Theme parks have an enduring appeal that keeps us coming back for more, no matter how many times we’ve experienced the same attraction. Whether you’re an adrenaline junkie seeking the thrill of ‘Kingda Ka’ at Six Flags Great Adventure, or just looking to enjoy the enchanting atmosphere at Disney’s Magic Kingdom, age is no barrier to the special memories that can be made amongst snaking roller coasters and sugary clouds of overpriced churros.
But as much as a theme park may be one of the most timeless days out, there’s no doubt they have become more timely in recent years. Where rides once dominated amongst the occasional 4D theater or dark ride, theme parks are beginning to integrate cutting-edge new features, from VR to even more story-rich immersive experiences.
“The theme park experience has evolved since many of us went as kids,” says Ryan Harmon, president and chief creative officer at Zeitgeist, a design and production company for global location-based entertainment projects. “In a culture of first-person video games, our audience now seeks full immersion, compelling characters, role-playing, and irresistible stories.”
How theme parks have changed
Since they began appearing across America in the 1960s and 70s, there’s been a host of changes to how theme parks operate — from the rides themselves to the visitor experience — particularly post-pandemic. “For better or worse, the smartphone now plays a significant role in the theme park experience,” explains Harmon. His company conceives, designs, and produces bespoke immersive experiences that relate to pop culture, mythology, history, movies & television, and more, meaning that location-based entertainment experiences are becoming more reactive to trends and cultural moments; hence the name Zeitgeist. “While guests are using apps to buy tickets, check wait times, and order food, it’s social media that’s turned theme parks into one big selfie opportunity,” Harmon adds.
One key development in this space is virtual reality, where visitors can experience roller coaster rides as normal, while also being strapped into headsets that transport them to a different world entirely. The first one was installed in Germany’s Europa-park in 2015, and now there’s even a whole VR theme park in Dubai.
“VR adds a whole new layer to a theme park or amusement park ride,” says Joe Lanzisero, executive vice president and chief art director at Zeitgeist. “The overlay of VR creates the opportunity for story, characters, and destinations that enhance an otherwise traditional ride experience.”
VR goggles may be better left at home
That said, many of the VR experiences we’ve seen pop up in recent years have gone the way of the 8-track tape. One reason is the fact that every headset has to be thoroughly disinfected between uses — a major concern in the era of Covid. Another reason is battery life — those headsets can only play high-resolution media for so long. Still, another reason is motion sickness — as fun as it sounds to feel like you’re flying through an alien world while riding a roller coaster, the animation often fails to perfectly synch to the ride motion, which throws off the inner ear and sense of balance, often resulting in a “protein spill.”
“Now that theme parks have experimented with VR, I think the consensus is that it’s an at-home experience,” says Harmon. “At home, you can spend hours exploring virtual worlds and interacting with friends without the time limits, sanitation concerns and motion sickness issues found at a theme park.”
“That’s not to say that other technologies won’t take its place,” adds Lanzisero. “Universal experimented with augmented reality (AR) in their new ‘Mario Cart’ dark ride, and it’s just spectacular!”
Mobile phone integration
Mobile apps that combine GPS technology, cloud-based storage, real-time data, and access to in-park restaurant reservations and ordering, among other conveniences, have also become de rigueur in the modern-day theme park. “While I think it’s helpful to purchase mobile tickets and be aware of wait times to strategize your day, I also believe that smartphone integration hurts the theme park experience,” explains Harmon. “We spend years designing and building spectacular, very expensive immersive spaces — what we call UX-IRL (User/guest eXperiences In Real Life) — yet our guests today are being forced to constantly look down at their phones instead of enjoying the placemaking they originally came for.”
“And when it comes to Disney parks, pre-planning and mobile phone integration has transformed what was once a leisurely day in the park into a militaristic experience,” says Lanzisero. “There’s no spontaneity. Every attraction is scheduled, meal times and locations are set in stone — often months in advance, and we’re being asked to purchase the ability to bypass the standby queue for up to $25.00 per person per attraction above and beyond the admission fee and parking charge. That’s just not what I call a good time.”
How Disney and Universal are revitalizing their parks
“Disney and Universal, in particular, face unique challenges, in that returning guests want to feel that familiarity and nostalgia, but also experience something new,” Harmon explains. Disney, he believes, has always been the best at curating immersive experiences, from ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ to ‘Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance.” “Or take a look at Universal’s new Epic Universe park,” Lanzisero adds, referring to the new park, which is rumored to include a Nintendo-themed area, DreamWorks Animation-inspired rides and a third Harry Potter-themed zone. “Universal will prove that story and immersion can be both timely and timeless.”
But carrying the status of such iconic amusement parks also presents unique challenges, whereby innovators need to be conscious of shifting cultural conversations, which is why the iconic though controversial ‘Splash Mountain’ is being replaced with “Tiana’s Bayou Adventure,” celebrating the characters from Disney’s “The Princess And The Frog.” “Big corporations like Disney need to respond to cultural shifts,” explains Harmon. “While there’s absolutely nothing culturally insensitive about ‘Splash Mountain’ — and it features one of Disney’s most beloved and signature songs in the Oscar-winning “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” company leaders see the opportunity to demonstrate Disney’s embrace of diversity — which is a great thing. And they can promote a whole new attraction without significant investment!”
“Compelling stories and unique experiences will always be a win for park owners and their guests,” says Harmon. “If you look at ‘Avatar Flight of Passage,’ the new ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ at Shanghai Disneyland, or ‘Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motor Bike Adventure’ at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, you see three very different, incredibly original attractions that each combine groundbreaking ride systems, cutting-edge technologies, and fantastic stories, places and characters to create unforgettable experiences.”
“It’s these types of experiences that encourage guests to leave their comfy sofas and big screen TVs and pay the high price of park admission,” says Lanzisero. “The guests can’t get enough, and the park is practically printing money. It’s a win-win!”
“What’s really next,” concludes Harmon, “is what lies between a theme park and something like Chuck E. Cheese. Where can my family and I put down our phones and enjoy a half to a full day being spontaneous, immersed and entertained without spending thousands of dollars? Is it Meow Wolf, Area 15, Top Golf, TeamLab? The jury is still out.”
“Whoever cracks that nut is going to change the location-based entertainment industry,” says Lanzisero. “As fun and amazing as it can be, the theme park experience has become too expensive and too stressful for many people. You’ll have to check back with the Zeitgeist team in a couple years to see what we came up with!”