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Legoland owner to roll out augmented reality games to lure visitors

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Legoland owner Merlin Entertainments is rolling out augmented reality games based on TV shows Paw Patrol and Squid Game in some of its venues in an attempt to lure more visitors.

The interactive games rooms run by AR company Immersive Gamebox will initially be rolled out in two of Merlin’s sites in Germany and Australia by the end of this year as part of a multimillion-pound licensing deal. They will probably be expanded to more of the theme park operator’s 140 sites globally as early as next year.

Up to six users don visors with motion-tracking sensors and enter a games room, where they are able to choose from a wide variety of games using technology that harnesses projection mapping, touch screens and surround sound. There will be eight games rooms per site. The first two sites are part of Merlin’s Midway Attractions business, which runs waxwork museum Madame Tussauds.

Immersive, which operates 25 sites mainly in Europe and the US, offers themed games based on children’s TV shows such as Shaun the Sheep and Paw Patrol, as well as games for teenagers and young adults such as Squid Game and Psychedelic Mansion.

“This is a pathway to remove the headphones in the dark room talking to friends playing games, and going out and being active and being socially connected,” said Scott O’Neil, Merlin’s chief executive, who decided to pursue the licensing agreement after visiting an Immersive site in New York. He added that he expected to “see a lot more of these” across Merlin’s estate in the future.

Merlin, which booked £136mn in pre-tax profits last year, has used intellectual property deals with toymakers and movies studios to bolster its stable of attractions and theme park rides, which includes the first standalone Peppa Pig theme park launched last year and rollercoasters such as the World of Jumanji at the UK’s Chessington theme park.

Will Dean, Immersive’s founder, said his company’s IP partnerships — including deals with Netflix, Sony and Paramount — made the business “highly complementary” to what Merlin was trying to achieve, adding that “the ambition is to grow to a couple hundred sites together over the next few years”.

But George Jijiashvili, an analyst at technology consultancy Omdia, said he was “sceptical” that there was a “huge untapped market in AR gaming”. Rather than being “truly groundbreaking stuff”, Immersive was “an evolution of existing arcade games”, Jijiashvili said.

“We’re [virtual reality] for people who have friends in the real world,” said Dean, who also founded obstacle course business Tough Mudder. “The biggest problem with VR is that you’re not really with your friends.” All of Immersive’s games involve players collaborating rather than playing against each other, Dean said.

Immersive, which is set to turn a profit this year on the back of projected revenues of about £25mn, plans to expand to roughly 200 venues worldwide by the end of next year.

Dean estimated it will have served about 1mn customers — the majority of which are families and corporate groups — by the end of this year.

Dean predicted that at some point his company could be bought by Merlin. Merlin is “looking to roll up a whole set of businesses”, he said. “Maybe one day they turn around and say to us: ‘We’re better at selling drinks and T-shirts than you are . . . you should become part of the Merlin family.”

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