IAAPA: The 10 Biggest Insights From The World’s Largest Amusement Expo

Whether you are in the market for a roller coaster, a water slide, or the latest VR experience – last week’s annual IAAPA Attractions Expo showcased the best of everything that an operator in the amusement park and attractions industry could need, with a trade show floor spanning over 600,000 square feet. Among the 42,000 attendees, nearly 27,000 of them were buyers, some of them spending millions of dollars each, over the span of a few days at the event.

VR had a noticeable presence at IAAPA this year, and there were some very successful VR companies with strong sales. But with VR competing against non-VR experiences for buyers’ dollars, it is valuable for VR experience companies to learn more about what entertainment center operators are seeking.

Entertainment Center Operators Don’t Want VR Experiences

Operators are not looking for VR experiences. Let me elaborate. Entertainment center operators from around the world do not want VR experiences — they want attractions. Any VR offering needs to engage as much guest interest as the top non-VR attractions, driving guests to the entertainment center that it is in. The VOID is an attraction, but a simple VR headset setup with content you can also get at home, is not.

To learn more about what entertainment center operators are looking for, I sat down with George Wendt, Owner-Operator of Arcade Rev Share. He owns 18 centers and spends between $1,000,000 and $2,000,000 on attractions annually, equating to about 8-10 new units. Wendt has purchased a range of VR simulations, along with other attractions such as bowling, go carts, mini golf and laser tag. He explains the necessary elements of an attraction in order for him to be interested in a purchase:

  • First, it needs to be fun – the type of fun that his guests would want to do again and again.
  • Second, it needs to command attention: “The bigger, the brighter, the better it earns.”
  • Third, it needs to be able to pay for itself after the first 6-9 months in market.
  • And finally, it needs to come from a manufacturer that can be trusted.

While a VR attraction may not always make as much as his ‘redemption’ games, where guests earn points or tickets to be able to ‘buy’ prizes, it needs to attract guests to try it out, and then spend on redemption games.

Redemption Games Are the Top Money Makers

“I make my money $1 at a time,” explains Wendt.

Among the many attractions he purchased at IAAPA this year is the Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory experience pictured above. With simple mechanics and short game play, guests enjoy these experiences as they have the chance to win big on tickets or reward points that can then be used to redeem for prizes.

I have yet to see a VR attraction integrate redemption functionality, despite many of the games tracking individual and team points. But as large entertainment center operators start to purchase and invest in these attractions, I have no doubt that this will soon be done, and it will help to drive even more players to play.

Immersive Experiences That Leverage Familiar Game Play, Sell

The VRcade Arena version of PowerPlay

Operators know first-hand that attractions like laser tag and paintball engage a broad group of guests. That’s exactly what VRStudios is trying to emulate with PowerPlay. VRStudios’ Chanel Summers – Vice President, Creative Development – took me through the experiences available in their free-roam VRcade Arena, and in their smaller 2-player pod called ATOM, each with their own special features. She explains “we wanted to create the ultimate sport of the future, melding truly athletic, competitive sports and VR into a relatable but unique concept. It’s like Paintball, Laser Tag, and Dodgeball – all wrapped up into one high energy VR game: a really intense, athletic experience.” To attract new guests, the game can also be streamed locally and online to Twitch, YouTube, Mixer and other social platforms.

Escape rooms are also a popular offering at various entertainment centers. When offered in VR, the same space could offer multiple escape room experience options, attracting more guests to play multiple times. BackLight’s Eclipse VR space-themed escape room experience was showcased at IAAPA and is already available in 10 locations. Hollow Zone’s free roam Wax House The Legend of Jack The Ripper escape room experience was also showcased at the Expo.

And no attraction takes up more space, and dollars, than a roller coaster. There were a handful of VR roller coaster simulators available for sale on the show floor. Wendt raved about the 4DX VR roller coaster with environmental effects, sharing that it is one of his best sellers.

The Most Successful Games Are the Ones That Guests Want to Play Again and Again


It is costly to attract new guests to an entertainment center. Once they are in there, operators need attractions that keep them playing, and returning again. Wendt breaks down what makes a fun highly repeatable experience: It is competitive, skill-based and requires strategy. The art in creating these is having the right balance between the need for strategic thinking, and simple on-boarding and game play.

Virtuix’s CEO Jan Goetgeluk understands the need to highlight all of these elements, and launched the Omniverse VR Arena which is positioned as an eSports attraction, packaging 4 Omnis, gameplay screens and on-boarding and off-boarding areas into one unit.

Broad Appeal Increases Operator Interest

CXC Simulations VR Racing

Attractions that make the most revenue are often ones that appeal to the most diverse group of consumers. This is especially helpful for operators that attract different segments of guests during different parts of the day, such as families during the day, and young adults later on in the evening. Because of this, certain racing VR simulators, through to VR simulators and standing VR experiences such as the Hologate that can offer a range of VR content, garnered strong interest at the show.

VR and AR Can Enhance Existing Attractions

VR Coaster’s Diving Theatre

Some operators see VR attractions as expensive investments, or they simply do not have the room to install larger experiences such as a free roam VR stage. VR Coaster has engaged over 100 clients by layering VR over their existing attractions, such as rollercoasters and most recently into their water experiences.

Sarah Stief, Creative Supervisor for VR Coaster says that so far the team has developed over 40 experiences for theme parks, including the Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets experience that pairs a free roam VR pre-show with VR rollercoaster experience.

And beyond roller coasters and water slides, opportunity exists to layer VR and AR experiences on top of other attractions that operators already own, from laser tag, to go carts, to mini golf.

Known Entertainment Properties Are Top Sellers

Entertainment-based intellectual property have long been leveraged by attractions, paired with bright flashing lights, to earn the attention and time of guests. But any entertainment IP will not do. The most impactful IP have global awareness and longevity.

The Stern Pinball company is a great example of a company that selects IP that has been around for long enough to attract a broad crowd. Their pinball machines include some of the most buzzed about properties for generations, such as The Beatles and Batman. Operators will be more prone to investing in VR with entertainment properties of this caliber for the reasons described above, and also as the game mechanics may also feel more obvious and achievable to passers-by familiar with the IP. Many of the VR experiences that attracted the most operator interest included IP, ranging from Hologate’s Angry Birds which was teased on the show floor, to VRsenal’s branded kiosks that are highlighted in insight #8 below, to multiple Jurassic World VR experiences.

And just steps away from IAAPA’s show floor, Nomadic’s opening event took place in their first permanent location. It certainly doesn’t hurt to leverage one of VR’s best-selling game IPs as, just like Beat Saber, many operators and consumers who do not even have VR are aware of it. Plus, the world’s VR assets were already available from the at-home and arcade version.

Most Attractions Require No Attendants

Most attractions showcased on the IAAPA floor required no attendants, but most VR attractions did. Operational software at the Expo mostly reduced the costly need for staff to operate them, often down to 1 attendant. For example, Springboard was at the Expo offering operational solutions for VR arcade experiences, Secret Location showcased the Vusr Venue operational solution for all forms of VR attractions, and VRStudios, Hologate and Virtuix all leveraged operational software.

But VRsenal won the show with the only fully automated virtual arcade cabinets for Beat Saber, Fruit Ninja VR and Predator VR. Check out the walk through of their booth in the video above. I have no doubt that more VR manufacturers will soon follow suit.

Industry Validation Is Key

Operators will not often write a $100,000 check to a company that has not made an attraction before. That would be especially risky to a small single entertainment center. Wendt explains that industry leaders connect and share their levels of satisfaction with different manufacturers. While that makes it tougher for new players to break into the industry, they can benefit by co-creating a new product with a reputable manufacturer. And, they can reduce the perceived risk by offering strong warranties. Wendt suggests VR manufacturers will benefit by clarifying everything from valuable warranties, through to details on which items are upgradable and what these costs could be.

Scale Is Necessary

Wendt highlights that the challenge for attractions creators “isn’t breaking into the industry, it’s finding scale in the industry.” Scale equates to the ability to attract better content for the attractions, and equally as important, the ability to offer the support that operators need, ranging from shipping the purchased product quickly, to a full-fledged support network providing installation through to necessary maintenance.

Hologate has scale with over 150 locations globally, and more to come following strong sales at IAAPA. And this scale has awarded them the ability to get content with strong IP. VRStudios already had good scale with its products, and their recent investment from Cineplex will increase in-market presence with distribution from Cineplex’s dominant PlayerOne Amusement Group.

For now, players like Hollow Studios will have to compete against these larger companies also offering free roam and pod-based VR solutions. David Love, Executive Creative Director, Hollow Studios mentioned to me that they are simply offering the turn-key hardware with their Wax House The Legend of Jack The Ripper experience because there isn’t a platform to simply send the content out on, yet.

With the strong presence of both HTC and Oculus representatives at this year’s IAAPA, I would bet that they will soon each offer large scale turn-key solutions for entertainment center operators – from hardware to content for free-roam VR that takes up standardized floor spaces. Perhaps Viveport for free roam VR spaces will debut at IAAPA 2019.

Laura Mingail is a marketing and business development executive in the entertainment industry, focused on developing monetization strategies for content creators and out-of-home entertainment centers. She is also a contributor to UploadVR.

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