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New Universal coaster spinning its wheels

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Source: Orlando Sentinel


New Universal coaster spinning its wheels

By Jason Garcia | Sentinel Staff Writer

June 27, 2009



Work continues on the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit coaster Thursday at Universal Orlando. The 17-story, $45 million coaster will have customized soundtracks and onboard cameras to let riders create a music video of their experience. (JOE BURBANK, ORLANDO SENTINEL / June 26, 2009)


As the region's theme parks battle for business during one of the leanest summers in recent memory, Universal Orlando has so far been unable to fire its biggest weapon.


Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, the resort's new $45 million roller coaster, has been hit with delays. Once supposed to open this spring, it still does not have an opening date, with the Fourth of July weekend — the biggest holiday of the summer — now only a week away.


Industry analysts say that, as the delay extends deeper into summer, Universal risks losing ground to rivals Walt Disney World and SeaWorld Orlando at a time when the three giants are competing for a recession-shrunken pool of travelers.


"At this point, it hasn't had too much of an impact. But if it continues to linger, it certainly will," said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services, a consulting business in Cincinnati.


George Van Horn, senior analyst at IBISWorld, a Los Angeles-based business-research company, said the coaster's delay will add to the larger economic pressures squeezing Universal, including falling attendance and lower guest spending. Attendance at the resort fell 14 percent during the first four months of 2009 from the same period last year.


"Certainly, this delay is going to affect some of the secondary factors which influence their profitability," Van Horn said.


Universal is banking on Rockit to boost its fortunes.


"We expect Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit to be a great experience for our guests and to have a positive impact on our business," spokesman Tom Schroder said this week.


But Schroder would not provide any more detail about when it might open.


"We will open it when we are ready to do so," he said.




Delays still mounting

Universal first announced Rockit in March 2008, saying it would debut in about a year at Universal Studios. Billed as one of the most technologically advanced attractions the resort has ever built, the 167-foot-high, 65 mph coaster is to feature a series of industry-first maneuvers as well as customized soundtracks and onboard cameras that will allow riders to create a music video of their experience.


The resort originally said the coaster would open this spring. But in April, it announced it wouldn't open until sometime in the summer, though even then Universal officials said late spring or early summer were still within reach.


Universal would not discuss construction details. But according to two people familiar with the project, the biggest obstacle has been the coaster's "anti-rollback" mechanism, which prevents the trains from sliding backward as they climb the initial hill — which on Rockit ascends at a 90-degree angle.


Rockit was initially outfitted with a newly designed anti-rollback system that was supposed to provide a smoother ascent than the standard systems, which often make loud clicking sounds as a train climbs to the top of its run, according to the two people familiar with the situation. But they said the new system did not work with Rockit's "X-Car" ride vehicles, each of which includes six onboard video cameras and 165-watt stereo speakers similar to those installed on wakeboard boats.


Crews have since replaced the original mechanism with the standard anti-rollback system common on other roller coasters, though the clicking is likely to be silenced before the ride opens.


Universal would not discuss cost. But filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission indicate Rockit's budget is $45 million, though it is possible that construction difficulties could have pushed the price tag higher.



SeaWorld's success

Universal's struggles with Rockit contrast sharply with the situation at SeaWorld, which this spring opened a new roller coaster ahead of schedule. SeaWorld's Manta, which was announced two weeks after Rockit and initially not supposed to open until this summer, has been up and running since before Memorial Day.


Joe Couceiro, chief marketing officer for SeaWorld's corporate parent, Busch Entertainment Corp., said Manta has helped boost business at the resort so far this summer, though he would not reveal specific attendance or financial figures.


"Certainly, our trends from local and nearby [markets] have improved pretty significantly," Couceiro said.


Even if Rockit were to open today, the timing would not be ideal.


Jerry Aldrich, president of Amusement Industry Consulting in Orlando, said the best time for a theme park to open a marquee attraction is during a slow period immediately before a busy one — such as late spring, just before the summer rush.


That gives the resort a slow period in which to conduct a "soft opening," during which it can work out a ride's kinks while ensuring it gets the full benefit from the marketing blitz that follows the grand opening, Aldrich said.


But ultimately, Aldrich said, it's much better to delay Rockit's debut than to force an opening before it is ready.


"If they open it and then it goes down, or whatever the problem is ... that would be a huge negative," he said.


Bill Carroll, a senior lecturer at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration, said the delay does have a silver lining for Universal. Though Rockit has not opened, Universal is likely seeing some attendance boost from hype surrounding the ride while saving money on operating costs.


That's an important benefit, Carroll said, because the economy has deteriorated so sharply in the 15 months since Rockit was announced that conditions could blunt the return on Universal's investment in the ride, at least in the short term.


"I may get 50 percent of the benefit for zero percent of the cost," Carroll said.

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