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January 2010

The Other Seasons

The annual IAPPA show is full of great ideas for year-round entertainment.

Written by Rick Kahl | 0 comment

Summer operations hold a lot more choices than winter, when all activity centers around skiing and riding. Attractions in the other seasons can range from old-school tennis and golf to new-school canopy tours and ziplines, plus waterparks, climbing walls and bungee trampolines, and mountain biking. The options, and the planning, are endless.

To help sort things out, there’s no place like the trade show of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA), as more and more winter resorts are discovering. The show is an idea and answer factory, with nearly 1,000 exhibitors. Fertile ground for summer operations. Since most areas are too busy in November to attend the show, SAM advertising director Sharon Walsh and I headed to Las Vegas Nov. 17-18 to check it out for you.

As the show opened, we ran into Brian Fairbank, president of Jiminy Peak, Mass., and Ben Wilcox, general manager of Cranmore, N.H. “We’re going to find out what’s next,” says Fairbank, a frequent visitor to IAAPA. “I’m latching onto the industry leader in summer business,” adds Wilcox, a first-time attendee who’s looking for activities that will complement the area’s summer tubing operation. We decided to tag along.

Wilcox has studied Jiminy’s summer attractions, and he wants to assemble his own unique blend of activities. At the Vertical Reality exhibit, the two checked out the bungee trampoline, spider net climbing structure, and ropes course. All three features are easy to set up and move, which appeals to Wilcox. He’d like features he can set up outdoors in the summer, then move them into the tennis facility for the winter. If the building housed both tennis courts and some other features, it could become a powerful profit center and give new life to the building, which has been sleepy recently.

The combination spider tower/ bungee tramp/ropes course is clearly portable. Ken Sharkey, Vertical’s president, says that the spider tower “takes about 15 minutes to set up or take down, and the bungee tramp takes even less. I don’t think others have the versatility that ours have.”

Perhaps. One advantage of a show like this is that it’s easy to verify such claims. There are two other booths showcasing trampolines and ropes courses within 100 yards or so.

This is also an opportunity to ask the tough questions, and Fairbank frequently does. “What operations problems would you have—where would be something we would be calling you about?” he asks. Sharkey quickly parries. “Right here,” he says, gesturing toward the bungee tramp, where a staffer is settling an eight-year-old girl into a harness. “The attendants.” Fairbank was wondering about hardware-related issues, though.

Still, Fairbank likes the combination of the bungee tramp, spider net, and ropes course. “We find that the dollar investment on these three products is better,” he says. The climbing wall just doesn’t get the same level of throughput—fewer people are up to the challenge of climbing, he adds.

The ropes course has high throughput because it has seven elements and can handle that many people on it at once, Sharkey says. And it only needs one attendant. A climbing wall, in contrast, might require two attendants for a four-line installation.

Fairbank and Wilcox get the price sheets and head down the aisle, looking for other potential attractions.

Wilcox is already considering the possibilities. He figures that with the resort’s existing summer tubing, the three activities “would be enough to step up our program.” And he likes the idea of using it year-round. “Moving any of that stuff, my staff cringes. But it would work,” he says.

Still, Wilcox is just getting started on the decision process. “We want unique things that fit into the character of the mountain,” he says. “We’re looking at a Mountain Coaster, too, that would be the big thing for us.” At the same time, “We’re trying to keep things in the base area as much as possible,” he adds.

Fairbank and Wilcox stop at Ropes Courses Inc. The display setup is two stories high, and includes 13 features—rope bridges, log catwalks, high wires among them. They talk to Ropes president Jim Liggett, who reels off the details: With 13 features, throughput is 60 to 65 an hour. Typically, it’s a 10- to 15-minute activity. You can have one guest per feature at a time. You need some staff when it’s full, to keep people moving and avoid bottlenecks. It’s easy to allot, say, 15 minutes per group, and to set up one group while another is on the course. You blow a whistle, and one group exits as the next one enters.

Wilcox asks, can it be customized? “Evvvrybody wants their own angle,” Liggett drawls. “So we work with them and design something just for them.” He’s thinking about the mix of features on a given structure, but Wilcox is really asking, can the steel frame be made to look like, say, a post-and-beam structure? “Oh sure, we can do any kind of theming you want,” Liggett replies.

Fairbank is excited by the carabiner-replacement safety system on display, which provides greater security for above-ground attractions. It’s nearly impossible for a guest to inadvertently unclip from the system. This might be Fairbank’s favorite find at the show.

Other resorts at IAAPA were also looking for the next great thing. Mary Flinn Ware of Park City Mountain Resort was looking for new attractions to complement the ziplines, Alpine Slide, Mountain Coaster, and other attractions the area operates in summer. She, too, was checking out the ropes courses, and investigating the options for refreshing the area’s mini-golf course. Flying scooters and electric go-carts also caught her attention.

Louis Dufour of Mont Saint-Sauveur was dressed in his best safari vest, an excellent tool for capturing a lot of information. Sauveur is fully involved in summer operations. It runs a water park in summer, and has recently installed a Wiegand Mountain Coaster for year-round ops. Dufour was looking at complementary items, everything from food, beverage and retail to other attractions.

But not more water park features. “People are overbuilt,” Dufour says. “Everyone’s looking at ROI, being careful to make current investments pay off.” That explains why waterpark exhibitors had a relatively small presence at the show. Big projects are tough to fund.

Sauveur illustrates the challenge of summer ops: offering a balance of activities that are enduring, weatherproof, and irresistible. “We’re trying to mix wet and dry activities, so that cool weather isn’t a problem,” Dufour says. “Also, we’re looking to use the mountain all year round. So we’re looking at multi-season activities.” Hence, the Mountain Coaster.

Finding the right balance—that’s the rub. It’s complicated, because it must take into account the other attractions within a market area, as well as the resort’s own base area, existing facilities, and bed base. Every area is unique.

We’d tell you what all of these folks liked best, but they would kill us. Every area is unique—and managers want to keep it that way.

Everyone except Greg Gallavan, that is. He was at IAAPA as both an exhibitor and a buyer. His small Amaze’n Mazes booth was packed. Low-cost, high-throughput attractions, mazes have extra appeal at the moment, judging by the throngs studying the scale models.

Gallavan also operates summer concessions at Winter Park, Steamboat, Breckenridge, and other resorts in Colorado that want to animate their base villages without managing the activities themselves. As a result, he knows more about summer ops than most. So we ask him: what’s the hot new thing?

“4D motion rides,” he says quickly. We’re taken aback; these are the antithesis of the active, outdoor, human-powered activities that populate his concessions and most summer operations at ski areas. Why motion rides?

“A lot of resorts have overbuilt the base village and have tons of empty commercial space,” he says. “You could put a 20- or 40-seat theater into one of these and do really well.” The theater could show both motion rides and regular movies, ski and snowboard movies, even resort-focused movies. It could be popular on bad-weather days, and evenings all year round.

So we took in several 3D motion rides. The seats shake, roll, and otherwise move in concert with the action; in some theaters, jets of air or mist buffet us from front and back, in our faces and at our feet, adding to the overall effect. Many of these rides are described as 4D, to suggest that motion and touch add a fourth dimension to the experience. One supplier, to quantify the effect of the sensory assault, calls it 6D.

Visually, the effects vary. Some rides use old-fashioned “passive” 3D glasses; others, more high-tech “active” glasses that make the action seem as though it’s just inches from our faces. Active is better—it’s pretty cool, actually, to have a huge python hissing in your face from a foot away. “Snowboard Ride” from nWave Pictures is one of the best, along with an underwater show and a flying movie.

So we asked about ROI. For theater-style rides, it’s blazing fast: a 20-seat theater, operating at half capacity for maybe four to six hours a night, can pay for itself in maybe four or five months. And that’s without using it, as Gallavan suggested, as a regular but high-quality movie theater, or for conventions.

But don’t just take our word for it. Next year, schedule two days to attend the show (Nov. 15-19, 2010, in Orlando, Fla.), see the goods for yourself and consider the possibilities.

This list is far from exhaustive, but here are a few of the companies that stand out to us when it comes to summer and multi-season attractions; almost all were at the IAAPA show.

Human-Powered Attractions:
Ropes Courses Inc.,
Vertical Reality,
Extreme Engineering,
Amaze’n Mazes,
Ideas Extremas,

Slides and Coasters:
Alpine Products,
Ride Entertainment Systems,

Motion Rides:
MediaMation (theaters),
Kraftwerk (6D rides),
nWave Pictures,

Water Misters:
FogCo Industrial,