Voyage to the Iron Reef, the new interactive 4-D ride at Knott’s Berry Farm, opened to great fanfare on May 15, 2015. The entire Knott’s team breathed a big sigh of relief that day. Hundreds of people had collectively spent thousands of hours designing, constructing, marketing, opening and operating one of the biggest attractions in park history.
Voyage to the Iron Reef
I was first introduced to the ride concept nearly a year earlier as part of the Communications Team for the park. During the initial conceptual meetings in summer 2014, I learned of the story and ride system from Knott’s Director of Entertainment Tech, Lara Hanneman, her design team and outside vendors including Triotech. The interactive 4-D ride system would be unlike any other attraction at the park and a unique differentiator in the highly competitive Southern California market.
After those first few meetings, we quickly realized we had a challenging opportunity on our hands. Voyage to the Iron Reef wasn’t the easiest ride to describe in a few words. Even if you could draw parallels to other attractions like Toy Story Mania, the experience and scope of Iron Reef was very different from similar rides. Of course, we didn’t have the benefit of mentioning other rides in our marketing, press materials or media interviews. There wasn’t any record breaking statistic we could lead with either. In comparison, marketing a record breaking roller coaster has a fairly straight forward superlative to design a marketing plan around.
The marketing strategy we decided upon was to focus on the story and characters in the ride. The copy vividly described the story that guests would experience and included phrases like “Save Knott’s from the Kraken Queen.”, “the park is under attack from her undersea army” and “use your freeze-ray blasters to save the park.” A powerful rendering of Knott’s being attacked by a creature from the ride was created as the hero image of the campaign with the help of Cedar Fair’s corporate design team, Lara and Triotech. Concept art showing guests using their freeze ray blasters on the ride was also provided to help visually describe the ride. As part of the Communications Team, I worked with my coworkers to help craft a press release and website copy using story beats from the design team. All of these different components were packaged together for the fall announcement.
The announcement debuted in early November with fantastic press coverage secured by Knott’s publicist, Leidy Arevalo. The media coverage was led by a front page exclusive on the LA Times website and a front page article on the newspaper’s business section. Nearly every theme park enthusiast site worldwide also covered the news. The images and description performed well on social media with strong engagement and impressions across all social media platforms. There was still some confusion around exactly what the ride was, but the copy and images had minimized much of that. The longer form press exclusives helped complement the press release and further described the story and ride system. The next big push for coverage was scheduled for early 2015 when Voyage to the Iron Reef’s opening date would be announced.
The Voyage Begins
There was still a small surplus in the budget allocated for announcing Iron Reef after the November announcement. An email was sent out asking for ideas on how to maximize the remaining budget before the end of the year. I began toying with a few ideas for a Voyage to the Iron Reef teaser video.
Online video had grown exponentially for years since the debut of YouTube in 2005. 2014 was an even bigger turning point for online video with the introduction of Facebook autoplay videos and video ads. The organic reach and engagement of video on Knott’s Berry Farm’s Facebook page was staggering. The incredible growth led us to focusing on editing our B roll into short videos while also capturing new footage around the park. Video production quickly grew from a tiny portion of our social strategy into a strategic year-round focus for the park’s social platforms and website.
The new focus on video production was a pleasant surprise for me. Before joining Knott’s, I had spent five years working at an animation studio overseeing digital marketing and producing digital projects including games, videos and websites. The opportunity to spend part of my time producing videos for a theme park was a dream come true.
The Pitching Process
There were three main concepts that I pitched for the teaser video in early December. The first one involved showcasing guests experiencing the ride itself, the second was purely ride animation showing off the undersea environment and the third involved a boy discovering a creature under the actual boardwalk in the park. The first two ideas were quickly determined to be unfeasible. The first idea was quickly thrown out when we learned that both the ride vehicles and freeze blaster designers were still months away from being finalized. The second idea wasn’t possible due to the limited amount of finished animation. Opening the ride on-time rightfully took precedent over finishing animation for a commercial. The third idea was feasible and approved by my team’s leadership. I wrote out a script for the third idea and used iMovie and Photoshop to quickly put together this pitch reel to help others better visualize my concept.
Despite its cheesiness, the pitch video helped move the project through the approval process and brought to light some problems with the script. I enlisted Sean Teegarden at this point to direct and co-produce the project with his crew. Sean has been the main photographer for Knott’s Berry Farm for a number of years and had recently directed his first video project for the park during Scary Farm a few months before. Sean and I edited down the pitch video and focused the script around only a father and son. The limited budget for the video forced us to rethink the length and number of attractions shown in the video, which ultimately helped the final result.
Professional storyboards were the last component needed for the project to receive a full greenlight from the executive team. I contacted my former colleague, Jeremy de la Garza, who had worked with me for three years at the animation studio. He gathered feedback and direction from the Director and myself to craft these beautiful storyboards. The storyboards not only helped pitch the project, but they also served as invaluable tools during the shoot.
We began casting for the project once the script and storyboards were approved. We reviewed hundreds of actors for the roles of the father and son using LA Casting. We narrowed the hundreds of submissions down to five top contenders for each role and requested an audition tape from each finalist. We selected Tony Sago for the role of the father and Cameron Ortega for the role of the son.
Shutting down the Boardwalk area for hours during park operation wasn’t a possibility due to the impact it would have on our guests so the shoot was done after park closing. Making an empty theme park seem open is an interesting challenge that required nearly 100 extras. Rick West from Theme Park Adventure and Robb Alvey from Theme Park Review saved the day by helping us recruit their readers as extras. The job of an extra on this shoot wasn’t easy as it involved standing around in a queue, riding Pacific Scrambler and Surfside Gliders for hours during a chilly January night dressed in summer clothing. I can’t thank those fans enough for their dedicated work as extras.
The nearly four hour shoot enlisted the help of over 100 people including those 100 extras, 5 rides associates, 3 ride maintenance associates, 2 entertainment tech associates, 5 marketing associates and 6 video crew members. The majority of the shoot involved gear delivery, lighting setups, camera tests and rehearsal. It’s incredible how much work goes into a thirty second video. Post production involved animation editing, video editing, sound editing, After Effects graphics/titles and color correction on a very tight schedule with a multi-layer approval process that involved the Knott’s marketing team, Knott’s General Manager, Cedar Fair CMO and the CEO of Cedar Fair.
The Voyage to the Iron Reef teaser commercial is currently the most popular video on all of Knott’s Berry Farm’s social media channels with a combined viewership of over 400,000 people on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. Tens of thousands more watched the teaser at the park where it played on the FunTV monitors in ride queues. The incredible anticipation and interest in Voyage to the Iron Reef drove the popularity of the video, which in turn helped the teaser video influence the direction of the summer TV commercials that were produced by our Agency of Record, C-K.
The Voyage to the Iron Reef teaser video was a career highlight for me. The opportunity to produce a video project for a major new theme park ride was such a rewarding challenge. The limited budget and condensed schedule made the production even more exciting and educational. I am so thankful to every single person that worked together to help create the teaser. I feel very grateful to work at a company where I can pitch a crazy idea for a video and have it come to fruition.