Hopping into the pod on the Metropolis railway system, I look at the city around me. My single occupancy pod is small, but with glass walls I can easily see the skyline of Metropolis. On the road several stories below me I can see cars on the road, or check out nearby buildings. I've never ridden it before, but being able to get a look at the city from the sky had seemed like a good idea at the time. Already my heart is beating a little bit too fast, heights aren't actually something I'm fond of.
As the pod starts to move, I can see the track above me as we ascend even higher into the air. That's when things go very wrong, very fast. As the pod continues up the track to the very top, Lex Luthor appears in green and flying in front of me starts to wreak havoc. The front of the pod is torn open, and I can suddenly feel the wind in my hair as it continues along the track. Objects are flying towards him in the air, including a police car and a piece of the tram's track.
The scream rips out of my throat, until Superman shows back up and saves my bacon.
That's when Superman arrives, flying through the air in that classic heroic entrance. He snags the police officer out of the air, getting her out of danger as he and Lex start to fight. That's when the track in front of me runs out, from the havoc that Lex Luthor has wrought, and I go falling towards the earth. The scream rips out of my throat, until Superman shows back up and saves my bacon.
This is just the beginning of the Superman: Ride of Steel VR experience roller coaster at Six Flags America, my new favorite ride by far.
The Roller Coaster
The Superman: Ride of Steel roller coaster at Six Flags America is a 15 year old roller coaster that boasts a 221 foot drop which sends you barreling towards the ground at 77 miles per hour. While it's always been a terrifying experience if you're afraid of heights — and I am — it's temporarily improved every day through modified Samsung Gear VR units to bring you into Metropolis to see Superman himself. This VR experience isn't available with every trip around the track, but instead at specifically marked times each day.
The headsets were a bit beat up from the constant wear on them.
Ride of Steel has always been a big coaster. When it initially came out, their goal was to make you feel weightless as you rocket down the first gigantic hill on the steel track. While tall, it depends more on hills and the occasional turn sideways than it does on flipping you upside down.
I was curious as to how the park would keep the Gear VR on your head while being thrown down hills. Well they do it by modifying the headset just a bit. They've added 3 pieces to the headset to make sure you won't lose it as you scream your lungs out. There is a lanyard, a cinch for under your chin, and then what's basically the back of a welder's helmet with a tightening mechanism to keep it tight and flush to your face.
The roller coaster itself seats no more than about 20 people per ride, if it was even that many. I managed a peek at their collection of phones, chargers and spare headsets for setting this VR experience up, and it's an impressive setup. They had at least a dozen extra headsets that were hung up on the wall next to the roller coaster, and a cabinet that had at least 30 phones in it charging.
Ride of Steel has long been one of the most popular roller coasters at that park. This may be why the VR experience for the Superman doesn't run all day. You need to catch it before 2pm, or after 5pm. In between those hours only the original Superman experience is available, since moving people through the coaster at peak times is way more important that spending so much extra time fitting everyone with the headsets.
Waiting for the ride
Now I hit the park on a Thursday, and hopped into line for the ride at about 5:30pm. I'm certainly used to waiting in line for a while to get on a roller coaster, especially one that is brand new. While Ride of Steel itself isn't new, the addition of the VR component definitely was. Still, when I hopped into line, it wasn't particularly long.
I had high hopes of being able to get into line and onto the ride in about 30 minutes, thanks to the sign next to me that told me as much. I didn't consider however, that the wait was going to be a good deal longer than that. It's because on top of the usual safety procedures in place, the attendants also need to make sure that every headset is properly secured, as well as correctly running the VR experience. All in all I was in a line of no more than one hundred people, and waited for nearly an hour.
Each load of people took about 15 minutes to get settled. First they get you into the roller coaster, with your seat belts properly adjusted. Staff handed out the Gear VR headsets to everyone who wanted one. While the headsets are wiped down after each set of riders, with another two dozen hanging on a rack in the back. Even with that constant cycling the headsets were a bit beat up from the constant wear on them.
I was one of the lucky few people on my batch of riders, that had no problems getting the headset to work properly. Although I was surrounded by the VR skyline of Metropolis I could hear nearly a dozen people who needed new headsets. The problems ranged from the program not loading at all, to freezing up. In every case there was a fresh headset ready for use, it just took quite a while to get everything settled.
The actual ride
One of the coolest parts of this ride was the initial ascent up that first hill. Unlike other VR experiences, where you're sitting still and just watching the world around you, you were experiencing what you were seeing. The VR starts off with you riding in a pod on the Metropolis rail system when Lex Luthor appears and starts wreaking havoc. The VR experience specifically mirrors what the roller coaster is actually doing.
The pod you're riding on is burst open, and at that point you've ascended far enough up the hill that you can actually feel the air against your hair. You can still hear the world around you, from the screams of riders on nearby roller coasters, to the repetitious click of the chain pulling you up the hill. However I was sucked into the VR so quickly, that I was able to tune out what was really happening and concentrate on whether Superman could save me from Lex Luthor.
The ride itself was a bit uncomfortable due to the headset. That's for good reason though. Even with three different things helping to cinch the headset into place, my headset still tried to escape near the end of the ride. The g-force alone makes keeping the headset on a real challenge. That's also why the headsets are so uncomfortable when you initially get started.
The clip of the back of your head actually ratchets the headset down and onto your face. For me, this meant a slightly bruised nose when I got off of the ride, and plenty of aching head while I waited for things to get started. After the ride actually starts though, you're far more interested in what is going on inside the headset, than you are about the momentary discomfort of wearing a Gear VR that is on your head as tightly as possible.
The final question — between the time spent waiting and the discomfort of the headset — was taking a ride on the Superman VR coaster worth it? Absolutely. Without a doubt. If there hadn't been another hour wait, I would have gotten right back on the damn thing and taken it for a second ride.
I had an absolute blast riding this roller coaster. I walked off with a serious adrenaline rush along with a slightly bruised nose and it was 100% totally worth it. I would do it again without question. This took the VR experience to a whole new level and it was awesome. It's really exciting to see VR being utilized in different ways, and this is a fantastic step forward.