Exhibit halls in the enormous Georgia World Congress Center and Georgia Dome in Ted-Turnerville--uh, Atlanta--were well filled by the 81st Annual Convention and Trade Show of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) which took place November 16-20, 1999. The organization represents over 5,000 facility, supplier, and individual members from around the world. According to IAAPA, this was the second largest show ever, hosting 29,399 attendees. Buyers came from 85 countries to view the products and services of 1,189 exhibitors in 515,321 net sq. ft. of exhibit space. Of those buyers, 75.3% came from the US and 24.7% were from out of the country.

IAAPA exhibitors service every nook and cranny of the family entertainment industry, from county fairs to state-of-the-art urban centers. It's a show filled with the roar of machinery, the thwack of Whac-a-Moles, the jingle of arcade games and the buzz of countless voices trying to make themselves heard above the general din.

On the final day, added to the aural and physical crush were the voices and bodies of several hundred small children, as exhibitors and attendees bring in family members who drift in sensory overload through the aisles collecting freebies, munching food samples, and testing rides.

A few years ago, a number of high-tech companies, representing that potent faction we have come to know as "themed entertainment," and led by Monty Lunde of Technifex, prodded IAAPA to create the High-Tech Area so that their buyers could find them amid the sea of cotton candy, roller coasters, and coin-ops. Around the same time, Lunde founded the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA). The High Tech Area is where you'll find such things as special effects, motion simulation, lasers, virtual reality, film and video, show control and audio, animatronics, and certain design groups.

TEA now has a sizeable presence at IAAPA. Its "Future of Themed Entertainment" seminar has become an annual tradition, as has its Friday-night party, which provides good networking and the chance to experience a local themed attraction. The 1999 party was held at Turner Field and visitors were able to explore the baseball-themed attractions and exhibits in Scout's Alley, designed by Jack Rouse Associates (JRA) for the recently converted Olympic stadium. The previous night, TEA Europe members organized an evening cocktail gathering that was well attended by people from both sides of the pond. TEA holds its annual membership meeting during IAAPA, at which it installs its new president. Brian Edwards, president of Edwards Technologies, succeeded John Wright, president of Lexington Scenery & Props.

As moderator of the "Future of Themed Entertainment" panel, Rick Solberg, principal of the Cuningham Group, appeared between speakers to intone ominous forecasts about life in the new millennium, describing seven-job careers in which the competitive strive to learn one new skill per day, children who will average two-and-a-half sets of parents apiece, and fathers who will spend a whopping five minutes talking with their children every day.

Citing high real estate costs, Jeremy Railton, president of Entertainment Design, advocated the use of traveling shows housed in tensile structures. Robert Masterson, president of Ripley Entertainment, talked about expansion into new markets such as planetariums and science centers. Lisa Girolami, show producer with Universal Studios, supplied the Gen X element by incorporating the buzzwords "neat," "coooool," "free stuff," "right brain" and "left brain," and "thinking out of the box" into her presentation about the much-discussed new ride at Universal Islands of Adventure, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man. "What's next?" she said. "Ask the kids."

"What are we building for the millennium babies?" echoed Nick Farmer of Farmer Studios, who talked about the various millennium projects in the UK and emphasized storytelling. "Wit and charm do not rely on technology. Those with the best stories will win."

Jim Nelson, president of the Mother Co., talked about what he learned as one of the originators of Universal CityWalk, which redefined shopping as entertainment. "People still want to go out and be with other people. There's a future for building places people want to go." He said the essential four elements of success are "APES"--Access, Parking, Environment, and Security--plus an immersive entertainment environment.

On the show floor, Naturemaker showed off its artificial timbers. Gary Hanick explained that each tree is individually sculpted of fire-retardant "mud" laid in sections on a steel frame, then shaped and textured with a trowel before it hardens. Each tree is painted by hand. Foliage and twigs are of wire and polyester, and it takes about three weeks to make one tree. The company provided walk-through Amazon rain forest environments for Legoland in both Windsor, UK, and Carlsbad, CA, and has also provided trees for environments in Las Vegas properties, including Paris and the Mirage. And a California Country Tree is the central prop for the recent production of the musical Jane Eyre: the great chestnut tree that plays a symbolic role in the story. It weighs 1,000lbs and is two stories high.

Offsite in a hospitality suite, Harmonix demonstrated its Cam Jam technology, which combines sound, computer graphics, and user interactivity to create playful environments in which your body's movements trigger sensors that produce music. The technology hails from MIT's media lab and is already in use in two attractions at a major theme park in Orlando.

At the "What's New Theatre" opening event, Jay Stein was inducted into the IAAPA Hall of Fame for his role in the creation of Universal Studios Florida. Four others were honored posthumously: Alberic J. Florizoone, founder of Meli-Park in Belgium; Dick Pope, Sr., whose promotion of Florida tourism contributed to the development of Cypress Gardens Park in Florida; Herbert P. Schmeck, noted designer of wooden roller coasters; and Giovanni Zanoletti, a pioneer of the amusement industry in Brazil.

IAAPA gives out awards at the show recognizing exhibits and products. Best Exhibit award winners for 1999 included Technifex Inc., Spectra Entertainment, Lexington Scenery & Props, Iwerks Entertainment, Bob's Space Racers, and Advanced Animations. Best New Product awards went to Natural Encounters for "King of the Wind," a free-flight performing bird show; to Soundelux Showorks-Productions for MediaNET, a national network of independently programmed broadcast channels owned by retailers, schools, and others that provides entertainment, education, and advertising; to Air Dimensional Design Inc., for its wiggly Sky Tickler inflatable; and to Designs by Sean for Tubes and Cones--stretchy, floor-to-ceiling tubes and giant cone shapes that form playful, decorative scenic elements.

Projects of interest we heard about on the floor included the Crawford Museum of Transportation & Industry, opening in 2002 in Cleveland, with exhibits designed by JRA; the expansion of Universal CityWalk, scheduled to open this month with 38 new tenants, and the Philadelphia Experience, a multimedia outdoor show that uses sound, projection and live actors to recreate historic events.

The annual closing banquet was a Mexican Fiesta, at which the outgoing IAAPA Chair John Roberts, CEO of Busch Entertainment Corp., officially passed the gavel to incoming Chair Rene Aziz of Grupo Magico, Mexico. The convention will return to Atlanta this year, November 15-18.