IAAPA returns to high-energy conference after pandemic slump

When Brandon Naids was a kid, growing up in Central Florida, he wanted to design rollercoasters.

He became a ride operator at Universal Studios and spent time as an engineering intern there.

Now, as a CEO of a company that designs virtual reality experiences, he attends IAAPA every year and is surrounded by leaders in an industry he has always enjoyed.

Of course, among the options his company Talon Simulations offers its virtual riders? A virtual rollercoaster.

“I am always excited when IAAPA comes through,” said Naids, whose booth on the IAAPA floor saw a steady stream of curious visitors.

This year’s version of IAAPA represents the seventh time he has attended the world’s largest theme park industry trade show.

IAAPA returned to the Orange County Convention Center in full force, one year after the coronavirus pandemic disrupted what had been steadily growing attendance figures.

“This really feels like it’s our first IAAPA,” said Naids, noting that the last two years have been rough on the industry. “It’s exciting and the whole vibe has changed.”

Across a 515,000-square-foot exhibit area, more than 10,000 companies saw a resurgent energy, with businesses looking to discover new partnerships or reconnect with old friends.

A walk across the floor showed off the latest in technology in what has become an industry rooted in tech.

Virtual reality spaces, rollercoasters and all sorts of simulators provided the fuel to a buzz that far outpaced that of the last couple of years.

While the show annually serves as a great place for smaller companies to connect with potential clients, the industry’s biggest players usually have a few tricks up their sleeves, as well.

SeaWorld, for example, unveiled its latest ride vehicle, which will be part of its spring 2023 surf coaster “Pipeline.”

Dollywood, meanwhile, announced that it had inked a deal with a design company to unveil custom ride vehicles for the largest attraction in the park’s 36-year-history.

“For me, being able to work in a world like this, you never plan it,” said Derek Blankenship of Orlando-based Jaycon Systems. “It’s kind of like a fantasy. You get to live in a fantasyland and design the technology around what the future of the industry will be.”

Jaycon has built crucial systems for one of the largest themed entertainment companies in the world as well as Virgin Voyages.

The 60-person company employs most of its workers in Melbourne and plans to next year double its Orlando workforce, which right now stands at about 7 people.

A return to pre-pandemic attendance levels at IAAPA offers businesses a boost in several ways, said Saham Ali, vice president of technology for Falcon’s Creative Group in Orlando.

“The energy is back in the air,” he said. “It’s very exciting to see our partners and our friends that we have seen for many years are finally back out.”

“The industry went through some tough times, but our rebound is killer,” he said. “We didn’t get to see some of our friends who were developing very interesting things. We are finally seeing that innovation because they are out here on the floor.”

The appeal of IAAPA is the range of businesses that have a presence on the floor.

It’s essentially a start-to-finish group of industries.

Among the groups sectioned off in the space were food vendors, prize creators and escape rooms.

“This show allows us to see other people in our space and see some things that we perhaps have not thought of,” said Steve Croughan, operations director for Escapology in Orlando. “It’s great to meet them here.”

He attributes the success of his industry, which has seen consistent growth since it emerged in the early 2000s and even more so since the pandemic encouraged people to plan more family outings, to one simple reason.

“It’s escapism, really,” he said. “You feel like a kid again.”