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Cedar Fair plans dark rides for all its amusement parks

Cedar Fair CEO plans to install dark rides at all 11 locations in the amusement park chain

Best known for its collection of behemoth steel roller coasters, a chain of regional amusement parks plans a concerted push into immersive dark rides long considered the exclusive domain of Disney and Universal theme parks.

Cedar Fair — the parent company of Knott's Berry Farm, Cedar Point and Canada's Wonderland — has already introduced a pair of interactive dark rides and plans a portfolio of future attractions under the banner of Amusement Dark.

Canada's Wonderland unveiled Wonder Mountain's Guardian in 2014 and Knott’s plans to open Voyage to the Iron Reef on May 15. Both attractions were designed by Montreal-based Triotech, a relative newcomer to dark-ride manufacturing.

Cedar Fair president and CEO Matt Ouimet plans to eventually expand the Amusement Dark concept to all 11 park locations in the chain.

"I think ultimately you'll see them at every Cedar Fair park," said Ouimet, a former Disney executive who served a stint as Disneyland president.

Cedar Fair has never been known for its dark ride collection. Scooby Doo-themed haunted dark rides based on an off-the-shelf Ghost Blasters model by Sally Corp. opened in the early 2000s at Canada's Wonderland, Carowinds, Kings Dominion and Kings Island. The rides were re-themed in 2010 as Boo Blasters on Boo Hill when Cedar Fair decided to drop the intellectual property branding.

Other Cedar Fair parks — including Cedar Point, Dorney Park and Knott's — have featured dark rides throughout their history that have long since been shuttered.

Meanwhile, Cedar Fair rival Six Flags, long known for its themeless steel parks, has also leaped into the dark ride game with a pair of Justice League attractions from Sally Corp. opening this summer at Six Flags Over Texas and Six Flags St. Louis.

Industry watchers have long been expecting Ouimet to instill more Disney DNA into Cedar Fair parks since taking over as CEO in 2011. While recent additions at Cedar Fair parks have placed a higher emphasis on family entertainment and themed environments, the new attractions have lacked the immersive storytelling associated with the most elaborate Disney rides.

In typical executive bullet-point fashion, Ouimet distilled his Amusement Dark vision into three S’s: strategy, storytelling and social interaction.

The strategy portion envisions a fleet of dark rides with a highly interactive interface and a digital infrastructure allowing for constant upgrades. Think Toy Story Midway Mania video game screens with Buzz Lightyear Astro-Blasters ray guns.

The storytelling aspect focuses on traditional topics such as pirates, dinosaurs, dragons and cowboys and Indians that don’t require expensive IPs from major media companies.

And the social component seeks to include gaming elements that encourage competition between family and friends while driving repeat visits.

Cedar Fair will never create $100-million dark rides like Disney and Universal, Ouimet said, settling instead for budgets at 10% to 15% of the industry leaders. Similarly, Cedar Fair will have to make do without expensive intellectual properties such as "Frozen" or "Harry Potter," which Ouimet admits makes marketing the new attractions more difficult.

Instead, the Amusement Dark rides will tell stories about the "world underneath our parks," Ouimet said.

So far, in-house design teams have had wide latitude to dream up unique back stories about mystical creatures dwelling beneath each park — a dragon living inside a faux mountain at Canada's Wonderland and sea monsters lurking below Knott's boardwalk.

"We're not going to do a bunch of rides at once and put them at every park," said Ouimet, who envisions one day having a library of stories that might move around from park to park.

Avoiding the one-size-fits-all approach also allows Cedar Fair to capitalize on constantly improving technology. Iron Reef at Knott's will feature backlighted imagery and 10-times brighter cameras that were not available when Guardian was built at Canada's Wonderland.

That same flexibility allows Cedar Fair to transform an existing ride with a seasonal overlay or an entirely new theme.

"You can literally hit a switch and change the story," Ouimet said.

While animatronics have not played prominent roles in Guardian or Iron Reef, Ouimet expects to work on future Amusement Dark projects with San Bernardino-based Garner Holt Productions, which created life-like figures for recent refurbishments of the 1969 Timber Mountain Log Ride and the 1960 Calico Mine Ride at Knott’s.

With no Amusement Dark projects currently in the pipeline, it’s unlikely we'll see any new dark rides added at any Cedar Fair parks in 2016 — but that hasn’t stopped Ouimet from planning for 2017 and beyond.

"We have blank spaces and empty boxes at every park," Ouimet said.

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