Theme parks are constantly seeking new technologies to make experiences more immersive, more interactive — and more like video games.
“It started when kids were sitting in their basement playing with Wii and Xbox,” said Dennis Speigel, president of the International Theme Park Services consulting firm. “Parks realized they have to bring that into the parks and increase the experience a hundredfold, or people weren’t going to get out of the basement.”
Universal Orlando’s parent company recently filed a patent for a “video game ride” in which visitors could alter the attraction’s course. Ideas laid out in patents don’t always become reality, but they do provide a glimpse into what’s going on in the heads of attractions’ creative executives. Universal has had no comment on the patent.
Last year, Universal Parks & Resorts signed a deal that will allow its theme parks to build immersive attractions based on Nintendo video games. That helped fuel speculation that 475 acres in the tourism corridor, bought last year by Universal’s parent company, could be used for a video game theme park.
The Walt Disney Co. also has filed a patent that delves into the concept of visitors designing their own video games, which could then become part of a ride.
Theme parks already have combo rides and video games. For example, Universal has “Men in Black: Alien Attack,” in which guests blast creatures from outer space. Walt Disney World has two “Toy Story”-themed rides in which riders shoot at targets.
Such rides will evolve in the future, say people who work in the industry.
“I think we’re going to see more in terms of trends with interactive rides where it will work more like a video game,” said Craig Hanna, chief creative officer of Thinkwell Group, a California design company that works with theme parks.
He foresees a time when ride-based video games become more complicated as players’ scores increase. Thinkwell is working on a trackless ride that will direct riders to certain paths based on their scores. It’s for a theme park overseas, Hanna said; he was not at liberty to disclose which one.
Theme parks have worked hard to find ways to give visitors more control over their surroundings. When it opened its second Harry Potter land in 2014, Universal introduced interactive wands that trigger effects such as making water rain down from an overhead umbrella.
Walt Disney World has introduced games such as “Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom,” in which players use cards they collect to activate scenes on screens.
But video games can be particularly appealing to younger generations, said Jim Hill, an industry blogger.
“For my daughter, Pokemon Go — the day it arrived she was outside [playing],” he said. “This is a 22-year-old college student with all of her friends. Those are the characters they know and love from their childhoods.”
New developments in ride technology include games that guests can control with a simple karate chop. Next year, Legoland in Winter Haven will open a Ninjago-themed ride on which visitors will score points by shooting apart animated fireballs, lightning and ice using only hand motions.
Small children — Legoland’s key audience — can easily get the hang of it, Legoland Florida spokesman David Brady said.
“The learning curve is shallower. You don’t have a device you have to physically manipulate,” he said.
While Disney and Universal are considered leaders in the industry, some innovations have showed up outside their theme parks.
For instance, the Klondike Kavern Indoor Waterpark in Wisconsin last year debuted “slideboarding,” combining video game features with waterslides. Players riding on boards earn points by pressing colored buttons that correspond with lights in the waterslide. Using such technology in water parks is unusual, experts say.
Virtual reality has also become a bigger part of theme parks. Six Flags has begun giving virtual reality headsets to visitors riding some of its roller coasters, so they can find themselves in the middle of an alien invasion as the ride plunges, twists and turns.
All this new technology can pose new challenges. With virtual reality, for example, experts say they’ve had to grapple with issues such as cleaning equipment between uses and moving large numbers of people through attractions using the technology.
“There’s many different facets in the challenge of making this viable,” said Saham Ali, director of technology for Orlando-based themed-entertainment company Falcon’s Creative Group. “It comes down mainly to the experience. You can very quickly be detached from the experience if one very minute hiccup happens … It really has to be refined.”
Industry executives also expect more theme park tie-ins with smartphone-based games.
“I do think this marriage between the device in your pocket and what’s in the park is going to become a huge focus,” said Bob Allen, a former Walt Disney World vice president who now heads the Ideas branding and design firm.
But one thing is key, he said: Making sure the technology doesn’t eclipse the story.
“We’ve got to tell really compelling stories really well,” Allen said. “Whatever the technology part is, that needs to be its objective.”
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