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Is Six Flags the New Disney?

By Rick Munarriz – Mar 6, 2016 at 9:03AM

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The regional amusement park operator is incorporating virtual reality technology into some of its coasters.

Source: Six Flags.  

A park operator is redefining the roller caster experience, and it's not Disney (DIS 0.74%). Six Flags (SIX -0.25%) announced on Thursday that it will arm riders at nine of its classic scream machines across the country with virtual reality headsets to experience the thrill rides in new ways.

Riders will strap on headsets consisting of Samsung Gear screens running Facebook's (META 1.98%) Oculus virtual reality platform. Samsung and Facebook may not seem like the kind of companies that would be teaming up with an amusement park operator to enhance real-world thrills, but it's a brilliant move when you think about it. 

As the regional parks kick off their 2016 operating seasons in the coming days and weeks -- starting as soon as Thursday -- the nine rides will feature a new way to enjoy the thrills. The three Superman-themed coasters will receive a Metropolis-themed VR experience as gyros, accelerometers and proximity sensors synchronize the drops, loops, and twists into 360-degree virtual landscapes. The other six coasters will feature a fighter squadron experience, complete with a gaming element as they fire their weapons. 

It may seem ridiculous at first. Isn't a coaster experience enough of a thrill? Won't it prove too disorienting, especially for those who already have issues with 3-D motion simulators? Well, the initial reactions have been generally positive. Virtual reality on coasters is a technology that was demoed during the amusement park industry's annual IAAPA conference late last year, and Attractions Magazine was told that the tech provider was already in talks with leading park operators.

This will work for a couple of important reasons.

  • At first it will be a novelty, drawing in folks to see what all of the buzz is about.
  • The gaming element will evolve, and that will increase the reride factor. In short, folks will come back to see if they can improve their scores and compete with friends.
  • New rides cost a lot of money, and Six Flags obviously doesn't have the lavish budget that's at Disney's disposal. This gives Six Flags a way to refresh a coaster ride with a mere software update.
  • The ability to quickly transform the ride experience opens up the potential for licensing and sponsorship deals. Expect studios with big summer blockbusters to pay up for the opportunity to promote their new flicks through this platform.

Six Flags is no small fry. Its 18 amusement parks welcomed 28.6 million guests last year. This partnership with Samsung and Facebook's Oculus will get noticed, and it may very well raise the bar when it comes to guest expectations. This also coincides with Oculus' push into the consumer market, something that can help Facebook's start-up. There will be purists that prefer the ride in its natural format, but it's going to be a distinctive tweak that Disney and other chains can't match -- for now. 

Six Flags may not seem to need the tech push. It is coming off of its sixth consecutive year of record results. Revenue climbed 7% in 2015, and adjusted EBITDA grew even faster. Things can still always get better. Season passes at some of the parks cost as much as a single day at Disney's gated attractions. If virtual reality coaster take off, Six Flags will be at the forefront, and for now that's a ride worth riding.

Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Facebook and Walt Disney. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Stocks Mentioned

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