Each year around this time, I attend the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions expo, scouring the Orange County Convention Center's enormous show floor for glimpses of the theme park industry's future. But while attending SeaWorld's press conference on my first day at the event, I experienced an unexpected epiphany. While the rest of the media was ogling the sleek blue raft for 2018's Infinity Falls rapids ride, I found myself absorbed by the adorably apathetic sloth who was in attendance as one of the attraction's "animal ambassadors." In a medium that's become mobbed with Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality, I'm craving Actual Reality, and it appears that I'm not alone. The following highlights from IAAPA 2017 hint that the pendulum may be swinging away from high-tech and back toward high-touch.
Imagine driving a bubble-powered car along the ocean floor, with your head in an air-filled dome but the rest of your body exposed underwater. As long as you can overcome the claustrophobia, this could become the coolest submarine inside a theme park since 20,000 Leagues left. It's just a shame that Disney demolished their Shark Reef snorkeling pool at Typhoon Lagoon, because this would have been the perfect upgrade for it.
The best evidence of 2017's retro revival was found among IAAPA's arcade games. Atari's handsome new cocktail table take on PONG re-creates the seminal coin-op's blocky white pixels with physical blocks that magically float across the playing field. Stern, the last old-school American pinball manufacturer still standing, has superb new Star Wars and Guardians of the Galaxy tables for sale. And Valley-Dynamo reintroduced a blast from the past with modern revivals of vintage electro-mechanical baseball games from the pre-digital era, available in All Star and Zombie League editions. It's a good thing IAAPA's machines were set to "free play," or I'd be all out of quarters.
Virtual Reality went from the next big thing to old news in the space of three IAAPA expos, and while you could still find VR offerings in every price range (and even a robot to clean the goggles), I only saw one this year that sparked my imagination. Brogent's Q-Ride uses an Acer 3K headset with sharper visuals and less lag than most, paired with an unusual triangular motion platform. But what really grabbed me was the content: no aliens or explosions, just a spectacular underwater safari through schools of fish and pods of whales, with more natural nautical textures and lighting than any of SeaWorld's CGI attractions.
If you read my recent interview with Dynamic Attractions' CEO Guy Nelson, you know that the company behind Soarin' and Forbidden Journey always bears watching. Dynamic followed up last year's award-winning (and yet unbuilt) Motion Theater announcement by introducing two new ride systems: an off-road trackless dark ride and a "flight cycle" dragon simulator. While both concepts are intriguing, the unveiling was inauspiciously amateurish. A troupe of Renaissance Faire refugees unintentionally made the Avatar-esque simulator look like a Game of Thrones knockoff, and the dark ride is saddled with G.I. Joe branding certain to alienate anyone under 40 or not American. Here's hoping both ideas find IPs worthy of their engineering.
The folks from Falcon's Creative have designed for everyone from Disney and Busch Gardens to Kennedy Space Center, but their current projects with National Geographic prompt questions that go beyond mere amusement. They've opened an Ocean Odyssey exhibit in Times Square that digitally simulates sea life sans water, and they recently debuted a 3-D re-creation of Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre at NatGeo's D.C. digs. I asked Falcon's VP David Schaefer if there were any danger in substituting simulacra for authentic animals or artifacts; he said they chose to focus on "showing creatures on screen that you wouldn't be able to experience at any aquarium, like humpback whales," and that they "take a scientific approach with the same tone and vernacular that National Geographic magazine takes in its articles." I wouldn't want similar attractions to replace real museums and aquariums, but integrating such technologies might become mandatory if those traditional institutions are to survive.
Interactive attractions with shaking seats and laser pistols are now ubiquitous from off-brand Asian suppliers, but nobody does the overcrowded genre better than Montreal's Triotech. This year they showed off a grin-inducing robot blasting game, and announced a partnership with Ubisoft to create an Assassin's Creed virtual reality experience (hopefully it's better than the moribund movie). But the star of their booth was a sample of the finale from their new Las Vegas attraction, Fear the Walking Dead. As a hardened horror fan, these were the first CGI zombies that genuinely made me jump; if the rest of the experience this good, it may become my favorite ride in Sin City since the Star Trek Experience shuttered.