- The Washington Times - Monday, June 20, 2016


I have been to fictional Metropolis, and all it took was a quick jaunt from the District up Maryland-214.

Strapped into a seat for the new attraction “Superman: Ride of Steel Virtual Coaster” at Six Flags America in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, I stare ahead at the front of the train as ride attendants dutifully check restraining harnesses of guests — standing operating procedure. But for this unique roller-coaster, which combines traditional ride thrills with virtual reality, another component is needed for each rider prior to the train’s departure for Supes’ adopted hometown.

With the help of my seatmate, Roberto Baez, marketing communications manager for Six Flags American and Hurricane Harbor, I adjust a device on my head that is one part Frankenstein’s monster bicycle helmet and one part 21st century awesomeness as a screen obscures my vision. All I see is black and a “calibrating” message at first. A readout ticks up from zero to 100 percent and then, incredibly, I am actually in Metropolis itself, a passenger on a sky rail contraption awaiting to leave the station.

I look left, right, up and down, the virtual world changing as my field of vision shifts. It is an illusion, yes, but I am inside of it.

I first saw “The Lawnmower Man” 24 years ago, and my buddy Chris and I thought, “yeah, someday.” I am here to report that “someday” has in fact arrived.

“The guest experience here is they get a full immersion in the virtual reality world,” Randall Wilke, director of operations, told me as I prepped to join the Man of Steel in fantasy land. “Riders get a 360-degree immersion into Metropolis [to] battle Lex Luther and the Lexbots. What’s really cool about this is you’re going to go along and be flying with Superman … and save the day. It’s a really cool feeling.”

We’ve all wanted to fly at some point and battle the bad guys. But how “realistic” could it be when you’re strapped into a steel mechanism while you’re basically watching a movie?

Well, it was time to find out.

The train starts moving — and so too does the corresponding animation of the virtual Metropolis sky tram. As I can feel the real-world train start ascending toward the first drop — to say nothing of the ungodly hot sun of 2016 on my face — the Lexbots attack the sky tram within the simulation. Lex himself appears in a robotic green suit and begins firing at our train, which begins melting the virtual cables holding the air tram together. Then Superman appears and begins blasting at Lex with his laser vision, set to the strains of corresponding sound effects.

I’m actually screaming “Get him, Supes!” like the 12-year-old I once was. I’m sure Roberto, seated next to me, has heard this many times before.

Then the virtual air tram breaks free, and we are falling. I scream as the streets of Metropolis come hurtling at us, but just in the nick of time, Krypton’s favorite son grabs the tram and hoists us up — which corresponds with the real-world track itself going up another hill.

The battle between friendly E.T. and supervillain — now without sound effects due to the loudness both of the air whooshing by and the ambient screams, including my own — continues throughout the rest of the ride. What happens I will leave for you to discover.

Back at the station, I take off the VR helmet. All about me in the train are excited whoops and satisfied grins. Not even one person has the look of perhaps losing his lunch.

It’s a rush and then some. At the exit platform Mr. Wilke has the look of a carnival barker who knew — and knows now — that he truly delivered on what he was hawking.

“One of the things that’s surprising to [riders] is how we have precisely timed every single animation and effect to go with the coaster,” Mr. Wilke says. “You get to experience all the drops, all the high-energy turns, all the negative and positive G forces. That is part of the secret of why people don’t get any kind of motion sickness: It is completely synced with every portion of the ride.”

Thrills like this come at a premium, but Mr. Baez and Mr. Wilke impress that it’s part of the general admission to Six Flags. However, it does take some extra minutes to get each guest not only safely secured but also properly fitted with the VR apparatus (all of which are then sanitized before reuse), so patience must be exercised as well.

“Safety is our No. 1 priority for guests and team members,” Mr. Wilke says.

“Superman” is the largest VR coaster of its kind in the region. It opened just weeks ago and has already become Six Flags America’s star attraction.

“We’re excited that Six Flags continues to be the leaders in innovation,” Mr. Wilke said. “And we’re really proud to be a part of that.”

Furthermore, for those who wish to try “Superman” without the virtual reality component, riders can in fact embark on it without the VR headset, thereby allowing them to see what is coming next, but without experiencing the virtual battle in Metropolis.

Mr. Wilke says that it takes several tries to see all of the hidden gems of the simulation itself. On my first try, I was too busy telling my brain to keep my eyes open and watch the show to take in the finer points and minuteness of the mise-en-scene.

“Just remember you’re battling Lex Luthor and saving the day and flying with Superman,” Mr. Wilke said of the attraction. “There’s no other ride in the world that’s going to allow you to [do that].”

Six Flags America is now open daily. For more information and tickets, visit SixFlags.com/America.

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