Fans of roller coasters that launch like rockets or gravity-smashing spin rides are in for a treat this year. After a few years of belt-tightening...

ORLANDO, Fla. — Fans of roller coasters that launch like rockets or gravity-smashing spin rides are in for a treat this year.

After a few years of belt-tightening, theme and amusement park owners have spent big bucks improving their attractions following their strongest attendance period last year since the 2001 terrorist attacks slowed the $10.8 billion industry’s momentum.

“The purse strings have been loosened a bit, and that is an indication that the parks are anticipating folks to come and maybe spend their money more freely despite the price of gas,” said Arthur Levine, who runs a theme park guide for the Web site About.Com.

Parks nationwide have spent an estimated $750 million on new rides and upgrades for this year, a vast increase over the $500 million spent last year, said Dennis Spiegel, president of International Theme Park Services Inc., a consulting group based in Cincinnati.

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Alone, Six Flags Inc., the world’s largest regional theme park company with 30 parks in North America, has spent $135 million on new attractions, nearly twice what it spent last year, in an effort to reverse an attendance slide from the previous year.

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The new stuff

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New for 2005

— — Blue Horizons, SeaWorld Orlando,

— Buzz Lightyear, Disneyland, Anaheim, Calif.,

Soarin’ and Lights, Motor, Action!, at Walt Disney World, Lake Buena Vista, Fla.,

— Curse of DarKastle, Busch Gardens, Williamsburg, Va.,

— Fear Factor Live, Universal Orlando (and Universal

— Italian Job Stunt Track, Paramount’s Kings Island, Kings Island, Ohio,

— Kingda Ka, Six Flags Great Adventure, Jackson, N.J.,

— Knight’s Tournament, Legoland, Carlsbad, Calif.,

— MaXair, Cedar Point, Sandusky, Ohio,

— PowderKeg, Silver Dollar City, Branson, Mo.,

— SheiKra, Busch Gardens, Tampa, Fla.,

New rides are especially important for attracting visitors in a mature amusement park market like the United States, whose growth peaked in the late 1980s and early 1990s and then dipped after the terrorist attacks, Spiegel said.

The most anticipated ride of the season — the Kingda Ka roller coaster at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, N.J., had trouble lifting off. Kingda Ka is claiming the title of the tallest and fastest roller coaster at 456 feet in height and launching passengers horizontally from 0 mph to 128 mph in 3.5 seconds. But the ride’s opening was delayed from April to May 19 because of the need for additional testing; it also had some temporary closures this week.

“It’s just so sophisticated. You’re launching 20 tons at 100 plus miles an hour, climbing 450 feet, and you have to be able to stop it within inches,” Spiegel said. “It just creates a lot of initial operation problems to work out,” Spiegel said.

At the major destination parks in Florida and California, Universal Studios has milked the synergy factor from the merger of NBC and Universal Studios to create “Fear Factor Live,” a show that recreates the NBC reality program where contestants eat worms or bungee jump. The stunts at the theme parks in Orlando and Universal City won’t be as extreme or disgusting.

SeaWorld Adventure Park in Orlando is unveiling a show, “Blue Horizons,” with whales, dolphins, elaborately costumed trainers, aerialists and bungee-jumping divers.

“Those kinds of things make a nice addition, and you’re not spending $15 million or $20 million,” said theme park consultant Jerry Aldrich of Amusement Industry Consulting. “It certainly isn’t that expensive to do a show, and if you can bring people through the gates, you’ve accomplished your goal.”

Levine said that the biggest event in the amusement park world this year isn’t anything new. It’s the 50th anniversary of the opening of Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., which is being celebrated at Disney parks in California, Florida, France and Japan. A new Disney park opens in Hong Kong in September.

The biggest of the Disney resort parks, Walt Disney World in Orlando, opened a slew of attractions copied from other parks. They include Soarin’, the hang-gliding simulator that originated at Disney’s California Adventure, and Lights, Motors, Action!, a motorsport stunt show from Disneyland Paris.

Disneyland will relaunch Space Mountain, which has been closed for a makeover, and has opened a Buzz Lightyear ride similar to one at Walt Disney World.

“What’s amazing to me is 50 years later, Disneyland, the original and the parks around the world that are clones of the original, are as vital today as they were 50 years ago,” Levine said.

Regional parks

Some regional parks are introducing rides that approach the technological and storytelling sophistication found at major destination parks in Orlando such as Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando.

Notable examples include The Italian Job Stunt Track ride opening at Paramount’s Kings Island near Cincinnati and Paramount’s Canada Wonderland; Curse of DarKastle at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Va.; and PowderKeg at Silver Dollar City in Branson, Mo., Levine said.

The Italian Job, a fast-track coaster themed to the movie starring Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron, puts riders in vehicles tricked out as Mini Coopers and simulates a chase involving helicopters, explosions and a ride down stairs. Curse of DarKastle is a dark ride that recreates a scary Bavarian castle by using 3-D computer-generated imagery and fog and cold-air special effects that fans of The Amazing Adventure of Spider-Man at Islands of Adventure in Orlando will find familiar. PowderKeg is a coaster themed to a black powder mill in the Ozarks.

Other thrill rides of note this season include SheiKra at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, a “dive coaster” that drops 200 feet at a 90 degree angle, and MaXair at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, a spin ride with suspended seats that tries to recreate the feeling of weightlessness while reaching a maximum speed of 70 mph. Knights’ Tournament at Legoland California is a trackless ride that uses 15-foot robotic arms to rotate and swivel riders in all kinds of directions; passengers can choose the intensity of each ride.