baker. The train opened in 1974, but the rolling stock seems much, much older. The carousel also looks older than it actually is: the original burned down in a fire, and craftsmen meticulously went about recreating it. Today the building is much more fire resistant and that's good considering how many pieces of carousel music the owners store here. It's practically a museum to carousel and automatia. If you can believe it, the oldest mini golf in the US (Whispering Pines) is within walking distance of Seabreeze - and it is tough. Fantasy Island on Grand Island near Niagara Falls has undergone their fair share of name changes (at one point being "Two Flags Over Niagara") and ownership (now part of Apex), but still hasn't lost its identity as a family park with unique attractions like canoeing. The Silver Comet wood coaster is based roughly on the Crystal Beach Comet (yeah, like the same ride at Great Escape!) but focuses more on laterals than airtime. And it runs really well. 

In a superior fashion to most states, New York meets the needs of the smaller markets better than almost any other in the union. Eldridge Park in Elmira (just south of the Finger Lakes) doesn't have a lot, but it does have a carousel, really nice set of Flying Scooters, and several other kiddie rides that most small cities would adore having. Upstate in Albany, Huck Finn's Playland saved most of the rides from Hoffman's Playland (minus the Lusse Bumper Cars) and keep them up and running from Memorial Day into early October. Bigger than both combined is Adventureland in Long Island, which will be getting a new dark ride for the 2018 season and received a Gerstlauer spinning coaster in 2015. But all of these pale next to the County-owned Rye Playland. Filled with classic Art Deco architecture, a gorgeous beach, classic arcade games, and great old rides, Rye is a gorgeous throwback. There's three dark rides, a smooth and fast wood coaster (Dragon Coaster), and the best Derby Racer anywhere. If you've never gotten a chance to go, you can see video of it as a focal point in the film Big. Yeah, that amusement park on the beach? Big.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

YouTube Tuesday #13: Extreme Rides 2000

If this doesn’t get you excited about going to amusement parks, nothing will.

This is my favorite of the Discovery Channel’s Extreme Rides/Wild Rides series. It’s the one I always come back to when I want to get excited about the upcoming summer season. Back in the late-1990s/early-2000s, Discovery Channel (and its Travel Channel and TLC counterparts) became obsessed with amusement parks and roller coasters. Every Memorial Day there would be a “Thrills, Chills, and Spills” marathon, where there would be several new roller coaster and amusement parks shows. There was always a new “Top 10 Coasters” type show, which would mostly be touting the newer coasters that debuted the previous year (funny how the list of Top 10 coasters seemed to move around every year. I remember The Beast would jump in and out of the Top 10 on an alternate basis…was turnover for Discovery Channel writers really that high?). There would also be a new highlighted theme or amusement park. You’ve already seen our entries (listed on the bottom of this column) for Disneyland Paris, Magic Mountain, and Busch Gardens, but there are quite a few more that will be upcoming.

But my favorite ongoing series was always the Extreme Rides series. This series would feature the most cutting-edge rides from the past year, with interviews with the ride designers and the ride’s biggest fans. This would of course follow (most of the time) with an on-ride POV. There would be stories of the park the ride’s featured in and the background of how the introduction of the ride came to be. And of course, at the end of the show, there would be a preview of the extreme rides of the upcoming year.

Extreme Rides 2000 is the “Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan” of the series. The features are fun, the interviews are great (with some special guest stars), it runs the gamut from coasters to amusement rides to themed rides. If the Discovery Channel just made an Extreme Rides show every year, that’s all I would ask of them. I wouldn’t need anything else.

And Extreme Rides 2000 came at such an interesting time in the amusement park timeline. B&M had just exhausted its creativity throughout the 1990s with inverted and stand-up coasters, eventually culminating with the debut of Alpengeist and Riddler’s Revenge, respectively. So, they decided to branch out again and start innovating with floorless coasters (Medusa, featured) and hyper coasters (Raging Bull and Apollo’s Chariot). And as B&M and others began to go into the hyper-space, Magic Mountain and Cedar Point decided to test the limits of how high coasters can go with Goliath and Millennium Force, respectively. What we forget that’s mind-blowing is Goliath and Millennium Force both set coaster height records, and they opened within three months of each other.

Along with B&M’s forays, there were other coaster design companies that decided to really test how extreme coaster vehicles can get. Featured in the coming attractions portion of the video is the dawn of the flying coaster (which, we must remember, in the era of the Vekoma models, were originally called “lay-down coasters”), which is so new the preview is shown in CGI, and Stan Checketts’ bat-crazy what-the-hell-just-happened Thrust Air 2000, which in a few years would become Hypersonic XLC at Kings Dominion, and then a few years later, nothing. In this era, coasters were becoming bigger, faster, and stranger every year (those were the days).

This was when wooden coasters were suddenly making a comeback. After the Dinn Corporation made a few behemoths in the early-1990s (Texas Giant, Mean Streak, etc.), wooden coasters became smaller and more unique, thanks to Great Coasters (GCI) and Custom Coasters (CCI). When CCI designed The Raven for Holiday World in 1995, they sent a clear message that not only were wooden coasters on their way back, but they didn’t have to be 200 feet tall to pack a real punch. A real renaissance for wooden coasters ensued, and featured in this video is one of the weirdest of the bunch (and that’s an understatement): the ultra out-and-back that is Shivering Timbers at Michigan’s Adventure. At the time it was built, it opened a lot of eyes as to just how weird wooden coasters can get.

As I stated in my last article feature, the launched coaster really changed the game in the theme park world. No longer restricted by space constraints (the bigger the lift hill, the more land is needed), now coasters could go 70+ miles an hour without the need of a single lift hill. Space Mountain at Disneyland Paris begat Flight of Fear here in the U.S., which begat the incredible 100 mph/400 foot tall Superman: The Escape (hard to believe something like that was created as far back as 1996. Remember when they had to literally rewrite the coaster height record rules so Superman would be its own separate category, and not included in the “continuous” coaster records?). Superman begat Batman and Robin: The Chiller, which eventually begat Volcano: the world’s first inverted launched coaster. And its weirdness, in my opinion, has never been matched. With two distinct launches, and the second sending you upwards through a fiery volcano? That takes some creativity.

And finally, there are quite a few non-coaster features in this video. The first is the Katanga Skyscraper in Orlando, the extreme amusement flat ride from the makers of every bungee-jumping Sky Coaster and catapult-flinging monstrosity you see in amusement parks these days. Themed rides are featured here too. Journey to Atlantis from SeaWorld Orlando is here. It was inevitable that Splash Mountain’s infamous double-dip would lead to the firing of a hundred imaginations about what else a standard log flume track could do. The next logical step was to combine the log flume with a coaster track, giving the flume the ability to turn and even rise back up in the middle of a splashdown hill. And looking at the video, it’s admirable how SeaWorld was able to theme this ride while Disney’s popularity was booming. SeaWorld (back then) obviously was determined to try to bridge the gap between it and Disney in any way it could.

And speaking of bridging the gap, what ride encapsulated that concept better than Spider-Man? That’s right, Spider-Man’s here too. IOA had just opened the year before, and Discovery Channel wasn’t going to let that go without highlighting the most mind-blowing ride at the park. And also, think about how commendable that was. In a park with Dueling Dragons, Hulk, and Jurassic Park, on a show called Extreme Rides 2000 Discovery Channel thought best to showcase the hell out of Spider-Man. Damn good work, that. Jolly good show.

This time in amusement park history was very similar to what we saw with Hollywood movies also. Since Star Wars was released in 1977, and then once Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park introduced CGI to the masses, the race was on every year to make bigger, better, more expensive, and more sophisticated movies every summer. It was expected that each summer’s movies would be bigger than the last. That’s exactly what was going on with amusement parks. Can we honestly say there was more innovation in the amusement park space in any decade more than the 1990s? With the amount of coasters created, with the creativity of each, and the ingenuity?

Certainly the ride designers would tell you the 1990s were a golden age of amusement park designer creativity. Luckily, Extreme Rides 2000 has an all-star lineup of quality guest stars from all spokes of the park industry wheel. Starting with the usual Discovery Channel rolodex interviews with Steve Urbanowicz, Allen Ambrosini, and Paul Ruben, Extreme Rides 2000 also has quite a few white whales as guest stars: at 5:10 Walter Bolliger (of B&M…yeah, that Bolliger) discusses B&M’s thought process in transitioning from inverted to floorless coasters, at 10:10 and 11:12 Peter Kockelman of Gravity Works (of Sky Coaster fame) talks about creating the Katanga Skyscraper after their Ejection Seat model, at 17:32 Denise Dinn-Larrick (President of CCI) discusses the impetus behind Shivering Timbers, at 27:40 Sandor Kernacs (President of Intamin) explains how difficult it was to translate the LSM technology to inverted coasters, and at 31:42 Stan Checketts explains just how crazy he is. Oh, and don’t forget the Spider-Man behind-the-scenes walkthrough with Scott Trowbridge starting at 36:25.

So I dare you to watch this and not immediately run to your car and drive to your local park. In fact, I’ve been typing this whole article while driving at the same time. Okay, not really. Also, I’m pretty sure the seasonal parks aren’t open until Friday this week. But it’s still exciting, darn it. By the end of the show, we’re also promised the following future ideas:

1.       An S&S that goes 100 mph and rises up 350 feet (this was 4 years before Dragster)
2.       Log flumes that do loops
3.       Wooden coasters that go underwater

More, please. Now excuse me, I need to go to my car immediately. I love extreme rides!

--ParkScopeJeff (@ParkScopeJeff)