The worldwide phenomenon that is Mario Kart Arcade GP VR is now in our very own backyard. And, it is the only location in not just the U.S. but also the world where you can enjoy this virtual reality experience. Irvine’s K1 Speed, the indoor go-karting attraction, now has a VR Zone Portal with an amusement arcade offering the latest video games straight out of Japan. If you aren’t a member of the $152.1 billion gaming industry, this is probably not news to you, but for any child of the ’90s that grew up playing with Mario and his pals, the fact that Irvine is now virtually home base for the fun bunch gives much cause for applause.

Fans of the game are finding their way to the VR experience from all over the world for a chance to jump into four different karts, each representing one of the characters: Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach and Yoshi. The karts are equipped with rumble seats, pedals and steering wheel, so there’s no doubt you truly are a part of the action. Once in the kart, players wear an HTC Vive VR headset, headphones with mics, and Vive Trackers on their hands to be transported to the virtual world of Mushroom Kingdom, racing for the top step of the podium with, of course, ample twists and add-ons such as fun weapons. The game was introduced in Irvine this June. 

“The Mario Kart experience is here because this location is attached to our corporate headquarters, so we are able to facilitate easier in terms of approvals and setup. Working with Bandai Namco, that’s what they wanted too, so we can fine-tune the product here in terms of pricing, use of space, product offering, before we roll out to the masses,” says Randall Hoppe, advertising and brand marketing manager at K1 Speed. A former dirt track racer turned marketing aficionado, he has been with the go-kart racing leader for over six years and has worked professionally in the live sports/entertainment industry, including with NASCAR and ISC, for more than a decade. 

(Courtesy of K1 Speed)

Hoppe is excited for more people enjoying the VR Zone Portal, which has been an absolute hit thus far with all guests. Other experiences here include Ski Rodeo, a next-generation skiing simulator, and Argyle Shift, where the player becomes a futuristic test pilot on a mission in Japan in the year 2145. He is certain the haunted house experience being introduced this month for Halloween and available until a little later this fall, will also get a good response; Hotel Escape Terror is a fully immersive game where players are trapped in a haunted hospital, and offers something completely different from the other arcade area offerings at this time.

Says Nick Iftner, Virtual Reality Sales at Japanese video game company Bandai Namco, “Teaming up with K1 Speed Irvine was a no brainer. The employees are detail-oriented, hardworking and well-versed in walking new customers through the procedure of racing. That hands-on approach was exactly the involvement we want all VR Zone Portal customers to experience. We also knew that K1 would be a supportive partner and would ensure both of our brands develop and grow during our time together. It is easy to pick a partner when both sides are equally excited with what the other brings to the table.”

(Courtesy of K1 Speed)

At 70,000 square feet, the Irvine facility is not the largest among K1 Speeds’ 40+ locations worldwide but it is the top location in terms of volume, revenue and customers processed. Onsite are two racetracks (adults and children) with 45-mph thrills, and a full restaurant in the Paddock Lounge, with upscale food options and beer and wine. Everything is brand new, including 100 percent electric, state-of-the-art karts that are the newest fleets in the US, with remote access to easily control speed levels as required. Shares Hoppe, “Everything we do we try in this building, so essentially this location is the test kitchen of our entire product offering.”

While the venue is ADA-compliant to welcome people with disabilities, the karts themselves are not equipped to handle that segment of the audience yet. Hoppe shares though that will be addressed within the next six to 12 months. “We had an event last year for Red Bull Wings for Life, a charitable event for those with spinal cord injuries, where we had an adaptive cart. So we are in the process of developing hand-controlled carts and retrofitting a certain number of carts in each location. It’s a slow and expensive process, but we understand that those who are not fully mobile should enjoy this too.”

Within the community, K1 Speed is well known for giving back via hosting charity events and fulfilling donation requests aplenty. Recent efforts include a charity toy drive for Shriners Hospitals for Children – Salt Lake City, and every Christmas the company hosts toy drives for Toys For Tots and food drives around Thanksgiving, as well as donates proceeds National Breast Cancer Awareness month in October. “We do a good job of balancing large-scale campaigns, but also micro-level within the community,” says Hoppe. “Our brand recognition in California is strong. Next to our Florida locations, Irvine is one of our highest tourism venues.”

However, not many are fully aware of the existence of this “only one in the world” Mario Kart VR experience housed inside K1 Speed Irvine. With the company established as a racing brand, and the new VR entrant on the premises faring better than any of the product offerings, Hoppe expects more Mario Kart lovers will seek out the experience into the holidays and the New Year. So if you are in Irvine or headed in that direction, make a pit stop at the K1 Speed racetracks for not just an adrenaline rush on go-karts, but also a new high of virtually racing into another land.