Europa-Park, has just celebrated its jubilee year with a record 5.5 million visitors. It is the largest theme park in Germany and the second most popular theme park resort in Europe after Disneyland Paris.
The park caused a stir at the Euro Attractions Show (EAS) in Gothenburg earlier this year, and at the IAAPA Attractions Expo in Orlando in November, with its ground-breaking ride The “Alpenexpress VR-Ride”.
The ride, which opened to the public in September, is the result of a collaboration between VR Coaster, Mack Rides, MackMedia and Samsung.
Blooloop spoke to Michael Mack (left), Member of the Management Board of Europa-Park, about the park’s digitisation.
A Theme Park Native
The son of Roland Mack, who was IAAPA president three years ago, Michael is the eighth generation of his family to be in the theme park business, and describes himself as “…basically a theme park native.”
Having graduated in International Business Studies, he completed both his tri-national studies and a number of study programmes and internships at theme parks overseas, including Liseberg (Sweden), Bush Gardens Williamsburg / VA (USA), Warner Bros. Movie World / Queensland (Australia), Nigloland (France) and Port Aventura (Spain).
He then became an Executive Board Member of Mack Rides, which specialises in the design and construction of roller coasters.
He and Joint Director Christian von Elverfeldt developed a strategy. Their plan was to restructure the company, focusing on ride construction, design and customer service.
To reduce the production process, coasters were designed purely on the computer until the final stages. The rails were precisely calibrated and manufactured straight from the computer. The design precision also meant the coasters were incredibly quiet.
“Mack Rides had kind of changed the way we were producing roller coasters back in the day. We were trying to get smaller products for the market, so we invented the Pegasus, the first kiddie coaster for Mack Rides, the Twist and Splash, and the Splash Battle.”
The Blue Fire breakthrough
The big breakthrough, he says, came in 2009. This was the creation of Blue Fire (above) – their first looping coaster.
“So I was changing sides, so to say, from Vice Chairman of Mack Rides to Europa-Park in 2008, with the building of the Blue Fire.”
Blue Fire is a ground-breaking combination of dark ride and launch coaster. The experience begins with a brief dark ride portion then, moving outside, the train is accelerated to 100 kph in 2.5 seconds using a linear induction motor launch, propelling the train over a 38m high turn and into a 32m vertical loop. There is a brake-run mid-course, a twisted horseshoe roll (the first on any roller coaster in Europe) over a lake, an airtime hill and a heartline roll culminating in a final brake run.
“Previously, we had wanted to change our car trains for the roller coaster, so we partnered up with the University of Pforzheim, which specialises in Industrial Design, ” says Mack. “We said, we’d love to have students think about roller coaster cars, and they came up with pretty neat ideas, so we collaborated with the university, and that was the train designed for the Blue Fire.
“I always like to work with universities, because of the fresh ideas, and am interested in how scientific or artistic ideas can change the theme park industry.”
He headed up Europa-Park, gradually taking over his father’s responsibilities.
One of his primary interests had always been in making movies. While still a student in 2002, he founded Mack Media.
Interested in conserving the early designs of the park and his grandfather’s memories, he had made documentaries.
“I was fascinated by how movies can change emotions in a theme park. So, my dream in 2009 when we opened Blue Fire was to do our own movie for our 4D cinema.”
Until this point, the park had been renting movies for over a decade from nWave in Belgium, a multinational producer and distributor of immersive 3D/4D content.
It was Mack’s plan to make a movie based on the park’s trademark character, Euromaus.
Euromaus – the movie
“So in 2010, after Blue Fire, we did an animated movie ten minutes long, fully produced in Germany. My dad never thought that anybody would be interested in our park symbol, Euromaus, in an animation movie, but the success was mind-blowing.”
Numerous parks across the industry took the movie: it was rented out in 17 different venues around the world.
“The movie was played in Asia, France, England andScandinavia. It was quite a success, which nobody really had expected. It showed me people had been waiting not only for the first loop coaster which we built together with Mack Rides, but also for new content.”
Arthur – Europa-Park’s first IP ride
At this point, someone suggested to Mack that he look at a French IP, Arthur, an animated character by Luc Besson. Mack liked the character, and went to France to meet with Besson, who was keen to strengthen Arthur’s brand in Germany.
“And that’s how we invented Arthur, the ride. It was the first time for Europa-Park, combining an IP together with a ride system.”
Mack Rides developed the suspended powered coaster.
“…You can control the speed while hanging underneath the track.
“It’s similar to the Disney Peter Pan ride, but much more of a roller coaster; you really can go fast… It’s a controlled gravity coaster which had never been out there.”
Roland Mack was sceptical. He wondered if such a coaster could be produced. But Michael Mack had confidence in the technology previously developed for Blue Fire.
“The technology our production company, Mack Rides, developed with Blue Fire, (particularly) the invention of the track, helped us build the Arthur ride. It is basically the same track system, but upside-down.”
The ride vehicles have on-board sound and light, shaking seats, drive motors and an interactive control system. The innovative ride, an indoor/outdoor powered rollercoaster and dark ride combination, was a success.
The Time Carousel
“In 2014 we produced our second CGI movie, titled The Time Carousel. It has been playing for a year now in our cinema here, and has been a huge success. Our first movie had about 2.5 million visitors at Europa-Park and approximately 4.5 million in all the venues around the world.
“The Time Carousel has had, up until now, 1.2 million visitors, and we are starting to distribute it now internationally.
“Hopefully, we should reach 4.5 million spectators for this one.”
“Alpenexpress VR-Ride” – the world’s first VR coaster
Mack was contacted by Professor Thomas Wagner, from the University of Applied Sciences in Kaiserslautern in 2013, while developing the Arthur ride and considering the second movie. He was working on a virtual reality project. The idea occurred to him of extending a real roller coaster by wearing an Oculus Rift headset during the ride. Professor Wagner wanted to replace the real environment with a synchronised virtual experience. He wanted to test his innovation at Europa-Park.
Mack was intrigued, remembering the positive outcomes from the collaboration with industrial design students when developing Blue Fire.
“Everybody in the company was a bit sceptical, ‘oh: students – that’ll mean extra time, we’ll be late…’ I just saw the huge potential of having digital content and being able to bring that digital content from the movies onto a ride, so I thought: that’s cool.
“How would it be if we brought our movies to a roller coaster?”
In Synch with the Rollercoaster
So, Mack Rides entered into collaboration with Wagner, testing Oculus Rift technology on the Blue Fire and Pegasus coasters.
“We tested for over a year with Blue Fire, and managed to develop a way of controlling the guiding and running wheels. We measured where the wheel would be at any point. By knowing exactly where the train would be on the track, we invented a little black box installed on the train, to capture the movement and positioning of the wheel. This sends a signal to the VR headset so the movie can be perfectly in synch with the roller coaster.”
(Without that synchronisation, there was significant potential for motion sickness.)
“To make a long story short, this was a time of slowly stepping up. We got older and more experienced in the industry, and bringing out new attractions and innovations. We were doing movies, inventing roller coasters, and combining the best of the two worlds.”
Record-breaking visitor numbers
Europa-Park has, for the second year running, broken the 5 million visitor barrier. This reinforced its position as the most visited theme park in Europe after Disneyland Paris.
Mack identifies a number of factors that have contributed to the park’s success:
“I think it’s the mix of the product and our diversity. We have been really chasing for quality ever since we opened the park in 1975. We’ve always tried to be as diversified as possible.
“We were the first theme park in Germany to open a hotel back in 1995. And also the first park in Germany offering ‘confertainment’ – entertainment in the evening.
“We like to have fun for the whole family. The focus is not on just going as high as possible with the coasters.
“We’re a perfect mix of a bit of everything. We have the Blue Fire, the looping coaster. We have an old castle where the grandparents can have a coffee during the day. There are the Horror Nights which are for the 16-year-olds. They are really scary, and very different from the normal Mickey Mouse theme park experience.”
Something for everyone – the park’s broad appeal
Mack says the secret to Europa-Park’s success lies partly in the fact it has such a broad appeal for all age groups. Also partly in its flair for innovation. Introducing a new dimension to riding loop coasters, as well as Arthur, the powered suspended coaster which attracted much industry attention. And now the ground-breaking VR coaster, the product of a collaboration with the University of Kaiserslautern.
“The secret is always keeping your product fresh. Being innovative, doing things that other people don’t expect, at least, not from a theme park. And, I think it’s partly, also, the broadness of the brand. We have the perfect mix of rides and shows and food and accommodation. The park has beautiful hotels, beautiful shows, and we are the first theme park in the world with a two star Michelin restaurant. The whole family can enjoy their time in the park. My brother Thomas, who is in charge of the entertainment department, the hotels and food & beverage, is really pushing the envelope on that side as well!”
Knowing the Trends and Matching Expectations
Europa-Park has contrived, by pushing the technology envelope, to stay ahead of visitor expectations. “I don’t think people really expected to have a VR coaster, because there had never been one out there, ” says Mack. “They were happily surprised.
“I don’t think they are necessarily increasing the demands, not yet, but I think there will be a time when the demand and expectation increases, becoming higher and higher. You have to be in it –you have to be with it – you can’t really sleep. It’s very important you know the trend, get it into your park.”
So far, Europa-Park has stayed one step ahead. “I don’t think the time yet is there that people say – we’ll go to technology parks because they have more VR, more technology, but I think 3-5 years from now, people, certainly the 14-25 year olds, will expect that at least you have a little bit of digital mixed in your theme park portfolio.”
A second VR coaster
Over the next few years, the plan is to establish the VR coaster, and to introduce a second, which will start next season with the Pegasus and will showcase the park’s third co-produced movie.
“The movie be called Happy Family and will be about a family getting transformed by a witch. It’s a nice family story – a little bit of fantasy. We’re going to have the VR Happy Family on the Pegasus, and the 4D Happy Family in the cinema.”
The park will extend its children’s play area with the creation of the fourteenth country-themed area in the park. “Ireland” will be a huge play land called next to “England”.
“We’re also starting to build our waterpark which will be open in 2018, a 12, 000 square metre covered indoor waterpark. We are building more hotels, and there is the new attraction which has not yet been announced, for 2017. So we don’t get bored.”
Mack envisages obstacles that will need to be negotiated in the future, as digitisation becomes more established:
Digitising the Park
“It is difficult to find people with experience in digitising a park: there are not so many experts out there. So, it’s certainly going to be a challenge in the future, when the demand is increasing, to find theme park experts who have an experience in how to deal with digitisation: people who really can drive the envelope of digitalisation on a coaster or in a theme park. It’s going to be one of the main tasks in the future.”
“But so far, so good, ” says Mack.
“We’re happy having the world’s first VR coaster, and hope we see a lot of installations not only in Europa-Park, but around the world.”
All images kind courtesy Europa-Park.