Tampa-based attractions companies show off new tech, trends at IAAPA Expo 2022

It’s no surprise that IAAPA Expo has been full of Sunshine State-based businesses, including a few from the Tampa Bay area.

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click to enlarge Tampa’s Citrus Park Mall will be home to an Elev8 Fun complex in the former Sears building. - Rendering via Elev8
Rendering via Elev8
Tampa’s Citrus Park Mall will be home to an Elev8 Fun complex in the former Sears building.
Nearly three years into a pandemic that may feel over but isn’t quite, the attractions industry is not only surviving but thriving.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, theme park business around the world came to a grinding halt. Parks were closed without word about when they would reopen, and many in-progress projects were put on hold as everyone was told to stay home and keep away from one another.

Thousands of jobs were lost and revenues at all the major players in the industry fell to historic lows. Even when parks did reopen, they did so with slashed capacity, temperature checks, and mask requirements.

While the pandemic has had lasting effects on the industry, much of the world’s major theme parks and attractions have since reopened and rebounded in surprising ways. Many of those success stories and future-looking optimism was on display at this year’s IAAPA Expo, which took over the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando the week before Thanksgiving.

“The market has bounced back; people are keen on having fun again and going out and enjoying attractions,” said Jacob Wahl, incoming CEO of IAAPA. “And that is also what we see…at the tradeshow—buyers from all across the world who are interested in the most recent products and innovations to really try to…cater to those changed needs and entertain our guests.”

“I think all kinds of different attractions have seen a rebound. But it’s not only amusement parks and theme parks and FECs (family entertainment centers), it’s also cinemas, it’s shopping malls, it’s ski stations, it’s camping and camping resorts.”

At the expo, companies and creators from around the world showed off their latest and greatest rides, experiences, and technology to use in theme parks, arcades, family entertainment centers, outdoor attractions, and yes, even at malls, hotels and campgrounds.

Some of the biggest reveals at this year’s IAAPA Expo include the ride vehicles for SeaWorld Orlando’s new Pipeline: The Surf Coaster and Dollywood’s Big Bear Mountain coaster in Tennessee—both expected to open next year.

Beyond roller coasters, some of the biggest trends in the industry—seen in many of the booths at IAAPA—are virtual reality, IP franchises (intellectual property), and the fusion of classic entertainment and games with new tech.

“What I think we see what we call ‘social gamification,’”  Wahl said during the Expo. “If we think back 10-15 years, a waterslide, you usually did kind of on your own. But more and more of those activities actually now are racing or something where you can watch the people on the slide next to you; see who is faster.”

“Also, when you think about all those social activities in gaming places, something like Top Golf…those things are really, really booming right now.”

Wahl said the industry is also full of the “rejuvenation” of classic games and concepts like bowling, mini golf, and arcades by combining them with new and interactive technology. He noted the success of Puttshack, an indoor mini golf and entertainment center that uses computer chips inside golf balls to keep track of your score.

“You can go there with friends and with your family—bowling, mini golf, those things, and I think that will always exist,” he said. “Despite all those new trends (like) virtual reality, I think there’s a space for everything because it complements the other. While virtual reality allows you to be in fantasy worlds, it’s great to see your friends…throwing the bowling ball and make a strike.”

With Florida, and Orlando in particular, being the theme park epicenter of the world, it’s no surprise that IAAPA Expo has been full of Sunshine State-based businesses, including a few from the Tampa Bay area.

One such company is U.S. Design Lab, an entertainment design firm with headquarters in Tampa just northeast of Ybor City. It specializes in master planning, branding, revitalizing and marketing bowling and family entertainment centers around the country.

In Florida, it helped bring to life an Xtreme Action Park and an Arena Roller Skating Rink—both in Fort Lauderdale. And soon, Tampa’s Citrus Park Mall will be home to an Elev8 Fun complex in the former Sears building.

“It’s taking the entertainment center concept and just taking it to an entirely different level,” said Gary Smith, co-owner of U.S. Design Lab. “Kind of like an enormous entertainment mall.”

Elev8 Fun is based in Sanford, also where its first location resides. The Tampa location will mimic what’s inside Sanford, including go-karts, laser tag, axe throwing, bowling, a virtual reality experience called Omni Arena, video games, blacklight mini-golf and full service kitchens and bars.

Elev8 Fun’s Director of Operations Keith Baldwin said that’s all part of phase one. For phase two, they’re planning to turn a former loading dock at the mall into a beer garden.

“Our locations are going after the suburban families and bringing entertainment back to the local malls,” Baldwin said. “Our strategy has been to acquire the real estate as well as enhancing the locations with entertainment. And then the malls have been very, very welcoming.”

Baldwin said Tampa’s Elev8 Fun center is slated to open in spring 2023.

As designers of some of these spaces, Smith and U.S. Design Lab founder Michele “Mik” Oca said they’ve been seeing industry evolutions for years now—especially with the demand for nostalgic entertainment and returning attractions amid the pandemic.

“It’s different entertainment inside one facility that makes everyone happy; everything is integrated,” Oca said. “We create these places where you can play one hour of bowling and then stay with your family and have a nice dinner, and then play some games.”

After roughly two years of many people staying at home amid COVID-19 concerns, Smith said his industry has seen a surge in families and younger generations putting “a really high priority on entertainment and social entertainment, especially.”

“Sure, they could do their own VR at home or play on their game systems. But again, people want to get out, and entertainment is a much higher priority,” he said.

About The Author

Chelsea Zukowski

Freelance contributor Chelsea Zukowski is a Tampa Bay native who started her journalism career in 2014 at the Tampa Bay Times, working her way up from editorial assistant to entertainment reporter and copy editor. After four years in print, she moved on to broadcast as a digital producer with 10 Tampa Bay-WTSP,...
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