The first thing that strikes me about the new Voyage to the Iron Reef dark ride at Knott's Berry Farm is the long flight of stairs I have to ascend to embark on my underwater journey.
But once inside, it doesn't take me long to forget my lofty second-story surroundings and be swept away on a submarine battle brimming with aqua-mechanical creatures determined to destroy the Buena Park theme park.
During a recent sneak peek, I was joined by Knott's creative director Lara Hanneman for a behind-the-scenes preview of the new shoot-em-up dark ride located in an old attraction space above a video game arcade.
Set to debut May 15, the steampunk-inspired Voyage to the Iron Reef occupies a location once home to two beloved dark rides: Knott's Bear-y Tales and Kingdom of the Dinosaurs.
Spoiler alert: What follows is a detailed description of the ride vehicles, entry queue and first two scenes of Voyage to the Iron Reef. Consider yourself forewarned.
After climbing a series of stairs and navigating a Googie-themed indoor queue, riders will board the Iron Reef ride vehicles at an open-air loading platform. Dominated by an expansive hand-painted mural, the station area is covered by a wave-like canopy and framed by portal-like arches evocative of a boardwalk amusement park.
The tandem ocean blue ride vehicles seat a total of eight passengers and sport onboard audio, wind effects and seat kickers. The twin cars spin independently to aim riders at the 11 video screens throughout the attraction. Wearing 3D glasses, riders are armed with a freeze ray gun that registers a digital score in front of them every time they hit a target.
After passing through a pair of speed doors designed to block out the light, riders enter the first scene of Iron Reef where the generic ride vehicle is transformed into a miniature submarine.
To the right, a bit of set dressing evokes a steampunk-themed elevator mechanism with golden gears and cogs. To the left, a 15-foot-long screen is framed by rusted steel suggestive of Captain Nemo's Nautilus submarine in "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea."
Rotating toward a screen powered by a pair of unseen 3D HD projectors, the sub splashes into the ocean and the vessel's helm appears with a series of levers and gauges. Diving below the ocean's surface, the daylight yields to the dark ocean depths as the journey begins.
Moving around the corner to the second scene, riders encounter another screen, framed this time with barnacles and kelp. Opposite the screen, a hand-painted mural depicts submerged rides from Knott's past and present, including the Silver Bullet coaster.
As the vehicle rolls to a stop, an underwater scene of twisted and torn roller coaster track and a seaweed-covered Ferris wheel suddenly comes to life with strange aqua-mechanical creatures.
Armed with a freeze ray, riders shoot at jellyfish wearing diving helmets, giant shrimp with red laser eyes and scavenger crabs walking on hinged legs. An eel adorned in decorative golden armor emerges from a crevasse in the sea floor. Successfully targeting the creatures with the ray gun causes them to crystallize and break into pieces. Miss and the freeze ray leaves a chunk of ice on the screen. Spinning gold medallions that pop up periodically are worth bonus points.
"You can play video games at home but with this you feel like you're in the middle of it," said Hanneman, who also oversees Knott's Halloween Haunt.
The Knott's design team has hidden "Easter eggs" throughout Iron Reef for sharp-eyed fans of the park's history. In the foreground, an old Knott's Bear-y Tales ride vehicle rusts on the ocean floor. In the background, the Roaring '20s neon sign that once stood atop the attraction building lights up when hit by a freeze ray.
Several of the attraction's other scenes - which last about 30 seconds each - feature curving screens up to 70 feet long that riders shoot at while their vehicle slowly moves forward along the track. Each scene offers new challenges and meaner creatures until you finally meet the Kraken Queen, who grabs onto the sub and pulls riders down into the ocean's depths.
"She's like a siren," Hanneman said. "She's inherently evil. She wants to gain more power over her realm."
Hanneman, who describes herself as a non-gamer, says the top score during employee test runs belongs to Raffi Kaprelyan, Knott's vice president and general manager.
"He's very competitive," Hanneman said of the park's boss. "He holds down other people's freeze rays so they can't shoot."
At the conclusion of Iron Reef, top scores are displayed on a leaderboard as riders descend another set of stairs leading through the arcade to a gift shop themed to the new attraction.