Climbing aboard the original Batman Coaster(at Six Flags) required a certain level of imagination. The coaster itself was just a branded coaster, all metal and plastic with bolts and sure, they put in music and occasional sound effects but that is the extent of the theming. This was as far as it went when I was a kid and enjoyed coasters. My love for them was enough but I truly enjoyed dark rides. The thought of losing yourself in a truly immersive world was incredible, not just one that started or ended with a story, but continued throughout the ride. Over the years the level of theming that most coasters have seen has greatly increased, many becoming fully themed environments in their own light.
While immersive theming of coasters is not a “new” development, the recent years have seen a dramatic increase in both the theming itself and the level of theming involved. Simply slapping on a themed entry and a name (while descriptive) is not enough to truly theme a coaster. Coasters such as Dragon Challenge in Universal Orlando, Krake at Heide Park (Germany) Formula Rossa in FERRARI World (Abu Dhabi) are examples of general theming to match the park and/or surrounding lands.
There is little actual theming to them except perhaps vehicle branding and entry/exits. Until recently Krake at Heide Park skipped the queue notion for the most part (recently adding a virtual queue) and allowed for a massive set piece at the start of the ride to be its only real theming point.
Additional examples of coasters that touch on theming for the sake of making the ride more interesting are Oblivion (which uses a brief tunnel drop as its theming point) and Nemesis (which utilizes similar “themed” caverns as distractions), both of which are located at Alton Towers (UK).
From there the next stage of theming evolution is a coaster that may have a start and stop loader that is themed with things such as sound effects and occasional visual effects to take the theming linked. A good example of this is The Incredible Hulk in Universal Orlando (US), Thirteen at Alton Towers (UK) and Saw The Ride in Thorpe Park. These coasters start and stop with theming however the middle part (while fun and exciting) has limited to no real theming (Thirteen does include a fun forward and backward plus drop in the dark). The theming set for these type of coasters really depend on the queue and how immersive its theme is to set the stage.
The follow-up to this stage is exterior immersive theming. This type of coaster is generally both inside and outside. The theming is usually only broken by the surrounding park environment. Examples of this are coaster such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Peril (Indiana Jones Et Le Temple Du Peril) at Disneyland Paris and Seven Dwarves Mine Train in Disney World (Orlando). Both have exceptionally immersive theming (yes we know 7 dwarves is a small family coaster but it counts) both inside and outside, which is only broken by the park views that one gets occasionally. Normally I would add Expedition Everest to this list as well, however unless you have ridden this ride a few times you may not even notice the surrounding park as it is exceptionally immersive and generally very good at distracting you with its theming.
Indoor coasters are probably the only way for a ride to guarantee complete theme immersion. Few parks are able to build these and even fewer are able to pull it off convincingly in an actual coaster format.
Deep Space Coaster in Adlabs Imagica (Mumbai, India) and Rockin’ Roller Coaster in Walt Disney World (Orlando, Florida) do an impressive job of setting the stage and immersing the guests into the short buy fun experience. For true theming immersion, one has to look at the giants of theming, Disney and Universal. There is no denying that rides such as Universal Orlando’s Revenge of the Mummy and Tokyo SeaDisney’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. Both rides take their IPs to the extreme and completely immerse the guests in the experience by keeping their attention from the entry of the queue to the exit. By housing the coasters inside and mixing up the speeds and thrills, and rarely if ever (JTCOTE does allow for a few quick exterior moments) the ride stay completely inside and allow for complete control of the theme.
As it stands, parks and installations will be hard pressed to match the theming of the new and fully immersive dark rides (see Spiderman, Transformers and Harry Potter IPs), however coaster making companies will have to step up their theming to compete in today’s market. It seems the highest, fastest and most gut wrenching is not always what the people want and parks will have to step it up to keep up with guests needs and wants.