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Halloween Haunt now admitting patients to a virtual reality hospital

A new virtual reality haunted experience coming to Knott’s Berry Farm and two other North American amusement parks this Halloween admits visitors to a mental hospital where a psychiatric patient with demonic powers is on the loose.

Part of a wave of virtual reality experiences sweeping theme parks this year, Fear VR: 5150 will be available during Halloween Haunt on select nights in September and October at Knott’s in Buena Park, California’s Great America in Santa Clara and Canada’s Wonderland outside Toronto. The 5150 attraction takes its name from the California police code for a mentally ill person who is a danger to himself or others.

I got a sneak peek at 5150 last week at Knott’s and found the five-minute VR experience immersive, captivating and scary. The attraction was still under construction during the preview tour, so I did not get to experience the five-minute pre-show populated by live talent.

After checking into the mythical Meadowbrook Institute, visitors are strapped into a wheelchair in the psychiatric hospital’s exam room and fitted with a Samsung VR headset and headphones.

The VR experience follows a demonically possessed patient named Katie, who unleashes chaos throughout the hospital and takes mental control of the medical staff. A panic button attached to the wheelchair is available if the action becomes too intense.

The young Katie, clad in a hospital gown and cursed with supernatural powers, may remind many visitors of Eleven from “Stranger Things,” the central character in the horror-science-fiction series recently released on Netflix.

The upcharge price has not been set yet for the Fear VR: 5150 experience and may be different at each of the three Cedar Fair Entertainment Co. parks. At Knott’s, expect a line to form for 5150 reservations as soon as the annual Halloween Haunt event opens at 7 p.m. daily. Only a few hundred reservations will be available each night. Capacity probably will be the chief problem at each location.

The Knott’s creative team, with technical assistance from Simi Valley-based Hollow Studios, shot the VR images for 5150 during three days of work at an Orange County college movie studio. Veteran Halloween Haunt talent played all the roles in the short film, and the Knott’s design crew dressed the hospital set.

Fear VR: 5150 is impressive, but it is still only a first step toward a more immersive virtual reality experience. Still, the special effects, set dressing and live talent separate the 5150 experience from simply sitting on a couch with a VR headset.

But I wanted more. Being strapped in a wheelchair isn’t the same as walking through a physical environment, even though special effects help simulate movement.

VR haunted mazes are the logical next step for Cedar Fair and other theme park chains. The flexible nature of the virtual attractions allows parks to adjust each individual experience from extremely gory to family-friendly, and change from one story to another with the flip of a switch.

This year will go down as the year of virtual reality at theme parks. VR experiences were added to more than two dozen roller coasters around the world, and many more installations are on the way.

For Universal Studios Orlando’s “The Repository” this Halloween season you’ll pay a $50 upcharge for a VR maze at the Florida park that guides visitors through a secret warehouse filled with mysterious artifacts. The Void, a virtual reality theme park outside Salt Lake City, puts visitors wearing VR headsets and armed with laser tag weapons inside a physical maze.

Up next for theme parks are virtual reality integrations with existing dark rides, motion simulators and 4-D theaters. Ohio’s Cedar Point experimented with augmented reality in the Valravn queue when the roller coaster opened this summer. Expect more AR experiences at Cedar Fair parks that integrate virtual imagery with physical surroundings, much like the popular Pokemon Go mobile game.

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UPDATES:

Sept.  28, 6:44 a.m.: Knott’s has closed the Fear VR attraction.

Sept. 27, 10:10 a.m.: This article refers to a Knott’s Halloween attraction by the name used at the park’s preview tour. The attraction’s name has since been changed to Fear VR, in response to mental health advocates’ concerns about the use of the 5150 code. 

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