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