Virtual Reality

VR Coasters: Theme Parks Set to Upgrade Your Experience Using VR

Theme parks have come a long way to provide thrill-seekers with the next big thing. Learn how VR is trending in theme parks around the world in support of next-generation visitor experiences.

Regular Roller Coasters are So Last Year

VR coasters are becoming a special kind of ride in theme parks all over the world. When an aging roller coaster needs to be revamped, theme parks are taking to providing riders a headset, pre-loaded with a specially designed VR experience, mapped to the movements of the roller coaster itself.

However, VR coasters aren’t the only new technological innovation being used, and not the newest either. Theme parks have been embracing both virtual and augmented reality over the past few years in order to provide visitors an entirely new experience, as well as boost sales for the public companies that operate them. In fact, it’s substantially cheaper to create a virtual reality attraction, as these immersive experiences can be updated quickly, such as for holidays. But, VR coasters do happen to be a growing trend in the theme park industry, and we can only expect it to get better and better.

Theme parks have a very distinct challenge that they all share with one another. The struggle to change and create new experiences. The actual journey from concept to opening for any new ride costs an incredible amount of money. Oftentimes, when you return to your most beloved theme parks, you’ll usually find that there may be 1-2 new rides or experiences from the last time you were there, if any at all.

Six Flags | USA

Six Flags has been exploring VR for quite some time, and after pairing with a German-based company, VR Coaster, decided to create viable and compelling experiences using Samsung Galaxy smartphones via a Samsung Gear VR headset.

The Superman VR experience is a VR coaster offered at Six Flags America in Maryland and Six Flags Fiesta Texas, allowing riders to battle Lex Luthor.

VR coaster Six Flags
Six Flags

The New Revolution is also a VR coaster at Six Flags Magic Mountain in California, which dates all the way back to 1976, but was updated with modifications and a VR overlay. This experience will also be incorporated at Six Flags St. Louis in Missouri, La Ronde in Montreal, Canada, and at The Great Escape in New York. Every rider is offered the VR experience, or can still experience the ride without, at no additional cost.

Dare Devil Dive at Six Flags Over Georgia and Shockwave at Six Flags Over Texas offer their own sci-fi VR experiences.

SeaWorld | Orlando, Florida

After a few months of revamping, a 17-year old roller coaster at SeaWorld Orlando, reopened with a new technological spin. On The Kraken Unleashed, riders don a headset that takes them on an underwater journey while dodging sea creatures through canyons, narrowly escaping the clutches of a giant tentacled monster from which the ride is named after.

SeaWorld is a great example of a small park with a low budget that breathed life into an old ride, without high cost, and created a new VR coaster.

Cedar Point |  Sandusky, Ohio

Providing park-goers with both augmented and virtual reality experiences, Cedar Point enriches guests with in-park adventures including an AR game, “The Battle for Cedar Point.” This is a free app you can download from the Apple App Store or Google Play to select a “roller coaster alliance” and battle virtually with other guests, as well as interact and play games throughout the park.

Iron Dragon, is split where half the day is a regular family roller coaster, full of swinging, lifts, and drops. The other half of the day is a complete VR coaster that enhances riders’ experience in a whole new way.

Knott’s Berry Farm | Buena Park, California

The newest attraction VR Showdown in Ghost Town allows park-goers to wear virtual reality headsets and shoot robots trying to take over the town to score points and complete objectives. This experience combines VR and arcade-style shooting in an interactive 360º world.

Legoland | Winter Haven, Florida

Also jumping on the bandwagon, Legoland took one of their existing roller coasters and turned it into a VR coaster as you race through a virtual world made entirely of LEGO bricks. The Great LEGO Race opened in March of this year.

VR coasters Legoland
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Disney World | Orlando, Florida

Taking an existing ride or attraction, and blocking a park-goers experience to be replaced with an entirely virtual one is something Disney’s CEO, Bob Iger, was not supportive of.

This is for good reason as Disney spends an insurmountable amount of time, money, and effort on creating some very compelling, detailed experiences all on its own, and would not want to take away a visitor’s true experience from all that it takes to keep Disney’s attractions as successful as they are.So, as one of the world’s most popular theme park company, Disney is usually in an optimal position to do something different from its competitors, as well as take risks.

Pairing with VR company, The Void, Disney launched a VR experience independently;  an untethered, multi-sensory, fully immersive VR experience backed by its Star Wars brand, called Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire.

Though actual VR associated to any of the current attractions at Disney is not on their roadmap, AR is. Iger believes augmented reality is the key technology to be found at future Disney attractions, and is continuing to invest in this research.

International Theme Parks

America may be just starting to scratch the surface of reinventing dated attractions and implementing VR/AR into their theme parks, but other countries are joining the trend as well.

The British theme park, Alton Towers, offers a VR coaster called Galactica, that took one of the park’s most popular attractions, and gave it a virtual overhaul.

VR coasters Alton Towers - Galactica
Alton Towers – Galactica

In Denmark, right in the middle of Copenhagen, lies Tivoli, the second oldest operating theme park in the world. WIthin Tivoli Gardens, park-goers have the opportunity to ride one of their most popular roller coasters with an additional VR experience known as The Demon.

VR coasters VR parks Tivoli

Let’s also not forget the multi-billion dollar virtual reality theme park being built in China, named “The Oriental Science Fiction Valley.” The park will be around 330 acres located in the province of Guizhou, with the trademark 175 foot Transformers-esque statue built with 750 tons of steel. Some of the many attractions it will provide include VR coasters, shooting games, tours, restaurants, theaters, and more.

In addition to this compelling feat of technology and architecture, are areas of the park dedicated to VR research and development and VR film production. It will open to the public in sections, with the first area housing the VR coaster having opened this past December.

Challenges of VR Upgraded Experiences in Theme Parks

Though there are some amazing advantages to turning to VR within some of the world’s most well known theme parks, it does present some challenges.

Matching what is seen with the sensation of the movement is of the utmost importance in order to keep headset wearers from experiencing nausea.

Another cause of VR-induced nausea is high latency from too much time between users moving their heads and their headset’s response to that movement. Even a slight discrepancy between the headset’s image and ride’s movements can create extreme nausea.

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One British company, Figment Productions, who also worked on The Kraken Unleashed ride, works to solve this issue by mapping the entire track using devices called “inertial measurement units,” or IMUs, before the visuals are actually made.

These devices detect changes in movement and are adept at sensing alterations in motion and path. Once this mapping process is completed, the visual creations can be done to match it, keeping everything in synchrony.

These changes are all efforts to stay competitive, and as more people and theme parks adopt VR, it will get to a point where theme parks will have to have this technology in order to remain competitive. For park-goers, this means new VR experiences are on the horizon, and will only get better as parks strive to offer the most new and exciting thing in technology.

Patricia Chang
the authorPatricia Chang
Patricia Chang is a South Florida-based freelance Digital Project Manager and XR Strategist. She is also a U.S. Navy veteran born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada, and has also resided in the states of California, Hawaii, and New York. With her B.S. in Computer Information Systems and Master’s in Project Management, Patricia has a decade of experience working with businesses at strategic and operational levels from technology start-ups to major corporations. When not doing project-based initiatives, you can find Patricia obsessing over anything VR/AR related, including attending a VR development academy, in hopes to fine tune her future digital consultancy business.