It takes a ton of intestinal fortitude to open a themed dark ride in the backyard of Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood, but Knott's Berry Farm's new Voyage to the Iron Reef succeeds with a high-tech shoot-em-up attraction that's fun, creative and visually impressive.
"We can't compete with Disney and Universal on budget," said Knott's vice president and general manager Raffi Kaprelyan. "But we can compete on entertainment value."
The new Knott's attraction is part of a push to introduce dark rides at each of the 11 locations in the Cedar Fair amusement park chain that includes Cedar Point, Carowinds, Kings Dominion and Kings Island. The move comes as rival Six Flags is introducing Justice League dark rides at a pair of parks this summer.
With a price tag likely south of $10 million, Iron Reef will inevitably and unfairly be compared to heavily-themed attractions at Disney and Universal that can command $100-million budgets.
The challenge for Knott's is to create a compelling back story without recognizable characters from an intellectual property such as "Despicable Me" or "Cars."
Bob Gurr, a legendary Disney Imagineer who was at Knott's on Wednesday for the debut of the new attraction, said Iron Reef is the best interactive shoot-em-up dark ride he's ever seen in his six decades in the theme park industry.
"A lot of people will compare this ride to Midway Mania at Disney, which is a superb ride," Gurr said. "Knott's has found a different way to do it that's even better and on a lower budget."
Iron Reef drops visitors into the middle of an underwater battle brimming with steampunk-inspired sea creatures determined to destroy the Buena Park theme park.
The new 4D interactive dark ride takes over a long-neglected location in the Boardwalk section of the park that was once home to two beloved dark rides: Knott's Bear-y Tales and Kingdom of the Dinosaurs.
After climbing a flight of stairs to embark on an underwater journey, riders armed with a freeze ray gun battle an army of aqua-mechanical creatures that come to life on a series of expansive video screens. The visuals are so mind-blowing that at times it feels like you're diving into the ocean depths while fending off a mass of fearsome steampunk-inspired sea monsters.
I rode Iron Reef four times on Wednesday and each time I found new hidden treasures I hadn't spotted on previous trips. At one point we turned a corner and I was mesmerized by animated bubbles that appeared to float throughout the entire room. On another trip I caught a glimpse of the evil Kraken Queen in a fog curtain separating a pair of scenes.
The first few scenes in the ride are intended to introduce riders to the smaller creatures feeding on submerged Knott's coasters and thrill rides.
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. Shooting creatures farther away are worth more than the ones up close.
By the middle of the ride we meet the steampunk pufferfish that shoot their spikes at us. It takes teamwork and multiple shots to make them explode. And while the floating naval mines are fun to blow up, they are joyful diversions that will gain you no points.
Around the corner on the next screen, an armored octopus grabs onto to our ride vehicle and pulls us deeper into the watery abyss. Shooting the targets on the end of his claw-like tentacles racks up points and eventually destroys the ink-spurting beast.
Passing through the smokestack of a sunken ship on the ocean floor we navigate a series of compartments inside the ship before coming upon the Kraken Queen, who appears to leap over our swiveling ride vehicle from one screen to another.
The ride consists of 11 sometimes curving, sometimes concave video screens, including an impressive pair of seamless screens that appear to stretch for 150 feet as our ride vehicle crawls past.
Just for a bit of fun, I rode Iron Reef with Knott's GM Raffi Kaprelyan and Knott's creative director Lara Hanneman. Kaprelyan, who has been known to hold down other players' ray guns, maintains the current high score among his fellow employees. Hanneman, a self-described non-gamer, tends to focus on the scenery more than racking up points.
As a competitive person by nature, it pains me to say that Kaprelyan beat me handily - and likely took it easy on me. His score of 159,100 was well off his all-time best of 192,000. I settled for second with 112,100 while Hanneman coasted to third with 82,000.
The challenge for Knott's will be maintaining the projection technology and keeping the imagery sharp. Capacity could also become an issue during the peak summer season.
The biggest knock against Iron Reef is that it's not a classic dark ride with lushly decorated scenes and animatronic characters. But while it saddens me to say it, I've come to realize those flourishes are unnecessary and superfluous in today's modern video-game-like dark rides.
While Iron Reef has a few nice mini-scenes in between screens - I particularly like the sunken wooden ship beneath a naval mine - they are largely ignored by riders anxiously anticipating the next rapid-fire round.
"People like the interactive aspect of the ride," said Triotech president Ernest Yale, whose Montreal-based company designed Iron Reef. "It takes 10 seconds to understand and it's four minutes of nonstop fun."
Part of Triotech's pitch to Cedar Fair and Knott's is that Iron Reef can change and evolve over time. The computer-generated imagery can be updated with the latest advances in technology and the back story can be changed with the flip of a switch. That generic blue-and-bronze ride vehicle can be a submarine, spaceship or stagecoach.
The bottom line is that Iron Reef is a game changer for Cedar Fair if not the theme park industry as a whole. If Iron Reef proves successful at Knott's, which I suspect it will, the other parks in the amusement park chain will be get their own versions of Triotech dark rides in the very near future.
What I like best about Iron Reef is that it's not what you'd expect from Knott's - and yet it fits perfectly in the park. Knott's had the courage to try something different and I applaud them for boldly taking on the Disneys and Universals of the theme park world.
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