A high-tech arms race is escalating at Southern California theme parks.
Knott's Berry Farm, known for traditional roller coasters and carnival rides, is gearing up to compete with Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood with a new attraction that combines interactive video games, 3-D visuals and atmospheric special effects.
Scheduled to open next year, Voyage to the Iron Reef will be the park's first venture into 3-D. Knott's officials say the ride will outdo any attraction in Southern California because it combines several technologies for the first time.
"It's like riding a roller coaster and watching a movie and playing a game all at the same time," said Eric Marradi, creative director for Triotech, the Montreal company building the ride.
Triotech built a similar attraction at Canada's Wonder Mountain. Knott's declined to say how much it paid to build the ride.
Knott's new ride probably won't be cutting-edge for long. Universal Studios and Disneyland are sure to try to outdo the Iron Reef ride with new attractions of their own, theme park experts say.
"The general rule with new technology in theme parks is that you can only say 'We are the first to have it, this week,'" said Robert Niles, founder of Themeparkinsider.com, an online theme park guide.
Universal Studios is scheduled next summer to open a new ride called Fast and Furious — Supercharged, featuring high-definition 3-D images projected onto a 360-degree screen spanning nearly 400 feet in length. The following year, Universal will unveil the multimillion-dollar Wizarding World of Harry Potter, an area of the park inspired by J.K. Rowling's books.
Walt Disney Co. won't disclose details of upcoming projects, but executives have promised to feature "Star Wars" characters and stories in future attractions following Disney's purchase of Lucasfilm in 2012.
"Our business lives on repeat visitation, and repeat visitation is generated through new product innovation," said Dennis Speigel, a theme park consultant and president of Cincinnati-based International Theme Park Services.
But when rides rely heavily on cutting-edge technology, they are more likely to malfunction, Speigel and other theme park experts said.
When the Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts ride opened last summer at Universal Orlando in Florida, it malfunctioned so often that one website dubbed it "Harry Potter and the Perpetual Breakdown." The ride combines a roller coaster with 3-D images.
"This is sophisticated stuff," said Martin Lewison, a business management professor at Farmingdale State College in New York and an expert on theme parks. "They spend a lot of time testing and testing, and still stuff goes wrong. It's just the nature of the beast."
The Knott's Berry Farm attraction is also significant because Knott's has shied away from high-tech rides, instead relying on traditional coasters and carnival rides to compete against more popular parks like Disneyland, Disney's California Adventure and Universal Studios.
But Matt Quimet, president and chief executive of Cedar Fair Entertainment, the parent company of Knott's, said the Iron Reef ride does not signal that Knott's is changing its focus solely to high-tech attractions to compete with Disney and Universal.
Instead, he said the park will invest in rides that appeal to a wider audience so the park can thrive for the next decade or two.
"If we can do more rides where everyone in the family has fun, we will be even more successful," he said.
Knott's Iron Reef ride will combine 3-D images, ray guns, vehicles that roll along a track, plus atmospheric effects like fog, bubbles and wind to bring the scenes to life.
Some of these effects are already featured in Universal Studios' Transformers: The Ride-3D and Disneyland's Toy Story Midway Mania.
The Knott's ride will take passengers into an underwater world where they use ray guns to try to freeze the Queen of the Kraken and her minions to stop them from pulling roller coasters and other rides down into her watery world. The ride is designed to move 800 guests per hour.
The attraction replaces an animatronic dinosaur that opened in 1987 and closed in 2004. The new ride will include 600 feet of track and 11 screens in an 18,000-square-foot building.
One advantage to the ride, according to its designers, is that the scenes and monsters are digital creations that can be updated or re-created in the future. Also, by allowing riders to score points, the attraction encourages park visitors to return to improve on their score.
"Some people will do it all day long," said Ernest Yale, president and CEO of Triotech.