A Deep Dive Look at Voyage to the Iron Reef at Knott’s Berry Farm

Knotts_Iron_Reef_1978For the first time in nearly 30 years, Knott’s Berry Farm has opened a brand-new dark ride; Voyage to the Iron Reef. This 4D “shooter” is housed in the same show building that has been the home to previous dark rides at the theme park – Knott’s Bear-y Tales, which opened in 1975, followed by Kingdom of the Dinosaurs, which took its place in 1987. Over the years, the KOD space also doubled as a haunted attraction for the park’s wildly-popular Halloween event, Knott’s Scary Farm.

Knott’s Berry Farm’s Vice President and General Manager, Raffi Kaprelyan has wanted a new dark ride at the Farm since he was placed there as part of the executive management team by Cedar Fair several years ago. And, like most theme park executives, Raffi made it clear that he wanted an interactive experience for families to enjoy together; in industry speak, that means a “shooter”, in the same style as Toy Story Midway Mania at nearby Disney California Adventure in Anaheim. In 2014, construction was underway in the space across from the Charles Schulz Theatre; the remnants from Kingdom of the Dinosaurs were completely gutted and once the structure was cleaned up and made ready for the new ride, the project moved forward at a breakneck pace.

On Wednesday, May 13, Knott’s Berry Farm opened Voyage to the Iron Reef with a brief ceremony joined by Raffi, and a highly unlikely personality – Disney Legend Bob Gurr. More on that in a moment.

Knott’s moved forward on this project with Triotech, a Canadian-based ride development company that specializes in multi-sensory interactive attractions. Not known for large-scale attractions, Triotech’s latest production (aside from Iron Reef) is Wonder Mountain’s Guardian at Canada’s Wonderland. In short, the Guardian attraction is less than great. Considering how near and dear Knott’s Berry Farm is to so many people (fans and industry types alike), there was palpable concern about Voyage to the Iron Reef from the get-go. In the wake of the iconic Knott’s Bear-y Tales, as well as the very popular Kingdom of the Dinosaurs, and following the stunning rehabs on both the Log Ride and Mine Ride in recent years, there was a lot riding on Voyage to the Iron Reef, the first new dark ride at Knott’s Berry Farm in 28 years.

I’m going to approach this review as someone who works in the industry, as a show writer and creative director that has worked on all types of concepts, big and small. And, I am going to do my best to reign it in and simplify, because it could easily become a thesis if I am not careful.

To Shoot or Not to Shoot

That is the question. It’s the question that designers are asked constantly these days. Every client, every park, every executive wants interactive ride experiences at their parks. That translates usually to “we want a shooter”. Arguably, the two most popular shooters that are media-based and 4D (meaning added effects such as water spray or air blasts) are Disney’s Toy Story Midway Mania, found at several of its parks around the world, and Maus au Chocolat at Phantasialand in Germany. Both are heavily documented online, if you would like to do a quick bit of research.

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In those early meetings, when we ask “is this a shooter or not?” we’re laying the structural groundwork for everything to fall into place after that. If it’s a shooter, you instantly know it’s going to be very light on story and character development – because when you have vehicles full of guests blasting everything that moves, you simply don’t have time or guests’ attention to tell a meaningful tale. If your ride isn’t a shooter, you have more of the audience’s attention to mold and craft the experience and let the story unfold as much as it can over the course of three or four minutes. It is my opinion and experience that shooters vs. non-shooting dark rides are very different animals, while both are definitely valid as well.

In Knott’s Bear-y Tales, we journeyed with a lovable family of bears to enter their Boysenberry pies in a contest at the fair. Along the way, we passed through really charming environments and encountered truly whimsical creatures, including Crafty Coyote, who wanted those pies! Coupled with a catchy soundtrack and song, the ride was one of the greatest ever at Knott’s, and definitely one of the most beloved dark rides in American History, designed by the great Rolly Crump. In Kingdom of the Dinosaurs, guests were sent back through time on a wayward time machine, coming face-to-face with early man, and then further back, to face mighty prehistoric creatures, including a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Both attractions used the same vehicles and a very slow-moving ride system, delivering a lengthy experience that really felt full and satisfying. During Halloween Haunt, the ride system lent itself beautifully to sending terrified guests into the darkness for what seemed like an eternity.

In Voyage to the Iron Reef, guests “dive” underwater to do battle with steampunk (mechanical) creatures and a mighty Kraken, in a high-tech, high-intensity, fast-paced attraction that features a completely new ride system and completely different interior scenes than its predecessors. With blasts of air and bright strobe lights in use, Iron Reef is definitely the yin to the older rides’ yangs. Raffi and the team at Knott’s/Cedar Fair wanted something new and unlike the park had ever had before; they definitely have achieved that goal, which has received very high marks from riders, especially teens, who are the target demographic in this case, although Knott’s touts it as a family experience.

Thick and Thin of Story Development

Earlier, I said that if you have a shooter, it is pretty much futile to attempt to put any meat on the bone story or character-wise. And I stand by that. In Voyage to the Iron Reef, guests are put in front of a plethora of metallic sea creatures and everyone blasts away, free of story or any real connection to why they are there or what’s truly going on. The idea is thin – that there is a massive ocean underneath Buena Park, and the metallic creatures beneath Knott’s Berry Farm have been destroying the park’s rides and attractions for years, finally placing the property in danger of being completely consumed if the boss (Kraken) isn’t destroyed at once. Knott’s guests have been “recruited” to fight these creatures of the deep – but we are never given any real instruction on the whats and whys or even hows of the mission at hand. The pre-show could have been used as a “training film” setup, much in the way many attractions use that moment to set up what’s about to take place. Instead, the pre-show at Iron Reef is a clunky (think early PlayStation quality) animation coupled with a disjointed narrative that kind of tells us what we already know – that there are menacing metallic beasts below the surface of the water that are a threat and must be stopped. There is some interesting imagery of Knott’s Berry Farm’s skyline used in the pre-show, but it all feels very odd and doesn’t really feature any characters or story line that guests can begin to care about. That sets the stage for the remainder of the ride experience to be, in its most basic description, a shooter without any warmth or heart. I think that is where we find most of the split in opinion between fans who either really like Iron Reef, or really dislike it.

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A lot of people – including Bob Gurr – have compared Voyage to the Iron Reef to Toy Story Midway Mania. Personally, I think that is a huge leap, considering the two attractions while shooters, are very different in quality and ride/technical delivery system. It’s like saying a Kia is the same thing as a BMW, because they both are cars with four wheels and get people from Point A to Point Z. They are not the same when you take them for more than face value; neither are Voyage to the Iron Reef and Midway Mania. Like the cars I’ve mentioned, one is in the “luxury class” and the other is in the “economy class”. You figure out which is which. Here’s the key, folks – they both serve their purpose.

Before moving off of the whole Toy Story vs. Iron Reef thing, I might as well throw in my two cents, since everyone else has. Both attractions have a paper-thin story line, because, as I believe, you cannot tell a robust tale with a shooter because no one takes the time to care about anything except pulling that trigger. The major difference that separates Midway Mania in the heart and soul category, is that we are all very familiar with the Toy Story films and characters; before even getting into the ride vehicle, we have history with these characters – and we love them. Iron Reef doesn’t have that strong leg up, and so, we’re left with the same basic goal as Midway Mania – shoot things and rack up the highest score possible – but without the warmth and depth of the attraction’s established characters.

Practical vs. Projections

When fans are divided between different rides and experiences, the heart of the matter usually comes down to the same thing – half the folks insist that practical attractions such as Indiana Jones Temple of the Forbidden Eye are superior experiences, while the other half insist that media-based attractions such as Transformers or even Star Tours are much better, since they can accomplish far more than animatronics or show set equipment can.

I fall somewhere in the middle, with my own personal favorite “new generation” attraction being The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man at Universal’s Islands of Adventure in Orlando; it is a massive ride experience that combines practical sets and scenic elements with 3D projected media as backgrounds. To me, the end result is quite stunning, and represents the best of both worlds when it comes to attraction mediums.

If you take a look at Triotech’s Wonder Mountain’s Guardian attraction in Canada, you can see that it is extremely light on any type of scenic, and almost completely reliant on non-themed screens within a show building that light up with projections for riders to shoot at. Going by this example alone, I’d say that the great concern that people have felt regarding Voyage to the Iron Reef was warranted. It’s been said by other media outlets that the overall price tag for Voyage to the Iron Reef  at Knott’s is somewhere south of $10 million. That is also a strong argument for anxiety, considering in today’s themed entertainment world, $10 million doesn’t usually buy you much, let alone the first dark ride at Knott’s Berry Farm in nearly three decades. With major “E” Ticket rides these days costing upward of $100 million (in the case of Universal and Disney, much more than even that), and smaller family rides at parks such as LEGOLAND costing in the neighborhood of $12 million, the idea of Knott’s having a major dark ride for less than $10 million – has been unsettling, to say the least. In 1987, the cost of Kingdom of the Dinosaurs was $7 million; today, that same ride would cost approximately $15 million. Pony Express, the odd and bare-bones family coaster at Knott’s came in with a price tag of $9 million in 2008. Silver Bullet cost Knott’s $16 million in 2004. Mystery Lodge cost approximately $10 million over 20 years ago. Putting all of that in perspective, even in Knott’s economics, a brand-new high-tech immersive dark ride experience for less than $10 million in 2014/2015 seemed downright perilous. Speaking of “perilous” – Perilous Plunge cost a reported $9 million in 2000, and you remember what that was like.

I’m merely putting the budget into perspective here, and not at all pointing fingers at Knott’s for being “cheap” about this. I don’t know anyone on the Knott’s design or management teams that wouldn’t have opted for a $50 million budget rather than a $7 – $10 million one. I’m sure the budget was set by the powers that be at Cedar Fair in Ohio and Knott’s was given the mandate to “make magic” with it; definitely not a task I would have immediately embraced with much enthusiasm, considering how much everything costs these days in this industry. However, Knott’s has always done things grass roots-style and with a lot of in-house elbow grease. That’s always been their secret weapon as a theme park in an industry where most companies rely on vendors and third parties for everything from lighting to scenic design and fabrication. Under an impossibly tight deadline, Knott’s moved forward, announcing Voyage to the Iron Reef last fall with a spring 2015 opening deadline; that’s nuts.

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This is where the strength of media lies. You can get a much bigger bang for your buck (unless you’re Disney using ILM or Universal using Weta) if you’re having animated sequences developed for a 3D attraction such as Iron Reef, versus designing and fabricating large, practical sets and props. I don’t know for certain, but I would guess that most, if not all, of Triotech’s animation is done in China. They have an office there, and production is ridiculously cheap in Asia; many companies use Asia for digital work for that very reason. Unfortunately, in the case of Voyage to the Iron Reef, the animated sequences are far from very impressive artistically, and at times, are downright crude, with games on smart phones and consoles having vastly superior graphics. I would say that a large chunk went into the ride system and shooting integration/projectors (there are a ton of projectors in Iron Reef, and they are expensive) and the bare minimum went into getting the animated sequences done; in this case, “good enough” prevailed, unfortunately. Case in point, it really bothers me that when you face the final “boss” in Iron Reef, the animated figure’s mouth isn’t even moving, even though the character is screaming at us as it’s being blown apart. Details like that drive me nuts, because they’re simple story points. Even if you don’t know what your villain is going to be saying at the end of the show, you know it’s going to be doing something with its mouth moving! Even if you have it animated saying “WATERMELON, WATERMELON, WATERMELON”, you can add in whatever narration you’d like months later and it will fit; better than the mouth not moving at all!

Animation quality aside, the real concern here is the on-going upkeep and maintenance all of those projectors are going to constantly need, along with the always-necessary calibration of the guns and the cameras that track where riders are pointing them toward the screens. Very often, clients will buy off on a “cheaper” system – such as a media-based shooter, or at the other end of the spectrum, a wooden roller coaster that is half the price of a steel one. This is done because they are given a certain budget to work with. The on-going labor and constant adjustment and upkeep are rarely discussed in the early stages of these negotiations, and in the end, park operations teams have to figure out how to maintain these attractions and how to do it as “cost effectively” as possible. This is going to be a challenge for Knott’s, without a doubt. It’s a constant challenge for companies that have much deeper pockets and resources such as Disney and Universal; however, if Iron Reef’s tech isn’t maintained, it will manifest itself very quickly with blurry projections, guns not working properly, and scenes completely out of whack. Knott’s has a pretty loyal following – and those fans won’t be shy about it if Iron Reef’s maintenance begins to lag after this first summer season is over.

When you buy/design any attraction – it is a marriage where constant maintenance and years of faithful upkeep must be upheld, or else everything starts falling apart. The most immediate example at Disneyland that comes to mind is Indiana Jones. The most immediate example at Knott’s Berry Farm is GhostRider. Every park has one or two – you’re probably thinking of a few right now. Here’s sincerely hoping that Knott’s understands and is equipped to take on the challenges of maintaining so many technical components for years to come at Voyage to the Iron Reef.

Would Voyage to the Iron Reef have worked as a “simple” dark ride experience, where guests are taken on a voyage through strange underwater environments and faced with daunting or humorous show moments? I tend to think so, although the ocean’s floor may not have been my first choice as a location to plop guests into for a ride. I especially think that Knott’s could have pulled off a dark ride after seeing some of the scenic elements that Lara Hanneman’s team came up with to fill in the gaps between and around the media screens in Iron Reef. Of course, with any attraction that has a lot of scenic and show set props/action pieces, there are naturally heavy costs associated with quality animatronics, effects, and the necessary upkeep as well.

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I personally would have been very content with a good, old-fashioned dark ride in that space at Knott’s; I’m sure a lot of folks would agree. At the same time, there’s no denying that shooters are popular and every park wants them as part of their offerings package for guests. In the end, it doesn’t matter if anyone thinks Bear-y Tales 2.0 would have been better, or if something a bit more high-end along the lines of Justice League: Battle for Metropolis at Six Flags Over Texas would have been a stronger match for Knott’s. Voyage to the Iron Reef is what was chosen, Knott’s designers rose to the occasion to compliment the media-based aspects of the ride with their own creative touches, and in general, the public seems to be extremely satisfied with it; all of the what ifs and should haves are a moot point now.

Mechanical Merch

One aspect of Voyage to the Iron Reef that just about everyone does agree with, is that the merchandise selection in the ride’s gift shop is pretty decent, and not sold at outrageous prices. Knott’s has always been really good about very affordable price points for their souvenirs, and we applaud them for sticking to that with the opening of Iron Reef.

The attraction’s gift shop is called “Nautilus” which to be honest, is a weird choice in my opinion, since that is so heavily associated with that other steam punk submarine from Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I don’t know off-hand what I would have named the gift shop, but I sure would have steered clear of “Nautilus”. Of course, the younger guests visiting Knott’s likely won’t give it any thought at all, and the evasive answer anyway would be that it’s the name of a very beautiful and common marine mollusc, and Voyage to the Iron Reef is set within the depths of an ocean.

Name strangeness aside, the gift shop is across from the Charles M. Schulz Theatre where the old Ride Warriors shop was, next to the arcade at street-level. Iron Reef merchandise can be found in several spots within the shop, which otherwise is a mish-mosh of stuff, much like most other gift shops at Knott’s Berry Farm. While Nautilus isn’t 100% dedicated as the Iron Reef’s shop, it’s definitely the go-to location for attraction-specific souvenirs and shirts; it’s definitely worth checking out when you visit the park.

If You Don’t Gamble, You Can Never Win

At the beginning of this story, I said that I was really surprised to see Disney Legend Bob Gurr being tapped to oversee the opening ceremony of Voyage to the Iron Reef. While it’s true and valid that Bob has worked on many things outside of Disney, including Kingdom of the Dinosaurs and multiple attractions for Universal Studios Hollywood, as well as projects for Steve Wynn in Las Vegas, there is no getting away from the fact that “Bob Gurr” is synonymous with “Disneyland”. Ever. He even mentioned it in his brief but sweet opening remarks during the Iron Reef ceremony.

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Bob isn’t known for being shy; the fact that Knott’s Berry Farm would have him as the figurehead opening Voyage to the Iron Reef in front of a small army of media representatives was both incredibly risky, and completely genius all at the same time. What if Bob hadn’t liked Voyage to the Iron Reef? What would he say then? What would Knott’s do if he said something odd or unflattering in front of the media as cameras rolled? That all must have been weighed out and in the end, Knott’s was sure enough of their product to make that bet and roll the dice. Bob Gurr declared Voyage to the Iron Reef a huge success that blew him away with its technical aspects and gameplay interactivity. To the thrill of Knott’s I’m sure, he went on to say that it was more advanced and a better experience than Toy Story Midway Mania. Whether we agree with Bob’s statements or not – that’s irrelevant. Big media such as the Orange County Register went with that and trumpeted it loudly for everyone to read. Gaining Bob Gurr’s nod of approval and praise was truly an unprecedented coup for Knott’s. I absolutely remain stunned by the move and have to offer nothing but applause to the marketing team for making such a high-stakes, left-field gamble in this case. It doesn’t get better than having a beloved and renowned legend from “that little park down the road” opening your newest attraction and praising it in front of the media; a bold, odd move that absolutely paid off in this case. Huge props and kudos to Knott’s for that.

The Final Score

In the end, it comes down to this: since Voyage to the Iron Reef’s opening, we have heard non-stop from TPAers of all ages how much they enjoy the new attraction. It’s gotten nearly all positive reviews from the media and fan sites alike, and guests at Knott’s are really happy with the new attraction. It doesn’t matter what I think or feel personally, because it’s clear that Voyage to the Iron Reef is a success, both for Knott’s Berry Farm as well as Triotech, who will no doubt, tout this as their masterwork for years to come.

Personally, I prefer classic dark rides over shooters, although I will ride both. I went to  the opening of Iron Reef with a huge weight of apprehension on my shoulders, because I really wanted Knott’s to have a fantastic new ride to add to its legacy. The media is pretty much what I expected it to be, although the pre-show as I mentioned, is really clunky and the story is just as awkward. Once on the ride, the one aspect I was most worried about – the scenic pieces – became my favorite part of the show, reminding me once again of Knott’s historically strong in-house capabilities in the face of practically zero financial resources. The shortcomings within the ride scenic-wise simply boil down to time and budget, of which the team was given neither, to speak of. As a designer, I have to applaud Lara Hanneman and her team for really carrying this one across the finish line under such a ridiculously tight schedule. Now that the attraction has opened, I would hope that Raffi and Knott’s will continue to allow the team to make adjustments and scenic improvements to further polish the show in the weeks and months to come.

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Fans are excited about Voyage to the Iron Reef, the Knott’s team should be (and are) proud of what they have accomplished with this project, and most importantly, the Berry Farm finally has a new dark ride for guests to enjoy and experience for years to come. A lot of people have been saying, “Well, it’s better than having no ride up there anymore” when Iron Reef’s pros and cons are discussed. I disagree with that, in a way. Had the attraction opened and everyone across the board not liked it at all – it would have been a really heavy blow to a park that we all love and cherish so much. The fact that we do take things like new rides so seriously when it comes to Knott’s is a constant reminder of just how special it is. I am very pleased for Knott’s that so many fans and casual guests are loving Voyage to the Iron Reef. As stated earlier, my own personal preferences are moot; I’m not the demographic for this ride to begin with, and I do honestly see the vast majority’s approval of the new ride as a major win for Cedar Fair and Knott’s Berry Farm. I look forward to seeing how Iron Reef evolves and ages in the years to come at Knott’s, and I definitely will return time and again when we visit the park to take a ride and battle the Kraken.

It’s a great summer for theme parks and fans here in Southern California; a lot is going on, and we’re extremely pleased to see that Knott’s Berry Farm is right at the front of the pack, moving forward aggressively and successfully with their newest adventure!

– Rick West

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