ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — You’re flying alongside Superman, seeing the world as the Man of Steel views it, thanks to virtual reality headsets on a roller coaster at Six Flags New England.
Or you’re feeling the fear as you come face to face with King Kong, 30 feet tall, at Universal Orlando’s new Skull Island attraction.
These are a few examples of the heightened experiences awaiting visitors at theme parks across the country this summer. Park-goers are no longer just sitting back to enjoy the ride. Thanks to virtual reality, interactive features and other new technology, they’re playing roles and experiencing rides as never before.
“In terms of virtual reality, this has the chance to revolutionize the roller coaster experience,” said Colleen Mangone, director of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. “The guests physically ride the roller coaster while wearing the virtual reality headsets. So their visual line follows a story line or they could be accompanying a superhero. They are flying next to the superhero and as the superhero dives down, the coaster is diving down.”
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This season will also be about thrills and speed as several exciting roller coasters open across the country. Mako, a new shark-themed attraction at SeaWorld, is being billed as the tallest and fastest coaster in Orlando when it opens in June.
In Los Angeles, Universal Studios Hollywood is buzzing about a new Walking Dead attraction coming in July, along with The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which opened in April. In Tennessee, Dollywood’s Lightning Rod is sure to thrill wooden coaster enthusiasts.
“It’s going to be a great year,” said Arthur Levine, a theme park expert for About.com. “For a while there the economy tanked and parks kind of retreated. We weren’t really seeing a lot of new things happening at parks. Now they are re-investing and they are opening up new attractions and new roller coasters so that there really are types of exciting things to talk about.”
Here’s a look at some of the best new theme park attractions this season.
Universal Orlando will debut one of the most anticipated rides in the country when Skull Island: Reign of Kong opens in July. Visitors will explore the jungle home of the legendary beast. The 30-foot-tall, 18-foot-wide Kong will be brought to life by 3-D technology and animatronics. The ride opens to the public following a June 23 preview event.
SeaWorld Orlando’s shark-themed Mako, opening June 10, will hit speeds of up to 73 mph with the highest point at 200 feet covering nearly a mile of track. It’s a hypercoaster, which means speed, tight turns and a weightless feeling.
At Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, the dark ride Frozen Ever After is scheduled to open in late June in Epcot’s Norway Pavilion. A boat takes riders into the kingdom of Arendelle during the winter festival, where they’ll encounter characters from the megahit “Frozen” while hearing music from the movie and voices of the original cast. At Disney World’s Animal Kingdom, night safaris launch Memorial Day weekend, allowing guests to see nocturnal animals and observe their habits.
Also at Disney, the new shopping, dining and entertainment center at Disney Springs offers four neighborhoods: The Landing, Marketplace, West Side and Town Center. Disney Springs is also hosting a Cirque du Soleil show.
On July 4, Universal Studios Hollywood is slated to open The Walking Dead, based on the hit AMC show. Few details have been released but riders should expect a maze of horror.
Also at Universal Studios Hollywood, fans can immerse themselves in the recently opened Wizarding World of Harry Potter. It’s similar to the original Potter land at Universal Orlando, but the marquee ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, has added some unique 3-D technology.
Legoland California in Carlsbad joined the interactive fray when it debuted Ninjago in early May. Riders actually influence the outcome of the battle by using hand gestures to shoot, rather than laser guns, to help fight off evil during the experience.
At Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, The Joker, a hybrid steel and wooden coaster, will leave riders a little twisted — but in a good way — when it debuts May 29. The park has added steel tracks to the wooden frame of the Roar coaster, built in 1999, to create the hybrid experience. The 3,200-foot-long Joker will also include inversions, which the park says is a first for a wooden roller coaster, and will feature 15 moments of what the park is calling “extreme” airtime.
Six Flags New England in Agawam debuts Superman: The Ride Virtual Reality Coaster on June 11. Riders will wear wireless headsets providing high-resolution imagery and 360-degree views synchronized to the coaster.
Cedar Point in Sandusky opened Valravn in early May. It’s being called the world’s tallest, fastest and longest dive coaster. Riders will hang over the edge of the first hill, 20 stories high, for four seconds before dropping at a 90-degree angle, 75 mph.
Dollywood has unveiled its hot rod-themed Lightning Rod ride. It’s billed as the world’s first launched wooden coaster and fastest wooden coaster, capable of reaching speeds of up to 73 mph.
Six Flags Over Georgia in Austell debuts a DC Super Friends kids area in time for Memorial Day weekend with five family experiences themed on superheroes and villains: a Superman Tower of Power, Batcopters, Wonder Woman Flight School, Harley Quinn Games and The Joker Funhouse Coaster.