Even without virtual reality goggles, the Kraken rollercoaster at SeaWorld can be scary. It climbs to 150 feet, turns riders upside down seven times and reaches speeds of 65 mph.
But starting Friday, the 17-year-old coaster will be the first major ride in Florida with the high-tech option of virtual reality goggles that project an undersea showdown with the ride's namesake monster.
The Tampa Bay Times was among a gaggle of coaster fans and media members allowed to test out the new feature Thursday. The upgrade joins a trend of technology-driven thrills in Florida theme parks.
Stephen O'Donnell of Port Charlotte said the new virtual reality ride was like nothing he's ever experienced.
"I don't feel like I rode a roller coaster. I felt like I was riding a high-speed submarine," said O'Donnell, 58, a retired carpenter who loves coasters. "Once your ears are covered, it's like your senses are changed and it's another world."
Once you buckle in, you put on the headset and make it at snug as possible to block out the real world. As other riders are adjusting their goggles, you already are seeing a virtual world. It's an undersea laboratory that has many of the same physical details as the coaster's loading zone. But it looks like you are in a loading zone for a submarine.
A soundtrack muffles the real noise of the coaster and you are soon underwater among realistic-looking sharks, fish and Kraken, a legendary mythical sea monster that looks like a giant squid.
Here and throughout the ride you can look in every direction and see new details. But some of those details will be lost when you are flying by at 65 mph and some were hard to keep in focus with your head rattling around on a coaster.
The storyline in the virtual world mirrors the ride. As the submarine is drifting toward the surface, the coaster in Orlando is making its ascent to the top of the first 150-foot drop.
Unless you have every turn of the coaster memorized, you don't know what's coming next.
O'Donnell said he often gets queasy on simulators, like the Spider-Man ride at Universal's Islands of Adventure. But he rode the Kraken with the VR goggles eight times. Some at Thursday's test were a bit disoriented after the ride, however.
You can still feel the sensations and hear the coaster, but like the old rumble seats in movie theaters, it feels like an enhancement to the experience on the screen.
"When it turns you upside down, it feels right because visually that's what you are doing" on screen, O'Donnell said.
SeaWorld is just the latest of Florida's theme parks to use technology to give visitors a feeling of simulated reality. Disney makes guests feel like they are taking flight and plunging down the side of a floating mountain from the movie Avatar in the new Flight of Passage ride. It's Animal Kingdom's signature ride in the recently opened $500 million Pandora-World of Avatar experience.
At Universal Orlando, riders feel like they are chasing Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon at the new Race Through New York attraction. And Legoland's Ninjago World has young theme parkgoers karate-chopping their way to victory over evil forces on screen.
The Kraken ride, which held the record for the tallest and longest roller coaster in the state when it opened in 2000, has been closed for two months while the park retrofitted it with the technology.
The SeaWorld company, which also owns Busch Gardens in Tampa, is considering adding the technology to more parks.
"We see great potential for virtual reality use across the parks," SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby said in a call with investors earlier this year. "We're also looking to have a version of virtual reality for our animals where guests can see them live and other things you typically can't see as a human today except through virtual reality."
Not all theme parkgoers are fond of screens and virtual experiences.
Coaster fan Chris Kraftchick, who represents Florida for the American Coaster Enthusiasts club, said many theme park purists are worried that some parks are starting to overdo all the screens and virtual simulator rides.
"When you ride Cheetah Hunt (at Busch Gardens) you are in the wide-open cars flying across the Serengeti, you are living and breathing something real," Kraftchick said. "You can simulate that but you can't really experience the true thrill of going up 335 feet and falling face first" like riders do on Falcon's Fury.
But the virtual reality addition to roller coasters could be something even purists can embrace because you still get the wind in your hair, Kraftchick said.
"I think people will like those better than the simulators because you still get the sensation, but you get a bonus. You are going on an adventure now. You are no longer looking at the horizon or over the lake. Instead we are flying through this underwater realm being chased by the Kraken."
The negative can be that it slows down load time tremendously, Kraftchick noted, because it can take longer for the workers to help riders make sure the goggles are set up. "But I think it's a great idea to get people interested in an older coaster again."
One big bonus, experts say, is technology can be a cheaper way to upgrade an old ride.
"VR headsets are an inexpensive way to create a new ride experience without having to make a major capital expenditure," said professor Martin Lewison, an expert on the global theme park industry at Farmingdale State College in New York.
Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at [email protected] Follow @SharonKWn.