The trials and triumphs of VR at theme parks

The global market for virtual and augmented reality technology is on track to hit $20.4 billion this year, according to Statista, and theme parks have taken notice. As virtual reality technology has grown in popularity and improved in quality, parks have sought ways to incorporate the technology to broaden the guest experience.

Many parks have retrofitted rides using the technology, with varying degrees of success. Difficulties, including complaints of repetitive storytelling and increased maintenance costs and wait times, have led some early adopters to discontinue its use. No Six Flags theme parks will feature a VR-enhanced ride this year, though most had at least one such ride previously.

Fun Spot America in Orlando added the technology to its Freedom Flyer roller coaster in 2016 but removed it last year. Chief Operating Officer John Arie Jr. recently told the Orlando Sentinel that the ride’s wait times nearly doubled under the challenges of putting on and adjusting headsets and cleaning them afterward.

Some parks, however, have found success with the technology. For example, Busch Gardens Williamsburg in Virginia designed a ride with VR in mind from the start. Building Battle for Eire from the ground up allowed for something different.

“We created an entirely new class of attraction, something that is unique at any theme park in the United States,” said Larry Giles, senior director of parks and attractions for SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. “It’s not just a virtual reality action ride. It’s combining 3D stereoscopic 360-degree images with a motion base.”

Launched in 2018, the ride features two motion simulator platforms that seat 59 guests each. The identical platforms allow for smooth transitions, according to Giles, who led the project as Busch Gardens Williamsburg's vice president of engineering.

“We also separated the virtual reality device from the headset the guest wears,” Giles said. “The headset is selected and fitted during the pre-show, used during the ride, then dropped in a bin to be cleaned. The actual virtual reality device lives with the simulator on the ride.”

Legoland Florida in Winter Haven successfully implemented VR on one of its rides last year and upgraded it this year. It has taken a different tack -- instead of platforms that seat dozens, the ride vehicles for The Great LEGO Race seat four so “[t]here is minimal impact on the roller coaster’s throughput,” said Brittany Williams, the park’s senior public relations manager.

Williams noted the upgrade is a new headset that improves reliability and simplifies adjustments “for a comfortable and individualized fit.”

Neither park has found it difficult to inspire guests to ride again and again.

“Riders are completely immersed within the story and able to see, hear and feel actions happening all around them, both through the virtual reality headsets and within the motions of the simulator,” Giles said, noting that new details emerge with each ride a guest takes on Battle for Eire.

Williams said the same was true of The Great LEGO Race.

“Action comes at the rider from every direction in this 360-degree environment, inspiring them to re-ride and catch what they missed the first time,” she said.

Though some parks have struggled to find the right recipe for VR, Falcon’s Creative Group Vice President David Schaefer said in an interview with Theme Park Insider that storytelling is key.

“What it really comes down to is having a greater connection to the experience," said Schaefer, who worked on the development of Battle for Eire. “We will find that VR will be successful when it's the right solution for the attraction, rather than being forced upon a guest."

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