Back in August, I waited nearly an hour to ride Iron Dragon at Cedar Point. I’d ridden Iron Dragon countless times on past trips to the park, mostly because of its notoriously short line. But on this August evening, the ride was different—Cedar Point had implemented a virtual reality experience the season before—and I was curious to try it out before leaving the park. Judging by the number of people in front of me, I wasn’t the only one with that idea. Cedar Point only had one train running, and with the added complication of preparing a VR headset for each rider, the line stood dead still for five minutes at a time.

Each time the train completed its cycle and came swaying into the brake run, I surveyed the riders’ faces, trying to interpret their reactions. Having read reviews for other virtual reality roller coasters, I had picked up mixed feelings about the whole “virtual” concept. After all, the ability to use CGI might make theming limitless, but could it successfully replace the authentic ride experience? I was ready to find out.

Once I reached the loading platform, a ride op handed me a headset and explained how to properly adjust it. Climbing into the suspended car and lowering the restraint over my enlarged face was harder than I had anticipated, but I managed alright.

The image in front of me was blurry, so I adjusted the focus until a horse came into view. I was sitting at the front of a wagon in a medieval fantasy setting with cliffs and beasts in front of me. As the train exited the station, the horse began walking and we headed up a steep path leading to a castle. The visual, while not a very high resolution, was engaging, and I found myself moving my head in all directions to gaze at the little details.

As I neared the top of the virtual ramp, a giant troll bowled through the structure just in front of the wagon. My horse teetered forward, forcing me to look into the abyss below. To my dismay, my horse tumbled into the depths with me close behind. At the last second, a winged beast (presumably the Iron Dragon) swooped from behind and swung me out of harm’s way.

VR is impressive on its own, but when combined with the actual forces of a coaster’s drops and turns, the experience is truly convincing. Normally, I get a slight knot in my stomach from looking down a drop on a roller coaster, and gazing over the edge in a virtual environment was just as terrifying. If it weren’t for the fact that the VR headset didn’t have audio, I would have forgotten I was on Iron Dragon at all.

After the first drop, I was swept in one direction and then the other at the dragon’s whim. We weaved through structures and evaded creatures determined to steal whatever treasure my wagon held. I felt like a viking in How to Train Your Dragon, only my dragon was completely out of my control. I don’t remember many of the details from my flight, but there was a pretty thrilling air battle with another flying beast. Near the end of the ride, there was a jump scare that made me and the riders around me scream as we narrowly avoided being eaten by a virtual monster.

The ride ended with an intense swoop around a lake and a smooth glide into a cave. I didn’t even realize I was back in the station until I heard a soon-to-be-rider asking if I enjoyed it. If I had any mixed feelings about virtual reality coasters before, my ride on Iron Dragon fully opened me up to the VR concept.

Should roller coasters stay the way they are now, or should they have unique VR themes? My answer—yes! I thought the way Cedar Point offered Iron Dragon VR as an optional experience after 7 pm only was a brilliant model. Riders who want a traditional experience get to ride the coaster during the day without suffering from the extended line. Enthusiasts like me who have already ridden the ride the “normal” way several times can wait for longer to experience the themed version. While I wouldn’t suggest that parks add virtual reality to their headlining attractions, offering it as an optional experience on a less-popular ride is a great idea for two reasons:

1: VR sparks fresh interest in aging rides

Nearly every park has that one ride. Enthusiasts have ridden it a dozen times, but it doesn’t run like it used to, and frankly, it’s boring. It may have short lines, but even the general public is passing it by. If the park adds a virtual reality option, it’ll give enthusiasts a new reason to ride and it’ll attract the general public. Don’t like the new experience? Well, at least it’s shortening other queues around the park.

2: VR offers limitless theming at a low expense

Everyone loves a well-themed coaster. When a ride tells a story, riders find themselves wanting to come back and experience the ride again and again. Humans are drawn to stories—that’s why they’re so enthralled with books and movies. There’s just one problem when it comes to theming rides—creating a realistic themed environment is difficult and expensive. Sure, with a high budget, a park could come up with a well-themed ride (think Expedition Everest or Mystery Mine), but for lower-budget attractions and older rides, theming a ride isn’t a realistic investment. Until now. Virtual reality is a way for parks to tell a ride’s story without breaking the budget. Why does the coaster have the name it does, and what is the ride’s relationship with the park or themed zone? Using VR, parks can vividly depict the ride’s “mascot” and environment without building any physical elements at all. And whether it’s taking a tour through space, meeting Kraken face-to-face, or being flown around on a dragon of iron, riders are able to experience thrills not possible on a real world coaster.

In the end, I loved my ride on Iron Dragon VR. Having ridden it once, I don’t think I’d be willing to wait that long for it again, but I would highly recommend it to a first-time rider. I’m excited to see where future VR coasters will take us, and I know the technology will only grow from here. If I ever get the chance to try another virtual reality coaster, I will definitely check it out.

Have you experienced a virtual reality roller coaster? What are your thoughts on the concept?

5 COMMENTS

  1. The future (at least in Apple and Microsoft’s eyes) is not in VR but AR. Creating a “whole” world takes an enormous amount of computing horsepower while embellishing what exists is more believable and actually easier to produce. People don’t experience motion sickness nearly as much and the line between reality and fantasy blends really well. Wait (a year or two) and you will see this technology implemented everywhere.

    • I agree, AR will open up a world of technological opportunity, overlaying digital elements on reality. However, I have a hard time imagining how it would prove useful when it comes to theming a roller coaster. By displaying real-world video, parks would need to add theming in the real world to continue the “look” of the virtual world, which partially defeats the point. Maybe the technology would be cool on a racing or dueling coaster (a head-up display could show riders a course map, speed stats, and leaderboard, for example), but how would AR be used to enforce a fantasy theme? I trust entrepreneurs in the industry will come up with a creative application for AR, but I’m not seeing it off the bat. Did you have any specific ideas in mind?

    • Great example. I can see that technology being perfect for rides with superhero themes and the like. For mythical environments, though, I would think that coaster track and views of the surrounding park would take away from the realness factor. Regardless, I’m excited for the potential here.

  2. If I were running Six Flags or Cedar Fair, I would take a hint from Disney’s animation and robotronics past, and start developing this technology in-house, NOW! The application of this sort of entertainment enhancement will be applicable in dark rides, coasters, haunts, stage shows, even the train ride! Mastering and constantly tweaking it will keep people coming back for more – and the investment $ is so trivial even the small parks can implement it.

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