THEME PARKS KEEP­ING SCORE

At­ten­tion, video-game-lov­ing mil­len­ni­als: Sev­eral new at­trac­tions that en­cour­age head-to-head com­pe­ti­tion are aimed right at you

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - By Hugo Martin

The Marine gripped his six-shooter, pointed it at the hori­zon and took a deep breath. “Let’s do it,” he barked, kick­ing off a brief but fu­ri­ous gun bat­tle with a horde of ro­bot cow­boys, their eyes glow­ing red.

Derek Phelps, a leath­er­neck sta­tioned at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendle­ton, was not only fight­ing off an in­vad­ing ro­bot horde but also his 8-year-old brother, Tyrus, who stood next to him, try­ing to kill off more in­vaders than his older brother.

“Ah, first place,” the Marine shouted af­ter fin­ish­ing the vir­tual re­al­ity game VR Show­down in Ghost Town, the new­est at­trac­tion at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park.

In the theme park in­dus­try, at­trac­tions that en­cour- age head-to-head com­peti-

tion are grow­ing in pop­u­lar­ity be­cause they en­tice visi­tors — par­tic­u­larly video-game-lov­ing mil­len­ni­als — to visit a park re­peat­edly to im­prove their score or to beat new chal­lengers.

For re­gional parks such as Knott’s Berry Farm, at­trac­tions that add an in­ter­ac­tive gam­ing el­e­ment also help them com­pete against the big-dol­lar at­trac­tions at Dis­ney­land and other des­ti­na­tion re­sorts with­out break­ing the bank.

In South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, Knott’s VR Show­down is among three gam­ing at­trac­tions that have launched re­cently or are sched­uled to open this sum­mer. They join two sim­i­lar com­pe­ti­tion based at­trac­tions that opened at lo­cal parks in the last two years.

Al­though games with a com­pet­i­tive el­e­ment go back to the days of the old­fash­ioned car­ni­val mid­way, theme parks be­came in­ter­ested in keep­ing score as tech­nol­ogy im­proved and the cost of vir­tual re­al­ity gog­gles and other com­po­nents dropped.

In Knott’s VR Show­down, play­ers wear­ing vir­tual re­al­ity gog­gles stand in an empty room. Over­head cam­eras mon­i­tor the play­ers’ pis­tols to track their shots and the wire­less equip­ment al­lows play­ers to move around the room. Com­pet­ing play­ers ap­pear as avatars on the gog­gles’ screen. A score ap­pears in the gog­gles at the end of the game.

“The whole no­tion of tap­ping into peo­ple’s com­pet­i­tive spir­its is what mo­ti­vates it,” said Monty Lunde, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Tech­nifex, a Va­len­cia com­pany that de­signs, en­gi­neers and pro­duces at­trac­tions, with a fo­cus on spe­cial ef­fects and in­ter­ac­tive sys­tems.

Such at­trac­tions aim to en­tice the bur­geon­ing pop­u­la­tion of young gamers, and de­sign­ers say the chal­lenge is to cre­ate a su­pe­rior ex­pe­ri­ence to what the play­ers might get on their home gam­ing setup.

Fuller­ton stu­dent Emil­iano Perez played VR Show­down at Knott’s Berry Farm re­cently and said it out­matches the vir­tual soc­cer games he plays on his home Xbox sys­tem.

“It’s like you are part of the game,” the 13-year-old said.

The vir­tual re­al­ity at­trac­tion at Knott’s even in­cludes lit­tle-known strate­gies — or “cheats” — to boost a player’s score, said Chris­tian Diek­mann, cor­po­rate vice pres­i­dent for strate­gic growth at Cedar Fair En­ter­tain­ment Co., which owns 13 theme parks and wa­ter parks, in­clud­ing Knott’s Berry Farm.

“We can de­liver now the kind of at­trac­tion we couldn’t do 10 years ago,” he said.

Diek­mann de­clined to dis­close the price of the new Ghost Town ad­di­tion but in­dus­try ex­perts say such gam­ing at­trac­tions can be built for less than $15 mil­lion.

In con­trast, Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios Hol­ly­wood spent an es­ti­mated $500 mil­lion last year to open its Wiz­ard­ing World of Harry Pot­ter sec­tion and Dis­ney­land is spend­ing an es­ti­mated $1 bil­lion to build a Star Wars in­spired ex­pan­sion, set to open in 2019.

Large theme park re­sort oper­a­tors have opened a hand­ful of gam­ing at­trac­tions in the past but are now putting most of their in­vest­ments in big-dol­lar im­mer­sive at­trac­tions.

In 2005, Dis­ney­land opened Buzz Lightyear As­tro Blasters, which puts riders on a slow-mov­ing ve­hi­cle and lets them shoot at tar­gets, ro­bots and aliens with a laser blaster. Three years later, Disney Cal­i­for­nia Ad­ven­ture opened Toy Story Mid­way Ma­nia, an­other tar­get-shoot­ing at­trac­tion that adds a 3-D ef­fect.

Dis­ney­land re­sort spokes­woman Suzi Brown noted that the Shang­hai Dis­ney­land Re­sort opened last year with a Buzz Lightyear at­trac­tion that in­cludes a gam­ing el­e­ment. She would not rule out build­ing sim­i­lar at­trac­tions at lo­cal parks in the fu­ture.

“We will con­tinue to in­vest in ex­pe­ri­ences that use cut­ting-edge tech­nol­ogy to im­merse guests into their fa­vorite sto­ries,” she said.

There are no in­ter­ac­tive gam­ing rides at Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios Hol­ly­wood, but in 2000, sis­ter park Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios Or­lando in Florida opened Men in Black: Alien At­tack, in which riders shoot at aliens to boost their score on a ve­hi­cle mon­i­tor.

A spokes­woman for Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios Hol­ly­wood was non­com­mit­tal about in­vest­ing in gam­ing at­trac­tions in the fu­ture.

“We con­tin­u­ally eval­u­ate our en­ter­tain­ment op­tions and cre­ate rides and at­trac­tions that best align with our theme park’s unique brand of im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ences,” Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios Hol­ly­wood spokes­woman Au­drey Eig said.

In­dus­try ex­perts say big re­sort parks may not be in­ter­ested in in­ter­ac­tive gam­ing rides be­cause they are tar­get­ing out-of-town va­ca­tion­ers who want to ex­pe­ri­ence big-bud­get im­mer­sive rides, not at­trac­tions that re­mind them of a car­ni­val game.

“Disney and Uni­ver­sal have cre­ative peo­ple and IP [in­tel­lec­tual prop­er­ties] and their jobs are to come up with a block­buster at­trac­tion,” said Martin Lewi­son, a theme park con­sul­tant and as­sis­tant busi­ness pro­fes­sor at Farm­ing­dale State Col­lege in New York.

Still, re­gional theme parks get a big re­turn on in­vest­ment with in­ter­ac­tive gam­ing projects, devel­op­ers say.

That’s what’s push­ing Six Flags Magic Moun­tain this sum­mer to open Jus­tice League: Bat­tle for Me­trop­o­lis. The 3-D ride, de­signed by Florida-based Sally Corp., puts visi­tors to the Va­len­cia park in ve­hi­cles armed with blasters; they score points by help­ing su­per­heroes de­feat their arch vil­lains.

“I re­ally be­lieve that Jus­tice League will be com­pared fa­vor­ably to at­trac­tions that are cost­ing over $100 mil­lion,” said John Wood, chair­man and chief ex­ec­u­tive of Sally Corp.

Other in­ter­ac­tive gam­ing rides in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia in­clude:

Voy­age to the Iron Reef, which opened at Knott’s Berry Farm in 2015, puts visi­tors on ve­hi­cles that dive into an un­der­wa­ter world. Armed with blasters, guests shoot at blow­fish, crabs, an iron oc­to­pus and other men­ac­ing sea crea­tures. A score­board on the ve­hi­cle keeps track of the di­rect hits.

Le­goland Cal­i­for­nia in Carls­bad is adding a wa­ter slide this sum­mer called Rip­tide Rac­ers where riders on float­ing mats race against each other. An over­head score­board keeps track of the time it took to slide from the top of the ride to the bot­tom.

Nin­jago, which opened last year at Le­goland Cal­i­for­nia, is an in­ter­ac­tive dark ride that lets visi­tors use mar­tial-arts-like hand ges­tures to shoot fire­balls at ninja war­riors. Points are scored with di­rect hits.

Pho­to­graphs by Luis Sinco Los An­ge­les Times

KNOTT’S BERRY FARM visi­tors Derek Phelps and his brother Tyrus, 8, play a round of VR Show­down in Ghost Town. At­trac­tions that in­clude a gam­ing el­e­ment are in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar at area theme parks.

PARK VISI­TORS line up to play a round of VR Show­down in Ghost Town. For re­gional parks such as Knott’s Berry Farm, at­trac­tions that add a gam­ing el­e­ment help them com­pete against Dis­ney­land’s big-dol­lar at­trac­tions.

Luis Sinco Los An­ge­les Times

VIDEO MON­I­TORS show what the play­ers see dur­ing the VR Show­down in Ghost Town at­trac­tion at Knott’s Berry Farm.

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