The 2017 Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) Summit, which was held at the Disneyland Hotel’s convention center in April, takes place every year as a way for the theme park design industry to get together and compare notes on trends in the (sometimes) secretive business.

“The TEA is like a Switzerland in the theme park business,” said Monty Lunde, president of Technifex, and founder of the association. “Technology is moving so fast, it provides a forum for us to learn and improve as an industry everywhere.”

Riders raise their hands while trying out their virtual reality ride on the Revolution roller coaster at Six Flags Magic Mountain (File photo by Nick Agro, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Riders raise their hands while trying out their virtual reality ride on the Revolution roller coaster at Six Flags Magic Mountain. (File photo by Nick Agro, Orange County Register/SCNG)

All that technology is adding multiple dimensions to many theme parks, such as adding virtual reality to existing rides like roller coasters as Six Flags Magic Mountain did to their Revolution roller coaster in 2016.

“It’s exciting because it’s not in a typical digital virtual reality venue,” said Michael Mack of Mack Rides.

Seeing virtual reality images while a roller coaster, means riders wear special goggles while riding, with the imagery and sound synched to the ride.

Riders wear virtual reality goggles while riding the Pegasus Coastiality coaster at the Europa theme park in Germany. The new version of the ride was developed by Mack Rides, based in Germany. (Photo courtesy: Mack Rides)
Riders wear virtual reality goggles on the Pegasus Coastiality coaster at the Europa theme park in Germany. The new version of the ride was developed by Mack Rides, which is based in Germany. (Photo courtesy of Mack Rides)

Mack Rides added virtual reality to its aging Pegasus Coastiality coaster in 2016 at Europa Park in Germany. It has added it to 28 other coasters at locations around the world. Mack says it is a way to add value and thrills to an older coaster without the expense of tearing it down and building a new one.

“The next stage is how to get the story and sound on the ride to interact with other riders beyond shooting at something in that world,” he said.

Virtual reality is floating into water parks in the form of “slideboarding.”

 
A water park fan readies to ride a "Slideboard" down a water slide at the Wet and Wild in Las Vegas. By riding the specialized board, the rider will also be able to score points by pressing color coded buttons to "fire" at the same colors inside the water slide; scoring points and competing against other riders. (Photo courtesy: Whitewater)
A water park fan readies to ride a slideboard down a water slide at the Wet and Wild in Las Vegas. By riding the specialized board, the rider will also be able to score points by pressing color coded buttons to “fire” at the same colors inside the water slide; scoring points and competing against other riders. (Photo courtesy of Whitewater)

“It’s like a video game come to life in a water slide,” said Denise Chapman Weston, its inventor.

It involves riders on a slideboard, which has a waterproof video game-type controller, going down a water slide. While sliding down the tube, riders press colored buttons when they see that color around them inside the tube, scoring points for accuracy. The more times they hit the right color at the right time, the higher the score.

Weston came up with the idea after her son said he was bored with water parks. She worked with a company called Whitewater to develop the system, which also allows riders to pick difficultly levels and compete against others.

A water park fan checks their "Slideboarding" score after riding down a water slide equipped with the game technology at the Wet and Wild in Las Vegas. By riding the specialized board, the rider scores points by pressing color coded buttons to "fire" at the same colors inside the water slide; scoring points and competing against other riders. (Photo courtesy: Whitewater)
A water park fan checks his slideboarding score after riding down a water slide equipped with the game technology at the Wet and Wild in Las Vegas. By riding the specialized board, the rider scores points by pressing color coded buttons to “fire” at the same colors inside the water slide; scoring points and competing against other riders. (Photo courtesy of Whitewater)

They can also see their score on a board at the parks, and online, and how they match up against others.

“It gives visitors a reason to come back to the parks again and again,” said Una de Boer, Whitewater’s director of marketing.

While many theme parks are using interactive technology to immerse visitors into other worlds, Puy de Fou, a theme park in France, is using technology to help immerse visitors in a living experience approach.

“We didn’t want rides, they just talk to the stomach, but not to the heart,” said Nicolas de Villiers, president of the park.

A knight on a horse charges a castle during a live show experience at Puy de Fou theme park in France. The theme park does many epic live shows in a counter-programming approach to theme park shows and adventures, yet still manages to immerse visitors in the "olden" times. (Photo courtesy: Puy de Fou)
A knight on a horse charges a castle during a live show experience at Puy de Fou theme park in France. The theme park does many epic live shows in a counter-programming approach to theme park shows and adventures, yet still manages to immerse visitors in the “olden” times. (Photo courtesy of Puy de Fou)

The park’s main offerings are large-scale live shows that use the history of France as their backdrop. The shows feature large-scale epic stories, complete with sword play, knights, horses and armies battling in gladiatorial combat in different settings. Near the large show arenas are villages where the “villagers” live and work at their craft.

Visitors enter one of the themed villages at Puy de Fou theme park in France. The villages are meant to immerse visitors into historic eras from the past of France. (Photo courtesy: Puy de Fou)
Visitors enter one of the themed villages at Puy de Fou theme park in France. The villages are meant to immerse visitors into historic eras from the past of France. (Photo courtesy of Puy de Fou)

Eras represented include the 18th, 8th, and 5th centuries. Those eras are also part of the architecture of the park’s hotel rooms, which immerses visitors into those time periods even as they sleep.

“We didn’t want to copy anyone else, and by doing this we have our own signature style,” de Villiers said.

The courthouse for the fictional town of Radiator Springs from the Disney-Pixar movie "Cars" has the Cadillac Mountain Range as a backdrop in the Cars Land area at Disney California Adventure. Visitors to the land will feel like they are walking through the fictional cartoon town in the land at the theme park. (File photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)
The courthouse for the fictional town of Radiator Springs from the Disney-Pixar movie “Cars” has the Cadillac Mountain Range as a backdrop in the Cars Land area at Disney California Adventure. Visitors will feel like they are walking through the fictional cartoon town. (File photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Meanwhile, Disney and Universal theme parks have taken immersion to a whole new level. Cars Land at Disney California Adventure makes people feel like they are walking around in the cartoon town of Radiator Springs from the movie “Cars.” While over at Universal’s Wizarding Worlds of Harry Potter, people travel to Hogsmeade village, right out of the “Harry Potter” books and movies.

Hogwarts Castle at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Universal's Islands of Adventure in Orlando houses the ride "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey) and opened there in 2010. At its base sits Hogsmeade, the village in the "Harry Potter" movies where visitors can purchase wands and cause magic to take place. (Photo by: Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Hogwarts Castle at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Universal’s Islands of Adventure in Orlando houses the ride “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey) and opened there in 2010. At its base sits Hogsmeade, the village in the “Harry Potter” movies where visitors can purchase wands and create magic. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Once in that village, visitors can interact with it by purchasing a wand they can then wave at various locations, causing something “magical” to take place.

A young "wizard" attempts to perform some magic with their wand by doing just the right move with the wand pointed at the window display in Hogsmeade, part of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal's Islands of Adventure. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)
A young “wizard” attempts to perform some magic with their wand by doing just the right move with the wand pointed at the window display in Hogsmeade, part of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

This proved to be so popular in Hogsmeade that when designers at Universal Creative developed the Harry Potter-based Diagon Alley land for its Universal Studios Florida theme park, they added even more interactivity.

Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Orlando is based on the Harry Potter books and movies. The land opened in 2016 and contains shops and restaurants based on both. The land is very immersive in that there are no outside visual references to take visitors away from the belief that they are in the alley, immersing them in the land. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Orlando is based on the Harry Potter books and movies. The land opened in 2016 and contains shops and restaurants based on both. The land is very immersive in that there are no outside visual references to take visitors away from the belief that they are in the alley. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

“Diagon Alley proved beyond a doubt that people will love to wander an ‘E-ticket’ space, as well as go on a ride,” said Adam Bezark of The Bezark Company.

Bezark has worked on many theme park rides that used technology to immerse riders into those unique worlds, including Jaws the ride and Terminator 2 3D at Universal. He also worked with Walt Disney Imagineering on the Shanghai Disneyland version of “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

Three skeleton pirates try to coax a key from a skeleton dog on the Shanghai Disneyland version of the "Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure" attraction. (File photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Three skeleton pirates try to coax a key from a skeleton dog on the Shanghai Disneyland version of the “Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure” attraction. (File photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Bezark says to look for that level of interactive immersion, along with both virtual reality and maybe even artificial reality in its “Star Wars” land currently under construction at Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

“It’s going to be the standard in a lot of places,” Bezark said.

Concept art from Walt Disney Imagineering shows one of the looks for "Star Wars" land at Disneyland. The new land is meant to be both immersive and interactive, utilizing new technology so that visitors to the land will be part of a continuously evolving story of their own while there. (Photo courtesy: The Disneyland Resort)
Concept art from Walt Disney Imagineering shows one of the looks for “Star Wars” land at Disneyland. The new land is meant to be both immersive and interactive, utilizing new technology so that visitors to the land will be part of a continuously evolving story of their own while there. (Photo courtesy of The Disneyland Resort)

But while new technology improves the experience for the large theme parks, it also gets cheaper for smaller venues, such as family entertainment centers that currently feature miniature golf courses and go-kart tracks.

“There is a huge shift to buying experiences rather than things,” said Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari and Chuck E. Cheese.

Nolan Bushnell founded the Chuck E. Cheese's pizza chain as a place where kids and their parents could enjoy a pizza together, while kids played games and also a show. (Photo courtesy: Chuck E. Cheese's)
Nolan Bushnell founded the Chuck E. Cheese’s pizza chain as a place where kids and their parents could enjoy a pizza together, while kids played games and also a show. (Photo courtesy of Chuck E. Cheese’s)

Bushnell expects those experiences to get more immersive and interactive as the costs go down.

“People might go to dinner, but they want to have fun while eating,” he said.

Springfield is the home of The Simpsons, and is based on "The Simpsons" television show at Universal Studios Florida. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Springfield is the home of “The Simpsons” television show and it’s a part of Universal Studios Florida. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Fun while eating in an immersive environment is what Universal did by adding the village of Springfield from “The Simpsons” television show. Within the village are places like “Moe’s Tavern” and “Lard Lad Donuts,” which are seen in the show.

If the phone rings, it will probably be one of the Simpsons' kids on the other end asking you to page someone with a funny name in Moe's Tavern in Springfield at Universal Studios Florida. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)
If the phone rings, it will probably be one of the Simpsons’ kids on the other end asking you to page someone with a funny name in Moe’s Tavern in Springfield at Universal Studios Florida. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

“You can hang out in Duff Garden and you are in Springfield,” said Greg Lombardo with Fox Studios.

Duff Brewery is a great place to grab some suds, a beer, in Springfield at Universal Studios Florida. While sitting inside the brewery, many visitors will feel like they're in the town of Springfield in the television show "The Simpsons." (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Duff Brewery is a great place to grab some suds, a beer, in Springfield at Universal Studios Florida. While sitting inside the brewery, many visitors will feel like they’re in the town of Springfield in the television show “The Simpsons.” (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

While designing the village, Lombardo said the team spent a lot of time on the food. That meant creating the large donut with pink icing available for purchase at Lard Lad Donuts.

Chief Wiggins of the Springfield Police Department has in his hands one of his favorite foods, the large pink donut from Lard Lad Donuts in the town of Springfield is based on "The Simpsons" cartoon series and is at the Universal Studios Florida theme park. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Chief Wiggins of the Springfield Police Department has in his hands one of his favorite foods, the large pink donut from Lard Lad Donuts, as seen on “The Simpsons” cartoon series. The doughnut shop is in the Universal Studios Florida theme park. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG)

“We came up with the idea of putting it in a box, and people are buying them and taking them home with them,” he said. “Then they take it to the office, or school and share their experience with others.”

And being able to create that shared experience, along with the technology that makes a lot of it possible, has helped the theme park business, particularly its designers, grow into a much larger industry then when it was just Disney and Universal.

“We’re now designing things not just for theme parks, but museums, retail centers and even military and fire training facilities,” said TEA founder Lunde. “It drives revenue for us the designers, and for the business, drives attendance.”

Which could be coming to a galaxy not so far away — a theme park near you.

The Millennium Falcon will be a part of "Star Wars" Land at Disneyland and Disney Hollywood Studios. Thanks to new technology, Disney plans to have stories change and evolve for individual visitors to the 14-acre land, making them believe they have been transported to a never-before-seen planet, where there is a remote trading port and one of the last stops before wild space, making Star Wars characters and their stories come to life. (Photo courtesy, The Disneyland Resort)
The Millennium Falcon will be a part of “Star Wars” Land at Disneyland and Disney Hollywood Studios. Thanks to new technology, Disney plans to have stories change and evolve for individual visitors to the 14-acre land, making them believe they have been transported to a never-before-seen planet, where there is a remote trading port and one of the last stops before wild space, making Star Wars characters and their stories come to life. (Photo courtesy, The Disneyland Resort)