Special Technology Feature
The Dangers of Technology-First Ride Design
Second of Two Parts

November 1, 2013 No Comments

One of the most intriguing aspects to wandering the vast halls of the annual IAAPA Attractions Expo is finding the latest “hot” products and “it” technologies.  Almost invariably, you’ll find something unique and interesting each year (hint:  just follow the Imagineers or Universal Creative employees around to see what catches their attention.)
Several years ago, it was the KUKA Robotics “robocoaster”—essentially a robotic arm designed for assembly manufacturing but adapted for theme park use.  In the early years, IAAPA attendees could actually “test ride” the robocoaster on the show floor.  While that opportunity was soon replaced with merely watching the robot arm at work, the compelling potential for this ride mechanism was still obvious.
In particular, the intensity of the robotic arm could be dialed up or dialed down depending on the thrill level the guest wanted.  Reduce the speed and you would have an only slightly scary experience that might be programmed for a mild, family ride.  Or, ramp it up and you could have a full blown thrill ride for theme park daredevils.  This diversity of thrill level is one of the things that made the KUKA robot so unique.
There was only one problem though:  because of the cost of each robot unit, combined with a relatively slow load/off-load time, the robotic arm was not extremely efficient in ride through-put numbers—a key metric that measures how many guests can ride an attraction during a defined time period.
The result is that you had a great technology with some inherent design limitations, especially as compared to more traditional ride vehicles like a multi-car coaster system or an omnimover.  This led to early efforts that ranged from merely demonstrative (where guests simply rode a barely-themed robotic arm like the original IAAPA attendees did) to using the arm as part of the ride but not as the ride vehicle (ex: as part of a show scene in the Living Seas at Epcot.)
It was not until the Universal Creative team, working closely with KUKA leaders, was able to find an attraction concept where the robotic arm was imbedded into the attraction’s storyline while overcoming the operational challenges.
Today, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is the centerpiece of Universal Orlando’s wildly-successful Wizarding World—allowing guests to smoothly pivot, twist and turn as they follow Harry and his friends through a broomstick adventure.
A major key to this success was that Universal Creative was patient, disciplined and innovative enough to develop an attraction whose storyline was enhanced by the robotic arm experience versus the opposite approach of simply finding a “hot” technology and trying to develop a way to theme it after the fact.  The problem with the latter approach is that it almost inevitably leads to a rider simply riding a technology-based ride versus a rider experiencing a storyline-based attraction.
In other words, a relatively generic ride vehicle instead of an immersive experience where the ride vehicle is simply part of the delivery device for the story.
A Tale of Two Epcots
A great example of the creating a ride based on an exciting, new ride technology versus developing an attraction where the ride vehicle (even if technologically-advanced) is not the centerpiece but rather a complementary part of the experience can be found just a few hundred yards apart from each other in Epcot’s Future World area.
On one side of the park, you’ll find Mission: Space, a $100 million-plus ride based on advanced motion simulator technology from Environmental Tectonics Corporation (ETC).  On the other side, you’ll experience Soarin’—also a motion simulator-based attraction but one which was designed and built for much less than Mission: Space.
And, one which, according to current and former Disney sources, is one of the highest rated attractions among guests anywhere in the Walt Disney World Resort.
Add in the fact that the Soarin’ load times and maintenance costs are equally, if not more, efficient than Mission: Space and it begs the question about how did a significantly less-expensive attraction become significantly more popular with guests than its motion simulator counterpart just across the park?
The answer is an important example of how the concept of an attraction should drive the technology rather than the technology driving the attraction.
In the case of Mission: Space, certain Disney executives became enamored with the ETC ride technology and decided that they needed to figure out a way to incorporate it into a new ride.  This forced Disney’s Imagineers to conceive an attraction centered on the ride mechanism rather than a compelling storyline—a dramatic departure from the approach generally preferred by Walt Disney himself (and which many people attribute to the lasting success of early Disney theme park attractions.)
On the other hand, the Soarin’ development process was significantly different.  In that case, Disney leaders had wanted to develop an attraction where guests encountered flight from a bird’s eye view that offered a different and unique perspective for certain experiences.  For several years, Disney tried different ride mechanism concepts but could not overcome cost and operational challenges for each design they came up with.
It was not until Disney’s Mark Sumner tinkered (now somewhat famously in ride design lore) with an Erector set and some string that Disney discovered a ride vehicle that effectively conveyed the flight experience while meeting reasonable cost and operational requirements.
Today, this “storyline first, then the technology” approach is a major reason that Soarin’ is one of the most popular Disney attractions in recent decades.
Now, granted, some readers may note that Soarin’ was still quite expensive compared to many off-the-shelf ride technologies and, to a degree, that is true.  However, it is not the actual custom-designed versus off-the-shelf comparison that really matters.  Indeed, many off-the-shelf technologies can, and do, serve as the ride mechanism for extremely immersive attractions.
The key question is, instead, one of the process behind developing the attraction.  This means that, sometimes, even the hottest new ride vehicle technology you see at IAAPA each year may not be the one worth buying if it doesn’t fit into the ride concept you are trying to offer.
Simply buying a cool ride vehicle and figuring out how to turn it into a new ride at your facility will often lead to an attraction that, while guests might first enjoy the raw thrills or newness of it, does not realize popularity past the initial debut.  This, in turn, leads to “stale” rides that, after the early excitement wears off, do not serve as a guest-magnet to your facility.
Disney learned this in a very costly way with Mission: Space, which in survey after survey receives only mild guest interest and hardly serves as a strong reason for visiting Epcot.  Fortunately for Disney, they are big enough to absorb the missed opportunity and costs of this error.  Many amusement facilities, though, might not have that type of cushion to overcome such an expensive mistake.
Allow that reality to serve as a careful warning to your facility as you wander the halls of the IAAPA Attractions Expo in search of “the next big thing.” -
(Reach Contributor Chad Emerson at chaddemerson@gmail.com)

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