Which Is Better: 2D or 3D Media?

April 18, 2020, 4:19 PM · Media have become an ever-more important part of theme park attractions. It's not just in theater-based movie attractions and on monitors suspended above switchback queues anymore. Designers now intersperse media throughout a wide variety of attractions, including roller coasters and even log flume rides.

Beyond their use, not all media are alike, of course. I think the biggest division within the world of theme park media is the question that we address today — Which is better: 2D or 3D?

Three-D long has stood as an attraction by itself. Filmmakers create movies that appear to throw all sorts of stuff at the audience, using the visual trick of 3D projection to make fans scream as they push back in their seats... then laugh at themselves and their friends for falling once again for the gag.

Eventually, 3D begat 4D, where designers added practical in-theater effects to a 3D film, including wind and water effects all the way up to those evil little filaments under the seat that made it feel like critters are walking over your legs. Some 4D theaters include moving seats, creating a lower-budget version of the motion base theater.

On dark rides, 3D can create an even more immersive experience, allowing show scenes to "break" the invisible wall of the ride-vehicle envelope. Done right, 3D is the element that makes media not feel like media but instead like fantastic scenes made real, in three dimensions.

My personal favorite use of 3D in theme park media - AniMayhem at Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi

But when not done right? Oh boy.

So much of what might once have been exciting in 3D movies has become cliche, a gimmick to compensate for lazy or nonexistent storytelling. And 4D attractions make the temptation to write to serve the effects over the story even worse. Many fans have become wary of 3D attractions because they now fear that "3D" on the marquee means a show that's going to emphasize tired visual gimmicks over creative storytelling.

Many fans also complain that 3D media are not as bright as 2D, creating a dingy image that, ironically, does not seems as real or alive as a traditional, 2D image. Projectors typically do not project 3D media at the same level of brightness that they can a 2D image, and the use of the special glasses further restricts the amount of light that gets through to each eye. A cinematographer can crank up the brightness of a 3D image in an attempt to compensate, but even then you're dependent upon the theater keeping up on the projection side.

For guests who wear eyeglasses, having to place a pair of 3D glasses over them to experience an attraction can annoy or frustrate what ought to be a carefree experience. And some people have vision issues that make seeing 3D imagery impossible, rendering the hard work of a production team into a visually incoherent mess for those guests.

Parks' 3D glasses also create logistical issues, as they require cleaning between each use, as well as staff time to collect, deliver and distribute those glasses. All that costs money that 2D media do not.

(To this end, the current crisis might be the one that finally does in 3D at theme parks, at least for the time being, as parks look to minimize physical contact points between guests. Ditching 3D and projecting all media in glasses-free 2D means one less thing that has to be washed for and hand-delivered to each guest throughout the day.)

And yet... you can watch a 2D show at home or even on your phone as you wait in the queue. At least 3D remains something novel for most theme park visitors - a literal extra dimension that you cannot get at home or through your other media devices. Yes, creating an engaging and rewarding 3D production requires some different techniques than filming a 2D production. But when that extra work pays off with that extra "pop" off the screen, more deeply immersing the viewer into the story the production team is telling, then 3D can be worth the hassle.

So, it's up to you. Based on the attractions you've experienced, please tell us which form of media you prefer in theme parks.

Replies (7)

April 18, 2020 at 7:05 PM

The key is "as long as it's done right." Because too many 3D attractions are rather poor and failing to work. I guess it's the old-school in me but growing up on 2-D dark rides makes me enjoy them more. Again, I can appreciate a good 3-D attraction yet few are able to make it work as well as you'd like.

April 18, 2020 at 7:19 PM

I'm very interested in the future of glass-less 3D. But for now, I think it's better to just use the best of 4K projectors, not needing 3D to enhance any experience. I remember going on Minion Mayhem after they dropped the 3D and it was a definitely better experience. I'm interested in trying Flight of Passage in 2D when the parks reopen.

April 18, 2020 at 8:08 PM

I wear glasses. Flight of Passage and Spiderman are the only dynamic 3D attractions worth the hassle for me...

April 19, 2020 at 10:38 AM

You're missing a "neither" option. Screens can be useful in the background, but most times when they're brought to the front, as an essential ride element, I feel cheated. Sure, Star Tours is fun, but then I could sit in a recliner and watch Star Wars while my kids shake the seat and it would be about the same. Midway Mania? We have a Wii.

April 19, 2020 at 2:05 PM

3D I think is one of those things we think we want, but every time we get it we quickly work that we don't.

April 19, 2020 at 3:46 PM

I think it depends on the attraction type. For a static simulator (like Star Tours) or something where all the action occurs on a screen (like Transformers), I think 3D benefits the attraction. For rides that use a mix of screens and practical sets (like Forbidden Journey) or that mainly project filmed footage vs. CGI (like Soarin'), 2D is the way to go. For interactive attractions, it depends whether you're interacting primarily with virtual elements where 3D is better (like Toy Story Midway Mania) or physical elements where 2D is better (like Smuggler's Run). Overall, I can't say one is better than the other as it depends so much on application.

That said, I do prefer not having to wear the glasses, and any ride that is primarily physical sets will beat any screen-based ride of comparable quality for me.

April 20, 2020 at 7:33 AM

I am waiting for glass free 3D!

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