6 augmented reality theme park experiences transforming the industry

By Cristina Ferrandez

The COVID-19 pandemic left no industry unscathed, but event-focused businesses have had a particularly challenging period. Disney, for example, said that the COVID-19 outbreak resulted in its parks experiencing a $2.4 billion loss in operating income. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that other theme parks fared much better. Luckily, things are finally looking up for theme parks. Consumers are now eager to spend some quality time with their friends and family at leisure attractions. And as theme parks reopen, it’s becoming clear that many of them have been using their time behind shuttered doors wisely, planning new rides and improving the visitor experience. For theme parks, working on staying relevant and updating their attractions to reflect new technologies has always been vital. However, many have only recently found ways to incorporate augmented reality theme park experiences into their offering to increase engagement. As AR familiarity and usage grow, this trend is only going to continue. 

Adopting= augmented reality theme park experiences is easier than you think. Here are some examples of theme parks using AR to stay ahead of the curve. 

1. Walt Disney World Resort: classic characters come to life through AR lenses

augmented reality theme park
Disney characters come to life through AR at Walt Disney Resort

For most people, going to a Walt Disney Park would not be complete without meeting iconic characters and taking pictures with them. Yet, the COVID-19 pandemic has put a bit of a damper on making memories in this way. With up-close meet-and-greets — and the photo opportunities that come with them — temporarily cancelled, many people were left wondering whether Disney World was worth the trip. 

To resolve this dip in consumer confidence and celebrate its 50th anniversary, the Walt Disney World Resort partnered with Snapchat to release new lenses that let guests snap selfies with their favourite Disney characters

Park visitors can take interactive photos with characters like Mickey and Minnie Mouse behind them, who appear as playful as ever and can even give guests a virtual hug. Disney fans can also take selfies or videos on their own while wearing an augmented reality version of the trademark Disney World mouse ears cap, with balloons floating in the background. 

2. Walt Disney World Resort: AR filters turn Disney into an augmented reality theme park pioneer

The Disney World Resort and Disneyland also recently launched Genie+, an app for skipping long lines. For visitors to Walt Disney World, the app includes AR elements (guests to Disneyland get unlimited Disney PhotoPass downloads instead).

While there is not much information about what the Genie+ enabled AR experience may involve just yet, it is likely to comprise the above-mentioned character filters and other fun AR moments. 

For example, visitors to the Walt Disney World will be able to “transform” the Cinderella Castle by placing photos captured by Disney PhotoPass photographers onto the castle with AR. Looking through the camera lens on their phone, they’ll see a collage of magical moments from all the guests celebrating the park’s 50th anniversary. 

What’s super cool is that when visitors return to the park during the 18-month-long 50th-anniversary celebration, they’ll be able to see the photos from their previous visit in AR again.

3. Super Nintendo World: AR makes Mario Kart Race more realistic

augmented reality theme park
AR-enhanced Mario Kart Racing at Super Nintendo World

Cited as one of the best video games ever made, it was only a matter of time before someone built a theme park dedicated exclusively to Super Mario World. After years of development and delays, it has finally happened: the Super Nintendo World opened its doors at Universal Studios Japan (USJ) in Osaka earlier this year. 

One of the most popular rides in the new theme park is “Mario Kart: Koopa’s Challenge.” A Mario Kart race, it takes place inside a replica of Bowser’s Castle, where visitors are equipped with an augmented reality headset attached to Mario’s iconic red cap before they can take off in their karts. 

The ride involves guests racing against other players and firing turtle shells at enemies as the kart spins in various different directions. Impressive? You bet. Sam Byford of The Verge noted that the ride is “pushing at the limits of what’s possible with [AR] technology.”

4. LEGOLAND: AR scavenger hunt brings mythical characters to life

augmented reality theme park
AR scavenger hunt at LEGOLAND

From AR toys to Snapchat brick-building lenses, LEGO is no stranger to AR. So it comes as no surprise that LEGOLAND, the chain of LEGO-themed amusement parks, has decided to create an AR experience for its launch of “LEGO Mythica: World of Mythical Creatures,” a new attraction at LEGOLAND Windsor in the UK.

The AR experience complements a 4D film, “LEGO Mythica – Journey to Mythica”, which will have visitors joining Alicorn Bobs on a journey into Mythica, a parallel universe full of enchanted forests and raging seas and inhabited by magical creatures. 

As guests explore the new area after watching the film, they will be able to use the LEGOLAND Windsor Resort app to go on an augmented scavenger hunt. 

When they come across LEGO statues of Mythica creatures, including a Chimera, Hydra, Alicorn, and Sky Lion, visitors can scan the QR codes on them to open virtual vortexes. Through these vortexes, guests can learn more about the mystical creatures, take selfies with them, and capture them as digital trading cards.

Not all AR experiences will be as easy to come by. Resort staff will also be handing out special “pop badges” with hidden AR features that act as “spy holes” into the parallel world. For example, one of these badges can be earned by buying a kid’s meal at The Hungry Troll. This is an ingenious way for the park to improve on-site spending. 

Guests don’t necessarily have to be in the park to enjoy AR adventures, though. They can also activate a set of portals at home that will allow them to virtually roam four different locations. There, they can go on the hunt for hidden items, learn about flora and fauna in Mythica, and capture additional cards to add to their collection. 

5. The Jardin d’Acclimatation: AR transforms ordinary attractions

augmented reality theme park
AR enhances attractions at Jardin d’Acclimatation

Although the Jardin d’Acclimatation, a children’s amusement park in Paris, was closed for seven months as a result of the pandemic, the staff working there had their hands full with keeping the gardens, rides, and restaurants up to scratch. They were also busy working on a new augmented reality experience. 

Partnering with Snapchat, the Jardin d’Acclimatation enriched 12 of the park’s star attractions with AR animations. By scanning the Snapcodes placed on totems in front of each attraction with their front-facing camera, visitors to the park can trigger tailor-made experiences for each attraction. On the other hand, the front camera allows guests to transform themselves into various different characters such as a dragon, a mouse, an astronaut, or an aviator. 

The experience doesn’t end when a visitor leaves the park, either. Because guests can keep the “snap codes” on their smartphones, they can see the park’s attractions in AR even when they return home. 

  1. Universal: will a long-awaited Pokémon attraction require AR glasses?

Is Universal working on a Pokémon attraction? Although rumours such as the possibility of an interactive Pokémon Gym being built have not been confirmed (or denied), if a Pokémon attraction does happen, it’ll likely involve AR glasses, much like the Mario Kart attraction in Super Nintendo World. 

Only, it’ll probably be an even cooler experience. That is according to Josh Young of Theme Park University, who believes that if Universal decides to incorporate AR tech into its Pokémon attraction, it will beat the Mario Kart project. The reason for that is that the AR tech available now is much better than when Mario Kart was started three years ago. 

The future of augmented reality theme park experiences

It’s not just that AR can help theme parks recover from the aftershock of COVID-19. When used appropriately, AR can also make it easier for attractions to tell better stories and, in consequence, deepen their relationship with their visitors. 

That AR is not a passing trend is obvious from Disney’s current investment in the technology, as well as its future plans. The brand is working toward creating connected park experiences that are neither just physical nor digital but rather interconnected. Tilak Mandadi, Chief Strategy, Innovation & Technology Officer at Disney, calls this concept the “theme park metaverse.” According to Mandadi, theme parks can achieve immersive metaverse experiences through smartphones, wearables, and digital access points. Crucially, while unique to every individual, these experiences are also social and always changing so that visitors are always in for a surprise, even if they’ve visited the same exact theme park many times before.

Not all theme parks need to go as far as Disney. Creating a metaverse may not be realistic for attractions that don’t have a multi-billion dollar budget. But every park can, and should, consider enhancing its offering with AR experiences. While not difficult to achieve, augmented reality theme park experiences can go a long way in keeping guests entertained and excited to come back. 

Not sure how to get started? Get in touch with the expert team at Poplar Studio today, and we’ll discuss the best way to create augmented reality theme park experiences.

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