Virtual reality on theme park rides: 2016-2019

May 15, 2019, 10:02 AM · In 2016, Universal Studios Japan and Britain's Alton Towers added virtual reality to roller coasters at their theme parks, kicking off an industry craze to add VR on any number of aging attractions for a creative (and marketing) boost.

But as quickly as the VR craze took off, it just as rapidly crashed back to Earth. Six Flags announced later that year that it would add VR to nine of its roller coasters, and while the experience could be amazing the slow load times resulting from people putting on and adjusting their headsets, coupled with the extra staff work to collect, clean, and distribute the headsets, led Six Flags to begin quietly removing VR from those coasters not long after.

SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, Cedar Point, and Legoland also introduced VR on rides, sometimes as an add-on to an existing attraction and other times as the foundation of a new experience. But by last year, after many of those attractions reverted to their previous form, many of us inside or following the industry began asking, Is there any future for virtual reality in theme park attractions?

And yesterday, Disney CEO Bob Iger might have thrown dirt on theme park VR's grave. Iger had long been a skeptic of VR in theme park attractions, and his comments yesterday at the 6th Annual MoffettNathanson Media & Communications Summit reaffirmed that the theme park industry's attendance leader will not be investing in bringing virtual reality to its theme park attractions.

"We are not trying to fake immersion," Iger said. "We are trying to make it as real as possible with as much scale as possible."

Referring to Pandora: The World of Avatar and Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge, Iger said, "we think that as you enter one of these lands, with rock formations that are multiple stories high and real characters walking around that you can actually interact with, and experiences that you can travel through, that there is a wow factor there that is much greater than we could ever achieve with VR."

If theme parks are to convince people to spend upwards of $100 a day (or more) to visit, their screen-based entertainment must offer an experience far beyond what fans can enjoy at home. And moving seats, apparently, are not enough to sustain the vast majority of theme park VR installations. But this rule applies to all other forms of screen-based entertainment in parks, too. Media probably will never go away from theme parks, but the trend is toward using media as one of many tools in creating fantastic environments, rather than something that feels like a scaled-up or moving version of what you can watch at home.

In short, if you can tell it's a screen, that's a fail. If you don't notice that the media is media because you are so taken in by the setting and story an attraction, then that's a win for the attraction's designers.

By offering those practical environments that Iger was talking about, theme parks enjoy incredible creative and business potential as an antidote to the public's emerging screen fatigue. But creating physical environments that convince people that they have entered a fantastic world requires a lot of expensive creative talent... and even greater, stupid amounts of money to build them.

One of the big reasons why so many parks jumped on VR was because developing it was a lot cheaper than building new rides. With Disney — and by all accounts, Universal, too — steering clear of VR, that will leave virtual reality to settle down as the realm of home entertainment... and maybe FECs and stand-alone installations, such as the VOID, for group VR experiences.

Maybe a few regional parks will find success with the occasional VR show or upcharge social gaming experience. The new era in theme park attractions that appeared to be on the horizon in 2016 now appears to be behind us.

Replies (9)

May 15, 2019 at 10:26 AM

Coincidently the Orlando Sentinel ran an article on the question of VR last week .....

May 15, 2019 at 10:31 AM

VR is great for the home and for things like The Void’s experiences, but not in theme parks, and certainly not on a coaster. I never understood why headsets were installed on rides, such as Kraken. Part of the fun is seeing real scenery around you. Experiencing the heights, drops, inversions and twists in all their glory.
However, I do think that - in time - AR could be implemented very well on certain rides. With AR, they wouldn’t be faking the immersion, because you would still see everything around you. It would be adding another layer.

May 15, 2019 at 11:59 AM

I think AR is likely to play a part in Nintendoland's Mario Kart attraction. I'm intrigued to see how much is physical and how much will be digital.

May 15, 2019 at 12:45 PM

I think the traditional concept of a VR overlay is more or less dead in the industry. The advantages offered by VR never outweighed the negative, namely increased labor costs and decreased throughput/capacity. I still think BGW's Battle for Eyre has come up with a VR interface that still has value as an overlay technology for aging but not yet obsolete rides.

However, I believe the biggest barrier to making a solid VR coaster experience is sound. As the technology evolved over the past 5 years, the graphics slowly improved, but the experience still lacked the full immersion necessary to make the VR world believable. That's why Battle for Eyre works, and why so many other VR overlays have failed - guests are engaged through more than just visuals. The sounds are what complete the immersion, and with just wimpy cell phone speakers to deliver sounds on coaster-based VR installations, guests never full bought into the virtually world.

To say Disney won't or isn't investing in VR is a bit of a farce, because they've already confirmed the integration of the Disney Parks App with Galaxy's Edge. While it won't be a pure VR experience in the mold of The Void or past VR coasters, it's still utilizing AR, which is really just an extension of VR. I don't think we'll ever see people walking around theme parks with Oculus or Vive headsets, but you're definitely going to see a lot of guests viewing Galaxy's Edge through the prism of their cell phone.

The use of VR in theme parks might be passing, but AR is just getting started, and holds far more promise and application that parks are investing millions to integrate into their experiences.

May 15, 2019 at 12:53 PM

VR came into the home market like a rocket around the same time and today, you rarely hear much about it. That seems to be the nature of VR. Back in the 90's when the feature film "The LawnMower Man" showed us what VR could be (the immersion, not the mind altering thing) , it never evolved. I bought a Gear VR with excitement in thinking by now, VR has truly arrived! Nope, it sits under my desk in its box. It's a fun novelty but doesn't offer us the true immersion we expect by now. I've never tried VR in a themepark but from the samples I've seen, the technology is absolutely no better than snapping my phone into a headset.

Now "The Void" I am sure is a different beast but that's what it was designed to showcase. We want to see what we cannot see at home. I hope VR continues to evolve but I am losing both patience and interest at this point.

May 15, 2019 at 1:04 PM

I go to theme parks to have experiences with other people. Those other people may be the strangers on the ride with me just as much as they are the family and friends I'm visiting the park with.
It's like the difference of seeing a rowdy comedy or action adventure film on opening weekend in a packed theater compared to watching it at home on a TV by yourself.
VR isolates us and that's not what I'm looking for at a park.
Augmented reality may be the thing that keeps us wearing funny headgear in the parks. If I can have digital enhancements to what I am actual seeing, including the others around me I'd be interested.
Back to the Light Saber shop at SWGE. If I could put on an augmented reality head set and then see the laser extending from the handle I'd made AND if other people wearing head sets could also see the laser...that would be cool. Add sound effects and tactical signa
ls coming from the handle when the beam strikes!
I don't think we are done with headgear, I just think we haven't reach a point where it adds to what already makes a park visit great.

May 15, 2019 at 1:36 PM

The use of AR is an interesting concept in the parks, but will it eventually go the same way as Pokeman Go ? I'm sure people still play the game, but for a while all you would see was people studying their phones to find the various creatures to train.

I can see SWGE being a good platform to try it out, especially with Rob's idea with the light saber. But then again, how long will it take for that particular novelty effect to wear off, and we're back looking for the next big thing ?

I prefer to walk around the parks without my phone anyway, unless I'm taking photos. Saves me worrying about if it's secure enough when I get on a ride.

May 15, 2019 at 3:45 PM

VR overlays have been going nowhere fast- literally- for a while, though the use of VR within theme park attractions did score at least one success story- Derren Brown's Ghost Train at Thorpe Park, which even got an update. That attraction uses VR as just one of several elements on a unique attraction, and it is certainly not like the silly VR overlays seen on many roller coasters. Disney never hopped on that craze so can't really hop off either- though bet their CEO likes any conversation where he does not have to explain the billions wasted on redundant MagicBand and can knock a different tech. Real immersion is certainly a better aim than VR for a theme park but that does not mean there aren't ways to use VR as a positive tool for attractions as well.

May 15, 2019 at 3:36 PM

Thank gawd this fad is dead.

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