Note: Almost the moment I finished writing this, Cedar Fair announced the permanent closure of Fear VR at Knott’s Berry Farm and California’s Great America due to complaints from mental health activists. The Insanatorium maze has also vanished from CGA’s app. Links to news accounts are at the conclusion. So I suppose much of this is now a Yesterhaunt attraction (hope I’m not stepping on Warner’s toes).

The Beginning (written 9-20-2016)

I find myself filled with anticipation at this particular point of the space time continuum. This upcoming weekend both California’s Great America and Six Flags Discovery Kingdom will be debuting new virtual reality experiences, and your humble narrator is ready to jump right to it. On a Friday I was at the California’s Great America media preview of Fear VR (also coming to Knotts Berry Farm), and the next day sees me at the Passholder preview for the Revenge of the Gargoyles version of Kong at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom.

Admittedly, my own VR experience is limited. I’ve yet to go to Six Flags Magic Mountain since VR was added to Revolution, and am a spoiler avoider. I remember a Berkeley arcade where I strapped on a helmet during the Reagan administration, but it was technologically limited, maybe slightly above Pong, a gimmick. About 10-12 years ago I got roped into some upcharge thing at Magic Mountain which was awful. And, well, that’s all. But that was a long time ago tech wise, and in that time we’ve gone from online videos [sic] that were really little more than a series of blurry stills to actual high definition clips of the last Disneyland set by Bill Hill & the Hillbillys.

Not sure exactly what to expect, but am excited about it. In the end, I hope to say there is no winner or loser. Neither of them has to be better than the other, different will suffice. In just the last week there have been ads for a VR system for Samsung appearing on our television, and care to guess who is manufacturing the park’s systems? Also, virtual reality has been reported as quite the rage from the just held Tokyo Game Show, so this may well be the year when this technology has hit the level needed for mass penetration.Read on to see what happened.

The Middle

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It was opening night for the 2016 Haunt at California’s Great America when several of us representing websites, newspapers and broadcasters gathered to experience Fear VR. As is common in show biz, prep was in progress right down to the wire, with workers still finishing the signs and booth for ticket sales (Fear VR requires an additional $10 fee).

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Overheard discussions spoke to the nervous energy of the group, with several declarations of grave misgivings for that which awaited us. Eight at a time were led inside by perky, scrubs clad professionals, and before too long we found ourselves in the waiting room. The obligatory safety video was played during our introduction to this modern, safe medical facility. But after, there was a moment, a twist in the story, we all know what it is, don’t even have to write it out, in unison everybody, “And then something when horribly wrong!”

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Yes brothers and sisters, something has gone wrong; and Katie, a disturbed young woman possessing dangerous, powerful telekinetic abilities, is on the loose. Naturally we were led away for our eye exams as if nothing was wrong. Well, they are perky professionals, and must know what they’re doing. There are, in fact, two waiting rooms, plus two examination wards, each with a capacity of eight. Each ward contains eight wheelchairs, and each of them includes VR goggles and headphones. A perky professional ensured that the goggles were focused and adjusted properly. Glasses must be removed, and I literally cannot see that big E on a standard eye chart. There is a focus knob, and mine had to be twisted all the way to one side, but I could ultimately read the safety info before me (warning, warning, notice, threat, notice, warning, threat, threat, notice…what is this, Mission Space?). The procedure was repeated with the headphones, and the room around me figuratively faded from existence. Finally, velcro straps were wrapped around my wrists.

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It was a circular chamber, looking around let me see walls, floor, ceiling. It took a moment to realize that what was seen looking down was supposed to be one’s hospital gown draped legs. One day the technology will exist so they would move along with my own legs, how cool will that be? But, for now, it’s pretty cool without that futuristic feature; and then we were out of the test chamber, and in a hospital for our eye exam. And then…. Remember Katie? If not, you will. That’s correct, something continues going wrong. And though the wheelchair doesn’t actually move, because it’s not actually a wheelchair; it isn’t a mere chair, either. Frights are like comedy, relying on the unexpected, so no spoilers for you today.

The “I” word is perhaps overused in the theme park universe, but this was truly immersive. Being the weird dude that I am, when Katie first appeared, I said “Hi Katie” out loud, lost in the virtual world. Turns out that another photographer was directly in front of me at that moment, and she thought I saw her and said hello, yet I was utterly oblivious to her presence. After having my on go in photographer mode while others received their exam. I can say that if you talk, it will be heard clearly by anyone in the ward without headphones. Most seem to rely upon the same two word phrase, and it isn’t “Hey Katie”.

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The theme carries on through the exit hallway, and after about 10 minutes, it’s all over. So at a buck a minute is it worth the cost? I think it is. It’s a small, personal experience; and the guest to staff ratio reflects that. The VR was well done; everything tracked perfectly when looking about in any direction. After the gates opened for the night we passed by once, and there were not many waiting to go in, but that may have changed as the night went on. Finally, the name was changed from Fear VR: 5150 after objections from some mental health professional, some of which are reportedly still demanding that it be shut down. Many of us, myself included, have had family or friends struggle with these issues, so I’m not entirely dismissive of someone’s feelings regarding serious conditions. It’s a swamp I don’t particularly care to wade into here other than to point out that Katie, the protagonist of this horror vignette, had dangerous, powerful telekinetic abilities. While it’s possible that members from the community of those possessing dangerous, powerful telekinetic abilities may still find Fear VR offensive, I am equally confident that this is a community so small as to be microscopic.

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A scheduling conflict prevented me from attending the media preview for Rage of the Gargoyles at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, but I was able to cope with the first weekend of operation being Passholder previews. There wasn’t a lot of clarity about how this would unfold, the park issued passes with a return time to ride, and for a while I didn’t think I was going to get on, and while it could have been done better, everybody gets spared that particular tirade today. (It was necessary to use a backup camera that could be secured in a pocket during the ride)

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As one would expect, the VR headset had more than a single band to cling to one’s skull. In addition to straps that fit over the back of the head. There was an additional drawstring to tighten under the chin. The bright orange strap was a lanyard, so the unit could hang by the neck until on the coaster. Although told glasses could be worn, I was happy to leave them behind. No headphones, but there was a small speaker on the right, perhaps from the phone that sits nestled in the front of the headset. After sitting and attaching the device, there was nothing but black and calibration instructions. A QR code on the back of the seat ahead aids in the calibration process.

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Suddenly I was seated in the gunner position of a helicopter, with the pilot’s head just ahead in a slightly lower position, inside a hanger with overhead doors. The craft’s machine gun was just outside the canopy, and tracked to wherever I looked, as did a floating gun sight. Touching the side fired it, and as we waited the sounds of gunfire were all around, along with regular “this is so cool” declarations. When we began ascending the lift hill of Kong, the helicopter also took off, emerging through the opening doors into a gargoyle infested cityscape. At this point we could shoot at the beasts simply by sight; the gun fires where you look. As we crested the hill, gargoyles landed on us, tearing away our canopy and weapon.

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We then hurled through the city below with no clue as to what would come next. Without any reference to real reality, I completely lost track of which way was up or down in the virtual world. When we slowed in the brake zone prior to the station, more gargoyles appeared, and I ultimately noticed that my virtual self had taken up a hand held weapon, but before I could totally sort it out, a score was displayed, and it was time to offload.

It would be great if that’s all there was to report, but there were a couple of negatives. Substantial negatives. One possibly insurmountable.

First, let’s all understand this was a preview, so like a dress rehearsal, perfection should not be expected. It’s a new system, and it is more labor intensive than a standard coaster due to the distribution, collection and cleaning of the headsets. There are also instances of a unit simply not functioning properly. This happened at Fear VR, too. But while it’s simple enough to swap out a unit with a person in a faux wheelchair, it is considerably more complicated when a roller coaster is involved. It is much more time consuming when all restraints are released, which means they must also be rechecked. This happened no less than three times as I sat in my seat. It also required assistance and time to get my unit to calibrate. During all this an entire Loony Toons short played in the queue. Before riding I clocked the dispatch interval three times, and the results included nine minutes. Twelve minutes. TWENTY MINUTES! This is a train of 20, and at this rate the hourly capacity is barely 100, if that. I simply don’t see how it can work. I was told that it will be open to all with no specific return time. I would love to hear from anyone that has experienced any of the other coasters in Six Flags parks with virtual reality to see how it has worked there. Again, it’s a test and adjust kind of situation, so logic suggests they will be able to improve on these times. The VR may slow things down some no matter what, but Six Flags wouldn’t be putting these systems in nine parks if they didn’t feel they could get a handle on efficiency.

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But what may be insurmountable is Kong itself. It’s not a bad coaster, but it isn’t B&M smooth like the adjacent Medusa. But it is a tight track in a small footprint, and it pulls some heavy positive G forces. My headset was cinched down pretty tight, but as soon as we left the lift hill it was shaking violently, and ultimately had to be manually pressed against my face in order to get any actual virtual view. Six Flags has added this setup to a couple of other coasters I’ve ridden, Revolution and Dare Devil Dive at Six Flags Over Georgia, and both seem better suited. In fact, Revolution has some dead zones that I can imagine being substantially improved with VR. I’m perhaps more anxious to try it now than I was before. I would also be interested to hear the experiences others have had on VR coasters, and if this was a problem for you.

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The Aftermath

So where does that leave us? While there were shortcomings with my Rage of the Gargoyles experience, combining virtual reality with a roller coaster is still pretty exciting to me. I can allow time to sort out the operational challenges, but the use of Kong is still its own challenge, it seems like Superman, or even Boomerang may be a better choice, and both are by design only able to run single trains. The gaming aspect is also going to immediately increase the rerideability factor, so let’s call it incomplete.

Fear VR is more successful at accomplishing its goals, which don’t have the same obstacles. The technology is similar in both. While in the hanger my surroundings were as detailed as in the hospital. In both cases I was seeing a simulation, and that was never forgotten, but in both I was also consciously removed from my surroundings visually, and all but completely with headphones added. Fear VR is still more of a pure horror experience that relies on shock and surprise. It is a great option to have at Haunt, the price is reasonable, and the technology should only get better.

Here are two newspaper stories regarding the closure of Fear VR: