Variations on a theme park

8th June 2001 at 01:00
So you're done with school computers and it's time to play. Holidays, computers and fun may sound an incongruous mix, but here at a theme park in Orlando, Florida they blend like a fruit smoothie. Take creative minds and technology to their limit and you have DisneyQuest, a high-tech theme park where you almost fly.

Take money too, because this part of the world is theme-park heaven. It is home to Seaworld, Universal Studios, and more attractions than fit a fortnight break. The area is vast: the plot with just Disney's resorts and theme parks is about 50 square miles. Its car parks are town-size. It has its own motorways. Think about greater Manchester - it's about that big.

And it's not without education either. There's education to be had from Disney's Epcot park, the animal theme parks and the space centre in nearby Cape Canaveral. DisneyQuest, one of the newest theme parks, is big on input devices and output devices but with added thrills. True to the computer tradition, DisneyQuest shrinks a theme park down to fit a building. That's five floors furnished with stylish wall-to-wall technology. Here you put aside everyday reality and enter fantasy worlds.

Heaven forbid that children will demand technology this good in school. But let that thought pass, because by now the limping, beige coloured school network is completely out of mind. The holiday has begun.

Go to "Virtual jungle cruise" and climb aboard a life-size inflatable raft with your folk. Paddle your way down river rapids shown ahead on a huge screen so you're really in the scene. As you paddle, you and your team navigate the raft so helplessly you'll wish no one is watching. You'll meet waterfalls and get jostled in perfect synchrony (all hail those good at physics!). You'll catch a spray of water for good measure. Afterwards, you'll catch your breath, find your feet and make a note not to paddle straight at the marauding monster next time.

DisneyQuest's latest attraction is as multimedia as you can get. With sight, sound and motion, "Pirates of the Caribbean: battle for buccaneer gold" has much cutting-edge technology. Four of you take to the sea as you board a pirate ship-themed moving platform. You've become pirates with 3-D spectacles and find yourselves in a 270o wrap-around screen. On an island ahead a volcano is erupting, so steer away - straight into other pirate ships taking pot-shots at you. You'll see cannon balls literally coming straight for youI thank goodness you can fire back. In over five minutes of mayhem, you'll be attacked on all sides, and be rocked to the rhythm of the ship. Developers, Walt Disney Imagineers, meld a synchronised motion platform, and firing cannons that really seem to fire stuff with the help of 3-D vision and surround sound.

An attraction to arrive early for allows you to design your own rollercoaster. It is superb in that you can make it as easy or as scary as you like - in the end the software assesses it, and will tweak it worse or better as you like. The software design is clever too, as it talks you through all the options on-screen. You choose how many loops, drops and even complete inversions you want. It plays through what you choose as you go. And unlikethe school computer, it works and it doesn't patronise you either!

Finally it's time to enter the simulator, buckle-up in this pod for two, and do the ride. Called CyberSpace Mountain, this is a gem to do over again. Add money and you can take away a video souvenir of the ride mixed with a view of a well-thrilled face.

As at any Disney "park", the theming at DisneyQuest is true: attractions consistently bring a story behind them and a link to a Disney film. It's all very clever and congruous. Aladdin's Magic Carpet Ride puts you in the middle of the Disney story. You don a headset, sit and fly your way through the streets of Agrabah, featured in the film. Your mission is to pick up gems on your travels, finding keys to doors and avoiding perils. You meet your pals in the world too - you can work together to get around. Like most games, it needs a few goes but the collaborative idea is refreshing.

There's enough here to pleasure a few more hours. You can build the awesome contraptions from Disney's Toy Story in "Sid's create a toy". You can learn about animation, make songs and burn a CD or give yourself a virtual makeover. And while you can half-do these things at home, here there's Disney's flair, or "magic" as it's called, to make it memorable.

DisneyQuest adds another 20 years of technology to a traditional amusement arcade. With things to charm, and very little arcade brashness, the result is phenomenal. It is popular, you'll get round faster and get more second goes by going early with a plan.

So portable it could fit anywhere, there's another DisneyQuest in the centre of Chicago. The Orlando option is more the holiday or ultimate school trip.

It lets you find your ideal mix of thrill park, water park, "edutainment" park and beach holiday. You will get wet, you will spend money and you will forget about the school network.

Roger Frost is a science and ICT consultant Disney USA. For DisneyQuest and Walt Disney World Orlando and Californiawww.disneyquest.comwww.disney.co.ukTheme parks - Closer to homeSchool groups will best pre-book visits to gain interesting discounts. Even if it doesn't rain, you will get wet and you will spend money. Some rides have height restrictions or limited access. Search the TES archive for background infowww.tes.co.uk Alton Towers, Staffs - best range of rides to suit even the most daring Tel: 0990 204060 www.alton-towers.co.ukDisneyland Paris - big on theming, two days of rides and the Disney experience. Best bought as a package Tel: 0990 030303 www.disney.co.ukDrayton Manor, near Tamworth - enjoyable mix of rides, and Stormforce, one of the wettest Tel: 01827 2877979 www.draytonmanor.co.uk Legoland Windsor - superb themed park for primary ages and especially the younger end Tel: 01753 626100 www.legoland.co.ukThorpe Park, Chertsey - good for younger teens and below, bring swim things on a hot day Tel: 0990 880880 www.thorpepark.co.ukScience centresFor educational fare, with a human body theme and good measure of technology, check out the new regional science centres in Glasgow, Bristol, Newcastle, Birmingham, Dundee, London, Manchester. Find the details at the Wellcome Trust

www.wellcome.ac.ukensciencecentres


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