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VR on Coasters: A New Dimension of Theming?

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?

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featured Reviews Ride Reviews

Steel Vengeance Review

Last Thursday, I finally got to ride Cedar Point’s new hyper hybrid from Rocky Mountain Construction, and I’m still in shock from the sheer power I experienced on the coaster.

As I approached the park, I was struck by how much more prominent the ride was on the skyline. From the start, it was obvious that this ride wasn’t Mean Streak anymore.

As soon as the park opened, I walked to the back of the park as fast as I could. There stood Steel Vengeance, towering over Frontiertown’s buildings and punctuating the air with the screams of terrified riders. The train thundered through inversions and wound through the wooden remains of Mean Streak.

I had heard that Steel Vengeance had just begun a no-phone policy after a rider’s device contributed to an injury on Twisted Timbers, but I wasn’t sure how strict the rule would be or how they planned on enforcing it. Two ride ops sat at the entrance to the ride and asked each rider if they were carrying a phone, instructing them to rent a locker or leave it with a non-rider. I was happy to oblige, but found it difficult to keep track of the time remaining on my locker without my phone, since I didn’t wear a watch. Also, I had hoped to take some good photos from the queue, but I had to resort to snapping a few shots from the entrance and the other side of Frontiertown.

While waiting in line, I saw quite a few security guards patrolling the line and trekking up to the platform every once and a while. A ride op explained that if you were caught with a phone in the station they’d kick you out of the line, and after three strikes they’d call security. In the end, being without my phone was a small price to pay to ride Steel Vengeance, and after tracking Mean Streak’s transformation over the course of two years, I was more than ready to finally catch a ride on the coaster.

After about half an hour, I reached the platform. A ride op was assigning seats but she was happy to acquiesce when I asked to ride in the front. I found this to be the case the whole day, which was great because it kept the line moving while respecting anyone who had a seat preference.

The train took off, rolling over two bunny hills before hitting the unusually loud chain lift. On the way up, I took in the view of Cedar Point’s impressive coaster lineup. Near the top, the entire ride layout came into view, giving us riders a quick glimpse into our imminent joy or terror. Before I knew it, the train reached the apex and slowly crept over the top before dashing to the ground at 90 degrees. In the front car, the drop was exhilarating but not quite ejecting.

The following hill offered a sustained surge of floater airtime at an off-axis angle and sent the train rocketing back toward the first drop. After two more airhills, the real fun began. I was wooshed through first zero-g-roll while climbing, then took a flying turn into the second zero-g-roll while dropping. That drop in particular was extremely disorienting and made for an extreme stomach drop.

After rolling through the mid-course brake run, the ride continued with a sudden plunge back into the course that made me catch my breath. The train dove into the ride’s wooden support structure, tempting me to yank my hands down in apprehension as I was sucked through a third roll. A few hills later, the train took a second pass through the structure, completing a similar roll and maneuvering a set of overbanks. One over-banked turn in particular really stood out, giving me a little pop of airtime while on my side. To finish off the ride, the train flew through a series of five airtime hills in a row, each taken at a different angle.

Sitting in the brake run, I realized that I couldn’t compare the ride experience to any other coaster I had ridden. I decided that it combined some of the best elements of Millennium Force and Maverick while adding in some wacky turns that only Rocky Mountain Construction could conjure up.

After getting off, I got right back in line to try the back row. In the back seat, the first drop was insane! The rest of the train began dropping while the back wasn’t quite to the top, meaning I was pulled aggressively over the top into a 200-foot drop. The ejector airtime I experienced on that drop was by far the best I’ve ever experienced and I would compare it to the negative g-forces on a drop tower.

The ride continued its course, taking each hill and inversion with more intensity than ever. According to the park, Steel Vengeance has the most airtime of any roller coaster, with a total of 27.2 seconds, and I felt like my body was out of the seat more than in it. I was in hysterics for the entire last lap around the ride’s structure, and I got off the coaster with an adrenaline high.

Later in the day, I rented a locker for two more hours and was able to get in three more rides on the coaster (once in the middle and twice in the back). Riding solo, I was able to meet some pretty cool people, some of whom had ridden the coaster dozens of times and others who were about to experience Steel Vengeance for the first time. Everyone I rode with got off with a big smile on their face and a new favorite ride at Cedar Point.

At one point I got to chat with an off-duty ride op for Magnum who was getting in his Steel Vengeance rides for the day. We got to chatting about industry news and other parks across the US, and then he pointed out a few things about the coaster I hadn’t noticed before. For one, the wooden supports sway quite a bit just after the train rolls by, which is normal and serves to relieve the stress from the passing trains. The op said that the park had recently added a reinforcement beam and that it was now swaying much less than before.

He was also able to give me an update on Steel Vengeance’s third train, Chess. On opening day, two trains had a minor collision in the station at a minimal speed, and though no one was injured, Cedar Point was forced to shut the ride down nonetheless. The park switched to two trains while they worked on a fix. According to the ride op, the third train is now ready to run and they have the go-ahead but they’re having trouble getting the mid-course brake run to work, so with three trains they’d have to start one long after the previous like on Millennium Force. So it’s unlikely that we’ll see three-train operation again until next season.

While in line, I also enjoyed checking out the storyline segments that the park added to the queue to explain the ride’s theme. I wasn’t able to get a picture of the signs since I didn’t have my phone with me, but there was a themed poster for each of the three characters (Blackjack, Chess, and Digger) explaining their tie into Frontiertown and their need for vengeance from Blackjack’s ruthless brother Maverick.

There weren’t many themed elements in the ride’s station, but the trains had a great steam engine front car and one of the characters’ names was scrawled on the side of each train. A western voiceover played when each train departed the station, and the loading screen touted fun catchphrases like “A Mean Streak lies beneath.”

In the end, I found a new favorite coaster in Steel Vengeance. The ride had all the elements I crave in a coaster, from the ejector drop to the disorienting inversions and endless airtime hills. In typical Rocky Mountain Construction fashion, the ride managed to combine all these elements with flawless transitions. However, some of the turns on the ride came up so suddenly that I barely had time to prepare myself for their sheer intensity. Steel Vengeance is by no means a rerideable coaster like a B&M Hyper, but I was still feeling great after three rides in a row.

Overall, I couldn’t ask for more from Steel Vengeance, and I thought that the ride experience was absolutely flawless. If I was able to change any part of the ride, I wouldn’t tweak a thing. The length, speed, and intensity were about as good as it gets. I rated Steel Vengeance a first-ever 10 out of 10. I could wax on forever about this ride, but the short of it is that you simply need to experience it for yourself. Steel Vengeance just might be the new best roller coaster on the planet.

Rider tips

  • This tip is pretty obvious, but try to hit the ride as soon as you can after the park opens. Most of the crowd follows the midway past Millennium Force and through Frontiertown, so heading by Top Thrill Dragster and cutting down the Gemini Midway might be your quickest route. Some people even park in the Cedar Point Shores lot for even faster walk to the coaster.
  • Be prepared to part with your phone. The ride ops aren’t going to let you into the queue with a handheld device of any kind, so unless you have a hidden pocket that’s securely fastened, you’re best off renting a locker. Don’t make the mistake I did, but rent a locker for the full day so that you’ll be free to come back to the ride at any point.
  • Try riding in the back row. While I was there, a ride op was assigning seats, but they usually let you sit wherever you want if you ask. In the back of the train, the first drop and airtime hills are absolutely insane. On the way up, a left seat will give a better view of the lake and the right will offer a glimpse at the ride layout and the park beyond.

Have you ridden Steel Vengeance? Feel free to post your review in the comments section below.

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featured News Reviews Ride Reviews

Lightning Rod Review

After tracking its construction and naming it the Best New Ride of 2016, I finally caught a ride on Lightning Rod last weekend. My expectations were high, but nothing could have fully prepared me for the sheer insanity that lay ahead.

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featured Reviews Ride Reviews

Rougarou Review

New for the 2015 season, Cedar Point transformed their notoriously painful stand-up coaster, Mantis, into a floorless experience. Named Rougarou, the finished product was themed after a werewolf from French folklore. During my trip to Cedar Point last week, I was eager to try out the supposedly much smoother coaster.

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featured Reviews Ride Reviews

Fury 325 Review

Ever since Carowinds announced their record-breaking Giga Coaster last fall, I’ve been tracking the ride’s construction, comparing it to other coasters, and anticipating its opening. After all, Fury 325 is the world’s tallest non-launching roller coaster. Last week, I finally made it to the park to check it out. Believe me, I “felt the sting.”

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Reviews Ride Reviews

Millennium Force Review

Millennium Force has been placed at the top of enthusiasts’ rankings more than once. It’s even been voted the number one steel roller coaster in the world by Amusement Today nine years since it opened in 2000! But is it really that amazing, or is it overrated? I, for one, had to find out.