Report: An Uncharted dark coaster adventure in PortAventura

PortAventura -  Uncharted: El Enigma de Penitence

Ever since its opening in 1995, Spanish theme park resort PortAventura has been home to many adventurous rides, transporting guests to highly themed far-flung lands containing roller coasters and other thrills. However, it wasn’t until 2019 that the park opened its first dark ride, immersing visitors in the world of Sesame Street. Now, in 2023, the time has come for the park to combine two successful ride types into one, presenting their new so-called ‘Dark Coaster’: Uncharted: El Enigma de Penitence. The ride’s theme is based on the Uncharted film, which was released in 2022. Team DRdb went to explore these uncharted grounds for ourselves.

PortAventura started construction on their newest ride more than a year ago, creating a large rock-covered show building at the edge of their existing Far West village named Penitence. Uncharted: El Enigma de Penitence expands on the Uncharted franchise with a new story, incorporating the park’s own western-themed town. Riders follow the film’s protagonists exploring new grounds to find lost Aztec gold hidden in a mountain near the village. To take guests along on the dangerous quest, PortAventura combined a Multi Dimension Coaster by Intamin with dark ride scenes created by Sally Dark Rides, the process of which was in collaboration with Sony Pictures, who distributed the Uncharted video games and film.

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Entrance sign of the ride (© Dark Ride Database)

Friday 16 June was the big day for the park, as it hosted the Media Day celebrating the opening of Uncharted: El Enigma de Penitence. The ride was officially opened in the presence of David García (General Manager of PortAventura), Luis Valencia (Development Director of PortAventura), Jeffrey Godsick (EVP of Global Partnerships and Brand Management at Sony Pictures Entertainment), Ignasi Guasch (Executive Director of Intamin Amusement Rides) and Rich Hill (Chief Creative Officer of Sally Dark Rides). Team DRdb was present at the Media Day to experience the uncharted adventure first-hand, and to interview David García and Rich Hill to find out more on its development. The ride opened to the general public starting from Saturday 17 June.

Even though the people present at the official press presentation represent the most significant companies in the development of Uncharted: El Enigma de Penitence, a lot more companies should be credited for their work on the new attraction. The Spanish company Tecmolde took care of the eye-catching rockwork façade of the ride. Sim Leisure was approached to create all sets, while Bon Art Studio created the media content for the ride. A unique score was composed by Stephen Cavit, while Orlando-based Techni-Lux designed and delivered the lighting for the ride.

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Press gearing up to attend the Media Day (© Dark Ride Database)

Developing a dark coaster

The development of Uncharted: El Enigma de Penitence started when PortAventura decided on the new attraction type they wanted to incorporate in their park. As David García explained in an interview during the Media Day, it all began with the idea to build a dark roller coaster. “That decision was quite easy. We did not yet have a dark roller coaster in our park. So we knew from the early beginning that we wanted exactly that.” 

PortAventura turned to Intamin to produce the roller coaster for their newest attraction. The chosen ride system was a so-called Multi Dimension Coaster, for which special tricks such as turntables or drop tracks can be implemented. For Uncharted: El Enigma de Penitence a new vehicle style was created, with single-car vehicles hosting 12 riders in three rows for four people. The vehicles are capable of controlled spinning; which offers not only the ability to incorporate fun gimmicks like sideways launches, but also to have riders face dark ride scenes on either side of the track. 

In the autumn of 2022, a possible ride layout was leaked, which eventually turned out to be the actual ride layout of Uncharted: El Enigma de Penitence. The ride contains 673 metres of track and reaches a max. height of 12 metres, all inside a building of 4800 m2. In some parts of the building, the floor is slightly excavated, allowing for amongst others a climax final drop of 15 metres at 70 degrees incline. As special elements, Uncharted includes 5 launches and a turntable, together with a sideways and a backwards drop. The attraction has a capacity of 900 pph, and cost €25 million in total.

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One of the coaster vehicles in the station (© Dark Ride Database)

In an interview with Dark Ride Database, Rich Hill from Sally Dark Rides explains what it was like to design for a roller coaster, rather than a traditional dark ride: “This is Sally Dark Rides’ first ‘Dark Coaster’, that’s how we’re calling it. It was amazing. Intamin was taking us through the process, giving us all the information that we needed to be able to craft a story around the ride lay-out. Using the Multi Dimension Coaster is a true game-changer for the industry. Having rotation, being able to stop and start, launches, backwards drops, sideways launches. This coaster has everything in it!”

“It was tough, designing in the X-Y-Z-axis instead of just X and Y. We had to get the team to wrap their head around about how that works, the speeds in which you pass by things. In a dark ride you know how fast you’re going, you have timing. But here, based on the weight of the vehicle, you could be going faster or slower; it changes timing. That was tough for us as dark ride designers to get around. But once we understood this, we were able to craft a story that made all the tricks and effects make sense. And every time you ride, whether you’re going faster or slower, you’ll get the same experience.”

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Promotional image for Uncharted: El Enigma de Penitence (© PortAventura / CTMG)

The Uncharted franchise

Well underway with the creation of their new dark roller coaster, PortAventura was investigating the possibilities to link it to a well-known IP. “For us it is super important to have IPs, because IPs help us to bring new customers,” David García explained. “The day we launched the Uncharted name in November for example, the engagement went sky high.”

“Sony came up with different IPs,” David García further explained during an interview with DRdb. “What we liked about Uncharted is that the IP does not only include the film, but also the series of video games that the IP originally started with. Moreover, Uncharted has a really good international penetration. We had some data on the Uncharted game penetration in the international market, and that was attractive for us. We’re trying to penetrate more into the U.K., French, and Benelux market and checked some numbers on those markets, and that game particularly was doing well.”

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Promotional artwork for the game Uncharted: Legacy of Thieves Collection (© Sony Interactive Entertainment)

The Uncharted franchise started when the first video game was released in 2007, called Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. The games were created by Amy Henning from Naughty Dog, a subsidiary of Sony Interactive Entertainment, and were released primarily on Sony’s PlayStation game consoles. In each of the episodes, gamers follow a group of treasure hunters to a new location somewhere around the world to uncover historic mysteries, not dissimilar to other famous treasure hunters like Indiana Jones and Lara Croft. The series, which up to now consists of 7 official games, received critical acclaim for graphics and gameplay, but especially for the series’ story and characters.

Uncharted’s main protagonist is Nathan Drake, a charismatic good-natured treasure hunter, who is played through voice and motion capture by Nolan North. Other important characters from the franchise include Victor “Sully” Sullivan, Drake’s best friend and mentor, and Chloe Frazer, a fellow treasure hunter with slightly darker character traits, who is the main protagonist in some of the later games.

Following the success of the video games, which combined sold over 40 million copies worldwide, a feature film was released in 2022. The film follows Nathan Drake, now played by Tom Holland, who is asked by Sully (Mark Wahlberg) to join him on a quest to find a lost treasure. The duo also meets Chloe Frazer (Sophia Ali), thereby incorporating all popular protagonists from the games.

Though receiving mixed reviews as a watchable but rather safe-played and unoriginal film, Uncharted was a box office success grossing around $400 million worldwide. The film was distributed by Sony Pictures and produced by Columbia Pictures, PlayStation Productions and Atlas Entertainment (the first two being direct subsidiaries of Sony).

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Poster for the Uncharted film (© Columbia Pictures)

Taking Uncharted to PortAventura

With the Uncharted IP chosen, the process began on adapting the property for a theme park ride. The backstory of Uncharted: El Enigma de Penitence combines the premise of the franchise with a world they haven’t explored before: that of PortAventura itself. “The challenge was to connect Uncharted with our Far West-area,” David García explains. “But we thought, Uncharted is about explorers, and Far West is also about explorers; finding gold or finding treasures. That is why we put the ride in the middle of the Far West-area, but also close to the Mexico-area, because we have the story of an Aztec gold treasure.”

With the integration of the new ride in the storyline of the Far West zone, the park wanted to make sure it blends in with the existing surroundings. In a making-of video produced by PortAventura, park employees explained that they wanted to modify the skyline of the Far West-zone that people were used to seeing. Therefore, the design team came up with the idea of covering the large show building in rockwork, creating a large Colorado-mountain-style rock façade behind the wooden houses of the village of Penitence. Moreover, the entrance building is designed from wood, fitting seamlessly into the street with the older western buildings.

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The village of Penitence with the rock façade (© Dark Ride Database)

But it took more than just the outside of a building to introduce the franchise to PortAventura. A completely new story was conceived, loosely based on existing Uncharted adventures but taking place in Penitence. Rich Hill describes that the teams from PortAventura, Sony and Sally Dark Rides came together regularly to discuss and create a storyline for the attraction. “This is actually a completely new story that was created for this attraction, using the Uncharted movie as a reference point. We’ve got a villain that was created just for this attraction: his name is Landon Killbride, and he is the owner of Killbride Industries. Sony let us create this new story with the new character, that was so cool!”

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Landon Killbride as seen on a projection in the queue (© Dark Ride Database)

“It was so important to get intimate with the characters, the movies, the video games,” Rich continues. “I was already a gamer, I’ve played the video games for years. But now I really had to become intimate with the characters, with how they interact, and then craft that story. It was trying, trying to develop the characters, and to integrate the comedy, the action, the adventure. That was a lot of work, but it’s work that I love. The characters, Nathan, Sully and Chloe, are just the most incredible characters to work with. Me and the team really loved working on this ride.”

Throughout the attraction, guests meet the characters of Nathan, Sully, Chloe and Killbride sometimes in the form of animatronics, but more often as projected characters on large screens. As a graphic style to represent the characters, the team chose to opt for a middle ground between the characters from the video games and the film, appealing to fans of both incarnations. The figures have the animated look of the figures from video games, but with some facial characteristics resembling the actors of the film.

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The franchise’s main characters in the queue (© Dark Ride Database)

The first rides to uncharted grounds

After months of development, Friday 16 June marked the big day for PortAventura. The park welcomed a large group of press and fans to be among the first to experience the brand new adventure. But before any of the guests could ride the dark coaster, it had to be officially opened by the five representatives present on this special day. With a toast of champagne and a shot of golden confetti, Uncharted: El Enigma de Penitence was inaugurated.

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The opening event in full swing (© Dark Ride Database)
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A toast to Uncharted: El Enigma de Penitence! (© Dark Ride Database)

During the press conference, each of the panel members emphasised the joy they had in working together in creating the attraction. “We had an all-star team, everybody was on top of their game,” as Rich Hill said. “It is just an honour to get to work with such talent. The team that has been assembled, with Intamin, Sony, Bon Art, Techni-Lux, and all the others, they all put their heart and soul into this attraction. We all tried to create a new world, a new story, that is based around the Uncharted characters and this great IP.”

“What started as one of our greatest video games at PlayStation and turned into one of our most successful movie experiences, can now be seen come to life, allowing fans and guests to step into this IP,” Jeffrey Godsick from Sony said. “For us it is very important to expand upon the world that we create in movies and video games, going beyond what visitors expect. We chose PortAventura to work with because the park does just that. For this project we brought in the best people, told a story, did things differently. In the end that guest experience is most important to all of us, and that can be seen in every aspect of this attraction.”

Afterwards, actors portraying the characters of the ride also made an appearance on stage, with Chloe appearing and holding an Aztec artefact. She is followed shortly after by Nathan and Killbride and his henchmen. They duke it out, fighting over the contents of a treasure chest, performing a small show accompanied by music from a live orchestra. Ultimately Killbride rushes off with the treasure, and the heroes invite the press to follow them inside the building.

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Chloe fighting off one of Killbride’s henchmen (© Dark Ride Database)
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Killbride taking the treasure (© Dark Ride Database)
Registration of the opening ceremony

The following day, Saturday 17 June, Uncharted: El Enigma de Penitence opened to the general public, starting regular operations from 12 p.m. It seemed however that the evil Aztec spirits got the better of the ride’s equipment, as minor breakdowns caused the ride to operate at reduced capacity. Queue times reportedly rose to over 5 hours. One problem consistently arose, and had to do with the vehicles not turning back the right way at the unload station. However, these kinds of  teething problems are to be expected from an innovative new ride, and sure enough PortAventura and Intamin were working hard to get these under control.

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Technical problems caused the vehicle to be manually reset to its default position (© Dark Ride Database)

Exploring the Engima of Penitence

For PortAventura visitors willing to go on their own Uncharted adventure, the new rock façade towering over the wooden buildings of Penitence is impossible to miss. In the centre of the mountain, the attention is drawn by the face of an Aztec figure that was carved out of the rocks, hinting at what is hidden inside. At the foot of the mountain, right beneath the carved face, stands a wooden cottage, housing both the entrance on the right, as well as the exit with a gift shop on the left. An outdoor queue, thankfully equipped with shade cloths, can be found next to the entrance on the right of the wooden cottage.

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Façade of Uncharted: El Enigma de Penitence (© Dark Ride Database)

Once inside, the queue splits into a regular and single riders line, the latter going straight to the station. The regular queue leads inside the wooden cottage, the first of multiple meandering queue sections. The walls are richly decorated with oil lamps as well as posters, newspaper clippings and other Western memorabilia. A certain sense of mystery is created by the chandelier, which is not filled with regular candles, but glowing crystals instead.

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The first queue room (© Dark Ride Database)

Passing through a door reading ‘office’, the headquarters of the Uncharted gang is reached. Nathan and Chloe appear in animatronic form and are trying to decipher some sort of map that Nathan holds in his hand. Chloe is behind a computer and on the screen appears information on the mysterious map, alternated with film shots of the surroundings where sinister trucks and helicopters are seen to be heading into town.

Meanwhile the two are digitally communicating with team member Sully, who also appears on the screen every now and then. Eventually he stumbles upon the Aztec temple while video calling with the headquarters, showing footage of him going inside and walking through mysterious hallways past some old statues.

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The second queue room (© Dark Ride Database)
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Close-up of the Nathan animatronic by Sally Dark Rides (© Dark Ride Database)

From here, guests follow in the steps of Sully and enter a dimly lit hallway where torches lead the way. Passing through the door that Sully just opened during the video call, they come face to face with a mysterious statue, sporting glowing red eyes, signifying the entrance of the temple.

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The hallway (© Dark Ride Database)
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Close-up of the statue (© Dark Ride Database)

The queue turns into a walkthrough, almost like a maze, with narrow corridors filled with booby traps. The first death-trap we encounter is a descending ceiling, a skeleton still stuck in the spikes. Another explorer bit the dust when he got caught in a net. After taking some more turns, the temple throws a couple more traps at us. Arrows ‘shoot’ and barely miss riders, signified by bursts of compressed air coming from the walls. As a last booby trap, a narrow plank leads over a hole, which due to a mirror trick appears to be deeper than it is.

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One of the many booby traps (© Dark Ride Database)

Moving further, the narrow corridors lead to a cavern, where the ceiling is interspersed with stalactites. Here, in a projection on the wall, Nathan can be seen as he is following Sully’s footsteps. Unfortunately, he gets caught by Landon Killbride and his henchmen, who turn out to be after the treasure as well. It was their trucks which we saw earlier on the screen, entering the village to take the treasure.

On a next screen, Chloe appears and instructs the queuing adventurers. During instruction, green smoke spreads around the projected cave and also starts to fill the queue room. Upon breathing in the smoke, Chloe gets possessed by one of the evil Aztec spirits. The spirit lunges out at us, after which the room returns to normal.

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The large queue in the cave (© Dark Ride Database)
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The spirit attacks (© Dark Ride Database)

A final screen shows Sully, explaining that hidden markings on the wall can be uncovered when shining bright light on them. A clever way to invite guests to explore the room for themselves with the flashlight on their mobile phone.

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Sully appears on one of the screens in the cave (© Dark Ride Database)
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Markings hidden on the cave walls (© Dark Ride Database)

At the end of the queue we arrive at the station where a staff member separates the line into groups of 12 people. In a large cave setting filled with stalactites and glowing crystals, a green vehicle awaits the explorers. The vehicle features 3 rows, with raised stadium seating towards the back, and each seat has its own lap bar. Once everyone is strapped in, the coaster departs into a dark tunnel.

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A vehicle awaits us in the station (© Dark Ride Database)

Immediately the innovative effects of the ride system are on full display as the body of the vehicle spins around its own axis to steer the view of its riders towards a scene on the left. Here, they barely escape one of Killbride’s henchmen who just got off a motorcycle and fires a bazooka at them. He misses, and the vehicle turns to show the impact of the blast on the opposite cave wall. Those with a keen eye may notice an Easter egg in this scene: the licence plate on the motorcycle shows the logo of Sally Dark Rides. After a full spin, the vehicle faces forwards again and is launched into a sharp corner.

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The dark ride scene (© Dark Ride Database)

After this short coaster ride, it comes to a standstill in front of a large, curved projection screen which is placed unconcealed in the room. Riders see that Landon Killbride has reached the Aztec gold before our heroes and is keeping Nathan hostage. Sully and Chloe come in to save him, the latter throwing us a rope that is tied to an ancient statue on the other end. What riders don’t see is that they are on a turntable, which movement is counteracted by the body.

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The large projection (© Dark Ride Database)

The statue falls down and breaks open, causing green smoke to appear, awakening the evil spirits. The vehicle starts to move again due to the impact, this time slanting towards the right. Guests find themselves plunging down the world’s first sideways drop. A high-speed ride through the big, dark show building follows, starting with a spike on which the vehicle turns around once more. The ride gathers more and more speed as it is accelerated by multiple launch sections.

The theming along the coaster consists of a couple of flashing lights, bats on the ceiling and a wall of crystals, as well as another projection screen on which the Aztec spirits can be seen floating around. Unfortunately, the hall is not entirely dark as faint light from the exposed station and maintenance area find their way in.

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A section of the hall (© Dark Ride Database)

High above the ground, the vehicle comes to another standstill and is rotated in a sideways position. Riders face two projection screens, one straight in front of them and another above them. Above, Killbride can be seen escaping the temple in a helicopter. Chloe however prevents him from doing so by throwing a bomb which makes the helicopter explode. The blast causes the vehicle to start moving, leading to the ride’s climax, a 15 metre high backwards drop, before returning safely to the station.

Be sure to watch our onride POV of Uncharted: El Enigma de Penitence

Upon exiting the station through the obligatory gift shop, it turns out the PortAventura has a surprise in store for people who are unable to ride the regular dark coaster. In the gift shop, which also functions as a ride entrance for people with disabilities, an Uncharted VR Experience is present for those unable to experience Uncharted themselves.

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The Uncharted VR Experience for people unable to ride the dark coaster (© Dark Ride Database)

The Dark Coaster: dark ride and roller coaster?

With Uncharted: El Enigma de Penitence now open for the general public to discover, we are left with the big question: is this new dark coaster truly a combination of a dark ride and a roller coaster? Does this ride indeed combine the beloved coaster thrill from PortAventura with the immersion of a ride like Street Mission? And is it in fact the game-changer for the dark ride industry as Rich claims?

In terms of immersive storytelling, Uncharted: El Enigma de Penitence sets the scene from the very moment the large rock façade comes into view. The exterior of the ride looks very convincing, and the wooden building fitting in the western street invites guests to come in and explore the attraction. The queue line is decently decorated and indeed immerses guests into the story of Uncharted. The characters are introduced cleverly and it’s not necessary to be familiar with the backstory of the franchise to understand the overall storyline. Nevertheless, it is a pity that all speech is only conducted in Spanish. No translation for foreign visitors is provided, which is typical regarding the park’s international ambitions.

The ride itself makes very good use of the spinning features of the vehicle, creating a thrilling experience with cool effects. The sideways drop, turns on the spike and especially the climactic backwards drop make for a surprising family-friendly roller coaster adventure. The dark ride scenes along the way enhance that experience: the design team cleverly introduced some reasons for the vehicle to move suddenly, for example the rapid dodging of the bazooka blast, thereby giving meaning to the tricks integrated into the ride system.

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A bird’s-eye view of the show building (© Dark Ride Database)

Riding Uncharted, we nevertheless couldn’t help but notice that the ride was primarily conceived as a roller coaster, and not necessarily as a dark ride. This lies not in the fact that it contains high speed elements, but rather the overall design approach: in a dark ride, the scenery stands front and centre, the ride vehicle being the way in which guests get to experience the scenery and the story. For a roller coaster, it is the layout and forces that matter most, with scenery only being a secondary enhancement. 

In Uncharted: El Enigma de Penitence it is definitely the coaster thrill that sets the scene during the ride. The three dark ride scenes along the way do certainly add an extra layer to that. When it comes down to it however, the ride is essentially an enclosed roller coaster, rather than a true dark coaster experience with scenery along the majority of the layout. Moreover, the scenes are only meagerly integrated in the big open space that contains most of the ride, strengthening the feeling that the scenes are only meant to slightly enhance the coaster ride rather than the two providing a combined, immersive experience.

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A final look at the animatronics of Chloe and Nathan (© Dark Ride Database)

PortAventura has gotten itself into a tough game with Uncharted. The ride tries to challenge modern coasters with all their effects, as well as modern dark rides with their ever-rising theming standards, all in one single attraction. Moreover, it required the construction of an immense building including a large rock façade, which undoubtedly took a large share of the available budget. Altogether a rather ambitious plan, and it might therefore be a pity, although not a surprise, that one part of the experience is not at the world-class level the park aspired to achieve. In this case, especially the thematic aspect of the ride itself does not seem to equal the high standards that are set throughout the queue line.

That being said, Uncharted: El Enigma de Penitence remains a very fun semi-dark ride with surprising effects, adding a thrilling family-friendly adventure to PortAventura’s ride line-up. We can only praise the fact that the park decided to build another immersive experience, only four years after they constructed their first dark ride. Let us hope that the next dark ride follows at a similar pace. Until then, we would like to thank PortAventura World for the very hospitable welcome to their resort, and Sally Dark Rides for the extensive interview.

Video interviews with Rich Hill (Sally Dark Rides) and David García (PortAventura)
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© Dark Ride Database
Visit, Report and Pictures by Luc and Jim