A Not-So-Thrilling Ride For U.S.-Made Roller Coasters China is a big customer for U.S.-made roller coasters. But since President Trump's trade war, China has imposed steep tariffs on American rides. Some in the industry fear losing a lucrative market.

A Not-So-Thrilling Ride For U.S.-Made Roller Coasters

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China is growing its population, its economy. We've heard this before. What you might not know is that within the next few years, China is predicted to become the largest theme park market on Earth. Ride manufactures in the U.S. are set to play a big role in that growth, but the U.S.-China trade war means tariffs on everything from soybeans to the parts for amusement rides. And some American companies are feeling squeezed.

KUER's Rebecca Ellis reports.

REBECCA ELLIS, BYLINE: Pretend you're a bullet hanging out in the barrel of a gun. The trigger's pulled, and then - boom - you're hurled into the air at turbo speed. Zero to 80 miles in two seconds - that's what being on a roller coaster made by S&S Worldwide is like. These organ-jumbling rides have turned the northern Utah company into one of the largest amusement ride manufacturers in the country. Earlier in May, Preston Perkes, an executive director at S&S, was overseeing roller coasters bound for...

PRESTON PERKES: Dubai, New Jersey, Pittsburgh, Chicago and China.

ELLIS: In the center of the factory sit two massive white steel pulleys, part of a $16 million ride going up in eastern China's newest military-themed amusement park, Sun Tzu Cultural Park. Soon, a truck will cart off these pulleys to Los Angeles. They'll cross the Pacific in an ocean container and arrive at the Qingdao port southeast of Beijing. That's when the customer will have to pay a tariff of a little over 25%. Perkes says there's going to be some sticker shock.

PERKES: Never would they have thought that they would have to pay such a high duty and tax.

ELLIS: Just like soybeans, cars, lithium batteries and thousands of other goods, roller coasters have gotten caught up in the escalating trade war between the U.S. and China. Since last fall, Beijing has hiked up the tariff on American-made amusement rides twice, potentially costing customers in China more than a million dollars in extra fees. It's enough, Perkes says, for some buyer's remorse to creep in.

PERKES: And when our customers are having to pay more money because of a added tariff, they're going to look other places, and that's what they've done.

ELLIS: This year, only one Chinese customer has reached out to purchase a ride. In past years, Perkes says, about half of their business came from China.

John Gerner is a managing director of Leisure Business Advisors. In China, he says, American companies are known as the go-to guys for high-tech rides - pricey, but worth it.

JOHN GERNER: And so they've been able to compete on the value of innovation, quality, intellectual property, characters and brands.

ELLIS: If the new tariffs stay in place, Gerner warns, American rides could lose their appeal, as Chinese companies are encouraged to buy Chinese.

Dave Tolman is a ride packager at the company, one of its hundred or so employees. He says it's not just the Chinese duties that have made the trade war such a bumpy ride for S&S.

DAVE TOLMAN: The tariffs on steel and aluminum affect us in this business a real big amount. That's, you know, two of the main things that we use.

ELLIS: Since last March, when the Trump administration announced tariffs on all steel and aluminum imports, the price of the metal parts used by S&S has risen by as much as 70%. Perkes says they had to rethink parts of their supply chain, seeking out cheaper steel for the ties that hold roller coaster tracks together and for the walkways for ride maintenance.

PERKES: We have to change our country of origin. We have to build things in other countries to avoid the tariffs.

ELLIS: Since the metal tariffs were imposed last year, he says, that work is now done closer to much of their customer base - in China.

For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Ellis in Salt Lake City.

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