‘Each guest experience will be different’: VR and the future of theme parks
Expo in east London shows how important augmented and virtual reality will be, as attractions move with the times
In the fight for theme park visitors the battle lines have been drawn – monster trucks, virtual reality zombie warfare and “smellscaping”, just thankfully not all at the same time.
And while there was a sombre atmosphere around parts of London as tens of thousands lined up to pay their respects to the Queen, there were 10,000 more gathered in a convention centre in East London experiencing the future of the theme park.
The convention centre’s hall was dominated by a monster truck on hydraulics rocking riders and a nine-foot-tall alien 3D-printed in a matter of hours.
Alongside that were several full-size bowling lanes and more soft play areas than you could fill with a whole primary school’s worth of birthday parties. Pinball manufacturers Stern did, however, delay the launch of its James Bond pinball machines as a mark of respect for the Queen.
Anyone taking a walk down the cavernous hall couldn’t help but notice the vast quantity of virtual reality headsets. Through VR, riders on the monster truck experienced being thrown about as though they were being driven around a real arena, while rollercoaster manufacturer Mack Rides could demonstrate some of its own rides without needing to ship attendees out to the company’s own Europa Park in Germany.
The technology also helps provide interactivity, something that Mark Beumers, chief executive of Dutch “dark rides” vendor Lagotronics Projects, thinks is going to become increasingly crucial to the experience.
“Visitors expect more and more, since they grew up with technology, nowadays, and they want to experience technology in a theme park in a different and better way than they can do it at home. And since they already have a lot of technology at home that they experience in a good way, a theme park needs to be the extra step.”
But, Beumers says, virtual reality has its limits. Simply getting headsets on and off riders can add unacceptable delays to loading up rides, and the technology limits one of the best aspects of going to a theme park: sharing the experience with the friends and family you visit with.
And while the technology was just starting to be installed in parks towards the beginning of 2018, the impact of Covid in the last couple of years has given operators a chance to consider, and shift their approach.
“In 2019, people were thinking, this is the new thing, this is going to take off,” says Emily Popovich, of theme park design agency Outdoor Factory. “But then Covid hit, and everyone sort of forgot about that.
“And then, after Covid, everyone is calm and developing new awesome things, there’s so many geniuses in this industry. So we come out of Covid and everything is better than it was in 2019 and nobody cares about that any more.”
In its place, says Maximilian Roeser, Mack Rides’ head of marketing, is a new push for augmented reality that lets riders experience all the benefits of VR without being stuck in a bubble that shuts them off from the real world.
In the company’s latest creations, riders even put the headsets on long before they get on the rollercoaster itself, with the queue, boarding and alighting experience all having virtual additions.
But Roeser says the biggest changes are likely to be those behind the scenes that such technology enables. “Theme parks will develop in a way that you’ll have more and more interactivity.
“More and more customisation to your customers as well: all the parks will know who is coming in, their name, their age, probably what they like and what they dislike, and therefore they can transform the park for each guest. And each guest experience will be different and probably fitted directly to that guest.
“We already worked with that, because we have some alpha options for our coaster ride so that you can choose your own experience: one person that is sitting on the lefthand side could see another movie than the person on the righthand side.”
The classic experiences aren’t going anywhere, though. For many, like Julie Rice-Witherell of conference organiser IAAPA, the global association for the attractions industry, there’s still nothing that matches the thrill of riding a new rollercoaster for the first time.
“Every time they build a new one anywhere near me, it’s like – it’s just something different. I wouldn’t say it’s better, but it is faster, or it has more turns or you know, hits higher G forces, whatever. It’s always something new that you’ve never experienced.”