The Ups (and Downs) of Virtual Reality Coasters

Six Flags virtual reality roller coaster
Six Flags. Used with permission.

Among the more popular experiences available on consumer virtual reality (VR) systems are roller coaster rides. By strapping on headsets, users can take simulated rides aboard thrill machines while remaining firmly tethered to their living room couches.

But what if passengers aboard actual roller coasters wore virtual reality goggles? That’s the idea behind VR coasters, a novelty that had its moment in the spotlight, but has mostly (although not wholly) been dismissed as a fad that never quite lived up to its promise.

Rather than simulating roller coaster rides on terra firma, VR coasters use the physical sensations and G-forces of real roller coasters and marry them to visual (and, in some cases, audio) content to create high-thrills, virtual journeys. At least, that’s the concept. The experience is often less than optimal.

Virtual reality coasters are somewhat similar to motion simulator attractions, such as Star Tours at the Disney parks and Despicable Me Minion Mayhem at the Universal Parks. They use motion bases that move in tandem with point-of-view media to create the illusion that guests are participating in high-speed action sequences. Instead of personal VR goggles, motion simulator attractions project the media onto large screens.

Parks and designers experimented with VR coasters, but the concept really took hold in 2016 when Six Flags began offering VR as an option at many of its parks. Among the rides that included VR were Superman the Ride at Six Flags New England in Massachusetts and New Revolution at Six Flags Magic Mountain in California. None of the Six Flags parks now have VR coasters. Another high-profile VR coaster was Kraken Unleashed at SeaWorld Orlando, which took riders aboard the floorless, looping coaster on an underwater journey to encounter the mythical Kraken creature. The park has since removed the VR option from the ride.

The Great Lego Race VR coaster Legoland
Merlin Entertainments

The Pros of Virtual Reality Coasters

If it’s done well (and that's a big if), virtual reality coasters can realistically transport passengers to alternate realities and turbocharge the experience with the kinetic sensations of a real thrill ride. They can combine the best of both worlds by delivering a kick-ass coaster ride with a convincing story-based experience.

Motion simulator rides can blast riders into space and mimic a freefall off of a skyscraper (like Universal’s Spider-Man ride). But the motion bases on simulator attractions never actually move more than a few inches in any direction and do so at relatively slow speeds. Coasters, on the other hand, can really climb the height of a skyscraper and then plunge as well as reach speeds that would warrant a ticket on most highways. And they can turn passengers in any number of directions, including upside down.

Part of the appeal of VR coasters is that they allow parks to take existing coasters, overlay them with a VR story, and market the rides as “new,” themed attractions. By changing out the storyline from season to season, the same ride could be the focus of multiple marketing campaigns.

The Cons of Virtual Reality Coasters

In practice, VR coasters have presented a number of challenges:

  • Perhaps the biggest drawback is that VR coasters can be an operational and logistical nightmare for parks, and therefore for their visitors. One of the critical metrics for an attraction is its throughput—that is, the number of people that can ride it each hour. The higher the capacity for an attraction, the more guests the park can accommodate overall, and the more money it can make. Also, short lines (and lines that move quickly) make visitors happier. The amount of time it takes to distribute VR headsets, get riders properly outfitted and synced with the system, collect the VR headsets after the ride, and clean them between rides cuts the throughput by approximately 50 percent. Put another way, VR on coasters makes lines and wait times twice as long. For most parks, that alone is pretty much a deal-breaker for the concept.
  • Compounding the problems caused by lower throughput, parks need to allocate a lot more employees–at least twice as many–to distribute the goggles, help riders adjust them, and everything else involved with operating a VR coaster.
  • Latency can wreak havoc with VR coasters. The term refers to the lag time between the action that passengers see in their VR headsets and the corresponding motion they experience aboard the coaster. If the visuals don't precisely match the coaster ride, passengers can experience discomfort, including nausea. We had a terrible experience aboard a VR coaster when the content didn’t sync with the ride at all. We saw the visuals that we were supposed to see when we were stopped in the station throughout the entire ride. The disconnect messed with our vestibular systems and caused severe nausea.
  • Other technical and practical problems can occur as well. For example, points of reference can shift during a ride; although riders may be facing forwards, their virtual perspective may drift a few degrees to the left or to the right, which can be disconcerting. Headsets can fail mid-ride, leaving passengers in the dark with blank screens. Between the high speeds and forces that coasters deliver and the problems inherent in using one-size-fits-all headsets for passengers, the equipment can come loose and even fall off of passengers during rides.
  • While VR technology has advanced, the imagery can often appear primitive, low-resolution, dark, blurry, or have any number of other qualities that render it less than convincing.
Eurosat Coastiality VR coaster at Europa Park
Europa-Park GmbH & Co Mack KG

Where to Ride Virtual Reality Coasters

While many parks tested the waters with VR coasters and subsequently removed the technology, a few remain. In the U.S., there are a couple to try:

Beyond the U.S., there are more VR coaster options. Among the choices are:

Parks and ride designers have incorporated virtual reality on other rides with varying degrees of success. These include drop tower rides, spinning rides, and motion simulator attractions. VR has met with more critical success and guest satisfaction when it is used in custom-made, free-roaming VR experiences such as ones offered by The Void.

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