Sixty-foot vertical drops and $45 admission tickets are old news. Today, the steepest thing in the amusement industry is the growth of spending in Asia.
The U.S. theme park industry, once a rocketing roller coaster, is looking more and more like a lazy turn on the Ferris wheel. Amusement park sales in the U.S. are forecast to grow from $10.8 billion to $12.9 billion between 2005 and 2009, according to a recent study by PricewaterhouseCoopers. That's an average annual growth rate of 3.9%--sluggish compared to the 5.5% the industry experienced between 1999 and 2000.
Meanwhile, the Asia/Pacific theme park market will balloon from $6.1 billion to $8.1 billion, an average annual growth rate of 5.7%. And the amusement industry in Europe, the Middle East and Africa combined will grow about 5% per year, reaching $5 billion by 2009.
"If you look worldwide, the mature markets are in the U.S. and Western Europe," says Beth Robertson, vice president of communications at the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, based in Alexandria, Va. "There's not that much land available for building. Where we're really seeing a tremendous growth is in Asia and the Middle East. In China, for example, you have a huge population with very few parks and attractions. It's a great area to find large amounts of land."
The IAAPA industry trade show is being held in Shanghai this summer to accommodate the large number of new manufacturing facilities for amusement parks that are opening in China. The Middle East is catching on, too--last winter, Dubai opened a 1,500-person indoor ski park, one of the largest in the world.
So how can American theme parks keep up, especially considering the high energy costs plaguing summer travelers this year?
Some companies, like entertainment juggernaut The Walt Disney Co. (nyse: DIS - news - people ), are staying ahead of the game by opening new parks in the undersaturated regions. Disney has parks in Tokyo and Marne-La-Vallée, France, and last September it opened a $1.8 billion theme park in Hong Kong, in conjunction with the Chinese government. The company is also reportedly investigating the possibility of opening another park on the mainland.
For smaller U.S. amusement parks, opening a new ride or attraction, instead of a whole new park, may be the most realistic way to keep visitors funneling in through the long, hot summer. "Although there aren't new parks, we're seeing great new rides and attractions announced this year," Robertson says. One of the spring season highlights was the April 1 opening of Goliath at Six Flags Over Georgia, a 70-mph roller coaster that covers 8.5 acres in a 3.5 minute ride.
In addition to wild new rides, pricing discounts and other incentives are helping to pull in summer crowds: Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky, Ohio, is offering 25-cent cotton candy, and the Web site for Kennywood Amusement Park in West Mifflin, Pa., links to a ZIP code database that lets visitors search for the cheapest places to buy gas.
Still other parks are offering as much as $15 off admission tickets in exchange for a gas receipt. But according to Robertson, the price of gas isn't high enough to affect most Americans' vacation plans. "It takes a gas shortage before plans are canceled, and we aren't seeing that," she says.
With Memorial Day behind us but a long summer ahead, Forbes.com has compiled a list of the world's most popular amusement parks. We worked with numbers from trade publication Amusement Business and consulting firm Economic Research Associates, which ranked the top international amusement parks by 2005 attendance. We picked the best-attended park in each of ten countries. And although Disney dominated the list up front, some smaller, independent parks--like Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Everland in South Korea--also made the cut.