Virtual reality isn’t only for gamers, tech geeks and early adopters. Increasingly some of the nation’s biggest theme park operators are embracing virtual reality and augmented reality to give parkgoers an entirely new experience and hopefully boost sales for the public companies that operate them.
Take Six Flags Entertainment Corp. (SIX) fo,r starters. Earlier this week, it announced it's partnering with Samsung Electronics America to debut what it claims is North America’s first virtual reality roller coasters using Samsung Gear VR powered by Oculus, the VR company owned by Facebook. Six Flags said some of its most popular roller coasters will be equipped with Samsung Gear VR headsets to synchronize all of the roller coaster action with a 360-degree virtual reality world. “This remarkable technology is a definite game changer for theme park rides and represents everything our brand stands for—delivering the most thrilling and innovative rides and attractions in the world,” said John Duffey, Six Flags president and CEO in a press release announcing the new technology. “With the addition of these virtual reality coasters, Six Flags will be introducing more than double the number of new coasters and rides than we did in 2015, and more than any year in the last decade.” (See also: World's Most Expensive Theme Parks.)
VR Headsets Keep Visitors Coming Back
Meanwhile, embattled SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. (SEAS) announced last fall that it is equipping its Kraken roller coaster with VR headsets to give riders a whole new way to experience the roller coaster this summer. But SeaWorld isn’t stopping there when it comes to VR. On an earnings conference call earlier this month, it said it could incorporate VR into its live animal exhibits. “We also have a version of virtual reality for our animals, where you actually see them live and things that you can't possibly see as a human today and experiences that you can't experience except through virtual reality,” said Chief Executive Officer Joel Manby to analysts, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
Not to be shutout of the race to embrace VR at theme parks, Cedar Fair LP (FUN), owned by Knott’s Berry Farm, is opening a VR-powered multiplayer experience called VR Showdown In Ghost Town, starting in April. Knott’s said on its website that it’s the first permanent full-motion VR experience in a U.S. theme park. The attraction takes parkgoers on a time-traveling adventure where players have to fight robot enemies as they engage in a mission with other players to defend the virtual town. Guests have to pay an additional $6 to access the VR attraction.
The one holdout when it comes to introducing VR headsets in theme parks appears to be Walt Disney Co. (DIS). Chief Executive Bob Iger said at a USC Marshall and Annenberg event in Santa Monica, Calif., on Thursday that he has zero interest in having visitors at Disney’s theme parks donning VR headsets that block out what Disney has spent billions to create. Iger said he told his team to not even think about VR headsets, reported the Los Angeles Times, which covered the event Thursday. Instead of embracing VR that would prevent visitors from taking in all the sights and sounds Disney parks have to offer, he said the company is focusing on augmented reality attractions that blend the real world with digital worlds, noting that he spends time on Tuesday’s at the Disney Innovation lab dueling with a "Star Wars" stormtrooper thanks to a head-worn device that lets him hold a light saber. “What we create is an experience that is real,” Iger said, according to the report. “When you walk into Cars Land, you feel you’re in Radiator Springs because of what we’ve built—not only the attention to the detail, but the scale.”