Legoland's brand-new Ninjago ride is the first in North America to use hand gestures to control the outcome of the action.

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With the help of some deft karate chops, a well-placed fireball hurled at ferocious villains and a set of 3-D glasses, Legoland is hoping to get a leg up in the hypercompetitive world of theme park attractions.

Ninjago, the southern California park’s latest Lego-inspired attraction just opened, and its 4-D ride is the first in North America to use hand gestures in place of physical devices to control the outcome of the action — in this case an epic ninja warrior battle. Sensory effects like heat, smoke and wind will enhance the 3.5-minute virtual journey through skeleton-filled caves and lava streams.

THE TECH

Disney’s Toy Story Midway Mania may have its pie- and egg-throwing cannons and Knott’s Berry Farm’s Journey to the Iron Reef its freeze ray guns. But Legoland now has what some say is an even more powerful marketing boast.

Taking a page from controller-free video gaming — think Xbox Kinect — Legoland California is trying to wow a generation of youngsters already hooked on mobile devices and high-tech games. Legoland’s sister park in Denmark debuted the same ride in March. The strategy also squares well with theme parks’ growing enthusiasm for interactive elements.

“It’s inevitable we’d see this type of technology in the theme park world, so Legoland is now ahead of this,” says Robert Niles, editor of Theme Park Insider. “This allows them to say we’re the first on this one and gives them a good connection with the younger kids who are being targeted by the video game companies.

“Right now, this is the new thing, but at some point it becomes the old thing, and you’ll want to do more with this than waving your hand above the lap bar.”

The Ninjago ride, inspired by the popular Lego line of Ninjago toys and a related TV series, owes its hand-gesture feature to Triotech, a Montreal company that pioneered what it’s dubbed the Maestro technology. While not exclusive to Legoland, it will be incorporated into rides at all of the Legoland parks.

THE RIDE

Youngsters and their parents, seated in four-person vehicles and wearing 3-D glasses, are instantly immersed in the Ninjago story line as motion-sensing technology embedded in the lap bars detects hand movement above it.

Intended to be warriors in training under the watchful eye of Ninjago character Master Wu, riders are challenged to vanquish a legion of enemies, from snake tribes, ghosts and skeletons to the menacing Great Devourer. Using hand movements, guests hurl virtual, color-coded projectiles — fire and ice balls, spheres of lightning and shock waves — at animated creatures that appear to jump out of 30-foot screens.

Along the way, special effects like dangling spiders, skeletons popping out of a barrel and bees emerging from a hive (when blasted) enliven the action.

Construction crews work to finish the new Legoland Ninjago attraction in April in Carlsbad, Calif. (Hayne Palmour IV / TNS)
Construction crews work to finish the new Legoland Ninjago attraction in April in Carlsbad, Calif. (Hayne Palmour IV / TNS)

The Ninjago adventure culminates with the reappearance of the Great Devourer, a monstrous snake who ultimately explodes in a huge flash of green after a barrage of all of the virtual artillery fired by hand-waving, karate-chopping riders.

All along the way, dashboards in the vehicles track the players’ scores as they compete with friends and family members, a feature that Legoland is hoping will ensure repeat visits.

Triotech Marketing Vice President Christian Martin explained that as lap-bar sensors detect hand motions, the company’s proprietary software is able to calculate where the guests are aiming their hands. That calculation, in turn, helps direct the virtual projectiles toward the right spot on the screen.

“This is all in 3-D, so the guest really has the impression that the projectile comes out of his hands,” Martin says. “Secondly, everything happens in real time. Nothing is pre-rendered, so this (makes) the guest an integral part of the adventure and not a passive observer.”

NINJAGO WORLD

The ride is part of a new 1-acre attraction called Ninjago World, which re-creates an Asian-style temple housing the ride and a shop selling licensed merchandise. A large courtyard is an interactive playground of sorts, with a rock-climbing wall, spinners to test youngsters’ agility and a monastery fashioned from 850,000 Lego bricks, which kids can embellish with their own Lego creations.

Twenty-two new Lego models, including guardian dragons, shields and Ninja warriors, also populate the new area.