Written by Russell Meyer
Published: April 29, 2005 at 10:45 PM
Let’s get to the ride’s specifics…
As reported, the building itself takes up a whopping 40,000 square feet, about the size of an entire football field. From the initial planning stages until its debut this morning, the attraction has spent nearly four years in development and construction. The ride is housed inside a building that is themed on the outside to look like a Bavarian castle, complete with spires, nicely landscaped courtyard, and exterior wall. The exterior work was done mostly in stucco by The Nassal Company of Orlando, Florida, and while dark and dreary looking, the attraction is eerily inviting for those in search of a good scare. With a staff of 12 primary artists and a number of local craftsman, Nassal was able to create an exterior that is incredibly realistic, and visually interesting, but one that still fits with the theming throughout the rest of the park. Nassal also did some of the interior work, along with the primary attraction designer, Falcon’s Treehouse of Windermere, Florida. The interior theme is more warm and inviting with an intricately themed pre-show area, featuring detailed paintings on the wall, and a unique video screen where the pre-show is displayed. The loading area is reminiscent of a grand hallway with columns and arches drawing guests to their ride vehicles. Inside the actual ride, the standing artwork and props are limited to a couple of creepy trees, some windows and lenticular paintings, a fireplace, and some really creepy stalactites and stalagmites. So what do you see in the ride, you ask? About 90% of what riders see in the attraction is 3-D computer generated projections on giant screens. This is where DarKastle sets itself apart from Spiderman. Spiderman is somewhere around 60-40 video to standing props and effects, but DarKastle is almost completely reliant upon the projected images. When you have an attraction that is so reliant upon 3-D projected video, there are a lot of opportunities for error. However, Super 78, a Hollywood, California computer generated graphics company, really hits the mark with some of the most stunning and incredible 3-D computer generated images that I’ve seen on a theme park attraction. Working with stereoscopic producer Chuck Comisky, of Terminator 2 3-D fame, Super 78 has created 3-D images that currently have no equal. Most of Spiderman’s 3-D imaging focuses on a single character on a screen at a time, or simple 3-D backgrounds. Many of DarKastle’s most powerful scenes involve numerous characters all moving at the same time with near-perfect clarity, and 3-D effects that whisk projectiles past your head, and characters into your lap. With projection and audio systems from Electrosonic of Orlando, Florida, the images are brought to life in bright and vivid color, with seamless projection to create the in-your-seat 3-D experience. The ride system, provided by Oceaneering of Orlando, Florida, takes advantage of track-based motion simulators that provide smooth transitions between scenes, and sensations that far exceed anything created on Spiderman. From backing up a long and winding staircase to floating over a mysterious dance floor to dropping into a subterranean cavern, the ride vehicles work in perfect concert with the projected video to complete the fully immersive simulation. The system can accommodate 8 guests into a total of 15 vehicles running in the ride at the same time, giving the attraction a theoretical capacity of 1,450 guests per hour.
The opening experience…
Busch Gardens pulled out all of the stops to debut its newest thrill ride, and nothing less would have been worthy of such a massive attraction. The Curse of DarKastle Orchestra, some of King Ludwig’s ghostly guests, and even King Ludwig himself were present to lure unsuspecting members of the media into DarKastle. From the ice carved gates and podium to lots of creepy fog, the setting was perfect for the EVP/GM of Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Water Country USA, Donnie Mills, to introduce the mysterious attraction. The throngs of media and scattered park guests edged closer to the entrance with anticipation as King Ludwig drew the gathered crowd through the outer gates of DarKastle and to the courtyard. The attraction has a lengthy queue that spirals through the courtyard and around some interesting sculptures, eventually leading guests up to the doors of the attraction, where riders are grouped and lead into the pre-show room. Once in the doors, the elaborate pre-show room will immediately peak guests’ curiosity with a decorative chandelier, wall paintings, and a beautifully designed screen. Guests are introduced to the story of King Ludwig, and his mysterious encounter in the woods that led to his downfall. We learn of his motive for drawing us into his castle, and some hints of what to expect in the attraction. After being encouraged to enter “If you dare,” guests are lead to the loading area, where guests pick up their 3-D “goggles” (just plain black framed 3-D glasses), and then are directed into a row to load into their “Golden Sleighs.” The sleighs have doors that extend above the heads of seated guests, which keeps riders focused on what’s in front of them. The restraints are simple T-bars, and it appears that loose articles will be permitted on the attraction (there were no bins or lockers at the entrance, since there are separate loading and unloading areas for the ride). Once locked in, the ride vehicle moves forward, and begins the experience from the woods just outside the castle, all the way through a number of passageways and rooms throughout the inside of the castle, culminating with the drop into a cavern beneath the castle, and finishing outside the outer wall of the castle. While trying to focus on capturing a decent video, and still enjoying the attraction, I was bombarded with so many sensory sensations that I was not able to sort them all out. The detail in the animation, and subtle movements of the ride vehicles create an incredibly complicated experience that is unmatched in any theme park attraction I’ve ridden. Floating, falling, rising, climbing, and spinning, the movements are nearly perfect, but not so violent that the younger members of the family cannot enjoy the attraction. There are a number of scary images that may startle some young children, but the movements are not too intense for those who can brave the creepy visuals. After a frozen King Ludwig is shattered before your very eyes, releasing you from his clutches, and splattering you with a small amount of water, the vehicle makes its way to the unload area. After surviving the attraction, the ride designers and developers were available for questions. I was able to speak with Cecil Magpuri of Falcon’s Treehouse, who discussed the lengthy process of the attraction’s development, and with Matt Brown of The Nassal Company about the attraction’s artistic detail. I also spoke at length with Brent Young and Dina Benadon of Super 78, and repeatedly complimented them on their amazing animation work inside the attraction. Super 78 actually has the ability to update the attraction from their Hollywood offices by sending “firmware” upgrades via the internet to Busch Gardens, and will continue to make minor modifications over the next month or so. From minor color changes to changing the depth of 3-D elements – all these changes can be done remotely in a computer simulated version of the attraction, and quickly updated in the real-life attraction in a matter of moments. I also spoke briefly with Dave Mauck of Oceaneering, who was not so forthcoming when I mentioned “Spiderman.” My guess is that since Busch is terming DarKastle a “one-of-a-kind attraction,” the ride system creators cannot make comparisons to other “similar” attractions. It was surprising to see how many different companies and contractors had a hand in creating The Curse of DarKastle. I find it impressive that so many companies with different areas of expertise could interweave their skills to create an attraction that looks and feels like it was created by a single entity. The mingling of animation and thematic artistry mesh with the complicated and technically advanced ride and projection systems to create a complex experience, providing a variety of stimulation to keep guests coming back for more and more and more.
While I have been doing nothing but praising and lauding The Curse of DarKastle, it is not without a couple of minor flaws. The first is before you enter the pre-show area, where King Ludwig tries to warn guests about what is to come. The area where the guests are grouped before entering the pre-show is not very acoustically sound, and just a few people talking amongst themselves make it nearly impossible to hear what Ludwig has to say. The second flaw may not actually be a flaw, since my one experience on the ride included the distraction of trying to hold a video camera. While every motion of the ride vehicle was well-timed with the animation, the “fall” near the end did not seem very intense, and felt more like a small tumble, instead of a perilous plunge. Again, I may not have gotten the full effect of the fall because I was trying to get a good video of the attraction. I really wanted to hop right back on the ride, but unfortunately only one ride was permitted on this day. The final minor problem I noticed was the abrupt end of the attraction as the vehicle approaches the unloading platform. The vehicle goes into a spin after the final scene, and the music continues, but there is no parting shot that you would expect, and the unloading area was nearly silent. I would expect that these problems will probably be addressed quickly, since they would only require some minor tweaking. Busch Gardens will have all day Saturday to make these changes, before the attraction makes its official public debut on Sunday, May 1, 2005 (unfortunately it was pretty clear from the Busch staff that it would not be operating on Saturday).
Aside from those minor problems, The Curse of DarKastle is a top-notch theme park attraction. It has a well-developed story with interesting characters and an intricate theme that is consistently carried out throughout the experience. The ride itself is thrilling, but not so violent or scary that children meeting the 42-inch height requirement would not enjoy themselves. The system uses smooth transitions, and stays away from jerky motions, making the attraction truly family friendly. In fact, it was a goal of the designers to create an experience that children, teenagers, parents, and grandparents could all enjoy together, and I think they succeeded. The Curse of DarKastle may not have the immediately accessible storyline of an attraction like Spiderman or Indiana Jones, but like some of the classic dark rides like Disney’s The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean, this ride is able to create its own story that will undoubtedly create a strong fan base. Like the two aforementioned Disney attractions, instead of basing the ride on a movie or copyrighted character, The Curse of DarKastle is so intricate that it could have a movie created based on the attraction. One of the most anticipated attractions of 2005 has arrived, and it delivers as advertised. Busch Gardens very well may have constructed one of the greatest theme park attractions ever conceived.
The main entrance to The Curse of DarKastle, complete with carved ice gates
The front of Curse of DarKastle
The grand opening of the attraction with some of King Ludwig’s ghostly guests
Some of the designers of The Curse of DarKastle
King Ludwig himself
Sculpted wolves guard the castle’s courtyard
The exterior queue area
The ride’s loading area
Videos are back!
Curse of DarKastle point-of-view ride video - obviously this isn't in 3D, but it gives you a decent idea of what the ride is like.