Hey, Disney: Your virtual reality rides are making everyone sick.
While I meet the occasional lucky soul who can ride in cars, planes, boats, and trains with no problem, the majority of people I know are affected by motion sickness to some degree. The CDC agrees, noting that "Given sufficient stimulus, all people with functional vestibular systems can develop motion sickness."
When I visited Walt Disney World last week, I didn't think I'd have to worry. Most traditional theme park rides (roller coasters, log flumes, and the like) don't generally trigger my motion sickness, or those of people I know. They rarely last longer than a couple of minutes, and so there's only so much they can throw us around. Plus, the open air helps to alleviate the nausea.
But when I arrived and browsed the list of adult headliners, I realized that many of them didn't look like the theme park rides I experienced as a child. Many of them now have heavy elements of virtual reality, something that I know from many hours of attempting games on the Oculus Rift was likely to make me very sick.
As a child, such rides were few enough that I'd be able to skip them. Now, however, it appears that avoiding VR would mean skipping some of the most popular, and technologically advanced Disney World attractions. I took the L and rode three of them: Star Tours: The Adventures Continue (I'll let you guess which box-office-shattering franchise that's based on), Mission: SPACE (an older ride that was rebooted last summer), and Animal Kingdom's new blockbuster Avatar Flight of Passage. Unlike the headliners of my childhood, these rides all consisted of sitting in a dark room, donning 3D glasses, and staring at a screen.
IMAGE: KENT PHILLIPS/DISNEY RESORTS VIA GETTY IMAGES
It's not that the rides weren't awesome. They were — or they would have been, if my friend and I didn't spend most of each experience trying hard not to vomit.
Avatar Flight of Passage, following what was almost a three-hour wait, was a stunning simulation of a journey through James Cameron's Pandora on a magic dragon (or whatever it's called, I haven't seen the movie). Atop our virtual mounts we swooped and spun at terrifyingly high speeds, littering our journeys with corkscrews and barrel rolls. My friend and I stumbled out of the chamber very close to vomiting, and were nauseous for the next few hours, which hindered our experience on future rides.
Star Tours was even worse. We sat in a simulated spaceship that hurled through an asteroid field, ducking and dodging various space obstacles, abruptly changing direction and altitude every few seconds. My friend and I both had out eyes shut for about half the ride. We agreed that had it continued for another 20 seconds or so, we would have covered the chamber with our breakfast.
It's clear from looking over Disney's slate of newest rides, as well as those at competitors like Universal and SeaWorld, that such companies think virtual reality rides are the future. And maybe they are.
A friend who doesn't get motion sick was aghast when I suggested that perhaps Disney could make its VR rides a bit tamer. "But those are the whole point of the ride," he said of the corkscrews and barrel rolls. He has a point. In VR, Disney can subject riders to faster speeds and wilder, longer rides than it would ever have the budget to build IRL.
On the other hand, those rides meant I spent a good portion of my days at Disney World nauseous and wishing I was lying down. As more traditional headlining roller coasters are replaced by rides with virtual reality components, it's less likely that I'll choose one of those parks as my vacation spot.
So theme parks, as you advance into a new digital age, please consider your motion-sick patrons. We appreciate the "motion sickness" warnings, we really do. But at the point at which those warnings are on 75% of your most exciting rides, we still have to decide whether to spend a good chunk of our day waiting for our friends on a bench, or a good chunk of our day sick.
Is there any hope? I think there might be, as evidenced by a third ride, Epcot's newly rebooted space-flight simulator Mission: SPACE. This virtual reality ride is so intense that the throw-up bags with which any sufferer of motion sickness is well acquainted are provided beside each seat. This ride has two versions: the "Orange" ride for the full experience, and the "Green" ride for a less intense experience.
IMAGE: ERIC TANNENBAUM
My friend took the orange ride, and confirmed that it was full of corkscrews, fast stops and starts, donuts, loop-the-loops, and everything that makes my stomach churn. I chose the green ride, and could not have been happier. The green ride was very smooth, and gave me the sensation of flying through space without throwing me back and forth.
In the future, theme parks should follow Epcot's lead and consider adding a tame option to their virtual reality rides. Yes, the green ride was less exciting than its orange counterpart, but it was 10 times better than waiting outside, or vomiting in Mickey's backyard. By offering guests an option to take a less intense version of a VR ride designed specifically to minimize motion sickness, theme parks can significantly improve the experience of many of their guests.
There's clearly demand for this: While Mission: SPACE's Orange ride had a slightly longer line, the Green ride still was having no trouble filling its pods. As a bonus, this would probably help reduce wait times (seriously, three hours for an Avatar ride is insane).
Yes, the future is great and awesome and exciting. But please, as you move forward into all its possibilities, keep an eye on those of us who are clutching barf bags while we follow.