Can augmented reality help the theme park industry recover from the very harsh reality of 2020?
Universal Studios is hoping so. The company recently announced more details about its upcoming Super Nintendo World land at Universal Studios Japan, which also is under construction at Universal Studios Hollywood. The video game-themed lands will be anchored by Mario Kart: Koopa’s Challenge!, a dark ride that will use augmented reality technology to help visitors feel like they are riding inside a real-life Mario Kart race.
Virtual reality failed to catch on when theme parks started rolling out VR attractions a few years ago. Six Flags Magic Mountain installed VR on its Revolution roller coaster and Lex Luthor: Drop of Doom, for example, but while some fans liked the experience, the hassle of maintaining headsets made VR a tough expense to justify for many parks.
VR also did not work for parks because it did not take advantage of their unique selling point — providing an immersive, themed environment that you cannot experience anywhere else. Buy a headset, and you can experience VR at home. The addition of motion on a VR theme park ride is a nice plus, but not enough to distract most fans from the real visual wonders elsewhere in the park.
Augmented reality does not hide the park’s scenery behind a headset. On the Mario Kart ride, visitors will wear a Mario cap with a clear visor over their eyes, upon which they will see the ride’s special media effects. But the clear visor will allow them to see all the ride’s practical decoration and visual effects as well.
This will not be the first time that a theme park has employed augmented reality. Universal Studios Hollywood is planning an AR-style effect on its upcoming The Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash! ride, in which riders will be turned into puppies. The new Legoland park in New York is planning a similar effect on its Lego Factory Adventure ride, which will see riders turned into Lego Minifigures.
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That kind of AR does not even need digital technology. Heck, Disneyland created proto-AR effects with its dancing and hitchhiking ghosts in the Haunted Mansion. The Pepper’s Ghost illusion has been augmenting reality since the nineteenth century. But Universal’s Mario Kart will take AR to a new level in theme parks, giving the industry a tool that it can use to help lure fans back to the parks when the pandemic comes to an end.
No one yet knows what the industry will look like when fans around the world are able to travel again. Will it be a land rush, when any destination with a collection of off-the-shelf carnival rides can get rich? Or will consumers remain cautious — wary of crowds and spending money?
Smart parks must assume that they will have to do everything they can to win back the audience they lost in the pandemic. As a fan, I hope that Universal’s Super Nintendo World is just the start of a new golden age in creative theme park attractions.
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