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In depth

Theme parks: Seen the Robot fish? IAAPA Thoughts.

November’s  IAAPA show in Orlando is an annual gathering of professionals working in the theme park , museum and  attractions business and of all the trade shows in this industry is the one many would deem unmissable.  The show, conference  and networking events provide an ideal opportunity for theme park people to mingle and make merry. Coming just before the American holiday of Thanksgiving, it is tinged with an end-of-term festive atmosphere.  So what was it like, how did the exhibitors feel  and which company turned the entire side of a major hotel into a blizzard of dancing lights?


The show starts and there is optimism in the air, a tremendous buzz  .  It’s a vibrant and colourful affair.  Company names in this business are themselves fun and very often say exactly what they do.  Flashy Blinky Lights do not conduct feasibility studies, Lazer Frenzy Lazer Maze is not  in the actuarial profession and Frightprops don’t sell debit card systems.  I like the logos  too and the bold enthusiasm evident in many of the corporate strap lines, “The only limit is your imagination!” reads one.  The company makes hot dog stands.

After each IAAPA show there is intense interest  about the attendance: was it up or down from last year, how was it calculated, were the official figures massaged in some way?  These  concerns miss the point.  There were around 25, 000 people in attendance and it felt like it. Whether this figure is slightly below or above last year’s doesn’t matter.  For many exhibitors, just one encounter with a buyer leading to business will make the entire show a worthwhile expenditure.  Conversely, exhibiting at a packed show for the week could well be a waste of money if leads are not subsequently turned into business.  What I did find unusual at this show when compared to its predecessors was that I didn’t  encounter a single exhibitor who was anything less than extremely  positive about the show, with all feeling that they had had a great week, met a good amount of quality buyers and done solid  business. The atmosphere in short was tremendous. 

Comments from exhibitors & attendees:

iaapa 2011 exhibitors and attendeesRia Hampson, Waterplay Solutions: “This year’s IAAPA North America was a steady show full of quality opportunities for real projects. It never felt too quiet or too busy and looking back at the numbers and overall feel, we think this was one of the best shows we exhibited at in 2011.”

Robert Masterson :  “I believe it was one of the best shows in years. The Exhibitors I spoke with were mostly VERY happy.”

Wyeth Tracy, Empex Watertoys: “Had a great show! We felt the quality of the attendees was very good and we were very busy. Winning the Best Water Attraction Award and the IMPACT award for AQUACIRCUS just made the show an unbelievable event for us!”

Gemma Fabian, Electrosonic:  “It was a successful show for Electrosonic, our booth was busy , discussing the latest project opportunities. I  look forward to going next year.”

Joseph Joy , VORTEX International : “Pleased with the event. We had prospects in Orlando that we had first meet in Singapore and London earlier this year return with site plans and more advanced design discussions – those were great! Thanks to the IAAPA team for a great event.”

Tracy Balsz , MediaMation: “We performed beyond our expectations. We had booked appointments prior to the show and everyone who said they would stop by, did! Our X4D Motion EFX 4D/5D theaters are all the rage so it seems. We had a great IAAPA!”

Anthony Stubbs, Animalive: “High quality prospects, and a lot of fun. It was my first IAAPA but absolutely not my last. And our interactive animated panda, Brenda, made a lot of friends. Having children attend too was excellent.”

Jim Seay, Premier Rides: “The show for Premier Rides was definitely one of the best if not the best.  Kudos to IAAPA for bringing 25, 000 plus people together in a very positive business environment. We are so fortunate to be in an industry that can be amazingly strong in a time of global uncertainties.”

Tony Whittaker, Elton Games: “Had a great show, much better than last year. Quality is what you require and having examined the leads and orders collected we have hit the realistic target we set pre show.”

One booth was easily the most talked about as it showcased both the loveliest and one of the most unsettling products within a couple of feet of each other.  A huge fish tank had two robotic fish swimming around, one colourful and tropical, the other transparent, revealing its mechanical innards.  Simply constructed, neatly designed, they navigated each other and the false corals in the tank easily and swam lazily around to the evident delight of anyone who passed by.  An example of how sometimes the simplest ideas are the best.  “Did you see the robot fish?”,   was the question I heard most often during the week.

Alongside these beauties was a life –size  girl’s head on a plinth.  She winked and grimaced and made fish-like “O”s with her mouth.  Behind  her was a banner, with the question,   “Girl? Robot? Who am I?”. The answer was that she was very much a robot and the most unnerving thing I saw during the week.

Pale Night Productions’ booth always attracts attention with their horror /Halloween themed digital displays.   Through a window we see a husband and wife arguing. She clearly wears the trousers in this relationship – a typical domestic dispute (lid off the toothpaste, fork in the spoon tray) descends into bloody madness as she squeezes his head so tightly it explodes,   leaving viewers sprayed with what hopefully wasn’t  blood.  It’s an arresting scene , the booth is always busy.

Amazing Interactive’s 3D system also caught my eye.  The back of their booth was a large screen 3D display and after donning glasses visitors  interacted with the action on the screen via (as their leaflet explained) gesture recognition technologies.  Clever stuff and expertly done with vibrant , crisp images.  I watched the flying over a bridge story but didn’t  catch the Dino Ranger option.

For dinosaurs however, there is  only one booth: The Black Hills Instdaniels woodland themed figuresitute of Geological Research, Inc., which supplies museum standard prehistoric animal skeleton replicas to attractions globally. Larry Hutson, their genial sales manger tells me about BHIG’s  latest discovery, a huge predatory dinosaur fossilised midway through a life and death struggle with a big ceratopsian, forever locked in a deadly embrace.  Less genial is the Acrocanthosaurus atokensis  skull by Larry’s side.  A monstrous fanged beast, the head slimmer than that of Tyrannosaurus rex but packed with vicious , serrated teeth.  I collect my annual batch of postcards plus their current sales brochure, this year not even pretending they’re for my 6 year old boy.  Larry knows.

Another first. The other year I was congratulated on a prize I didn’t win.  This year I received a fresh accolade as I gained a rave review for a speech I hadn’t given.   On the trade show floor in 2009, after many warm handshakes and back slaps, I realised at the end of the day that it was not Blooloop but Alcorn McBride‘s “Binloop” product that had won an IAAPA award.  A fortnight ago, spotting me hurrying between aisles, Sheryl Binderglass  – no mean speaker herself -stopped me, introduced me to her 3 colleagues, and explained that I had earlier given a really brilliant speech, during which I had expertly  managed to impart genuinely practical advice in a dynamic and likeable manner.  For a while  I felt pleased, basking in the warm glow of their appreciation, whilst simultaneously puzzled, as I had not given any such speech.  I then realised she had thought I was fellow Brit Tony Sefton. We’ve been mistaken before, he’s a good looking guy.

I’ve met this character before too, a troll on the booth of theming specialists Daniels Woodland.  Equally eye-catching was their sexy-future-cop-with-a-hoverbike.

The best parties were, as ever, away from the grand, formal functions. The European and Middle East TEA “mixer”, which we at Blooloop co-sponsored along with Lexington and Mousetrappe, was fun – a bustling early evening soiree at the Hilton Orlando.  So too was the Electrosonic party, which took place at the back of the Crown Plaza Hotel and featured an incredible video mapping display on the back of the hotel.  The Nassal Group also held a great gathering at the Tommy Bahamas in Pointe Orlando, putting on a lavish meal and a really superb evening . BRC Imagination Arts’ bash was at the Ice Bar, the venue boasting an entire room in which everything from the glasses to the bar and the seats are made of ice. Less of a novelty of course for those of us shortly flying home to a long dark winter.

So, all in all, another great event.  Like IAAPA’s European exhibition and conference  earlier in the Autumn, the EAS,   this was highly successful and showed what a vibrant, innovative and resilient industry this is.  If you go to just one show a year this has to be it.

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