Theme Parks Gear Up For Summer of Fantasies

EN route to the latest head-over-heels, zero-gravity thrill coaster here - ``Batman: The Ride'' - visitors to Six Flags Magic Mountain stroll through six acres of so-called ``brand name'' fantasy scenery: Bruce Wayne/Gotham City Park, Joker Juices (a cafe), and Axis Department Store.

At Paramount Parks in Charlotte, N.C., and Doswell, Va., this summer's new theme is ``Wayne's World'' - named after the cavorting cohorts of TV and movie fame. At Disney World in Orlando, Fla., ``Sunset Boulevard'' (named after the movie and musical) will open in June, followed by ``Twilight Zone House of Terror'' (a takeoff on the TV series and movie) in July.

As Mom, Dad, and the kids kick off their shoes for summer vacation, America's amusement executives are trying to recoup recession losses with a concept for the post-recession 1990s - ``family fantasy.'' In addition to the usual onslaught of next-generation, high-tech roller coasters, the new allure includes sets, streets, and live shows of characters and scenes that someone else's advertising has already told you about.

``Theming and branding are the new ideas for the 1990s,'' says Tim O'Brien, an amusement industry analyst for Amusement Business magazine. ``If you name a new ride the `Upsy Daisy,' nobody knows what you are talking about. If you name it after a superhero, you have instant recognition.''

Part of the trend reflects the big bucks of new players who want to get the benefits of name recognition and earlier publicity for their products. Entertainment giant Time/Warner bought out Six Flags Theme Parks last year; Paramount Pictures took over five parks of Kings Entertainment in 1992. MCA/Universal has already bolstered parks in southern California and Florida with ``Back to the Future'' rides based on its movies and featuring flight-simulator technology.

But another part of the trend is that economic and lifestyle changes have altered travel and vacation patterns for the average American family. Three- to four-week vacations across the country are out. Three- to four-day excursions to regional parks are in.

``All the evidence says the way families spend their entertainment dollars is changing,'' says Bob Pittman, chief executive officer for Six Flags Theme Parks. Noting that the number of ``G''-rated movies has soared, and that books, record labels, and clothing stores are catering more to families, Mr. Pittman adds: ``The world has changed. People want a vacation destination that is safer, friendlier, more cost-effective, and comfortable.'' Because people have less time, ``they want it all done for them.''

Besides a Batman ride, food, and merchandise here, there is a full schedule of hourly stunt performances with hot-rod vehicles, fireworks, laser shows, and stand-up comedy. At the two ``Wayne's Worlds,'' visitors encounter a re-creation of Wayne Campbell's Aurora, Ill., home, nearby rock-and-roll store, restaurants, and street hockey rink.

``The move to motion-picture- themed amusements represents a new era for theme parks,'' says Paul Ruben, former editor of ``RollerCoaster!'' magazine and a roller-coaster historian. ``Park owners have realized people want ... a total fantasy experience.''

All told, America's 400 theme parks have spent about $260 million this year for new rides and upgrades, according to Mr. O'Brien of Amusement Business magazine. In 1993, the industry grew 10 percent in revenues. This year, it expects to add another 10 percent, to about $6 billion.

Re-creating real or movie-inspired experiences using flight simulator technology is a second trend. Following the success of its ``Days of Thunder'' rides at two parks, Paramount has cloned the idea at three more parks. Computer-synchronized audio and visual effects give riders the sensation of driving 200 miles an hour from hydraulic seats that react to sharp turns and the screech of pit stops.

There are also new twists on old ideas. At Schlitterbahn Water Park in New Braunfels, Texas, the world's first water-powered roller coaster is opening this month. And Cedar Point, in Sandusky, Ohio, is introducing ``Raptor,'' the world's fastest and tallest inverted roller coaster - turning riders over six times.

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