Long before the term was even coined, amusement parks and theme parks were offering virtual reality experiences. They had nothing to do with VR headsets or computer-generated imagery of course, but “scenic railways,” slow-moving roller coasters that crudely simulated excursions to faraway places by incorporating painted murals along the route, were popular at parks more than 100 years ago. They were followed by “dark rides,” which moved passengers in vehicles through indoor show buildings that displayed scenes (often meant to startle and scare riders).
When Walt Disney launched the modern theme park era in 1955 at Disneyland, he used filmmaking techniques and other innovations to help tell stories in his dark rides such as Peter Pan’s Flight. Through the years, the Disney parks and others have introduced animatronics, projected imagery, ride vehicles on robotic arms, and other trickery to transport guests to alternate realities. Actual virtual reality technology has been around for a while, but parks have only embraced it over the last few years.
The results have been mixed. VR has mostly been used as an overlay on existing rides. Due to limitations in factors such as image quality, gear portability, and glitchy performance, it remains largely a novelty at parks. Attraction designers recognize the enormous potential that the concept holds, however, and are working to overcome its failings.
Among the first rides to feature VR were roller coasters at SeaWorld Orlando, Cedar Point in Ohio, a number of Six Flags locations, and other parks. The amount of time and extra staff it takes to get passengers into and out of the headsets cuts deeply into ride capacity, makes lines much longer, and costs extra to operate. The visuals sometimes do not sync properly with the ride, making passengers queasy. For these and other reasons, only a few VR coaster experiences remain.
Parks have added VR to other existing attractions, including drop towers and spinning rides. But the issues that make the technology problematic on coasters often remain. In addition to capacity and balky performance, these include low-resolution imagery and cartoony content that can look more like a cut-rate video game than a real-life environment as well as clunky headsets that can take riders out of the story by calling attention to themselves. Also, regardless of the type of ride, VR turns what should be a shared, social experience into an isolated, solo one.
For its entry into the VR arena, Busch Gardens Williamsburg in Virginia tried something different by transforming its motion simulator theater into “Battle for Eire” this spring. It attempted to address one major VR ride issue, the amount of time it takes to cycle guests in and out of the attraction, by developing intriguing two-part headsets. Before they get in the theater, riders put on and adjust masks that have already been cleaned. When they sit in the theater’s seats, guests pop on VR goggles, which quickly and easily attach to the masks using magnets. Since they don’t touch riders’ faces, the goggles don’t pose a sanitary issue.
The story, which centers on Irish pixies, appears to be compelling. But a motion simulator ride, which places passengers on a motion base and moves them in concert with projected action on screens, is already a visual and immersive experience — arguably a virtual reality-like experience. The VR headsets give passengers a 360-degree perspective, but take away the social aspect of sharing the ride with friends and family.
The challenge with many VR rides, according to David Schaefer, VP at attraction designer Falcon‘s Creative Group, is that they were not developed with the technology’s operational requirements from the get-go. Falcon’s helped create Busch Gardens’ Battle for Eire. “VR has percolated enough that we’re starting to see attractions that are purpose-built,” he says, adding that his company is working on projects that will better showcase the promise of the technology. “VR as a bespoke, custom new attraction: That’s where we will start to see advances. By building it from the ground up, we will unshackle designers,” Schaefer contends.
Some bespoke attractions have already surfaced in parks. Instead of marrying VR to a ride, there are walk-through, free-roaming VR experiences such as VR Showdown In Ghost Town at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, California. The extra-fee attraction arms participants with blasters to shoot at robotic villains and score points in a retro-futuristic Western village. It’s like being immersed inside a video game.
Perhaps the state-of-the-art in theme park VR attractions is “Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire,” a separate-admission experience offered by The Void at the Disney resorts in both California and Florida. By using dimensional set pieces that participants can touch, making it possible for participants to talk and engage with one another, adding multisensory enhancements, and rendering visuals that really pop, “Secrets of the Empire” sets itself apart in the VR realm and would seem to point the way forward. (Being able to play in the "Star Wars" universe doesn't hurt.)
Cliff Plumer, CEO of The Void, has thoughts about the way forward for VR experiences. “We want to make a smaller form factor for what guests wear,” referring to the heavy backpacks that contain the electronics which power the oversized headsets. He also wants to “increase the fidelity of the experience and create new sensory effects. We want to give you more control of your avatar.”
Over time, it’s likely that the resolution, frame rate, and other variables controlling VR’s visual imagery will radically improve, maybe to the point that the virtual and real worlds will be nearly indistinguishable. Perhaps designers will figure out ways to merge a free-roaming VR experience with a VR-enhanced ride vehicle. Whatever the future may hold, park fans should be in for quite a ride.