The annual convention for the theme parks and entertainment industry, IAAPA, was held again in 2012 in Orlando's convention center. This is a marvelous feast of the eyes (and in some case, the stomach) for attendees, most of whom are buyers from small companies looking to buy what's newest and what will separate them from the competition in their home markets. Others here are the exhibitors themselves, looking to line up deals to sell the latest thing they've designed, created, or built.
The general public is allowed to attend, though it's expensive to buy a ticket for all three days (apparently there are two day and one-day passes as well, with the final day ticket costing only $39).
What you'll find is a mega-collection of devices, hardware, and equipment. Some of it is mundane to the outsider - valves for water pipes, roller-coaster wheels, and that sort of thing. There's a very large section on inflatable bounce houses, many of them manned this year by some aggressive Chinese distributors who were singularly unimpressed by my impartial status as a member of the press and thought they could strike a deal with me. Most such bounce houses are there for looks, but a few can be visited in the "outdoor" section of the show. The outdoor area is also home to a few other attractions you can ride, including the standout Soaring Eagle (a zip line ride where you get to sit in a suspended vehicle).
Zamperla had a spinning, upside down ride inside the main floor, but mostly what you're looking at is booths. There's a lot of concept art, sometimes scale models, and sometimes full-sized creations (usually things like animatronics and robotics) on display. There's a lot to gawk at.
Vendors of food items often make free samples available, so you can have 1/8th of a pretzel at a time, or entire slices of pizza. Ice cream variations and ICEE type drinks are usually given in full size, so you can clean up there. We were particularly impressed with an actual robot that assembles frozen yogurt and toppings right in front of your eyes.
Some vendors get creative, and include full sized playgrounds for kids to climb on, including a new one themed to Angry Birds.
A couple had ropes challenge courses that you could climb on, or rock walls to scale. One of the main reasons to come to a trade show like this is to see 'what's next' and one clear answer seems to be rock walls that have projections to climb shaped to look like actual themed things, rather than squiggles of rock outcroppings. Laser mazes let you practice your inner cat burglar Giant inflated balls and cylinders let people roll around like hamsters, including one ball that has water in it to form an eternal waterslide.
Disney doesn't have a booth here--they don't sell to outsiders generally--but SeaWorld did this year, showing off the trackless ride vehicle and motion base to be used in the upcoming Antarctica attraction.
One of my favorite things to do is play the games here, from video games to pinball (making a resurgence from companies other than Midway), to a mashup best described as "hockey-pinball" (think: table hockey using only pinball flippers). We were positively delighted to find a hockey table that had the standard puck, a giant goal on each side, and then suddenly dumped twenty more mini-pucks into the mix from the side.
Equally fun was the water-curtain "drapes" that can be computerized and programmed; I took my expensive camera into a maze of water curtains. Neat!
If you get the chance you should check out IAAPA - it's worth a look, or an entire three days!
Kevin Yee is the author of numerous independent Disney books, including the popular Walt Disney World Earbook series and Walt Disney World Hidden History.