Theme parks pack plenty of wild new rides

The Expedition Everest roller coaster at the Animal Kingdom park at Walt Disney World.John Raoux / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Boundary-bending roller coasters, a killer whale ballet and a toppling 65-foot tower that simulates splashing into a 5,000-square-foot pond below are among scores of new attractions opening this summer at theme parks around the country.

But industry analysts say this could be the last year in a while to offer a bumper crop of new coasters, as many parks continue to focus more on drawing parents and families than thrill-seeking teens.

"The public has indicated the last two years that they're a little tired of the roller coaster scene," said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services Inc. in Cincinnati. "They're still an important part, but the message they're sending to the parks is, 'Give us something else, give us a broader and more themed experience. You don't have to just shoot us into space at 150 miles an hour.'"

Six Flags is following the family-friendly trend, announcing this year that smoking will be banned at all 28 of its parks in America. The company is also bringing back regular parades and adding 1,200 new costumed characters to parks in North America, featuring Looney Tunes and comic book heroes from the Justice League like Batman and Wonder Woman.

Still, three new roller coasters are rumbling into four Six Flags parks across North America. Goliath, at both Six Flags Over Georgia and La Ronde in Montreal, boasts an initial drop of more than 171 feet and a three-minute ride at about 70 mph. The 200-foot tall attraction is so large that riders actually travel outside the park and back in.

Six Flags Magic Mountain outside of Los Angeles opens Tatsu, billed as "A New Species of Fear." The serpent-themed flying coaster winds through the park's rocky terrain at 62 mph, taking riders horizontally through trees in a Superman-like flying position.

El Toro at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, N.J. is the second-tallest (188 feet) and fastest (70 mph) wooden coaster in the country. It takes riders on four fast drops and several high-banked turns before a "twister" ending. Also new and next to it is Bugs Bunny National Park, the theme park's third kid's area, featuring six rides and a Bugs Bunny Wilderness Theater with kid's shows.

Another major new wooden coaster is The Voyage, premiering at Holiday World in Santa Claus, Ind. Offering 24.2 seconds of weightlessness, the ride whooshes guests through five underground tunnels, three sections of 90-degree banks and three drops over 100 feet at 67 mph.

Runaway train, 'Survivor' coaster
"Coaster aficionados are looking at these with a great amount of anticipation," said Arthur Levine, theme park guide for the New York Times Co.-owned Web site About.Com.

Walt Disney World in Orlando offers Everest, a coaster that simulates a mile-long runaway train ride through the Himalayas that brings visitors face-to-face with the yeti, the most complicated animatronic character Disney has created. The ride features a train navigating an 80-foot drop, rumbling over bridges and through valleys backward and forward to "escape" the monster, which has twisted and broken the tracks.

Paramount's Great America in California is debuting what it calls "the world's first reality roller coaster." Survivor: The Ride splits guests into two "tribes," encouraging them to demonstrate commitment through tribal chants and dances, then puts riders on a circular vehicle that rocks and spins along a rugged track up to five stories tall.

SeaWorld has dusted off its Shamu show with major upgrades this year at parks in San Diego, Orlando and San Antonio. Four years in development, "Believe" features the personal testimonies of park trainers and their interactions with SeaWorld's signature killer whales. A new audio system, three new underwater cameras and four rotating LED screens help bring the 30-minute killer whale ballet to life.

Universal Orlando is unveiling a new night show called "Universal 360: A Cinesphere Spectacular." The show features four spheres, each four stories tall, that act as projection screens for Universal movie clips that will appear with lasers and pyrotechnic effects over the park lagoon. Universal is also opening a High In The Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride at Islands of Adventure, which takes parents and kids inside the off-kilter world of the famed children's author.

Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. is debuting the Timber Tower, a $6.5 million, 2.5-minute ride that simulates splashing into a pond from 65 feet high. Guests spin in a circular ride vehicle around the tower until it elevates to the top, then topples several times at 60-degree angles.

To celebrate its 50th anniversary, Michigan's Adventure near Muskegon is opening the most expensive new attraction in the park's history, a 1,500-foot water ride that cost more than $5 million. Guests on The Grand Rapids will navigate in nine-person rafts the twists of a man-made river that pays homage to the region's logging history.

Hersheypark in Pennsylvania might win the top prize for product placement. In a new Reese's-themed dark ride, guests on competing teams "chocolate" and "peanut butter" stage a sharp-shooting battle with laser blasters as they travel through competition zones. The team with the best score is declared the winner, though the park says everyone gets candy at the end.