At IAAPA in November 2019, Triotech, the award-winning creator of media-based attractions, announced a new project – it would be working with Knott’s Berry Farm to reimagine the much-loved Knott’s Bear-y Tales ride for the park’s 100th anniversary.
Now, while the global pandemic may have delayed things, it won’t put a damper on Knott’s Berry Farm’s celebrations says Jeff Gahagan, Vice President of Rides and Maintenance, as the park reopens to the public this week.
As fans eagerly await their first taste of Knott’s Bear-y Tales: Return to the Fair, we spoke to Gahagan to find out more about the park’s 100th-anniversary celebrations, as well as talking to Triotech’s Ernest Yale, CEO and Founder, and Nol Van Genuchten, Head of Creative, about the challenge of bringing the ride up to date for the 21st Century.
Celebrating 100 years of Knott’s Berry Farm
Knott’s Berry Farm has ended up with extra time to plan the exciting schedule of events and experiences around its 100th-anniversary celebrations, thanks to COVID-19.
“We were able to start last year with the Rose Parade, which is a huge parade annually here on 1 January,” says Gahagan. “That was a great start. Then the pandemic hit, which gave us a little more time to refine the anniversary offer.
“Knott’s Berry Farm has always been a family amusement park and we’re calling this the Knotts Family Reunion. Besides Knott’s Bear-y Tales, we also have new characters that will be out in the park. We have a whole bunch of photo opportunities that’ll be reminiscent of some older attractions that were here in the park.
“Not only that, we have a programme that we started a couple of years ago called Summer Nights, with live music and a food festival in the evening. So, everything to keep the family entertained throughout the whole day. We’re looking forward to this year.”
Knott’s Bear-y Tales
However, one key part of the celebrations is undoubtedly the reinvention of Knott’s Bear-y Tales. Speaking about how the park come to this decision, Gahagan says:
“The timing was perfect. When we worked with Triotech several years ago to bring in Voyage to the Iron Reef, we only did a five-year agreement knowing that we were going to do something for our 100th anniversary. At the time, we didn’t know exactly what, but we knew that we wanted something very specific to Knott’s Berry Farm.
“Knott’s Bear-y Tales was a very popular ride from 1975 to 1986. For me, it was a childhood ride that I loved. A whole bunch of us here at the park loved that ride. It’s something that was very popular and our guests have always asked us to bring it back.”
Cedar Fair & Triotech
“We’ve worked with Cedar Fair for six years,” says Yale, speaking of the strong partnership between Triotech and the operator. “Our first project with them was Wonder Mountain’s Guardian at Canada’s Wonderland, which we won an Impact Award for. Then we did Voyage to the Iron Reef, which was a completely new attraction for Knott’s Berry Farm.
“When we talked about doing their 100th-anniversary attraction, they said to us, ‘We need an iconic attraction.’
“In California, everybody knows Knott’s Berry Farm. Everybody has a story of going there when they were young and there were a lot of articles looking at what attractions Knott’s Berry Farm should bring back. And Knott’s Bear-y Tales was up there. People love that attraction, they remember doing it when they were young.
“Iron Reef ran successfully for five years. But meanwhile, we also did over 20 different dark rides all around the world and we’ve learned a lot about attractions.
“So, we thought, now’s the time to do an attraction that has much more physical theming, that fits with what you see on screen and uses the latest technology and the latest media. We worked really closely with them. It’s an iconic attraction and we’re super excited that it is opening now.”
Knott’s Bear-y Tales: Return to the Fair
What can visitors expect when they experience the brand new ride, Knott’s Bear-y Tales: Return to the Fair, for the first time?
“When they go into the experience, it’s going to be reminiscent of the original ride,” says Gahagan. “We follow that storyline closely, as our basis. The guests are coming to visit the bear factory.”
“But now the queue is designed as a factory, where you are getting ready to go on your tour. We worked with Triotech on a lot of thematic elements to give the history of the older ride, but now it’s in the present time. We acknowledge the fact that the old ride was 35 years ago, and we’re 35 years later, in the storyline.
“Then you get in the vehicles, which are reminiscent of the old ones with the same colour scheme. We have a lot of visual elements throughout the ride. The smell factory is still there, so you smell all the different scents as you go through. But we now also have the interactive piece where, with their jelly blasters, riders can shoot the animations on the screen.
“Some guests are going for the highest score, but others are just going for the whimsical part of it, sitting down and enjoying the whole experience.
“It’s a unique ride that you can experience in many different ways. And if you’re a true gamer, you have to just keep going and getting that high score, so it has repeatability, which was important to us.”
Reinventing a classic
For Triotech, the fact that they were working to reinvent such a treasured ride added an extra element to the project. Did this put pressure on the team?
“I wouldn’t say pressure exactly,” says Van Genuchten. “It was very inspirational. It was clear to us very early that we were dealing with something precious on many levels.
“That attraction played an important part in the history of a much-loved park, cementing Knott’s Berry Farm as a theme park. So it became a milestone, and then on top of that, it has a very special place in the memory of a lot of guests because it was the thing that they remember as a child.
“It was clear that we were dealing with very strong emotions of nostalgia and memory. But that ultimately gave us a very strong design intent. Capturing that spirit, the creativity and the originality that made that dark ride such a success, became our guiding light throughout and gave this direction of ‘We need to find a way for this to remain familiar.’
“We had to visit familiar places so that people can tap into that nostalgia, and then layer on top of that new exciting and surprising things that bring this up to date.”
There was, however, the weight of fan expectations on the creation of Knott’s Bear-y Tales: Return to the Fair, says Gahagan:
“Everybody’s imagination is never exactly what reality was. You go in that first room, and it was a small room, but in your imagination and what you remember from 27 years ago, it was an elaborate space.”
“We needed to tie back to the original to make sure we were hitting that mark. So we talked with Rolly’s [Roland Crump, the ride’s original designer] son, Chris Crump, who worked on the original ride, to make sure the storyline was true to what he envisioned. We didn’t want to disconnect from what the original ride intended and we wanted to make sure it was cohesive.
“It was interesting to work through that whole process, making sure we were true to the storyline and that everything didn’t change too much away from it, but at the same time upgrading it to a modern experience.”
Working with archive material
To help the Triotech team capture and keep this original spirit, Knott’s Berry Farm provided them with archive materials pertaining to the ride’s design and construction.
“Heritage is an incredibly important part of Knott’s Berry Farm,” says Van Genuchten. “If you visit the offices at Knott’s Berry Farm, between all the offices the walls are plastered with historical material.”
“They’re really aware of the park’s history so they were able to give us access to their archives. Plus, we had access to a park historian. He has specifically looked at the history of all the amusement parks in California and he had an unbelievable treasure trove of information available to us.
“That historical material went deeper than photographs of the ride. There is original artwork, pictures of how the ride was built under construction, notes by Rolly. It allowed our team to get an understanding of the ride and to get a feel for it. It meant that we could maintain focus and understand what it was all about.
“However, then we had to balance that with finding some creative freedom. Ultimately we had to bring the ride into a new era.”
Engaging a new generation of fans
While it was important to stay true to the original ride, the Triotech team also needed to create an experience that would engage a modern audience.
“The original ride was a dark ride, it was a journey through themed environments,” says Van Genuchten. “But there was no interactivity. So for us, bringing the media into it and the technology behind that, was part of the journey of making it modern.
“Of course, if you call an attraction Bear-y Tales, it needs to have a story. So there was an opportunity for us as a company for growth. We had an opportunity to do some storytelling, to create a journey.”
“The way we reworked the layout of Knott’s Bear-y Tales focused on that. We figured out ways of getting longer, more panoramic screens. So we can travel you in front of it and let the story evolve. Then we also took the opportunity of setting it a generation or two generations later, because that’s what is happening now. The people that used to love this ride as a child are now taking their children or grandchildren.
“That allowed us to evolve the ride and to create an interactivity layer on it that is more than just targeting. We’re not shooting at anything to kill it, we’re trying to collect pies. From an interactivity perspective, we also pushed how we could interact with the environment beyond the targets.
“Everything in all the scenes is interactive in one way or the other.”
Interactivity is key
“You can hit a sign in the road,” adds Yale. “You can hit the kayak with the frog in it and it flips upside down and you can hit the shooting star. It makes for a ride that is much more layered and much more immersive. We’re combining media with real physical theming, but then the way we interact with that media is so much more.”
“We’ve got the targeting of the typical targets and we’ve got a storyline that weaves through it,” says Van Genuchten. “But you can interact with any sort of object. You can shoot a mushroom and it will start singing in tune with the rest of the music. It’s a fantastic show.”
“That complexity allows us to create an attraction that has a much broader appeal. Yes, you can go in there and make sure you get the highest scores. But you can also just sit there and go on this journey, travel through these environments and focus on the story. Or you can go ‘let’s see if we can discover a bunch of easter eggs’.”
“These screens are continuous, they’re huge,” says Yale. “So you feel immersed in those elements on the screen, and then there are physical elements in the front, so there are layers, and the vehicle moves and you feel like part of the action.”
The right partner for the job
Speaking about why the park chose to work with Triotech on Knott’s Bear-y Tales: Return to the Fair, Gahagan says:
“Triotech has been a great partner for Cedar Fair and Knott’s Berry Farm. When we first worked with them on Wonder Mountain’s Guardian, the guest reaction from what they were able to do on that ride led to an automatic ‘Okay let’s bring it to Knott’s Berry Farm.’
“When we brought them on board for Voyage to the Iron Reef, we had an empty building that was doing absolutely nothing. It was great working with them on that, which was a true gaming ride.”
“During that five year run of Voyage to the Iron Reef, the company was always there for us. Triotech is very responsive. They take a lot of pride and passion in what they do, they want to make sure they get it right, and this shows in the product they deliver. It was very easy to go into a second project with them.
While the Knott’s Bear-y Tales: Return to the Fair has already been received positively by season ticket holders, Yale says:
“We can’t wait to see what happens when this opens to the general public. People are ready to go back out there. Hopefully, this ride will bring another piece of joy that is much needed to a lot of people, and that’s what we do.”
Knott’s Bear-y Tales and COVID-19
The pandemic caused inevitable delays to a ride that was originally planned to celebrate the park’s anniversary last year.
“It was very difficult, but we delivered the ride thanks to the people involved,” says Yale. “There is a relevant anecdote: when the original ride was created by Rolly and his team, six weeks before opening there was a fire. Essentially, three-quarters of the ride burned down and they had six weeks to build it all back up again and put it together.”
“There I was trying to put a team together to tap into the historical feel and get the right dynamics, and I should have predicted that we were also going to get our sort of our rite of passage!”
Responding to the challenge
“When COVID hit in mid-March, we were in installation but we weren’t in commissioning just yet,” continues Yale. “We had technicians on-site that were ready to install. Luckily, their immediate reaction was, ‘We’re going to stay, to finish this and see it through’. But we didn’t have any of our creative team there.
“So, we were challenged as a company. However, we came together and figured out new ways to commission remotely, to work with 360-degree cameras, to validate the movement of the carts and validate the triggering of the media.”
“Luckily we have fantastic people who are creative and who came up with all sorts of new ideas. It created a new energy of everybody rallying around and making this the best it can be.
“Then, in the following months after we handed over this attraction to Knott’s, there was already an energy of them being very involved and very hands-on with the attraction. And they’ve used the past additional nine months to continue embellishing it and enriching it.”
“The pandemic helped us,” agrees Gahagan. “Although it’s weird to say that. We were on a tight deadline to turn Knott’s Bear-y Tales: Return to the Fair around. But then we had an extra year. We were able to do a lot of tweaking and adjusting, basically upgrading the attraction.
“A lot of times, you have a ride or an attraction that opens and you adjust after the guests’ reaction comes out. With this ride, we were able to spend that entire year making those adjustments. So that the reaction from the guests is ‘You nailed it, you got it perfect.’
“We were able to work with Chris Crump, and he could say, ‘When my dad was doing it, he would have done this or this’. So, it helped us get a better product out there for our guests for the 100th anniversary. There was a silver lining.”
“I’m super happy at how Knott’s Bear-y Tales: Return to the Fair came out,” says Yale. “There are a lot of new things in this attraction. For instance, we created interactive shadows, which I’ve never seen anywhere else.”
“Also, we don’t use a gun, we use a jelly blaster. So guests have a jelly jar to blast jelly onto the screen, as Knott’s Berry Farm is about boysenberries. Ergonomically, it’s much easier for little kids to hold than a gun. And you can do the ride multiple times without your hands and fingers hurting.”
“It was a close collaboration with Cedar Fair. It’s our second project on the same site and we reused the vehicles. This is important in times of COVID when budgets are not as big. If you can reuse vehicles, they are usually half the budget of an attraction.”
The appeal of interactive dark rides
On the appeal of interactive dark rides like Knott’s Bear-y Tales, and how Triotech is continuing to innovate in this area, Yale says:
“More than 10 years ago, I remember being in front of an attraction which was not interactive, but it had buttons. Kids kept on pressing to see if something was going to happen and nothing did.
“I realised back then that, to have a complete experience, you need to bring the guests into the attraction and you need to make them feel like they have a say in what’s happening, whether it’s small or big.”
To have a complete experience, you need to bring the guests into the attraction and you need to make them feel like they have a say in what’s happening
“Now, we’re into much more intense gameplay mechanics, which all comes from video games. Things like choosing where the story is going, interacting with objects. Interactivity means that it’s playing. It’s fun, it’s competition. Video games are so advanced now, and there are so many gameplay mechanics that we’re working in R&D to implement into future attractions.”
People want immersive experiences
On the same topic, Van Genuchten says:
“The more we live a stationary life where we sit behind our desk and we talk to the screen, the more we want engaged experiences over passive forms of entertainment.
“People want an engaging experience. They want to be active and to physically interact with something. Interactive dark rides offer that opportunity. We offer you a journey through a physical environment and allow you to play with it.
“People don’t just want to be passive. And the Knott’s Bear-y Tales project allowed us to push our technology in that direction, blurring the lines between our media content and the physical theming to make it one complete expression, and then getting the guests to engage and play with it and feel that they are a part of the journey.”
Triotech looks ahead
“As with everyone in the industry, we were affected by COVID,” says Yale. “But we decided to keep our team working to invest in new products. We’ve developed two new products which we will be announcing later this year.
“I’m very positive for the outcome of our industry. We’re very positive about what’s going to happen in 2023 to 2023 – we’re booking projects right now for 2023 and even some for 2024.”
“The movement right now is that people are more open to trying new things. There’s going to be fewer big projects in the next 12 to 24 months because of the lack of cash flow. So, people are more open to things like dark rides or media attractions. And we’re glad that we’re able to prove that these attractions are compelling and do bring people to the park.”
A bright future for Knott’s Berry Farm
Knott’s Berry Farm opens to the public on 21 May, giving visitors a chance to experience Knott’s Bear-y Tales for the first time. Looking ahead to the future, Gahagan says:
“We’re always looking at our five-year plan, our 10-year plan, we’re always adjusting. Because of COVID and the economy hurting last year, we’ve taken a step back. But we have a lot of capital investments that we’re working on moving forward. Our seasons of fun, such as Knott’s Scary Farm, will also return this year.”
“We’re kicking off our 100th-anniversary celebrations on Friday. And I think our guests are going to be blown away.”