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Virtual reality rides set to invade theme parks in 2016

It’s beginning to look like 2016 will be the year that virtual reality takes theme parks by storm with plans for nine VR coasters in the works and VR dark rides, thrill rides and haunted mazes already on the drawing board.

Canada’s Wonderland amusement park outside Toronto will add VR headsets to the Thunder Run roller coaster in 2016 for an upcharge fee after testing the devices on the ride during the offseason, according to company officials.

Thunder Run riders wearing VR headsets will fly on the back of a fire-breathing dragon above a medieval village and experience an imaginary corkscrew element on the inversionless mine train coaster. The VR experience will require riders to travel twice around the track without knowing exactly when the second lap begins. Daily capacity for the virtual reality experience will be limited to continue to allow non-VR riders on Thunder Run.

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VR headsets will likely be added to another coaster at one of the 11 locations in the Cedar Fair amusement park chain, said CEO Matt Ouimet during a recent interview.

“It’ll be a different type of coaster because we want to see about the different types of physics,” Ouimet said.

Test runs are expected to start soon on the unnamed second coaster that will feature a different virtual backstory than Thunder Run. Ouimet eventually envisions riders being able to buy a package of VR coaster rides with multiple storylines.

Don’t expect to see VR headsets on high-energy coasters such as Silver Bullet at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park or Top Thrill Dragster at Ohio’s Cedar Point. Instead, VR will be used to boost ridership on coasters that aren’t running at full capacity, Ouimet said.

Cedar Fair is partnering on the coaster upgrades with Mack Rides, which has been working with virtual reality design and engineering firm VR Coasters. Mack has been testing the VR technology on the Alpenexpress mine train coaster at Germany’s Europa Park, which serves as a proving grounds for the ride maker.

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

Mack Rides expects to add VR headsets to nine coasters in 2016 and is working with several intellectual property holders on branded VR ride experiences, according to Attractions Management magazine.

Meanwhile, Mack and VR Coasters are developing two new virtual reality coasters that are expected to debut in 2017 and 2018. Other manufacturers are working on VR dark rides, flat rides and 3-D theaters. There are even VR haunted mazes in development that will allow operators to adjust each individual experience from extremely gory to family-friendly.

“I think a VR haunted maze is probably in our future,” Ouimet said. 

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