Six Flags Magic Mountain (just north of Los Angeles) has a ridiculous arsenal of coasters to ride. At the time of this writing, they have an astonishing NINETEEN coasters. Seriously. Even if you take out the kiddie coasters, you're still left with more coasters than most parks and quite a few of them are world-class. There's a good wood coaster called Apocalypse...
a towering hypercoaster called Goliath...
A racing/duelling hybrid RMC coaster called Twisted Colossus, a B&M floorless coaster called Scream...
a mine train, a huge standup coaster, a classic Arrow suspended coaster, an inverted coaster, a Zac-spin, a 100mph reverse freefall coaster, an Arrow 7-loop coaster, and more - including a ridiculously intense 5th Dimension coaster called X2...
(and before everyone jumps in to correct me, the park is now calling X2 a "5th Dimension" coaster instead of a "4th Dimension" coaster - maybe the audio that plays on the lift hill is the other dimension, I dunno).
But this article is about one of the oldest coasters in the park. It opened in 1976, it was the first modern coaster to feature a vertical loop, it was designed by the legendary Anton Schwarzkopf (and if you need a refresher on Anton, read this), and it has 'starred' in numerous movies and television episodes. I'm talking about Revolution... err, New Revolution.
That's it there in the foreground, the white coaster being dwarfed by the orange flying coater Tatsu soaring above it. So why write about this coaster, when there are so many others to choose from? Well, for starters, the ride turns 40 years old this year (2016) and by anyone's standards that's a milestone for a coaster. It should also be noted that the ride originally ran with trains outfitted with lap bars only, but was fitted with over-the-shoulder restraints a few years later. This was an unfortunate move, as it made the ride terribly uncomfortable even though it might've appeared to be more secure for the riders. Heads got banged back and forth between the shoulder bars and even though you could tell there was a good coaster there, it was difficult to enjoy the experience.
So when the park announced that for the ride's 40th anniversary they would outfit it with brand new trains sans the shoulder bars, enthusiasts everywhere rejoiced. This might sound like an overstatement, but it would be difficult to overstate the reaction the news got. Folks who remembered the glory days of the ride were thrilled that they'd get to relive those good times. Folks who never got to ride it without the shoulder bars were thrilled to be given that opportunity. There were even websites and Facebook pages that had been devoted to pressuring the park to return Revolution to the way it was, so when the announcement was made, it was a BIG DEAL in the coaster world.
The coaster even has "landmark" status from American Coaster Enthusiasts, so of course it made sense to return it to the way it should be experienced.
...and then just a few weeks before it opened, Six Flags dropped a bombshell announcement. Revolution, now called "New Revolution" would be opening (along with several other existing coasters in the Six Flags chain) with a Virtual Reality (VR) experience.
Seriously. All of that excitement that had built up in the off-season about getting to experience this classic coaster the way Anton intended and they went and slapped a VR system on it, so you experience everything BUT the coaster they way it was intended. As interesting as it might've sounded to try out the new VR thing, there was a considerable grumbling in the coaster community over this "unnecessary" addition. Why can't we just enjoy it as the great coaster that it is?
Good news: you can! Look at those new trains, absolutely absent of any head-banging shoulder bars! They're comfortable and stylish, and if you don't want to wear the VR system on your head, you don't have to. In fact, if you're under 13 years old, you won't be allowed to wear the gear anyway. The ride experience is loads better than before, completely comfortable, much smoother, and you can really enjoy the graceful aerial ballet and ground-hugging swoops that make this coaster such a classic. The only downside is that the course is still littered with trim brakes that slow the trains to a crawl at several points, but the end result is still a thousand times better than before. Bravo.
But what if you want to try out the VR experience? Is it worth doing? Is it fun? Why bother?
At the risk of exposing my bias, I'll admit that I was much less excited about New Revolution when I heard about the VR aspect. I was one of those who was a bit peeved that the park felt the need to augment a perfectly good coaster with a gimmick. I folded my arms and shook my head, but tried to keep an open mind. Here's how it went:
The new moniker is up, the whole entry plaza is nicely done, and the queue splits at the top now into riders who want to VR and those who don't. If you do, you'll be sent to the table where the headsets are, where you'll be instructed on how to put it on and adjust all of the straps and things. I should mention here that YES, they're cleaned and sanitized before you get them.
There's nearly a zero-percent chance that this thing will fly off during the ride and even if it does manage to come off your face, there's a necklace strap that goes around your neck before you put on the gear, so it will still stay with you. I doubt you'll have to ever worry about it, though. It clings to you like something from Alien.
Straps go around and over the head and under the chin. Yes, it's secure. Yes, you can wear your eyeglasses with the gear (although you may not need to, since the gear has a focus adjust wheel built in). Yes, it's more comfortable than it looks.
What do you see? You're seated in the gunner position (back seat) of a fighter jet in an underground hangar. There are other jets being attended to by mechanics. Does it look realistic? Well, it looks like a video game. That was actually the first bit of "I told you so" in my mind, as I decided right then and there that video game graphics would never be as much fun as real-world scenery and you'd never be able to immerse yourself in a world that was obviously fake. I began a mental thesaurus of words that meant "humbug."
When you turn your head, you can "look around" the hangar. Tapping the side of the unit will fire laser blasts (just like a video game). Soon, the ride is moving and you appear to be rolling forward in the hangar toward an elevator. The coaster train begins to climb the lift and the VR sets show the elevator taking you up, up out of the bunker. This is the first instance of something being more interesting than expected. The coaster lift is at an angle, but the VR shows an elevator lift. It works surprisingly well, even though your body is doing something different than what you're seeing. Also, there is target practice as you go up: red targets flip over on the front and sides of the elevator shaft, which you can shoot by using your head motion to aim the guns. Before long, you exit the elevator and move forward a bit, which coincides with the coaster train reaching the top of the lift and leveling out. This is when you get your first glimpse of the VR story.
You're in a city under attack by alien robots. Why? Dunno. Now it should be noted that the actual view through the gear isn't nearly as hi-res as the shot above provided by Six Flags. The scenario is the same, though, and when the motion of the coaster combines with the visuals, the lack of realism takes a back seat to the overall experience. Can you shoot stuff? Not any more. As soon as you exit the lift, one of those little alien drones smashes into your fighter and takes out your weapons. From here on, the story is of you chasing down that drone around the city... again, dunno why. I mean, it just took out your guns, what will you do if you catch it? No matter. The coaster drops down the first swooping drop, the VR shows your jet diving down to near street level in a crowded city, the G-forces kick in, and suddenly it's all HOLY SHIT, THIS IS HAPPENING and you've been transported to a real-life video game and your body is totally feeling this RIGHT NOW.
Being able to turn your head and look at stuff in a virtual world has been a thing for awhile now. It's kinda fun for a minute. But turning your head to look around a virtual world while your body is feeling legitimate motion and G-forces and stuff is a whole new level of virtual reality that is difficult to describe until you've actually done it. It's real and surreal all at once.
At one point, just before the loop, you turn a corner and there's a skyscraper RIGHT THERE IN THE WAY. Now, you know it's all fake, but the entire trainload of seasoned coaster riders all went "WOAH!" right on cue. A few screamed. I recognized the building from when I sneaked a peek at the VR system being tweaked by the guy who was on hand from the VR company who set everything up (I was there during a media preview day before the ride opened to the public).
Yeah, the building doesn't look like much there on the Macbook screen, but when you're "flying" toward it and can feel your body moving, it's much more impressive. It's also pretty impressive when you crash right through one of the windows and bust through a bunch of office cubicles, then out the other side.
One note here: how this scene plays out depends on where you sit on the train. This point in the ride is where the train hits some trim brakes just before the drop into the loop. If you're sitting near the back of the train, you hit the building, then while inside the building, you feel the brakes as you go through the offices, then break the other window to exit the building at a crawling speed. If you're seated near the front, you smash through the building, the offices, and the second window before the slowdown. The feeling is quite different. In the back, it seems that the first window slows you down - in the front, it seems like you break through the whole building, then stall as you exit. Pretty interesting. Either way, it's a signature moment in the story that sets up the moment you've been waiting for: the loop.
Your fighter jet is pointed right at a huge alien robot who has punched a rather massive hole in the pavement. Look to the side and you'll see that he's taken out several overpasses (luckily, all of the cars managed to stop before going over the brink and the drivers are all standing on the bridge looking over the chasm that just opened up) and is setting its sights on your jet. You fly down into the hole, narrowly missing the robot, then loop up and around it. Combine that bit of fantasy visual with real-world G-forces working on your body and you have an experience that is unmatched in any theme park ride today.
Oh, and did I mention the bigass mother ship hovering over the city? That's it on the screen there. It's HUGE. Those little bumps below it? That's the city you've been flying through. Scale it up and that ship is roughly the size of Manhattan. It's the one dropping all these robots and drones and your fellow pilots are busy taking it on. You, on the other hand, are still chasing that drone that smacked you at the beginning and after you do the loop, you spot it again and the chase is on. At this point in the ride, you're barreling through a tunnel (which sounds weird) and hitting some more trim brakes. In the VR story, you're still chasing the drone and you somehow manage to shoot it with another weapon you weren't aware of before. The drone is encased in a blue energy bubble and explodes. Yay! Now it's time to land and get your jet repaired and there's an aircraft carrier sitting there in the harbor. Oh, but wait, there's a big alien robot attacking the carrier! You swoop to the left and dive under the nose of the carrier to escape the robot. This is the final helix on the ride.
When you come up out of the helix, the robot attacker is gone (WTF?) and you land safely on deck. People on deck are saluting and waving and you roll to the end of the carrier as you notice the mothership overhead burst into flames and begin its fall from the sky.
Oh, snap. That mothership is totally going to crush the whole city when it falls. Everyone will die. Who wrote this story?
But who cares? You just experienced something that is absolutely groundbreaking in theme park technology. This is the theme park equivalent of the first iPhone (which is ironic, since Samsung provides the gear). It's a game-changer that is unlike anything that has come before it. It's seriously cool. It's far better than any of the doubters believed it would be.
...and it can only get better.
I was absolutely convinced that this was going to be just a gimmick that would be a far inferior experience to simply riding the coaster as a coaster. It's not. The great part is that you can STILL "just" ride the coaster and have a great time doing it, but when you want to dive into a virtual world, you can do that, too. The experience is detailed enough to warrant repeat rides to see things that you didn't notice previously. There are "Easter eggs" all over the place (I counted three Six Flags billboards around the city, for example) that you can spot by looking around. It's genuinely FUN and a great way to keep older rides fresh and new.
But the thing that got me really excited wasn't what I experienced, but what I imagine this technology will develop into in the future. Just like the first iPhone was awesome in its day, but pales in comparison to today's models, this VR coaster system is awesome today, and has the potential to be the gateway to a whole new level of interactive experience as the tech improves.
Right now, this is a system that's written around an existing ride. Thus, the story and setting had to fit what was already in place. Honestly, the story suffers a bit (like that robot at the end just ceasing to exist after you fly in that circle and come back to the carrier) as a result. So what happens when coaster designers and VR companies collaborate from the very beginning to craft the VR story and the coaster layout together?
Also, graphics will get immeasurably better, the sense of immersion will improve, and the addition of sound (which the current experience is sorely lacking) will take things to a whole new level. Crashing through that building was exciting... add sound effects to that with a cinematic score playing in the background, and you've got yourself planted right inside an action movie.
But why stop with fantasy scenarios? The VR tech person mentioned that the scenes are scalable - which is how a 40-foot drop on the coaster can look and feel like a 40-story flight in the VR world... so you could be a small park with a small budget and build a small coaster with a VR system that shows a huge coaster. With good enough visuals plus the forces on the riders' bodies, the riders would be clutching their lapbars as if they were going down drops hundreds of feet taller than they really are.
Oh, and for the parks that do holiday events? Theme the VR to look like you're Santa riding in the sleigh and the reindeer are flying crazy patterns.
That's the other advantage: once the gear system is in place, the storylines can be switched out easily and the ride kept fresh and new.
So I went in as a skeptic and came out very, very excited about the future of this new chapter in theme park attractions. Color me impressed.
...and you can still enjoy Revolution the old fashioned way, too.