Home » 4 AMAZING Innovations Coming to Theme Parks This Year

4 AMAZING Innovations Coming to Theme Parks This Year

Samsung Gear VR

Technology is a moving target. Consumers are fickle. These two facts of life comprise a frustrating duality for theme park planners and designers. The attractions they build must stand the test of time or at least sustain popularity long enough to justify the massive price tag of the project. It’s a pressure-packed endeavor that provides ultimate fulfillment when a ride brings smiles to the faces of children of all ages.

Still, the professorial laws of collegiate life apply to theme park builders as well. Crafting a popular ride is the equivalent of publish or perish. Consumers are always on the lookout for what’s new and different, and they vote with their wallets. Parks that rest on their laurels get left behind when the competition adds new attractions in the interim.

Thankfully, even the most cynical of theme park tourists appreciate that they’re living in the golden age, with near-constant advances occurring. Each new generation of technology and ideas brings with it novel rides, and these in turn foster excitement for amusement enthusiasts. 2016 is no different in this regard. In fact, it’s poised to become one of the best years in recent memory. Here are the theme park innovations that will lure you into a park visit this year.

1. Virtual Reality

Samsung Gear VR

Image: Samsung

If you read tech gadget sites, you’re likely aware that analysts project the next 12 months as the most historic technological period since the internet reached critical mass. That’s due to the impending release of three different virtual reality systems, the most famous of which is called Oculus Rift. The PlayStation 4 will also offer an accessory called the PlayStation VR that does the same general thing, as will a Samsung Gear VR attachment for your smartphone.

The thing they all do is create an entire digital display that seems and feels real to users, and all the manufacturer must provide is the headset that delivers the effects. Once placed around your eyes, you’ll feel as if you’re in an entirely different environment. While I believe that virtual reality ubiquity is still a few hardware generations away, theme park designers see it as another opportunity to deliver a groundbreaking experience to park guests.

Of course, Virtual Reality is already on display at most parks, and that’s been true since Disneyland debuted in 1955, when Snow White’s Scary Adventure famously terrified people due its believability. Today, many of the most popular attractions such as Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey employ a bit of virtual reality in their design to heighten the sensations for riders. That’s not really a Dementor sucking out your soul, but it feels like you’re in trouble anyway. Similarly, you may enjoy the sensations of flying during Soarin’, but that’s only because heavy machinery is elevating you in symmetrical motion with an IMAX screen.

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey

Image: Wiki Commons

So, virtual reality in and of itself won’t add a sensation of newness this year. What it will do, however, is infiltrate theme parks in clever ways. Dynamic Attractions, the people who built Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, won multiple awards a few months ago at the International Association of Amusement Parks convention for a few of their innovations. They demonstrated an SFX roller coaster that is an immersive dark ride capable of delivering varying ride experiences over time.

The coaster cart itself moves on a mechanical arm similar to Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. The other parts of the ride, the thrill elements, are computer-generated, which means that they could one day become virtually dynamic. That’s a programmer’s way of saying that the SFX roller coaster would deliver a distinctly different ride each time you get onboard.

Not coincidentally, Dynamic Attractions is also working on a new project that they’ve named Unlimited Attractions™. The concept is similar to Soarin’ in that guests enter a room, and everyone participates in a group experience. The difference with Unlimited Attractions™ is that the offerings are multiple. Each time you enter the room, you’re in store for something new. That’s the inimitable innovation promised by virtual reality. From the comfort of a single space, you can explore seemingly infinite versions of roller coaster rides.

2. Audience interactivity

When Disney introduced the MyMagic+ system, they hinted that more technology was soon to follow. While two years isn’t exactly soon in my book, the company recently made headlines when they added a new trick to one of their oldest attractions, It’s a Small World. The ride’s automated system now recognizes and identifies you. As you prepare to leave, it tells you good-bye…by name and in the appropriate language. That’s a trick MyMagic+ has had up its sleeve for several years that got pushed back as Disney Imagineers and other private vendors prioritized the line queue system.  This new addition is just a tiny hint of things to come.

As technology empowers park planners to add more interactive functionality, personalization will become a larger aspect of spending a day at a theme park. One of the most storied aspects of MyMagic+ that has yet to come to pass is that Disney always knows where you are. While the Big Brother aspects of this are a bit unsettling, the tourist benefits are obvious. Your favorite Disney character can come up and greet you, personally wishing you a happy birthday or congratulating you on your graduation or marriage. All the data you’ve fed into the system is available to Disney as they try to deliver an even better theme park experience.

That’s not the only way audience interactivity is changing, either. This one ties back to the virtual reality discussion above. Historically, attractions such as Toy Story Midway Mania! and Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin have offered theme park tourists a way to compete against their friends and hundreds of their closest strangers during a ride. The methodology was to provide a form of videogame controller that the rider would operate to “shoot” plates, aliens, and the like.

An even more interactive version of this premise is in the offing. A Nintendo Wii-ish type of technology will soon become available in theme parks. Kids and their parents will no longer need to push a button or pull a trigger to enjoy a carnival game. Instead, they can interact using their own hands on the upcoming Ninjago ride at several Legoland parks across the world.

As you can see in this video, giant sensors will register the rider’s movements the same way that your Wii always knew when you were swinging your imaginary tennis racket. This new advance in bodily interactivity will offer parents one of the quickest ways ever to tire out their children at a theme park. Simply challenge them to break the high score and watch them kick and punch their way into naptime.

3. Elevator lift system

Cobra's Curse artwork

Image: SeaWorld

Finding novel ways to eke out a few more miles per hour and a bit more g-force during the journey is the holy grail of roller coaster design. In recent years, a popular idea is to latch together unconnected parts of track in order to overcome difficult physics and land-based hurdles. When a design firm cannot build the coaster lift system they want, they have identified ways to split the lift system and track then implement each one separately. During the ride, the lift system slots into place with the previously unconnected track.

Mack Rides, a German coaster design company, has enjoyed a great deal of success with this strategy. Their water park roller coaster, Journey to Atlantis, is so well-liked that it’s duplicated at three different SeaWorld parks. During the journey on this boat, an elevator lift system raises the entire vehicle several stories to a new part of roller coaster track. It’s one of the high points of the ride, even if its subtlety is lost on many people still savoring the attraction’s prior thrills.

In 2016, Mack Rides will translate this premise to a steel roller coaster, Cobra’s Curse at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. The attraction will include a 70-foot elevator lift that takes the rider within inches of the fangs of the titular cobra. Then, the mechanical system will place the entire coaster cart on the tracks, giving the rider a quick burst of downward velocity almost immediately afterward. In the process, it’ll remove the ordinary type of coaster anticipation. Guests won’t wait impatiently as the cart slows crawls uphill. Instead, the elevator lift will directly take them to the correct spot, adding a new type of anticipation as a by-product of the novel lift design.

Oh, and the rider will control how their cart spins, which isn’t all that surprising given that Mack Rides has designed a Disneyland attraction. It’s called Goofy’s Ski School. There’s a non-Mack version of the same premise at Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom called Primeval Whirl. Both of them are functional vomit comets, so a true roller coaster version with elevator lift-enhanced speed should prove…memorable. Cobra’s Curse embodies the clever, innovative uses of space that park planners must consider in building new attractions.

4. The new and improved rainbow

Rivers of Light artwork

Image: Disney

Don’t laugh at this one. It’s true. LED digital light technology has rapidly advanced during the HDTV era. Park planners now have more colors available to them than ever before, and they’re expanding at an exponential rate. The impressive Christmas lights you’ve seen on display at Disney theme parks deliver a much deeper, more dramatic hue, and the company was almost ready to emphasize this point.

Rivers of Light, the impending new nighttime exhibition at Animal Kingdom, is basically a celebration of the dramatic breakthroughs in LED display since the debut of Disney’s last permanent show, Paint the Night, which is amazing since that show is only two years old. UHD wasn’t an affordable technology then, but it’s already become viable in the interim.

Disney execs are championing Rivers of Light as if it’s going to match or surpass the opening ceremony of The Olympics a few months later, which speaks volumes about how confident they are in their latest innovation. Nobody lights up the night like Disney, and they’re poised to prove it yet again with their first entirely new Walt Disney World nightly show in over 15 years.

Every year, new technologies emerge that change the way theme park tourists view their next visit. Over the next 12 months, new forms of interactivity will welcome your arrival and lament your departure. They’ll also provide you with exponentially more ride opportunities from a single space. They’ll help you feel like you’re more involved in playing games against the other people nearby. They’ll squeeze out a few more twists and turns than ever thanks to brilliant new coaster designs. And they’ll accomplish all of this while dazzling your eyes with lustrous new color displays.

Whether you’re most interested in Cobra’s Curse, Rivers of Lights, Ninjago the Ride, or the virtual reality of Unlimited Attractions™, the next few months will redefine what you expect as a theme park tourist. Which of these ideas is your favorite/least favorite? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.