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Your local fun zone, amusement center and theme park is facing an existential challenge these days.
They need to lure you, the American guest, off your sofa with your high resolution, interactive video games and into their world of fun — real life fun.
A decade or two ago, folks went to theme parks big and small to experience the latest in entertainment and technology. Now, attractions need to come up with something better than the amazing quality of entertainment you can get on your computer or TV.
“There’s clutter and noise everywhere nowadays from all of these different channels about things you can do with your time. You have to have an exciting product and you’ve got to be able to do things as a family together,” said Jim Pattison Jr., president of Ripley Entertainment.
Pattison’s company owns the Guinness World Records Attractions, Louis Tussaud’s Wax Museums and the cataloge raisonne of bizarre, the Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Museums.
This week, he and about 27,000 other theme park professionals descended on the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Florida, to seek out the newest in cool, fun stuff that will lure you out of your home.
Walking around the nine miles of show floor aisles at the annual International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions Expo is like riding a mechanical bull through a slot machine: wild and noisy and tiring. There’s everything from Hawaiian-themed hot dogs to working carnival rides to the latest in roller-coaster track technology. One company even offers a turnkey theme park solution — they can plan, outfit and open an entire theme park. They’ve done nearly a dozen in China.
But the real buzzword at the show is “interactivity.” It seems that every vendor and park owner is hoping to meet the challenge of luring you away from your Xbox by merging traditional thrill rides with those very video games.
“Immersion” is another buzzword used constantly by park owners and ride developers. It’s not enough to just passively ride an attraction. Thrill seekers want to go fast and watch a 3D movie and shoot zombies at the same time.
There’s “Justice League: Battle For Metropolis,” which will feature the DC Comic all-star team at Six Flags St. Louis and Six Flags Over Texas. The ride will involve laser blasters, animatronics, and a 3-D fog screen.
There’s “Voyage to the Iron Reef,” where riders will climb into “submarine-inspired vehicles” and blast away at scavenging creatures, fish, and other 3-D creatures as they attempt to save Knott’s Berry Farm in California from a watery doom. This attraction might be the first-ever to involve a steampunk puffer fish.
Holovis, a U.K.-based company, was selling a customizable “interactive dark ride”, (an indoor ride where cars or vehicles travel through illuminated scenes, often with special effects, music and animation), where riders in a roller coaster car blasted away at pirates in a tropical setting.
“It’s always challenging for us to find new and better and thrilling,” said Stuart Hetherington, the CEO of Holovis. “A 10-year-old doesn’t want to experience the same quality from an immersion experience than from his Xbox in his bedroom.”
Theme parks are trying to find ways to incorporate apps and social media into the games and rides so people will continue the immersive experience even after they’ve left the park. Some rides and theme park experiences allow guests to play game versions of the rides on their phones or compare their in-game scores to other guests via an app.
“Everybody wants to be interactive today. It’s not just a matter of going for the experience, now you have to have a digital platform,” Pattinson said.
No one knows this better than Denise Chapman Weston, a psychologist who incorporated video games, a smartphone app, lights and music into a water slide. Called Slide Boarding, it’s coming to select Wet ‘n’ Wild parks. Riders can control the music and lights as they whiz down an enclosed, watery chute, then compare and compete for scores with others.
“This,” said Chapman Weston, pointing to her phone, “is not a way to have fun. We need to be with other people. We love to be with other people. We love to be immersed in something.”