With the help of some deft karate chops, a well-placed fireball hurled at ferocious villains and a set of 3-D glasses, Legoland is hoping to upend the hyper-competitive world of theme park attractions — for now.
When Ninjago, the Carlsbad park's latest Lego-inspired attraction, opens Thursday, its 4-D dark ride will be the first in North America to use hand gestures in place of physical devices to control the outcome of the action — in this case an epic ninja warrior battle. Sensory effects such as heat, smoke and wind will enhance the 3-1/2-minute virtual journey through skeleton-filled caves and lava streams.
Disney's Toy Story Midway Mania may have its pie- and egg-throwing cannons and Knott's Berry Farm's Voyage to the Iron Reef its freeze ray guns. But Legoland now has what some say is an even more powerful marketing boast.
Taking a page from controller-free video gaming — think Xbox Kinect — Legoland California and its parent company, Merlin Entertainments, are trying to wow a generation of youngsters already hooked on mobile devices and high-tech games. Legoland's sister park in Denmark opened the same ride in March. The strategy also squares well with theme parks' growing enthusiasm for interactive elements.
Early adoption gives Legoland some bragging rights, but the park can't become complacent, said Robert Niles, editor of Theme Park Insider. "Right now, this is the new thing, but at some point it becomes the old thing, and you'll want to do more with this than waving your hand above the lap bar."
The Ninjago ride, inspired by the popular Lego line of Ninjago toys and a related TV series, owes its hand-gesture feature to Triotech, a Montreal firm that pioneered what it's dubbed the Maestro technology. Although not exclusive to Legoland, it will be incorporated into rides at all Legoland parks.
Ninjago riders, seated in four-person vehicles and wearing 3-D glasses, will be immersed in the story line as motion-sensing technology embedded in the lap bars detects hand movement above it.
Intended to be warriors in training under the watchful eye of Ninjago character Master Wu, riders are challenged to vanquish a legion of enemies, from snake tribes, ghosts and skeletons to the menacing Great Devourer. Using hand movements, guests hurl virtual projectiles such as spheres of lightning at animated creatures that appear to jump out of 30-foot screens.
Along the way, special effects such as dangling spiders and skeletons popping out of a barrel enliven the action.
Dashboards in the vehicles track the riders' scores. People can compete with friends and family, a feature that Legoland hopes will encourage repeat visits.
Triotech Marketing Vice President Christian Martin explained that as lap-bar sensors detect hand motions, the company's proprietary software is able to calculate where the guests are aiming their hands. That, in turn, helps direct the virtual projectiles toward the right spot on the screen.
"This is all in 3-D, so the guest really has the impression that the projectile comes out of his hands," Martin said. "Everything happens in real time. Nothing is pre-rendered."
The ride is part of a new 1-acre attraction called Ninjago World. A large courtyard is an interactive playground of sorts, with a rock-climbing wall, spinners to test youngsters' agility and a monastery fashioned from 850,000 Lego bricks, which kids can embellish with their own Lego creations.
Some 22 new Lego models, including guardian dragons, shields and Ninja warriors, populate the new area.
Legoland, which generally caters to children 12 and younger, must compete with other Southern California parks for families' discretionary dollars. With the recent opening of Universal Studios Hollywood's enormously popular Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Disneyland's ambitious plans for a "Star Wars" land, the competition will grow even fiercer.
Legoland California General Manager Peter Ronchetti acknowledged that if the park wants to remain competitive, it needs to keep pace with rapidly changing innovations. He would not reveal Ninjago's price tag but said it's the park's biggest investment yet in a ride.
"This is really the start of a new journey for us as a business in [connecting] the physical bricks with the new technology," Ronchetti said. "I think there will be quite a few more steps to take, and it's a technology that's developing very fast."
Thrill-inducing roller coasters still hold a hallowed spot in theme parks, industry consultant Dennis Speigel said, but they too are being retrofitted to become more interactive.
As an example, he pointed to the nine Six Flags parks where riders will be able to strap on virtual reality headsets offering 360-degree views and action synchronized to the movement of the coaster.
Interactivity isn't limited to highly sophisticated rides. Universal's Harry Potter attractions and Great Wolf Lodge in Garden Grove, for example, both feature interactive wands with special powers to cast spells or unlock clues in a mystery-filled treasure hunt.
"We are developing many more gesture-based interactive attractions," said Daryl White, president of attractions company Cavu Designwerks. "We're seeing huge changes in the gesture technology where you're able to set up cameras and create an infrared picture of the person and then break that down to see what their hand gestures are aiming at.
"It's a very big issue with theme parks now to provide an experience guests can't have at home. If you have all these people playing 'Halo' for hours ... what is going to draw them off their couch?"