Report: Taking the catacombs tour at Dämonen Gruft, Heide Park’s new ride

The entrance to Dämonen Gruft (© Dark Ride Database)
The entrance to Dämonen Gruft (© Dark Ride Database)

All throughout history, people have been venturing into caves, tombs, and other subterranean sites to explore the great unknown. Be it now well-known locations such as Grotte Cosquer in France, or a small, abandoned mine somewhere in the United States, these places seem to attract curious visitors. Last fall, mysterious catacombs were uncovered during construction works at Heide Park Resort. Dark Ride Database was among the first to descend into the catacombs of ”Dämonen Gruft” which as of today, is welcome to be explored by all visitors.

Dämonen Gruft (meaning Demon’s Crypt) is the latest dark ride at Heide Park, one of the largest theme parks in Germany, following in the wake of semi-dark ride Drachengrotte (2016) and the interactive Ghostbusters 5D (2017). It is located in the Transsilvanien (Transylvania) section in the back of the park, named after the region in Romania due to its association with the horror genre. As one would expect, most rides here are decorated in a medieval style and centre around scaring guests, be it through taking them up to dizzying heights or letting demons on the loose.

Goodbye Wildwasserbahn II, hello Transsilvanien

The new experience is part of an ongoing project to further transform Heide Park from just an amusement park into a theme park. Merlin Entertainments has been holding sway here since 2007 and introduced the current themed areas in 2011. Up until the end of that season, a large section of Transsilvanien was taken up by Wildwasserbahn II, the park’s second log flume. This Schwarzkopf classic debuted at Eulenspiegel Park in 1982. Unfortunately, financial challenges led to the park’s closure merely three years later in 1985. Subsequently, the flume and several other attractions from Eulenspiegel Park were auctioned off to Heide Park.

WildwassserbahnII HeidePark
Wildwasserbahn II in 1990 (© Niko Schimmelpfenning via Heide-Park-World)

On 4 June 1990, the flume reopened in Heide Park, and while the original owners built it without any theming, Heide Park dedicated substantial effort into offering a thematic experience. After leaving the station, guests were transported through a mine with animatronic workers and up the first of the three lift hills. Once at the top, the ride continues on top of a hill, on which the flume would make its way past and through various buildings and castle-like structures, one of which included the second lift and drop.

Before making their way down the final, 23-metre-high drop, guests passed through one final building resembling an inn with even more animatronic figures. Before going back to the station, the ride had one final surprise in store, as the final section went right past the large drop, bringing guests back into the splash zone. For those less fortunate, another dousing was the result.

The flume closed on 29 October 2011, during the final day of the Halloween season, to make room for the further development of the newly introduced Transilvanien area. In 2014, the horror-themed wing coaster, Flug der Dämonen (Flight of the Demons), opened in its place, although a few remands of Wildwasserbahn II remained intact in the surrounding area. The new dark ride will finally give a new purpose to the station of the former flume, which has been sitting abandoned in the middle of Flug der Dämonen for 12 years.

The creation of Dämonen Gruft

With just one concept art and a (quite fitting) cryptic description, the arrival of Dämonen Gruft, ”Germany’s Scariest Dark Ride”, was a surprise announcement from only last February. The new ride expands upon the lore of the wing coaster which centres around a village, which’s inhabitants once made the grave mistake of disturbing a flock of demons. Now restless and circling above the village, they prey upon the souls of man to gain energy and continue their flight. The villagers, desperate, try to bring visitors in to sacrifice their souls in order to save their own.

Damonen Gruft Exterior 1
The ride is located in the heart of Flug der Dämonen (© Dark Ride Database)

While Flug der Dämonen suggests one taking flight and losing their soul in the progress, the dark ride explores where the demons came from, somewhere deep underground Transsilvanien. The premise is that local villagers are hosting this Katakomben Tour (Catacombs Tour). They drive around the country with their van promoting the tour, although what they forget to tell is that some visitors have never returned to the surface. Surprisingly enough, not a single image of the insides had been posted online, piquing the interest of many. The ride opens for all guests on 29 March 2024, exactly 10 years after the opening of the wing coaster.

On Thursday, 28 March, Heide Park held a press opening. Project manager Thorsten Berwald shared some insights into the creation of the project during a presentation, held at the on-site hotel. Planning started in September of 2022 and took until May of 2023. During the conceptual design process of the ride, Merlin asked Belgian design firm Alterface to help out on the design and production of the ride. Starting with the concept design created by Merlin Entertainments’ Creative Lead, Liz Cummings, Alterface advanced these ideas into a final design through constant collaboration with Merlin. They coordinated a team of experts, ensuring that every detail—from lighting and sound to media and special effects—was seamlessly synchronized, and ultimately bringing the concept to life.

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Before construction could begin, the park had to clean up the inside of the old flume station (© Merlin Entertainments)
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The lay-out of Dämonen Gruft (© Merlin Entertainments)

Louis Vanhomwegen, project manager for Dämonen Gruft at Alterface explains: “It needed a rethinking and re-engineering as it is not interactive. You don’t need all these servers to do video output for example. We use common video players to do that, which are probably more reliable in the long term. It’s a really unique project, just because Alterface hadn’t provided a project with this type of technical structure. While it’s not complex, it’s the first time we did this.”

It was a challenge for Alterface to fit the project into their schedule, but they found a way. Louis: ”We’ve got our own partners which we are used to work with. Reliable ones, which Alterface has been working with for years and years.” The Belgian firm Oddities helped out with designing the story and scenes. Meanwhile JP Showsystems was responsible for the technical installations, with Andy Garfield at Pachinko Media and 400 Coups did the audio and media production respectively. The theming of the ride was developed by TAA Group.

See our video about the press event and interview with Alterface project manager Lious Verhomwegen

Construction of the ride took approximately 15 months, starting in January of 2023 and lasting until March of this year. In the first month, the track of the flume which was still inside, was removed and a new concrete foundation put in. A plan was developed to put the dark ride inside the circular building with the limited space available. It takes up only approximately 600 m², as plenty of room had to be kept clear for evacuation routes. Thorsten showed a building plan on which the layout, measuring in at just 60 metres in length, is visible.

The transport system for Dämonen Gruft is provided by the Italian ride manufacturer Preston & Barbieri. Each vehicle has four seats. They are guided by a central guide rail and are elevated about half a metre from the floor. A vehicle is comprised of two parts: the base, housing all the electronics and drive wheels, and the top, the themed section in which guests take a seat. This division between the top and bottom allows for rotation of 360 degrees. The theoretical capacity is expected to be 380 visitors per hour.

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The ride vehicles provided by Preston & Barbieri (© Dark Ride Database)

During the summer of 2023, the first walls could be put inside. The dark ride would also receive its own roof, effectively constructing a building within a building. The first theming arrived onsite in the fall and in November, the first test runs could be made with a placeholder clearance car to check the loading gauge. The project leader proceeds to show some concept art and construction images. In the end, the total project cost a total of about €7 million.

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Concept art of the station (© Merlin Entertainments)
Damonen Gruft Presentation 3
A few pictures of the manufacturing of the demon head (© Merlin Entertainments)
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The new building constructed inside of the existing building (© Dark Ride Database)

After the presentation had come to an end, it is time to try out the ride, to which we are driven by the very van that the villagers used to cross the country and promote their tour.

A Tour through Dämonen Gruft

The entrance is located in between the Bobbahn and Toxic Garden (formerly Limit) coasters, not far from Flug der Dämonen. It is marked by a massive tree trunk in the shape of a demon’s hand on one side, and by a rock held firmly by another hand, on the other. The rock has the name Dämonen Gruft written onto it. The nearby sign mentions a minimum age of eight to ride with adult supervision and 12 years of age to ride alone.

The queue leads towards the ride building, where the wing coaster circles around. When standing in the queue, these ”demons” (the coaster’s trains), can be seen flying above continuously. As guests progress further down the queue line, a growing sense of unease becomes palpable, suggesting something amiss within the catacombs. The ambiance becomes increasingly ominous, and the demons swoop nearer with each turn. Posted along the walls are pamphlets promoting the tours, but the further one goes, missing person pamphlets also appear.

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The queue of Dämonen Gruft winds through the area under the rollercoaster (© Dark Ride Database)
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News articles and pamphlets all around the queue (© Dark Ride Database)
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Almost ready to start the tour (© Dark Ride Database)

Eventually, guests come to a door which lets through a set amount of people. In a dimly lit room, a projector is set up and a short video with safety instructions starts to play. All the while, guests are being comforted that certainly, without a doubt, nothing strange is going on. After the explanation, the station lies just around the corner where their tour vehicle is awaiting. Bags have to stay behind, to hopefully still be there when and if you make it back to the station.

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The pre-show room (© Dark Ride Database)

Once strapped in and with no way out anymore, guests are sent into the catacombs. In the first room they are greeted by a projection of one of the local villagers. But before he has the chance to welcome them, he is transformed into a hideous demon. A door opens to the left and guests are pulled further into the catacombs. It is dark here except for a few stone columns. While travelling forward, glowing eyes start to appear between the columns. More and more eyes light up while the vehicle slowly tries to move towards the next area. Before you know it a whole flock of demons has arrived, and the tour continues around the corner, further into the catacombs.

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The station with one of the vehicles (© Dark Ride Database)
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When villagers become demons (© Dark Ride Database)

Here, guests are greeted by a pile of skulls on which a demon is looking for its next victim. Once again, the tour vehicle tries to slowly move away from the scene in front of the guests, but at the last moment the demon spots them, lunges out and with a flash and a scream everything turns black. A turn follows, leading to a long straight piece of track at the back of the building. It is pitch black and the vehicle makes a full rotation, creating a disorienting effect. While moving through the darkness, demons can be heard all around. After a harrowing ten seconds the sounds fade out into total silence.

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See through projections used to its fullest (© Dark Ride Database)

The silence is stretched out quite long, creating an uneasy atmosphere. Just when it starts to become uncomfortable, a row of metal cages appears in a flash of light. Each cage while passed violently moves towards the vehicle, like something is bumping into them from the back, trying to get to the guests. Before they have the chance to process what’s going on, they find themselves face-to-face with another demon lunging out at them.

The vehicle quickly moves around the corner, but this time it’s not just a dark tunnel. Slowly parts of the walls start to glow red, illuminating the skulls and bones in the walls. As the lighting intensifies, the music swells and guests are surrounded by human bones and skulls. One last attempt at an escape is made, but as the chanting of men intensifies you come face-to-face with a huge demon head hanging from the ceiling. The area grows hot as the demon head breaths down upon the tour vehicle. Luckily it manages to break free from the demon as guests are turned around a final time while they once again enter the station, where they are greeted by both the operator and their bags.

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The final encounter with the demon, the final scene of Dämonen Gruft (© Dark Ride Database)

“Would you recommend this tour to friends and family?”

Despite being one of the smallest dark rides to debut this year, Dämonen Gruft proves that size isn’t everything when it comes to an immersive experience. While the space and available budget undoubtedly provided quite a few design challenges, the way the design fits into the spaces speaks volumes about the designer’s ability to tell a story in a simple way. The ride uses of a combination of physical sets, projections and clever use of lightning, sounds and other effects to tell a story and does it very effectively. Adding to the experience is the chosen ride system. Although straightforward, its ability to navigate tight spaces and rotate passengers enhances the designers’ ability to direct guests’ attention precisely.

Looking back at each of the scenes, it’s remarkable how little focal points are needed to tell a story. This is one of the best accomplishments of this ride, needing very little to achieve a lot. A great example is the third scene in which guest meet one of the demons. For this scene, simple static walls and a pile of bones are enhanced with a see-through appearance of a demon (it is not a Pepper’s Ghost, the demon is projected onto a scrim). This not only brings a welcome amount of depth to the scene, but it also manages to capture the attention to a very small part of the space. This recipe is repeated several times throughout the three-minute ride.

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Leaving the ride (© Dark Ride Database)

The way media is used for these effects in Dämonen Gruft also shows the designer’s ability to make the right choices in such a small space. While it might have been tempting to rely heavily on projections, there is a notable restraint, using them only minimally and as necessary to convey the story. In places where projections could have been used, but physical effects were equally capable of storytelling, the choice was made to use physical sets. And when a projection is employed, it is done so with precision, tailored specifically to the enhance the scene in which it’s used. To achieve this, the ride uses several projection techniques such as on a wall, on a see-through screen and projection mapping onto physical theming. Never does it overstay it’s welcome nor distract from the point of the scene.

Another stand out element of the ride is the use of audio. Given that the ride features several particularly dark scenes, it leans extensively on audio to create the atmosphere in those segments and to generate the appropriate level of suspense. The high quality of audio remains during the visual scenes, while never going overboard at the same time. On top of that, the ride utilizes special effects such as wind and infrared heat lamps to enhance the experience even further.

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Practical heating effects help out creating the right experience (© Dark Ride Database)

However, the ride is not without its flaws. Despite maximizing the use of available space and budget, the reality remains that its capacity falls on the lower end of the spectrum. To achieve the theoretical capacity of 380 visitors per hour, the ride needs to dispatch a vehicle every 30 to 35 seconds. It will take a well-trained team of operators to achieve this. Guests visiting Heide Park should be prepared for lengthy wait times during the initial months after opening.

Looking back, the ride shows what a combination of good design can do within a small space and budget. Even though the ride is short, it successfully captivates the audience and offers an immersive experience typically expected from larger attractions. The effective blend of physical sets, soundscapes, and multimedia elements plays a key role in this achievement. Additionally, the carefully constructed narrative enhances the experience, cleverly disguising the limited amount of track present in Dämonen Gruft, much to the surprise of guests unfamiliar with the ride’s actual layout.

We would like to thank Alterface and Heide Park for the invitation and hospitality during our visit to the Dämonen Gruft’s press event.

© Dark Ride Database
Visit and interview by: Jim and Johan
Pictures by: Jim
Report by: Jim and Johan