Seven Innovations from California That Changed Theme Parks Around the World

September 20, 2015, 2:39 PM · Orlando might be the world's most popular theme park destination, but many of the innovations that fans enjoy when they visit the Orlando parks got their start in Southern California.

Walt Disney in his Enchanted Tiki Room
Walt Disney in his Enchanted Tiki Room. Photo courtesy Disney

Anaheim's Disneyland created the modern template for theme parks, of course, but many other technical and creative innovations debuted in the Southern California parks. I take a look at seven of them in my Orange County Register column this week.

So when you enjoy after-hours Halloween event, ride a modern steel roller coaster, go on a motion-base ride, or watch an Audio Animatronic show anywhere in the world, you are recreating an experience first enjoyed by theme park fans in Southern California. Take a look!

Now, just to anticipate some comments, it's also interesting to note some of the innovations that debuted elsewhere. One-price "passport" tickets to do everything in the park? Those started at Six Flags Over Texas, only to be adopted by Disney in the early 1980s. Water parks? The first was Orlando's soon-to-close Wet 'n Wild. And the most iconic of all theme park attractions, the roller coaster, pre-dates all of the Southern California parks. The earliest coasters may have been built in Russia or France, but the first purpose-built roller coaster attraction in the United States was Lamarcus Adna Thompson's Switchback Railway in New York's Coney Island, which debuted in 1884.

What's your favorite theme park innovation?

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Replies (10)

September 20, 2015 at 4:11 PM · Perhaps the biggest innovation in parks was the transition from amusement park to theme park. I love roller coasters that offer big thrills, but themed rides are the most memorable to me. Disney and Knotts changed the game by offering rides that had a theme. That lead to most of the innoventions on this list. While today the leaders of that are Disney and Universal, just about every park tries to have some sort of theme, even if it's just a paint job that matches a unique name to an off the shelf ride, or roller coaster. Most small to mid sized amusement parks went way in the years after Disneyland opened, and the ones that remained added a theme. Today the price point of Disney and Universal has meant the cheaper less elaborate parks have remained. While they may not be as good, several are better for the money that Disney and Universal. Still the idea of a themed rides are in the budget friendly parks, even if its not on the level Disney of or Uuniversal.
September 20, 2015 at 4:33 PM · The newest innovation that impresses me most: Whatever the system is that brings Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey to life. That's my current favorite.

I'm one of "those people" that complain about Universal's over-reliance on screens to bring their (amazing) rides to life, but Harry Potter's chairs-on-an-arm system takes motion based rides to the next level in an fantastic way.

September 21, 2015 at 12:41 AM · I would say the store at the end of the ride.
Also themed food, drinks and souvenirs unique to the ride but Disney moved away from that and Universal perfected it in a way Disney never did.
The spoke wheel structure was a Disney staple but they trow it overboard for DHS. Universal now goes for the dead end to have a more 360 experience and a way to regulate crowds better.
The park to park ride with the monorail was unique but again Universal topped it with an actual attraction that is pretty cool.
Telling the story of a movie in a ride comes to mind but again Universal ups that to expand on that story and tell a new one.
September 21, 2015 at 4:16 AM · Even though I'm a hardcore Disney fan, gotta give Universal some credit for some other remarkable innovations. There's Spider-Man, which combined the motion-based vehicles of Indiana Jones with with the screen simulation of Star Tours to create a really game-changing and unforgetable experience. And the fact that USH created a new kind of park, a studio park. A park where, instead of trying to make you feel like you were in a magical world, pulled back the curtain and showed you the secrets behind the magic. Both Disney and Universal would replicate this at their Florida parks, but now it looks like that the "studio park" will be extinct by the end of the decade. If not, then pretty damn close to it. :(
September 21, 2015 at 8:12 AM · Both Disney and Universal have made very noteworthy innovations in Orlando as well. WDW was the first resort to feature a theme park as well as hotels. And of course the first to feature more than one park. Tower of Terror was also innovative in that it combined dark rides with drop towers. Spider-Man combined the motion-based vehicles and screen simulation of Star Tours to create an amazing (no pun intended) experience. And Hogwarts Express brilliantly transports guests from park to park within the parks (try saying that five times fast). And going back to SoCal, I'm surprised no one's mentioned that USH pretty much invented the "studio park" and how SeaWorld became the first theme park to feature live animals.
September 21, 2015 at 10:32 AM · Theme park niche markets are the new thing. There are so much alternative theme attractions that Disney isn't the only choice these days.
September 22, 2015 at 3:36 AM · Sorry for posting twice in a row! Thought that first one didn't go through so I posted another one then decided to throw in extra details. Sorry for any confusion!


September 22, 2015 at 5:47 AM · What about Randall Duell and the Duell Loop? Six Flags over Texas may have been the 1st park to use the design but the company was in Santa Monica, CA.
September 22, 2015 at 6:20 AM ·
September 22, 2015 at 6:25 PM · This article is about Sourther California. Those that want to praise Universal for stepping up their game in recent years, we've heard you. Instead of talking about the many innoventions that started in Southern California, you decided to keep talking about how one resort on the other side of the country has stepped up their game in recent years. We get it, Universal is as good as Disney now in Flordia, and is becoming a worthy competitor in California. But the fact is that many of the things we see at theme parks across the county including Universal first originated in Southern California, some of them decades before. I have nothing against Universal, but I'm tired of all the fanboy comments that just want to talk about how great Universal is now and bash the other theme parks, especially Disney. Lots of what Universal offers today is because of the innovations this article mentions. If you like Universal the most, great, but stop bringing them up on all the time . This article was not about Universal, it was about innovations that originated from theme parks in Southern California. This website is about all the theme parks, not just your favorite. if what you have to say isn't on topic, please don't post it, or do mat the very least, do it somewhere else. There are plenty of appropriate places to say how great you think Universal is now.

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