Derek leaned back in his seat and smiled, it was going to be the perfect family vacation. It had taken him a while to get the funds together to pay for the trip to Vous Plasier Resort. It was quite the stack of credits, but it was going to be worth it. He relaxed in his luxury accommodations, looking out a porthole into the starry blackness of space. According to the manifest, he was on the Vous Beau, a luxury megaliner with all the amenities of a five star resort, and it was just the ferry that was going to take him from New Nuyork all the way out to the Vous Plasier pleasure dome. He skimmed the ship's menu before changing his clothes to head out to the promenade. There would be plenty of time for gambling and taking in a buffet but first, he had to visit the Salon Rouge, and find him an exotic whore. He looked at his son, playing on the floor of their cabin while his wife smiled at him and told him to have a good time.
Worth. Every. Cent.
Derek sighed contentedly in his pod, a small cluster of wires streaming the electric fantasy into his sleeping brain.
One of the thrills about going to an amusement park is the gradual build up of excitement that comes with the actual going to the park, the drive from home, across many miles, many hours, before the upper most peaks and spires come into view. It is a pain, circling, looking for parking, then the lines to get in, and the lines to ride the attractions. The introduction of virtual attractions at first struggled with this as the only period of time available for building anticipation was the various load times between logging into a server, and actually entering the virtual environment. As processors and technology improved, shortening these load times, overall visitor satisfaction either plateaued or dropped. There was simply no space between the point of purchase and the actual attraction for their to be any excitement. The same held for the virtual rides and shows. Running on an On Demand queue simply took a large amount of fun out of the equation.
The solution was to create staging simulations. Similar in form and function to training simulations, these staging sims created small to medium sized environments, such as the interior of a train, a small cruise ship, or some fantastic means of transportation to emulate the Jungian 'road of trials' that should exist between the home threshold and the adventure threshold. The introduction of these systems increased traffic and customer satisfaction, and created a sense of nostalgia for visitors. While the main attraction would remain the paramount feature, many found things to enjoy in the load sim, such as bonding with their family members (real or virtual) and meeting other people who were running in the same load sim.
The introduction of load sims also worked in favor of the Virtual Park operators. Much of the work running a virtual park is handled on the fly, and the servers are constantly being tweaked for peak efficiency. With visitors arriving in 'load buses' it is easier for the server admins, human and computer, to configure the system. With the megaparks, running their attraction across multiple servers, the buses allow for groups to the shuttled to whichever server has the lightest load, and in the case of heavy traffic, incoming buses can be delayed or shunted to alternate servers or mirror servers to prevent a system collapse.
Finally, while loaded in a bus, the incoming visitors to a virtual park can be scanned and inspected by security protocols. While the public face of this practice is safety and preventing cyber terrorism, the real reason is to ensure that there is do data or credit fraud going on. The megaparks are expensive to operate, and no one gets in without paying.
The Magic Kingdoms
Jansen smiled as the train rolled to a stop, billowing steam and black smoke everywhere as the engine released it's pent up steam and heat. He grabbed his rolling back and darted out of the car and onto the train platform. His heart rose up in his chest as he took in the full extent of Panorama Station. Dozens of other kids were spilling out of the train cars, each toting their own rolling bag, some were official licensed merch, others had generic bags. He was thankful that his mom had sprung the extra money to get him a Wizard Lord official bag. He laughed and took off at a run as one of the Magic School teachers gestured for him to enter the doors of the greatest magic academy in all the Nine Kingdoms.
Where first? The Dormitory, drop his bags, find out who was his roommate for the weekend vacation? To Quokkerwodger Alley where all the magic shops were? To the Wizard's Castle? The Dark Forest? The Vale of Spiders? He was so excited, it was going to be an awesome weekend!
Jansen burbled out a half giggle, eyes closed, while the fantasy romped through his dreaming brain.
Each virtual park has it's own theme and layout. There are also a large variety of parks, ranging from traditional theme parks (a theme now in decline) to fantasy parks, space parks, and the two most popular types of parks are licensed property parks, taken from popular holovid and entertainment franchises, and hedonistic/sexual theme parks.
Rides: Ride attractions are created to generate excitement, thrill, and to get the blood and adrenaline flowing for those who 'ride' them. A Theme park will have roller coasters, a licensed property park with have rides associated with the property such as a Harry Potter themed park having Quidditch matches, dragon riding, or escaping dungeons being chased by a troll. In the hedonist park, rides are tailored encounters such as red light districts, drug dens, and so forth. This can also include crime theme parks, functionally Grand Theft Auto and Disney having a love child where instead of it's a Small World ride, there's the It's a Small Ghetto ride, complete with drive-bys and pimps.
Shows: While data streaming and holovids are common, many parks maintain exclusive rights to certain material. This can be as simple as concerts or a 'stage show' to something as elaborate as laser firework displays, space battles, epic dragon versus griffin wars, to being the only place to see movies and shows associated with a certain entertainment property. Licensed parks are fond of generating park exclusive content, and having viewing parties where the new movie or stream can be watched well ahead of the official release date.
Shops: Shopping and merchandising are important revenue sourced for the virtual parks, and their merchandise comes in two forms, virtual and actual. Virtual merchandise consists of items and accessories that can be used for customer's CogNet personas, such as virtual clothing lines, new skins for their Muse program, saved data content, and even purchasing avatar constructs. Actual merchandising involves a physical product being bought and shipped to the home location of the customer. This is the lesser of the two revenue sources, with microtransactions for skins, accessories and such far outpacing material sales like clothing, trinkets, and such.
Hidden Areas: Parks are large affairs and it is easy for savvy designers to slip new things into a park. This is commonly done as secret areas, hidden locations, and other things that are easy to overlook the first time through the park. This can range from serious things such as hidden locations from licensed properties (Did you guys find the Secret Fortress? Us neither...) to functional areas, (a parental rest station in Fantasy Land) to things that the designers never intended for people to find (Behind the Sweets Shop there is a loose wall panel, if you squeeze through it you can find an unfinished park zone, and it's INSANE ukiyo!)
Helen held the platinum pass in her hand, a faint tremor running up her arm. That pass was almost a month's income, but she had saved for two years and had taken out a small loan to make sure she had enough. Retro Paris had been amazing, the little bistros, the canals, the jovial entertainers with their music, their mime play. She had sipped the coffee and listened to the poetry being recited. Derek looked at her, and took her hand in his. She handed the pass to the polite man wearing the powdered wig and neck ruff. He gestured for them to step through into Eiffel Park.
She all but ran into the park. There is was, the Eiffel Tower, gleaming silver and dripping with crystals. She could smell lavender and vanilla, the murmur of couples strolling around the grand green common. Trees, so many trees. The sun was setting, throwing a fiery rainbow through the crystals decking the tower. Derek danced with her around the green while a group of musicians played on. It was lovely, so very painfully lovely.
Breathless they tumbled into each other and cuddled, watching the sun set and the tower light up.
It's time to go to the top, Derek said. He took her hand and they made their way to the elevator. The ride up was stunning. Retro Paris spread out beneath them as they rode all the way to the top. She held onto Derek's arm as they rode upwards. She knew that the virtual tower was almost four times the size of the original tower. But the original tower was long gone, a bittersweet stab in the heart. The elevator stopped a mile above the ground and let them out onto the promenade. There were a few knick knack shops, kiosks for souveniers, but she had come for the dinner, the view, and an evening of the sort of romance that the real Derek just wasn't capable of. She held the hand of her virtual Derek, and they went up the stairs to her suite.
Helen sighed contentedly, head turned to the side, dreaming into the machine.
Each park has a high profile core challenge or attraction, and to reach this requires the guests to do 'something' that passes time and gives them the time and space to become excited by the impending event, such as standing in a queue for a flagship rollercoaster, a VIP line to meet and greet the flagship celebrity. This is a secondary loading bus, allowing for both more time to generate excitement, and a second layer of security screening.
The premium/exclusive content sections of the park exist for two purposes, profit and exclusivity. Sitting behind a second pay wall, the premium sections of the park have less traffic, less lines, and the attractions are a tier above those outside the wall. A theme park would have plenty of regular roller coasters and rides, but inside the pay wall there are the insane bragging rights attractions, roller coasters that are measured in miles, have supersonic speed sections, and go through maneuvers that would kill a real flesh and blood human being. Licensed property parks would have access to legendary level attractions, such as entering the Dragon's Lair, seeing Mount Doom in person, or a one on one lightsaber duel with Darth Vader on the observation deck of the Death Star.
These attractions typically come with an accessory demonstrating that the person in question actually did the thing, such as bringing back a replica of the One Ring, Vader's lightsaber or helmet, or a actual Golden Snitch.
The Magic Flight Home
Derek, Helen, and Jansen reunited on the main deck of the cruise ship, bringing the family back together for the return leg of their vacation. Helen looked wistful as she deactivated her virtual Derek in favor of the real one. Jansen was largely disinterested in the entire affair and kept looking over the rail, across the water hoping that he could still see something of Wizard's Mountain, but there was nothing but sky and water.
'We're almost home,' Derek said. 'Did everyone have a good time?'
'I want to go back,' Jansen said. 'It was fun, I want you to come too...' Derek put a hand on his son's shoulder. 'Jansen, you know I don't give a shit about wizards and dragons, that's why we always take separate vacations.'
'We didn't use to,' Helen said, still wishing that her real husband was as kind and considerate as her virtual one.
After visiting a virtual theme park, the easiest way to leave is to simply 'exit the program' and unhook from the CogNet and go about your business. While certainly possible, it was found that this abrupt level of disconnect caused emotional dissonance and created a strong sense of unhappiness in customers. The Return Trip bus is designed to ease people out of the fantasy they have immersed themselves in and transition back to the vagaries of real life. Another aspect is that in the Cosmic Era, few people take true family vacations, and instead are likely to visit different simulations. On a meta level note, this is a function of the social fraying of the Cosmic Era. When people are forced into a situation where they have to get along, they generally will, such as communal settings, or on long trips. When the option is available to spread and do whatever, people become more insular, self-absorbed, and self-important.
Author's Note: I intended to add a Backdoor Section for a Black Market aspect to the Virtual Parks, where there could be social misconduct, such as molesting the Disney Princesses, gallivanting through shut down sections of a park, and indulging in general ne'er do well behavior. While this would fit the theme of the Cosmic Era, it strongly clashes with the heavily orchestrated and calculated nature of theme parks, and the strict rules that they operate under. After writing out the snippets for the family vacation I was left a little disheartened by my own imagination, in creating three unhappy people with no sense of appreciation. Instead I think I will write out a Black Park to cover what would amount to an underground criminal aspected theme park, something not considered Safe Viewing for citizens, and that would be in a part of the 'Net where there are warning that you are leaving sanitized nodes and public safety and content warnings cannot be insured.