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Amusement Parks: A Guide to Top Attractions, Hottest Rides & Best Values

Amusement parks are projected to draw record crowds this year due to immersive movie-based attractions and the debut of wing coasters and giant swing rides. But admission prices are rising by as much as 25 percent, and parks are looking for more ways to get at consumers’ wallets.

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The sputtering economy has seen plenty of ups and downs, and the wildly gyrating stock indexes have prompted financial writers to trot out tired roller-coaster cliches ad nauseam. But has the recession put the brakes on real roller coasters—the ones that make your knuckles white and your stomach churn?

If amusement parks were supposed to rein in new attractions to limit expenditures amid the economic turmoil, they apparently didn’t get the memo. Recent capital-intensive projects are expected to draw record numbers through those parks’ turnstiles even as the economy stumbles along. Universal spent approximately $265 million to create The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Fla., and Disney spent roughly $1.1 billion on an extensive overhaul of its Disney California Adventure amusement park at Disneyland Resort.

“Where the economy is at in any given point in time tends not to have a dramatic effect on our outlook for the business,” Tom Staggs, who is chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, tells Consumers Digest. “It’s a good idea to build when the economy is down” and take advantage of lower costs and more readily available labor.

Regional amusement parks, meanwhile, have followed suit by rolling out major thrill rides, including wing coasters and dark rides (indoor rides that take riders through dimly lit scenes) that take your adrenaline to a new level.

Consequently, the scariest ride now might be the one that consumers make to the ATM on their way to the amusement park itself. Admission prices have risen by as much as 25 percent compared with 2007, and prices for concessions, parking and souvenirs have risen by as much as 20 percent. The good news is amusement parks are offering deals like never before to lure thrill-seekers who have tight budgets through their turnstiles.

What’s better is that the newest attractions are more thrilling than ever before. New breeds of roller coasters focus on novel features and heart-skipping elements rather than trying to break speed and height records (although many of the latest behemoths are extremely fast and tall, too).

Meanwhile, other amusement parks in California and Florida, which were spurred by the success of the Potter world, are building more highly immersive, movie-based “lands” and attractions.

Best-Value Amusement Parks

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And finally, by incorporating new technology, some amusement parks are attempting to make the customer experience more personal and interactive. These high-tech enhancements even could cast customers as central characters in the larger-than-life stories that today’s amusement parks weave.

PARK'S A STAGE. When Walt Disney developed his ground-breaking Disneyland, of course, he used his popular films to inspire many attractions. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, however, pushed the envelope in terms of the level of immersion.

Instead of a single attraction, Universal created an all-encompassing land that’s included in the price of admission to Islands of Adventure in which all of the restaurants, rides, shops, shows—and even the bathrooms—conform to J.K. Rowling’s mythical world. You can’t buy camera batteries, much less a can of soda, in any shops that are in this part of the amusement park, because they wouldn’t exist in the (real) Hogsmeade Village. But Butterbeer is for sale, for $4 in a plastic cup or $10 in a souvenir stein. And if you ask an employee a question, he/she likely will remain in character and start talking about upcoming Hogwarts classes. It’s an astonishing commitment to the story.

The Wizarding World’s centerpiece is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which is the world’s first attraction to incorporate robotic arms in the cars that pivot, spin and move the seats (or in this case, benches) through the ride. The enduring appeal of the series and the land’s wholesale immersion into the Potter world helped to increase Islands of Adventure’s attendance by 30 percent (to 5.95 million visitors) in 2010, according to Themed Entertainment Association and AECOM’s TEA/AECOM 2010 Theme Index. Consequently, Universal announced that it would open a Wizarding World at its Universal Studios Japan in 2014 and at its Universal Studios Hollywood in 2016 (at the earliest) and expand its Potter empire in Florida.

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