Theme parks: Technology is the ticket

Cutting edge technology will drive never-seen-before innovations in rides offered by the UAE's theme parks

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The IMG Worlds of Adventure will be one of the biggest theme parks the world has seen
GN Focus

The scale is truly epic — spread over the equivalent of 28 football fields, the temperature controlled IMG World of Adventure theme park will be the globe's largest indoor theme park when it flings its doors open on August 31. Located near Arabian Ranches and along the Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed road, the park is also an engineering marvel, packed with unique rides and never-seen-before innovations — such as the 100-seater Hulk Epsilon Base 3D ride system that comes with a 360-degree projection screen and multi-axis motion.

Similarly, Avenger Battle of Ultron leverages cutting-edge motion tech and stereoscopic 3D imagery to whisk you on a dark ride through the skies. Elsewhere, the Velociraptor coaster, made by Germany's Mack Rides, can hurtle from 0 to 100 kmph in just 2.5 seconds, allowing riders to experience a G-force of upto 3.8.

But if you would rather want your ride to be more leisurely, you can have close encounters with Japanese-made animatronic dinosaurs at the Forbidden Territory. Or sink into a plush seat at the 5D theatre, which adds motion, smell and touch to the movie experience.

But if you thought IMG World of Adventure was huge, well, hold on till October 31, when Dubai Parks and Resorts opens up in Jebel Ali — it will have over 100 rides spread over four theme parks, and will be the region's largest. Among other things, here you will get to descend into caves and fight dragons in highly interactive duels. 

No wonder the UAE is expected to become the theme park capital of not just the Middle East, but also the world. A PwC report from June 2015 notes the country has come a long way in realising its global ambition of becoming a leisure and entertainment hub, rivalling current market leader, Orlando.

The country has also emerged as an exciting playground for theme park innovations. More examples include Dynamic Attractions' SFX Coaster at the Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi, which claims to be a game-changer with its advanced track technologies and enveloping high definition special effects. Ferrari World is also boasts of the Flying Aces — the world's highest rollercoaster loop. Meanwhile, at Meyden Wire World Adventure Park, you will get to literally zip through the sky and over 70 different obstacles. 

But it is not all play and no work. With destinations like KidZania, Children's City, Stargate and even Dubai Dolphinarium, the country has emerged as a potent destination in the ‘eduplay’ category. In fact, innovations at theme parks in the UAE are representative of how theme parks around the world are evolving to keep visitors flocking in, especially the smartphone-toting millennials already exposed to technology.

As industry publication Theme Park Tourist (TPT) cautions, technology is a moving target while consumers are a fickle bunch. This creates a "frustrating duality" for theme park owners — the high-tech attractions they build need to stay popular long enough to justify the steep investment. On the other hand, not betting on technology could also be fatal. "Consumers are always on the lookout for what’s new and different, and they vote with their wallets. Parks that rest on their laurels get left behind when the competition adds new attractions in the interim," the magazine warns.

Among the more promising tech trends, TPT calls out Virtual Reality (VR). While VR has been used before in different forms, the latest ideas are all set to "infiltrate theme parks in clever ways" — a stunning example is The Void in Utah, USA, which pegs itself as the world's first virtual reality theme park. As MIT Technology Review describes it, "The Void combines virtual reality with elements of the real world, like walls, wind, and sprays of water. You walk around and touch things that match up with any number of fantastical worlds you see through a VR headset." 

Technology is also being used to personalise the theme park experience — for example, while exiting from the Walt Disney World's It's a Small World Attraction, the overhead screens bid adieu to each visitor by name.

The magic behind this are the MagicBands worn by visitors, which use location tracking and visitor data, to make them feel special. Similarly, Wi-Fi networks available across the park are making it easier for visitors to stay connected. A 2015 report titled 'UAE's Attraction and Theme Park Industry, and conducted by Picsolve — a company that provides image capture solutions to theme parks — found 62 per cent of theme park goers in the UAE believe Wi-Fi would improve their day out. Adds the report, "Ultimately, it has never been more important for attractions to deliver the high-quality, ‘fun’ experiences and content that will get people talking about their day out online and in doing so, attract further visitors." 

Interestingly, theme parks now have to deal with a mobile trend sweeping the world — AR games with virtual characters popping up all over the place.  As Theme Park Tourist reveals, "Though Pokémon GO has only been out for a short time, already guests at Walt Disney World have been getting in trouble around the resort with this app, as there are PokéStops, gyms and even Pokémon to be caught in backstage locations, and guests have inadvertently wandered into off-limits areas."

So perhaps the smartest thing to do at a theme park, after all, might be to switch off the smartphone and soak in the experience the old-fashioned way.

TECHNOLOGY AT PLAY

Strap yourself in and let those feet dangle. For you are about to embark on a hyper-realistic journey around the world — complete with the wind blowing on your face and the smell of the sea and the mountains as you zip over them. Debuted on June 16 at the Shanghai Disneyland Park, the Soarin' Around the World experience floats you over six continents and famous landmarks — from the Great Wall of China to the Great Pyramids in Egypt. You also pass over the Taj Mahal and Sydney Harbour, besides a dozen other exotic locations.

This level of realism and immersion was made possible with the use of cutting-edge tech — Soarin' uses a 4K film shot at double the standard 24 fps, a 180-degree laser projector, an 80-foot dome-shaped projection screen, and seats that move in sync with the passing scenery. As Tom Fitzgerald, Portfolio Creative Executive, Walt Disney Imagineering tells Disney's D23 magazine, "We often custom-design projection and screen technology to create the immersive story environment that we want. We have an R&D team here, and we developed a state-of-the-art digital camera, one of the highest resolution cameras in the world.”

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