Virtual reality is revolutionising the roller coaster experience

By Wesley Yiin

Six Flags has several virtual reality coasters opening in parks across the US this year.
Six Flags has several virtual reality coasters opening in parks across the US this year.

Before the new Superman: Ride of Steel Virtual Reality Roller Coaster takes off, riders strap on their headsets, and the cityscape of Metropolis materializes before them. If they look down, they see their bodies have been virtually re-outfitted with T-shirts that have the Batman or, at the click of a button, Wonder Woman logos on them.

The immersion is complete.

On most roller coasters, you see the drops coming. On Ride of Steel, which officially opens at Six Flags America in suburban Washington on Saturday, it's a bit more complicated. On your screen, you're on a sky tour of Metropolis when Lex Luthor shoots you and the rest of the city with an anti-gravity gun - while you make your first ascent up the track in real life. Suddenly, Superman appears and destroys the gun.

And then you drop. You're centimeters away from the "ground" before Superman catches you, and for the remainder of the two-minute ride, Superman and Luthor duke it out while bouncing you all over the skies and raining debris on poor Metropolis.

These days, many amusement park rides incorporate screens, often in motion simulators that put you in front of one and shake your seats. But VR coasters, which are cropping up around the globe this year, take the actual old-school summer tradition and add on a headset with cutting-edge technology.

It may sound like an odd mash-up - but they could change the way we ride coasters altogether.

Ride of Steel, which has existed since the Upper Marlboro, Maryland, park's rebranding under the Six Flags banner in 2000, was due for an overhaul. Originally, just the train cars were to be redone, according to Sam Rhodes, director of design at Six Flags Entertainment. But in November, the Six Flags senior leadership team experienced VR technology at a trade show in Orlando, Florida. There, the obviously named company VR Coaster - which had installed the world's first VR coaster, Alpenexpress Coastality, in Germany two months earlier - set up a demo station on a small, family-oriented coaster.

"We were on a 40-foot-tall lift hill that felt like it was 400-foot," Rhodes said.

The opportunity to be pioneers in the development of larger VR coasters seemed too big to pass up.

Since then, in March, Six Flags Over Texas opened North America's first VR coaster, the New Revolution, in which the rider seems to be flying a jet fighter, defending the planet from aliens. Several other Six Flags locations now have versions of the same ride, and reviews have been overwhelmingly positive.

Watch: Take a ride on Six Flags' VR ride:

The reviewer for the website Coaster 101 wrote, "I now fully expect VR headsets to start popping up on more and more rides, especially older or gentler ones needing a refresh," while Theme Park Insider said, "If you've been wondering when the theme park industry would develop a fresh, new type of ride - it's here."

Starting on Wednesday two select groups of Six Flags "superfans" - those who purchased a $15.99 limited-edition Superman T-shirt, and season-pass holders - were able to experience the Six Flags America coaster before its official opening. Guests lined up to take photos with Superman before they were ushered into the waiting area, where park employees helped them put on their virtual-reality headsets.

In line at 1 p.m. Wednesday was Al Clowe, 35, a season-pass holder and member of American Coaster Enthusiasts (ACE), the world's largest ride-enthusiast organization. He comes from Alexandria, Virginia, to Six Flags America at least 15 times per year.

"I know the layout [like] the back of my hand," Clowe said of the coaster. "But when you integrate it with virtual reality, it's completely different."

I now fully expect VR headsets to start popping up on more and more rides, especially older or gentler ones needing a refresh.

"And Superman saved us!" said Diamond Taylor, 23, just a couple minutes after disembarking. "I thought he was going to let us down . . . but he didn't. He got it together."

Her sister, Stacy Crowner, 26, who rode next to Taylor, spoke enthusiastically about the ride's new technology. "We've been coming here since we were little, and all the rides are the same," she said. "So now that they've improved and put something different, it's exciting, because we're going to go again."

Repeat riders were many through Wednesday afternoon, as the line never got to be too long. Each time the coaster train halted at the boarding station, whoops, cheers and applause erupted from the superfans.

If you've been wondering when the theme park industry would develop a fresh, new type of ride - it's here.

Among them was Sam Marks, 58, Clowe's husband and also an ACE member. Marks has been a loyalist to Six Flags America since 1986, when it was still known as Wild World. He and Clowe met at the park, and they married at the Wild One, a 99-year-old wooden coaster.

"Before, you're kind of left to your imagination about what you're going to experience," Marks said of Ride of Steel. You might picture yourself as Christopher Reeve's Superman, flying low and fast over buildings. "But in this, you're actually flying over buildings."

The VR technology's greatest selling point is also its kryptonite: By immersing you in a new world, it removes the real-life visual experience of riding a coaster. On the new Ride of Steel, you'll hear your fellow riders howling and screaming, but you can't see them. You won't inhale as you reach the top of a hill, in anticipation of the plummet to come - instead, it catches you by surprise. At the apex, you won't see the rest of the park below you, a reminder of the thrills that you'll have throughout the day. Some imagination is lost.

But for Marks, the technology doesn't spoil the experience. "It's kind of like the icing on the cake," he said. Roller coaster purists will be able to decline the VR headsets and experience the ride in its original form. But, given the positive responses, it doesn't look like many riders will do so.

For those enthusiasts living far from the Washington area, fret not, as Superman-themed VR rides at Six Flags New England and Six Flags Fiesta Texas open this weekend as well. Assuming that they're just as successful, the Man of Steel might not get a break for a while.

- Washington Post

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