VR Showdown in Ghost Town has come to Knott’s Berry Farm, making its debut April 1, during the kick-off of this year’s Boysenberry Festival. Theme Park Adventure was fortunate enough to preview the brand-new family attraction at Knott’s this week, and we came away with some really positive observations to share.
I’ve long said that virtual reality as we know it is best suited for home console gaming. It’s taking off by leaps and bounds in the home market, resulting in some pretty amazing video game experiences. In theme parks, VR is a really hard sell for me, for several reasons. Typically, VR is an operational nightmare – the headsets are bulky and require constant cleaning and maintenance, guests need assistance putting the gear on properly and then removing it, and depending on your luck, it’s very easy to get a piece of hardware that isn’t calibrated properly or out of focus, which ruins the experience. To be completely transparent, the only VR-equipped attractions I have experienced are roller coasters, and I’m not a huge fan to be honest. When I ride a coaster, I want to experience the coaster – I want to see where I am, what the train is doing, and I want to have interaction with other riders, whether it be screaming and laughing, or putting our hands up as a group. When rumors started flying of virtual reality coming to Knott’s, I was less than excited. I guessed that Montezooma’s Revenge was going to get the VR treatment, as many other older coasters across the nation and around the world are getting these days. I’ve never been happier to be wrong!
Instead of a coaster overlay, what Knott’s has gotten is something much more involved and engaging. VR Showdown in Ghost Town (it’s a mouthful) is a custom-made digital experience from VR Studios in Bellevue, Washington. In the experience, guests have been sent back in time to defend the park’s iconic Calico from invading robots and other nasty mech intruders via time travel pods located deep within the Welles Research and Development facility at Knott’s Berry Farm. Long-time fans of Knott’s (that means us older kids) will note that Professor Welles and his time machine is the way we were all sent back millions of years to the Kingdom of the Dinosaurs from 1987 to 2004. More on the historical backstory and clever tie-ins shortly.
Guests enter the secret research facility through a gaping hole that’s been blown in a wall of the Boardwalk Arcade by a powerful laser. There, they find themselves in a small queue that’s full of scientific devices and miscellaneous props – many of which are from the old Kingdom of the Dinosaurs attraction. Once inside, they are escorted in small groups to individual “pods” – time travel chambers where they are suited up and sent into battle, guns blazing!
The 3-minute experience is divided into three gaming sequences, each with their own locale within Ghost Town and their own boss to fight off as the game proceeds. The three portions of the Showdown are Blacksmith Shop and the Forge Bot; Water Tower and the Torch Bot; and the Bank Roof featuring the Tinker Bot. Once the game begins and you find yourself surrounded by robots with bad attitudes, the action is so fast and furious, it’s hard to tell what’s going on – at least the first time you play. I played once (I had to talk to the team and Periscope from the attraction the rest of the time) and scored 79,500 points by blasting away at robots, projectiles, and anything else that moved. The team said that almost 80,000 on my first try was really impressive; I suppose that’s because I play a lot of shooter games on our PS4. I slipped into gamer mode and started blasting! The funny thing was, since I am so used to playing games at home, it wasn’t until about half way through the experience that I actually turned around and realized that bots were creeping up on me and attacking from behind as well! Even though I work in the themed entertainment industry, I’ve actually never been in a full-blown VR CAVE before, so the experience was absolutely new – and a bit foreign – to me.
As stated, the experience lasts 3 minutes. I can tell you first-hand that it feels a lot longer than that, and the intensity level of what’s happening around you makes your heart pound and forehead sweat; the effect that virtual reality has on your body when you’re fully immersed in an artificial environment such as this is crazy.
Speaking of sweating – let’s get right down to the nitty gritty of cleanliness. Knott’s has been training its team how to thoroughly clean each VR headset between player sessions. Granted, not everyone will sweat as a reaction to playing the game – folks will have different physical reactions – but the fact of the matter is, people can be nasty, and people have germs. The importance of maintenance and hygiene safety is extremely important to both Knott’s Berry Farm and VR Studios, who explained in great detail how well each headset and gun will be cleaned between uses. The headsets that are used are easy to wipe down, and the padded portions of the headsets that come into contact with guests’ faces are designed to be completely replaced at regular intervals. I have a lot of faith that Knott’s employees will keep the VR gear clean and safe for everyone.
Ken Parks, the Vice President of Entertainment at Knott’s and a long-time contributor to not only Scary Farm and other experiences at the Farm including Ghost Town Alive, wrote the backstory and treatment/narrative for VR Showdown in Ghost Town. I’ve known Ken for about 20 years, and can say he’s a gifted writer and a true talent when it comes to creating great experiences. Ken set out to make sure that this attraction was packed full of “Easter eggs” and nods to Knott’s history that only true hard core fans would pick up on. A great example is a sequence that involves the Calico bank suffering an explosion; when you venture into the real Ghost Town, you’ll see the upper portion of the bank has been blown away just as it was in the VR experience! This is one great example of the intimate attention to detail throughout the storyline. Another not-so-subtle link to the past that Ken created early on in the story was the connection with Professor Welles and the time machine – a direct tie to the old Kingdom of the Dinosaurs attraction at Knott’s, which was in the space directly above the VR Showdown, where Voyage to the Iron Reef now exists.
I think it’s really admirable that Knott’s insisted on a park-specific experience and not a generic off-the-shelf VR shooter. VR Studios worked with Knott’s on this project for about 6 months, and installation at the Farm has taken about 2 months.
VR Showdown in Ghost Town will be an up-charge attraction, beginning at the introductory price of $6. The park is going to need a decent amount of time to test and adjust, so that the price and length of queue balance each other out. This is definitely not a people-eater, nor will it ever be. It’s a nice-to-have component at Knott’s, which further bolsters the park’s offerings to guests of all ages. I think that those who are into this type of tech will really have a great time experiencing VR Showdown. And if you have never done a full-blown VR experience, by all means, this is a fantastic introduction into a technology and platform that is rapidly expanding and evolving within themed entertainment as well as for home gaming.
Long-term, the idea is that Cedar Fair parks across the country can be linked, so that guests at Buena Park can eventually compete real-time with folks at Cedar Point in Ohio, or California’s Great America in Northern California. Additionally, if Knott’s ever wants to switch out the game for seasonal events such as Knott’s Scary Farm, it’s very simple to do – of course, it just costs money! But the technology is there and it’s really exciting to see Cedar Fair embracing virtual reality and other similar technologies and moving forward with them to deliver new attractions and experiences to their guests.
Congrats to the whole team at Knott’s on a job well done and a fun new high-tech addition to the Berry Farm. We look forward to hearing what our readers have to say about VR Showdown in Ghost Town once it opens! It’s shaping up to be a tremendous year at Knott’s and we can’t wait!
- Rick West
VR Showdown in Ghost Town Images:
VR Showdown in Ghost Town TPA Periscope Broadcasts: