Theme parks have long offered immersive experiences. From Universal Studios ’Hollywood nostalgia to Epcot’s cosmopolitan adventures, theme parks offer a gateway to everyday life and into new worlds. But evolving technologies are forcing parks to make a leap.
Consumer technology, that is, video games and virtual reality applications, has become so sophisticated that people can have immersive entertainment experiences without ever leaving their homes. To meet growing expectations and remain relevant, theme parks invest millions in virtual and augmented reality technologies.
The future of theme parks is bound to include digital worlds. Virtual reality theme park experiences are already adding a new dimension to an industry that has been dependent on twentieth-century technology for a long time. And some virtual reality theme parks may not have any physical location.
The evolution of theme parks
VR is not exactly new to theme parks. In 1998, Disney launched DisneyQuest, which included two first virtual reality experiments: Aladdin’s Magic Carpet Ride and Ride the Comix. Unfortunately, both attractions caused motion sickness to guests.
Since the 2010s, virtual reality technology has been much more sophisticated and affordable. In 2015, Europa-Park in Germany became the first theme park in the world to incorporate a virtual reality experience into an existing roller coaster called Alpenexpress Enzian. The roller coaster offers riders the option to wear Samsung Gear VR wireless headphones, each of which shows one of four unique experiences.
Other parks soon followed suit. A 2018 study found that approximately 30% of European steel roller coasters had already made VR additions to one or more of the roller coasters in operation between 2015 and 2017.
“Our findings suggest that if this trend continues, it will soon become the norm to enjoy a new virtual reality rotation in an old roller coaster favorite,” the researchers wrote for an article in The Conversation.
Beyond making the attractions more fun, adding VR to existing attractions can also help parks explore specific topics in more depth, providing riders with an even greater sense of immersion. In 2017, for example, SeaWorld Orlando added a virtual reality experience to its Kraken roller coaster that took pilots underwater to see ancient sea creatures up close.
However, adapting existing attractions with RVs can cause problems. For example, Six Flags found that adding VR to the roller coaster of steel helped lengthen waiting times, technical difficulties, and motion sickness among riders.
Theme parks and standalone VR attractions may be a better bet. Because its design is not constrained by pre-existing infrastructure, autonomous RV attractions could focus more on elements such as history and social interaction.
China’s VR Star theme park is a $ 1.5 billion resort that includes more than 40 virtual reality attractions.
Some American theme parks already have independent VR attractions. Busch Gardens Williamsburg includes moving theater seats and 360-degree VR headsets at its fantastic attraction “Battle for Eire” and “Twilight: Midnight Ride” by Lionsgate Entertainment World in Zhuhai Hengqin, China, which takes guests to a exciting VR motorcycle ride.
But today’s most impressive amusement parks and virtual reality attractions may be outside the borders of the United States. In China is the VR Star theme park, a $ 1.5 billion venue that includes more than 40 virtual reality attractions and a museum dedicated to the history of virtual reality. Dubai has the largest VR amusement park in the world offering about 20 attractions, such as a hang glider simulator.
Building theme parks with VR
Michael Libby is a game designer who has loved the magic of theme parks since he first visited Disneyland when he was three years old. “Watching it happen right in front of your eyes, like a magic trick: it’s the feeling I’ve really been chasing all my life,” Libby told Freethink.
After working as a Jungle Cruise skipper at Disneyland, Libby developed a career in theme park design for companies such as Walt Disney Imagineering, Warner Bros. and Universal Studios. While her classmates did things the traditional way, Libby felt theme parks should use emerging technologies to create more immersive experiences.
He now runs Worldbuildr, a company that uses game engine software to prototype rides in the theme park, providing a VR preview of what it’s like to experience a journey before it’s built. “It’s not just the architecture, it’s the show: the real cinema, the entertainment that takes place on the premises,” Libby told Freethink.
Worldbuildr uses game engine software to prototype amusement park rides with VR.
Building a theme park requires a lot of collaboration between a diverse group of teams. This means that communication between experts in lighting, sound, landscaping, etc. it must be as rational as possible. Having a realistic preview of how these moving parts will come together allows all parties to troubleshoot before construction begins.
But the basic concept behind Worldbuildr raises an interesting question: if we can build theme park attractions in virtual space that are almost a mirror copy of their real-world counterparts, do we really need the physical attractions?
How virtual reality theme parks could transform the industry
In 2019, Disney opened its Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge attraction in California and Florida. The project is a set of attractions located in a large Star Wars-themed city, and the construction of each location cost about $ 1 billion. But you don’t have to travel to experience the attraction.
Disney’s virtual reality experience “Tales from the Galaxy’s Edge” allows people to enjoy the attraction of the virtual world. Sure, it’s not exactly the the same: as in the case, you won’t feel the attractions move when you “walk” them in VR. On the other hand, there are no tourists in the virtual version of the attraction, which means you can spend more time interacting with the characters than waiting in long lines.
“This is really the first instance of all this ever done, where you can get a deeper dive and a slightly different view of the same location by exploring your digital counterpart,” Libby said.
Virtual reality not only revives existing attractions by equipping layers of virtual stimuli, but also allows theme parks to create completely new attractions. And it’s not hard to imagine how virtual reality can open the door to a host of other apps.
For example, theme parks could use RA to infuse real-world spaces with fantastic imagery, stories, and play. They could also expand the park’s boundaries by creating new attractions that only exist in the virtual space.
Virtual reality theme parks are unlikely to completely replace traditional theme parks soon, but advances in VR, AR, and 5G connectivity will certainly help parks develop better ways to immerse people in new worlds.