ORLANDO, Fla (Reuters) - Investment in theme parks and cutting-edge attractions along the lines of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando surged during the recession, leading one developer to suggest the business is entering a new Golden Age.
"It's almost like a Theme Park 2.0, or a re-boot," said Brent Young, co-founder of the Super 78 production studio in Hollywood, California.
"We're really coming into a second Golden Age in theme park development," he said.
The first boom, which peaked in the 1970s, saw extensive construction of theme parks in the United States from the ground up. Development of Walt Disney World, Six Flags, Busch Gardens and numerous regional parks led to a saturation of the U.S. market by the 1980s, according to John Gerner, managing director of Leisure Business Advisors.
The new era is a global phenomenon propelled by technological advances and a growing middle class in Asia and third-world countries, Gerner and Young said.
"In the U.S., we think of a squeeze on the middle class. But in other parts of the world, they've got an expanding middle class," said Gerner, who has consulted on projects for leading attractions worldwide.
Gerner said China is experiencing a theme park construction boom comparable to what occurred in the United States in the 1970s. The coming of a Disney park in Shanghai triggered an expansion of the Chinese regional theme park company Happy Valley, he said. Disney broke ground in Shanghai this year and anticipates a 2015 open.
"In the past when Disney has opened in a region of the world, it has encouraged others to do so. With the Shanghai Disney park, we would expect a similar increase, its own boom," Gerner said.
Young, who specializes in the application of emerging technologies in themed attractions, said the new Golden Age is marked by the additions of highly themed and immersive experiences using state-of-the-art technology.
The huge success of the Harry Potter ride at Universal Orlando, which executives say boosted attendance by 50 percent, has further ignited demand, Young said. Since that attraction opened in June 2010, Universal has been breaking its attendance records.
"Harry Potter was a disrupter and forced everybody to step up their game," Young said. "It became this arms race."
Young said his business took off in 2007, fueled by projects in China and Singapore even as the U.S. economy was hit by the burst of the housing bubble.
Among his entries opened over the past two years is Flight of the Dragon at the Happy Valley theme park in Shanghai. The ride is a 4-D simulated flying experience moving through a curved black box theater with water sprits, scents and wind creating realistic effects.
Spending on new attractions in the United States also is up. Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services, estimates spending rose 30-35 percent over the past two years, following four years of mostly stagnant attendance and deep discounting at parks.
Much of the spending is on redevelopment and additions to existing parks, he said.
He cited several examples of recent investment in the central Florida tourist hub alone, including SeaWorld Orlando's planned overhaul of its penguin exhibit to include state-of-the-art interactive ride technology, and the just-completed revamp of the historic Cypress Gardens ski-show park in Winter Haven into a Legoland.
"It's what the industry needs to do now to ratchet up," Speigel said.
Ride manufacturers who met in Orlando in November for the annual International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions convention have "never been busier," Speigel said.
"Literally, they're almost at capacity for the next couple of years," he said.
Experts said the end is nowhere in sight, thanks to technological advances that will continue to create demand.
Within the next decade, Young said he expects attractions will enable park guests to feel as if they are sharing space with fully rendered 3-D characters and other nearly unimaginable experiences.
"I'm not even sure what this means," Speigel said of expectations for coming attractions, "(but) it's going to be the 5th dimension."
Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Jerry Norton