Thrill Rides in the Growing Market - June 2014

by Keith Miller

As many regions of the Asian attractions sector continue to experience remarkable growth, one type of thrill ride, in particular, has seen its popularity soar—the roller coaster. Long a signature attraction in North American and European parks, the roller coaster’s reception in Asia sheds light on how rides are regarded and experienced in this booming market.

Generalizing about parks and guests in an area with as many diverse cultures as Asia isn’t prudent, or even possible. Still, there are notable and intriguing contrasts between some parts of the region and the West.

The thrilling and time-honored features of coasters remain popular regardless of where they are built. “Whether in North America, Europe, or Asia, height, inversions, and speed are always coveted,” says Tim Timco, S&S Worldwide’s vice president of sales and marketing. Within the past year, the Logan, Utah-based company has opened two compressed-air-launch sister coasters in China—the “Bullet Coaster” at Happy Valley in Nanshan, Shenzhen, Guangdong, and “OCT Thrust SSC1000” at Happy Valley in Hongshan, Wuhan, Hubei. Both coasters reach 83 mph in seconds and descend 221-foot drops into underground tunnels. 

Jim Seay, president of Premier Rides in Baltimore, Maryland, echoes Timco’s comment and says coaster riders in Asia have high expectations for the industry due to increased information available on the Internet and an explosion in tourism. “As little as five years ago, I would have responded that coaster riders in Asia were more focused on family-type coasters with lower thrill levels than one sees every year in North America and Europe,” says Seay. “At that time, one would not have been surprised to see an older established design being introduced for the first time in a new Asian park. That is no longer the case. We see coaster riders in Asia becoming very sophisticated and being in tune with the most advanced developments.”

When it comes to theming and story lines, the high expectations Seay mentions might exceed what’s present in other parts of the world. “In China, they really want a high level of theming and they want a strong story,” says Jeff Pike, vice president of sales and design for Great Coasters International in Sunbury, Pennsylvania. 

Great Coasters is building a new 5,111-foot wooden coaster, “Viper,” at Wanda City Theme Park in Xinjian, Nanchang, Jiangxi, China, scheduled to open in 2015. “They want a viper theme on the trains,” says Pike, “which is different than what we usually do. A lot of parks say they want extra theming, but when they hear the extra cost, they don’t follow through. In China, they want it and they’re willing to pay the extra money.”

Pike says much of the desired theming is based on Chinese culture, and Seay explains why: “The projects that Premier is involved with place a strong emphasis on theming. While there is a high level of respect for Western themes, especially for Hollywood’s intellectual property (IP), it should be noted there are extensive efforts being made to have stories that are more cultural in nature or tie in with local IP. The fact is, there are some amazing theming companies in many Asian countries like Malaysia and China, where state-of-the-art themed elements are being developed on an impressive scale.”

Wood or Steel?
The past three decades have seen steel coasters far outpace their wooden counterparts in new installations. But in China several large wooden coasters have either recently been completed or are under construction. Wood coaster manufacturers say there’s a different dynamic in that nation than in the rest of Asia.

“We’re working on our second giant wood coaster in China, and the interesting thing is that they don’t have any preconceived notions about wood coasters,” says Pike. “The Chinese have no history with wood coasters and don’t have a problem with them. They’re fascinated by the wood and the structure.”

As in every amusement market, what’s seen as “new” can often garner the most attention; in China, it seems most true of wooden coasters. “Wood coasters are kind of the new thing there and are seen as kind of scarier,” says Chad Miller, a partner and engineer at The Gravity Group in Cincinnati, Ohio.   

The Gravity Group designed “Fjord’s Flying Dragon” at almost 4,000 feet in length, which opened in July 2013 at Happy Valley in Dongli, Tianjin, China. The company has four other designs preparing to open in China including one at Fantawild Dreamland in Shifeng, Zhuzhou, Hunan; one at Hotgo Park in Fushun, Liaoning; one at Fantawild Adventure in Jinan, Shandong; and one scheduled to open in 2015 at Fantawild Adventure in Wuhu, Anhui.

Martin & Vleminckx Rides in Quebec, Canada, has been working nonstop to build Gravity Group’s coaster designs in China. Company partner Chuck Bingham says it’s a testament to their popularity with riders: “In every park in China, we installed a woodie. It’s the most popular ride. Guests line up in the morning for it and the line never dies.”

In contrast, Premier Rides is experiencing success with indoor steel coasters in Asia. The company’s indoor launch coaster, “Deep Space,” opened at Adlabs Imagica in Khopoli, Maharashtra, India, in June 2013. And, the company is currently working on another indoor launch coaster at the Great Mall of China in Sanhe, Langfang, Hebei, that will open later this year. Seay suggests at least part of the reason for the popularity of this type of attraction is the quality of the experience. “Indoor coasters like Universal Singapore’s ‘Revenge of the Mummy’ are a dramatic leap in ride experience,” he says, “and the theming for the Asian market and the popularity of the attractions are evident.”

An S&S Worldwide indoor coaster, “Crazy Bird,” opened in late December 2013 at Happy Valley in Dongli, and Timco says of indoor rides, “Maybe it is not so much that they are favored, but necessary, as a result of the climate and weather conditions in southern China and Southeast Asia, where the rainy season dictates [the] options. There are more indoor coasters in this region as a result.”

The Riders Themselves, and What’s Ahead
It’s impossible to summarize a region so large and home to so many varying cultures as Asia, but coaster companies have noted some intriguing ways riders in certain Asian countries distinguish themselves from their neighbors and western guests.

The “dueling” coaster called “Dauling Dragon” at Happy Valley in Wuhan, China, designed by The Gravity Group and built by Martin & Vleminckx, features a “high-five” element. Both trains bank toward each other at 90 degrees, creating the opportunity for riders to attempt hand slapping. The “high-five” isn’t possible because the trains aren’t close enough, but Miller says riders on “Dauling Dragon” don’t typically try this. “You do notice they’re not stretching and reaching and trying to touch the other riders’ hands like in the U.S. and Europe,” he says. “They hang on with both hands and put their heads down!”

Pike at Great Coasters observes the same thing: “You’ll see Westerners with their arms in the air, but they don’t do that in China—they enjoy the rides differently, and it’s a much more subdued [experience]. They hang on with both hands and throw their heads either all the way backward or forward. They express their enthusiasm so differently that I’ve begun thinking about whether we should change our designs because of it.” 

Though much of Asia has a short history with roller coasters, the region may soon lead the way thanks to the explosive growth of amusement parks and attractions. The “high-five” on “Dauling Dragon” was the first in the world, according to Miller. Timco says the two 90-degree floating banked turns on S&S Worldwide’s three most recent coasters in China were all unique when those coasters were built.

Seay explains why this is happening: “Premier is developing custom attractions for Asia that may appear later in the West, which clearly shows the trend. The clients want to have a product unlike others and want to make a statement. It is important to remember that the quantity of new parks being developed in Asia is unprecedented, while new parks in the more mature markets of Europe and North America are rare. Today, it is not surprising to see new custom designs first appearing in the Asian market.” 

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