It's time to pop theme parks' virtual reality bubble

November 19, 2017, 11:09 AM · I don't care about virtual reality anymore.

Walking the show floor at IAAPA last week did me in for VR. Every year at IAAPA seems to have an official theme — perhaps it is the hive mind of the theme park industry, with vendors all rallying to provide what they see as the hottest thing, and easiest sale, of the moment. Last year it was flying theaters. This year, it was VR.

You couldn't walk past 10 steps in the "high tech pavilion" on the show floor without seeing someone with a VR unit strapped to his or her head. No one is selling straight VR, of course. Every demonstration put the goggle-clad volunteer atop whatever unsold ride system the company had been hawking in the past. Or the vendor might be offering a custom VR installation onto whatever fallen-from-favor ride a park would like to reinvigorate.

I loved VR the first time I experienced it on a roller coaster. The physical movement of the coaster complimented the depiction of movement on the screen. If the camera is moving through space, and the camera is our "eyes," logic dictates that we actually should be moving along with that camera, too. A VR ride just makes sense.

But I also just don't care anymore. While I have yet to be sickened by VR on a ride, I do feel sick waiting in the inevitably bloated queues for VR-enabled attractions. Placing and adjusting VR headsets slows loading to unacceptable waits, backing up the queue for everyone. I don't care to wait that long for an experience that doesn't totally excite me, and the minute or two of alien battles or whatever generic adventure parks are offering with their VR adventure just do not fire imagination anymore.

Don't mistake my apathy for a rejection. While VR no longer gets me excited, I would welcome the chance to experience any great story, even if the storyteller chooses to tell that tale in VR rather than a more traditional video and stage medium.

Maybe thats a sign of the maturation of VR as a medium — novelty won't cut it any longer. Whether a themed entertainment company offers VR, augmented reality, or whatever new storytelling technology comes along, story remains supreme.

The nature of the IAAPA show floor is that it almost exclusively attracts technology and manufacturing vendors. You don't see many booths for screenwriters. But that's what VR and AR need most right now. It's not about finding the "right" ride system for a VR attraction. And while some operations innovation to speed dispatch times would help, that won't save VR as a theme park medium.

No, only great storytelling can do that.

I don't care about VR anymore. But I remain — and always will be — interested in great stories. The gimmick phase of VR is over. If VR is to survive as a viable tool in theme parks, a master storyteller must find an engaging use for it. Otherwise, I — and a whole lotta other theme park fans — are going to keep walking past VR rides and shows on our way to attractions that do capture our imaginations with wonderful, engaging stories.

Replies (14)

November 19, 2017 at 11:21 AM · The main appeal of VR is the idea of extending a space beyond what is possible in a stereoscopic way. When VR is applied to coasters or other attractions with space it destroys the point of the attraction. VR needs to add not side step or degrade the experience. It's why VR on Iron Dragon is more interesting than VR on Kraken. The real use and test of VR will be how the audience reacts to the Star Wars experience created by The Void.
November 19, 2017 at 11:46 AM · So speaks the voice of sanity.

Thank you Robert!

November 19, 2017 at 5:44 PM · Hear Hear!
November 19, 2017 at 6:29 PM · VR is a good idea, but the implementations so far have shown that it is only worthwhile if it is designed into an attraction from the start rather than retrofitted onto a ride. What Six Flags tried is interesting once or twice, but after that it quickly loses appeal, and it's just not acceptable for parks to be getting 200-400 riders per hour on a ride that should be capable of three times that.
November 19, 2017 at 6:48 PM · Mickey Runaway Railway dispensed with the 3D glasses. VR is fine at home or arcades. Theme parks that have VR on rides seems like a poor man’s choice.
November 19, 2017 at 11:29 PM · Robert Niles for president
November 20, 2017 at 4:58 AM · At Cedar Point, Iron Dragon is a relatively low-thrill suspended family coaster, perfect for people working their way up to the more intense thrill rides. Most of the day it operates without VR, but after 6 p.m. they break out the VR and it becomes an incredible experience where your wagon is grabbed by the Iron Dragon and carried on a thrilling adventure past attacking ogres, monsters, other dragons and through dangerous canyons. By using VR, Cedar Point turned one coaster into two completely different experiences, one family-oriented and one thrilling and unlike anything else at the park. AJ, I disagree with your premise in this situation.
November 20, 2017 at 6:03 AM · I've only been on 2 VR coasters ..... Air/Galactica at Alton Towers and Kraken at SeaWorld. I'll be trying out the Iron Dragon next May so I'll see how that goes. Does anyone know if the coaster at FunSpot Orlando still operates the VR ?
As I've said before, I really liked Galactica. I rode it with and without VR and I will admit I liked it more (front seat) without VR, but the whole concept of flying thru space seemed to compliment the ride really well. Unlike Kraken ..... Kraken is one of those projects that "seemed like a good idea at the time" but fails miserably to add any enhancement whatsoever to what is a pretty good coaster in it's own right. For me there's just too many twists and turns in close proximity to each other, and that translates into a VR that never really lets you look around and 'admire the view' You get focused on something then the next section of the track comes into play and off you go on a complete tangent. Air/Galactica doesn't have these sudden changes of direction and so allows for better viewing time.
Also AT have the loading and unloading down to a fine art. A person for every row helps the turnaround time to be reasonably quick, whereas SeaWorld still only has 2 or 3 people loading and unloading, so the wait time is so much slower.
I'm on the fence for VR conversion. I like it, but as mentioned, what we really need is a brand new ride that's designed and built as a VR coaster. Now that could be very interesting.
November 20, 2017 at 8:48 AM · I agree wholeheartedly with all the thoughts above, but - not to sound like a broken record here - not for nothing did Derren Brown's Ghost Train at Thorpe Park win a Thea Award last week.

It is admittedly far from being perfectly executed, but the focus was clearly on finding the right technology for the story, rather than the other way around. Unfortunately it's still hampered by technical woes - I've had one totally successful run in four attempts - but it's the industry's only sincere attempt so far at what we're talking about, as far as I can see.

November 20, 2017 at 9:20 AM · I think VR hasn't been properly developed for theme park application. Until a park invests the money to bring multiple creative teams together to create a fully immersive VR experience, it's not going to get any better. All we've seen so far is the "lipstick on a pig" approach done on coasters, yet VR can be so much more. Perhaps the Star Wars experience at Disney Springs will provide the true litmus test for the applicability of VR in a themed environment, but I'm just not buying it.

If a park is willing to develop a fully immersive VR attraction from the ground up, then we might have something. Perhaps Battle of Eire will provide some clues as to what VR can really be (while it's being retrofitted to a motion simulator, it's still more than slapping it on an existing coaster) with a ride program and VR experience that can be tailored to each other instead of one compromising the experience for the other. In the end though, until parks can figure out how to make loading as seamless as grabbing some 3-D glasses, VR attractions will struggle at major theme parks.

November 20, 2017 at 9:39 AM · Ben .... good point on Derren Brown's ghost train. After a long day at Thorpe Park I finally managed to try it out, (it had been down due to technical difficulties almost 90% of the day !!)
It's a start for sure. I think they could have done without the human interaction, but the way some people were jumping and screaming around me, it certainly has the desired effect. I liked it a lot, but it just seemed to miss that certain something that would make a good experience a great one. I'm glad I got to ride the train, but it didn't get me going round and getting straight back on.
Not sure of the secrecy TP were still trying to maintain though. It's been around long enough now for most visitors to know what it's all about before they step into the station.
I would recommend anyone visiting TP to try it out. The first (I think ?) attraction made especially for VR .... maybe the start of something big ??
The Swarm was the star for me .... it's everything the Gatekeeper should have been .... but that's another story.
November 20, 2017 at 12:06 PM · Never interested in VR while on an attraction..

Make the attraction\ride great so no VR is ever needed. If one looks around, the world in already in High definition...

Plus who really want to wait because some bone head can't get the VR to work or put it on correctly... Never mind the language barriers trying to explain it...

November 20, 2017 at 1:06 PM · Thank heavens someone else has grown weary of the VR overload on the IAAPA Expo floor. It's all a yawn. However, I was lucky enough to get behind the doors at Cavu. Now THAT was an experience that is probably more to what you are looking for. They are trying their hardest to strip away things that have to be attached to you. The binoral sound was phenomenal. I was stunned. They are trying to do all the senses with such fine detail. It's revolutionary.

Otherwise, I hope this latest fad is just that, a momentary fling.

November 21, 2017 at 10:04 AM · The limited run of VR on Skull Mountain at Six Flags Great Adventure made perfect sense b/c it's a completely dark ride and you can't see anything anyway - although it did result in an unacceptably long loading time. In contrast, the limited run of VR on Zumanjaro:Drop of Doom was handled with remarkable speed and efficiency. For the most part, however, I will pass. BTW, both Robert and Makorider misused/misspelled "complimented" and "compliment." Presumably they meant that VR complemented the ride.

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