As summer nears and the aroma of churros and chocolate wafts past the turnstiles of Universal Studios Hollywood, the daily swarms of tank-topped tourists are growing.
Snapping photos of his children by a fountain, mechanic Raul Jeffers says he has finally made it to the Shangri-la of American amusement - southern California - from the US hinterland.
"We've wanted to come to Los Angeles area theme parks our whole lives and have never made it," says the father of four. "This is our year."
The comment is music to the ears of American theme-park operators. In the midst of soaring gas prices Mr. Jeffers is, in theme-industry parlance, "staying in his own backyard" to spend his vacation money. Operators are hoping people like Jeffers - who drove a mere 90 miles inland from Pomona - are a sign this could be the best summer yet since sales slumped after 9/11.
The notion that gas prices - alongside continued worldwide safety concerns - will entice enough US families this year to forego vacations abroad for rollercoasters and water flume rides at home is challenged by some. But industry analysts and theme-park operators say it's a pattern they've seen in the past.
"At a time when gas prices keep people closer to home, local, regional, and big destination parks all can get quite a boost," says Tim O'Brien, editor of The Amusement Park Guide. "Back in the early '90s when there was a critical gas situation, many parks like Six Flags, Paramount, and Cedar Point really came into their own," he says.
Theme-park operators are banking on that logic this season. Annual attendance at Universal Studios Hollywood fell 12 percent in 2003 according to Amusement Business Magazine, and the theme parks division fell 41 percent over 2002, alongside a reported loss of $500 million over two years. Likewise, reflecting a trend seen elsewhere across the industry,Six Flags - which runs 29 theme parks in 15 states - saw receipts drop 1.6 percent from 2002-2003, on top of an 11 percent drop from the year before.
Stung by such drop-offs, America's theme parks are sprucing up facilities and creating attractions that can be shared by everyone from great-grandpa to teetering tots. One hundred new coasters or attractions are opening in the nation's 400 theme parks this summer.
One of the most anticipated rides is Universal Studios's "Revenge of the Mummy - The Ride," uniting cinematic storytelling with the latest in visceral and motion-based effects. Thrill seekers can disturb Imhotep's tomb and spend the rest of ride escaping in a "mine car" that speeds along scenes inspired by "The Mummy" and "The Mummy Returns." Visitors will feel the nibbles of scarab beetles on their skin (pinpoint blasts of air), dodge lunging mummies (strobed animation to the max), and blast through fireballs.
"Amusement parks have finally realized that if they make a coaster that is just higher, faster, and turns everyone upside down, they immediately eliminate a significant chunk of possible parkgoers who are too afraid to use it," says Paul Ruben, editor of the amusement-industry trade publication Park World. "This year we are seeing more hybrids that combine creativity and entertainment."
Because of extended pushes to attract and win back visitors, several top parks are already reporting a tilt back toward black after years of flat attendance.
"Based on figures already taken this year, we are projecting growth of 2.3 percent in attendance and 4 to 5 percent in revenue," says Beth Robertson of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. That figure covers about 400 fixed-site theme parks (as opposed to traveling carnivals) which attracted about 300 million visitors who spent $10.3 billion last year.
Water activity is also getting more creative and competitive with several parks claiming world firsts such as a two-tiered water park in Armadillo, Texas, and the world's first four-man tubing bowl in Roseville, Calif. SeaWorld in San Diego will open the largest attraction in its 40 years, "Journey to Atlantis," a combination wet thrill ride and dolphin exhibit.
Besides more interactivity and creativity, park operators are also trying to improve facilities with cutting-edge technology. To eliminate the need for carrying cash, some parks are offering bar-coded wrist bands which visitors can swipe everywhere from restaurants to stores to rides, using up prepaid credit. Others have introduced so-called biometric park lockers, which are accessed through fingerprint recognition.
"US amusement parks are thinking of every way possible to make it easier for their patrons to stop spending so much time in lines and get right to what they want to do," says Robertson.
Industry sales have also been taking a hit from high-profile accidents and deaths at parks in recent years. Despite statistics showing the number of injuries and deaths per number of visitors has been decreasing for a decade, the recent fatalities at Disneyland and Six Flags have created PR problems.
US Senator Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts has pressured parks to improve safety records or face legislation. Parks have responded by upgrading ride restraint systems and pushing manufacturers to pay more attention to safety.