Want a more thrilling coaster ride? Add VR goggles

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The New Revolution Virtual Reality Coaster, image: Six Flags Magic Mountain

As humankind searches for bigger and better thrills, roller coasters have become among the most popular options. Unlike auto racing, mountaineering and surfing enormous waves in shark-infested waters, hurtling down a wood or metal track for hundreds of feet is a relatively safe and inexpensive way to get your adrenaline pumping, requiring no more training than a willingness to strap yourself in for the ride.

Primitive coasters have been around since the 17th Century but these staples of amusement parks around the world experienced a renaissance in the 1970s. Since then, there has been an ever-increasing escalation in the roller coaster wars, with new attractions being engineered every year in the struggle to become the fastest, tallest, and downright scariest ride in the world.

Promenades Aeriennes Jardin Baujon
Early coasters like the French Promenades Aeriennes Jardin Baujon, 1817, were called “centrifugal railways.” Historians debate whether they originated in Russia or France. Image: Wikipedia Commons.

Over the past few decades, roller coaster innovations have included multiple loops, increased speeds, steep drops, high drops, corkscrew turns and other maneuvers.

Riders are offered the opportunity to sit, stand, lay flat, dangle and spin in every which direction. Enthusiasts rank the rides on the intensity of the experience, and there are even official designations based on the height of the drops (“hypercoasters” feature 200+ foot drops, “giga” coasters are 300+, and the two “strata” coasters in operation boast 400+ plunges).

As the ante gets upped nearly every year, rides that once seemed terrifying might now feel quaint. Such was the case with Six Flags Magic Mountain’s Revolution.

When it debuted at the Valencia, CA-based park in May of 1976, it was the centerpiece of their numerous exhilarating attractions as the first modern coaster to feature a vertical loop.

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Revolution Coaster at Six Flags Magic Mountain features a vertical loop; photo by Eric J. Lawrence

Revolution was featured in films such as “Rollercoaster” and “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” and in 2002 was awarded a plaque from the American Coaster Enthusiasts as a “Coaster Landmark.”

However, 40 years on, the ride has since been supplanted by dozens of bigger, faster, more intense rides, including several at Magic Mountain itself. For many parks, this would signal the eventual replacement of such a coaster, dismantled to make room for something ever-thirsty thrill-seekers hadn’t experienced before.

But Revolution has miraculously survived to celebrate its 40th anniversary!

Rechristened as the New Revolution, the coaster has been upgraded to include cutting-edge virtual reality technology, giving it a new lease on life. Riders can now wear an immersive VR headset (manufactured by Samsung, a partner in developing the ride’s upgrade) which simulates the experience of flying a jet fighter, coordinated to match the roller coaster’s own twists and turns (and, of course, drops).

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Illustration from the web site of VR Coasters

In the spirit of hard-hitting journalism, I offered to test out the ride for KCRW’s DnA.

But I was reminded that pairing amusement park rides with virtual (or, at least, simulated) reality has existed before.

And, to my mind, Disneyland is the quintessential example. To create a true “theme park,” Disney’s Imagineers are specifically tasked with marrying a physical experience (often with a “thrilling” component) with sophisticated storytelling techniques to immerse visitors in any number of fantastical situations.

In some cases the theme is very lightly applied, such as on the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, a glossier variation on the common “runaway train” roller coaster trope.

Big Thunder Moutain Railroad, photo courtesy Disney Wikia.com
Big Thunder Moutain Railroad, image: Disney Wikia.com

On other rides special effects augment the verisimilitude to a high degree, such as on the Indiana Jones Adventure, where riders board a jeep-like transport and confront swarming bugs, blowgun booby-traps and the trademark giant boulder that threatens to crush the visitors, all while zooming around at near-roller coaster speeds.

Whole “lands” are transformed into simulated realities, such as Mickey’s Toontown, where guests can wander around a community that feels like it came straight from the set of a cartoon (taking specific inspiration from the ground-breaking 1988 film, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” with its blend of live-action and animation).

The biggest breakthrough came with the 1987 opening of the Star Tours ride, based on George Lucas’ beloved “Star Wars” film series. Instead of a traditional coaster with a car on a track, Star Tours used military-grade flight-simulators paired with a 70mm film that depicts the cockpit of a spaceship going on a frenzied run dodging bad guys and space debris.

Star Tours Space Port, image courtesy Disney.Wikia.com
Star Tours Space Port, image: Disney.Wikia.com

Although the actual cabins could only move 35 degrees in any direction, by combining that motion with the more-dramatic visual stimulus of the film, riders could be fooled into thinking they were alternately zooming through space or dropping into free-fall. It was a powerful effect, and the ride marked an important evolution in the history of amusement park thrill rides, taking inspiration from Disneyland’s own experiments in matching visuals with practical effects (such as the 1986 Michael Jackson-starring short-film, “Captain EO,” which was shown in a theatre outfitted with lasers, smoke blasts and seats that would pulse to the beat of the music), and, in turn, inspiring future rides, like Soarin’ Over California, in which riders would be loaded onto a hang glider-like vehicle set in front of an enormous OMNIMAX screen showing images of flying over various California landmarks (with the experience further augmented by scents of orange groves and pine trees pumped into the theatre at appropriate moments).

What also made Star Tours an important development was the realization by theme park designers that they could change the video, resync the motions of the cabin and have a totally different ride experience without having to change the guts of the ride’s architecture. This was actually put into practice in 2011, as the attraction morphed into Star Tours: The Adventure Continues, which featured a whole new storyline, as well as new special effects, including 3D video. This makes for a cost-effective and efficient way to “replace” aging attractions, whose ridership may have been diminishing due to familiarity.

Roller coaster at Santa Monica Pier's Pacific Park; photo, Frances Anderton
Roller coaster at Santa Monica Pier’s Pacific Park; photo, Frances Anderton

And so, the New Revolution, with its VR goggles and old-school roller-coaster thrills, represents the latest iteration of this trend. In contrast to Disney’s modus operandi, Magic Mountain puts more emphasis on physical thrills than storytelling, so it should be no surprise that the theme of the ride seems somewhat arbitrary and unoriginal, taking cues from decades’ worth of shoot-‘em-up video games.

Nevertheless, coaster enthusiasts should rejoice that such a ride succeeds in its promise of a new experience, all while paying fair tribute to the core traditions of coaster-hood (for example, you can still ride the New Revolution without the goggles and enjoy the loops and plunges just as one did the day it opened 40 years ago).

So whether you boldly raise your arms to the heavens or hold on to the lap bars for dear life, get ready to scream your head off – there are new coaster experiences a-coming!

Listen to Eric’s assessment of the New Revolution on this DnA (along with an interview with VR Coasters’ designer Thomas Wagner).