Are VR-powered immersive experiences the end of theme parks as we know them?

Next Gen Amusement

There will always be a human fascination for escape from reality. While many of us find solace in daydreams or entertainment, over 270 million people walk through amusement park gates each year to visit a seemingly different world. With technology creating deeper levels of immersion limited only by the imagination, and movies like Ready Player One painting the possibility of a virtual realm within our own, will we end up exchanging guest tickets for headsets? The survival of amusement parks depends on how these new technologies are embraced by both society and theme parks themselves.

From family vacations to honeymoons and last-minute getaways, amusement parks have become a beloved staple in global entertainment. Located in Denmark, Bakken is a theme park that opened in 1582 and still operates today, acting as a tribute to the longevity of these physical spaces. Designed to captivate visitors and evoke delight, amusement parks are the original immersive experience. Walt Disney understood this concept when he created Disneyland, calling it “an immersive world that combined the familiar with the fantastic.”  And since its 1955 grand opening, the park has continued to be a masterpiece in both user experience and urban design.

Disney curates immersion with well-designed environments informed by guest interaction. Each design choice purposely enhances seamlessness; whether it be creating visual balance between the plain and the extraordinary or by accounting for the actions that carry a dose of reality with streamlining technology such as the My Disney Experience. In an article for Fast Company, designer Nick De La Marre explained how “the best theme parks use technology as a means to an end, freeing visitors to become joyously lost in the moment.” By making visitors feel central to the theme park narrative, Disneyland’s design overlays the customer experience with personalized entertainment at every end of their immersive experience—a goal that is the driving force behind the creation of new virtual worlds.

Virtual reality is no longer a distant vision of the future; it is now a thriving and accessible part of our own reality without the safety risks and travel expenses. VR has the ability to provide users with affordable and instantaneous immersion. With companies becoming aware of the technology’s potential, the VR and AR markets are expected to hit $162 billion by 2020. And that revenue won’t just be from hardware sales, but also from purchases made within these virtual worlds.

In what some might consider the virtual counterpart to Disneyland, Decentraland is the “first virtual decentralized platform owned and created by its users.” Roughly the size of Washington D.C., the virtual platform’s Genesis City is divided into themed lands modeled after places in the real world like Las Vegas, as well as surreal locations like that of a cyberpunk Blade Runner future. People are already paying as much as $200,000 for 1,110 square-foot plots of virtual real estate each with unlimited potential for customization, adding a whole new layer of depth to personalization. But since the self-proclaimed “megamall meets amusement park” has yet to announce an opening date, its future remains a pricey gamble, dependent on whether people will enjoy spending time together in virtual reality. As enticing as the concept may be, one element that is sure to be lacking is the richness of the physical world.

VR is currently visual and audio-based whereas amusement parks offer complete sensory experiences that allow for true immersion. That’s why rather than faltering amidst the rise of virtual reality, the amusement park industry has seen a 4.8% growth in the past 5 years. But that growth is no small thanks to the integration of mixed reality within the physical theme park experience. Adaptive theme parks are utilizing VR and AR technology to add a new dimension to visitor experiences by incorporating headsets onto existing rides or pairing the technology with motion simulators. Although VR-powered indoor parks like LA’s Two-Bit Circus are creating a new template for virtual amusement, these places more closely resemble arcades where immersion is lost once you take your eyes off the screen, or in this case the screen off your eyes.

While virtuality may be an intriguing substitute to physicality, today it remains far from perfect. Despite being an exciting new frontier for entertainment, immersive technology is unmatched when pitted against the high-intensity rides that appeal to thrill-seekers and the emotional connections people make in the physical places where they share these experiences. The next generation of amusement will see the evolution of physical theme parks, but whether VR and AR will play a crucial role depends on whether the technology can seamlessly heighten rather than hinder immersion.