Theme parks struggle to change. Creating a new ride costs an incredible amount of money when you take into account planning, construction, marketing and a plethora of other costs involved. So most times when you return to a theme park you’ll only find one or two new experiences compared to the last time you visited.
Virtual reality may be the tool that can change that.
Theme parks around the world have been embracing virtual reality over the last few years, and now one theme park in the UK has already changed a ride to offer returning visitors a new experience.
I’ve visited Thorpe Park twice in the last nine months – once for the opening of Derren Brown’s Ghost Train virtual reality experience and a second time for the new add-on section to the same ride, called Rise of the Demon.
What struck me on my second visit was the way the theme park was able to change the experience without as much investment as creating a new ride altogether.
Compare this to Oblivion at Alton Towers. It’s a fan favorite but it hasn’t changed since 1998 - that’s the same experience if you rode it on opening day to today 19 years later.
John Burton, Creative Director of Derren Brown’s Ghost Train: Rise of the Demon, told TechRadar, “We could keep updating the attraction as much as we like to create that continuous limited time only feel to it.
“This in essence is definitely something that attractions like this usually consider, to create that re-ridability factor for a story heavy experience.”
And that’s what VR has the potential to do. Imagine a rollercoaster that never dates. Each time you return to it, you’ll have an entirely different experience with a new story and a new look.
Rise of the Demon doesn’t change the virtual reality experience that drastically - in fact there are only a few tweaks compared to the original Ghost Train - but that’s something the team is considering for the future. It makes sense: the more they tweak it, the more people will come back and try the experience again.
VR, if used in this way, is also a rather inexpensive way of keeping franchises current. Saw – The Ride is a more traditional rollercoaster at Thorpe Park. It opened in 2009 and is based around the popular horror franchise, which ended in 2010.
Entering into the experience now, seven years after the last film, it doesn’t feel anywhere near as terrifying if you’ve experienced it before. One of the reasons for this, is that it feels heavily dated.
Considering the rollercoaster cost Merlin £13.5 million to create, it probably won’t be changed much anytime soon.
But if Thorpe Park had virtual reality headsets on this ride, the theme could be changed to whatever’s popular at the time and make the dated experience a little fresher each time you return to it.
It’s not an easy task to change a virtual reality experience, though, but it’s easier than replanting a rollercoaster entirely.
On Rise of the Demon, Burton said, “The biggest challenge for us was delivering our idea of having other guests sitting on the train with you in your VR. They were of course actors which had to be wearing the VR mask whilst reacting to the events which unfold in front of you.
A CGI render of the carriage used for Derren Brown's Ghost Train
“The difficulty was that the actors had a blank screen and as we filmed the attraction with a 360 camera, the crew could not be in the carriage with them. Therefore we used secret agent like ear pieces hidden within the VR masks to talk them through the ‘events’ that are unfolding which they had to respond naturally towards."
Brown’s Ghost Train is trying to differ your experiences each time you ride and encourage you to return to the park. Slight changes are designed to give you a different experience to the person you’re riding with and according to Derren Brown himself, “question your reality”.
“One bonus already to our attraction is you may begin to questions your own perceptions and memories as not everyone you travel with will encounter the same characters on their journey,” said Burton.
Ghost Train doesn’t do much with this experience by instead tweaking characters and experiences within the same universe.
But imagine if you could sit next to someone and have an entirely different ride. You could be riding in a mining cart while the person next to you is on a space adventure.
Alton Towers - owned by the same folks that run Thorpe Park - is already using VR for Galactica. Formerly Air, it’s re-invented the ride with VR and an interactive space scenario. Everyone on that ride - and we’ve tried it - was wearing VR headsets. There’s no reason a different adventure couldn’t be piped to each person.
Virtual reality is fantastic for theme parks. For many, it will be their first experience of technology. While it’s still in an embryonic stage, virtual reality in theme parks may not just be a gimmick you try once, but may in fact encourage you to return time and time again.