Road Warrior

Thrill rides and more Harry Potter coming to a park near you

The Goliath wooden roller coaster opened Thursday at Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, Illinois. It reaches speeds of 72 mph and claims to offer the world’s tallest and steepest drop.
Six Flags Entertainment Corporation

As spending goes up at the major theme parks, this summer's new rides are getting taller, faster and far more intricate. Big openings include the Harry Potter experience in Florida and a record-breaking but classic-style wooden roller coaster in Illinois.

One of the big additions for the summer, the opening of the The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley at Universal Orlando Resort, is set for July 8 in Florida. The Diagon Alley installation will essentially double the size of Universal's Islands of Adventure with a re-creation of the London found in the "Harry Potter" books and films, including a Hogwarts Express train, restaurants and shops.

An early review at the Theme Park Insider blog says it "resets the standard for theme park environments, creating a wildly engaging setting that rewards visitors willing to delve into the abundant detail to be found in the new land."

Yet, a report at Reuters notes the main roller-coaster ride, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, experienced glitches during the media preview and has been out of service.

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The new attractions at parks seek to build on the strong growth the industry saw last year. Globally, the major theme park operators posted 5.4 percent growth overall, according to the Themed Entertainment Association's annual report released earlier this month in conjunction with AECOM engineering design firm.

In the survey, Walt Disney Attractions maintains the top spot with an estimated 133 million visitors in 2013, a 4.8 percent increase over 2012. In second, Merlin Entertainments Group was up 10.7 percent with 59.8 million visitors, followed by Universal Parks and Resorts' 5.3 percent increase to 36.4 million visitors.

Among the top 10, the only percentage declines were seen at Madrid-based Parques Reunidos, a 4.1 percent drop, to 26 million, while Sea World Parks & Entertainment had an estimated loss of 4.1 percent, to 23.4 million.

"We estimate that the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Florida grew by nearly 6 percent, maintaining its position as the most visited theme park in the world with a total of 18.6 million visits," the report states. Less than a month ago, Walt Disney World opened the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, its the first new roller coaster since 2006.

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The numbers are calculated from a variety of sources, including statistics from the operators, historical numbers, financial reports, the investment banking community and local tourism organizations, according to the Themed Entertainment Association.

A major theme of the growth is the "new level of attention being paid to intellectual properties and international brands in our attractions," John Robinett, the Senior Vice President Economics at AECOM, said in the Theme Index and Museum Index report. "Many of the most successful new rides and shows are themed around popular media products, in addition to which many of the global media companies are actively pursuing major projects around the world. Notable examples are Fox's new project in Malaysia, Warner Bros. in Abu Dhabi, and plans at Dreamworks for attractions based on their popular animated features. And then of course Disney and Universal continue to expand."

Six Flags Entertainment is making changes at some of its parks this summer. On Thursday it opened Goliath at Six Flags Great America outside Chicago, a ride it bills as the fastest wooden roller coaster in the world (at 72 mph) with the world's tallest (180 feet) and steepest (85 degrees) drop.

Later this summer in New Jersey, Six Flags Great Adventure, will open Zumanjaro, a drop ride that will rise 415 feet up and send the eight-person gondola back down at 90 miles per hour. It's billed as the tallest drop tower in the world.

But later this summer, Six Flags will say goodbye to one of its oldest wooden roller coasters, as it closes the Colossus on Aug. 16 after a 36-year run. The park in Valencia, California, has been mum about the future of the ride and what will go in its footprint. "Six Flags Magic Mountain will announce exciting future plans for the park at a later date," a company spokesperson said Thursday by way of refusing further comment.

A wax figure of Mark Zuckerberg stands on display at the future site of Madame Tussauds attraction in San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf.
Source: Beck Diefenbach for Madame Tussauds

Completely new attractions are also on track to open this summer, including the Madame Tussauds San Francisco and The San Francisco Dungeon. Madame Tussauds will feature likenesses, in wax, of Facebook executive Mark Zuckerberg and Apple's Steve Jobs as well as more traditional celebrities.

The Dungeon at Fisherman's Wharf will be the first import of the European theatrical attraction that will focus on criminal activities spanning fro the Gold Rush to Alcatraz eras. Both attractions are scheduled to open June 26 and both are owned by Merlin Entertainments, which operates 100 attractions in 22 countries, including LEGOLAND Resorts and SEA LIFE aquariums.

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Just one month ago, the LEGOLAND California Resort near San Diego opened its LEGO Legends of Chima Water Park presented by Cartoon Network with 50 water features including the Lion Temple Wave Pool guarded by a lion arch made of 260,000 LEGO bricks.

Other new theme parks are in the works elsewhere, including blockbusters such as Disney's Star Wars Land. On a slightly smaller scale, a Diggerland USA is scheduled for New Jersey. Diggerland parks in England allow children and adults to operate full-size construction machinery.

Six Flags CEO: Leader in theme park innovation

(Universal Studios, like CNBC, is owned by Comcast.)

—By CNBC's Amy Langfield. Follow Road Warrior on Twitter at @CNBCtravel.