Manouk Akopyan   |   Mar 9th, 2017

Almost one year ago to the day, Six Flags and Samsung struck a strategic partnership that brought virtual reality roller coasters to amusement parks in North America for the first time.

Disneyland, Universal Studios and SeaWorld quickly followed suit with a suite of immersive VR installations of their own. In fact, the Six Flags-Samsung deal was such a smashing success that last month they added a new a layer to their offerings with complex gameplay and two mixed reality experiences.

VR attractions continue to gain popularity amongst consumers; its great potential is helping theme parks build their brand by offering a variety of rides and experiences—with no end in sight to both the adventures being introduced, and the lines that accompany them.

Cedar Fair Entertainment, the parent company of Knott’s Berry Farm, is now joining the fray in a new way by upping the ante with another first in “VR Showdown in Ghost Town,” the only permanent, free-roaming VR experience at a US theme park.

The custom VR attraction, which aims at allowing for guests to be the stars of their own show by combining VR with a realm of competitive gaming, will have consumers embarking on a time travel adventure as they’re transported to a futuristic version of the Knott’s western town of Calico.

Multiple players will be equipped with wireless VR headsets and futuristic blasters as they go on a mission with other groups to defend the town against robotic creations. Made collaboratively with the Bay Area-based VRstudios, the one-of-a-kind adventure will open in April in the Knott’s Berry Farm Boardwalk Arcade.

Christian Dieckmann, vice president of strategic growth for Cedar Fair Entertainment, the parent company of Knott’s Berry Farm, and Kevin Vitale, president of VRstudios, joined [a]listdaily for a joint interview to discuss their one-of-a-kind experience, and the future of “techtainment” in theme parks.

VR Showdown In Ghost Town at Knott's Berry Farm Poster High-Res

Why is Knott’s pursuing immersive and unique experiential technology and getting into VR? What led you to this decision?

Christian: We’re always looking for new and exciting ways to entertain our guests. VR can enable a true sense of presence in a virtual world, and allows each user a chance to interact directly with their digital environment. It’s really a limitless canvas in many ways, which is why it’s attractive to location-based entertainment operators such as amusement parks. Also, a vast majority of people still have not experienced VR; we think there will be a lot of interest from our guests to have their first taste at our parks. Purchasing a high-end VR system is not a cheap endeavor, so we can provide access at a fraction of the cost to our guests.

Why did you decide to go with a free-roaming installation, rather than an actual ride?

Christian: VR-enhanced rides are a very exciting concept, but we wanted to go in a different direction in this case. This will be more game than ride. By using a free-roaming system, we can take full advantage of the capabilities of VR and let our guests be the stars of the show. Players will be able to freely move around within the virtual world. They will see the digital avatars of other players in the game, creating a social element, as they compete for individual high scores while striving toward shared team goals.

Why is VR all the rage in theme parks nowadays?

Kevin: The advancement of VR technology has reached a point where we can provide exciting, specialized and compelling experiences for the needs of location-based entertainment venues and their guests. Consumers are becoming increasingly interested in experiencing VR. Price points and other system requirements for in-home VR still make the barrier too high for most consumers, other than the avid enthusiast. In addition, theme parks can offer much more elaborate and rich experiences, incorporating high-quality creative material, haptics and other sensory elements, and in some cases props and live actors. Therefore, we believe that out-of-home entertainment venues, like theme parks and Knott’s, will enable more consumers to try VR with a high-quality experience, which will in turn help to encourage the adoption of VR/AR across all segments.

VRStudios focuses on completely wireless walk-around systems. Why do you think this works better than an actual ride? 

Kevin: Freedom of movement and interacting directly with the VR environment both enhances the immersive experience for the participant, and opens up the range of options in the experience such as the ability to simultaneously compete or collaborate with multiple other players. Amongst the benefits of the VRstudios system is the flexibility to offer a range of content and VR experiences that will keep participants coming back for more. Depending on the experience, this could be offering different levels of competitiveness or reward, solving new parts of a puzzle or rotating in completely new themed experiences. As you can imagine, our customers are experiencing economic, operational, competitive and marketing benefits from the application of our VR systems, technology and content.

Why is there a growing appetite for gaming-like experiences in theme parks? Is it possible for VR to one day have its own category?

Christian: As we move from the ‘information age’ to the ‘experience age,’ consumers expect to be able to interact with their environments directly, and don’t necessarily want to be passive participants the entire time. Theme parks are no different in that regard. Gaming, VR, AR and other forms of interactivity—both digital and non-digital—directly address those needs. In terms of standalone VR centers, there are a number of firms, both established companies and start-ups, that are trying to crack that nut, with many planning to open shop over the next one-to-two years. There will be a number of challenges, including figuring out the Rubik’s Cube of pricing, capacity, utilization and capital investment that can generate attractive economic returns. Regardless, I anticipate that we will witness a wave of innovation at the intersection of technology and location-based entertainment over the next several years. As for VR at Knott’s Berry Farm, we think being able to leverage our existing foot-traffic patterns in the park gives us a huge advantage in terms of achieving success and a strong return on investment.

What market research led you to deciding that people would pay extra to have this VR experience? How much will the extra fee be?

Christian: We have done some studies on past VR projects and have seen high overall guest satisfaction, and confirmed a willingness to pay. We also view this VR experience as being similar in many ways to a laser tag installation from a pricing perspective. ‘VR Showdown in Ghost Town’ is one of the many exciting new experiences coming to Knott’s in 2017 and will be available to guests at an introductory price of $6, in addition to park admission.

What have you learned from your competitors who have activated with VR in their theme parks while watching from afar? 

Christian: At Cedar Fair we have actually been quite active ourselves in the category of which we are calling ‘techtainment.’ That includes interactive and immersive media-based attractions, VR and AR. We have learned a lot from our own projects across multiple amusement parks, as well as from those of our direct and indirect competitors. At a basic level, we have to make sure the experience is fun. It doesn’t matter how amazing the technology is if the guest isn’t smiling on the way out. We also have to make the user interface as frictionless as possible, including streamlining how people get in and out of the attraction, making sure they know what they are doing once they’re in the virtual world and keeping everything glitch free the entire way.

VR technology can be reprogrammed to give riders different experiences on the same ride. Is this a critical element for marketing a ride for return visits? 

Kevin: With VR, variety is important; however, the quality of the user’s overall immersive experience and easy logistics for theme park operators will also be the strong factors influencing repeat visits.

Do you plan on giving VR another crack for Knott’s Scary Farm after last year’s miscue? If so, what can you share?

Christian: At a general level, we do believe that VR and AR have strong potential for the Halloween season. We haven’t made a decision yet about what we’re doing this year at Knott’s Scary Farm, but we are kicking around some ideas internally.

How will you be ramping up marketing as you prepare for the launch with VRStudios next month? What is going to be your integrated, cross-channel strategy?

Christian: There will be a coordinated PR effort and social media support in the weeks ahead. We think our guests, including our season pass holders who make multiple visits to Knott’s, will be very excited to try out this cutting-edge new virtual attraction. 

What have you learned from the Universal Studios attraction you spearheaded that will help you advance the theme park VR experience? What are consumers clamoring for? 

Kevin: People love anything new—to be thrilled and scared, experience action and fantasy. It was amazing to watch how collaboration, combined with innovation and the years of entertainment skills of Universal, allowed visitors to experience a culmination of narrative engagement seamlessly blended with the physical and virtual worlds. Guests could be social, puzzle solve and compete in VR gaming—all in one orchestrated experience. We now look forward to unveiling the one-of-a-kind VR experience developed by the collaboration, entertainment skills and depth of experience between Cedar Fair, Knott’s and VRstudios. For the industry, it’s early in the game and innovation continues at a rapid pace. As good as these experiences are today, we are just scratching the surface of creating amazing new VR-based amusements and attractions that can never be experienced at home.

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