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Holding onto the thrill

In a digital age of video games and Facebook, amusement parks are still an attraction

The Sky Ride at Canobie Lake Park is one of the more relaxing, old-time rides for visitors to enjoy. The Sky Ride at Canobie Lake Park is one of the more relaxing, old-time rides for visitors to enjoy. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / June 13, 2009
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SALEM, N.H. - "Are you ready for the roller coaster?" Steve Hansberry asked James Arcaro as the two friends emerged, blinking, into sudden sunlight from the darkened arena of the bumper-car ride at Canobie Lake Park.

Arcaro grimaced. "Not yet," he replied sheepishly.

When he was 5 years old, Arcaro nearly fell off a roller coaster because the seat-belt buckle didn't work correctly. He hadn't been on a roller coaster since. Now, at 19, would he be able to overcome his fear?

As he and Hansberry trekked off to another attraction - the ominously named Psychodrome - Arcaro was by no means sure that he would. But even with an uncertain outcome, he preferred this real-world test to the kind of virtual tests that he faced last year, when he got briefly hooked on the hugely popular online game World of Warcraft. After playing it every day for three months, Arcaro stopped. "It started to get old," he said.

As they enter the critical summer season, amusement parks have to hope that there are a lot of Arcaros out there, because the stark reality is that in the age of digital entertainment, it is parks like Canobie Lake that must battle the perception that they are "old." In the age of Wii, Xbox, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Hulu, these venerable parks are fighting a youth culture that increasingly defines recreation as an indoors, sedentary, online, screen-focused activity.

"It's a challenge for parks," acknowledged Dennis Speigel, a leading industry consultant and president of Cincinnati-based International Theme Park Services Inc. "They are competing with those games, and as these games get more sophisticated, and as they get really active, there are a lot of them in the homes. It takes a little bit of the glamour off going to a theme park."

The glamour is certainly gone in some places, as is illustrated by the lengthy roster of formerly popular New England amusement parks that are now defunct: Paragon Park, Revere Beach, Whalom Park, Lincoln Park, Rocky Point, Pleasure Island. Six Flags Inc. is battling steep debt and is exploring the possibility of reorganizing under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy code, but company officials have said it will have no effect on the operations of local parks such as Six Flags New England in Agawam. (The CEO of Six Flags New England recently said the park is "highly profitable.")

Even in summertime, according to a dozen teenagers interviewed on a recent Saturday in Canobie Lake Park, it has become harder and harder to get their friends off the couch or away from the computer screen. Rather than go outdoors, they said, a lot of their peers prefer the sit-down entertainment of video games, social-networking sites like Facebook, or video sites like Hulu.com.

Chelsea Page, 13, of Medford, said it is a challenge to get many kids her age "to actually do things, not just watch it on a computer." When she and the three friends accompanying her were asked whether kids spend too much time online, all four shouted "Yes!" Elsewhere in the park, Christine Frechette, 14, of Pelham, N.H., seconded that view. "All our friends are always online," she said, as several of her companions nodded in agreement. "They'll go online and say, 'Text me, I'm bored.' "

As he strolled alone through Canobie Lake Park, Kyle Mitchell, 17, voiced dismay at the way many of his peers choose online passivity over real-world activity. "We're turning into a generation of people who want everything delivered to us, and it's easier to just sit in our living room," asserted Mitchell, of Bow, N.H. "One of my friends who ditched me today is sitting at home in front of her computer right now. A lot of my generation is just giving in. It's disappointing."

While final data on overall attendance at amusement parks in 2008 are still being compiled, attendance at the nation's top 20 parks stayed level with 2007, despite sky-high gas prices last year, which Speigel called "a tremendous indication of how truly resilient our industry is." But this summer, with the recession in full swing, could be a challenge. Amusement park operators are pinning their hopes on the age-old appeal of the midway and the breathtaking rides.

"There's certainly a good amount of entertainment competition, especially the kind that can be done in the home," said Chris Nicoli, marketing and entertainment manager of Canobie Lake Park. "But you can't replicate the feeling of being on a roller coaster. The amusement park is a tradition of the American soul."

True enough, but a long-term threat is posed by the rising tide of digital entertainment. Recognition is dawning on the amusement-park industry that the competition for the youth dollar is complicated by the advent of online games, and that the ascendancy of technology has spawned expectations of consumer control. Consequently, some parks have tried to incorporate elements of the online experience, including interactivity and consumer control, into new attractions.

At the Rip Ride Rockit Roller Coaster at Universal in Orlando, Fla., patrons can select songs to accompany their rides and can then edit the experience into a music video. A raft ride called Buccaneer Battle at Six Flags Great America in Chicago enables passengers to wield soaker guns against friends onshore or people on other rafts. "One of the trends we're seeing is the introduction of interactive experiences that change based on the choices of the guests," said David Mandt, spokesman for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions.

Meanwhile, at Canobie Lake Park, Arcaro and Hansberry were making some choices themselves. Attired in soccer shirts, shorts, and running shoes, they made their way through the grounds, which were crowded with families, couples, and chattering bands of teenagers. Shrieks of joy (and terror) could be heard over the clatter, whoosh, and rumble of rides.

1:15 P.M. Hansberry, 20, of Litchfield, N.H., had mapped out a strategy for getting his friend past his dread of roller coasters. Having worked at Canobie Lake himself as a ride operator in a previous summer, he knew how to build a steadily escalating series of challenges for Arcaro. "We're getting him ready for the roller coaster," Hansberry confided as he and Arcaro, of Gorham, Maine, stood in line for the Psychodrome. "We're working him up to it." A few minutes later, they emerged from the ride, both grinning. So far, so good.

1:30 P.M. Next stop was the Skater, a circular platform that spins as it rocks back and forth. After they got off the ride, Hansberry didn't waste a second. "Ready for the roller coaster?" he asked his friend. Arcaro shook his head. "Not yet," he replied. "Let's try the up-and-down ride." Hansberry nodded his head knowingly. "The Starblaster," he said.

1:45 P.M. To ride the Starblaster, you are buckled into a seat open to the park, feet dangling, and blasted to the top of an 80-foot tower, then sent back down again, and then up again, and then down. As he settled into his seat, Arcaro said apprehensively: "This is going to be bad." But when he got off the ride, he was laughing. "The roller coaster is less intense than the one we just did," Hansberry told him.

1:53 P.M. The moment of truth. Wearing a tight smile, Arcaro stood in line with Hansberry for the Yankee Cannonball, a.k.a. the roller coaster. They got into a car near the rear. As the cars clackey-clacked up that first steep hill, Hansberry could be seen talking to Arcaro constantly. Then they were over the hill and gone.

So was Hansberry offering reassurance on the way up? Nah. When Arcaro disembarked a few minutes later, looking none the worse for wear, he described what his friend had been saying to him as they made their ascent: "He said 'I've never heard that sound before.' " Arcaro laughed. He had done it. He'd put 14 years worth of fear to rest. "It was really fun," he said. "Though the first hill was a little gut-wrenching."

2 P.M. Arcaro's luck continued to hold. They stopped at Long Shot, a basketball challenge. Arcaro promptly sank a 20-footer, winning himself a new blue basketball. Then it was time for lunch.

2:53 P.M. They were done eating, and it was time to resume their day at the park. "What do you want to do now?" Hansberry asked. Without missing a beat, Arcaro replied: "Maybe the roller coaster again?"