PortAventura crafts a winning adventure with 'Uncharted'

June 18, 2023, 10:01 PM · In developing the story for their new dark ride/coaster hybrid, the team at PortAventura considered a number of original concepts before landing on one of the few blockbuster IPs not already in the hands of the theme park giants. "Uncharted," the action-adventure film released in 2021 starring Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg, was itself drawn from an existing franchise, a series of video games that seemed tailor-made for a move to the big screen.

But if it made sense as a screen adaptation, it makes even more sense as a ride: "descendant of Francis Drake hunts for treasure in exotic locales, something inevitably goes wrong, almost everyone just about escapes" practically screams theme park storyline, doesn't it?

PortAventura's Uncharted arrives subtitled The Enigma of Penitence, a nice nod to the fictional town in which the park's Far West land is set - what Batuu is to Galaxy's Edge, or Thunder Mesa to Paris' Frontierland, for example. It's the latest of Intamin's line of Multi Dimension coasters - but while that range by the manufacturer includes installations such as Th13teen at Alton Towers and Studio Tour at Movie Park in Germany, Uncharted represents a considerable step forward.

For those who've visited only parks in the US: imagine Revenge of the Mummy if it also had the 360-degree movement and integrated screen media of Escape from Gringotts. And for those who haven't been on those... well, you probably haven't experienced anything quite like this.

Our experience begins as we spy the newly installed Crystal Mountains looming large over the back corner of the land - an impressive facade which masks the 16-meter high, 4800 sq.-meter show building. There's an ominous face carved into the rockwork and an old timey prospecting store constructed at the base, providing our way in.

 Uncharted entrance
Photos courtesy PortAventura

Once inside, the story begins almost immediately. Detailed queueing spaces are becoming an increasingly essential part of the experience for theme park attractions, and dark rides in particular. At the media event, we were moved through quickly, getting only a glimpse of the design. But from what I saw, and later hearing about the details I'd missed from Sally's project manager, Uncharted's exceeds expectations.

The official line is that from this point on, guests experience up to an hour of "pre-show" rather than how we might typically refer to it: a queue. But the level of detail here is such that it's hard to really argue - I could absolutely see value in an equivalent to the castle tour Universal offers for its Harry Potter rides, for coaster-averse Uncharted fans.

Uncharted queue animatronics

A fully-fledged story is told across multiple developing spaces, incorporating screen media, animatronics, and a variety of other theme park parlor tricks, plussed-up to contribute meaningfully to a developing story. The journey poses us with a series of booby-trap trials as we venture deep into the mountain, culminating in an inversion of expectations: the phones we all inevitably have close to hand - which typically distract us from the work of attraction designers - are redeployed as vital tools, the characters inviting us to use the flashlights to find vital wayfinder clues, guiding us on toward the ride.

Uncharted queue decoration

All of this serves the purpose of establishing a plot in which we're enlisted by the Uncharted heroes in a hunt for Aztec treasure - until protagonist Nate gets kidnapped, and we pivot to a rescue mission instead. (And if we can also "rescue" some treasure along the way, so be it.) More importantly, it places us not just in the story world of the IP, but effectively in its thematic territory - one of puzzles, quests, and obstacles that will feel at home to anyone familiar with the games.

It's a smart way of engaging with the video game-ness of Uncharted's origins, without sticking yet another blaster in our hands. And an interesting twist that of all companies, PortAventura turned to Sally Dark Rides for work on an adaptation of a video game - but one without interactivity. (Or, at least, without the kind we think of when we talk about "interactive" dark rides.) Starting out with a focus on animatronics, Sally in recent years has built its name on making those kind of shooter attractions at a price point affordable to regional parks. But here, their "all-in-one" focus as design specialists comes to the fore throughout both queue and ride, delivering a singular experience.

While this is a blockbuster of an attraction that will no doubt attract big waits in at least its first season, I'd highly recommend opting for the standby line on at least your first ride. The narrative flows seamlessly into the ride experience, setting up what we could consider the action-packed third act in movie terms - or the "boss battle," as Sally's Logan Zawacki put it.

The "Treasure Transport Vehicles" we discover (and immediately hop into, of course) give the sense of a dark ride experience awaiting us; three rows and four seats wide, with the cars carefully detailed to blend into the underground cave station. Our first stop after leaving is a quick show scene with an animatronic henchman of the ride's original villain, Landon Killbride - and a near miss with a rocket launcher, which sends us spinning off into the first coaster section.

It's a moment which feels like the spiritual successor to the Joker animatronic encounter on Sally's flagship attraction, Justice League: Battle for Metropolis, found at Six Flags parks. (Which is itself represented in an uncannily similar appearance elsewhere in Spain, in Parque Warner Madrid's new Batman Gotham City escape coaster. More on that later this week.) But the adrenalin punch of careening through the smoke and into our first drop here is more evocative of the giddy delights of Island of Adventure's Spiderman ride, and noticeably caught a few of my fellow riders off guard - in the best possible way, of course.

Having a smooth-as-silk Intamin ride system as the starting point helps; there's no whiplash, banged knees or jolts to the head to worry about. Not only does that allow us to focus on our surroundings, but it does wonders for the sense of immersion. (Ironically, I suppose a bumpier ride might better fit the story of an abandoned vehicle in a cave. But suspension of disbelief works in unexpected ways.)

From this point in, it's worth considering Uncharted primarily as a roller coaster punctuated by story beats; one where the track layout was designed first, with narrative structured around it. While these moments are well-incorporated - the explosive finale is a stroke of genius, using the dynamic coaster format to its full potential - they serve as the context to the visceral experience.

There's a clever economy to how the resources have been deployed. There's a plot point around "fear gas" which opens creative possibilities for screen media, but also serves the function of hiding some of the more obvious track. And a big chunk of the narrative during the ride is delivered by way of a single large screen which we pass twice. Here, in the Treasure Room of the Aztecs, we're (literally) pulled into the climactic events which give cause to a race through the dark.

Though it's not a massive show building, it's a race which packs a punch. Without giving the whole ride experience away, the layout surprises and thrills enough to evoke Uncharted's Indiana Jones-esque sense of adventure, without pushing the level of intensity beyond the top end of family accessibility. More full-on coaster sections occur in dark space rather than constant wraparound design, but the Multi Dimension aspect - spinning the carriage to angle in different directions - keeps us imaginatively engaged, before moving into another show scene or hurtling past the kind of scenic elements that are stock ingredients for high-speed indoor coasters.

A POV video likely will not convey the neat way a typical spike element is incorporated into the unfolding story. Or how effectively a couple of simple projection screens are used in the climax, giving narrative context to a particular configuration of dropping and spinning. These moments offer some of the smartest combinations of story and coaster I've seen in a ride of this type, as we (just about) foil Killbride's plan and (barely) escape.

We often debate what exactly makes something a storycoaster, a comparatively new term in the theme park lexicon. Hagrid's is perhaps the perfect example, but is Cosmic Rewind too much coaster? Is Gringotts too much dark ride? I'd suggest that Uncharted fits centrally in the definition, with a consistent and necessary narrative before and during the ride experience - but still delivering punchy, undeniable coaster sections in between.

With a length of 673 meters, a top height of 12 meters and a ride time of 1 minute, 48 seconds, it's surprisingly compact. But as a complete package, it delivers the grown-up dark experience PortAventura has been lacking until now.

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Replies (4)

June 19, 2023 at 9:36 AM

Sounds really neat! Anybody else get Stargate vibes from the background.

June 19, 2023 at 11:57 AM

great review -- thanks for sharing.

June 19, 2023 at 12:01 PM

I'm a huge fan of the video games and I enjoyed the movie as well. This ride has definitely got PortAventura on my radar of places to visit! It sounds fun and a good attempt at story telling.

June 21, 2023 at 3:42 PM

Was here on opening day and they day of the media event (wasn’t invited) too bad i didn’t see you but truly was a fun atraction

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