Theme Parks

Six Flags Magic Mountain turns aging coaster into virtual reality video game

Six Flags Magic Mountain has transformed one of its oldest roller coasters into a state-of-the-art virtual reality experience that thrusts riders into a futuristic battle to save the planet from an alien invasion.

As part of an extensive renovation of the 1976 Revolution coaster, Magic Mountain has added a virtual reality overlay, installed new trains on the existing chassis and removed the universally despised over-the-shoulder restraints, replacing them with simple lap bars.

The rechristened New Revolution VR coaster opens to the public April 21, with reservation-only annual passholder previews beginning Saturday.

I rode the renovated ride six times during a media preview Friday and found the New Revolution to be a surreal out-of-body experience that made me forget I was even on a roller coaster.

Getting ready for my ride was not an easy task. Putting on the VR headset while waiting to board the coaster required me to adjust four Velcro straps to ensure a tight fight. A tether looped around my neck ensured the goggles wouldn’t hit another passenger should they somehow fly off my head anywhere during the ride. Six Flags employees sanitize the antibacterial VR goggles between each use.

The VR headsets synchronize with the motion of the coaster to fully immerse riders in a virtual world of nonstop action. The trick is syncing the steep drops, airtime hills and G-forces of the ride with the visuals in the VR headsets so that riders don’t experience motion sickness. Since riders can’t see where they’re going, the point-of-view perspective banks, dives and climbs to signal upcoming direction changes.

After stepping into the coaster car, I lowered my goggles and synced the headset to the on-board VR system. It was at this moment that I forgot that I was at Magic Mountain and found myself in an alternate universe.

Sitting in the cockpit of a virtual jet fighter, I glanced around the lower deck of an aircraft carrier as I waited with other pilots to begin my universe-saving mission. Looking left and right controlled the twin-barreled gun above my head. Touching the side of the headset pulled the trigger and fired a blast of artillery rounds.

On the lift hill portion of the coaster, my jet fighter rose up from the lower deck of the aircraft carrier while I fired my virtual weapon at a series of practice targets.

Just before the coaster’s first drop, a massive mothership appeared above a high-rise metropolis. Almost instantly, an alien aircraft smashed into my jet fighter, disabling my weapon and sending me hurtling toward earth as the coaster reached a peak speed of 55 mph.

Then the chase was on as I tracked extraterrestrial drones through the city — firing missiles, dodging explosions and banking tightly around collapsing skyscrapers. At one point, my plane even smashed through the top floor of a building.

Diving beneath the crab-like legs of an alien walker the size of a suburban home, the badly damaged mothership came into view at the precipice of the coaster’s 90-foot-tall loop.

As the battle raged on above the city, my plane landed on the deck of an aircraft carrier docked in a bay as the coaster slowly returned to the station.

The New Revolution VR coaster was like riding a video game. I was among the skeptics who questioned the wisdom of wasting time in a virtual world while on a real-world thrill ride. After several trips on New Revolution, though, I came to realize the VR coaster combines reality and fantasy in a first-of-its-kind ride that is unlike anything I’ve experienced.

The VR coaster delivered a constant stream of G-forces, airtime and inverted loops that can’t be duplicated when I’m playing video games on my couch. And until I build a roller coaster in my living room, the VR coaster will remain something I can experience only at a theme park.

While New Revolution was impressive for a prototype, there was still plenty of room for improvement.

Unfortunately, the VR headsets had no audio capabilities, making the experience similar to watching a silent movie. It was disorienting to crash through a window, smash into a billboard or land on an aircraft carrier without making a sound. Six Flags officials said it’s possible a special effects soundtrack using speakers located along the track will be added to New Revolution in advance of the April 21 debut.

While the VR imagery was stunning for a smartphone, the visuals can’t compare to the graphics found in the latest cutting-edge video games.

There’s no denying the fact that people look ridiculous wearing the bulky VR goggles on a roller coaster. But my own self-consciousness quickly faded away as I put on the headset and slipped into the spectacularly detailed virtual world.

It was clear during my visit that riders waiting to board will have to be patient as load times will certainly increase with the introduction of the new technology. Ride operators will have to ensure every VR headset is securely fastened and operating properly in addition to inspecting lap bars and seat belts.

Six Flags is adding virtual reality headsets to nine coasters across its chain this summer, joining a global trend that will see theme parks across North America, Europe and Asia jumping on the VR bandwagon.

Six Flags fast-tracked the launch of the virtual reality coasters after an on-ride demonstration of the technology by Germany-based VR Coasters in November.

The rebirth of the New Revolution also removes the universally despised over-the-shoulder restraints that mercilessly boxed rider’s ears and made the coaster my least favorite ride at Magic Mountain. The renovated ride is much smoother and more enjoyable now with the original lap bar configuration and a locking seat belt. If virtual reality proves to be a passing fad, fans of the classic coaster will be pleased to find the ride restored to its rightful glory.

Back in 1976, the $2-million Revolution was made by Germany’s Anton Schwarzkopf and billed as the world's first modern vertical looping coaster. The Magic Mountain coaster started life as the Great American Revolution, paying tribute to America's bicentennial. By 1979, when Six Flags took over the park, the ride's name changed to La Revolucion, transforming the revolutionary reference from American to Mexican. In 1988, the moniker was shortened to simply Revolution. Magic Mountain rechristened the ride New Revolution for the 2016 makeover.

MORE

32 best new theme park additions of 2016

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
70°