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Get ready for virtual reality coasters to become a real-world reality

The next generation of thrill rides will blend the physical world of steel roller coasters with the digital universe of virtual reality to take riders on a real-life journey through a fictional fantasy realm.

In hopes of turning the virtual into reality, Cedar Fair is testing a VR headset on the Thunder Run coaster before and after park hours at Canada’s Wonderland outside Toronto.

Depending on the results of the tests, the virtual reality headsets could be deployed on nearly any coaster at the amusement park chain’s 11 locations, including Knott’s Berry Farm, Cedar Point and Kings Island in Ohio and Kings Dominion in Virginia, Cedar Fair officials said.

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Cedar Fair is partnering on the tests with Mack Rides, which has been working with virtual reality design and engineering firm VR Coasters.

Canada’s Wonderland employees wearing VR headsets that completely cover their eyes have been testing the devices and assessing the experience on the Thunder Run coaster for more than a week.

The 360-degree 3-D VR experience synchronizes to 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 on the screen. So far, the tests have found that coaster riders don’t experience motion sickness while wearing the VR headsets.

Cedar Fair officials went to great lengths to stress that the testing does not mean the VR coaster experience is opening soon at Canada’s Wonderland — or any other park in the chain. 

In 2014, Mack Rides conducted more than 100 tests with VR headsets on the Blue Fire and Pegasus coasters at Germany’s Europa-Park, which serves as a proving ground for the ridemaker. Mack envisions pairing the VR technology with its own coasters or those of any manufacturer.

During the Europa-Park VR tests, riders accompanied by animated characters traveled on a virtual mine train through a cave with falling rocks, bubbling lava pools and swaying bridges. Other story lines feature a flying stagecoach guided by winged horses and a journey on the back of a flying dragon, with plans for future video game-like applications.

Mack Rides and VR Coasters, both based in Germany, are developing two new virtual reality coasters that are expected to debut in 2017 and 2018. VR headsets were recently added to the AlpenExpress coaster at Europa Park.

Hungary-based Huss Park Attractions recently tested a VR system with a swinging Viking ship ride at Denmark’s Djurs Sommerland amusement park that included visuals of the high seas and a fire-breathing dragon.

Over the past few years, Cedar Fair has launched a new digital dark ride initiative called Amusement Dark that has spawned two attractions: Wonder Mountain’s Guardian at Canada’s Wonderland and Voyage to the Iron Reef at Knott’s Berry Farm.

For Cedar Fair, the upside of the digital dark rides and the VR coasters is the ability to transform an existing ride with a seasonal overlay or an entirely new theme without the cost of investing in a new attraction.

In the coming weeks, Cedar Fair is expected to announce new digital-based attractions at California’s Great America in Santa Clara and Carowinds in Charlotte, N.C.

“We’re going to continue to invest in this digital world, and they won’t all be rides,” Cedar Fair CEO Matt Ouimet said during a recent interview. “It is clear to me that the integration of this digital entertainment world with the amusement park world is going to work.” 

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