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Roller Coasters, more than just a thrill ride

When Universal Orlando Resort guests board the Jurassic World VelociCoaster on June 10, they'll enjoy a menu of superlatives. Universal is billing the coaster as Florida's fastest and tallest launch coaster, with Universal's steepest drop, dialing in at 80 degrees.

But guests will also plunge into something else: A storyline that fits right into the Jurassic Park franchise.

In what is becoming the new standard for roller coasters at Universal and Disney, VelociCoaster seeks to immerse guests into Jurassic World. This coaster doesn't just go fast; it tells a story.

"There's such an inexhaustible supply of creativity in this industry," said Robert Niles, editor of Theme Park Insider. "I think it was inevitable that, at some point, this would be applied to the good old roller coaster, and something unique would come about. We're seeing that right now, and frankly, I'm just excited to see where it goes."

The idea of a "story coaster" is fairly unique to Disney and Universal, Niles said. Its origination can be traced back to the Matterhorn Bobsleds, the first tubular steel roller coaster in the world that opened in Disneyland in 1959.

"They didn't just build a roller coaster on a frame in a parking lot," he said. "They put it in a mountain. And then they continued that with Space Mountain, and then Big Thunder Mountain. They were playing with the decoration, but they hadn't done anything yet with the story."

That didn't come about until later when Disney introduced the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train in 2014 at Walt Disney World Resort's Magic Kingdom. The coaster takes a break from thrills midway, taking riders on a tour of the mine where the dwarfs from the classic film "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" are at work. Later, riders see the dwarfs dancing with Snow White in her house before disembarking. It features music from the movie.

Then, Universal Orlando Resort unveiled Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure in 2019, a multiple-launch roller coaster in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter -- Hogsmeade that also tells a story. It takes guests through the Forbidden Forest, straight out of the Harry Potter films, where they encounter a number of magical creatures.

Now, coaster fans are eagerly awaiting VelociCoaster at Universal and Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind at Disney's Epcot park, both of which will contain storytelling elements from their respective franchises.

"They decided, 'We're going to do roller coasters our way. We're not going to make them the biggest, the fastest, and the tallest,'" Niles said, "even though Hagrid's does have a record for most launches. They're going to build a middle wave that tells a story, sets a theme, and creates an emotion in the way that just a straight-up roller coaster rarely does."

Universal's new VelociCoaster was designed as an attraction that could have existed in the fictional Jurassic World theme park, show producer Shelby Honea said on a media call about the attraction. It continues the trend of storytelling coasters.

"Truly, immersion and story are becoming driving factors to people's vacations as well as their coaster experiences," she said.

While modern, big-ticket coasters have shifted toward storytelling, they likely owe their existence to the roller coaster renaissance that occurred in the early 1970s, according to Dennis Speigel, CEO, and founder of consultancy International Theme Park Services.

Wooden roller coasters had proliferated in smaller theme parks for the first half of the 20th century. But when Disneyland opened in 1955, it didn't have any roller coasters. Six Flags opened its first property a handful of years later and followed Disney's successful, coaster-free path, Speigel said. But then, 1972 brought with it the opening of King's Island near Cincinnati, where Speigel was assistant park manager.

There had been some debate about whether to build a coaster in the park, but ultimately the Racer was approved and soon commanded lengthy lines daily.

The roller coaster boom began, and it hasn't stopped since Speigel said. "Coaster is king," he likes to say.

Today's storytelling coasters' success is driven by the intellectual property they use, Speigel added. The combination of a coaster and a story, perhaps from the Harry Potter universe, a Disney classic, or Jurassic Park creates a unique experience that resonates with guests.

"That kind of rides lend themselves to the storyline, and the storyline helps promote the ride, so it's really a two-edged sword," he said. "They both work together."

In the future, coaster fans can expect even more innovation, likely in the form of virtual or augmented reality and gamification. Universal's use of both in its new Super Nintendo World in Japan is indicative of the entire industry moving in that direction. Speigel estimates that kind of innovation is coming to coasters in the next five to seven years.

Niles pointed out that Universal is already experimenting with virtual reality on a coaster in Japan.

"They've been playing around with the idea of using mixed media on roller coasters there," he said, "and I think they've learned quite a bit."

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