Bumblebee, a character from the "Transformers" films, makes… (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)
In the battle to lure summer tourists, the major Southern California theme parks are each offering something new, including a road trip with animated cars, a front-row seat for an epic battle of alien robots and a world-record plunge from a 400-foot tower.
New attractions are key to bolstering attendance, analysts say, and can each cost tens of millions or even hundreds of millions of dollars. Although local theme parks declined to disclose construction costs for this year's attractions, industry experts said the investment they made could be the most in about a decade.
"If you don't put in something new every few years, your attendance tends to drop or plateau," said Gene Jeffers, executive director of the Themed Entertainment Assn. trade group, which represents designers and creators of attractions for theme parks, museums, zoos and casinos.
Disney California Adventure Park in Anaheim spent an estimated $1.1 billion over the last several years on new attractions, including Cars Land, which opens June 15. Universal Studios Hollywood spent an estimated $100 million for its new high-tech Transformers ride, according to industry analysts.
And Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia spent as much as $10 million for its drop-tower Lex Luthor: Drop of Doom thrill ride.
This weekend SeaWorld San Diego is launching a roller coaster shaped like a manta ray that industry experts said cost at least $35 million to build. Legoland in Carlsbad is adding a pirate ship attraction that park officials would only describe as a multimillion-dollar investment.
"2012 is going to be a blockbuster year for rides and attractions," said Colleen Mangone, a spokeswoman for the International Assn. of Amusement Parks and Attractions, a Virginia-based trade group for the theme park industry.
In addition to Cars Land, California Adventure will sport a remodeled park entrance on a theme of 1920s Los Angeles with re-creations of several classic buildings, including the Pan Pacific Auditorium and the Carthay Circle Theatre where "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" premiered.
In keeping with the theme, trolleys that resemble the Red Cars from the era will carry visitors into the park.
Universal's Transformers: The Ride-3D, which opened Friday, pays tribute to the series of action movies by Michael Bay.
The park had previously used high-definition 3-D technology in its King Kong 360 3-D attraction that launched in 2010 and is still running.
But the Transformers ride takes the 3-D trend a step forward by putting guests in flight-simulator vehicles that roll and buck while riders watch Autobots battle the evil Decepticons in 3-D projections. Riders will also feel multi-sensory effects, such as spraying water and hot air and wind.
Universal's annual pass holders who got advance access to the ride seemed impressed by the special effects.
"The things they do with the atmosphere was pretty cool," said Vancouver, Canada, resident Gary Nash, who visited the park with his wife, Tania.
Six Flags Magic Mountain is hoping to appeal to adrenaline junkies with its Lex Luthor free-fall ride opening this summer. Riders will be strapped into a set of seats attached to a cable that will pull them to the top of the 400-foot tower before they drop to the ground, reaching a speed of 85 mph.
Lex Luthor breaks the record for this category of ride, previously held by the Giant Drop at Dreamworld in Queensland, Australia, at 390 feet.
Legoland Water Park set sail Friday with a new ride that places parkgoers into battling pirate ships where they can blast one another with water cannons.
"We are constantly adding to the park," Legoland spokeswoman Julie Estrada said. "We have more than doubled the number of rides since we opened."