Virtual reality on theme park rides: 2016-2019

[Theme Park Insider reports on the fading enthusiasm in the industry for adding VR to rides; it doesn’t use the term presence, but several statements refer to it – e.g., “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 of an attraction, then that’s a win for the attraction’s designers.” See the original story for a 2:29 minute video and several thoughtful reader comments, including one that mentions a related Orlando Sentinel story that emphasizes VR theme park successes and notes that the use of AR in parks is expected to increase. –Matthew]

[Image: Kraken riders tried out virtual-reality headsets for several months at SeaWorld Orlando. Credit: SeaWorld Orlando. Source:  Orlando Sentinel]

Virtual reality on theme park rides: 2016-2019

By Robert Niles
May 15, 2019

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.

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