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ALMOST LIKE THE REAL THING d dTC Thrill park plans high-tech kicks


Ever dream of hitting a fastball thrown by Orioles relief ace Greg Olson? Or going a few rounds with former boxing champion Sugar Ray Leonard? How about bungee-jumping off the World Trade Center?

Sports wannabees can get their vicarious kicks in Baltimore by 1994 if all goes well with Sports Center U.S.A., a $30 million museum and entertainment complex planned for the unused Power Plant at Pier 4 in the Inner Harbor. It would use the latest in motion-simulator technology -- basically the same technology used to train jet fighter pilots -- to delight thrill-seekers.

"Sports are ideal for this because there is constant motion -- you don't need a story line," said Lynda O'Dea, president of Sports Center U.S.A. Inc., the Baltimore-based partnership that heads the project. "It's a technology that's proven to be popular with the public, but nobody's applied that to sports."

Baltimoreans have already had a glimpse of some of those high-tech features at the Maryland Science Center's large-screen theater. Disney World and other theme parks also use some of the technology on rides.

A "turbo" ride theater proposed for Sports Center would immerse visitors in the sights, sounds and feel of fast-paced sports such as downhill skiing and auto racing. Chairs supported by hydraulic lifts will move in time with events on a 30-foot screen, giving viewers the sensation of skiing down a mountain or negotiating a hairpin turn on a Grand Prix race course.

The two turbo theaters would feature digital sound systems and high-resolution film artistry rendering realistic, live-action shots. Computers crammed with customized circuitry and software would silently guide the action, setting the tone and pace of the experience.

"Americans love film, love sports, love technology, and they love new experiences. That's the direction we're going," said Mark Young, senior vice president of Los Angeles-based Iwerks Entertainment. The company, which specializes in creating movie-based attractions for theme parks, is a contender to furnish the twin turbo theaters in Baltimore.

A smaller, spherical simulator will test the mettle of serious thrill-seekers. Viewers strapped to chairs inside the 16-foot-diameter globe will be surrounded by the sights and sounds of sporting events as the globe spins under the control of computers, which determine the speed and direction of every rotation.

Akin to the turbo theater, but more intense, the spherical simulator can simulate any fast-paced sport, Ms. O'Dea said, but is best-suited for those needing sustained G-forces to get the real-life effect of floating, falling or jumping, such as ski jumping, bungee-jumping and airplane racing.

Other exhibits planned for Sports Center are:

* A computerized batting cage that conjures up images of pitchers, allowing visitors to experience Charlie Hough's knuckler or Mr. Olson's fastball. Details have yet to be worked out, but Ms. O'Dea said one possibility might be to round up some of the nation's best pitchers and use special cameras to record their hallmark pitches.

* Three-dimensional, interactive exhibits that highlight sports heroes, trivia and memorabilia. One exhibit might allow visitors to choose a sport and replay highlights over the years. That might include, for horse racing fans, Secretariat's breathtaking Triple Crown victories or, for gymnastics fans, highlights of Mary Lou Retton's gold medal-winning performance at the 1984 Olympics.

Most major theme parks, including Disney World, Universal Studios and Busch Gardens, have had big success with simulator rides, which are designed to appeal to people of all ages. Busch Gardens' popular Questor ride in Williamsburg, Va., for example, takes viewers on a "starship" journey that includes a near-miss plunge over a waterfall.

"They are quite accepted now," said John Graff, executive director of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, an international trade group that represents 3,500 amusement parks and entertainment centers. "They're definitely a part of amusement park development these days."

Places such as the Power Plant are well-suited for simulated rides, Mr. Graff said, because they don't take up much space compared with traditional thrill rides such as roller coasters.

Plans call for the Sports Center entry fee to be $15 for adults and $9 for children.

Ms. O'Dea is vice president of the Maryland Jockey Club, which runs the Pimlico and Laurel race courses. Her partners in the Sports Center project are Joseph De Francis, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, and Henry Rosenberg, chairman of Crown Central Petroleum Corp.

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