From the virtual banshee flights in Animal Kingdom's Avatar expansion to the virtual line service employed at Volcano Bay, the V-word has become the hottest buzzword in the theme park industry. But while Disney and Universal were unleashing their new virtual offerings last month, SeaWorld was virtually silent. Then, last week, SeaWorld climbed aboard Orlando's virtual bandwagon with Kraken Unleashed, which fulfills the trend from two angles at once by introducing both the park's first virtual reality roller coaster and its first virtual queuing system.
From the Virtuality arcade machines of the 1990s to the Aladdin magic carpet simulator at the soon-to-be-extinct Disney Quest, I've always been first in line to try the latest virtual reality gadget, though few have fulfilled their promise. Recent IAAPA conventions have given me the opportunity to sample nearly every VR variation on the market – including Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Hololens – and while each has issues, I've come to love Mack's GearVR-based interactive virtual reality option on Fun Spot's Freedom Flyer coaster.
Naturally, I was eager for the opportunity to attend a pre-opening media preview of Kraken Unleashed so I could ride SeaWorld's first-rate floorless Bolliger & Mabillard with a cutting-edge VR upgrade. However, after four back-to-back rides, I came away with a mild headache and major mixed feelings. The revamped ride is simultaneously a technical triumph, a narrative near-miss and an operational apocalypse. I entered the park an advocate of implementing VR inside theme parks, and exited unsure if we shouldn't just shelve the whole concept for another decade.
When reimagining Kraken with VR, SeaWorld tied its story into the neighboring Journey to Atlantis boat ride (which recently had its cheesy storyline and special effects removed), recasting the coaster as a scientific submarine that discovers the lost city. While it's a clever concept, they haven't invested enough to execute the idea immersively. Kraken's queue lost its eel eggs and was only given a hurried-looking coat of paint and a few cute posters in compensation; the results don't remotely resemble the Seabase Alpha-inspired environment you see inside the headset.
Speaking of headsets, while SeaWorld experience design manager Erik Essig describes Kraken's VR as "completely bespoke ... unique and custom to us," they appear to be based on Chinese-made Pico displays. The image was distractingly grainy with blocky pixels, and despite focusing the device my peripheral view was badly blurred, making for a realistic glaucoma simulation. Additionally, the heavy headset's earphones were awkward to adjust; on my first ride, I heard none of the music or dialogue. But the VR's biggest flaw is frame rate. A first-person video needs to maintain a minimum of 60 frames per second for a smooth experience, but Kraken's visuals stutter along at 30 fps or less. On the plus side, the pre-rendered graphics are specifically synchronized with each seat, so I only got eyestrain, not motion sickness.
Once your VR gear is finally good to go, the virtual vessel around you vanishes (for no apparent reason) as you dive down through a moon pool into the digital ocean. You follow a couple of companions into an underwater fissure and are pursued by a supersized squid through watery ruins. The graphics are acceptable and the building blocks of a story are there, but the objective is murky and the ending is anti-climactic. More crucially, by obscuring its real-life 149-foot height with VR scenery, Kraken Unleashed undermines the coaster's inherent intensity. While Freedom Flyer's VR makes that modest non-looping coaster feel far taller and faster, Kraken's VR seems to shrink its stature. Luckily, after the VR gimmick wears off you're still allowed to ride without the headset, but you'll have to wait with everyone else.
Unfortunately, that wait is ultimately Kraken Unleashed's Achilles' heel. Every headset must be disinfected and readjusted between riders, which requires an employee for each of the train's eight rows. Despite expending so much labor, Kraken Unleashed dispatched just up to 32 riders every six to eight minutes during my visit. Even if they improve to three-minute dispatches, that's only 640 guests per hour; typical headliners handle 1,500 and up each hour. SeaWorld intends to manage the attraction's limited capacity with return times through Spot Saver, their new free timed virtual queue service, but opening weekend still saw posted wait times of a whopping eight and a half hours.
Kraken Unleashed comes at a key time for SeaWorld, whose attendance plunged by nearly 8 percent last year, according to the newly released TEA/AECOM report. But while media focus is on an attraction that can only serve a tiny sliver of the park's audience, attention should be paid to Electric Ocean, a summer evening event that creative director Steve Welch describes as "a family-friendly EDM festival" inspired by Electric Daisy Carnival, accompanied by a fireworks-and-fountains spectacle that rivals Epcot's Illuminations. Electric Ocean could become a permanent addition to SeaWorld Orlando, but don't be shocked if Unleashed is uninstalled from Kraken within a year.