Theme Park Insider

Two new coaster experience set the stage for theme parks' future

March 31, 2017, 2:44 PM · SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Regional theme parks around the country are getting ready to open for the season, so let's take a look at a couple of new coaster experiences from parks that aren't typically on the Theme Park Insider radar.

We'll start in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Cedar Fair-owned California's Great America has re-trained its stand-up coaster Vortex as the floorless Patriot. It's the second conversion of a Bolliger & Mabillard stand-up to floorless in the Cedar Fair chain, following the Mantis-to-Rougarou switch at Cedar Point two years ago.

Before we get to Patriot, a word about the park... and why it might be worth more of your attention in the years to come. Originally a twin of Great America in Gurnee, Illinois — back when both were Marriott theme parks — California's Great America has traveled to death's door at least a couple of times in its 41 seasons. While Six Flags bought the Chicago-area park, this Great America eventually found its way into the Cedar Fair chain, via a sometime-litigious race from developers aiming to tear down the park and develop its valuable Silicon Valley real estate.

But in January, the Santa Clara government approved a new master plan for the park that changed its zoning, which will allow the park to stay open later in the evenings and add taller rides than it's been allowed to build before — up to 250 feet tall. The changes, coupled with a planned shopping and dining district that also should draw fans from Levi's Stadium (home of the NFL's San Francisco 49ers) next door, should help make California's Great America a far more compelling destination not just for dedicated theme park fans, but for casual entertainment fans on the west coast, as well.

That's the future, though. What about now? For that, we have to start with another look back at the past. A Werner Stengel design, built by Bolliger & Mabillard for an 1991 opening, Vortex was one of B&M's first builds. Limited by the park's zoning restrictions at the time, it offered modest specs: a 91-foot lift hill and a top speed of 40 miles per hour. But it delivered some classic coaster elements that foreshadowed the brilliant orchestration of elements that would come to define B&M designs in the years ahead.

Those elements remain, now experienced on floorless trains that offer a smoother, more comfortable ride than the often, uh, jarring stand-ups. (Guys, you know what I mean.)

Still, those blasted over-the-shoulder restraints appear here, so keep your head as far forward as is comfortable to your neck in order to avoid pain-inducing head banging during the ride's two inversions, especially that corkscrew near the end. But there's a fine view at the top and a wonderful, if brief, sequence of elements here.

I especially like the interlocking track. The ride that made me fall in love with roller coasters was Busch Gardens Williamsburg's Loch Ness Monster. While Patriot doesn't have two true interlocking loops like Nessie — it's a hairpin interlocking with a loop here — that's close enough to elicit an enthusiastic smile from me.

Patriot's not enough of an upgrade on its own to make this a must-see destination for fans outside of the Bay Area. But it's a fine foundation upon which Great America can begin developing its now-approved plans to make that leap. Keep your eyes on California's Great America. It just might be ready to become California's next great amusement park.

Now, let's head across the country to Six Flags America, where Russ Meyer just tried the latest in Six Flags' VR ride experiences.

Galactic Attack Pushes the Envelope of VR by Russell Meyer

BOWIE, Md. — Virtual Reality is here to stay, and technology companies around the world are exploring new ways to enhance how people are entertained. Two of the leaders in virtual reality technology are Samsung and Oculus, who have teamed up to create the widely-advertised Galaxy Gear headset. The experience of VR can be impressive and enveloping even if you're just sitting on your couch. However, add the virtual reality experience to the forces and motions generated by an intense roller coaster, and VR designers can create quite an amazing experience.

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Six Flags has been leading the charge in applying VR technology on roller coasters, and they have now debuted what they're billing as the world's first "Mixed Reality" coaster at Six Flags America outside Washington, DC. I was invited to experience the new attraction for Theme Park Insider at the ride's media day, but all opinions presented below are my own.

Galactic Attack is the virtual "re-skinning" of the park's Mind Eraser roller coaster. Those who may have ridden this coaster or other Vekoma SLC (suspended looping coaster) models that proliferate theme park around the world would probably share my skepticism when considering the thought of riding one of these roller coasters while wearing a VR headset — not being able to see the track to brace for the head jarring twists and turns seemed like a painful prospect. However, the VR designers have cleverly diverted the attention of the riders with an engaging virtual experience so that the head banging is not as apparent.

The ride starts with guests putting on the headsets, which provide an augmented view of what's going on around them. The headset uses the phone's camera to deliver the image with added effects as if you were looking through a range finder or binoculars. By starting the experience in this augmented reality mode, it makes loading the train a bit more efficient than other VR coasters that display a fully virtual environment to guests as soon as the headsets are turned on and synchronized with the train's on-board system. I found the augmented reality a little disorienting because the camera was constantly refocusing as I turned my head. Also, the augmented image displayed in the headset is slightly delayed, so rapid head movements will reveal that delay.

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Once the train is loaded and the headsets are synchronized, the train ascends the lift hill still in the augmented reality mode. About halfway up the hill, a "worm hole" appears that washes out the augmented image in the headset to reveal the virtual world of Galactic Attack. As the train crests the top of the lift hill, guests are thrust into battle. Unlike other VR shooting experiences, Galactic Attack does not require guests to press any buttons on the headset as your ship's blaster has been already set to automatic rapid fire. All guests need to do is move their head to aim their blaster at targets, which was surprisingly easy and intuitive. As the ride progresses, there are a number of decision points where guests can control which path their ship takes in the virtual world. Look to the left, and you ship blasts through a wall and into a cave, but look to the right and your ship flies after escaping aliens.

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While all this shooting is going on, the movement of your spaceship in the virtual world matches very closely to the motions and forces of the coaster. I spoke with Sam Rhodes, Six Flags Director of Ride Design, about the technology utilized on Galactic Attack. He noted that the train is fitted with a "black box" that communicates with each of the headsets on the train.

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The box itself is connected to a sensor monitoring one of the wheels on the train. As the wheel moves, the box communicates with the headsets to place each rider in the right space in the virtual world. That means if the train moves faster or slower through the course because of varying conditions, the headsets still stay synchronized with where the coaster is on the track. If for some strange reason, the coaster was to stop along the course, the image in the headsets would also stop. It's quite clever, and by making the box just a positioning relay device, it means the park can change out the VR experience in the amount of time it takes to download a file. Rhodes envisioned a future where guests could board the coaster, put on a VR headset, and select from a dozen or more different VR experiences before the train leaves the station just by looking at a menu of options.

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So why did Six Flags do this to a crummy coaster like Mind Eraser? Simple — it gets guests interested in taking a ride on a coaster they might otherwise avoid. If Six Flags can deliver a solid, engaging experience, those guests will come back for more, especially if the experience changes with the season and worlds that offer a multitude of choices throughout the experience. Also, Rhodes commented that the chain is picking not just coasters that could use a boost in popularity, but ones that have sufficient space for the equipment and a queue layout that can accommodate the VR infrastructure.

Six Flags is still working to improve the technology as they have developed a patented headset that secures the Gear to riders tightly yet comfortably. They continue to survey guests, and Rhodes pointed out that some of the aspects of Galactic Attack came directly from gamers that completed park surveys. It's clear the Six Flags will continue to push the VR technology as far as it can go, and guests can expect to see it be available in every park within the chain very soon. If they can make a low rated coaster like Mind Eraser engaging and fun, the sky is the limit with VR.

Replies (8)

March 31, 2017 at 4:45 PM · What a nice article. Thanks TPI!

- Brian from Florida

April 1, 2017 at 7:44 AM · By reading "let's take a look at a couple of new coaster experiences from parks that aren't typically on the TPI Radar" I had hope and developed anticipation on (at least fealed) first time reading about not 6F, CF, Disney or Universal Themeparks like the new Coaster at Dutch Wonderland. But hopes destroyed fast..
April 1, 2017 at 7:53 AM · At Six Flags Great America, they are getting the Joker and VR for their Giant Drop
April 1, 2017 at 10:07 AM · When SF puts VR on your least favorite coaster...
April 2, 2017 at 8:04 PM · While not a particularly exciting project, I am curious to try Patriot for myself later this year and see how it is. California's Great America is definitely going to be a park to watch over the next five years. Based on their recently approved master plan, they are going to be getting investment similar to what we've seen at Carowinds in the very near future.
April 3, 2017 at 6:22 AM · Wish I'd known you were at CGA, Robert, I'd have said hi. This park has always been a letdowm, until recently. For the first time since my first visit in 1981, I am optimistic about it.
April 3, 2017 at 10:25 AM · Good article and nice to see a collaboration. In describing Mind Eraser as a crummy coaster, Russell sure got that right! I haven't ridden the one at Six Flags America but did ride the one at Six Flags New England, which is why I scrupulously avoided the one in Maryland. With the new restraints, the one at SFNE might actually be rideable but I haven't heard anything about new restraints at SFA so would be extremely reluctant to try the VR experience on top of a ride that's already disorienting as well as brutal.
April 5, 2017 at 11:44 AM · The restraints appeared to have been "resurfaced", but are definitely not new. There is still moderate head banging, but most riders will probably be too busy focused on the VR game to notice that their head is hitting the OTSR padding.

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