I am gingerly following a narrow, stone walkway, but then the path ends abruptly. Ahead and above is nothing but sky. Below is nothing but ocean. I am nearly petrified but not alone, part of a three-person team that starts chattering about what to do next.
Across from us, another threesome waves from their own little floating island. They are standing upside down.
“Turn around and move forward,” someone advises, but all we see is a severe vertical — as in a 90-degree — decline. Imagine walking down a stoney wall with no handrails, no foot holdings, no suction cups. Add a similarly severe incline and the relief of miraculously making it without a tumble, or walking a path that twists 90 degrees sideways.
One wrong step and it’s curtains — a brief whiteout — for around 10 seconds before the world returns. “You’re dead,” our leader explains, matter-of-factly.
Welcome to the world of virtual reality as it exists at The Arena of Kalahari Resort in Wisconsin Dells. The new attraction, $25 for a 15-minute and intense escape from the world as you know it, is unusual because of the sophistication of technology involved.
The Arena is billed as the market’s only warehouse-scale, free-roaming, virtual reality game for multiple players.
The Dells location was the second in the U.S. to open, after Orlando, plus Melbourne, Madrid and Tokyo sites. A second Kalahari, in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, introduced The Arena this month, within two weeks after the debut in Wisconsin.
“When your body moves, the game moves with you,” we are told. There are ways to rack up points to compete and compare yourself with others. Engineerium, in an animated Aztec environment, is family-friendly. The other game choice is Zombie Survival, where scrappy fights against evil begin in the midst of virtual chaos.
Before either game begins, up to six participants are briefed about what to expect and how to stay safe, then escorted into a dark-walled, 2,200-square-foot room. Each wears a 10-pound backpack, headphones and thick goggles whose crazy lenses are links to a foreign, moving and three-dimensional world. Zombie fighters also get a make-believe assault weapon that takes two hands to operate.
“It’s nice to be involved in the whole scenario, as opposed to watching your TV and having your dog bark in the background,” explains Ellen Gruenert of LaValle, after a zombie fight with Skyler Mathews of Cambria, to celebrate his 17th birthday.
Room temperature is kept in the mid-60s because of the adrenalin and sweat that some players work up. Players during a media preview day included uniformed local police officers who describe their zombie encounters as more about fun than practice.
A gamemaster watches and supervises movement from behind computer screens that show simulated reality from each player’s unique perspective. The game’s loose leash — free-range movement — increases the sense of reality. There is no tug from a headset cable tethered to a USB port.
“You’ll feel like Tron,” we are told, during an orientation, which made no sense to somebody like me, who is about as ignorant of science fiction as you can get. Ditto for the promise that “you’ll be an avatar.”
All that talk made me nervous about the intensity of reality, however virtual. Factor in the liability waiver, which discourages the pregnant, elderly and others with a heart condition, vision abnormality, history of seizures or psychiatric concerns from participating.
I’m prone to motion sickness and more of a wimp than daring soul when in adventurous circumstances. That said, I survived this virtual realty introduction and was glad to see what all the fuss is about. It was important for me to believe that, if I felt the experience was too extreme, reality would return with the simple removal of goggles.
The Arena’s technology and experiences were designed by Zero Latency in Australia. Work began three years ago, and Kalahari offerings will represent a high six-figure investment, “knocking on seven figures,” for all partners involved, says Bob Cooney of Zero Latency.
Cary Brandt, Kalahari’s creative director of entertainment, calls The Arena phase one of virtual reality gaming that will be offered at the Africa-themed waterpark resort. Film footage from Africa — diving in a shark tank, interacting with a rural tribe, riding a hot air balloon above exotic animals — soon will become the basis for additional virtual immersions, he says. Then comes virtual reality tracking while on waterslides to lazy river floats, likely to happen before summer ends.
Also under development is technology to involve all senses in these or other experiences.
Participants in games at The Arena of Kalahari Resorts, 1305 Kalahari Drive, Wisconsin Dells, must be at least 13 years old. kalahariresorts.com, 877-525-2427
For more about the gaming technology and developer, check out zerolatencyvr.com.
After a sputtering start and stop in January because of above-freezing temps, the 1.5-acre ice castle in Wisconsin Dells is open to visitors. As promised, the site includes enclosed slides, a water fountain, tunnels, narrow passageways and many, many icicles.
A good time to visit is night, when it’s easiest to see lighting within the icy fortress change color. Check for availability and buy a timed-admission ticket online; besides saving money, that ensures your entry. icecastles.com/wisconsin-dells, 888-407-4054
— Weekly “Roads Traveled” columns began in 2002. These articles, archived at www.roadstraveled.com, are the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.
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